"We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." (Romans 6:4)
“I know believers’ baptism by immersion appears to be the New Testament model, but I don’t want to upset my parents who had me baptized in good faith as an infant.”
“Isn’t it great? I go to a church that doesn’t make a big deal out of baptism. So it can’t be divisive. If you want to have your babies baptized, you can. If you want to be immersed as a believer, you can do that too. But no form of baptism is a prerequisite for membership.”
“I’ve never been baptized in any way, shape, or form. But I’ve followed Jesus since I was six and now I’m thirty-six. Baptism wouldn’t make any sense for me now, would it?”
Have you ever heard these or similar comments? I seem to hear them more than ever these days. It is good that Christians aren’t killing each other over the forms of baptism practiced, as occasionally happened after the Reformation. It is important to take one’s parents’ feelings into account in religious matters even after one becomes an adult, whenever one can. And it is true that the New Testament regularly associates baptism with the point of coming to faith, not something that is done decades later.
But in our age, in which tolerance so often seems to trump truth, we need to return to passages like the first four verses of Romans 6 again and again. Although theologians continue to discuss (1) what might be implied by household baptisms in the New Testament and (2) to what extent parallels between circumcision as the initiatory rite in the old covenant and baptism as the counterpart in the new might justify infant baptism, it remains undeniable that the only unambiguous examples of people being baptized in the New Testament are of those who are old enough to believe. And a passage like Romans 6:4 makes sense only when immersion is assumed. Just as people are laid out “six feet under,” the baptizand lays down under the water, but then like Christ rises again to symbolize his or her new spiritual life. And the Great Commission commands that this be done to all disciples (Matthew 28:19).
I don’t for one minute want to argue for baptismal regeneration—the belief that you must be baptized to be saved. But I do want to insist that, if not normative, believers’ baptism by immersion as soon as feasible after conversion was the normal practice of the New Testament church and it should be ours also.
My concern in this blog, however, is not so much to debate those friends of mine who practice infant baptism (not for salvation but as a ritual for their parents’ and congregation’s sake, indicating their intentions to do their best to raise a child as a Christian, while recognizing that some day he or she will have to confirm it for themselves with their own saving faith). Most Baptists believe that should be done too, and many even dedicate babies with almost the identical theology that paedobaptists use at infant baptism. The only debate is whether the water should be applied earlier, in small drops, or later, in larger doses!
My concern here is rather the inordinate number of young adults (and a few older ones) I meet these days who seem to think baptism is just no big deal. And if they weren’t raised in a church that prescribed a certain way for it to be done, they may never have been baptized at all. And if they have had faith in Christ for many years already, it really seems to them to be unnecessary. Or, if they do go through with baptism, it is just, they say, “because Christ commanded it and we need to obey him.” But they can’t give any particular reason for why he should have commanded it.
What a striking contrast from believers out of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions in various parts of the world today who are completely ostracized by their families, not if they show an interest in following Jesus, but if they “seal the deal” by means of baptism! What a striking contrast from believers past and present who occasionally have become targets for martyrdom, not if they merely profess some kind of commitment to Christ, but only after their public testimony in baptism! What an insult it is to their sacrifices to take this ordinance of our Lord so lightly!
With or without words, baptismal immersion testifies to our identification with the crucified and risen Christ. With words, with the appropriate “pledge of a clear conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21), produced by already existing saving faith, baptism includes a promise to follow Jesus all the days of our lives. If and when doubts assail us as to whether we truly believed “way back when,” we can point to the vows we recited at our baptism. If and when temptations come to turn our backs on Jesus and/or turn to some other religion, philosophy, or worldview, others have the right and responsibility to ask us, “Are you a person of your word? Are you a promise keeper? You made a sacred oath; are you the kind of person that can be trusted even when the hard times come to be faithful to your covenants?”
When one studies church history and sees what Christians have endured for their faith, even to the point of martyrdom, and what many still endure in our world today, the reasons that pampered Westerners give for reneging on their baptismal vows are just plain pathetic in comparison. “The church hurt me.” “God didn’t give me the kind of life I was counting on.” “I just didn’t feel him nearby for the longest time.” “Skeptics gave me arguments that I couldn’t answer.” And so on, ad nauseam. As if no one in other times and places ever had these kinds of experiences before but remained faithful nevertheless.
A strange expression recurs on websites that describe people’s “deconversion” from Christianity, particularly to atheism. Over and over I’ve read that so-and-so “manned up” and faced the facts. For one thing this is astonishingly sexist. Worse still, it’s exactly the opposite of what it really means. People actually “wimped out” when the going got tough. They reneged on their promises instead of showing their true grit. Remind me never to trust such people with anything I couldn’t bear to lose. If they can’t be faithful to the commitment that is the most important one anyone could ever make now or for eternity, why should I trust their word in any less significant context?
As for baptism, are there really any good reasons left to disobey Jesus and remain unbaptized? C’mon, “man or woman up to it”!
Dr. Craig Blomberg
Dr. Craig Blomberg joined the faculty of Denver Seminary in 1986. He is currently a distinguished professor of New Testament. Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, and he received an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Augustana College. Before joining the faculty of Denver Seminary, he taught at Palm Beach Atlantic College and was a research fellow in Cambridge, England with Tyndale House.