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Baptism and Children

The central teaching of the Bible is that God wants to reclaim his relationship with us through Jesus Christ (John 3:16 & Romans 3:24-26). Jesus Christ came into the world to be sacrificed as a sin offering so that our sins could be forgiven. And now God will give eternal life to those who place their trust in him (Ephesians 2:9-9).

This is what it mean when the Bible says that we are saved “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace is a “free gift,” the unearned eternal blessings of God.

The fact that Christ died does not save people in and of itself but it provides the ground upon which God, in full harmony with His holiness, is free to save those who have sinned against him. This free gift is received by faith.

For by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5: l, 2)

By faith, we rely upon Jesus Christ to save us.

In this article we are going to examine the Biblical teaching on how to respond in faith to God’s gracious provision and whether or not an infant should be baptized. Stated differently, and positively: “what is the Biblical method by which we express faith in Jesus Christ as a personal commitment?” The answer to this question is found in Acts 2 and it will serve as an introduction to the three-part presentation that will follow.

In Acts 2 the Christian faith was explained publicly for the first time following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter spoke to thousands of Israelites who were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. He told them that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah and he explained to them how they had cooperated with the Romans to put God’s Messiah to death, but that God had raised him from the dead. Peter told them that God had worked all of this out for his purposes – that Jesus Christ was now exalted to the right hand of God in heaven and that he had poured out the promised Holy Spirit. Peter went on to tell the people how to respond.

Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted the message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:36 – 41).

We can learn several important facts from this account:

First, the people were to turn from sinful living (repent) and be baptized in water to express their faith in Jesus Christ (“in the name of Jesus Christ”). If they did this, Peter promised that their sins would be forgiven and they would receive the Holy Spirit (2: 38).

Second, this response was given as a pattern for all people — of all time. The promise of forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit was for those who heard Peter’s appeal that day, for their children, and for those far off (in time, background, and proximity). In short, the promise is open to any person willing to turn from his or her sins and place their faith in Jesus Christ (2: 39).

Third, those who responded did so immediately. Three thousand people were baptized and (together with the apostles) they became the first Christians (2:40-41). As we will see, this became a general pattern followed throughout the New Testament.

There is some confusion about making the commitment to trust and follow Christ in this way, so we will embark on a three part exposition of what the Bible teaches. Our approach will be to focus on what the Bible says, we will not base our view on church tradition or history. We might come to different conclusions if we do not rely on the Bible alone, but we are committed to the faith of the Bible, and we hold it as the final authority on this matter. 

We will consider, in order, the purpose of baptism, if infants can be baptized, and the proper method of baptism. By the end, we should have a clear picture of the holistic response which God has graciously given to us in the Bible.

1. The purpose of Biblical baptism is to express faith in Christ and receive the forgiveness of sins. 

Covenants are a big thing in the Bible. Covenants are all about relationships. In covenants between God and people, God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness are emphasized. God offers covenants as an expression of his love and desire for relationship. Human beings, however, are called upon to respond with trust and surrender. The word used in the Bible to encapsulate trust and surrender is faith. The Bible teaches that we are saved by Grace (from God) through faith (response from people).

In the Bible, baptism serves as the vehicle or context where people made the heart commitment to God. In a wedding ceremony, the commitments of the heart between husband and wife are the key, but the context for making the commitment of the heart formal, concrete, and physical is the wedding ceremony. In a like manner, baptism is to making the commitment to Jesus Christ as a wedding ceremony is to making the commitment to marriage. In the book, Hard Sayings of the Bible, the top evangelical writers nicely summarize how faith and baptism were understood in Bible times:

The normal point of salvation for Christians in the early church was baptism. Even here it is not the ritual itself or the water that saves, but the commitment that one makes to Jesus as Lord . . . As in Paul, salvation is a relationship. Baptism in Christianity, just as a wedding in marriage, is simply the way of entering into that relationship.

Water baptism was the God-given vehicle or method by which people appealed to Christ as savior. This understanding gives proper place to faith as the essential human response, while recognizing baptism as integral to expressing faith in a holistic way. 

It is helpful to carefully review the following passages:

Acts 2:37-38 — When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit

Acts 22:14-16 — “Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. . . . . And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.

1 Peter 3:20-22 — God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also– not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand– with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

Galatians 3:26-29 — You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

As mentioned above, in Acts 2:37-38 Peter told the people to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” The phrase, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” in this passage is a commitment of trust in Jesus Christ “for the forgiveness of sins.”

We see a similar emphasis in Acts 22:16. When Ananias finished telling Paul about Jesus and God’s special mission for him, Paul was told to respond by arising and being baptized to “wash away his sins.” His baptism was the prescribed way for him to call upon Jesus’ name for forgiveness. 1 Peter 3: 21 teaches that baptism was the pledge or appeal to God for a clean conscience and Galatians 3:26-27 explicitly states that baptism was a formal commitment to clothe oneself with Christ. These passages show that in the Bible baptism was the God-given method to express one’s commitment to trust and follow Jesus Christ.

Water baptism emphasized Jesus Christ’s saving power and was done “in Jesus’ name,” as a way of “calling on the Lord” or as “the pledge of a good conscience to God” based on “the resurrection of Jesus.” This is why baptism brought the “forgiveness of sin” and the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). This is also why baptism could “wash your sins away” (Acts 22:16) and “he who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16: 16). In baptism one was spiritually “raised with Christ” through faith in the power of God (Colossians 2:12). 

A close look at 1 Peter 3:21 brings clarity to this point. Peter was encouraging Christians to be faithful to God, even though they were few in number. He reminded them of Noah, for he too was one of only a few who followed God. Peter said Noah was saved through the waters of the great flood. The water through which Noah was saved served as a foreshadow of Christian baptism. In the first century it separated the few who were saved from the many who were unsaved.

Baptism now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand — with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (1 Peter 3:21,22)

This passage shows that the real meaning of baptism is found not in the act itself, but in the appeal to the resurrection and power of Jesus Christ. Baptism, Peter says, points to the risen Lord who has angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. The water of baptism, or the act of baptism, had no merit in itself; it was simply the God-ordained method of appealing to the saving work of Jesus Christ for salvation. 

It is important to clarify this point, because without it some have wrongly concluded that the saving merit of baptism is found in the act itself. God provides salvation through Jesus Christ, and baptism has its meaning but only as an appeal to what God freely provides through him. Galatians 3:26-27 smoothly relates the two: “ You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Baptism, not as a work, but as the mode of appealing to Jesus is the Biblical path. Baptism is the form, but personal faith in Jesus is the substance that give meaning to it.

2. Biblical baptism expresses a personal decision and is not for infants.

There are many different ideas about when one is ready for baptism. Some think that infants can be baptized and others do not. If we follow the Bible, there are two positive facts that will guide us to the right viewpoint (believers baptism) and a cluster of negative facts that will keep us away from infant baptism.

First, a person had to believe in Jesus to be baptized in the Bible. Jesus himself said, whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16). The apostle Peter described baptism as the point at which a person was saved because at that time he or she pledged a good conscience to God (1 Peter 3:21; Acts 22:16). The apostle said that we are saved by faith, because everyone who has expressed his or her faith in Christ through baptism, has been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). Paul also says that we are “raised up with Christ in baptism,” through our faith in God (Colossians 2:12). In this way, the Bible indicates that baptism was only for those who had made the decision to believe in Christ.

Second, for baptism to be Biblical, it must express repentance. On the day of Pentecost Peter told at least three thousand people that they were to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). If we carefully read this passage, we will see that the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins was for those who could both repent and be baptized. To be baptized we must admit that our ways have been sinful and that we have broken both God’s laws and God’s heart. Paul describes baptism as the point at which we pledged ourselves to die with Christ (to sin) and be raised to a new life (Romans 6:1-6). Paul’s over-riding point in the whole chapter is that we have committed ourselves to a pattern of dying with Christ and living a new life through our baptism (Romans 7:17). This is not a commitment that an infant can make.

These first two facts are important, because in the Old Testament infants were automatically added to the covenant community of Israel when their parents had them circumcised. But the Christianity (according to the New Testament) is different in this regard: it is only for those who make the personal decision to trust and follow Jesus Christ. The difference is that Christianity is not something you are born into, like an ethnic or national religion. Yes, it is wise for Christian parents to dedicate their children to God, pray for them, and raise them as followers of Christ. But the essence being a Christian is that a person enters into a saving relationship with God only by his or her personal faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Notice how the apostle Paul contrasted the two systems:

In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. (Colossians 2:11-13)

Paul pointed out that baptism was like circumcision, in that through it people were brought into covenant relationship with God. But unlike circumcision, the one being baptized expressed faith “in the power of God.” Baptism is an expression and a commitment of personal faith. Biblical baptism was not something that parents could do for their children. 

Thirdly, there is a cluster of five truths that will redirect us away from infant baptism.

i. There are no passages of scripture which clearly teach infant baptism in the New Testament.

ii. There are no clear examples in the New Testament of infant baptism – all the clear and unambiguous examples are of believers being baptized. “Households” that were baptized in the Bible (Acts 11:14) included one’s “relatives and close friends” (Acts 10:24-27), infant baptism must be read into the text (it is not “there” by itself).

iii. The correlation with circumcision in the New Testament is not infant baptism, but the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 2:29), given when a person believes in Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14).

iv. Believer’s baptism (those who personally believe are baptized) is the only practice of the church immediately after the Bible was written. The first clear instance of infant baptism comes over one hundred years after scripture was complete (Tertullian in 207 A.D., see below) and even then, infant baptism did not become a common practice until hundreds of years after the Bible was written. It wasn’t until the time of Augustine in the early 400’s that infant baptism became a common practice.

v. Everybody agrees that believer’s baptism is Biblical. But those who practice infant baptism follow something which must be read into the New Testament. In the process, something that is (at best) “an inference” becomes “a substitute” and “replacement” for what the Bible clearly teaches. 

In sum, if we are seeking to be Biblical, these three facts will guide us. First, only those who personally believe can be baptized. Second, personal repentance from sin, coupled with the commitment to live for Christ must be a driving factor in baptism. And third, there is no clear support in the Bible or in the earliest level of church history to support infant baptism. 

3. Infants and Children Are Spiritually Safe

The New Testament makes positive statements on the status of children and it assumes that they are innocent and spiritually safe until they reach an age where they are responsible for their behavior and they must make the commitment to trust and follow Christ to be saved from their sins. 

According to Matthew 18:1-4 a person must become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven and, then again, Jesus taught in Matthew 19:13-15 that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as the little children. These statements are important declarations on the condition of children in God’s sight. Clearly, if the kingdom of heaven belongs to little children, parents do not need to be concerned about their status with God.

Another passage also indicates that a child of a Christian home normally has some kind of relation to the Lord because this is how they are addressed – “Children, obey your parents in the Lord . . .” (Ephesians 6:1-4). Children should develop and maintain this relationship with the Lord long before they are able to fully commit themselves to him as a life-long path and decide to be baptized. I also personally believe that children come under the umbrella of spiritual protection provided by their Christian parent(s). As 1 Corinthians 7:14 puts it “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”

4. There is an Age of Accountability.

There comes a day when each young person is responsible for himself or herself. Once this stage comes, each young person should be equipped to make the decision – for himself or herself – to accept Christ and become a Christian.

When a young person is ready to commit himself or herself to Christ as a personal choice, it does not have to be a radical break from a sinful life. We hope that our children will be able to avoid the path of sinful lifestyles. A Biblical baptism can be a break with sin through repentance – by conviction about sin through anticipation and resolve – but before there is a substantive experience with a sinful lifestyle. 

This is a delicate but important point. Jesus can only become our Savior once we see ourselves as lost sinners, so there must be a sense of guilt and the need for forgiveness, but there does not have to be a clear pattern of sin. The key factor is the genuine personal decision to trust and follow Christ in contradistinction to the choice of a life focused on self, sin, and apathy toward the things of God.

Most human cultures recognize that children reach an age where they are responsible for themselves in a new, more adult way. Judaism has its “bar mitzvah,” or “bat mitzvah,” when a child becomes a “son” or “daughter” of the law. Secular society makes a definitive distinction between juveniles and adults in courts of law. And most primitive societies, anthropologists tell us, have their puberty rites (rites of passage) in which persons become responsible for themselves in new ways. 

We also know that the age range from 10 through 13 years is the key age for moral development in children. Most adults have value systems that were established at this age. Some even argue that this age becomes the template upon which adults will later evaluate what should be normative in many other areas of their lives.

In short, the consensus of experience and the wisdom of the entire human race establishes the point that there is a period in life in which a person is capable of making decisions for themselves, in responsible ways. This has usually been designated as the “age of accountability” or the age of “spiritual and moral responsibility” and it sets the path that youth will follow into adulthood. This concept fits in very comfortably with the Biblical teaching on believer’s baptism.

This age of accountability has been the driving force behind the historic practice of catechism classes in Christianity. Most Christian traditions – from Baptist to Lutheran to Catholic – have believed that in the transition from childhood to early adulthood, young people need explicit instruction in the core teachings of the faith. This practice is witnessing a renaissance in many churches and three sociologists recently completed a major study of mainline Protestant churches that pointed to the importance of this practice. They discovered that inadequacies in teaching young people and adults the distinctive, core elements of orthodox Christian faith and adhering to them is the single biggest reason for decline in mainline denominations.

I believe that the key factors in conversion are knowledge of the core elements of Biblical faith and the personal decision to place submissive faith in these teaching and the Lord Jesus Christ, who stands behind them. Our young people need the training and opportunity to make this decision – even as a future life-path that each one decides for himself or herself, even with the help of the church and parents. We believe that until our children are capable of making this decision for themselves, the Bible assumes that they are safely in the hands of God. But, once they are capable of making this decision, we must prepare and equip them to make it.

5. Biblical baptism is immersion, not pouring or sprinkling. 

There are different ideas about the proper form or mode of baptism. Some think that sprinkling is authorized, while others believe that baptism is only by pouring or immersion. Again, if we pay close attention to the Bible, there are four facts that show that only immersion is authorized by the New Testament.

First, the only Greek word used in the New Testament for baptism is Baptizein (Baptizo) and it means “to dip, plunge, or to immerse.” If God had wanted us to follow a different method of baptism then he would have used other words. If he had meant to say “pour” he could have used Ekcheo, which means, “to pour out.” If he wanted to say “sprinkle” he would have used Rantizo, which means, “to sprinkle.”

Immersion is the Biblical method of baptism, because without exception, the word for immersion (Baptizein) is the word that is usedwhen discussing this act. Stated differently, if we follow the New Testament, we can know that when it speaks of baptism it means immersion, because that is what the word for baptism meant in Greek and that is the word used.

Second, even without knowing that the word for baptism in the original Greek was Baptizien, one can still determine the Biblical method of baptism by the description of baptism that is presented in the New Testament. One of the clearest examples of this is found in the sixth chapter of the book of Romans. The apostle Paul wanted to remind the early Christians of the need for holy living. In order to remind them of God’s grace and their original commitment to follow Christ, Paul recalled for them the time when they were baptized. He described baptism as a drama which pictured three distinct acts. The first act was a death. When a person went into the water they pledged to identify themselves with Christ’s death (vs. 3). The second act was a burial. By burial in water a person re-enacted the burial of Christ (vs. 4). The third act was a resurrection. In coming out of the water, a person was raised to live a new kind of life (vs. 4,5). Whenever a person was baptized there was a re-enactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. No other action communicates this rich Biblical principle except immersion. 

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:3-5)

Baptism, as re-enactment of the death, burial, and then raising of Christ, must have been immersion. The same point is made in Colossians 2:12. The Biblical theology of baptism is closely tied with the method of baptism. Only immersion symbolizes burial and resurrection. And only immersion is the pattern maker for the rest of our lives — we are constantly dying to self and raising Christ up (Romans 6:17).

Some traditions try to evade this point by claiming that this passage refers to “Spirit Baptism,” not water baptism. But this will not stand up to close investigation. The Bible says that there is one baptism – with two parts, water and Spirit (Ephesians 4:5; John 3:3-5). It is not just water baptism being discussed and it is not just Spirit baptism. Critical scholars generally agree that water baptism and spirit baptism normally occurred at the same time in the Bible (John 3:3-5; Acts 2:38; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:3-6). Here the two are both in mind, but the re-enactment of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection through water is primarily (see the context below). 

In the Bible, unless the context demands it, water baptism is normally the primary point under discussion. This is because various passages clearly command that we submit to water baptism (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38, etc.) and it is mentioned much more often than Spirit baptism. The highly respected British scholar John Stott stated the following in Regard to Romans 6:

But it is safe to say that whenever the terms ‘baptism’ and ‘being baptized’ occur, without mention of the element in which baptism takes place, the reference is to water baptism. Whenever water baptism is not meant, however, the alternative baptismal element is mentioned; for instance, ‘with the Spirit.’

The context of Romans 6 strongly argues for water baptism because it was primarily in water baptism (in the Bible) that one pledged himself or herself to put off sin and live for Christ. The context is primarily the commitment these Christians made to God by their baptism, not what the Spirit of God did (Spirit baptism is what God does, water baptism is what we do). If we hold to the ancient belief in one baptism with two parts (but emphasizing the water here) all difficulties fade away. Also, if you read the chapter in the context, the Roman Christians “obeyed a form of teaching” (6:17): if it is water baptism, we can see what “form” they obeyed; if it is Spirit baptism that is primarily in view, what did they obey? 

Third, only immersion fits the circumstantial evidence of how baptism was performed in the Bible. First, when a person wanted to be baptized in the New Testament, they went to the water. The Bible never recorded that water was brought to the person seeking baptism. People went to where there was an abundant supply of water (“much water”; see John 3:23 & Acts 8:36). This would be necessary only if baptism was an immersion in water. Second, the Bible teaches that when people arrived at a place where there was water, they went down into it. The Scriptures indicate that the person being baptized and the person doing the baptism both went down into the water (Acts 8:36; Matthew 3:5,6). Third, after baptism, both the person being baptized and the person performing the baptism came up out of the water (Mark 1:10; Acts 8:39). For both people to go down into the water, and for that to be followed by both people coming out of the water, it only makes sense that baptism was immersion. All of this would have been needless effort if sprinkling or pouring were utilized.

Fourth, it is a historical fact that pouring and sprinkling, as forms of baptism, were introduced after the Bible was written and were not commonly utilized until hundreds of years later. The first instance of pouring is found in the Didache, written about 30-50 years after the last book of the New Testament (Revelation in A.D. 95). Pouring is mentioned as a third and last method to utilize for baptism (after immersion in flowing water and immersion in still water, which are the “best ways”). But this book is not considered scripture by any group (in our day) and pouring was never widely adopted, even in the period after the Didache was written. Widespread acceptance of something less than immersion begins in the fifth century, but did not become normative until hundreds of years after that. It is significant to note that the Nicene creed of A.D. 386 reveals the faith of the early church, when it refers to “one baptism for the remission of sins,” utilizing the word for immersion in the original text.

In sum, there are four points which clearly show that mode of Biblical baptism was immersion. First, the word for baptism used in the Bible means immersion. Second, theologically, full immersion in water is a concrete expression of what is involved when a person becomes a Christian: only in this way can we physically re-enact the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. And only immersion symbolizes that which also lies at the heart of the entire Christian life — the constant dying to self and rising with Christ. Third, only immersion fits the circumstantial evidence of how baptism was practiced in the Bible. And fourth, pouring and sprinkling were historically introduced after the Bible was written. Those who hold that pouring and sprinkling are proper forms of baptism are basing it on human tradition and church history, not the Bible. 

Conclusion

In our day, many infants are baptized and many people practice forms of baptism other than immersion. This is almost always done in clear conscience by people who believe that these practices are supported by the Bible. But these practices are based upon church tradition and history, not the Bible. Our intent is not to question the sincerity of such people or to put them down. Most have done the best that they can, with what they have known. But we want to follow the Bible alone on these matters and we encourage others to join us in this quest.

It is also a fact that in our day many confess their faith in Christ and turn from their sins without even hearing about baptism. The sinner’s prayer and asking Jesus into one’s heart get at the heart of the response to God’s grace found in confession – which is personal faith (Romans 10:9-10), but it is not the full response demonstrated by various important Biblical passages (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Matthew 28:19-20; John 3:5; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12). We acknowledge that God can work in such situations, because personal faith is the key. But we want to uphold his best and the full teaching of scripture.

So, we believe that when we are seeking to be fully Biblical, water baptism will be an important part of the commitment to turn from sinful living and place faith in Christ. This is why, in the Bible, when people decided to become Christians, they were baptized without delay after hearing about salvation, even in a big crowd (Acts 2:38-42), or even while traveling along the road (Acts 8: 36-40), or even in the middle of the night (Acts 16:31-33). As a wedding ceremony makes the commitment in marriage concrete, so water baptism concretely solidifies the commitment to trust in Christ. We are committed to uphold this normative Biblical practice in its rightful place in our day.

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