Category Archives: Baptism
The why, how, who and history of baptism.
I have been searching the scriptures to understand baptism and what a local church should teach and do about it, and after all, it seems to be important enough that Jesus expects His disciples to baptize those who profess to be followers of Him (Matt. 28:19-20). A standard rule of church priority should be this: “If Jesus commanded it then I trust He had a good reason and so I better teach it.” Through this process of looking more intently, one of the questions that I have wondered is: “What did those who came right behind the apostolic church (Acts Church) know and do in regards to baptism?” It seems reasonable to think that the history closest to Christ and the first generation church would give us the best extra-biblical evidence concerning what Christ and the twelve apostles did and taught. Here are a few paragraphs from The Story of Christianity; The Early Church and the Dawn of the Reformation (pp. 96-97) by Justo L. Gonzalez:
Baptism was, besides communion, the other great event of Christian worship. As has already been said, in order to partake of communion one had to be baptized. In Acts we are told that people were baptized as soon as they were converted. This was feasible in the early Christian community, where most converts came from Judaism or had been influenced by it, and thus had a basic understanding of the meaning of Christian life and proclamation. But, as the Church became increasingly Gentile, it was necessary to require a period of preparation, trial, and instruction prior to baptism. This was the “catechumenate, “which, by the beginning of the third century, lasted three years. During that time, catechumens received instruction on Christian doctrine, and were to give signs in their daily lives of the depth of their conviction. Finally, shortly before being baptized, they were examined and added to the list of those to be baptized.
Usually baptism was administered once a year, on Easter Sunday. Early in the third century it was customary for those about to be baptized to fast on Friday and Saturday, and to be baptized very early Sunday morning, which was the time of the Resurrection of Jesus. The candidates were completed naked, the men separated from the women. On emerging from the waters, the neophytes were given white robes, as a sign of their new life in Christ (see Col. 3:9-12 and Rev. 3:4). They were also given water to drink, as a sign that they were thoroughly cleansed, both outside and inside. Then they were anointed, thus making them part of the royal priesthood; and were given milk and honey, as a sign of the Promised Land into which they were now entering.
After all the candidates were baptized, the entire congregation went in procession to the meeting place, where the neophytes partook of communion for the first time.
Baptism was usually by immersion. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a document of uncertain date, prefers that it be done in “living” – that is, running – running water. But where water was scarce it could be administered by pouring water three times over the head, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
To this day, scholars are not in agreement as to whether the early church baptized infants. By the early third century, there are indications that sometimes the children of Christian parents were baptized as infants. But all earlier documents, and many later ones, provide such scant information that it is impossible to decide one way or the other.
A few summary thoughts are in order:
- It seems as though, at least from the history summarized here, that baptism was for believers and that there was a time to evaluate as to whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant baptism.
- An interesting few words, and maybe unnoticed by most, in the first paragraph Gonzalez states that those who were baptized were added to a list. Is this evidence of a church membership role?
- Is baptism inconvenient today, causing people to neglect it? Assuming for a moment that Gonzalez is describing how baptism was commonly done, it seems in many cases we have it fairly easy. I haven’t been to any early Sunday Morning baptisms and I have never been to a naked baptism. And thankfully I don’t find these practices anywhere in the scripture. So don’t worry, we won’t be implementing these things at Eagle Heights.
- In relation to the previous bullet point, I do think some serious thought should be given to making the baptism as meaningful and as memorable as possible. White robes might be a helpful symbolism, though no where do I see a biblical warrant for the practice.
- “Baptism was usually by immersion.” This is worth repeating, though I can understand in unique circumstances having to pour or sprinkle in the name of the Triune God.
- The evidence for infant baptism is inconclusive. Both scripture and extra-biblical history seem to be on the same page in this instance.
I don’t assume that any of this is a slam dunk except to say that the early post-apostolic church held baptism as an important part of community life in Christ. However, the limited evidence does seem to lean a certain direction in clarifying what the early Christians might have understood the scriptures to mean in regards to baptism.
The simple answer is that a child should be baptized after they become a believer in Jesus Christ. Baptism is for those who have turned from their sins and put their faith in Christ. Baptism is for believers (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:47; 16:30-34).
That seems easy enough – right?
In his book, Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem says: “Baptism is the sign, administered by the local church that shows that a person has given sufficient evidence for truly being a believer.”
I mention Grudem’s statement because it gives us cause for pause when he adds that baptism is for those who have “given sufficient evidence for truly being a believer.” This statement should create a healthy and contemplative tension for us that causes us to ask: “What ‘sufficient evidence’ should we look for that would let us in good conscience baptize a child?”
After all, we don’t want to rush a decision for several reasons. First, we don’t want to give false affirmation or assurance that a child is saved. Second, if a child has a believing parent who lives and tells the gospel, then more than likely the child is going to want to be a Christian, and may say they are a Christian and do the things a Christian does-just like mom and dad. Children want to be like their parents. Parents are the heroes of their children and children can be like parrots, repeating exactly what they have heard. A child saying the right words is a reassuring start, but it does not mean that they are saved (Matthew 7:21-23).
Parents have a very important responsibility when it comes to evaluating whether or not a child should be baptized. I believe it is a great idea for parents to have their child meet with a pastor, but the pastor is at a disadvantage because he is not as intimately acquainted as the parent is with the child’s spiritual vernacular and at-home behavior. Certainly, those things don’t save a child from their sin, but they most assuredly give crucial evidence as to whether there is sufficient evidence for a church to baptize a child and, therefore, affirm whether or not the child is biblically born again and saved.
So what “sufficient evidence” should we look for before we affirm and celebrate the baptism of a child?
This is not an easy question to answer. It is complicated, and I think it is complicated by the complexities of adulthood just as much as it is by the simplicity of a child’s willing and teachable heart. I’ll do my best to explain this in a moment, but here are some truths that a child must understand to be saved so that they can then be baptized as a believer:
A child must understand that God is holy and righteous. They must understand that God is perfectly sinless. How does a person know that a child understands and grasps this? To begin with, I don’t think I fully grasp the pristine holiness of God, but I do recognize that God is completely different from me in his powerful ability and moral perfection. A child must also see that in their sinful nature-state they are morally deficient and hopelessly unrighteous (Psalm 14 and Ephesians 2:1-3). Unless they understand that God is perfect, they will not understand the second truth they need to know and feel.
A child must understand that they are a sinner (Romans 3:9-18; Romans 3:23) and must show a Holy Spirit empowered conviction concerning their sin. This one is especially difficult to discern about a child because sometimes we expect a child to act like an adult. In other words, if their behavior is acceptable then we might mistakenly see that as the evidence that validates that they are being convicted of sin and following Christ. However, is it possible that we are not seeing the Spirit convict, but instead witnessing behavior modification that is the result of seeking parental approval? For instance, is it necessarily conviction of sin if a child sorrowfully cries for punching a sibling? Does sorrow or remorse always equal conviction and repentance? What do we need to look for that shows a child understands that they are a sinner in need of Jesus the savior? What does the conviction of sin look like for a child? Here are a few questions to ask that will help evaluate whether or not the Spirit lives within a child, showing they are a believer:
- Do they come clean when they have not been caught? Does conviction bring them to admit on their own that they have sinned?
- Do they confess sins that they know they could have gotten away with?
- Do they hurt for others without being told they are to do so?
- Are they sensitive to the needs and pain of others?
- Do they take the initiative to do kind things for others?
These questions are beneficial to keep in mind because they show that a child is doing more than reacting to behavioral consequences. If a child is responding to something internal, perhaps it is the conviction of the Spirit instead of the wrath of mom and dad or societal expectations. This seems to me to be the kind of evidence that we could credit to the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is waging war within the child against the flesh. One last question: do they see their sin as being against God, or only against people? This goes back to the first question. If it is only sorrow for actions against people then they may not have grasped that their hurtful actions against people are really sin against God (Psalm 51). All sin is treachery against God, and a Christian child should be able to recognize this Christian reality.
A child must understand that only Jesus can save them (John 14:6; John 17:3; Acts 4:12). Has a child confessed with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, the only way to God the Father, and believed in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead? Do they have a child appropriate understanding that Jesus lived a perfect life that we should have lived, and because He was perfect, only Jesus could die in our place to absorb the wrath we deserved? Jesus is the only hope any child has, and they must grasp that.
Minimally, I believe it is reasonable for us to observe these three signs as evidence that a child is truly born again.
If you can answer yes to all three, then it might be time to celebrate the obedience of baptism with your local church.
With this in mind, here are a couple of takeaways. First, a child must believe the same things that an adult must believe to be saved. Second, a child must know the facts of the gospel and understand the application of those facts. The rub is this: How does an adult see the work of the Spirit in the life of a child?
This provides a teachable moment for adults. Do we know God’s word well enough to know the person of the Holy Spirit? Do we recognize the handiwork of the Spirit in our own life well enough to recognize it in the life of our child? Additionally, do you we know our child well enough to know that there is something supernaturally happening in their life?
At this point, someone might claim that I have provided little or no help since I have suggested that the evidence we need to look for is the same evidence we would look for in an adult. So here are three concluding thoughts that might help define the three necessities above.
If a child gives evidence for all three, it doesn’t hurt to wait a while before they are baptized. Don’t rush a child through the baptismal waters. Be patient and see if they persevere in periodically asking about when they will have a chance to show people that they are believing in Jesus. If God has saved your child, there will be a persisting yearning to obey. One of the defining marks of the Spirit is perseverance in obedience to the faith. A child may not ask about it every day, but they will bring it up consistently over a period of time.
Warning! Don’t wait too long. The danger of waiting too long is that obedience gets minimized or portrayed as not urgent and important. I want to avoid my son or daughter saying to me: “Daddy, why don’t you believe me?” Just make sure that you take the time to explain to your child why you are waiting while you are waiting.
Finally, remember that this, like everything, is an opportunity to trust God and see the Spirit work in your own life. God knows what He is doing even if you don’t. Pray like both are true. Baptism is incredibly important because our obedience as saved people is important (John 14:15; 1 John 2:3), but baptism does not save you or your child. God saves by his grace through faith in Jesus and in Jesus alone.