Thoughts on Infant Baptism

Preston Sprinkle —  August 13, 2013 — 9 Comments

I’ve never advocated for infant baptism, nor have I let my kids near the dunking tank until I’ve witnessed a confession of faith. I believe in what’s called “believer’s baptism;” that is, a person should be baptized after they’ve made a personal confession of faith.

However, over the years I’ve come to see the logic and scriptural support for infant baptism. I still advocate for believer’s baptism but I don’t see infant baptism 1this position as a clear, slam dunk, how-can-you-believe-the-Bible-and-baptize-infants issue. It’s much less clear than you may think. Here’s why.

One of the main arguments I’ve heard against infant baptism is that all the baptisms we see in the New Testament are of adults (e.g. Acts 8:36-38; 10:47-48; we’ll get to the household baptisms of Acts later). But this is a poor argument, because all of these adults are converts. That is, they weren’t raised in a Christian home, where their baptism was delayed until their parents saw a confession of faith. They were adult converts to Christianity from Judaism or Roman paganism. Their baptism as an adult convert supports neither side of the debate, since both sides—yes, even those who hold to infant baptism—believe that adult converts should be baptized, as adults, after a confession of faith.

The widespread presence of first generation adult converts getting baptized contributes nothing to the debate. We must look elsewhere.

A solid biblical argument for infant baptism is its parallel to circumcision in the Old Covenant. Just as infants were circumcised as a sign of Old Covenant membership, so infants should be baptized as a sign of New Covenant membership. “But we’re saved by faith!” you interject. Yes, of course, but I didn’t say that infants were “saved” by circumcision or baptism. Infants were, at least in the Old Covenant, members of the Covenant by virtue of being born into it. There’s a difference between being part of the Covenant and having a personal response of faith to God.

For instance, many wicked kings in the Old Testament were circumcised and therefore part of the Covenant, but they were wicked. They worshiped infant baptism 2idols and sacrificed their children: they never had genuine faith in God. However, the very fact that God holds them to the standards of the Covenant—punishing them when they disobey, and rewarding them when they obey (cf. 2 Chronicles)—shows that they were part of the Covenant structure. But they weren’t “saved” in the sense that we use the term. They were sort of “in,” but they were also very much “out.”

Back to infant baptism. One of the loudest complaints from baptistic folks like myself is that infant baptism is an affront on salvation by faith. But infant baptists don’t claim that their freshly sprinkled babies are “saved” apart from a confession. They claim, with the grain of the Old Testament, that their baby is part of the overarching New Covenant in the same way that little Ahab or Isaiah would have been 8 days after they were born in Jerusalem. Isaiah would go on to be “saved”—a prophet of the Holy One of Israel—while Ahab would become an idolatrous wolf dressed in Israelite clothes.

The New Testament has no such parallel of second generation Christians (e.g. born into an existing Christian family), who were either baptized or not baptized as infants.

And then there’s the whole correlation between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism in Colossians 2:11-12:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raises the dead.

Okay, so it’s not the clearest association ever seen. But if Paul never wanted folks to relate circumcision to baptism, he could have done better. There appears to be at least a general connection between circumcision with baptism.

My point, though, is not to reveal the true meaning of Colossians 2, but to show that there is some solid biblical support for infant baptism. It’s not as if infant baptists have traded in their Bibles for the traditions of Rome (I’ve actually heard some Protestants say this). It’s an inner-biblical issue. And some of the arguments lobbed against infant baptism are not as strong as they seem.

“So why are you for believer’s baptism?”

Great question! Tune in to the next post to see why.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
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  • Jared Del Dosso

    I work at a church that does infant baptisms, which is (and I am pretty sure this is usually the case) followed by ‘confirmation’, sort of an ‘adult decision’ (for lack of a better phrase tat conveys the idea) that confirms their infant baptism. I used to think this was silly, but I have grown to appreciate it (on a side note, I really enjoy teaching confirmation classes!).
    Christianity only makes sense in a community of believers, and that holds true for baptism as well. My child (theoretical, at the moment) will be baptized (if I am still at this same church at that time) into a comunity of people–the local body of Christians I worship and serve with–that are commiting (dare I say ‘covenanting’) to raise that child with me. Because infant-baptism (at least in my church) is a very communal sacrament, with a call-and-response to the congregation to agree to raise the child, the understanding of baptism should be communal as well. The local church should be making a decision, over against a privatized ‘personal’ baptism.
    Obviously, the more personal baptisms can be very communal. I was merely presenting how I view infant baptisms at my church, and I have grown to appreciate it a lot!
    Thanks for your thoughts Preston!

  • Colby Truesdell

    Preston, love the post. Do you think another facet of baptism that could potentially legitimize biblical support for children baptism is its passive and receptive nature? That is, one has to be baptized *by another.* (Rom 6:3, “been baptized;” 1 Cor. 6:11, “you were washed,” etc.). The one baptized plays a passive role (unlike the one participating in the Lord’s Supper), and there is a vulnerability that the one baptized has to assume in order for baptism to take place. Such vulnerability is not unlike that of a child’s. However, the importance is not place on the baptizer (or the one baptized), rather it seems to be the “name” in whom one is baptized (Matt 28, the name of the Triune God; 1 Cor. 1:13). If anything, it seems that when we talk of our own baptisms, we need to be wary of qualifying the act as something we did, or a decision we made. To be sure, that is the case for many people. Yet it seems those ways of talking about baptism don’t do justice to the object of our faith.

    However, in response to your discussion above, what do you make of Paul’s understanding of circumcision in his discussion of Abraham? In Rom 4:11, Paul writes, “he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by *faith* while he was still uncircumcised.” Here it looks as though Paul is making circumcision a sign of one’s faith. And, if the logic concerning the correlation between circumcision and baptism follows, would that make baptism a sign of one’s faith? Moreover (its getting strange), if circumcision necessitates *someone’s* faith, does this mean Isaac’s circumcision (Gen 21) is legitimized by the faith of Abraham? If so, can the *faith* of the parents (or Christ?) be the basis on which children are baptized? These are strange questions, and for that I apologize. I could totally be missing the mark, but this is where my brain goes.

    • Preston

      Colby, great thoughts, bro! In particular: “it seems that when we talk of our own baptisms, we need to be wary of
      qualifying the act as something we did, or a decision we made.” Super solid thoughts.

      Re: Rom 4, I talk about that a bit tomorrow. Now, Abraham was circumcised as an adult, of course, but this wasn’t the norm for this rite, which was done on infants afterwards. Abraham was, for lack of better terms, a convert–just as an adult convert would be baptized today.

  • MikeRuiz

    In the Great Commission, Jesus says to go out and make disciples of all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Could it be said that the order that Scripture provides is that one must first be a disciple of Christ before baptism? Just wondering?

    BTW I’m an EBC student going on my 2nd semester and I really appreciate your blogs. Blessings”!

    • Preston

      Hey Mike! Glad to hear that you’re an EBC student! Thanks for dropping in on the blog.

      Re: Matt 28, I’d be a little cautious reading a strict chronology into the way the Great Commission unfolds. Making disciples seems to involve baptizing, teaching, etc. But I appreciate your thoughts!

  • http://www.beingfilled.com/ Chuck McKnight

    I too can understand where this argument comes from; however, the New Testament never draws the parallel between physical circumcision and baptism (I don’t think that verse cited has anything to do with physical circumcision). Plus, Paul was pretty adamant about the fact that circumcision is not required for believers. It seems to me that if baptism did replace circumcision, Paul would have used that as support for why circumcision is no longer needed.

    On the other hand, I think the New Testament does make it exceptionally clear that baptism is a sign of repentance and a first step in discipleship.

    It doesn’t really bother me if infants are baptized, especially if it’s more of a dedication thing, but I do think they should be baptized again once they make a personal choice to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord.

    • Preston

      Thanks Chuck. I talk about some of this in the next post, actually.

      In any case, I think the Colossians 2 text offers more than you allow. Yes, “spiritual circumcision” is in view and this seems to be “baptism” (water or spiritual?). The point though is that the category of “spiritual circumcision” is analogous to physical circumcision. Again, I don’t think this text demands infant circumcision/baptism, but I don’t think it’s as clear as day that it doesn’t.

      • Lance Gabriel Hancock

        Similar to Chuck’s comment, I’ve heard someone observe before that the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 could have easily been settled by simply saying, “People are baptized into the covenant community, not circumcised.” But, of course, that is not what happens. Rather, the emphasis is on faith or belief as being what brings a person into God’s covenant community (vv. 7, 9, 11).

        In other words, it seems rather telling that there is a complete absence of the idea of baptism during this critical debate on circumcision. I take this to be evidence that there was not as clear a connection in the minds of the Apostles between circumcision and baptism as covenant theologians think there to be.