Overheard in Heaven:
New arrival: I’ve been dying to ask you this, Lord. Should people be baptized as infants or adults?
In the video Everything is Spiritual, Michigan megapastor Rob Bell points out that in a two-dimensional universe, an object can only be one geometric shape. A circle, for instance, is only a circle, and a rectangle is only a rectangle. But in a three-dimensional universe, a cylinder is a rectangle from one angle and a circle from another. He uses this metaphor to point out that things that appear to be mutually exclusive in the temporal world might exist in harmony in Heaven. ‘Is this a circle or a rectangle?’ a Flatlander asks, holding a cylindrical object. ‘Yup,’ answers a visiting 3-D being.
Rob rings this bell regarding is predestination vs. free will and a few other examples, but I think it applies just as well to the subject of infant vs. adult baptism.
For hundreds of years, one of the (far too many) lines in the sand that has divided Christians is the question of when people are old enough to be baptized. It still divides us, although we’re a lot less likely to go to war over the issue these days.
But should we be this hung up about it? Is Salvation a dish that won’t turn out if you ‘just add water’ at the beginning, rather than the middle or the end?
Anabaptists dedicate babies and baptize teenagers/adults; Mainliners baptize babies and confirm teenagers/adults. Are the two systems really that different?
Both are man-made, and therefore both are imperfect. But Jesus was all about washing away our imperfections (both ‘big’ and ‘small,’ if these terms even apply), so I suspect God is a full participant in every baptism, regardless of the age of the baptizee. If the participants come to the font for Baptism or the altar for Confirmation with an earnest desire to move closer to God, I think He rejoices. I truly don’t think God gets all that hung up on earthly details.
And I wonder how He feels about the fact that this issue divides us. (While I’m at it, I also wonder how He feels about the current Canadian Anglican schism and the ‘enormity’ of the issues that are causing it. But I digress.)
* * *
Personally, I was baptized as an adult, but my wife and children were all splashed when they were babies. But in a sense, infant baptism is what saved me, too!
You see, my wife Karen grew up in an Anglican tradition, and when she was pregnant with our daughter Katie, she asserted that she wanted to have the little munchkin baptized. I saw that this was important to her, and being a believer in the ‘happy wife, happy life’ philosophy, I agreed to try attending church and find out if this Christianity thing is truly for us. We did, and it was. Something stirred in me and things grew from there.
Now, if Karen had come from an Anabaptist background, and she’d merely suggested we start attending church and possibly have our children dedicated, I might have shrugged it off as a potential passing fancy. It was specifically the pee-or-get-off-the-pot weightiness of baptism that nudged me forward and made me struggle with the question of whether I really wanted to be in or out.
As a result, an infant and an adult were baptized in the same church on the same day in the fall of 1999. And I think Jesus said ‘Yup.’ And then He said ‘Yay!’
* * *
Now, the practice of infant baptism grew out of the belief that only the baptized can go to Heaven. People wanted their babies to start off sanctified, in case (God forbid) they died before they were old enough to make an informed, mature choice about Jesus. If they live that long, they could be confirmed and go along their merry, Christian way from there.
And I think that belief/custom/tradition was at least a contributing factor in why Karen wanted our kids to get splashed — therefore, I’m pretty grateful about it. And this ‘salvation through baptism’ concept is undoubtedly rooted in Scripture, so I’m not going to try to debunk the dogmatic biblicality of the belief.
However, one of the dominant themes of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is that circumcision is not necessary for salvation – that we’re saved by God’s grace alone, not by our works. But if we say that only the baptized can be saved, aren’t we merely substituting a New Testament rite for an Old Testament one?
Is that what Jesus came to do? Did he rip himself out of the Trinity; subject himself to boring, painful, lonely human existence; suffer rejection, humiliation, torture and death – just to replace circumcision with baptism?
(There’s no doubt that I’d rather get wet than have a particularly sensitive part of my epidermis removed, so as far as induction rituals go, the Judeo-Christians have definitely traded up.)
But many of Paul’s anti-circumcision arguments in Romans or Galatians could just as easily apply to baptism, couldn’t they?
I suppose the argument is that Old Testament circumcision was an earthly act of obedience – a response by man to God. Baptism, on the other hand, isn’t merely a human act – when we’re baptized, God changes us on the inside. And that makes all the difference.
Fair enough. But does that mean that without the water, His hands are tied? That He ‘can’t’ change the unbaptized?
If someone has invited Jesus into his heart and is living the Christian life, has decided to be dunked and is on the way to his baptismal ceremony, but is hit by a bus on the way to the church, is he doomed to eternal damnation?
‘Sorry, Mitch. I’d like to help you out, but you didn’t get water splashed on your head by a someone with the initials M. Div. to the right of their name, so you’re not in the club. If you’d died after your baptism, you’d be golden. As it is, well, I hope you brought your sunscreen…’
Doesn’t seem like the loving God I know.
In doing research for this post, I came across an article suggesting that Paul himself was never baptized with water — that the word for ‘baptism’ used in Acts 9 in the original Greek New Testament can refer either to baptism by water or by the Holy Spirit. And therefore, since it doesn’t specify he was baptized with water, it’s possible that Mr. O’Tarsus recognized that he’d been baptized by the Spirit and felt that there was no need to ‘seal the deal’ in an earthly (or in this case, waterly) sense.
Seems kinda flimsy to me, and I have no idea how accurate this http://www.biblestudying.net/baptism6.html teacher is or how credible his arguments are, but feel free to see for yourself.
But at a purely emotional level, though, the idea has some legs with me. Maybe baptism by water is just another clumsy, external, inadequate earthly reflection of the Spiritual Baptism that’s truly happening to the ‘real us’ on the inside.
Maybe God doesn’t need baptism in order to save us, but maybe we need it so we can let Him. If you’re as certain about your salvation as Paul was, maybe you don’t need to get wet in order to complete the transaction. As for me, I’d get baptized again tomorrow if they’d let me.
Whether Paul ever received water baptism, it’s pretty clear he endorsed the idea for others. And perhaps more to the point, water baptism was good enough for Jesus, so it oughtta be good enough for us. If in doubt (about anything), do what Jesus did.
So let’s splash our babies and dunk our teenagers (when they’re ready), and if we haven’t taken the plunge ourselves, let’s cannonball into the font to show our zeal for Christ!
Come on in, the water’s fine.
Better than fine.
But even as I write that paragraph, at peace with the ‘what,’ the ‘why’ question still nags at me: Do we genuinely need baptism, or do we only need it because we believe we need it?
Maybe Jesus is saying, ‘Yup.’
Peace be with you.
Photo sources: Petkau Family Photo Albums, http://happypoolhouse.blogspot.com/2009/04/splash.html