Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Can the Church Alter Christ's Command?

It has long been argued, especially by the Catholic Church, that the magisterium has power vested in it by Christ to alter Church practice. And so baptism in the Western Church gradually ceased to be by immersion and became routinely a matter of sprinkling or pouring. But two questions come to mind. First, does the Church really have this authority? Secondly, does sprinkling/pouring answer to the intended representation given in baptism?

First of all, the Bible is explicitly clear on the place of human innovation in matters of worship. In the Old Testament God made it very plain that his precepts were not to be altered at all. Paul made it very plain that the message of the gospel was not to be altered (Gal 1: 7-8), and baptism is a presentation of the gospel message in dramatic form. In baptism several things are represented at once: (1) the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (the essence of the gospel), (2) the death of the old man, his burial, and the resurrection to walk in a new life (repentance, remission of sins, and faith in Christ), and (3) the hope of our own future bodily resurrection when Christ comes again (eschatological hope). Altering the mode and/or the recipient of the rite fundamentally alters its message and meaning, and so it is forbidden by Scripture.

This leads naturally to the second question. Does pouring or sprinkling adequately communicate the message of baptism? The answer is a resounding "no". Baptism is intended to represent cleansing from sin, death to the old life, and resurrection to new life. Simply sprinkling or pouring some water over someone cannot possible represent those things. Furthermore, baptism in the New Testament was the public profession of faith and is essential to one's owning Christ publicly. Performing a rite, even immersion, on an infant, subverts this essential quality of baptism because the infant cannot have faith in Christ. That must come as an intelligent response of the heart to the moving of the Holy Spirit through the gospel.

When looked upon from this perspective it becomes very clear that Christian baptism is and can only be the immersion of a believer in the name of the Trinity as a profession of faith in Christ if it is to answer to the New Testament meaning of the rite. Anything less is a sham, and infant baptism has been the source of more mischief throughout Church History than nearly anything else because it deliberately fills churches with people who are not saved but believe themselves to be Christian because of something that was done to them in infancy. It undermines the doctrine of the new birth and tends to vaccinate the soul against the gospel as surely as any other false gospel does.


  1. An excellent little work on the question of infant baptism is A String of Pearls Unstrung. It was Fred Malone's stated reasons before his presbytery when he left the Presbyterian Church to become a Baptist. He has a Ph. D. in New Testament studies, and he dismantles all the Presbyterian defenses of infant baptism one by one. Here's a link to it: