There are many misconceptions among modern American evangelicals about the practice of infant baptism. The first is that only Catholics and ‘liberals’ practice it, probably as a way of avoiding having to talk about sin and Jesus. The truth, however, is that it is a widespread practice, and from a global perspective is certainly the dominant practice, as it includes 2 of the 3 branches of Christianity, the Orthodox and Catholic, as well as Anglicans/Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians/Reformed, Methodists, some Nazarenes and some United Church of Christ (UCC). I will not attempt to speak to the theology and practice of all of those traditions, I will only represent my own tradition, as a Presbyterian in the Reformed tradition. I do so affirming the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity and uniqueness of Christ as the only way of Salvation, and the orthodoxy found in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed.
We can all agree that the Bible does not make an explicit case for infant baptism. There is no verse that says, “Thou shalt baptize thy babies.” On the other hand, it needs to be seen that there is no verse that condemns the practice either.
The closest that my Baptist friends (I went to Baylor and even was a Baptist for a while) would come to finding a verse to deny the practice is to say that the formula in Acts 2:38 is the formula for salvation and believer’s baptism. In that verse, the apostle Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The problem with using Peter’s word as a formula is that the formula changes throughout the New Testament. Jesus says in Mark 1:15, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Does that mean we don’t need to be baptized also? Paul tells the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then, in Acts 26, when Paul is recounting his work to Agrippa, he says that he “declared… that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Clearly, there is more to salvation than simply repenting and being baptized- Peter’s formula is true, but not exhaustive. The other problem with using Peter’s words in Acts 2:38 as a clear proof-text for believer’s baptism is that you have to divorce the very next verse from its clear connection to the covenant made with Abraham and his descendants, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Moving forward on the supposition that infant baptism is neither explicitly taught nor repudiated in the Bible, I propose instead to build a foundation upon which infant baptism sits. My favored metaphor is a table with five legs. Once you see the truth of the ‘legs’ you will be able to see that they give clear support to the ’table,’ the practice of infant baptism.
The 5 Legs That Prop Up the Table of Infant Baptism
If you do not get the doctrine of election, you will not get infant baptism. Paul describes a chain of events that God does in saving us in Romans 8, “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… and those he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” In biblical soteriology, God is the author of salvation, and for those for whom He begins the process, he finishes the process.
When it comes to baptism, in light of election, we don’t baptize people to start a new process; we baptize them to give a visible picture of what God is already doing. If election is true, a believer’s salvation is guaranteed, and baptizing an infant (without, of course, their consent or desire) is a picture of God’s sovereignty in salvation. It’s significant that baptism is not something that you do any acting in, it’s done to you. God is the main actor in a baptism- the water that represents His cleansing is poured out on us, the Holy Spirit is given to us. This is a gift, lest any man should boast.
Election, of course, does not cover over our responsibility to repent and believe the good news. When we baptize a child we understand that this same child must put his or her trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before the eternal benefits are embraced. Baptism is like an engagement, justification is the wedding.
2. Original Sin
The concept of original sin is that when Adam sinned, sin was introduced into the world and infected all of his descendants. Therefore we aren’t just sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners, born under the curse of sin passed down to us in our human nature.
Infant baptism recognizes the truth of the fact that we are born sinful and therefore are born in rebellion to God. There is no ‘age of accountability’ in the Bible, where a child is neutral until he can make moral choices for himself. So, what do we do with our children, who are born wicked? We put them into union with God and the church. That union is baptism, the sign and seal of God’s covenant with His people. Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that the children of Christian parents are ‘holy.’ Paul does not make this explicit, but as a first century Jewish man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Old Testament, it’s almost certain that he would have understood that the only way that they can be holy is through covenant with God.
3. Covenant Continuity
The way that God structured His relationship to His people in the Old Testament is through use of a covenant, a standard ancient form of treaty or bond. In Genesis 17, God made an everlasting covenant with Abraham and commanded him to circumcise every male child in his household, which was to serve as a sign of the covenant between them (Gen. 17:9-14). That sign has both temporal and eternal significance attached to it. While the covenant is not the same thing as election, as people can move in and out of the covenant, it is basically equivalent to the concept of the ‘visible church.’
With the death and resurrection of Christ, the sign of the covenant was changed to baptism, in order to reflect the reality that a bloody sign (circumcision) was no longer appropriate, now that Christ has shed His blood for the remission of sins (Heb. 9:23-10:14; Matt. 28:19-20). Because baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant, Paul connected the significance of the two rites, and described baptism as the ‘circumcision of Christ’ (Col. 2:11-12).
4. The Household Baptisms of Acts
I am aware that these passages are hotly contested, but it seems significant that when Lydia and the Philippians jailer and others are converted we are immediately told that they are baptized, “and [their] household as well.” Households in ancient times were often quite large, often including multiple generations and family units. It’s of course possible that every person in those households also professed faith (which would also assume there were no small children) before they were baptized, but it seems more likely that when the head of the household believed, the whole household was marked as God’s. Especially when we read a comment like the one at the end of the story of the Philippian jailer, “And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” There is no mention of anyone besides the jailer believing, but they are all baptized.
The household baptismal accounts in Acts demonstrate that the principle of family solidarity that applied in the Old Testament period still holds true in the New Testament era. They also make it highly probable that Acts, contrary to popular opinion, contains explicit accounts of children being baptized (Acts 10:24-48; 16:11-15; 16:25-34).
5. Church History
Simply put, the church has always practiced infant baptism. It was not until the 1500’s that the Anabaptists (who were considered heretical at the time) introduced the teaching that baptism should only be for those who have made a profession of faith.
Origen wrote around 250 AD: “On this account also the church had a tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to infants. For they to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were given knew that there is in all persons the natural stains of sin which must be washed away by the water and the Spirit.”
Cyprian of Carthage, in arguing for infants to be baptized as soon as possible, wrote in 253 AD, “As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born.”
It is possible that the church erred for 1,500 years in its practice. But, that doesn’t put much trust in the Holy Spirit’s leading of His church, and it ignores the principle that, in theology, if it’s a new concept that no one else has seen before, it’s probably bad exegesis.