This is a continuation of my review of Understanding Four Views on Baptism, and the apology for the Baptist View by Dr. Thomas J. Nettles of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Dr. Nettles begins his biblical survey of baptism with the baptism of John in Matthew and Luke. I want to take a look at how Dr. Nettles reads, interprets and employs these texts in defense of his Baptist doctrine on Christian baptism. It is worth noting that this biblical survey begins with narratives of the last Old Testament prophet, and with a baptism other than the baptism received by the church (Acts 19:1-7). But laying aside this cause for concern, what does he learn and teach from God’s Word?
Dr. Nettles writes: “Those who repented of their sins and were willing to receive instruction concerning how to live as a manifestation of repentance were baptized (Matt. 3:6-8; Luke 3:9-14). This involved a ‘knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God’ (Luke 1:77-78).”
One reading Dr. Nettles comes away with the impression that baptism should be LIMITED to those who willingly repent, and demonstrate a desire to “receive instruction” in the new life of obedience (“how to live”). The unstated but unmistakable implication is that infants should have no part in Christian baptism, because they are not capable of such things. Is that what the texts in Matthew3 and Luke3 say and teach?
There is a verse in the Matthew account that Dr. Nettles does not want his readers to consider. He begins his reference in mid-sentence at verse 6 of Matthew 3. Verse 5 tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out” to John, the Baptist. “And they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
In teaching the Baptist distinctives on baptism, it would not be good to give the reader the impression that there were small children and infants in the crowds that followed John; but St. Matthew certainly does give us that impression. He says that ALL Judea went out to hear John; and for emphasis he says it again: “ALL the region about the Jordan” went out to him. There is no reason given in the text for us to believe that infants were not present for the ministry of this prophet. There is good reason in the text to believe that they were there indeed.
Being present for John’s ministry, did infants participate in his baptism? We do not know the answer. The history of the church does suggest that John baptized infants; but here we want to limit our consideration to the biblical evidence. Baptists point to John’s call for repentance, and especially to his demand for “fruits in keeping with repentance,” as evidence that only cognizant candidates, responding to his message on their own volition, received John’s baptism. The texts do not say that; and when we consider John’s admonitions more carefully, we must admit that they do not necessarily exclude infants.
CONFESSION OF SIN
Matthew 3:6 tells us that John’s baptism was a confession of sin. The Hebrew Scriptures are very clear about the sinfulness of children. Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Psalm 22:9 says, “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.” A father and mother bringing their infant child to John for baptism would have been confessing the sinfulness of their child, and his need for salvation -- just as dressing the infant would have been a confession of the child’s nakedness and need for clothing. And, just as God has given the child parents to provide for the needs of his body, the parents are also given by God to provide for the needs of their children’s souls. Infants and small children need to confess their sins, so that they too can receive God’s forgiveness.
Suppose John did encounter parents asking for baptism on behalf of their infant children. The Psalms give us a biblical basis for imagining that John received them, and baptized their babies. This pious speculation also corresponds well to the kind of grace Jesus shows the paralytic in Mark2:1-12, whose sins were forgiven when Jesus saw the faith of the friends who brought him. After all, John did not say that the Lamb of God came to take away the sins of those who first demonstrated their willingness “to receive instruction concerning how to live,” or “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” What he did say is that Jesus would “take away the sin of the world” (John1:29). Baptizing these infants would have been in better keeping the Scriptures, and with John’s own message.
FRUITS IN KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE
Luke 3:8 tells us that John admonished all his followers to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Surely, no infant could do this, and they must therefore be excluded from baptism. This kind of assumption would be wrong on at least two counts. First, John does not make this fruit a pre-condition for baptism. He didn’t say, “Go home, and when you come back bring the fellow who received your extra tunic… Then we’ll talk about baptism.” Second, the John’s admonitions called for people to live within their vocations. He called people to live in right relationship with those around them (Luke3:10-14). Though they are small, infants and children also live in relationship with the people around them. They also have a vocation, and John was teaching them (sometimes through their parents) to live in that calling. This text gives us no reason to believe that infants were excluded from John’s baptism.
KNOWLEDGE OF SALVATION
Finally, Dr. Nettles introduces Luke1:77-78 into his argument, as if Zechariah’s prophecy concerning his son somehow reveals a limitation on his ministry. It would presumably require a “knowledge of salvation” in order to obtain salvation (and baptism from John). I do not mean to be rude or disrespectful, but the misuse of this text is patently absurd. Please, go read it! God is not sending John to require the “knowledge of salvation” from God’s people. He is sending John to give it to them. This text gives us no reason to believe that infants were excluded from John’s baptism, or that they should be excluded from the church’s font.
Remember, I am not saying with any certainty that John baptized babies. What I am saying is that there is nothing in the Bible that can lead us to say with certainty that he did not. And even if there were, that fact would not be sufficient to lead us to the conclusion that Christian baptism should exclude anyone who cannot know salvation in the way that an adult can know it. The Bible does not say that knowledge and fruits are preconditions for salvation or baptism, nor does God say that infants are incapable of knowing Christ or bearing fruit. These Baptist convictions are not born out of the text of God’s Word. They are being added into it.