I have been asked to explain about why I believe what I believe about baptism. Rather than give a theological explanation or a detailed examination of all the Scriptures concerned with baptism (there are plenty books and articles that do that from different perspectives) I thought I would just simply give a personal testimony about my journey on this issue. I find that people often get very wound up and angry about this and regard it as some kind of gospel faithfulness issue. I offer these thoughts not to annoy or provoke people, but simply to try and encourage understanding. The issue is not as black and white as is often supposed.
My grandparents and their family.
I was not baptized as a child. I grew up in a third generation Brethren home and the Brethren do not believe in infant baptism (however it is of some historical interest that my grandfather, one of the original Darbyite brethren, although he did not baptize his eleven children, was not rebaptised as an adult himself – he regarded his infant baptism as being sufficient). Even before I became a Christian I knew that infant baptism was unbiblical and a cause of much of the woes in the church, leading to a nominal Christianity. I believed that baptism was a sign of repentance and faith and that you should not have the sign until you had the thing signified. I also knew that baptism could only be by immersion. So it was, that as a 17 year old I was baptized upon my profession of faith in Morningside Baptist Church,Edinburgh on December the 9th 1979. It was a memorable and joyous occasion.
Believe and be Baptised
To me it was blatantly obvious. You believed and then you were baptized. (Mark 16:16). Baptism was a testimony to my Christian faith. I knew that there were Christians like John Stott, John Calvin and Augustine who accepted infant baptism but that was just a relic from the past and they were just not quite ‘reformed’ enough. We were the purest form of New Testament Christianity. I was 100% certain.
And then the doubts began to creep in. I was teaching in the Baptist Sunday School and I noticed that there was a difference between children of believers and children of non-believers. I began to see that the children of believers who were growing up in the Church were not outside the church, they were part of it. But how could that be since they had not received the sign of belonging to the church, baptism? I remember reading 1 Corinthians 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. That verse caused me a lot of thoughts! Children of believers are not little pagans who need to be converted ASAP. They are holy. Set apart for God. But I thought – how can this be if God has no grandchildren?
A couple of years later because I came to believe in the Sovereignty of God I clashed with the then minister and he advised me to go to the Free Church – so I did! (I realize of course that there are many Baptist churches who hold to a Reformed theology – its just mine was not one of them). When I became a member in Buccleuch Free Church in Edinburgh I had the nerve to tell the minister that I did not believe all this infant baptism rubbish. He was very gracious. He laughed and told me that in the Free Church you didn’t have to accept infant baptism because we were governed by elders not popular vote and he said I was welcome to become a member but I would never become an office bearer. It was my turn to laugh – that was the last thing on my mind. So how did I end up as a Free Church minister by the time I was 24? Did I just cross my fingers when I took the vows and remained a closet Baptist, infiltrating the Free Church? No – within a couple of years I had moved from being a an Adult Baptist Only with slight doubts through the stage of being an ABO with lots of doubts, to becoming a Covenant Baptist with lots of doubts, to becoming one with slight doubts.
Step one was to consider the place of children in the Church. That was increased when I read a little booklet by Willie Still entitled ‘Bringing up Children in Faith and not Fear”. He argued that we should bring our children in the faith that they will become Christians rather than the fear that they won’t.
Step two was when I began to question what baptism actually is. My assumed position was that it was an act of obedience to Christ, a witness to Christ and something that demonstrated our devotion to Christ. This was deeply ingrained. I remember Douglas MacMillan, whilst a minister in Aberdeen, telling us about receiving a phone call from a student who wanted to be re-baptised because she did not consider her infant baptism sufficient. She had been at a friend’s baptism in a local Baptist church and it had been a great and joyous occasion, as these things often are. Douglas agreed and said he would be round straightaway with a couple of the elders, if she would just run the bath in preparation. Oh, no, that wasn’t what she wanted! She wanted the whole works – the big ceremony, the public blessing and so on.
Although most Baptist churches claim that they do baptism just as described in the Bible, they don’t. Baptism was done instantaneously in the NT church. It was the altar call. People after Pentecost were not told to hang around for a few weeks until they had done a Baptismal class! The Ethiopian Eunuch heard the gospel preached by Philip and when he saw some water asked, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (Acts 8:37). Philip didn’t say, wait until we get to Jerusalem, take a baptismal class and let’s ensure there are plenty people to see you bearing witness to Jesus! No, he stopped the chariot and baptized him immediately! When you think about it – in todays terms it was a missed opportunity for ‘witness’.
That is because baptism is what God does for us. The believer’s baptism narrative is primarily about what we do. But is that what the sacraments are? We do not treat communion like that. So why baptism?
94 Q: What is Baptism?
A: Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.
This understanding completely changed my thinking. Baptism is primarily something that God does for us, not something we do for him. It is primarily his witness to his covenant and only secondarily our witness to our faith. It is his engagement ring to us – before it is our declaration of love to him.
Step three was then to ask – if baptism is a sign of Gods covenant, to whom should it be applied? The catechism gives this answer:
95 Q: To whom is baptism to be administered?
A: Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church, are to be baptised.
Now the Shorter Catechism is not the Bible and it could be wrong. The Bible is our supreme authority and the Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms of the church are secondary authorities that tell us how the church through the ages has understood the bible. So the key question? Is the statement that infants of such as are members of the visible church, are to be baptised, biblical?
Col. 2: 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Here it is clear that Paul links circumcision to baptism. Just as the Passover turns into the Lord’s Supper, and the Jewish Sabbath into the Christian Lord’s Day, so baptism is the replacement for circumcision. Both baptism and circumcision are signs that signify our entering into the Church of Jesus Christ. Both are outward signs of spiritual realities. Circumcision tells us that we need to be circumcised in heart, baptism that we need to be baptised by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. Baptism with water points to the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). We are all baptized by one Spirit to form one body (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Just before I got married I was taking part in a mission in the Highland village of Strathpeffer. Several of us squeezed into one large bedroom and we slept in sleeping bags on the floor. One night we were talking into the wee small hours and I fell asleep. When I came down to breakfast the next morning, everyone started laughing and clapping. Apparently I had sat bolt up right in my sleep and shouted out ‘its all in the covenant, boys, it’s all in the covenant”! Indeed it is. I don’t believe in infant baptism, I believe in covenant baptism. The bottom line is that it is all in Gods covenant. The sacraments are covenant signs.
Which then leads me to ask the question – who was included in the covenant church? In the Old Testament Abraham believed and was circumcised, but then his children were circumcised before they believed. On the day of Pentecost Peter told his fellow Jews “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).
A fellow Free Church minister told me of receiving a phone call in the early hours of the morning from a Muslim man. He excitedly exclaimed, “I’ve become a Christian! Now there are two things I want. A bacon sandwich and my family to be baptized!”. For him it was inconceivable that he would be baptized and not his household. As for me and my house we will serve the Lord. In our modern individualistic Western mindset that is sometimes hard for us to grasp. But for the people in Jesus’s day it would have been natural. That is why the majority of recorded baptisms in the New Testament are household baptisms. It stretches credulity to think that these households did not include children.
So because I had come to see that baptism was something that God does for us, not something that we do for him; because I had come to see that Gods church existed in the Old Testament as well and that the covenant applies across both Old and New Testaments; because children were included in the covenant church of the Old Testament and there is no indication, indeed the opposite, that they were excluded in the covenant church of the New; then I came to be a believer in believers covenant baptism. And my children were baptized. I also look forward to baptising our first grandchild in the New Year –
A few other questions:
Sometimes I am asked the question– where is the chapter and verse which specifically commands infant baptism? Though it’s usually an accusation rather than a question. They usually mean, there is no specific warrant in the New Testament for infant baptism, so why do you do it? I don’t accept the premise of the question – the notion that unless you have chapter and verse for everything then you can’t do it. We take the whole of Scripture and we can draw biblical implications. Besides which if you take that chapter and verse theology too seriously you end up with some major problems with other issues. For example where is the chapter and verse than commands women to take communion? ! That’s ridiculous, you say, because women are clearly included. Indeed. You are right. They are. But then so are children of believers included in the visible church.
There is also another interesting question for the ABO (Adult Baptist Only) – can you give one example of a child being brought up in a covenant home who is told to wait until they are of age before they can be baptised?
But you should only be baptised when you truly believe. That seems a fair and biblical position but it also has its difficulties. I remember when I was still a member of the Baptist church, meeting a fellow believer who had been baptised nine times! Because each time he was baptised he either fell away or realised that he had not been really converted and so therefore by his theology, his baptism had not been valid, but now he was really converted and so he should be baptised again. He was logically consistent, but biblically wrong.
But it’s ridiculous to think that a few drops of water sprinkled on a child make them a Christian. Indeed it is. Which is why we don’t argue that way. It is also ridiculous to think that a lot of water poured on an adult makes them a Christian. It doesn’t. We do not believe in baptismal regeneration (I am aware that there are Christians who do, adult as well as infant, but respectfully I would suggest that they have confused the sign with the thing that is signified).
How important is this issue? I don’t think it is an issue to divide over or to disrupt Gospel fellowship. The great Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon, and the Highland Free Church leader, Dr John Kennedy, were the best of friends. They disagreed about baptism but that did not stop them working and serving together. The story is told of how Spurgeon was visiting Kennedy in Dingwall and one day they took a walk along the shores of the Cromarty Firth. Somewhat mischievously Kennedy turned to Spurgeon and asked, “See, here is water. What doth hinder me to be baptized?”. He should have known better. Spurgeon, as sharp as ever, fired back, “Nothing, except a stipend, a manse….”!
In both churches I have ministered in, there have been members who were of baptistic convictions. Nothing hindered our fellowship or working together. They are not lesser or associate members. They are full members of the body of Christ and of the local body. In Brora there was a godly woman called Barbara Mackenzie, who was the nearest thing to a prophetess in the Free Church. One Monday I was visiting her when she remarked; “what an extraordinary day yesterday was – especially the morning service, there was a real sense of the Lord’s presence.” I agreed and thought I had her- “But Barbara, it was an infant baptism yesterday. Why would the Lord be present at something He does not agree with?” “Ah, David, the Lord is gracious and merciful”! She of course was right. At the end of time I don’t think our views on Baptism are going to have anything to do with our eternal destiny. There is no section of heaven labeled ‘’Baptists only” or “Presbyterians only”.
In this respect I am delighted that there are more and more Baptist churches who are opening up their membership to those who don’t accept the need to be rebaptised and yet who wish to be part of the church.
Finally let me say a wee bit about St Peters practice. We do believe in infant baptism. It is part of our confession and every office bearer signs up to that. Members don’t sign the confession and so we have many Baptist members. I will never seek to enforce my view, or the churches view upon them. It is a secondary issue about which Christians have disagreed for many centuries and will do, until the Lord’s return. We only baptise the children of believers (at least one parent must be a believer). We don’t baptise the children of non-believers. And we don’t insist that members who have children must have their children baptised. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. So we will also have a service of infant dedication for those who ask it and are believers. And for unbelievers who come and ask if they can ‘get the wean done’?! I never say no immediately. I will go and talk with them about what they are wanting and will offer a service of blessing, where at the end of the service they come forward to the front and I pray for them and their child. They take no vows to a God they do not as yet know, but they are introduced to him and his gospel.
For some that position is too narrow. For others it’s way too broad. We can only do as we are persuaded in the Scriptures. I have written all this not to convince you to accept everything I have said, or to agree with it all, but just simply so that you can understand why some of us, who are bible believing Christians, baptise our children. It is BECAUSE of the bible, not in spite of it. I accept fully that some reading this will not agree with it, but let each be persuaded in their own mind.
For the first ten years I was in St Peters most of the baptisms were adult ones. Recently, as the church has grown, people get married and have children, the majority have been of children. Indeed we have another one coming up this Sunday. What happens? I ask the parents to come forward. The parents profess their faith and vow to bring up their child in the love and admonition of the Lord. The congregation take a vow to support, pray for and welcome the child into the Covenant community. I give a verse to the family and then baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I find the occasions profoundly meaningful, spiritual and emotional – as do many of the congregation. These are the children the Lord has given. (And the children seem to enjoy it – so far this century not one baby has cried!). And then I hold the child in my arms and speak directly to them this beautiful blessing from the French Reformed liturgy. It is so poignant and moving. I leave you with it:
“Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary. For you he uttered the cry ‘it is finished!’
For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and there intercedes – for you little child even though you do not know it.
But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true; ‘We love him, because he first loved us.
Footnote: Sinclair Ferguson gave an excellent talk to our young people on this subject last week. He reminded me of this oft neglected teaching from the Larger Catechism
Q167. How is our baptism to be improved by us? The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein;by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
Another point from Sinclairs talk which I had not really considered before:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Ephesians 6:1
The children are in the covenant relationship. If you ask a Baptist “when you raised your children, before they were baptized, how did you teach them to pray?”. If they reply that children are taught to pray using the words “our Father” then the question immediately arises – “on what doctrinal basis can you teach your, as yet, unbaptized children to say “our Father”?” Surely Baptists don’t have this right, they are borrowing from the bank of covenant theology. Peter on the day of Pentecost said “to you, your children and those far off” . He did not just say “to you and those far off” which he would have done if he believed that God had now changed how his covenants should be administered from the Old Testament into the New in terms of believers and their offspring.