• Daniel Baker
Posted in Theology
Given our strong ties to the Reformed community, the issue of baptism comes up fairly often. Our commitment to "believer's baptism" and not "infant baptism" sets us apart from many historically Reformed traditions (see below). My book for those considering baptism, Believe and Be Baptized, covers many issues connected to baptism and who should be baptized. In the back of it is an appendix which explains more specifically why we don't baptize infants (i.e., why we're not paedobaptists). Because of the importance of this topic it seemed worth making it more readily accessible to you. May it encourage you!
This work has defended the view called "believer's baptism," which means that only those who are evidently believers should be baptized. The other major opinion on baptism is called "paedobaptism" or "infant baptism" (paedo-, "child"). Proponents of this view include the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the many branches of the Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist denominations. All of these would affirm believer's baptism when it relates to adult converts, but when it comes to the children of believers, they would affirm paedobaptism. Despite the towering popularity of this view, we believe it to be unbiblical and therefore unhelpful for a number of reasons. We will first summarize the view and then provide several points of response.
The Basic Argument for Paedobaptism
The variety of paedobaptist views cannot be represented here, but we can address the points that are the most noteworthy. These would be representative of most traditional Presbyterians.
As stated above, all paedobaptists would affirm that an adult who becomes a Christian should be baptized. There is dispute about the mode of baptism, but they agree that such a person should be baptized.
The argument for baptizing infants begins with the Abrahamic covenant. The Lord promises, "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" (Gen. 17:7). The sign of the covenant is then given: "This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised" (17:10). The idea of "you and your offspring" has echoes with the children of the Israelites being included in the Passover feasts (Ex. 12:26ff.), in the blessings and curses of the Law (e.g., Lev. 26:22), and the command to "teach…diligently…your children" the commands of the Lord (Deut. 6:4).
The Abrahamic covenant reverberates throughout the Bible even to us who are believers in Christ: "If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Gal. 3:29). In other words, the people of God are the people who by faith enter into the blessings of the patriarch Abraham.
For baptists and paedobaptists alike there is agreement on these issues.
The next important point for paedobaptists is the connection between circumcision and baptism. Clearly, circumcision is the mark of initiation into the people of God in the covenant with Abraham. God's intention was for every generation to be circumcised as a sign of their involvement in the covenant with Abraham. For both parents and children it was part of their keeping the covenant.
Baptism is the sign of initiation into the people of God under the new covenant. This, too, is a point of universal agreement. When we "go therefore and make disciples of all nations," we are first to baptize "them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).
Paedobaptists see that circumcision was for the offspring of believing parents, and so logically deduce that baptism must also be for the offspring of believing parents. As with physically circumcising an infant, such a baptism is not a sign that the child is converted, but that the child is a member of the covenant community. The parent disciples the child toward saving faith, which means the "circumcision of the heart" in the old covenant (cf. Deut. 10:16; 30:6).
A third important point for paedobaptists is the importance of the "households" baptized in the book of Acts (16:15; cf. also 16:31f; 18:8ff.). Paedobaptists do not see that infants are necessarily included in these baptisms (though they could have been for some commentators), but that God often deals with his people by means of this household principle. Paedobaptism better captures this principle than believer's baptism, at least in their minds.
The above unifies most paedobaptists. They differ on issues like whether the children of believers are regenerate, converted, or simply part of the covenant community but not yet possessing a saving faith of their own. Many paedobaptists feel that children should be baptized, but that they should not take the Lord's Supper until they have expressed personal, saving faith.
Thoughts in Response to Paedobaptism
There is an undeniable logic to this view and a certain biblical case can be made for it. Otherwise, it would not be defended by such a noteworthy group of theologians throughout church history. Its essential problem, however, is that it does not adequately capture four critical points made explicitly by the Bible.
First and most importantly, paedobaptism does not adequately capture the explicit connection between faith and baptism.
To us, this is the starting point to a proper view on baptism. We begin with the explicit and then work toward the implicit. We begin with the clear and then work toward the unclear. Any doctrine from the Bible must adopt these principles if it is to be orthodox.
The clear teaching of the New Testament is that those who are "disciples" are to be baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). "Disciple" is not a passive term in the Bible, someone who merely hears God's Word taught—as any infant might. It is rather a term to capture a life committed to following Christ. In other words, it is a converted Christian: "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples" (John 15:8).
Peter exhorts his listeners at Pentecost to "repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38). Obviously, Peter is not teaching baptismal regeneration here, but the initial steps for those whose hearts have been pricked with the conviction of the Holy Spirit—believers. Further, in Samaria they "believed Philip" as he preached and "they were baptized" (Acts 8:12).
We can add here that baptism is meant to be a picture of a work that Christ has already completed in us by faith, not something he will complete in the future (Rom. 6:3-4). We are "buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith" (Col. 2:12, emphasis mine). Faith precedes the baptism, and baptism pictures that we have been " buried with him" and have been "raised with him." Among paedobaptists there is some acknowledgement of the above truths from the New Testament, but their view falls far short of the New Testament's own teaching on the matter.
Second, paedobaptism does not adequately capture the differences between baptism and circumcision.
Paedobaptists rightly see some connection between baptism and circumcision, as both are initiation ordinances. Yet, it fails to see critical differences.
Colossians 2:11-12 makes this connection explicit, and yet argues something very different from what paedobaptism does:
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 raised him from the dead. (Col 2:11–12)
Paul here speaks of "a circumcision made without hands," which is ours when we are "buried with him in baptism" and "raised with him through faith." Paul uses the term "circumcision" here to speak of how conversion means a kind of cutting away of our old self, or our "body of the flesh." This is done "without hands" because it is done spiritually by Christ. In other words, it has nothing to do with any kind of physical ceremony or ordinance. It has to do with the internal work of grace that God does in us "through faith in the powerful working of God."
Thus, there is no connection in this passage between the physical act of baptism and the physical act of circumcision (the ceremony performed typically on a child on their 8th day). The connection is along different lines. It is between the circumcision of the heart and our union with Christ which is ours "through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead." Baptism is a picture of this new life in Christ. Stephen Wellum affirms this by saying that "the connection in these verses is not between physical circumcision and baptism, as if the latter replaces the former, but spiritual circumcision tied to union with Christ and baptism."[i]
Circumcision was originally a physical act done to an 8-day old boy (Lev. 12:3). This marked the child as part of the covenant community. It was to be followed by a "circumcision of the heart": "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn" (Deut. 10:16). This was a work God promised to do for his people: "And the LORD God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live" (Deut. 30:6). In paedobaptist discussions there seems to be too little distinction made between these two distinct facets of circumcision.
Baptism also has a separation between the "of the body" and "of the heart" sides of it. Accordingly, we speak of a "baptism of water" and a "baptism of the Spirit" (e.g., Matt. 3:11). The great difference is that "baptism by water" is backward looking and intended to be only for those who have experienced a "baptism of the Spirit" (God's internal work that is ours by faith). Circumcision of the body, however, is forward looking and is meant for those who will one day experience a circumcision of the heart. The meaning of the ordinances is thus profoundly different, and this difference is not adequately expressed in paedobaptism.
Third, paedobaptism does not adequately capture the spirituality of the new covenant.
Of course, one of the great contributions by many who are paedobaptists is their emphasis on the covenants of the Bible—so much so that they are often called "covenantal" in various ways. Yet, in this discussion it would appear that they have not quite captured the radical nature of the new covenant.
The "old covenant" is that made between the Lord and Israel at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19-24; cf. Heb. 8:13). The "new covenant" is described in Jeremiah 31:31ff. where God promises that
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (vv. 33-34).
Note the language of God's internal and spiritual work in his people. It is a law "on their hearts" (not on tablets like Sinai). We will not need priests and prophets to uniquely dispense the knowledge of God "for they shall all know me." Further, all those in the new covenant are forgiven "their iniquity." This language is not describing the person physically joined to the people of God—living among them, perhaps even practicing their rituals, but whose heart is untouched by God's Spirit. The language is describing the regenerated and converted member of God's people and the work that God will do by his Spirit.
A specific local church is certainly a mixture of the regenerated/converted and those who are not. Yet, this is not the same as saying that the new covenant people (i.e., the true or invisible or eschatological church) are comprised of a mixture of the regenerated/converted and the unregenerate/unconverted. The people of the new covenant are those and only those who have experienced all of the invisible/internal/spiritual work described in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
What does this mean for our children? Children can certainly experience this heart change like their adult counterparts. There is no minimum age stated or implied in Jeremiah 31. Yet, neither does this passage allow us to assume that all of our children have experienced such heart change by the Lord. They are part of our family and they are part of our church. As such, they receive the "discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4) from both parents and pastors. This is a profound means of grace that will mean benefits for them for their entire lives. Lord willing, a child raised in such an environment will indeed grow to become not only a physical member of their church, but also part of the new covenant people of God, the people whose hearts have been regenerated and who have expressed saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Even the covenant with Abraham with respect to circumcision had a mix of the regenerate and unregenerate in a way different from the new covenant. Circumcision was practiced long before the parent could tell if they had a Jacob or an Esau, Jacob having experienced a "circumcision of the heart," apparently not Esau. Thus, paedobaptism does not adequately see the exclusivity of the new covenant people of God.
We can even say, as Stephen Wellum has said, that
a truly covenantal approach to Scripture, preserving the proper biblical emphases on continuity and discontinuity between the covenant communities of the old and new testaments, as well as between the covenant signs, demands an affirmation of believer's baptism.[ii]
Fourth, paedobaptism does not adequately capture the explicit presence of faith in the "household baptisms" of the book of Acts.
It is certainly right to see the significance of the places where "you and your household" are exhorted to respond to the gospel. In the book of Acts these include 10:2 (Cornelius; cf. also 11:14), 16:15 (Lydia), 16:31 (Philippian jailer; cf. 16:34), and 18:8 (Crispus). These examples are noteworthy in that they show more than individuals being saved and baptized, and yet they do not show as much as paedobaptists often argue. We should also add a similar type of phrase from Peter's sermon at Pentecost. There he says that the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit are "for you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39).
Peter in 2:39 is expressing the universality of the gospel, not the automatic inclusion of children when their parents believe. The gospel is one where "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). This is a gospel where "whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16, emphasis mine). It is open to all on the basis of faith. In this sense it is also "for you and your children." Yet, while it is open to all, it is open only to those "whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39). The passage does not teach that an infant should be baptized, but only that the gospel is for all to believe and accept it. Just as there is no race, gender, or class excluded from the grace of God, so there is no minimum age for such faith.
Acts 10:2 describes Cornelius and says he was "a devout man who feared God with all his household." The apostle Peter goes to Cornelius and preaches the gospel to those gathered. They are first baptized in the Spirit (10:44), and then Peter asks, "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (v. 47). What is to be striking to us is that a Gentile is converted, and even his entire household. Whether this means his wife, children, servants, or others we are not told. What is explicit is that the household "feared God." Those who "feared God" then "received the Holy Spirit." These are the ones who are baptized (v. 48.). Clearly, infants are not in view. Children of some age could have been included, but infants would not be described as fearing God or "speaking in tongues and extolling God" (v. 46).
Lydia is converted during Paul's ministry in Philippi. We read that "the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well…" (16:14-15). We get no more information on her household than this, and it would not appear that this passage contributes additional insight to our discussion.
The Philippian jailer is converted shortly after Lydia. We read that Paul and Silas preached the gospel to him first in jail: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (16:31). Then they "spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house" (v. 32). Shortly thereafter "he was baptized…, he and all his family" (v. 33). Further, "he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God" (v. 34). Again we do not get a description of who was a part of this man's "household." All we are told is that the household heard Paul and Silas' gospel, that they believed, and that they rejoiced along with the jailer himself that he was converted. The emphasis is on the Gentile household being converted. To say that infants believed and were baptized as part of his household is to say that they heard, believed, were baptized, and then rejoiced that their father was converted. This stretches the text to the breaking point. It is much better to say that all who were old enough not only to believe the gospel, but also to rejoice with their father were baptized.
The last household baptism recorded in the book of Acts is that of Crispus, "the ruler of the synagogue," who heard the gospel in Corinth (18:8). We read that he "believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized." Again we observe what is explicit in the other household passages. Those who "believed in the Lord" are "baptized." We rejoice that an entire "household" is baptized, but we rejoice because it means that the entire household "believed in the Lord." Those who observably "believed in the Lord" are included here, and we could not say this about infants.
In light of the above, it is clear that the book of Acts cannot be used to support infant baptism.
Our respect and love for our paedobaptist brethren is significant. We have learned much from them in all matters of theology and ecclesiology. On certain issues, however, we part ways and baptism is one of these. When the full testimony of the Word of God is considered we believe that paedobaptism cannot be supported.
Believer's baptism better captures the Bible's teaching on baptism and faith, circumcision and baptism, the new covenant, and the household baptisms of the book of Acts. Thus, while paedobaptism is surely a view that is well-intended, motivated by a love for their children, and held by those with a high view of Scripture, to our minds it lacks a sufficient biblical foundation.
[i] "Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants," Believer's Baptism, eds. Thomas Schreiner, Shawn Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2006), 158, emphasis his.
[ii] Ibid., 160.