Baptism of the child
“When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.”
Because of our location here in upstate SC, we might have a somewhat distorted view of baby baptism. If we take a global view, the vast majority of Christians were baptized as infants. Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians baptize children. That is about 90% of all Christians. Only the groups we call Baptists and a few others withhold baptism until what they call the age of accountability—whatever that is. And realize that each individual Baptist church determines the age of accountability. One former Baptist told me that he was immersed at the age of 6. He said that he did not know how accountable he was at the time. But because Baptists are strong in our area, we are sometimes put on the defensive because we practice infant baptism, even though we represent the majority view. There are now over a billion Christians on this planet. Estimates say that about 100 million were baptized as adults. The other 900 million were baptized as babies.
We should also realize that historically, baptism by age of accountability is a somewhat recent development in the church. The ancient church practiced infant baptism; the medieval church practiced infant baptism. It was not until the Reformation in the 16th century that some groups started practicing what they called “believer’s baptism,” that is baptism that requires that the individual make a profession of faith before they are baptized.
Yet you might say, well that was 400 years ago, and 400 years later we are still arguing about it. That it is the way it always is in the church. Nothing is ever settled, nothing is ever finally decided.
All the arguments pro and con on baptism of children were made during the Reformation, and they are still being made today. Martin Luther was the major Protestant leader of the Reformation and he violently condemned the notion of baptizing only adults.
Luther was one of those people who was so strongly opinionated that he could not calmly and quietly debate an issue. He could not sit down over a cup of coffee and say, “Let us reason together.” He was loud, sometimes obnoxious, sometimes brilliant.
To Luther, the baptism of the child was the crux of the reformation. He would say loud and often that if you do not accept baby baptism, you do not understand the gospel. If you believe that you are saved, by some decision you make to accept Jesus, or by some profession of faith in Jesus, then you are saying that you saved yourself by your decision, by your profession, and that is salvation by something you do. You do not need Christ to die for you at all. You profession of faith saves you and your baptism is a symbol that you are saved by your profession of faith. Thus, it is all about you, and not about Christ at all.
The essential discovery of the Reformation, or rather the rediscovery of the Reformation, was that when it comes to salvation it is not about you at all, it is only about Christ. And this is the essential message of baptism, and this is best seen in the baptism of a child.
We have two sacraments in the Christian faith: baptism and holy communion. The purpose of these sacraments is to teach us how to be reconciled to God. The sacraments are the foundations upon which our faith rests. Therefore anything that undermines the sacraments represents a great danger to God’s people. If we make these sacraments into the works of people, then that makes the church into just a group of people, no different from any other organization. As the government would say, we are just another non-profit group. But if the sacraments are the work of God, then the church is God’s church, and that is something else altogether.
Now I feel like something of a broken record today, saying the same thing that has been said over and over for 400 years. Actually the phrase “broken record” is outdated. Nobody plays records anymore. Maybe I should have said “a scratched CD” which gets hung up and plays the same thing over and over.
Baptism is the essential theme of the Reformation. It is the visible sign of the unmerited justification of the sinner through the grace of God. Baptism symbolizes that the sinner has received the righteousness of Christ. We are saved by something other than ourselves, by an “alien” righteousness, if you want to look at it that way, and it costs us nothing. We don’t have to do anything to obtain salvation. Sometimes the folks who criticize this view call it “cheap grace.” Well, it is not cheap. It is free, entirely free. This is more than most people can understand or bear. I think that most people would be far more comfortable with God if they could pay something on the bill due for their sins.
But the gospel does not work that way. It is a stange gospel in that it makes everyone a priest, it makes us all sacred people, and this is all the work of God. It is not anything we do, it is something that God does.
Now we can say of our Baptist friends that they are not denying any of this. They would be insulted to hear that Luther accused them, of works salvation. They would say that they just have a little different way of doing the sacrament of baptism than we do.
And we Presbyterians recognize adult baptism if the person has not been previously baptized. By the way, I was baptized as an adult. I was not raised in the church. And Luther would say, that is fine, but he would also say that the best picture we have of the gospel is the baptism of a child.
In the book of acts, the church is in a pioneer situation. Since this was the first generation of Christians, no one had been raised in the church, no one had had the opportunity to be baptized as an baby. Still in Acts 16:15, we have this odd verse. Lydia believed, and she was baptized—ok that is what the Baptists call believer’s baptism—but that is not all. Her whole household was baptized. Who was in her household? We don’t actually know. Her household would be all her dependents--relatives, children, slaves, slave children. We are not even told that the household believed. We are told Lydia believed.
Later on, in the same chapter, after a dramatic rescue from prison in Philippi, the jailor said to Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be Saved?” The missionaries replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (31). Also in I Cor. 1, Paul mentions that he baptized the “household of Stephanas” (16). What is going on here? Clearly adults who believe are baptized, but others are being baptized and we are not told they made a profession of belief at all. These and other verses led the second generation of Christians, and every other generation of Christians to believe that they had the right to present their children for baptism.
And Luther’s major point was that the baptism of the child perfectly illustrates the gospel. The child is brought to the baptismal fount; things are said for the child; things are done to the child. The child does nothing. She might protest. She might kick and scream, but usually she does not have an active part in the process. You might say then, the child does not deserve to be baptized. Luther would say you are right. You got it. And this is exactly our relationship with God. We are like a baby in our total dependence upon God.
Make no mistake. Baptism is instituted by and ordained by God. Baptism is conferred in God’s name, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and through baptism we is to receive an inexpressible treasure—deliverance from sin, death and the devil.
In one sense baptism is an outward thing. The water is just water and it is administered by a person who is a sinner like every other person, but God attaches his word to this water and the baby receives both word and water. That is the gospel. We receive the word, the living word and we are regenerated, we are washed clean, our soul comes alive and we are adopted into the family of God.
The argument against baptizing babies is that they cannot believe because they have not developed the rational faculties to grasp the gospel. If you follow that argument what is important is the rational faculty of the child. When does the child develop such a faculty? When does the child reach the age of accountability? That way of thinking distorts the gospel and makes baptism into a human rite of passage like getting a drivers license or graduating from High School. But it is not that at all. Baptism is not the work of man; it is the work of God. Baptism is not about our faith, it is about the salvation that God has wrought in Jesus Christ.
Some folks see conversion to Christianity as a very orderly, very human thing. They say believe that you are a sinner, repent of your sins, believe on Jesus, be baptized, join the church, be present every Sabbath, and give 10% of your before-taxes income to the church. Now all those are good things. But all those are things that human beings do. And that view of things, that theology if you want to call it that, has nothing to do with God at all. It is all about what I do, what I think, what I feel. It is all about me. And thus baptism is just my testimony to what I believe and think and feel.
No. That is a distorted view of baptism. Baptism is about what God is doing in my life, with my life. Shorten that. Baptism is about God not about me. God gives his holy spirit to me to convict me of my sins, and the spirit leads me to repent of my sins, and to attend church and support the church, and God gives me the certainty that God is with me now and God will be with me forever. God will protect me and nourish me like a mother does for her baby. God will lift me up when I fall and cheer me on when I succeed. God is my parent. That is exactly what the baptism of a child says.
But let us go a little further in our thought. Baptism is a rite of the church that we should not stress too much nor too little. Too much stress on baptism and we make it into an idol that we worship instead of God. Too little and we miss the point altogether. During the middle ages, the church overdid the sacrament of baptism. They believed that the water actually saves you. So as soon as that baby was born, they rushed down to the church and had the infant baptized and when the priest administered the water that baby was a Christian. No matter what, he had the water, he was a Christian. He could not go to hell. In medieval belief, he could go to purgatory for a long time, but he could not go to hell.
Now, no one believes that today, I don’t think. But we don’t want to go to the opposite extreme and say well baptism is not important. We don’t think much about it. If you want to have it done that is all right, and if not well that is probably all right too. Not so. Baptism is very important, because of what it symbolizes.
If we understand what is going on, the baptism of a child should be a major revelation to each one of us. This morning we have baptized Chaela Lynn Rollings. I am Chaela Lynn Rollins. You are Chaela Lynn Rollins. Chaela does not comprehend God. I don’t either. Chaela does not understand the wonderful gift of eternal life. I don’t either.
When it comes to understanding God and the gospel, there is no age of accountability. None of us understand. We are babies, and always will be. The gospel is something that is done unto us. We are not righteous. We are sinners, but God gives his righteousness to us through Jesus.
Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for my sins. He was my substitute, who paid a penalty I should have paid. Again, that is something that was done for me. Thus, Jesus made possible eternal life, for me. In Romans 1:17 we read, “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” We are not righteous. The gospel reveals God’s righteousness to us in Jesus, and we live by that revelation.
Even so, in the baptism of a child, the child is not righteous. But the baptism itself is God’s revelation of his righteousness to us. Or put it another way, the righteousness of God is God’s mercy in that through the sacrifice of Christ, he chooses to disregard our sins and embrace us as his beloved children. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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