What is Christian Baptism?

It is no secret that many within the Church disagree on the nature and extent of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The disagreement surrounds the method of how these are carried out, who the recipients ought to be, and even on whether we should call them sacraments or ordinances. Let me state from the beginning that I highly doubt anything I have to say on these things will solve this historical, and often volatile, debate. But I continue nonetheless.

Speaking Generally

The word sacrament comes from the Latin word ‘sacramentum’ meaning a solemn or sacred oath. The Roman Catholics believe there to be seven sacraments, most Protestants only believe there to be two of them; baptism, given to us in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and the Lord’ Supper, given to us in Jesus’ teaching in the upper room (Matthew 26:26-29). Opposing the word sacrament is the word ordinance, which simply means a statute or command Jesus ordained for the Church. The difference between these two words comes down to what we believe is happening while engaging in these activities. To prefer the title ordinance over the title sacrament generally means one believes there is no grace communicated from God to those participating in the activities themselves. To prefer the title sacrament over the title ordinance generally means one believes there is grace communicated from God to those participating in the activities themselves.

It is now fitting to quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 92. It asks, “What is a Sacrament? A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” Did you notice that both the word sacrament and ordinance are present in this definition? Though we find people rejecting one title in preference of the other, it’s good to use both in defining what they are.

We can also state generally that both sacraments function as signs and seals.

Signs, in that what the preaching of the gospel is to our ears, the sacraments are to our eyes. This means they visibly signify or show the invisible truth of God to us. In a very real sense the sacraments are a dramatized display of the gospel. But they are also seals. Just as a ruler in ancient times would seal a document with his royal seal to communicate that the message was from him and carried his authority, so too, the sacraments are visible seals from God promising that all who receive them truthfully participate in the grace given through them. Paul makes this point well in Romans 4:11-12 saying, “Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

Speaking Foundationally

There are two foundational issues we must cover when approaching baptism. The first one is simple and is usually welcomed by all believers, while the second needs some explaining.

First: we are commanded by God to embrace, believe, and teach not only what the Bible explicitly teaches, but also what the Bible implicitly teaches.

Second: while the New Testament authors assumed discontinuity with Moses, they always assumed continuity with Abraham.

Like I said, few Christians will disagree with the first fundamental principle. Let me explain the second principle. All over the New Testament, various authors place Moses and the law of God, in contrast to Christ and the gospel. For example, one could say the whole point of the book of Hebrews is to teach that Jesus is better than all that’s come before. Better than the angels, better than Moses, better than the law. The author even says that Jesus deserves greater glory than Moses because His blood can do what the blood of bulls and goats could never do. For this reason Heb. 10:1 says the law was just a shadow of the greater realities to come. We could also point to Paul where he mentions we’re no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14) and that the law was only given by God to chase us to the cross, that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24). Each time the Mosaic covenant is mentioned in the New Testament discontinuity is in view.

Now contrast that with how the New Testament authors speak of the Abrahamic covenant. Rather than discontinuity being in view, we only find continuity being spoken of. After Paul’s great explanation of justification by faith in Romans 3, who is his example of such faith in the very next chapter? Abraham. The largest place we see this reality is in Galatians 3 where Paul makes some marvelous statements linking Christians with Abraham. In Galatians 3:7-9 Paul says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Rather than being placed in opposition to the gospel, when Abraham is in view we see a continuity.

This principle leads to an implication in how we ought to interpret the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. Because the New Testament authors showed a consistent discontinuity with Moses and continuity with Abraham, we not only should read the New Testament in the same manner, we should understand that the New Testament is an inspired commentary on the Old Testament. Or to say it another way, we should never read the Old Testament apart from the New Testament.

Speaking Specifically

Now we are primed to see baptism, and no surprise we’ll begin with Abraham. Follow along as I read Genesis 17:1-14 (read). You may think this is a strange place to begin discussing baptism, but as you’ll see, it is very appropriate. In this passage we see God relating the details of His covenant with Abraham. This is where we learn of Abram’s name change to Abraham, where we learn that God will bring many nations and kings from him, and where we learn that the Abrahamic covenant also had to do with Abraham’s children. In 17:7 God said He would be God to Abraham and to his offspring after him. Then in 17:10 to confirm this covenant God commanded both Abraham and his children to be circumcised. Circumcision was thus, the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and from this point on in Scripture all Israelites had the sign of the covenant put on them as children to indicate that they were part of visible Israel.

Now, when Jesus came and inaugurated the New Covenant in the great commission He gave these instructions, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Rather than giving the command to go into all the world, make disciples, and circumcise them, Jesus makes it crystal clear that the sign of the New Covenant is no longer circumcision, but baptism. Paul affirms this in Colossians 2:11-12 when he says, “In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

So taking a look at the whole of Scripture we see a clear connection between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism. Just as circumcision was the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament, baptism is the fulfillment of it and is now the sign of the covenant in the New Testament.

Most everyone agree with this. Here’s the part where a large disagreement occurs.

Some end right here concluding that as Abraham was made righteous by his faith in God’s promise and then had the sign of the covenant put on him, that New Covenant believers are to do the same thing. Exercise faith and then and only then have the sign of the covenant put on us. That’s called credobaptism or believer’s baptism. It’s probably not an overstatement to say the majority of evangelicals believe this. This is the kind of church SonRise is and the view that the majority of our elders hold. I think the Bible takes us further than that. Just as God’s promise to Abraham was for him and his descendants and just as the sign of that promise was for him and his descendants, so too the New Covenant promise and its sign is given to believers and to their children as well. Thus, here we see more continuity from the Abrahamic Covenant in the New Covenant. This position is called paedobaptism or infant baptism.

Let’s take a moment to compare and contrast these two views.

First, the credo view says that infant baptism is that it’s not commanded anywhere in the New Testament, and that this is why we shouldn’t be doing it any longer today. The paedo view responds by saying the silence of any command against paedobaptism is actually a proof of it. If there were going to be such a drastic change in how the sign of the covenant is applied in the transition from Old to New Testaments, we would have a command to not place the sign of the covenant on our children any longer, and we don’t have that anywhere, thus we’re still to do it.

Second, the paedo view says that evidence of infants being baptized is that we have multiple examples of household baptisms throughout the books of Acts. The credo view responds and says of course there were household baptisms, but no one can be sure of the presence of infants in those situations, it just doesn’t say.

Third, the credo view objects to paedobaptism because they believe the New Covenant to be different then the Old Covenant with Abraham. Sure it may have its roots in the Abrahamic covenant but the paedo view is too similar to or not different enough from the Abrahamic covenant. The paedo view responds by saying it is similar for sure, because it’s a matter of promise and fulfillment. Rather than just having the sign of the covenant be on one nation, now the sign of the New Covenant is put on any believer from any nation.

Fourth, the credo view says along with Galatians 4:21-31 that the true children of the covenant are spiritual children (children who believe by faith) and not children of the flesh (offspring). Thus we’re only to put the covenant sign on the spiritual children, not the children of our flesh. The paedo view responds by saying sure – the true children of God are indeed those who share the faith of Abraham, and who by faith are saved and enter into the promises of God. But even Ishmael received the sign of the Abrahamic covenant even though he didn’t believe, so we should also place the sign of the covenant on our children when we believe like Acts 2:39 seems to indicate.

Now, I ought to make something clear here. Unlike the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, some Methodist, and some Lutheran denominations who believe the infant to be saved or promised salvation one day, the reformed paedo view denies that and says there is nothing salvific about paedobaptism at all. It’s merely a sign and seal of the covenant, it doesn’t bring one into that covenant. The credo view says they’re all equally wrong because we shouldn’t be doing anything with our children in regards to baptism, let alone baby dedications.

John Bunyan’s Plea

Baptism is very important, and we should come to terms with our convictions about it. But there have been a few throughout Church history who were not willing to let differences in regard to baptism separate likeminded believers. For example, pastor and author of Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan (though firmly holding his own view on baptism) welcomed those who differed from him into membership within in his congregation. I think his inclusion is commendable. Let me end this post with his own words, “May the time soon arrive when water shall not quench love, but when all the churches militant shall form one army, with one object – that is extending the Redeemer’s kingdom.”

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