As the pastor of a Baptist church I frequently encounter this recurring couplet of questions posed by prospective members:
“Since I was baptized as an infant, and then later (in my denomination’s confirmation ceremony) confirmed publically that I trust Jesus as my Lord and Savior, why do you believe I should be re-baptized? Is this re-baptism not a renouncing of my previous confirmation ceremony, which to me was a precious and public expression of my personal trust in Jesus?”
Here is the essence of a letter I recently wrote to answer the question. Let’s call the inquirer something that rhymes with dunking.
Your questions are good and show a commendable desire to reconcile what you have been taught with what you are learning now. Here are four handrails for our thoughts to grip as we wade through the issue.
1. Reasons for infant baptism.
Most Christians in our country were baptized as babies, myself included. There are some regions where this is very common, due to denominations like Methodism, the Dutch Reformed Church, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, and Catholicism who have all sprinkled their influence abroad. As a result of how culturally entwined the practice can become, an extremely common reason people baptize their babies is because everyone in their family has done it for generations. That’s not an argument that holds water.
In my experience very few people can articulate a theological defense of pedobaptism. Those who do, base their theological convictions on an understanding of the way the Old and New Covenants are related, whereby circumcision is replaced by baptism. But in order for this view—unbelievers being baptized as babies who then get saved later in life—to stay afloat, one has to invent the confirmation ceremony as a substitute for what biblical baptism is meant to be.
The Bible knows nothing of the confirmation ceremony at all. There is not a single mention of it described or explained, and no instruction given about it anywhere in the Bible. Nor is there any case in the Bible of the baptism of an unbeliever being recognized as valid, which is what confirmation is intended to do.
2. The real meaning of baptism.
The word baptize means “to immerse fully under water.” This is not an insignificant detail, because of what the act symbolizes.
What most churches do with babies is sprinkling or dabbing. So, to say “I was baptized as a baby” is to substitute the way Jesus commanded and modeled with an alternative method.
The purpose of baptism, according to Romans 6:3-5, is to illustrate a person who has died to their old life, being buried with Christ, and then being raised with him unto a new life. This picture makes no sense if the person doesn’t yet believe, or if they are too young to have an “old life” of which to repent.
3. Why be “re-baptized”?
To put it bluntly, your infant baptism/christening didn’t count as your obedience to Jesus. (Thus, you are not really being “re-baptized” at all). It may represent your parents’ desire for you to be in the covenant community. But it does not represent your obedience and your faith.
Jesus commanded us to repent, believe, and be baptized to represent that decision. It is only obedience if you do it in response to his command; no one can do it on your behalf.
4. Is baptism a renouncing of prior confirmation?
Your confirmation was the denomination’s version of declaring that you believe in Jesus and repent of your sins. That is a commendable sentiment. I did that too. But then I later learned that the method Jesus wanted us to use to identify with him was full immersion after faith, not manmade confirmation.
Baptism in response to a new understanding of Christ’s command is not renouncing or ignoring everything that happened before in your walk with God. It is just a step of obedience in response to fuller knowledge and understanding of God’s will. The more mature we become in our walk with Jesus, the more our life will conform to his will as revealed in Scripture.
In our church we encourage people who are being baptized to explain their prior commitment to the Lord and give a testimony of how and when they were saved. We’ve even had octogenarians learn what the Bible says about baptism, and then get baptized in order to obey Jesus. There is no shame in this, it is a celebration of obedience and newfound understanding.
Baptism at that point is not a declaration of prior disobedience as much as a recognition of prior ignorance.
A closing thought to keep in mind is that Jesus was willing to be baptized to identify with us; Jesus commanded us to be baptized to identify with him. He stipulated the exact method (immersion) and timing (when we repent and believe). Why would we want to replace his example with a cultural substitute?
So, Duncan, I hope I haven’t flooded you with information by throwing you in the deep end of the discussion.