It is this linkage of these two Baptist convictions which is the ultimate basis for the distinctive Baptist view of initiation. All Christian traditions link the event of baptism with entry to the church. Baptists make three specific claims for this most characteristic ritual. First, that it does not itself bring about salvation. Baptism is not, in this sense at least, sacramental. It is the sign of faith already brought to life, rather than the means by which God brings it about. Secondly, Baptists generally insist that baptism should be by full immersion. Sometimes this is based on the somewhat dubious claim that the Greek root baptizo only ever means “to immerse”. More purely the symbolism of dying and rising with Christ (as explained in Romans 6:1-11) suggests full immersion provides the best symbolism. Most pointed, however, is the third position on baptism: that it is for adults, not children.
Now, why adults?
Again, biblical practice is generally cited. There seems to be no case in which infants are given this rite in the New Testament. Imprecise statements about “household’s” (Acts 16:33), are not enough to alter this picture. But Christians depart from lots of things the first Christians did. Mere imitation is not good theology. There must be something more, something fundamental. For Baptists it comes back to those first two “big ideas”. If baptism marks the beginning of the Christian life and also initiation into the church then the proper candidates can only be adults. Only someone capable of making an adult decision, aware of the potential consequences and having counted the cost, should be taking on the radical discipleship which following Christ entails. Similarly, if the church is to be authentically Christ’s, if it is to live its corporate life in kingdom terms, then only those who may maturely enter long-standing covenants can logically enter it. Baptism is for adults.
There are a number of implications which will come out as we pursue this series. One question, though, need to be considered immediately.
What about children? Didn’t Christ welcome them, even point to them as a model of faith? Aren’t we in danger of devaluing the love for Christ that children can so obviously have? Such concerns have led to a gradual lowering of the age of baptism among our churches. It is not unheard of to find eight year olds being baptised.
Yet to do so is to undermine the notion of radical, costly discipleship. Do we seriously suggest that young children are to be allowed to make choices which could cost them their physical lives? All who would be followers of Christ are offering themselves as potential cross bearers, potential martyrs like Dirk Willems, who lost his life in tortured pain because he took seriously the imperative to love his enemies.
The significance of this perhaps comes home better if we use the analogy of another key life choice. Why is it that, in most western societies at least, we do not let children marry? By puberty (arriving ever younger these day) they have all the physical attributes for a reproductive relationship. They are also capable of loving one another very deeply and genuinely. But we don’t let them marry. Why? Because marriage requires an adult decision, obviously. Goodness me, it is a choice that will affect the rest of their lives!
Now turn the analogy back. Which is the more momentous life choice, to marry another human being, or to follow Jesus Christ, to the cross if necessary?
Of course children can love Jesus. Such love is to be celebrated, welcomed and encouraged. But it remains a child’s love, all the same. It does not yet amount to a choice to cross back over a frozen lake to rescue your pursuer, who will take you to the stake. In undergoing baptism the disciple passes symbolically through death to new life, giving up the life they now have, dying to self, rising to Christ. Doing so, they enter on a life of radical discipleship. This can only be an adult choice. There is obviously no hard and fast rule as to what age such a choice can validly be made but, as Nigel Wright of Spurgeon’s College puts it in his recent book Free Church – Free State “any candidate for baptism … should show some grasp of what it means to choose Christ in preference to other lords and of the cost in following him” (87-88). It must be clear that the receiver of baptism knows what they are taking on, and giving up.
Their unusual (though not unique) approach to initiation gave “Baptists” their name. It was not a compliment. Disciples’ baptism was rightly seen to be subversive. It is a big idea, a rich idea which builds on other convictions about following Christ. It is an essential element in the contribution of Baptists to the wider church, and to the world.