It’s hard to believe that the Christian church is reading the same Bible when you look at all of the disagreements and divisions among those who claim to be Christians. One of the most significant areas of disagreement surrounds the subjects, mode, and nature of baptism. The irony is that baptism was created by God to unify the church because it is assumed that all Christians have been baptized: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5).
Among those who claim to be Christians, the amount of disagreement is incredible. The vast majority of early church fathers believed in baptismal regeneration and infant baptism. The Western fathers eventually all practiced baptism by pouring or sprinkling water while the Eastern fathers practiced baptism by immersion (they knew what baptizo means in Greek). The rationale behind their practice of infant baptism was their belief in baptismal regeneration. If baptism by itself brings about regeneration, why not give it to infants? The mode of baptism evolved due to the belief in its necessity for salvation and it is difficult to immerse a person on their deathbed so water was sprinkled as a substitute or abridgement of divine rights. Immersing an infant in water is not an easy task either though the East continued the practice. These practical reasons combined with the Western church embracing the Latin Vulgate which transliterated baptizo into Latin instead of translating it as “to dip” or “to immerse” (much like the King James Bible) helped to further the practice of baptism as the sprinkling of water. This also means that the person being baptized is a passive agent in the process since an infant cannot repent or make a confession of faith.
This practice of baptism continues with Roman Catholicism while the Eastern Orthodox still immerse in water. High church Anglicans have a regenerational view of baptism that is very close to Rome. While Martin Luther rightly believed in justification by faith alone, he continued to believe in baptismal regeneration for infants. To get around this theological contradiction, he embraced the doctrine of “infant faith.” Infants exercise faith in baptism and are justified by faith just as adults are. But not every infant who is saved at baptism endures to the end. This is why baptismal regeneration and conditional security always go together theologically. Luther believed that infants who later lost their salvation would have to be justified a second time by faith later on in life which seems to be his understanding of his own personal experience. John Wesley and the Methodists teach that baptism is the normal means by which God saves, but for those who lose their salvation or those who were never baptized, they must be justified again by faith. This creates a twofold way of salvation where some people are saved in baptism as infants and never lose their salvation while others are saved by faith later on in life as adults. Lutherans call on their congregation to look back to their baptism when they were saved and believe in God’s faithfulness in the sacraments to do what he has promised.
Among non-Christian cults, the belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation seems to be nearly universal. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and the UPCI all affirm some form of baptismal regeneration. The Church of Christ or Restorationist movement states that a person cannot be saved unless he or she has been baptized by immersion in water (that’s a tautology since baptized means “immersed” – “immersed by immersion in water”). The implications of this belief are staggering since that would mean the great majority of early church fathers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, the vast majority of Puritans and Presbyterians, and anyone who died before having a chance to be baptized after trusting in Christ is in hell right now. Of course, this contradicts the experience of every person who has ever been saved by faith in Christ (see the testimonies of Martin Luther, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Adoniram Judson, George Muller, Paul Washer, Ray Comfort, etc.). You can just search for “testimony of salvation” on Google and YouTube.
The error of baptismal regeneration is that it anesthetizes those who have had water poured over their head when they were a child into believing that they were saved as an infant and therefore they do not need to trust in Christ to save them now. This creates a false cultural Christianity or state church (see Europe) where the congregation has a false assurance of salvation because of something that happened right after they were born. Instead of being told to look to Christ to be saved from sin, they are told to maintain their salvation through the practices and sacraments of the church.
I would guess that the vast majority of Baptist churches don’t fully understand baptism either. They have adopted a paedobaptistic understanding of the nature of baptism where the person being baptized is merely a passive agent rather than seeing baptism as an act of repentance. They have the right mode and subject, but treat baptism the same way that any Paedobaptist minister would. Ironically, they embrace the Paedobaptist view of baptism that is forced to distinguish between baptism and repentance because infants cannot repent. This is a carryover from the Reformed Church that has never been fully been removed from Baptist churches.
The mistake of those who believe in baptismal regeneration, and the Church of Christ especially, is to see baptism and repentance as two different things. As the early church became more and more Gentile, the Jewish background of baptism as a radical act of repentance and entering a new community was lost and it was not until the early 17th century that the doctrine of baptism was recovered by the English Baptists.
The second part of this article will examine the Scriptures on the nature, mode, and subjects of baptism where we will see that baptism is an act of repentance for believers alone by immersion in water as a testimony of faith.