Being a follower of Jesus is like riding a vehicle to reach a destination (cue Carrie Underwood song). Joking aside, when we ride as a passenger we are relying on the driver to bring us safely to our destination — that’s the very definition of faith. Usually when you ride with someone, a good chauffeur will always ensure you’re wearing your seat belt. While this may not be the most water-tight comparison, wearing a seat belt has some similar parallels with the nature of baptism. Pun intended.
When we choose to wear a seat belt we are avoiding the chances of injury or death while adhering to traffic laws. Similarly, when Christians get baptized they vow to avoid sin, follow Jesus and subscribe to the beliefs of the Apostles Creed.
Among many divisive topics between varying Protestant branches, baptism is a theological can of worms. All Christians unanimously agree that baptism is an outward sign of living in obedience to God. However, many Evangelicals are extremely apprehensive towards the notion of infant baptism — specifically because a baby lacks the capacity to freely decide for itself. ”
Babies Can’t Sin?
Some Christians believe in the age of accountability 1, meaning a child isn’t culpable for their actions until a certain age. The approximate age is debatable (usually around seven years old), depending on the individual. In addition, Christians still believe all people are born with the stain of Original Sin.2 Does this mean Original Sin doesn’t officially ‘kick in’ until the child is woke enough to know he or she could be going to Hell? If this were the case, wouldn’t they be better off remaining in an ignorant, childlike state?
I think this is one of the reasons why many people who abandon Christianity reject the idea of Original Sin. If sin isn’t real, who’s to say it’s not a fabrication meant to invoke fear to control the masses? One could say warning people about seat belt safety is a means of the government trying to control people. I’ve known several people who deliberately refused to secure themselves because it made them feel ‘too restrained.’ But regardless of how anyone feels about seat belts, choosing to wear one dramatically reduces the chances of accidental injury or death.
It would seem unthinkable for anyone not to secure their children in a booster seat. When put into that perspective, why wouldn’t anyone want to have their children baptized? Like wearing a seat belt, the Catholic Church teaches that baptism saves.3
Baptism versus ‘Dedication’
I think Evangelicals are well-meaning when it comes to withholding baptism. It’s a monumental step they take very seriously. One way of knowing how serious believers are is to allow them to decide for themselves. As a substitute for infant baptism, many Christian denominations actually perform a baby dedication. Rather than sprinkling water on the baby’s head, the pastor or elder would bring the child and their family to the front so the congregation may pray over them.
While a baby dedication may seem like a lovely, neutral alternative, there seems to be just as much legalistic behavior surrounding the practice among Evangelicals. I’ve had friends who prolonged dedicating their child for a few years due to being pressured by relatives. In cases like this, I’d be tempted to suggest baptizing their children to watch their pushy in-laws lose their minds!
What Does The Bible Say?
One of the most debated verses about baptism in the New Testament is the very words of Jesus when he says,
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” 4
Many opponents of infant baptism would argue that baptism is only a symbol of repentance. If true, why did Jesus get baptized as an adult if He apparently lived a sinless life? The common consensus among Christians believe that Jesus sanctified the waters through the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them. For Catholics, this was the moment Christ established baptism as a sacrament.
The Bible does not explicitly teach the age of accountability, nor does it state babies are forbidden from baptism. In fact, the Book of Acts mentions entire households were baptized 5, which would have undoubtedly included small children or infants. With respect to Ancient Jewish customs, the Apostle Paul states that baptism is the New Circumcision.6 This does not imply babies were capable of repenting, but that they ought to be included in the Kingdom of Heaven. As parents, baptizing our youth is an act of obedience of offering our children to God.
Some have even argued that sprinkling water over someone’s head, especially a baby’s, is not a legitimate baptism. The most explicit mention of the method of sprinkling comes from an ancient text called the Didache:
“And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:19 in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” 7
Child MortalityIt’s uncomfortable to ponder the salvation of children who have passed away. What comes to mind are babies who are miscarried, aborted or who do not survive birth. The debate of whether or not unbaptized children enjoy Paradise has been ongoing since the days of the Early Church. Saint Augustine argued they go to a place called Limbo of the Infants.8 This realm was believed to be on the very border of Hell where inhabitants are neither tormented nor enjoy perfect peace. The idea of Limbo seems to makes sense, but I struggle with the idea that a merciful, loving God would withhold babies from Paradise when they have no knowledge of what sin is. Thankfully, the Church has reiterated that Limbo is nothing more than a theory.9
One of the worst cases of bloodshed in the Bible is the Massacre of the Innocents when King Herod ordered the execution of all male children under two years old throughout the city of Bethlehem.10 What prompted Herod to commit such a horrific act was his fear that the infant Jesus would grow up to overthrow him. The Catholic Church refers to these poor children as the first martyrs of Early Christianity.
From a Catholic standpoint, martyrdom is also known as baptism by blood. Like the repentant thief on the cross who would have desired baptism 11, martyrdom brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.12
I don’t ever wish for people to endure torment or death, but perhaps baptism by blood could possibly apply to child mortality? This observation gives me a sense of hope that personal circumstances place no limits on the grace of God. This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God’s mercy and to pray for their salvation.” 13
What Are We To Fear?
Personally, I prefer to believe they go directly to Heaven, but in reality I don’t make the rules. If God of love and mercy, whose omnipotence transcends time and space itself, couldn’t hear a mother and father’s grieving hearts that long to see their deceased children in Paradise, how can anyone else’s prayers ever survive? This is one of the reasons why praying for the dead makes sense to me.
I don’t fault anyone for struggling with connecting the dots in Scripture to affirm the legitimacy of infant baptism. But in light of the often heated, legalistic rejection of the practice, what benefit is there to withhold such a precious gift that God Himself has offered to all? What is there to fear if it happens to result in the Holy Spirit causing a child’s faith to flourish?
Absolutely nothing. There is no harm in putting the seat belt on.
“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
— Matthew 19:14 RSV
1 – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_infancy
2 – Romans 3:10,23; 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22
3 – 1 Peter 3:21, CCC 1257
5 – Acts 16:15,33; 18:8
6 – Col. 2:11-12
7 – Didache, Ch. 7
8 – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbo#Latin_Fathers
9 – Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-limbo/catholic-church-buries-limbo-after-centuries-idUSL2028721620070420
10 – Matthew 2:16-18
11 – Luke 23:39-43
12 – CCC 1258, 1259
13 – CCC 1283