Believer’s Baptism and Why It Matters

A friend who was baptized in a hot tub

I talked a bit in a previous post about some history of denominational streams. This was the one issue over and above any other that separated the Anabaptists from both Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation years. More accurately than saying that baptism was the key issue, though, would be to say that what baptism symbolized was the key issue. Yes, since the evangelical movement, there have been lots of Protestant churches that also do adult baptism/believer’s baptism, but that was a couple hundred years later.

A lot of people might see this and say “who cares? it’s just what age you get watered poured on you/dunked in water.” Especially in the streams of the church in which it is considered more as a sacrament (a way in which God’s grace is particularly manifested to somebody) as opposed to an ordinance (symbol, but doesn’t particularly carry God’s presence with it in and of itself), it is easy to not see much of a difference. But trust me, there’s a reason Anabaptists died for this for a couple hundred years.This post aims to look as much as I can at biblical references to baptism, what implications tend to be for both infant and adult baptism, and why Anabaptists as well as many evangelicals promote believer’s baptism.

A couple other clarifications: Firstly, I am talking about baptism by water, as opposed to baptism of the Holy Spirit or baptism by blood. As of right now I have no intention of blogging about those any time soon, but I will if they are requested. They’re all closely related concepts but arguably not the exact same thing so they’ll still come up occasionally here.  Secondly, I am coming from the perspective of an ordinance, not a sacrament. So basically, I am talking about the symbolic action where you get dunked underwater.

Scripture

“Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…. So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.” (Acts 2:38, 41 NRSV)

In the first quote, we see that the prerequisite for baptism is repentance. Repentance is one of those scary words to most people now because we think of street preachers screaming at us that we’re going to Hell, but all the word means is to turn around. There is a fundamental life change that comes with being a Christian. The main life change being talked about there is the accompanying baptism of the Holy Spirit, and I’m sure this is one passage that many use to say that they come through the same event (I’m inclined to say not necessarily, but that’s a different debate).

“when you were buried in him [Jesus] in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:12 NRSV)

The second verse refers to faith already being present in baptism. You can argue exactly what faith is, but whatever the finer details, it is a choice to trust. If you trust somebody, you will listen to them – I believe the supposed faith vs works debate is a false dichotomy – so it isn’t all that much different than what the previous verse was saying about repentance.

“he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5 NRSV)

The third verse says that we are not saved through an act of righteousness. I would make the case that considering baptism as a sacrament, or as a strict requirement to be “saved,” is making it an act of righteousness – precisely what doesn’t save us. Yet there is a metaphor of “the water of rebirth”, so a rebirth (much like repentance) is again the key, and water baptism is a representation of that. Of course, you could very easily say that it isn’t giving a metaphor of the water of rebirth and that it actually means baptism is required for rebirth, so really this verse doesn’t help either side of that debate.

“And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for* a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”

*footnote says “or a pledge to God from” (1 Peter 3:21 NRSV)

Whichever way you take the footnote, this works to my point. If you take it as a pledge to God, that is much the same as what the other verses are saying – baptism is a sign of a radical life change of committing to God. If you take it as an appeal, then it is still pretty much the same, as it is saying that you’re looking towards God for help. I think the pledge translation fits the other verses better, but the other still fits perfectly fine.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a NRSV)

Baptizing is equated to making disciples, which in case you didn’t know, means “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Disciples were the guys who gave up everything else to follow a teacher around, wanting to be just like him.  Again we are seeing baptism equated to a choice for a life change.

Implications

So from my perspective – the one held by Anabaptists and many evangelicals – baptism is a physical representation of an inward choice.  It is a public declaration of repentance, of faith, of rebirth, of a pledge, of discipleship… all words that mean essentially the same thing. If you accept this premise as I do (and I know not everybody does), then does infant baptism make sense? Is that infant in that moment making a commitment to a life of discipleship? The short but obvious answer: no.

Since I do believe it is fundamentally a symbol, albeit a Jesus-commanded one, I don’t tend to think a church is doing something wrong when they perform an infant baptism. I just don’t think it’s really baptism in the biblical sense either. Fortunately, a lot of churches have later sacraments/ordinances for profession of faith at an older age, and I see that as how baptism functioned within Jesus’ commands and in the early church. I’m not particularly bothered by that.

Where I have a problem is when baptism is treated as the mark of a Christian. I tend to avoid the “who is saved and who isn’t” debates, so that’s not the part I care about. But really, is that what a Christian is? Somebody who has had water sprinkled on them? I hope you can see why this can be a major issue – it’s a completely different mindset on what makes a Christian a Christian; Catholics for instance do consider somebody baptized to be a member of the Catholic Church for life, minus excommunications, regardless of whether they even want to be. I love Catholics, and others who practice in this way, and I consider them my brothers and sisters, but I respectfully disagree on this one.

I believe that if you want to sprinkle your child with water, that is fine, but that doesn’t make them a Christian. View it as a dedication, a pledge as parents that you will love this child. That’s awesome. If you don’t like the ritual Jesus passed on and want to do it a bit differently, I’m not really complaining. But that child will still need to decide for himself or herself when they are old enough whether they want to make a commitment to discipleship. Don’t confuse them by telling them they’re a Christian whether they like it or not, just because they were already baptized. If they do make that choice, they’ll probably want to make a public declaration, and that may mean being baptized again (cue the Anabaptists, or “re-baptists”) or some other declaration. I personally find it much simpler just to go with what Jesus and the early church said and avoid the potential confusion.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.