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The Subjects of Baptism.



I may as well begin with a confession of personal faith, which is: That the only proper subjects of Christian baptism are persons who trust in Jesus Christ as their Redeemer and Lord; not believers in Christ, together with their households, including servants; nor believers in Christ, together with their children, of whatever age; nor believers in Christ, with their helpless babes; but solely believers in Christ, who thereby confess their allegiance to him. This is the creed of Baptists in respect to the proper subjects of the first Christian ordinance. And, to the best of my knowledge, they have always held. and do now hold with undiminished confidence, this article of their faith, to be supported, first, by the narrative and expository references to baptism in the New Testament; secondly, by the nature of the Christian religion itself; and, thirdly, by the history of Christendom in so far as it pertains to this subject.

First, then, the narrative and expository references to baptism in the New Testament show that it was administered to persons who repented of sin or believed in Christ; and, in the case of those who hoard the gospel, repentance and faith were inseparable; every believer began his life of trust in the Lord Jesus by repentance towards God. Thus on the day of Pentecost the people who "were pierced in their heart," and "received the word of Peter, were baptized." In like manner, when Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached to them the Christ, those who "believed Philip preaching good tidings concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ were baptized, both men and women." Equally plain is it that Saul of Tarsus was already a believing man, willing to obey the Lord Jesus, who appeared to him on the way to Damascus, before he was baptized by Ananias. The same was also true of Cornelius, the Roman centurion; of Lydia, the seller of purple, and her household; of the Philippian jailer and all his; and of the twelve disciples whom Paul rebaptized at Ephesus, evidently because they had not by their previous baptism confessed their intelligent faith in Christ as the giver of the Holy Spirit and the head of a spiritual kingdom. Indeed, we find no instance of the giving of baptism intentionally to any but persons having faith in Christ. And there is good reason to think that the apostle would not have rebaptized the twelve disciples at Ephesus, if they had heard and understood all that John the Baptist had taught respecting One mightier than himself, who would baptize them in the Holy Spirit.

It will be remembered at the same time that the baptism of John, whatever may have been its relation to that commanded by Christ, was offered by him to none but those who were called to repentance and confession of their sins. Mark says that "they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." Thus the first use of this significant rite in connection with the new order of things was apparently limited to persons who sought it of their own accord, and by it professed to enter upon a new and inward religious life. And if proselyte baptism was in use before the time of Christ, which is very doubtful, I am not aware of any evidence that it was administered to any class of people, old or young, as a substitute for circumcision. Thus the narrative references to baptism in the New Testament support our conviction that its proper subjects are persons who trust in Jesus Christ as their Redeemer and Lord.

It is true, however, that there are three instances of the baptism of households, or families, mentioned in the New Testament?namely, those of Lydia, of the Philippian jailer, and of Stephanas; but an impartial study of the narratives fails to discover in them the slightest evidence of an infant or unbelieving member in any of these households. It requires a creative imagination, like that of the late distinguished Horace Bushnell, to make such a discovery. A few years ago, the pastor of our church at Newton Centre, Mass., found that it had on its roll of members the names of not less than thirty entire families, all of them having been baptized on profession of faith in Christ. They comprised, in fact, about one-third of the whole church.

The doctrine of believer?s baptism is also supported by expository references to this ordinance in the New Testament. Peter?s answer to the question of those who were pierced in their heart and said, "Brethren, what shall we do?" was this: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, unto remission of your sins"?language which certainly gives a leading place to the action of the subjects of baptism in submitting to that ordinance. In striking agreement with this is Paul?s account of what Ananias said to him in Damascus: "And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name." To the same effect is the apostle?s word to the Galatians: "For ye are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus; for all ye who were baptized into Christ did put on Christ." The ritual and symbolic confession of their union with Christ was as much their own act as was their faith in him. And no less clearly does Peter, in his First Epistle, refer to the moral participation of the subjects of baptism in the act performed. The saving efficacy of baptism is ascribed to its relation to conscience; not the conscience of parents, of sponsors, or of administrators, but the conscience of the persons baptized. In all these and some other passages forgiveness of sins, union with Christ, or being saved, is connected with baptism, either because the new life begins with baptism or because its beginning is normally expressed by baptism, the sign being put for the thing signified. We believe the latter explanation to be correct; for the apostle Paul claims to have been the spiritual father of the Corinthian saints, saying: "I write not these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For if ye have ten thousand tutors in Christ, yet not many fathers; for in. Christ Jesus, through the gospel, I begat you." The gospel, not baptism, was the means of their conversion; for Paul, in the first chapter of this very Epistle, disclaims baptizing them, with the exception of a very few, and rejoices in the fact that he had been sent, not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.

Secondly, our conviction that the only proper subjects of Christian baptism are persons who trust in Jesus Christ as their Redeemer and Lord is supported by the nature of the Christian religion. If there is anything which is taught with absolute clearness by the Saviour and his apostles, it is the personal and spiritual nature of our religion. This religion is neither national nor tribal, neither Semitic nor Greek. Pedigree is of no account without faith, and faith is a personal act. The history of Ishmael and Esau, of Absalom and Manasseh, proves that hereditary grace is a fiction. The scientific facts of heredity may, indeed, suggest that religious character is transmissible from parents to children; but the history of mankind disproves the reality of this transmission, and the words of Christ, "Unless a man be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God," confirm that disproof.

When we think of the gospel as a message of religious truth to beings of a religious nature, we at once perceive its fitness to arouse thought and feeling, thus leading to action and affecting their spiritual condition. There is no disparity between the means and the end. We assent to the testimony of Paul that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes; but we perceive no such adaptation of means to ends in the baptism of infants. For them the rite has no illuminating or convincing power. Its pictorial impressive testimony to an inward change, or even to the need of an inward change, is not made or appropriated by them. They are simply passive subjects, unconscious of any spiritual meaning in what is done. If the Spirit of God words at all through the medium of consecrated water, it must work in a merely physical way, utterly foreign to the spiritual character of the Christian religion as this is described in the New Testament.

Thirdly, our conviction, that the only proper subjects of baptism are persons who trust in Jesus Christ as their Redeemer and Lord, is supported by the history of Christendom. This proposition cannot be fully justified in a brief article. A thorough discussion of the events which are believed to justify it would fill more than one respectable volume. But the principle on which the argument for our proposition rests is obvious and sound?namely, that a rule for Christian action in church life, which has been found conducive to purity in that life, is presumably founded on the will of Christ. And if any important modification of the rule can be shown to have marred the peace or spirituality of that life in its corporate manifestations, this fact will also go to confirm the rule as an expression of the Lord?s will.

Now, it may be said, in brief, that the practice of restricting baptism to believers in Christ has always been a protest against the dogma of baptismal regeneration, and, by parity of reason, against the whole theory of sacramental grace. It has also been an obstacle to the union of Church and State and to the use of civil power in support of religion. There were a few Munsterites among the Anabaptists of Germany, but most of the Anabaptists were peaceable citizens, dying for their faith, but not fighting for it. And so it has been everywhere with Christians who have rejected infant baptism. They have been often subject to persecution, but have consistently refused to persecute others. And this has been the logical outcome of their position as to the proper subjects of baptism?a position which puts upon every soul of man the responsibility of deciding for himself concerning the service of God.

It has been truly said that ideas in the long run bear rule, that the beliefs of men determine their conduct. It is, therefore, of the first importance that our belief concerning the proper subjects of baptism should agree, first, with a true conception of the Christian religion; secondly, with a true conception of Christian churches as groups of men and women united together of their own choice for the service of Christ; and, thirdly, with a true conception of the relation of both these to the State, which is entrusted by the will of God with civil authority. And if, as the writer seriously holds, the Baptist position is the only safe and defensible one, it must be maintained with the utmost firmness and charity.

Newton Centre, Mass.

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