Baptism Part III: A Common Obstacle to Belief in Infant Baptism
When I began this series I thought I’d write about infant baptism in my third article. Since then, Pastor Alex has written an excellent article on why we should baptize babies. I recommend that you read his article . Now I have the freedom to take a different angle and talk about a common obstacle to belief in infant baptism.
At least a couple of times when talking about infant baptism with someone who does not believe in it, the conversation quickly steered away from the doctrine of baptism itself and we began to discuss the doctrine of the human will. Is it bound or is it free? What part does the human will play in conversion? It appears that the doctrine of infant baptism and the doctrine of the human will are related.
If you believe that in order to be saved you must consciously decide to accept Jesus as an act of your free will, then you will be predisposed to reject infant baptism in favor of adults only, “believer’s baptism.” After all, how can a baby make a conscious choice? How can a baby exercise his free will? On the other hand, if you believe that humans, even adults, do not have the ability to freely accept Jesus or believe in him, but that this can only happen when the Holy Spirit creates faith in their hearts through the Word of the Gospel, then you will be more likely to accept infant baptism. This is because you recognize that a baby is just as incapable as an adult to accept Jesus Christ. In both cases faith must be created by the Holy Spirit!
So which is it? Do human beings, after the fall and before conversion, have a will that is free or one that is bound? Do we positively cooperate in the process of conversion somehow? Does the Holy Spirit draw us most of the way until it’s up to us to make the decision? Or does the Holy Spirit draw us all the way to complete trust in Christ? In conversion are our wills purely passive as the Spirit produces faith in our hearts? Or do our wills play an active role in conversion? Does not resisting the Spirit constitute doing something toward our conversion?
These are important questions. I have been intrigued by them for over a decade and I have not stopped studying them. There is a tension in Scripture between human responsibility on the one hand and the sovereignty of God on the other. There is a tension between the teaching that salvation is completely by grace and the teaching that some people willfully reject the Gospel. I encourage you to study God’s word with great devotion as you wrestle with this tension and the many questions that come up. This is no trivial matter. Our conclusions will determine how we preach the Gospel and what we believe, teach, and confess on a number of doctrines, including, but not limited to, infant baptism.
I want to point you to two resources that have helped me on my way, one of them short and one of them long. The short one is something I read when I was a teenager from the Concordia Self-Study Bible (New International Version). It’s from the introduction to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Here it is:
Lutheran theologians express the gospel by three phrases: by grace, through faith, on account of Christ. But some may view faith as a work of the believer. Paul in Ephesians, to correct this view, stated clearly: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Faith is God’s gift through the work of the Holy Spirit in the means of grace: the word and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
In order that the teaching of God’s grace may be appreciated in its full significance, Paul treats a truth which is very important, but difficult to comprehend--God’s election of believers from eternity (1:3-23). Human reason deduces that either man must be the source of both salvation and damnation (works righteousness) or that God is the source of both (double predestination). Either view is logical, but neither is derived from the Scriptures, which teach that God is the only source of salvation (Eph. 2:8-9) and man is the only source of damnation (Matt. 23:37).
The Scriptural doctrine of election is a most comforting teaching (belonging to gospel, not to law). For our faith does not depend on our weak will, but on God’s will and is sustained by his Holy Spirit through word and sacrament.
This passage doesn’t go into much depth, and yet it’s deep. I think it rightly captures the tension taught in the Bible itself. In case you thought you misread, I can attest that it does teach that when it comes to man’s salvation—it’s all from God. From election, to conversion, to preservation—it’s all the gift of God. However when it comes to man’s damnation—that’s our own fault! As Jesus said in Matthew 23:37 regarding the people of Jerusalem, He was willing to gather them, but they were not willing. This is the tension taught in Scripture.
Now for the other, longer resource. In my reading, nothing has explained these matters more clearly than the Formula of Concord. The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther is also good, but it’s kind of confusing. The Formula of Concord is abundantly clear. The Formula of Concord is the last confession of faith found in the Book of Concord. The Formula is actually split into two parts, the Epitome (which is much shorter) and the Solid Declaration (much longer). I want you to read the Solid Declaration. You should read the whole thing, but in regards to what I’ve been writing about in this article, you should read Article I (Original Sin), Article II (Free Will), and Article XI (Election).
You can read it online, but I prefer to read long things in a book instead of on a screen. You can buy the Book of Concord here or here (to support Ambassador Publications) or here (from Concordia Publishing House).
Thanks for thinking about these things with me. I hope to have piqued your curiosity. Keep reading what other theologians have written. Test everything with the Word.