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Baptism in Christianity

Updated on August 19, 2014

Stark Difference of Opinion and Practice

Along with sharing some rather spectacular personal experiences, I concentrate on describing the differences in belief and practice of various denominations, and why I believe as I do, using supporting Bible passages.

There are basically two different practices. One is called infant baptism, and the other is called believer's baptism. Infant baptism is baptism performed on a young child, without the child's consent, but with the consent of the parents. Believer's baptism means that the person has to ask for it for himself or herself.

Traditionally, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists (as I understand it), Presbyterians (ditto), all practice infant baptism. Denominations that grow out of the anabaptist tradition practice believer's baptism. Some nondenominational churches leave the choice up to parents.

Baptism doesn't just signify that a person has received a sacrament or ordinance. It also signifies becoming a member of the Body of Christ. This means that a person will be recognized as a member of the church in which he or she is baptized. If the denomination practices infant baptism, it usually also teaches that baptism is a sacrament, through which a person can receive the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins. If the denomination practices believer's baptism, it usually means that baptism is regarded as an ordinance (a type of law), and the person is acting in obedience. There is no particular form of grace that attends it, so no receipt of the Holy Spirit, or of forgiveness of sins. At least this is my understanding, and I am writing from my own understanding. If you think I described it poorly, feel free to leave comments.

I would hold that the basis for believing in believer's baptism is the idea that a person has to make a decision to accept Christ as Savior. On the other hand, the basis for believing in infant baptism is that we are incapable of making a decision until the Holy Spirit works in our hearts.

Some parents want their children to make a decision to follow Christ. In reality, whether or not a child believes in Christ will be as much determined by the religion to which the child is exposed (through church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer, for example) as by whether or not he has been baptized. A person who has been baptized is not necessarily destined for heaven, because he can later choose to reject Christ, or even to stop believing God exists. Some people believe that once you have become a Christian, you are protected from losing that faith ("once saved, always saved"), though the Bible only indicates that only EXTERNAL forces are prevented from depriving you of your faith. You can still choose to RESPOND to any external forces, and make the decision to turn your back on Christ. On the other hand, people who believe in "once saved, always saved" (also known as Eternal Security), also believe that if you turn your back on Christ, you will come back eventually and are therefore backslidden, or you never believed in the first place.

This is further confused by the issue of predestination. Perhaps the best way to describe this concept is to illustrate with a picture. Think of the gate of heaven. On the outside as you walk in, there is a sign that says, "Whosoever will". As you pass through and look back, you see a sign that says, "Chosen from the foundation of the world." This is based on the idea that God knew before we even existed, where we will spend eternity. At the same time, God doesn't make robots, and He wants our love. He can only have genuine love if we have the ability to choose to hate Him. So in that sense, the decision is ours. The problem is, as long as we are lost in sin, our free will is in bondage, and we cannot accept Jesus. Once the Holy Spirit works in us, then we can make that choice. Some denominations don't teach predestination at all. Lutherans teach simple predestination. This is the idea that some people are predestined to be saved (chosen from the foundation of the world), but nobody is predestined to damnation. Presbyterians (Calvinists, I think) teach double predestination, whereby some people are predestined to be damned, and they can't do anything about it. This tends to stifle missionary effort, by the way, because people think there's nothing you can do to influence the eternal destiny of anyone, so there is no point in bringing the Gospel to them.

I would hold that even if a child is baptized, he still has freedom of choice, because he can choose to reject Christ. I would also hold that freedom of choice in the child is limited by the fact that parents expose their children to a particular perspective, to the exclusion of all others. This includes parents who think they are giving their children a choice, because not having a faith is a choice.

I remember one incident from my high school years. I had a friend I cared a lot about, though I wouldn't call her a close friend. One time I visited her family and met her parents. They were from what is now known as the Czech Republic (they called Czechoslovakia), and they were atheists, including my friend. During the time of my visit, the parents told me they had my friend baptized as an infant. When I asked why, they said, "Just in case." In other words, what if they were wrong, and God does exist and will hold us accountable? I suspect that was an honest position because atheism is a BELIEF that God exists. It is not the absence of belief. At the same time, I found it very puzzling that they would see any necessity to do what they did. I can only hope and pray that at some point the baptism of my friend will bear fruit.

It so happens I am a Lutheran (of the orthodox variety, sticking with the doctrines taught by Luther). I disagree on a few points, but not many.

This lens is dedicated to my children, because I should have explained all of this to them long ago. It is one of a series I would call "my stories". I went to a homeschooling conference once, and one of the speakers said, "Tell your children your stories." That comment stuck with me, and I tried to do better, but being a natural introvert, I just didn't talk that much at all, let alone tell stories. So this is one of my stories, and I will write others as time permits.

Of our seven children, to my knowledge, two of them have not practiced infant baptism. The others all have.

The photo shows a baby being baptized by immersion, in the Georgian Orthodox Church. In that form of baptism, the baby is actually immersed three times. Baptizing an infant by immersion is clearly possible. If you want to make sure the baby will hold his breath and not take on water, blow in the baby's face just before immersion.

Thank you to Meg Mosier. Used under the Fair Use Doctrine, part of a series of photographs.

Baptizing Babies

The practical issues

Before getting into the Bible, I would like to talk just a bit about the practical reasons why I think it is a good idea, and also the drawbacks.

Traditionally, Lutheran churches have sent out many, many missionaries. In spite of this, Lutherans also tend to come from Germanic people, and this sets the tone for how the people live and worship. It's relatively low key. People don't tend to learn to evangelize aggressively. And obviously, the idea that we cannot PERSUADE a person to become a Christian (only the Holy Spirit can), and our role is limited to conveying information, also results in a more low key approach. I would hold that infant baptism tends to blunt a person's understanding of what it is like to be without Christ. The baptized infant usually never remembers any experiences of having been without Christ. On the other hand, a person who has not been baptized until he chooses it spends infancy without any conscious knowledge of Christ (infant dedication notwithstanding, especially since the only example of dedication I am aware of in the Bible is when Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the temple to be dedicated and there met Simeon). This lasts until the child has enough command of his native language to understand preaching or teaching. Thus, many people may be well aware of what it is like to be without Christ.

That's the only drawback I can think of: lack of awareness of being without Christ and what that is like.

On the other hand, as I shall relate with some personal experiences, being baptized can mean showing unusual discernment at an early age, and also with better behavior, because the room in the child's heart for the influence of the devil is strictly limited. If parents take a chance and withhold baptism, there is the chance the child will NOT choose Christ (and isn't that what it MEANS to give a child a choice in the first place?) And this can be either temporary or permanent. I would suggest that it makes no more sense to propose a child should be given a choice here as it would to propose that a parent should present both food and poison and let the child choose which to eat, and a lot more critical, because we are talking about eternal destiny.

I have watched many children. While there is a lot of individual variation and there are no hard and fast rules, I have observed the following:

Children who receive baptism and/or effective discipline are happier and better behaved than children who receive neither.

Effective discipline means that the parent acknowledges his own wisdom and seeks to impart his values to his child. If the child is rebellious, the parent enforces his teaching in an effective way. In my experience, some parents ultimately discover that spanking is the most effective way to reach the rebellious child. Ideally, discipline should be sufficient so that if the child threatens to put himself in danger, the parent only has to speak sharply to the child, and the child will turn away from the danger.

Children realize they don't know the rules. They realize that in order to be accepted socially, they need to know the rules. Failure to teach the rules leaves a child insecure and unhappy. Failure to teach a child compassion and similar values means allowing the child to remain in the selfish state of mind that the infant MUST have in order to survive, and also means the child will engage in socially unbecoming behavior and experience rejection. For this reason, most children will try to push the envelope until discipline occurs. If it doesn't occur on the smaller things, the child will deliberately disobey the directions of the parent until the parent reacts. If parents withhold discipline until the child becomes too obnoxious and intolerable, they will often resort to the natural reaction and become abusive.

If the baby is open to the influence of the devil, he is more likely to push the envelope because of the temptations he receives. Everyone is open to the influence of the devil to some extent, but having the Holy Spirit safeguards a person from many temptations. If infant baptism conveys the Holy Spirit, it can save the child much unhappiness and insecurity. All discipline should always be applied in love, and the child should be made to understand the reason for the discipline. I have absolutely no problem with trying to reason with a child, as long as you are prepared to enforce the rules when necessary.

We had two spankable offenses in our family. One was outright rebellion, and the other was doing something dangerous. I had to unlearn my parents' form of discipline because the ONLY thing they used was spanking, so in adopting this perspective, I moved from that teaching in a direction that hopefully was more humane. That took time, but I got there.

I imagine I have already explained the need to spanking in response to rebellion. Doing something dangerous requires a little explanation. Doing something dangerous may result in injury or death. But it doesn't always do so. As a result, I felt that applying something similar to possible natural consequences was important. Spanking for doing something dangerous came without warning, on the first offense. I would tell them WHY, but the real purpose was to drive home the idea that doing something dangerous could damage them.

The result has been that our children have never been seriously injured. Even though some of them like to do things that can be dangerous, they do it prudently (well, most of the time). And there are certain things they don't try, because they can see the consequences from what other people have done.

I used to tell them, "Only a fool insists on learning from his own mistakes."

So the bottom line is this: to give children a sense of security and happiness, baptize them, and make sure that you use necessary discipline in love.

Holy Spirit Security of the Child v. Eternal Security

Here is a riddle for you

I'm very puzzled by this. People who advocate denying baptism to the infant often are the same people who believe in Eternal Security.

Eternal Security is very comforting to people.

Why would they then deny Holy Spirit security to the baby by keeping him from coming to Jesus through baptism?

Remember, Jesus called the Holy Spirit, "the Comforter".

I have seen photographs of carvings from the catacombs of the early Christians, showing the birth date, baptismal date, and martyrdom date of some of the people buried there. In some cases, the dates are very close together. They were baptizing their infants. Because of the possibility of martyrdom, baptism might be the only way a very young child could receive Christ before he was killed. Some people hold that there is an age before accountability when the child is regarded as innocent, but the Bible says otherwise. In addition, death is the wages of sin, and babies are mortal.

Four Experiences

I won't be identifying the person each incident involves. I will only state that I was an eyewitness to each event. Four events in my life brought home the desirability of infant baptism and made it personal. They are as follows:

1. A child is born, but shows no signs of life. The Apgar is zero. For 11 minutes, there is no sign of life. At that point, the child's heart resumes beating, slowly at first, and life returns, and the newborn is smiling. The newborn continues to smile, but over the next three weeks, the smiles gradually fade. On the day of the child's baptism at age 3 weeks, he starts to smile again, and from then on, he smiles frequently. Could that baby ASK for baptism? Of course not. That person later told me that he had seen Jesus. He KNEW in his heart that he needed something but he couldn't ask for it.

2. The family is sitting around the table, and one of the parents asks the children, What is the bread of communion? A child barely one year old answers, "It's God's body." Two doctrinal concepts and a conclusion. First, Jesus is God. Second, since this is Jesus' body, it's God's body. Knowledge of the truth of Christianity is not an intellectual issue. It is a spiritual issue. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of instructing the infant in the necessary concepts and the right facts so that there can be true faith.

3. The family goes to church, and one of the children is misbehaving. The pastor has already said he will give communion to all the children. A parent takes out the misbehaving child and has a talk with him. Twice. When the pastor distributes communion, the child refuses. The child never did so before or after. Remember Paul's admonition about people who eat and drink unworthily. This child sensed that he wasn't prepared to take communion, so he didn't. As an adult, this person is a solid Christian.

4. We should treat adults who struggle to believe as little children, because spiritually they are. Baptism should not be denied to a person simply because he is older, if he cannot yet confess all the necessary doctrines.

An adult of some years wants to be baptized for some long period of time. He cannot accept every doctrine, and struggles with it. After several attempts that didn't work out, a pastor agrees to baptize him. The man meets with the pastor, and the pastor and he have a discussion for awhile, and the man confesses some things, and talks about them. The pastor asks if he wants to be baptized, and he says, yes. Suddenly, he slumps over. He is unresponsive. Should the people present call 911? A few moments later, the man stands up and says something unintelligible in a voice not his own. Then he seems fine. The pastor baptizes him. Because of the incident, someone else drives him home. He keeps asking, why are we here? Where are we? What happened? He arrives home, and goes into the room, and sits down and resumes life as if nothing had happened. He cannot remember being baptized. So the pastor arranges another date and baptizes him again, so he will remember.

A few weeks later, he meets with some friends, and tells them, I am a Christian. He then says he had struggled with believing that Jesus is God, but now he has absolutely no problem with it whatsoever.

Baptism in other cultures

Did you know that many cultures practice baptism? Most of the time, if they have not had contact with the Christian faith, or with Christian missionaries, they may not even remember the full significance of doing this. In the book "Eternity in Their Hearts," Don Richardson tells us that most cultures have some traditions that stem from the Christian faith. Sometimes it is a legend about a lost book. Sometimes it is the practice of baptism. Sometimes it is something else. Missionaries who study the local religion will find these traditions, and can then explain them to the people.

Everyone has an innate sense of the need for cleansing. Everyone has an innate sense of having done wrong. Most cultures that have a baptism tradition see baptism as a ritual cleansing.

Does the child need cleansing? Is the child a sinner? Is he mortal? The Bible tells that the wages of sin is death. This means that because children can die, they are mortal and therefore they are sinners.

In Judaism, there is the practice of the mikva. This involves a ritual baptism for various instances of impurity. This is a precursor to Christian baptism. As you can see, the practice is well established in Judaism, which is the basis for Christianity. Christianity is completed Judaism.

In some cases, Christians were able to use the mikva to perform baptisms. Other times, they had to be done with whatever water was available, which might not be much in a desert climate. The amount of water isn't an issue. The act of using water together with the Word of God, that one is baptizing in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, makes it baptism.

What the Bible Says

There is no passage in the Bible where baptism of infants is prohibited. In considering the question, I would expect that if a person thinks we should withhold baptism from the infant, or deny baptism to him, he should be able to point to a passage that shows that this is right, and this is what the Christian faith requires. If there is no such passage, then at the very least, he has no grounds for trying to persuade anyone else to withhold baptism from the infant.

On the other hand, does the Bible present anything in support of infant baptism? I would say it definitely does. The most important verse in this regard is the one where Jesus is speaking to the disciples who were upset because mothers brought children to Him (presumably because they considered it disruptive, rightly or wrongly.) So what does Jesus do? He says, in Matthew 19:14: "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

Nowadays, we cannot allow children to come to Jesus physically. He has gone Home to heaven, to be with the Father. There is really only one way we can bring them to Him, and that is through baptism.

Here is another passage that I think applies here. It occurs in three places: Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, and Luke 17:2: "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." The three are all similar wording.

Who are we to say that children do not believe in Jesus? Whose responsibility is it to give them faith? It is the Holy Spirit! Thus, since the Holy Spirit is all powerful, He can give faith to anyone, including a tiny child. We know from studies that babies can learn to trust their mothers. If their mothers show them love and nurturing, the babies will respond differently than if the mothers do not. A baby who can trust his mother to feed him and take care of him has the capacity to trust Jesus. Don't interfere with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, let us consider Matthew 28:19: "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

Does this passage tell us to baptize all nations EXCEPT for children? NO! So under what authority do we disobey Jesus, when children are part of all nations as well?

There are many Bible passages I can give you. I have prepared an extensive discussion of this question on my own web site, here: The Question of Infant Baptism

Please read it. We need to stop denying children the right to come to Jesus. It is, to my mind, a grave crime, to prevent a child who cannot ask for himself, from going to Jesus. Unless you can find me a verse that says we should not baptize infants and young children, the burden of proof that we should not still remains on you. Take this seriously. God does.


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