Baptism – A Historical Perspective: Part 2

Infant Baptism
Since faith, repentance, and confession are conditions preceding New Testament baptism, infants are excluded (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38). Infants do not have the mental capacity to believe in Christ, they cannot repent, for they “have no knowledge of good or evil” (Dt. 1:39), and they cannot confess their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Consequently, the practice of infant baptism is unknown to Holy Scripture.

The practice of infant baptism began as a consequence of the doctrine of original sin. This doctrine teaches that children are born with the guilt of sin and are depraved in nature. The doctrine is first hinted at by Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 140-203), a second-century theologian in Gaul.

Tertullian (ca. A.D. 160-220) is the first to actually formulate the doctrine of original sin. He taught that every soul inherits Adam’s guilt and is therefore is under condemnation and is punishable for that inherited guilt.

Cyprian while bishop of Carthage (248-258) enlarged upon Tertullian’s concept. He declared that even though an infant had committed no actual sin, it needed forgiveness for inherited sin, and that forgiveness was received in baptism. He was the first to approve infant baptism, but he did not urge it.

The doctrine of original sin, however, was not generally accepted at the time and accordingly infant baptism did not become a common practice. It is logical for these two doctrines to rise and fall together. If children are innocent there is no need for baptism, but if they are in sin, baptism is the remedy.

However, while Tertullian formulated the doctrine of original sin, he rejected the practice of infant baptism. He writes:

 Let them come while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught to what it is they are coming; let them become Christians when they are susceptible of the knowledge of Christ. What haste to procure the forgiveness of sins for the age of innocence! . . . Let them first learn to feel their need of salvation; so it may appear that we have given to those that wanted (On Baptism Vol. 3, 678).

Origen (ca. A.D.185-254), another post-apostolic writer, declares:

 Little children are baptized for the remission of sins. Whose sins are they? When did they sin? Or how can this explanation of the baptismal washing be maintained in the case of small children, except according to the interpretation we spoke of a little earlier? No man is clean of stain, not even if his life upon the earth had lasted but a single day” (Vol. 9, 484).

The practice of infant baptism did not become common until the fifth century, after the writings of Augustine popularized the theory of original sin. Renowned historian Philip Schaff, a member of the Reformed Church, and a strong pedo-baptist advocate, admits that “adult baptism was the rule, infant baptism the exception” until the church was fairly established in the Roman Empire. He points out that Augustine, Gregory Nazianzen, and Chrysostom had “Christian” mothers, yet these men were not baptized until early manhood (210).

H. A. W. Meyer (1800-1873) was one of the most prominent commentators produced by the German Lutheran Church. He thus had no intrinsic bias against infant baptism, yet in his commentary on Acts (16:15), he wrote:

The baptism of the children of Christians, of which no trace is found in the N.T., is not to be held as an apostolic ordinance, as, indeed, it encountered early and long resistance; but it is an institution of the church, which gradually arose in post-apostolic times (312).

The Purpose of Baptism
While departures from the Bible pattern for the mode of baptism (immersion) and the subjects of baptism (penitent believers) began taking place soon after the establishment of the church, there existed a remarkably consistent agreement among those professing Christianity concerning the meaning and purpose of baptism for 1500 years—up to and including Martin Luther himself. At the beginning of the 16th Century, most everyone who professed Christianity, including the Catholic Church, agreed that baptism was a condition of salvation, and that it was the point of transition from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.

While the Catholic Church regarded baptism as essential to salvation, it also designated baptism a “sacrament.” The word cannot be found anywhere in the Bible, but is used to refer to rituals that channel God’s grace automatically—independent of faith or repentance in the recipient.

Around 1520, however, Roman Catholic Huldreich Zwingli began a radical revision of the popular meaning and purpose of baptism. Zwingli launched the Swiss Reformation in Zurich about the same time Martin Luther was doing the same thing in Germany. Zwingli’s work was cut short by his untimely death in 1531, but the basic elements of his thought were adopted by John Calvin, who took over the reformation work in Switzerland, operating out of Geneva. The general system of theology and church practice thus begun by Zwingli and worked out by Calvin goes by the name “Reformed.”

Reformed theology exhibited in Presbyterian, Baptist, and Wesleyan traditions defines baptism as a symbol that signifies a person has been saved, but has nothing to do with effecting that salvation. Baptism is commonly described as an “outward sign of an inward change,” but nothing more. Zwingli argued, “Salvation precedes baptism which symbolizes it.”

It is incredible that Zwingli and his contemporaries could repudiate 1500 years of consensus belief that baptism is essential to salvation, replace it with the radical belief that baptism has nothing to do with salvation, and have that belief prevail in most Protestant churches until this day.

While the Catholic and Reformed churches have agreed recently to accept each other’s positions on the meaning of baptism (Christianity Today, April 2013, p. 12), the Lord’s church cannot accept either of them.

We cannot accept the Catholic designation of baptism as a sacrament—one of seven sacraments they believe is essential to salvation. They apply the Latin phrase, “ex oper operato,” to sacraments and it implies a goal can be obtained by virtue of performing the ceremony. In other words, you can save a person by baptism whether faith, repentance, and confession accompany the baptism or not.

Zwingli was correct in rejecting this doctrine. He said that in this matter of baptism, all the (Church) Fathers were in error because they have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and which the apostles did not teach. They thought the water itself effects cleansing and salvation.

Peter very clearly shows that baptism’s saving power is not through some physical property in the water itself. It is not just a matter of using water to wash dirt off the body, nor does the water function as a cleanser for the soul in some metaphysical sense (1 Pet. 3:21). The saving power comes from God alone who saves us by the blood of Christ when we come to Him in faith, repentance, confession, AND baptism.

However, we cannot accept the Reformed Churches position on the meaning of baptism either—that baptism is merely a symbol of salvation, but has nothing to do with salvation itself.

It is true that baptism has multiple symbolical meanings. It is a symbol of washing (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:25-26; Heb. 10:22), death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (Rom. 6:1-4; Col. 2:12), re-clothing (Gal. 3:26-27; Col. 3:9-10), incorporation into Christ (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27; 1 Cor. 12:13; Acts 2:41), and new birth (Jn. 3:4-5). Baptism, however, not only signifies all of the above conditions, but it is actually the point at which all of these things are bestowed. Baptism is not only a sign of these things, but it is a true means of receiving them (Gal.3:27; Eph. 1:3).

The disparate beliefs of the Catholic Church and the Reformed Church dominated the religious world at the beginning of the 19th Century when the Restoration Movement was taking shape in America.  The men that led the movement were convinced the only way the religious world could unite was to abandon all man-made traditions and base unity upon the Word of God alone. Slogans that characterized the thinking of the day included, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak, where the Bible is silent, we are silent,” “Call Bible things by Bible names,” “You must have a ‘thus saith the Lord’ for every belief and practice.” Beginning in the 1820s men such as Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, and Raccoon John Smith began preaching the doctrine of baptism for the remission of sins just as it was preached by the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38), and they began baptizing people by the thousands. Those who have caught the vision of these Restoration preachers and who desire to be true to the Bible itself have continued to preach the ancient gospel throughout the world.


Article by: Carl Johnson