Virtually all Christians practice some form of baptism.1 In fact, Paul mentions our universally experienced baptism among those things that demonstrate our unity as believers: “one body and one Spirit … one hope … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God” (Eph 4:4–6).2 As we confess in the words of the Nicene Creed, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.”3 Nor is baptism some fringe or marginal aspect of our faith. It’s dominical, one of the very things Christ commands in his “Great Commission” (Mt 28:18–20).
And yet Christians have also strongly and severely disagreed with one another over their doctrine and practice of baptism, at times even killing those who differed with them.4 Yet if we believe the same Scriptures, why do we have such differing views? From whence arise our disagreements on baptism?
Christian differences over baptism emerge in at least four areas; recognizing these will help explain our disagreements.
1. Terminology of baptism
What word should we use to designate baptism?
Our English word “sacrament” comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means “mystery.” Augustine famously described a sacrament as a visible, physical sign of an invisible, spiritual grace.5 Most Christians throughout the centuries have been quite satisfied with this terminology to describe what they mean by baptism.
Some Christians, however, most notably Baptists, often prefer to use an alternative word to refer to baptism (and the Lord’s Supper): “ordinance”; in other words, something Christ ordained or commanded. For instance, although the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) uses the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) as its starting point, it notably changes the Westminster’s use of “sacrament” to “ordinance” in its sections on baptism and the Lord’s Supper.6 Although some Baptists are comfortable with the language of “sacrament” (at least, when properly understood), other Baptists feel it is open to much misunderstanding, due to its association with sacramentalism—which brings us to the meaning of baptism.
2. Meaning of baptism
What is the relationship between the sign and things signified therein?
With respect to the meaning of baptism, I have in mind two questions. First, what does baptism signify? That is, what is being symbolized or depicted in the act of baptism? And second, what is the relationship between the sign (baptism) and those things it signifies?
Scripture connects baptism with our ingrafting into Christ (Gal 3:27), our burial and resurrection with him (Rom 6:1–4), the washing away of our sins (Act 22:16), the circumcision of sinful flesh from our hearts (Col 2:11–12), and the forgiveness of our sins (Acts 2:38)—among other things. However, merely recognizing baptism’s association with such things still leaves much room for disagreement: how strong is the association? Does baptism cause such things, coincide with them, merely symbolize them?
First, certain theological traditions, most notably Roman Catholicism, hold that baptism automatically confers and imparts what it symbolizes. The external sign (baptism) possesses inherent power to communicate this grace. As such, according to Roman Catholicism, baptism effectually regenerates a person, cleanses their original sin, and incorporates them into Christ and his church. As the conduit of these saving graces, baptism is thus seen as necessary for salvation. We might call this a “hard sacramentalism.”
In this view, grace is conceived of something like a substance that can be transmitted or infused to its recipients. And the sacraments are what God has given the church for dispensing his saving grace to sinners. Additionally, sacraments like baptism function ex opere operato (by the work performed). That is, its grace is conveyed by virtue of the very performance of the rite, not the condition of the one receiving or administering it. Baptism’s effectiveness does not depend on their faith and piety, nor will their lack of faith or piety impede it.
In short, in Roman Catholicism, the relationship between sign (baptism) and thing signified is inherent and automatic.
In contrast, historically speaking, Protestants have universally rejected separating grace from faith. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Thus, faith is a necessary condition for experiencing saving grace—even in the sacraments.
Nonetheless, some Protestants, like Lutherans, regard baptism as an instrumental cause of the saving graces it symbolizes (e.g., regeneration). Faith is necessary in order to experience this grace,7 but baptism is nonetheless the place where God mediates this grace to believers.8 We might label this “soft sacramentalism.”
In Lutheranism, infants are baptized based on the sacrament’s objectivity, which is not affected by the recipient’s faith or lack thereof.9 Furthermore, Lutherans believe that in baptism God gifts a sort of unconscious faith to its infant recipients,10 a faith which they must maintain and later confirm as they reach maturity (note: Lutherans do not believe in the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints).
Alternatively, other Protestants deny that baptism regenerates. Rather, baptism serves as a visible, tangible confirmation of what one possesses through faith in the gospel. As Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote,
The sacrament [baptism] imparts no other benefit than that which believers already possess by trusting in the Word of God. Faith alone apart from any sacrament communicates, and causes believers to enjoy, all the benefits of salvation. … Baptism can only signify and seal the benefits that are received by faith and thereby strengthen that faith.11
The Reformed, therefore, traditionally prefer to describe the sacraments as “signs and seals.” That is, they represent, depict, or portray (“signify”) Christ and his saving benefits, thereby confirming (“sealing”) the believer’s interest therein.12 As John Calvin succinctly says, a sacrament is “an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith.”13 Baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) are, as some say, “the gospel made visible.” And in as much as they hold out the gospel, they hold out its promises to be received by faith.
On these points, many credobaptists (including many Baptists) offer no disagreement. However, traditional Reformed theology also applies baptism to infants, who admittedly do not yet believe. The children of believers are also considered members of the covenant, and thus rightful heirs of its promises and hence appropriate recipients of its sign (baptism). In these cases, baptism still serves to confirm the covenant promises it depicts, but its subjects (unbelieving infants) are regarded as “prospective heirs.”14
Lastly, many see baptism as a way a believer publicly identifies with Christ and testifies to their faith in him. This emphasis is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the above views. In fact, at times—specifically in the case of adult baptisms—it may be a feature of those views. However, some, like Baptists, see this personal expression of faith as a primary and essential purpose of baptism, apart from which baptism ceases to be baptism. In such cases, this view necessarily intersects with credobaptism. As such, one sometimes hears adherents of this view referring to baptism as a believer’s “first act of obedience,” or as “going public with one’s faith.”
According to this Baptist view then, the relationship between sign and thing-signified is as follows: the sign (baptism) presupposes what’s signified (salvation). Thus, Baptists often describe baptism as “an outward sign of an inward reality.”
3. Recipient of baptism
To whom should baptism be administered?
The practice of infant baptism (or paedobaptism) emerged in the early centuries of the church as baptism came to be connected with the removal of original sin. As Gregg Allison explains,
Because baptism was held to bring the forgiveness of sins, and because infants are born with the guilt and corruption due to Adam’s sin—original sin—the baptism of infants became the common practice of the church.15
Origen aptly reflects this fifth century thought when he says,
No one is clean of filth, not even if his life on earth has only been for one day. … Because the filth of birth is removed by the sacrament of baptism, for that reason infants, too, are baptized.16
This view represents Roman Catholicism even today.
However, many practice infant baptism for reasons other than salvation. They appeal to Jesus’s statement, “Let the children come to me … for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:16). Or they observe that at Pentecost Peter states that “the promise is for you and for your children” (Acts 2:39). And so baptism—the sign of these promises—is not only for believers, but their children as well. Credobaptists respond by pointing out that the very next words clarify who is in view: “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” namely believers.
Paedobaptists frequently point to so-called household baptisms in the New Testament (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor 1:16), concluding that infants and children would have presumably been included. However, again, the credobaptist will point out that the text mentions belief (e.g., Acts 16:30–34; 18:8; 1 Cor 16:15), arguing that these incidences then presumably also involved household conversions.
However, the dispute between paedobaptism and credobaptism is a result of more than mere disagreement over prooftexts. As Stephen Wellum states,
Underneath baptismal debates are crucial biblical-theological issues. Baptismal polemics reflect entire theological systems. They function as test cases for how one puts together the Bible, especially how one understands the nature of salvation and the relationships between the biblical covenants.17
Paedobaptism, in other words, arises out of a whole-Bible systematic theology. And classic Reformed theology offers what is likely its most substantial expression.
Reformed theology bases its application of baptism to infants on the supposed parallel application of circumcision to (male) infants in the Old Testament. According to Reformed theology, the people of God share in one, unifying covenant of grace. Despite this covenant’s various “administrations” (old vs. new), the structure of the covenant remains the same, including children. And thus, not only in the old but also in the new, the respective sign of the covenant is applied to children, who are included as its heirs.18
Historically, the concerns of the Protestant Reformation gave rise to credobaptism (credo being Latin for “I believe,” hence “believer’s baptism”). John Hammett explains,
Reformation theology had challenged the sacramental theology that saw the Lord’s Supper as channeling grace to the recipients in an automatic (ex opere operato) manner, insisting that God’s grace is given to those who come to God by faith. Apart from faith, the sacraments have no value. Such a view raised natural questions about the validity of infant baptism, for it is difficult to demonstrate that infants are believers when baptized.19
Credobaptists make several arguments for their view: first, over and over across the New Testament baptism is associated with the personal faith of its recipients; and the consistent pattern is that faith precedes and accompanies baptism (Mt 28:18–20; Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 36; 9:18; 10:48; 16:14–15, 30–33; 18:8; 19:4–5; 22:16; Col 2:12; 1 Pet 3:21).20
Second, the arguments surrounding baptism in the New Testament assume that its recipients are believers who have thus genuinely experienced the realities depicted in baptism. For instance, in Romans 6 Paul can appeal to baptism to argue that his audience is dead to sin. But this only holds true if those baptized are in fact believers who have thereby died to sin (see also similar assumptions in Col 2:12–13).
To review, the Reformed make their argument for infant baptism based on continuity between Israel and the church. Because dispensationalists consider Israel and the church to be separate peoples in God’s economy of redemption, they obviously don’t find this argument persuasive. More Reformed and covenantal credobaptists, who interpret the church as eschatological Israel—the true heir of the covenant promises—by necessity will have a different understanding of the relationship between the covenants than their traditional Reformed counterparts. As Wellum articulates,
Contra covenant theology, Jesus’s new covenant people are not a mixed community but a people who are united to Christ by faith and are partakers of new covenant blessings, which minimally include the forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and heart circumcision. Thus, in contrast to Israel, the church is constituted as a believing, regenerate people who all savingly know God. Across the covenants, then, the genealogical principle from the Abrahamic covenant does not remain unchanged. Rather, in Christ, it is transformed so that what circumcision pointed forward to—namely, the circumcision of the heart—is now true of the entire community. Our relationship to our covenant head and mediator, our Lord Jesus, is one of spiritual rebirth and not one of natural relations.21
4. Mode (manner) of baptism
How should baptisms be conducted?
Most Christian traditions accept and practice baptism by a variety of modes, such as immersion, sprinkling, or pouring. According to them, because the Bible nowhere explicitly mandates a particular mode, it’s to be considered adiaphora, matters of indifference. Louis Berkhof represents most Christians when he says, “As long as the fundamental idea, namely, that of purification, finds expression in the rite, the mode of baptism is quite immaterial.”22
Baptists, however, maintain that immersion is the only proper mode of baptism. First, they argue from the meaning of the word itself: “baptism” (a transliteration of the Greek word βαπτίζω [baptizo]) means to immerse or submerge. Thus, to baptize is to immerse.
Second, they argue from the example of Scripture. John baptizes in the Jordan (Jn 1:28) and at Aenon near Salim “because water was plentiful there” (Jn 3:23). This wouldn’t be necessary if John was baptizing by pouring or sprinkling, but would if he was baptizing by immersion. Other examples include Jesus’s own baptism in which it states Jesus “came up out of the water,” suggesting immersion (Mk 1:10). Finally, if baptism was performed by sprinkling or pouring, why would the Ethiopian eunuch exclaim, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Presumably, they would have had enough water on board the chariot already to conduct a baptism by either of the alternative modes. But instead, Luke records that Philip and the eunuch “both went down into the water” (Acts 8:38), suggesting that this water was plentiful enough for immersion.
Thirdly, Baptists argue that immersion best displays what baptism is intended to signify. For instance, in Romans 6:1–4 Paul describes baptism as a burial and resurrection with Christ. Immersion, which involves lowering and raising an individual out of water, resembles the act of burial and resurrection, thus fitting the meaning of baptism.
As we’ve seen, Christians disagree over baptism in both a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, these areas of disagreement range from matters of monumental importance, reflecting differences in our very understanding of salvation, to matters relatively less important—albeit still important. Understanding these differences helps us both weigh them properly 23 and is a first step in engaging our remaining disagreements constructively. And we do so, first and foremost, seeking to follow the Scriptures.
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- One exception I am aware of is Mid-Acts Dispensationalism, sometimes pejoratively called hyperdispensationalism. Mid-Acts Dispensationalists, as their name suggests, see a new dispensation emerging midway through the book of Acts, with water baptism belonging to the former dispensation, but not the present one. Thus, according to this view, although the church today experiences “Spirit baptism,” we should no longer be observing water baptism.
- Emphasis mine.
- Historic Creeds and Confessions (Electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997).
- Most notably, Anabaptists were persecuted and at times killed by Magisterial Protestants due to, among other things, their credobaptist practices. For example, see Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language.
- “On the subject of the sacrament, indeed, which he receives, it is first to be well impressed upon his notice that the signs of divine things are, it is true, things visible, but that the invisible things themselves are also honored in them, and that that species, which is then sanctified by the blessing, is therefore not to be regarded merely in the way in which it is regarded in any common use. And thereafter he ought to be told what is also signified by the form of words to which he has listened, and what in him is seasoned by that (spiritual grace) of which this material substance presents the emblem.” Augustine of Hippo, “On the Catechising of the Uninstructed,” in St. Augustine: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 312.
- See especially chs. XXVIII–XXX in the Second London and chs. XXVII–XXIX in the WFC. Anderson, James N. “Tabular Comparison of 1646 WCF and 1689 LBCF” (2003, accessed Jan 21, 2023).
- For example, the Augsberg Confession (XIII. Concerning the Use of Sacraments, section 3), “Rejected, therefore, are those who teach that the sacraments justify ex opere operato without faith and who do not teach that this faith should be added so that the forgiveness of sin (which is obtained through faith and not through work) may be offered there.” Or Martin Luther’s Larger Catechism (part 4, sections 33–34 under “Concerning Baptism”), “Faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the saving, divine water profitably. … Without faith baptism is of no use.” Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).
- For instance, Luther’s Larger Catechism in Part 4 under “Concerning Baptism” he says, “We must also learn why and for what purpose it [baptism] has been instituted, that is, what benefits, gifts, and effects it brings. … This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves” (section 23). “Our know-it-alls, the new spirits, claim that faith alone saves and that works and external things add nothing to it. We answer: It is true, nothing that is in us does it but faith, as we shall hear later on. But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand. Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be baptism, in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it. When I believe this, what else is it but believing in God as the one who has bestowed and implanted his Word in baptism and has offered us this external thing within which we can grasp this treasure?” (section 28–29).
- See Luther’s Larger Catechism, Part 4, sections 47–86 on “Infant Baptism.”
- As Lutheran theologian, Heinrich Schmid explains, “The immediate design of Baptism is, finally, to work saving grace in man. But, as also the Word of God has the like effect, Baptism is intended to produce this result only in such cases in which it is applied at an earlier period than the Word; this is the case with infants who are not yet susceptible to the preaching of the Gospel. But in adults who, with their already developed reason, can understand the preaching of the Gospel, the Word has precedence, and produces its results before the Sacrament. But, in such instances, Baptism serves to seal and establish the gracious result already accomplished by the Word. Hence in the case of adults, who are yet to be baptized, faith must be demanded as the condition on which the ordinance effects this blessed end. This cannot be expected of infants; but it does not follow that they are for that reason to be deprived of Baptism, for they need grace as well as adults, and are invited to it by God. It is, therefore, God’s will that they be baptized, and Baptism serves also to create in them this faith.” The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Verified from the Original Sources, translated by Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs; 2nd English ed., revised according to the Sixth German Edition (Philadelphia, PA: Lutheran Publication Society, 1889), pp. 540.
- Bavinck, Herman, edited by John Bolt, translated by John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 515.
- The Westminster Confession of Faith (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), Chapter XXVII—“Of the Sacraments,” Section 1.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), Book IV, Chapter XVI, Section 1. Or as the Belgic confession beautifully states, “Our gracious God, taking account of our weakness and infirmities, has ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us His promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God towards us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith; which He has joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses both that which He declares to us by His Word and that which He works inwardly in our hearts, thereby confirming in us the salvation which He imparts to us.” Belgic Confession, Article XXXIII—“The Sacraments” in Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997).
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1938), 638.
- Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 328. According to Allison, not until the fifth century did infant baptism become the official practice of the church at large.
- Origen, Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, 14:5, quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 5 vols. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971–1991), 1:291.
- Stephen Wellum, “Water Baptism,” The Gospel Coalition. Accessed January 21, 2023. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/water-baptism/.
- Robert Randy Booth reflects this position when he says, “Under the old administrations of the covenant of grace, circumcision was the sign and seal of covenant admission. Under the final administration of the covenant of grace (the new covenant), water baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of covenant admission.” Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), 10.
- John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005), 268.
- Even staunch paedobaptist Herman Bavinck admits “Nowhere does it [Scripture] speak explicitly of infant baptism. It always assumes the baptism of adults. … Scripture tells us beyond any doubt that baptism has been exclusively instituted for believers. No other persons are baptized than those who confess their sins and evidence repentance and faith.” In Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, Vol. 4, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 514.
- Stephen J. Wellum and Peter J. Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 150–151. See also Wellum’s chapter, “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants” in Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 97–161.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1938), 629.
- For helpful treatments on the subject of “dogmatic rank,” i.e., the relative weightiness of different doctrines, see Albert R. Mohler’s brief article, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” (July 12, 2005, accessed March 1, 2023) or Gavin Ortlund’s book-length treatment, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
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