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Understanding Four Views on Baptism


Baptism has been around for as long as the church has been around, Sadly, it has a contentious history as various expressions of the church have attempted to silence contrary views. For example in 1527 Felix Manz who believed that only professing adult believers should be baptized was condemned to death by Zwingli and his group of reformers who believed that baptism was for infants as an induction into the church. Zwingli and the council cruelly decided that since Felix was so focused on adult baptism he should have it as his method of execution and so his life was ended at the bottom of the Limmat river.

Thankfully, tensions have subsided, and all parties in this debate are much more amicable, we’ve come a long way forward since the actions of 1527, but there are still differences as this book points out. It should be noted that there is no discussion on the Roman Catholic understanding of baptism as a way of salvation. All four views represented here, do not support the Catholic view.

Baptist View — “Baptism” derives from the Greek word baptisma and denotes the action of washing or plunging in water (Acts 2:41). From the earliest days of Christianity baptism was the symbolic rite of initiation into the body. By this watery sign, made in the triune name of God, people are openly admitted into the life and community of the church. All agree that baptism is the symbolic door into the church but is it more than that? Baptists say no. Also Should this rite of initiation be offered to children? Baptist again say no. When looking at Biblical evidence, the Baptist case seems strong, every reference to baptism in the New Testament is connected to adult confessing believers. Even the two household baptism’s mentioned in the book of Act’s provide rather unconvincing support that anyone other then confessing believers were baptized.

Reformed View —This camp looks at the passages of Scripture on baptism and sees words like “rebirth, renewal, forgiveness, salvation, and union with Christ” intimately connected to the rite. There has to be more than symbol, say the reformers, however, when pressed for details and explanations, reformed theologians stop short, they admit they don’t know, “the precise relationship is mysterious or unexplained” they say.

To sum up, Reformed theologians prefer the term “sacrament” (i.e. mystery) to the term symbol because there is more going on, but as to what, it cannot be said, only that there is no salvation happening, like the Catholics would say.

Regarding infant baptism: “We baptize children to initiate them into covenant with God and to incorporate them into the visible church. As circumcision brought infant boys into the visible nation of Israel, baptism brings children into the visible church.” For me the connection that replaces circumcision with baptism is tenuous at best. It’s a massive assumption to suggest that since, initiation into the covenant was necessary in the old through circumcision, it must be necessary in the new through baptism. Adding to this assumption is the uneasy conclusion that since the visible church is made up of regenerate and unregenerate people, it doesn’t really matter that unregenerate children are baptized.

Lutheran — Luther believed that God enters into conversation with his fallen human creatures through his Word in oral, written, and sacramental forms. Regarding the sacrament of baptism he says “Water can’t save you, but the Word which is in and through the water does.” Baptism is the necessary sign of an eternal covenant, which helps us see that even when we break our promises, God will not break his. Infant’s participate in this because salvation is God’s work not human work, in addition Jesus himself said “let the little children come unto me.” It seems almost impossible not to conclude that at least in some sense salvation is happening with the infant. Luther’s sovereignty of God perspective allows him to do this almost effortlessly.

Church of Christ — This camp doesn’t like “sacrament” terminology and they certainly reject infant baptism. The author of this section, makes the strongest statements against those traditions in this book

“I think it is fair to say that infant baptism (especially indiscriminate infant baptism) may be the single most important reason why Western Europe is becoming lost to Christianity. Many potential converts to an active Christian faith have been rendered immune to evangelization due to their baptism as an infant in some church. I know this firsthand, as I was born in France and lived and worked as a missionary in my native Belgium.”

For the church of Christ, baptism is the occasion of salvation. It’s the ceremony which marks formal allegiance to Jesus. This terminology, in my estimation, is potentially confusing, and is probably why the church of Christ has been accused of supporting the notion of baptismal regeneration.

Baptist Reformed Lutheran Church of Christ

A picture of what God has done and is doing.


A mystery, placing one in the visible church.

Salvation (through Word not Water)

Sacrament as agent of God’s Word

Occasion of Salvation

Ceremony marking formal allegiance

My thoughts are that baptism is something that should happen after conversion. It serves as both a symbol and strengthener of the gospel. It both visualizes our faith in Christ but also in a very sacramental way builds it up. Baptism is also the rite that welcomes believers into Christ’s body the church.

Regarding the baptism of infants, I agree which the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon when he says “I am amazed that an unconscious babe should be made the partaker of an ordinance which, according to the plain teaching of the Scriptures, requires the conscious acquiescence and complete heart-trust of the recipient. Very few, if any, would argue that babies ought to receive the Lord’s Supper; but there is no more Scriptural warrant for bringing them to the one ordinance than there is for bringing them to the other”

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