Why Do We Baptize Babies?
The critical point in any discussion of baptism is not the meaning of the word baptizo1 but is instead the nature of the covenant we have with God in Christ. Hence we must ask; what does Paul mean when he says that we are heirs of the covenant of Abraham (Gal. 3:29)? Is ours the imperfect participation of an interloper or do we partake as beloved sons? In other words, does the covenant we enjoy flow out of and continue the essence of the Abrahamic covenant or did God establish a completely different relationship with the followers of His Son? (I've given attention to this topic in my book Apocalypse: An Explanatory Rendering Of The Revelation That Will Forever Alter Your Understanding Of The Tribulation, The Beast And The End Times.) We may begin to answer that question by looking first, not at what Paul has to say, but at Peter's Pentecost sermon.
There is a portion of Peter's sermon recorded in Acts 2:39 which reads: "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call" (italic added). Now, it is important to remember that Peter's audience was made up of Jews who were "devout men from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5). In other words, pious Jews from across the entire Roman world were present in Jerusalem that day. As you recall, the 120 in the upper room were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues. Upon hearing the commotion men rushed to the scene from all over the city. They scoffed, at first, but when Peter preached a powerful message concerning Christ, thousands responded. Furthermore we are told that "those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to" the fledgling Church (Acts 2:41).
What is it that these Jews came to accept? The quick answer is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But to our twenty-first century western, Christian mind, that means something much different than it did to the Jews who were "cut to the heart" that day. Those Jews had just heard a sermon which convinced them (by the power of the Holy Spirit), that Jesus was the promised Messiah. In other words, he was the Anointed One who had come to fulfill the promises given to Israel (Peter's primary focus was on the Davidic connection). So, the devout Jews who heard and responded to Peter's exhortation were not tossing aside everything they had ever believed about God and their relationship to Him; rather they where convinced by the Spirit of God that the object of their belief had indeed come in Jesus Christ. In today's parlance we might call them completed Jews. At the same time, we must not think of them as some sort of proto-Christians who were on their way to evolving into full fledged Bible Belt Fundamentalists. Specifically, the men who responded to Peter's sermon would have naturally accepted that the fulfilled covenant was for them and their children just as the administration of anticipation had always included their children. They knew the history of Abraham and how he and every male in his household were circumcised as a sign of the covenant relationship that Abraham had with God. They also knew that any male born into the covenant household was supposed to be circumcised on the eighth day as a sign of their inclusion in the covenant. There was nothing in Peter's sermon to cause them to doubt the continuity of the covenant now that the Messiah had come.2
As the book of Acts unfolds we see this viewpoint concerning the covenant confirmed in the way that the Apostles treated new Believers and their families. Baptism replaces circumcision as the rite of covenant inclusion (Col. 2:11-13), and there is no indication that the Apostles withheld the sacrament from the children of Believers. When Peter preached the Gospel to the household of Cornelius and the "Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word" the entire household was baptized (Acts 10:44-48). Lydia a seller of purple from Thyatria, believed the message of salvation and "she and her household were baptized" (Acts 16:14-15). Paul told the Philippian Jailer to "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household." As a result "he and all his family were baptized" (Acts 16:30-34). Paul also baptized the "household of Stephanas" while ministering in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:16). None of these passages say that the children and infants in the households were excluded from the rite of baptism. This is in keeping with the Abrahamic character of the covenant as mentioned above.
Like Peter, Paul affirms the continuity of God's covenant. While preaching at Antioch in Pisidia, he claimed that "the promise which was made to the fathers, God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that he has raised up Jesus" (Acts 13:32-33). In his letter to the Church in Galatia he writes:
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. ...Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as of many but as of one, 'And to your Seed,' who is Christ. ...And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:13-14, 16, 29).
Thus, there is no preliminary step we need to take in order to make us adequate for salvation in Christ (the whole point of Paul's letter is that the Galatians did not need to become Jews before they could become Christians because Jesus is the true Seed, the true Israel and we are part of that in Him). If we are Christ's then we are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise. Period. That being the case we should expect to enjoy the same abundance of grace that Abraham and his household enjoyed. To put it another way, how can we suppose that in Jesus, through whom we enjoy "grace and truth" we have less grace than Abraham? In the age of Abraham and the patriarchs, God's covenant grace extended to the children of Believers; it is foolish to expect God to withhold His grace from the children of Believers in the new age of His Son.
Yet isn't there a new "condition of membership?" Doesn't the Bible teach that one must repent of their sins and submit to Jesus Christ before they may be considered a member of the covenant family of God and be baptized? Yes it does. Any adult who desires baptism must first repent of his sin, confess Christ as Lord and believe in his heart that God has raised Him from the dead (Matt. 28:19-20, Acts 2:38, 8:12, 35-38, 9:17-18 etc.). However, this is not a new condition of membership. Old Testament saints were likewise required to turn from sin and submit to the Lord God (while they anticipated the coming of the Messiah). That was the purpose of the sacrificial system. A believing Jew understood the need for repentance and submission; he also understood the idea of covenant grace. And, as we have seen, when the head of the household is reckoned as part of the covenant family, his or her children are brought into the covenant relationship as well. It has been that way since God made a covenant with Abraham and it remains that way today. Thus Paul says that the children of a believing parent are considered holy, or set apart (1 Cor 7:14). In other words they are not of the world but are of the kingdom of God. Therefore the sign of the covenant should be given to them.
This means that we should assume that the children of believing parents are regenerate. Indeed we should have no doubts that "all that are the children of promise, and have that promise sealed to them by baptism, are regenerate."3 Only time will tell in each individual case as they work out their salvation. At the same time there is no guarantee (from a human standpoint), that an adult who makes a profession of faith is regenerate. I was once acquainted with a man who told me he had been "born again" and baptized five times - all during the adult years of his life. Clearly he did not understand what it meant to be born again. And from what I could see there was no evidence that he was born again. Yet someone, somewhere (several pastors over a period of years actually), had accepted his profession of faith and baptized him - not once but five separate times. My point is that there may be misunderstandings and abuses relating to the rite of baptism no matter the age of the subject. Furthermore, we are not suggesting that anyone who arrives at the door of the Church requesting baptism for their children should be accommodated. Remember, it is the children of Believers who have the privilege of the covenant rite. Parents who desire baptism for their children need to have made a profession of faith and be daily living a life worthy of Christ's calling.
As with the adult who makes a profession of faith and is baptized, the infant who is recognized as a participant in the covenant must work out his salvation with fear and trembling; he must cultivate the new creation as a confirmation of his new birth. This is true regardless of the age of the individual receiving baptism. It is foolish to assume that a person who makes a confession of faith and is baptized is a new creation if they willfully live in opposition to God's will. The man I mentioned above was doing just that. He was constantly in and out of jail for drug use, petty theft and other criminal activity. His language was filled with obscenities and the use of God's name in vain. There was no evidence that he was a new creation. He had no interest in cultivating the gift of salvation, because he had not received it. And yet he had made several "confessions of faith" and had been baptized each time.
No person fully understands the details of salvation immediately upon their regeneration. I was in my early twenties before I grasped the truth of salvation by grace alone. Obviously the understanding of an infant will be minimal, but he will have some form of understanding. It is God who determines what is adequate not us. If one is want to scoff at this idea of understanding in an infant then he will by association rain ridicule on the word of God. According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist was "filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15). Can anyone deny that he was endowed with an understanding adequate unto salvation? Certainly it required cultivation and confirmation and this is why believing parents vow to raise their children in the fear and instruction of the Lord when their babies are baptized.
Therefore, we must accept the premise that children of Believers are given the gift of salvation upon entering this world; hence, we baptize them.4 We also expect children to take their baptism seriously and to confirm their salvation by cultivating the new creation, growing in spiritual maturity even as they grow physically, emotionally and intellectually.
Paul told the Believers in Rome that they had been grafted into the root of the olive tree and were partakers "of the root and fatness of the olive tree" (Rom. 11:17). They did not support the root, but the root supported them. Moreover, the "gifts and calling of God" - the root and fatness - "are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29). What was true of the first century Church in Rome is true of us today. Israel has always been defined by faith not by ethnicity (Rom. 2:28-29, 9:6, Gal. 3:7, Eph. 2:11-13). The elect of God, both Jew and Gentile, have access to all the benefits of the covenant relationship. The truth is that "God has ever had but one Church in the world" and if "children are to be deprived of a birthright which they have enjoyed ever since there was a Church on earth, there must be some positive command for their exclusion, or some clearly reveled change in the conditions of membership which renders such exclusion necessary."5 Neither Christ nor the Apostles gave any hint that children of Believers are to be excluded from the covenant family in the new age of the Son of Man. Frankly it is unbelievable that anyone could think so. Christ restored Man to his rightful place before God (in Christ Jesus), and every indication in the Bible is that God's grace toward His people is more profound now than in the old covenant era. Can we really believe that faithful covenant families have been injured by the coming of the Messiah and the commencement of the new covenant?6 Obviously not. Certainly the "(burden of proof) rests on those who reject infant baptism."7
So then, why do we baptize babies? Because in Christ we are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise.
1. baptizo means to dip, immerse, to cleanse or purify by washing, to administer the rite of baptism, to baptize. Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, (Wilmington: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc., n.d.), 65. Yet this tells us nothing about who should be baptized. And, as Charles Hodges points out, baptizo can also mean, to dip, to gild, to moisten, to fill, to pour upon or drench and etc. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols., (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 3:526-ff. See also the discussion on bapto and its cognates at Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Geoffery W. Bromiley, 9 vols. (Grand Rapids: Williams B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1974), 1:529-ff.
2. "The early Christians did not believe that they were following a new religion. They were Jews... Therefore the Christian message to the Jews was not that they should abandon their Jewishness. On the contrary, now that the messianic age had begun there were to be better Jews. Likewise, there early proclamation to the Gentiles was not an invitation to accept a newly born religion but rather to become participants of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. Gentiles were invited to become children of Abraham by faith." Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story Of Christianity: The Early Church To The Present Day, One Volume Edition, (1984; Peabody: Prince Press, 2008), 1:31.
3. Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, (Ligonier PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990), 13.
4. Most Baptists believe that if a child of believing parents dies in infancy he will go to heaven. This is only possible if he is born again. Therefore, if an infant from a Christian household is adequatly saved to go to heaven upon his untimely death, why isn't that same salvation good enough for him to receive the sacrament of baptism? To be consistent, Baptists should refrain from baptizing infants and teach that all babies go to hell if they die in infancy.
5. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols., (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 3:551, 556.
6. See: Douglas Wilson, Standing On The Promises, (Moscow: Cannon Press, 1997), 64.
7. Geoffery W. Bromiley et al, eds., 4 vols., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Revised, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 1:425.
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