This morning was a special morning at Fairwinds Baptist Church: a new baby was "dedicated." "Baby dedication" is the most common term employed by Baptists for the short ritual of prayer over an infant. As a Catholic, I find baby dedications absolutely fascinating, since Baptists are perhaps the most vocal denomination against the ancient practice of baptizing infants. Yet, they can't seem to escape the impulse to include babies as part of the church family, an impulse that I also have and strongly support.
This post is not meant to discourage Baptists from dedicating their babies to God, but rather to help them look more closely at this impulse and to think carefully about the implications of the theology presented in the short ritual.
One of the most interesting things said occurs right at the beginning, though I'll begin a bit before the beginning as Pastor Carlo holds an (absolutely adorable) little infant and says to her:
"We're going to dedicate you this morning. Isn't that good? Huh? We're going to dedicate you this morning. Yes, we are. [To the congregation:] Well, you've heard me say this two million times, because we do this so often around here, and that's a good thing. We have a growing church, [to the baby:] and you're part of our growing church."
On the surface, nothing seems wrong with this. In fact, it seems so right! It seems right that infants should be considered part of our church.
Now, most likely, Pastor Carlo wasn't using the word "church" in the theological sense, as in "you're part of the mystical body of Christ." Most likely, he was using it in the sociological sense, such as "you are part of this community of people that meet in this building."
From a Catholic perspective, there should be little to no difference between those two perspectives, except perhaps that the church is a single unified body that includes many localized organizations on earth, the entire communion of saints in heaven, and the church suffering who are being purged of any final attachments to sin before they enter heaven (see 1 Cor. 3:15).
So, the first big question I would have as a Catholic is: does this baby truly become incorporated into the mystical body of Christ during this dedication? I would agree with Pastor Carlo's often stated fact that being part of a church in the sociological sense does not get one into heaven, and I assume he would agree that being part of the mystical body of Christ does get one into heaven.
If Pastor Carlo believes that this baby truly IS part of the mystical body of Christ, then I would simply ask how that has occurred, especially since this pronouncement is occurring before the ritual. (Did the baby join the mystical body of Christ at conception? During the first prayer the parents likely prayed over her? When did it occur, if not during the dedication?)
Like I said, Pastor Carlo's brief comment was not likely intended in a theologically precise manner. However, it is often in these toss-off moments where tensions and fissures can be felt in a person's thinking and theology. Up for grabs seems to be the answer to the all-important question: is this baby saved or not saved?
He continues: "Raising children in the day we are living today is not easy to do. It is probably more difficult today than it ever has been. I guess [inaudible]. Of course, the Bible says to train a child in the ways he should go, and when they grow old, they will not depart from me. Children need training, but at the same time they need parents who are going to do the training. Left to themselves, they can't train themselves. But God gives couples--parents--children, and our responsibility as parents is to raise our children in a nurture and admonishen of the Lord. And of course I've known [mom and dad] ever since they were young. And I've watched them grow, marry, and now they have their own family. And she's number five...five, I just wanted to make sure I had the number correct. They have a very growing family, praise the Lord. And they have just been a blessing, involved in our church, in our ministry here, faithful, and I thank the Lord for [dad] and I thank the Lord for [mom]. But with that, you both need to understand--you've heard me say this a million times--the responsibility that you have--and have had--in a nurture and admonishen of the Lord. It is a difficult thing. But as you two stay close to the Lord, stay close to the Word of God, stay in the Word of God, teach them the Word of God, and let them see in you the example, biblically, showing them how we are to live and be faithful to His house, to His Word, they'll follow that example. They'll follow that example up into their teenage years, their adult years, and eventually, when they get married and have their own children, they'll follow the same precepts that you've followed, and those precepts of course come from the Word of God. So I'm thankful for [mom and dad], for the blessing they are for this little one who God has so graciously given to them. Baby, you are just such a doll baby! Yes, you are."
These comments are directed mainly at the parents. Pastor Carlo rightly notes how difficult it is to raise godly children in this age of ours. Just like in a Catholic baptism, the parents are encouraged to raise their children in the Christian faith, which means constantly growing in God's Word so that they can pass it on to their children.
I would point out the emphasis on the faith of the parents in this part. From the Catholic perspective, it is that faith commitment of the family (not only the parents but the entire faith community) that God honors in accepting the infant into the mystical body of Christ. If God honors this faith, then it makes sense to not only point out the faith of the parents and encourage them, but also to ask the parents if they commit this day to their duty as Christian parents. At Catholic baptisms, the parents are directly asked if they will fulfill these duties. But Baptists teach that God does not honor the parents' faith in this way, such that infants do not receive the saving grace of justification during the dedication (or baptism, for that matter), since the infants are not able to make a faith commitment on their own. Here, I begin to get a bit confused... Should we not then call this a "parent dedication?" Doesn't the baby, through its own act of faith, need to dedicate itself to God?
The next part is the most interesting from a theological perspective. (And I don't mean theological in an abstract, heady sense. Rather, we are dealing with the most concrete of all questions: where do infants go when they die?)
"[To the baby:] So, is it okay if we pray over you this morning? We're going to have a word of prayer over you, because I think your mom is going to be chasing you all over the place. [To congregation:] Let's bow our heads in a word of prayer. Let's ask the Lord to bless us this morning. Father, this morning, we thank you for our blessed savior Jesus Christ. I thank you for [mom and dad] and this sweet little gift that you have given to them. I pray your hand of blessing upon them as mom and dad, as they raise this little one in nurture and admonishen of the Lord. I pray, Father, that you give them the wisdom that they need--the spiritual wisdom and understanding they need daily to raise the children they have and especially this little one in your nurture and in your admonishen. So, Lord, I just play that you bless them and have your hand upon them."
So far, this has been the prayer of a parents dedication. Next, the prayer turns to the infant:
"And our prayer is that [baby] will come to know Christ as savior at an early age. So we hold her up to you this morning, we hold the family up to you this morning, we thank you for the faithfulness, we thank you for the salvation, we thank you for the love we share in Christ, we thank you Lord for this little one that you have so graciously given to them. We love the Lord, we thank you for what you are going to do and have done. For it is in Jesus's name we pray, and everyone said, Amen."
There it is. When I listen to this ritual, my heart burns with love for my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, because it is so clear how much love they and their church family feels for this baby. Having children of my own, I can relate to this, and I celebrate with this family in my heart. This is a love that comes from our Lord and reflects the deep love He has for children. Our Lord himself said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Matt. 19:14) "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me." (Mark 9:37) Let them come, Jesus says. And we bring them, no matter what our denomination.
At the same time, my heart aches for my separated brothers and sisters, who did not receive in this baby dedication the assurance given to Catholic parents during infant baptisms: that their babies are now saved.
Pastor Carlo teaches in every sermon that I have heard him give that one must come to a personal knowledge of Christ as Savior to be saved. When Pastor Carlo prays for the baby that she will come to know Christ as Savior at an early age, this raises the question: is this baby not saved right now? If this baby was to die tonight (Lord forbid!), would it go to heaven? (How strange it is to hear myself, a Catholic, honestly posing this question to Baptists!)
Most Baptists that I know would answer with a resounding "Yes!" But I answer with a resounding, "How?" Did not through one man (Adam), all men fall? Here is Romans 5:12-21 in full:
12Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— 13for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
15But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
20The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
These verses give strong support to the universal, ancient teaching regarding original sin: that even though no infant has contracted any personal sins, all are born in a dis-graced state as members of the family of Adam. It is only by receiving Christ's righteousness through justification that we may enter eternal life.
Pastor Carlo teaches that human beings (including the baby) are justified when they first accept Christ into their hearts as personal Lord and Savior. But this baby can not yet do that, and thus remains dead in original sin as Romans 5 indicates.
Yet, many Baptists seem to assume that babies (and persons with severe mental handicaps as well) go to heaven when they die.
Why is this? Two possibilities (though there may be more...but I can't think of 'em...)
1. Babies haven't sinned yet.
2. God makes an exception for babies.
(Note well: these are two distinct possibilities that answer to two different sets of assumptions. Assumption #1 (found in possibility #1)--no damning sin is present, the baby is perfect and not in need of Jesus as savior. Assumption #2--God saves despite the damning nature of original sin, such that the child is somehow saved it despite its ability to make a personal faith commitment. Sorry to use such a strong word, but I hope to have recovered its original theological definition here. Pastor Carlo agrees that without being saved, we would all go to hell. I am thankful that "hell" is very much a part of Pastor Carlo's vocabulary...in this, he is a model to many of today's "feel good" pastors.)
Possibility #1, I'm afraid to say, constitutes a denial of original sin and Romans 5, which states that death and condemnation came to all men through Adam.
Possibility #2 is actually feasible, yet it is the very thing that Baptists seem to deny in their historic denial of the possibility of infant baptism!
In other words, let's assume that a Baptist believes their baby would go to heaven if he or she were to die prematurely. Next, we could ask, is there any way to get to heaven but by the blood of Jesus? Any good Baptist would say that there is not.
Thus, we would have to conclude that a baby who goes to heaven does so by the blood of Jesus, which would mean that Jesus sees no problem with saving babies by his blood!
But if this is true, then why are all of those Christians for two thousand years that have been baptizing their babies, believing that Christ is saving them by his blood, wrong?
THE GLORIOUS NEWS HERE is that Baptists in their practical, common sense thinking are actually very Catholic in their theology. Let all of God's people say Amen! that Jesus would save our babies...and wash away the stain of original sin...and regenerate their souls making them a new creation...and draw them deep into His mystical body. "Let the children come."
Going back to the quote from Romans 5, the question likely came up in the mind of Paul's readers: how do I go from a state of death and condemnation to a state of righteousness and life? Pastor Carlo's response has always been that we make this shift by accepting Christ as our personal Lord and savior.
But notice how Paul answers this very question in Romans 6 (which flows right out of the discussion in Romans 5):
3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.Paul's "Roman's Road" (how I wish people would read his letter more than the tract!) states that we are BAPTIZED into his death. As many of us who were BAPTIZED have been raised in Christ. As Peter states, "Baptism...now saves us" (1 Peter 3:21)--a verse that is strangely absent from all of Fairwinds Baptist's tracts on baptism.
The earliest Christians--including the students of the apostles themselves--all believed in baptismal regeneration, and not more than a century and a half after Christ's death do we get historical documentation that infant baptism was already a well-established Tradition--hardly a new invention, even around the turn of the third century when Irenaeus and Tertullian speak of infant baptism as matter-of-fact.
So, if Baptists can admit that they believe that Christ's blood can save infants who have not personally accepted Christ as savior, what stands in the way of simply accepting the explicit biblical doctrine of baptismal regeneration and the implicit biblical doctrine (and explicit teaching of the early church) that infants are proper recipients of baptism?
Further, if we are not going to trust our Lord to impart justifying grace through the sacrament of baptism to our infant children, when do we think that He will? Where does the Bible say that infants are excluded from the condemnation described in Romans 5? What alternative to baptism does the Bible offer for the salvation of infants?
Again, I ask, what will happen to our babies? How will they be saved? Are we presuming of God something he never tells us in his Word? Are we presuming of God's infinite and perfect mercy by ignoring his infinite and perfect justice?
My dear brothers and sisters, the Catholic Church teaches the gospel in its fullness. It has guarded the sacred deposit of faith left once for all with the apostles (Jude 3) ever since she received it almost two-thousand years ago. The Catholic Church has the answer to these difficult questions, and it has not compromised this answer since she began teaching it.
And although Christians can not have the absolute assurance of future salvation offered every week at Fairwinds Baptist (though not offered by the Bible...see this tract), the gospel tells us that we can know that our infants are saved--not by some "work" or "empty ritual" but by the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5) and the "circumcision made without hands" (Col. 2:11) that Jesus works on us and our children (Acts 2:39): baptism. We can have the assurance that God has saved us in the past through baptism (as long as our hearts did not hold any impediments to the grace of the sacrament), and we can have the assurance of truth that the Church built on the Rock offers, so that in knowing Christ-the-Truth, we have full moral confidence that we will one day be with Him in heaven.
And this Church--the Catholic Church, built on the Rock--teaches with her Savior: let the children come!
I'd like to close with a call to all fallen-away Catholics and all of you who have heard about the Catholic Church but not looked closely at Her teachings:
1. Read and really study about baptism from the Catholic Catechism (see the links on the right sidebar). Learn who St. Justin Martyr and St. Gregory of Nazianzus are and when they wrote. (Can you find their citations in the footnotes?)
2. Study church history so you can learn what the students of the apostles taught about baptism.
3. Read the Bible with your concordance in hand, and study what the Bible has to say about baptism through the lens of the early church fathers who learned their faith from the apostles.
4. Open your hearts, minds, and wills to God so that you can discern if He is calling you home to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church--the Catholic Church.
May the Holy Spirit guide you every step of the way, and may you be filled with the Peace of God as you search for the Truth of God. Praise be Jesus, now and forever!
If I have some time, I'll update this post to include some more comments on the sermon, which continues the "Knowing God" series.