—John F. Walker, Greenwich, Connecticut
Your question deals with one of the most important, yet debatable, issues within the Christian family. We receive many wonderful gifts through baptism, but the most important role of baptism is to identify us with Jesus and with other believers who follow him. Baptism is our profession of faith.
This is why the first Christians declared their faith in Christ at baptism by saying, "Jesus is Lord." The Apostles' Creed and other statements of faith were also associated with baptism. Baptism involved more than correct belief, though. It was an induction into a new way of life. It signaled a lifelong process of learning and living according to the gospel of Christ.
During the Reformation, Huldrych Zwingli compared baptism to the white cross sewn onto the uniform of a Swiss soldier (we see this same symbol on the Swiss flag today). Combatants bearing this symbol identified with the Swiss cause. Just so, baptism marks us off as militia christi, soldiers of Christ who wield the spiritual weapons Paul described in Ephesians 6.
Second, baptism is closely related to personal faith and repentance. This is the primary reason why many Christians (and I am among them) think baptism should be administered only to those persons who have repented of their sins and believed the gospel. Baptism may confirm the faith of believers, but it does not create faith in those who have never trusted in Christ.
Yes, God's covenant of grace is broader than baptism and may well embrace those who have not yet come to personal faith in Christ, such as infants, young children, and the mentally incompetent, among others. Still, like the Lord's Supper, baptism signifies an earnest pledging of ourselves to God (1 Peter 3:21) and thus presupposes a living faith in Jesus.
But what about the many Christians who practice infant baptism? How do they understand its relationship to faith? Among Protestants, there are two broad answers to this question. In different ways both seek to preserve the connection between faith and baptism.
Luther taught that baptism effects (or "works") forgiveness of sins, but he was clear that the water alone did not do this, but rather faith and the Word of God which is "with and in" the water. Baptized babies are not void of faith, he said, for God grants a certain kind of "infant faith" to them. Still, it is not baptism that creates faith, but God himself who gives faith to the child.
The Reformed tradition stemming from Zwingli and John Calvin, though, answered the question of infant baptism and faith in a different way. This tradition emphasized the covenant faith of the church, especially the personal faith of Christian parents. While Calvin could speak of the "seed" of repentance and faith that the Holy Spirit gave to infants in baptism, clearly he had future repentance and faith in mind. That future faith is when the baptized child would "own" the covenant and receive the new birth promised in baptism.
For all their differences, evangelicals agree in opposing the indiscriminate, careless use of baptism. Baptism is not a rite of initiation by which one joins a holy club or a certain social or political order. Baptism must take place in the context of faith, and it must connect to the central events of the gospel—Jesus' cross and resurrection.
The relation of baptism to salvation has also been disputed. In medieval theology, infants who died without benefit of baptism were consigned to limbo—a sort of air-conditioned compartment of hell in which there was little suffering but from which there was no escape. But the idea that all who die without baptism are eternally lost is just as false as its converse: the teaching that baptism automatically conveys eternal life.
God is sovereign, and his mercy is not bound to the ordinary means of grace, including baptism and the Lord's Supper, which he has given to the church. The Spirit blows where it wills. Who knows how many deathbed penitents, like the thief on the cross, we will see in heaven?
We must not abuse this principle, however, to relegate baptism to a minor place in the Christian life. While God is not bound, we are! The Great Commission is still in effect, and Peter's Pentecost sermon is still the message we proclaim: "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" (Acts 2:38).
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and an executive editor of Christianity Today.
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Earlier Good Question columns include:
How can I reconcile my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture with comments in Bible translations that state that a particular verse is not 'in better manuscripts'?
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