We had a baptism at church this morning. ‘Nothing unusual about that! Christians have been baptising since the Lord Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28. All Christians (excluding the Quakers and the Salvation Army) believe in Holy Baptism as an essential sacrament of the Church.
Ah, but the baptism this morning was of a baby, as Peter and Ina presented their son Hudson to receive the sign and seal of God’s grace. Suddenly we not only have the Quakers and the Salvation Army offside but also a whole host of other Christian Churches as well. Baptist churches, Churches of Christ and most Pentecostal churches believe that baptism is a sign of faith and is to be administered only to believers. Babies, like Hudson, should not be baptised.
A couple in a Reformed Church had become convinced of the believer-baptism-only position and decided that they could not have their baby baptised. However this couple recognised that there needs to be some “rite of passage” when a baby is born, so they asked the elders if they could have a dedication of their child instead. The leadership agreed and so on one of the following Sunday mornings Mum and Dad and bubs came to the front of the church. The parents promised before the congregation to dedicate this little one to the Lord. The child was held by the Pastor as he prayed over the child and committed it to God’s gracious care and prayed for wisdom for the parents.
Some reading these words will agree that this is the way it should be with babies. Scripture says that we need to believe and be baptised and since babies can’t believe they shouldn’t be baptised either. Should we make a big problem of this? In some ways, no! I could argue that my Baptist friends’ dedication is simply a “dry baptism” and when the child later professes faith in Jesus there will be a “wet profession of faith” – so they are not all that different to us Reformies!?! In any case it is the inner reality that is more important than the external ritual – the reason why the Quakers and the Salvos don’t bother at all with sacraments.
It’s not my purpose here to enter into a defence of infant baptism. I’ve written about that on other occasions. I do, however, want to make a few observations about the increasingly common practice of some Reformed Churches to permit members to have a dedication of their child if they have issues with infant baptism.
On one occasion when I was asked to participate in such a dedication ceremony the couple argued that they wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. They pointed out that when Jesus was an infant He was taken to the temple and dedicated. True. But if Jesus had not been the firstborn of Mary then that would likely not have happened. Under Jewish law it was every firstborn that was dedicated to the Lord. Ever since the Lord put to death all the firstborn of the Egyptians, all the firstborn Hebrew children belonged to Him in a special way. In other words, this is a special case that we should not use as a mandate to dedicate all our children today.
A second problem I have is that there is a huge chasm between an infant dedication and an infant baptism. In a dedication the emphasis falls on us. It’s what we do. We present this child to God and ask God to bless it and use it for His glory. In a baptism the emphasis falls on the Lord. It’s what God does. He claims this child as His and He sets it apart as belonging to His Church family. In this way a dedication fits in well with an Arminian theology (we take the initiative in our salvation) and an infant baptism fits in well with a Reformed theology (God totally takes the initiative in our salvation).
Of course there are some things that a dedication and baptism have in common. In both cases the parents promise to bring up their child in fear of the Lord. But something big is missing in a dedication. Baptism is the assurance of God’s promise. So when the baptised child of a Reformed believer dies in infancy the parents must not doubt the salvation of this child. It is included in the promises of God as a baptised child of believers. In a dedication no such promise is given and parents who lose a child are left wondering. I have met those who appeal to some misplaced idea that babies are, after all, innocent, so God must accept them into heaven. They forget the words of David in Psalm 51 that we are conceived and born in sin.
In view of that difference a dedication becomes a very poor substitute for a baptism. Hudson belongs to the community of God’s people. This morning that was assured to us in his baptism.