The case for infant baptism

chapell-why-do-we-baptize-infantsIn 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.

6 Replies to “The case for infant baptism”

  1. Although I respect my paedobaptist brethren, I must continually use Romans 4 to state that any paedobaptist can never say that the sacrament is a “seal” – they have no scriptural warrant to say so! Never go beyond the scriptures here. Ishmael was the first person to be circumcised after Abraham – as a physical, family descendant of Abraham, not spiritual. It could “never” be a seal to Ishmael could it? Baptism in the New Testament has only one significance, and that is “spiritual” it does not have any relationship or any significance whatsoever to a merely physical family relationship. The spiritual significance of circumcision in the language of Romans 4, was that it was a seal of the righteousness of faith – a seal of justification by faith without works. What is that “seal”? It is a witness, a token, a guarantee, and it renders certain the righeousness of faith! It was a “seal” to Abraham. Circumcision might have been a sign to Ishmael…but it was not a “seal” to Ishmael! According to Romans 4, Circumcision could not be a seal to someone yet unjustified! It is a seal of that which has already been given or “imputed”. This seal in Abrahams case we are told followed justifying faith…it cannot precede it! A sacramental seal here is retrospective, it is never prospective. Being presbyterians, and protestants, we are supposed to build our doctrine from scripture, not inject it into scripture. The only language of scripture describing a sacramental seal, makes the seal retrospective, never prospective! In Paedobaptism despite all the arguments, I believe a sacrament is a sign and a seal, but in infant baptism, it can “never” be a seal to that child. If I believe in infant baptism, I am excluding the major significance spiritually of the entire sacrament, I cannot put it in because the Bible does not allow me to put it in.

    Presbyterian Churches not only in Ireland, but across the world, now have “Covenant children”, to whom the seal of the covenant has been administered..and the tendency is that they just have to grow up into the “faith” which is already there, and the whole emphasis on the need to be born again, is being lost.

    So many people (presbyterians and church of ireland) I have talked to, who have told me that they have been baptised as babies, and have been justified in the covenant, they are simply romanists.

    Babies who grow up to adulthood and are not born again…always have the jewish and romish notion that they are saved, because they were baptised as infants.

    I cannot accept Infant baptism whatsoever. That will not stop me however, having true christian fellowship with those who are truly born again.

  2. Although I disagree with your position, I found Rodger Crook’s book “Salvation’s sign and Seal” by Rodger Crooks a good [and short!] explanation of it.

    Surely it’s ok to have the discussions (even passionate ones!) on things that the body of Christ is in disagreement on as long as we remember what we do agree on. The finished work of Christ.

  3. I am only just an ordinary 5/8 Christian saved by the grace of God alone by faith alone in Christ alone, why I don’t even know the meaning of ecclesiology or soteriology but when I look in the Bible I see the clear meaning of baptism and who should be baptised.
    The principle of baptism is to be found in Acts 2.41,”they that gladly received his word were baptised”,and there are about 3000 examples of this.
    In a careful reading of the passages about the Philippian jailer, Cornelius, Lydia, and Stephanus there is not one mention of infants and surely we should not assume this.All of the baptisms recorded in the NT are believer baptisms. (if I am wrong in this, please show examples of infant baptism)
    I agree with The Westminster Confession of Faith statement that baptism is “a sign and seal of being grafted into Himself, of remission of sins by His blood, and regeneration by His Spirit,of adoption, and resurrection to everlasting Life.” Is this what the Presbyterian Minister means when he sprinkles a few drops of water on an infants head and says “I baptise you………”, is the infant ingrafted into Christ, has it received forgiveness of sins, is it regenerated by the Spirit of God, is it adopted into God’s family and will it be resurrected to ever lasting life just by this simple procedure?.I believe there is no place for this unscriptural practice and the sooner it is dropped the sooner we will know the full blessing of God in our congregations.

  4. James,

    Perhaps you should look into the matter first before declaring it unbiblical, this can be done by listening to the great teachers, whom God has given to the church, that believed infant baptism was scriptural. Moreover, the WCF does not teach baptismal regeneration, but declares that baptism is a sign and seal, not the thing signified. The basis for infant baptism is not based on isolated proof-texts, but on God covenant. In the OT, the sign of the covenant was circumcision; in the NT it is baptism. Infants were commanded to receive the covenant sign in the OT, desptie the fact they could not profess faith. Since the command to pass on the covenant sign has not been abolished in the NT, then why should they not be baptised – especially in light of the fact that households were baptised in NT times.

  5. Just a couple of comments:

    >>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).
    But the whole context speaks of the promise of the Holy Spirit, not the promise given to Abraham. This can be clearly seen in Acts 2:33:

    “Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear.”

    >>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

    This is your own logical deduction which you have no mandate to make. The Scripture in question does not say “…rite of circumcision that once signified the benefits of Abraham’s covenant has been replaced by baptism” – what it says is that saints are “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands” and also they are “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God” – it does not say that baptism now replaces circumcision.

    However, the baptism of the households such as the jailor does remain a mystery to me and I currently have no answer. We do not know if they were all converted and we do not know the ages of the households.

  6. What amazes me really about all these talks of infant baptism is that some Presbyterian ministers preach that baptism does not save. What is the use therefore of administering such a sacrament? They know that not all those babies will be saved anyway so why do they still have to baptize them? It’s a very dangerous practice which appears to be to be more like what the Roman Catholic priests do. Presbyterians should know better that this practice ought not even to be seen in their churches if they truly are good exegetes of God’s word.

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