Baptism and Presbyterians

There were two baptisms at church this morning.  I was confused about baptism as I heard the pastor talk, but some of my questions were answered when I read the Westminster Confession (see here).  Remember that I attend a Presbyterian church.

First of all, the pastor was saying that Jesus was dunked, and yet the people being baptized would not be dunked.  What happened was that the elder dipped his hand in water and touched the heads of the ladies being baptized.  Personally, I don’t think that a ritual has to be done “just right” for God to be present and active—or even that the ritual has to be done, period, for that matter.  But I did wonder why Presbyterians did not practice baptism by immersion, when that’s how Jesus was baptized.

Well, the Westminster Confession states that “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person”, and it cites Hebrews 9:10, 19-22; Acts 2:41; Acts 16:33; and Mark 7:4.  Hebrews 9:10, 19-22 talks about purifying acts of sprinkling in the Torah.  Acts 2:41 says that those who gladly received the word were baptized, and three thousand people were added to the church.  Acts 16:33 is about the jailer washing the stripes of the apostles, and being baptized immediately.  And Mark 7:4 concerns the Jews’ washing of their hands before they eat—as well as their washing of cups, pots, vessels, and tables.

The idea behind the citation of Hebrews 9 and Mark 7:14 seems to be that sprinkling or something less than full immersion (for the Jews did not completely immerse tables when they washed them) sufficed for purification, so why couldn’t sprinkling in the act of baptism by sufficient?  I don’t entirely understand why Acts 2:41 is cited, but I remember my Grandpa referring to this passage when talking about baptism: my Grandpa’s point was that three thousand people were not dunked by the apostles, since that’s logistically possible.  That may be what is behind the Westminster Confession’s citation of this passage.  Something else to note is that the setting of Acts 2:41 and Acts 16:33 is not said to be beside a body of water, such as a lake or a river.  Rather, the setting of Acts 2 is a place—presumably in town, since people from other countries were able to hear Peter’s message, and there were also passers-by who were mocking the apostles as drunk.  The apostles were in a place where there were lots of people—not out in the countryside near a lake or a river.  And the jailer of Acts 16:33 is in his home.  I suppose that one could argue that the Christians of Acts 2 were taken to a body of water, or that the jailer could have been taken to a body of water.  But I can understand why one could conclude that the baptism took place in town, or in the jailer’s home—which could mean that they weren’t dunked in a body of water, but were baptized by sprinkling or pouring.

Second, what is the function of baptism?  The pastor talked about baptism uniting a person with God.  He also said that baptism makes a person a part of God’s family and God’s covenant.  That sounds like baptism is necessary for salvation. But then the pastor said something that I have heard from people who have the opposite point-of-view: that water baptism is an outward sign for an inward reality.  The pastor also said that baptism is a seal.

The Westminster Confession says that baptism is a sign and a seal of regeneration, remission of sin, and a new life.  But it denies that one needs baptism in order to be regenerated, or that everyone who is baptized is regenerate (e.g., Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8:13, 23, who was baptized, yet was in iniquity and bitterness).  The Confession also states that the “efficacy of Baptism” does not necessarily occur when baptism is administered, for that can occur at a later point—at “God’s appointed time.”

The Confession rests on its equation of baptism with circumcision, which is based on Colossians 2:11-12.  Circumcision was a seal of Abraham’s righteousness by faith, which he had when he was still uncircumcised (Romans 4:11).  But, according to Paul, Abraham was declared righteous by faith before his circumcision.  Circumcision was not necessary for Abraham to be forgiven and declared righteous by God, but it was a seal of his faith.  And the same is true of baptism, according to the Confession.  What that means, I do not entirely know: What does baptism confer that the believer did not have before he was baptized—if he was already forgiven and accepted by God prior to his baptism?  Is his justification made more solid through baptism?  Or is baptism what a friend of mine thought it was: a way to make a formal and outward commitment to Jesus Christ, and to mark that commitment with a physical ritual?  My friend likened baptism to lifting up one’s hands in worship: it’s not necessary for salvation, but doing it can bring a person closer to God—in that lifting up one’s hands is conducive to worship and adoration of God (the same way that hugging someone is an expression of love).

I should also note that the Westminster Confession advocates the baptism of infants who are children of believers.  Again, this is based in part on the equation of baptism with circumcision, for Abraham according to Genesis 17 was to circumcise infants in his household—as was the nation of Israel.  In a sense, the Confession answers a question that I have had: Suppose a baby is baptized and is not a believer when he becomes an adult?  Is he saved?  The Confession’s answer seems to be no, for baptism does not confer regeneration.  But it does bring an infant into a covenant community, which can instruct him.

Biblically-speaking, I think that the Westminster Confession makes a fairly decent case for its position, but it does not deal with the passages in which baptism is closely associated with the remission of sins.  Yes, it cites Mark 1:4, which talks about baptism for the remission of sins, but it then says that baptism is a mere sign or seal of remission, whereas Mark 1:4 appears to affirm that baptism leads to remission.  There are also passages such as Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16.

I used to get into Scriptural debates about whether or not water baptism is necessary for salvation, but I don’t do that anymore.  But I still celebrate what took place this morning—as two ladies made a decision to affirm their commitment to God through baptism.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Church, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Baptism and Presbyterians

  1. Pingback: Puzzled about Baptism | James' Ramblings

Comments are closed.