The sheer glory of baptism. It’s as beautiful as a wedding or a newborn baby, and heavy with just as much promise. But what is baptism? Why must we be baptized? And why do Catholics baptize babies? Over the years I have found that those who do not believe in infant baptism often do not believe in getting baptized at all.

So in Part 1 of this blog we’re going to stand back and gawk at the beauty of baptism, and in Part 2 we’re going to zoom in on infant baptism. To get started, here is a snapshot of a conversation I’ve had countless times about the necessity of baptism, let’s say over dinner:

“Have you been baptized?” I ask, swirling shrimp pasta around my fork.

“No,” he says.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Why would I need to be baptized? I’m already a Christian!”

“Well,” I say, tentatively shifting in my seat, “Jesus was baptized, and he is the model Christian. In Matthew 28, Jesus even commands his disciples to baptize everyone. Besides, baptism is when you receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).”

“But I already received the Holy Spirit when I said the believer’s prayer—and Jesus was not a legalist,” he says, stabbing a shrimp with authority. “He would never require anything of us for our salvation! That’s Old Testament Law stuff!”

“But the Old Covenant foreshadowed the New Covenant. Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus says, No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5).”

“But that doesn’t mean I have to be baptized! You don’t want me to practice the letter but not the spirit of the New Testament, do you? Jesus is all about the heart.”

I nod, and pour a second glass. “Jesus cares very much about your heart, but he also cares about your life. Jesus says, If you love me obey my commands (John 14:15).”

“But I’m saved by faith, not by works,” he says, happily. “Requiring baptism is just ritualism and ceremonialism.”

“But faith without works is dead (James 2:26),” I say. “Besides, a practice only becomes an -ism when people make it an end in itself. But Baptism is not an end in itself. God established Baptism for our good. It’s not so much that we have to be baptized. We get to be baptized.”

I am eyeballed with great suspicion.

“Sounds like legalism,” he says, gravely. “Salvation is a free gift, Tyler. Only a Pharisee would require people to do things to get into Heaven. Next you’ll tell me I can’t eat shrimp.”

He says this right as I finish our shrimp pasta, and looks at me like I’m cornered. But I am more than cornered; I am confounded.

“Where did you get the idea that obeying Christ’s commandments and practicing the Christ-instituted rites of his New Covenant is legalism?” I ask. “Biblical Christianity is packed full of rituals and ceremonies. The Bible commands Christians to baptize (Matt. 28:19), to celebrate the Eucharist (Luke 22:19), to anoint with oil (James 5:14), to confess our sins (James 5:16), and to ordain clergy (1 Tim. 4:14). How can you believe that requiring Christians to be baptized is legalism, but requiring them to say the believers prayer is not?”

“Because prayer is a matter of the heart,” he says as I begin to clear the dishes, “and Baptism is just an outward sign, like wearing a T-shirt. Jesus cares about our hearts, Tyler, not how we dress. Look at the thief on the cross. Jesus didn’t require Baptism for his salvation, so I don’t need to be baptized either.”

And then I realize that we have not been discussing baptism at all, but a strange form of Antinomianism, where Christians are thought to be released by grace from the obligation of observing the rites and ceremonies of Christ’s New Covenant. It is a new religion for people without bodies, individuals who do not have families or communities and may therefore function on a totally individual basis with God. Their “hearts” may commune with “Jesus” in a spiritual vacuum free from all that nasty, Pharisaical stuff like bodies, obedience, sacraments, and ceremony. If this were indeed the religion of the incarnate Son of God, of course Jesus would not require baptism (or anything for that matter): he would only care about the heart. This sounds very clean, very nice. But, dear reader and friend, this is a religion for people who are more spiritual than Jesus. From top to bottom, it is not the religion Christ proclaimed.

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The eternal Son of God became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man. This is the same God who invented liturgy and covenant and ritual and ceremony in the Old Testament, and decided to keep a good thing going in the New—except now all the types and shadows are fulfilled. Everything about the Old is completed and brought to a whole new level in Christ.

So what part of the Old Covenant does baptism fulfill? The only answer is circumcision: what circumcision is to the Old Covenant, baptism is to the New Covenant (compare Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:13; Gal. 3:23-29; 6:15; Col. 2:11-12). It’s the effective sign. Baptism is the richer, Christ-completed, Christ-instituted, Christ-celebrated New Covenant rite of initiation into the Kingdom of God and incorporation into the Body of Christ, to be adopted as a “son in the Son” (see, for example, Matt. 28:19; John 3:3-8; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38-39; 22:16; Rom. 6:1-4; 8:29; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:26-27; 4:4-7; Eph. 5:25-26; Col. 2:12-13; Tit. 3:5-6; 1 Pet. 3:21).

Jesus is super clear: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). When a converted believer wants to be born again, she must be “baptized into Christ” (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27), “buried with Christ,” and born again into “newness of life” in Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). This is not legalism. This is grace—embodied, real-life, Holy Spirit grace!

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Baptism is the rite of re-birth into Christ’s Body, and this is why Anglicans require that people must be baptized before they can receive the Eucharist. How can people who are not born again into Christ, who are not “sons in the Son” because they have not been saved “through the washing and rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5), eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Lord? Can a fish breathe air? Can an herbivore eat meat? How can someone who has not been “born of water and spirit” (John 3:5) enjoy the banquet for those who have?

But we are getting into Part 2 of this blog, which will explore more deeply what baptism is and why it must be administered to infants born of baptized faithful parents. For now, sweet friend, let me share with you just one short passage of Scripture. Let these words roll over you like a crashing wave, and rejoice in them!

“Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).

Read it in MONKROCK.