A Shhh..splash flowed by a showering of water radically interrupted the pastor’s orderly explanation of baptism. As he tried to recover, ripples of laughter echoed through the congregation who just saw the latest baptism candidate show off his cannonball skills in the baptistery. Although I did not see the faces of the boy’s parents, I can imagine they probably had a few streaks of embracement on them. And quite frankly, most parents would be embarrassed to see their child turn baptism into a juvenile joke for quick amusement. As parents, we have a responsibility to both encourage our children to publicly display their faith and to help them understand the spiritual significance of baptism. How do we do guard against cannon balls? Well first and foremost, we must explain the gospel to our children. Our three foot tall man and our four foot tall woman cannot truly believe or rightly interact with the baptism pool without an understanding of salvation. With a right view of God in place, we then have to help them understand exactly what baptism is, means, and does. Put on your goggles and let’s dive into the: who, what when, where, and why of baptism!
Admittedly, a host of opinions about baptism have circled around the church for ages. And I have been both sprinkled as an infant and submerged as an adult. Today, I do not intend to set the world aright with this short blog post. While infant baptism is practiced in many Bible believing churches in an effort to establish a child’s spiritual heritage, I believe baptism is more than a baby dedication tool.
I think believers’ baptism is a more faithful and accurate fulfilling of Christ’s command to baptize “them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:18-20). The word baptize always means immersion or “to dunk” when used in the Greek. Moreover whether it’s the believers at Pentecost, the Philippian jailer, the Ethiopian Eunuch, or anyone else, baptism as recorded in the Bible is always a direct expression of faith by those who have repented of their sins upon hearing the gospel. As the theologian J.L. Dagg wrote, “the apostles and their fellow-laborers required repentance and faith as qualifications for baptism” (p. 69).So who gets baptized? Those who have repented and believed on the Lord Jesus Christ should be baptized.
A Quick Caution
In our effort to faithfully practice baptism, we must be careful not to make the church ordinance, “the basis of division among Christians” (Grudem, p. 967). Rather we should seek, as Dr. Bruce Ware’s encourages us, to:
“be gracious with those of different practices…let’s work to understand and follow as best we can what the Bible teaches. Baptism matters, to be sure. But the truth that baptism points to matters even more” (p. 205).
Even though they sprinkle, we can and should still fellowship with Presbyterians, Lutherans and others who affirm the gospel. Let’s be careful not throw the church out with the baptism water.
Baptism is a physical sign established by Jesus to picture what happens in our hearts when we believe on the finished work of the cross (Romans 6:3-7). Christians go under water to symbolize that they have died with Christ from sins of this world. Then seconds later, they pop out from the water, revealing that they have been given new life “through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him [Christ] from the dead” (Col 2:12). The ordinance of baptism is a beautiful picture and public declaration of how God redeems the lost.
The easy answer is: “As soon as a person repents of sin and confesses Jesus as Savior, he/she should be baptized.” We see both Philip and Paul baptizing new believers shortly after they confess Christ (Acts 8:36; 16:33). And when adults who have counted the cost of following Christ embrace Jesus as their Savior, they should be baptized quickly.
But we also want to protect the waters of baptism from religious cannon ballers who pursue the sacrament either hoping to please parents or to appease the Christian culture. Before the onset of the middle ages, the church responded to this dilemma by requiring baptism candidates to attend a three year training class (catechizing) to ensure that they understood the faith. Today, the church expert, Mark Dever, recommends that children should not be baptized until they reach an age of maturity during the end of their high school years (Dever & Alexander, p. 106).
At FBCE, the staff follows a more Grudem-esk view of baptism believing:
“It is impossible to set a precise age that will apply to every child, but when parents see convincing evidence of genuine spiritual life and also some degree of understanding regarding the meaning and trusting in Christ, then baptism is appropriate” (p. 982).
In short, we will baptize children upon a credible profession of faith. We define a credible confession as the ability to clearly articulate the gospel, the nature of baptism and one’s personal testimony, citing the evidence of good works. We also want to know if the child’s parents have noticed their child displayiing the grace of God in her life. Once a child has met with a pastor, written out her testimony, and demonstrated her love for God in her daily life as observed by her family, the FBCE staff will baptize a child. Admittedly the process is rather elastic, taking weeks and even years to complete. But as Pastor Art Murphey noted, “Children need time to understand and show signs of maturity before they are baptized” (p. 127). Baptism is not a race to see who can get the wettest the fastest.
Being the doorway into the blessings of church membership, baptism should always occur within the context of the local church (I Cor 12:13). The location of the baptism matters little. As long as your local church is present, an ordained church member (pastor, elder, or deacon) performs the baptism (signifying that church affirms the work of Christ within the heart of the person being baptized) and immersion occurs, a baptism is truly a baptism.
We are to pursue baptism as a sign or act of faith. Going under water does not save; nor, is dunking necessary for salvation. As I Peter 3:21 makes clear, “the removal of dirt” does not produce salvation. Moreover, the thief on the cross repented and was never baptized. Yet, he was promised eternity by Jesus (Luke 23:43). Regardless of our or our children’s piety, their baptism will never save them.
Rather, baptism is act of obedience in faith. If you “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” then you will naturally want to follow all of Christ’s commands (Romans 10:9). What is Christ’s first command after repent and believe? It is to be baptized (Acts 2:38). In the New Testament, all who trust Christ eagerly identify with their Lord and Savior via the waters of baptism. Christians go into the waters of baptism proclaiming that God has already regenerated their hearts.