Why Infant Baptism?

Some years ago, while I was visiting a church for a baby dedication, a friend asked me, “Why do we only dedicate babies in this church and not baptize them? What’d be the difference if we just went ahead and baptized them?”

I found his question interesting, since his church believes only in adult baptism, also known as believer’s baptism.

I told him that really, on the surface of things, many Christians believe there isn’t all that much of a difference—though Reformed believers would be quick to point out that dedication focuses more on the action of Christian parents, while baptism highlights God’s action in the infant’s life.

Yet the question needs to be asked: Why infant baptism, when so many churches today believe in adult or believer’s baptism only?

The latter belief is actually a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Christianity, becoming much more prominent in the past 50 to 100 years. Even more significantly, it wasn’t until the Reformation that the question of “adult or believer’s baptism only” surfaced in any kind of significant way in the history of the church. 

In the early centuries of Christianity, a few groups did practice various forms of adult or believer’s baptism only. But they were, for the most part, small and usually heretical. Throughout church history (including today), the vast majority of Christians have practiced infant baptism along with adult/believer’s baptism.

John Calvin, one of the leading personalities of the Reformation, made an interesting statement in his Institutes of the Christian Religionabout why the church worldwide had long practiced infant baptism. The main reason, he explained, was because it could be traced back as a historic practice and teaching to the earliest days of Christianity. (He wrote this in response to the Anabaptist or adult/believer’s-baptism-only movement of his time that was challenging the biblical basis for infant baptism.)

Calvin makes a good point. Until the time of the Reformation, there were never any questions historically concerning the reliability of the practice of infant baptism. That’s significant because in the first 400 years of the church’s existence, there were many, many theological disputes over many, many esoteric and philosophical issues, great and small. Yet the legitimacy of infant baptism was never seriously questioned at any church synod or council.

Is It Biblical?

So is infant baptism biblical?

I believe there is a biblical basis to both teach it and practice it. Twice in Acts 16 we read of entire households being baptized in the city of Philippi. First a businesswoman named Lydia becomes a believer and has her entire household baptized, then a Philippian jailor does the same. The implication here is that children and infants were in all likelihood baptized along with the adults in these households.

On what basis may we conclude that? We may do so mainly because these stories parallel exactly what the Old Testament patriarch Abraham did back in the book of Genesis concerning circumcision. Abraham obediently circumcised all the males born in his household, slave and free, as God commanded him to do as a sign of the covenant God had made with him (Gen. 17:23-27).

We also know from Leviticus 12:3 that, as descendants of Abraham, the Hebrew people were to circumcise infant boys “on the eighth day.”

The inference here, then, is that Abraham circumcised all the males of his own household—adults, children, and infants. History tells us that the early church did exactly the same thing with baptism because it saw water baptism as the sign of God’s new covenant with us (through Jesus’ saving work), replacing physical circumcision as a sign of the Old Testament covenant. Therefore, baptizing infants would be a logical church practice.

In Colossians 2:11-12, the apostle Paul explains how water baptism replaces circumcision: “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

There is, of course, one important difference in water baptism replacing circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and humanity: while circumcision was done only to males, water baptism is for everyone.

Galatians 3:26-29speaks to this: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

In the two Scripture texts above, then, the apostle Paul clearly unites the two covenant signs.

You may still ask, “Isn’t there any biblical text in the New Testament that specifically says infants were baptized?

The honest answer is no.

Yet letters written in the first few centuries of Christian history clearly say that infant baptism was practiced in the church—and very early on. Letters from second- and third-generation church leaders of the apostles of Jesus mention infant baptism being practiced in the church of their day and even before.

In other words, we should have every confidence that these early church leaders were carefully following the teachings and practices laid down for them by the apostles of Jesus themselves, infant baptism included.

For Discussion

  1. Rob Braun argues that dedication focuses on the action of parents, while baptism focuses on God's action. Explain. Do you agree?
  2. Do you find Braun's historical arguments for infant baptism persuasive? Should we make the practice normative for us today as well? Shouldn't we just stick to the Bible on these matters?
  3. Are there other passages in Scripture that speak to the issue of infant baptism (hint: Matt. 18:1-4, 10; Acts 2:38-39; Rom. 5:1-11)? How do they inform the discussion?
  4. What do you make of Braun's admission that the Bible nowhere specifically mentions infant baptism? Does that imply that we should continue the Old Testament practice of including infants in the sealing of God's promises, or does it imply that we should do away with infant baptism now that Christ has come into the world?

About the Author

Rob Braun is a salesman, a freelance writer, and a part-time minister for Princeton (Minn.) Community Church. He is a member of Bethel Christian Reformed Church, Princeton.

See comments (10)

Comments

According to Earle E Cairns, in his book "Christianity throught the Centuries", an early church father, Tertullian, born 160 AD, was opposed to infant baptism. Thus the idea of believer's baptism goes back to the early church.

"What do you make of Braun's admission that the Bible nowhere specifically mentions infant baptism?"

For starters, that tells me that there's bigger things to argue about.

Baptism in the Bible was always by immersion meaning to submerge by going into and coming up out of the water marking one's testimony of salvation and obedience to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Dabbing or pouring water was never used once in Scripture.

It was the Roman Catholic church that instigated the ritualistic practice of infant baptism as a means of regeneration, believing that somehow baptism would save a new born baby. The reformers, Luther and Calvin tried to make infant baptism more acceptable by turning it into a Covenant issue instead. A practice the early New Testament church did not do.

Who can remember their infant baptism? Three years ago I walked down into the waters of baptism as a believer converted to Jesus Christ and as an act of obedience to his claim on my life through regeneration. Now my baptism means something to me. A sign of fulfillment, of God's grace and claim on my life. Now it's a beautiful experience and memory I will not forget.

If there is one ordinance I would change in the CRC it would be baptism.

Hi Rob,
You mention "God's action in the life of the infant." What exactly do you mean by that? At a child's dedication, God is asked to care for, protect,etc... the child, as well as the practice being a declaration of the parents to raise the child in God's ways. The other points you made are interesting and something I'd like to look into when I have more time. Thanks.

If adult baptism is so wrong, than why was Jesus
baptized as an adult rather than an infant?

The Reformers Luther and Calvin made baptism a covenant issue, not a salvation issue as in the Roman Catholic interpretation of the sacrament. Their study and interpretation of scriptures, Old and New Testament, led them to this understanding (as well as their stance on grace, justification, etc.), and was not just to make it "more acceptable"---they dared take the acceptable, catholic, orthodox, non-scriptural practice and reform it on scriptural basis.

As a former CRC member this might help clarify some things...
http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/80-194_A-Scriptural-Critique-of-Inf...

Infant baptism is a promise/covenant God made with us. Believer's baptism is like a Profession of faith, is it not? That is what we promise to Him. God's covenant promise is for all of us, even the children. Those who are not born into Christianity and find it later in life are also entitled to the promise of the Covenant, and are baptized later on.
We have to remember that salvation has absolutely nothing to do with what we 'do', rather it's what God has done through Christs saving Grace.

This teaching is so strong and Biblical teaching.So I need more teaching in this area. Brother in Christ may God bless you.
Rev. Zenebe Alemu from Ethiopia

God had Abraham circumcise himself as a sign of the covenant after God credited his faith as righteousness. Subsequently, Abraham gave his son Isaac the sign of the covenant in infancy when the boy had no say in it. Clearly then, Isaac's membership in the covenant community was not conditional on saving faith.It was Abraham's doing. A covenant community does not reflect a totally saved people. Covenant Jews crucified Christ. Just as circumcision does not guarantee Jews salvation neither does baptism bestow salvation on infants of believers. Resting in the hope of God's promises for their children through Abraham, parents baptize infants being confident that as the children get older they will commit their lives to Christ,are born again and are saved.

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