Archives For Infant Baptism

In my last post, I tried to clear away some arguments that clutter the discussion on whether Christians should baptize their infants. One could walk way from that post thinking that I endorse infant baptism. But I don’t. At least, I think that the case for believer’s baptism has more scriptural support, even though I think there is some support for infant baptism.

Now, I must say that I have not studied this issue in depth. I’ve never read any books on the subject, nor have I worked through all the believersbaptismimportant passages in detail. I’m sort of thinking out loud in this post as I’ve thought about this issue on an informal level. I’d love to see if I’m missing something in my reasoning.

So, here are my “working thoughts” on why I still believe in believer’s baptism.

First, I mentioned in the last post that the correlation between circumcision in the Old Covenant and baptism in the New Covenant has been used to justify infant baptism. The main problem I have with this is that the most pervasive sign of the New Covenant is not baptism but faith. Read Romans 4:9-16, Galatians 3:6-9, and 5:2-5 and notice that circumcision has been superseded by faith, not water baptism. And faith, here, refers to a confession that Jesus is Lord, that He has been raised from the dead, not the general “faith” that pervades a believing household. Therefore, there seems to be discontinuity between the sign of the Old Covenant (circumcision of an infant) and the sign of the New Covenant (faith in the risen Lord).

Second, and this one is perhaps the most important, there is discontinuity between Old and New Covenants in terms of covenant membership. This is a bit complex, so let me explain. In the Old Covenant, one could be a “member” but not “saved” or right with God. As stated in the last post, plenty of wicked kings of Israel were wicked (i.e. they weren’t saved) even though they lived under the banner of the Covenant.

But not so in the New. Notice that Jeremiah says that the New Covenant will not be like the Old (31:32). In the Old Covenant, there was an external law to obey and members of the Covenant had to be taught it. As circumcised infants would grow up, some would obey and learn the law while others (Ahab, Manasseh, etc.) would not. But the New Covenant will be different. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” God tells Jeremiah. “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (31:33-34).

Follow me here. Whereas in the Old Covenant, you had members of the covenant who were circumcised as infants who may or may not follow the believer's baptism 2LORD later on, it will be different in the New. In the New Covenant, every member will be “saved”—they will have the law written on their heart. They will not need to be taught it, not in a general sense of learning the Bible, but in a salvific sense of “knowing” God. Unlike the Old Covenant, members of the New Covenant would become covenant members when they confess faith and are therefore saved.

Now, these two arguments don’t quite settle the debate, but they do seem to give believer’s baptism some scriptural momentum, as we look at those tough “household baptism” passages in Acts (e.g. 16:15, 33-34).
When you read these passages, it seems very well possible that Lydia and the Philippian jailor baptized their children. After all, when the jailor was converted, “he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (16:33).

This is one of the strongest cases for infant baptism. However, notice that the previous verse says that Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” (16:32). The verse after says that the jailor “rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God” (16:34). Indeed, it’s not entirely clear whether his kids (if he had any) were baptized. But Acts seems to say that everyone in his household who was baptized were the same people who listened to Paul speak and rejoiced when they heard the message.

In all the other household baptism passages, never are infants or children specified. And the case of the jailor seems to suggest that those who were baptized were old enough to respond to and rejoice over the message.

Again, this passage—or any single passage—doesn’t settle the issue. But together with the ideas that faith, not baptism, is a sign of covenant membership and that there’s discontinuity between the covenants, I lean toward believer’s baptism.

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.

This question is very relevant for me, since I have four kids and two of them have expressed interest in baptism. Now, for our Presbyterian/Reformed readers out there, the question is a no brainer: you baptize them when they’re infants, since they are part of a covenant family.

I really don’t want to get into the debate about infant vs. believer’s baptism, though I will say that I see a lot more merit in the former than I used to. Most of the arguments lobbed at those who practice infant baptism are terrible and not rooted in Scripture. In any case, I still see more merit in believer’s baptism, largely in light of the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, but that’s for another post.

So, for you Baptists out there (or you who hold to believer’s baptism), when do you baptize your kids?

Most Baptists I know are quite hesitant to baptize their kids too early. They want to wait until they have some assurance that their kids are genuine believers. I used to think this way, but then I re-read the New Testament and realized that nowhere is baptism withheld from a confessing believer for the sake of having assurance that the person is a genuine believer. If you know a text that I’m missing, please let me know. But as far as I can see, the criteria for baptism is: 1) a public confession of Christ as the Messiah, and 2) a rudimentary knowledge of what baptism is. I just don’t see any passages in the New Testament that suggest we should wait to see some fruit or perseverance before someone is baptized.

Or think about this. Baptism, most would agree, does not save you, but it is the first act of obedience from a confessing believer. If this is true, then I’ve got a real dilemma on my hands. By not baptizing my kids who have made (as far as I can tell) a genuine confession, I’m actually preventing a genuine Christian from obeying Jesus. I may actually be causing another brother or sister (my believing kids) to stumble by not allowing them to obey Jesus in light of a man-made criterion (i.e., perseverance) for baptism. Plus, I tell my kids to do all sorts of things that Christians do, such as pray, share, be selfless, give money, read their Bibles, and even tell others about Jesus. These are all acts of obedience. Why haven’t they obeyed Jesus by being baptized?

Furthermore—if I can mentally wrestle out loud for a moment—what would be so wrong about baptizing an 8-year-old child who confesses Christ, if they end up falling away? Well, one potential danger is that the child will later trust in their baptism as confirmation of their salvation regardless of how they are living. And 1 Corinthians 1 may hint at a similar situation, when Paul reflects on his baptizing of several Corinthian believers who became over infatuated with baptism. But I only did something wrong if I forced them to think this way. (Taking my kids to church every Sunday could inevitably provide the same false assurance.) But there really is no clear warning in Scripture along the lines of: “you’d better darn well make sure this person remains a Christian long after they are baptized; otherwise, you may be committing the sin of baptizing a pagan.” John the Baptist was clearly cautious about the genuineness of the confession and was clear that following the Messiah necessitates repentance (Matt 3; Luke 3). But again, I’m talking about a person—a 6 or 8 year old child—who for all I can see is making a genuine profession of faith, and yet has not demonstrated years of perseverance.

Perseverance is not a precondition of baptism, otherwise Philip really jumped the gun with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8).

Lastly, I keep telling myself: “Wait until my kids come to me with a desire to be baptized.” After all, I don’t want to force them to do something that they don’t feel like doing. And there’s some truth here. I don’t want to turn my kids into empty shells of religiosity. But think with me for a second. Since when are feelings the basis for obedience? If I went to church only when I felt like it, you’d probably only see me there at Christmas and Easter, and if I only gave money away when I felt like it, I’d be able to buy that new Jeep I’ve always wanted. And then there’s that stubborn old problem we often run into with this blog: the Bible. Where in the BIBLE does it say “come be baptized if you feel like it?” If it’s an act of obedience—commanded by God—then our feelings shouldn’t dictate whether or not we respond. Jesus, not our fallible feelings, is the basis for obedience.

Of course we want the act to be genuine, but this doesn’t mean that I remove all parental influence in the act. I can (and often do) contribute to the authenticity of their obedience. And again, I don’t consistently apply the “obey when you feel like it” logic to the rest of my parenting. Otherwise, my kids would probably be playing out in the middle of the street somewhere right now, and they certainly wouldn’t be sharing their stuff with each other. Ever.

And so all in all, biblically, I see more harm in withholding baptism (the first act of obedience) from a confessing believer, than in baptizing someone at a young age who has not yet proved through years of following Christ that they have been born again.

But I’m posting this because I’d love to hear your thoughts. What am I missing?