This article is one of a series of articles on those who changed their minds on theological matters.
The local church in which I serve as pastor practices the baptism of believers, so we might be considered “Baptists.” But we also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants. For that reason, you might call us “baptists with a small ‘b.’” How do we justify such a hybrid position in the spectrum of church practice? Let me explain, beginning with our understanding of the gospel.
The gospel of Jesus Christ involves three dimensions: First, the gospel has an objective dimension—it involves something outside of us. The gospel is first of all an objective declaration of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It is the good news that God sent in his Son into the world, he lived a sinless life, he died for our sins, he rose from the grave, and he will come again in glory. In love he came to conquer sin and death and to redeem us for himself.
Second, the gospel has a subjective dimension—it involves something in us. The gospel involves a (Spirit-empowered) subjective response to that good news. A person must personally entrust himself to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord as he commits to follow him in faith as a disciple.
But the gospel also has a social dimension—it involves something among us. The gospel creates a new community, united in Christ by the Spirit. A person joined to Christ is also joined to other believers into a new family, the body of Christ. Consequently, a third aspect of the gospel involves a recognition and affirmation of a person’s faith by the church.
All three of these aspects of the gospel are displayed in a visible and tangible way in the baptism of a believer. Objectively, baptism is a declaration of the action of God in the gospel. When a person goes into the water, we see a picture of Christ’s death for us as he died for our sins and was put into the grave. And when a person is raised up out of the water, we see Jesus risen from the grave to new life—that person is washed clean of his sins by Christ and is now given new life in the Spirit.
Subjectively, in baptism believers make a personal profession of faith. They say “Yes” to this gospel truth in their own life. They confess that Christ died for them and that in him they have new life. And they pledge by God’s grace to follow him in faith.
No one baptizes him- or herself. You must “be baptized”—and that is done through the church. So baptism has a social dimension—in baptism the church affirms the faith of the one who is baptized and welcomes that person publicly as a fellow member of Christ’s visible body in the world, expressed in an ongoing manner through participation in the Lord’s Supper.
I am a baptist, because I believe that the New Testament is best understood to unite all three of these aspects of the gospel in the one act of baptism—the objective declaration of the gospel, the subjective response to it, and the social aspect of the church publicly recognizing and affirming that response of faith and welcoming that person as a fellow believer into the visible body of Christ.
So if I hold to this theology of believers’ baptism, then why am I not a Baptist (with a capital “B”)? Why would we as a church accept the baptism of a believer who was baptized as a infant as a valid baptism for the purpose of church membership? I offer three reasons.
Humility. I recognize that paedobaptism has been the practice of the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout most of church history. This includes the practice of the Protestant Reformers to which I owe a great theological and spiritual debt. I humbly recognize that I could be wrong about paedobaptism (and the conclusion that the great majority of Christians through history were never really baptized), and for this reason I am hesitant to insist upon my position on baptism as a grounds of church fellowship.
Charity. Even if the baptist position is correct, I still want to receive my paedobaptist brothers and sisters as fellow believers based upon our common understanding of the gospel. Evangelical paedobaptists recognize the three aspects of the gospel I have outlined, but in their practice of baptism they separate them in time. They baptize the infant children of Christian believers—objectively declaring the gospel to them before they can understand it. They do this with the prayer that their subjective and personal response of faith will come at some point in their life (whether it occurs at a clearly recognized moment in time or not). And then later, at some public act of confirmation, the social aspect of that personal faith is recognized as, upon their profession of faith, that person is received as a communicant member of the church. Our unity in the gospel outweighs our differences in the practice of baptism in relation to the timing of those three aspects of the gospel. Charity in the gospel calls me not make those differences a barrier to church fellowship.
Theology. Baptism presents a visible and objective declaration of the gospel, and its validity as such is not nullified by the absence of the proper subjective response of faith. In those cases in which that subjective response is not present at the time of baptism, it remains a valid baptism, though not an effective and completed one. This is similar to the preaching of the gospel. Its validity is not nullified by a failure of the hearers to repent and believe. But when they do, that preaching achieves its appointed end.
On this ground, I can accept the paedobaptism of someone who has come to faith as a valid baptism, though only their subsequent response of faith and the recognition by the church of the reality of that faith complete that baptism and make it effective. However, since I am convinced that baptism properly ordered according to God’s design embodies in one act the objective promise of God in the gospel, the (Spirit-inspired) subjective response of faith, and the social recognition of that faith by the church, I practice the baptism of professing believers. Furthermore, I will “re-baptize” those previously baptized as infants who so request it, though I believe this is a matter of personal conscience of the believer and is not required.
That’s how I operate as a “baptist with a small ‘b.’” I recognize that this understanding has its own problems as we seek to work it out in the life of our church, but I offer it as a way of allowing our common grasp of the gospel to overcome our historical and theological differences with regard to baptism that prevent us from welcoming one another in the fellowship of the church. I long for our “Gospel Coalition” to be realized in the context of the local church so that we might live out that statement made famous by Richard Baxter: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” and that we might better embody that more recent rallying cry: “Together for the gospel!”