Baptism is something that the Church has struggled to agree with each other over the last 500 years or so since the reformation. I’d say for the most part the church was agreeable on it before then, but I suppose our Baptist friends, like John Downey, would probably debate that assertion. He’s free to do so, but that is beside the point. The obvious point is that we disagree in Christendom about the doctrine of baptism; the not so obvious point is what we actually disagree about.
In this post I am not going to try to make a case for what I believe and teach regarding baptism, maybe I’ll save that for another time, but what I do want to do is try to crystalize 4 distinct positions that people hold regarding baptism. It’s important that we make note of all 4 positions before we enter into any debate regarding baptismal formula, effect, timing, mode, etc…
Typically debates surrounding baptism tend to swirl around a few points. The most obvious is believer v. infant baptism. Beyond that we have debate on the effect of baptism. Does it save or is it symbolic? Is it a gift or is it a work? Does it involve a decision? Is baptism an act of the will? These are points that can, and should be debated, I believe even more fiercely than debate surrounding baptismal timing.
Anyway, with all that said let me propose 4 different categories of belief surrounding baptism. Hopefully you will be able to easily see where you fall categorically, and maybe this will help you articulate your position better with people whom you disagree with.
#1 – Baptismal Regeneration – Including Infants: This position affirms that baptism is salvific, it is not a mere symbol but in baptism saving grace is received, literal union with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ happens. Infants or adults can receive baptism. Lutherans and Catholics vocally hold this position, Anglicans and Methodists also spell this position in their liturgies, though the clergy (at least in Methodism) don’t seem as vocal about it.
#2 – Covenant Baptism – Including Infants: This position views baptism as the action associated with affirming the covenant of grace. Similar to circumcision in the Old Testament. This is a largely symbolic view in that any ‘magic’ associated with baptism actually linking the life death and resurrection of Christ to someone is denied, or affirmed very loosely or symbolically. Belief that children indeed are part of this covenant leads the people of this position to see no reason to withhold baptism from the children of believing families. This is the paedo-baptist reformed view held by Presbyterians and others of that stripe.
#3 – Baptismal Regeneration – Believer Only: This position, like position #1 holds that baptism is salvific and literally unites a person with the life death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Where this differs from #1 is that this sacrament is only afforded to those who believe. In other words one must “believe and be baptized” to be saved. This position is a little more rare and is often associated with groups that get labeled as cults. International Churches of Christ come to mind, as well as a number of independent and separate KJV Only Baptist groups. Typically these churches will affirm that you must be baptized as a believer by other believers and the only true believers are those who are a part of their particular sect. Not always, but typically.
#4 – Covenant Baptism – Believer Only: This position is more similar to #2 than people realize, and for the most part 2s and 4s get along pretty well. The difference between the two positions is whether or not someone who has not yet believed can be a part of the covenant. This group would say no, covenant is dependent on belief, the #2s would say no covenant has always been a family thing throughout the OT and continues that way till now. This group would include most of your Baptists, non-denominational churches, and everyone else that baptizes believers only and doesn’t hold baptismal regeneration. I also include those who simply view Baptism as a public declaration in this group as well, though admittedly they are a bit different. There is a lot of variance here in group #4.
Now as you look through these four categories, determine where you stand. I am a #1. What does that mean for me?
It means when I am discussing baptism with a #2, even though we both believe the bible affirms the baptism of households and nations (never excluding infants, or even insinuating their exclusion)we do not agree on what baptism actually is, and what happens at baptism. In fact we #1s find it cute that we can agree on infants, but as far as we are concerned the #2s are writing off countless passages of scripture in order to maintain a ‘symbolic’ view.
The fact that I am a #1 also means that when I am discussing with #4s, which happens often, that we are on opposite sides of the baptismal spectrum. (Yeah that means you John Downey.)
I would encourage you the reader to look at baptism through this 1,2,3,4 framework, because it is helpful in understanding the various positions and making sense of the debates that we see occurring.
#1s and #2s agree that covenant applies to kids, but disagree in baptism as an actual effectual means of regeneration.
#1s and #3s agree that baptism is effectual, but not that covenant applies to kids.
#1s and #4s don’t agree on very much when it comes to baptism, other than that it should be done with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Which by the way, in my understanding, is what makes it effectual).
#2s and #3s agree on nothing, really, I mean I’d be surprised if these two agree on anything at all even outside of baptism.
#2s and #4s, as mentioned above agree on what occurs in baptism (virtually nothing) but disagree on whether or not infants can have ‘nothing’ done to them. Ok that was snarky, but this is my post.
#3s and #4s, agree on the timing, but really they don’t agree on much beyond that.
I hope this helps someone as they navigate the Christian Church’s different beliefs regarding baptism. Obviously I tainted the post here and there with my own views (which seem obvious to me) and many a reader will disagree, so be it. In any case I hope this was a helpful exercise in coming to a more nuanced position of baptism.