The Doctrine of the Church (part 5)

August 30, 2009     Time: 00:25:30

The subject for today is infant baptism. Much of the Christian church practices what is called pedobaptism or baptism of infants. Yet this is a practice which is not found among Baptist churches such as Johnson Ferry Baptist Church. We want to look at the biblical basis for and against pedobaptism.

Let’s talk first about what reasons might be given in favor of the baptism of infants.

First of all would be the practice in the early church of household baptism and the solidarity of the family. What you find in the book of Acts is that when the head of the house converts and becomes a Christian, the whole household converts and is baptized with him. You remember after Paul and Silas are freed from jail and the jailer asks them, What do I need to be saved? and they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved and your house. Then he and his whole household is baptized as Christians.[1] So the solidarity of the family meant that when the head of the home – the father – came to faith in Christ the rest of the family would come with him and accordingly would be baptized as well. So the assumption is that there must have been infants in some of these households. There must have been little babies in some of them. So these babies must have been baptized when the entire household was baptized.

The second argument would be from Jesus’ attitude toward children. You will remember when the little children tried to come to Jesus the disciples tried to shoo them away and said don’t bother the master. For them these children were a nuisance that they didn’t want Jesus to be troubled with. Jesus rebuked the disciples and said, Let the little children come to me for such is the kingdom of heaven.[2] He accepted the little children. He took them up into his arms and he blessed them and prayed for them. So Jesus encouraged us to bring the children to him, and therefore if baptism is the way in which one follows Christ as a disciple then this would be appropriate to baptize little children as well since Christ accepts them and blesses them.

A third argument would be based upon the analogy between circumcision and water baptism. If you look over in Colossians 2:11-12 Paul makes a comparison that seems to parallel Old Testament circumcision with baptism:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

It is the argument particularly of the Reformed churches – Presbyterian churches, Christian Reformed churches coming out of a Calvinist tradition – that there is one covenant of grace between God and man but there are different signs of it. In the Old Testament circumcision was the sign of the old covenant, and in the New Testament it is water baptism which is the sign of the covenant of grace. So baptism replaces circumcision as being that identifying sign for those who follow Christ. Circumcision was administered to little babies in Israel, obviously. Circumcision was not delayed until the infant could make a decision to believe in Yahweh and to follow the rites of Israel and go to the temple on his own. Rather the infant was circumcised without any sort of conscious knowledge of what was going on or what it meant. So if baptism parallels circumcision, baptism can also be administered to the infant even though the infant doesn’t have any idea of what is going on.[3]

Fourthly, baptism and faith. Faith is a gift of God, and especially in the Reformed views it is a gift of God which takes place without our knowledge or our will. You'll remember that when we discussed the doctrine of justification and how Calvinists view justification, it is logically prior to placing your faith in Christ. Calvinists believe that first you are born again – you are regenerated – and then once you are regenerated then you can place your faith in Christ and follow him. So logically at least, justification precedes faith. For the Calvinist it is not to say you first place your faith in Christ and then you are born again – that justification follows faith. They say it is impossible for an unregenerate person to have saving faith. You first need to be regenerated which takes place without your knowledge or will, and then as a result of that faith will follow.

If that is the case, the same could be true in baptism. In baptism you don’t need to have the faith first. You need to first have the act performed and then later on you can express your faith.

In fact, for Luther and Calvin they believed that the infant does have a sort of incipient faith. There is some sort of mysterious faith that the infant actually does exercise in baptism. This isn’t something that we can understand but somehow there is a kind of primitive faith that the infant has that is valid for his baptism.

On the other hand, in the Church of England – the Anglican Church – it seems that in their rite for the baptism of children the parents’ faith stands in for the faith of the infant. Since the infant can’t have any faith on his own, the parents’ faith seems to stand in for it.

For example, I have here the service book for the Anglican Church for the baptism of children. There is a portion of the service where it is called The Decision where the parents and the godparents are presented before the priest. The priest says, “Those who bring children to be baptized must affirm their allegiance to Christ and their rejection of all that is evil. It is your duty [saying this to parents and godparents] to bring up these children to fight against evil and to follow Christ. Therefore, I ask these questions which you must answer for yourselves and for these children.” So the parents respond not just for themselves; they respond for the children. Here are the questions: “Do you turn to Christ?” Answer: “I turn to Christ.” Question: “Do you repent of your sins?” Answer: “I repent of my sins.” Question: “Do you renounce evil?” Answer: “I renounce evil.” Here the parents and godparents are actually speaking for the children in repentance and turning to Christ and renouncing evil. In the baptism itself, first he prays and prays to God, “Send your Holy Spirit upon these children to bring them to new birth and the family of your church and raise them with Christ to full and eternal life.” This is baptismal regeneration. He is praying that they will be brought to new birth by the Holy Spirit in the act of baptism. Then the priest says to the parents and godparents, “You have brought these children to baptism. You must now declare before God and his church the Christian faith into which they are to be baptized and in which you will help them to grow. You must answer for yourselves and for these children.” Again, the parents and godparents are answering for the children. Here are the questions. “Do you believe and trust in God the Father who made the world?” Answer: “I believe and trust in him.” Question: “Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ who redeemed mankind?” Answer: “I believe and trust in him.” Question: “Do you believe and trust in his Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God?” Answer: “I believe and trust in him.” So in this way the parents actually stand in and exercise – it appears at least – a sort of surrogate faith in which they express their repentance and faith in Christ and therefore the act of baptizing the child is a valid one.[4]

Those are the best arguments that I have seen on behalf of infant baptism.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Certainly that is part of it. We saw that in the Anglican service that the parents are answering for themselves to renounce evil, follow Christ, and so forth. But the question would then be what does baptism accomplish in the life of the infant. On the sacramentalist view, this imparts grace to the infant. In the Reformed churches it really isn’t the moment at which the infant is regenerated. It is simply a sign – like the sign of circumcision – that is placed over the child to indicate that he is part of the covenant family. But it isn’t really a regenerating sacrament in the Reformed churches.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Let me read the passage that you refer to. This is Acts 2:38-39.

And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

So you are suggesting that if they came forward with the children in their arms Peter would not say, no, I didn’t mean you. I would say when he says “the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off” my natural way of taking that is he is saying It is to you and your posterity. But it is not necessarily talking about administering baptism to infants as infants. It is saying that this is a covenant that will be to you and your children and your grandchildren and on for posterity’s sake.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think as you see my method of approach to these questions is one that is biblio-centric. I think it is interesting to know what the early church fathers taught and believed about these things. But ultimately I think that the authority has to be Scripture. So if the Scripture teaches infant baptism it doesn’t matter to me that the early church fathers did not believe in it or accepted it. I would just say they erred. But on the other hand, if the early church fathers did widely endorse infant baptism and it is something that is inconsistent with the New Testament, again I would simply say that they misunderstood it. Ultimately our source of authority has to be the Scriptures.

Historically, my understanding is that infant baptism isn’t something that was practiced right from the start. This is largely associated with Augustine and his doctrine of original sin and that in baptism original sin is washed away and therefore is something that ought to be administered even to little infants because it washes away original sin. But prior to that time I am not sure that this was a doctrine that was all that widespread.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I have to confess my ignorance there. I simply haven’t read the church fathers on the subject of baptism specifically that much. Because, as I say, for me it is something of a matter of indifference. There are early treatises on baptism like Tertullian who wrote one called On Baptism. So you can look at that if you get a copy of the early church fathers, look up Tertullian and look at his treatise on baptism and see what he says. I don’t know if he even mentions infant baptism in his work on baptism. I am really not qualified to speak to that.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That surprises me because my understanding . . . well, it is practiced in Reformed churches.[5] I think that both Calvin and Luther did endorse the idea. If you can find a reference that would be helpful.


Let me say a few words to begin to talk about believer’s baptism by contrast.

The opposition is not between adult baptism and child baptism. Rather the question is: is it believer’s baptism or unbeliever’s baptism. Even children who have come to faith in Christ are believers and therefore are legitimate subjects for undergoing baptism. They understand the commitment that they’ve made. The issue here isn’t really between adults and infants. The issue is between believers and non-believers. The Baptist tradition is that baptism is always believer’s baptism. It is believer’s who undergo baptism. Since infants don’t have belief since they don’t have faith they are not legitimate subjects for baptism.

Why is this? Because confession and faith are essential to the meaning of baptism. Look at 1 Peter 3:21: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is something that we do as an exercise of our faith in God. It is an appeal to God for a clear conscience. Therefore, it is something that only a believer can exercise. Someone who cannot exercise faith cannot make such an appeal and therefore cannot be a legitimate subject for baptism.

I’ve read Acts 2:38. Let’s go back to it again and read that passage again because this does set the tone for the whole book of Acts. What does Peter say in response to the question, “What shall we do brethren?” “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” So baptism and the Holy Spirit are given in response to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I think that when all is said and done this is really the bottom line as to why infants should not be baptized. Because the pattern for following Christ is repentance and faith which is expressed in baptism, and infants cannot exercise repentance and faith.

Secondly, what should we say about these passages about household salvation? It is certainly true that there is a kind of solidarity of the family and that the man – the husband – speaks for the family. But even in the Old Testament, you have the law of individual retribution. Jeremiah and Ezekiel say, “Why do you quote this proverb that the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge? The soul that sins shall die.” There is this idea of individual responsibility before God. We know that Christ’s message divided families because in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul gives instructions to married couples one of whom is a believer and the other who is still a pagan. He recognizes that there is going to be families that are split over following Christ. It isn’t true that the household was always a solid unit.

In fact, there is no mention of baptism of infants anywhere in the New Testament. There is not a single case in the book of Acts or anywhere else where an infant is baptized. This isn’t just an argument from silence. Rather it is an argument that I think goes to confirm that the reason that they weren’t baptized is because confession and faith were necessary for baptism. Baptism is an expression of confession and faith. When these households were baptized certainly it would include the man and his wife and some of their sons and daughters, but it doesn’t mean that they went into the nursery and took out little infants and also baptized them. There is no record of that occurring anywhere in the New Testament.

Thirdly, what about Jesus’ attitude toward children? Again, these weren’t infants. These were children who were coming to Christ and who were exercising their love and trust in him.[6] They should be subjects for legitimate baptism. These weren’t little infants. They were children who did love and trust Christ. The lesson to be learned from these children is that we too should have a kind of childlike faith and trust in Christ. We are to have a similar love and trust as little children exercise. But it is a complete misuse of this passage to think that this teaches that infants somehow believe in Christ and follow him.

Fourthly, what about the argument based on circumcision? How does one enter the covenant? You enter it by faith. It is through faith that you enter into the covenant. And infants can’t exercise faith. In fact, baptism did not replace circumcision as a sign of the covenant for the church. In Palestine both were practiced among Jewish Christians. Both circumcision and Christian baptism were practiced. So we shouldn’t think of these as one replacing the other one as the sign of the covenant. In fact, a closer reading of Colossians 2:11-12 shows that these are not really paralleled at all. Look at Colossians 2:11-12. He says,

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ . . .

The circumcision of Christ is his crucifixion, not his baptism. The circumcision that it is talking about here is the death and crucifixion of Christ. So it is not true that circumcision is made to be paralleled with baptism in this passage. On the contrary, circumcision is compared with the cross of Christ. It is in our identification with Christ’s cross that we have the benefits of salvation. So it is simply wrong to think that baptism and circumcision are parallel with each other and the one replaces the other.

It seems to me that believer’s baptism is clearly the pattern that is taught in the New Testament.

I would just want to say that it seems to me that there is, in closing, that what is really fatal is the combination of sacramentalism with infant baptism. If you have sacramentalism but only have believer's baptism, that is not so bad because you believe that a person has exercised his faith in Christ, he comes to the waters of baptism, and he is regenerated as he undergoes water baptism. That is what The Christian Church practices, for example. The Protestant denomination The Christian Church believes in a sacramental view of baptism but only believer's baptism. That is OK.

On the other hand, you have the view of the Reformed churches where baptism is practiced on infants but is just a sign. It is not a sacrament. It is not viewed as the moment of regeneration. When those children grow up it is important that they do become regenerate Christians and fulfill the sign that was pronounced over them at their baptism. But they are not regarded as being regenerate at that moment.

But it seems to me the fatal combination is when you put sacramentalism together with infant baptism and say that the infant is regenerated and comes to be a Christian at the moment of infant baptism. Because what that leads to is, I think, a church which is filled with nominal Christians trusting in their infant baptism to save them when in fact they’ve never come to know Christ in a personal way. I think if you look at the countries of Europe where this kind of practice exists – Italy, France, Germany, and so forth – you see what you’ve got. You have a church of non-practicing Lutherans and Catholics, very, very few of them who ever go to church. I think that people who are following the Lord in those denominations will say, Our church desperately still needs to be evangelized because they are filled with nominal Christians who think that they are believers because they underwent infant baptism when in fact they still need to exercise that step of saving faith in Christ. It seems to me that this combination is a deadly one. You can exercise them individually without great determent to the church, but you put them together and I think you have a real fatal combination for the spiritual vitality of a denomination, and I think this is born out in those denominations that practice both of them.

We are out of time and so we are going to conclude now.[7]



[1] Acts 16:30-33

[2] Mark 10:13-16

[3] 5:00

[4] 10:15

[5] 15:05

[6] 20:02

[7] Total Running Time: 25:30 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)