The Fork in the Road: On Imperfect Baptisms, Part 5

Infant baptism

Now, the other place where the Churches of Christ (and Baptists) disagree with most of the rest of Christianity is in the acceptability of infant baptism (even if performed by immersion). I don’t want to re-walk well-worn ground, other than to summarize what the readers surely already know.

Those opposed to infant baptism argue —

* Biblical baptism is for those capable of believing and repenting —

(Acts 2:38 ESV)  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

(Mar 16:16 ESV) Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

(Acts 8:12) But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

* Nations where infant baptism is the near-universal practice tend to have a nominal, weak Christianity.

* Infant baptism is closely tied with Constantinian, state religion and did not become widely practiced until baptism became essential to citizenship.

* Confirmation is unheard of in New Testament or early church practice.

Those favoring infant baptism argue —

* The New Testament has multiple examples of “household” baptisms, and it’s wildly improbable that there were no young children in those households.

* If infants can’t be baptized, what is their eternal fate if they die?

* There is no concept in the New Testament of an “age of accountability.”

* Jesus said,

(Mat 19:14 ESV) but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

* Paul compares baptism to circumcision, and circumcision was administered to the male children of Israelites on the 8th day after birth.

(Col 2:11-12 ESV)  11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,  12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

* Infant baptism can be dated back to at least the 3rd century in the early church fathers.

Again, I’m trying to be fair — not to persuade the readers to go baptize their babies. To me, the biggest objection is that salvation is for those who confess “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9), and I don’t see how an infant can do that. But disagreeing with me makes you neither rebellious nor ignorant. Some of the greatest theologians the world has ever known have favored infant baptism. I think they’re mistaken, but they’re not idiots or rebellious.

Back to the Paradox

And so, with this information in mind, we recognize that the community of believers is also a community of people who’ve been baptized — or who, at least, in all honesty, and with considerable scholarship, consider themselves baptized. If I disagree with an Anglican or Baptist regarding baptism, we still agree on Jesus. We still agree on repentance. And we still agree that Christians ought to be baptized.

Indeed, the Anglican and I would team up against the Baptist, arguing that baptism is the moment of salvation — whereas the Baptist and I would team up against the Anglican to argue that the proper mode is immersion and the proper recipient is a penitent believer.

We must dismiss from our thinking the perverse notion that other denominations willfully and ignorantly ignore our arguments. No, they just disagree.

With that out of the way, we still have to wrestle with what God will do with a penitent believer, who wants to obey God with all her heart, who reaches the wrong conclusion regarding the purposes or mode of or age for baptism. Does God damn such a person because she was baptized as an infant? Or received baptism by pouring? Or took the dozens of verses saying that all with faith are saved so literally that she concluded she was saved when she first believed?

There are two ways of addressing that question. First, we can be loyal to our tradition, and treat those with imperfect baptisms as damned because they are in error — and if we reach that conclusion, we would be quite consistent with those who damn those who worship with an instrument because they are in error. But we would soon find ourselves struggling to define — from the scriptures — just which errors damn and which do not.

Second, we can open our Bibles to see how God deals with those who approach him with penitence and faith — but are otherwise less than ideal candidates for his forgiveness. And when we do this, we find that God always accepts those who come to him with penitence and faith.

I gave many examples of God’s doing just this in the Amazing Grace series.

Baptism, Part 5 (The Outside the Covenant Argument: Patriarchal and Mosaic Dispensations)

Baptism, Part 6 (The Outside the Covenant Argument: Christian Dispensation)

I just want to mention one here. When David sinned with Bathsheba, he wrote,

(Psa 51:16-17 ESV) 6 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Now, the Law of Moses is quite clear that, in fact, God wants burnt offerings as a condition of forgiving sin. That’s what the rule says. It’s in the text. But David sees through the law to the heart of God, recognizing that the sacrifices only point to a deeper, richer, truer meaning. God wants our hearts.

To much the same effect is —

(Psa 40:6-8 ESV)  6 In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.  7 Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me:  8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”

(Psa 34:16-19 ESV) 16 The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.  17 When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.  18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.  19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.

You see, it ultimately comes down to your understanding of who God is. Is God watching us, hoping we’ll make some technical mistake, overlooking some subtly revealed truth — so he can say he told us what to do but we were too stupid to find it? Or does God actually want us to make it to heaven?

Does God create traps for the unwary? Or does he look for ways to rescue us from our weakness and failings?

That’s the heart of the argument. But there’s a nice, logical way to state it: Does God keep his promises or not? Does he keep all of his promises or just some of them?

Obviously, God keeps every single promise he’s ever made. So how will God deal with the fact that he promised to save all those with submissive faith in Jesus? Well, he’ll keep his promise. It’s not complicated.

Next: Is perfect baptism required?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Baptism, Fork in the Road, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Fork in the Road: On Imperfect Baptisms, Part 5

  1. Pastor Mike says:

    Given the conversation on Part 4 of this series, I suspect your candid and gracious observation will be quickly lost.

    "But disagreeing with me makes you neither rebellious nor ignorant. Some of the greatest theologians the world has ever known have favored infant baptism. I think they’re mistaken, but they’re not idiots or rebellious."

    "We must dismiss from our thinking the perverse notion that other denominations willfully and ignorantly ignore our arguments. No, they just disagree."

    Thank you for your gracious approach to these issues.

    Blessings to you on this beautiful Lord's Day.
    Pastor Mike

  2. Glenn Ellis says:

    Why not just leave it that God does not promise salvation, today, to any person except a baptized believer? As to whether God saves any others, say only they have no promise of salvation, and "them that are without God judges."

    Glenn Ellis
    [email protected]

  3. Alan says:

    Jay, I think you've made a strong case that salvation is by faith, and that faith implies obedience to God's commands as we understand them — but not requiring perfect obedience, which no mortal could accomplish.

    I don't quite agree with Glenn who says:

    Why not just leave it that God does not promise salvation, today, to any person except a baptized believer? As to whether God saves any others, say only they have no promise of salvation, and “them that are without God judges.”

    That's close, but I would have said that just a bit differently. There are passages giving terms for salvation without mentioning baptism. So we have to reconcile those passages with the others that do mention baptism. The process of reconciling the two sets of passages is *entirely* an exercise of fallible human reasoning. I'm convinced that I've done so correctly, but there are good-hearted, intelligent, and well-informed people who come to a different conclusion. So it would be arrogant of me to insist that I cannot be wrong about it.

    When I come to conclusion "A" and someone else comes to conclusion "B", and the two conclusions are mutually exclusive, at least one of us is wrong. Maybe both. I have to teach what I believe to be true. And so does the other person. The question is, what will God do with whichever one of us is wrong?

    I think it depends on the subject. If someone teaches that Jesus did not come in the flesh, they are lost. (2 John 1:7-9) If they teach differently on a matter like the qualifications for elders, they may be wrong but they are not lost. (1 Cor 3:12-15). Which category does baptism fit into?

    Some believe baptism is the mechanism through which forgiveness is conferred. They have scripture supporting that view (Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16 for example). They might argue that failure to be properly baptized therefore means failure to receive forgiveness. But that presumes that God is limited only to delivering forgiveness through the mechanism of baptism. That is clearly false. God can forgive anyone he wishes. He has paid the price with his Son, and he can apply that at will. He has not constrained himself to forgive only via baptism.

    If I have correctly reconciled the baptism passages with the faith passages, then God has not told us what he will do with those who have not been 'scripturally baptized.' And since he has not told us, we must say "I don't know." Those are the hardest three words for a Christian to say on the subject of salvation. But they are true. Whether or not I have interpreted the passages correctly, I still must say "I don't know."

    But I still must teach what I believe to be true. I have no other choice.

  4. Grizz says:

    Jay, and others,

    Did I miss it? Did I miss where you discussed the background material for those wonderful passages about faith that only told the faith side of things?

    It is as though there is all this darkness…so I ran to get a flashlight (we got these really cool ones at church for Father's Day) and when I got back I realized there was actually plenty of light, but there was also all this craziness where these people were walking around with those thick, fuzzy, sleeping blinders on and complaining about the darkness!!! Sometimes we come to a roomful of conversation just itching to show off our new toys so much that we do not bother to look at what the problem actually is before running to get our new toys…! And then, well, you get the idea.

    It seems to me that looking into the background of most of these passages sheds a lot of light on the variations between them – which is pretty much the way you can dispell most of the mythical contradictions people like to blow up out of all proportion. So did I miss that part?

    Scratching my thick skull,


  5. Laymond says:

    Yes, let's all admit it, baptism is nothing more than a show of faith in God, and our love for God. God forgives, water does not. As a matter of fact, water will kill you if you stay under to long. I don't believe anyone here is saying water cleanses the soul. Baptism cleans the soul, and there is more to it than being submerged in water.

    1Pe 3:21 The like figure whereunto [even] baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

    " the answer of a good conscience toward God," our actions show our faith in God.

    Lets look at another action of faith in God, Abraham was asked to give his son as a sacrifice to God to prove his faith/trust . God let him go to the final step before he stopped him, but he knew Abraham's heart and intentions and the price was high, Abraham had done more than just talk, his actions was what convinced God of his trust, so God created a way out.

    Is that what is being said here, as long as we go right up to the water, God knows our intentions, our heart, so he voids the baptism part. Is the price of going into the water really to high, I have personally never seen a believer get to the edge of the water, and God say OK you have convinced me, never mind, the price is just to high.
    God stopped the fulfillment of the command, not Abraham, and neither should you.

  6. Arland says:

    When we don't obey God, we can say at least four things. (1) the message is ambiguous. (2) we are ignorant. (3) we have placed our faith in someone or something other than the Lord. (4) we are rebellious. Perhaps there are more possible explanations. It is difficult for me to see how a person who lives in a time and place were the Word is readily available could claim to be ignorant. I believe that if you seek, you will eventually find. I am so old-fashioned as to believe that "born of water" has to do with baptism. We do know that Jesus said unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom. That seems fairly clear. It is not our prerogative to judge others but we should preach the truth as we know it.

  7. Bruce Morton says:

    You asked me (in a different, related chain) about reconciliation of the proposed paradox regarding "salvation by faith" and apostolic teaching about baptism.

    I also see Alan's statement that summarizes "Jay, I think you’ve made a strong case that salvation is by faith, and that faith implies obedience to God’s commands as we understand them — but not requiring perfect obedience, which no mortal could accomplish."

    No paradox exists regarding "salvation by faith" and apostolic teaching about baptism as an act of God's grace. Why would there be one? I hope that someday down the road we get rid of thinking that holds us back (along with some Southern Baptists) from seeing that we are saved by grace through faith — and what that means. Correct? (Ephesians 2:8)

    And how are we saved by grace, i.e. "made alive with Christ" (Ephesians 2:5) through faith? The answer penetrates Ephesians (5:26; 4:5; Markus Barth may be correct in his suggestion that Ephesians was a baptism manual of sorts for Roman Asia — and beyond). Paul answers unmistakably in Romans 6:1ff. The letters we are seeing summarize apostolic teaching — such as occurred for days/weeks/months in the lecture hall in Ephesus, and other locations. But we are being shown what the risen Lord is directing.

    Titus 3:4-7 and Romans 6:1ff. announce that we are washed clean by the grace of God as we are immersed — actually taking part in the death and resurrection of Jesus with Him!

    Alan, this is not about "perfect understanding." It is about depending on the grace of the Lord — including in baptism, The very thing that has been emphasizing. And we need to halt the thinking that teaching what the apostles taught then "damns" others. I, for one, refuse to determine how folks will respond to the Word of the Lord.

    But we also need to stop allowing the Satanic deception that has suggested we close up Bibles, stop talking about baptism with folks, and everyone decide to just avoid the discussion.

    Jay, I am praying you take up Everett Ferguson's new study for a book review. Leaves no stone unturned. He has penned a full-fledged look at the first 400 years that will be the standard for generations. Why? First, he believes apostolic teaching and teaches it. Second, that frees him to assess and draw correct conclusions regarding post-apostolic teaching (some of which purposefully leaves behind apostolic teaching; i.e. the Gnostics being one example). Ferguson sees with clarity that not every expression of "faith in Jesus" historically was true. Some were lies — even when folks were blind to such. Their faith was seduced into becoming rebellion.

    We need to kindly, patiently, lovingly help when we see spiritual lies being expressed, not sit back and hope folks will read the Word. That is not the example of apostles and other early disciples in the middle of spiritual war. And yes, that is one of the significant differences between the 21st century U.S. and the first century Mediterranean. Greeks, Romans, Asian, and Jews did believe in evil. They could understand the Gospel more easily than can many in our time for which the word "evil" is perhaps almost meaningless (I am sad to say that I believe Andrew Delbanco's look at the U.S. in The Death of Satan is on target; evil has become social/cultural only, no longer metaphysical and theological, for most of the U.S. — and perhaps for some followers of Jesus).

    We desperately need to grasp the example of apostolic action and teaching as we reach out to love, help, and teach others — remembering that a spiritual war is real for us and for them.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  8. Bruce Morton says:

    When you say baptism is "nothing more than a show of faith in God" you certainly capture that is indeed an expression of our faith in God. When I submit to the action I am indeed expressing my faith.

    But let me offer that "nothing more" misses two remarkable texts that I am asking you wade in to further; Titus 3:4-7 and Romans 6:1ff. What they reveal is that baptism is an action of God's grace. A wonderful expression by the Creator to us! We are allowed to actually participate in Jesus' death and resurrection with Him! We are passive in the event — to emphasize the action as God's, not ours. His grace expressed to us.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  9. Tom Forrester says:

    Jay says: "Now, the Law of Moses is quite clear that, in fact, God wants burnt offerings as a condition of forgiving sin. That’s what the rule says. It’s in the text. But David sees through the law to the heart of God, recognizing that the sacrifices only point to a deeper, richer, truer meaning. God wants our hearts."

    Great post Jay. Now you're really getting to it. I think we would all acknowledge the overriding rule of hermeneutics is to compare our understanding to the revealed character of God.

    Just as you demonstrated with David, the same was true of Moses. When Moses was receiving the law (2nd set of tablets), he wanted to also see God's glory. One might think Moses had the law, what else is there? God then revealed Himself to Moses in Ex 34:6-8 where Moses saw the back of God. God then revealed his "heart" to Moses (and to us)! What a beautiful and awesome description resulting in Moses' response in verse 8. Just look at God's description of Himself! Is not God looking for the same qualities and response in us?

    Jesus is not only looking for correct understanding and obedience from us. No, no. That's just the beginning. We can also be transformed into His image if we seek to have Him living in us. Understanding and obedience are simply the effects of a good heart. It's the heart itself that God is concerned with. Time for us to also seek and see through the law to the very heart of God. Time to move on to perfection.

  10. K. Rex Butts says:

    Glenn Ellis,

    Actually Jesus did promise salvation to some whose only baptism was their infant baptism…they were believers throughout Christian history who from the depths of their faith in Jesus Christ have suffered, been persecuted, and even at times been slaughtered as martyrs and Jesus promised that whoever lost their life for him and the gospel would recieve life (cf. Mk 8.35).

    And Jesus did not make that promise with any other conditions that we might want to affix to it so that Jesus can be harmonized to the dogmatic box the CoC has placed Jesus in. So either Jesus' promises are true for all who have suffered for the gospel regardless of their baptismal understanding and practice or Jesus is a liar.

    Grace and peace,


  11. K. Rex Butts says:

    Does anyone ever remember Jesus' teaching on the wheat and weeds (cf. Matt 13.24-30)? Maybe some in the CoC (perhaps many?) ought to just learn to actually take it a bit more serious and stop trying to separate the what they believe is the weeds from the wheat – that is, those who htey believe are 'unscripturally baptized' from those who are 'scripturally baptized' – and accept all who profess the name of Jesus regardless of their beliefs/practices regarding baptism as a brother/sister in Christ. For the history of this 'weed separating' practice in our fellowship has proved the words of Jesus true…that in engaging in such practice has pulled up some wheat WHICH GOD WAS CULTIVATING FOR HIS HARVEST.

    A few years back, after much prayer, open dialogue, etc…I convinced a woman in her 50's to give Jesus another try and join our church. She had left being a part of any church 25 years ago because she grew sick of her father, who was a preacher in the CoCs, constantly trying to separate the weeds from the wheat. Fortunately this person returned to Jesus and his people but how many others like this woman are out there who will never return because though they were wheat being cultivated by God for his redemptive harvest were plucked in some preacher's arrogant need to be God and tell others who is in and who is out?

    Grace and peace,


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