Why we baptize
Just before he left his disciples for the last time, Jesus gave them a command: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ (Matthew 28:19 NIV). And since that command through all sorts of ceremonies, despite many disagreements churches in every age and country have baptized those who come to claim a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
We baptize people at Grace is because we believe that Jesus commanded baptism in place like the verse in Matthew. He gave his followers baptism as a sign or symbol that in following him we are leaving an old life behind and are being washed clean of it for a new new life in which our sins and failures are forgiven by God.
Baptism marks us as belonging to God and as being one of his people with other believers. And as a ceremony or event, baptism is a way for us to state publicly with an ancient symbol that we are no longer defined primarily by our old relationships, the way we once lived, and all the wrong influences that used to control us.
The water of baptism says that, now we have a new relationship through faith in Jesus Christ who has made God our Father and who sends the Holy Spirit into us for a new life of faith. So, we are washed with the water of baptism to signify washing away of the old and to say publicly that a new life has brought new things and new relationships. And aren’t these are wonderful things to celebrate together in a family and in a church!
We believe baptism is one of the special ceremonies Jesus instituted for the church in the New Testament to replace the Old Testament rites of male circumcision and animal sacrifice. These older bloody practices looked forward to the work of Christ on the cross that ended the need for blood sacrifice. And so after Christ’s death the old symbols were replaced by two new bloodless ceremonies we call ‘sacraments.’ Following Scripture’s teaching Grace recognizes and practices the two sacraments that Christ put in place for church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion.
These two ceremonies point to the work of Christ for us, to our response in faith and to our being a part of God’s covenant people, the church. Both sacraments are physical representations of God’s promises in the Word. And just as God’s Word only becomes effective in us when we believe, we also believe that these sacraments are meaningful and effective only when they are connected to faith. There is nothing powerful or magical about the ceremony in itself. We must personally take hold of God and his promises to us by trusting Christ alone for our new relationship with God.
Though baptism shows that we are part of God’s people of faith, and the Lord’s Supper shows that we are continuing to walk in faith together, both of these sacraments point beyond the individual to the church living and working together as believers. They also point beyond just the local congregation of believers. Baptism unites us to a local church, but it also shows we are one with believers everywhere. And as a way to show our unity with other believing churches we recognize baptisms done by other fellowships, even when they do things differently than we would.
This is way Grace recognizes other churches’ baptisms when believers join our congregation regardless of whether that earlier baptism was by immersion, pouring or sprinkling. Another way to say this is that we don’t re-baptize believers, but have chosen to accept other groups’ baptism as valid rather than ignoring what has been done and imposing our own practice.
But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t serious about what we believer or that it is just a well worn tradition without a foundation in Scripture. As we read Scripture we see that sprinkling (aspersion) is the method the Bible teaches, but we don’t believe that the way you were baptized is so important or central to the meaning of baptism that if you were immersed or had water poured over you it makes your baptism invalid. We think it ‘counts’ before God even if it wasn’t done exactly according to our understanding about the right way or formula of words.
Why We Baptize Infants as well as Adults
Grace also practices infant baptism. Again, this isn’t a matter of tradition alone. We believe that Scripture requires that the children of believing parents should be included in God’s people and given the symbol of belonging by being baptized. So when a child has one or two believing parents in the church, we would baptize that child.
That means that we baptize two kinds of people: believers and children of believers. But we want to be clear about what infant baptism means. When an infant is baptized we baptize him or her looking forward in faith to God working in this child’s heart to draw her or him to faith. No one is saved or regenerated apart from faith. So, the baptism does not save or regenerate a child. Baptism looks forward to their faith and encourages the parents and the church to be faithful in preaching and teaching the Word to the child.
In baptizing a child the ceremony signifies the faith of a responding adult who has already trusted the grace of God that we hear in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It also signifies that the child has a special relationship to God and to the church. When we baptize an infant the baptism also looks forward to their faith and recognizes that God has already extended his grace to them in a special way by placing them in a believing home and church. So for us this isn’t just a religious tradition but obedience to what we understand the Bible to teach in both the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament both new believers and their children were circumcised. We believe that pattern continues in the New Testament. (That is why we talk about a Biblical view of baptism, not just a New Testament view.) Circumcision was originally given to God’s people as a sign of faith. We know that from Romans 4 which tells us that Abraham was justified by faith. It says Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ The chapter goes on to say that God gave him ‘the sign of circumcision, [as] a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.’ So originally, God gave circumcision to Abraham as a sign of his faith as a believing adult.
In Romans 2 Paul also tells us that simply being circumcised never made anyone part of God’s people (2:28f); Paul firmly believed that it took a new heart that responded in faith to God and his promises to be part of God’s people. But if this is true, then why were children circumcised in the Old Testament? If circumcision was a sign of faith and if only those who had hearts changed were really God’s people, then why were infants also circumcised? Apparently we aren’t the only ones to ask that question because Paul answers it directly in Romans 3:1-2:
What value is there in circumcision? Much in every way. First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God…
Paul says that even though circumcision didn’t save anyone apart from their having faith, the ritual still signified God’s grace when he placed a child in a family where the word would taught to them by the parents and the community of believers.
Just as with circumcision in the older covenant, we believe that in the New Testament baptism of children continued to signify this same grace from God to children placed in believing homes and churches. Infant baptism shows that God himself has placed the child in a family and in a church where the word is taught, where the child will be entrusted with the very words of God.
Of course, every child must respond in faith to have a relationship with God. When they do, their faith will make the Word effective and powerful in their lives. Each child must come to trust Christ alone for salvation by faith alone. But we know that God has already started moving toward them in a special way by placing them in a home where Christ is honored and by giving them a family and friends who will influence, encourage, and teach them the gospel.
And in hope and expectation, we believe that God’s reasons for giving them a Christian family is to bless the child and to call him or her to faith, so we baptize them as Scripture teaches. Part of what you will notice in our view is that we don’t think that Scripture teaches that the meaning and power of baptism is tied to the moment of time when it was done. What gives baptism meaning and power is not the time of life when it is done, or the way it is administered or the particular words said. The meaning of Baptism comes from the grace of God received by faith as he gives new birth.
A Word about Other Traditions
In some churches approach baptism for infants in a different way. In some religious traditions the term ‘christening’ is used informally for infant baptism though originally christening was a naming service where a child given a Christian name. Since the naming or christening often was done at the baptism, the two terms have become synonymous for some folks. But there is a difference. It is possible to have a naming service without baptizing a child. At Grace we don’t christen children in naming services, but we do baptize them.
In some traditions special friends of the family stand with the family in the christening or baptism as ‘god-parents.’ Though we don’t use the tradition of god-parents, there is always a place for friends and family to promise to help parents of covenant children raise those children in love and faith. Our approach is even more inclusive. We ask all the believing friends of the family and members of the church to join with the parent’s promise to raise their child to know God by pledging to help as they can with the child’s instruction and with their prayers.
On the other hand, some groups use the term ‘dedication’ and may have a service where parents come forward with their child to promise they will raise their child in a loving way and teach them about God and so to dedicate them to Him. And we agree that every parent should acknowledge their responsibility to teach each child about Christ and our faith and that each child should be given or dedicated in this way to God. So we would see baptism as including dedicating a child to God, and we ask parents questions to ensure this is understood.
But we see baptism as more than a symbol or as a promise of dedication. We would see in baptism as a sealing sign of God’s love for the child in placing them in a believing and loving home. Baptism as a sacrament is also a means of grace, that is a channel of God’s mercy and favor into the child’s life as they are included in the people of God and are taught the Scriptures. Baptism marks the parent’s faith in God’s promises for the child and looks forward in hope to the child’s answering faith to God’s grace and love.
How we baptize
Grace believes that Scripture teaches that sprinkling (technically called ‘aspersion’) is the proper mode of water baptism. We sprinkling water on a person and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament when God makes the covenant with Israel in Exodus 24:3-8, Moses sprinkles blood on the altar and then on the people of God. When he consecrates Aaron and his sons to be priests Moses again sprinkles blood on them (Ex 29:19ff). And to cover the sins of the people the priest was to sprinkle blood on the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant (Leviticus 16:15ff.) The prophet Ezekiel looked forward to the New Covenant in this way:
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)
And in the New Testament we see the same things in Hebrews 9:10-14 where washings (baptisms in the original language) is equated with sprinkling in the next verses. And Hebrews 12:24 says specifically that ‘We have come ‘to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.’
Even though we understand Scripture in this way, we also know that there are other traditions that have different practices. And though we may disagree, we do not think that the way someone applies the water in baptism or that the exact words you say over them are what makes baptism valid. Rather, we would look to a person’s faith or to the faith of parents in baptism as what’s most important, and don’t think that a form of words or to a particular method of applying water is crucial. So if you were immersed, we would accept that as a sufficient form of baptism.
Though we make room for folks who don’t share our understanding at Grace Blue Ridge, you should know that our teaching pastors and elders are required to hold this basic approach to baptism. And as we make room for you and as you think and pray over the Bible’s teaching about baptism, we trust you will respect our view and not make a differing view on baptism into a point of argument or contention within the fellowship.
If you would like more information on our views and on what the Bible teaches about baptism, any of the pastors or elders would be glad to meet with you and hear your question or input. For additional information you might want to read:
The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism – ed: Strawbridge
The Meaning and Mode of Baptism – J. Adams
Baptism – Francis A. Schaeffer
Answered by Josiah Bancroft