The Million-Dollar Infant Baptism
Several weeks ago I had the unique experience of witnessing my first infant baptism. I suppose that one statement says a lot about my own spiritual background in that I managed to live 54 years without ever seeing an infant baptism in person. I was raised Baptist and have spent my ministerial career serving in churches that practiced believers' baptism by immersion. Those are the circles in I have moved and felt most comfortable. And yet when all of Christendom is taken in consideration, that position is decidedly in the minority. Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and all the Reformed churches practice infant baptism. I witnessed my first one while preaching at a Reformed church in Elmhurst, Illinois. And I even had a personal connection because it happened that years earlier I had married the first couple whose children were being baptized that day.
The pastor began by asking the parents if they were true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. He also asked them to affirm their commitment to raise their children in the church and to teach them the Word of God. His comments were essentially no different than the ones I make whenever I do a child dedication. Just before the baptism itself, he used a fascinating illustration. Suppose, he said to the parents, that a rich uncle came to you this morning and said, "I'm giving each of your children a check for a million dollars." You would be thrilled and your children would be blessed even though they wouldn't understand the significance of it. The check would guarantee your children's financial future. However, a million-dollar check is useless unless the person who receives it also endorses it and deposits it in the bank. If you never endorse it, the million dollars never really becomes yours. Infant baptism, he said, is like that. It's like a million-dollar check in that it brings the promises of God to the child but those promises are of no effect unless the child personally comes to faith in Jesus Christ. I am paraphrasing but I think that's a fair summary of the pastor's words.
Then he dipped his hands in the water of the baptismal font, placed it in the forehead of each child, and if I'm not mistaken, he did it three times, saying that it was done in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. All in all, it was a beautiful and simple ceremony. I was glad to be there to observe it.
Those of us who hold to believers' baptism tend to have several major objections to infant baptism. Two are biblical and one is more pastoral in nature.
1) There is no example of infant baptism in the New Testament.
2) There is no command to baptize babies in the New Testament.
3) Many people who have been baptized as infants believe they are going to heaven because a priest or a pastor sprinkled some water on their forehead when they were a few weeks old.
It is #3 that is our chief objection. Too many people trust in their church connection (and thus in their infant baptism) who give no evidence at all of knowing Christ personally, trusting him, loving him, serving him, following him and obeying him, They never darken the doors of any church and seem to have no spiritual interest, yet they believe they are going to heaven because they are "members of God's family" by virtue of infant baptism. Sometimes they are even told that by church leaders.
That’s why I liked the million-dollar illustration. It makes clear that no one goes to heaven because water was sprinkled on them when they were a baby. And by implication, it teaches that infant baptism does not and cannot save. It is Christ who saves by faith. We are saved when we "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 16:31).
The pastor quoted the words of Jesus who said, "Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them" (Matthew 19:14). I smiled wryly and thought of Spurgeon's sermon Children Brought to Christ, and Not to the Font, but that was just my "inner Baptist" coming out.
Christians differ in our understanding of baptism, and it is not likely that we will agree on this until we get to heaven. For a good recent summary of various views, see the brand-new Understanding Four Views on Baptism, edited by John Armstrong and featuring presentations (and rebuttals) by representatives of the Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran and Christian Church/Church of Christ positions.
I remain convinced that believers' baptism is scriptural, but at the same time I recognize that thoughtful Christians disagree over this issue. I suppose (this is my "inner Baptist" coming out again) that if you have to have infant baptism, I like the way the pastor did it, with a strong emphasis on the fact that the children are not saved by baptism and must later come to personal saving faith in Christ. I can have happy fellowship with Christians of that conviction and will also be happy to baptize those children again (or for the first time, from my point of view) when they trust Christ as Savior.
One other note. This week I have enjoyed reading a delightful little book by Stephen J. Nichols called The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. In his chapter on John Calvin, he notes that "only two heresies were punishable by death in the Holy Roman Empire--heresies relating to the Trinity and the insistence on believers' baptism (in the place of infant baptism)" (p. 80). That made me sit up straight. Great issues are at stake in the baptism debate and I do not wish to minimize them. Where the gospel is faithfully preached and believed, we can recognize that we are truly brothers and sisters in Christ despite our deeply-held convictions in certain areas. We will sometimes have to agree to disagree and even to worship in different churches while still extending the hand of Christian fellowship across the watery divide of baptism.
As always, your comments are welcome. Click here to offer your thoughts.