The point is that baptism is not an empty ritual – it is a conferring of Christ and His saving gifts.
Rev. Matthew W. Rueger, Author
Jan. 1, 2020
Infant Baptism Does Matter
You are likely to hear a lot of your evangelical friends talk about how they got involved with the local church or campus group and were led to get baptized again. They will, no doubt, be very passionate about how meaningful an experience it was. They made the decision themselves, nobody made it for them. They gave their testimony of faith before the whole congregation. They fulfilled God’s command to be baptized. It’s easy to be impressed with their zeal. However zeal alone is no measure of truth.
The all important decision
What your friends have stumbled into is what is known as “believer’s baptism.” It is the practice of baptizing only people deemed mature enough to make the decision to be baptized for themselves. Those groups that practice believer’s baptism reject the validity of infant baptism. Their argument goes something like this: “In order for any matters of faith to be meaningful and beneficial, one has to personally apprehend it by one’s own will.” In other words, you have to willingly want to be a part of it for it to be valid. The way that is done in most (if not all non-denominational / evangelical circles) is through the force of one’s own personal decision. Apprehension of Christ, then, is an exercise of the mature well-reasoned will. Baptism is not practiced among the young or infants because they do not yet possess a mature will or intellect capable of responsibly choosing to accept Christ.
In part, this teaching is a reaction against a particular teaching of Roman Catholicism known as “ex opere operato,” which is Latin for “from the working of the work.” What this doctrine proposes is that people in the church can spiritually benefit from the work of others on their behalf without actually being there or even witnessing the work for themselves. This is the teaching behind the practice of the “private mass.” A private mass is a communion service held by the priest alone in Church, where he communes himself without the congregation in attendance. The priest does this is because he believes his actions add to the overall “treasury of merits,” which is a kind of store-house of good works. When his good works reach a certain level where he is personally “covered by them,” then any extra works (beyond those needed by the priest personally) overflow to the members of his congregation and get credited to their account. The more often the priest holds private mass, the more good works are heaped up for him, and the more benefit his congregation receives (even though they are not present and do not participate).
It’s clear that such a teaching divorces the individual members of a congregation from personal responsibility before God. They are essentially carried by the works of others. Their personal faith and engagement with Christ isn’t all that important. What is important is that somebody (the priest) believes and is working on their behalf.
Most members of evangelical churches – and even many of their pastors – don’t know the details about this particular Roman Catholic doctrine. What they do know is that there are Christians out there who think they can be saved through the rituals of others and don’t need to be personally engaged in their own faith. In that assessment at least they are correct.
The problem is that they project this problem onto infant baptism. The way most evangelicals see infant baptism is as a ritual performed by others over someone who is not personally engaged with it. They take exception to the fact that decision to be baptized lies in the hands of others (the baby’s parents) and not in the hands of the one being baptized. They believe the baby cannot willingly decide be part of it. Those simple facts, they claim, make the baptism of babies invalid.
Examining the argument
So what about their argument? On a certain level it makes sense. One must be personally involved in something in order for it to be truly his or her own. You have to want it to own it, so to speak. On another level, though, their attempts to connect a problem they have rightly identified elsewhere to the subject of infant baptism is an invalid connection. Here’s why:
1. The underlying assumption made by these groups is that faith is to be equated to one’s intellect. Believing is a function of one’s personal will and decision. Therefore one must be of an “age of decision” (or an age of reason) in order to truly believe.
The Lutheran Church, the historic Christian Church, and I would argue Scripture itself has never held to this definition of faith. Believing is not the same as thinking, reasoning, or deciding. Certainly the mind is involved in faith as one grows and matures. But faith does not have its origin or impetus from the intellect. Instead. “believing” is to have Christ’s new life given to us; it is to be joined to Him, have His love, His forgiveness and His eternal life put into us. It is to have the Holy Spirit sent to us by Christ.
"For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Galatians 3:26-27
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." Ephesians 2:8-9
"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life." Titus 3:5-7
It is because faith does not have its origin in the mind or intellect but from the indwelling of Christ and His Spirit that we can say that even those whose intellect is impaired can have faith. Infants can have faith as can people with brain injuries, diseases that affect the brain, and the developmentally challenged. We do not say of those who suffer from comas that they lost faith simply because they cannot reason or think rationally. When faith is Christ’s gracious and saving presence within a person, then faith exists and persists even when the mind is incapacitated or damaged.
The claim that infants cannot believe is therefore flawed from the very beginning. They can and they do inasmuch as Christ can and does claim them as His own.
"But Jesus called them to Him and said, "Let the little children (“infants” in the Greek) come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it." Luke 18:16-17
2. It is unbiblical to say that being joined to the faith is only valid if it is initiated by the decision, acceptance, or invitation of the individual. The Old Testament sacrament of circumcision clearly dispels that notion. Baby boys were commanded by God to be circumcised at eight days old (Genesis 17:12) [eight being the number of the “new creation” or the symbol of the messianic restoration of fallen creation – thus many older baptismal fonts were eight-sided]. Circumcision marked them as members of God’s covenant. Any males not circumcised, babies or adults, were to be considered cut off from God’s covenant (Gen. 17:13-14).
The decision then to be joined to God’s covenant was to be made by the parents or guardians of the child, not by the male child himself. While circumcision marked that child as being part of God’s Abrahamic covenant, it was not an automatic pass into heaven. It was expected that now that the child was part of that covenant he would lead a faithful life, learn God’s Word, and grow to be steadfast in it. Circumcision was the beginning point of faith and life in God’s covenant; it wasn’t the end of the male child’s responsibility before God.
It is exactly the same with infant baptism. The decision to bring the child to God’s baptismal covenant is made by the parents and guardians. Baptism does join that child to God’s family and mark them as God’s child. But it is not an automatic pass into heaven no matter what. Faith given can be faith lost if it is neglected. Baptism marks a beginning point of life with Christ, where the expectation is that the parents will teach the details of faith to the child as he or she grows. That baptized child is expected to put faith into action in life, and lead a life of faith, devotion, and love for God and others. Baptism joins a baby to the baptismal life.
The evangelicals wrongly assume that those who baptize infants see it as a ritual that saves people by the mere working of the work. We do not believe that rituals apart from faith save anyone; nor do we believe that anyone can be saved by the faith of others in their place. The point is that baptism is not an empty ritual – it is a conferring of Christ and His saving gifts. Once those gifts are given, then the one who receives them is personally responsible to them. One can either ignore Christ’s gifts and lose salvation, or receive His gifts and live in them as a saved child of the Almighty. He or she is personally involved with Christ, even though the decision to become involved with Him was not originally his or her personal decision.
The evangelicals also wrongly assume that we are saying anyone who is not baptized will go to hell. We absolutely do not say that. What we do say is that baptism is God's normal way of giving faith and His Holy Spirit. He commanded us to do it (Matthew 28:19). His Word says baptism will give forgiveness (Acts 2:38, & 22:16). It says baptism joins us to Christ and His death on the cross (Romans 6:3-5, Galatians 3:27). It says baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21, Titus 3:6). God’s Word says whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16) and Jesus Himself said, “unless one is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5). We take all those verses at face value and say that baptism works these things. We do not say that if one does not have the opportunity to be baptized or if someone dies before they have a chance to be baptized they will necessarily go to hell.
The Gospel is put into baptism through the Word of promise that is joined to the waters of baptism. It is possible for someone to hear the Word of promise and be brought to the faith through the proclamation of God’s Word alone. Both baptism and the Word are “vehicles” used by the Holy Spirit to give faith. People can be saved apart from baptism. But the exception should never become the rule. The rule in God’s Word is that God would have His people (of all ages) be baptized. The exception simply acknowledges that in certain cases where the rule cannot be applied, God can be and still is gracious.
You will have noticed more than one article on baptism on our website, and you may have noticed the topic of baptism coming up in other articles – like the one on Your Personal Decision? The reason why baptism is discussed so often is because it is so important. It is a teaching of God’s Word that is under increased attack by those who do not understand it and have essentially been brain washed into thinking that their personal decision or personal acceptance of God is the key to eternal life. It is not. The key to eternal life is Christ Himself and He gives eternal life to those He chooses through His Word and Sacrament.
In life there will be many voices claiming to hold the truth and bidding you to follow them. There is always a temptation to think that new or different is better. When it comes to matters of faith, that is almost never the case. The truth is not found in what is new or different, but in the age-old message of forgiveness and grace in Christ Jesus – freely given through His ancient Word and Sacraments.