by Sean Luke
“That’s horrible! Why would they splash a baby??”
This was the reaction of my Ugandan friend from seminary when he visited our Anglican Easter vigil. He is not alone. Many throughout the world think that the practice of infant baptism is unbiblical and harmful. Why, indeed, do we dunk (or splash) babies in the waters of baptism? Isn’t this just a product of elevating tradition and abandoning Sola Scriptura?
No, it’s not. In fact, infant baptism is legitimate and vitally impacts how we view and disciple our children.
The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism
From the outset, let’s admit that there is no explicit command in Scripture to dunk babies (I can already hear the hearty “Amen” from our Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ). But there is also no explicit text that says “God is three persons in one being, and these three are not each other but each are fully God.” Yet, just as the Trinity is a legitimate inference from the totality of Scripture, I will argue that infant baptism is a legitimate inference from the narrative of Scripture.
What must be true if babies are to be baptized? Certainly, we must have some warrant to do so. Baptism, as Baptists will (mostly) agree, is the sign of the new covenant. It is the sign that the baptized person is under the protection of the new covenant, and as such belongs to Christ. Thus, if babies are to be legitimately baptized, then they must meet a central condition: they must belong to the new covenant. In other words, they must belong to the family of God forged by the covenant in Christ’s blood. All of those who belong to the new covenant ought to be baptized, as baptism marks belonging to Christ. I will therefore argue infant baptism’s legitimacy from one central point: infants belong to the covenant by virtue of the faith of a believing parent.
On the first point, it is clear that infants are considered heirs of the new covenant on account of their parents. Ezekiel 37, in spelling out the terms of the new covenant, makes it clear that children of believers are to be the recipient of the blessings of God’s promise:
“My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them.”
Ezekiel 37:24-26, ESV, emphasis mine
In other words, God promises to give the land of the promise to the children of those with whom God makes the covenant. Moreover, when Peter speaks to a crowd of Jewish people, he says that the promise of the Spirit is for “you and for your children and for all who are far off” (Acts 2:39, ESV). Now, what would a first century Jewish person hear when they heard that the promise was “for you and for your children”? Being steeped in the Jewish Scriptures, they would hear a promise of covenantal inclusion. In other words, because God included the children of believers in the old covenant, and because he promised to do so in the new covenant, the Jewish people would hear both God’s pattern in the Old Testament and promise in the New Testament in the phrase “for you and for your children.”
Most decisively, Paul argues that the children of believers are not “unclean”, but are in fact “holy” in 1 Corinthians 7:14. Paul uses specific words (“unclean” and “holy”) associated with “things belonging to the covenant” in the Old Testament. The things that were “unclean” were “unfitting” for the covenant people of God; the things that were clean were fitting for God’s covenant people. Likewise, “holy” things were those things included in the covenant. Therefore, when Paul calls the children of believers “holy,” he is saying that they belong to the covenant. Indeed, regarding infants brought to Jesus, our Lord says that of such is the kingdom of God (Luke 18:16). There can be no mistake: Luke uses the specific word for infants in the surrounding verses. It would make no sense for Jesus to say “of such belongs the kingdom of God” if those infants did not in fact belong to the kingdom of God.
Infants, then, belong to the household of God. As such, they should receive the covenant sign: Baptism. “For as many of you were baptized have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27, ESV); baptism, which corresponds to “putting on Christ” (identifying with him), is fit for anyone who is in fact identified with Christ and his covenant.
Why It Matters
Why does baby baptism matter at all? Infant baptism marks out who belongs to the family of God. In other words, infant baptism is the public ratification—by the Spirit and the church—of the baby’s status as a part of God’s household. In other words, the little ones in our midst are not to be treated as little pagans to be evangelized. The mis-step of our Baptist brothers and sisters lies in this: the children of believers are family, not foreigners. They are covenant-members already. They must make the faith their own, yes. Just as Israelites in the old covenant could fall away if they did not follow in the footsteps of their faithful parents, so Israelites in the new covenant can fall away too. We must nurture faith.
But we must nurture the faith of our children as fellow members of God’s family. Otherwise, we risk communicating a false message to them: make a decision, pray a prayer, and you’re in. All of our efforts will be directed at getting a child “in” to the kingdom. However, since a child of a believing parent is already a kingdom citizen, we must focus on discipleship; the life of a Christian child depends on nurturing faith, not conversion. God’s mission to the little ones is at stake in how we conceive of our little co-heirs. As co-heirs, they must learn to grow into the inheritance they have through Christ, in the assurance that they are already Christ’s own. What a precious promise for our precious children.
Image credit: Alex Fields, courtesy of Nate and Sarah Beasley