Thoughts on Infant Baptism

August 18th, 2008

Infant baptism (“paedobaptism”) has come up in a few contexts lately–some conversations, some radio shows, some blogs, etc.  I’d like to put down some thoughts.

1.) It’s Important

It’s important to figure this out.  We shouldn’t just shrug and say, “Oh well, people disagree.”  If infant baptism is valid, then we credobaptists (believer’s baptists) are withholding something from our children–not treating them as God would have us.  But if baptism is something that a believer does, then those who were “baptized” as infants are not obeying the Lord in his command to be baptized.  Either way, we are missing something.  God commanded this practice for a reason; if we take His commands seriously, we should do our best to understand them correctly.  We should go to the Scriptures, and do our best to understand them correctly.

2.)  It’s Intramural

This is a discussion between brothers in the Gospel.  It is a serious matter, but not one that decides your salvation.  (Though, if you believe that baptizing an infant saves them, it does start to get close to the question, “What is the gospel?”)

3.) It’s All About Covenants

When you start to explore this issue, you quickly get into the meaning of the covenants–the old covenant, the new covenant in Christ, what it means to be a member of the covenant, what are the promises of the covenant, the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament, etc.  So, studying this can give you a much stronger grasp of the sweep of God’s work through history, and the nature of God’s promises for us today.

4.) A Very Brief, Shallow Introduction to Protestant Paedobaptism

I’m not going to claim this intro remotely does justice to the topic, but here are some basic points.

  • Lutherans, Presbyterians, other Reformed denominations (except Reformed Baptists), Episcopalians, and Methodists practice it.  (Though not all within those groups necessarily practice it.)
  • Most (all?) will have some kind of Confirmation later in the life of the child.
  • There are some different varieties of Protestant paedobaptism.
    • Presbyterians, for instance, view it sort of like others might view a dedication.  The baptism introduces the child into the covenant community/church, and the church commits to help in bringing the child up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”.  It confers some kind of grace from God, but does not justify the child.  (The baptism does not guarantee the child’s salvation.)
    • Lutherans actually believe that the baptism is a means by which God creates an infant faith & repentance in the child.  Also, original sin is washed away.  (I think Methodists believe that, too.)

5.) Two Common Problems with Paedobaptist Arguments

I want to say a few words about a couple tendencies I’ve seen in paedobaptist arguments.  (Well, actually, I’ve had these tendencies pointed out to me.)  If you’re a paedobaptist, please, consider these comments when you prepare to defend your view.  Reflect on these points–I know that I’m much more impressed by an argument that has taken these things into consideration.  Or if you’re a credobaptist, like me, these will help you examine the other side–help equip you to get past the surface-level arguments that may be offered, to get to the deeper questions.

The two tendencies are: (1) Paedobaptists only quote half of Acts 2:39, and (2) Paedobaptists use arguments that go against themselves, too.

(1) Paedobaptists only quote half of Acts 2:39.

Acts 2 is Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit comes on the brethren.  Peter preaches to the Jews of Jerusalem, explaining that they are seeing the outpouring of the Spirit prophesied in Joel; that Jesus has poured out “the promise of the Holy Spirit”; that Jesus, whom they crucified, is both Lord and Christ.

Paedobaptists often quote part of Acts 2:39, “For the promise is for you and for your children”.  The promise isn’t just for us–it’s for our children.  That’s a common refrain in their argument for baptizing our children.  But they rarely finish the verse.  Here’s the context:

37 Now when they heard this [Peter's sermon] they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “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. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.  (Acts 2:37-41, bold added)

The sentence doesn’t stop with, “the promise is for you and for your children”.  It finishes, “and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

So, first, what’s the promise?  It’s the “promise of the Holy Spirit”, which they will receive if they repent and are baptized in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  And who is that promise for?  For “you” (the Jews), for “your children,” and for “all who are far off” (either the Diaspora, or the Gentiles).  It’s for those three groups, right?  Well, almost.  Peter limits it.  It’s for those three groups–in the NASB, “as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”

Paedobaptists put so much emphasis on the fact that the promise is “for you and for your children”.  But it’s like they don’t see the next part of the verse, where Peter limits the promise.  It’s for those whom God calls to himself.  For those who repent and believe in Christ.  If you do not repent and believe, this passage does not teach that the promise is yours.  Same goes for those who are far off.  And of them, whom do we baptize?  Those who profess faith.  This passage doesn’t give us any reason to single out our children and treat them differently.

So, to my paedobaptist brethren:  If you quote this verse, quote the whole thing.  Explain how the last half of the verse fits together with the part you want to quote.  If you don’t, I’m going to be groaning inside with frustration.

(2) Paedobaptists use arguments that go against themselves, too.

Maybe a better way to say it would be, they raise problems, but don’t seem to consider, “Do we have the same kind of problem?”

Example 1:  We credobaptists require a credible profession of faith before baptism.  So… How young can we baptize our children?  If they’re 4 years old and they pray to accept Jesus, do we baptize them now, or wait till they’re older, and have a more mature understanding of what’s happening?  Do we accept their profession?  What makes it “credible”?  It’s a real pastoral problem that we have to wrestle with.

I’ve heard a paedobaptist say, “Isn’t it interesting that you struggle with this question?  But if you stuck with the Scriptures and baptized infants, you wouldn’t have the problem.”

So where’s the inconsistency?  Paedobaptists usually [Correction:] Some paedobaptists require a credible profession of faith before allowing their children to join in the Lord’s Supper!  They have exactly the same kind of pastoral problem.

Example 2:  I listen to a Lutheran show called Issues, Etc.  It’s pretty good.  They recently had a segment, “Answering Objections to Infant Baptism” with Pastor Tim Pauls.  In addition to quoting only half of Acts 2:39, he actually made this argument (at 3:30):  When did you become a citizen of your country?  The moment you’re born.  So go to the Great Commission.  Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them.  So, are babies part of “nations”?  Yes!  When the Bible tells us to make disciples by baptizing, that includes even the youngest.

When I heard that, I wished that I were listening live, so I could call in.  I wanted to ask:  Is my neighbor part of “all nations”?  Yes.  So, when I go home today, should I go next door and get my neighbor and baptize him?  I assume “no”.  What do I wait for, before I baptize him?  Professed faith and repentance.  Does waiting for faith & repentance mean that I’m excluding him from “all nations”?  No.

Credobaptists are approaching this with consistency. Now, Pastor Pauls may have a fair response to my question.  But my immediate question to paedobaptist arguments is often going to be, “How does that work if we apply it to adults?”  If you do have a reply, build it into your argument from the start.  If you argue without showing that you’ve thought through this aspect, you’re going to appear inconsistent.  And you’ll have little chance of persuading me.

So, those are the major things that have been bouncing around inside my head.  I’ll try to post a brief follow-up, with links to some of the sermons, discussions, and mp3 debates.

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5 Responses to “Thoughts on Infant Baptism”

  1. Mike Burgess says:

    If you don’t mind me dropping by to comment, I’d like to offer a few reflections on your post. I appreciated the civil interaction with you on the Beggars All thread.

    When I was Reformed, I was a paedobaptist and paedocommunionist. There is a lot of really insightful paedocommunionist material available on the web from vital, Reformed men. You might look into it simply for research as you ponder these things. I can point to some if you’re interested.

    The point here is that, using the remnant analogy, those Reformed men don’t fit your objection to the “inconsistency” charge. And most of them will at some point refer to the practice of the Eastern Churches (Orthodox and Eastern Catholic) who practice it and have practiced it for two millenia.

    Secondly, are you making an assertion that infants can’t have faith? I will leave aside for the moment Biblical teaching on vicarious faith and sacrifice, etc. But I would refer to Psalm 22:9-10, Psalm 71:6, and Luke 1:15, 41 as evidence that God graciously bestows faith even in infants (infants in the womb even!).

    Third, as you pointed out, covenant faithfulness is crucial to understanding these issues. St. Paul understood that better than most, I would imagine. He explicitly makes the identification of covenant entry under the old covenant with covenant entry under the new in Colossians 2 (see especially vv 11-12) and 3. Compare this teaching on how we come into union with Christ – die and are reborn – and continue our sanctification via baptism in Galatians 3 and 4 and Romans 6 (this last especially in light of the preceding chapter 5!).

    I wondered at your reaction to the citizen analogy. What made you ask if you should baptize your neighbor? Are you a pastor? I didn’t get that from your profile. Or were you just speaking metaphorically?

    Anyway, God bless.

  2. Tim says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for stopping by. I’m writing a reply to your comment, and it got long enough that I’d like to make a new entry for it. I’ll post it shortly.

    Update: The trackback link below is the post in question.

  3. ... Burgess was kind enough to comment on my previous entry on infant baptism.  (Mike is a Roman Catholic, formerly-Reformed, with whom I was previously discussing another ...

  4. ... wrote my two entries on infant baptism because I’ve been encountering the subject in a few different places ...

  5. ... pretty much done with my recent entries on infant baptism, but I found a couple more resources on the subject–about infant ...

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