I was admiring an icon in the narthex of an Orthodox church. Suddenly I heard a cry. I entered the nave to find an infant baptism in progress. The child was naked. The godparents stood in front of the baptismal font as the priest took the baby and immersed her in the water—totally, head to foot. The baby howled.
Customs don’t change, but the forms of those customs do. And those forms are often a matter of ecclesiastical judgment without scriptural authority. The form of baptism is an example.
About the precise manner in which the water of baptism was applied in the New Testament there is no ambiguity. The semantic force of the Greek word baptizein required that every part of the body be washed with water, hence immersion was the apostolic form that alone fulfills the symbolic meaning of baptism in the Pauline sense of dying and rising in Christ (Rom. 6:1-3).
During the first three centuries of the Christian era, several variations of immersion were practiced. For instance, the mode of triune immersion was practiced in the church of both East and West. This mode emerged from the Trinitarian baptismal formula of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19) and in the original simple formula recorded in the book of Acts, where the determinative name is identified, “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). In some places it was further prescribed that candidates should be immersed in “running water.” If that was inaccessible, then “other water” was to be used. If there was neither, then water should be poured on the head three times.
Many variations in the form of baptism are valid for psychological reasons. Some prefer the use of white robes. For others, a trip to the river was the most vivid form. For others, a scant drop of water on the forehead seems sufficient to fulfill the symbolism, though it would seem that this would reduce the symbolism of purification to the vanishing point.
Whatever the form, it must not be forgotten that the primary significance of baptism lies not in what we do but in what God has already done for us, in Jesus Christ. Any form that is removed from the context of grace distorts baptism into a salvation-by-works scheme of legalism.
The evidence for adult baptism as the normal practice is so unambiguous that even those who defend the practice of infant baptism admit that there is no direct evidence in our New Testament sources to indicate that infant baptism was practiced in that period. The strong affirmation of renowned theologian Karl Barth is known throughout Christendom, namely that “baptism is in the New Testament in every case the indispensable answer to an unavoidable question by a man who has come to faith.”1
Genuine repentance, validated by a change of life, clearly implies a regeneration requirement (Acts 2:38).
Baptism and faith are inseparably linked in the New Testament, and any understanding or practice of baptism that separates or obscures their fundamental connection is untrue to the New Testament witness. For instance, Peter defines baptism as “the pledge of a clear conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). Such a definition was clearly not framed with infants in mind and precludes any person incapable of making that pledge of faith.
In Romans 6 Paul describes baptism as a dying with Christ and rising with Him to righteousness. This implies that believers (1) were with the Lord on Golgotha; (2) have ended their old life of God-estrangement and begun a new life in Christ; and (3) have renounced sin and risen to a new life of obedience. Note the ethical implications: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that . . . we too may live a new life” (verse 4). Again, that ethical responsibility could never have been available to a person without faith (cf. Col. 2:12). Further, all the blessings of salvation are united with faith in the letters of New Testament writers. In short, baptism is a dramatic symbol of the passing from the old sinful life to the newness of life in Christ Jesus.
As Donald M. Baillie affirms: “In the New Testament baptism seems regularly to mean the baptism of grown men and women who have heard the gospel and have received it with personal faith and now take the deliberate conscious step of entering the church of Christ. . . . Moreover it may well seem that the deepest New Testament interpretation of the meaning of baptism is relevant only to adult believer’s baptism, and could never have been worked out at all if the writers had been thinking mainly of a rite administered to unconscious infants.”2
Another compelling reason to refute infant baptism is that the baptism of water and the baptism of the Spirit belong together. John the Baptist distinguished between the two when he declared: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). This declaration anticipated the Christian era when the candidate’s baptism of water would be followed by a personal Pentecost, an ordination by the Holy Spirit empowering the one baptized for a life of ministry.
As Ellen White affirmed: “Those who have taken part in the solemn rite of baptism have . . . pledged themselves to labor earnestly for the salvation of sinners.”3 If Jesus’ baptism is the archetype of Christian baptism, then the baptism of water and the baptism of the Spirit are inseparably interlocked, further making any endorsement for infant baptism incredulous.
A. H. Strong suggests that it is the responsibility of the church to “require of all candidates for baptism credible evidence of regeneration.” This “duty of the church . . . involves its right to require of candidates, in addition to a profession of faith with the lips, some satisfactory proof that this profession is accompanied by a change in the convert.”4
In 1887 Ellen White urged a similar standard be applied: “Not one should be buried with Christ by baptism unless they are critically examined whether they have ceased to sin, whether they have fixed moral principles, whether they know what sin is, whether they have moral defilement which God abhors.”5
Twelve years later she cautioned ministers “not to lead down into the water souls who are not converted. The church is becoming composed of men and women who have never realized how sinful sin is.”6 If this counsel was taken seriously, could it help to reverse the tragic worldwide loss reported by G. Alexander Bryant at the North American Division year-end meetings on October 31, 2014? Bryant noted that while “nearly 32 million people [were] baptized in the past 30 years . . . more than 11 million people leave the church.”7
Although the practice of “time-lapse” before church membership was not in vogue in the New Testament, genuine repentance, validated by a change of life, clearly implies a regeneration requirement (Acts 2:38).
Ellen White endorsed regenerate church membership when she warned: “The accession of members who have not been renewed in heart and reformed in life is a source of weakness to the church. . . . Some ministers and churches are so desirous of securing an increase of numbers that they do not bear faithful testimony against unchristian habits and practices. Those who accept the truth are not taught that they cannot safely be worldlings in conduct while they are Christians in name. . . . Public opinion favors a profession of Christianity. Little self-denial or self-sacrifice is required in order to put on a form of godliness and to have one’s name enrolled upon the church book. Hence many join the church without first becoming united to Christ.”8
Regenerate church membership, or church membership based on the new birth of believers, places upon the church the obligation to use every means possible to ensure that those who are admitted to membership, whatever their age, are truly converted, enjoy an experiential faith with Jesus, and are trained to apply their gifts for ministry at the frontiers of their vocational and occupational worlds (Eph. 4:11, 12). Such emphasis will bring about a revival of spiritual energy and power within the church yet unknown.
Rex D. Edwards is a former Griggs University vice president of religious studies and served as assistant director of research at the General Conference Biblical Research Institute when he wrote this piece.