As Christians we all ought to be concerned to do all those things which God has commanded us and to avoid those things God has forbidden. This should be true in every endeavor of life (1 Cor. 10:31; Matt. 4:4), thus it should obviously be true in our formal worship of the Lord in the Church.
Church practices must be defensible from the Bible, which is the Word of the Living God and the only rule God has given for faith and life (2 Tim. 8:16,17).
It is often alleged by many who are not of the Reformed heritage that it is improper to baptize infants. Some see infant baptism as a vestige of Roman Catholicism, expressive of an undue concern for historic tradition rather than a concern for Biblical fidelity.
Others deem infant baptism to be a mere dedicatory rite “for the benefit of the parents and grandparents” which is not a true baptism at all. Such positions are greatly misinformed.
As Bible-believing Presbyterians we see infant baptism as a Christian duty firmly rooted in Scriptural precept and principle. We deem its neglect a serious failure of Christian duty before the Lord of the Covenant.
Outlined herein is a brief, introductory demonstration of the Scriptural mandate obligating the baptism of the infants of believers. It is hoped that this brief article would serve several purposes:
1. To help our non-Reformed brethren to understand that we are truly seeking to be Scriptural,
2. To clear up some misconceptions associated with baptism, and
3. Finally, it is our prayer that the reader, if a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, might be moved to present his children for baptism in terms of the Biblical mandate.
Let us begin with some basics.
The Essential Unity of the Bible
Presbyterians are a people of The Book. We firmly believe both the Old and New Testaments are God-breathed and profitable to God’s people. Though there is obvious progress and development in Scripture, the Bible is, nevertheless, one Book.
The unity of Scripture can be demonstrated from a wide variety of angles. Let us note just three.
First, there is a unity of purpose overarching both testaments. As the Word of God, the Bible seeks to glorify the Name of the Lord (Deut, 5:24; Psa. 8:1; Rev. 4:11; Rom. 16:27) and to show the way of salvation to men (Isa. 12; Isa. 55; Eph. 1; Rom. 1:16). These two basic themes are constant in both parts of the Bible.
Second, there is a unity of principle under girding both testaments. The Law of God is God’s righteous pattern for man’s conduct (Exo. 20; Psa. 119; Rom. 3:31; 1 John 3:22; Matt. 5:17-19) It is the foundational principle and source of Biblical ethics in both testaments.
Third, there is a unity of people in both testaments. The New Testament people of God are a continuation and expansion of the Old Testament people. Note the following evidence:
1. Both peoples are called a “church”, “congregation,” or “assembly”. These words are synonyms meaning “a called out gathering” (Exo. 12:6; Lev. 4:13; Jer. 26:17; Matt. 18:17; Eph. 5:23-33). The New Testament itself calls the Old Testament people a “church” (Acts 7:38) and our “fathers” (1 Cor. 10:1)
2. The Old Testament people were set apart for the true gospel, just as the New Testament people are (Rom. 1:1,2; Ga. 3:8).
3. The New Testament people are said to be grafted into and become one with the Old Testament people…just as a branch is grafted into a tree (Rom. 11:1-24) and a brick is placed into a building (Eph. 2:11-20).
4. The New Testament people are called by terms distinctly associated with the Old Testament people. We are called the “seed of Abraham” (Ga. 3:6-9,29), “the circumcision” (Phil. 3:3) a “royal priesthood” (Rom. 15:16; 1 Pet, 2:9; compare Exo, 19:6) and “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
Biblical faith does not know of two holy books of divergent purposes, nor of two distinct people of God, nor of two contrasting ethical principles, any more than it knows of two True Gods.
Furthermore, both testaments are the Word of God given to man (2 Tim. 3:16,17; 2 Pet. 1:20,21). Being such, the principles and precepts contained in either testament can only be annulled or modified by God Himself (Deut. 4:2, 12:32).
Since God’s Word is perfect truth (John 17:17), “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Principles and precepts established in the Old Testament continue into the New Testament unless God Himself repeals them… as He did in the case of the precepts commanding animal sacrifices, for instance (Heb. 9-10).
Having noted this, we can now move on to consideration of the particular Scriptural principles which are the bases of infant baptism.
The Biblical Principle of Family Solidarity
The Bible teaches that the family was established as a Creation ordinance of perpetual obligation (Gen. 1:27,28: 2:22-24; Matt. 19:4-6). That the family was of central importance in Old Testament history is evident from the following:
1. Numerous family genealogies are preserved in Scripture, thus demonstrating a concern for the preservation of family lineage (Gen. 10; Num. 1; etc.).
2. Families were considered a high and holy heritage from the Lord (Psa. 127 and 128.) 3) Responsibilities before God centered around family life (Deut. 6:4ff; Psa. 78:1-8; Prov. 13:22, 19:14; etc.) even to the point of incorporating express legislation protecting the family in the Ten Commandments (Exo. 20:12, 14, 17).
Consequently, God All-merciful specifically instituted His gracious covenant in terms which included family generations as beneficiaries of the covenant, rather than in terms restricting the covenant to individuals.
His mercies and blessings were particularly promised to the families of believers, as in the case of Noah (Gen. 9:9), Abraham (Gen. 17:2-7) and others (Deut. 28:4; Psa. 103:17, 18; 115:13,14). Also in keeping with this principle of family solidarity, His chastenings and curses ran in family generations (Exo. 20:5; Deut. 5:9; Hos. 9:11-17).
Godly families were thus obligated to recognize two important truths: First, when God’s grace claimed a person, God’s rule extended over all that the person possessed. For example, in law of the tithe (Deut. 14:22; Mal. 3:10) God claimed the first tenth of one’s production as a sign that He had a right to all of it.
Second, when God’s grace claimed a person, that person’s household was to be set apart as holy unto the Lord. For example, the children of God’s people were forbidden to marry non-believers “for thou art an holy people” (Deut. 7:1-6). Truly God kept the family central in His gracious dealings with His covenant people.
The Old Testament Sign of the Covenant
Indisputably, circumcision was THE sign of God’s gracious covenant with His people in the Old Testament (Gen. 17:10-11, 13-14). It is important that circumcision be properly understood because a proper comprehension of circumcision is necessary to understanding the import of baptism and baptism’s relationship to circumcision.
Unfortunately circumcision is too frequently deemed to be a purely national and racial sign of external, non-spiritual blessings and privileges of God’s Old Testament dealings with His people. However, circumcision was the sign of the covenant in its deepest spiritual meaning. Three fundamental concepts are tied up in the symbolism of Circumcision.
First, circumcision was a sign of union and communion with God. At its institution with Abraham, God said, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee… And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token (sign of the covenant betwixt me and you” (Gen. 17:7,11).
Note carefully that God called Himself especially and personally Abraham’s God: “I will be a God unto thee.” God was not so united with unbelieving people; in Amos 3:2 He says, “Thee and thee only have I known (intimately loved) of all the families of the earth.” The very heart of God’s gracious covenant was this concept of union and communion which recurred over and over again in the Old Testament; “I will be your God and you will be My people” (Exo. 6:7, 29:45; Lev. 26:12; Eze. 26:28, 37:27, Jer. 31:33).
Second, circumcision was a sign of the removal of defilement. That is, it represented cleansing from sin. This is seen in that God repeatedly called upon His people to “circumcise their hearts” (Deut 30:6; Isa, 52:1; Jer. 4:4; 6:10: 9:25-26; Eze. 44:7-9).
Clearly, the outward cutting away of the dirty foreskin from the organ which generated life was symbolic of the inward, spiritual removal of defilement from the heart. Those with “uncircumcised hearts,” therefore, were deserving of God’s judgment (Lev. 26:41). Of such people God commanded, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart” (Deut. 10:16).
Third, circumcision was the seal of the righteousness of faith. Paul clearly teaches this truth in Romans 4:11, where he writes, “And he (Abraham) received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had…” Circumcision was vitally related to faith. As an external sign it pictured and sealed internal faith, as the Bible clearly says.
At this point it is most significant to note that circumcision – which has been shown above to have been representative of union with God, cleansing from sin, and faith – was expressly commanded by God to be applied to infants: (Gen 17:12).
Note well that the sign of God’s deeply spiritual covenant was to be applied to infants! The family was clearly included in the outworking of God’s grace to His People.
New Testament Covenantal Responsibility
As previously pointed out, given the nature of Scripture as being the Word of God, it should be obvious that any principle God has ordained in Scripture is to be continued until He Himself (speaking through one of His apostles or prophets) annuls or modifies it.
As we enter the New Testament revelation two things stand out in terms of the principle of family solidarity and the inclusion of infants in the covenant community. One is that there is no command anywhere in the New Testament, either implied or expressly stated, that repeals this vital centuries old principle. The other is that there are ample, clean evidences of the principle’s continuation in this era.
Before actually defending the above two observations, let us consider some of the implications inherent in the assumption that family generations are excluded from the covenant community of the New Testament era.
If families were no longer to be considered a part of the covenant community or as partakers and beneficiaries of God’s covenant, the question as to why such would be the case would have to be raised.
Would this be implying that the New Covenant (instituted by Christ in Luke 22:20) is less generous than the Old Covenant, so as to account for the exclusion of the family unit? Or perhaps would the implication be that the New Covenant is lesser in efficacious power, thus accounting for its being ineffectual where there is no personal, self-conscious faith?
Are infants of believers today more depraved than they were in the Old Covenant era? Is the family of lesser significance now than before?
The answer to each of these questions must be a resounding “No!” That the New Testament clearly continues the principle of family solidarity and infant inclusion in the covenant community is seen in that:
First, Jesus Himself treated little children and infants in such a way as to demonstrate God’s covenantal concern for them. In this regard the following passages should be read and compared: Matthew 18:1-6: 19:13-14; Mark 9:36-37; 10:14-16: Luke 18:15-17. Let us make a few significant observations on this matter:
1. The little children were expressly said to be brought to Him (Matt 19:13; Mark 10:13). They did not come on their own faith initiative. Some were even “infants” (Luke 18:15).
2. When Christ says, “Of such is the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:14), He is speaking about the realm of covenantal blessings in terms of New Covenant terminology. John 3:3 and 1 Corinthians 6:10 clearly use “kingdom of God” in this sense.
Jesus was not merely saying: “Grown people ought to have simple faith like that which is illustrated here.” This is clear in that: (a) Some of these were infants incapable of demonstrating self-conscious faith (Luke 18:15). (b) Jesus was angered that the disciples kept these children and infants themselves away. He wanted these little ones themselves presented to Him (Luke 18: 15-17; Matt. 19:13,14). (c) Matthew 19:13,14 does not even mention “childlike faith” at all.
3. Jesus did actually perform a significant, spiritual act upon these children and called down divine, spiritual blessings upon them: “Then there were brought unto Him little children, that He should put His hands on them and pray… And He laid His hands on them, and departed thence” (Matt 19:13-15).
The “laying on of hands” is a deeply significant religious action, as seen elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 6:6; 8:17; 13:3; 1 Tim, 4:4; 2 Tim. 1:6; Heb 6:2). It is no mere cute ceremony.
Second, the New Testament’s first post-Pentecost sermon is expressly structured in terms of the covenant and the principle of family solidarity. In Act 2:38, 39 Peter ends his sermon, saying, “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ… For the promise is unto you and to your children…”
Given the Jewish audience (Acts 2:14, 22, 36) steeped in 1500 years of Old Testament covenantal thought patterns, it was natural to so structure the promise. Peter expressly included their children in the promises of God.
Were Peter concerned to get them to understand the old principals were radically changed (in terms of the family), he certainly would not have phrased this particular exhortation and promise in this manner – especially immediately upon mentioning the need of baptism. The principle is clearly seen to be still operative.
Third, children in New Testament churches are addressed as “saints” (“saint” in Greek means “one set apart”). The salutations of the letters to the churches at Ephesus and Colossae show they were written expressly to the “saints” (Eph. 1:1: Col. 1:2: Yet, in both letters, words of instruction are specifically addressed to “children” in the churches.
For example, Ephesians 6:1 says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord; for this is right.” Colossians does the same identical thing (Col. 3:20, 21).
Thus, in speaking to different groups of “saints” no differentiation is made between children and adults in terms of their status, or between believing and unbelieving children. The children of the saints are included in the covenant community, just as are wives (Eph. 5:22), husbands (5:25), and slaves (6:5).
Fourth, Paul teaches that the child having only one believing parent is, nevertheless, “set apart” (is distinguished) from the children of an unbelieving family.
1 Corinthians 7:14 says: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now they are holy.”
Note well that the children of believing parents are considered both “sanctified” and clean in contrast to the children of the unbelieving family who are considered non-sanctified and “unclean” in terms of God’s s gracious dealings with His people.
Paul is working upon the Old Testament principle of family solidarity here. He refers to this principle under different symbols in Romans 11:16 where he states: “If the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also holy; if the root be holy, the branches are holy.”
Fifth, household baptisms are frequent enough in the New Testament as to suggest the continuance of the principle which included infants with believing parents in the covenant.
Of the 12 baptism episodes recorded in Scripture, 3 are whole-house baptisms, see Acts 16:14; 16:33,34 and 1 Corinthians 1:16.
If the New Testament did actually present a strictly individualistic emphasis in terms of the faith, one should wonder why Lydia alone is specifically declared to have believed when her entire household was baptized:
“And a certain woman named Lydia… which worshiped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened… And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us” (Acts 16:14,15). It is certainly easy enough for the writer of the New Testament (here Luke) to specify all in the family believed (see: Acts 18:8).
It should be noted in this regard that many versions mistranslate Acts 16:34. For instance, the King James version reads: “And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.”
The New American Standard version has the correct rendering of this verse in a marginal reference at verse 34, which reads: “rejoiced greatly with his whole household, having believed in God.”
The phrase “having believed in God” is a participle which is the singular in the original Greek; thus it describes only the jailer himself. The jailer believed; the household rejoiced. Yet the whole household was baptized (Acts 16:33).
Notice, too, that Paul indiscriminately gives the promise in terms expressive of the principle of family solidarity: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, an you shall be saved, and your household” (Acts 16:31; compare also Acts 11:14).
These five considerations concerning the New Testament record are indicative of the continuation of the principle of family solidarity and the inclusion of infants of believers in the covenant promises of God. What then is there which would preclude them receiving the sign of baptism?
The Sign of the New Covenant
In the New Testament an express word from God can be discovered in repealing the rite of circumcision as the sign of the covenant (see for example: Ga. 5:2ff., Acts 15:1, 2, 5, 6, 24).
As a blood-letting ceremony, it was not compatible with the final phase of redemption which had its final blood-letting in Christ’s death once-for all. Thus, it was to be replaced by a bloodless covenant sign: baptism. That baptism takes over in the stead of circumcision as the sign of the covenant is clear from the following:
First, Colossians 2:11,12 specifically relates the two rites, showing that baptism superceded circumcision: “In whom (Christ) also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism…”
The participle phrase in v.12 (“having been buried with Him in baptism”) is dependent upon and explanatory of the main verb in v.11 (“ye are circumcised”). How then are we circumcised? By our baptism!
Second, both rites served as initiatory introductions into the covenant community (that is, the Church).
In Genesis 17:9-14 (discussed earlier) circumcision is shown to be the initiation rite into the covenant community. The uncircumcised man was excluded from the covenant community (v.14). In Acts 2:41 baptism is shown to be an initiatory rite: “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and the were added that day about three thousand souls.”’
Third, both rites are signs and seals of God’s gracious covenant love to His people. Compare Genesis 17 (discussed above) with Galatians 3: 27-29:
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Fourth, both rites represent the same deeply spiritual truths. Remember: above it was shown that circumcision signified union with God, cleansing from sin, and faith (discussed above). Baptism, too, symbolizes these three truths:
1. Union and communion with God is clearly expressed in the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19. where we read, “baptizing them into the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Sprit.”
2. Cleansing from sin is also expressed in baptism. Note the implication of Acts 22:16: “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins.”
3. Faith is also related to baptism as can be seen in Mark 16:16, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.”
These four perspectives on baptism demonstrate conclusively that there is an intended, purposeful, and divinely ordained relationship between baptism and circumcision.
Given the extensive arguments rehearsed above throughout the article, on what grounds, then, can we exclude infants from Christian baptism? Infants of the New Covenant era have as much right to the sign of the covenant as infants in the Old Covenant era.
Summary and Conclusion
The case for infant baptism has developed upon the following lines of argument:
First, both testaments of the Bible were shown to be equally authoritative as the revelation of God and vitally inter-related. The New Testament is a continuation and expansion of the Old Testament.
Second, God established the family as the arena of His grace and mercy. He revealed the principle of family solidarity. For centuries of convenantal history the seed of believers were included in God’s gracious covenant and the covenantal community. They even received the sign of the covenant, just as the adult did.
Third, in the New Testament there is no abrogation of the divinely instituted principle of family solidarity, there is no word commanding the exclusion of infants from the covenant community, and there is no instruction to the early Christian community (composed mostly of covenant-oriented Jews) to withhold the sign of the covenant from their children.
Fourth, as a matter of fact, and as expected. the New Testament treats children as members of the covenant community, frames sermons in term’s of the family solidarity principle, and records actions expressive of the covenant principle (i.e., household baptisms).
Fifth, baptism is seen to take over the function of circumcision in the New Covenant era. Since circumcision (which pictured the same truths as baptism) was applied to infants, why should not baptism be so applied?
Often the Presbyterian is put on the defensive to demonstrate the propriety of his baptizing infants. This is unfortunate.
It should be the case that those who neglect to baptize their infants should be urged to give just, Scripturally-verifiable cause for excluding the infants of believers from the Church and baptism.
Written by By Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. and used with his permission