The Bible isn't concrete about its meaning and practice.
Until Ulrich Zwingli broke with historic church teaching and practice in the 1500s, both the Eastern and Western churches had seemingly always practiced infant baptism and viewed it as a great communication of God’s grace to sinful humans. Zwingli and the Anabaptists, with their resulting baptism only of professing believers, were a new phenomenon. But are they wholly baseless in their theology, especially in light of the Reformation’s cry, Sola scriptura? I think not. The reality is that the biblical instances of the word “baptism” and “water” and “washing” and the like are fairly ambiguous.
(1) The Acts of the Apostles shows many new converts to Christianity being baptized, with a belief-then-baptism order. Accordingly, all churches unanimously agree that adult converts who have not grown up in the “covenant community” of the church need to receive baptism when they confess their faith in the Lord Jesus. But Acts is silent about children born within the church to believing parents. Valid arguments cannot be made from silence (i.e., "because it doesn't say this, it clearly cannot say this"). We must always have positive arguments for or against something.
(2) Acts does mention explicitly the baptism of whole households (16:15, 33). However, two things are not mentioned: whether or not children were present or included in the “household”; and whether or not everyone in the household had confessed faith in Christ. The varying translations of these passages allow for varied inferences. (In the aforementioned passages the NIV leaves one thinking that personal faith of each member was involved, while the ESV gives the impression that the faith of the household’s head was the prime element, leading to others’ salvation.)
(3) Passages referring to baptism are explicitly and strongly tied to rebirth, renewal, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, faith, repentance, forgiveness, water, and washing (e.g., Acts 2:38-39; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:26-27; Eph. 5:26; Col. 2:11-12; Tit. 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21). It’s impossible to separate baptism from these blessings secured by Jesus' redemptive work. However, there is no explicit explanation in Scripture of whether baptism effects and confirms these things in the life of the believer, or whether baptism is the response of the believer to his previous Spiritual rebirth and ingrafting into the body of Christ. I tend to embrace the former view.
(4) Several passages using “water” and “washing” (loutron; literally, “bath”), along with “enlighten”, have traditionally been interpreted as baptismal references. (For “water” and “washing”, see John 3:5; Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5; Heb. 10:22; for “enlighten” see Heb. 6:4; 10:32). However, valid explanations of these apart from baptism exist that do not demand baptism as the referent. But I must agree with Dr. Michael Horton when he warns, “one bends over backwards to explain away passages in which [water] baptism is explicitly linked to regeneration and forgiveness of sins” (God of Promise, p. 153).
For these reasons I view baptismal doctrine and practice with a degree of charity, recognizing that one cannot be too dogmatic about the interpretation of these passages. Yet at the same time we’re seeking to be faithful to the God-breathed canon alone as our standard, there are two caveats to keep in mind. (1) Biblical interpretation can never be divorced from the Spirit-filled church through whom and for whom it was written, and among whom it is lived. Truth is guarded by the Spirit’s work in the church, and therefore we have creeds and confessions that guard orthodox interpretations and practices. Sola scriptura means that our beliefs are based in Scripture alone, but not in Scripture that is alone. (2) Because the goal of the Scriptures is the life of God’s people, I think we must consider the implications of our baptismal theology and what effects result in the life of the church. Where the Bible is ambiguous regarding a matter, we ought to ask, all else being equal, Does this exalt the free and sovereign grace of the holy, triune God who acts in history to redeem the world? Does it lead us to boast in him alone—or is the emphasis on our decisions, works, and resources? Sola scriptura is not without soli Deo gloria.
Forthcoming posts will likely follow these topics:
(1) Laying the groundwork: seeing through my lenses. (2) Baptism is the NT counterpart of OT circumcision. (3) Baptism is therefore a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. (4) Baptism not only pledges mercy but also contains a warning. (5) Baptism involves mystery. (6) Baptism is eschatological. (7) Infant baptism is not only valid, but the most fitting expression of grace. (8) Baptism of believers alone can actually serve to undermine the function of baptism (but this is not true of all credobaptism). (9) All modes of baptism (submersion, pouring, or sprinkling) are appropriate.
If and when I continue these posts, know that they are simply a way for me to express what I currently believe. I am hardly an expert on such things, and my beliefs are always open to change.