Monday, January 25, 2016

Thoughts on Baptism

I have been reading this book which goes really in depth in the study of evangelicalism and sacramentalism. Apparently in recent years, some Evangelicals have made the transition to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. The author goes through many differences between Evangelicals and Catholicism in particular, such as praying to Mary, confessing to a person rather than God, and using text other than scripture as the word of God. When the author started talking about baptism, I got very interested. We have some friends who believe in infant baptism, some friends who believe you must be baptized to be saved, some friends who believe if they are baptized, their whole family is saved, and some that believe you do not need to be baptized to be saved, but you do it as an outward sign of your repentance and commitment to God (I personally believe in the last option). What follows is from the author, Matthew Ferris. Whatever your viewpoint, I think this is a good topic to discuss and think about. I think you should look over scripture for yourself and decide what you believe. I enjoy a good debate and I also enjoy hearing why others believe differently from me, so this interests me, and my intent is not to offend anyone in this discussion. (Please forgive any mis-types as I typed this in quite a hurry and don't have time to re-read it at the moment.)

Excerpt from the book "Evangelicals Adrift" by Matthew Ferris.

In sacramentalist understanding, one enters the Church and is granted forgiveness of sins through the sacrament of baptism. The evangelical usually holds to a believer's baptism, or credo-baptism. One must profess faith in Christ to be a candidate for baptism. baptism presents a physical picture of the spiritual reality of death, burial, and resurrection with Jesus. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." Romans 6:3-4. The picture of one going under the water accurately depicts death and the grace - our dying with Christ. 

Thomas Schreiner notes, "It is striking that there is no sustained discussion of baptism in any of the epistles, presumably because the NT authors were writing to those who were already believers to whom the significance of baptism was explained upon their conversion. When Paul does refer to baptism, he assumes that all believers are baptized. Hence, we cannot deduce from the infrequent references to baptism that baptism was unimportant." The concept of an unbaptized Christian is simply foreign to the New Testament. The extent to which evangelicals have failed to call attention to the importance of baptism as something obedient Christians should do demonstrates their failure.

Within sacramentalism, the importance of baptism is stressed, albeit at times to an outsized proportion. Sacramentalism practices infant baptism as both an entrance rite into the new covenant with God and as that which cleanses from sin. Indeed, in this view one cannot be saved apart from baptism. "Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 342). The sacramental view ascribes profound accomplishments to baptism: regeneration itself, and cleansing the baptized one from the stain of sin.

How did the sacramental church move away from believers' baptism in favor of infant baptism? In the New Testament, we meet with no certain evidence of infant baptism. In the book of Acts, where we find various instances of baptism, it is always upon belief. After Peter's Pentecost sermon, "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls." Acts 2:41. The Ethiopian eunuch, hearing Philip expound the gospel says, "See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?  And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." (Acts 8:36-37). 

In Acts 10, Peter had been called to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who was a God-fearer, or a Gentile who attached himself to the Mosaic Law. After his gospel preaching, all who heard believed, causing Peter to ask, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days." Acts 10:47-48. Baptism obviously followed belief in both of these cases.

The Philippian jailer's conversion is sometimes cited as evidence of infant baptism, or of household baptism, but this can only be by inference: "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." Acts 16:33. Were there small children or infants in the family? It is conjecture to assume this, as nothing is stated in the text. In short, nothing in the New Testament demonstrates any evidence of infant baptism. Rather, baptism upon profession of faith is instead seen again and again.

New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn comments, "It is one of the standing ironies of the diversity of Christian theology and practice that the chief means of accomplishing regeneration for so many centuries has had so little foothold in the New Testament, and has not clearly been encompassed even within the wide-ranging diversity of first-century Christian practice. For it has to be recognized that infant baptism can find no real support in the theology of baptism which any New Testament writer can be shown to espouse."

Tertullian favors a delay in baptism: "The delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children." He goes on to indicate that it is better if those who come for baptism can themselves understand what they are entering into: "Let them 'come', then, while they are growing up; let them 'come' while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come, let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ." Tertullian indicates an age of accountability, implying that it is better if people attain an age when they are themselves able to understand the faith.

The Augustinian concept of original sin dovetails with that of baptismal regeneration. If the stain of original sin is removed through baptism, as the Catechism notes, then it is evident why sacramentalism assigns such prominence to baptism. Stated differently, if baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, then its importance becomes clear. A catena of scriptural references can be cited to show that salvation is conditioned upon faith in Jesus, rather than on an external act done on their behalf without their knowledge or consent, but evangelicals should know these. For an evangelical, moving to sacramentalism requires the paradigm shift in the basis of authority to accept the hierarchical church's redefinition of what baptism is, and what it imparts.

Does the New Testament teach that baptism is a requirement of salvation? Peter's plea to his hearers at Pentecost ends with the appeal, "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 2:38). This passage is often cited as proof of the necessity of baptism. But Peter's insistence on repentance carries the implication of faith with it. To repent is to change one's mind, and the change of mind Peter pleads for is to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Here baptism is in no way separated from faith, but accompanies it.

The other passage often brought forth is in 1 Peter 3:21 - Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ... Concerning this, Schreiner observes, "Peter immediately qualifies the statement that baptism saves. It does not save mechanically or externally as if there are magical properties in the water. Peter comments that the mere removal of dirt from the body does not bring salvation, demonstrating that the water itself does not save. Baptism is only saving if there is an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The one receiving baptism also appeals to God for a good conscience, which means that he asks God to cleanse him of his sins on the basis of Christ's death and resurrection."

In  Corinthians 1:17, Paul states, "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." If baptism were an act that imparted new life, why would Paul not seek to baptize infants and children at every opportunity? As he writes later, "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." 1 Corinthians 9:22. 

On one side are those who insist, as sacramentalism does, that baptism is efficacious to save, to wash away sin, and to put one into the body of Christ. The fact that an infant cannot himself believe or exercise faith is entirely unimportant in this view. The parents are acting as proxies; their answers render as the infant's answer, their faith as the infant's faith. The practice that came to prevail of baptizing all infants led to a situation where faith is entirely unimportant; on the part of parents, or children, baptism was simply something one did as a member of a society dominated by the hierarchical church.

The deleterious effects of this are evident. It has emptied baptism of any of the meaning assigned to it in the New Testament. The identification with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection is changed to a rite of initiation into the professing family of God. The looming question which sacramentalism must answer is this: If baptism is indeed effective in imparting new life, in washing away sin, in putting one into the church, how is it that so many people who have undergone infant baptism manifest no signs of divine life whatsoever? There are huge numbers of people who are considered part of the Roman Catholic Church or part of the Orthodox Church because they have undergone infant baptism, yet do not participate in the church or cannot be considered members of the church in any realistic way. The only conclusion is that the effectiveness of the sacrament has failed. 

Infant baptism is not limited to sacramentalism. High church Protestantism kept the practice, though its ministers changed the underlying meaning somewhat. Adherents to this draw parallels with circumcision as a rite of initiation into the covenant. Calvin and other magisterial reformers were something in agreement with Catholics on the church as a visible society of the faithful. Infant baptism was the initiation into this christened society. When pressed to explain exactly what the significance of infant baptism is, Protestants who hold to infant baptism equate it with infant dedication. None of these Protestants would insist that it removes sin, or imparts the life of Christ, and so it has a very different meaning from what the sacramental church affirms.

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