|A103 : by Tony Garland |
The idea that baptism is sometimes considered to be only a tradition probably comes from the unbiblical practice of baptizing people before they are "born again" and come to faith in Christ. This practice is mostly frequently found in the case of babies or very young children—who have been baptized at an age prior to which they exhibited a personal faith in Jesus. For example, my parents arranged to have me baptized as a baby. Yet it was not until some 34 years later that I came to faith in Jesus Christ and was "born again" of the Spirit. Only then did I have the personal faith necessary to participate knowingly in baptism.
This practice of baptizing unbelievers (often babies) circumvents the teaching of Scripture and has led to numerous problems throughout Church history. This was a problematic practice of the early Puritans in early America:
As the 1640s gave way to the 1650s, more and more children of the earliest [Puritan] settlers failed to experience God's grace in the same fashion as their parents, and hence they did not seek full membership in the churches. The problem became acute when these children began to marry and have children of their own. Under the Puritans' Reformed theology, converted people had the privilege of bringing their infant children to be baptized as a seal of god's covenant grace. Now, however, many of those who had been baptized as infants were not stepping forth on their own to confess Christ. Yet they wanted to have their children baptized. The Puritan dilemma was delicate: leaders wished to preserve the church for genuine believers, but they also wanted to keep as many people as possible under the influence of the church. — Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canadaa (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 48.
Here we see what happens when unbelievers are baptized—there becomes an expectation that this "Holy Tradition" would be applied to children, even children of those who reject Christ. This led to a subsequent problem for the Puritans: if they allowed the children of unbelieving parents to be baptized, should they also extend communion to nonbelievers? They attempted to address this complication by a further compromise which further undermined the clear teaching of Scripture. The result was predictable:
The second and third generation saw a disquieting change of temper. The ideal of a church of the regenerate was faced with a condition of increasing indifference and the failure in many of evidence of conversion. A concession to this condition was made in the Half Way Covenant (1662), which without admitting the unregenerate to communion permitted the baptism of their children. The new plan called forth controversy but was at length generally adopted. It may have led to the weakening of the religious life that was characteristic of the early eighteenth century in New England as elsewhere. — John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinismb (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 341.
The unscriptural practice of child baptism continues in our day. Some, such as the Roman Catholic church, accept the faith of the parents, god-parents, or priests as a substitute for the child being baptized. Others, attempt to justify child baptism (of both sexes) by appealing to a supposed New Testament analogy with the Old Testament practice of circumcision of (male) Jewish children at 8 days of age. Whatever the reasons are, they are at odds with the Scriptural indication that only believers (disciples) are to be baptized (e.g., Mat. 28:19; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 8:35-38; 1Pe. 3:21).
That being said, I don't believe that believers today are being baptized out of tradition. Instead, they desire to be obedient to the command of the Lord. Although neither Baptism nor the Lord's Supper (communion) are necessary for salvation, they are both commanded as practices that the church is to continue in until Christ comes.
In Matthew, we have the Great Commission where Jesus instructs His followers what they are to do.
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen. (Mat. 28:19-20, NKJV)
The sequence given by Jesus should not be missed: a) go; b) make disciples; c) baptize them; d) teach them. Here we see two critical aspects of baptism: 1) baptism does not make a disciple, but follows after coming to faith; 2) baptism is typically an early response on the part of the new believer—as it generally precedes extensive teaching. (Scriptural examples mitigate against the requirement that participants should first understand the "theology of baptism" before being baptized. In the Scriptures, baptism is typically the simple, often spontaneous, response of a faithful heart upon turning to God.)
Jesus' followers are to "make disciples" which includes "baptizing them." People like you and I, some 2000 years later, are some of the disciples mentioned in this verse. If we were to conclude that baptism is unnecessary, then who are these disciples that Jesus sent the church out to baptize? Making disciples includes having the disciples respond in spiritual obedience with the desire to be baptized—to identify with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6:4). It is one of the very first steps of "spiritual obedience" that should develop in the life of a disciple. Even Jesus Himself underwent baptism—although He certainly didn't need to. But he chose to do so in obedience to the Father and as a demonstration of what those who would follow Him should do.
Scriptures are clear that baptism is something that all disciples should undergo—but not reluctantly. It should be something they desire to do out of obedience to the example of our Lord (and His commands) and out of identification with the newness of life which comes in association with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
A study of the Scriptures with an open mind will conclude that baptism is something which Jesus instructed us to perform, something that all true disciples will undergo, and perhaps one of the first small tests of what we will do when our self-will collides with His simple instructions. I'd encourage you to look more carefully at all the places baptism is mentioned in the New Testament and to ask God to reveal to you what His desire is for this ordinance—one of only two semi-formal practices (sometimes called 'sacraments') that the New Testament church carries forward. It is also worth considering that the pattern within scripture is that God rewards obedience over sacrifice (1S. 15:15-22; 1K. 3:3; 1Chr. 15:13; Pr. 21:3; Jer. 7:21-24; Hos. 6:6). How can we expect Him to reveal deep spiritual truths to us while we refuse to follow the pattern of Scripture regarding this initial step of obedience?
As to the reason why baptism is not mentioned as mandatory in discussions involving circumcision: this is because circumcision was being incorrectly mandated by Judaisers in the early church—but baptism was not. Thus, the lack of mention of baptism in some contexts does not overthrow its frequent mention elsewhere nor the direct instructions of Jesus in the Great Commission. In the book of Galatians (and Acts 15) the issue at hand was circumcision—not baptism. Thus, there was no need to mention baptism.
After coming to faith and subsequently learning what the Scriptures teach concerning baptism, I was blessed to be baptized as a believer at the age of 34. I came to understand that my earlier baptism as a baby was an empty rite devoid of faith and unsupported by the teaching of Scripture.