Baptism - it's not just an individual thing

March 2, 2016

We are grateful to John Caldwell for sharing the following thoughts on baptism. His sons Ethan and Caleb were baptisted at Portree Free Church on Sunday.

This weekend was a significant weekend for my family. My two sons, Ethan (7) and Caleb (6) were baptised at our local Free Church of Scotland. This was significant for two reasons. It was primarily significant because it was a spiritual act of obedience for me and my wife as we presented our children for baptism. But it was also significant because both of us have always attended credo-baptist churches. In other words, we believed that baptism was something that is reserved for professing believers. For me, presenting our children for baptism on Sunday, felt like the consolidation of our shift from a ‘baptist’ way of life to a presbyterian way of life. The transition felt complete.

In shifting from a contemporary, charismatic church life to a Highland, presbyterian church life, we have had to make a number of adjustments. There are differences in worship, structure, approaches to singing, gifts of the Spirit, communion and baptism. Some of these adjustments have happened seamlessly, and others have taken a bit of time to process. Baptism, for me, was perhaps one of the most difficult challenges to come to terms with. I’d not only believed in believer’s only baptism, I’d also preached believer’s only baptism and I’d also administered believers only baptism. So, I was well rooted in baptistic theology and practice.

That being said, doubts about believers only baptism did not begin when I joined the Free Church three years ago. Ironically, doubts began 10 years ago whilst I was a student at the Scottish Baptist College.

Whilst at the college, a fellow student and friend introduced me to John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and J.I Packer. I was hooked. Although I didn’t consider myself a Calvinist, as I began to delve into the works of the Calvinists, I discovered that many of them taught things that I already believed, or that resonated deeply with me. Sometime around 2004 I decided to dip into Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. It was here I made the fatal decision to read his chapter on Baptism and for the first time my secure ‘baptist’ foundations were shaken. Up until now, I had assumed that there was very little weight behind the paedo-baptist position. Berkhof challenged that notion, and the outcome was that I became less polemical about baptism. Now I at least knew there was a strong theological basis for the practice of infant-baptism, even if I still wasn’t persuaded by the arguments.

It was around 2008 that I eventually purchased my first copy of Calvin’s Institutes. The New Calvinism was at its height, and an increasing number of people, in independent, baptistic, and charismatic churches were adopting the label ‘calvinist’ and ‘reformed’. I was one of them. Of course, it wasn’t long before I noticed that there was more to Calvin’s Institutes than teaching on predestination and soteriology. There was a pretty large section on church government and sacraments! Wonder of wonders – Calvin was Presbyterian!

A baptism at Portree Free Church on the Isle of Skye

Coinciding with my study of Calvinism, was a growing love for church history. I’d always loved church history, but too much church history within modern evangelicalism starts in the 1800s, or at the reformation. I began to appreciate that the historic church has an essential role in helping the contemporary church discern truth. So I soon discovered Eusebius and the pre-Nicene Fathers. Church history is not infallible, but it is a great way to root out novel ideas – and 21st century evangelicalism is full of novel beliefs. It was something of a jolt to realise that believers only baptism, in the grand scale of church history, was rather novel. In other words, the majority of the church has historically maintained that the children of believers are to be baptised. Francis Schaeffer illustrates this point when he says, “Those who would teach that the practice of the early Church was not infant baptism should be able to show in Church History when it started. There is no such break recorded.”

Further doubts about believers only baptism occurred for me once my own children were born and I began to think through what it means to bring up my children in a Christian household. How should I view my children? Are the children of believers to be treated as unbelievers until such time as they professed faith? Or were they to be brought up as believers? As I observed my ‘baptist’ friends who were parents, and whose kids were older than my own, I saw an inconsistency. Whilst children were excluded from baptism, they were included in almost every other part of church life and were brought up as believers. They were taught to pray, read scripture and trust in God. In other words, in practice, baptistic believers seem to recognise that there is something different about the children of believers.

But what was that difference?

For me, the clearest answer to that question seemed to be found in covenant theology. God has made a promise to believers and their children. This was clear in the Old Testament, God says to Abraham:

I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Gen 17:7)

It is also clear in the New Testament, when Peter says to the people of Israel:

The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39)

As a Christian parent, it became clear to me that God’s promises are not just to me and my wife as individuals, but they are to us as a family, and our children are included in these covenant promises. If God includes them in the covenant promises, why should they not receive the covenant sign?

God’s people administered the covenant sign to their children in the Old Testament, why would the covenant sign be withheld from children in the New Testament? Just as children were included in the covenant in the Old Testament, and they received the covenant sign (circumcision) so in the new Testament, children are included, and there is not a shred of New Testament evidence that suggest that children were excluded from receiving the sign and seal of the covenant (baptism). In fact Jesus is adamant, that children should not be excluded, but rather included:

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt 19:14)

In the end, it is scripture that has persuaded me that my children should be given the covenant sign of baptism.

Sunday was a special day, but it was also a very spiritual day. The presence of the Lord was sweet. There was a real sense that God’s blessing rested upon the service, and also us as a family. It is a joy to know that God’s hand is upon my children, and that His grace is sufficient. We will do our best to teach them about Jesus, and to be an example that reflects the character of Jesus. We rejoice in the early signs of faith that we do see. We look forward to the day when they confirm their faith formally – but right now we rest in the reality that there is something that is stronger than our feeble attempts to teach and lead by example; there is something even stronger than their own expressions of faith. Underpinning it all is the faithfulness of our covenant keeping God – and we rejoice in the sign that points to His faithfulness – covenant baptism.

John Caldwell

John Caldwell is a member of Portree Free Church on the Isle of Skye