Saturday, August 31, 2013

Reforming Credobaptism

Credobaptists commonly wonder about the appropriate age for baptism. How old should a person be before he can be baptized? I would argue that any age is appropriate, provided that the recipient can willfully profess his faith in Christ meaningfully. In the case of a child, I would generally entrust the discernment of that profession to the child’s parents. I’m comfortable saying that parents can, in a sense, speak on behalf of their children in this regard, which seems to fit well with the numerous places in Scripture that speak of baptism as a household affair, and also with ancient tradition.1 Furthermore, on a basic practical level, parents certainly know their kids better than anyone else in the church does.

But suppose (as often happens) a baptized child grows up and decides that he was not truly born again when he first received baptism. Should he then be rebaptized? We really need not limit the question to children here, since people who were baptized in adulthood might express similar doubts about the sincerity of their faith at the time of their baptism. So should a person be rebaptized if he feels confident that he was not genuinely converted when he was first baptized?

The way we answer this question will depend in large part on how we understand the nature of baptism itself. On this point, I think a more God-centered view of the ordinance wouldnt hurt us. Credobaptists like to speak of baptism as a statement that the believer makes to the world, which is fine as far as it goes, so long as we dont forget that its even more so a statement that God makes.2 Baptism depicts the reception of the Holy Spirit, signifies the forgiveness of sins, represents the death and resurrection of Christ, marks out the confessor as a member of Christs body, and unites him covenantally to the church. These are things that happen regardless of whether the recipient is personally on his way to heaven. In other words, I understand baptism to be an objective sign, meaning that its legitimacy does not depend on the inner state of the recipient, but on the sure promises of God (Acts 2:38-39) and the authority that Christ gives to his church.

Of course, there will inevitably be plenty of false confessors who are not truly regenerate, but are nevertheless part of the vine, part of the household of God through baptism. Which is why Godhousehold is the place where judgment will begin (1 Pet. 4:17). These “Christians who are covenantally united to the church through baptism, but not truly regenerate, are the ones we read about in Hebrews: “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified" (Heb. 10:29). I take this as a reference to water baptism, or at least to a spiritual reality of which baptism is emblematic (being washed in the blood of Christ).

So our question was, should a person be rebaptized if he becomes confident that his true conversion occurred after his first baptism? I would answer in the negative. A second baptism couldnt accomplish anything that hasnt already taken place in the first one. Imagine a husband who says, I didnt truly love my wife when I went through the marriage ceremony, spoke my vows, put the ring on, and signed the papers. Therefore, Im not really married. Is this good reasoning? Of course not. Marriage vows are covenantally binding in an objective way. The man doesnt need to get married again; he simply needs to start being a faithful husband now.3

Baptismal vows should be understood in terms of the same kind of objectivity. So even if a person did not sincerely understand the gospel when he was baptized, and was not truly born again, his baptism was still meaningful and valid, and I would not feel the need to counsel him to be baptized again. I would simply encourage him to start living true to his baptism now. It wouldnt necessarily bother me if he did get rebaptized (any more than it bothers me when couples renew marriage vows), but there isnt any real need for it. In other words, contrary to the popular credobaptist notion, I dont think its necessary for a Christian to make sure that his baptism occurred on the right side of his conversion.

If all this is correct, then a couple of additional points can be made regarding child baptism. First, we probably need to do a better job of taking child baptisms seriously. I suspect that many see them as simply token, heart-warming ceremonies, and not real baptisms; which can lead to negligence in terms of discipleship, because the baptized child is not actually being seen and treated as a real Christian. But in fact, we ought to be constantly reminding these children of the importance of their baptism, and encouraging them to live true to the commitment they made to Jesus. At baptism, the children put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). As they mature in the faith, they grow into him.

Second, I also think we need to be more thankful for child baptisms than we often are. In the post-Acts Christian church, child baptism should be viewed as the normal practice; not as an ecclesiologically awkward situation to get nervous about. In our zeal to protect the ordinance, we end up looking a whole lot like the uppity disciples, turning away the little ones when Jesus insists on letting them come. Bryan Chapell has said that “it is possible, even common, for the children of Christian parents never to know a day that they do not believe that Jesus is their Savior and Lord,”4 and I think he’s right. When children are nurtured in a godly Christian home where God’s word is consistently taught, then theyre very likely to confess Christ early in life, which is something to celebrate.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile.


1. See, for example, the baptismal instructions of Hippolytus: “And first baptize the little ones; if they can speak for themselves, they shall do so; if not, their parents or other relatives shall speak for them.” (Apostolic Tradition, 21.4)

2. This principle is relevant also to the question of whether baptisms are valid when administered by church leaders who later deny the faith. If we maintain a God-centered view of the ordinance, then well have no trouble affirming that baptism is entirely meaningful even when performed by unfaithful ministers. Those who were baptized by such leaders need not seek rebaptism (assuming the context was not a heretical church).

3. Im borrowing this analogy from Doug Wilson, who has a far more developed objectivist (and paedobaptist) covenant theology, which you can read about in his book Reformed Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the CovenantI havent read the book yet, so I dont know what all is in it.

4. Bryan Chapell, Why Do We Baptize Infants? (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 27.