Two couples who were baptized as infants by sprinkling wish to join a congregation that baptizes only believers and always by immersion. The congregation’s preacher, a gracEmail subscriber, regards these people as fully Christian and wonders if he can rightly refuse them fellowship although they have not been immersed.
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Let me respond to this in three gracEmails. I begin in this gracEmail with some undisputed observations, specifically about the various understandings of baptism that exist within the universal church. Those differences involve the action or form of baptism, its proper subjects or recipients and its purpose.
Concerning its action or form, many Christians (Eastern Orthodox and most Baptists, Bible Churches, charismatic churches, Churches of Christ, Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ) conclude that the Greek words translated “baptize” and “baptism” require full immersion. Many others (Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Reformed, Methodists and other Wesleyans) conclude that these Greek words are indefinite as to action and that they are fulfilled by applying water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in obedience to Jesus’ parting commission (Matt. 28:19).
All those mentioned above agree that adults who come to faith should receive water baptism. Because the New Testament associates such baptism with repentance (Acts 2:38) and with faith (Mark 16:16), many Christians conclude that baptism is reserved for those who are old enough to repent and to believe in Jesus. However, many others conclude that infants born to Christian parents also ought to be baptized, based on Jesus’ invitation for little children to come to him (Mark 10:14), the biblical record of household conversions (Acts 16:33-34) or their view that baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign among God’s people (Col. 2:11-12). When children who are baptized as infants later come to personal faith, they are expected to make a profession of faith demonstrating that they are indeed children of the covenant (Presbyterian/Reformed), and/or to go through a process of confirmation by which they endorse their parents’ decision to have them baptized as infants (Catholic, Lutheran/Anglican/Episcopalian/Methodist).
Concerning its purpose or result, many Christians believe that baptism mediates divine grace and salvation, citing such texts as Acts 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21 as proof. Others understand the Bible to teach that anyone who truly believes in Jesus receives salvation and remission of sins, quoting such passages as Acts 10:43 and Ephesians 2:8-9. These also teach, however, that believers should be baptized because Jesus commanded it and because he was baptized himself.
In this gracEmail, I will state some of my own conclusions regarding gospel baptism and some of the reasons behind them. As to form, I conclude that full immersion beneath the water fulfills the original and literal meaning of the Greek verb usually translated as “baptize,” and that the symbolism of this passive event best befits baptism’s role as a silent witness to Jesus’ saving death and resurrection which were accomplished on our behalf.
As to purpose, I conclude that Jesus personally ordained baptism, alongside a verbal profession, as the means by which those who hear and believe the gospel initially declare their faith. The gospel proclaims repentance “for forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:46-47) and the prophets and apostles all bear witness that whoever believes in Jesus “receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43). On that basis, I conclude that when baptism is an external expression of internal repentance and faith, it, too, is properly described as being “for the forgiveness [remission] of sins” (Acts 2:38). Because I conclude that baptism’s purpose determines its proper recipients, I baptize people who profess repentance and faith, which does not include normal infants.
Let us turn now to the case of the people in your original question. Suppose that these two unimmersed couples should say to you: “We believe that baptism is immersion, that it is only for believers, and that Jesus wants us to be immersed. However, our parents had us baptized as infants and they would be upset if we were to be immersed now. For that reason, we will not do so, even though we believe that Jesus commands it of us.” Such a comment would, to my mind, reflect a disobedient spirit, bringing into question their professions of discipleship. But is that really what these four are saying? We will consider that question in the next (final) gracEmail on this topic.
What if your unimmersed visitors say, “I also believe that baptism is commanded by Christ. Indeed, I was baptized as an infant. I believe that was a sacred rite and I cannot in good conscience deny its meaning by doing it again, even by immersion.” How should we view people who say this — people of an obedient heart and a willing spirit, people seeking to live in good conscience, yet people whose understanding of God’s will certainly differs from yours and mine?
Surely we must welcome such folk into the full fellowship of the local church — not because we believe they were baptized “properly,” but because that is a judgment of personal conscience which only the affected individual finally has a right to decide. We must faithfully teach what we understand about baptism and practice accordingly. We are neither required nor authorized to judge the obedience (including the baptism) of others who trust in Jesus as Savior and who seek to follow him.
It is not uncommon for such believers, warmly received and lovingly taught, to decide eventually to be immersed — not to please us, but because they conclude that is what Jesus wants them to do. True obedience always comes from the heart, and it must flow out of one’s own perception of God’s will for him or her. Otherwise one does not really obey God, even if one performs some action that God has commanded. If our teaching on this subject is correct, surely we can trust God to make it clear in the minds of others who also seek to know his will. Meanwhile, how can we dare to refuse to admit into our own fellowship any person whom we believe God has received into his?