Let’s talk division (and because we have to, we will even talk some math). We start with a question: “What’s the best way to divide the history of old Rome?” Answer: “It is best to use a pair of Caesars.” Another important question: “Why doesn’t anyone talk to circles?” Answer: “Because there is no point.” By the way, did you hear about the mathematician who’s afraid of negative numbers? He’ll stop at nothing to avoid them. So bad, but we continue. A high school student called me the other day after he saw his math teacher with a piece of graph paper. He was afraid his teacher was plotting something. Last one, I promise. After I retire, I’ve decided to become a math teacher, but I am only going to teach subtraction. See, I just want to make a difference.
Division is a good thing in math; but in the church, it is (generally-speaking) a very bad thing. To make things worse, there are a ton of ways to create division in the church, but if you want to expedite the rift, here’s my advice: start a conversation about baptism. Now, that is strange because we all believe that baptism is an essential practice, but we cannot agree how we should practice that sacrament. Throughout my ministry, people have asked me questions like these: Why do we baptize infants? Isn’t baptism for believers only? Isn’t baptizing infants a Catholic practice? Isn’t baptizing infants a liberal practice? Isn’t baptizing infants a meaningless practice? Should we rebaptize someone who has recently come to Christ? Isn’t dunking (i.e., the way John the Baptizer baptized people) the biblical way to baptize someone? Why do we sprinkle infants (my answer: we don’t sprinkle, we pour). If you aren’t baptized, can you be saved? And of course, does baptism do anything? And that just scratches the surface! There are a ton more questions that people ask about baptism because, while we all know that the sacrament of baptism is important, how we are to practice the sacrament is debatable. And where there is debate, there is division. And so, for the next several weeks I would like to present our case for why we baptize infants.
Three introductory thoughts to get us started.
First, let’s remember that where we start the conversation will, to a large degree, shape where we end up. Let me give you three quick questions to show you what I mean. First, what’s our model for baptism? If it is John the Baptist, we will find ourselves aligned with the Baptist (denomination) view. If our model is rooted in the Old Testament and circumcision, we will embrace a very different approach (an “older” approach). Second, how do we define baptism? If baptism is defined as the first step of obedience to Christ, we will end up in a far different place than if we define it as union with Christ. Third, when did the church begin? If we believe that the church began in Acts 2, we will conclude that baptism belongs to the New Testament (and only the New Testament). If we believe that the church has its origin in the Old Testament, in Abraham, then there is a clear line of continuity between circumcision and baptism (and new infants as opposed to older believers). Here’s the point: we need to be extra careful that we get our starting point right because where we begin will, to a large degree, determine where we end.
Second, what we believe about our role in our salvation will also shape our view of baptism. If we believe our salvation requires our active involvement (that we must choose to believe), then we will probably adopt “believer’s baptism” where (usually, after singing, “I have decided to follow Jesus”), we choose to demonstrate our faith by being baptized. If, however, we believe that God chooses us even when we are dead in our trespasses and sin (usually, we sing, “Amazing Grace,” here), then infant baptism, where the child is completely passive, actually becomes the perfect picture of our redemption. Behind our view of baptism, we will often find hiding our view on God’s election.
Third, how we answer the question, “Who does what to whom in baptism?” also shapes our view. If baptism is God placing his sign of grace on his child and claiming them as his own, then God is the principal actor; and we are passive. Hence, in baptism, we receive God’s grace. However, if baptism is our declaration that we claim Christ as our own and promise that we will walk in his ways, then we are the principal actors; and we are very active. The question is huge: What happens in baptism? Is God claiming us as his own or are we claiming Christ as our Lord?
Perhaps, it would be wise at this point to define the word “baptism”; and to do that, let’s turn to the Westminster Larger Catechism (A. 165):
“Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ has ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s.”
Note the emphasis of the catechism here. Baptism speaks of our union with Christ (called “ingrafting” here), the remission of our sins, our regeneration by the Spirit, our adoption, our resurrection, our entrance into the visible church and a call to be wholly and only the Lord’s. In other words, although baptism is a simple act involving water, it accomplishes and pictures all sorts of things!
Note also that the catechism calls baptism a sacrament which begs the question, “what is a sacrament?” The Larger Catechism defines it this way (A. 162):
“A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without.”
Now, reading the Larger Catechism straight through is not a lot of fun, but it does provide a lot of theology in a very small space; and that is incredibly helpful. The key statement here is that sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace. Now, a sign is something by means of which something else is made known. For instance, Moses’ rod was a sign that God was with him, and my wedding ring is a sign that I am married. Now, to say something is a sign means that it makes a declaration. It does not declare something about itself, but about something else. And the sacraments are signs because they declare the truth about the covenant of grace. Or perhaps better said, it speaks about the saving work of Christ. A seal, on the other hand, is something which authenticates or confirms that to which it is affixed. Think of an ancient king who writes a proclamation. He wants everyone to know that it is not a counterfeit document, that these are truly his words, and so he affixes a seal to it. He puts his signet ring into some hot wax; and then, he presses it onto the document. And that act makes the declaration official.
We must remember, sacraments do not cause or give grace. Example: being baptized does not save you. Why? Because it is only a sign. It is not the thing signified. Not only that, but remember, that a sacrament is only of benefit to a person who has already had God’s grace bestowed upon them. For example, there is great benefit when a Christ follower eats of the Lord’s Supper, but it is of no benefit to the person sitting right next to her who is not a Christ-follower. In fact, instead of a means of grace, it could become a means of God’s judgment. And it is of benefit to the Christ follower because it makes known, it declares, the redemption that the believer already possesses. Not only that, but sacraments act as confirming testimonies to the believer of what he or she has already received. But what do Sacraments do? The Confession outlines four main goals. They represent Christ and his salvation. They confirm that we are his. They visibly mark believers as Christ’s bride, just as a wedding ring declares and marks that someone is married. And fourth, they solemnly engage believers to live as a follower of Christ.
Now, all of that is nice and good, but where we start will shape where we end up; and I have, apparently, tried to pull a fast one and start with the catechism instead of the Bible. But we don’t care, necessarily, what the catechism says. We want to know what the Bible says. Here’s our question: Does the Bible teach infant baptism? Let me quote Scot McKnight because he is right here. Scot writes:
“Right up front I admit there is no text in the New Testament that explicitly reveals the practice if infant baptism in the apostolic church. No text in the New Testament ever says explicitly, ‘So Paul baptized Publius’ three-day-old daughter Junia.’”
Now, that can’t be good news unless you were hoping that this would be a very short series. Thankfully, Scot goes on: “Infant baptism may not be explicit, but it is implicit; and it is implicit far more often than some think.”
To sum it up, we have defined baptism, defined a sacrament, enjoyed lots of theology, heard that infant baptism is not explicitly taught in the New Testament, and read that infant baptism, however, is implicit in many New Testament letters. What we have not done yet is answer any of our questions. That we will have to start to do next week. After all, wisdom dictates that we should always divide and conquer. And what do you get when you divide 3.14 by 6? You guessed it: 6 slices of pi!