Infant Baptism: Brief Defense

Infant Baptism: Brief Defense March 18, 2015

Kevin DeYoung has a (very) brief defense of infant baptism posted at the TGC website. (I have now a 25 page paper or so for my own defense, but it will be published in the Colossians-Philemon commentary I’m now writing.

After emphasizing fellowship with many Baptists/paedo-baptists, he gives his basic approach — covenant theology.

1. God made a covenant with Abraham, it meant circumcision, for him, and then for his son — and for Ishmael too. That’s the origin of the argument: covenantal theology and covenantal approach to participation in God’s family.

2. Circumcision had meaning beyond the physical rite.

Circumcision was not just a physical thing, marking out ethnic Jews. Circumcision was full of spiritual meaning. The circumcision of the flesh was always meant to correspond with circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:25-29). It pointed to humility, new birth, and a new way of life (Lev. 26:40-42Deut. 10:1630:6Jer. 4:46:109:25). In short, circumcision was a sign of justification. Paul says in Romans 4:11 that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” God’s own interpretation of circumcision is that it was much more than just a physical sign for national Israel.

Children today are baptized based on this same covenant with Abraham. Paul makes clear in Galatians 3 what Peter strongly suggests in Acts 2, namely that the Abrahamic covenant has not been annulled. It is still operational. In fact, we see the basic promise of the Abrahamic covenant running throughout the whole Bible, right up to the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21.

3. Colossians 2:11-12, and here I would nuance things differently:

But we know from Colossians 2:11-12 that baptism and circumcision carried the same spiritual import. The transition from one to the other was probably organic. As the Jews practiced proselyte baptism, that sign came to be seen as marking inclusion in the covenant people. For awhile circumcision existed along baptism, but as the early church became more Gentile, many of Jewish rites were rendered unnecessary, and sometimes even detrimental to the faith. Thus, baptism eclipsed circumcision as the sign renewal, rebirth, and covenant membership.

4. He gives a few more arguments, and here are two of them:

One, the burden of proof rests on those who would deny children a sign they had received for thousands of years. If children were suddenly outside the covenant, and were disallowed from receiving any “sacramental” sign, surely such a massive change, and the controversy that would have ensued, would been recorded in the New Testament. Moreover, it would be strange for children to be excluded from the covenant, when everything else moves in the direction of more inclusion from the Old Covenant to the New.

Two, the existence of household baptisms is evidence that God still deals with households as a unit and welcomes whole families into the church to come under the Lordship of Christ together (Acts 16:13-1532-341 Cor. 1:16; cf. Joshua 24:15).


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  • JL Schafer

    I was baptized as an infant and have no problem with it. If parents are going to raise their children in the faith, it just makes sense. But when Kevin DeYoung presented the baptism-as-the-new-circumcision idea, he glossed over an obvious point. Circumcision was for males, but baptism is for males and females. A sign that the gospel has ushered in a new age of egalitarianism?

  • PB is also a powerful symbol of the grace of God that precedes any action on our part (God calls, we respond, not vice-versa).

  • JK

    I hold no strong view on this, but the problem with your argument is self evident, no?

    And, the same symbol is powerfully present in a non-infant being submerged and raised by a church leader, yes?

  • Your response assumes I am against adult baptism. That would be a faulty assumption, which brings me to a more salient point. Why must there be this false dichotomy between adult/infant baptism? I don’t see it. But here’s the thing. I’ve not met anyone who is a PB who is against adult baptism. I’ve met plenty who are against PB because they insist that adult baptism is the only bona-fide form of baptism.

  • JK

    I really was asking…

    Seems to me the central issue within this framework is who is the new covenant with? Is God’s prevenient grace (or whatever term you prefer for your idea) somehow amplified for those who happen to be born into families affiliated with PB churches? Or is it with all humanity, even/especially for those outside such families?

    Seems to me that adult submersion captures the power of the symbol you desire, but without the complications of implying exclusivity & favoritism that the new covenant seems designed to blow the doors off of. (Thoughts of a lay person who should be working…)

  • Barb

    I was thinking the same thing–how could anyone be against adult baptism. recently we witnessed the baptism of an infant and her father (mother was already baptized) .Also during worship our baptisms are sprinkling (more like slopping copious water onto the head)–however, we also make use of the nearby river when its warm–…

  • Phil Miller

    We do not presume that this child is regenerate (though he may be), nor do we believe that every child who gets baptized will automatically go to heaven.

    I know this is somewhat of a tangent, but he just couldn’t resist getting that little bit of Calvinism in there, could he? At least he’s consistent. The kid could actually be not part of the Elect… It’s like a lottery – you just never know!

    To get back to the post, though, I guess I am still two minds on infant baptism. If everyone who practiced it explained it these terms or it is was commonly understood this way, I would have little issue with it. But I do think that there are many people out there who believe that being baptized as an infant does automatically make them a Christian. What I always find interesting are the people who have their children baptized even though they themselves haven’t really been part of the church for ages.

  • This has been an area of theological shift for me. I was raised Southern Baptist, so I was raised with the idea that baptizing babies was a sign of error (at best) or (at worst) apostasy.

    But I’ve been slowly shifting for the following reasons, in no particular order:

    – Church history seems to support the practice from very early on, and gives support to the idea that the NT reports of baptizing “whole households” included children.
    – Jesus’ own teachings on children entering the kingdom favor a child’s faith as worthy of emulation, as opposed to that of adults. Similarly, Paul’s discussion of children of believers being “holy” is supportive.
    – If we recenter baptism around “disciples” as opposed to “converts,” then it makes a great deal of sense that children of believers will be taught to trust and follow Jesus’ commands from birth. Indeed, as a father and a pastor, I disciple my children way more than I disciple anyone at church, and necessarily so. If “disciples” are the ones we should baptize, then children of believers are disciples as a general matter, even more than most adult converts. Discipleship begins and is rarely stronger than at home, for good or for ill.
    – Procreation of believers has been an essential and driving force of Church growth over the centuries.
    – My own faith has shifted from trusting a saving formula or theory of atonement toward being centered on trusting a person–Jesus, with my whole life. This is often less about any ability to understand difficult concepts as it is about a capacity for trust and love. Children, for all their shortcomings, have an equal if not superior capacity to trust others they love compared to adults. We have tended to favor intellectual ability, even require it for gospel response. I question this more and more in favor of what Wright has called “an epistemology of love.”

    There’s more, but these ideas have surrounded me and made it impossible for me to escape with the “adults-only” baptism of my youth intact.

  • JK

    ? My point was that adult retains the symbolic power while sidestepping the thorny issues raised by PB even within the covenental approach itself.

  • JK

    T, if I read right you understand discipleship as something other than heeding Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him? (And that would include joining a church and being in community.)

  • J. Inglis

    Baptism is not called a covenant, not even metaphorically or in a theological sense. So if God does not call it a covenant, I’d think it’s not. It does not, AFAIK, have covenantal meaning in pre-Jesus times (in the sense and manner that circumcision does)); Jews had both circumcision (for males only, even though woman were presumably part of the covenant and covenantal people) and baptism. In addition, baptism strikes me as being symbolic of death and rebirth rather than of a covenant. And the public nature of it strikes me as being proclamatory rather than covenantal.

    If there is a sign of the new covenant that is relatable to OT circumcision, I think it would be the filling of and by the Holy Spirit. It is that filling that joins us to Christ and to each other and makes us a family, and it involves a manifestation of God with significance in regard to our new relationship with him.

    I would even go so far as to allow for any rite that symbolizes death and rebirth and makes public proclamation of one’s faith. Baptism reflects and grows out of Jewish culture of the time, and was a cultural and religious act that could be appropriated to a new use. But the particular cultural form can be discarded, like wearing head coverings in church, or having slaves, or being patriarchal. Especially if one is in a desert or on a mountain (I don’t think sprinkling makes the cut as far as baptism with actual water goes).

  • Ted Johnson

    OK, I get all the symbolism, signs, and parental and church community aspects of Infant Baptism , much of which is true for Infant Dedications also, and that is all very well.
    But here is a question, very honestly asked: what does IB do for an Infant, does it give the infant anything from God that and unbaptized infant in a Christian home does not have, does it change the infants spiritual status, condition, relationship to God, in any way that is substantively different from an unbaptized infant in a Christian home with Christian parents?
    And here some gentle pushback: As for teaching in the NT, I find a call to repentance, belief/faith, and then Baptism of new believers/converts. What I do not see, in the teachings of Jesus, Paul, Peter, or John, is any call or instruction for parents or churches to baptize newly born infants, nor any discussions in NT about newborn infants being bapized. Circumcision was an issue related to gentile converts. But Jewish Christians presumably were free to continue to circumcise their children, but gentiles were not required to follow any circumcision rituals. And no new ritual, ie IB, was added for Infants born to gentle believers, to replace circumcision. Colossians 2:11 is clearly not referencing physical circumcision, but 2:12 is clearly referencing believer baptism. Household baptisms do occur, yes, but that appears to be a cultural practice, head of household converts to a religion, everybody in household converts to the religion. But there is no NT instruction given by Jesus or Apostolic teaching to baptize infants, or teaching that IB now replaces IC, and in any case Jewish Christians presumably did continue circumcision of male infants.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “One, the burden of proof rests on those who would deny children a sign they had received for thousands of years. If children were suddenly outside the covenant, and were disallowed from receiving any “sacramental” sign, surely such a massive change, and the controversy that would have ensued, would been recorded in the New Testament.”

    This argument doesn’t follow. Jewish-Christians would have still be circumcising their male children. Not having infant baptism for Gentile children wouldn’t have been an issue given they hadn’t be circumcising “into the covenant” anyway . . .(and what about females?)

    And I say this as someone with no issue regarding infant baptism. But I understand the arguments of people who choose not to. In the end, to make it such a huge doctrinal divide is foolish IMO but people love to create dividing lines and declare themselves on the right side of said line.

  • I take discipleship to be learning holistically to do life in the way of Jesus, learning to trust him, obey him, love him above all. If parents are disciples, then they will be making disciples of their children, “teaching them to do everything [Jesus] has commanded.” Indeed, I will never have a greater opportunity to make disciples of anyone more than I’ll have with my children.

  • You don’t see a connection, even symbolically, between the water baptism the church administers and the baptism of the Spirit that Jesus does himself?

  • We could ask the same of the Quakers, as adults or children, who practice neither Eucharist nor baptism. I don’t think it helps us to much in determining whether to baptize only adults.

  • Ted Johnson

    Well, Quakers are asked and they do answer that, they hold there is no grace or spiritual significance in those physical sacremental practices, that one cannot receive from God apart from physically practicing them, just as well, if not better.. Which goes back to my question, to those who are proponents of IB, because to me that is the heart of the matter.

  • Ted Johnson

    Let me add, I have a grand son who was infant baptized, that was the practice of the Church my daughter and son-in-law attend, and their choice, and I was at the baptism and I fully celebrated the day, and fully supported my daughter in that choice and this is not an issue in my family, I fully understand and appreciate the bigger picture and larger significance for parents/churches who practice IB, and affirm that. But I do have my own questions about the sacramental significance of it, about which I think there is significant confusion and or misunderstanding, which I share here. And I have the concern that IB confuses the issue of believer baptism, for which we have explicit teaching by Paul, and confuses the issue of baptism in general. How many baptisms should a person have after all, and when should they have them.

  • I think you’ll get different answers depending on whom you ask. For instance, Catholic, Presbyterian both practice infant baptism. They certainly have different theologies driving the practice. But you see that for adult baptism as well, with some denoms stating we are saved at or with baptism, and others it is a symbol.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    I am strongly in favour of the legitimacy of infant baptism, but have some reservations with the sort of position represented by DeYoung. Here are some thoughts on each of his points.

    1. Must we begin with circumcision and the covenant with Abraham? Why not begin with creation? One of the basic patterns of human existence is that we do not function as detached individuals, but belong to solidarities of identity. Rather than focusing on a theological superstructure of covenant overlaid upon the basic patterns and channels of reality, I would rather focus upon the ways in which God’s salvation operates with the created grain of his universe. God didn’t have to tell Abraham to circumcise his sons in order to implicate them in his faith and blessing.

    2. Circumcision may not have been just a physical thing, but it is very much a physical thing. And the form that it takes is not accidental (I recently posted thoughts related to this). As for the Abrahamic covenant, it has not been annulled, but it takes a markedly different form now that the Seed has come in Christ. We should be attentive to the many ways that baptism differs from circumcision. For instance, here’s a basic one: circumcision focuses upon the male sexual organ and, hence, on the relationship between father and child and having (promised) seed; by contrast, baptism is a sign of new birth, a sign of being the seed.

    3. Baptism and circumcision do not carry the same spiritual import. If they do, what was the need for baptism anyway? We should not flatten out the difference between covenant eras in such a fashion by failing to draw our eyes up beyond an individual ordo salutis. I would also be wary of placing baptism in opposition to the category of ‘Jewish rites’. Part of the point of Colossians 2:11-12 and other related passages, as I read them, is that Christ’s cross is the great fulfilment of circumcision—the full ‘cutting off’ of the flesh. As Christ’s cross finally cuts off the flesh, there is also the new birth of the resurrection and the seed finally comes. We are baptized into this transition.

    4. The early Church data is far less straightforwardly in favour of the universal practice of infant baptism than many suppose. As just two examples among many, Stander and Louw have argued against the practice of infant baptism in the much of the early Church and Everett Ferguson’s superb tome on baptism in the early Church does the same. These arguments can’t just be brushed off. I happen to disagree with these authors, but I think that there is a strong case against universal practice. Rather, I think Anthony Lane is closer to the mark in arguing for the presence of both practices in the early Church. The practice, which varied from church to church, was a matter of prudence, rather than absolute rule (note, for instance, that in arguing against the baptism of infants, Tertullian argues more against the prudence rather than the legitimacy of such baptisms). The point of baptism is like the point of adoption: adoption aims at the adopted child entering fully into the life of the adoptive family and baptism aims at the baptized person entering fully and faithfully into the life of the Church. Where this perlocutionary effect of baptism is quite uncertain, churches may choose not to baptize. However, in contexts where there is every reason to believe that a child will grow into faithful maturity in Christ, it is a prudent course of action.

    The household baptism issue is illuminating here too. Not only children but also servants were baptized, just as Abraham’s ‘household’ included his entire sheikdom, not just his immediate offspring. This isn’t about a covenantal generational principle, but about the natural character of human solidarity (I would argue that the baptism of whole communities makes good sense in certain cultural contexts for similar reasons). There is no hard and fast rule of who must be baptized in such cases. Rather, we should prudentially determine the degree to which individual persons are implicated in and shaped by the faith of the solidarities to which they belong and baptize or not baptize them accordingly.

  • Christopher Plemmons

    So basically we’ve got at least 1.5 to 2 years till we can get that commentary and read your defense? Can’t wait, may be my first commentary purchase in years.

  • J. Inglis

    It doesn’t seem to me that one can have it both ways. If the “baptism of the Spirit” is the sign of a new convenant, then why do we need water baptism? The concept of covenant is just a human, cultural concept that God worked through because it was appropriate to the times. That concept misses the fulness of God’s self-sacrificial love for all humans. God is who he is, and will be faithful, sacrificial, giving, and loving to us whether we want it or not, and even though we don’t deserve it. Covenant was one way for God to express his character and his faithful love and his keeping of his promises, but it is not the only way. It was a way that was appropriate to the people he was dealing with, at the time he was dealing with them.

    If there is a new covenant, it would only be found in Jesus’ words at the last supper that it was a new covenant in his blood. That covenant is not of the form or type found in the Old Testament, though it expresses the same sort of one sided commitment and promise keeping. And that covenant is one explicitly expressed in the communal taking of the last supper with wine (not grape juice, which is not symbolic in the way intended) and bread. Baptism is never presented as a covenantal sign in the way the last supper is.

  • J. Inglis

    The lack of a consistent theology of baptism is another problem that I would hold against its validity for infants.

  • But that sword cuts both ways; there are divergent theologies around baptism for adults and children. The issue needs to be resolved on other grounds.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Also, divergent theologies may lend support for the claim that the practice preceded its theological rationalization.

  • “If the “baptism of the Spirit” is the sign of a new convenant, then why do we need water baptism?”

    That just doesn’t hold. If you look at the NT, Jesus had his disciples baptize new followers. And Paul also baptized new disciples with water. As did Peter and the Jerusalem church. Indeed, it was the outpouring of the Spirit on Gentiles that then led Peter to suggest, not that those Gentiles should then be allowed to take communion, but that they should then be baptized (with water). But the NT is careful to point out that Jesus didn’t baptize with water, because he would baptize people with the Holy Spirit. So, the NT has the church doing water baptism, which, to me, echos and points toward, among other things, the baptism of the Spirit that Jesus gives. But both present and used as signs that the people involved have been adopted (by God, by the Church) into the people of God.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Also, the baptism of the Spirit occurred definitively at Pentecost and was a baptism of the Church as a body, not just a mass of detached individuals. Our baptism as individuals is a baptism into the ‘Pentecostal’ body of the Church. Individualizing the baptism of the Spirit in a manner that cuts it loose from the baptism of the Church is unhelpful.

  • Yes, it’s probably worth quoting the “Gentile Pentecost” to see the connection Peter makes between the baptism (by the Lord) of the Spirit, and water baptism by the Church:

    “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.”

    To me, Peter had to see some strong connection b/n Spirit baptism and water baptism for him to “command” that the gentile believers be baptized. I think the best explanation is bound up in the rest of the narrative. If God has seen fit to fully graft the gentiles into the people of God (via Spirit baptism), the Church should publicly agree (via water baptism).