What is the meaning of baptism?
The Christian practice of baptism was adapted from Jewish purification rituals, so it most obviously symbolizes cleansing or forgiveness of sins. However, its meaning encompasses far more than cleansing. Jesus’ own baptism (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:32-34) was not about cleansing, but about identifying himself fully with sinful humanity. In addition, the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:2 that the Israelites who passed through the Red Sea were “baptized into Moses,” i.e., identified with him as sharing in the old covenant promises and obligations. In general, then, baptism is a sign that identifies those who are “set apart” among the people of God. As Rev. Hunter Bailey puts it, “Baptism is not your sign to the world that you believe; it’s God’s sign to you that you belong.”
How much water is necessary for baptism?
We don’t think it matters. The simple meaning of the Greek word baptize is to wash or simply to get wet, and there are biblical examples of doing this by sprinkling, pouring or immersing. Some Christians argue that full immersion is necessary because many baptisms in the Bible are done on riverbanks. In those cases at least partial immersion is likely, and yet the Bible never actually describes the mechanics of this action or the specific role of the baptizer. Others argue that Romans 6:3-4 pictures baptism like a death by drowning and then rising from the water. We believe that passage is actually describing baptism more like glue, so that whatever is true of Jesus (dying and rising) is true of his people, too. And of course Jesus was never drowned, but hung up on a cross and then buried down (or sideways) in a tomb.
Why do we baptize the infant children of believers?
Along with the majority of Christians in history, we believe that baptism performs the same basic function that circumcision did in the old covenant: marking who is included among the people of God. Colossians 2:11-15 makes this connection explicit. In addition, Acts 10:44-48, Acts 16:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 1:16 mention whole households being baptized. While these passages don’t explicitly mention infants in those households, Peter had said explicitly in Acts 2:39 that the promise of the Gospel is “for you and for your children.” Our 21st century American culture is highly individualistic, but ancient Jews thought instinctively in communal terms, especially within families. This same communal logic explains how everyone who believes in Christ can receive the benefits of his perfect life and sacrificial death (see Romans 5:12-21).
Does baptizing infants guarantee their salvation?
No – and it doesn’t guarantee the salvation of older children or adults, either! Only faith in Jesus can save anyone, as the thief on the cross demonstrated (Luke 23:39-42). Being baptized is an act of obedience to Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20, powerfully reminding us that his purpose is not just to save individuals, but to save us into the new family of God, the Church.
Are there benefits to being baptized as an infant?
Yes! 1 Corinthians 7:14 teaches that the children of at least one believing parent are considered “holy,” or set apart, in some special way. Much like Jews born into the old covenant (see Romans 3:1-3 and 9:4-7), children raised in the family of God have the blessing of hearing God’s promises and seeing other believers following them (however imperfectly) from an early age.
How does infant baptism relate to Reformed theology?
Reformed theology emphasizes that God sovereignly chooses all who are saved, before giving us the faith to choose him back. For example, Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Ephesians 1:3-5 and Romans 8:29-30 describe God’s prior initiative using the language of predestination. This doctrine can be confusing or troubling at first, but ultimately it liberates us from obsessing about whether we are baptized before or after we profess faith in Christ. In Galatians 1:15, the Apostle Paul claimed to be set apart by God as an apostle before he was born, even though he did not put his faith in Christ until sometime in his 30s!
Does infant baptism encourage people to assume they’re saved?
False security is always a danger, but it’s not what we teach or model. Children growing up in our church witness a weekly reminder that they need to profess their own faith in order to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper with other believers. At the same time, false insecurity can be just as detrimental to young faith as false security, often leading people to get re-baptized multiple times to make sure it “takes.” We want baptized children to know that they truly belong in the church, even before they profess their faith.
Why not just dedicate the infant children of believers?
Because the Bible never commands dedication alone as an act of obedience for all Christians. Parents who baptize their children at Westside do make a vow to “dedicate” their child to God (see below), but we always apply the sign of baptism, and the members of the church also make a vow to assist them. This puts the emphasis on God’s faithfulness first, the community of faith second, and the parents last.
What happens when baptized children profess their own faith?
The whole church rejoices! This is our hope and prayer for every baptized child. We like to think of baptism as an “invisible tattoo” that becomes visible over time. To avoid pressure from parents or peers, we encourage every child to initiate whenever they are ready, whether age six or sixteen. If their parents agree, they will reach out to the church to schedule a non-threatening interview with two elders. If these elders determine that these children have an age-appropriate understanding of the Gospel and a personal commitment to Christ, we will receive them as full communing members of the church. From then on, they have the privilege of “examining their hearts” (1 Corinthians 11:28) and receiving the Lord’s Supper every week.
Does Westside also baptize people professing faith for the first time?
Yes! – as long as they have not been baptized before. If they have already been baptized, whether as an infant or older, we would not, for two reasons: First, because salvation is not tied to the moment of baptism, we don’t think it matters when the sign of baptism was applied, even if it is years before professing faith. Second, since our denomination is only one small part of the worldwide body of Christ, we want to recognize the validity of baptism performed by other Christian denominations.
Doesn’t baptizing infants deprive them of choosing that special moment later on?
We don’t think so. When children profess their own faith and become communing members at Westside, it’s an extremely special moment for our whole church. More important, baptism is more about the community they’re joining than their decision to join it. Plus, even though our church won’t re-baptize people, we won’t try to stop you from being re-baptized elsewhere. Our Baptist brothers and sisters are always happy to re-baptize anyone with a valid profession of faith in Christ.
What are the vows parents make when baptizing their children?
- Do you acknowledge your child’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit?
- Do you claim God’s covenant promises on their behalf, and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation, as you do for your own?
- Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before them a godly example, that you will pray with and for them, that you will teach them the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?
*latest revision 08-13-2019