The Problem of Infant Baptism
Recently we were involved in a discussion with a fellow blogger named Eliza who is especially zealous for the doctrinal purity of the church. The question came up about certain well-known figures in church history such as Luther, Calvin, Whitefield, Wesley and Edwards who believed in or practiced infant baptism. In a comment dealing specifically with Augustine and Calvin Eliza made this remarkable statement:
“Since these men purported to be doctors of the church they should have
known without a shadow of a doubt that what they were attesting was
spurious and without merit. They blindly followed the heresy of the
blind. Those who promulgate false doctrine are false teachers and should
be avoided at all costs according to the Scriptures. They are not serving
Christ but they are serving their own fleshly desires and are led astray by
the enemy of our souls. To allow them the name of Christ, when they
contradict the truth of Christ and his amazing, almighty glorious work
for our salvation, is to side with the enemy of our souls.”
The sweep and scope of this condemnation is astonishing. It would mean that none of the major Reformers – Luther, Zwingli, Farel, Calvin, and Knox – were really Christians. It would mean that most of the Puritans were without Christ. It would mean that most of the leaders of the 18th and 19th Century Evangelical Awakenings – Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards and Zinzendorf – were all false teachers working for the devil. Most of our major hymn writers – Watts, Charles Wesley, Newton, Doddridge and Toplady – were heretics. And the major evangelists of the 19th and early 20th Centuries – Nettleton, Finney, Moody and Sunday – were all leading people astray. Can that really be true?
It must be pointed out that Eliza and myself are both agreed that infant baptism is an unscriptural practice. But it actually originated before Augustine – he was simply following the practice of a number of the church fathers who were before him. Infant baptism was practiced as early as the 2nd Century, and was advocated by both Origen and Cyprian. But there is no question that it played a major role in corrupting the visible church, for it shifted the focus away from the faith of the person being baptized to the ability of the church to dispense grace through the sacraments. At the time of the Reformation the Anabaptists rejected the practice outright. The Lutheran and Reformed churches, however, reacted against the Anabaptist Movement, afraid that it represented a threat to Christian civilization, thus sought to retain infant baptism, but couldn’t come up with a uniform rationale for it. The Lutherans essentially took a mystical approach, holding to a form of baptismal regeneration. Reformed theologians, on the other hand, developed a form of covenant theology and held that baptism was the means of entrance into the covenant community. Frankly, both Lutheran and Reformed theologians struggled to come up with a coherent rationale for baptizing infants. Suffice it to say, there is no direct command and no clear example ins Scripture to support the practice, whereas several passages link baptism to faith and repentance, and tacitly assume that persons who have been baptized are regenerate believers (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-11; Gal. 3:26,27; I Pet. 3:21).
The Unity of the Church
How, then, should we deal with people who practice such things? Do we simply write them off as false teachers? More specifically, what does God Himself think about all of this? As He surveys the scene from His throne in heaven, what does He think?
It must be remembered that in God’s sight the fundamental cleavage dividing the human race is between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. The body of Christ is composed of all those who have been truly born again and believe on Him. It is the sum total of the elect, and they are His people. All of them: stiff formalists and “holy rollers,” pedobaptists and Anabaptists, Calvinists and Arminians, black evangelicals and white. All of them are fallen human beings, and none of them are perfect – although some in the Wesleyan communion have claimed perfection! Thus the starting point for our position on ecclesiastical separation must be the biblical doctrine of the universal church. The apostle Paul lays this out in Eph. 2:11-22. Here he describes how both Jews and Gentiles have been “reconciled . . . in one body to God through the cross” (v. 16). “. . . through Him we both have the entrance in one Spirit unto the Father’ (v. 18). We have been “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure being framed together grows into a holy temple in the Lord in Whom you also are built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (vv. 20-22). Here we have a beautiful picture of the entire universal church forming a mystical unity in which God Himself is present. Or to put it another way, there is a mystical bond that unites all genuine believers, of whatever denomination, to Christ and to each other. This bond is formed by the living presence of the Holy Spirit in each one of our hearts. The bond that ties believers to each other is more personal and more intimate than any external connections they may have to an organization or creed.
But what are the practical implications of this? The practical implication is that we have a responsibility to preserve the unity of the body. Later on in the epistle Paul exhorts the Ephesians “to walk worthily of the calling with which you have been called . . . endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. . .” (Eph. 4:1,3).
While Paul is addressing a specific local church here, it is apparent that the principle he lays down extends to the entire universal church. It was the universal church that he had described earlier in 2:11-22, and in the passage immediately following (4:4-6) he grounds his exhortation in certain facts that are true of the entire Christian church as a whole: “one body, and one Spirit, just as you have been called in one hope of our calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of al, Who is over all things and through all things and in all things.”
It will be noted that this unity is essentially spiritual in nature: it is “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” What unites us as believers as believers to each other is not merely some social tie or common interest, but rather the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. Thus we become “members of each other” (v. 25), with the consequence that if we indulge in “bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander” (v. 31) we grieve the Holy Spirit (v. 30). As the bond is intimate the wound is felt personally.
Nor is this a peripheral duty, to be treated casually. We are to “endeavor” to keep the unity. The Greek word literally means “to make haste,” and by extension, “to be zealous or eager, to give diligence” (Abbott-Smith). Thus we are to make a conscious effort to maintain the peace and unity of the church.
But how do we do this? It is significant that Paul does not suggest the typical modern solution, viz., more organization. Rather, he looks to something deeper, viz., the underlying attitude of our hearts. “With all lowliness of mind and gentleness, with patience bearing with one another in love . . .” (v. 2). What is required to maintain this unity is a specific attitude: an attitude of humility, gentleness, patience and love; in some ways the exact opposite of what we often associate with the “fightin’ Fundamentalist.”
How to Deal with the Erring Brother
This, however, raises an important question: how are we to deal with an erring brother? Once again the Bible offers specific guidance on this question. In II Tim. 2:22-26 Paul gives Timothy directions on how to deal with the problem. He begins by telling him to “flee youthful lusts, but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart” (v. 22). But this entails the negative side of the question: “But foolish and ignorant controversies avoid, knowing that they engender quarrels.” Paul then lays down the general rule for the conduct of a pastor or Christian worker: “But the servant of the Lord must not fight, but be gentle unto all, apt at teaching, patiently forbearing” (v. 24). That is his manner. His method is described in the next verse: “in gentleness correcting those who are in opposition . . .” The problem is real; action is required. The opposer must be corrected. But it is to be done in “gentleness.” We are not trying to hurt the person we are attempting to correct. We are sensitive to his particular situation and his feelings, and are attempting, with gentleness, patience and love, to bring him where he ought to be. Our language is clear, instructive, and respectful. We do not misrepresent him or his motives. But we urge him, as one brother to another, to take the claims of God’s Word seriously. In this solemn and sacred duty tirades and harangues are completely out of place. Our goal is that “God may grant them repentance unto a knowledge of the truth, and that they might return to soberness from the devil’s snare, having been taken captive by him unto his will” (vv. 25,26). Our aim is restoration and reconciliation, not permanent estrangement. Any words or actions on our part that would needlessly antagonize our brother is counterproductive.
James asks the telling question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13). Undoubtedly there are many who think that they are wise. “Let him demonstrate from a good lifestyle his works in the gentleness of wisdom.” True wisdom comes from God, and will be consistent with a godly manner of life. To underscore the point, James draws a contrast between two different kinds of “wisdom.” The first kind is marked by “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” (v. 14). This kind of “wisdom” does not come from God. Rather it is “earthy, natural, demonic” (v. 15). It is driven and motivated by our fallen human nature, and by the evil powers at work in the world. Its inevitable result is “disorder and every evil deed” (v. 16). We think that we are being smart by being self-assertive. But where does it lead? To strife, conflict, and ruined relationships. This is hardly “wisdom.”
But what is true wisdom like? It is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (v. 17). In other words, it cares about others, seeks peace with them, and treats them with respect.
James then concludes with this general precept: “But the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (v. 18). Carnal means cannot achieve spiritual ends, and the Lord’s work cannot be done by using the devil’s tools. We may think that we are doing the Lord’s work – that we are earnestly contending for the faith. But if we slander our opponents and vilify them in the press, if we use abusive and contemptuous language, we do exactly what the devil wants us to do: we grieve the Holy Spirit and divide the brethren.
Moreover, we grossly misrepresent Christ by acting in a way that is contrary to His own character and will. Jesus told us, “In this shall all know that you are My disciples if you have love one for another” (Jn. 13:35). Separation from fellow believers (sometimes called “Second Degree Separation”) results in permanent division within the body and makes it all too obvious to the world that we have little love for each other. In this way it brings incalculable reproach on the gospel, a stain not easily erased, a stumbling block to those who might otherwise be led to inquire.
How many have been kept from heaven by our ungodly words and actions? Are we telling the world thereby that we are not His disciples? If we do not live the way He has instructed us to, we are not very good students, are we?