Dipping into Baptism 4: the case for believer’s baptism

Continuing our discussion of a good recent book on the contested waters of baptism is Baptism: Three Views, edited by the late David F Wright just before he died.

The three views are:

  1. Believers’ Baptism View: Bruce A. Ware
  2. Infant Baptism View: Sinclair B. Ferguson
  3. Dual-Practice Baptism View: Anthony N. S. Lane

In this post I’ll simply give a summary of Bruce Ware’s chapter on a biblical, theological and historical account of believer’s baptism – that those baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit should have believed in Jesus before being baptized by immersion.

Ware’s chapter is followed by a response by Sinclair Ferguson (infant baptism) and Tony Lane (dual practice) and I’ll consider their responses in the next post.

The Biblical Argument

1. Linguistic

The root meaning of the word baptō is to ‘submerge’ or ‘dip’. Immersion is strongly implied.

2. Contextual Argument

In NT examples of baptism, the context also strongly suggests immersion [Jesus’ baptism; Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch]. Post-biblical sources like the Shepherd of Hermas also suggest baptism my immersion. Immersion implies baptism of older believers, not infants.

3. Instruction & Practice of baptism in the NT

Every instruction or command relating to baptism in the NT relates to baptism of those who have repented from sin (John’s baptism) and come to faith in Christ (post-Pentecost baptism). Matthew’s great Commission text links ’baptism and teaching’ indicating those baptized are also able to be taught.

And numerous other texts in the NT (Ware lists over 10 from Acts) links newness of life, reception of the Spirit and baptism – again the compelling evidence suggesting those baptized are believers. Pauline texts are also numerous – (take for example Roms 6:3-4 and Col 2:12) where baptism signifies death of the old life and conversion to new life through faith in Christ. Those baptized have been regenerated by the Spirit – and this rules out infant baptism. As does 1 Peter 3:21 where baptism is linked to the faith of the one baptized.

Ware’s point: ‘belief precedes and grounds the legitimacy of baptism.’

4. Absence of non-believer’s baptism in the NT

Ware adds that there are also no clear incidents of non-believer’s or infant baptism in the NT and argues this puts a considerable burden of proof on those who contend that baptism can be detached from the exercise of faith in the one being baptized.

What of the household baptism of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:33, probably the strongest of the household baptism accounts appealed to by those who practice infant baptism? Ware argues such a view is based on plenty of special pleading. There is no mention of infants in this or other ‘household’ texts. The text is better interpreted as the jailer and his household all becoming believers and being baptized – since all in the household ‘rejoice’ as they believe and are baptized.

Similarly for Acts 2:39 and Peter’s mention of ‘you and your children’ being recipients of God’s fulfilled promise – is far more naturally connected with the preceding verse 38 where the listeners have been exhorted to ‘repent and be baptized’ than building a case for the inclusion of infants within the covenant promises of God.

Paul’s mention of the family of believers, including children, being ‘made holy’ in 1 Corinthians 7:14 is often also appealed to as supportive of infant baptism. Ware notes here how indirect and complex the paedo-baptist position is here.  Infants are included as participants within the new covenant due to the faith of their parents. Yet the text says nothing about baptism and Paul also says the unbelieving spouse will be ‘made holy’. Rather than make big theological jumps to infant baptism being the new covenant successor to circumcision, the simpler and more logical interpretation is to see ‘holy’ here as the presence of the believer in the home ‘setting apart’ the family for gospel witness.

Thus Ware quotes David Wright’s conclusion in 2005 that there is an emerging consensus of NT scholars that

“infant baptism cannot be claimed to be apostolic … the core conviction of Baptist theology that the New Testament attests faith-baptism as the norm, is now more widely attested than at any time since the fourth century i.e., prior to Augustine.”

The Theological Argument

There is actually little space between the infant and believer’s baptism when it comes to the theology of baptism

“as a sign and seal of the new covenant, inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection, signifying the promise for the one baptized that sins are forgiven, that new life in Christ is received, and that God gives the person a new heart and the indwelling Spirit , by faith.”

Ware notes that the crucial area of difference is how the relation between the Old and New Covenants is understood.

Paedo-baptists see a strong continuity in terms of baptism functioning within the New in a similar way to circumcision in the Old.

Ware argues this is fundamentally misconceived. In Romans 4:11 Paul refers to circumcision as a sign and seal of faith for Jew and Gentiles precisely to emphasize how circumcision could be ‘set aside’ in light of Christ. There is discontinuity here in regard to circumcision, not continuity.

The parallel then between circumcision and baptism in the new covenant is not between physical circumcision and infant baptism; rather, the parallel is between spiritual circumcision of the heart and baptism which signifies regeneration, faith and union with Christ (cf Col 2:11-12)

And if there is an explicit link between circumcision and infant baptism, is it not remarkable that not one writer of the NT explicitly points this out? This is because, says Ware, the sign of the new covenant, baptism, is administered only to those who are members of the new covenant by faith in Christ.

Historical Support for Believer’s Baptism

Lastly, Ware remarks on the growing scholarly consensus, including that of David Wright, that believer’s baptism was the normal practice of the church for the first four centuries and that infant baptism did not develop in any significant way until after that date.

Conclusion

Ware concludes by appealing for the practice of believer’s baptism in that it will help to safeguard the health and vitality of the church. It gives believers an opportunity to testify to their faith, and it helps, at least by structure and design, to connect baptism with genuine personal faith.

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