In these last 8 posts I’ve been telling the story of my move from the Baptist to the paedobaptist position. While I’ve attempted to give a reasoned defense of this position, my posts are as much biographical as they are theological. I’ve only outlined specific aspects of this debate with which I personally wrestled, certainly not every possible angle or every relevant Bible passage.
For this final post, I want to share what difference this change has made in my life.
How I understand baptism
I used to believe baptism was first and foremost saying something about me: I am united with Christ; I am forgiven; I am born again. But now I see baptism as first something about Christ.
Credobaptists and paedobaptists alike agree that the act of baptism symbolizes or demonstrates spiritual realities. But historically there has been a great divergence of opinion over what exactly it symbolized in baptism.
Take, for instance, the language of the Westminster Confession, written by paedobaptists in the 1640s:
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ. By baptism a person is solemnly admitted into the visible church. Baptism is also a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of the believer’s engrafting into Christ, of rebirth, of remission of sins, and of the believer’s yielding to God through Jesus Christ to walk in newness of life.
Notice both the objective and subjective language of this text. According to the Confession, baptism is not first a sign of what a believer is doing in response to Christ, but rather is a sign of what God has done in Christ. Baptism is a visible sign that God has inaugurated the covenant of grace, and He promises union with Christ, regeneration, forgiveness, and sanctification to all who meet the conditions of that covenant (i.e. belief).
However, both the London and Philadelphia Baptist Confessions, modeled from the Westminster, deliberately strip away this objective language. They both state:
Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life. (italics added)
Notice: baptism here symbolizes something about the specific believer who receives it. It is a sign of his fellowship with Christ, his sins washed away, his surrender to Christ.
Or note this from the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message:
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. (italics added)
This is often where credobaptists and paedobaptists disagree. Sinclair Ferguson pointedly asks, what does baptism seal? “Is baptism primarily a seal of faith (i.e. of our response to the gospel) or a seal to faith (i.e. of the gospel which elicits our response)?”1
Because I believe baptism is like circumcision, a household rite, I believe it signs to each member of our households the same reality, regardless of age. For the adults converts, there is an immediate subjective element to baptism: it is something they are doing in response to the gospel. But for all members of my household, baptism is a sign and seal of something objective—the gospel itself—the gospel that promises forgiveness and eternal life to those who believe.
How I understand my God
God loves to work through families.
God began an everlasting covenant with Abraham and his family long ago, promising to be God to him and to his offspring after him (Genesis 17:7). God repeats this same refrain in his prophecy of the new covenant: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people…I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.” (Jeremiah 31:33; 32:39, italics added).
The Lord is a God of steadfast love, not only to me, but to my children. When God proclaimed his name to Moses on Mount Sinai, he said his generational faithful was essential to his very nature: he is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and keeping steadfast love for a thousand generations (Exodus 34:6-7). David praises God for this very thing: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Psalm 103:17-18, italics added).
How I see my kids
I believe my kids belong to God.
I believe our sovereign God has placed my children in my home, and, like Abraham, He has called me to teach them in righteousness (Genesis 18:19). My home is meant to be a little church where my children are trained for godliness. They are being raised as disciples, and as such are baptized and taught to follow all God commands (Matthew 28:18-20).
I believe, like the parents who brought their children to Jesus, that the Lord has invited me to bring my own children before Him to receive a special blessing (Luke 18:15-16).
I believe my children are in covenant with God, just like the Hebrew children before us. This means they are marked in baptism with both covenant promises and covenant duties.
As far as their covenant promises go, God calls my children saints, set apart to him as holy (1 Corinthians 7:14). They are His own people, sanctified by the blood of the covenant (Hebrews 10:29-30). They are growing up in a home and a church community where they are being enlightened by the gospel, sharing in the Holy Spirit, tasting the heavenly gift, tasting the goodness of the word of God, and tasting the powers of the age to come (Hebrews 6:4-5).
As far as their covenant duties go, they are called to be united by faith with those who obediently listen to God (Hebrews 4:2). Like the Israelites of old, they are promised justification in God’s sight—if they have the same faith our father Abraham had (Galatians 3:9; Romans 4:11).
My children are also sinners, deserving of damnation. They can no more look to their parentage to save them than the Israelites could. (God can raise up children for Abraham from stones, after all.) Christ is their only hope for salvation, just as He is mine.
But I am raising them as disciples of Christ, covenant children, holy and blessed of God—not as pagans. Does this mean I think my children are “believers”? In a sense, yes. Only God knows if they are elect and whether they will persevere to the end. But in our home, faith will be something that germinates in them from the youngest age. God can make children, even the youngest children, into worshipers. As Jesus said, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matthew 21:16).
Afraid of Nominalism?
Back when I took a more baptistic slant on things, I believed infant baptism would only encourage nominalism in the church. If kids are raised to believe that some rite or ceremony “got them in,” won’t this discourage them from desiring a faith of their own?
I’ve since come to believe the opposite. Today, I think a robust covenantal view of the household, combined with obedience to the Lord’s command to make my children his disciples, discourages nominalism.
I will finish with an extended quote from Douglas Wilson on this subject.
We are faced with an inescapable reality. God has placed our children in our presence, and we are in covenant with the God who has done so. We will either treat our children as though they are in this covenant together with us, and teach them the terms of it, or we will treat them as strangers to that covenant, as outsiders. If we treat them as strangers to the covenant, if we say it is not possible for us to disciple our children in evangelical faith, bringing them up in it, then we will live with the unhappy consequences of covenant members training up covenant strangers. This would be hard enough, but if we are training them up as covenant strangers when the promises of God have brought them near, we are not just laboring against Adamic sin in our children (as many parents assume), but we are also swimming again the tide of God’s promises. Too often we assume that things are going badly because our child’s sin is interfering with our parental wisdom. Perhaps we should consider whether our theology is interfering with God’s parental grace. We discipline our children in unbelief—not believing God’s promises and hence not believing indications of his word in our children—and over time, our children finally give up and learn the lessons of our unbelief, which are more conducive to the flesh anyway…
A small girl comes up to her father and says she believes in Jesus. She is four years old. Now, what is the father to do? He must either believe her or disbeliever her? If he disbelieves her, he is teaching her to doubt her profession, just as he doubts it. She thinks she loves Jesus, but her father, an older and wiser Christian, declines to have her baptized or to ask the elders to bring her to the table. She knows that in a certain fundamental sense, she is still considered “out.” She must be outside for a reason. Her belief that she loves Jesus must be erroneous, and she must learn to doubt other similar affections as they arise. “True” faith is always just around the corner, and is something that apparently happens (miraculously) to other people. For many children taught this way, this is the way it remains. They leave the faith, breaking the hearts of those parents who (unwittingly) taught them to do so.
This is nothing other than teaching our little ones to doubt the promises of God. We may say that we are doing it for the sake of maintaining true evangelical zeal, not letting anyone in until they display it, but we are actually killing the heart of true covenant faithfulness over generations. We have made dramatic conversions out of paganism the norm, and then, having placed this expectation on our covenant children, we have slowly driven them into nominalism through the false but very common standard of the “flashy testimony.” But God told Christian parents to bring up their children in such a way that they have a really boring testimony. This is what it means to being children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Children are to show up in an environment dominated by the word of God, and they are to be a natural and organic part of that environment. We are not to think of the dinner table as surrounded mostly with Israelites, but the newly arrived Amalekite sitting sullenly off to the side in his high chair. Our homes are considered as part of the covenantal olive tree, and this certainly includes the olive shoots around the table (Ps. 128).
When we look for the dramatic “Damascus road conversion experiences” in our children, we are setting up a false standard. We may be doing this in the name of a high view of conversion, but we are actually setting the stage for compromises that have been seen before in the history of the church. And this refusal to think of our children covenantally is at the heart of the church’s current disarray…
Baptists create this alien mentality in children by refusing to baptize them…because they do not have a theology of generations. And, having taught our children to doubt the promises and leave the covenant, we take the fact that they do leave as incontrovertible evidence that we were right in excluding them in the first place. We require children to grow big and strong so that we might give them some food after they have done so. Then, when they starve to death, we take it as proving that we were right in not feeding them. Wisdom is vindicated by her children, but in our case, they don’t stick around.2
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Read all the posts in this series:
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1 Baptism: Three Views, p.93
2 Gregg Strawbride, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, p.298-301