Essentially significant

I was meeting with a prospective member a while ago and we were having a chat about his testimony and Christian background. As happens when you make it a criteria for membership, the question of whether he had been baptised reared its head. Unless somebody has been baptised in your own particular church, that question often leads to another: what do we define as a legitimate baptism?

In this case, the guy had received an infant baptism but had also later been baptised following a profession, but via some sort of sprinkling/pouring affair. This throws up the issue of what we define as a bottom line for baptism. What is the ideal? What is illegitimate? What is irregular but tolerable? Naturally, we don’t want to re-baptise anybody. But there may be occasions where we recognise that something we wouldn’t and shouldn’t do might be recognised as a tolerable baptism, even if it is irregular and not what we ought to do. The difficulty is working out exactly what those things are in reality.

The problem with infant baptism, from a Baptist perspective, is that it is wrong both in its form and application. It offers baptism to candidates who ought not to receive it; namely, those who have not professed faith and therefore are not yet in the New Covenant by the very faith that puts anyone into it. It also applies baptism by sprinkling or pouring (unless you are Coptic or Eastern Orthodox) and not by full immersion. From a Baptist perspective, no part of it is biblical or right.

But what about those who have professed faith? How are we to view a non-immersive sprinkling or pouring? Certainly, from a Baptist perspective, we shouldn’t do that. It isn’t the biblical pattern and it certainly isn’t what happened to Jesus. But let’s just say that it happened – as it often does – to a professing believer. How are we to view it then?

In my view, this is different to an infant baptism inasmuch as the application of the sign might be wrong – it may take an irregular form – but it is applied to the right candidate, a person who is in the covenant by faith. And I think it is fair to say that though pouring, and even more so sprinkling, do not fully convey the sign it is meant to signify, neither are totally without significance. Though they are irregular forms, and they do not fully express the thing to be signified, that doesn’t make them totally insignificant. They do at least carry some of the significance, albeit not as clearly and fully as I believe John the Baptist, Jesus and the Apostles intended.

So how are we to view the sprinkling or pouring of a professing adult? In my view, I would argue that this is an irregular baptism. It isn’t what ought to be done, but there is enough in what is done to make it irregular yet tolerable. For me, the emphasis falls on believer’s baptism. Whilst I think the mode matters – that is, we should follow the rule of scripture on these matters and ought only to practise believer’s baptism by full immersion – I think the essence of baptism involves the faith of the candidate and water. That is, if you like, a baptism bottom line. If the individual has expressed faith prior to their baptism and water is applied to them during the baptism, although it may not be as scripture regulates it and may not be what should be done, I think that is an irregular but recognisable baptism.

So, my friend needn’t be baptised again on my view. I think his faith at the time and the water applied is tolerable, even if it is irregular. It is the essence of baptism, even if it is not fully significant and exactly what it should be. It is not what ought to be done, it certainly isn’t what we would do, but in such cases where both faith on the part of the individual is expressed and water is applied after that fact, we can recognise that.