Monday, January 15, 2007

On Baptism...

From soteriology to epistemology, dispensational to covenantal, the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, no matter how you slice it, doctrine is inescapable. And so is controversy; however, both are necessary in the life of the Church, and the believer. The sad truth is that all to often we forget that both carry with them the potential to be lethal.

In my attempt to express why I believe the doctrine of baptism is important in the life of the believer, I want to convey the attitude and conviction that controversy is both necessary and lethal: necessary in "defense and confirmation of the gospel,” and lethal where prideful egos squelch Christ-centered worship and adoration (Phil. 1:7). We must always remember what Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:5 that "the goal of our instruction is love."

Christians have long differed with one another on both the meaning and the practice of water baptism. This short post will not be an end-all by any stretch of the imagination; nevertheless, I hope it will spark in you a renewed attitude of reverence for precious biblical doctrine and annihilate any speck of complacency that may have crept in undeterred.

In my limited understanding of Scripture, baptism in the Bible always follows faith. In every New Testament command and instance of baptism, that I have read, repentance and faith precede baptism. This is one reason why I do not believe infants should be baptized. Infants are not capable of repentance or faith; and also, the notion that a person should inherit the blessings of a Christian or be considered a Christian by virtue of his parents' faith or work is contrary to New Testament teaching. It must be confusing to someone who reads the Bible to see infants baptized when they don’t have faith. In the NT those who are baptized are said to be dead to sin and risen with Christ. But infants aren’t dead to sin, nor are they risen with Christ. Even more important, perhaps, is what happens in the church. Now infants are considered to be members of the church, even though they are unregenerate.

(I know that although the lack of mention in the NT concerning infant baptism does not rule out the fact that it may have been practiced, but I believe it is important to note.)

I just happen to be reading through the book of Colossians in the month of January and I can't help but mention chapter 2.
  • Colossians 2:11-12
    11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which [i.e., baptism] you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
Because I hold to a "believer's baptism," I believe that baptism is an expression of faith, and the raising with Christ that happens in baptism happens by virtue of baptism's being an expression of faith - which infants cannot perform.

I have heard it said that "Baptism saves!" and I believe it does--insofar as it is the appeal to God from a broken and contrite heart. The appeal always precedes the act of baptism. It is an outward expression of the inward reality--the work of the Holy Spirit.

The question to ask then is, "But what about the sign of the covenant made with the children of Israelites in the Old Covenant?" (Genesis 17:7-13)

Heidelberg Catechism:
[Infants of Christian parents] belong to the covenant and people of God . . . they also are to be baptized as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament baptism is appointed.

Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God
The seed and posterity of the faithful born within the church have by their birth an interest in the covenant and right to the seal of it and to the outward privileges of the church under the gospel, no less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament . . .

So why is baptism not administered to the children of Christian parents in the New Covenant as circumcision was administered to the children of Jewish parents in the former covenant? This is typically a question I hear from my more "Reformed" brethren...and rightfully so.

The main problem I have with this question is that I believe it to be a wrong assumption about the similarity between the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God today. It assumes that the way God gathered his covenant people, Israel, in the Old Testament and the way he is gathering his covenant people, the Church, today is so similar that the different signs of the covenant (baptism and circumcision) can be administered in the same way to both peoples. This is a mistaken assumption, and in my opinion, downplays the importance of baptism and the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

There are differences between the new covenant people called the Church and the old covenant people called Israel. And these differences explain why it was fitting to give the old covenant sign of circumcision to the infants of Israel, and why it is not fitting to give the new covenant sign of baptism to the infants of the Church. In other words, even though there is an overlap in meaning between baptism and circumcision (Romans 4:11), circumcision and baptism don't have the same role to play in the covenant people of God because the way God constituted his people in the Old Testament and the way he is constituting the Church today are fundamentally different.

The people of the covenant in the Old Testament were made up of Israel according to the flesh - an ethnic, national, religious people containing "children of the flesh" and "children of God." (Paul speaks extensively about this in his epistle to the Romans, and also in Galatians) Therefore it was fitting that circumcision was given to all the children of the flesh.

But the people of the new covenant, called the Church of Jesus Christ, is being built in a fundamentally different way. The church is not based on any ethnic, national distinctives but on the reality of faith alone, by grace alone in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not a continuation of Israel as a whole; it is an continuation of the true Israel, the remnant -not the children of the flesh, but the children of promise. Therefore, it is not fitting that the children born merely according to the flesh receive the sign of the covenant, baptism.

I believe that just as circumcision was administered to all the physical sons of Abraham who made up the physical Israel, so baptism should be administered to all the spiritual sons of Abraham who make up the spiritual Israel.

My prayer is that any believer who has not entered into the waters of baptism will consider, for themselves, the blessing of being baptized in Christ. And I pray that everyone who witnesses their next baptism will experience a rekindling of love to God for all he has done for us in making us part of the new covenant people through repentance and faith.

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