Who is Baptism For?

‘As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptised him.’
—Acts 8:36-38

For several years, I was involved in undergraduate ministry at a churches in Manchester and Cambridge. One of my observations was that many young people had never really been taught anything about the sacraments (yes, I’m saddling up that hobby horse again), and that the majority of them — even those who were brought up in Anglican churches — were credobaptists by default. And so, on many late Tuesday and Thursday nights, over a post-bible study pint, I took the duties of catechesis upon myself.

An autobiographical aside: I became a paedobaptist at university, having started to attend an Anglican church. I thought I should bone up on those distinctive Anglican doctrines (if such things exist) to see whether I could really be a member of that church in good conscience. In trying to understand where paedobaptists were coming from, I ended up becoming one. So all my conversations with people then on the subject of baptism have had something of the zeal of the convert, and, I confess, very often the smugness of the convert.

I mention that because, having been brought up in a credobaptist church, I was confused as to why I was having to explain and commend the doctrine to those who had grown up in Anglican churches, and had even been baptised as children themselves. The fact was that, as I mentioned above, those who never had the sacrament of baptism explained to them tend to become baptists by default. Why should that be?

Multiple Choice Question: Who is Baptism For?
I suggest that the reason why is that the question of who baptism is for is generally given as a multiple choice question, with two answers: a) believing adults, or b) believing adults and the children of believing parents? I suggest that this is not the most helpful set of answers for understanding baptism. Rather, perhaps our options ought to be: a) Us, b) Others. When we understand, if you like, the ‘direction of sacramental traffic’, the adults vs. children question becomes easier to navigate.

The general assumption that I have most often come across is that baptism is for someone besides the baptised. It may be that it is for God, our response to his grace and mercy, our pledging ourselves to him in obedience. It may be that it is for other people, that our baptism is our public witness of following Jesus Christ. Either way, it’s something that we, the baptised, are doing for someone else. This is the way that I have heard it explained most frequently by the baptised, and even by ministers baptising adults in Anglican churches (though the liturgy subsequently used contradicts this view).

Yet is this idea biblical? The reason why I quoted the episode of the Ethiopian eunuch at the head of this post is because it, to my mind, ruins the theory that baptism has anything to do with our public declaration of faith. After all, there was almost no one around to witness it. It wasn’t a public event. By the same token, I’m not in frequent communication with any of the witnesses of my baptism, bar those that I am related to. If baptism is about public witness, it doesn’t seem to do the job particularly well — as soon as I move city or church, I lose the witnesses. How does my new church know that I am really a Christian if they haven’t seen me publicly declare my faith?

Further, the way in which the New Testament speaks of baptism tends to characterise it as something done to us, rather than something we do. I am not baptised for God’s benefit, as a response to him, nor for the benefit of others, as a witness to them. Rather, baptism is the means of our unification with Christ, it is something that the Spirit does to us. As Paul said to the Corinthians, ‘For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body’ (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism is not our response to God’s saving act in Christ — it is how that saving act is applied to us. So Paul says we were buried with Christ in baptism (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:3-5), and Peter says, ‘Baptism […] now saves you’ (1 Pet. 3:21). Thus, the contemporary Anglican liturgies are right when the minister says to the newly baptised, ‘Christ claims you as his own.’ Baptism is the work of Christ, done to us, rather than by us. It is Christ’s claiming of us, rather than our claiming of him. This is great news for sola fide folk: there’s no danger of us turning baptism into a ‘work’ we’re not the one’s doing it.

As an aside, this is why churches generally do not re-baptise those who have been baptised and later come to confess the faith for themselves. Our professions or feelings are not what matters in our baptism, changeable and unreliable as they are. Christ’s action towards us is what matters, which is faithful and steadfast. He only saves you once, you only need to be baptised into him once.

Where did the ‘public witness’ idea come from?
If I am right in stating, after such a brief survey, that baptism is something God does for us, rather than something we do, either for God or others people, then a question may arise. Where did the idea that baptism is our public declaration of faith come from? Believe me when I say I honestly do not see anywhere in the New Testament that supports this idea, but am happy to be corrected in the comments section. Of course, people always present themselves to be baptised voluntarily and responsively, but I am unpersuaded that they understood this as being their public response to becoming a Christian. Rather, I submit that they thought, as most Christians historically have, that this was the very way in which they became a Christian.

My hunch is that there are two reasons that evangelicals have started to think about baptism in this way. The first is that our culture is generally individualistic, and thinks of religion, as with most other things in our life, as either a means of or arena for self-expression. Some people express themselves by getting a nose piercing or a tattoo, some go religious and get baptised. We’re all strands in life’s rich tapestry. This isn’t at all to say that the people getting baptised are individualistic or self-centred — certainly not — just that the water we swim in is such that we can’t help but think in these categories. I hasten to add as well that this is not all bad: this idea of thinking of baptism in individual terms stems from a desire to make sure that all people are personally committed to Christ, and aren’t just trusting that mummy and daddy had them sprinkled as a baby.

The second reason is the laudable evangelical desire to turn just about anything into an evangelistic opportunity. ‘Will is preach?’ is the question that lies under a lot of evangelical decision making, and when that question is asked about a baptism service, the answer is ‘most definitely.’ Obviously this thought didn’t cross Philip or the Ethiopian’s mind — they didn’t wait until he got back to Addis Ababa to invite his friends — but that doesn’t mean that baptisms should not be evangelistic opportunities. They should be. Why not? I just think it’s important that we make it clear in our preaching and liturgy that this isn’t the guest’s friend’s response to Jesus, this is what Jesus has done and is doing to the guest’s friend.

Who is baptism for: adults or babies?
Let’s return to where the rubber hits the road for most people: should we baptise babies? I won’t rehearse any of the old paedo vs. credo arguments here, as that’s not really the point of this post. However, the number one objection I’ve heard to baptisting babies that they cannot make a public profession of personal faith, so cannot be legitimately baptised. The line of reasoning above is aimed more towards helping people to move past this one common sticking point by asking the question: what if baptism was never about making a public profession of personal faith anyway? If that is the case, then we can start asking the questions that might get us on the right track.

What do you think?

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