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Some Christians feel uncomfortable with a phrase towards the end of the Nicene Creed, which states, “I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” What does it mean to say that baptism is “for” the forgiveness of sins? Is this a Biblical teaching?
1. Baptism in the New Testament
First of all, let’s define clearly what is not true. Scripture makes it clear that we are saved by trusting in Christ and that nothing we bring to the table contributes to our justification. To look at baptism as if it were meritorious—a work that makes one right with God—is to sorely misunderstand baptism.
The phrase upon which the Nicene Creed is based is taken from Acts 2, where the apostle Peter tells the crowd to “Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.” Elsewhere in Acts, Paul is told to get up and be baptized and wash away his sins. In his first epistle, after discussing how the ancient family was saved from destruction through Noah’s ark, Peter tells his readers “baptism now saves you.” In his epistle to Titus, Paul refers to baptism as a “washing of regeneration.” Lastly, Jesus told Nicodemus during their evening meeting that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Granted, some interpreters believe that in saying, “born of water” Jesus was referring not to baptism, but to natural, physical birth; commentators throughout the ages haven’t always had a consensus.
3. Infant baptism
In what sense is baptism, when applied to infants, “for the forgiveness of sins”? Is there any Biblical warrant for baptizing infants or for believing infants who are baptized are, on that account, converted? Does anything “happen” to an infant when he or she is baptized? Is this different, in any significant way, from simply dedicating a baby?
Let’s begin by clarifying what is not true. Some object to infant baptism on the grounds that infants are innocent and therefore have no need of baptism, which signifies forgiveness and cleansing. Scripture says that all people, including infants, have fallen short of God’s glory; we are born into this world with a predisposition away from the things of God.
In Psalm 51, David said, “In sin, my mother conceived me.” He doesn’t mean that his mother committed a sin by bringing him into the world; instead, he’s saying that from the moment he began to exist, sin was in his heart. If babies were altogether void of all sin, they could not die (as, at its most basic level, death is the wages of sin).
What about the objecting to infant baptism on the grounds that it’s not possible to apply such a mark to an infant who’s incapable of understanding its significance? That same argument could easily have been used against circumcision, given to Jewish boys when they were only eight days old. Yet we know God wanted them to be marked at that age.
What about objecting on the grounds that infants haven’t yet reached the “age of accountability”, are not capable of understanding or believing the gospel, and therefore shouldn’t be baptized? It’s debatable whether the concept of an age of accountability is articulated in Scripture. Our responsibility before God, of course, increases the more we grow and learn about him. But lack of understanding doesn’t mean we are inherently unaccountable. Scripture does talk of children who don’t know the difference between good and evil, but in the Old Testament sacrificial system, there was an elaborate procedure for atoning for “unintentional sins” where the community had sinned without realizing it. What does this mean? Lack of knowledge doesn’t mean God doesn’t hold us responsible.
Furthermore, it’s not true that an infant is incapable of understanding the things of God. We are told in Luke’s gospel that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit even while in the womb. When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”, the word used in the text for “children” could also be translated “babies.”
Hence, if infants are not innocent, are in some sense accountable before God, and through God’s grace can be brought to an understanding of spiritual things, then it makes more sense for the rite of baptism to be applied to them. It is true that all of the examples of people being baptized in the New Testament concern adult converts. There are household baptisms, which are recorded, but these make no specific mention of infants.
Historically, Presbyterians, in practicing infant baptism, insist on a strong sense of continuity between Old and New Testament. For them, baptism has essentially replaced circumcision. The apostle Paul hints at this in Colossians as well as Galatians. From this vantage point, it makes sense for the New Testament covenant sign (baptism) to be applied to infants just as the Old Testament covenant sign (circumcision) was applied to infants. From this viewpoint, there’s not so much a need for a specific New Testament command for it; instead, to stop giving the sign to infants would require a specific New Testament prohibition against it.
Opponents of infants baptism often say that unless one believes that infants who are baptized are actually saved, it’s inconsistent to apply the sign of regeneration to them. Reformed churches generally answer this objection by stating that though baptism has replaced circumcision, and therefore should be applied to infants, the two are not exactly the same. Baptism means more than circumcision did, just as the Lord’s Supper has a deeper significance than the Passover. If a non-Jewish man in ancient times wanted to convert and become a worshipper of the true God, he would be circumcised as an outward sign of his repentance. This is similar to what occurs when an adult is baptized.
However, in ancient times, the infant’s circumcision didn’t signify that he had converted, but rather was a sign that he was a part of the covenant community. Circumcision was done in hope that he would grow up and become a worshipper of the true God. Similarly, when churches baptized babies, they do so in hope that the baby will grow up and become a follower of Jesus Christ. The infant is baptized into the covenant community, the community wherein sins are forgiven through the gospel.
3. Baptism for adult converts
For adult converts, the very fact that someone would want to be baptized into the Christian faith is indicative that a work has been done in his or her heart. Unless the Spirit first changed a person’s disposition towards Christ and instilled in the heart a desire to repent, no one would seek out Christian baptism in the first place. Given that fact, many interpret “baptism for the remission of sins” to mean something like “baptism to signify that your sins have been forgiven.” In such a model, baptism itself isn’t considered to be the means through which God imparts forgiveness, but rather an outward sign that forgiveness has already inwardly been imparted.
This is certainly a legitimate way to understand the Nicene Creed, and is the normative way that Reformed churches have interpreted it, as regards adult converts. Such a view doesn’t reduce baptism to an “empty sign”, but upholds the sacredness of the ordinance.
To answer the original question, “Does the Nicene Creed teach baptismal regeneration”, the simple answer is that the Creed is open to varying interpretations. While Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans have held to a doctrine of baptismal regeneration, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Baptist churches haven’t and so when they recite the Creed, they do so from their own doctrinal standpoint.
In closing, it’s helpful to remember that in the early church, it’s quite evident that a person’s baptism was considered to be his or her entry point into the church. It’s unlikely that much of a distinction was made between conversion and baptism. Does that, then, mean that the two were considered to be inseparably linked? Not exactly, for there are New Testament examples of people being converted and being baptized after the fact; for instance, Cornelius in Acts 10, who is filled with the Spirit while listening to Peter preach and is baptized later. The example of Cornelius alone is enough to dispel the false notion that one cannot be born again apart from baptism.
A quote from C.S. Lewis may be helpful to bring some clarity to the matter:
“Don’t bother at all about that question of a person being ‘made a Christian’ by baptism. It is only the usual trouble about words being used in more than one sense. Thus we might say a man ‘became a soldier’ the moment that he joined the army. But his instructors might say six months later, ‘I think we have made a soldier of him.’ Both usages are quite definable, only wants to know which is being used in a given sentence.”