Is Infant Immersion a Valid Baptism?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 5:00pm
A SERIOUS QUERY: In our congregation we accepted a member by transfer upon his testimony that he had been previously immersed. We have only recently discovered that he was indeed immersed, but as an infant in a Greek Orthodox church. He assumed that this was sufficient; and no one is questioning the genuineness of his faith or his salvation, because he is certainly displaying the fruit of the Spirit. But now that we have the facts, we are not sure what to do. Should this man be immersed now, as an adult? He is reluctant to have this done, because he feels he would be dishonoring his parents, who had him immersed as an infant. He also believes that since he has both been immersed and has come to sincere faith, the sequence of the two events should not matter. Any thoughts?
MY REPLY: First of all, it is asserted that this person is displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), with the assumption that this implies that he has the indwelling of the Spirit, which implies that he is saved. This is not a valid assumption. I have addressed this issue in my book on the Holy Spirit, “Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit” (College Press, 2007, pp. 374-375). I have recently posted a note on this specific issue, in which I have cited this material; so I will not address it here.
The bottom line here is that infants are simply not viable candidates for baptism, whether the water is applied via immersion or sprinkling. In Scripture baptism is always presented as a volitional choice by one who is a sinner and who is old enough to truly repent and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Baptism is thus the same kind of event as marriage or voting. An infant cannot get married, nor can an infant vote, by the very nature of these acts. It is thus with baptism. Also, in Scripture baptism is always presented as a salvation event, in which a sinner receives God’s saving grace. But the fact is that infants are ALREADY under God’s grace, i.e, the ORIGINAL GRACE of Jesus Christ that has negated the damning effects of Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12-19). On original grace, see my commentary on Romans at this passage, and see my systematic theology, “The Faith Once for All,” ch. 9. A child remains in this cocoon of original grace until he or she reaches the age of accountability. Thus there is no reason to attempt to baptize an infant.
Actually, the question is not whether an infant SHOULD be baptized, but rather, CAN an infant be baptized? Certainly, water can be applied to the child, but there is more to baptism than the application of water. The fact is that an infant CANNOT be baptized. Concerning the man in question, if his infant immersion is the extent of his baptismal experience, then he has not actually been baptized.
I am sure that you know that the Restoration Movement has always stood for believers’ baptism and opposed infant baptism. This belief, shared by the Reformation Anabaptists and by modern Baptists, has been decisively argued and settled. I will not rehearse the NT evidence here. If you accept this man’s baptism, and his Christian status on the basis of it, then you will have to accept for membership all sincere people who were baptized in any fashion as infants, and even all sincere people who have never been baptized at all in any fashion. In other words, you must opt for what is called “open membership,” one of the main issues that divided the conservative Christian churches from the Disciples of Christ in the early 20th century. The issue is not just immersion vs. sprinkling, but also the validity of infant baptism as such. You cannot ignore the latter point and limit this issue to the former point.
Regarding the argument that repudiating the infant immersion would be dishonoring one’s parents, thus disobeying the fifth commandment (Exod. 20:12) and Eph. 6:1, this assumes that this man’s (and all) parents are infallible and never disagree with or contradict the clear teaching of Scripture. This argument, if applied consistently, could be used to justify any sort of immoral or incorrect behavior. The Bible assumes that even sincere convictions of human beings may be in conflict with the Word of God. That is why the Apostle Peter lays down the clear principle, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). This principle certainly applies in this case.
Does the sequence of immersion and faith matter, as long as one has done both? I say again that in Scripture, the sequence is always faith/repentance, then baptism. And there is a reason for this sequence, namely, that membership in the NT people/family of God is by means of one’s personal choice rather than by physical birth. This is a major difference between the Old Covenant people (Israel) and the New Covenant people (the Church). One became a member of the OC people by physical birth; one becomes a member of the NC people by spiritual rebirth (John 3:3-5), which requires faith (John 1:12). You may want to consider the order of faith, baptism, and salvation as set forth in Colossians 2:12, which says you have “been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God.” If you study this carefully, you will see that the act of baptism results in burial and resurrection with Jesus only when entered into with faith in your heart.
In answer to the question whether this man should be immersed now, as an adult, my answer is an unequivocal YES. How we must then regard his past spiritual status will be addressed in my next note.