Why We Baptize the Children of Believers
Published by Christ United Reformed Church © Michael G. Brown, 2006. All rights reserved.
“Why does your church baptize infants?” This is a question that is often asked by visitors to Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Since the historic practice of baptizing the children of believers is largely a foreign concept to the vast majority of evangelicals today, accepting this doctrine can be a difficult hurdle for a family that wishes to join a confessional, Reformed church. Christians who are interested in Reformed theology and sincerely desire membership in Christ’s church are often shocked to find out that the Reformed church they want to join teaches and practices infant baptism.
So, why do we baptize the children of believers? The answer is simple: We baptize the children of believers because they belong to the covenant and people of God. While this answer is simple, it is one that never the less requires some explanation. Often times, an evangelical may come to Calvinistic convictions with regard to the doctrines of grace (i.e. the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “TULIP”), yet be completely unaware of basic covenant theology. Hence, the doctrine of infant baptism seems strange and exotic to him. Accustomed to looking for “proof-texts” in the Bible, he searches the Scriptures for a verse that explicitly prescribes the practice of infant baptism. Finding none, he is resistant to the practice, suspecting that Reformed and Presbyterian churches baptize the children of believers more so out of tradition and sentiment than from any serious biblical conviction. What he has yet to understand, however, is that our practice of baptism (both for the adult believer and his children) naturally flows from our theology of the church. This involves an understanding of the covenant that God has made with his people. Consequently, the question, “Why does your church baptize infants?” entails a more complex answer than many people are prepared to receive.
Where should we then begin? Scores of helpful books and articles have been written on the subject of infant baptism that the person struggling with this doctrine should consult (see the back of this article for a list of recommendations). Probably the most concise answer, however, is found in the Heidelberg Catechism. After its five questions and answers that deal with the sacrament of baptism in general (qq. 69-73), it includes one question and answer on infant baptism in particular. Question and Answer 74 (hereafter HC 74) states:
Q: Are infants also to be baptized?
A: Yes. For since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to their parents; they are also by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be engrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Covenant by circumcision, in place of which in the New Covenant baptism is appointed.
Because this is not only a clear and simple explanation of infant baptism but also a confessional explanation of the doctrine, HC 74 functions as a ready and easy-to-remember template of the case for infant baptism, which can be unpacked and explained further in the following points:
(1) there is one covenant and people of God;
(2) in the old covenant, God included children into his church;
(3) in the new covenant, God still includes children into his church;
(4) there is a promise made in baptism that must be believed.
(1) There is one covenant and people of God
This is where we must begin. HC 74 makes the claim that the children of believers, “as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God.” We should ask, however, to what covenant is the catechism referring? Furthermore, what is a covenant in the first place? Michael Horton has summarized covenant very well when he says:
[A] covenant is a relationship of ‘oaths and bonds’ and involves mutual, though not necessarily equal commitments…some biblical covenants are unilaterally imposed commands and promises; others are entered into jointly. Some are conditional and others are unconditional.
The concept of covenant is important for Christians to grasp because it is the organizing framework of the Scriptures. The whole Bible, ultimately, is about one thing: God redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ. And that message unfolds as a covenantal drama throughout redemptive history. While there are many different covenants of various natures and purposes recorded in the Bible, there is ultimately only one covenant in which the benefits of redemption are communicated to God’s people, a covenant we rightly call the “Covenant of Grace.”
The Covenant of Grace is first promised in Genesis 3.15, after Adam and Eve were expelled from the holy Garden and cursed for sinning against God. Adam broke that previous covenant in which God had placed him (i.e. the Covenant of Works) failing to meet its requirements of obedience and thus inheriting the curses of that covenant (spiritual and physical death), rather than its blessings(eternal and glorified life). Adam did not, however, bring these covenant curses upon himself alone. Rather, he brought them upon the whole human race, as he was our federal head and representative in the Garden. Because Adam broke this covenant, the way to the tree of life was barred from sinful man, guarded by mighty cherubim and a flaming sword. Mankind, therefore, needs another covenant federal-head, a Second Adam, one who will open up the way and lead us to the tree of life so that we can enjoy fellowship with God our Creator and the glory of the eternal Sabbath for which we were created. This is the context in which the Covenant of Grace is first promised. God puts enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, promising that the coming seed will bruise the head of the serpent (Gen 3.15).
This seed-promise unfolds through redemptive history as the Bible traces the lineage of God’s redeemed people from Seth to Abraham. Once Abraham is brought into the picture, the speed of the story slows down. He is one of the main characters in the redemptive drama as God makes an important covenant with him recorded in Genesis 15 – one of the most important chapters in the Bible. There, we read of God promising Abraham (then Abram) at least two very important blessings: a seed numbered like the stars in the heavens, and a land in which his seed would dwell. God then seals these promises with a solemn covenant ritual involving the killing of animals.
In Abraham’s day, it was common for two kings or rulers to enter into a covenant with each other in which oaths were taken, conditions were explained, and sanctions (blessing for obedience to the covenant; cursing for disobedience) were promised. The lesser party in the covenant, known as the “vassal,” would then take a blood-oath, such as the one recorded in Genesis 15. Animals would be killed and sometimes cut in two. The vassal-king would take an oath and walk between the pieces of the animals or do some other type of ritual in which they would promise to keep the conditions of the covenant. To pass through the severed carcasses was to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The person taking the oath was placing himself in service of the greater party, known as the “suzerain,” and promising that if he broke the covenant, he would become like that severed animal!
Abraham completely understood this ritual since this was how covenants were often ratified and made official in his day. But what is so amazing about this particular blood-oath in Genesis 15 is that God himself walked between the severed animals! The suzerain-king, not the vassal, took the blood-oath. God’s presence was manifested in the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that passed between the carcasses. A cloud of smoke that arose from the fire pot and a soaring flame that came from the torch were symbolic forms of the Lord’s presence, similar to the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire he used during the exodus. The Lord took a self-maledictory oath and invoked this bloodshed and death upon himself should he fail to fulfill his promise. This whole covenant was God’s royal grant to Abraham and his seed.
As the Bible unfolds God’s great plan of redeeming a people for himself, we see that the fulfillment of the promises he made to Abraham actually comes on two marvelous levels. On the first level, we witness the fulfillment of these promises(both seed and land) in the nation Israel. God gave to Abraham and Sarah a son, namely, Isaac. And from Isaac came Jacob, and from Jacob came his twelve sons who fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. As the story progresses, we learn how these descendents of Abraham all end up in Egypt where they continue to multiply generation after generation. In fact, the book of Exodus opens by telling us how the people of Israel increased greatly and grew exceedingly strong – so much that the land of Egypt was filled with them, causing Pharaoh a great amount of fear. So massive was Israel’s size that Moses reminded them of God’s fulfilled promise: “The LORD your God has multiplied you, and here you are today, as the stars of heaven in multitude.” (Deut 1.10) God’s promise to give Abraham a seed numbered like the stars was brought to pass.
Likewise, God’s promise with regard to the land was fulfilled when Israel was given Canaan as an inheritance. Under the leadership of Joshua, Israel cleansed the holy promised land by driving out the heathen and took possession of what God had promised. We read in Joshua 21.43-45:
Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
As marvelous as these fulfilled promises were, however, they were only the first level of fulfillment. God’s covenant with Abraham was far more reaching than what took place in the type and foreshadow of the nation Israel. There is a fulfillment revealed on the pages of the New Testament that is far greater and far more wonderful.
In Galatians chapter 3, in the middle of his argument against the Judaizers that salvation is not by works of the law but by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, Paul is careful to show how it is that one becomes a true descendent of Abraham. In vv. 7-9, he says,
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Justification comes in the same way to people of every tongue, nation and tribe, just as it came to Abraham, namely, by faith alone. The promise goes out to all the earth because of what Paul says in v. 16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” Paul uses a play on words to draw an important conclusion: Christ is the offspring of Abraham, through whom all the promises come to us who believe. Even the law that was given through Moses 430 years later could not annul the covenant previously made to Abraham and ratified in blood (see Gal 3.17). That promise is fulfilled in Christ so that as Paul says in v. 29: “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” The message is clear: the great number of offspring promised to Abraham was only foreshadowed in the national Israel. But not all of national Israel is of true Israel. Those who are truly his are those who, like himself, are justified through faith alone.
But what about the promise of a land? How is that fulfilled on a greater level? Again, the New Testament reveals to us a reality that is fuller than the type and shadow of the Old Covenant. Notice what Hebrews 11 tells us:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose builder and designer is God…These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.(vv.8-10, 13-16)
The promised land of Canaan was temporary, not permanent. What is permanent, however, is the promised land that still awaits us, a land that is infinitely greater than any plot of real estate in this present age. What awaits us is the new heaven and new earth. While the nation Israel received a good land, ultimately it became corrupt, defiled, and it faded away. The greater promised land, however, is an inheritance that Peter says is “incorruptible, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1.4). And like our father Abraham, we look forward to this inheritance with hope.
What does all of this show us? It shows us that there is one plan of salvation for the one people of God, whom the Bible describes as the seed or offspring of Abraham (Gal 3.29). There is no other way to be a child of God then to be ncluded into Abraham’s covenant. Thus, when Reformed people speak of “the covenant,” we are speaking of the one covenant of grace that runs from its seed-promise in Genesis 3.15, was expanded in detail to Abraham in Genesis 15, fulfilled in Christ, and continues throughout time until the consummation. Anyone who has or ever will be saved – in any period of human history – is a member of this one covenant of grace. Salvation is always the same: by grace alone, through faith alone because of the one Mediator of the covenant alone, the Lord Jesus Christ.
(2) In the Old Covenant, God included children into his visible church
Having looked briefly at the covenant of grace in redemptive history, we must now ask the question, if believers participate in the covenant and people of God, what is the status of their children? The Old Testament reveals that God not only allowed the children of believers to be brought into his covenant and visible people, but that he commanded them to be so. In Genesis 17 we read of God reminding Abraham of the promises he made in his covenant, which extended to his offspring:
I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. (vv. 6-8)
God then commanded that a covenant-sign be given to Abraham and his descendents. That covenant-sign was circumcision. In vv. 9-14, we read:
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house or bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Circumcision was a “sign of the covenant.” The bloody ritual of cutting the flesh in the male reproductive organ signified the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendents when he walked between the bloody animal halves. This was no mere formality; to be circumcised meant to receive a sign of the deepest spiritual significance. It was a sign carved in flesh as a constant reminder of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendents.
But this sign also functioned as the official act of consecration that set an individual apart as a member of the covenant community. Every male in Abraham’s household – whether sons or servants, as well as every male in the covenant community thereafter – was to receive this sign in his flesh if he was to be identified with God’s covenant people. Conversely, anyone who rejected the sign of the covenant was to be cut off from the covenant community. To reject the sign of the covenant was to reject God’s promises in the covenant. Ultimately, it was to reject fellowship with the God who walked between the severed animal halves and made an oath to his people.
(3) In the New Covenant, God still includes children into his visible church
Note that HC 74 says that the children of believers are “by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be engrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Covenant by circumcision, in place of which in the New Covenant baptism is appointed.” The covenantal sign that is administered upon initiation into the visible church is no longer circumcision, but baptism (Col 2.11-12). Like circumcision, baptism is a onetime, initiatory sign and seal of God’s covenant promise, which marks out an individual as belonging to God’s covenant people. Like circumcision, baptism is for the believer and his children.
Of course, the Baptist often argues that children of believers should not be baptized until making a credible profession of faith because the New Testament never gives an explicit command or example of infant baptism. To this we must ask, however, where in the New Testament do we find an example or command to exclude the children of believers from the visible church? Defending the doctrine of infant baptism in his day, the great Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield put it in the most straightforward of terms when he said:
The argument [of infant baptism] in a nutshell is simply this: God established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until he puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of his church and as such entitled to its ordinances.
Clearly, no such command to remove the children of believers from his covenant exists. On the contrary, we find Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19.14).
More importantly, however, is the obvious trend in the New Testament of including people who once were excluded from the church. The greatest example of this, of course, is the gospel going out to the Gentiles. People who were not of the physical family of Abraham and were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2.12) are “no longer strangers and aliens, but…are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2.19). We also see this in the case of the initiatory covenant sign of baptism being applied to females as well as males (Acts 8:12),in contrast to circumcision, which was only for males. Thus, Paul says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek…there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28). While there is still a distinction between men and women with regard to their assigned roles in the family and the church, baptism shows that men and women are the same in terms of personal value and worth to God because both are created in His image (Gen 1:26-28). Christian women, therefore, are not to worship in a separate courtyard as in the Jerusalem temple, but in the congregation alongside men.
Considering these things, are we really to think that while God includes Gentiles into his covenant people and includes women more fully by extending to them the covenant sign in the same way as males, that he also takes an opposite position with regard to the children of believers? While God extends his grace more abundantly in the New Covenant by including those who once were excluded, why would he then exclude children who once were included? Indeed, first-century Hebrew parents that converted to Christianity would have been horrified at the suggestion that their children were now outside of the Covenant of Grace. As Robert Strimple has ably argued, had the apostles ever made such a suggestion, the response of Hebrew parents clearly would have been, “I thought you were bringing me good news!”
But the apostles did bring good news to covenant parents! Preaching on the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed the gospel to a large audience of Jews and Gentiles and told them to repent and be baptized in Jesus’ name. “For the promise” said Peter, “is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2.39). Those who are “far off” are the Gentiles, now included into God’s covenant. But notice that Peter specifically points out that the promise is also “for your children.” Children of believers are not excluded from membership in God’s covenant community, but included, just as they were since the beginning.
For this reason, Paul addresses the children of believers as members of the Covenant of Grace: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph 6.1). He even reminds them of the Fifth Commandment in the very next verse, showing that New Covenant children have the same responsibilities and privileges as Old Covenant children. They are to be raised as disciples of Christ: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6.4; cf. Deut 6.4-9). Clearly, these children a reconsidered members of the visible church no less than they were in the Old Covenant. As such, they should receive the sign of the covenant and be baptized.
(4) There is a promise made in baptism that must be believed
The promise to which Peter referred in his Pentecost sermon is mentioned in HC74: “both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to [the children of believers] no less than to their parents.” The Baptist, however, hears language like this and often assumes that Reformed churches believe that every baptized child is guaranteed to be one of the elect. “If this true,” concludes the Baptist, “then what are we to say about those cases in which a baptized child did not persevere in the faith? If God made a promise to the child in baptism, but the child apostatizes as an adult, what does that say about God’s promise? Did his promise fail?”
Unfortunately, there are some Reformed churches that have contributed to this misconception by speaking of every baptized person in the church – “head for head” – as being truly elect and inwardly united to Christ. But it must be understood that membership in God’s visible covenant community does not guarantee membership in God’s elect people. This is Paul’s point in Romans 9 when he defends the fidelity of God’s promise to Abraham: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom 9.6). In other words, not all in the visible church belong to the invisible church. This is why the Bible often speaks of another circumcision, a circumcision of the heart (Deut 10.16; 30.6; Jer 4.4; 9.25-26; Acts 7.51; Rom 2.28-29). Although he was consecrated to the Lord as a member of the covenant people of God, the Israelite male was still responsible to believe the promises signified in his circumcision, for the sign (circumcision) never became the thing signified (the promises of God).
While the visible church is no longer identified with a national, geo-political Israel, it still contains a mixture of both Jacobs and Esaus, that is to say, true believers and hypocrites. Like Esau, it is still possible for one to be in the covenant externally but not actually united to Christ through faith. This is why the writer to the Hebrews includes many warnings in his letter about the necessity of true faith; he doesn’t want his readers to rely solely upon their membership in the visible church. In 3.7-4.11, he reminds them of the Israelites who fell dead in the wilderness; although they belonged to the visible covenant community and heard the gospel, they did not respond to it in true faith. Consequently, they did not enter the Promised Land. The writer deliberately uses this as a warning to the New Testament heirs of the same covenant of grace:“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (3.12) Just as being circumcised was necessary for entrance into the visible church in the Old Covenant, so too is baptism necessary for entrance into the visible church in the New Covenant. But every baptized member still has the responsibility of embracing with true faith the promise made to him in his baptism, apart from which he will not enter the eternal Sabbath rest.
For this reason, parents must take great care to catechize, pray for and bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. It is why we are required to take vows at the baptismal font, promising to the utmost of our power to teach our children and have them taught the doctrine of salvation. Baptized children must not only grow up with the understanding that they have been “engrafted into the Christian Church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers” (HC74), but must – in light of their baptism – be asked the question: do you believe the gospel? Do you trust that Christ’s blood alone washes away your sins as certainly as you see water washing away dirt from the body? Do you believe what is signified in your baptism?
If he rejects the gospel, then the waters of baptism are not a sign of blessing, buta sign of judgment. Like the unbelieving Israelite whose circumcision symbolized the cursing of being “cut off” from the favor of God, the New Covenant child who rejects what is signified in his baptism will become like those unbelievers who perished in the floodwaters of God’s judgment while Noah and his family were brought safely through (1 Pet 3.20-22).
On the other hand, the covenant child who believes the gospel with true faith is able to see in his baptism God’s pledge and token that gives us assurance that “we are as really washed from our sins spiritually, as our bodies are washed with water” (HC73).
Some Common Questions
1. Is a child saved as a result of baptism?
No. Salvation is always by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone (Eph 2.8-9). Faith, not baptism, is the instrument whereby the righteousness of Christ is received and imputed to the sinner. Baptism, however, is a sacrament of inclusion into the covenant of grace whereby God promises salvation to those who believe. It is a covenant seal that, for the one who believes, acts as a pledge and token which the Holy Spirit uses to give greater assurance of faith.
2. Won’t a child who is baptized as an infant grow up with a false sense of assurance?
Not if the child is taught to look to and trust in what baptism signifies, namely, the finished work of Jesus Christ alone. A child must be raised to understand that he is saved only because of the obedient life, atoning death and glorious resurrection of his Savior. Baptism testifies to this, giving the covenant child a beautiful symbol that clearly signifies the blood of Christ that washes away our sins. In this way, baptism magnifies the grace of God and more fully declares the promise of the gospel.
3. If we still require children to make profession of faith before they come to the table, doesn’t that make their baptism meaningless until they believe?
Not at all, for baptism includes the children of believers into the covenant of grace and visible church. It is in this context that these little ones grow up under the preaching of God’s Word, the blessing of public worship and catechesis in Christian doctrine.
4. Why can’t we simply dedicate infants to the Lord as many other
First of all, it is much harder to make a case from the New Testament for infant dedication than for infant baptism. The dedications that we do find in Scripture speak of unique situations, such as the Nazarite vow, that in no way replaced the covenant sign of circumcision (Numbers 6:1-21; Judges 13:3-5; 1 Sam. 1:11; Luke 1:13-17). But more importantly, baby dedication lacks two important elements that are present in infant baptism: first, the child is set apart as a member of the visible church by the covenant sign and seal. Secondly, it has attached to it the promise of God. Whereas baby dedication is ultimately about what we do as parents, infant baptism encourages our children to trust in the work of Christ by visually symbolizing his work of washing away sins by his blood.
May we become members of a Reformed church and choose not to baptize our children?
Church membership is about submission to Christ. Christ has ordained officers – ministers, elders and deacons – in his church. Anyone wanting to join a congregation must be willing to submit to the governing officers in that church. Hebrews 13.17 tells us:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
The officers in a rightly-ordered Reformed or Presbyterian church have formally subscribed to the confessional standards of the church, which are the Three Forms of Unity (in Reformed churches) or the Westminster Standards (in Presbyterian churches). Both of these confessional documents clearly confess that the Bible teaches that children of believers must be baptized – it is not optional. The person who desires to join a confessional Reformed church must understand that the governing officers are duty-bound to uphold the doctrines of their confession and maintain the purity of Word and sacrament in the church. Thus, the person with Baptist-convictions should not expect the minister and elders to make an exception and gainsay what they have formally confessed to be true.
While ministers and elders are (or at least should be!) eager to help those with internal struggles over the doctrine of infant baptism and must exercise patience, the issue is essentially about submission. The person with Baptist convictions who wants to join a Reformed church is faced with a choice: submit to the ruling authorities who believe that children of believers must receive the covenantal sign of baptism, or find another church to which they can submit. In short, they cannot have it both ways. If they desire to join a Reformed church, their children must be baptized.
Some Recommended Material for Further Study
- Hyde, Daniel, Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2006)
- Kline, Meredith, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1968)
- Murray, John, Christian Baptism (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1980)
How My Mind Has Changed
Dennis E. Johnson
Professor of Practical Theology
Westminster Theological Seminary in California
In 1994 one of our daughters, while away from home attending college, asked me to explain the rationale I saw in God’s Word for baptizing the infant children of believers. Since I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church when she and her siblings were born, they had all been baptized as infants; but now she was interacting with Christian brothers and sisters from other traditions through campus Christian ministry and other friendships, and many of them believed that the baptism of infants is not Christian baptism as it is established by Christ in the New Testament. In a slightly revised form, this is what I wrote to her:
Here at last is my long-overdue letter to explain why I believe it’s consistent with the Bible to baptize the infants and children of believers. I want to let you know what biblical evidence changed my mind from holding a “believers’ baptism” position to the conviction that both those who are converted as adults and the infants and children of believers should be baptized.
You know, of course, that I don’t consider this issue one on which our trust-relationship with Jesus depends. Nor should differences on this issue disrupt our fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who see things differently. On the other hand, since we all want to show our gratitude for God’s grace by living our lives to please him, and since we learn what pleases him in his Word, we all want to get as clear a picture as we can of what the Word teaches.
The difference of views on infant baptism unfortunately does affect Christians’ ability to demonstrate in practice our unity as the Body of Christ. “Infant baptizers” can and do recognize the baptism received by “believer baptizers” as genuine Christian baptism (although we may think that it’s administered later than it should be in the case of children of Christian parents). But “believer baptizers” cannot acknowledge that believers who were baptized as infants have been baptized at all. So if “believer baptizers” are right–if people who have received infant baptism have not received biblical baptism at all–then there have been hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Christian believers who have never obeyed the Lord’s command to be baptized in his Name, believers such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, J. Gresham Machen, J. I. Packer, John Stott, R. C. Sproul, etc. On the other hand, if “infant baptizers” are right, then it’s sad that the convictions of “believer baptizers” prevent them from recognizing the baptism of so many other members of the Body of Christ. So our difference of understanding on this issue does hinder our putting into practice the unity of the church.
Although this question is not a matter of salvation, it is certainly worth our investing time and thought and study, to see whether we can come to unity as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I Changed My Mind
First a little autobiography (I may have told you this before): It was a major change of mind for me to come to accept infant baptism. I was baptized as an infant in First Covenant Church of Los Angeles, but by the time I was an early adolescent we had a different pastor (in the same congregation!), and our new pastor didn’t believe that infant baptism was valid. My parents had not really studied this question or taught me whether there was a biblical basis for infant baptism, so I had no reason to question what my pastor said when he taught that my baptism as an infant wasn’t genuine Christian baptism. Therefore, after a time of instruction in Bible doctrine (in effect, a catechism class), I publicly confessed my faith in Christ and “joined the church,” being baptized by immersion on the basis of my personal profession of faith.(This means that, whichever view of baptism is right, I personally am covered!) I went through high school and Westmont College assuming that only people old enough to believe and testify to their faith should be baptized.
This was my view even as I started my seminary studies at Westminster, although I was puzzled that my seminary professors, who understood the Bible so much better than I in so many areas, seemed to have missed the obvious point that in the New Testament people are called to believe, and then they are baptized. I suppose I concluded that they believed in infant baptism because that was what they wereaccustomed to. (That explanation, however, didn’t fit everyone: Dr. Strimple had remained a Baptist throughout college and his studies at Westminster, and had taught at a Baptist Bible college in Canada for many years before he became convinced that infant baptism is biblical.) “I’m accustomed to this” is not a good reason for believing or doing something as a Christian, but sometimes what we’re used to does influence our faith and our conduct. In any case, at Westminster I had to face the possibility that I was the one operating on the basis of what I was accustomed to, dismissing infant baptism because of assumptions I had picked up as a teenager and had reinforced through college. In particular Westminster forced me to examine my assumptions about how to search the Bible for the answer to a theological question like this.
How Should We Expect the Bible to Answer the Infant Baptism Question?
I had to face the question, how should I expect the Bible to answer my question, “Should the babies of Christians be baptized?” I was expecting the Bible to answer the question with an explicit statement in one or more verses. I read verses like Acts 2:38 (“Repent and be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”) or Acts 16:31-34 (“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household . . . . Immediately he and all his family were baptized . . . he had come to believe in God–he and his whole family.”). The order of things seemed so clear: first repentance/belief, then baptism. What could be plainer and simpler?
Everybody Agrees that Adult Converts from Judaism and Paganism Must Be Baptized.
But then someone pointed out something to me: Throughout the Book of Acts we read about the conversion of people who were not Christians, nor had they grown up as the children of (New Covenant) Christians, before the Apostles preached to them–either Jews or Gentiles. The preaching and examples of conversions in Acts all have to do with missionary situations, in which the Gospel is entering the lives of individuals and families and communities for the first time. Everyone, “believer baptist” and “infant baptist” alike, agrees that in circumstances like these, when people have not grown up in Christian families and the “covenant community” of the Church, those converted as adults need to receive baptism when they confess their faith in Jesus.
But Acts Is Silent About Children Born to Christian Parents.
Acts never explicitly describes a situation that would make crystal clear how the apostles handled the situation of children born to Christian parents. (Obviously, if Acts had spoken directly and clearly on this point, the discussion between “believer baptist” and “infant baptist” would have been settled long ago.) In particular:
(1) Acts never tells us about an adolescent or young adult who had been raised from infancy by parents who believed in Jesus, and who then received baptism only after he or she personally expressed his/her faith in Christ.
(2) Although Acts records the baptism of whole households, it never explicitly states whether or not there were infants or young children in any of these homes, or whether infants in the household were excluded from receiving baptism because they were too young to express personal faith in Christ.
(3) Acts and the rest of the New Testament never record any statement by Jesus or the Apostles that the infants of believers are now to be treated differently in the New Covenant from the way that the infants of Israelite believers were in the Old: namely, that, whereas Israelite children were treated as part of the covenant community, the children of Christians are to be treated as outside the covenant community that is under Christ’s Lordship. The other changes that occurred with the coming of Christ are clearly indicated in the New Testament: Circumcision is not to be required of Gentiles (Galatians), but both Jews and Gentiles who come to faith must bebaptized (Acts). Animal sacrifices are done away with because of Jesus’ final sacrifice (Hebrews 10). The kosher dietary laws no longer apply because Jesus cleanses people from all nationalities (Mark 7; Acts 10-11). The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by a “living temple” made up of people (1 Peter 2). But the New Testament never hints that the relationship of believers’ children to the church community has changed: The New Testament never suggests that, although before Jesus’ coming Israelite children were “inside” the covenant community and received the covenant sign of circumcision (the boys, that is), now since Jesus’ coming the children of believers are “outside” the community and therefore excluded from the covenant sign of baptism.
We’ll come back to this topic of the way the New Testament views the children of believers, but for now I simply wanted to show you how I came to recognize that there is no New Testament text that answers pointblank the question, “Should believers have their children baptized?”
Starting from Broader Themes Where the Bible Speaks Clearly
So then, where do we go from here? We approach this question, like other, even more important questions (the Trinity, the mystery of the Person of Jesus as both fully God and fully man): We approach it from the perspective of broader, bigger questions that the Bible does answer clearly for us. Then, since God’s Word is consistent from beginning to end, we carefully draw conclusions from what we know the Bible teaches.
This is more complicated than simply pointing to a verse or two, but it’s also safer than drawing our own conclusions from what a particular verse says or does not say. Suppose every Christian concluded that Jesus’ words in Mark 10:21 are addressed literally to us all: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor. . . . Then come, follow me.” We all need to beware of being “owned” by our possessions, but if we all sold everything, could we also obey 1 Tim. 5:8 (“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”)? Would there be anyone in the church for Timothy to instruct to use their wealth in doing good (1 Tim. 6:17-19 )? We recognize that we have to understand Mark 10:21 in the context of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man, and in the context of the teaching of other passages of the Bible. We need to do the same with infant baptism.
Circumcision Was Administered to Infant Israelite Boys.
One clear place to start is with the fact that circumcision was administered to infant Israelite boys at the age of 8 days (Gen. 17:9-14). This sign of God’s covenant was given to Abraham long before the Law was given to Moses in Mt. Sinai. Apparently all of those circumcised that day in response to God’s command were older than infancy: Abraham was 99 and Ishmael was 13; other males (including servants) were no doubt of various ages (Gen. 17:23-27). But their age, and thus their mental/spiritual ability to respond to God’s promise in faith, was irrelevant. All were circumcised because Abraham believed God.
Circumcision Was a Sign of Salvation Blessings that Are Received by Faith.
God calls circumcision a “sign” of his covenant, so we can ask what circumcision “signified,” what it “pointed to” in terms of the relationship of Abraham and his family to the Lord.
A Sign of Transformation of Heart (New Birth by the Spirit). Later in the Old Testament God makes it clear that external circumcision of the flesh was a sign or symbol of a spiritual cleansing that God calls “circumcision” of the heart: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Deut. 10:16). Moses prophesies that the Israelites will disobey God and receive the judgments they deserved (especially the Babylonian Exile). But after this God will regather them to the land (return under Ezra and Nehemiah), and “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut. 30:6). I believe God is referring to this promise when he says through Ezekiel: “I will gather you from all the countries. . . . I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. . . . I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees. . . .” (Ezek. 36:24-27).
But Outward Circumcision Did Not Guarantee Circumcision of Heart. Now, receiving external circumcision did not guarantee that an Israelite boy had received spiritual circumcision, or would later receive spiritual circumcision. “‘The days are coming, declares the Lord, ‘when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh–Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab–and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (Jer. 9:25-26). How shocking for an Israelite to hear these words, to be grouped among the uncircumcised, unclean Gentiles! But only if they never understood that circumcision was a sign pointing to their hearts’ need for cleansing by the gracious Spirit of God!
A Sign of the Righteousness We Receive by Faith. In the light of God’s teaching in the Old Testament we can understand Paul’s comments on circumcision in Romans. First Paul points out that the “circumcision” that counts is “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit,” and that without this spiritual cleansing the external surgery brings no blessing or favor from God (Romans 2:25-29, especially verses 28-29). Then he comments on God’s first command to Abraham to circumcise his household: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). So Paul says that Abraham is not only the spiritual father of uncircumcised Gentile believers (4:11b), but also of “the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12). Circumcision symbolized the righteousness that believers (like Abraham) receive by faith, just as it symbolized cleansing and renewal of heart by the Holy Spirit. Yet God commanded that it be administered to Israelite baby boys at 8 days old, before anyone could tell whether God had changed or would change their hearts by his Spirit, whether he would enable them to trust his promises!
A Sign of Union with Christ in His Sacrificial Death. Since the blessings of the New Birth and righteousness by faith came to Abraham and other Israelites (BC) and come to us (AD) only as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice, we could even say that circumcision symbolized union with Christ in his death–his being “cut off from his people” for us (Gen. 17:14; see Isaiah 53:8), even though he didn’t deserve the curse, since he was circumcised both in flesh (Luke 2:21) and in heart. In fact, Paul pretty much says just this in Colossians 2:11-12: “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 of 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.” Christ was cut off for us, put to death for us; so his death for our sins is counted by God as our own death. Circumcision symbolizes this reality of Christ suffering as our substitute, and so does baptism.
Circumcision Was Applied Before Anyone Could Know Whether a Baby Had Received or Would Receive the Spiritual Blessings It Symbolized.
Before we move on to consider what baptism symbolizes, we need to reflect on the fact that circumcision in the Old Testament symbolized the blessings that come to believers (like Abraham) by faith in Christ: cleansing and transformation of heart, forgiveness of sins, right standing before God, all through the sacrifice of Jesus. This symbol was applied to adult Gentile converts when they abandoned their idolatry and confessed faith in the God of Israel; but it was applied to the children (well, just the sons) of Israel 8 days after they were born–before Mom or Dad or priest or rabbi could tell whether that baby would later receive, through his faith, the reality symbolized in circumcision.
Baptism Symbolizes Transformation of Heart (New Birth by the Spirit), the Righteousness of Faith, and Union with Christ in his Death.
Water baptism symbolizes the same spiritual blessings that circumcision symbolized: renewal and transformation of our hearts (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 5:23; etc.) by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), who brings us into a community of faith, a Body (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism speaks of being united to Christ, clothed with Christ, right with God by faith, Abraham’s seed, and heirs of God’s promises (Gal. 3:26-29). It speaks of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, so that his death for us is counted as our death before the justice of God (Romans 6:3; Col. 2:11-12).
Water Baptism Doesn’t Guarantee that the Person Receiving It Has Received or Will Receive the Spiritual Blessings It Symbolizes–Even When Adults Are Baptized after Confessing Faith!
Just as the external act of circumcision could not guarantee that the recipient would prove to be a recipient of the spiritual reality it symbolized, so also the external act of water baptism does not guarantee that its recipient will prove to have received the spiritual reality it symbolizes. Simon of Samaria was baptized, but his later attitude toward the Holy Spirit showed that he was still “captive to sin” (Acts 8:12-13, 20-23). Peter emphasizes that the flood waters that “saved” Noah and his family were pointing ahead to baptism–not merely the “removal of dirt from the body” (external water baptism) but the inner spiritual reality it symbolizes: the pledge of a good conscience toward God (1 Pet. 3:21). Sadly, some churches have practiced infant baptism (and others have practiced adult “believer baptism”) under the misunderstanding that the external ceremony automatically produces the New Birth it symbolizes, or guarantees that the New Birth is bound to follow eventually because of the outward ceremony. But the Bible shows that the purpose of the sacraments (circumcision, Passover and other animal sacrifices in the Old Testament; baptism and the Lord Supper in the New) is to show us our need for the spiritual blessings and to call us (as the Bible and preaching do) to receive these blessings by trusting in Christ himself.
Why Apply Circumcision/Baptism to Infants Before We “Know” Whether They Will Become Believers?
When I was a “Baptist”, my biggest problem with infant baptism was that baptism symbolized the spiritual benefits of union with Christ, which are received only by faith; and parents and pastors couldn’t know whether or not an infant had or would have this saving faith. But then I began to see that circumcision in the Old Testament symbolized the same blessings of union with Christ, which Old Testament believers received by faith and which unbelievers in Israel did not receive. So we face the same question for both the Old Testament sign and the New Testament sign: “Why apply a symbol before we know whether or not the reality is there?” I see three main reasons:
(1) To emphasize God’s gracious initiative to us in our helplessness.Circumcision and baptism are not events in which the recipient acts, but in which someone else acts (in God’s name) on or for us. This is true, of course, when an adult is converted and comes for baptism: she doesn’t baptize herself, but a pastor applies the water of baptism to her. The Apostles’ instruction to adults is not “baptize yourselves” (reflexive) but “be baptized” (passive: receive baptism from someone else). But it’s even more obvious, when infants are baptized, that baptism is “announcing” to us that God graciously gives a change of heart that we in our spiritual death could never produce in ourselves.
(2) To emphasize the mysterious role of the family in the communication of God’s covenant grace down through the generations. This role really is mysterious. On the one hand, the Bible is so clear that being born into a believing family is no guarantee of salvation: every individual is accountable to respond to the Gospel in faith, or endure the consequences of rebellion. (And, by the same token, to be born into an unbelieving family doesn’t condemn a person to a life of unbelief, rebellion, and condemnation. God’s grace welcomes Gentiles [Pagans] and turns them to Jesus (Acts 14:27).
I was reading Ezekiel 18 in my devotions earlier this week, and was struck by how powerfully God makes the point that “family tree” doesn’t guarantee an individual’s salvation or his condemnation. On the other hand, God has set up the family as the context in which his Word is to be taught and lived before children as they grow up. In contrast to our American emphasis on individualism and democracy, God clearly viewed Abraham as the head of his household, with the authority to command even his servants to undergo the painful procedure of circumcision! “I have chosen [Abraham], so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Genesis 18:19).
Apparently the ancient Israelites tended to look at themselves only from the standpoint of their family connection: those in the right family (Abraham’s) were in (no matter what), and everyone else was out. In twentieth-century America we tend to look at ourselves only from the standpoint of our personal individualism: we think we stand as isolated individuals before God, and our parents’ relationship to the Lord presumably has no influence on the benefits we have received from him or the responsibilities we bear toward him.
But God seems to view us both as members of a family, influenced (for good or ill) by our family context and identity, and as individuals, bearing responsibility for our own response to his Word of grace. This is God’s perspective not only in the Old Testament, when virtually all the covenant people were of one physical family (Abraham’s–although Gentiles such as Rahab, Ruth, Uriah, and Naaman were also included); but also in the New Testament, as the Gospel goes out to all the families of the earth (Acts 3:25). This is what I find striking about the baptism of Lydia and her household (Acts 16:14-15) and of the jailer and his household (Acts 16:31-34). There’s no way to tell for sure whether or not there were babies or children in those households, so both sides in the infant baptism dialogue read these texts in light of their own presuppositions. But what we can agree on is that in these texts the Holy Spirit speaks of the persons involved not as disconnected individuals but as “households,” as families (or perhaps even families with resident servants). Doesn’t this suggest that in the New Testament God does not discard the family as a means for extending his gracious covenant-kingdom, but rather he spreads his grace to and through more families, to households not previously reached with his salvation?
Infant circumcision and infant baptism in themselves emphasize the balance: they are administered to infants not because we presume to know or predict the infant’s spiritual state, but because the child is in the home of and under the authority of Christian parents (hence the sign belongs not only to “birth-children” but also to adopted children). Yet the fact that circumcision and baptism are administered to infants at all is a testimony to the fact that birth into a particular family is no guarantee of ultimate spiritual blessing, rather that something more is needed,something that only God can do for us through the shedding of Christ’s blood and through his resurrection, applied through the regenerating power of the Spirit, in order for us to become children of God.
(3) To emphasize the life-or-death consequences of our response to the Gospel of Christ. Earlier I showed the spiritual blessings that both circumcision and baptism symbolize, but that is not the whole story. Both circumcision and baptism are double-edged. They have a solemn side as well, because each in its own way “pictures” the judgment that our sin deserves, the judgment that will be received some day by those who do not trust Christ. Circumcision, which of course involved shedding of blood, symbolized the penalty of breaking God’s covenant, being “cut off” from God’s presence and God’s people (Gen. 17:14). Baptism symbolizes not only cleansing, forgiveness, and the Spirit’s transforming presence, but also judgment and death. The floodwaters that “saved” Noah were also God’s instrument of judgment on those who refused to heed Noah’s preaching (1 Pet. 3:19-21). Jesus spoke of his own death as a “baptism,” a painful ordeal (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). So it’s not surprising that Paul views both circumcision and baptism as symbols pointing to Christ’s death (Col. 2:11-12). By symbolizing the deadly consequences of being unfaithful to God’s covenant–the shedding of blood, being cut off, being overwhelmed by floodwaters–circumcision and baptism reinforce the message of the Word as we read it and hear it preached: theonly place of safety for guilty rebels like us is close to Jesus, trusting in Jesus, who bore sin’s guilt and penalty for those who believe in him. So I see circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New as ongoing testimonies to children raised in Christian homes that there are severe, eternal consequences if they turn away from the grace offered in the Gospel. But of course these warnings are intended by the Lord to work along with the wonderful promises of his grace to encourage us to stick close to Jesus in living, intimate faith and love.
Circumcision and Baptism Mark the Boundaries of the Community that Is Under Christ’s Lordship.
Now, the fact that circumcision and baptism both symbolize spiritual blessings that are received by faith in Christ and the fact that circumcision was administered to infants before they could give evidence of faith doesn’t prove that now, in the New Testament, baptism should be administered to covenant children before they personally give evidence of their faith. It suggests to me, however, that the fact that an infant cannot express faith doesn’t exclude her from receiving the sign that points to blessings that are received by faith.
If circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New do not absolutely guarantee that the person receiving the sign has received or will receive the spiritual reality, what is the purpose of these covenant signs? They mark the boundaries of the community that acknowledges Christ’s covenant Lordship and authority, the church. Since we can’t infallibly read others’ hearts, the church as we see it on a day-to-day basis may not correspond exactly to God’s perfect knowledge of his chosen ones (2 Tim. 2:17-19). Even when an adult convert is baptized, we do it not because we have supernatural knowledge that he is born again but because he confesses to believe in Jesus, seems to understand what that means, and his life is beginning to bear fruit consistent with his confession of faith. Sometimes, however, church leaders are mistaken or misled, and a person who once seemed to be a believer will turn away from the life of faith he had seemed to start (remember Simon of Samaria). So as an elder I have to admit my limitations: I can’t read hearts to know for certain who is “born again” from the Spirit; all that I can do is to evaluate whether people acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus both in their words and in the general direction of their behavior.
In the New Testament, Are Believers’ Children “Inside” This Community or “Outside”?
I’m leading up to this important question: In the New Testament, if parents confess Jesus as Lord, are their children inside this community, the church, or are theyoutside? Clearly in the Old Testament the children were included in the community of God’s covenant, receiving the mark of the covenant (circumcision), participating in the feasts of the covenant (for example, Passover, Exodus 12:25-27), being taught the Law as the guide for their grateful response to God’s redemptive grace (Deut. 6:4-9, 20-25). But what about the New Testament? When Christ comes, is there a change in the composition of the community of God’s covenant?
The Trend in the New Testament Is to Include People Who Used to Be “Outside.” There are changes in the composition of the covenant people as we move from Old Testament to New, but they are not in the direction of excluding a category of people because of their age or mental immaturity. The most obvious change is thatGentiles, people from other physical families than Abraham’s, are welcomed in droves. As we see in Matthew’s mention of Rahab, Ruth, and others in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1), even in the Old Testament God did welcome a handful of Gentiles into his community; but with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the baptism of the Spirit which he poured out on the church, the floodgates of grace are thrown wide open to Samaritans, Greek, Romans–even the Swedes and Scotch-Irish! Secondly, the sign of the New Covenant, baptism, is one that can be and is applied to females as well as males (Acts 8:12), in contrast to Old Covenant circumcision, which was only for males. Although the New Testament still speaks of a distinction in role between men and women in the family and the church, baptism makes clear what was implied in Genesis 1:26-28: in terms of creation in God’s image, and now new creation in the image of Christ, and in terms of personal value and worth to God, women and men are equal (Gal. 3:28). Hence women worship with men in Christian congregations, not in a separate courtyard as in the Jerusalem temple or behind a screen as in some Jewish synagogues. So now, with Gentiles welcomed in and women more fully included by receiving the covenant sign along with males, does God now take a very different stance toward the children of believers, excluding them from his covenant people as he is welcoming other groups in?
Peter at Pentecost: The Promise to Jewish Converts, Their Children, and Gentiles “Far Off.” Probably the most direct answer to our question comes from Peter’s lips on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the climactic turning point of the transition between Old Testament and New because on Pentecost the crucified, risen, ascended, enthroned Lord Jesus baptized the church with the Holy Spirit–as John the Baptist had prophesied (Acts 1:5). Peter’s audience were Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism from throughout the Roman world, and some of them (despite their heritage as covenant people) had committed treason against God’s Messiah, Jesus. When they realized what they had done, Peter told them to repent and receive baptism in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:38). Then he added: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call” (2:39). “All who are far off” are the pagan Gentiles. This is consistent with the expansion of the reach of God’s gracious covenant that I mentioned above. But now notice this: the children of these people who are at the point of repentance, faith, and baptism are not bypassed as Christ’s promise goes out to the pagans. The promise of forgiveness and renewal by the Spirit is spoken specifically to the children of Peter’s listeners. As these children grow and understand the promise and the Promise Maker, they of course bear the responsibility to respond in personal trust (just as Peter’s Pentecost audience do and the Gentiles “far off” will). But the point is: In expanding his community of grace to the Gentiles, God will not expel the children.
Jesus: The Kingdom Belongs to Little, “Useless” Children. This continuing inclusion of children in Christ’s community is what we would expect when we reflect on the way Jesus rebuked his disciples’ adult arrogance in trying to shield him from “insignificant” (in their minds) children (Luke 18:15-17). In fact, I’m convinced that it was precisely children’s “insignificance” and “uselessness” that Jesus had in mind when he said, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” When some people hear these words, they think romantically of the “innocence” or “simple trust” that they suppose children have. But Jesus knew children better than that. His point is: Unless you come to the kingdom without any claim that you deserve it, you will never enter it. Apparently by Pentecost Peter had absorbed the point that Jesus made that day: Jesus does not expel children from his community, for his kingdom belongs to them (those left outside are those who refuse to swallow their pride, who refuse to come as insignificant children, unworthy in themselves but dependent on the King).
Paul Talks to Children in the Church, Calling Them to Obey “in the Lord” without Distinguishing Between “Insiders” (Who Have Confessed Faith and Been Baptized) and “Outsiders” (Too Young to Be Baptized as Believers). This perspective–that children are not excluded from the community of the King with the coming of the New Testament–also explains why Paul can address children in his letters with instructions that presuppose Christ’s authority over them: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ which is the first commandment with a promise ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'” (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20: “for this pleases the Lord.”) Paul does not talk to two categories of children: (1) children who have confessed faith and been baptized; and (2) children who have not been baptized, and are presumed not to be believers. Rather, he speaks to all the children present in the congregation, and he implies that their identity “in the Lord,” their trust in the promises of God, and their desire to do what “pleases the Lord” should motivate all these children to obey their parents. Of course, these congregations may include some children who are not born again, not believers; but Paul is not presuming to read individual hearts at long distance. He is simply treating the children, as a group, as members of the King’s community, under the King’s authority, and therefore responsible to the King for their response to their parents.
What About Infant Dedication as a Way of Symbolizing that the Children of Christian Parents Have a Special Place and Special Responsibilities?
Now, we could ask, couldn’t a “dedication” ceremony such as that practiced at many Baptist churches serve the same purpose as infant baptism in recognizing that the children of believers do have some sort of special place in the community of Christ’s covenant? Well, yes and no.
Yes. Infant dedication in Baptist churches seems to reflect a sort of Spirit-prompted “instinct” that, even though (in such churches) they are treated as unbelievers and outsiders by being denied baptism, the children of believers actually do have some sort of a relation to Christ and his church. It would be more consistent, it seems to me, for churches of “believer baptism” convictions not to replace infant baptism with dedication, but simply to wait and see what path kids choose (faith or rebellion) as they grow up. Typically the dedication services I have heard still imply that believing parents are doing something in relation to the Lord on behalf of their infant children. Wouldn’t it be more consistent to wait until children are old enough todecide for themselves whether they want to be dedicated to God? And yet, frankly, I’m glad that Baptist churches are inconsistent enough to have infant dedication, and that Baptist parents bring their children to church and teach them the Gospel at home and sing “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” with their kids. The way I see it, in all these ways they are acting as though their children have a place in the community of Christ, even though Baptist parents don’t acknowledge that their children can receive the sign of inclusion in Christ’s community, baptism. And since (in my view) the Bible teaches that believers’ children have a place in the community of Christ (though that doesn’tguarantee their salvation!), the more that Christians act in ways consistent with the Bible (even if our understanding of its teaching is unclear), the more the Lord is glorified.
No. A Biblical Case for Infant Dedication in the New Testament Is Far Weaker than the Case for Infant Baptism. If we are looking for a biblical justification for how we treat the infants of believers, it seems to me that it is far harder to make a case for dedication than for infant baptism. Consider the biblical examples of infant dedications: There was Samuel, whom his mother Hannah promised to return to the Lord for tabernacle service even before he was conceived (1 Sam. 1:11, 24-28). But Hannah’s dedication of Samuel did not replace his circumcision, of course. Rather, it made him a “Nazirite,” whose uncut hair signified his special consecration as a servant of God ( 1 Sam. 1:11; Numbers 6:1-21). Nor is it treated as an ongoing pattern for Israelite infants in the Old Testament, let alone for the children of believers in the New Testament. There were Samson and John the Baptist (also Nazirites from conception), whom God had promised to barren parents and set apart for his own special purposes even before their conception (Judges 13:3-5; Luke 1:13-17).
Then there is the presentation of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-24) when he was about 41 days old. (He was circumcised at 8 days, and then 33 days later Mary could be “purified” following her son’s birth, Lev. 12:37). But we should notice that this presentation fulfills the command that came from the Exodus from Egypt, and specifically the night when the Passover lamb died in the place of the Israelites’ firstborn: “Every firstborn male shall be called holy to the Lord” (Exod. 13:2). Firstborn animals were to be sacrificed as holy to the Lord (Exod. 13:12). Firstborn sons were to be redeemed (Exod. 13:15). It is hard for me to see how this Old Testament custom, which had to be observed carefully for Jesus since he came to fulfill every requirement of the Law of Moses, could be viewed as a model for Christians dedicating their children. Christian infant dedication services don’t mention the ceremonial purificationof the infant’s mother after the birth; they are performed not only for firstborn sons but also for later children–of both genders! They do not involve offering sacrifices for the redemption of the child from death or the purification of the mother. In all these ways Christian infant dedication services today are very different from Jesus’ presentation to the Lord at the age of a month and a half–and they should be! The Old Testament sacrificial system, which included the redemption of Israel’s firstborn and the ceremonial cleansing of Israel’s mothers, was fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Because I find no convincing biblical command or example that would provide a basis for infant dedication by Christian parents today, if we have to choose between infant dedication and infant baptism on the basis of biblical evidence, it seems clear that the weight of biblical evidence favors infant baptism, because of the continuity between circumcision and baptism as signs of entry into God’s community.
“Dedication” Focuses More on the Parents’ Action Than on God’s Promise of Grace through Faith. Finally, infant dedication as a ceremony lacks an important element that infant baptism has: Infant baptism encourages us and our children to trust in Christ by symbolizing the promises of God, achieved for us by Christ and received by faith alone. Dedication tends to focus more on what we do than on what Christ has done. As parents look back on that day with their kids, they are saying, “We dedicated you to the Lord’s service when you were a baby.” On the other hand, as “infant baptist” parents look back on the day of their child’s baptism, they say to her, “On that day long ago, the Lord Jesus promised to you that if you trust him he will wash away your sins and give you a heart to love and serve him by the power of his Spirit. Just as the water ‘cleansed’ your baby skin, so the Holy Spirit will make your heart clean if you trust in Jesus, because Jesus died for the sins of everybody who trusts in him.” You can see the difference. Both sets of parents are calling their kids to respond in faith and both sets do so by teaching the Gospel about what Jesus did for us in his sacrifice on the cross, but children baptized as infants have received a sign/symbol that pointsdirectly to that gift of God’s grace.
So I would say that infant dedication is better than nothing (since it is a way of recognizing that the children of believers have the privileges and responsibilities of being included in the Lord’s community), but it seems to me that infant baptism has much stronger biblical support than does infant dedication in the New Testament church.
Fatherly Encouragement: Study the Scriptures. Pray. Think. Ask
Since I’ve walked the road between “believer baptism” and “infant baptism,” I appreciate the fact that you want to re-examine childhood assumptions in the light of what God’s Word teaches. Go to it! I also sympathize with you, since we both realize that this issue is not as “cut-and-dried” as whether Jehovah or Baal is God, or whether we are saved by faith in Jesus or by our own obedience to the Law. The biblical answers to those questions are plain and clear. But sincere believers who love the Lord and want to follow his Word have drawn very different conclusions on this question of infant baptism. So I would just encourage you to study the Bible’s teaching, not only inindividual verses that contain the word “baptism” but also in passages that explain the symbolism of circumcision and baptism, that show how God treats children in the Old Testament in the New, that show us who belongs to the community of Christ on earth (both ancient Israel and the Church today), and that explain ideas like “covenant” andthe role of the family/household in God’s plan for his covenant people. I would encourage you to think and pray over what you have read. No doubt I haven’t covered in this letter all the questions you may have, so please feel free to ask them and I’ll do my best to give you answers that are faithful to God’s Word.
Dennis E. Johnson, Ph.D.
Professor of Practical Theology
Westminster Theological Seminary in California
1725 Bear Valley Pkwy.Escondido, CA 92027
Phone: (760) 480-8474
© 1998 Dennis E. Johnson. Corrected 2003. This is not a polished, published document yet, but I reserve the right to turn it into one in the future. It is circulated for the benefit and discussion of students at Westminster Theological Seminary in California and, with permission, to other Christians who may be helped by it. To contact the author, see regular and e-mail addresses at the end.
My pastor also believed that immersion (Romans 6:4) is the only right mode by which to apply the water of baptism. He would not recognize sprinkling (Hebrews 9:13-14; 1 Peter 1:2; Ezekiel 36:25) or pouring (Acts 1:5; 2:17-18, 33: “You will be baptized with Spirit” = “I will pour out my Spirit”; see Titus 3:5-6), even though these methods of applying cleansing liquid (water/blood) are used repeatedly in Scripture, and sometimes tied directly to the language of baptism (as in Acts 1-2). The verses above suggest that baptism symbolizes not only death, burial, and resurrection with Christ, but also cleansing from sin’s uncleanness (sprinkling) and the gift of the Spirit (pouring). Therefore it seems that any of these modes is appropriate, since each mode points to some aspect of the spiritual reality of which baptism is a sign.
Over Labor Day weekend I was preaching in Portland, OR, and spent the afternoon with a couple in the church there. We were talking about infant baptism and I learned that the husband had come to faith in a Baptist church and had then come to believe that infant baptism is biblical while he was studying at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. I asked him what had changed his mind, and he mentioned especially coming to see that circumcision in the Old Testament was a sign of “the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:11), and yet Abraham was commanded to circumcise infants who were too young to demonstrate faith. If that was so in the Old Testament, he concluded, it could also be true of baptism in the New. I’ll pick up this idea below, but I thought you would be interested to learn of this brother’s experience of coming to believe in the appropriateness of infant baptism not in an “infant baptist” seminary like Westminster but in a “believer baptist” seminary like Western.
Timothy is the only individual whose “childhood history” we know much about, but it’s likely that both he and his mother were, so to speak, “Old Testament believers” until Paul arrived in Lystra, bringing the news that God’s Old Testament promises had been fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah (Acts 16:13; 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:10, 15). Since Timothy’s mother taught him the Scriptures “from infancy,” apparently she would have had him circumcised as an infant as the Law commanded, were it not for the fact that his Gentile father forbade it. Paul circumcised him as a young adult not because circumcision is a sacrament/sign still applied to believers under the New Covenant, but simply to remove a potential obstacle to the effectiveness of Timothy’s ministry among Jews. Anyway, we don’t ever read about when Timothy was baptized.
The expression is from Isa. 57:19 and is applied to Gentiles in Acts 22:21; Eph. 2:13, 17.
- A Biblical Look at the Death of Infants Jeff Spry (mp3)
- A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism R. Scott Clark
- An Excerpt on Infant Baptism Martin Luther
- Baptism: A Duty of God’s People Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
- Covenant Baptism C. Matthew McMahon
- Dr. Jonathan Edwards on Baptism John Gerstner
- God’s Grandchildren – MICHAEL S. HORTON
- Hodge’s 8 Propositions on Infant Baptism Lee irons
- Infant Baptism – Quetions and Answers C. Z. Berryhill
- Infant Baptism (Part 1) Francis Turretin
- Infant Baptism (Romans 4:7-12, 9:1-5) [MP3] Michael Cannon – Cliffwood PCA
- Infant Baptism John Calvin
- Infant Baptism Jonathan Edwards
- Infant Baptism and New Testament Texts Joseph M. Gleason
- Infant Baptism in Early Church History Dennis Kastens
- Infant Baptism in the New Covenant – Jeremiah 31:31-34 Richard Pratt
- Infant Baptism Optional? D. G. Hart, John R. Muether
- Infant Baptism: How My Mind Has Changed Dr. Dennis E. Johnson
- John Calvin: Infant Baptism Bryn MacPhail
- Of Infant Baptism John Owen
- Prefatory Notes on Infant Baptism C. Matthew McMahon
- The 5th Command And Infant Baptism Ezekiel Hopkins
- The Biblical Basis For Infant Baptism Bryn MacPhail
- The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism Pierre Ch. Marcel
- The Doctrine of the Sacrament surrounding Infant Baptism Ezekiel Hopkins
- The Faith of Infants Francis Turretin
- The Prevalence and Theology of Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, East and West Greg Johnson
- Why Does the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Baptize Infants? Larry Wilson
- Zwinglian Statement on Infant Baptism Ulrich Zwingli
Different Arguments for Infant Baptism
A Basic 4-Step Covenant-Based Argument
A key to understanding and accepting this argument: The sacraments are not public professions of faith in Jesus. No one should feel comfortable saying, “Baptism means that I’ve made my decision for Jesus.” The function of baptism is that of a covenant sign, so it points to the grace of the covenant and the saving work of God in the covenant. It does not point to an individual’s faith.
1. The church (the covenant community or the people of God) is the same throughout the history of redemptive revelation. The body of believers is organically one throughout all of history because there is only one covenant promise and thus one people of God.
2. The church in the Old Testament was constituted of believers and their “seed” or offspring. The nature of covenant administration is always spelled out as being a covenant made with believers and their children, thus children have always received the sign of the covenant.
3. In the new covenant in Jesus Christ, it is the old covenant that is fulfilled, rather than the old covenant being totally set aside for a completely new and unrelated covenant. Because of this, there is continuity in the significance of circumcision under the old covenant and baptism under the new. Baptism is a nonbloody sign which points back to that to which circumcision pointed ahead (the death and resurrection of Christ).If it was appropriate to give the covenant sign to believers’ children under the old covenant by circumcision, then it is appropriate to give the corresponding covenant sign to children today in baptism.
4. The covenant blessings are extended in Christ and not contracted. Peter’s words at Pentecost indicate an expansion of the covenant to the gentiles, not a contraction of the covenant that would exclude the children of believers.
Dr. Edmund Clowney’s Argument from The Church:
A key to understanding and accepting this argument:
The church is the company of all those whom God has claimed for Himself. Those who bear the name of God and who are claimed as God’s children are included in His church unless they decide to reject His ownership and leave His church.
1. Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, thus marking by baptism those who belong to Him. Christian baptism is a naming ceremony. The baptized person is given the name of the triune God. Baptism is the initiating sacrament that marks belonging to the family of God.
2. God gave Abraham circumcision as a sign of His covenant. Circumcision was a ritual of cleansing and dedication because it marked the acknowledgement of God’s Lordship. Abraham was responsible for his household and so all male children in his household were circumcised on the eighth day.
3. Baptism is also a ceremony of cleansing and a sign of the covenant. Baptism represents covenant commitment and the gift of the Spirit. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward seal. The inward seal is that of the Holy Spirit and of union with Christ.
4. The old covenant form of the people of God had the same core covenant as the new covenant people of God: that God will be our God and we His people. Fulfillment in Christ does not destroy that relation, but it brings it to accomplishment.
5. Circumcision marked the claim of God on His children, who were His by creation and by redemption. Paul refers to this claim of God on the children of His covenant when he says that our children are holy (1 Corinthians 7:12-14). Because of God’s claim of ownership, children were given the sign of God’s covenant promise in the old covenant. In the new covenant, the sign of its fulfillment is not denied to them (Acts 2:39).
6. In the book of Acts, the place of children in the families of God’s people was well understood. Our individualistic culture has a difficult time understanding what was self-evident at the time of the apostolic church. Family baptisms and the welcoming of children by Jesus are two indications that children were included in God’s people.
7. If we can present our children to the Father and dedicate them to Him, then we can pronounce the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit on them. If we can do this, then we must do so with the sign of water. This is the only sign that God has given for naming His children as His own.
8. Through God’s blessing and His promise, we look forward to the day when our children will confess the Lord for themselves, but they will confess Him who knew them from the beginning and whose name has been on their lips from their first babbled words.
John Murray’s Argument from Christian Baptism:
A key to understanding and accepting this argument:
The church, although it is defined as the body of believers, is made up of a mixture of those who are truly united to Christ and those who only externally appear to be united to Christ. This mixture will always characterize the church because God has placed the responsibility for governing the church in the hands of human beings.
1. Baptism is the sign and seal of union with Christ and His body, the church. Not only is it union with Christ, but it is also union with the Father and the Holy Spirit, as the recipient is baptized into the full triune name of God. Also involved in the significance of baptism is the idea of purification from the defilement and guilt of sin (John 3:5 and Titus 3:5 and 1 Cor. 6:11).
2. The church is the body of Christ, comprised of all of those who have been regenerated and joined to Christ by faith. However, no man is able to accurately judge regeneration in another, and the Lord alone knows those who are His. For this reason, we must recognize an aspect of invisibility to the church. Yet the church is also a visible entity governed by human beings. These humans who govern the church are given the responsibility of including and excluding people from membership in the church, but they must do so according to the standards Christ has given.
3. The most obvious and clear criteria for admission into the church is a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. Since baptism is the sign and seal of membership in the church, it must be given to those who make the required profession of faith, even if those people are not really regenerate. Regeneration is something no man can judge, for it is known to God alone.
4. Another key characteristic of the church is that it is generically one in both the Old and New Testament ages. While the form of the church and the administration of membership in the church have been radically transformed by the coming of Christ and the gift of the Spirit, the church in the Old Testament is still the church, and there is only one church. In fact, we can see that the church of the New Testament is really founded on the Abrahamic covenant (Galatians 3) and is the extension and unfolding of that covenant. The church is not two bodies, one old and one new, but one plant with many branches.
5. The church under the Old Testament included not only all believers, but also their infant children. Circumcision was the sign of “church membership” in the old covenantand was given to the infant children of believers. Circumcision symbolized union with God, the removal of defilement, and was the sign given to Abraham to seal the righteousness by faith he had earlier demonstrated. These three things which circumcision symbolized are today signed and sealed in baptism.
6. If the children of believers in the Old Testament received the full sign of covenant blessing in circumcision, why should we expect any different in the new covenant, especially since the new covenant represents an expansion of the covenant blessings given to Abraham, not a contraction of them? If infants are excluded from receiving baptism, it would represent such a huge change in covenant administration that we should expect some explicit teaching in the New Testament explaining this reversal. Yet there is no evidence that the inclusion of children in the covenant was revoked under the new covenant. In the absence of any such evidence, we must believe that baptism continues to be appropriate for the infant children of believers, just as circumcision was in the old covenant.
7. Even though baptism is a sign of covenant union and communion, it does not follow that everyone who receives the sign is an actual heir of eternal life. Those who bear the sign and seal of grace may not necessarily bear the grace that is thus signified and sealed. This is not unique to infant baptism, for the same is true of adult or “believers” baptism, too. We should see in this—just as we do in church membership in general—that there is a difference between the secret operation of God’s grace and the God-appointed method of human administration of the covenant. The requirements given to men for administering the covenant cannot be perfect knowledge of the secret operation of God’s spirit.
8. The infant children of those who make a credible profession of faith should be baptized, not because we know they are “saved,” but because God has told us to administer the sign and seal of the covenant in that way. The fact that God has instituted it is sufficient grounds for administering it. The institution of God says that we should baptize adults based on a credible profession of faith, and that we should also baptize the infant children of such adults. Once such children have been baptized, they should be received as the children of God because that is what God tells us to do.
9. There is also significant circumstantial corroborating evidence for baptizing infants:
o The welcoming of the little children by Jesus as evidence that the kingdom of heaven is not just for intelligent adults.
o The fact that Paul addresses the children of believers in Ephesians and Colossians as saints, and he gives them covenantal duties appropriate to their station in life, namely, obeying their parents.
o Paul’s teaching about the sanctified status of the children of even one believing parent in 1 Cor. 7:14.
o The household baptisms in the New Testament.
o The address of Peter at Pentecost and the declaration that “the promise is to you and to your children.”
Pierre Marcel’s Argument from Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism
A key to understanding and accepting this argument:
God is sovereign in salvation and in covenant administration.
1. God’s eternal covenant of grace is His sovereign plan to redeem a people for Himself, for His own glory and for the good of man.
2. By sovereign decree, God decides that the children of believers shall be included in His covenant. For the time of Abraham onwards, for a period of 2,000 years, children were expressly received into the church from the time of their birth, if they were born of Jewish parents, or as minors, if they belonged to families of which the father had been converted to Judaism.
3. The children of believers are heirs of all the promises of the covenant. They are separate from the world and are members of God’s kingdom, just as baptized converts are. This is supported by four things:
- Christ regards children as members of the covenant, members of His kingdom, and of the Church when He welcomes them in Matthew 19:13 and in other places.
- Both Peter and Paul in the book of Acts uphold the continuation of family solidarity under the covenant and thus the extension of covenant benefits to children. Peter does this at Pentecost (Acts 2:39) and Paul does it with the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31).
- The household baptisms, when viewed in light of the covenant of grace, say more about infant baptism than Baptists would like to admit. The willingness of the Holy Spirit to grant salvation to all the members of the household, without exception, is the clearest demonstration that the Spirit is acting in line with the covenant of grace, which includes family or household solidarity before God.
- In 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul affirms that the children of believers are holy.
4. The children of believers are baptized based solely on the fact that they are thechildren of the covenant and heirs of the promises of the covenant. The covenant is the legal and objective basis for infant baptism. Baptism is the sign, seal and pledge of all the covenant promises and so it is given to infants of believers because they are the rightful heirs of these promises.
5. The ground or basis of baptism is the same for both adults and children. Children are not baptized on the basis of a presumed regeneration and neither are adults. The covenant is the grounds of the baptism of both adults and children. Both professing believers and their children are included in the covenant and thus receive the sign of the covenant.
6. God is sovereign in His choice. He makes decisions and it is not for us to question His methods. The sequence of God’s action and then man’s response holds true for both adult baptism and infant baptism because, in both cases, faith is the response of man to the initiative of God. The taking hold of a child by God does not depend on the child anymore than does the taking hold by God of an adult. God must first claim a child as His own and then the child will be able to believe. Human faith is always a consequence of the divine decision.
7. God has chosen that the children of believers should be born into the covenant. The children of the covenant have no more choice than the children of Adam. God brings these children under the blessings and obligations of the covenant by His sovereign will.
8. In order for a child’s later choice about God to be based on the truth, he must know that God has chosen to count him among the members of the covenant. His choice then involves either the rejection of the grace that God has already given or the acceptance of this grace and the confirmation of the covenant. If a child does not know his proper standing before God, he cannot understand the nature of his choice. When a child rejects the covenant, the choice is to revolt against what God has already done. There is greater judgment for those who reject the catechized truth. Baptized infants fall in this category.
9. The New Testament accounts of the baptisms of adults, which show that faith and repentance precede baptism, do not prove anything regarding the baptism of children. Baptists want to use the accounts of adult baptisms in the book of Acts to form a binding rule without exception that would apply to all baptisms. They refuse to see any difference between an unconverted adult and a child born to Christian parents. God himself made a distinction between these two groups when He gave the guidelines for the administration of circumcision. A few baptism narratives in the book of Acts do not cancel a fundamental distinction that God has established. Abraham needed to believe God before he received the sign of circumcision, but Isaac received the sign at birth before he was able to express faith.
Eight Compelling Arguments for Infant Baptism
- 1. God has brought us into a covenant of grace, and although not all members of this covenant will persevere (i.e., they are not elect and have not been regenerated), they enjoy special privileges of belonging to covenant people. This was true of Israel, and the New Testament simply applies this to the New Testament church as well (Deut. 4:20; 28:9; Isa. 10:22; Hosea 2:23; Rom. 9:24-28; Gal. 6:16; Heb. 4:1-11; 6:4-12; 1 Peter 2:9-10).
- 2. Even though bringing someone under the protection of God’s covenantal faithfulness does not guarantee that that person possesses true, persevering faith (Heb. 4:1-11), that does not mean it is unimportant as to whether children of believers are given the seal of the covenant.
- 3. Children were included in the covenant of grace in the Old Testament through the sacrament of circumcision, and in the new covenant (called the “better covenant”), God has not changed in his good intentions toward our children (Acts 2:38). Circumcision has been replaced by baptism (Col. 2:11). Therefore, our children must receive God’s sign and seal of covenant ownership.
- 4. The children of unbelievers are unholy, but the children of believers are set apart unto God. This is a distinction not only of the Old Testament (see the Passover, Exod. 12:42-51; also the distinction between the “house of the wicked” and the “house of the righteous,” especially in the psalms) but is continued in the New, where a believer’s children are regarded as holy (1 Cor. 10:2). How are they marked or distinguished from unbelievers, then? By the sign and seal of the covenant.
- 5. Household baptisms are common in the New Testament reports of such events. Surely at least some of them included infants. If so, this would have been perfectly consistent with the Jewish understanding of the Abrahamic covenant (above, #4).
- 6. There is an unbroken record in church history supporting the practice of infant baptism, beginning with the earliest generations. There would surely have been a major controversy if the immediate successors of the apostles departed from the apostolic practice on such a vital point. However, no such record exists.
- 7. If baptism were a testimony of the believer’s faithfulness to the covenant, it would not be capable of being applied to those who have no faithfulness to offer. However,baptism is the word of God, not of human beings. It is not chiefly a sign of the believer’s commitment to God (although it certainly entails that) but of God’s commitment to call out a people for himself. Because salvation is by grace alone, God acts in salvation prior to any human choice or action (Rom. 9:12-16). Infant baptism is an extraordinary divine testimony to his prevenient grace. Consequently, it obligates those who are baptized to remain faithful to the covenant but does not make their faithfulness a prerequisite of their inclusion.
- 8. The reason there are so many examples in the New Testament of baptism only upon profession of faith is that the first generation is in view. As with Abraham’s circumcision, an adult trusts in God’s promise and is justified–and only afterwards is baptized. But also like Abraham, we present our household to receive the sign and seal. No orthodox Christian body would accept the practice of baptizing adults without a profession of faith.
- - Michael S. Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 106-7.