Before a youth pastor taught me about baptism, my attitude toward the doctrine teetered between ignorance and apathy. I was finally baptized at about the age of 17. It was a monumental and spiritually empowering moment in my life. I was as fresh in my faith as a new convert. My immersion was a sign for me and to the world around me that I was “all in.”
As I have grown more in the faith and knowledge, I have only gained a more reverent appreciation for this ancient practice. My perspective has developed and changed in ways. As I have shared my developing thoughts with other believers, I have noticed that feelings on the doctrine range from complete apathy (“why is it even important to get baptized?”) to divisiveness (if you are not baptized in a certain way, you cannot be part of this church).
My hope is to write a series of blogs to build more interest where there is apathy and more understanding where there is division. I will be writing about baptism from a Reformed perspective. In these posts, I will also be defending Covenant Theology and infant baptism. In this first post, I thought it would be helpful to set the Reformed view beside other predominate views:
Roman Catholic (ex opere operato): For Protestants, salvation through Christ is accomplished at the moment of true faith. As Luther put it, Christians are simul justus et peccator– still sinners, yet justified. For Roman Catholics, a person is justified when they are actually righteous. Which means a person is not saved until they are perfected. This is why the doctrine of purgatory is necessary. A person’s process of salvation is by means of the 7 sacraments, one of those being baptism. Baptism has effective power. It makes the soul more holy and cleanses the person from original sin. This includes infants who are baptized. Therefore, baptism may begin to save a person before that person has any faith of their own.
Lutheran: Lutherans seem to hold a more mild view than Roman Catholics regarding the effectiveness of baptism. I don’t fully understand the nuances of their view. My understanding is that most Lutherans hold a balance between the view that faith must precede salvation and that baptism indicates regeneration (Rom. 6). Thus, they believe that, in some way, an infant’s baptism indicates a real faith within the infant (Erickson, 1019-1020).
Baptist (outward sign of an inward reality): The Baptist view is that baptism is meant to indicate the reality of an inward regeneration. Therefore, the only people who should be baptized are those who already posses saving faith. This is why baptists do not baptize infants. Infants cannot express saving faith. This view is called believer’s baptism or credobaptism.
Covenantal (Reformed): The common way to speak of this is to say that baptism is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. But, that is theological gobledigook to most people outside of the Reformed community (and most within). The basic claim is that God, throughout history, has sought to save his people by means of covenants, binding agreements between two parties. These covenants are marked by signs, such as circumcision and baptism. New Testament believers find themselves in basically the same covenant plan that began with Noah and Abraham (with some distinctions). Baptism then is not essentially an indication of a person’s salvation, but of an inclusion into a covenant relationship with God. The covenant does not guarantee salvation, but promises it. It demonstrates the visible church, the people of God on earth. These people include believers and their children.
It’s this last view that I will make a case for in following posts.
[While I have held to both the Baptist and Reformed views, I know very little about the the baptismal tradition of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches. I am relying mostly on Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology 3rd ed. (1018-1020) and the chapter titled “‘Confessor Baptism’: The Baptismal Doctrine of the Early Anabaptists” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. I know even less about the Eastern Orthodox tradition, so I haven’t included it at all. Roman Catholics, Lurtherans, and Eastern Orthodox, your insights and corrections are welcome!]