Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I have been thinking about baptism lately. My daughter is nearly two months old, and I will be planning her baptism very soon. But not soon enough for some—I was admonished by one of my husband's relatives not to wait too long to baptize her because if she were to die (God forbid) I would want the comfort of her baptism to know she had gone to heaven. The person who expressed that opinion most likely took it out of Martin Luther's large catechism. Luther quotes Mark 16:16 ("He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned."). Then Luther interprets that verse thus: "It is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved."

I think that Luther made a big mistake with this interpretation. Although Jesus pairs belief and baptism in the first part of the sentence, he omits baptism from the second part of the sentence. Therefore, a literal reading suggests that one cannot be condemned for failing to be baptized if one has faith; likewise, baptism cannot save a person who does not believe. It is easy to simply assume that faith and baptism are inseparable, but that is not a logically sound assumption given the grammatical structure of the sentence.

Baptism IS important. Jesus did command his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and nothing Jesus tells us to do is worthless. Our faith is built on the Word, but that means that we must not put words in Christ's mouth (by proclaiming that we cannot be saved without baptism) any more than we should disregard his explicit commands.

Baptism is not a magic spell that grants us entry to heaven whether we believe or not. Baptism is nothing more or less than an outward sign (and a powerful one, at that) of the promise God has made to everyone to save us through his son, Jesus, and our acceptance of that promise. In our willingness to be baptized, we show that we do believe, that we accept the salvation that God has offered, and that we want to be washed clean of our sins. We say, "Yes, Lord! Your will be done!" For it is God's will to save us. When we baptize our children, we show that we want that promise for them, that we will teach them to understand and accept it, and that we welcome God's help in transforming the lives of our children in accordance to His will. When we do it publicly, we also ask others to help support us and our children in our faith. When we are struggling in our faith, we can look back and remember the promise that was affirmed with our baptism and recall that we are marked as Christ's own forever.

The simple fact is that the promise exists for us before we are baptized. Even Luther himself argues that we cannot believe without the help of the Holy Spirit. How then can we say, "Yes, I believe and I want to be baptized," if the Holy Spirit cannot touch our lives before we are baptized? The act of baptism is an invitation to the Holy Spirit to descend on us, but we are fools if we think that the Spirit cannot touch our lives before we are baptized. How then could we ever seek baptism? By that argument, everyone would have to have someone make the choice for them before they could receive the Spirit and by its assistance believe for themselves. The Bible contradicts that idea with many illustrations of adults coming to belief and requesting baptism for themselves.

I do not believe that God condemns people or withholds his Spirit from them for being unbaptized any more than He damns them for being uncircumcised. After all, the Holy Spirit came upon the group gathered in the house of Cornelius BEFORE they were baptized (Acts 10), and Peter used that as a justification for baptizing them even though they were Gentiles. So in the minutes between their receiving the gift of the Spirit and being baptized, were they still damned, even if they had received the promise of salvation with joy?

The reason that baptism is paired with belief is that there is simply no good reason for believers NOT to be baptized. If we believe that Jesus died for us and wish to accept the promise of eternal life, why should we not make an outward sign of it through baptism? Just because we know that the Holy Spirit goes wherever God wills, why should we not actively invite it into our lives? Why should we not cherish the memory of the promise by remembering that our sins are continually being washed away? Why should we not want the cross marked on our foreheads so that the Devil and all his minions can see that we belong to Christ? Jesus had a good reason for instructing that believers be baptized, and that is a good enough reason for us to do it without the threat of damnation hanging over our heads. Must every good deed and act of obedience we perform be about gaining heaven and avoiding hell? Why can we not do it simply out of love for the one who commanded us and out of joy for his incomparable gift to us? Baptism is traditionally the outward sign of an inward conversion to the faith (or a parent's promise to raise a child in the faith), and I think that's a good thing.

Perhaps you may wonder why this is worth quibbling about at all. Others' opinions of the state of my child's soul will not affect her salvation. My trust that God will strive for my daughter's soul and carry her off to Heaven if she were to die before her baptism should be enough. And it is, for me.

But I am very sad that so many Christians believe that God would damn an infant over a technicality. It makes me fear that they don't truly understand God and His boundless grace and love. You see, God WANTS us to be saved. He's not rolling the dice here and letting us decide our children's fate by choosing when and if to baptize them. He loves my daughter, and already He is doing everything He can to draw her to Him, no matter what actions I do or do not take on her behalf.

A booklet on baptism lent to me by my pastor (Let the Children Come: A Baptism Manual for Parents and Sponsors by Daniel Erlander) makes the following point: "[It is a popular misconception] that unbaptized babies who die go somewhere other than into God's loving embrace—places like 'limbo' or 'hell'. If death comes to an unbaptized infant, we trust the mercy and steadfast love of God. We believe that God gives the gift of baptism for our salvation, comfort, and assurance. We do not believe God is limited by our act of baptizing. We commit all who die into God's tender mercy." I agree wholeheartedly.

Some argue that infants need baptism to save them because they cannot believe in Jesus themselves. They make the mistake of assuming that belief in Jesus is an intellectual choice that only a mature mind can make. But children love before they understand what love is. Babies smile at the person holding them because that person is smiling down at them, not because they have an intellectual opinion about that person's goodness. Somehow, my daughter already knows that I am her mother, even if she doesn't understand what a mother is. She knows that being held by me is a good thing.

If my precious daughter were to die today, I believe that she would go straight into the arms of a loving God where she would be content because she would know that His arms are a good place to be, just as she knows that my arms are a good place to be. She has not yet been poisoned by the lies of this world that draw us from God, and even though she was born with the stain of sin, she was also created in the image of her God. Just as her instinct tells her that my arms are a good place to be, I believe that her instinct would lead her straight into the arms of God if she were to die. Why should we over-think this issue like a bunch of pessimists instead of trusting in God's mercy?

After all, sin only entered the world when Adam and Eve refused to be what God made them to be. They believed a lie—that they could be like God instead of what they were—and that's where it all went wrong. They were created to love and trust God, and they only got into trouble when they defied their own nature. We are bombarded with the same lies, the same sin, that draw us away from God. But at our heart, we too are created in God's image to love and serve him. Believing in Jesus and going to God is nothing more than doing what ought to be natural to us, what God designed us to do in the first place. It is our exposure to sin and Satan's lies that makes us deny our true natures and reject God (and in so doing reject our very selves).

Frankly, I think that babies are the last people we should be worrying about when it comes to salvation. We adults are the ones who assert our independence and no longer accept God's love without question.  We are the ones who fear damnation more than we trust the promise of salvation. We are the ones who need our baptism the most. And I fully intend to give my daughter the gift of baptism in due course, because one day she too will have those struggles, and I hope that her baptism will bolster her faith in times of trouble.

I also agree with another point that Erlander makes in his booklet: "Baptism is [not] mainly an insurance policy for life after death. While God promises the hope of eternal life in baptism, baptism is much more—the beginning of a relationship with Christ, a way of life, and a lifelong identity as a Christian in this earthly existence." That's why I want to plan the baptism at a time when as many family members and friends can attend as possible. I want them to witness this milestone in my daughter's life and in so doing pledge to be a continuing part of it, to pray for her and support her in her Christian upbringing. I know she's going to need help along the way, and I hope that all those who witness her baptism will feel moved to give it.

So I am very much looking forward to my daughter's baptism day. I wouldn't cheapen it by talking about it like something I 'must' do, or else. It is something I want to do, and I will do it out of joy, not fear.

1 comment:

Gary said...

Baptists and evangelicals are absolutely correct...there is no SPECIFIC mention in the New Testament that the Apostles baptized infants. There are references to entire households being converted and baptized, but we orthodox cannot prove, just from Scripture, that these households had infants, and neither can Baptists and evangelicals prove, just from Scripture, that they did not.

One interesting point that Baptists/evangelicals should note is that although there is no specific mention of infant baptism in the Bible...neither is there a prohibition of infant baptism in the Bible. Christians are commanded by Christ to go into all the world and preach the Gospel and to baptize all nations. No age restrictions are mentioned. If Christ had intended his followers to understand that infants could not be baptized in the New Covenant, in a household conversion process as was the practice of the Jews of Christ's day in converting Gentile households to the Covenant of Abraham, it is strange that no mention is made of this prohibition.

So, the only real way to find out if Infant Baptism was practiced by the Apostles is to look at the writings of the early Christians, some of whom were disciples of the Apostles, such as Polycarp, and see what they said on this issue.

And here is a key point: Infant Baptism makes absolutely no sense if you believe that sinners can and must make an informed, mature decision to believe in order to be saved. Infants cannot make informed, mature decisions, so if this is the correct Doctrine of Justification/Salvation, Infant Baptism is clearly false teaching. But the (arminian) Baptist/evangelical Doctrine of Justification/Salvation is unscriptural. Being forced to make a decision to obtain a gift, makes the gift no longer free. This is salvation by works.

Baptism is a command of God. It is not a work of man. God says in plain, simple language, in multiple locations in the Bible, that he saves/forgives sins in Baptism. We orthodox Christians accept God's literal Word. We take our infants to be baptized because God says to do it. Our infants are not saved because we perform the act of bringing them to the baptismal font...they are saved by the power of God's Word pronounced at the time of the Baptism. Christians have believed this for 2,000 years!

There is no evidence that any Christian in the early Church believed that sinners are saved by making a free will decision and then are baptized solely as a public profession of faith. None.

Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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