Baptism

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The doctrine of baptism divides Christians. Almost all Christians believe that baptism is a practice given by the Lord Jesus to signify the unity of believers with Jesus Christ. The difference comes when we consider the place of their children.

The Covenant Promise & Sign in the Old Testament

In the Old Covenant, which God made with Abraham, children were a central issue. Abraham despaired that he had no heir to inherit the promises which God had given to him, including the promise that Abraham would have as many descendants as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:1-8), and that God would be their God (Genesis 17:7-8). So, God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14).

Circumcision was practiced by nations in Canaan. It was applied to youths as a sign of leaving the immaturity of childhood behind and entering into the responsibilities of manhood. God redefined that initiation rite by commanding that it should be given instead to babies who had no ability to decide for themselves. In doing so, God was showing that the salvation He promises doesn’t depend on our will but on His choice (John 1:11-13, 3:5-8; Ephesians 2:10; & Colossians 2:13).

At this point, Abraham already had a son named Ishmael, but he wasn’t a child of Abraham’s wife Sarah. Yet, when Abraham circumcised his family, Ishmael was circumcised even though he was not the one who would receive God’s promises.

So, for 2000 years, the sign of God’s covenant promises was given to all of the sons of Abraham, even though many of them did not receive the promises by faith (Romans 4:12; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Galatians 3:17-18; Jude 5). Yet, failing to give the sign of God’s promise of salvation was a serious sin (Exodus 4:24-26).

The Covenant Promise & Sign in the New Testament

Even in the New Testament, the covenant with Abraham has not been abolished (Galatians 3:1-29, especially 1-6, 13-14); in fact, circumcision and baptism are the same sort of sign for the very same promise (Colossians 2:11-12).

In the New Covenant, Peter declared to the crowd at Pentecost that God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:33-39): If you repent and believe in Jesus, God will forgive you and be your God, and you will be part of His people (Genesis 17:7-8; Exodus 6:7; Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:28; 37:27; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Hebrews 8:10).

So, the appropriate response is for sinners to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, and to be baptized in recognition of God’s promise to forgive their sins (Acts 2:40-41).

Again, baptism was already used as a Jewish initiation rite, just as circumcision was. For that reason, and because salvation is by grace through faith not on the basis of works, baptism must only be applied once (Titus 3:5). The circumstances of your baptism, including who does it, and whether it was by sprinkling, pouring, or being immersed, does not make it more righteous or more effective.

New converts to Judaism were baptised. But now, God ordained that converts and their children should be baptized as a sign of the promise He gave to them. As Peter said, ‘the promise is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off,” (Acts 2:39). Because, in the New Covenant, the promise of salvation are given to believers” children, it is appropriate for them to receive the sign of the promise too.

Now, this doesn’t mean that God has promised to save everyone whose parents believe. No, God’s promise is, “If you receive the promise signified by baptism, then (and only then) you will be saved.”

The children of believers are privileged to receive the promise because their parents are to teach them the way of salvation by faith in Jesus from their earliest days. This is an advantage the children of unbelievers do not have. But it doesn’t guarantee salvation.

That distinction between God’s covenant people and the world should be recognised, and so should the responsibility parents have to covenant children.

Are There Covenant Kids in the New Testament?

But, is there such a thing as covenant children? There isn’t a verse which says, “And Peter even baptized little Malachi, even though he was only 3 months old.” But while the baptisms of households may be inconclusive (see Acts 11:13-18; 16:15, 31-34; & 1 Corinthians 1:16), we do meet children in the pages of the New Testament who are treated as part of the people of God.

Paul could write to the children in the church at Ephesus with a command to “obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.” This is the very same basis that children in the Old Covenant were commanded to honour their parents: they are “in the Lord”, part of God’s people and therefore expected to obey His commands and receive His blessings (Ephesians 6:1-3).

It is for that same reason that fathers are told to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). That doesn’t just mean correcting them as God requires, but discipling them, or training them to be followers of Jesus. To make disciples of Jesus means teaching the way to be saved (by faith) and to teach the way to live as someone who has been saved (also by faith). Every believer needs this training from other believers, and covenant children should receive it at home as well.


But Should We Baptise Covenant Kids?

There is no direct command, “You shall baptize your children,” but the children of believers have always received the covenant sign, whether circumcision or baptism. So it is up to those who would restrict baptism to believers only to justify their position from the Scriptures because they are the ones arguing for a change from the pattern God established. Our preferences cannot overrule what God has established.

Appeals to an age at which children become accountable for their sins will find no support in Scripture. The consistent message is that all people are sinners from conception (Psalm 51:5 & Romans 3:23). Otherwise, if children were not sinners, God would be unjust to decree that any should die before they were accountable for their actions (Romans 5:12-14). Only those who deserve the wages sin pays, die (Romans 6:23).

On the positive side, children may know their Saviour from an early age, like John the Baptist, who did so in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41-45). We cannot understand how children so young could have faith, but we must remember that faith doesn’t begin with our intellect; faith is a gift which God gives to people who cannot believe (Ephesians 2:8). That is why believers can have peace and certainty if their children die at a young age (2 Kings 12:21-23); not because they’re innocent (because no one is), but because God is gracious and He promises His grace and salvation to believers’ children by faith (Acts 2:38).

Withholding Baptism from Children

It has been argued that the children of believers should be baptized and that for there to be any change to this consistent patters, there would need to be positive evidence in favour of the change, not just opinions or preferences or the assertion that “It’s different in the New Testament.”

There is no evidence that such a monumental change happened in the early church; if it had, there would have been heaps of controversy, and yet there was none.

Actually, it was not until the latter Reformation period in the 16th century that anyone challenged the idea of baptizing the children of believers. At this time, everything that was not Biblical was to be removed, not matter how difficult. But the Reformation left infant baptism in place. That wasn’t out of a sense of tradition or because no one thought to change it. It was because careful examination of the Word of God convinced people that baptising the children of believers was Biblical.

Are we as committed to believing what the Scriptures say, or are we just going along with what we have heard?


Dangers

Of course, it is absolutely wrong for anyone to rely on being baptized as an infant for their salvation (Romans 4:12). But it is also wrong for anyone who relies on being baptized as an adult for their salvation, and there are many of those as well (Acts 5:1-11 & 8:9-24).

But the problem is not with baptising infants, but with parents who don’t tell their children what baptism signifies, God’s promise to them: If you repent and believe, you will be saved (Acts 2:38, 40).

Conclusion

If we see baptism as my declaration of my faith in God, or as my promise to try my best to make my children Christians, in both cases, we miss the point. Baptism is about God’s promise to save incapable sinners by giving us faith. That’s why it’s appropriate for it to be given to incapable babies.

God gave us the sign assures us that what seems impossible is true: sinners will be saved.

Then, the question remains: Have you received the faith and salvation that baptism illustrates?

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

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