In recent weeks I have been asked by several correspondents to defend the Presbyterian practice of baptising the infants of Christian believers. It’s not possible to answer all the issues in one blog post, but Bryan Chapell’s short book Why do we Baptise Infants? in the Basics of the Reformed Faith series is an excellent summary of the Presbyterian position, and one which I would recommend.
I do not wish to be contentious or cause unnecessary tensions with my Christian brothers and sisters who do not believe in infant baptism. I have to confess that, as a teenager, I was baptised by immersion on profession of my faith. Only in later years did my reformed ecclesiology catch up with my reformed soteriology and I came to accept infant baptism as a valid, biblical position.
Many people have genuine questions about the practice of baptising infants, and believe that only those who have personally decided to follow Jesus Christ ought to be baptised. The argument in favour of infant baptism requires an understanding of the continuity between the old and new covenants and the fact that all of God’s people, whether Jew or Gentile, are blessed in accordance with the covenant that God made with Abraham.
That is Dr Chapell’s point of departure in his book, and the base from which the biblical argument is constructed. What follows is really a digest of his argument.
The “everlasting covenant” that God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:7) applies to New Testament believers as well as to believers in the Old Testament. There is but one way of salvation, whether one lives under the old or new covenant. Paul reminds us that God said to Abraham, “All nations will be blessed through you” (Galatians 3:8) and that those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (Galatians 3:9). That simply means that those who trust in Christ as their Saviour are blessed in accordance with the covenant made with Abraham. Those who believe are children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). There is no other way to be a child of God than to be included in Abraham’s covenant.
The covenant sign given to Abraham was not only to be applied to Abraham who believed, but also to all his sons (Genesis 17:9-14). All sons in the household of the man of faith received the sign of salvation. Circumcision indicated that God’s covenant would apply to future generations and that it would require the shedding of blood. The blood shed acted as a seal, a pledge given by God, that he would honour and keep his promise to all who like Abraham, put their faith in him.
Peter, preaching on the day of Pentecost, assured his hearers that the covenant promises of God would continue for the children of believers (Acts 2:38,39). Colossians 2:11,12 reminds us that salvation comes through faith, and that the rite of circumcision that once signified the benefits of Abraham’s covenant has been replaced by baptism. The covenant remains, but the sign changes. Baptism is a sign of what Christ’s blood accomplishes, namely the washing away of our sin.
So we should expect that New Testament believers would apply the sign of the covenant to themselves and to their children just as the sign was applied under the old covenant. And since the sign was applied to children prior to their ability to express personal faith, there is no reason why baptism should not be administered prior to a child’s personal profession of faith in Christ. Since baptism is a seal, indicating the pledge of God that when the conditions of the covenant were met the promised blessings would apply, it means that the sign does not have to be tied to the moment one believes in Christ. Unlike those who view baptism as a “badge of faith” with the focus being on the individual professing faith, the paedobaptist position focuses on the promise and the grace of God to save his people.
Those who oppose infant baptism must therefore show a specific New Testament command that denies children of believers the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. If children were once included, on what biblical basis should they now be excluded? Since the apostles took great care to emphasise the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant with New Testament believers, it seems highly improbable that they changed the practice of including the children of believers within the covenant community.
If they had made such a radical change, then we would have expected that change to be made plain in the New Testament either by example or by a clear command. But such a change is not apparent in the New Testament. In fact, the evidence of household baptisms in the New Testament confirm that once the head of a household accepted the gospel, the entire household receives the sign of the covenant. The Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30, 31), Cornelius (Acts 10:47,48), Lydia (Acts 16:15), and Stephanas (I Cor 1:16) are all examples of this practice. The frequency of these accounts of household baptisms confirms that it was normal and consistent with the ancient practice of the Abrahamic covenant for heads of households to see that the covenant sign and seal were applied to all in their homes. No evidence suggests that the children were ever excluded from these households.
The question is often asked: Should we baptise infants because baptism will guarantee that they will become Christians and are assured of heaven? The answer is no. No sacrament automatically creates or transmits the grace of salvation. Paul reminded the Corinthians that although all Israel were “baptised” by passing through the Red Sea under the cloud of God, many became idolaters who displeased God and experienced his wrath. No ritual saves anyone.
If baptism does not secure a child’s salvation, why baptise them? The answer is that God makes covenantal promises to believers and to their children. In baptism we honour God by marking out and acting on the promises that reflect his grace both in blessing parents who act in devotion to God and in blessing the child being devoted to him in covenantal faith.