Thinking Cap #52 - Infant 'Baptism'—Shaking Off Those Old Protestant Tentacles

I. Introduction

Having been “baptized” as a helpless Methodist infant (by very well-meaning parents) and then being raised in that tradition, I can understand the struggle that many adults face when, as an adult, they get “saved” and then face the question, “What about baptism?” Having pastored a church for several years where we believe the Bible is the literal Word of God and is our sole source for faith and practice, I have had countless adults come to faith and then have to deal with the “validity” of their infant “baptism.” Some from the reformed protestant tradition have even greater struggles because they had been taught to believe that their infant “baptism” had something to do with securing their place in heaven.

Long ago, I picked up the concept from a pastor friend that “All the Bible is written for me, but not necessarily to me.” That reminds me that while the entire Bible is God’s inspired, infallible, inerrant, immutable Word and is useful and contains principles, I must at the same time be careful that I draw my doctrine and practices from those portions of the Bible that are written “to” me. Essentially, those portions that are written to me would be those written to the church and Christians (starting around Acts 7 and up to the book of Hebrews). The fancy name for that concept is dispensational theology. The other approach would be called covenant theology.

I do not believe that anyone who is serious about “rightly dividing the word of truth” can begin to seek an answer to the question "Who should be baptized?" by studying the Bible's doctrine of the covenants. Rather, he begins with New Testament texts which deal directly with the term "baptize." In a later study of Covenant Theology, he finds confirmation of his conclusions. In this “thinking cap” it is my desire to help you understand what Biblical baptism is for the Christian and thus enable you to make informed decisions for yourself and your family.

II. Setting the Stage

A. In those portions of the Bible written to Christians and to the church we find that every person that was baptized, was someone who had personally made a profession of faith in Christ (Act. 8:26-39; Acts 9:17-18; Acts 16:14-15; Acts 16:25-33). In every use of the word baptize in those portions of the Bible we find that the baptism toke place immediately after the salvation experience (Acts 8:12; Acts 18:8; Acts 8:26-39). In the precedence set by John the Baptist (whose baptism was a call to repentance) and that done by Phillip the Evangelist, we find that the method of baptism was immersion.

B. Every New Testament text cited to support infant baptism appears empty apart from a strong predisposition to find such texts and presuppositions to impose upon them.

1) Amazingly, Matthew 19:13: "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven," has been used frequently by some to support infant baptism. Read as I may, I cannot find the word or concept of baptism in that text.

2) Acts 2:39 has also been pressed into service to support infant baptism. "For the promise is unto you and to your children . . ." Often the sentence is not completed. But the Scripture goes on, "and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call." The context has in view specifically spiritual promises, namely remission of sins and filling with the Holy Spirit. It has nothing to do with baptism.

3) Household baptisms are called upon as evidence of infant baptism in the New Testament. There are four references: Cornelius (Acts 10), Lydia (Acts 16), the Philippian jailor (Acts 16), and Stephanas (I Corinthians 1). None of the references say that infants were in these houses. Finding infant baptism here is built upon the dual assumption that there were infants in the houses and that household must have meant every individual in the household without exception. This just does not hold water. The Bible itself gives us the pattern of these household baptisms. All Cornelius' house gathered to hear Peter's preaching. The Holy Ghost fell upon all – they all received the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. Then, all were baptized. Paul first preached to the jailor's household. Then, all were baptized. After the baptism, all rejoiced believing in God. Hearing the Word and believing upon that preaching can scarcely be attributed to infants. Infant baptism can be found in these texts only by those who are very anxious to find it.

4) I Corinthians 7:14 is another favorite verse. There we are told that children are "holy". The text does not have even vague reference to church membership or baptism. It is talking about mixed marriages in which one spouse is a believer and the other is not. The question is whether such a relationship is proper, moral, or holy for those who were converted after marriage to the unbeliever. Paul reasons from the obvious to the doubtful. It is obvious that your children are not bastards. They were born in wedlock. They are holy. Therefore, it ought to be clear to you that your marriage relationship is holy. Don't feel guilty about it or wish to be free from your obligations. If the word “holy” suggests a covenant relationship, making the children proper objects for baptism, then the unbelieving spouse is also a valid candidate for baptism. The verb "sanctify" has precisely the same root and signification as the adjective "holy." And it is the holiness of the spouse that the passage argues.

With a lack of New Testament evidence for infant baptism, those who support such a practice have retreated to Old Testament texts and an argument from the unity of the covenants. The practice of baptizing infants of believers is founded on Old Testament Scripture, or upon texts of the New Testament where suitability for baptizing infants is read into them with a predisposition and presupposition drawn from the Old Testament.

III. Historic Covenant Theology as pertaining to infant baptism – 4 Flaws

The argument has hung upon a weak argument that goes something like this: There is a unity between the Old and New Covenants. Circumcision in the Old is parallel to baptism in the New. Infants of believers were circumcised in the Old. Therefore, infants of believers should be baptized in the New. Some would try to tell us that this argument is so strong that New Testament silence is a major argument in favor of their position. The New Covenant is so like the Old, and baptism so parallel to circumcision, that unless the New Testament absolutely forbids the baptism of infants, it must be practiced.

A. There is a serious hermeneutical (the science of interpretation of the Scripture) flaw in this logic. How can a distinctively New Testament ordinance have its fullest and its only foundation in Old Testament Scripture? This is contrary to any good sense of Biblical Theology and against all sound rules of interpretation. If you allow Old Testament examples to alter New Testament principles regarding the church, you have hermeneutically opened the door to many Roman Catholic teachings (the role of the priest and the use of the mass). We must be careful to find New Covenant practices only in New Covenant teachings.

B. There is also a theological flaw. Baptists have long held to a dispensational view of history, but they also adhere to Covenant Theology. They have done so since the Seventeenth Century. We conceive of God's dealings with man in a covenantal structure. We believe that every covenant made with man since the Fall is unified in its essence. In all ages there has been one rule of life – God's moral law. God's standard of righteousness was the same before Moses received the Ten Commandments, and it is the same today. There has been but one way to salvation in all historic covenants since the Fall. The Gospel by which Adam was saved is the same as that by which we are saved. Genesis 3:15 declares a salvation that is wholly of grace through faith in Christ. A fundamental law of good Bible interpretation is the “law of progressive revelation.” The promises of the Gospel have become more clear with each succeeding age of revelation, though the promises have been identically the same. The moral law has been more fully expounded, though never changed. So we agree about the unity of the covenants recorded in the Bible. But paedobaptists (those who practice infant baptism) have been negligent in defining the diversity in the administrations of the Covenant of Grace. As dispensationalism has erred when it has failed to see the essential unity of the covenants since the Fall, many serious errors have arisen from a failure to acknowledge diversity in these historic covenants. An example can be seen in the Reformers’ failure to distinguish between church and state. In the administration under Moses, the church was co-extensive with the state. In the administration of Christ, the extent of church and state are not to be thought identical. In the Mosaic economy, magistrates administered the church and prophets made their authority felt in government. In the Christian dispensation of Grace, a strict sense of the church separate from the state must be maintained. We must define the diversity as well as the unity.

A key verse that is quoted in Hebrews 8 and 10 that is pivotal to expressing the diversity of covenant administrations is Jeremiah 31:31-34. It is quoted in Hebrews to prove that "Christ is mediator of a better covenant." There is an emphatic contrast made in verses 31 and 32. The differences are so striking and dramatic that one covenant is called "new" and it is implied that the other is old. The Jews under the Old Covenant were warned that revolutionary changes would be made. The covenant in force was inadequate except to prepare for the New. So surpassing is the glory of the New, that it should lead them to look for the demolition of the Old. The passage suggests two vital distinctions ushered in by the indwelling and filling of the Spirit. This permanent indwelling makes a change in administration possible.

The first difference is found in verse 33 of Jeremiah 31. The Old Covenant was characterized by outward formalism. The New would be marked by inward spiritual life. This is not an absolute distinction but it is a marked contrast. Of course, there was spiritual religion and heart commitment to God in the Old Testament. Abraham's faith would put ours to shame. I wonder if any but Christ Himself ever equaled the prayer life of David addressed in the Psalms. Moses spoke to God as face to face. But these are just anomalies in the midst of Old Testament attention to outward, formal, national religion. There is a mass of outward rules, a history of formal religion, a ponderous identification of “church” and nation. Relatively little attention is given to inward life. If a man is circumcised, he is counted a Jew. If he is conformed to outward practices, he is called clean and welcome at the ceremonies of worship. Paul tells us that this system of religion was like the strict tutor who tells a child what to do at every turn.

But the New Testament church is come of age. It is, by way of contrast, inward, spiritual and personal. Certainly there is outward formality in the New Covenant, but it is minimal; and the most formal ceremony calls attention to the inward. The New Testament presses personal self-examination everywhere and constantly makes spiritual application of its truths.

Verse 34 of Jeremiah 31 suggests the second distinction. There will be a marked contrast in the knowledge of those in the New Covenant. As the coming of the Spirit will add a new dimension of life to the church, so He will add a new dimension of light. "From the least to the greatest" in the New Covenant will know the Lord. The subject matter of their knowledge will not be shadows but the living reality of Christ. The mysteries hidden in the Old will be made known to them. The manner of instruction will shift from repetitious ceremonies, for they will all know the Lord. So then, we will expect the New Covenant to stand in contrast with the Old in that its members have greater life and light.

This diversity is nowhere more evident than in the ceremonies of worship. This can be illustrated by looking at the Lord's Supper, which finds a counterpart in the Old Testament Passover. The great spiritual truth of redemption by blood is figured in the Passover, but it is somewhat obscured beneath an outward and formal atmosphere. The ceremony mixes the figures of personal redemption and national deliverance. Even those who had no personal experience with spiritual redemption observed it. This was done because their national life arose from the historic event being remembered. Very young children came to the Passover as participants so that they might ask the significance and as they grew older, come to understand the redemption figures. (cf. Exodus 12:24-27, etc.)

In the New Testament, things are quite different. I Corinthians 11:23-30 gives instruction for one of the two ordinance (ceremonies) to be practiced by the New Testament church: The Lord’s Supper. Here infants must not come. Only the "worthy" with "discernment" are welcome at the feast remembering our redemption. It is not marked by any of the nationalism of the Old Covenant. Each person is charged to "examine himself" before daring to partake. He must find himself "worthy" – personal recipient of grace. He must have "discernment" – that inward, spiritual light that peculiarly marks this covenant. Light and life are prerequisites of joining this most outward and formal act of worship.

The same is true of the waters of baptism. This ceremony does not desert the New Covenant's pattern to revert to the Old. It belongs to those who are "worthy" and have "discernment". Repentance and faith are everywhere demanded as prior conditions for baptism.

In the Old Covenant, all that was spiritual was identified with an outward nation. In the New Covenant, all that is outward is identified with a spiritual nation. Good theology brings dispensational and covenantal theology together in a unified fashion.

C. There are a number of exegetical (the critical explanation of a text) flaws in the theology of baptizing infants.

1) Many reason as follows: "Infants of believers were circumcised in the Old Covenant. Therefore, infants of believers should be baptized in the New." Though in Abraham's case faith preceded circumcision of his children, this cannot be said to be the rule of the Old Covenant rite. There were times when faith in the subjects of circumcision or in their parents was all but ignored. In the time of Joshua, an entire nation was circumcised in a day. There was no concern for personal election or personal faith. It was clearly administered as a sign of the outward privileges in belonging to the elect nation. Circumcision was never withheld because a parent had no faith. Even when the prophets denounced the Jews for being uncircumcised in heart, they did not suggest that the sons of these unconverted Jews be excluded from the rite of circumcision. The argument breaks down because faith on the part of the parents was not a condition for circumcision.

2) It is also said that just as baptism is a sign of heirship to the spiritual promises of grace in the New Covenant, circumcision was a sign of heirship to the same spiritual promises in the Old. This is only partially true. Baptism is a sign of spiritual blessing in Christ and only that. Circumcision, too, depicted unity with Christ in His death and heirship to spiritual blessings (cf. Colossians 2:11-13). But there was more to its significance. The distinctive aspects of the covenants cling to their signs just as surely as the common elements of the covenants do. In the Lord’s Supper and the Passover, redemption by blood is signified. Yet, they differ in this: The Old ceremony suggested the outward and national aspect of that administration. The New ceremony stresses the inward and personal aspect in its administration. So circumcision could be given to 13-year-old Ishmael, who, Abraham was assured, would not be a partaker of the spiritual blessings. But for him and other non-elect Jews, it was proper by circumcision to be identified with the outward aspects of blessing and administration. It was proper to be circumcised as the literal seed and heir of the literal land and as one by whom, according to the flesh, the Messiah would come, while not being of the spiritual seed and heir of heaven. Baptism has no merely earthly significance. There are no blessings figured in it that can be conceived of apart from an experience of grace. A failure to understand this has caused many Protestant Denominations to give some “salvation” merit to infant baptism. Some even claim in their liturgy that this infant is now assured of a home in heaven. This is so very wrong and has given millions of people a false sense of security in where their soul will end up.

3) Much weight has been placed on the formula "Thee and thy seed" in Genesis 17. Paedobaptists insist upon an outward, literal significance of the term "seed." In their scheme, the New Covenant counterpart to Abraham's seed is the physical offspring of believers. This is done while totally ignoring the fact that the New Testament says a great deal about the Covenant with Abraham, for it is central to New Testament religion. Romans 4, Romans 9, and Galatians 3 and 4, especially Galatians 3:7, belabor the point that believers, and believers alone, are the seed of Abraham. These texts further insist that the promises which are spiritual and eternal belong to no physical seed. The New Testament is not silent about this seed. It tells us they are believers alone!

D. Finally, there are practical flaws in the paedobaptist (those who practice infant baptism) theology. Those who sprinkle infants are on the horns of a dilemma. Either they must tamper with the definition of baptism to make it signify something less than personal spiritual union with Christ as the Bible clearly teaches; or they will be driven to teach infant salvation or presumptive regeneration. If the first option is chosen, one must also corrupt the New Testament view of the church and its discipline. If some who are less than saved are properly to be considered as members of Christ’s body, there is a great deal of stress with the New Testament's view of membership and fellowship. If the second option is chosen, one’s pedagogy will be affected. How are parents and pastors to address the children if they are already viewed as joined to Christ by their baptism? Unfortunately, much of their literature reflects a tendency to address children as believers, not as in need of evangelism. Thus by practicing and teaching infant baptism, they feel no need to evangelize their own children and leave their souls hanging in the balance.

IV. Closing Thoughts

I do not hold one’s view “baptism” at the same fundamental of the faith level as the virgin birth, the sinless life, the blood atonement, the physical resurrection, the literal rapture of the church and the inspired Word of God. As a result I can have fellowship with those who hold a differing option or who do not emphasis baptism at all (often because they do not want to have to fight tradition).

Many good people in our churches struggle with believers baptism because of the traditions in which they were raised. Unfortunately, many of them are unable to explain their position Biblically and have to fall back on “that’s what my church taught.”

I would encourage those who are held in the tentacles of protestant and reformed traditions to search the Scriptures for themselves to see if these things be so (Acts 17:11). Then be willing to leave their pride at home and eagerly follow the example of the “adult” Lord Jesus Christ in the waters of baptism and be identified with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4).

Pleasant Thinking,
Kent Haralson

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