“I just can’t accept infant baptism.”
That’s what people often tell me after they’ve heard all my arguments for welcoming Christians from other denominations into our membership without rebaptizing them.
To them, baptism is believer’s baptism by immersion, and therefore infant baptism is no baptism at all since it isn’t (usually) by immersion and since an infant is incapable of making a profession of faith. They say, “We’re not rebaptizing these people; we’re baptizing them!”
And the argument starts all over again.
But at the end of it, I rarely have the feeling that I have been understood. So let me see if I can put it another way, a way that would make sense to lifelong Baptists, and let’s talk about those people Baptists often place at the opposite end of the Christian spectrum – Catholics.
1. Baptists baptize believers by immersion; Catholics baptize infants by sprinkling.
2. As Baptists, we do not believe that infant baptism is sufficient (as some Catholics apparently do). We do not believe that it “saves” the child or “washes away the taint of original sin.” We believe that salvation requires our faith as well as God’s grace.
3. This is why we wait to baptize until a child is old enough to profess his faith. Then baptism becomes a celebration of salvation in which the gift of God’s grace is received through the believer’s faith.
4. This is why we believe that infant baptism – on its own – is unacceptable.
But (and you knew it was coming), when infant baptism is followed by an extended period of Christian formation, by a confirmation process in which children learn what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to the church, and by a public opportunity to claim their baptism and profess their faith, then it becomes one piece of a process whereby the grace of God that was celebrated in baptism is received through faith. As Paul might put it: grace + faith = salvation (Ephesians 2:8).
What I’m trying to say is that I can’t accept infant baptism either, not on its own, but I can accept it as part of a process of authentic Christian discipleship. Understood in that way, it is almost identical to our own practice of baby dedication, and I don’t think any of us want to do away with that.
What we mean when we say “I can’t accept infant baptism” is that we don’t believe water, by itself, does anything for that child, but we need to carry that thinking all the way out. Water, by itself, doesn’t do anything for the person who gets into our baptistry, either. It’s just water. We use it as a symbol of God’s grace and our surrender to it.
That makes me think that being a Christian is a matter of the heart and not a matter of how much water was used or when it was applied.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.