What's the big deal about infant baptism? Bible believing churches, faithful to Jesus and seeking to submit to him, hold different beliefs about the practice. In western culture, since the 16th century (but not before), baptism has become an individual celebration and proclamation of one's faith. Therefore, most evangelical churches refuse to baptize people until they can express their own faith and can choose baptism. But many traditions, including our - the reformed, or covenantal tradition - think differently about baptism. In American Christianity, we are especially sensitive to the hope that conversion and baptism will be a "special memory" for the baptized person. Covenantal thinkers prefer to emphasize the idea that "while we were still sinners," and "while we were dead in our transgressions," and "while we were God's enemies," Christ died for us. He did not claim us after it was special to us; he claimed us before we could ever choose him, and for the rest of our lives he opens our eyes to what a precious gift he's given. I often challenge parents who want to wait until their kids understand baptism: "do you understand your baptism even now?" If we waited to be claimed by God until we fully wanted him, salvation would be our work... and one we'd never complete.
Perhaps, before we get into any of the biblical support of infant baptism, it's worth summarizing the difference in opinion: for those who support "believers' baptism," baptism is a personal proclamation of faith. It is my way to say to God: I am yours. I've come to believe in your gospel, I've repented of my sins, and now I am getting baptized to show the world that I belong to you. This camp points to Peter's speech in Acts 2, in which he says, "repent, each of you, and be baptized..." Aha, here it is: repent first, then be baptized.
Conversely, for those who support infant baptism, they say baptism is God's way of saying "you are mine." In other words, baptism is a sign of God's covenant with us. And all throughout the Bible, when God makes a covenant with an parent, he is making that covenant with the children. Abraham was instructed to have every male baby in his line circumcised as a way to mark that they, too, were child of the covenant (and given cultural norms, girls were included by association). This group points to Peter's next words: "this promise is for you and your children..." Aha, here it is: this new group was being invited into God's covenant, and their children got to come with them. That, of course, is the argument of this article.
We say baptism is a sign of God's covenant with us, which he makes in Christ before the foundation of the world. We see throughout Scripture that God makes his people a family, and he often calls entire families to be part of his family. It is assumed in scripture that believing parents would raise their children as believers, just as the children of citizens are automatically citizens. Below is a summary of the biblical teaching on baptism:
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” -Jesus (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16)
Christian Baptism fulfills and replaces the Old Testament practice of circumcision:
1. Abraham was saved by grace through faith (Gen. 15:6)
2. After that, God called Abraham and his family into an “Everlasting Covenant” and made circumcision (of boys, on behalf of the whole family) the sign of the covenant, like a wedding ring (Gen 17:11).
3. God commands Abraham to apply this sign of the covenant to infants born into his house, and throughout the generations to infants of believing parents (Gen 17:12).
4. When Moses is about to enter Egypt to free the Israelites, God threatens to kill him, and relents when his wife circumcises their son. In other words: The sign is very important to him. (Ex 4:21-26)
In the New Testament, baptism is the outward sign of the inward work of salvation:
1. Jesus’ own baptism was in the Jordan river, indicating that baptism was now the sign by which his people “enter the promised land” of his Kingdom (Matthew 3:13-17 and parallels).
2. When Jesus commands baptism for new believers (Matthew 28:19), he says “make disciples, baptizing them… and teaching them….” The act of baptism precedes teaching. This is not mandatory, but it
3. The dominant teaching of the NT is: we are saved by Grace through faith (Rom. 5; Eph. 2, etc.), which means God acts before we do.
4. Though Baptism doesn’t save us (Rom. 4), it represents the cleansing from sin (Acts 22:16).
5. Paul argues that the sign of circumcision has ceased (Gal. 1-5), but the promise to Abraham continues and is demonstrated through Baptism. Jesus took the sign of the Passover and changed it to the sign of communion, indicating that the meal was now fulfilled by his sacrifice, but was to be taken to remember what he had done. Similarly, Paul teaches that circumcision (an act to mark the covenant community, and done most often with infants) is fulfilled by the sign of baptism. (Col. 2:11-12)
6. The message of God’s covenant is conferred to whole “households” in Acts and signified by Baptism. The first converts after Jesus’ ascension are given these instructions by Peter “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Acts 2:38-39, emphasis added. Two key points:
a. The Promise of repentance and baptism is for believer and their children. It was assumed that entire households would enter the covenant – our individualistic culture has muddied the water.
b. Peter emphasizes that this is God’s work, not ours – he calls people to himself, rather than people calling him to themselves.
7. A survey of baptisms in the early church (Book of Acts) shows that the act of baptism and the moment of regeneration by the Spirit are not tied to one another – some people are baptized well before they fully believe and understand (Philip and the believers in Samaria), other people receive the Spirit before they are baptized (Cornelius and friends). We don’t believe the water of baptism saves someone; rather it marks them visibly as included in the covenant people of God.
8. Colossians presents believers as having been “rescued from the kingdom of darkness” and “transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.” If we were dealing with physical kingdoms – a wicked kingdom on one side of a boundary and a benevolent kingdom on the other, no caring parent would flee to the benevolent side and leave his/her children behind until “they decided.” We are saved by covenant (read: invitation to citizenship in a kingdom) of Grace.
Both circumcision in the OT and baptism in the NT are accompanied by the command to believing parents to raise their children in “the way of the Lord,” and emphasize that God has a special call for the households of believers. Just like wedding rings remind us to be faithful in marriage, “when we as parents remember the sign of salvation applied to our children, it is a call to raise them as God directed.” (See: Gen 18:19: Deut. 6:4-9: Eph. 6:4).
A few more comments:
- Those who support infant baptism should absolutely long to see more and more adult baptisms. For children of believing parents, we celebrate God's sovereign grace to place them in that family. That's one of the ways he is showing his grace to them. But millions are not born to believing parents, and God yearns for them every bit as much. When they come to faith and are baptized, we pray it starts a new family line.
- Many parents are concerned that "my child will be bitter at not getting to choose his/her baptism." We cannot promise this won't happen! It is very likely to happen to a child who is baptized and it is never mentioned again - but if it is explained and celebrated regularly, the child could be as happy about her baptism as she is about her birthday. We didn't choose that, we don't remember it, but we "remember it" and celebrate it every year.
- It's important to remember that baptism doesn't guarantee salvation - whether a 12 year old gets baptized after an emotional summer camp or a baby gets baptized - we don't know what's happening in their heart and what lies ahead of them. Infant baptism should be done very prudently: elder, be careful to examine the parents of infants before they are baptized and hold them accountable to raise their kids in the ways of the Lord.
- This is NOT a hill to die on. The mere fact that faithful readers of the Bible differ so greatly means we ought to be gracious with one another. Those who are part of Littleton Christian Church but aren't convinced about infant baptism are still fully included in the life and fellowship of the church! What's more important is showing the gospel to the world by the way we love one another, including being gracious when we disagree.
What questions do you have? Leave them in the comments section.
 John P. Sartelle, What Christian Parents Should Know About Infant Baptism