- I had started to celebrate the truth of God’s “generational faithfulness“: God promises his kindness to my children and their children after them. God considers my children to be a part of His covenant community. They are considered holy, set apart unto Him.
- I started to embrace the belief that the sign of circumcision, given to Abraham, was not merely an ethnic sign: in it God sealed Abraham’s family as his own and signed to them His promise of righteousness.
- I started to understand that baptism in the New Testament occupies the place circumcision had in the Old. I could see more of the parallels between these two rites.
But I then came to what I considered the linchpin of my whole baptistic theology. This was the one objection to infant baptism that I believed was insurmountable. It seemed to me, reading through the New Testament, that baptism and personal salvation go hand-in-hand. If infant baptism is a biblical practice, why is baptism so commonly paired with personal faith in Christ? If infant baptism is right, why is baptism often paired with regeneration? Can infants have saving faith? Can they be born again?
This was the one area of baptistic theology I was most unwilling to yield. I thought, of course there is continuity between the Old and New Testaments, between circumcision and baptism, but aren’t there also discontinuities? Yes, God’s covenant with Abraham embraces both testaments, but there is also progression, isn’t there? As I read the New Testament, it seemed one of the fundamental changes between circumcision and baptism is who receives the covenant sign: before, the sign was given by virtue of family connection, but now it is given to those who profess personal faith.
The Passages that Made Me a Baptist
I developed my understanding of baptism largely from explicit statements made about baptism from the New Testament.
The Book of Acts – There are many examples of baptism in Acts, and in nearly every case the hearing of the gospel or the faith of the recipients is highlighted (Acts 2:38-39,41; 8:12-13,35-38; 16:14-15,32-34; 18:8; 19:3-5).
If this was the pattern set down by the apostles, and there are no explicit examples of infants being baptized, why would we baptize infants (who are incapable of saving faith)?
1 Peter 3:18-22 – In this text Peter says baptism is similar to Noah’s experience. He and his family were “brought safely through water” by the ark. Similarly, baptism “now saves you.” Peter then clarifies that it isn’t the washing of water that brings about salvation. Rather, baptism saves because it is “an appeal to God” through the resurrected Christ, an appeal “for a good conscience.”
No matter how one translates the word “appeal” from the Greek (some translate it “answer,” others “pledge”), this verse seems to say that the person being baptized is taking some kind of action toward God. If the essence of baptism is a person “appealing to God,” how can baptism be applied to infants?
Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:11-12 – Paul says that when we were baptized into Christ, we were united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. God did this so that we would be dead to sin and instead walk in newness of life. This identification with Christ happened “through faith.”
If baptism signifies union with Christ, how can infants who have not expressed saving faith be baptized?
How Calvin Responded to These Objections
To date, the most helpful commentary I’ve read discussing these verses is John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. I will paraphrase and quote him below for each section of Scripture.
The Book of Acts – Calvin does not deny the obvious pattern seen throughout of the book of Acts. Clearly, part of Luke’s message in Acts is to show his readers how those from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds were repenting of sin and coming to faith in Jesus the Messiah.
Rather than downplay this pattern, Calvin asks the more critical question: Exactly what pattern were the apostles using? Were the apostles laying down a new pattern, giving the mark of covenant membership (i.e. baptism) only to those who displayed faith and repentance? Or were they simply following the pattern of adult conversion that was already in place from before the days of Christ?
Calvin explains that before Christ, if a Gentile adult wanted to be a part of the spiritual fellowship of Israel, he would first need to be instructed about God’s covenant and then, in faith, take the mark of circumcision. In addition their male children would also be circumcised. Unlike their father before them, the children would inherit the covenant as a hereditary right. While we are not shown any infant baptisms in the New Testament, we also aren’t told that the apostles changed the pattern and denied any infants baptism.
What Anabaptists in Calvin’s day saw as a new pattern of believer-only baptisms, Calvin saw as an pre-established pattern of adult-conversions. When the apostles preached to adults, they called them to repentance and faith in the gospel, but this says nothing of how the apostles treated infants of believers.
In other words, when we see faith so often paired with baptism in the ministries of the apostle, this does not mean the apostles were credobaptists anymore than the prophets before them were ‘credo-circumcisionists.’1
1 Peter 3:18-21 – Calvin does not try to soft-pedal the significance of the words in 1 Peter 3. He agrees, Peter is talking about our own consciences as they relate to baptism. Our “good conscience,” Calvin understands, is the peace of mind we feel before God when we are convinced of God’s incredible grace.2 Peter is saying that the real power of baptism is not in the water, nor is it in any incantation said at the time of baptism, but rather it is our faith in God’s promises.3 4 Why then wasn’t Calvin a credobaptist?
The Anabaptists of Calvin’s day also appealed to 1 Peter 3:21 to make their case. Calvin’s response to them is interesting:
[T]hey repeatedly go wrong through their deluded notion that the thing ought always to precede the sign in order of time. For the truth of circumcision too rested upon the same testimony of a good conscience. But if it ought of necessity to have preceded, infants would never have been circumcised by God’s command.5
Yes, baptism and faith are intricately linked, just as circumcision and faith were linked, but not always in their timing. In other words, (1) God commanded infants to be circumcised, and yet (2) circumcision signified the testimony of a good conscience, which infant Israelites were not yet capable of giving. God made his covenant with these infants before they confirmed and ratified it through a confession of faith. If baptism corresponds to circumcision, we should not deny our babies baptism simply because they cannot yet make confessions of faith.
Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:11-12 – Calvin has a similar response to these verses. He says these passages should not be understood that all those who are baptized must first be united with Christ. Paul is not addressing the issue of the timing of baptism here. “[R]ather, he simply declares the doctrine that underlies baptism—and declares it to those who are already baptized.” He likens Paul to Moses and Jeremiah who reminded the people about the significance of being circumcised even though most of them had been marked with circumcision since infancy (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4).6
Paul is emphasizing the thing signified in baptism, not the baptism itself. A Christian is meant to read Paul’s words in Romans 6 or Colossians 2 and reflect back on what was signed in his/her baptism—union with Christ, regeneration, forgiveness—regardless if they were baptized in infancy or adulthood.
What is your controlling framework?
Anglican theologian J.I. Packer does a marvelous job summarizing the differences between baptistic churches and paedobaptist churches.
Packer says, “differences about the visible church form the background for all discussions of infant baptism.” The question, in other words, is who should be considered a part of God’s visible covenant community: believers only or believers and their households?
“This links up with the baptist insistence that membership of local congregations is only for those who have publicly professed personal faith: an emphasis often buttressed by the claim that Christ instituted baptism primarily for a public profession of faith, and that such a profession is part of the definition of baptism, so that infant baptism is not really baptism at all…
“The case for baptizing believers’ infants…rests on the claim that the transition from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ form of God’s covenant that was brought about by the coming of Christ did not affect the principle of family solidarity in the covenant community (i.e., the church, as it is now called). Infants were therefore to be baptized, as Jewish male infants had previously been circumcised, not to confer on them covenant status, but to attest the covenant status that by God’s sovereign appointment their parentage had already given them.”7
The critical question is: What is the controlling framework through which you see baptism? The Baptist says, “Look at all the example of believers being baptized, and look at all the statements about baptism being connected to new life in Christ. God never tells us to baptize infants.” The paedobaptist says, “Look at all the examples of family solidarity in the covenant community set down in both the Old and New Testaments. God never tells us to change this established pattern.”
Paedobaptism: A Broad Approach to Baptism
It is important to note, the paedobaptist position includes both adult and infant baptisms. It is not that paedobaptist only baptize infants; he also believes in the baptism of confessing adults. The paedobaptist looks at the New Testament and sees very clearly the pattern of adult conversions, men and women turning from their sin to faith in Christ, being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. However, the paedobaptist does not stop there: he also sees the principle of believers’ children being marked by God as His own.
The paedobaptist takes a broad approach: embracing the practice of baptizing adults while at the same time paying attention to the Old and New Testament pattern of including children in the covenant. The Baptist may look at this broad approach and say, “You can’t have it both ways.” But paedobaptist says in reply, “Why not? God’s people have done this since the days of Abraham.”
Paedobaptism: A Broad Approach to New Birth
Anabaptists in Calvin’s day objected to infant baptism because, among other reasons, infants are too young to be regenerated. Calvin responds by saying that if this was true, all infants must therefore be damned. If we are merely children of Adam, we are creatures subject to God’s wrath (1 Corinthians 15:22; Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3). Nothing polluted may enter heaven (Revelation 21:27). Only in Christ are we promised life (John 11:25; 14:6). Only those born from above may inherit eternal life (John 3:3).
Calvin says, rather, an infant can be regenerated from a young age, even from the womb. He cites the example of John the Baptist, sanctified by the Spirit from Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:15). He is quick to clarify his point: It is not that John is an example of what God does to all infants, but rather is an example of what God can do.
Calvin also states, despite the sinful condition of children, that Christ invited parents of young children, even infants, to bring their children to Him (Matthew 19:14; Luke 18:15). “Christ commands that they be brought to him. Why is this? Because he is life.” He promises the kingdom to such children.8
Calvin takes a broad understanding of regeneration: it is something that happens as a process, not necessarily an instant. It can start from a very young age, even before birth, so we need not fear falsely applying the sign of baptism to infants. Calvin asserts, “[I]nfants are baptized into future repentance and faith, and even though these have not yet been formed in them, the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit.”9
P. Andrew Sandlin summarizes Calvin’s take on this subject nicely: “For Calvin, covenant infants are baptized on largely the grounds that adults are baptized—we assume they are believers. In other words, infant baptism is, as it were, believers’ baptism.”10
But Babies Can’t Believe…
Treat our babies like believers? How can we do that?
The words of R.C. Sproul, Jr., are worth noting on this:
There is every reason to believe that little children do not have the capacity to believe the gospel. They lack that which is necessary. The good news, however, is that no person has the capacity to believe the gospel. Not one of us can believe on our own, not because we aren’t smart enough, but because we are not good enough. What stops the little children from believing is not an underdeveloped brain, but a wicked heart. But God is stronger than both underdeveloped brains and wicked hearts. And if God can work the miracle of regeneration in a sinner like me, he can certainly do it in a little baby.11
What a Paedobaptist Parent Does
This took me a long time to wrap my mind around what this theology meant for me as a parent. Just how am I to think of my covenant child? Saved? Unsaved? Somewhere in between?
A paedobaptist parent embraces both the reality of Adamic sin and the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant. My children are sinners who deserve damnation. They, like their daddy, can only hope in the blood of Christ for salvation. But my children are also covenant children, and as such they are promised all the blessing of the covenant as they live out covenant faith.
My role as a parent is to live out the Great Commission before them, only I have the opportunity to not just make them disciples of Christ, but to raise them as disciples, teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). From day one, as I pray over them, bless them in Jesus name, and sing hymns of faith to them, they are being discipled. And yes, like any disciple, I have them baptized.
Yes, as a parent, I must acknowledge the reality of sin running rampant in their hearts, but I must also acknowledge that God is ruthlessly loyal to his covenant children. He has promised to be a God to me and my offspring after me (Genesis 17:7). God calls them “holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). No, we cannot know whether our children are elect or reprobate, but we can treat them as God does: set apart unto Him. “[W]e can affirm that,” says R.C. Sproul, Jr., “as far as we know, our covenant children are in fact in the covenant, in the church, in the kingdom, in the faith, and so we may, believing them to be covered by Christ, bring them before God in worship.”12
He has sworn to show his steadfast love to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 5:10; 7:9).
. . . .
Read all the posts in this series:
. . . .
1 Institutes, 4.16.23-24
2 Institutes, 4.10.3
3 Institutes, 4.14.4
4 Institutes, 4.15.2
5 Institutes, 4.16.21
6 Institutes, 4.16.21
7 J.I. Packer, “Baptism: This Rite Exhibits Union with Christ”
8 Institutes, 4.16.17
9 Institutes, 4.16.20
10 P. Andrew Sandlin, “A Summary of John Calvin’s Defense of Paedobaptism”
11 Gregg Strawbridge, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, p.309
12 Strawbridge, p.308