Should We Baptize Infants?
Paedobaptism or the practice of baptizing the infants of believing parents is a minority position within Evangelical Christianity. Historically Anglican/Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and some Methodists have baptized infants, but Baptists, Pentecostals, and many other types of “Evangelicals” have not. These latter groups have outnumbered the rest over the last century, and they have created most of our cultural assumptions. This means that paedobaptism is a pretty high-profile “dividing issue” between denominations, and it is something that our church gets asked about frequently.
Should we baptize infants? To answer this question, we will look at both Biblical and theological arguments.
The Argument Against Infant Baptism Fails
The most common argument against infant baptism goes like this. “The New Testament says that one must first repent and believe, and then they are to be baptized. Nowhere is infant baptism commanded in the New Testament, and we do not see any examples of it there.” This is a very easy argument to understand, and because of that, it has proven very effective. But there are a few problems with it.
First, while this line of argument is short and sweet, it cannot be applied consistently. Context and intent always tell us how to interpret specific lines in the Bible, and it is actually not true that every direct command is meant to be applied universally. For instance, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” Everyone reads this verse and immediately factors in room for exceptions. Paul’s words there are only for adults, and they are only for able-bodied adults who could work but refuse. Even though none of those explanations are explicit in the text of the New Testament, they are obvious because of the kind of problem Paul is dealing with.
In the case of baptism, there are actually not any instances in the New Testament where the children of believers are addressed and not allowed to be baptized. In every passage where there is a teaching to “repent and believe” prior to being baptized, the audience is made up of adults. This means that it is made up of those who are capable of repenting and believing, and it is made up of those who are currently outside the covenant. This is important because evangelicals who believe in baptizing babies only believe in baptizing the children of believers who are being raised in the church. We would never baptize the infants of non-believers. Because of this, we would speak to a mixed group of people in the same way that the Apostles do in the New Testament without feeling any contradiction.
Secondly, no one says that we can only follow the explicit example of the New Testament when it comes to the other sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. You see, the only people we see explicitly partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament are men. When Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper for the first time, He only gives it to His disciples. He does not invite the other company of believers who followed them to join in. This means that Mary, His mother, and well as Mary, Martha, and the rest, are not included. In fact, only men are included. And nowhere does the New Testament follow up on this and explicitly include the rest of the church. We assume that the rest of the congregation is included, based on the description given in 1 Cor. 11, but we do not actually see an explicit command to broaden admission beyond men.
Now, this objection doesn’t give us any real trouble, and that’s precisely the point. Every Christian denomination allows itself the freedom to assume that the the Lord’s Supper should be given to the whole congregation based upon the logic of the sacrament and the common-sense assumption that 1 Cor. 11 is speaking to the entire church. (You might be wondering about the “rule” given in verse 28, but that doesn’t tell us anything about including both men and women. It will also be the topic of a later post, where we will talk about it in more detail. So be on the look out for that.) The whole point is that we do not require anyone to interpret the Lord’s Supper as narrowly as some interpret baptism. And that means that the earlier “simple” argument against infant baptism breaks down after you compare its logic to the logic we use for the rest of Scripture.
The Argument For Infant Baptism
So, is there a positive argument for infant baptism then? Yes. The standard “classic” argument comes from John Murray, and you can read the heart of it here. A few simple outlines can also be found here. Basically it goes like this: The children of believers were included in the Abrahamic Covenant, and they were given the sign of that covenant in circumcision. The New Covenant is not a rejection of the Abrahamic Covenant but a fulfillment of it. If the children of believers were meant to be excluded, then this would need to be explained to us. Instead of that, we see verses like this, “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” (Acts 2:39). This verse continues the inclusion of one’s children in the promise. Baptism is the New Covenant sacrament of initiation, paralleling circumcision from the Old, and therefore it makes sense to baptize the children of believers.
1 Cor. 10:1-6 gives us a clear example of the Apostle Paul paralleling the nation of Israel with the visible church of the New Covenant. He even says that Israel in the wilderness was “baptized” and ate and drank of “that spiritual Rock… Christ.” Yet some of the people who were baptized and “ate and drank” of Christ turned out to be false sons. They fell away due to lack of faith. And then Paul says, “these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition” (1 Cor. 10:11). His argument only makes sense if the visible church of the New Testament works in the same way that the nation of Israel did in the Old. This means that our churches may be mixed groups, including some false sons, but they are, nevertheless, objectively set apart from the world. This is done by baptism, and baptism is applied to all members of the group.
In addition to this general argument from the “logic” of the covenant, the presence of household baptisms in the New Covenant adds to the argument for baptizing the children of believers. Earlier, the argument against baptizing infants claimed that there are no examples of infant baptism in the New Testament. However, there are examples of households being baptized as single units. These may have included infants at the time (we are not told either way), but if the covenantal logic just presented above is true, then it would mean that the family would follow the lead of the parents because that is how God intended for His covenant to work. We see this in at least two places in the book of Acts. In Acts 16:14-15 we see Lydia coming to faith and then her household being baptized. A little later in the same chapter, we see the Philippian jailer and his “household” being saved and baptized (vs.31-34). A Baptist will be inclined to read this to mean that each member of the household individually came to saving faith, but it just as easily means that the household acted together, as a single unit.
Paul uses this language of “household” as a singular unit in 1 Cor. In 1 Cor. 1:16, Paul says that he “baptized the household of Stephanas.” 1 Peter 3: 20-21 also connects baptism to a family, as it parallels Noah’s entire family with the Christian church. Combining these verses with what we have already said about 1 Cor. 10, we see this kind of categorizing according to household as a normal feature of the New Testament. Families go together. Paired with the logic of the Abrahamic Covenant, we therefore have a natural way to read and understand the New Covenant as including believers and their children.
God Ordinarily Works In & Through Families
Looking back, we see that the argument for baptizing infants has more to do with how God works in and through families than it does with any simple command of who to baptize. In fact, the most basic command to baptize comes in the Great Commission, a place where Jesus commands baptism as the means of disciple-making:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you… (Matt. 28:19-20)
These verses are important because they are the foundational place in the New Testament where convert-making is commanded. And in this foundational place, baptism is included as a way that the nations are discipled. In fact, the grammar of this passage is important. The primary active verb is “make disciples.” In the Greek it is a single word. All of the other expressions are participial phrases, relating back to this action. “Therefore go” is an expression that translates to something like, “continuing on the journey” or “leading this kind of life.” Disciple-making is the main action or way that this happens. Then the following expressions “baptizing them…” and “teaching them…” explain the means of the disciple-making. The recipient of this action is “all the nations.”
What’s important to see is this– the people that the Apostles are supposed to disciple are a corporate entity. They are a group. The way that the Apostles are to disciple them is by baptizing and teaching. These are not one-time actions but ongoing relationships. The paedobaptist position applies this by bringing entire families into the covenant and then teaching them to grow up in the covenant, being faithful to it all of their lives.
We have a few other important teachings on the way that families work in the New Covenant. An often overlooked verse is 1 Cor. 7:14. There, we are told that the children of even one believing parent are “holy”: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.” Much could be said about that, as you might imagine, but the basic message is that the whole family is impacted by the presence of the believing spouse. God blesses the whole because of the part. The children are not “unclean.” (This point was discussed in more detail on a recent sermon here.)
In addition to this, Christian parents are commanded to raise up their children in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). The words for “nurture” and “admonition” are terms that have to do with moral and spiritual formation. In fact, the word for nurture is paideia which means the molding or cultivation of the soul. In Eph. 6:4, parents are told to cultivate their children’s souls “in the Lord.” They are not commanded to let their children discover their religious faith “on their own,” but instead to instill it in them through regular training. Likewise, the children are commanded to obey their parents “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). They are supposed to do a Christian duty, and they are supposed to do so for Christian reasons.
There’s one more point to consider. We do have an example of Christian faith being passed down through families in the New Covenant. When Paul describes Timothy’s faith, he says that it is an inheritance that he has received from his mother and grandmother: “I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also” (2 Tim. 1:5). Notice that “the genuine faith” that is in Timothy first “dwelt in” Lois and then in Eunice. Timothy is a third-generation Christian, and he got to be that way because God used his family members to train him up in the Lord. All of this leads us to the conclusion that God ordinarily works through family units to bless people and impart faith in them.
The practical conclusion of this way of thinking is that baptism can be seen as one component of covenant nurture. It is how children are raised and taught to live in God’s covenant. If children are members of the covenant, then they should be treated as such. The New Testament says that they are already holy, and so they are not to be treated as outsiders to the covenant. Instead our children should be treated as those who are being raised within the covenant and being taught to believe in it. They are not automatically saved by their standing as covenant children, but they are placed in a particular place of sanctification which brings added blessings and added responsibilities. They can be said to be “in the Lord,” and they are called to believe that the promise belongs to them.
And so baptism is one way that Christians raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. They give them the sign and seal of God’s promise because God has already given them that promise, and they do so believing that baptism will be one way that God actually works to keep that promise and bring the children to faith. Infant baptism is a great privilege and a great comfort, and it gives God’s people their corporate identity. They are in it together, as they all trust, serve, and love the same God, and therefore they bear witness of that fact together.