How Baptizing Children is Grace on Display

Infant baptism is a controversial topic of discussion.

While we have historical evidence that the 1st century church practiced infant baptism and they referred to this as the “tradition of the apostles”, [1] the church has been divided on infant baptism since 1608 when Anabaptist leader Menno Simons, Baptist leader John Smyth and others asserted that baptism should be delayed until after the children of believers professed their faith.

Before I continue, I want to be clear that even though I have come to embrace infant baptism and see God’s grace on display in it, my aim isn’t to change any minds here.

Rather, my goal in writing this is to paint a picture of the grace-drenched, covenant-rich significance behind infant baptism and perhaps clear up some common misconceptions along the way.

CLEARING UP SOME COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS …

DOES BAPTISM SAVE?

Reformational churches do not believe that the water is holy or teach that the act of baptism itself is what saves. Baptism is a covenant sign – a sign that points our children toward Christ alone who saves.

The children of Israel grew up knowing they were members of Gods family on the basis of their circumcision. They were then raised to trust in God and profess their faith in the God who saved them out of Egypt.

The children in reformational churches grow up knowing are members of Gods family on the basis of their baptism. We raise them to trust in God and profess their faith in Christ who saves us from our sin. Upon their profession of faith, a baptized child eats and drinks at the Lord’s table, celebrating as we do, that united to Christ, our sins are forgiven.

Baptism does not replace saving faith for the children of believers, but is a gift of grace for our children that points them to Christ alone who saves.

ISN’T THE ONLY BIBLICAL FORM OF BAPTISM BY IMMERSION?

The word “baptism” has a range of meaning. It’s certainly does mean to immerse – but it also means to wash & ceremonially cleanse which, scripturally speaking, would include pouring and sprinkling. Immersion is not the only “biblical” method, though immersion is undeniably the method used in the book of Acts, given the plentiful water sources available in the regions where the apostles evangelized.

As Christian faith expanded globally, it spread into regions where water was less plentiful, thus ancient documents such as the Didache record that the baptisms were administered by immersion, pouring and sprinkling depending on the water sources available.

Baptism by immersion is a faithful practice as it illustrates our identification with Christ’s burial and resurrection.

Baptism by pouring is a faithful practice as it illustrates how Christ’s blood was poured out for our sin and how the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us.

Baptism by sprinkling is a faithful practice as it illustrates how Christ, as our high priest, sprinkled His own blood as the ultimate sacrifice on Heaven’s mercy seat for our sin and for the nations.

Right now I baptize by pouring because I preach on a basketball court. I’ve also administered baptisms in a lake with the church present. If one day KW Redeemer gathers to worship in a building that has a baptismal tank, I’ll happily immerse.

In the end, the power of baptism is not in the form of baptism, but in the Name of the One Who presides over the baptism – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. [2]

WHAT ABOUT DEDICATING A CHILD WITHOUT BAPTISM? DOES DEDICATING A CHILD CARRY THE SAME SIGNIFICANCE BAPTIZING A CHILD?

Baby dedications are both meaningful and significant as they represent a commitment on the part of the parents to raise their child in the ways of God. A dedication service however, does not carry the significance of baptism. Jesus gave baptism, not dedication, as the sign of His new covenant. Besides, if the spiritual significance of baptizing a child is denied on the premise that the child isn’t choosing it, then we can’t import significance for the child into a dedication service because the child isn’t choosing those either.

BAPTIZING CHILDREN DEMONSTRATES THEY ARE WELCOMED IN

The main argument against baptizing children is that the child hasn’t professed their trust in God and therefore isn’t choosing the baptism. While that is true, all Christians raise their children to respond to God’s grace and place their trust in Christ, regardless of their views of baptism.

Every Christian parent will expect their children to obey them in the Lord according to Ephesians 6:1, whether the child is 3 or 13. Obeying “in the Lord” implies something more than the kind of obedience that unbelieving parents expect. It implies that we desire for our children to be guided by the Word of God and live accordingly.

On what basis should we expect a child, whether 3 or 13, to desire the things of the Lord before they are baptized? If baptism is the covenant sign that you are in the Lord (which it is) then on what basis should we expect our children to have a heartfelt desire for prayer, for the scriptures, to worship God? On the basis of our faith and our example?

If we reject infant baptism on the basis that our child didn’t choose it, how then can we expect them to obey in the Lord on the basis of our faith – they didn’t choose that either.

In the Lord” is family language.

Reformational churches consider the little 3 year olds who run around after our services to be in the Lord even though they’re too little to profess their faith. Their baptism is the covenant sign that says, “I’m God’s kid” and on the basis of that gracious and undeserved gift, we expect them to desire obedience “in the Lord” and we trust that one day, they will profess their faith in Christ.

God has a historical pattern of extending His saving promises to children through His covenant sign. I hope that by illustrating this, I can show why reformational churches don’t delay the gift of baptism to our children.

GOD’S HISTORICAL PATTERN: GIVING THE SIGN OF SAVING GRACE TO CHILDREN …

In Genesis 15 God made a covenant with Abraham. At the heart of that covenant was a salvation promise that was extended beyond Abraham to his children. [3] Generation after generation, the children of Israel were given the sign of God’s  covenant at birth.

This sign welcomed the children into God’s covenant family, meaning that His saving promise was extended to them as a gracious, undeserved gift. This was extended to all the children of believing parents – including the children who would later choose to reject Him.

Though the children of Israel were continually unfaithful to God, He remained faithful to them – on the basis of His covenant promise. Despite their sin, failure and freedom to reject Him, God remained committed to His promise and pursued His children because they bore His covenant sign. Such grace.

Hebrews 8:6 tells us that in Christ, we have a “new and better covenant”.

Given God’s track record, an important question we must ask is: does God’s commitment to our children change with this new and better covenant?

The old covenant included children at their birth by giving them His covenant sign. Does the new covenant exclude children at their birth by withholding His covenant sign? If it does – how is that better?

In the old covenant, when children were given the covenant sign, God immediately extended His saving promises toward children so that they would grow to profess their faith in Him. Does the new covenant postpone His saving promises toward our children until after they profess faith in Him? If it does, how is that better?

I would invite you to consider that the same grace that God extended to children in the old covenant He continues to extend toward children in the new – only the new covenant is better in every way.

The new covenant sign of baptism is not just for the male children – but male and female. Better.

Not just for the nation of Israel – but for Israel and every other nation. Better.

We are no longer under the curse of the impossibility of keeping God’s law, we under grace because Christ has fulfilled the requirements of the law. We have a new relationship with God’s law – we desire it to guide us and keeping it isn’t what saves us. Better.

We celebrate this amazing grace, we don’t delay in giving our children the sign of this covenant of grace, we teach them the gospel of God’s undeserved grace, and we anticipate the day they profess their faith in Christ and receive His grace.

That is why I baptize children.

HOW DOES BAPTIZING CHILDREN PUT GOD’S SAVING GRACE ON DISPLAY?

The word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. It’s news because it already happened. God has done something for us in Christ, which instigated His grace coming toward us before we even knew we needed it.

“You did not choose Me, I chose you.”
(John 15:16)

“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
(Romans 5:8)

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”
(Ephesians 2:8)

“We love Him, because He first loved us.”
(1 John 4:19)

When a child received circumcision under the Old Covenant, it meant God’s saving promise was freely offered to them, though they did not earn or initiate it.

When our children receive baptism under the New Covenant, it means God’s saving promise is freely offered to them, though they did not earn or initiate it.

WHY ISN’T INFANT BAPTISM SPECIFICALLY MENTIONED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?

The book of Acts records the apostles ministry to adults, so naturally, profession of faith would come first followed by baptism. While it is true that the statement, “baptize the children of adult converts” cannot be found anywhere, God’s track record of extending His saving promises to the children of believers is absolutely everywhere.

The real question is not where in the New Testament does God want the apostles to include children by giving them the sign of His covenant, but where, for the first time all of salvation’s history, does God want to exclude the children from having it?

I would argue that the reason baptizing children is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament is because the apostles are applying the new covenant sign according to God’s historical, redemptive pattern.

The apostles giving the covenant sign to the children of believers would not have been a new idea – but an incredibly old one.

“And the jailer  … trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas … And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” ~ Acts 16:29-33

It doesn’t say “he and his wife” but “he and all his family“, which logically infers children. How old were the children?

Who knows.

It says that “the word of the Lord was spoken to all who were in the house” but it doesn’t say that everyone responded to it and professed their faith. Maybe they did. Maybe the children were all at ages where they could both understand and respond to the gospel as it was presented by the apostles. Maybe they were distracted toddlers who only listened to the apostles for the first 3 minutes.

The ages of these children is not relevant. God’s track record of giving His covenant sign to children for thousands of years is extremely relevant.

Perhaps you remain unconvinced. That’s quite alright.

My goal in writing here isn’t to win an argument on infant baptism. What I hope, is that I have stirred you to consider the gracious implications of baptizing our children.

I hope that I have conveyed how a child on the receiving end of baptism is a picture of the amazing grace of a saving God who, from their infancy, is committed to lovingly pursuing them –  on the basis of His gracious covenant sign.

We don’t require families coming into membership at KW Redeemer to share this view, but we encourage them, based on God’s gracious track record, to see that there is no reason for them to delay in giving their children the gift of God’s covenant sign.

When the water runs down the face of a child who doesn’t even know they need saving – that’s a picture of all of us.

That’s grace on display.

Press on,

Paul


[1] Ancient church writings on the practice of infant baptism, since the time of the apostles:

Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) “He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]).

Hippolytus of Rome (170-236 A.D.) “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [A.D. 215])

Origen: (185-254 A.D.) “For this also the church had a tradition from the apostles, to give baptism even to infants. (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248])

Optatus of Mileve (365A.D.) “It shows no crease when infants put on the baptismal garment, it is not too scanty for young men, it fits women without alteration.”  Against Parmenium,5:10,in JER, 94

Gregory Nazianzus (381 AD) “Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7 [A.D. 388]).

John Chrysostom (A.D 388)  “You see how many are the benefits of baptism … For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by personal sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be Christ’s members”  “‘Well enough,’ some will say, ‘for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of loss nor of grace? Shall we baptize them too?’ Certainly.”  (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Ad Neophytos  Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).

[2] Matthew 28:19

[3] Gen. 17:7, 8

 

4 Comments on “How Baptizing Children is Grace on Display

  1. This is really interesting, Paul! I’m processing these thoughts, but I’ll admit I’m struggling to understand what being “members of God’s family” and “in the covenant” means. It sounds a bit like a halfway house to salvation, with one foot in and one out. 😛

    Didn’t the end of the covenant with Israel put everyone on the same level? Then, regardless of being born into a Christian family (or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu), or “covenanticized” as an infant, now everyone has the same invitation to the new covenant through faith—their own, not their parents’.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s so cool to be surrounded by people pursuing truth and discovering Jesus and the gospel and grace. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing Michelle.

      Great questions. Faith in Christ alone is what saves and makes us members of God’s family. That was true even in the Old Testament – everyone has always been saved by Christ, though in the OT, their sins were “passed over” onto Him.(Heb 10:4)

      So children being “in the covenant” family meant that God was committed to extending His grace toward those children. We see that from Genesis to Malachi. The sign of the covenant was given to remind children they were born being offered a gracious gift.

      Covenant means “promise” not “halfway house to salvation” (funny image btw!!), so it put children in the gracious position of having God’s one-way undeserved covenant promise of salvation constantly extended toward them.

      The end of the Old Covenant and the initiation of the New Covenant did open up the gospel to be available nations as you have rightly said.

      What I hoped to convey here, was that the New Covenant didn’t mean God’s covenant commitment towards the children of believers wasn’t revoked – it was expanded.

      Instead of the promise that God would pursue a child in saving grace being offered ONLY to a Hebrew child born to believing parents – the children of all believing parents from EVERY nation now get that promise: not through the old sign (circumcision), but the new one (baptism).

      If a parent of a child who is not baptized says “my infant child is God’s kid too!” then the question we must ask is, on what basis? Your faith? The dedication service? Both of those are wonderful things, but the child didn’t choose your faith or the dedication service.

      What I hope to show here, is that baptism is a gift of grace available for the children of believing parents that draws them to faith.

      You asked if the end of the old covenant put everyone on “the same level”. I’m not sure I’d word it that way, but suffice it to say the new covenant is giving more, not less. So if by “same level” you mean the gospel is for all nations, thenI agree. If by “same level” you mean God no longer offers His covenant sign to the children born to believing parents, then I think the children lost something and that’s not “better”.

      Withholding the new covenant sign until AFTER a child professes their faith seems less gracious given that the old sign was given BEFORE they professed their faith, with the explicit purpose of drawing them to faith.

      So if we say to the church, “God is committed to the next generation”, we have to work out the theological implications of what that actually means.

      The New Testament says that salvation is for us AND our children. (Acts 11,16, I Cor 7, II Cor 6) so we have no choice except to look back on the consistency of salvation’s history to work that claim out. I believe that in doing that, hat we see is that God always gave His covenant sign to children, therefore the gift of baptism doesn’t need to be delayed.

      While that doesn’t mean baptized children are automatically saved any more than circumcised children were – it must mean that God is committed to the children of believers who bear his covenant sign in an extrordinary and gracious way. That would be theologically consistent.

      Even before the children in the OT were old enough to profess faith, their parents used their circumcision to teach them: “You’re circumcised – that’s the sign that means you were graciously born into God’s family – trust in Him.” In the same way, before our children are old enough to profess, we use their baptism to teach them – “You were baptized – that’s the sign that means you were graciously born into God’s family – trust in Him..”

      I think salvation history across both covenants helps us put the phrase, “God is committed to the next generation” or “salvation is for you and your children” on the ground.

      God’s grace is a gift that comes us toward adults, minus our merit. At some point we responded to the gospel as a result of God’s grace coming toward us.

      Baptism is a gift that comes to the children of believers, minus their merit. We pray that they will respond to the gospel as a result of God’s grace moving toward them – from baptism.

      That’s how us reformational guys see it anyhow – but like I said, I am doubtful I will have any of my friends who are baptist pastors call me and say they’re coming on over to the Presbytery 🙂 That’s quite alright. The hill I’m dying on isn’t labeled “infant baptism” it’s labeled “Christ alone”.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response and excellent questions. Hope there’s some thoughts in there that are helpful in understanding why reformational churches don’t delay the gift of baptism for our children.

      Press on,

      Paul

  2. Thank you for writing this, Paul! It was really encouraging. I’m really excited to hear about the work that God is doing through Redeemer in KW and hope that we can meet you guys soon (recently had a member of your church over for dinner). I grew up in the PCA (my dad planted Grace Toronto back in the 90s), and it’s exciting to see a movement of Gospel-centred, covenantally-rich churches rising up in Ontario. God bless you guys!

    • Paul, it makes total sense, especially in regards to understanding the old covenant. A perfect example of how Jesus made the “old” covenant better. He is the perfect expression of the covenant God has with his people, that he has extended to all the nations.

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