In line with Cyprian (a third-century bishop of Carthage), most Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and some Protestants believe baptism is the “laver of salvation.” According to this view—known as “baptismal regeneration”—the water does not save, but God saves at baptism.
An infant or adult believer is freed from condemnation and given new and eternal life. Protestants who affirm baptismal regeneration insist faith is necessary for salvation. So the faith of the infant’s parents and of the congregation stands in until the child is old enough to confirm his or her personal faith.
The Reformation challenged this belief, though certain Reformers affirmed it to some degree. Much of the diversity within Protestantism is the result of disagreement over baptism among the Reformers. After the Reformation, Protestants continued to develop diverse views and practices of baptism so that today they constitute a blooming, buzzing confusion of baptismal beliefs and methods.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther and his followers rejected the Catholic doctrine that baptism imparts saving grace ex opere operato—by virtue of the act itself apart from faith, so long as it is performed properly by a priest. However, Luther held fast to infant baptism and baptismal regeneration in the presence of faith. When critics asked him how an infant can have faith, Luther supposedly said, “Prove to mean infant can’t have faith. Hah!” For him and his followers, faith is a gift of God bestowed at baptism. And proxy faith stood in for the infant’s later, fuller, and more explicit faith. Proponents of baptismal regeneration appeal to Scripture such as 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism… now saves you,” and Mark 16:16, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (NRSV).
Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss contemporary of Luther and the father of the Reformed branch of Protestantism, denied that infants need salvation. For him, infants are innocent. So why baptize infants? To initiate them into the covenant relationship between God and his people.
According to Zwingli, infant baptism is the new covenant counterpart to circumcision in the old covenant. When an infant is baptized, she is assumed to be part of the people of God, unless she grows up to walk away from Christ. Proponents use Matthew 19:14 for support, where Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me… for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (NRSV).
Zwingli believed children are free of original guilt; thus, he denied baptismal regeneration. In fact, he believed elect children are saved whether they are baptized or not. However, like Hebrew children, they need to be included in covenant relationship with God. And that’s what baptism accomplishes, Zwingli said.
However, some Zwingli followers wanted to abolish infant baptism, or paedobaptism (from pais in Greek, meaning “child or infant”), because it reminded them of the Catholicism the Reformers rejected. In 1525, several of them were re-baptized upon confessing their faith. Thus, they were called Anabaptists (from ana in Greek, meaning “over again”). Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier said infant baptism is like a pub putting out a sign that says GOOD WINE before the grapes are harvested.
For these “radical reformers” and their followers through the centuries, baptism is a public act of commitment and should therefore be performed only on believers old enough to profess Christ. The term for this view is credobaptism (from credo in Latin, meaning “believe”). Anabaptists linked baptism to church discipline and argued that all baptized persons are subject to it. Underlying the Anabaptist view is the belief that Christian initiation begins with conversion, not baptism.
Christians who reject infant baptism appeal to New Testament passages that suggest faith comes before baptism: Believe and be baptized (Mark 16:16). Credobaptist ranks grew alongside revivalism in the Great Awakenings and later evangelistic campaigns. They include Anabaptists and Baptists as well as Pentecostals and many in Holiness churches.
Christians in the Stone-Campbell Movement, who typically belong to Churches of Christ, are also Credobaptist. But unlike other Credobaptist, they believe baptism is necessary for salvation.
Some Christians, such as Quakers and members of the Salvation Army, reject baptism entirely. And recently one Texas mega church pastor reported that nearly a third of the people who receive Christ in his church are never baptized.
One response to the multiple views of baptism is to reject or neglect it entirely. Especially in large independent churches, baptism is often relegated to relative unimportance.
So why should we practice baptism, especially since it has caused so much division among sincere? God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians? Are there ways Christians can accept one another in spite of their diversity?
Most Christians throughout history have agreed that baptism is an act of obedience to Jesus Christ, who commanded that his followers be baptized and baptize each other. Jesus inextricably connects discipleship and baptism in the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). And at the conclusion of his Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter told listeners, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you” (Acts 2:38).
The New Testament never speaks of unbaptized Christians. Rather, it assumes that baptism is requisite for following Jesus in the fullest sense. It’s not until recently that Christians have assumed baptism is irrelevant or unnecessary.