Sunday, August 9, 2009

A little bit on baptism

I began this post awhile ago, but didn't finish it. I returned to it this morning:


A baby was baptized at my church this week. This was not the first time I have witnessed such an event, but it is the first time I have seen it since I knew that I have a child soon to arrive in this world. It made me think just a bit more about the significance of baptism, and how I have changed so drastically in my approach to it.

I grew up under the assumption that it was only the theologically liberal churches who baptized babies, because they didn't believe in salvation anyway and were almost as bad as Catholics so why not. (Well...I may exaggerate. A little.) I believed that baptism ought to be a profession of faith, an acknowledgement that you were tossing your lot in with Jesus for good. A symbol of your death to sin and resurrection into newness of life in Christ. Et cetera, et cetera.

None of which is invalid. It simply dismisses another very large element to baptism, and that is God's promise to covenant with families.

When I first learned that baptism of babies wasn't just for liberals and Catholics, that there was a very significant percentage of theologically conservative Presbyterians and Methodists who likewise sprinkled their offspring, I was not necessarily dismayed, but something akin to it. It didn't make sense to me. It seemed so obvious that the examples of baptism in the Bible all favored the dunk-tank over the spritzer. But since so many people that I had come to hold in some semblance of high regard (Sproul, for one) seemed to believe in this nonsense, I didn't dismiss it immediately.

And it's true that we don't have any stated examples in the Bible of babies being baptized, but there are a couple of examples of entire households being baptized when the head of household becomes a Christian. The argument there seemed a little weak to me at the time, since it was very possible that everyone made a profession of faith before being baptized. And it seemed so clear that the new covenant dealt with individuals rather than nations and families like the old covenant. Like Jeremiah said:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.

"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)

Clear, right? The old covenant isn't like the new one - it can't be broken because the law's on the inside and everyone within it knows the Lord, "from the least to the greatest." So how can we baptize those who have not made a profession of faith in the Lord, thus stating their membership into this new covenant? Wouldn't this go against the nature of the new covenant?

Well, let's define what the old and new covenants are, exactly. The old covenant is that of the law: those who are sealed into it by circumcision are to keep the law and all it requires, including making sacrifices for their sins when they fail it. They are sealed into it not of their own accord, but by nature of the family and nation they were born into. So when they grow up, they can choose to keep the covenant and incur the blessings God promises for those who obey Him, or break it, and incur the curses God promises for those who disobey.

The new covenant is similar: those who are sealed into it by baptism are to believe in Jesus' fulfillment of the old covenant commands on their behalf, and to continue in relationship with Him through faith. If you believe in what is called "believer's baptism," or "credobaptism," then you believe that when you decide to keep this covenant, you make the decision to take the seal upon yourself as well. But both essentially require the one who is sealed to pledge obedience at some point. In the old covenant, the one sealed didn't have the choice to enter covenant - it was done by the will of his parents. In the new covenant, the idea is debated - does God now call individuals to covenant with Him, or does He still work through families?

To get to the point where I could accept that maybe baptism wasn't as cut-and-dried as I once supposed, I had to fist admit that even within those who get baptized after some profession of faith, many probably have not been genuinely saved. So what does that do but make them breakers of the new covenant? They made a promise to God to believe in His work of salvation on their behalf, and they didn't keep it. They violated the seal placed on them. Just as with the old covenant, not every man circumcised continued in fellowship with God, so not everyone baptized does the same.

So if this is true, where does that leave us in relation to who should be baptized? It's still a bit of a step to admit that even those who are baptized as "believers" can be disobedient, to then say that since that's true, you might as well baptize those who haven't made any sort of profession of faith.

So I started looking at other covenants in the Bible, to see how in the entirety of what we Christians call "redemptive history," God deals with people through these covenants. From the very beginning, He seems to cut out the importance of people agreeing to enter covenant with Him. Adam He set up as the representative head of all mankind, and when Adam broke that covenant of obedience, all of His offspring were credited with his unrighteousness, even though they were not yet born and had nothing to do with Adam's sin. Thus we are all born inheriting the disobedience of Adam.

Then God made His covenant with Abraham, telling him that "all the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed." And He told him to pass down this promise by circumcising all his male descendants. They inherited the blessings God promised Abraham, not through their own virtue, but by virtue of God's promise. If they rejected those blessings through their disobedience, then God would judge them, but it didn't change the fact that they were born under the covenant.

It appeared to me then (as it does now) that God believes in continuity in the covenants He makes, even in David's (One of David's offspring will sit on the throne forever). It seems incongruous to me then to assume that when it comes to the new covenant, God does not carry it through to the offspring of those who enter covenant with Him. If He has dealt all through history through families and blessing the children of those who love Him, why would He not pass on the blessings of the new covenant to its members' children? And as a further aside, the historical evidence also indicates that infant baptism was extremely common in the early church as well.

So I look forward with eager anticipation to baptizing my daughter while yet she can make a decision to follow Christ or not. I will claim on her behalf the blessings of being born into the covenant community. There is a beauty and peace in believing that for love of me, God will love and be faithful to my children as well; and there's a beauty and peace in being able to treat my child as part of the family of God even before she is old enough to make some profession of faith.

PS: I could cite far more Scriptural support for the practice of infant baptism, but I want to keep this brief. If anyone wishes for more information, we can continue the discussion in the comments section.