Apostolic Baptism – Introduction

If the church is going to get beyond the baptism wars, the whole issue must be reframed. The best minds have gone round and round about credo (believer’s) baptism versus paedo (infant) baptism to the point that we must remember that insanity is defined as doing the same and hoping for a different result. Thus, the following is an attempt to reframe the issue of baptism, which has something to do with covenants.

“Baptism” is used in Scripture in a variety of ways. Sometimes it refers to the ceremony of water applied to people who have confessed faith in Christ as a symbol of their personal commitment to Christ and their entry into the fellowship of the church. Most denominations require baptism as a requirement of membership. Other times “baptism” refers to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers that indicates covenantal identity (1 Cor. 10 — baptism into Moses’ covenant). And Peter notes that the result of Spirit baptism is a clear conscience, which is a product of regeneration and repentance. We must not deny or downplay these meanings and prefer to narrowly define “baptism” merely as a water ceremony. I am suggesting that the reality that the ceremony typifies the actual change of heart that the Spirit causes, and is the reality of “baptism,” where the ceremony is merely the sign/symbol. So, “baptism” in its fullest meaning is equivalent to conversion, the getting of the new heart that water baptism only symbolizes. Because water baptism symbolizes the conversion process, and it is a process, “baptism” in this fullest sense is also a process.

We believe in the Trinity, right? And the Trinity is a biblical construct. The word “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture. The full meaning of baptism is also constructed from the whole Bible and the arc of the covenant story, and is just as biblical — even more so — than a proof text because it is in harmony with the entire biblical narrative.

The problem that fuels the baptism wars is differing covenant definitions. Allow me to briefly explain what I believe to be the biblical understanding of God’s covenant.

The idea of the covenant begins with Adam and is applied to all humanity. That’s important. The basic idea is: This tree good, that tree bad. Don’t eat from bad tree. Oops, you eat from bad tree, get curse. That’s it. The original covenant was a proscription regarding behavior (obedience) with consequences for compliance and for noncompliance. This too is important.  Remember also that all of the covenants build upon one another, stone upon stone. The newer covenants tweak the older ones. They do not replace one another.

The Mosaic covenant provided God’s law, the Ten Commandments. Notice the similarity to the Adamic Covenant, but now God has graciously spelled out in more detail what is required for compliance.

The basic elements of the Mosaic Covenant are clarified in the Deuteronomic Covenant found in Deuteronomy 28. The covenant at this point is: 1) obedience brings God’s blessings, 2) disobedience brings God’s curses. So simply being in or under the covenant is not a guarantee of one’s obedience or salvation. Rather, being under the covenant places an obligation of obedience upon the individual. Being under the covenant means that there are consequences (blessings or cursings) for our behavior.

Being under the covenant means that the reception of God’s blessings is dependent upon obedience. And the failure to obey results in the curse of damnation. Everyone is included because everyone will ether obey or not. This is the Old Covenant under construction, but it is eternal. It cannot be rescinded and is still in force. The Abrahamic covenant then introduced circumcision as the sign of the covenant, and put all Jewish males under the obligation to live in obedience to God.

The symbolism was that Israel belonged to God and was, therefore, under His covenant. One of the things they needed to do to be obedient was to circumcise all of their male children on the eight day, as infants, demonstrating that they were under God’s covenant. So, the Jews did not have a choice to make about believing in God. Rather, obedience was their concern. This is why the Jews did what they did and believe as they believe.

The Abrahamic covenant also introduced the idea of grace (Isaac’s salvation from being sacrificed because God provided a substitute). The covenant itself is always a gift of God’s grace, yet circumcision was based on blood (birth, genetics). Paul clarifies these issues in the New Testament. David’s covenant brought civil government into the mix. But still, the basic idea remained the same: obey and be blessed or disobey and be cursed. The grace was that God freely gave the law, which provided a way to avoid the curse.

This is the covenant that Jesus fulfilled by His obedience. He then used the merit of His successful obedience to purchase the forgiveness of who those would follow Him. He fulfilled the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant is really the same covenant idea (it’s eternal) that obedience merits blessing and disobedience merits cursing — except that Jesus did the obedience part on behalf of His people and received God’s curse of death in order that His people would be free from the curse and could “start clean,” so to speak. The New Covenant might be better described as the Renewed Covenant, and as with all covenant extensions there are some changes. The changes do not change the essential structure of the covenant, though the covenant fulfilled functions somewhat differently than the covenant unfulfilled.

Christ pressed the reset button and time began again with year zero, humanity had a second chance. But another thing happened, too. Christ made it clear that God’s covenant, from the time of Adam, had always been intended for the whole world (all humanity), not just Israel. Thus, it went out to the Gentiles (other nations) and into the whole world.

John The Baptist
The transitional figure linking the Old Testament and the New Testament was John the Baptist. John introduced the idea of covenant renewal to the Jews in Jerusalem and the symbol of that renewal was baptism. Jesus didn’t introduce baptism, John did, and it was for the Jews. John’s ministry was to and for the Jews because John was heralding the arrival of the Jewish Messiah. John also said that his water baptism was nothing compared to the Spirit baptism which the Messiah would bring (and fire baptism but that will take us far afield). Jesus, a Jew, agreed with the idea of covenant renewal, so He submitted to John’s baptism and its symbolism. Thus, the sign of covenant renewal in Christ also became baptism, which replaced the sign of the original covenant, which had been circumcision. The symbol was replaced because the covenant was replaced (renewed, tweaked). It is a much better covenant in many ways (See Hebrews.)

The idea of the New Covenant is that the merit of Jesus’ obedience  and sacrifice, which satisfied God’s demands, was sufficient for the whole world and would ultimately be applied to the whole world, beginning with Jerusalem and extending to Judea, to Samaria and to the whole world. God’s new promise of covenant renewal in Christ still involves covenant stipulations because that’s what a covenant is by definition. The old stipulations (Old Testament) were still in place–obey and be blessed, disobey and be cursed. But the new stipulations involved faith in the efficacy of Christ’s obedience. If people would simply believe in Christ as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament they could come under the blessings that were secured by Christ.

Personal Faith or Belief
So, against the backdrop of the Old Covenant (blessings or curses) the stipulation of receiving blessings under Christ’s covenant is personal belief or faith. But what is that? Well, it involves a decision/confession, but is much more than that. It is a life of biblical  faithfulness to Jesus Christ. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. John’s baptism does in fact symbolize entry into the blessings of covenant renewal, but when does one’s relationship with God’s covenant begin? Arminians say that it begins with our decision for Christ. Calvinists say that it begins with God before time, at least before our birth.

John’s baptism was for Jews who were anticipating covenant renewal. When Jesus was baptized that anticipation ended. Jesus ended the anticipation of Old Covenant renewal and Messianic hope by inaugurating the fulfillment of that covenant renewal. John’s baptism symbolized the conversion of Jews. It was for backsliding Jews who were coming back to the faith, but who were coming, not to the Old Covenant but to the New (the Renewed Covenant in Christ). The Jewish custom was to immerse converts/backsliders, which John did as a way of establishing some continuity with the Old Covenant. That was John’s baptism.

Apostolic baptism (if I may coin a phrase, is baptism by the apostles–Christian baptism) symbolizes the conversion of the Gentiles because it is for the whole world. And the symbolism of that baptism reaches back to the Adamic Covenant, to creation–and even before time (Ephesians 1:4). The symbolism of Apostolic baptism points to the helplessness of humanity in sin and the gracious gift of God’s covenant. In Christ God has imposed His Renewed Covenant upon the whole world as it was imposed upon Jewish males through circumcision.

Thus, the sign of the Renewed Covenant is Christian or Apostolic baptism (differentiated from John’s baptism, but not separate from it–signifying both continuity and discontinuity) because in Christ God is imposing His Renewed Covenant upon all the earth. This does not mean that God intends to save everyone. Obviously, all people are not saved. Some people go to hell. But why do they go to hell? This is important! They go to hell because of the disobedience stipulation of the original covenant, which is still in effect though it has been changed to disbelief (which always manifests in disobedience).

When Christ was given all authority on earth and in heaven, His covenant became in effect for all the earth and heaven. At that point every living soul came under the stipulations of the Renewed Covenant, and if someone failed to meet thee stipulations of the New Covenent, the stipulations of the original covenant are still in effect. In other words, God’s curse is in effect everywhere that the grace of Jesus Christ has not annulled it (Joy To The World!). So, the refusal or denial of Christ’s grace always means the personal embrace of God’s curse, whether such is acknowledged or not. Why? Because God’s covenant has actually applied to all the earth since Adam, and certainly to every living soul since Christ.

However, people (Gentiles) don’t realize that they are under it unless they are informed. So, Renewed Covenant Christians began baptizing their infants as a reminder and as an instrument of pedagogy (teaching) in order to demonstrate to their children (and the watching world) that they are obligated to Jesus Christ by God’s decree because they are alive. And whoever refuses that obligation is necessarily subject to God’s curse. Thus, baptizing infants does actually do something: it reminds people that God is sovereign and that we are all obligated to God–not that baptized people have a guarantee of salvation.

Baptizing (not infants in a generic way) but baptizing one’s own children is done as an act of faith in God’s promise of the ultimate extent of the gospel as it goes into all the earth. Baptism is (should be) used by the parents to instruct their children about God’s Renewed Covenant in Christ and the necessity of personal faith, and the advantages of Christ’s graceful sacrifice–and the consequences of personal faithlessness (curses).

Thus, infant baptism places the obligation of personal obedience squarely upon the child. If you have children when you come to faith, you are to baptize them, and every child born to you from that time forward, in obedience to the stipulations of the gospel in order to provide an object lesson about Jesus Christ and how He has fulfilled God’s covenant for the whole world.

This way people know that they have an obligation to live in faith by the grace of God in Christ, and they know the consequences of faithlessness. They know that they are under God’s covenant, not by any decision that they have made, but because they are human beings.

6 comments for “Apostolic Baptism – Introduction

  1. David Torbett
    July 17, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Very interesting. I think what caught my eye the most is at the beginning when you speak of the theology of baptism as a theological interpretation of scripture, not explicit in scripture, and also when you speak about baptism as a process.

    Other comments: despite doing my dissertation on Charles Hodge and having read Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, I guess I remain an Arminian (unless I can be a Calvinist universalist). As many intellectual difficulties as it causes, I have to believe that God intends to save everybody. Perhaps I am a Calvinist universalist.

  2. July 18, 2010 at 6:45 am

    David, All understanding of Scripture involves a theological interpretation of Scripture by definition, theology being the study of God and interpretation being the understanding of what is read. I do not mean that people are free to impose their own understanding upon Scripture. I mean that understanding baptism requires understanding Scripture–the flow and continuity of its whole story. I am approaching baptism from a trinitarian perspective, because God is trinitarian.

    We create our own difficulties regarding Christian universalism by failing to read Scripture from a trinitarian perspective, as well. God is trinitarian, and God authored Scripture, so it should not surprise us that it needs to be read with trinitarian eyes.

    If anyone ever goes to hell, and if God is all powerful, and if some people hate God, then God does not save every individual. However, that said, God’s purpose is to save humanity from extinction, one individual at a time. And one day God will be fondly revered by all living and regenerate individuals. But God will not save unrepentant sinners.

  3. Brian Meade
    July 20, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    On the article’s claim that “If you have children when you come to faith, you are to baptize them, and every child born to you from that time forward, in obedience to the stipulations of the gospel”, I firmly disagree. Where in the gospel does it stipulate paedobaptism? There is nowhere in the New Testament that explicitly commands the baptism of infants, or explicitly mentions the baptism of infants. Many would claim there is also no explicit prohibition against infant baptism to be found anywhere in the New Testament either. Nor is there a prohibition on stapling your eyelids to the bridge of your nose, but then not all things are profitable. Jesus never told anyone to baptize infants, the bible never tells us he did, the apostles didn’t teach it and the early church didn’t practice it. In Romans, Paul talks about how circumcision doesn’t save anybody, only persons who are circumcised inwardly are saved. And in Hebrews, the writers express beautifully that the old covenant is flawed. (Heb. 8:7) “For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one.” The new covenant is a covenant of faith, baptism being a symbol of that faith. We should not make connections to the old covenant that the bible does not make. Matthew 9:14-17 warns against mixing the new with the old. One of the reasons I am a Baptist is that both during and after the Reformation, if somebody was rebaptized after coming to faith in Jesus Christ, who had already been baptized as an infant, they were labeled an “Anabaptist” and persecuted. Luther, as well as Calvin and Zwingli, came to oppose harshly the Anabaptists. In fact, of the 20,000 to 40,000 Anabaptists martyred in the early decades, likely more were massacred by Protestants than by Catholics.
    Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” It couldn’t be much more clearly expressed than that. That is the order in which things are to happen. If paedobaptism were ordered by scripture as the article claims, I wouldn’t be writing this. It is not ordered anywhere in scripture. And it causes problems. Paedobaptism causes a multitude of dissensions, divisiveness, factions as well as general confusion. People start by being baptized as an infant in a Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, or Episcopalian church, and then when they do come to true faith in Jesus Christ, they are never baptized by immersion because their church teaches that it is not appropriate. Now, there are only two ordinances the Lord gave us—just two. He gave us baptism and the Lord’s Table. And He said, “Just do these two things. They are symbols.” Baptism, as we know, is a symbol depicting the death of an individual in Christ, the burial, and resurrection in the newness of life. That can only happen after a person has been given faith; after they believe. There is no biblical mandate to baptize infants. There never has been and there never will be. It causes much more harm than good, and it does absolutely nothing for eternal destiny of the baby.

  4. July 21, 2010 at 8:11 am

    Brian, the Bible’s direction to baptize our children is not a literal command, but is an implication much like the doctrine of the Trinity is not specified but is implied. While it is dangerous to make doctrines from biblical silence it is less dangerous to make doctrines from biblical implications. However, those who begin such a discussion with their minds set in the ruts of the false dilemma of credo vs. paedo baptism will not likely be moved from whatever their eisegetic position happens to be.

    It is true that not all things are profitable, but some are. However, to argue that some idiotic thing is neither specifically prohibited Scripture nor profitable, does not mean that there are not some profitable things that are implied by Scripture.

    Arguments from the Early Church will actually side with paedo baptists (http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/baptism.html, to appeal to a quick Google search.). But I am not arguing for paedo baptism as it is understood by credo baptists.

    As you argue with Act 2:38 (“And Peter said to them, ‘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.'”) don’t neglect the next verse. Act 2:39: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” also Peter’s words. Granted that this is not an explicit instruction to baptize infants. But the idea of infant baptism is squarely within the realm of possible interpretations of the verse, and is very much in line with the overall arc of the biblical story of God’s undeserved grace to humanity. But I am not arguing for infant baptism. I’m trying to get beyond or behind the narrow limitations of understanding Scripture from one particular perspective. I am arguing for understanding baptism from a trinitarian perspective.

    Granted, the persecution of Anabaptists was an error.

    The argument regarding the order of salvation, of which water baptism is a mere symbol, falls into two camps: The Arminian camp, which teaches that belief precedes faith and symbolizes that belief with believer’s baptism (man’s response to God’s grace). And the Reformed camp, which teaches that faith precedes belief and symbolizes that faith with infant baptism (God’s free gift of grace to helpless and depraved individuals from before time itself). I’m not arguing one symbol set over another, both are essential. But the order necessarily makes God’s action precede man’s response.

    The fact that Reformed churches forbid immersion at confirmation is another unfortunate error of history. Nothing in Scripture would preclude such a ceremony — nor demand it!

    I only ask that you read my arguments carefully. Thanks for replying and I hope you will continue because iron sharpens iron.

  5. Brian Meade
    July 22, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    I am grateful for your response to my comments Phil. I actually felt after posting, that I had come off a bit harsh. If you took it that way, you didn’t show it in your gracious reply. I do so enjoy a spirited volley, and you give as good as you get. Reading your response has give me some further thoughts. I hope to write this in love and humility as you know that I love you.
    The Trinity is a doctrine formulated over time in order to come to grips with verses that on the surface are seemingly contradictive. These verses are found over and over again throughout he bible. Managing “Let us make man in our image” with the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 is trouble enough without adding Romans 9:5 and John 1:1. But paedobaptism seems manufactured. It feels man-made. It is nowhere in the bible. I don’t even believe it is in the cracks. If anyone could read the bible cleanly with no preconceptions and walk away believing he needed to baptize his newborn son, I would be a Paedo-Baptist. (If it were harmless I wouldn’t even care.) But no one would read infant baptism out of the bible because it is not there. A fresh bible reader would also not begin praying to Mary. These are doctrines added to the scriptural mandates by man. This is how one truly takes an eisegetic position: one reads their own ideas into an interpretation of Scripture rather than revealing the true meaning of the text. The Catholics do the same proving their Mariology. Now I think it is interesting to study supralapsarianism and the kenosis of Christ and the deeper implied things in scripture, but we need to be vigilant not to go beyond the scriptures. Where the scriptures are silent, I believe we should be also. In love, Brian.

  6. July 22, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Brian, As we have discussed before this area (MOV) is saturated with Christians who have no respect or understanding of the Old Testament, and you may have been more effected by that spirit than you think.

    Here’s where I see this: You said, “If anyone could read the bible cleanly with no preconceptions and walk away believing he needed to baptize his newborn son, I would be a Paedo-Baptist.” No one can or should read the Bible without preconceptions because it is impossible for human beings to do so, and God does not expect the impossible from us. But your desire for such suggests to me why you may not understand or tolerate baptism of infants. (Again, as we get into this let me remind you again that I am not defending infant baptism. I am defending Christian baptism. To frame the issue as credo vs. paedo puts it the wrong way from the getgo.)

    We must read the New Testament with Old Testament preconceptions, and if you will do that, and look to the precursor of baptism (circumcision) as the foreshadowing of Christian baptism, you will begin to put the idea of baptism in its proper context. We don’t want to read the New Testament without preconceptions, so we have have the correct preconceptions (or context). The true meaning of the New Testament cannot be ascertained apart from bringing to it the proper understanding of the Old Testament. That’s why we Christians bind them (OT and NT) together.

    The Bible is not silent regarding the children of believers, and neither are we. Please don’t react to what you expect me to say as a paedo baptist. Don’t bring credo baptist preconceptions to this discussion. Come only with Scripture, but be sure to include all of it.

    Phil

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