During my conversion to paedobaptism, I grew fairly cynical about the definition that I had always heard of baptism while I was growing up: “Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality.” Of course, this definition was meant, in part, to discount the possibility of infant baptism, since it requires conversion (the inward reality) before receiving baptism (the outward sign). So, the more I came to believe in infant baptism, the more I thought I needed to jettison completely the definition of baptism that I had known all my life.
As I have reflected, though, I now see that definition as further confirmation of the validity of infant baptism. Consider how circumcision is spoken of in Scripture:
12″And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deut 10:12-16)
4Circumcise yourselves to the LORD;
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,
because of the evil of your deeds.” (Jer 4:4)
The Old Testament speaks of circumcision as more than simply an ethnic, physical ritual–it was a physical act that was intended to speak to a spiritual reality (i.e., physical circumcision pointed to heart circumcision), yet it had always been applied to infants! Therefore, the New Testament passages about baptism–where the physical act of baptism is generally linked to spiritual regeneration–are not proof of a prerequisite of spiritual regeneration in order to be baptized. If the first (Jewish) readers had been accustomed to thinking of their physical act of circumcision as having spiritual overtones, why would they suddenly consider the spiritual meaning of baptism to demand the exclusion of their infants?
All this said, I do not quite consider the definition of “outward sign, inward reality” to suffice for baptism. This post has been more of an apology to baptists for paedobaptism than an attempt to force my new wine into my old wineskins. Any definition of baptism must fully explore its meaning as a sacrament and its being a “sign and a seal” of our new covenant in Christ Jesus, so that the baptist definition is incomplete, but not completely wrong. What I believe to be the fuller definition of baptism, however, is another post for another day.