Why I believe in and practice believer’s baptism only

Who should receive baptism?  The Scriptures provide not only teaching to answer this question, but also provide examples for us to follow.

I realize that in posting this that I will convince few who already disagree with me, but I hope it will explain (as the title implies) why I am convinced this is the proper Scriptural view and why I reject the view of covenant pedo-baptists.

Our covenantal brethren appeal to the covenant and the occurrences of household baptisms to indicate that children of believers should receive the sign of the covenant just as children of covenant members were given the sign of the covenant in the OT.

There are several problems with this claim.  First, there is no explicit reference to infants of a household being baptized.  Also, the word “household” as used in Classical Geek (the only reasonable source for the use of “household”) the household never included those below the age of legal responsibility.  If we take this use of “household” to its logical conclusion, no one except the head of the household would have to be baptized anyway.  Most of the NT is concerned with Gentiles and most of the “household” baptisms are of Gentile converts.  The Gentiles would not have sensed the continuity with Genesis 17.  Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles, did not advocate the keeping of empty rituals, but the following of meaningful practices for worship and life.

Consider the case of Cornelius’ household.  In Acts 10:44, Peter preaches to Cornelius’ household and the Spirit caused them to speak in tongues and glorify God, this obviously would not have included the infants.  Peter then later commands those who received the Spirit to be baptized, this would not have included the infants.

In the case of the Philippian jailer’s household, no one takes Acts 16:31 to mean that the jailer’s believing would result in the whole household being saved, why then should his baptism be construed the same way?  Indeed, Acts 16:34 seems to indicate that the jailer’s whole household believed.

In the case of Lydia’s household in Acts 16, Lydia either a single woman or widow; no mention is made at all of infants or small children.  Most commentators see her baptism as a compression of the events that included the jailer and Crispus.

In the case of the household of Stephanas in 1 Cor. 1:15-16, again no mention is made of small children or infants.  1 Cor. 16:15 speaks of the converts as having “devoted themselves to serving the saints;” this obviously would not have included infants or small children.

The famous (or infamous) Acts 2:39 statement follows Peter’s call to repent and believe and this command to repent determines who is an appropriate candidate for baptism.  The promise is of salvation but no one believes that the infants of those present were saved without repentance and faith.  Why then should baptism be administered to them as well?

This argument tying circumcision to baptism, however, ignores one primary aspect of circumcision.  Circumcision was not itself a primary means of gaining entry into the covenant community, birth was.  Circumcision was prescribed for children of people in the covenant community not as entrance, but as the first act of law-keeping.[1]

In 1 Cor. 7:14, Paul points out that the spouses and children of believers are holy.  Since unbelieving spouses are included in this, too, does this mean that spouses of believers need not believe and be baptized to be part of the community of faith?  If we accept the arguments relating to household baptism, then we must interpret 1 Cor. 7:14 as teaching that baptism is not necessary for children of believers to be holy and part of the church.

Finally, as Dunn points out, the NT connection to OT circumcision is not baptism but the gift of the Spirit.[2]  Paul makes this evident in Romans 2:28-29 where he describes the true Jew not as one who bears the outward mark of circumcision but the one who bears the inward mark of circumcision, the Spirit and in Philippians 3:3 where Paul redefines circumcision, saying that the circumcised are those who “worship God in the Spirit” and consequently, “boast in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”[3]

At this point many will respond by saying that there was a wide range of meanings and practices associated with baptism in the apostolic and post-apostolic church.  But such assertions are ill-founded.  While it is true that we nowhere find a passage that we could label simply “On Baptism,”[4] in the passages that mention baptism, we do find a clear and coherent meaning given to which we can subscribe and which informs our decision regarding whom to baptize.

Now it is true, as DeMaris points out, that “Pauline language of participation in Christ’s dying and rising does not refer exclusively to…the baptismal rite of initiation.” [5]  But in saying this, DeMaris refutes his own argument in that he admits that while other things may point to “participation in Christ’s dying,” baptism refers to this as well.  The question is not whether or not other things point to this, but “Does baptism point to participation in Christ’s dying?”

Baptism has a meaning and in order for this meaning to have any significance, it must be understood by (at least to some degree) and understandable to the one being baptized.  Consider that baptism signifies union with Christ.  This is clear from several factors evident in the NT.

First, baptism is performed in Christ’s name.  As Dunn indicates, citing Romans 6:3-4, being baptized “into Christ” demonstrates the connection between union with Christ and baptism.[6]  That baptism has traditionally been a public rite demonstrates that Christians, from the beginning have regarded it as a public proclamation of this union with Christ (cf. Romans 10:9-10).

The union with Christ signified in baptism points to the identification of the believer with the saving work of Christ.  This is made clear by the prepositions in Romans 6:4 where one is said to be buried “through baptism” into death, namely Christ’s death.  In Colossians 2:12, Paul says that the one being baptized is “buried with him [i.e., Christ] in baptism.”  As Dunn notes, “Baptism was in some sense the medium through which God brought the baptized into participation in Christ’s death and burial.”[7]

Baptism also signifies the reception of the Spirit.  John the Baptizer clearly said that though his baptism was one of water, Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Though the OT prophets spoke of an outpouring of the Spirit and spoke of Messiah coming to judge the wicked, the NT writers speak of both the blessing of the Spirit and the judgment as a “baptism.”  The believer, then, receives the Spirit and the water baptism signifies that reception of the Spirit.

The Great Commission links baptism with the making of disciples in such a way that strongly implies that one must be a disciple in order for the rite to have any significance.  Matthew 28:19-20 teaches the baptism only of those capable of being taught the gospel.  In this passage, the participle “baptizing” stands in same relation to the verb as “teaching” this making it clear that only those who can be taught are suitable candidates for baptism.  The basic definition of disciple is that one is to be a learner and a follower.  Those below and age of understanding cannot be taught and so cannot fulfill qualifications for discipleship.  They are not, therefore, suitable candidates for baptism.

Indeed, those who are being baptized are in their baptism “renouncing old ways of life and committing themselves to a new way of life.”[8]  This further explains Paul’s reference to baptism in Romans 6:4 in relation to the new resurrection life of the believer.  Commentators often overlook the context of Romans 6:3-4, coming as it does after the discussion of justification and as Paul is laying the groundwork for the Christian’s understanding of their relationship to holiness.  Paul lays the groundwork for his explanation of the Christian’s ongoing struggle with sin by referencing their death with Christ through baptism.

This also explains Paul’s reference to baptism in 1 Corinthians 3.  The Corinthians, having been too much influenced by Roman views of patronage,[9] had misunderstood “the social consequences of their common baptism” and Paul appeals to them on the basis of the meaning of their baptism, namely the death of Christ and their union with him in death through their baptism (1 Cor. 1:13) as part of his “plea for an end to factionalism.”[10]

Paul’s appeal and the connection he draws to baptism and the Christian life presuppose that one who has been baptized understood the significance of baptism to some degree and that, as a disciple, the one baptized is continuing to understand the significance of that baptism.  To perform baptism on someone too young to be a disciple or who is unable to understand the significance of baptism as picturing their union with Christ makes the rite meaningless and limits its significance only to those who observe it.  While one might say that Baptism proclaims the Gospel (though it only represents Christ’s death as Paul indicates in Romans 6:3, and not his resurrection), its primary purpose is not to proclaim the Gospel so much as it is to publicly declare the testimony of the one being baptized that they have died with Christ and are recipients of the Spirit.

The only examples of baptism in the NT are examples of believers being baptized.  Those who object to believer’s baptism cannot point to a single passage in the NT that explicitly shows a person not a believer being baptized.  The book of Acts is informative in this regard since each of the eight baptisms in Acts is the baptism of a believer.

Some, however, point to the transitional nature of Acts, saying that since Acts describes a transitional period, it is only reasonable that only believers were baptized.  The transitional nature of Acts does not make such baptisms normative.

But not only does Acts makes no explicit mention of any other kind of baptism, it also does not point to any approaching change in methodology with regard to the baptism.  In addition, the epistles contain no further teaching regarding baptism in terms of expanding it beyond those who have professed faith in Christ.  In fact, the teaching on baptism in the epistles only has meaning to one who is capable of being taught.  Indeed, the baptism only of people who are old enough to profess faith in Christ who have professed faith in Christ is a consistent pattern throughout Acts and the epistles.

[1] Dunn, Theology, 458.

[2] Dunn, Theology, 454-455.

[3] Dunn, Theology, 422, 424.

[4] Lars Hartman cited in DeMaris, 14.

[5] DeMaris, 19.

[6] Dunn, Theology, 448.

[7] Dunn, Theology, 457.

[8] Dunn, Theology, 447.

[9] J. Brian Tucker, “Baths, Baptism, and Patronage: the Continuing Role of Roman Social Identity in Corinth” in Reading Paul in Context: Exploration in Identity Formation, Essays in Honor of William F. Campbell Kathy Ehrensperger and J. Brian Tucker, eds. Library of New Testament Studies 428 (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 183.

[10] Dunn, Theology, 447.

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Baptism, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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