A Brief Case for Infant Baptism

March 30, 2011

There is a debate in Evangelical World about Baptism. Everyone agrees that Baptism is important. Everyone agrees that it is an ordinance (or “sacrament” depending on your denomination) instituted by Christ. But an area of strong disagreement revolves around when someone should be baptized. There are two views:

1. Baptism is to be administered only after a person makes an explicit profession of faith. This is view is held by Baptists, Pentacostals, and many non denominational churches (among others). This view is sometimes referred to as “Credobaptism” (believers baptism).

2. Baptism is to be administered soon after birth to babies that are born into a Christian family. This view is held by Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans (among others). This view is sometimes referred to as “paedobaptism”.

The argument against baptizing infants goes like this. Baptism is a symbol of God saving us. It announces to the world, ‘God has saved me.’ ‘I am in the Covenant’. It makes no sense to baptize people before they are of an age where they can understand and accept the gospel. Furthermore, all the Biblical examples of baptism are performed on adults not babies. It would appear (the argument goes) that if you want to live by the Protestant doctrine of Scripture as the sole source of doctrine, you need to be a credobaptist.

I once was a credobaptist. I have now changed my mind. I am now completely convinced that infant baptism is not only permissible based on the Bible but that it is the biblical model.

Let’s start with the permissible part. The argument that there are no biblical examples of infant baptism falls short in one major way. There are no examples of the children of Christians being baptized as adults either. We have several examples of second generation Christians in scripture (for example Timothy) but no examples of these people being baptized as adults. So, the silence in Scripture is not just in regards to infant baptism, it is also in regards to adult baptism of Christian children.

The reason to support the view of infant scripturally begins with a reading of the Old Testament.

Baptism is the sign of the covenant in the New Testament but in the Old Testament, the sign of the Covenant was circumcision. If it is wrong to symbolize the covenant prior to an explicit expression of faith, then did God have it wrong in the Old Testament? Hopefully, your answer to that is ‘no’. But why would God do that?

The answer is that the covenant is passed down through families. God saves and we don’t. God in his providence has chosen to save, at a much higher frequency, those who are born to covenant parents. Baptism is a marking with a physical sign a person’s entrance into the covenant. “This one belongs to God!” God, in the Old Testament, promised Abraham that his children would bless the entire earth. This was a covenant with Abraham and his children. Did every single offspring of Abraham live according to the covenant? No. But they were (with very few exceptions) circumcised with the expectation that they would.

This attitude that the covenant is passed on through families is carried forward to the New Testament.  This is why in Acts 16, you see two entire households get baptized (Acts 16:15 and Acts 16:33). Even if you argue that we don’t know the ages of those two households (that may well have had babies in them), you have to acknowledge that the covenant came upon them as a family not simply as atomistic individuals. Notably, Colossians 2:11-12 shows that baptism represents what circumcision did in the Old Testament (explicitly stating that the true circumcision comes at our baptism).

In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Of course, it is possible for a baptized person to reject the the covenant. There were plenty of those who were circumcised in the Old Testament who bowed their knee to false gods (1 Kings 19). This is why the Apostle Paul speaks of people being “circumcised of the heart” (Romans 2). In the same way, you can be baptized by water but not the Spirit (Acts 18). Each person has a status in the visible covenant and an individual (invisible) status before God. This is what the Reformers referred to as the visible and invisible church.

A couple final notes: First, waiting until someone is able to profess Christ is no guarantee that they are really destined for a heavenly eternity. How many adults get baptized only to fall away? How many adults get baptized and then later realize that their faith was not “real” and get rebaptized. I have known people who have been baptized 3 and 4 times. But the point of covenant baptism is to say this is a work of God. If God, in his providence, baptizes a child who then goes on to live an unruly and ungodly life but eventually comes to faith…..doesn’t that speak even more to the grace and foreknowledge of God? Wouldn’t rebaptizing that person testify to it being a work of man more than a work of God who foreknew those who were being saved? It is not for us to know when someone is ‘really’ saved. God saves.

Second, there is a faith of children that is not an explicit faith but is no less real. Babies can be saved (2 Sam 12:23). If salvation is by faith alone, how can they be saved without faith? John the Baptist worshiped Jesus from the womb (Luke 2). King David said that he relied on God in the womb (Psalm 71:6). Who are we to say that this faith (however imperfect) should be doubted while the faith of a person who has had “false” faith and has been baptized 3 times already as a result is genuine?

Many credobaptists when informed that almost all of the great Reformers of the 16th and 17th century (John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox, etc) were paedobaptists will reply that maybe the Reformers didn’t ‘go all the way’ in their Reforms. Maybe they were ‘still stuck in tradition’. I don’t think so. I think they knew of and interacted with Credobaptists and rejected the practice. They did so based on the biblical principles of covenant that I have laid out. I don’t think the Reformers lacked courage. And I don’t they were unthoughtful. Credobaptists need to recognize that they are not only out of line with Calvin, Luther, Knox, Cramner, Wycliff, Hus and etc, they are out of line with Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Jerome. In other words, a church that insists on credobaptism as a condition of membership would not allow membership to most of the great Christian theologians in all of church history!

IMPORTANT NOTE: I would like to say that I stand proudly side by side with credobaptists as we advance the gospel together in the world. I have not laid out this argument to add division to the church but to remove divisions. I respect credobaptists like Piper, Driscoll and Chandler. But unity cannot come by ignoring differences but addressing them and discussing them. If we are all slaves to Christ and the Word of God, prayerful review of the Scriptures should, in time, draw us together not apart. This is my prayer.

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