The Institution of Baptism

Christian baptism was instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ after He had finished the work of atonement* and had risen from the dead. Berkhof draws attention to the fact that the Lord Jesus prefaced the great commission, with its reference to baptism, with the words, "all power [authority] is given unto me in heaven and in earth." He remarks, "Clothed with that mediatorial authority, He instituted Christian baptism and thus made it binding for all generations" (Systematic Theology, p. 624). Almost all Christians agree that Christ's command is binding on all succeeding generations, though some extreme dispensationalists maintain that water baptism belongs to the Kingdom Age and that only the baptism of the Spirit has any place in the church.

The Baptismal Formula

In Matt. 28:19, the Lord Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." The phrase denotes more than "on the authority of," and carries in it the thought of "in relation to" or "with regard to," emphasizing that baptism signifies a new relationship, a new faith, and a new obedience.

While Matt. 28:19 is usually called the baptismal formula, it is not commanded to be used as such. The verse states as a fact that Christian baptism signifies a new relationship with the Triune God. It does not stipulate a necessary form of words, as can be seen from the apostolic emphasis on baptism "in the name of Jesus Christ." It is significant that water baptism is in the name of Christ; spiritual baptism (1 Cor. 12:13; see Regeneration) is "into Jesus Christ" (Rom. 6:3). This reminds us that water baptism signifies a profession of faith and does not in itself bring one into the reality of union with Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can do that, and water baptism is not necessary to His work.

Various prepositions are used in the phrase "in the name of." In Acts 2:38, the preposition epi is used and "probably refers to a baptism on the confession of Jesus as the Messiah" (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 625). In Acts 10:48, en is used with the thought "on the authority of Jesus Christ." In all other references, eis is used, with the thought "in relation to Jesus Christ."

The Meaning of Baptism

The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that baptism is more than the solemn admission of a person into the visible church. It is also "a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life" (Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11, 12; Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:5; Titus 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3, 4). The Confession holds that baptism is a sign and seal of our union with Christ, "seal" being used in the sense of a token, pledge, confirmation, or assurance.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 69, states: "Christ has appointed the outward washing with water and added the promise that I am washed with His Blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away."

Thus, purification is essential to the symbolism of baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16), and union with Christ is its basic significance.

The Efficacy of Baptism

Protestantism rejects all shades of baptismal regeneration and the popish notion that the sacrament operates opus operatum.* Baptism is not essential to salvation. In Rom. 4:9–11, Paul carefully distinguishes three things: (1) the righteousness upon which we are accepted by God; (2) faith, by which we appropriate that righteousness; and (3) the seal, which is an after-deed. "It assumes or takes for granted, the validity of the previous transaction. It proceeds upon the supposition, first, of the covenant being itself made and ratified, exclusively on the footing of the perfect righteousness of God; and, secondly, of its being made over to me, and made practically and personally mine, exclusively through faith" (R. S. Candlish, Exposition of Genesis, p. 176). Thus, baptism is neither the meritorious cause of our salvation, nor the instrument by which it is appropriated.

Against this view, some sects quote Acts 2:38; 22:16; and 1 Pet. 3:21. Acts 2:38 and 1 Pet. 3:21 are fully discussed under Baptismal Regeneration.*

Acts 22:16 must be understood in a sacramental or symbolic way. Paul was saved on the Damascus road, for there he acknowledged Jesus as Lord (Acts 9:5, 6), and this is proof of the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). Thus, the baptismal washing was symbolic of the spiritual cleansing he had already received.

Were baptism necessary to salvation, what would become of all the OT saints? Or the penitent thief? Or infants who die unbaptized? It is of fundamental importance to recognize that salvation is by free grace, on the ground of Christ's righteousness, received by faith alone. However the sacraments may express and strengthen that faith, they are not the instrument of salvation.

The Modes of Baptism

Most Christians, with the notable exception of Baptists,* hold that baptism may be validly administered by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Baptists insist that the symbolism of burial demands immersion and furthermore that the verb baptizo "always signifies to dip; never expressing anything but mode" (Carson, Baptism in its Mode and Subjects).

NT usage does not justify such an assertion. In Mark 7:4, we read of the Pharisees washing before meals and of their ceremonial washing of various household items, the last of which is "tables" or "couches," the beds on which they reclined at meals. In both cases baptizo is used, and it is clear that immersion is out of the question. Furthermore, how can immersion be read into baptizo in Matt. 3:11; Luke 11:37, 38; 12:50; 1 Cor. 10:2; 12:13? In the OT many of the washings ("baptizings") were by sprinkling (Num. 8:7; 19:13, 20; Ezek. 36:25; Heb. 9:10), and there is nothing to suggest that such a mode is no longer valid. Indeed, the evidence of the Didache* is that multiple modes of baptism were observed in the early church.

The Subjects of Baptism

Terms of the Dispute. This is the most vexed area of the baptismal controversy. Baptists, often making baptism merely a badge of profession and testimony and the door to joining the church, hold that only believers may be scripturally baptized. The Reformed churches generally—holding it to be the sign and seal of the covenant—believe that it should also be administered to the children of believers. They do not oppose adult baptism and recognize that it must be preceded by a profession of faith (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:41; 16:31–33), but they insist that the children of baptized believers should be baptized because God has included them in the covenant (Acts 2:39).

Baptists argue that the NT nowhere commands infant baptism, nor does it afford any examples of it. Both these points are admitted by paedobaptists, though they point out that in the NT we read of whole households being baptized and hold, especially in the light of the OT and of the example of proselyte baptisms among the Jews, that there is little doubt that the children of the house were included.

Paedobaptists hold that in the missionary situation of the early church, the emphasis naturally would fall on adult baptism. But Berkhof remarks, "At the same time, the language of the NT is perfectly consistent with a continuation of the organic administration of the covenant, which required the circumcision of children, Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:13–16; Acts 2:39; 1 Cor. 7:14."

Baptism and Circumcision. The allusion to circumcision holds the key to the controversy. Baptists hold that the parallelism is invalid: "Nor does it serve to introduce the OT sign of circumcision. There is certainly a kinship between the signs. But there are also great differences. The fact that one was given to infant boys on a fixed day is no argument for giving the other to all children some time in infancy. They belong, if not to different covenants, at least to different dispensations of the one covenant: the one to a preparatory stage, when a national people was singled out and its sons belonged naturally to the people of God; the other to the fulfilment, when the Israel of God is spiritual and children are added by spiritual rather than natural regeneration. In any case, God Himself gave a clear command to circumcise the male descendants of Abraham; he has given no similar command to baptize the male and female descendants of Christians" (Baker's Dictionary of Theology).

Paedobaptists, however, hold that the covenant made with Abraham was essentially spiritual and that circumcision was its sign and seal. NT quotations indicate the spiritual nature of the covenant (Rom. 4:16–18; Gal. 3:8, 9, 14, 16; Heb. 8:10; 11:9, 10, 13). Also, circumcision had a spiritual significance (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25, 26; Rom. 2:26–29; 4:11). That all this cannot be divorced from the gospel is clear from Gal. 3:8, where the promise of the Abrahamic covenant is specifically termed "the gospel." Thus, the covenant made with Abraham is the same covenant which is called "the new covenant" and which Christians enjoy. We are justified on the same ground as Abraham. We are said to be "blessed with faithful Abraham" (Gal. 3:9). Justification by faith in Christ is said to be "the blessing of Abraham," which "comes on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ" (Gal. 3:14).

All this points to unity and continuity. Colossians 2:11–13 shows circumcision and baptism to have the same spiritual significance, and since circumcision was applicable to children, then "without an express intimation to the contrary, the practice of administering the initiatory seal of the covenant to infants would be kept up, as a matter of course, under the gospel. It required no formal injunction to warrant its continuance, but very explicit authority must be produced to enable the church to set it aside" (Candlish, p. 180).

Ursinus, the coauthor of the Heidelberg Catechism, reduced this argument to a simple syllogism: "Under the Old Testament, infants were circumcised as well as adults. Baptism occupies the place of circumcision in the New Testament and has the same use circumcision had in the Old Testament. Therefore infants are to be baptized as well as adults" (Commentary of Ursinus, p. 367).

Peter Edwards on Baptism. Peter Edwards, a Baptist pastor who set out to write a work to establish the Baptist position and who was convinced of paedobaptism by his research for that projected work, sums up the Baptist and paedobaptist position to support the scripturalness of the latter:

Baptist arguments are basically two:

1. Only those who are expressly given a right to the ordinance by Scripture may receive baptism. Children are not so mentioned and therefore may not be baptized. Peter Edwards replies that by the same token women would have to be debarred from the Lord's table, but Baptists admit them, rightly but inconsistently. Clearly the NT does not set out to give express rights to all who may receive a sacrament.

2. Faith and repentance are required in order to baptism. Infants cannot exercise these; therefore, infants may not be baptized.

Edwards replies that all such requirements were made of adults. Thus the argument really is this: faith and repentance are required of adults in order to be baptized, but infants cannot exercise these; therefore, infants may not be baptized. Logically, such an argument is useless, for the premise does not lead to the conclusion.

Furthermore, Edwards argues, the same logic would prove that

a. Infants may not be circumcised (Rom. 2:25; Gal. 5:3—they could not keep the law);
b. Infants cannot be saved (Mk. 16:16—if infants are imported at all into this text, it proves that an infant dying is lost);
c. Christ should not have been baptized, for He could not repent.

Edwards' case is that each conclusion is wrong because the argument which produced it is wrong.

Paedobaptist arguments are basically three:

1. Infants of believers were in the OT admitted to membership in God's visible church, and that by a religious rite.
2. Such membership has never been set aside in Scripture—Rom. 11:17, 18, 23, 24; Eph. 2:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 9:47, 48 (cf. Rom. 14:1; Matt. 10:40); Acts 2:39. All indicate the opposite.
3. Since infants must be received into the visible church (Luke 9:47, 48), it must be with or without baptism. Since Scripture warrants no reception into the visible church without baptism, the admission of infants must be with baptism.

A Baptist Covenant Theologian on Paedobaptism. Paul K. Jewett, while affirming his acceptance of covenant theology,* rejected such arguments, especially the analogy of baptism to circumcision. Unlike some Baptist controversialists who reduce circumcision to being the mark of citizenship in the Jewish nation, Jewett admits, "There is a fundamental affinity of meaning between circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New" (Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, p. 87). However, in dealing with the covenant, he argues that the "affinity of the old with the new must be counterbalanced by a proper emphasis on the diversity between the two" (Jewett, p. 90). Jewett pressed the argument as follows:

"With the advent of Messiah—the promised seed par excellence—and the Pentecostal effusion of the Spirit, the salvation contained in the promise to Israel was brought nigh. No longer was it a hope on the distant horizon but rather an accomplished fact in history. Then—and for our discussion, this THEN is of capital significance—the temporal, earthly, typical elements of the old dispensation were dropped from the great house of salvation as scaffolding from the finished edifice. It is our contention that the Paedobaptists, in framing their argument from circumcision, have failed to keep this significant historical development in clear focus. Proceeding from the basically correct postulate that baptism stands in the place of circumcision, they have urged this analogy to a distortion. They have so far pressed the unity of the covenant as to suppress the diversity of its administration. They have, to be specific, Christianized the Old Testament and Judaized the New.

"It is this double movement within the argument from circumcision—reading the New Testament as though it were the Old and the Old Testament as though it were the New—which makes the argument so easy to use and so difficult to criticize.… It is this compounded error that makes the Reformed argument for infant baptism, apparently so plausible on a superficial level, seem utterly confused when one probes it in depth" (pp. 91–92).

Jewett argued that while it is right for Christians to read the OT in the light of the New, it is unwarrantable to read it as if it were the New, ignoring the theological significance of the terms "Old" and "New." This, he claims, is the error paedobaptists make. He charges that they practically submerge all the ethnic and national significance of circumcision under its religious and spiritual meaning. Jewett goes on to state that there are two vital considerations that undermine the evangelical paedobaptists' contention.

1. In the OT, circumcision had two aspects: one temporal and earthly, the other eternal and heavenly.

2. Participation in the earthly aspect (i.e., being of the physical line of Abraham) was sufficient to establish a person's right to circumcision. This is where circumcision and baptism differ. Baptism has only a single significance, one that is spiritual and heavenly. "No-one in the New Testament times is born with a right to baptism apart from faith" (p. 97). Evangelical paedobaptists admit that there is no right to baptism through mere physical lineage. They admit that the only right is that of faith. But this admission highlights the clear difference between circumcision and baptism and invalidates the paedobaptist argument from the affinity of baptism with circumcision. The dilemma is not resolved by the substitution of the faith of a parent or sponsor in place of the personal faith of the child. This idea of vicarious faith "is wholly without warrant in the Scripture and repugnant to the fundamental truth that no one can receive and rest upon Christ for salvation by proxy" (p. 184).

Covenant Theology and Believer's Baptism. Jewett concludes his case against paedobaptism by arguing that covenant theology implies "believer baptism" (Jewett prefers this to the more usual "believer's baptism"):

"The troubled water of Paedobaptism can be rendered a clear and flowing stream if one recognizes that the promise of the seed made to Abraham had a twofold reference. In the age of type and anticipation, it embraced not only those who shared Abraham's faith but also the whole nation of Israel, which descended from his loins according to the flesh. In the age of fulfillment the promise embraces the true seed according to the Spirit, typified by the literal seed according to the flesh. This true seed of Abraham is 'born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God' (John 1:13). If in the typical age of the Old Testament all the literal seed of Abraham are to be circumcised, then in the age of fulfillment all those who answer to the type as the true seed of Abraham are to be baptized. And who are they? The New Testament gives an unequivocal answer: those who are of faith are the sons of Abraham (Gal. 3:7). Therefore, those who are of faith are to be baptized—which is precisely believer baptism" (p. 236).

Significance of Baptism as Initiatory Rite

After all the disagreement on the subject of circumcision and its significance for baptism, it is good to be able to quote a paedobaptist on the two rites as he speaks on an aspect of the subject on which both paedobaptists and baptists entirely agree. Commenting on Gen. 17, Robert Candlish discussed the propriety of circumcision and baptism as initiatory symbolic rites:

"It [circumcision] has obvious reference to Abraham's approaching paternity, his having a son, not after the flesh but by promise; and it is the sign and symbol of something peculiar and remarkable in the manner of the birth, as well as of some special purity and holiness in what was to be born. It has respect to the seed about to be begotten. It points to the Messiah, the Saviour about to be manifested as the righteousness of God.… It prefigures His assumption of humanity, in a way securing His exemption from the sinfulness of humanity; … hence, perhaps, one reason for circumcision, as the initial or introductory seal for the covenant, being superseded and another sacrament coming in its place. Circumcision pointed to the future birth of Christ—His assumption of our nature, pure and perfect. That birth being accomplished, the propriety of circumcision as a sacrament ceases. Any corresponding rite now must be not prospective, but retrospective.… Such a rite accordingly is baptism.… Our baptism signifies our ingrafting into Christ, as not merely born, but buried and risen again.… Abraham and the faithful of old were circumcised into His birth, the redemption being yet future; we are baptized into His death, the redemption being now past" (p. 178).

Toleration of Different Views on Baptism

The discussion of baptism is all too frequently acrimonious and has led to division among the people of God. Is there not clearly a case for holding our views in love for differing brethren, ensuring that neither adult nor paedobaptism is so exalted as to become essential to the gospel and salvation?

We must never forget the importance of baptism. As Calvin taught, the faithful preaching of the Word and the valid administration of the sacraments are essential marks of a true church. However, Paul's words, "Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17), should teach us to temper our zeal for an exclusive position on the subject. We ought not to make our own particular view of baptism an integral part of the gospel and a ground for fellowship or separation.

In this spirit, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster has, since its inception, practised acceptance of both baptist and paedobaptist believers in its communicant membership and ministry. Separated unto the Gospel: The Mission and Work of the Free Presbyterian Church quotes Article 6a of the church's Articles of Faith: "The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, under Christ the great King and Head of the Church, realizes that bitter controversy raging around the mode and proper subjects of the ordinance of Christian Baptism has divided the Body of Christ when that Body should have been united in Christian love and Holy Ghost power to stem the onslaughts and hell-inspired assaults of modernism, hereby affirms that each member of the Free Presbyterian Church shall have liberty to decide for himself which courses to adopt on these controversial issues, each member giving due honour in love to the views held by differing brethren, but none espousing the error of baptismal regeneration."

Baptism for the Dead

Vicarious baptism practised by Mormons for those who died unbaptized, based on a perversion of Paul's words in 1 Cor. 15:29. The Mormon dogma is best understood in the words of a Mormon apologist:

"Millions of earth's sons and daughters have passed out of the body without obeying the law of baptism. Many of them will gladly accept the word and law of the Lord when it is proclaimed to them in the spirit world. But they cannot there attend to ordinances that belong to the sphere which they have left. Can nothing be done in their case? Must they forever be shut out of the kingdom of heaven? Both justice and mercy join in answering 'yes' to the first 'no' to the last question. What, then, is the way of their deliverance? The living may be baptized for the dead. Other essential ordinances may be attended to vicariously. This glorious truth, hid from human knowledge for centuries, has been made known in this greatest of all divine dispensations.… It gives men and women the power to become 'Saviours on Mount Zion,' Jesus being the great Captain in the army of redeemers" (C. Penrose, Mormon Doctrine, p. 48, quoted by J. K. Van Baalen, Chaos of the Cults, p. 180).

The practice of vicarious baptism for the dead was prevalent in some second-century heretical groups. Some trace the practice back to heathenism. It is possible that it had found its way into Corinth as early as the writing of Paul's first epistle.

Paul does not endorse or support the practice. Indeed his language indicates that he dissociates himself and orthodox believers from it. He asks, "What shall they do which are baptized for the dead?" Not "what shall we do." Yet he does use we in the next verse: "And why stand we in jeopardy every hour?" If he is referring to vicarious baptism at all, Paul appears to draw a clear line of demarcation between they and we.

His argument is, "The behaviour of those who are baptized in the place of their unbaptized friends proves that they believe in the resurrection of the dead." Paul is quite capable of noting beliefs and practices with which his readers are familiar to support his own argument.

Some maintain that he could not have referred to a practice like vicarious baptism without condemning it. However, a comparison between 1 Cor. 8 and 10 will show that he did at times uncritically refer to things which he actually condemned. In 1 Cor. 8 he refers to Christians sitting down to eat in a heathen temple, but he does not stop to condemn them (though he later does so, 1 Cor. 10). So his lack of condemnation may mean no more than that this subject is one of those he "will set in order when I come" (11:34). The entire disappearance of vicarious baptism from Corinth is taken by many to support this view.

Many good commentators deny that there is any reference at all to vicarious baptism in 1 Cor. 15:29. Some see in it a reference to newly baptized people taking the place in the church of those who had died. Others see it as a reference to those who had been inspired by the martyrdom of saints to receive Christ and profess Him in baptism, thus filling up their vacant places in the church.

From all this it is clear how notoriously difficult a text 1 Cor. 15:29 is. For the Mormons to construct on it a doctrine of a second chance to be saved for those who die in their sin is plainly ludicrous. It also betrays an utterly unscriptural idea of baptism and its place in the economy of grace, to say nothing of the heresy it promotes in giving "men and women the power to become 'Saviours on Mount Zion.' "

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 51–58). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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