- Gavin Ortlund: Why I Changed My Mind About Baptism
- Sean Michael Lucas: Why I Changed My Mind About Baptizing Infants
- Liam Goligher: Why I Changed My Mind About Infant Baptism
More recently, a piece by Bill Kynes, senior pastor of Cornerstore Evangelical Free Church, describes what he calls his “small ‘b’ baptist” perspective, and it is a view for which I have significant sympathy. At Cornerstone, they practice the baptism of believers, so Kynes acknowledges that they “might be considered ‘Baptists.’” But they also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants, and this runs directly counter to the Anabaptist tradition out of which Baptists emerged.
Three dimensions of the gospel
Kynes describes their church’s understanding of three dimensions of the gospel:
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.
So Kynes recognizes himself as a Baptist, in that he believes 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.”
Requirements for church membership
Where Cornerstone takes a different direction from most Baptist churches, however, is in regard to their baptismal criteria for church membership. Traditionally, Baptist churches have insisted that if people were not believers in Christ when they were baptized, their so-called baptism was invalid and so they need to baptized upon their own profession of faith. Those who were baptized as infants are required to be baptized again, but technically this is not “re” (or ana) baptism, it is a first genuine baptism.
Kynes accepts the baptism of a believer who was baptized as an infant as a valid baptism for the purpose of church membership, for 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.
Since Kynes believes that all three dimensions of the gospel are expressed in baptism, he only baptizes people as believers, but he 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.” Furthermore, he “will ‘re-baptize’ those previously baptized as infants who so request it,” because he believes that this “is a matter of personal conscience of the believer and is not required.”
I believe that the New Testament teaching regarding baptism is best implemented in the baptism of only those who (1) know themselves to be sinners in need of salvation, (2) believe that Jesus died in the place of sinners, to deliver them from the power and penalty of sin, and (3) personally trust in Jesus as their savior, whose commands they are committed to follow. I also think that immersion is the most vivid public testimony to a believer’s identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. But, being a Baptist, I do not attribute to baptism the salvific efficacy which Roman Catholics and Lutherans give to it; baptism does not save its recipients. Nor is the mode of baptism essential to its validity. So, at the very least, it is unnecessary to rebaptize those who were baptized, as believers, by effusion rather than immersion. In regard to the acceptance into church membership of people who had been baptized as infants, I think that their experience of faith is the critical consideration. If people who were baptized as infants grew up in Christian faith and have appropriated the symbolism of their baptism for years, it seems incongruous to me that they should be asked to be baptized before acceptance into the church.
On the other hand, if someone who was baptized as an infant did not sincerely confirm or appropriate that identification with Christ, and has only recently come to believe in Jesus as their savior and Lord, then I think it wise to give them the opportunity to publicly profess in water baptism their trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection and their reception of the Spirit who unites us with Christ. The “b” with which I am a Baptist, may be a little larger than Kynes’, but I think that he has taken a healthy direction, and one which coheres well with the apostle Paul’s conviction that there is only “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism” (Eph 4:5).