Dan Popp
Against infant baptism
By Dan Popp
July 14, 2014

I had an aunt whose grandson died as a teenager. Later she told me, "Johnny was baptized and confirmed in the [family] church; he's in heaven and that's that." Now, I never met Johnny. I can't speak to his eternal state. But surely even the most ardent advocate of infant baptism will agree that my aunt's comment represents a serious problem. We know from experience that some good church kids turn out to be bad adults. Some never adopt the faith of their parents. Some become heinous criminals.

In short, if those who "endure to the end" will be saved, then infant baptism and confirmation do not prove that anyone is a Christian.

Now, the same could be said for adult baptism. Over time, we'll discover that some conversions just "didn't take," as Mark Twain might say.

Why am I whacking this particular hornet's nest? These thoughts follow from my recent essay on Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus said that we all must be born again. And some say that this happens in baptism – even a baptism done without our consent. They may base this, in part, on the Lord's statement, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (John 3:5-6, NAS95)

It's almost comical to read various commentators on what Jesus means by born of water. Some think it's obviously a reference to water baptism (as converts to Judaism were baptized, as John had baptized, etc.). Others think that that interpretation arose in Africa more than a hundred years later, and born of water is obviously a parallel to born of the flesh, that is, physical birth. Regardless of our views on that, we can see that the operational part of the statement is the born of the Spirit part. That's the point Jesus was trying to hammer home to Nicodemus. He was contrasting the earth-bound vision of the Pharisee to the kingdom of God, a spiritual kingdom requiring new, spiritual eyes.

If you wanted to become a Christian in the early centuries, you first had to undergo a period of probation and instruction as a "catechumen." You would not be baptized immediately upon your profession of faith. We're going to look to see whether you've stopped beating your wife, and whether you've returned the money you stole from your employer. And we're going to teach you the essential doctrines of Christianity. Then, at your baptism, you'll recite the articles of faith that will later be incorporated into the Apostle's Creed and Nicene Creed. You'll be dunked (not sprinkled – it's a symbol of burial, after all) in water, and after you come up, the elders will lay hands on you and pray for you to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Now, at what point in that process did you become a Christian? At which stage were you born again? Was it when you repented and believed the gospel? Catechumens were sometimes martyred. These unbaptized martyrs were considered brothers and sisters in the Lord. Was it while you were under the water? If baptism in water is rebirth by the Holy Spirit, why did the elders pray for a second baptism? Despite all their discussion of the "saving laver," the early church must have believed that being born again is not the same as being baptized in water.

Peter clarified all this for us, if we would listen to him: Corresponding to that [the flood of Noah], baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.... (1 Peter 3:21, NAS95) If we think that some water on our skin will save us, we're looking at the physical symbol as if it were the spiritual reality it symbolizes. We're thinking like a Pharisee, in the physical dimension. Water can clean your flesh, but it cannot touch your spirit. For a spiritual cleansing we need a spiritual Agent. Peter says that baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience. Who makes an appeal for a good conscience? Isn't it a person whose conscience accuses him of sin? How can a baby make such an appeal, or how can I make that appeal on behalf of someone else?

Let me close with an analogy. You probably know that the LDS (Mormon) church has a practice of baptism for the dead. They find your great-great-grandfather Sol's name on a census record, and a member of that church is baptized on Sol's behalf. Some people are deeply offended by this, and I don't suppose I can blame them. But, emotions aside, it seems to me that grandpappy Sol can't possibly be harmed by it.

Contrast this with infant baptism, another kind of baptism without the consent of the baptized. In this – as we agreed at the beginning of the article – harm may be done to little Johnny; and harm may be done to relatives and others who believe that Johnny's name was written in the Lamb's Book of Life when it was written in the church registry, as if by automatic pen.

To extend the analogy, the LDS church says that baptism for the dead does not move the departed from one church or one kingdom to another – it merely gives the deceased person the opportunity to make that decision for himself. Similarly, as some understand it, infant baptism allows the person to agree, fourteen or so years later, that he's OK with having been baptized, and is now giving his consent to all that that entails, after the fact. That is called "confirmation." (That's not a universal definition of confirmation, but it is a traditional and a popular view, as exemplified by my aunt's remark.)

You may find baptism for the dead a little creepy – and I'm not in any way defending it – but it seems to be a benign exercise compared to telling Johnny he was "born again," or at least made a shoe-in for the kingdom of God, his rebirth only contingent on some weekend classes and a ceremony, when he was sprinkled with water as an infant.

How far are both of these from Jesus' description of the unpredictable, uncontrollable wind, His symbol for the mystery of the new birth – in those who believe. "Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:7-8, NAS95)

© Dan Popp


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