Baptism Controversies: Acts 8

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Today’s reading: Acts 7-8.

“Who should be baptized?”

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. Romans 6:3-5

Baptism is one of those great divides in Christianity. Infant baptism. Believer’s baptism. Sprinkling, pouring, dunking. How could something so clearly commanded by Jesus become such a source of disagreement? In brief, by 400 AD the practice of infant baptism was firmly established in the Catholic Church. Augustine codified the doctrine through his writings and established the precepts of original sin, the necessity of baptism for salvation, and the damnation of unbaptized infants. This practice continued unopposed for a thousand years until the time of the Protestant Reformation. Though Luther maintained the doctrine of infant baptism and the necessity of baptism for salvation, Calvin taught that baptism was only a public profession and identification with the church of Jesus Christ. Calvin continued the practice of infant baptism. On January 21, 1525, several students of Swiss reformer Zwingli re-baptized themselves, stating that their baptism as infants was invalid because it was not based on personal faith. They wrote that baptism should be preceded by “faith and a penitent life.” These Anabaptists influenced John Smyth and a group of Puritan/Separatists from England, who in 1609 re-baptized themselves and began the Baptist church. They wrote, in their London Confession, “Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, given by Christ, to be dispersed only upon persons professing faith.” Note that the main distinction between those practicing infant and believer’s baptism is not whether they were Catholic or Protestant, but whether they were members of the state church (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist) or the professing church (Anabaptist, Baptist).

The Catholic church considers baptism to be sacramental, a means of conveying God’s saving grace to those who receive it. Catholics cite the early practice of the church in support of this view, along with Bible verses that describe whole families being baptized. The Protestant church usually describes baptism as an ordinance, an outward expression of the inward faith. Faith is a necessary prerequisite, as in Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Some Christians go further and separate baptism from water entirely, believing that baptism is solely the work of the Holy Spirit transforming the heart of the believer.

With that background, look at today’s passage from Acts. After the Sanhedrin martyred Stephen, and Saul began to persecute the church, believers fled from Jerusalem. One of the seven deacons, Philip, traveled to Samaria and converted many, then encountered an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza.

And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, preached unto him Jesus. And as they went on the way, they came unto a certain water; and the eunuch saith, Behold, [here is] water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. Acts 8:35-38

Some Bible translations omit verse 37 in which Philip says, “if thou believest.” But early church authorities included it. Cyprian (200-258 A.D.) supported the inclusion of verse 37 when he said, “In the Acts of the Apostles Treatise 12:3: Lo, here is water; what is there which hinders me from being baptized? Then said Phillip, If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest” (The Treatises of Cyprian). Augustine (354-430 AD) also supported it in his Sermon 49: “The eunuch believed on Christ, and said when they came unto a certain water, See water, who doth hinder me to be baptized? Philip said to him, Dost thou believe on Jesus Christ? He answered, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Immediately he went down with him into the water.”

Philip knew, as Jesus had taught, that baptism follows from faith. Having been baptized as an infant, and baptized again as a professing adult, for me the most meaningful baptism is the voluntary action of keeping Jesus’ command because of one’s personal faith in Jesus.

Moreover, from the time when He said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven;” and again, “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it;” no one becomes a member of Christ except it be either by baptism in Christ, or death for Christ. – Augustine

Just as a man cannot live in the flesh unless he is born in the flesh, even so a man cannot have the spiritual life of grace unless he is born again spiritually. This regeneration is effected by Baptism: “Unless a man is born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5)  – St. Thomas Aquinas

Why do you suppose that baptism is put into this prominent position? I think that it is for this reason, Baptism is the outward expression of the inward faith. He who believes in Christ with his heart confesses his faith before God and before the Church of God by being baptized. Now, the faith that speaks thus is not a dumb faith; it is not a cowardly faith; it is not a sneaking faith. Paul puts the matter thus, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” – Charles Spurgeon

Our justification from sins takes place at the point of saving faith, not at the point of water baptism, which usually occurs later. But if a person is already justified and has sins forgiven eternally at the point of saving faith, then baptism is not necessary for forgiveness of sins nor for the bestowal of new spiritual life. Baptism, then, is not necessary for salvation. But it is necessary if we are to be obedient to Christ, for he commanded baptism for all who believe in him. – Wayne A. Grudem

Image by Jeffery Scism on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

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4 thoughts on “Baptism Controversies: Acts 8

  1. From the CCC:

    IN BRIEF

    1275 Christian initiation is accomplished by three sacraments together: Baptism which is the beginning of new life; Confirmation which is its strengthening; and the Eucharist which nourishes the disciple with Christ’s Body and Blood for his transformation in Christ.

    1276 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).

    1277 Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ. In accordance with the Lord’s will, it is necessary for salvation, as is the Church herself, which we enter by Baptism.

    1278 The essential rite of Baptism consists in immersing the candidate in water or pouring water on his head, while pronouncing the invocation of the Most Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    1279 The fruit of Baptism, or baptismal grace, is a rich reality that includes forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit. By this very fact the person baptized is incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, and made a sharer in the priesthood of Christ.

    1280 Baptism imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual sign, the character, which consecrates the baptized person for Christian worship. Because of the character Baptism cannot be repeated (cf. DS 1609 and DS 1624).

    1281 Those who die for the faith, those who are catechumens, and all those who, without knowing of the Church but acting under the inspiration of grace, seek God sincerely and strive to fulfill his will, can be saved even if they have not been baptized (cf. LG 16).

    1282 Since the earliest times, Baptism has been administered to children, for it is a grace and a gift of God that does not presuppose any human merit; children are baptized in the faith of the Church. Entry into Christian life gives access to true freedom.

    1283 With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God’s mercy and to pray for their salvation.

    1284 In case of necessity, any person can baptize provided that he have the intention of doing that which the Church does and provided that he pours water on the candidate’s head while saying: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

    • The chapter also contains this little jewel:

      So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

      The Bible, wonderful as it is, can be very hard to understand in places. Who undertakes a study of it without serious assistance: a dictionary, concordance, and interpretative guide? Philip exemplifies the teaching role of the Church, the Magisterium, who faithfully guard the transmission of the faith from one generation to the next. Even Peter points out the difficulty in understanding some of Paul’s writing.

      What sad state of affairs would the Church (and the world) be in if this teaching office had not been there through 2000 years of trials, correcting heresy after heresy, and maintain the truth of Christ passed on to her from the Apostles.

  2. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – Baptism Controversies: Acts 8 | ChristianBlessings

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