Tag Archives: baptism

Is Belief Always a Prerequisite for Baptism?

One of the more contentious issues in the church, for centuries, has been about the nature of baptism. Must baptism be reserved for only believing adults (or older children), or can babies be baptized, too? A targeted study in Acts 16 shows us why this issue can be difficult to resolve.

Two key individuals in Acts 16 become believers, resulting from the Apostle Paul’s preaching: Lydia and the Philippian jailer. But what generates confusion is that for both Lydia and the jailer, not only were they individually baptized, the text tells us that all in each “household” were then baptized as well (Acts 16:15, and Acts 16:30-34, respectively).

Were there infants in the households of each? Unfortunately, the text never tells us, as the original word for “household” is ambiguous.

Advocates for infant baptism look to the broadest interpretation of household, assuming that infants would have been implicitly present in those houses. Advocates of believer’s baptism argue less broadly, saying that without explicit reference to infants being in those houses, we have no warrant to baptize infants.

What really throws a wrench into the whole thing can be seen in the account of the Philippian jailer. Look at what we read in the ESV (English Standard Version translation), and see if you can see the issue:

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God (Acts 16:30-34 ESV).

First, you can see that when the Philippian jailer asked about what he must do, Paul and company instructed that he should believe, in order to be saved. Interestingly, we find that his “household,” is included here. Paul and company preach to the entire household. However, aside from the jailer himself, we know little about the state of belief among the others. Did they believe, along with the jailer?

A question is raised here: Does this mean that the other members of the Philippian jailer’s household would be saved, on the basis of the jailer’s faith, a kind of “salvation by proxy?”

I have heard a similar argument before, but this is hard to square with the rest of Scripture. As Paul teaches elsewhere in the New Testament, salvation comes by believing in the Lord, with no exceptions mentioned, as in Romans 10:10-13. More likely, it means that as the Philippian jailer was head of his household, God would providentially use the Philippian jailer’s influence to bring the others in his household to believe in the Lord Jesus, and experience salvation. This happened quite frequently in the ancient world, when the believing faith of the leader in the home would eventually lead to believing faith among others in that same home, including slaves and servants.

But how long would it take for that to happen? Would the others believe in Jesus right away, or at some future time? Specifically, if there were infants or other small children in the home, does this imply that they would come to faith at a later time, under the instruction of the Philippian jailer? The text is unclear at this point.

What we do know from what follows is that the entire “household” was baptized (the ESV translates “household” here as “family,” as some other translations do, too). But notice how the ESV ends the episode: “He rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” The rest of the household rejoices, along with the jailer, that the jailer had believed in Christ. But it is not clear if the others themselves had believed in Christ at this point…. even though they had all been baptized!

A paedobaptist; that is, someone who believes in the validity of infant baptism, might be affirmed in their view. Presumably, this would allow for the practice of infants to be baptized, assuming that as the children grow up in the home, with proper instruction, they might eventually come to believe in Jesus.

A credobaptist; that is, someone who rejects the validity of infant baptism, and insisting that belief is a prerequisite for baptism, would object to this ambiguity. Does this not suggest that the entire household rejoiced for the jailer, because they all themselves believed, as well? The credobaptist might contend that infants would not have been in the position to rejoice for the jailer’s belief. But then, if a young child sees that the parent is rejoicing, would that child not also rejoice together, despite knowing the reason?

This is where looking at another Bible translation might give us some further insight. Here is that last verse again in that passage, from the Kings James Version:

And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house (Acts 16:34 KJV).

Notice how the KJV not only has the household members rejoicing, they had all come to believe, along with the Philippian jailer! This chimes in well with the theme of how baptism was practiced earlier in Acts, as in Acts 2:38, where the order was established, “Repent, and then be baptized.” But before you score a point for the credobaptist, consider what is going on with these different translations.

In the world of Bible translations, some translations are more word-for-word oriented; technically called, formal equivalence, whereas other translations are more thought-for-thought oriented; technically called, dynamic equivalence.  But the relationship between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations is actually pretty fluid within translations themselves. For example, the KJV has the reputation for being a more word-for-word oriented translation. But here the KJV takes a more thought-for-thought approach, as opposed to the ESV, which follows the original Greek word ordering more tightly.

Looking at another translation, in this case the NET Bible, shows this difficulty more clearly:

At that hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized right away. The jailer brought them into his house and set food before them, and he rejoiced greatly that he had come to believe in God, together with his entire household (Acts 16:33-34 NET).

The NET Bible follows the KJV more closely than the ESV, moving a phrase around, and gives the reason in a footnote:

The phrase “together with his entire household” is placed at the end of the English sentence so that it refers to both the rejoicing and the belief. A formal equivalence translation would have “and he rejoiced greatly with his entire household that he had come to believe in God,” but the reference to the entire household being baptized in v. 33 presumes that all in the household believed.

So, is the NET correct in presuming that all in the household believed? As we have seen, making such a presumption is not always made clear by the evidence given in the text.

Back to the main question: Is belief always a prerequisite for baptism? Unfortunately, a targeted look at Acts 16, as we have done here, does not really resolve the issue. Paedobaptists read the text one way. Credobaptists read it another. An examination of Scripture as a whole is necessary to make progress here on this debate.

The question of infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism has been a source of division among Christians for generations. By default, today many evangelical churches that defer to one’s conscience on the matter, publicly celebrate believer’s baptism, for adults and older children. Nevertheless, they offer “baby dedication” for infants, a workable solution that fulfills some of the intentions behind infant baptism, while technically not being “baptism,” and yet where the whole idea of “dedication” is surprisingly lost on most parents. Thankfully, this is not an essential issue that impinges upon one’s salvation. It is a non-essential matter in which different Christians will continue to “agree to disagree” on. Let the conversation continue.


Did King James Order His KJV Translators to Conceal the True Meaning of Baptism?

A baptismal font in England, dating back to 1405, large enough to be used for full infant immersion, throughout the Reformation period. Note the table top on the left hand side of the photo, to gain some perspective as to how big this baptismal font really is: Saint Bartholomew the Great Church in London.

This might be a bit nerdy, but it is a pet peeve of mine: Is the proper mode of baptism by pouring, sprinkling, or full immersion? What follows is an example of how an arguably plausible theological doctrine can be improperly justified with a flawed piece of historical “evidence.” The actual history of baptism is far more interesting, and it makes for a good rallying point for discussing the Scriptural mode of baptism.

I recently listened to a YouTube sermon whereby the pastor claimed that King James, the early 17th century English king, who authorized the famous 1611 King James Version translation of the Bible, purposely sought to obscure the true meaning of baptism. King James “did not allow [his Bible] translators to translate [the word] ‘bapto’” into English. The Greek word “bapto” is where we get the English word “baptism,” which is basically a transliteration from Greek into English. Most concordances, such as Strong’s, will translate “bapto” as to “dip” or “immerse.

So, why did King James steer his translators clear from actually translating this Greek word into English?  The pastor went onto explain, “Because the Anglican Church did not practice what [baptism] means. The Anglican Church sprinkled.”

My ears perked up. But the pastor continued…

The problem with leaving “bapto,” or our “baptism,” untranslated is that it has encouraged people to interpret the word however we imagine it to mean. As a result, this ambiguity about “baptism” has led English-speaking Christians, since the time of King James, to be unsure as to how baptism should be practiced in the churches. Should we practice sprinkling, pouring, or full immersion? Readers of the King James Version of the Bible, the pastor concludes, are left in this state of confusion. What a tragedy.

Well, when I heard this, my fallacy-o-meter started to register near the red-zone. I will not link to his sermon, as this is pure bunk. Things like this just annoy me….

Obviously, this pastor rejects any form of baptism that is not full immersion, which would implicitly include most modern practices of infant baptism. My longtime pastor, Dick Woodward, from years ago, told the story of a Baptist kid, who had a cat that had gotten himself entangled in some pile of garbage, and the cat came out smelling just awful! The Baptist kid wanted to wash this cat, before letting him into the house. He tried to immerse the cat into a tub of water, but the cat resisted. He tried to pour water on the cat, but the cat kept dodging the water. Frustrated, to no end, and scratched up by the rebellious cat, the Baptist kid finally uttered, “Cat, you stink so much, that I will make a Presbyterian out of you, and just sprinkle you, and let you go to hell!Continue reading


Does Baptism Save a Person?

 

(37) Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (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” (Acts 2:37-38 ESV).

Acts 2:37-38 is one of the most controversial set of verses in the New Testament. Particularly in verse 38, the larger issue concerns the order of salvation; that is, what is the process by which a person becomes saved? This doctrine of ordu salutis, from the Latin, has been discussed in various ways by different Christian traditions, ranging from Catholic, to Calvinist, to Wesleyan. We will save this bigger question for a later discussion but will focus here on one narrower, particular part of the puzzle, namely water baptism.

Does water baptism save a person? According to some traditions, such as a few branches of the Churches of Christ in Protestantism, water baptism is a requirement for salvation. In fact, in some cases, if you are not water baptized in certain churches, then these church traditions will not consider you to be a true Christian. This doctrine of baptismal regeneration argues that Acts 2:38 describes a sequential process prescribing what salvation entails, specifically, that water baptism leads a person to be forgiven of their sins.1

Critics of baptismal regeneration say that this flips the New Testament teaching on salvation by faith, and not by works, upside down, suggesting that the physical act of baptism is somehow a work that saves a person. How can this be?

If baptism can save a person, what does this mean? Continue reading


Are Baby Dedications Biblical?

Is the contemporary practice of baby dedication taught within the Bible?

Is the contemporary practice of baby dedication taught within the Bible?

Of the few people I follow on Twitter, British evangelical writer, Andrew Wilson, is right there at the top. He has the mind of a scholar and the heart of a pastor, young enough to be conversant about postmodernity, and yet wise enough to challenge me to be more humble before Scripture. In his latest blog post at Think, Wilson challenges me to consider if baby dedications, as practiced in many interdenominational churches today, are really Biblical.  His answer: They are not, but services of thanksgiving and prayers for newborns are still good ideas.

I worship in a community of faith where such baby dedications are practiced. Who is not moved when the pastor prays over a miniature human in their arms?

But it really is rather odd, if you think about it.

Consider this: Until the last thirty or forty years or so, baby dedications were rarely, if ever, practiced in any evangelical church. Why has such a novelty, with the slimmest of Biblical backing, taken off in interdenominational churches today? What Wilson does not dive into that much is summarized by his Tweet from a few months ago, “baby dedications are perhaps the most obvious symbol of credobaptist cultic deprivation.”

What I think Andrew Wilson means by that is this: Modern evangelical churches are drawn to baby dedications because they serve as a compromise solution to the long-standing baptism debate: infant baptism (paedobaptism) vs. believer’s baptism (credobaptism).  With baby dedication, it is not to be confused with baptism, while it still symbolizes the notion of bringing a child into the community, passing on the faith to the next generation (or so we hope). So, while baby dedication steps around the controversy (which is understandable), it nevertheless fails to engage the Christian to fully think through how the covenants of God work within Scripture, and how baptism is related (I stand guilty myself). So, we get a workable solution that makes peace between the differing viewpoints, but at the expense of shallowing the theological depth of our Biblical thinking in our churches.

As a first step, it might be better to rename “baby dedications” as “parent dedications” instead, as these events are more about the parents dedicating themselves to present the Gospel to their children, along with the help of the surrounding church community, and about praying to God that He would touch the hearts of those children, over the coming years, with His Word of Truth and Life. Any thoughts?


%d bloggers like this: