The Big Question about Baptism

What is baptism? What does it do? The basic question with regard to baptism is this … what does it do? Other questions, such as “Who should be baptized?” depend on this prior question: “What does baptism do?” Is it a literal and effective application of grace?  Is it merely a visible act by which we profess our faith, or confirm that profession, or is it something else? Let me give a way our answer ahead of time, by saying that there are two errors with respect to baptism, and the truth lies in the middle.

On the one hand, some regard baptism as a literal application of grace. The person baptized receives the remission of their sins and is regenerated into a new life. This view makes baptism do too much. It assumes that the baptismal water is literally washing away original sin, literally putting the child into a saving union with Jesus, literally regenerating that child’s soul and giving him spiritual life.  This runs completely contrary to the scriptural understanding of salvation by grace through faith.

Others regard baptism as wholly symbolic, an act of obedience in which a believer publicly acknowledges a change of heart, acceptance of God’s gift of salvation and a commitment to Christ. Baptism means too little in this view, as I hope to demonstrate. This view also focusses more on what we do than on what Jesus did for us.  I say that because the validity of baptism is determined and defined by this human element.

Both of these views misunderstand relationship between the outward-visible aspects and inward-invisible aspects of baptism. And both saying that everyone validly baptized with water has also truly experienced regenerating grace. The first says that if one has the outward, visible sign applied to them, then he has the inward automatically. And the second says that if one doesn’t have the inward aspect, then the outward has no validity. They may have different starting points but they both end up with the same final position: everyone who is validly baptized with water has received regenerating grace. The first ignores then end of Romans 2 and the second ignores the beginning of Romans 3. But to understand how these passages are relevant, we’ll have to examine the relationship between baptism and circumcision.

Circumcision

Genesis 17:9–13

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

The first thing to pick up on is that this is a family matter. It is something that belongs to the household. But we ought to also note that it goes beyond the bloodline. The Jews’ servants were supposed to be baptized, too. The second thing to note is that it is a “sign of the covenant.” Everyone in a Hebrew home would, presumably, be exposed to the covenant promises. That is the defining thing that sets them apart from the Philistines and Canaanites and Egyptians, etc. It is not their bloodline. In fact, when Israel came out of Egypt, they were a “mixed multitude.” (Exo. 12:38) And before you balk at me including the mixed multitude as Israel, when the text says “a mixed multitude also went up with them,” you should take careful note of verse 48, “If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land.” All the promises of Genesis 17, indeed all the promises of the Old Testament, hung on the passover, as that pointed forward to the one through whom every promises receives its “Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20). Belonging to the community of the promise was required for participation in the covenant meal. One had to officially enter the covenant people through circumcision before they could celebrate their redemption.

We should fill out this picture by looking at Romans 4:11, which calls circumcision a sign and a seal of the righteousness he had by faith while uncircumcised. Baptism isn’t the righteousness itself. It is a sign that points to that righteousness, and it is a seal, guaranteeing that righteousness to the one who believes. Believe and you will be saved. That is the promise that is pointed to (signified) and guaranteed (sealed) in circumcision. This is why pagan adults and foreign servants were included, not because they had embraced the promise, but because they had heard the promise. They were brought into the covenant community, where they would be exposed to the promise. Otherwise, Paul would not make the point that outward membership is no guarantee of inward, spiritual membership (Rom. 2:28-3:4). They would be one and the same. And otherwise, Joel would not include infants in the assembly of the covenant congregation (Joel 2:15-16).

These infants were different from other infants. They were set apart and distinguished from the Philistine children, for example. They had already been shown a measure of grace by God, since he had them born to a home where the gospel promise would be taught. To use the language of Ephesians 2, these children are no longer estranged from the covenants of promise, but have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Or, to use the language of Romans 3, their circumcision is advantageous to them in every way. However, just because a person is validly baptized and outwardly a member of the visible church doesn’t guarantee that person is going to heaven, any more than circumcision guaranteed salvation to Esau. It set them apart. It brought them near. It made them familiar with the covenants of promise. But they will still need to embrace the promise by faith.

Signs

Circumcision is called a “sign of the covenant”. God gave a sign of a covenant after the flood (Gen. 9:11-17). Who is the sign for? On the one hand it is for God – “I will remember . . . I will look on it, to remember” On the other hand it is for men – after all, God doesn’t need a reminder That is, when we see the bow, we remember that God promised, and that he promised to remember. Our confidence is bolstered by the sign. The sign points to the promise that God made. It’s benefit is found in trusting God to keep his promise. We get the same sort of thing when the Israelites crossed the Jordan (Josh 4:3-9) One set of stones are set up at Gilgal. These were to be a memorial for the people. But what about the stones at verse 9. The Jordan was at flood stage, but even when it is not at flood stage, you aren’t likely to see 12 stones standing in the middle. The stones of verse 9 are not for men, but for God. Well, they are for men, but they remind men that God has signs in place, so he won’t forget either – just like the rainbow; just like circumcision. Yes, you could look down and see that you were circumcised, but it is just as powerful a sign for God. It certainly wasn’t a sign for others to see!

But what about baptism? We’ve been talking about circumcision. How does baptism fit in with all this? That’s where Colossians 2:11-12 helps us.

Colossians 2:11-12

We ought to begin, though, with Col. 1.21-23. I think it gives us a sense of one of the issues lying behind the baptism-circumcision connection. The church at Colossae was not a predominantly Jewish congregation. It was mostly Gentile converts. These are some who have been grafted in (cf. Rom 11:17). They were once “alienated and hostile in mind”, but are now reconciled.

Now for Col. 2:11-12:

“You were circumcised” is a finite verb, like “you ran” or “you were convicted” • “having been buried . . .” is a participle. It is used to coordinate two actions. Imagine I said, “having eaten, you got a cramp.” Which came first? Eating did. It’s the same here. “Having been baptized, you were circumcised.” It’s not quite so definite as my eating/cramp example, since being baptized and being circumcised could have taken place at the same time in our passage. A better example might be, “having overslept, he was late to work.” He might have slept past the start of work, or his oversleeping might have preceded his being late, but was certainly associated with it. What is important is that it cannot indicate subsequent action (like “you were late, and then overslept” or “you were circumcised and then baptized”).

Paul conceives of the baptism they have undergone as prior to (or at least not subsequent to) their circumcision. The circumcision in view is not a physical circumcision of their foreskins. Rather, it is the renunciation of fleshly lusts. It is the work of the Spirit (Rom. 2:29), in which we (by the enabling power of the Spirit) participate by actually renouncing and turning away from fleshly lusts.

Remember, sometimes signs are there for God to see. Circumcision marked inclusion in the covenant (Gen 17.11). It was the removal of the flesh (in more ways than one). It involved the literal removal of skin. But it pointed to the removal of fleshly lusts. The sign is multi-faceted; I don’t mean to oversimplify it. It also pointed to descendants, and that from a man who couldn’t have any – a giving up of natural processes in hope of God supervening the natural. But I think we should not fail to see the removal of the (metaphorical) flesh in circumcision. Especially in light of Deut. 10:16; 30:6 and Rom. 2:25-29.

We’ll return to Colossians 2, but we should explore the meaning of baptism before looking back at the connection drawn there.

Types, Images and Responses

Three Old Testament events are considered types of New Testament baptism. The first of these OT baptisms is the flood (1 Pet. 3:18-22) This passage is not easy. On the one hand, we cannot see our rite of baptism as the fulfillment of the type, since water baptism does not save you. Rather, as I will emphasize below, it is the real baptism, the baptism that our rite of water baptism symbolizes and points to, the baptism of the Holy Spirit by which we are united with Christ — it is this baptism that saves you. Failure to appreciate the distinction between the rite and what the rite symbolizes is very dangerous, and at the least very detrimental to any effort to sort through the meaning of baptism.

The second Old Testament type of baptism is the Red Sea crossing during the exodus from Egypt (1 Cor. 10:1-12). While the cloud and the sea can properly be called types here, the real use of baptism here is as an example. This is akin to when John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees not to take solace in the fact that they are children of Abraham. The fact that you belong to the covenant community is no guarantee of your election. Many who came out of Egypt, having experienced deliverance from slavery and inclusion in the chosen covenant people of God then turned away from Him. Similarly, many later Jews who were raised with a knowledge of the scriptures and of the temple were not true Jews (Rom 2:25-29). It stands to reason, then, especially given that this passage is written to the church, that the same danger holds for the Christian. We cannot take solace in the fact that we have been baptized, or that we were born into a Christian home, or that we go to church every Sunday. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”

And finally, the third type of OT baptism is the one in Colossians 2:9-12. The people’s baptism in the Red Sea can be seen as deliverance. In this way it corresponds to the ark as a type of baptism. On the other hand, the use of that type in 1 Corinthians suggests that it also be associated with belonging to the people of God. In this way it corresponds to circumcision. All three point to deliverance, and all three point to corporate election.

In addition to the typological precursors of baptism, there are a number of images associated with baptism, images which should give us some insight into the meaning of baptism.

It is called washing (Tit 3.5). And the washing is associated with regeneration. It points to initiation or entry or regeneration (John 3:5). This verse is very enigmatic. While it is not certain that the “born of water” refers to baptism, there is no question that the spirit birth refers to the regeneration which is the real Spirit baptism, in which we are united with Christ. It’s clear that the passage talks about initiation or entry into the Christian life — an initiation that begins with baptism (whether or not a reference to the rite of water baptism is in view). Death and resurrection are also depicted in baptism (Rom. 6:3-4).

In addition to three OT types and three images, baptism is also associated with 3 responses. Romans 6 associates the initial response of repentance and faith with baptism (Rom 6:3-4, 6, 11). Ephesians 4 associates the ongoing process of mortifying sin and being renewed with baptism (Eph. 4:5, 20-24). And 1 Corinthians 15 associates our final hope, the dissolution and resurrection of our bodies with baptism.

Baptism is multifaceted in its associations. It is a picture of deliverance (Flood, Red Sea) and of belonging or initiation (Red Sea, Circumcision). It is a picture of washing, which is closely associated with regeneration. It is a picture of rebirth (Regeneration), which has to do with entry into the kingdom. It is a picture of death and resurrection, which urges us toward transformation. Here again, the issue of entry (baptized INTO Christ Jesus) is at the forefront. So there are really two things to which baptism points. First, baptism points to redemption or deliverance. It is life from the dead. It is deliverance from slavery. It is a fresh start. Second, baptism, as a fresh start, and as a new life, points to a belonging. We are not just delivered from, we are delivered to . . . to the people of God. We are reborn into a community, the church. We are brought into the covenant.

The Sign and the Signified

But the personal acceptance or entry is not independent of the once for all and substitutionary work of Christ, which is the true baptism. The rite is not constitutive of anything by itself. It is signifies and seals the true cleansing, the true burial and rebirth, the true deliverance and initiation that is provided in the work of Christ. The real baptism is the baptism into Christ, done by the Spirit. The rite only points to this real baptism in a symbolic way. It is, in this way, like circumcision, a sign and a seal.

There are two positions that should be avoided when we talk about baptism conveying grace: the first is that no grace is conveyed in baptism. According to this position (which is a common evangelical error), baptism is primarily a sign of something we do, a commemoration of our repentance, rather than a symbol of Christ’s work: “I am testifying that I have recognized that I am a sinner, and I have given my life over to God, and I am willing to receive his forgiveness.” The second position to be avoided is that of the Roman Catholic Church (and many others — especially those that require baptism as necessary for salvation). In this position there is an exaggeration of the grace of baptism. In this position, baptism is constitutive of salvation. The rite itself accomplishes something necessary for salvation.

We must remember that behind the external action there lies the true baptism which is that of participation in the shed blood of Christ. Baptism is a means of grace, much like preaching or the Lord’s Supper. It is a visible sermon. It conveys, by participation in the act, the truth that Christ’s death cleanses us, that we have died and now live a new life in Christ, that we are members of his family, heirs of his inheritance. Water baptism is a visual preaching of the gospel message, a picture and pledge of God’s covenant promise to his covenant people. What is important to grasp at this point is that the visual message of water baptism is true whether we believe it or not.  It is not so much a human statement as a divine statement. What makes water baptism valid is not the faith of the recipient but the faithfulness of God to His covenant promises pictured in the baptism. The message of water baptism is that God will give spiritual life and cleansing to all who believe in Jesus Christ.  And this is a message that God is giving to the covenant child.

Colossians 2 Revisited

And now, we can begin to bring together circumcision and baptism as they are presented to us in verses 11 and 12 of Colossians 2. A paraphrase might be helpful at this point, to show my thinking on Colossians 2. As you read the paraphrase, bear in mind that both baptism and circumcision speak to the issue of inclusion in the covenant, an issue very pertinent to the Colossian situation.

Interpretive Paraphrase:

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him Who is the Head of all rule and authority you have been made complete. In Whom also you were brought into the community of the covenant people by the spiritual circumcision — the one that matters — the crucifixion of your fleshly body — after all, Christ’s work is what the Old Testament circumcision pointed to anyway. Hand-done circumcision does not compare to the work that has actually been done in you, and therefore you don’t have to doubt your inclusion in the covenant — this putting to death of your flesh was done in your baptism — the real baptism by the spirit, not the rite which merely symbolized it, in which Spirit-baptism you were also raised through the faith of the working of God who raised Him from the dead.

Paul is establishing the link between baptism and circumcision, so that the significance of the one rite is associated with the significance of the other rite, just as the anti-type of the rite of circumcision is the death of Christ, so the anti-type of baptism is the burial and resurrection of the believer with Christ.

Note that the distinction between the rite and the thing symbolized by it is very significant. We are raised through faith. But the rite doesn’t symbolize the faith. The rite symbolizes the work of Christ, applied by the Spirit. Having been baptized, we were brought into membership or covenantal care. We symbolize that Spirit baptism with water baptism. Baptism, then, takes over the role that circumcision played in the OT. Perhaps it means more than circumcision, but it certainly includes the meaning of circumcision. Inclusion in the covenant is what is in view here.

The servants and sons of Abraham’s household had already been shown a measure of grace that was not extended to the servants of Nebuchadnezzar or Pharaoh. They were in close contact with Truth. They had access to saving knowledge. They were included in the covenant community, which means that the promises of the covenant were held out to them, and they were expected to be obedient to the terms of the covenant.

That’s why it was so despicable when Simeon and Levi massacred the town of Shechem after persuading them to be circumcised. Circumcision was to be a sign of God’s blessing. They had been invited to share in the promises of God, only to be cut off before they could be led to the Lord. It would be like inviting the townsfolk of your town to a revival, only to slaughter them before preaching the gospel.

Covenant

The circumcised Israelite who did not embrace the promise was considered a covenant breaker. He is not considered a heathen. Similarly, though 90% of Texans are baptized (or so I’ve been told), they aren’t all genuine believers, faithful to the covenant. And though not every child of a faithful Presbyterian will be saved, every faithful Presbyterian parent has both the responsibility for evangelizing his child and the reasonable expectation that the Lord will bring his child to faith (i.e., will circumcise his heart) – after all, God has already shown the child a measure of grace by having him born to a believing home.

Those who would disagree with infant baptism, those who would insist that baptism is a rite that must follow a profession of faith, point to the fact that the removal of the flesh (circumcision) spoken of in Colossians 2, seems to be salvation – on the order of Romans 2:28-29, not mere inclusion in an outer community of faith. They also point out that prior to circumcision, which marks inclusion in the family, you get language of resurrection with Christ. It is difficult to see this as indicating anything other than rebirth. Circumcision (inclusion in the covenant) seems to follow or is at least be correlated with baptism. But you should consider that Israelites were circumcised in the flesh as a symbol of what Christ would do in the future – whether or not they as individuals wound up participating in it. Similarly, a child’s baptism speaks and testifies of the real baptism of Christ, whether or not the individual child becomes a covenant keeper or a covenant breaker.

Continuity

It is inconceivable to me that Abraham’s servants are part of the community of believers, but that my children aren’t. I think, too, that this would fly in the face of 1 Cor. 7:14. God has always worked with families and communities. While over the course of redemptive history, there seems to be an increasing interest in the internal life of the believer (culminating in the Sermon on the Mount), this increasing interest does not come at the expense of the corporate interest. We are still called to care for and manage our families as an extension of our faith. How can an elder be held accountable for his children’s behavior (1 Tim. 3:5), if his children are not seen to be impacted by the gospel? That is, if my children are simply wicked unbelievers until they come to an understanding of the gospel and their need of it, and until they accept it, how can I be held accountable for their actions? If I can expect nothing from them but selfishness, if I have no hope of eliciting from them the fruits of the spirit, then I had better not have children if I plan to be an elder. Surely the would-be elder is not at the mercy of common grace.

Also, since baptism at least takes over circumcision (Col. 2:11-12) and since, even in the Old Testament, membership within the community did not necessarily indicate elect status, but only pointed to responsibility and expectation, I think the infant-baptism view is a natural extension of the Old Testament. I am concerned about the risk believer’s baptism runs of seeing baptism as an act of obedience or a celebration of our repentance, rather than a symbolic representation of Christ’s work on our behalf. I believe that a proper symbolic representation is relevant and poignant whether or not we become covenant keepers or covenant breakers.

Prooftexts

While the Bible never directly addresses the question of the baptism of the young children of believers. The New Testament does refer to whole households that were baptized. Admittedly, it never specifically says these households included any children too young to profess their faith. But, the New Testament also never gives a specific example of a young child in a believing household whose baptism was delayed until he was old enough to profess his faith for himself. The Bible does not directly address the question one way or the other either by teaching or by example.

But on what basis would such waiting have occurred? What I mean is that the presumption would be on the side of continuity. If you were a Jewish parent who came to Christ, and you were now going to apply the sign of the new covenant, what have you always known? You’ve known that God works with families. You’ve marked your children with the sign of the covenant in their infancy. Wouldn’t you need explicit instruction not to? And this specific instruction is precisely what is missing from the New Testament. There is some discontinuity: Old Testament circumcision illustrated salvation coming specifically by a male descendant of Abraham (then Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David … ultimately Jesus). New Testament baptism illustrates that general outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon New Covenant believers, Jn.7:39; Act.1:5 & 2:17. This is why baptism is given to girls as well as boys. New Covenant fulfillments are always expansive. It would be more striking if God decided to no longer work with families, as he always had. That discontinuity would need to be explicit. In other words, far from the onus being on the paedobaptist to show a proof-text for baptizing infants, we ought to demand a prooftext for not baptizing infants, as this would have been the natural tendency of anyone who has grown up in the covenant community.

There is, however, implicit indications of infant baptism. For instance, everyone familiar with the debate between infant-baptism proponents (paedobaptists) and believer-baptism proponents (credo-baptists) knows Acts 16:31: “And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’” But we ought to take careful note of verse 34 as well: “Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” The “he had believed” is masculine singular. They were baptized (v. 33), but he believed (v. 34). And how can we understand 1 Cor. 7:14, unless we understand it as demonstrating that children of believers are set apart from the world? They are holy in the sense that they were members not of the pagan world but of God’s covenant community. They had been set apart in that the promises of the covenant belonged to them as a birthright and were theirs to claim in faith. If this is not what Paul meant by the children being holy, then what did he mean? And in Ephesians 1, we note that Paul is writing to the saints. Yet in chapter 6, he addresses the children specifically. Clearly Paul is operating on the assumption that God continues to work with families today, just as He always has.

There is also the fact that under the old covenant, God’s people were called a flock, a house and a nation. Lambs are members of the flock from birth, children are members of a household from birth, and children are members of a nation from birth. Interestingly, all three of these metaphors are still used to describe the people of God under the new covenant, by various authors, too: John 10:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2; Ephesians 2:19; 3:15; Hebrews 3:6; 1 Peter 2:9. It seems these metaphors would have been abandoned and new ones found if the covenant children were no longer members of the covenant community.

Conclusions

Baptism is God’s picture and pledge of His covenant of grace. Baptism makes a person a part of God’s covenant community, and the covenant of grace belongs to God’s covenant community in a special way. But with the covenant comes an obligation to respond to the covenant with repentance, faith and obedience. Only those who bear this fruit are members of the covenant in a true inner and spiritual sense.

Regarding our covenant children, we should rejoice that God has made them a part of His covenant community and that the benefits of the covenant belong to them in a special way. God has been sincerely and genuinely gracious to our children in a way not experienced by children raised outside the household of faith. The fact that a natural branch can be cut off does not make these promises worthless. The fact that a wild olive branch can be grafted in does not make these promises meaningless. To paraphrase Paul, “What advantage has the Christian, or what is the profit of infant baptism? Much in every way!” (cf. Rom. 3:1-2).

What about the baptized covenant children who grow up and never meet the obligations of the covenant? Ultimately they are no different from the baptized adult professors who never meet the obligations of the covenant. Just because a person has a profession of faith that at some point in his life appears believable to us doesn’t mean that he is truly a believer in his heart of hearts. Again, to paraphrase the language of Paul, “For what if some do not believe? Does their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar” (cf. Romans 3:4).

The covenant model encourages God’s people to focus not on any one religious experience from their past but on a persevering faith and a continuing fulfillment of the obligations of the covenant. What is important is not whether they believed before they were baptized but whether they are believing today.

Also, the covenant promises should be a motivation to invest in the spiritual upbringing of our children after the example of Abraham (Genesis 18:19). We need to pray that God will give our covenant children the gift of faith, and that God will bless our efforts and use us as His instruments of grace in their lives.