Why we baptise babies
Recently I’ve had a lot of questions around our denomination’s policy to baptise babies of believers. People ask why, if baptism is a commitment to a relationship with God, can we baptise babies who have not yet made any such public commitment? So I thought I’d write this article to clear up the matter.
Firstly, it’s important to know that the practice of infant baptism is not new. In fact, it’s the practice of only baptising adults which is fairly recent in church history. For most of the last 2000 years, baptising babies was standard Christian practice. In fact, to say that infant baptism is not valid is also to say that the baptisms of the large majority of Christians for the past 2000 years were also invalid. Even the Reformers, who were all baptised as babies in the Catholic church, did not see any need to be re-baptised as adults.
But church history aside, the main reason we hold to infant baptism is because it’s biblical. Below I will outline the biblical understanding of baptism and how it fits into the big story of the bible. If you want to go into more detail into the argument for infant baptism, at the bottom you can find a link to the paper I wrote on it.
Our starting point is the covenant of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. This is the over-arching covenant of the whole bible, which means that Christians today benefit from the same covenant promises that God made with Abraham (Gal 3:9). This original covenant has not been annulled by later ones (Gal 3:17), and this original covenant is the one that Jesus came to fulfill (Luke 1:72-73). The promise God made in that covenant is that he will bless the nations and bring his people into a ‘land’ of promise (which is ultimately the New Creation, but foreshadowed in the land of Canaan in the Old Testament). What’s important to notice is the covenant promise to Abraham has always been a promise made to ‘you and your children’ (compare Gen 9:9 and Acts 2:39). In other words, children of people in the Abrahamic covenant were automatically born into the covenant themselves, just like a child of a South African citizen is automatically considered a South African themselves. And because the Abrahamic covenant is still the one we are under today, we can assume it still works the same way as it always has. If it didn’t, God would have told us so.
Furthermore, the covenant promise God made to Abraham also comes with a covenant sign. For Israel in the Old Testament, this was the sign of circumcision. However, the outward sign always represented an internal reality – a ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Deut 10:16). What’s important to note is that not all who had the outward sign had the internal reality. That’s why Paul says in Romans that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom 9:6). So that means that God wanted the covenant sign to be given to all in the covenant community, even though he knew that not all of them would exhibit the reality to which the sign points. As we’ll see in a second, this is always the case, even with the new covenant sign of baptism.
The reason for this is that the sign God gives is not a sign of our faith, or our commitment, rather, it’s a sign of his promise to cleanse us of our sins as long as we believe that promise. The direction to which the sign is pointing is not towards something inside the receiver, but it points totally towards God and his promise – so that he gets all the glory. In this way, it’s similar to the giving of a wedding ring. The ring is given as a sign of the promises made – and those promises are officially sealed and put into effect upon the giving of the ring. Note, the ring is not a sign of the receiver’s faith in those promises, but only in the giver’s promises – whether or not they’re believed. In the same way, when God causes the covenant sign to be put on someone, he is making a promise to cleanse them of their sin if they believe in the promise to which the sign points – irrespective of whether they end up believing that promise or not… the promise still stands.
What we discover as we read on in the Old Testament is that Israel, by-in-large, failed to trust in the promise and fell into trusting and worshiping idols instead. Therefore they nullified their place in God’s covenant, and the enjoyment of the land and blessings promised to Abraham. So God kicked them out of the land in the Babylonian exile. However, he wasn’t finished with them, as many of the Old Testament prophets declared. He had a plan to bring people back into the covenant to benefit from the promises he made to Abraham. He outlines this plan in Ezekiel and declares a new sign to achieve it (now that circumcision was nullified):
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
– Ezekiel 36:25-27
Therefore, the sign of sprinkling clean water is symbolic of God’s promise to cleanse his people of their sin and put his Spirit within them (again, of course conditional on their faith in that promise).
So this is why when John the Baptist came, he baptised people “in the Jordan” – the entry point into the land of Israel… as a way of showing that God is bringing people back into the covenant, just like he promised to in Ezekiel 36. Baptism therefore became the new covenant sign for people and their children to enter into the covenant that God made with Abraham – and not just the Jews this time, but the Gentiles as well! And the reason God is now able to fulfill his promise to ‘bless the nations’ through Abraham and make people qualified to be in the covenant once more, is because of the death of Jesus on the cross for their sins and his resurrection to secure their resurrection in the new creation.
Because of this, Jesus declares to his disciples that their mission will now be to make more disciples out of all nations (Matt 28:18-20) and also tells them the way they are to make disciples: by a) baptising them, and b) teaching them to obey Jesus as their king. What’s interesting is that Jesus gives his disciples the ability to make disciples. He doesn’t give them the ability to save people, or make them elect. That’s God’s job. We musn’t try to determine who’s elect and who’s not (Jesus warns us against this in the parable of the weeds – Matt 13:24-30). But what we can do is declare who is part of the visible church, and we do that through baptism. Therefore, baptism was never meant to be an indicator of who’s elect, but rather an indicator of who’s part of the visible church – which consists of both believers and their children.
This is why Peter can boldly declare in Acts 2:39, after sharing the promise of the gospel to the crowds at Pentecost, “the promise is for you and for your children”. It’s why Paul baptized entire households when the head of that household came to faith (Acts 16, 1 Cor 1:16). It’s why in 1 Corinthians 7:14 Paul could declare that even if one parent was a believer, their children can be considered “holy” (i.e. part of the covenant community). It’s also why Paul can address children in the Ephesian church (Eph 6v1) and consider them among the ‘saints’ (1v1) and apply covenant promises and conditions to them (Eph 6v2-3).
If this is the case – that God opens the door of his covenant promises to children as well, as he has always seen fit to do in the past – then not only can we consider the children of disciples as disciples themselves and treat them as such, holding out the promises and conditions of discipleship to them, but also we shouldn’t withhold from them their right as members of the covenant to receive the covenant sign, because in doing so we would be making the same mistake as the disciples did when they tried to keep children from coming to Jesus to be blessed, and therefore we might face the same rebuke they got:
“when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” – Mark 10:14
This article is based on the paper “The Case for Infant Baptism” which can be downloaded here:
The case for infant Baptism