God's Mark on His People Under the New Covenant: The main argument for the baptism of infants, then, is that we are simply continuing in the directive and symbolism that God has instituted and never expressly retracted. Though that concept is vital to discussing the argument for infant baptism, I now want to move into the mode of baptism, which I argue is done by having the element (water) come upon the object (individual being baptized). Paedobaptists (those who baptize infants) will argue that just as we can assume a continued directive as to the objects of God's mark, so we can find a continued directive as to the mode of God's mark. Since the bloody mark of circumcision seems to be done away with (Galatians 5:2, Acts 10, Acts 15, I Corinthians 7), I will argue that the mark of water is a continued symbol from the OT by exploring how water or other elements were used to mark in the OT, as well as what those markings represented.
You should be aware that while there is enormous agreement on infant baptism in terms of both number of Christians who hold to it and the length of time to which the belief was held in the early church, the mode is much more debated. Though it does seem that immersion was preferred in moving water, as I said, it seems that the movement of water was the most important. It's the common theme you tend to find in baptismal practices. It is also interesting to see that while the Orthodox tend to strongly favor immersion, the Reformed favor sprinkling, and the Catholics seem not to care too much in practice (though on paper they favor immersion), all modes are accepted by these churches. Catholics by and large don't care how you got wet, the Reformed generally don't care how you got wet (though different pastors may refuse to administer via certain modes themselves), and the Orthodox care a bit more that immersion be done, but pouring or sprinkling are accepted exceptions. In my opinion, such openness to the mode of baptism implies that the symbolism of baptism is found in what connects these modes. Again, I will argue that historically this thread is that the water is coming upon the object. This is obvious in sprinkling and pouring, and through historic immersion it came through being immersed in moving water. Many immersive practices have moved away from flowing water, even in the historic Orthodox church, but it seems this was the intended practice.
With all that being said, I am going to argue for sprinkling as the favored mode. But what is most important is to recognize that this is representative of the "coming upon" language which could also be symbolized via pouring or immersion in living water.
- Ezekiel 36:22-32 is a good picture with which to lead. The passage describes Israel's sin, their need for God's salvation and restoration, and God's promise to clean them and lead them into a restored land. While some of these aspects were likely an initial prophecy for an Israel that would be exiled, there are also many elements that make it appear to be a double prophecy in that it describes a far future promise of God's Spirit and a truly restored kingdom. In this passage we see a few interesting connections to God's promised Spirit. 1) God says that he was going to sprinkle Israel clean. It is often his mode for symbolizing cleansing, consecration, and making an object holy. 2) God turning our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh - the same language used along with circumcision when God tells us he will circumcise our hearts - is sandwiched right between his declaration of sprinkling us clean and his giving of the Spirit, and is often the imagery used to show God's future work of sending the Spirit. 3) God's promise to put his Spirit within us. So we see a sprinkling clean, a connection with circumcision, leading to and seemingly symbolizing God's sending of the Spirit upon his people.
- Acts 2 is another great place to look at baptism, as we can see a very long chain of events occurring. What is interesting is that when you look at the broader scope of these passages that mention baptism, you often find that the Spirit is playing a major role in the overarching theme of the passage. Acts 2 is probably the best example, as it heavily emphasizes the spirit and baptism. The Spirit comes upon the believers at the beginning of the chapter, Peter goes into discussing God's promise of the Spirit being poured out on believers, and then he references Christ's death and resurrection, but only to highlight that Christ's conquering of death was his key to providing us with the Spirit. Christ's exaltation to God's right hand has given him the Spirit to pour out. At the conclusion of all this Peter tells them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. This baptism theology highlights the emphasis of God's Spirit being poured out and of baptism symbolizing an application of God's work for the forgiveness of our sins.
- Acts 11 and Acts 1 also provide us with more theological context. In both Acts 11:16 and Acts 1:4-5 we see the author discussing how believers are baptized with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit and baptism are linked together time and time again. It is also interesting to see in Acts 8 how believers who had been baptized in the name of Jesus alone had not received the Holy Spirit (it actually says the Holy Spirit had not come upon them yet). This is one reason the Orthodox church only views as valid those baptisms which are done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also see such a requirement in one of the earliest Christian documents, the Didache (point 7). This idea of the Spirit and the coming upon or pouring out of baptism are linked time and time again in the book of Acts and throughout scripture.
- Outside of Acts we also see baptism linked with both the idea of the Spirit and the idea of being come upon. In Matthew 3, during the baptism of Jesus, we see that immediately following his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven and came upon Jesus. The passage also declares that Jesus comes to baptize us with the Spirit and with fire.
- Many immersionists attempt to deny sprinkling because there are several places in the NT where baptism is linked in some fashion with Christ's death and resurrection. We'll explore those instances next. But before we do, it is important to note how the application of cleansing and consecration were done in the OT. The Ezekiel passage above says that sprinkling was performed, and this is the common mode used for such an occasion. For a quick reference, here are about 30 other verses that discuss the mode used for applying blood for the purpose of cleansing or consecration. To be baptized into a sacrifice's death and to be made clean and brought to new life, time and time again blood was applied via sprinkling.
- There are three commonly used references to deny the links above between baptism and the Spirit, and attempt to show that the mode of baptism should correspond with the burial and resurrection of Christ though the symbol of immersion. I Peter 3:18-22, Romans 6:1-14, and Colossians 2:9-15 are used frequently for this case, though upon closer inspection, they maintain this greater theme of the Spirit's work. The I Peter reference is interesting because it's just a complicated one to begin with. It uses some weird language and ideas. The passage isn't even about baptism, but rather suffering while being righteous and doing so with a clear conscience. When baptism is mentioned, however, it does mention Christ's death and resurrection in there. But it does so with two bigger ideas in mind. First, it highlights how this baptism is for washing, but not for physical washing. It represents the clean standing we have before God. And how do we have this clean standing? It isn't through Christ's death and resurrection alone. This is a minimalistic view of Christ's work many evangelicals have. Rather, Christ's work of death and resurrection allows Christ, the sacrifice, to plead his blood before God the Father. Just as a priest killing a sacrifice meant nothing in the OT without the priest's application of the blood before God, so Christ's death and resurrection were nothing without his application of the blood before God. We saw this in Acts 2 above - the notion that Christ's work was intended to exalt him so he could send the Spirit. Hebrews is also replete with the notions of Christ's application of the sacrifice, with 9:11-15 one of many great examples, as we see Christ's blood sprinkled on us before God, by the Spirit. The Spirit is almost always (or maybe always) the person in the godhead who is associated with water, application, or cleansing. Linking all of our symbolism (Eucharist = death and suffering, baptism = death and burial, change of the Sabbath day = commemorating the resurrection) to Christ's sacrificial work not only minimizes the rest of the godhead's work, it also minimizes Christ's extremely vital work of intercession, which without, his sacrifice would mean nothing. To the West's detriment, we have often become Christocentric to the exclusion of the Father, and especially to the exclusion of the Spirit.
The context of the I Peter passage is intriguing, and when fleshed out it really doesn’t seem to be the great support of credobaptism that it is claimed to be. It could be an interesting mention in a cumulative case for credobaptism, but as it stands, it seems like a wash on its own. But what’s really cool about this passage, and the reason I lead with it, is because Peter provides us with some amazing context about Christ’s work, the Spirit’s work, and our participation in it. He provides this context a mere two chapters before the I Peter 3 passage. While he doesn’t mention baptism, he explicitly lays out a few key concepts about how a believer is born anew and who does what in this process. If baptism represents our participation in Christ’s work, then it’s important to understand this work, who does what in the process, and what symbolisms are present and/or valid.
In I Peter 1:1-3, Peter says, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” So believers are sanctified (set apart, consecrated, etc) unto God by whom? The Spirit. Does this have anything to do with Christ’s work? Yes, it involves his blood and through him God gives us a new birth through Christ’s burial and resurrection. And how is Christ’s blood applied to us? We are sprinkled with his blood.
Now I’m not going to overstep what this passage is saying. Peter by no means says that our baptism is supposed to be via sprinkling. But what Peter does show us is that even in Christ’s burial and resurrection, the application of that sacrifice was applied just as it had been through the whole OT, via the sprinkling on the objects of mercy. This new life comes to us through the Spirit as he circumcises our hearts and indwells us, just as the believers of old needed the Spirit’s work to soften their hearts of stone and make them hearts of flesh. Peter has no qualms here associating Christ’s work with a sprinkling, so I don’t see why so many immersionists think the whole imagery they put forward is scriptural. The very same author of one of the three “buried and raised” baptism passages lays out very clearly that such a thing is not so. While the remaining two “buried and raised” passages don’t have the same level of clarification, I think you’ll find that the broader context significantly undercuts their weight as an immersionist argument.
- As far as Romans 6:1-14 goes, this section must be taken in light of all the other evidence. While Paul does mention baptism, burial, and resurrection in close proximity, it is clear that he is making a theological point rather than a prescriptive point that supports immersion. In the context of the passage, Paul is discussing our death to sin and our consecration unto righteousness. We have new life. It is just as easy for me to draw the conclusion that Paul is not speaking of immersion here. When you read Romans 6 in light of Romans 8:11, the notion that this passage supports immersion becomes extremely suspect. In Romans 8 we see Paul talk about the resurrection of Christ. And how was Christ raised from the dead? He was raised by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit came upon Christ to raise him up to new life. It is the Spirit's application of the blood that is life-giving, not Christ's death and resurrection alone. Christ's death and resurrection secured the Spirit for us, but it is the Spirit's work that resurrects. Arguably, when Romans 6 mentions baptism and resurrection together, it is just as easy to view this as a passage promoting baptism as being primarily the Spirit's symbol rather than Christ's symbol. Such a thing becomes even more likely in my mind as I read down through Romans 6:11-14 and see Paul's discussion of presenting our bodies as instruments which are consecrated to God. Such a notion screams of the OT consecration of the altar and instruments as they had an element sprinkled on them (see also the book of Hebrews), or the people as they had the blood of the sacrifice applied to them. At best, the passages are inconclusive when taken on their own due to the symbolism that also emphasizes aspect of consecration and the Spirit's work. But taken in the context of all scripture and the whole passage from which these verses are pulled, I believe these few verses used to support immersion become much more clearly a support for a baptism by sprinkling or pouring, where the element comes upon the object.
- Colossians 2:9-15 is the last major verse used to argue Christ's death and resurrection are the focal point of baptism and best represented through immersion. If you just look at verse 12, it would be very easy to conclude (like in the Romans 6 passage) that Paul is showing us that baptism is done through immersion. But once again when we take this in full context, it becomes much more intriguing. First, it's important to note that once again this is not a passage prescribing how baptism should be done. It's filled with symbolism and metaphor. The passage, like the one cited in I Peter 3 and Romans 6, is putting baptism in the context of our freedom from sin or our death to sin, and our freedom in Christ and the resurrection. What's interesting about the passage in Colossians however, is that we see circumcision appear right alongside baptism, and it is used in a parallel manner. In fact, baptism is the example sandwiched between two instances of circumcision. In verse 11 we see Paul say that we were "circumcised" not literally with human hands, but figuratively by Christ himself. In verse 13 Paul comes back to that idea and discusses how God has circumcised our hearts. In the very middle of those two instances Paul mentions that we have died with Christ through baptism, and we are raised with him through faith. So we have a passage that Paul states is figurative. In the examples he gives, Paul's point is that our hearts needed to be trimmed of our fleshliness. Refer back to I Peter where he mentions being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. Circumcision represented a death or a cutting away of the flesh, and baptism is a making alive in the Spirit. The cutting away of the flesh looked to a coming upon of the Spirit, as our hearts of stone were circumcised and filled by the Spirit to become soft hearts. We are sinners in need of cleansing. Yes, Christ's death and resurrection were vital in accomplishing this cleansing, but as we saw in other passages, so was the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is the application of Christ's work. The Spirit is what has been promised from ages ago as the one who would come and circumcise our hearts rather than our flesh. And as we read down through verse 14, Paul brings up our legal indebtedness, which once again takes our minds to the sacrificial system God instituted to foreshadow Christ's work. The death of the lamb was important, but no object was made clean or considered "alive" and consecrated until the blood (or water or oil ) was sprinkled or poured upon it.
- Even if we would concede that baptism is intended to depict a burial in its mode, it would still beg the question as to whether immersion best represents this idea. It seems anachronistic to believe that immersion is an accurate representation of burial and resurrection with Christ. While the imagery makes sense to us, as we are buried under dirt, would such a symbol make much sense to those often placed in above ground holding places? Under what element were they buried that would make being submerged under water a good symbol? In some ways we might consider sprinkling as depicting death and life more symbolically for the largely Jewish audience of the NT. The blood cleansings to which they were accustomed often involved the slaughter of an animal with the application of its lifeblood done via sprinkling on an instrument or individual. While the blood applied was representative of death, it was also representative of life. For the death that was dealt was administered to the sacrifice, yet it represented a new life for the one upon whom it was a substitutionally sprinkled. The sprinkling of an element (now water, formerly blood) upon an individual likely conveyed the notions of death and new life to individuals much more so than the anachronistic notions we attempt to impose upon their culture of being buried under the dirt. While one might argue that the depiction intended in immersion is a lying down and a rising up to symbolize death and resurrection rather than a submersion under dirt, that would then cause me to question how that links to the symbol of being immersed under a substance.
- While there are a handful of verses that link baptism with Christ and/or his death, burial, and resurrection (as seen above), there are two observations that diminish their weight for immersion in my mind even more. First, the language used in these passages is "into Christ" or "buried with him in baptism" and differs from the language used with the Spirit, "by the Spirit" or "with the Spirit." That is an important distinction because one describes the method and the other the result. To paraphrase, we are baptized with the Spirit or by the Spirit into Christ's death and resurrection. A great place to see this is I Corinthians 6:11 where we see that we were washed and sanctified. How or by what? "By the Spirit," but in the name of Jesus. Being washed, sanctified, and justified are all concepts bound up in Christ's death and resurrection, so of course death and resurrection are important. But it is "by the Spirit" that these things are applied to us. It is the Spirit's work that provides us participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through his application to us and through our regeneration.
Second, to focus on the few verses that associate baptism with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection overlooks the verses that directly associate baptism with the Spirit, which are just as numerous. In fact, I believe I have shown that in all places where we see baptism linked with Christ's burial and resurrection, we have also seen mention of the Spirit or Spirit's symbolism right alongside these mentions. Yet we see a number of places where baptism is mentioned alongside the Spirit without reference to burial, death, or resurrection. It seems very unfair to cherry-pick only the verses that associate baptism with burial and resurrection, or to say that these verses are somehow far more weighty and indicative of the mode than the multitude of other verses that emphasize the Spirit. For reference, here are some of the verses I found that link the Spirit directly with baptism: Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33, Acts 1:4-5, 11:15-16, and 19:1-6, and I Corinthians 12:13.
- As I mentioned earlier, we often view Christ's intercessory role in an incomplete manner. He is not just the sacrifice represented in the Eucharist, he is the application of the sacrifice which I believe is represented through baptism. Christ's work was not completed on the cross or upon rising from the tomb, it was completed when he fulfilled his final role as our great high priest by interceding to the Father on our behalf. If Jesus Christ died and rose again, we would still be lost. A high priest not only makes a sacrifice, but makes intercession on behalf of an individual. Jesus's death and resurrection are only a part of his work, though a very important part. His pleading of the sacrifice before God on our behalf is the part that fulfills his high priestly role. This idea was a game changer for me. Not only was it one of the major ideas that helped to propel me towards the Reformed faith, it also more importantly helped to shape my view of the godhead. John Owen argues this notion very profoundly in his work, "The Death of Death in the Death of Christ." As you look through Hebrews and the OT, I think that notion of consecrating a people will become more clear, and that understanding will help give you a fuller view of God and the work that he does as a godhead. To help you look a little further into the topic I want to give you a few starting points for looking up how the Spirit is connected to consecration (often of a people or of instruments), and the language used for the work of consecration (coming upon, pouring out, sprinkling, etc). Hebrews 9:19 , Proverbs 1:21, Isaiah 32:15, Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 39:29, Joel 2:28-29, John 1:33, Mark 1:10, Titus 3:6, Acts 2:16.
- After looking at all of the scriptures that deal with the Spirit and with washing, and after having laid God's view of his former mark of circumcision being given to his visible people, though he knew some would not believe, I now want to turn to John 13:1-20. Although this technically isn't called a baptism, I want you to take a very close look at the language Christ uses when he washes his disciples feet. There are four main things you should notice. 1) Jesus says that what he is doing is to wash his disciples. This is obviously figurative as he tells Peter that if the disciples don't have their feet washed then have no part in Christ. The washing here went beyond a simple foot washing. It was representative of Christ's work and a relationship with him, as he states that it was to cleanse and that if one did not participate, they were not a part of him. 2) Jesus declared that this cleansing was done by merely washing a part of his disciples, not their whole bodies. They were not submerged for such a cleansing or for an association with Christ to take place. 3) We are told that Jesus washed the disciples' feet, which at this time, included the disciple who would betray Jesus, Judas. So Christ expressly stated that this symbol represented a washing and a communion or relationship with him, yet he knowingly symbolically washed the one who would betray him - on the very night he would betray Christ and right before Christ knowingly declared this betrayal. Jesus knowingly marked Judas into himself with the knowledge of his soon to be, damnable apostasy (turning away without repenting, unlike Peter who repented for his betrayal). 4) After Jesus declares that all who he has symbolically washed are not truly washed or are a part of him, he states that "...I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” The symbolic washing of the disciples, while representing a relationship with Christ and a washing, was really a looking forward to the sending of the Spirit. The true believer isn't the one who is symbolically marked, as Jesus himself even symbolically marked and washed an unbeliever. Rather, this sign looks forward to and represents the means whereby true believers will receive salvation and assurance of their washing and relationship. The symbol of belief and communion was given prior to full belief, and was even given to one who had already apostatized in his heart.
In summary, Jesus symbolically cleansed and considered his disciples a part of him by applying water to a small part of them. He was even willing to apply this symbol to someone who didn't truly have a believing relationship with him. And finally, this act's symbolism found fulfillment in the future when and if the Holy Spirit was manifested in the ones whose feet were washed. The mark is not what washed or brought one into relationship, but rather the Spirit who Jesus said would soon come and would be accepted by those who were truly washed and truly believed. While I am not going to claim that this is baptism as we're attempting to lay out for believers today, it does give us insight into context, symbolism that would have been familiar to the disciples, and theological ideas and how they can be represented at times in the Bible. In this light, the baptism of infants could make perfect sense. We baptize infants who are part of the visible community, through the application of water to a small part of them, representing the Spirit's future work to cleanse them and bring them into relationship with Christ, even though we know that some of them will apostatize and never have a saving faith.
- It seems strange to have significant changes in customs and symbols that revolve solely around Jesus. While Jesus is very important, he is God just as much as the Father and the Spirit. To focus solely on Christ seems to boarder on hierarchicalism/subordinationism, a mistake that emphasizes one of the godhead without an appropriate weighting of the others. Emphasizing the substance, work, or importance of the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit above the other is extremely problematic for our theology. At the moment, we have the Eucharist that commemorates Christ's death and the change of the Sabbath day to Sunday which commemorates Christ's resurrection, and is a day on which we go to worship God, with worship mostly directed towards the Father. Yet for many immersionists, there is little to nothing instituted that acknowledges the vital work of the Spirit. In fact, for most non-charismatic denominations that practice immersion, the Spirit is generally only referenced as a catchphrase in prayer or Christian talk that simply means "I felt." "The Spirit lead me to do X," for most of us, just means "I felt like I should do X." Our paedobaptist denomination, and me personally, also have a huge problem with diminishing the Spirit. But infant baptism is always a wake up call for me as to the objectivity of the Spirit's work and importance. It is a fantastic reminder that God gives to me through his use of symbolism.
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