James W. Scott
Should the children of believers be baptized, or only those who make a profession of faith? The opponents of infant baptism make much of the fact that there is not one explicit example of infant baptism in the New Testament. However, there are no examples of the children of believers being baptized when they became believers, either! So how do we proceed?
Consider another “omission” in Scripture: There is not one example of women partaking of the Lord’s Supper. But Christians have always properly inferred from the biblical teaching on the Lord’s Supper and the place of women in the church that their participation is entirely appropriate. Similarly, when we understand what the Bible teaches about baptism and the place of children in the church, we should be able to infer whether infant baptism is appropriate.
(Quotations in this article are taken from the New American Standard Bible. Regrettably, the New International Version is inaccurate and misleading in its translation of some key verses in Acts that pertain to baptism.)
Shortly before his ascension, Jesus instructed the apostles to baptize people as an important first step in the discipling process (Matt. 28:19). Not long after that, the apostle Peter preached the gospel to a multitude of people on the day of Pentecost, and about 3000 of them “received his word,” “were baptized,” and “were added that day” to the church roll (Acts 2:41).
Now who were these people? Since they “received his word,” they were evidently adult converts. But notice that they were all Jews (including proselytes), too (vss. 5, 6, 10, 14, 22, 36). Furthermore, they would all appear to have been men (vss. 5, 14, 22, 29). Initially, then, the apostles baptized male Jewish believers.
Women were soon responding to the preaching of the gospel, too, and they were likewise baptized. Thus, we read in Acts 8:12 that Samaritan believers were baptized, “men and women alike.” The church later learned that Gentiles were also suitable for baptism (Acts 10:44–11:18).
Baptism was also extended to households: see Acts 16:14, 15, 30–34; 11:14 and 18:8 (by implication); 1 Corinthians 1:16. Beyond dispute, entire households were baptized because faith was present in them—but whose faith? Were some members of these households (especially infants) baptized without making a profession of faith?
We are told that Lydia believed the gospel and that she and her household were then baptized (Acts 16:14, 15). Now since no one else in her household is said to have been a believer (indeed, she herself speaks only of her own faithfulness in verse 15), there is some reason to think that nonbelievers, presumably her children or servant girls, were baptized. But since we are not told more about her household, we cannot insist on this. However, if each individual had to be a believer before he or she could be baptized, it is puzzling that the account fails to mention that each member of her household believed the gospel.
Much more information is provided in the account of the Philippian jailer’s conversion. The terror-stricken jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
In reply, Paul and Silas did not simply say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” Rather, they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household” (vs. 31). In other words, they promised the jailer that his faith would lead to the salvation of his entire household.
To accomplish that end, they instructed the jailer to bring the members of his household into the prison. (His home was probably right next to the jail.) He did so at once, even though it was after midnight. The two apostles then preached the gospel to the jailer “together with all who were in his house” (vs. 32). That preaching evidently resulted in faith, for that very hour—right there in prison—“he was baptized, he and all his household” (vs. 33). The jailer then brought Paul and Silas into his house and rejoiced, “having believed in God with his whole household” (vs. 34).
Notice that the words describing the faith of the household are subtly different than those describing its baptism. The jailer believed “with his whole household,” and then “he and all his household” were baptized. Now if verse 34 said that the jailer “and” his whole household believed, we would have a clear case of believers’ baptism. But it says “with,” not “and.” This is not merely an incidental verbal variation, for in the account of Crispus we similarly find that the head of the household believed “with his whole household” (18:8). Indeed, there is a pattern to this “with/and” variation in Acts. The head always believes “with” his household, but he “and” his household are always baptized and saved.
The word “with” signifies accompaniment, in this case “joining with, going along with, associating with.” When the head of the house believed, the others in his household joined with him. Active association (that is, believing in response to the gospel) would certainly fall within the scope of this word. Indeed, Paul and Silas called the jailer’s household into the jail in order that he and any others of sufficient mental capacity could hear, understand, and believe the gospel.
But is there room for passive association within the scope of the word “with“? Could it be said that children and infants “went along with” their father as he embraced the Christian faith—just by being brought along with him and following his lead with whatever limited understanding they had?
The answer to this question is provided by Acts 21:5, where we read that when Paul and his party left Tyre, the Christian men of the city escorted them down to the harbor “with wives and children.” The whole Christian community accompanied their beloved apostle out of the city. The men apparently took a more active role and were joined by the women and children. The women and older children were no doubt actively escorting Paul and his party, but the younger children were doing so basically in the sense that they were brought along by their parents. Please, let no one say that nobody knows whether there were any young children in the whole congregation of that large city!
(The word “with” is similarly used in Acts 1:14; 3:4; 4:27; 5:1; 10:2; 14:13; 15:22. In each case “with” introduces those who follow the lead of others and join with them in their activity, whether fully or partially, actively or passively.)
The conclusion that we reach, then, is that just as heads of households can escort “with” infants who are only passive participants in the procession, so also can they become believers “with” infants who are only passive participants in household conversions.
Thus, the words of Acts 16:34, “having believed in God with his whole household,” leave plenty of room for infants. If there were any infants or young children in the Philippian jailer’s household, they were baptized with the rest of the household (vs. 33).
It may be replied that there may not have been any infants or young children in the Philippian jailer’s household—or in any other household baptized in the apostolic church. However, the examples given in Acts suggest that household baptism was a common practice, and so there must have been thousands of household baptisms. Are we to suppose that there were no young children in any of them?
Also, notice that Paul and Silas extended the promise of salvation to the Philippian jailer’s household before the members of his household assembled in the jail. There is no reason to think that Paul or Silas had any idea who constituted his household. Without knowing the ages and mental capacities of those in the jailer’s household, they could tell him that his whole household would be saved if he believed. They could do this because it was the nature of a household that its members would follow the lead of its head (cf. Josh. 24:15—“But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD”). Each member would be expected to join “with” him in faith after hearing the gospel preached. With this expectation, household salvation, signified and sealed by household baptism, was promised on the basis of household faith led by the head of the house. Households were baptized as such (thus including infants in many instances), not merely as convenient collections of individual believers.
Cornelius was “a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household” (Acts 10:2). That is, each member of his household joined with him in worshiping God as he was able.
The apostle Peter visited Cornelius in order to “speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (11:14; cf. 10:22). Cornelius believed the gospel and his faith led to the salvation (and baptism) of everyone in his household. Just as each one feared God as he was able, so each one believed in Christ as he was able.
Evidently, Cornelius gathered only adults (of various households) to hear Peter preach (10:24, 27, 44–46), and so on that occasion only adults were baptized (10:47, 48). But salvation still came to Cornelius’s entire household (11:14)—and presumably to the other households represented there. This implies that when Peter stayed on for a few days (10:48), he baptized any remaining members of these households (after preaching to them, if appropriate).
Peter’s inspired sermon on the day of Pentecost anticipated the baptism of children. He told those who had been “pierced to the heart” that they should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For,” he continued, “the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (Acts 2:37–39).
In this passage, three groups of people are promised the gift of the Spirit: (1) “you,” whom the Lord has already called (vs. 37; cf. 16:14), (2) “your children,” and (3) “all who are far off,” provided the Lord calls them in the future. (“Far off” should be understood spiritually, not geographically.) Here the children of believers are listed alongside present and future believers as those who would receive the gift of the Spirit. If believers were to be baptized in anticipation of receiving this spiritual gift, were not their children, who had been given the same promise, also to be baptized?
One might reply that their children first had to repent and believe, just like their parents. But if that had been so, they would have been as “far off” as any adult unbelievers, and so there would have been no reason to give them special mention. But clearly, “your children” are distinguished from, and yet are given the same promise as, both present and future believers.
The words “you and your children” in Acts 2:39 are practically the same as “you and your household” in 16:31. Indeed, they are located in closely parallel passages (2:37–39 and 16:30, 31), each of which contains a question about salvation, a call for repentance and faith, and a promise of salvation. So, if “you and your household” are to be baptized (as they are in 16:33), so are “you and your children.”
Additional support for infant baptism is afforded by its relationship to circumcision. Basically, baptism superseded circumcision as the sign and seal of inclusion in the covenant people. This is implied by Acts 8:12, where it is noted that “men and women alike” were being baptized. It is hard to imagine why Luke mentioned this fact, except against the background of exclusively male circumcision. Since baptism marked one’s entry into the covenant community (Acts 2:41; 1 Cor. 12:13), as had circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14), the question naturally arose whether women should be baptized, and the answer was yes.
More directly, Colossians 2:11, 12 says that Christians have been (figuratively speaking) “circumcised ... by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism ....” However “the circumcision of Christ” be understood, baptism is likened to circumcision. The Christian equivalent of circumcision, Paul declares, is our burial with Christ in baptism (see also Romans 6:3).
Since baptism replaced circumcision, it will be instructive to see who was circumcised. Abraham, as an adult, received the sign of circumcision as the seal of the righteousness that was his through faith (Rom. 4:11). In other words, it was God’s way of indicating and guaranteeing to Abraham that his sins had been forgiven. For him, faith was the condition for circumcision. But any newborn sons (and their sons, indefinitely) were to be circumcised when they were eight days old (Gen. 17:12). Indeed, “all the men of his household” were circumcised (vs. 27). Clearly, then, the faith of the head of the house qualified not only himself, but also his sons for circumcision. Similarly today, a parent’s faith qualifies his or her children for baptism.
We have seen that the Scriptures closely connect faith to baptism. In baptism, spiritual blessings are exhibited and indeed conveyed (1 Cor. 12:13). One ordinarily receives spiritual blessings through the exercise of faith (Eph. 2:8). It follows, then, that those who are baptized receive spiritual blessings through their own or their parents’ faith.
It may seem strange to some in our individualistic age that one person could receive the blessing of God through the faith of another. However, we must remember that no one deserves the grace of God and that he is free to bless whomever he wishes. He has chosen to look with favor upon those to whom he has given faith, and also upon the children whom he has placed in their care. God blesses children because of the faith of their parents, but only because of his gracious love for his people. This principle of grace was clearly manifested during the ministry of Jesus.
Ordinarily, Jesus expected people to have faith in him in order to receive healing. But in the case of children, he looked to their parents for faith. For example, he said to the father of a dying girl, “Only believe, and she shall be made well” (Luke 8:50). Similarly, a royal official’s son was healed because his father manifested faith in Jesus both by coming to him for help and by accepting his word (John 4:46–51).
Jesus healed another child only after eliciting from his father the declaration, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Finally, Jesus healed a girl after determining that her mother had faith in him: “O woman, your faith is great; be it done for you as you wish” (Matt. 15:28).
Similarly, Jesus bestowed his blessing upon little children who were brought to him by their parents as an act of faith (Mark 10:13–16). They included totally passive babies (Luke 18:15). And when his disciples objected, Jesus declared that “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (vs. 16). These children belonged in the kingdom of God. The children of believers likewise belong in the covenant community today, entrance to which is marked by baptism.
God conveys his gracious blessings to those who have faith in him—and also to their children. Jesus healed the children of those who trusted in him, he blessed the children brought to him in faith, and today he calls upon believers to bring their children forward for the blessings of baptism.
Reformed theologians have generally deduced the validity of infant baptism from the continuity of the covenant of grace. The covenant has remained the same in substance, it is argued, but there has been a change in administration from circumcision to baptism. This is a valid argument, but its premise—covenant theology—is itself a disputed theological construct, and it is not easy to distinguish between substance and administration. The opponents of infant baptism, preferring direct scriptural statements to elaborate theological edifices, have observed the many passages linking faith to baptism and have concluded that baptism is only for believers.
We, too, have focused on the relationship between faith and baptism, but we have found that Scripture links a parent’s faith with his child’s baptism just as it links a convert’s faith with his own baptism. Under close examination, the Scriptures reveal that the apostles baptized the children of believers—and so should we.
Dr. Scott holds degrees in theology from Westminster Theological Seminary and the University of St. Andrews.
Reprinted from New Horizons, April 1992.