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Why Infant Baptism?

A biblical and historical case
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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?
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