by Dr. Harvey Plett
As we celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation there is much to celebrate. One of the things to celebrate is the rediscovery of believer’s baptism.
Apostolic Church Baptism
Water baptism was practiced in the Church from its beginning. Peter’s Pentecost message ended by saying, “Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Some 3,000 responded in faith and were baptized and added to the Church that day.
This is what is called believer’s baptism. That is, when you decide to become a Christian you, in obedience to the teaching of the Bible, follow it up with water baptism and thereby become a member of the Church, Christ’s body.
Matthew 28:18-20 tells the Church to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then teach them all that God has commanded. Those who believe are to be baptized. Scholars are in essential agreement that apostolic baptism was believer’s baptism (Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church).
An occasional infant baptism appears to have happened in the second century. But after the third century it became the practice of the Church. Prior to the Reformation, to refuse infant baptism was subject to state oppression, even execution.
Martin Luther, in the early 16th century, was struggling with his faith and through study of the Bible discovered the words, “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). Out of that came what we call the Reformation. Luther’s emphasis on faith and the Bible began to influence the church scene and ultimately the Lutheran Church emerged.
Luther retained infant baptism partially because he felt if he went to believer’s baptism his work would be annihilated. He, however, modified the sacrament somewhat. For the Catholic Church water baptism is used by God to remove original sin. For Luther the grace of God works alongside the water to do that.
The Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the Lutheran Church subscribe to this kind of sacramental baptism. A sacrament is a ceremony that if done right conveys God’s grace to the individual.
The Reformed Church, the outgrowth of John Calvin’s work, practises infant baptism, but does it in a Covenantal Theological system. They say that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant and replaces circumcision.
As circumcision was done to infant boys and was the sign of the Old Covenant, so now baptism is the sign of the New Covenant in Christ. One change is that now both male and female infants, of Christian parents, are baptized, indicating they are members of the New Covenant people.
In infant-baptizing churches, baptism is followed up with confirmation when the person has reached the age of accountability. At confirmation the individual makes the faith, vicariously believed for him by a godparent or sponsor at baptism, his or her own.
Churches who practise this covenantal concept of baptism include the Reformed Church, the Methodists, Presbyterians, and the Covenant Church.
There are some church groups that don’t practice water baptism. This includes the Quakers and the Salvation Army. It is also of interest to note that Karl Barth, a key theologian, switched to believer’s baptism due to his study of the Bible. Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian (d. 1834), said to read children into the family baptisms in Acts is putting something there that is not there.
At the time of the Reformation another movement emerged that did not accept infant baptism as a valid baptism. Through serious Bible study, this group, known as the Anabaptists, understood the Scriptures to teach believer’s baptism. With this understanding of baptism they refused sacramental or covenantal infant baptism because they didn’t find it in the Bible.
They understood the Scripture to teach believer’s baptism; that is, only those who personally understood the gospel and accepted it should be baptized. Many who had been baptized as infants asked for baptism based on their faith and thereby joined the Church. This is where the name Anabaptist comes from. They were accused of being re-baptized, but they responded and said their infant baptism was not a baptism because it did not involve the faith of the one being baptized.
Their refusal to accept infant baptism, as well as refusing to have their infants baptized, resulted in severe opposition and persecution. They persisted and the Anabaptists emerged as a significant branch of the Church, still active and alive today. The Anabaptists claimed they were going back to what the Bible teaches. They insisted that believer’s baptism ruled out covenantal or sacramental infant baptism. It also ruled out child baptism.
In support of rejecting infant and child baptism they quoted Matt. 19:14 where Jesus says, “Do not hinder children from coming to me for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” They said children are innocent and saved until they reach the age of accountability. They said the Bible teaches that children are to be nurtured and taught the love of God; and then as they grow and understand they will respond, and when they reach accountability they will know how to respond and ask for baptism when they reach the age of accountability (Eph. 6:4).
We need to celebrate the Reformation by a continued commitment to do what the Bible teaches. As we celebrate 500 years of back to the Bible freedom, we, as a people who believe the Bible teaches believer’s baptism, rejoice that children are innocent and saved until they reach the age of accountability. Being nurtured in the teaching of the Word and accepting it as they grow up, they will then be able to ask for baptism.
The issue we face is, does the Bible teach believer’s baptism? To answer this question we need to go back to the Bible. We do not find sacramental baptism in Scripture, and we also do not find the idea that baptism has replaced circumcision.
I suggest we respond by rejoicing for what the Anabaptists found and practiced back in the 16th century, examine it biblically, and take what the Bible teaches. We affirm believer’s baptism even if it is uncomfortable. If that is what the Bible teaches, that is what we want to do.
This does not mean we reject fellowship with churches that practice infant baptism, but we do not accept their practice of infant baptism because we believe it is not supported in Scripture nor is it a baptism based on personal faith. We stand for and commit ourselves to what the Bible teaches.
We also need to do a diligent study on the role of children and the church. Our Anabaptist forebears found no basis for sacramental or covenantal infant baptism. As already noted, they believed the Scriptures teach that children are safe in the kingdom until the age of accountability when they decide to continue in the faith or leave it (Pilgram Marpeck; Schleitheim Confession).
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we rejoice in the testimony of our forebears and commit ourselves to be true to the study and teaching of the Bible and its teaching on baptism as our Anabaptist forebears did.
Dr. Harvey Plett (BA, MA, MDiv, PhD) has served as president of Steinbach Bible College and as EMC moderator; he is a long-serving minister at Prairie Rose EMC. He continues to do some teaching, preaching, counselling, and writing. He and his wife Pearl live in Mitchell, Man., and celebrated 58 years of blessed marriage on Aug. 22, 2016.