“Should Infants of Believers be Baptized?”
(a brief summary)
by Bob Burridge ©2017
The question of who should be baptized has caused a lot of debate.
There are differences about Baptism among those who truly love God’s word, and who accept the Bible as the only standard in determining what is right and God-honoring. The differences are not because some are unaware of certain Bible verses. They all cite the same passages. The divergence takes place in how those verses are interpreted. We need to know how each passage fits together with other related passages and teachings of the Bible. Scripture must interpret Scripture.
All those who sincerely profess faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord should be baptized into membership in a local congregation. Some disagree about baptizing the children of believers to mark them out as members of the visible church since they are not yet able to understand the gospel and believe it’s promises.
Conservative Christians all agree that the Bible is God’s infallible and inerrant word. It alone must be the final and authoritative test of what we should believe and do. The teachings of creeds, doctrinal statements, and popular teachers are only helpful when they agree with what the Bible teaches.
One of the important issues is the unity of God’s Covenant with his people.
Groups of Christians are often divided about how the Old Testament teachings fit in with what the New Testament teaches. Not all who were members of old Israel or who are members of a Christian church are born again through a true faith in the saving work of the Promised Messiah. It is impossible to know the true heart of everyone who says they trust in him. There have always been unredeemed people who are members of the outward community of God’s people.
In the Old Testament after the time of Abraham there were Jews who were circumcised as members of God’s Israel, but who grew up to show they did not have faith in God’s word and promises. In the New Testament there were baptized members of the churches who had to be removed because they eventually showed that they did not really submit to the teachings of God’s word. This was one of the main topics of the epistles by Paul, Peter, James, and John (for example 1 John 2:19). Being circmcised or being baptized does not mean that the person is a true believer and a redeemed member of the true family of God. Only God knows for sure who is a member of the “true church”. This is what Jesus was teaching about in his parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30).
In the Old Testament the children of believers were considered to be members of the church, the covenant community, All the male babies were circumcised. This did not mean that they were all redeemed children of God. Circumcision was an outward sign that marked out those who were associated with God’s covenant people. God made promises which were attached to circumcision. As they grew up, those who truly believed received it’s blessings. Those who were circumcised but did not trust in God’s promises received the curses attached to the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants.
When adults who were not Jews believed God’s promises, they were circumcised together with their children. No adult males were to be circumcised who did not first show evidence of God’s work of grace in their hearts. Faith was the evidence that God had redeemed them. Their babies could not have faith in God’s promises, but would be raised in a home where they were taught God’s truth and would be encouraged to personally trust in the future work of the Messiah. Circumcision was the sign God gave to his people that they were under the conditions and promises of his covenant.
After the resurrection of Jesus Christ Baptism replaced Circumcision as the sign and seal of belonging to the covenant community. The Jews who believed in the work of Jesus and had been circumcised were baptized. As Gentiles were converted to Christianity they too were baptized. In Romans 9-11 Paul shows clearly that the New Testament church was a continuation of the true Israel of the Old Testament. There is one covenant body, one olive tree (Romans 11:16-25). The church after Christ did not “replace” the Old Testament church. It was the fulfilled form of that earlier body of believers (Galatians 3:7-9).
There were changes that were made in how God’s covenant was to be honored. Jesus fulfilled what the ancient sacrifices represented, so they did not have to be made anymore. All the Temple rituals and dietary laws ended because what they illustrated was now fulfilled by the work of the Messiah. Jesus replaced the celebration of Passover with Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Circumcision was replaced by Baptism as the sign of the covenant. The sign is now to be placed upon females as well as males (Acts 8:12 and other passages).
If the children of believers after Christ’s resurrection were no longer to be marked out and treated as part of the covenant community of God’s people it must be based upon what God says. When changes took place in the early church such as ending the Temple sacrifices, rituals, and dietary laws the Apostles and the Spirit-led writers of the New Testament books made it clear to God’s people. Certainly if parents were to stop putting the sign of the covenant upon their children as had been done ever since the time of Abraham, God would tell us directly. The Bible makes no mention of parents wondering if now their children were to be excluded until they grew up and believed. There is no record of parents asking about it. No where in the New Testament is there any mention of some parents wanting to continue marking out their children while others stopped doing it. If God didn’t make that change, there should be no change. We should not omit children without some Scriptural evidence. God’s already revealed word must stand.
In the New Testament the children of believers were members of the covenant community.
The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament were directly applied to the New Testament church. Peter at Pentecost applied the ancient promises made to Abraham and his descendants to the church.
Acts 2:38-39, “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 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.’ ”
He directly connected the covenant promise made to Abraham and to his seed, with the New Testament church as the proper heirs of that covenant. That promise includes both the remission of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit. These are both central promises illustrated to us in Baptism.
When Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the gospel to all the world, to every creature, he promised that all who believe and are baptized will be saved. Then he adds that those who do not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16). Obviously his is only referring to those who were able to hear and understand the gospel being preached. The condition for salvation in his comment was not Baptism. It was belief. Baptism is the mark of membership in the covenant community for all who believe. It does not address the issue of their children in this particular passage. Baptized children may or may not grow up to show the work of God’s saving grace in their lives by exercising faith in Christ.
To see how the New Testament church both understood and carried out the promise mentioned by Peter at Pentecost, we need to examine the examples of Baptism in Scripture after the resurrection of Christ.
There are nine examples of Baptism recorded in the book of Acts.
The first is the baptism of 3,000 at Pentecost. There are four baptisms where individuals were received into the church but families were not present. This leaves four baptisms where it mentions households when an adult became a believer. Three of those (Acts 16:15, 16:33, 18:8) directly state that those believing had their households baptized too. In the fourth case (Acts 10:48 with 11:14) the family is said to also have been saved which implies that they were baptized too.
We don’t know the ages of any children present in these families. It does not tell us if some were babies or if all the children were old enough to have a credible faith in Christ. That has nothing to do with the issue. We do know that they were received as “families” without any qualifying comments being made in the biblical record.
These passages about household baptisms show a continuation of the practice commanded by God long ago for his covenant people. The including of the children was the common understanding every Bible believing Jew would have already had. Both the Apostles who were sent out to baptize, and the families to whom the gospel first came, would have known God’s instruction to mark out their children as members of the covenant community.
The baptism of the infant children of believers does not save them, but they were baptized even though they were not yet able to believe. The question does not mean that all baptized covenant children are to be able to take Communion at the Lord’s Table. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul makes it clear that only those who are able to believe in the work of Christ should partake of the elements of Communion. There is no such limit placed upon Baptism.
The act of baptizing does not mean that the person receiving the sacrament is actually among the elect and therefore a member of the true church which is known only by God. As with Circumcision in the time before Christ, Baptism assures every person being baptized only that he is a member of the church visible to us, and is subject to the blessings or cursings of God’s promises.
Those receiving baptism who prove by their lack of profession of faith and disobedience to God that they were not “born again” by grace, receive rightfully all the curses of that same covenant. This applies to adults who are baptized as well as to infants.
The Reformers such as Martin Luther (in his Larger Catechism) and John Calvin (in his Institutes) rejected the Roman Catholic teachings about Baptism, but they both strongly insisted that infants should be baptized. They believed that salvation is a work of God’s grace upon undeserving hearts. Faith and repentance are the evidences of that grace, not it’s cause. God-implanted faith is only able to be seen when a person is old enough to make a credible profession of trust in Christ.
The benefits of Baptism are not tied to the time when it is administered. Christian parents treat their children as Christians, encouraging them to pray, learn what the Bible says, attend worship, and sincerely repent to God when they sin. They also encourage them to have a true faith in the work of Christ as they learn and are able to understand. They should realize that biblically Baptism does not save their children anymore than simply baptizing adults washes away their sins and saves them. Sadly some baptized children grow up to show they are not true children of God. The same is true of many adults who are baptized, but later show that there was no true faith in their hearts.
We should all be reminded that our Baptism represents the washing away of our sins by the atonement of Jesus Christ. It is not the cause of that washing away. It represents it and seals us to the promises and warnings attached to God’s Covenant of Grace. As we live each day as baptized believers we should be constantly aware of the grace that saved us, and made us part of the family of God’s covenant people. We should strive by prayer and obedience to be a good representation to the world of what God has redeemed us to be.
(Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.)