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The case for believer’s baptism

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“Pastor, we’ve come to appreciate this church, and we’d like to become members. How do we join?”

Music to a pastor’s ears? Not if the request comes from a person who was baptized as an infant and who expects to join a Mennonite Brethren church without undergoing believer’s baptism. Mennonite Brethren (Anabaptist) understandings of Scripture are at odds with infant baptism (pedobaptist) understanding of Scripture. Anabaptists understand baptism to signify symbolically that one has entered into a covenant of salvation with Christ. Although a believer comes a member of the Body of Christ at the moment conversion occurs, baptism represents a believer’s public acknowledgment of being included in the Body of Christ and simultaneously becoming a member of a local church.

Those who practice infant baptism teach that infant baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. Some go so far as to say that infant baptism washes away original sin and is the first step of regeneration. However, many within the pedobaptist traditions, by their own admission, live increasingly with an uneasy conscience over this part of their theology – because there is no record of infant baptism in Scripture. This unease was further heightened when noted 20th-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth reversed himself on the issue.

The Infant Baptism Position

There are two essential planks in the pedobaptist platform:

  1. “Faith by proxy” is the first plank. With some variations, an infant baptism goes like this: A minister asks a newborn infant, “will you be baptized into this faith?” “That is my desire,” answers an adult on behalf of the child.

    The practice of baptizing children dates back to the third century AD. The first known use of “infant baptism” language occurs in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (about AD 215), which reads: “they shall baptize the little children first, and if they can answer for themselves, let them answers, but if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from the family.”

    Essentially at issue in infant baptism is that the faith of the sponsoring adult is being conferred on the infant. Within Lutheranism, the baptized infant is regarded as having faith, active but unexpressed. Within Calvinism (the Reformed church), the infant is regarded, from the time of infant baptism, as having the primordial seed of faith slumbering in its bosom until the dawn of personality” (P.K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, 1978). Calvin taught that believers’ children were to be baptized because “they are exempt from the curse of Adam and sanctified by a supernatural grace.” Within Reformed theology, children are baptized because they are heirs of God’s covenant promise.

  1. The second plank in the platform of pedobaptism is based on an understanding of the Jewish practice of circumcision. The Reformer Zwingli in the 1500s called baptism the circumcision of Christians. Ursinus, co-author of the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism, wrote: “Under the Old Testament infants were circumcised as well as adults. Baptism occupies the place of circumcision in the New Testament and has the same use circumcision had in the Old Testament. Therefore infants are to be baptized as well as adults.”

    The problem with infant baptism is that it involves no personal confess ion, no repentance, no initiative, no will, no faith expressed on the part of the one baptized. Troubled by this, pedobaptist traditions introduced confirmation as a means of bringing baptized infants to a subsequent decision of faith in puberty. It is instructive to note Calvin’s ambivalence over the lack of biblical or apostolic support for pedobaptism and confirmation. His case rested solely on “medieval custom”.

The Believer’s Baptism Position

Mennonite Brethren respectfully disagree with the practice of pedobaptism on the following theological grounds:

  1. 1. Believing faith cannot be passed on by a ritual. See Romans 3:23; 5:1; 6:1-11 ,19-23; 10:14 and especially 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord: and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be ” At the heart of pedobaptism is vicarious faith, or “faith by proxy”. An external act conferred upon an infant does not satisfy the biblical definition of saving faith.
  2. Sin and the will to sin are inherent in the human race (Romans 3:23). All are separated from God and remain so until God’s free gift of grace in Christ Jesus is received by faith. To suggest otherwise produces a marked shift in theology and practice. It dulls the personal initiative in coming to Christ and elevates ritual. If one can make children Christian by conferring baptism on them, why not make baptizing babies the heart of the mission enterprise? The point is that children are sinful and need to believe, turn and confess.
  3. With regard to equating circumcision and baptism, the critical text is Colossians 2:11-12: “In Him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men, but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead.” The aim of this text is to dismiss ritual religiosity and warn the church against adopting the old circumcision code as a prerequisite for salvation. Another text, Galatians 5.6, is also instructive in that it values lived-out faith over ritual: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Incidentally, the analogy to circumcision does not hold up very well. Menno Simons, before he accepted a believer’s baptism position, noted that only Jewish boys were circumcised and wondered whether only infant boys-not girls- should be baptized.)
  1. The New Testament shows no infant being baptized. The two “household” baptisms of Acts 16 are sometimes used by pedobaptists to imply that infants were baptized. In the first incident (16:13-15), Lydia was a businesswoman many miles from home, a woman whose husband (if any) is not mentioned and whose “household” may have consisted of her business entourage. I n the other Acts 16 text (16-40), the members of the Philippian jailer’s household were baptized but only after they had believed the message. The text says nothing about children.

What it does say is that those who had come to believe were baptized:

“The whole family was filled with joy, because they had come to believe in God” (Acts 16:34). Similarly, in the Acts 10 passage cited by Jason Rekker (see Letters in this issue), those baptized had had the gospel preached to them and had begun to speak in tongues as a sign that they had received the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 16:15-17 speaks of a household who became “converts” and “devoted themselves to the service of the saints”; baptism is not even mentioned.

The pedobaptist tradition should be commended for its desire to include children in the church community. A relatively recent innovation within the Mennonite Brethren Church is the parent-child dedication service. It is a public opportunity for the parent-not the child-to enter into a covenant with other believers that she/he as a parent will convey to the child the truths of Christianity. But the dedication service goes no further; it does not confer faith on the child, for it considers saving faith to be a matter between God and the sinner.

First Believing Faith, Then Baptism

The dialogue with pedobaptists is often vigorous. The issue for Mennonite Brethren is faithfulness to the teachings of Scripture. But faithfulness to the teaching of Scripture also means that Mennonite Brethren must be loving and gracious in this dialogue. Mennonite Brethren are not demanding that all Christians around the world hold to believer’s baptism. But. at the same time, the larger Mennonite Brethren community is agreed that the teaching concerning believer’s baptism in the Scriptures is sufficiently clear so as to be included in the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith. The biblical record indicates that baptism followed a declaration of faith in Christ’s saving work. Anyone who wishes to join a Mennonite Brethren church is first invited to be baptized upon confession of faith.

Ron Toews prepared this article in the local church context while serving as a Mennonite Brethren pastor. He has recently been appointed to teach leadership and pastoral ministries at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary campus in Langley B.C.

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