Baptism is one of those areas of Christian doctrine and practice where sincere believers can differ. Baptists will not agree with everything that follows, but I hope we won’t fall out about it.
One of two sacraments: an outward sign of inward grace (Augustine). The outward sign of baptism speaks especially of the inward work of the Holy Spirit.
(a) A symbol of the Gospel. Baptism with water is a symbolic washing, or cleansing. This speaks of the washing away of sins and the spiritual renewal that takes place in salvation, Tit 3:5f ‘God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.’
(b) A seal of the covenant. Covenant = binding agreement. The person drawing up the agreement might seal it using a signet ring pressed into wax. God’s covenant, made with his people of old was, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Originally, the outward sign of this was circumcision, but now it is the gentler and more inclusive sacrament of baptism. Baptism speaks of God’s gracious word to us: ‘I will be your God; you belong to Christ; here, I give you my Holy Spirit to seal it.’ Eph 1:13 ‘you were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.’
(c) A sign of membership. When we are baptised with water, we are making a declaration, putting on a badge. The badge says, ‘I believe’ (creed); ‘I belong’. Acts 2:38-41, ‘”Repent and be baptised, 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”…Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.’ They heard, they believed, they were baptised, they received the Holy Spirit, they were added to the church.
(a) Believers. Mt 28:18, ‘Make disciples, baptizing them.’ Mar 16:16, ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved.’ Acts 8:37 ‘If you believe will all your heart, you may [be baptized].’
(b) Children of Believing Parents. There is a lack of proof texts. However, this may be argued from the baptism of families – Lydia, Cornelius, Stephanus; and from the invitation of Jesus, Mt 19:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Calvin: ‘If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ? If the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them, why is the sign denied which, so to speak, opens to them a door into the church, that, adopted into it, they may be enrolled among the heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven? How unjust of us to drive away those whom Christ calls to himself! To deprive those whom he adorns with gifts! To shut out those whom he willingly receives!’
There are wider questions: are children of Christian parents are to be considered to be heirs of God’s covenant or not; are such children to be included as members of the worshiping community or not; does God only deal with us as isolated individuals, or does he also work through families and communities? Children were not excluded from such privileges under the old dispensation; shall they be shut out by the new? 1 Cor 7:14 speaks of children being made holy, when one or both parents is a believer.
We should not over-value its importance: being baptised does not automatically guarantee salvation, Acts 8:21 “Your heart is not right before God…you are full of bitterness and captive to sin”. On the other hand, being unbaptised does not prevent you from being saved, Lk 23:42, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Christians who differ on baptism can enjoy close fellowship.
We should not under-value its importance. It is a vivid symbol of the gospel, an powerful seal of God’s covenant, and a visible sign of our membership of the church. Not be undertaken lightly, and mustn’t be allowed to become a mere formality. Baptism is for those who can say from the heart, “I turn to Christ”: it is for them, and for their children. Parents who cannot yet say those words, or who have scruples about the baptism of children, are encouraged to bring their babies for a simple service of thanksgiving. But it is good for baptism be valued as a decisive stand for Jesus. Let those who were never baptised as infants, but have now found new life in Jesus, come forward for baptism, declaring, ‘I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back.’ By all means let Christian parents bring their babies for baptism saying: ‘You choose today whom you will serve; as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.’ Yet let none of us be satisfied with the outward sign alone, but let us seek to know more and more the reality of the inward grace – I mean the cleansing, refreshing, reviving, power of the Holy Spirit – of which baptism with water so eloquently speaks.