Why Do We Baptize Infants?
When I was a college student in North Carolina I attended a Baptist church. The Baptist practice of baptizing only professing Christians was obviously true to Scripture, I thought. Why would anyone baptize babies? Mere traditionalism, I suspected.
It never occurred to me that perhaps, just perhaps, there was a biblical rationale to account for the fact that the majority of Christian denominations baptize believers and their children.
Our Baptist brothers are not the only ones who seek to root their position in Scripture. Below is a partial explanation of why Presbyterians are persuaded that Scripture commands infant baptism. But before we consider the case for infant baptism, let’s be clear about four things:
1. Presbyterians do not believe that baptism saves. A baptized child will one day have to personally own Christ as his Savior to inherit eternal life.
2. We don’t practice infant baptism because we are holding on to some remnant of Catholic teaching that the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers failed to expunge.
3. You do not have to believe in infant baptism in order to join this church. The only requirement for church membership is repentance of your sin and faith in Christ.
4. Like Baptists, we baptize adults who become Christians. Adult baptism is a sign and initiation rite of entrance into the kingdom of God (Matthew 28:18-19). It represents union with Christ (Romans 6:3-4), cleansing from sin (Ezekiel 36:25-27), and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-6).
The Case for Infant Baptism
Baptists reject infant baptism because there are no New Testament verses that show infants being baptized. Presbyterians agree there are no proof-texts for infant baptism. The case for infant baptism rests on a recognition of the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Because Genesis to Revelation presents one unfolding story of God’s redemptive purposes for his people, we recognize the following to be true:
There is one people of God. In the Old Testament this people was called Israel. The church is the New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament Israel. Paul calls the church “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16; cf. I Peter 2:9-10), “the real circumcision” (Philippians 3:3) and Abraham’s offspring (Romans 4:16).
The covenant God made with Abraham, the father of Israel, is still in effect in the New Testament. This covenant was an “everlasting” promise that God made with Abraham to, among other things, “be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). If it is “everlasting”, then it is still in effect (Hebrews 6:13-18; Matthew 5:17-18).
God’s people in the Old Testament were saved the same way God’s people are saved in the New Testament: by faith. Abraham “believed the Lord, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; cf. Romans 4:1-3; Galatians 3:17). God’s people in the Old Testament looked forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ. We look back on the fulfillment of those promises.
A sign of salvation was applied to believers in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the sign of salvation was circumcision. Abraham was circumcised after he was justified by faith. Circumcision was merely a "sign" that God saved him and a "seal" of the righteousness that God imputed to him (Romans 4:9-11).
In the new covenant, the sign of salvation is baptism. Like circumcision, baptism is merely an outward sign of an inward reality. It is a sign that God saved you and a seal of the righteousness that God has given you.
Baptism is the New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament circumcision. Colossians 2:11-12 underscores this: "In him [Christ] also you were circumcised, with a circumcision made without hands … having been buried with him in baptism.”
The sign of salvation was applied to the children of believers in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, baby boys who had a believing parent were circumcised (Genesis 17:12). Given the unity of the covenant, should we not expect that since the covenant sign was applied to believers’ children in the Old Testament, it would also be applied to believers’ children in the New Testament?
In Acts 2:38-39, Peter proclaimed, “’Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children.’” If the promise of salvation is for believers’ children, should they not receive the sign of the promise? Remember, Peter spoke these words to Jews, people who were accustomed applying the outward sign of salvation to their children.
In I Corinthians 7:14 Paul writes that children who have a Christian parent are regarded as “holy” in God’s eyes. The word holy merely means “set apart.” Paul is saying that children in a Christian home, even if they are not themselves believers, enjoy some kind of advantage in God’s eyes. Of course these children will have to, in time, embrace Christ, but the mere fact that they have a Christian parent sets them apart. We understand infant baptism as an outward symbol that they are indeed set apart. They are members of the covenant community and heirs of God’s promise to be not only their parents’ God, but their God as well (Genesis 17:7; cf. Acts 16:31).
Two Common Objections to Infant Baptism
Objection 1: My Baptist friends point out that Jeremiah 31:31-34 teaches that in the era of the new covenant, when the Messiah comes, every member of the covenant community will personally know God: “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34).
From this they conclude that while the old covenant community included circumcised children who did not personally know God, all the members of the new covenant community will personally know Jesus Christ. Therefore, they contend, we should only baptize those who profess faith in Jesus and not their unbelieving children.
Presbyterians respond that Old Testament prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God have a two-stage fulfillment. Their fulfillment was inaugurated with the coming of Jesus but will be fully realized only when Jesus returns. We see this in the Jeremiah passage, for it mentions other traits of the new covenant that we all agree will be fully manifested only after Jesus returns:
(1) Jeremiah 31:31-32 announces that the new covenant cannot be broken. But the New Testament does speak of members of the covenant community who can break the covenant (see Hebrews 10:28-31). Only after Jesus returns will it be impossible for those included in the covenant community to break the covenant.
(2) Jeremiah 31:34 announces that in the new covenant there will no longer be need for teaching: “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.” Yet we all agree on the need for teachers in the New Testament church (Ephesians 4:11-12). This prophecy, too, will only be fully realized at the consummation.
So we conclude that when Jeremiah 31:34 speaks of the members of the new covenant community being composed only of those who profess faith, we understand it to be speaking of the Kingdom when Jesus returns. Thus, Jeremiah 31 provides no grounds for excluding the children of believers from receiving the sign of the covenant, baptism.
Objection 2: What about all the New Testament verses that say, “believe and be baptized”? Francis Schaeffer notes that the same thing was said in effect to Abraham concerning circumcision, "Believe and afterward be circumcised," but that did not nullify the fact that the sign of his personal faith was to be applied to his child.
Infant baptism is a complex issue over which honest Christians disagree. Baptists and Presbyterians come to different conclusions, but both are seeking to root their position in Scripture. Let us, with charity, continue to examine the Scriptures and challenge one another.
Peter Kemeny, Pastor
Good News Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702