The Controversy about Infant Baptism
Baptism. In American Christianity one only has to say the word and positions are taken, defenses go up, and arguments are made ready. Should we spend time studying, knowing, and having a conviction about this doctrine and practice of the church? What is all the “to-do” about this one sphere of Christian doctrine and practice? Is it really worth it? Should churches and Christians be so vocal about this one practice of the Church? Wouldn’t it be better to just allow each Christian and church to operate according to what they believe and call this an “off-limits” subject?
There are subjects which Christians would do well to place on the taboo list of conversation, but this is not one of them. On the one hand, our doctrine of baptism is a secondary issue. But on the other hand, baptism is foundational and our view of it should be well-informed and biblical. We must know why we believe what we believe about it.
Maybe G.C. Berkouwer gives the most important reason. He stated in one of his works, “That is why the controversy about infant baptism is so important: it involves that which God himself signifies and seals. Those who oppose infant baptism are therefore accusing the Church of exceeding its qualifications by speaking of what God does in the midst of the community.”
Berkouwer is rightfully noting that if those who baptize their infants are not doing so according to God’s command then they are attributing things to God which are untrue. This borders on (or actually is) blasphemy. They are in essence, putting words (and especially promises) in the mouth of God. Therefore, if we are going to hold to infant baptism, then it must be with great conviction and solely upon the foundation that this is what the Scriptures teach, God commands, and therefore we are to embrace. It should not be done in ignorance, out of a desire for a “cute” moment in the service, because it is the history of our family, or it makes us feel good. We should only baptize our children if convicted that it is the unadulterated teaching of the Scriptures.
On the other side, it is also important to know why we would oppose infant baptism. If children are to be baptized, counted as members of the covenant community, and are to receive this sign and seal of God’s covenant, then those who are opposed to infant baptism are robbing our covenant children of one of God’s chief means of grace in their lives. This is a grave offense against the church and a serious error in the parenting of our children. No Christian should ever want to avoid seeing God’s means of grace meted out to His people. If our children are His people and we are not baptizing them, then we are robbing them of this sign and seal.
Either way, one of us is doing a great injustice to the Church and dishonoring God’s covenant. That is why the “debate” about baptism is not idle theological discourse. It is important. It is important enough to spend time studying, knowing, and having a conviction about this doctrine and practice of the church.
The Reformed tradition’s basis for belief in infant baptism can be articulated from three streams: the Covenant of Grace, the New Testament Scriptures, and the testimony of the Church.
The Covenant of Grace
Reformed theology maintains a bi-covenantal system. God entered into a covenant with Adam, which is called the Covenant of Works. Upon the Fall, God entered into a second covenant called the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Grace, as an overarching covenant that threads itself throughout the Scriptures, underscores the continuity of the Covenant in the Scriptures and likewise the continuity of the people of God from one testament to another. This has great implications for the sacrament of baptism. As shown in the graphic below, if one covenant overarches both testaments, the primary result is continuity. Children were included and counted among the people of God in the Old Testament dispensation. This inclusion is never repealed in the New Testament dispensation. Old Testament children received the sign of this inclusion, circumcision, therefore children are to receive the sign of this inclusion in the New Testament dispensation, baptism. Circumcision and baptism are the rights of initiation for their respective dispensations. They each symbolize the need for cleansing, being cut-off from the first Adam, covering in blood, and identification with the people of God. Circumcision was bloody, because it pointed to Christ to be crucified. Baptism is unbloody, because it points back to Christ already crucified.
Old Testament Dispensation New Testament Dispensation
Covenant (Abrahamic) Covenant (Gospel/New)
God commands Children be included in the covenant God never repeals command
Circumcision was sign of Covenant Baptism is sign of Covenant
Children of believers circumcised Children of believers baptized
As Geoffrey W. Bromiley stated,
In view of the fact that the new covenant is based upon and is the unfolding of the Abrahamic covenant, in view of the basic identity of meaning attaching to circumcision and baptism, in view of the unity and continuity of the covenant of grace administered in both dispensations, we can affirm with confidence that evidence of revocation or repeal is mandatory if the practice or principle has been discontinued under the New Testament.
The New Testament
The New Testament provides additional evidence. Nowhere does it repeal the inclusion of children in the covenant. On the contrary, there is enough corollary evidence in the New Testament to believe that children are to be baptized as members of the visible community of Christ.
- Acts 2:38-39 – Peter states, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children.” This demonstrates that the placing of the covenant sign on children has not been suspended in the new covenant era. Children are still considered part of the covenant community. Pentecost is rightly considered the inauguration of the new covenant era, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. On this occasion, Peter does not repeal the covenant family aspect of the covenant of grace, but rather emphasizes it!
- Colossians 2:11-12 – Paul demonstrates that circumcision and baptism are both signs of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Circumcision looked forward to Christ’s death, while baptism looks back to Christ’s death. If baptism and circumcision are equated then baptism is logically to be applied to infants.
- Luke 18:15; Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16 (Jesus and the Children) – Jesus lays His hands on the children and blesses them. Children were blessed by Christ and considered to be part of the covenant community. That is, the community of those who are blessed by Christ. So, if Christ was willing to bless them in His earthly ministry, why should His blessing be kept away from them today?
- Ephesians and Colossians – In both letters Paul addresses “the saints.” Also, in each of these letters, he addresses children (Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20-21). Paul considered children to be members of the covenant community. They are saints, that is “set apart.” This does not provide a commentary on their salvation, but rather notes their position in the community. Furthermore, in each passage he admonishes the children to be obedient to their parents “in the Lord.” Children are in no way addressed differently than other people in the household passages. Rather, they are all considered saints and directed to fulfill their stations in life. These children were fully embraced in the fellowship of the saints and the covenant community.
- 1 Corinthians 7:14 – Paul describes the children of one believing parent as “holy.” The child is declared holy based upon the parent’s faith and trust in the Lord. Paul is not speaking here of subjective inward holiness, but to objective holiness. That is, he is speaking of holiness regarding connection and privilege. The children are holy because they are being raised in a home under the auspice of holiness and the teachings of Christ.
- Household Baptisms – Household baptisms occur in Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33-34, and 1 Corinthians 1:16 (as well as possibly Acts 10:47-48 in light of Acts 11:14). It cannot be proved from these passages that infants or children were included in the baptisms, however, it also cannot be argued that they were not included. Even though circumstantial, the evidence seems to suggest that it is likely that children were included. The New Testament church must have experienced a great number of baptisms, yet only twelve instances of baptism are recorded in the early Church in the New Testament. It is interesting that fully one fourth of these testimonies are of household baptisms. If one fourth of all the recorded baptisms were entire households and the early church experienced a myriad of baptisms, it is very unlikely that none of these households contained infants.
- Family in Scripture – On a conceptual level there is also evidence in the Scriptures. Infant baptism preserves the emphasis upon family seen throughout the Bible. From the very beginning with the creation of Adam and Eve to the very end of the Scriptures with the household passages in the epistles, there is an emphasis upon family throughout the Scriptures. God chose to work through the means of family. The first institution He ordained was family. He established His covenant with Noah and his family. He established His covenant with Abraham and his seed (family). Parents are admonished in Deuteronomy 6 and many other passages throughout the Scriptures to bring their children up in the Lord. God has chosen from the beginning to work and extend His grace through families.
The Testimony of the Church
Finally, there is evidence outside the Scriptures. Though this is less important, it bears mentioning.
- Theological Truth – Baptism points to what Christ has done for His children. The Baptist view places the focus upon man and his conscious decision. If one does so exclusively or even in the main, it relegates the essence of baptism to an anthropocentric meaning instead of a theocentric meaning. “It puts the ‘I’ and its decision in the place of God and his decision. It gives the primacy and honor to humans and their work not as it should to God and God’s work…It finds its central point in our turning to God rather than God’s turning to us and God’s work in turning us to God.” The baptism of an infant pictures the helplessness of man and his desperate need for God. It is a testimony to all that are watching that it is only by the act of God that that child will be saved. Baptizing infants demonstrates this objective reality.
- Lack of Evidence for Baptists – There is no evidence of adults who were born to Christian parents being baptized in the New Testament. Therefore, it could be argued that there is even less evidence for the Baptist who asserts that a believer growing up in a Christian household should be baptized when an adult then there is for the paedobaptist position. In fact, I would contend that the burden of proof lies on the Baptist contention due to the inclusion of children in the covenant community in the Old Testament.
- No Beginning Known – Infant baptism has been the historic practice of the church. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen all mention infants being baptized in the second century. Cyprian and the Council of Carthage in 253 A.D. took infant baptism for granted. Augustine asserted that infant baptism had existed in the church as long as anyone could remember. There is no one who is able to point to the beginning of the practice of infant baptism. It could be assumed from history alone that infant baptism had always been the practice of the Church.
- History of the Church – Until the time of the Anabaptists in the 16th century, there was no noticeable outcry against infant baptism in the Church. Even to this very day, the majority of the current Church, not to mention the overwhelming majority of the members of the Church throughout the centuries, holds to a paedobaptist position.
We want to be clear what baptism is and is not. In a Reformed view of baptism, it is a sign and seal (Romans 4), not a means of regeneration or faith. It is a testimony of God, not a proclamation of faith on behalf of the infant. It signifies their inclusion in the visible church, but makes no commentary on their entrance into the invisible church. Baptism serves to strengthen faith, it is not a means of importing faith.
What Baptism Is What Baptism is Not
Sign and Seal A means of regeneration or faith
Testimony of God Proclamation of faith on behalf of the infant
A sign of being in the visible church Entrance into the invisible church
Serves to Strengthen Faith An Importation of Faith
We all benefit from studying, knowing, and having a conviction about the doctrine of baptism and its practice in the church. Our goal is not to win an argument, to rally support to our cause, or to shame those who possess a differing opinion. Rather, what drives us is a serious consideration of our Lord’s call to worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23). Therefore, we seek truth, desire to know truth, and put that truth into practice. Consider the above with regards to baptism. Study, pray, and then be led by your conscience. The Lord is lord of the conscience. Our view of baptism matters, so we want to know why we believe what we believe. But let us do so with a meek, mild, and gracious spirit; for how ironic it would be to maintain a haughty spirit about “our view” of baptism—a sacrament that speaks of one’s need for the shed blood of Christ.
 John Murray, Christian Baptism (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1977), 53.
 Acts 2:41; 8:12, 13, 38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5, 1 Corinthians 1:14, 16.
 Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “The Meaning and Scope of Baptism,” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Donald K. McKim (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 238.
 Louis Igou Hodges, Reformed Theology Today (Columbus, Georgia: Brentwood Christian Press, 1995), 122.