Sunday, January 5, 2014

Infant Baptism?

Q: I am trying to look at this objectively. I have, in my life, been taught both - infant baptism as well as adult. I personally believe in adult baptism because it is what I see and read in scripture. However, I do not know the history (with John the baptist and before him) and also regarding early church writings.

My question in short is: What does God say, in His Word, regarding baptism?

Feel free to use (or not use this) this article making a case for infant baptism which I was recently given.

A: Another really great and important question! Before reading this post, I strongly encourage everyone to read the article linked to by Pastor Bucher above in full so that you can get a feel for the arguments being made. I will necessarily have to summarize, and I would hate to have anyone think that I have mischaracterized the position of another!

The author of the article above makes a very important observation at the beginning of his case, pointing to the reality that this issue has Christians on both sides, each claiming that their position is the one presented in the Scriptures. Of course, after making his case, the author then claims that he has decisively shown that the Scriptures are on his side, and that to disagree is to cast your lot with "Lord Reason" (that is, with your own human intellect) and not with the Lord Jesus. After weighing his argument, the strength of his conclusion is more than his arguments merit.

Since the Questioner is asking about this particular argument, let's start with a brief interaction of the points made.

"Christ commanded infant baptism in Matthew 28:19"

If you simply open your Bible to Matthew 28:19 and read it, you'll probably be confused as to where Christ commanded that the Church baptize infants when He said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."

The argument is made that the phrase "all nations" is understood elsewhere to mean everyone "regardless of race, color, sex, age, class, or education" in the Scriptures is pretty true as far as it goes (more specifically, it means non-Jewish persons), but it doesn't really prove the point he is making. Yes, the covenant of God is no longer just for the Israelites, but it is now also for "the nations" in fulfillment of God's promise that all nations on earth would be blessed through Abraham (e.g. Genesis 12:3 and Galatians 3:29). However, I'm sure that Pastor Bucher isn't advocating that the Lord Jesus was commanding His followers to go into the world and forcibly baptize everyone - regardless of race, color, sex, age, class or education - so why should this text then teach that infants should be forcibly baptized (yes, pouring water on an infant or dunking it are not done in response to the babies own volition) when this does not apply to the rest?

To conclude from Christ commanding His followers to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them, that Christ was commanding infant baptism is simply not warranted from the text and could only convince those who are looking for a proof-text for their position. If you already believe that infant baptism is the right practice, then this text may be "obvious" to you. However, since none of the apostles went around forcing anyone to be baptized through the book of Acts in response to this command from our Risen Lord, it seems that jumping to the conclusion that Christ commanded infant baptism in Matthew 28:19 is inaccurate.

"Babies need forgiveness"

I am in full agreement with Pastor Bucher's statements that the Bible nowhere teaches an "Age of Accountability" and that all persons are born sinful and in need of a Savior. However, there is a leap in theological reasoning from firm biblical truth to the need for infant baptism that cannot be ignored.

Just because everyone is born in sin and in need of a Savior does not itself prove anything of the effectiveness of infant baptism for forgiveness of sin. Pastor Bucher assumes that baptism remits sin for infants (particularly, it remits original sin inherited from Adam), and then asserts his conclusion based on his assumption. This is a common logical mistake called begging the question. Of course you reach the conclusion you want when you assume your answer in the beginning!

Here's the problematic section in full:

Like everyone else, they desperately need forgiveness. If infants die before they believe in Jesus, they will be eternally condemned. They, like everyone else, need to be baptized so that they can be born again. Jesus said, "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). We believe that baptism is God's special means of grace for children by which He causes them to be born again. To keep them from baptism is to keep them from forgiveness and to endanger them with damnation.

Did you see the leap? "We believe that baptism is God's special means of grace for children by which He causes them to be born again" is the statement that allows him to arrive at his intended conclusion. He believes this to be the case, therefore baptism is necessary for infants to be saved. However, it is not an uncontroversial statement to make that John 3:5 is referring to water baptism, as certainly not everyone agrees with that!

Keeping this passage in context, why should Nicodemus, a Pharisee under the Old Covenant understanding, have any idea that Jesus is speaking to him about the New Covenant sign of baptism? How can we make that leap?

Instead, it seems like Jesus is challenging Nicodemus' understanding of what it means to be a part of "the people of God" since Nicodemus has just admitted that Christ has come from God as a teacher (John 3:2). Nicodemus was operating under a works-based religious mentality, assuming that he was part of the people of God simply because he is an Israelite. But being a descendant of Israel does not necessarily make you one of God's people (Jeremiah 9:25-26; John 8:31-47; Luke 3:7-9; Romans 9:6-8). As Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, clearly Nicodemus is taking him very literally on the whole "born-again" thing, asking how a person is supposed to climb into their mother and then come back out again in 3:4!

Jesus' response about water and Spirit need not have anything to do with "baptism" but can very likely be interpreted as the first birth ("water") being natural birth (you're either Jew or you're Gentile), and the second birth being the one that matters ("Spirit") which occurs at the moment of conversion. To merely claim that this passage asserts baptism and that Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel who wouldn't be teaching about baptism, would be expected to understand these things is difficult to believe. On the other hand, God has spoken through His prophets about physical birth not being all that important as to who belong to Him, which is more reasonable that Jesus would expect Nicodemus to understand (for example, compare John 3:9 with Isaiah 1:11-15 and Isaiah 19:23-25).

"Baptism Replaces Circumcision"

Once again, there are logical inconsistencies which make the conclusion that we should baptize infants shaky and not built firmly upon biblical ground. The analogy between the Old Covenant people of God and the New Covenant people of God is not exactly one-to-one, with each having an exact counter-part and equivalent. Circumcision was only for males, baptism is for everyone. Circumcision was commanded to be done on the 8th day, baptism is commanded for all who believe; never will you find in the Scriptures the statement "be baptized and believe" but always the reverse order, "believe and be baptized," which follows the logical order of being baptized after you have believed and as a fruit or demonstration of your faith.

Circumcision was a sign of the covenant people of God, given to the nation of Israel. Entrance into the community of the people of God happened as a result of physical birth, and the community undertook the sign of circumcision in obedience to the expressed commandment of God. On the other hand, Pastor Bucher acknowledges that the entrance into the New Covenant people of God is done through faith, and therefore the sign of the New Covenant for those who've entered (not by birth, but by faith) is applied after their faith, whether male or female, whether young or old. This is important for the next argument given as well.

"Infants Can Believe"

Here proof texts are offered with only minimal exegetical reasoning, with the conclusion being stated that if you think infants can't believe, then Jesus disagrees with you. However, this case was not convincingly made. To merely cite a passage about infants coming to Jesus and His response that the kingdom belongs to such as these, and then concluding that this proves Jesus believed that they had faith is weak. I've covered this passage in detail elsewhere and provided an exegetical case that Jesus is not pointing to the faith of the children at all! Instead, keeping that passage in context it is entirely possible that Jesus is teaching nothing about a child or infant's ability to believe, but instead is rebuking the idea that there are some who are "worthy" of the kingdom and others who are not. If we are to make disciples of "all nations" (that is, "everyone"!) as Pastor Bucher has already rightly pointed out, then it would be a huge hindrance if we only went looking for those whom we deem as worthy of being discipled! Confessing we are unworthy of the gift of everlasting life and are worthy of condemnation for our sin is a prerequisite for repentance, and no one will enter the kingdom of heaven without repentance (Luke 13:2-5).

Pastor Bucher acknowledges that this passage isn't directly about baptism, and if he is incorrect that Jesus is teaching that children have the ability to believe, then his entire argument here falls apart. Of course, Pastor Bucher argues against himself further by stating that baptism is the necessary means of grace which allows the children to believe, since the passage he cited would not likely have included any baptized children. Further, he has yet to cite any passage that teaches that baptism provides any grace to open the eyes and hearts of sinners to believe.

Similarly, he asks why we would deny baptism to those who can believe, but we must never mistake a supposed "ability" to believe with an actual belief in reality. Are we to assume that everyone who is able to believe something actually believes it? I find that hard to believe!

Similarly, without a profession, how are we to know which infants do believe and which do not? The argument asks why would we "deny" them baptism, as if a baby ever asked to be baptized and we said, "no!" Instead, he is arguing that we baptize infants who have never asked for it, and who never could (because, well, they're babies). In such a case, no one is being "denied" anything!

The most problematic statement that Pastor Bucher made is this one:

Someone might ask, "If babies can believe then why do they need baptism?" Answer: it is through baptism that faith is created in the infant's heart.

Of course, there is no passage anywhere in Scripture which affirms that baptism creates faith in the heart of an infant. Therefore, there is no reason for anyone who is not already indoctrinated into the practice of infant baptism to believe the opinion of Pastor Bucher on this particular matter.

To merely list proof-texts without analysis is always dangerous: Acts 22:16 is given, but does this passage say baptism washes away sin or is it calling on his name which washes away sin? 1 Peter 3:21 is cited as proof that baptism saves, but doesn't 1 Peter 3:21 also say "not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but the appeal to God for a good conscience"? What if you're reading something into the text, and that the "baptism" that is expressed isn't done with water, but by the Spirit (Ephesians 4:4-6)?

Similarly, what of the passages that fail to mention baptism as necessary? Should we just leave these out of the discussion or should we assume that the Apostles merely forgot this extremely important aspect of the call to salvation? It can easily be argued from the Scriptures (and we don't have the space to do so here), that the "one baptism" that is important happens at the moment of conversion, where the Holy Spirit immerses the believer "in Christ" and applies to the believer all the spiritual benefits of the Savior (Ephesians 1:13-14; 2:6). In this way, Jesus was baptized by John in order to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15), not because Jesus needed to repent and be baptized, but because I do (and so do you), and if He's going to be our perfect substitute then He needs to do it all. This is why the thief on the cross (and any other genuine death bed conversion) could go directly to heaven without having to first be baptized in water. The "one" baptism that matters, on my understanding of the text, is the "one" that happens at conversion -- the thief on the cross and all other believers all share in that one baptism described in Ephesians 4:5. I have been baptized once that matters (by the Holy Spirit into Christ), and two other times: once as an infant and once in obedience to Christ when I became born-again. Some strands of interpretation try and argue for a baptism in the Holy Spirit (I'm looking at you, Pentecostals!), which occurs at some time after conversion (a position which I disagree with but don't have time to discuss here).

"The Practice of the Early Church"

This particular item is problematic simply by virtue of the fact that we are now making arguments from the actions of people, not the inspired truth of God's word. It is extremely important to understand that the New Testament documents themselves largely exist as a result of correcting wrong practices in the early church! None of the Fathers of the church should be considered "inspired" and sometimes they "received" practices that were wrong, like Justin Martyr (Chapter 10) who wrote that he received the tradition that God formed the world out of unformed matter in the beginning, which is a heresy known as "creation ex materio."

In short, the arguments from tradition and early church practice are only helpful when demonstrating agreement with clear biblical principles, which is not the case here. Interestingly, the Didache, which predates all of the authors mentioned and is supposedly an Apostolic document (the Didache is translated as "The Teaching of the 12") has a chapter on Baptism written c. AD 100 which seems to apply only to those who are old enough to make a profession and states nothing about baptizing children or infants who have not made a confession of faith.

One final note should be made regarding the quote from Irenaeus (the earliest writer): if you read that passage in its context, available online here, it has nothing to do at all with baptizing infants and should not be included in a case for baptizing infants. If you are swayed by historical quotes, you should at least eliminate this one from your consideration.


After weighing the evidence presented in the Questioner's link, the case for baptizing infants is severely lacking. However, arguments from silence (that is, the Bible provides no explicit examples of baptizing infants) are not always satisfactory either. After all, none of the Apostles ever spoke on cell phones, so does that mean such a practice should be forbidden today?

As pointed out in the very beginning by Pastor Bucher, this is an issue that both sides of the debate seem to think have passages which support their position.

When the people of God come humbly to a text like Acts 16:33, what should we do?

And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.

Should we assume that his household contains infants? Should we assume that it did not contain infants?

Probably neither. Instead, we should affirm what it does say and admit that we don't know how many people were baptized or what their ages were.

Pastor Bucher and I can affirm together in unity that repentance and faith are extremely important, and so is baptism. When looking at history, it would be difficult to assert that Martin Luther (the father of the Lutheran denomination) based his view of infant baptism solely on sound exegesis of the Scriptures and that he was not influenced at all by the Roman Catholicism he was entrenched in prior to his being expelled.

If I'm basing my practice only on what the Scriptures say, then I think the admonition is to preach the gospel to all creation, and whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. Therefore, as a parent, my utmost responsibility is not baptizing my children before they are converted, but instead preaching the gospel to them as often as possible so that they have every opportunity to believe and then walk with the Holy Spirit all the days of their life.

I'm also the first to admit that I don't really know what happens to infants that die - whether baptized or not. However, I do not believe that the Bible gives me any reason to believe that in those extremely sad situations where an infant dies that the parents would have any reason to be more comforted if their infant was baptized prior to death.

Since there is no explicit passage or passages which state plainly, "Thou shalt (not) baptize infants," Christians necessarily have to do some theological speculation to do their best to draw a sound conclusion from what the text does say. In this case, I still find that being baptized only after an explicit confession of faith has been made in response to the preaching of the gospel is more in line with the biblical teaching. I also take issue with the theological claims of Lutherans and some of the Fathers of the Church who claim that the stain of original sin is removed in baptism, because there is no discernible difference in the conduct of baptized children and non-baptized children, which is completely contrary to what we should expect to see. If a child is baptized and cleansed from the stain of original sin, then they should not naturally lie and exhibit covetousness and selfishness like other, non-baptized children who retain the stain of original sin.

Sadly, the conduct of all children (baptized and not) betrays the reality that we are all sinners from our youth (Genesis 8:21). The stain of original sin continues to corrupt our flesh, even after our repentance and faith and believers baptism. To be cleansed from the stain of original sin sounds really good, but it is not the teaching of Scripture and does not match our human experience.

It is from the power of original sin that we can be set free, if we walk with the Spirit. The stain remains in our flesh, but our Redeemer is mighty to save, and we can experience His freedom when we rely fully on Him.

I hope this has helped you to at least examine what the Bible does and does not say, which will help you to be better equipped to know why you believe what you believe about baptism!


Anonymous said...

So, where do babies go when they die?

Joe K said...

Hi Anonymous! Thanks for your question.

As I stated in my post, I don't believe the Bible really answers that question clearly enough for me to be able to say that I know for sure.

I can say this for sure: God is good and He always does what is right (Psalm 119:68; Deuteronomy 32:4). I can take comfort in that and would offer the same truth to you.

The only passage I know to point you to that may answer this question more specifically is 2 Samuel 12:1-23. In the last verse of that chapter, David makes this statement, "I will go to him, but he will not return to me" (NASB). Some interpret that as a positive statement by David that he and his child would be united in the next life, but not again in the present life.

Unfortunately, this passage isn't clear enough for me to say for sure. Also, David's opinion on the afterlife is not the same as a direct teaching from the Scriptures as the Bible often faithfully records the wrong actions of the people we read about.

I hope this answers your question!

Take care,


P. Scott said...

Good work P. Joe.
In my experience, the question of infant water baptism being "right" or "wrong" is more often than not motivated by either a strong root of religious tradition, or a misunderstanding of what "water baptism" is. If I were to believe that water baptism is the means by which I am absolved of my sin or the means by which I receive the grace for salvation, then I would be crazy not to press for infant baptism. If I understand water baptism to be a (born again) believers act of obedience to Christ and a physical testimony of my conversion/salvation by faith and grace alone, then it becomes clear that it is reserved for those who have consciously "confessed with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believed in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead." The best advice... just as you said; Look to see what Scripture actually says and does not say, and go from there.
Next, maybe we can debate on the "clear" Scriptural form of baptism...LOL!

Joe K said...

Thanks, P. Scott!

You said: "Next, maybe we can debate on the 'clear' Scriptural form of baptism...LOL!"

That's fine with me, brother. You wouldn't happen to have a strong root of religious tradition that influences your perspective on this, would you? ;)


P. Scott said... know me too well my friend...