Why do we baptize infants?
In a way, that’s a strange question. After all, infant baptism was the universal practice of the whole church until just the last few centuries. The two main Reformers, Luther and Calvin, vigorously defended it. But many Evangelical churches today say that baptism is only for believers.
We Reformed folks gladly baptize believers who come to faith in Christ, but we also baptize their infant children. We trace this practice back not only through church history, but, more important, to God’s covenant with Abraham. God made a covenant with Abraham to make of him a great nation; through Abraham and his descendants, all the people of the world would be blessed.
The sign of that covenant was circumcision (Gen. 17). One of the important features of circumcision was that it was to be cut into the flesh of infant boys at eight days old. Children were included in the covenant of grace. God did not say to Abraham and Sarah, “I am making a covenant of grace with you, but we'll have to see about the kids.” Instead God included their children and their children’s children in that covenant.
Think of it this way. God made us as social beings, not just individuals. And God chooses not only to work individual by individual but to work through the social networks of family and community God created. These circumcised children of the covenant learned from their earliest days that they belonged to God's covenant people. It was their identity.
To this, many of our Evangelical friends respond, “But that was the Old Covenant; we now live in the New Covenant. Now people must first come to faith in Christ and then be baptized. Isn't that what Peter said on Pentecost to that group of people from around the world who heard his stirring sermon? ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you,’ (Acts 2:38). Faith and repentance must come before baptism.”
But Peter didn’t stop there. “For the promise”—that is, the covenant promise to Abraham—“is for you and for your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). In saying that, Peter was being a good Jew. He understood that the Old Covenant was not set aside in Christ; it was fulfilled. God still works through the ties of family and community.
And on it goes. Three times, with the conversion and baptism of Cornelius, Lydia, and the Philippian jailer, the book of Acts tell us that these new believers were baptized and their entire households with them. To say that those households didn’t necessarily include infants misses the point. Peter and Paul baptized entire households because they understood that the operational principles of the covenant apply to baptism, just as it did with circumcision.
We baptize babies because God, in covenant love, claims our children as his own. We do not raise our children in the vague hope that someday they will be converted and then become Christians. We nurture them with the identity that they have already been claimed by God in their baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We don't tell our children who they could be if they only believe, but who they are.
Of course, baptism, whether as an infant or adult, does not guarantee salvation. It demands that we ourselves claim in faith the identity God gives us in our baptism. That's why we invite young people to publicly profess their faith. It’s their personal affirmation of the identity they already have in their baptism.
Questions for Discussion
- Drawing from your most recent experience of baptism, what moments stood out as most memorable and meaningful to you? How did this experience point to the significance of your own baptism?
- Prior to reading this article, how would you have answered the question, “Why do we baptize infants”?
- What are some examples you can see of God working “through the social networks of family and community” in your life?
- How would you describe the identity that God gave you in baptism? What hope, joy, or meaning do you gain from that?
About the Author
Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.