Infant Baptism: What Does the New Testament Teach?
Though infant baptism has a long history in both Catholic and Protestant churches, evangelical Christians, for whom the Word of God is the final authority, will embrace it only if it is the clear commandment of Christ, and not simply a tradition of man. Is this the case?
Before plunging into some of the relevant texts and arguments, a few methodological words are definitely in order.
I consider it self-evident that this question can only be decided by the positive teaching of the New Testament (NT). The NT is, after all, the constitution of a new redemptive agreement between God and his new “nation” (i.e., the Church), a nation comprised not only of Jews, but also of Gentiles. Since this agreement is new–and since it positively declares the institutions of the old to be obsolete (Heb. 8:13)–it is clear that we must get our marching orders here.
In the matter before us, this foundational truth is crucial. Why? Because it entails that we cannot let OT precedent dictate to NT believers by requiring them to circumcise–or baptize–their offspring at birth. No, for the matter to be sure we must let the NT teach us the express will of Christ for the baptism of the children of believers. In practice, this means that we must go first to the Lord himself on the matter (i.e., to his words in the Gospels), then to the narratives of the book of Acts, and finally to the instruction and example of the writing apostles in their letters to the churches.
Now all Christian’s agree that each of these three strands of NT revelation positively teaches believer’s baptism. If, however, they do not, with equal clarity and uniformity, teach infant baptism, then surely the only safe path is to listen to the silence, embrace believer’s baptism alone, and encourage our children to wait for baptism until they can make “the good confession” for themselves.
Let us therefore briefly examine each of the three strands of NT teaching on the subject of infant baptism.
Christ and Infant Baptism
What does the Lord Jesus himself say about infant baptism? The answer here is unambiguous and full of significance: Nothing. We have only one dominical word about Christian baptism–the Great Commission–and it makes no mention of infant baptism. Indeed, it militates against it. We must consider the relevant passages–Mt. 28:16:ff and Mark 16:14ff–carefully.
In Matthew’s version of the Great Commission we observe a significant progression in the Lord’s command: First the apostles are to make disciples (presumably through the preaching of the gospel); then they are to baptize; then they are to teach. There is nothing here about baptizing infants. There is, however, an implication that the rite of baptism is prescribed only for disciples; that is, for those who have chosen to follow Christ. This would rule out infants. So this important text definitely weighs against infant baptism.
In Mark’s account, we find the Lord explicitly saying, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who disbelieves will be condemned.” The authenticity of this text is disputed. But at the very least it expresses the faith and practice of the very early Church (see Acts 8:37). It is therefore weighty evidence in support of believer’s baptism, but provides no support at all for infant baptism.
Paedobaptists (i.e., those who embrace infant baptism) sometimes try to appropriate for their cause the Lord’s command that little children should be allowed to come to Him (Mt. 19:13). But his words say nothing at all about baptism. Rather, He is simply encouraging adults to permit and even encourage willing children to come to Him. This is precisely what advocates of believer’s baptism eagerly look for in their own children: an understanding of who Jesus is, and a desire to come to him as Savior and Lord. Seeing this, they know it is time to have their children baptized.
The Book of Acts and Infant Baptism
As for the book of Acts, there is not a single text in which Luke unambiguously declares that infants were, or should be, baptized. Indeed, the evidence here again weighs in favor of believer’s baptism only.
Some have claimed, for example, that the “household baptisms” of Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Stephanas included infants. But these texts do not explicitly mention infants at all. What they do say is that prior to baptism, one must believe.
In the case of Lydia, it is written that the Lord first opened her heart; then Paul baptized her. Yes, her household was also baptized. But the text does not say that infants were. For all we know, she may have been a single woman living with her parents. There is no warrant here for infant baptism.
Again, in response to his anxious query about salvation, Paul told the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” The text goes on to say that Paul preached the word to all his household, that all his household believed, and that all were then baptized (Acts 16:31-34). Advocates of believer’s baptism could hardly ask for a more powerful apostolic endorsement of their position.
More important than the apostle’s thunderous silence about infant baptism is their explicit and repeated commendation of believer’s baptism.
In this regard, our single most important text is Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, where he laid down the pattern for Christian conversion. Thus, when the conscience-stricken Jews asked what they must do to be saved, Peter replied, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). Here is the apostolically declared norm: First a sinner hears and repents, then he gets baptized; and in this process he receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. But since infants cannot hear and repent, how can they be baptized?
Strange to tell, our paedobaptist brethren turn eagerly to this very text in their defense of infant baptism. Pointing to the second part of Peter’s words, they argue that here God is promising salvation and eternal life to the children of believers, for which reason the children are to be reckoned as full members of the covenant community and given water baptism in anticipation of their future repentance and faith in Christ.
Now all of us could wish that this were so, but neither the text itself, nor related NT texts, nor longstanding Christian experience justify such an interpretation and application. Indeed, the truth of the matter is right here before our eyes. Yes, there is a divine promise of eternal life; and yes, it is a universal promise, given to the Jews, to their children, and to Gentiles everywhere. But it is also a particular promise given to a particular people: to all whom the Lord will call. So then, just as Peter said at the outset, first the Lord calls through the preaching of the Gospel, then sinners hear and repent, and then they get baptized; and in this process they receive the gift of the Spirit and the promise of eternal life. Again, this “order of salvation” is the stated norm for all God’s people, including the children of believers. Surely, then, we are not at liberty to reverse it by placing bapstism before conversion. Thus, Peter’s sermon does not endorse, but implicitly opposes, infant baptism.
Importantly, this pattern of believer’s baptism is reflected all throughout the book of Acts. Paul was baptized after he believed (Acts 9). Cornelius and his gathering of family and friends were baptized after they believed (and quite demonstrably received the Holy Spirit!), (Acts 10-11). The Samaritans were baptized after they believed the things that Philip told them (Acts 8). Lydia and the Philippian jailer, with their households, were baptized after they heard the word and believed (Acts 16). Many of the Corinthians, hearing and believing, were baptized (Acts 18:8). The pattern is clear and unmistakable: The apostle’s baptized believers and, so far as we know, none other than believers. Are we wise to venture beyond their example?
The Epistles and Infant Baptism
It is not only the apostolic practice that speaks against infant baptism, but also the apostolic teaching about the meaning of baptism. This is found in the epistles, to which we now turn.
In his letter to the Colossians the apostle Paul declares that these Christians were ” . . . buried with (Christ) in baptism, in which also (they) were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Now even if this text did teach baptismal regeneration (which it does not), such regeneration would be in conjunction with faith. Clearly, Paul assumes that those who are baptized are believers in Jesus; that they understand and have personally received the gospel. Infants do not qualify.
We observe the same premise in Peter’s brief teaching about water baptism. According to some translations, Peter declares that baptism is ” . . . an appeal to God for a good conscience.” According to others, he styles baptism as ” . . . a response (i.e., a pledge or promise) of a good conscience towards God” (1 Peter 3:21-2). In either case, it is clear that for Peter baptismal candidates are people who are conscious of their sin and and actively expressing intelligent faith in Him who commanded them to be baptized. Again, infants do not qualify.
Romans 4 and Infant Baptism
Interestingly, the apostolic understanding of baptism may best be reflected in a text that does not mention baptism at all. I refer to Romans 4, in which Paul, seeking to clarify justification by faith to Jews (and also to proselytes to Judaism), explains that before he was circumcised Abraham was justified through simple faith in God’s promise about a coming son. Then, after he was justified, he received circumcision as a sign and seal of the righteousness he had while still uncircumcised.
In reading this passage, Christians naturally think of water baptism. They infer that under the New Covenant baptism takes the place of circumcision as an initial expression of a vital, justifying faith. And this is indeed the teaching of the NT. Like Abraham’s circumcision, baptism is represented as a sign (i.e., a symbolic physical action with spiritual significance) and seal (i.e., a public mark of ownership by God) to be placed upon people who have believed in the Son for salvation. Though Paul does not say as much in Romans 4, he implies it very strongly in Colossians 2. And again, we have seen from the book of Acts that this was the universal pattern in NT times. But if all this is so, it once again rules out the baptism of infants, for infants are not yet old enough to follow in the footsteps of father Abraham by believing upon the Son.
Students of this debate will therefore again be surprised to learn that paedobaptists also turn eagerly to Romans 4, thinking that here they have the best NT support for their position. They argue that just as God commanded Abraham to circumcise his children, so too Christians should baptize theirs. Baptism becomes a sign of children’s membership in God’s (new) covenant community, just as circumcision was a sign of children’s membership in God’s (old) covenant community. How then can we dare to withhold it from those who are born into this community?
But this argument is flawed at many levels.
To begin with, unlike what we see in the OT, there is no NT commandment that infants should be baptized. Moreover, if there really were a strict continuity between the two covenants, we would expect the Administrator of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ, to have commanded the baptism of male infants on the eighth day. In the case of a modified continuity, he would have commanded the baptism of male and female infants on the eighth day. But He did neither. Instead, following the pattern laid down by John the Baptizer (John 3:22f), he simply commanded the baptism of penitent believers (Mt. 28, Mark 16).
The reason for this radical departure from the OT norm is not too difficult to understand. In OT times, God established a physical nation that was to take its place in a physical land and live among other physical nations. That nation would serve God as his witness until the coming of mankind’s Messianic redeemer. History shows, however, that in this physical nation there were two kinds of people, those who knew God, and those who did not. We think, for example, of Jacob and Esau, or of Eli and his wicked sons, or of Israel’s godly kings and prophets who constantly clashed with her ungodly kings and prophets. As Paul said to the Romans, in ancient times—and right up to the present—”not all Israel is Israel.” Not all Jews were in a spiritual covenant with God. In the case of many, their flesh was circumcised, but their hearts were not.
But such is not the case under the New Covenant, which is a different covenant and a better covenant because it infallibly transforms the hearts of all whom God graciously calls into it (Jer. 33, Heb. 8). This is Christ’s very mission: Through his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly reign He is even now creating a new spiritual nation, not a physical (John 10:16). Therefore, he only acknowledges regenerated persons as members of His Church. “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me,” said Jesus to Peter. Similarly, he prayed to His Father, “I in them (i.e., his Church, his nation), and they in Me, that they may be perfected in unity” (John 17:23). The new Israel of God is comprised only of those who are spiritually indwelt by the risen Christ.
The apostles echo this same understanding. Paul declares to the Romans, “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” And again, “It is by one Spirit that we were all baptized into the body, whether Jews or Greek, slaves or free, and have all been made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). Peter teaches that the Church is a spiritual house, and a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Pet. 2:9f).
Such texts could be greatly multiplied. All of the apostles assume that Christ’s Church is a spiritual nation; that it is populated exclusively by citizens who are born from above. Their citizenship is in heaven. And if, as the NT pervasively teaches, this birth and this citizenship are by grace through faith, then infants—even the children of Christians—are not yet members of the heavenly nation. They too must first hear and believe the good news about the Son, just like Abraham of old. Then, having been born into the family of God, they may be baptized and publically welcomed into it.
Back, then, to Romans 4. Yes, in OT times God instituted circumcision as an outward sign and seal of (little boy’s) membership in ethnic Israel. But the inferiority of this covenant is manifested in the fact the sign and seal were only given to boys, and that only some, but not all, ethnic Israelites would go on to have circumcised hearts. But now, in the NT times, God has instituted water baptism as a sign and seal of membership in spiritual Israel. And the superiority of this covenant is manifested in the fact that the sign and seal are given to the whole nation; that is, to all who believe, whether male or female (Jer. 31:31f, Heb. 8:7ff; Joel 2:28ff, Acts 2:14f). We see, then, that the the anti-type of OT physical circumcision is not water baptism, but NT spiritual circumcision (Phil. 3:3, Col. 2:11). And it is this spiritual circumcision that entitles the new believer to take the sign and seal of New Covenant membership: water baptism. But since a person cannot experience spiritual circumcision apart from hearing, understanding, and spiritually responding to the Gospel, infants, who can do none of these, should postpone water baptism until, by God’s grace, they can. Once they have, and once they have taken baptism, they will truly have walked in the footsteps of their spiritual father Abraham, who fist believed, and then took the sign and seal of covenant membership.
1 Corinthians 7 and Infant Baptism
Finally, we should touch on one last favorite of our paedobaptist brethren, 1 Corinthians 7:14. The context is Paul’s instruction about mixed marriages between believers and unbelievers. The thrust of his teaching is that a believing partner should not leave or divorce his/her unbelieving mate. In verse 14 Paul gives the rationale: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.”
In this cryptic remark, Paul seems to be saying that for the sake of the children in a mixed marriage God regards the unbelieving partner in a special way: He regards the unbeliever as though he (or she) were a believer, so that He can regard the fruit of that marriage as though they were the children of two believing spouses. But obviously this “regard” does not justify the unbelieving mate, or make him a son (or daughter) of God; only faith could do that. And the same is true for the child. Neither is sanctified or made holy in the deep, redemptive sense of those words. Nevertheless, this special divine regard does indeed “sanctify” (lit. set apart) them in a limited sense: It sets them apart for definite temporal and spiritual advantages.
Since Scripture does not specify those advantages, neither can we. We can, however, draw this important conclusion: Even if the “holiness” of the infant child of a believing parent were an implicit guarantee of his or her eventual salvation (a doubtful proposition), that would still not entail that the child should be baptized. For as we have seen, the consistent teaching of the NT is that baptism is a physical sign and seal of a prior spiritual transformation; of a prior spiritual circumcision; of a prior death to sin and a prior spiritual resurrection to newness of life; of a prior spiritual incorporation into the Body of Christ resulting in spiritual membership in His new covenant community. As a general rule, this spiritual transformation occurs when a sinner hears, understands, believes, and obeys the gospel, after which he is baptized in water. Therefore, as a general rule, it does not occur in infant children, since they are not yet old enough to hear and respond to the gospel with understanding. Therefore, until they are and until they do, they ought not to be baptized.1
Summing up, we have seen that there is no clear NT command to baptize infants, while there are many commands to baptize believers. Numerous examples from the book of Acts indicate that believer’s baptism was indeed the teaching and practice of the early Church. The only plausible argument in favor of infant baptism is based on a faulty application of Romans 4 and a mistaken analogy between the Old Covenant and the New. Therefore, those desiring to remain under the clear teaching of the NT will want to baptize believers only.
The Blessings of Believer’s Baptism
This practice is good for all of us, but especially for the children of Christian parents. As they attend church they will observe adult believers being baptized. They will hear “good confessions” of faith in Jesus, and many testimonies of what He has done for them. They will be provoked to curiosity, and will begin to ask questions. They will dialogue with Dad and Mom and Pastor Jones. One day, God willing, the lights will go on, and they will say, “Dad, Mom, I believe in Jesus, and I want to be baptized.”
If, however, children already have been baptized as infants, they may mistakenly think they are already Christians simply in virtue of having Christian parents, or of being a “member” of the church, or of being baptized. Yes, God can overcome this misunderstanding, but do we really want to promote it? And if they should come to faith, how will they publicly express their newfound Christian understanding and joy? What sacrament will be left to them? And how will they feel about those who robbed them of the one they should have enjoyed?
When the apostle Paul reproved the Corinthians for their conduct at the Lord’s Supper, he admonished them to approach the sacrament with discernment and due reverence (I Cor. 11). They were to understand its meaning and to examine themselves to see if they were worthy to participate. Interestingly, paedobaptists take these words seriously, and usually require children to reach the years of discretion before they receive confirmation and take their first communion.
Surely this is the biblical pattern for the sacrament of baptism as well. Surely it too is reserved for believers only. Surely we should lovingly encourage our children to wait until they can understand not only the great truths of the faith, but also their own personal need of the Savior. Then, when they have responded positively to God’s gift of salvation, we can all rejoice together at their baptism. We can celebrate with them what they themselves now proclaim to the world: They have died to sin and risen to newness of life through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Dean Davis, April, 2003
1. Whether Baptist or Paedo-baptist, all Bible-believing Christians, by a sure spiritual instinct, are inclined to recognize the privilege of natural birth into the covenant community by means of a ceremony of dedication. In such ceremonies all of the adult members of the community promise to “take advantage of the advantages” graciously given to children blessed with birth into a Christian home. They covenant, together, to raise these children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” doing so in hopes of that happy day when they fully understand the terms of the Gospel and intentionally commit themselves, for time and eternity, to Him who has been the gracious Lord of their family and their church.