Baptism – Infants or Believers?

I’ve been thinking about baptism for the last little while. There’s no doubt that baptism is an important part of Christian life; that much cannot be debated. Unfortunately, just about every other thing about it IS. I grew up in a church where infants are baptised and never really questioned it. It was just what we did. It was all about raising children in the church family, I thought. As I got older and I started reading my Bible, I noticed fairly rapidly that (to quote Mark Driscoll) “There are as many infant baptisms in the Bible as there are unicorns”.

Conveniently, as I was thinking about this, I heard a number of sermons clarifying the church’s position on baptism. It was all about baptism being a continuation of the Abrahamic covenant, and of the sign of circumcision. I’ve heard this argument for infant baptism dozens of times now, but frankly, I just don’t see how it plays out. As far as I was aware, the Abrahamic covenant and the New covenant are not the same thing. The new has echoes of the old but is a covenant of faith and rebirth, not of lineage and physical grafting into the family of God by the symbol of circumcision. In other words, the covenant children of the Abrahamic covenant are his physical children, but the new covenant are Christ’s covenant children by faith.

Aside from all that, I simply don’t see any children being baptised anywhere in scripture. Paul talks about baptising the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1 v16, but later in the same letter states that the household of Stephanas were all converts and were engaged in Christian service (1 Cor 16 v 15), which is pretty difficult for a baby to achieve. Likewise, the Phillipian jailer. His family all believed and were baptised. Time and again we see “repent and be baptised” or “believe and be baptised” appearing in scripture, showing that one is a natural follow-on to the other.

I’m sorry, but I simply can’t see where the paedobaptists find their warrant to baptise infants, and that’s me speaking as someone who was indeed baptised as an infant. Does that mean I should be baptised again? I don’t think so, as regardless of the fact that I wasn’t aware of it, I have actually been through the physical process of baptism, as well as having undergone the essential heart-transformation that gives baptism its true meaning, even if they happened (as I would see it) in the wrong order.

I’m not stirring debate here, but I’d love to know where people stand on the issue and what their views are. If you think I’m wrong, fire at will! I’d love to hear your perspectives!

By the way, there ARE unicorns in the Bible, or at least there are if you’re reading the King James Version, but I still love Mark Driscoll’s quote.


14 thoughts on “Baptism – Infants or Believers?

  1. Hannibal

    Baptism to me implies free will. It would seem an attempt for Dogmatic parents to ensure their child’s place in heaven.
    Unless I’m mistaken, doesn’t the Catholic faith claim that unbaptized babies who die go to Limbo? (And how low is that pole, anyway?)
    Just to tease the monkey – does the Bible specifically mention women being baptized?

  2. Iain MacKinnon Post author

    Not individually (that I can think of off-hand) but by implication, the jailer and stephanas’ households were all baptised, and that presumably included women. So the new covenant IS different in that sense, as the old sign of the covenant didn’t apply to women. Hadn’t thought of that!

  3. Hannibal

    Okay – after further research and reflecting: it seems that baptism in the New Testament is done for converts, not for children born to believers and raised as believers. Now naturally this was the very early church, so there weren’t yet large numbers of these.
    However (to look at the other side of the coin)
    Luke 18:15–16 “they were bringing even infants” to Jesus; and he himself related this to the kingdom of God: “Let the children come to me. . . for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Don’t we “come to” Jesus through baptism? (figuratively and physically)

  4. Iain MacKinnon Post author

    Yup, that was the very verse that was written on the baptism font in the church I grew up in, and is one of the verses used in the Westminster Confession of Faith to justify the baptism of infants. Yes, we do “come to” Jesus through baptism (right after we come to him in faith) but that is to give a figurative meaning to something that, in the narrative, it doesn’t warrant. The disciples were hacked off by the children around Jesus and wanted them to leave, but Jesus wanted them to stay; to come and not to go. But there’s ‘coming’ and there’s ‘coming’. I can ‘come’ to Bank of America Stadium, but that doesn’t make me one of the Panthers!

  5. Hannibal

    It strikes me that Jesus did more foot washing than baptizing. Perhaps a life as a servant is more Christ like than public declarations of faith? (I know that’s not the only thing baptism is, but many in the church abuse it as such.)
    As I stated above, the baptisms I read in the New Testament were done for converts, rather than those raised in faith. I was “christened” as a baby, but my parents didn’t believe in baptism, so I never was baptized until I was an adult. What denomination were you raised under?
    I can’t find a good reason, logically or biblically for infant baptism.

  6. Iain MacKinnon Post author

    I was raised in the Free Church of Scotland. Look ’em up online. They are a very traditional, very reformed presbyterian calvinist church. My parents are believers so I don’t have too many issues about my own infant baptism, but it always amazed me that some people would take baptism vows that would qualify them to sit at the Lord’s table despite neither of them claiming for a second to be a christian. Public declarations of faith are sullied for the rest by that kind of thing, if you ask me.

  7. Hannibal

    My friend, lately I’ve heard the words “sullied” and “Christian” used in the same sentence quite often.
    It’s like the word “magician”. Sometimes the way people use it makes me cringe.

  8. James Eglinton

    Hi Iain,

    You need to read ‘The Christ of the Covenants’ by OP Robertson. Ruairidh will lend you a copy! It is a really good explanation of covenant theology – particularly of the distinction between the Old and New Covenants. His handling of the two is nuanced and edifying.

    Essentially, the Abrahamic (Old) Covenant was just as much about the heart as the flesh. Think of how often Old Covenant believers recognise that the Israelites were ‘stiff necked’ and with ‘uncircumcised hearts’.

    I’ve heard lots of Baptists make a simplistic distinction between OT circumcision and NT baptism; as though it was only from the Gospels onwards that believers realised the sacramental symbol needed to accompany an inner change… but that is not true.

    Driscoll is great, I love and respect the man… but he’s wrong on baptism! You could apply the same argumentation and say the same thing about the doctrine of God as triune.

  9. Iain MacKinnon Post author

    Hi again dude!

    Although I namechecked Driscoll, I’m not just getting this from him, although he does mention it (actually I was listening to him talking about the regulative principle this morning! Might blog about that later!). I actually agree with everything you said there. God requires an inner change more than an outward sign all the way through the Bible. Consistently. He does speak of the Israelites in terms of having ‘Uncircumcised hearts’. Often. And not in a good way. I suppose the simple fact of the matter is that both symbols, unless backed up by faith, are effectively meaningless.
    To me, the difference seems to be the order. In the OT, people are circumcised first, and faith comes later (except Abraham. I know!). In the NT baptism is always a follow-up to faith & repentance.

    Darn. I didn’t want to start a debate and I think this might be one!

  10. James Eglinton

    I can see that change happening in the first generation of converts (Acts 2) – simply because they were the first converts post-Pentecost.

    As none of them had been baptised as infants, they were all baptised as adults. That is fine. We do exactly the same thing to adults who are converted and have not been baptised before (as infants). However, two facts are important at this point:

    (a) Nowhere are these first converts told, “But don’t do this to your children, as you did with circumcision,” and,

    (b) These first converts are then told (Acts 2.39), “This is for you and your children.”

    If baptism is not for believers and their children, surely the Apostles would have stated this explicitly? You have to remember that these first converts were Jewish. Their full expectation was that the New Covenant sign would apply to their children, just as much as the Old Covenant sign (circumcision) did. The Apostles knew this – and we never see them clearly instituting a change in order. Indeed, they were explicit that the New Covenant is for their children too.

    The ‘I agree with believer’s baptism because this accords with my sense of free will and autonomy’ argument is on very shaky ground. It starts with a non-theological, philosophical and ultimately humanistic argument (that I am a sovereign independent entity, and nothing, not my parents, a church or even God, can assert its will on me) and uses this as the first principle in how you do theology. Bad move – Paul clearly distinguished between Christian thinking and humanistic philosophy (Colossians 2.20-23). Theology has its own first principles. To try and do theology using the first principles of humanistic philosophy robs Christ of his universal lordship, and makes him subject to Descartes, Kant, Hume et al.

    If you do not let the Bible speak for itself, and interpret itself systematically, and instead take a few proof texts (without real attention to their immediate or wider context) which are interpreted to agree with a desire to assert free will and individual autonomy, paedobaptism will seem wrong. (I spent my childhood years largely in a Baptist Church, and I used to think it was outrageous to see babies baptised for the sole reason that it violated their right to choose and be autonomous!)

    However, when you let the Biblical texts come together systematically, paedobaptism makes complete sense. The New Testament never needs to institute the practice. On the contrary, it needs to repeal it – and this is something that it never does.

    I was thinking of writing a blog post interacting with Driscoll on the regulative principle too.

    Anyway, must be heading back to work.

    Beannachdan, a bhrathair

  11. chevas

    I have been praying and praying and seeking counsel from two leaders in my very reformed, but credo-baptist church, and I have gone back and forth so many times, agonizing over whether or not to baptize my child.

    My hermeneutic lenses say “baptize infants”, but the church I belong to is very much against it. I really thought I was going to go the credo baptist route, but I woke up this morning not at peace with it. I appreciate most the comment by James Eglinton. Thank you. I believe I continue to gravitate back to paedobaptism even though I tried to depart from it.

    So James, thank you for the comment and some confirming statements.

  12. gary

    Why is the New Testament silent on Infant Baptism?

    Baptist/evangelical response:

    The reason there is no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament is because this practice is a Catholic invention that developed two to three centuries after the Apostles. The Bible states that sinners must believe and repent before being baptized. Infants do not have the mental maturity to believe or to make a decision to repent. If God had wanted infants to be baptized he would have specifically mentioned it in Scripture. Infant baptism is NOT scriptural.

    Lutheran response:

    When God made his covenant with Abraham, God included everyone in Abraham’s household in the covenant:

    1. Abraham, the head of the household.
    2. His wife.
    3. His children: teens, toddlers, and infants
    4. His servants and their wives and children.
    5. His slaves and their wives and children.

    Genesis records that it was not just Abraham who God required to be circumcised. His son, his male servants, and his male slaves were all circumcised; more than 300 men and boys.

    Did the act of circumcision save all these people and give them an automatic ticket into heaven? No. Just as in the New Covenant, it is not the sign that saves, it is God’s declaration that saves, received in faith. If these men and boys grew in faith in God, they would be saved. If they later rejected God by living a life of willful sin, they would perish.

    This pattern of including the children of believers in God’s covenant continued for several thousand years until Christ’s resurrection. There is no mention in the OT that the children of the Hebrews were left out of the covenant until they reached an Age of Accountability, at which time they were required to make a decision: Do I want to be a member of the covenant or not? And only if they made an affirmative decision were they then included into God’s covenant. Hebrew/Jewish infants and toddlers have ALWAYS been included in the covenant. There is zero evidence from the OT that says otherwise.

    Infants WERE part of the covenant. If a Hebrew infant died, he was considered “saved”.

    However, circumcision did NOT “save” the male Hebrew child. It was the responsibility of the Hebrew parents to bring up their child in the faith, so that when he was older “he would not depart from it”. The child was born a member of the covenant. Then, as he grew up, he would have the choice: do I want to continue placing my faith in God, or do I want to live in willful sin? If he chose to live by faith, he would be saved. If he chose to live a life of willful sin and never repented, and then died, he would perish.

    When Christ established the New Covenant, he said nothing explicit in the New Testament about the salvation of infants and small children; neither do the Apostles nor any of the writers of the New Testament. Isn’t that odd? If the new Covenant no longer automatically included the children of believers, why didn’t Christ, one of the Apostles, or one of the writers of the NT mention this profound change?

    Why is there no mention in the NT of any adult convert asking this question: “But what about my little children? Are you saying that I have to wait until my children grow up and make a decision for themselves, before I will know if they will be a part of the new faith? What happens if my child dies before he has the opportunity to make this decision?” But no, there is no record in Scripture that any of these questions are made by new converts to the new faith. Isn’t that really, really odd??? As a parent of small children, the FIRST question I would ask would be, “What about my little children?”

    But the New Testament is completely silent on the issue of the salvation or safety of the infants and toddlers of believers. Another interesting point is this: why is there no mention of any child of believers “accepting Christ” when he is an older child (8-12 years old) or as a teenager and then, being baptized? Not one single instance and the writing of the New Testament occurred over a period of 30 years, approximately thirty years after Christ’s death: So over a period of 60 years, not one example of a believer’s child being saved as a teenager and then receiving “Believers Baptism”. Why???

    So isn’t it quite likely that the reason God does not explicitly state in the NT that infants should be baptized, is because everyone in first century Palestine would know that infants and toddlers are included in a household conversion. That fact that Christ and the Apostles did NOT forbid infant baptism was understood to indicate that the pattern of household conversion had not changed: the infants and toddlers of believers are still included in this new and better covenant.

    Circumcision nor Baptism was considered a “Get-into-heaven-free” card. It was understood under both Covenants that the child must be raised in the faith, and that when he was older, he would need to decide for himself whether to continue in the faith and receive everlasting life, or choose a life of sin, breaking the covenant relationship with God, and forfeiting the gift of salvation.

    Which of these two belief systems seems to be most in harmony with Scripture and the writings of the Early Christians?

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals


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