Monday, June 9, 2014

Why We're Not Baptizing Our Children (Yet)

While on the phone with my mom a few weeks ago, she asked us again why we belonged to a Presbyterian church which baptizes infants, but we ourselves have not had our son baptized.*  I hope to explain here why I've chosen this path for our family.  I realize this is a huge issue that cannot be covered in a few paragraphs, but here's my best attempt to briefly explain it.  And I write this with great humility--I am fallible and could be wrong--and with great respect for the Reformed heritage and for my brothers and sisters in Christ at URC and City Church of Richmond.

What is the Presbyterian doctrine?

Presbyterian and Reformed churches see baptism as the equivalent of circumcision, which was applied to children to show their status within the Abrahamic covenant.  Start by reading Genesis 12, 15, and 17 to get a picture of God’s promises to Abraham.

Circumcision was the “sign of the covenant” God gave to Abraham (Genesis 17:11 ESV).  It served as a sign (visible representation) of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham and his offspring.  It was also a seal confirming the reality of this covenant relationship and God’s vow to “be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7; cf. Romans 4:11).  Circumcision signified inner spiritual renewal and cleansing (Isaiah 52:1), as well as the need to live consecrated to God--or else one too would be cursed and “cut off” from life under God’s blessing (Genesis 17:14).  Through bloodshed it prefigured the bloody judgment of Christ that would ultimately earn this spiritual renewal and cleansing for God’s people.  

Because Christ has shed his blood in his own “circumcision” on the cross (Colossians 1:21-22; 2:11-12; Isaiah 53:8), no more blood needs to be shed.  Baptism with water has replaced circumcision as the rite of initiation into God’s covenant people, and it has the same core significance. “In him also you have been circumcised …, having been buried with him in baptism …” (Colossians 2:11, 12).  This “in him” and “with him” language shows that baptism depicts union or fellowship with Christ.

Why, then baptize children before we know if they’ll come to faith?  The Gentile church under the new covenant is an expansion of God’s covenant people under the old covenant, Israel.  The church does not replace Israel.  Believers are “offspring of Abraham” and through Christ are receiving the fulfillment of what was promised to Abraham (see Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4).  Because of this, as in Israel of old, not only should new adult converts to Christianity be baptized, but so should their children, just as infants were circumcised before their faith was evident.  “For the promise is for you and for your children ...” (Acts 2:39).  This explains the baptisms of entire households or families we see in Acts 16 and elsewhere in the New Testament.

Presbyterians do not believe that baptism automatically saves anyone, but it puts a mark upon those who belong to the visible church, the covenant community of professing Christians and their children--a mark that calls us to faith and supports our faith because of the promises confirmed by God in baptism.  

What do I see wrong with this? Why is the Baptist way better?

Grounded as it is upon Scripture and not the traditions or sentiments of men, I was pretty convinced for several years that the Presbyterian doctrine was in fact the correct biblical teaching.  But several inconsistencies in their reasoning began to nag me, and I discovered that the argument for infant baptism is not water-tight (sorry)--and that a Baptist interpretation better fits biblical passages about baptism.

To begin with, there is the obvious fact that outside of ambiguous references to the baptism of entire households (whose membership is an argument from silence), every narrative mentioning someone’s baptism is of people who actually repent and accept the gospel (see Acts 2:37-41; 8:12, 36; 9:18; 10:44-48; 16:14-15, 31-34; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16).  Muddying this, though, is the fact that most of what we read in the NT is baptism of first-generation Christians coming into the faith for the first time; there is no mention of what is done with their children.  Were children baptized irrespective of their faith?  Or were they only baptized upon their own confession of Christ? In the face of such ambiguity, it seems safer to me to stick to what is positively and explicitly taught: the baptism of people who believe the gospel.

This baptism of professing Christians alone explains why the New Testament writers so closely correlate baptism with actual salvation.  They write in such a way that what is true of the baptized cannot be said of nonbelievers.  In baptism we were joined to Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4).  Those who are baptized have “put on Christ” and become heirs of heaven (Galatians 3:26-29).  In baptism we have been “circumcised,” that is, brought out of alienation from God and into his people, had “the uncircumcision of your sinful nature” removed, and had the record of debt against us done away with (Colossians 2:11-14 NIV).  These things cannot be said of infants who were baptized but who have not yet or will never come to faith--because it is only faith that joins us to our Savior.  This is why baptized Christians are called “sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26) who are “buried with Christ in baptism, in which you also were raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).

Likewise there seems to be a conscious awareness of the need for repentance and cleansing that leads people to call upon Jesus and begin following him.  “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).  “Baptism, which corresponds to this [the waters of the flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).  (See also Acts 2:17-41.)  In essence, baptism appears to function as the ordained way sinners call upon the Lord for salvation and are saved. Presbyterian baptismal liturgy asks parents if they believe their child is a sinner in need of the blood of Christ, which I suppose serves as such an “appeal to God for a good conscience” on behalf of their children.  But it seems safer to follow the explicit pattern of the New Testament and restrict baptism to those who are personally looking ahead to God’s judgment and salvation found in his Son alone.

Lastly (for now), I think the Presbyterian doctrine misunderstands the way that circumcision was installed as a sign of the covenant belonging to Abraham and his offspring.  God’s eternal  promise is to be “God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7).  But the “you” in view here is not the general believer or man of faith (as Presbyterians see it), but rather Abraham.  It is God’s pledge to the children of Abraham.  Before Christ came, God’s people were both the “Israel of faith” as well as all other physical descendants of Abraham--the “Israel according to the flesh.”  (Hence the promises given Abraham also involved provisions for temporal life in the land of Canaan.)  But Galatians 3-4 makes it pretty clear that the true promises of God came to but one Offspring, one Seed, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16).  It is through Christ--by trust in him alone--that we become Abraham’s children and receive the promised blessings along with Abraham (3:7-9, 13-14, 16, 26-29).  Verse 29 sums it up well: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”  Notice the if-then construction: being Abraham’s children who are in covenant league with God depends on belonging to Christ.  Being a “circumcised” member of God’s people no longer depends on your physical relationships or who your parents are, but on belonging to Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit; and the land the church inherits is not Palestine, but the new heavens and the new earth, with the heavenly Zion (Hebrews 11:10, 16).  (See also Romans 9:6-9; Galatians 4:21-31; and John 1:12-13 for the view that Abraham has two lines of offspring, those according to the flesh and those according to promise.)

I still agree that baptism is chiefly a divinely ordained sign and seal of the new covenant in Christ.  It is a “visible word” of our forgiveness and cleansing from sin, the renewal of our inner nature as God pours out his Spirit, and of belonging to Christ and our engagement to him.  By baptism we are joined to the visible church, the community of faith.  Baptism doesn’t directly represent our own faith or decisions--because our own frail faith can never support our doubting hearts in the fight against sin, the devil, and the worl, but God’s sure gospel Word can.  But baptism is an act a repentant believer submits to out of his faith: he chooses to be marked as belonging to Christ and his church and become a disciple.

Why then do we belong to a Presbyterian congregation?

When we searched for a church home in 2009, I was at that time convinced of the biblical validity of infant baptism, though Olivia disagreed.  So it was not a big deal to join a Presbyterian church.  But when Ephraim was born, we knew we had to make a decision about whether to baptize him.  It was a tough decision, and we wanted to be united as a couple and also consistent for all our children.  Through prayerful study of God’s Word, this was the conclusion I came to--not because it was what I was most comfortable with, but because I believe it’s what the Bible teaches.  And while I see strengths and weaknesses to the biblical arguments for both practices (Romans 11 and the positive evidence for a Presbyterian view of the church still haunts me), I can’t endlessly waver back and forth.  So this is what I’m sticking to for now.  

We feel God continues to call us to belong to City Church.  Besides this one glitch, I love the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, and I think its teachings are sound.  And though City Church is far from perfect, it’s where people know us, where we know others, and where we rejoice to hear the gospel, worship God, and serve others.  
*For the record, I grew up in a mixed Lutheran and Catholic household. I inherently reject the Roman Catholic doctrine that the sacrament of baptism automatically remits our sinful nature and forgives all prior sins.  The Bible is clear: there is no salvation apart from personally turning away from your sin and embracing Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.  Likewise I also think that the Lutheran doctrine is misleading: In baptism the Holy Spirit grants faith to receive Christ and his forgiveness--but that we can fail to exercise this faith and fall away from salvation.  This violates a wealth of scriptural teaching that genuine believers will persevere in faith and are sealed by the Spirit as a guarantee of their salvation (e.g., Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30; John 5:24; 6:35-40; 10:27-29; Romans 8:28-30; Philippians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, 23-24; Jude 24).

1 comment:

Brent Parker said...

On the Sam Storms website you wrote: "Sam (or any other Baptists), what do you make of Hebrews 10:29--that some who fall away in apostasy are those who have "profaned the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified"? I've never read a Baptist explanation of how someone can be covenantally set apart in the church (external covenant membership a la Presbyterian ecclesiology--a baptized nonbeliever) yet then fall away. It seems Baptists can't account for this, since all those sanctified by the new covenant are believers. Could it be that they're only sanctified from a human, outward viewpoint? But then why would the author speak of being sanctified "by the blood of the covenant"--something effectual of Christ?"

Baptists can account for this, you need to read Tom Schreiner and Ardel Caneday on the Race Set Before Us, or Schreiner's Run to Win the Race where the warning passages are dealt with in length. The warnings are a means by which believers persevere. Hopefully these two books will help solidify for you that the new covenant church is a regenerate church without covenant breakers.