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Infant Baptism – Do You Understand it?

There is an error that has taken root in a large portion of the Christian Church today.  It is an error that has been with the Christian Church since the second century.  The error is the denial of the validity of infant baptism.  If you have ever been challenged in your beliefs by a person who does not think infants should be baptized, you may have found it hard to come up with answers to his or her questions.  But God commands us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet 3:15)  So let us through this seven part paper review the scripture’s teaching of baptism and see why baptizing infants is the proper response of the Christian Church to our Lord’s command to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (Matt 28:19)

Part 1:  Coming to Faith

A proper understanding of baptism requires a proper understanding of how a person comes to have faith.  Is believing and trusting Jesus an action we take after hearing the Gospel, or is the belief and trust we have a gift from God?  Let’s see what God says:

Apollos. . .was a great help to those who by grace had believed.”  Acts 18:27

“The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” 1 Tim 1:14

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”  Eph 2:8

From these passages we see that faith comes to us by God’s grace. Faith is not a conclusion we arrive at by deductive reasoning.  Faith is a gift which God gives to those whom he chose before the world began (Eph 1:4).  As Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians:

“From the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (2 Th 2:13,14)

Scripture teaches that we have faith, not because of our decision to be God’s children (Jn 1:13), but because of his decision to be our God. (Jer 31:33)  We cannot say that we have chosen Christ, rather, he has chosen us (Jn 15:16).  And why did he choose us?  Not because of anything good that we had done, but purely out of his mercy (Titus 3:5).  He chose us that we might become his people, a holy nation who would declare his praises (1 Pet 2:9), and who would be obedient to his Son Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:2).

We cannot take credit in any way because we have faith today.  We cannot say “I found the Lord on such-and-such day” or “I decided to follow Jesus.”  Nowhere does scripture teach us that we actively come to faith -- that is, come to faith because of our own actions.  Rather, the Holy Spirit is active upon us, and has enabled us to come to the Father (Jn 6:65).  As scripture says:

“And all who were appointed to eternal life believed.” Acts 13:48

 

 

Part 2:  Infants need Faith to be Saved

In part 1 we discussed passages which clearly tell us that faith in Jesus is a gift that comes to us by God’s grace. Those who deny that infant baptism has any value usually also define faith differently.  They teach that faith is a conclusion we come to after considering the gospel of Jesus.  Therefore, they teach, only a person who is old enough to reason, is old enough to have saving faith.

This error leads them to the question: “How can infants and young children and the feeble-minded be saved?  After all, they are not able to reason well enough to have saving faith.”

This leads to a second error -- the idea that children do not need faith to be saved. They teach that although children are born sinful, they are not held accountable for their sins until they reach the age of reason, which they often call the “age of accountability.”

But let us see what God says in his Word:

“From birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.”   Ps 58:3

“We [are] by nature objects of wrath.”  Ep 2:3c

“Without faith it is impossible to please God.”  Heb 11:6

“If a person [sins], even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.”  Lev 5:2-4

“[The law was given] so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.”   Ro 3:19

The scriptures cited above speak against any idea that a child’s sins will not be counted against him until he is older.  The wicked were wicked already in the womb.  Our very nature is sinful (Ps 51:5). God is angry with us from the moment of our conception – this is what he means by telling us we are by nature objects of his wrath.  Only when God finds faith in the heart of a person is he pleased.

Nowhere is there even a hint in scripture that being unaware that something is sinful will absolve us of its guilt.  (Indeed, the reason we practice close communion is that we are warned that anyone who does not recognize the body and blood of the Lord (1 Co 11:29) as he eats and drinks is eating and drinking in an unworthy manner, and is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord (1 Co 11:27).)  This is why we do not distribute communion to everyone sitting in the pews.  We instruct our people before offering them communion.  If they don’t understand the sacrament they receive, they will still be held accountable for what they have done.

The next time someone tells you that infant baptism is unnecessary, share with him the five passages just cited. He probably knows that because of our disobedience in the Garden of Eden, every person sins, but he probably needs help understanding that every person, including an infant, is guilty before God.  The whole world is held accountable for its sin.  Nowhere does it say that infants are exempted.  And since only with faith is God pleased, infants, too, need faith to be saved.

And don’t be afraid to ask him or her to show you where the Bible teaches about the “age of accountability.”  When he admits that there is no such passage, remind him that we are warned not to go beyond what is written in scripture (1 Co 4:6) by teaching man-made doctrines.

Clearly, infants need the gift of faith in order to be saved, just like adults do.  In part 3 we will see from scripture that the washing of baptism is a means – that is, a method -- that God uses to give us faith, and therefore, it is the means whereby God comes with faith to a child who is not old enough to understand the Word of God.

 

Part 3:  The Power of Baptism

Those who deny the validity of infant baptism usually also deny that baptism is a sacramental act.  By sacramental we mean an act that God does, as opposed to a sacrificial act, one done by man.  They may even pooh-pooh what is sacred to us by saying, “How can sprinkling water on a baby’s head save him?”

But let us see what the Word of God tells us:

“[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”  Titus 3:5

“Get up, be baptized, and wash your sins away.”  Acts 22:16

“[The water of the great Flood] symbolizes baptism that now saves you also.”  1 Pet 3:21

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.”   Eph 2:25,26

From these passages it is clear that baptism has power.  The Holy Spirit washes our sins away as he baptizes us.  Just as Noah and his family, and indeed all mankind was saved by the great Flood as it washed away all traces of the evil old world, so we are saved by baptism as it washes away our sinful past and we are declared righteous in God’s sight.  We are cleansed as we are baptized, so that we are holy and presentable to our husband Jesus, who has bought us with his own blood.  And because faith in Jesus is necessary for there to be forgiveness of sins, at our baptism we were also simultaneously given the gift of faith.

But we must be careful not to think of baptism as a sacrificial act.  Baptism is not something we do merely to show others that we have faith in Jesus.  Baptism is something done by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.  This is why we are careful to instruct parents and sponsors when they bring a child to baptism that it is only through the Word of God that baptism has its power.  Only through the Word of God can the child stay cleansed of its sins.  It is a mockery of this sacrament when parents who themselves do not hear or read the Word of God and have no intention of bringing up their child in the Word, nevertheless bring a child to a church to be baptized.  We are commanded to make disciples by “baptizing...and teaching them to obey” the commands of God (Mt 28:19,20).

“Baptism.. .saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  1 Pet 3:21

 

 

Part 4:  Baptism and the Covenant of Circumcision

Central to a proper understanding of our relationship to God is an under standing of the covenant (or agreement, or contract) God has made with us.  This covenant was first made with Abraham, and was renewed with believers at the time of the early church.

Genesis 15 describes the covenant with Abraham. God promised to make Abraham a great nation (v 5) and to give his descendants the land of Canaan (v 18).  God confirmed his promise by taking an oath when he alone walked between halves of animals (vv 10-17), similar to what both parties of the ancient orient would normally do when they made a treaty with each other.

But Abraham did not walk between the animals.  Abraham promised nothing. The covenant was one-sided.  Only God obligated himself to certain conditions.  Abraham believed God (v 6) and his faithful obedience was his part of the covenant.  As a sign that God had entered into this covenant with Abraham, Abraham and all his descendants were to be circumcised (Gen 17:10-14).

Think of the rite of circumcision.  What an interesting way to teach the doctrine of original sin, for no matter how many previous generations had been circumcised, each new generation was still born the old way, and needed circumcision.  We too can do nothing to prevent ourselves from passing original sin on to our children.

A one-week-old infant was circumcised.  At this age it is recognized that the child brings nothing to God which makes him worthy to become God’s child.  And this is how it really is, for God comes to us and saves us, it is not we who turn ourselves to God.

Circumcision was a one-time act.  No matter how many times a Jew would fall away from the Lord, repent, and come back to him, only once was he circumcised.  After all, God had done nothing wrong when the person fell away, God did not have to make the covenant again.  The covenant made with that baby boy on the eighth day of his life was still valid when he repented and turned back to his Lord.

But circumcision was not a magic ticket to heaven, either.  Many were those who were circumcised as infants but who later showed by their lives that their hearts were uncircumcised (see Lev 26:40-45, also Deut 10:16).  Circumcision had value only as long as a person continued in the obedience of faith (Rom 2:25-29).

Abraham and all his descendants were circumcised, but not to show others that had decided to follow Yahweh, the true God.  They were circumcised to show what Yahweh had done for them.  God had circumcised them -- he had put off the old man to let the new man come forth.  In part 5 we will see that baptism parallels circumcision very closely, and that we baptize infants for the same reasons that the nation of Israel circumcised baby boys.  Baptism is a renewal of the covenant of circumcision, and infant baptism is the proper expression of God’s covenant with us.

 

 

Part 5:  The Covenant of Baptism

To properly understand how it can be God’s intent that infants be baptized, it is important to realize that baptism is the symbol of the covenant that God makes with his New Testament Church.

In part 4 we considered God’s covenant of circumcision with Abraham and all his descendants. A one-week-old infant was circumcised, signifying that God had made a covenant (an agreement) with that little boy.  In the New Testament we read that circumcision has been replaced by baptism as the symbol of the covenant God makes with us. We read in Colossians:

“In [Christ] you were also circumcised in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God.”          Col 2:11&12

Here, writing to the mostly Gentile church at Colosse, Paul tells them that they have been circumcised by Christ because they have been baptized.  In another place Paul says to believers who had been baptized, but not physically circumcised, “It is we who are the circumcision.” (Phil 3:3)

Like circumcision, infant baptism witnesses to our original sin.  For no matter how many generations of Christian ancestors a child may have had, he is still born sinful, and needs the washing of regeneration of baptism to be saved.

Like circumcision, infant baptism witnesses that it is God who baptizes, and God who saves. An infant brings nothing of his own merit to God.  God must come to him.

Like circumcision, baptism is a one-time act.  If a person later in life falls away from the faith, but repents, and returns to the Lord, there is no need to rebaptize him or her. God has not broken the covenant, and God does not have to make it over again.  The covenant God made with that child at baptism is still valid.

Like circumcision, baptism is not a magic ticket to heaven.  The power of baptism comes from the Word of God.  We must remain in his Word, and live by it, in order to receive the blessings of the covenant God has made with us.  As Jesus says:

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.”  Jn 8:31

 

Part 6:  The Command to Baptize

A few days before he ascended to heaven, Jesus commanded his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...and teaching them to obey” all he had commanded them.  What did Jesus mean by “all nations”?  Are infants to be included in this command?

After considering in parts 1 through 5 of this paper what God teaches about baptism, the answer should be obvious.  When we come to faith, it is not we who make a decision to choose Christ.  Our faith is a gift.  Christ chooses us.  Why should we withhold baptism from an infant until he can make his own decisions?  When he is old enough to make his own decisions, he will not decide on his own to follow Jesus.  Whether as an adult or as an infant, it is the Holy Spirit who must come to a person.  And he can and does choose to give saving faith to infants as well as adults.

All people need faith to be saved.  Nowhere does scripture say that infants are exempted because their reasoning powers are not as developed as those of adults.  We may look at an infant, and see it as pure and sweet and innocent.  But God, who searches the heart (Rev 2:23), sees the child as it really is -- sinful, deserving damnation, and needing conversion.  Let us not allow our human sentiments to twist God’s Word and our understanding of it!

Baptism has the power to wash away sins and give life to those who are dead in their sins.  Since infants are born dead in the eyes of God, they also need the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit which God accomplishes through baptism.

Baptism corresponds to the Old Testament rite of circumcision.  Infants are brought to baptism for the same reasons that Old Testament baby boys were circumcised.  Through this act, God brings children into his covenant of love.

After considering all what scripture says on this matter, it is clear that there is no reason to exclude infants from baptism.  Paul understood this.  He baptized the whole household of Lydia (Ac 16:15), the entire family of the Philippian jailer (Ac 16:33), and the household of Stephanas (1 Co 1:16).  There is no record of Paul asking each individual in each household to “make a decision for Christ” before he would baptize them, as many churches do today.  No, Paul understood baptism to be the way God comes to us with his covenant of mercy and forgiveness.  Nowhere in scripture does God forbid us to baptize infants.  Nowhere are we told that infants have less of a need for baptism than adults.  Only if we base our understanding on human reason rather than the sure Word of God do we come to a conclusion that baptism is for adults only.

Notice that Peter made no exceptions when he told his 3000 listeners to be baptized:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, ... for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and for your children ... for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:38,39

 

Part 7:  Remember your Baptism!

The fact that we have been baptized should be a great comfort to us.  In baptism, our God has promised us many good things.  A few of these promises are:

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Phil 1:6

“He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Cor 1:8

“God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” 1 Cor 10:13

“[Nothing] in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rom 8:38,39

These are wonderful promises, given to us to help us through the troubles we experience in this life.  So when you are having difficulties, when you feel forsaken, when you feel unable to live up to the high standards of your calling as a disciple of Christ, remember your baptism!

And what is most important to remember about our baptism?  Not the pretty white blanket we were wrapped in, not the names of our sponsors, not even the water that was sprinkled on us by a pastor.  The most important part of our baptism is that God came to us and made a covenant with us that day.  He washed our sins away and promised to be with us always and to strengthen us in every trial in this life. As he says:

“‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’  So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.  What can man do to me?’”   Heb 13:5-6

Many Christians point with pride to the time when they “made their decision” to follow Jesus, when they responded to an altar call and dedicated their lives to Christ.  And we can certainly rejoice with them that they too have been brought into the forgiving grace of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live for him.  But with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15), let us not be ashamed to point to our baptism day, when God came to us and saved us.  And let us be eager to share with them how he has kept us in the true faith from that day right up to today.

“Know therefore, that the Lord your God is God;  he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.”   Deut 7:9

 

 

This study of infant baptism was written by Robert Fink of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  You are invited to email him if you have questions about anything written in this study.  The email address is   rlf54220@yahoo.com

 

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