By The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark A. Pearson and The Rev. Canon David M. Baumann, SSC
Editor’s note: while most Newsletter readers are members of churches which practice infant baptism, not all are. We ask those of you who are members of “Believer’s Baptism” churches to give this article a fair hearing. This article started off as a sermon preached by Canon Pearson in several places with notes then sent to Canon Baumann. Canon Baumann then worked it up into an essay for his congregation, Blessed Sacrament Episcopal Church, Placentia, California, an Anglo-Catholic congregation with numerous evangelical students from Biola University and other colleges. Canon Pearson then edited that essay and Canon Baumann gave a final tweak. The result is as follows.
We know that baptism is one of the three essential parts of coming to salvation in Jesus Christ. If you were to look all over the New Testament you would quickly discover that there are three parts of commitment to Christ: repentance of sin, believing the Gospel, and baptism. All three of these points are important, although sometimes a New Testament writer will list only one or two of these at a particular moment. As we read the book of Acts of the Apostles we discover that converts to the Christian faith repent of their sins, believe in the Gospel as they receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and are baptized. (For the importance of baptism in Acts, see, for example, Acts 8:12; 8:38; 9:18; 16:15 and 22:16. Other verses in the New Testament which focus on baptism as a requirement for salvation include Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12, 1 Peter 3:21.) Baptism is not some “add on,” a mere outward ceremony that one can take or leave. It is an important part of becoming a Christian, just as Jesus said (see the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20).
From this, some people have concluded that only the baptism of adults, the so-called “believer’s baptism,” is the correct way to do baptism and that baptizing babies is a superstitious, “man-made” religious ceremony that is wrong. This article will explain why historically the Church — Roman Catholic and Protestant– baptizes babies, believing this is the correct way. We will look at five reasons for infant baptism.
1. Baptism is a Sign of the Covenant and the Covenant is with Families
In the Old Testament God called Abram to follow Him. God and Abram entered into a covenant — a sacred agreement –where God set the terms: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” God changed his name to Abraham and provided an outward sign of the covenant –Abraham was circumcised. God said this covenant was not just for Abraham but also for his descendants for ever. God commanded that Abraham circumcise every male in his extended household making it clear that God addresses families when He enters into covenants (see Genesis, chapter 17). Americans undervalue the idea of family or extended family and place too much emphasis on the individual. But this is not God’s way. God did not come to Abraham’s children the way He came to Abraham. God said the covenant with Abraham would be with him and his descendants (Genesis 17:7, 9). The little ones growing up in the house of people in the covenant did not come into the covenant when they got older and made their own decision — they came into the covenant at the beginning of their lives because they were part of the family. The parents were their spiritual covering. Therefore, God did not say, “Wait until the boys are old enough to decide for themselves. If a boy chooses to enter into the covenant with me, then (and only then) will he be circumcised in response to his own belief.” Absolutely not! God told Abraham to circumcise the boy on the eighth day. The child was brought into the covenant from infancy. The sign of the covenant was not in response to his own decision for God. Why? Because God deals with families, and this includes anyone living in the household, including even the servants (see Genesis 17:9-13). If circumcision is the sign of the Old Covenant, baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. (Note how Paul, in Colossians 2:11-12, makes this point.) The same principles apply. Children are under the covenant, under the spiritual covering of their parents, so they receive the sign of the covenant — baptism — as infants. In churches that refuse to baptize babies, parents still want their children “under the covering” of God so they have a ceremony of dedication. While their desire is right they misunderstand what rite or ordinance brings their child under the covering. Biblically speaking, it is baptism. Therefore, because the spiritual covering of the child is because of the faith of one or both parents, infant baptism is appropriate only for children when at least one parent is a believer. Many clergy who strongly believe in infant baptism will not baptize a child when neither parent is a believer. For children when at least one parent a believer, infant baptism is most appropriate.
2. Infant Baptism is Implied in the New Testament
The second reason for believing in and practicing infant baptism is because it is there in the New Testament. Of course many of the baptisms described in the New Testament are adult baptisms for the simple reason they were adult converts — they were Abrahams to their families. But there are accounts recorded where in response to the head of the household coming to faith in Jesus Christ, the whole family is baptized. One is the story of Lydia. When she came to faith she was baptized “with her household” (Acts 16:14-15). Another is the Philippian jailer who, upon professing faith, was baptized “with all his family” (Acts 16:30-33). Paul refers to his baptizing the household of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 1:16). In the first generation New Testament Church we see the Old Testament pattern. The head of the house comes to faith and because of that everyone in the household comes into the new covenantwith God and receives the sign of that covenant: baptism. There is no indication that infants or small children were exempted from baptism under the idea of waiting until that child was old enough to decide for himself or herself nor were the children merely “dedicated.” The babies were baptized. The early Church, just like Judaism, was guided by God to think of family, not individual, in terms of conversion, covenant and the sign of the covenant (circumcision or baptism).
3. Infant Baptism was the Position of the Early Church
The third reason for believing in and practicing infant baptism is because it was the position of the early church. We have copies of liturgies (orders of worship) from the early days of the Church which direct that at a service of baptism, first the adult converts be presented for baptism, then the infants. It is taken as normative in the early days of the Church that infants were baptized. We have records of major controversies of the early Church — about Jesus being both divine and human, about the Trinity, and so on. While we do not have everything that either side wrote in these controversies, we clearly know what issues were argued over. At no time was there an argument about infant baptism. Why? There was no controversy. Infant baptism was not a subject the early church debated. Everyone in the early church agreed this was the right way.
4. Infant Baptism Has Been the Position of the Overwhelming Majority of Christians throughout the Twenty Centuries of the Church
The fourth reason for believing in and practicing infant baptism is because it is the overwhelming position of Christians throughout the history of the Church. When we go through Church history and look at the great and mighty people of God — people who defended Biblical orthodoxy against false teaching, people who expanded the Kingdom of God by leading many people to Christ — we discover the vast majority of them believed in and practiced infant baptism. The practice of infant baptism was not questioned until the time of the Reformation (the sixteenth century), and then only by a distinct minority of people. The Reformation had a number of expressions and a number of leaders but was united in its desire to purge the Church of superstition, false belief and erroneous practices. There were three large groups and one small group that comprised the Reformation. The Lutherans of Scandinavia, Germany and eastern Europe were one large group. They upheld infant baptism. The Anglicans in England were another group. They upheld infant baptism. The Calvinists of France, Switzerland, Holland and various parts of eastern Europe were the third large group. They upheld infant baptism as did the later Puritans. The only group that opted for adult baptism was the Anabaptists and they were a small element in the Reformation. To this day, the churches that do not practice infant baptism comprise only a small percentage of orthodox Christians. It was distinctly not the case that the needing-to-be-reformed Roman Catholic Church practiced infant baptism while the Reformers, zealously working to correct what they perceived to be unbiblical teaching, all believed in adult or believer’s baptism. The Reformers, quick to attack whatever they saw as unbiblical practice kept infant baptism.
5. The Chief Objections to Infant Baptism are Easily Refuted
The fifth reason for believing in and practicing infant baptism is that the two objections usually hurled against it are easily refuted. One objection to infant baptism is that it is a mere social custom. Objectors may point to a scene in the movie “The Godfather” where Michael Corleone’s boy is baptized while his henchmen are gunning down the family’s enemies. The baptism was a social convention, not a Christian commitment. But “Believer’s Baptism” can also be a ritual entered into for wrong reasons. Many upon reaching the ages of 12 to 14 have been told that it is now expected that they make a profession of faith and be baptized. They have said that their parents or Christian friends urged them to be baptized, saying something like, “Isn’t it time you got right with the Lord?” The expectation is that the child would then say, on cue, a prayer of commitment to Jesus and then get baptized. Others have reported their pastor said such things as, “Everyone else in your Sunday School class has been baptized and receives Communion. Don’t you want to stand with them as a believer?” So, we can’t accept the argument that baptizing babies is automatically a dead ritual while “believer’s baptism” can never be a dead ritual.
A second objection is that many baptized babies do not grow up into a life time walk with the Lord. And yet, there are also many for whom their infant baptism was the beginning of a life long journey in Jesus, where Jesus built upon the promises made on the baby’s behalf and honored those promises by leading that baby into a childlike and then adult walk with Him. Care must be taken that a baptized baby is nurtured in the faith. A young Jewish boy, circumcised on the eighth day, when becoming an adult, would need to confirm or ratify the promises made for him and become a son of the covenant, or, in Hebrew, Bar Mitzvah. Yet some who were circumcised as infants walked away from the Lord. God knew that would sometimes happen yet He nonetheless ordained circumcision on the eighth day. One purpose of the Christian rite of Confirmation is that it is a time when someone takes onto himself or herself the promises made for him or her in baptism. Even then, some will walk away from God. This, however, is no proof against infant baptism. There has always been and continues to be many who were baptized as believers yet who walked away from the Lord and never returned.
Our point is that the arguments, “Infant baptism is just a social custom,” and “We know baptized babies who do not, as adults, walk with the Lord” do not discredit infant baptism. “Believer’s baptism” can be and sometimes is just a social custom and some who are baptized as professed believers are not walking with the Lord today.
Conclusion: Why Is Infant Baptism Important? Why Make Such a Fuss?
1. Because the history of the people of God shows that incorporating babies into the covenant was recognized as God’s way from the beginning. It was His way in the Old Testament and it was His was in the New Testament.
2. Because infant baptism reminds us that God’s covenant is with families. How wonderful that children are under the covenant protection.
3. It reminds us that God takes the first step. God comes looking for us. It is good to know that God brought us into the covenant when we were helpless and ignorant. We don’t so much decide for God as we respond to His covenantal initiative.
4. It takes the focus off experience-centered or feelings-centered religion. Of course, it’s great when God provides true, authentic religious “experiences” or when He really gives us great feelings of Him. But today, experiences and feelings have become so important to many that some believers center in them and not in God. When that happens, it bases your relationship with God on yourself, not on God. This is a very weak foundation. Your walk with the Lord will always have ups and downs, but it is good to know that He made the first move towards you from the very beginning. +