If you’ve been with us for a while, you’re probably aware that we baptise the children of believers at church. That can often surprise, confuse, or even upset many Christians. How can a child be baptised when they aren’t able to understand the gospel? Isn’t the order in the New Testament “Repent” first and only then “be baptised” (Acts 2:38)? Doesn’t this lead to people thinking they’re Christians when they’re not?
Well, we baptise our children because we believe Jesus is the Baptist.
No, I’m not confusing Jesus with John the Baptist! I’m encouraging you to re-think your own baptism. In the vast majority of cases, Christians aren’t really disagreeing over who should be baptised but over what baptism is. Only if we clarify who is doing the baptising will we be clearer on whom should be baptised. Surprisingly, it’s Baptists who tend to deny that Jesus is the Baptist!
Who baptised you?
You see, who baptised you? Many Christians can remember the event, or will have been told who the minister was that administered their baptism. I saw a baptismal certificate recently, which had the date, the name of the church and the officiating minister on it; it was lovely to see! But one of the thrilling things about Christian baptism (whether of believers or their children) is that Jesus is the one doing the baptizing. He is the active one in Christian baptism.
Let me show you where the Bible teaches us to think like that:
Jesus the (Spirit) Baptist
John the (water) Baptist made it very clear that Jesus was the (Spirit) Baptist. “He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘…this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (John 1:33). On the day of Pentecost, Peter wanted to make exactly the same point: “…he [Jesus] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing”. In fact, you could fairly say that the gospel is that Jesus Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Gal 3:14). Jesus is the (Spirit) Baptist! He can and does and is baptizing people with the Holy Spirit, recreating them, and making all things new (Gen 1:2; 2 Cor 5:17). No one else can baptize you with the Spirit, not individuals, or church officers, or particular groups (Acts 8:19-20), only Jesus! To call Jesus the Baptist is to identify him as the Saviour!
Jesus the (water) Baptist
Now, John the (water) Baptist’s whole job was to prepare for the arrival of Jesus the (Spirit) Baptist (Matthew 3:3). But Jesus isn’t just the Spirit Baptist. The New Testament makes clear that he is also the water Baptist. This isn’t something many Christians think about, in my experience, but in his earthly ministry, Jesus practiced water baptism. He was baptised with John’s baptism, but then transformed it (Matt 3:13-17):
John 3:22 “[Jesus] remained there… and was baptizing”.
John 4:1-2 “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples)”.
Then, at the end of his earthly ministry, he sent his church out to baptize (with water) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit until the end of the age (Matt 28:19-20). Clearly, Jesus didn’t see his water baptism as just the same thing as John’s (Acts 19:3-5). Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:47; 19:3) is not just something about Jesus, but is something from him, given in the light of his death on the cross.
So, Jesus is both the water and Spirit-Baptist of his people.
Explaining who the Baptist is
That might not sound very significant, but it makes all the difference to what’s happening at someone’s baptism. When anyone is admitted to the church of Jesus Christ in baptism, it is Jesus who is doing the baptizing. He is taking the initiative. He is the one making the statement, not the one being baptized, nor the church.
All too often, Christian explanations of baptism interpret the event as a statement which the recipient is making (“I’m here today to declare my faith in Jesus”), or the church is making (“we judge this person to show signs that they are a believer in Christ”), when, really, Jesus is the one making the statement. The action of baptism isn’t pointing to anything within the recipient. Instead, baptism is anchored in who Jesus Christ is as the Baptist/Saviour. Only Jesus Christ has identified with the sins of his people in submitting to John’s baptism and dying on the cross in their place; therefore, only he can then give the gift of the Holy Spirit to wash away his people’s sins (Titus 3:5). Jesus doesn’t do 99% of the baptizing, to which we add our 1% of faith to finish the job. He does it all – 100%.
This is why it’s not a problem that the infant of a believer is too young to be able to respond to the gospel. After all, baptism isn’t about our response to the gospel; it’s about the Baptist. Baptism isn’t the church’s response to our response to Jesus’ initiative! Christian baptism is one glorious package (of water and Spirit) from Jesus all at his initiative.
Not Roman Catholic, but not “just” a sign
Just to be clear, we don’t believe that the act of water-baptism imparts Spirit-baptism. That is the Roman Catholic position. But nor are we saying: “the water is just a sign”. Please don’t slip that word “just” in there! Was the Passover “just” a sign, when anyone who ate leavened bread was to be cut off from the congregation (Ex 12:19)? Was circumcision “just” a sign, when the angel of the LORD threatened to kill Moses (Exodus 4:24-26)? Was the Lord’s Supper “just” a sign, when its abuse led to people dying in Corinth (1 Cor 11:30)? Does Paul treat baptism as “just” a sign, when he points the Christians in Rome to it to urge holy living (Romans 6:3-4)? Identifying Jesus as the Baptist helps us appreciate our baptism as a holy, powerful sign to be believed. It’s a spiritually-charged sign, in which Jesus continues to announce to us, all that he is and has done for our salvation.
So, when you next go to a baptismal service, I challenge you to listen out to whether the explanation of the event makes it clear that Jesus is the Baptist. I am yet to go to a Baptist baptismal service, where the good news that Jesus is the Baptist is made clear (this 9Marks article doesn’t make it any clearer).
The reason we baptize the children of believers is because what makes baptism “stick” isn’t something (we discern to be) within the recipient, but the work of Jesus the Baptist himself. Jesus has made his everlasting covenant with us and our children, so we stand on his promise and apply the sign of his saving work (Gen 17:7, 10-11). This understanding of baptism is very exciting!