The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism
James W. Scott
Many evangelical, Bible-believing Christians believe that baptism should be reserved for those who make a profession of faith. They point to the clear teaching in the Bible that converts should be baptized (see, for example, Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:37–38; 8:12; 18:8). The baptism warranted in the Bible by precept and example, they say, is believer’s baptism.
But wait a minute! The ordinary practice in baptistic churches has no more direct biblical support than the practice in churches that baptize infants. In both groups of churches, those who are converted from outside the church are baptized as new believers. That kind of “believers’ baptism” is not at issue. What is at issue is what to do with those who are born and raised within the church. Should they be baptized as infants or should their baptism be withheld until they make their own profession of faith?
Neither practice has explicit biblical support. There is no example of anyone born to Christian parents being baptized in the New Testament at any age, and no precept addresses their specific situation. The time and circumstances that are appropriate for baptizing such children must be inferred from general biblical teaching concerning baptism.
Let us once and for all disabuse ourselves of the notion that what goes on in baptistic churches has direct biblical warrant. It is only inferred from Scripture, as is our practice. (The question of immersion—the “mode” of baptism—is treated in an earlier article and will not be discussed here, though it is equally important in baptistic thinking.)
The Baptistic View of Baptism
Those who advocate believer’s baptism insist that infant baptism is not baptism at all (even if the infant is immersed). This is because they have a different understanding of baptism. In their view, baptism is principally a testimony given by the person baptized, first in word and then symbolically in water. Since an infant cannot give a testimony, a genuine infant baptism is an impossibility.
However, the Bible nowhere portrays baptism as the testimony of the person baptized. Passages that link faith to baptism (such as Acts 8:12; 18:8) simply show that faith, publicly professed, is a necessary condition for baptism. Indeed, it is appropriate to include a statement of faith in the baptismal ceremony. However, a baptism itself (the application of water, with accompanying words) is a statement by God (through the church) to and about the person being baptized, not a statement by that person. The person baptized is the recipient of baptism from a minister of Jesus Christ, acting in his name (Matt. 28:18–20; cf. Acts 2:37–42; 8:16; 35–38).
Once we recognize that faith is a condition for baptism, and that baptism itself is not a demonstration of faith by the person baptized, the question can be asked, Whose faith is required? As we look now at the relevant biblical teaching, we will see that the faith of parents fully suffices for the baptism of their children.
Baptism and Discipleship
When Jesus instituted Christian baptism, he instructed his disciples to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them ... [and] teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Baptism, then, begins the discipling process, which continues throughout one’s life. Everyone recognizes that the children of believers should be taught to observe the commandments of Jesus (see Eph. 6:1–3, 4). But this passage indicates that they should be baptized first.
On the Day of Pentecost, those who were converted by the preaching of Peter “were baptized; and there were added [to the church] that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). They then received instruction “in the apostles’ teaching” and participated fully in the life of the church (vs. 42). Again we see that baptism marks one’s entrance into the church, into the fellowship of the saints. But what about the children of these converts? Were they baptized and included in the church fellowship? Baptists want to leave children unbaptized but include them in the life of the church, but that is not the biblical pattern.
Children of Abraham
In order to understand the proper place of children in the church, it is necessary to understand that the church consists of those who have received the promise of spiritual blessing that was originally given to Abraham. The third chapter of Galatians spells this out carefully, concluding, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).
This means that the covenant that God made with Abraham remains in effect today (in its “new covenant” form, of course). Otherwise, we could not be Abraham’s offspring, receiving what was promised to him and his descendants. The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1–3; 15:1–7; 17:1–14) was confirmed to his son Isaac (Gen. 26:1–5, 23–24) and his grandson Jacob (Gen. 28:10–15; cf. 48:15–16; 50:24). It continued with the nation of Israel (Ex. 2:24; 6:2–8), for whom the Law of Moses was added (as the Mosaic or “old” covenant) until the time of Christ (Gal. 3:17–19), in whom the promises given to Abraham were fulfilled (vss. 16, 22–28).
After Abraham exercised faith in God’s covenant promises (Gen. 15:6), the Lord added the rite of circumcision to the covenant arrangement (Gen. 17:9–14). He received “the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he [already] had while uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). Because Abraham was righteous (his sins were forgiven) as the result of his faith, he was circumcised as a sign given by God that sealed that righteousness. Physical, outward circumcision signified spiritual, inward cleansing of the heart (Ezek. 44:7; Rom. 2:28–29), a spiritual reality for Abraham and all his true, believing descendants.
Not only Abraham, but all males in his household, were to be circumcised. Henceforth, all males were to be circumcised as eight-day-old infants, throughout the generations of the covenant community (Gen. 17:12–13). Circumcision marked one’s entrance into the covenant community; without it, one was to be “cut off from his people” (vs. 14).
This was God’s way of signifying that the promises given to faithful Abraham extended also to his children (and anyone else who came under and accepted his authority). Some of those, like his son Ishmael, left the covenant community and renounced the faith of Abraham. Others in Israel’s sorry history remained in the covenant community, but did not share the faith of Abraham. A remnant, however, by the grace of God, remained faithful.
A New Covenant Sign
Into the circumcised community was born Jesus, in whom the promise of spiritual blessing for all peoples of the world would be fulfilled (Gal. 3:8–9, 14). The line of physical descent from Abraham reached its climax in the person of Jesus (vss. 16, 19). After him, only spiritual descent mattered (vss. 7–9, 25–26). Converts would no longer be incorporated into the nation of Israel.
Consequently, a covenant sign that focused on physical descent through the male line was no longer appropriate. A new sign of the covenant was needed—one that all people, whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, could receive. As we have seen, water baptism was instituted by Jesus as the new sign of entrance into the community of faith. Essentially, then, baptism replaced circumcision.
The change from circumcision to baptism is reflected in Acts 8:12, where we read that Samaritans were being baptized, “men and women alike.” There is no reason to point out that people of both genders were now receiving the sign of the covenant, except to contrast it with the old sign of the covenant. Implied in this contrast is the fact that baptism had replaced circumcision.
There were Judaizers in the church who wanted Gentile converts to be circumcised and to follow the whole Mosaic law. But in various epistles, Paul insisted that Christians not only had nothing to gain from circumcision and Judaism, but actually had everything to lose! Writing to the Colossians, he declared that Christians were complete in Christ and should not look to Judaism or any other religion to supplement their faith (Col. 2:8–23). His statements specifically about circumcision and baptism (vss. 11–12) deserve close attention.
Christians have no need for physical circumcision, Paul indicates, because “in Him”—that is, as part of their spiritual union with Christ—they have already been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands” (vs. 11). That is, they have already received that inward circumcision, that spiritual cleansing of the heart, that is effected by the Holy Spirit. In Romans 2:28–29, Paul refers to this as inward circumcision, “which is of the heart, by the Spirit.”
This spiritual circumcision, Paul continues, consists of “the removal of the body of the flesh” (Col. 2:11). But what is “the body of the flesh”? An important textual variant here reads “the body of the sins of the flesh” (NKJV). In either case, another contrast with circumcision is in view. Physical circumcision removes a small piece of flesh. But spiritual circumcision, figuratively speaking, removes or puts off the whole body of sinful flesh, that is, “our old self,” “our body of sin” that has been “done away with” (Rom. 6:6). When the Spirit cleanses the heart, the whole weight of sin is removed, and the sinful flesh is renounced.
This spiritual cleansing, Paul continues, is effected by “the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11). Since this verse has all along been speaking of the spiritual experience of the sinner, “the circumcision of Christ” must likewise be something in Christian experience, not something in the life of Jesus (i.e., his death, as baptistic writers suppose). It is the spiritual circumcising that belongs to Christ—“the circumcision done by Christ” (NIV) or simply “Christian circumcision.” The Judaizers were insisting on the physical circumcision set forth in the Law of Moses; Paul was upholding the spiritual circumcision of Christ.
Paul’s opponents might well have agreed that an inward cleansing was in order. However, they would have insisted that this be signified by physical circumcision. But Paul indicates that that is not necessary, for the Christian has already been “buried with Him” [that is, Christ] in baptism (Col. 2:12; cf. Rom. 6:4–5). Physical circumcision has nothing to add. A new sign, baptism, has been received.
Finally, Christians have been “raised up with Him through faith in the working of God” (Col. 2:12). “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead ... we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). What do the Judaizers have to offer in comparison with that? We are already complete in Christ (Col. 2:10)!
It is part of the teaching of Colossians 2:11–12, then, that baptism has replaced circumcision for the covenant community. The Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled in the new covenant, and circumcision has been replaced by baptism as the sign and seal of the righteousness of faith.
Children in the Church
Under the Abrahamic covenant, those who were born within the covenant community received the sign of the covenant as infants. Because the Abrahamic covenant remains in effect, but with the sign of it having been changed, it follows that those who are born within the covenant community should be baptized as infants, just as they were formerly circumcised as infants. They should be baptized at the start of the discipling process, as outlined by Jesus.
If there are any doubts as to the “fitness” of infants to be raised as disciples of Jesus, he himself dispelled them. When children were brought to Jesus by their parents for his blessing, the disciples tried to brush them aside (Mark 10:13–16). But Jesus said, “Permit the children to come to Me ... for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” These children included babies (Luke 18:15); Jesus “took them in His arms and began blessing them” (Mark 10:16).
Some would say that Jesus welcomed them just to teach adults a lesson (see Luke 18:17). But if infants do not qualify for the kingdom of God, then how can adults qualify by being like them? There is no lesson for adults to learn unless Jesus welcomes the infants of believers into his kingdom. That kingdom, today, is essentially the church (Matt. 16:18–19). Since people are visibly received into the church by baptism, it follows that infants are to be received into the kingdom of God by baptism.
Faith and Baptism
As we have seen, circumcision under the Abrahamic covenant was applied to infants on the basis of parental faith (Gen. 17; Rom. 4:11). Since we today are part of that covenant through faith in Christ, the new sign of the covenant, water baptism, should likewise be applied to infants on the basis of parental faith.
That theological conclusion is confirmed by the accounts in the book of Acts which reveal that whole households were commonly baptized on the basis of the faith of the head of the household. These accounts are examined in some detail in the article “Saving Faith and Infant Baptism,” in the April 1992 issue of New Horizons, but it will be helpful to summarize the argument here.
The most detailed and informative account is that of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30–34). “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” he was told, “and you shall be saved, you and your household” (vs. 31; cf. 11:14). Accordingly, the gospel was preached “to him together with all who were in his house” (vs. 32). In response, he “believed in God with his whole household” (vs. 34), whereupon “he was baptized, he and all his household” (vs. 33).
The key word in this passage is “with.” It signifies accompaniment. When Luke says that the jailer heard the gospel and believed with his household, the implication is that everyone in his household went along with him. Any older household members, such as his wife, evidently became believers, too. But any young children went along with their father, following his lead with whatever limited understanding that they had.
This crucial distinction between “with” and “and” (regrettably obscured by some translations) is clear in similar passages in Acts: 1:14; 3:4; 4:27; 5:1; 10:2; 14:13; 15:22; 21:5. In each case, “with” introduces those who follow the lead of others and join with them in their activity, however actively or passively. In Acts 21:5, for example, Paul is escorted to the harbor by all the men in the church at Tyre, “with wives and children,” which no doubt included a number of small infants.
In the household baptism passages, the head of the house always believes “with” his household, but he and they are baptized. Just as the heads of households escorted Paul to the harbor “with” infants who were only passive participants, so also heads of households were baptized “with” whatever infants were in their families.
Some would argue that there may not have been any infants in these households mentioned in Acts. However, household baptism was evidently a common practice in the apostolic church (see also 1 Cor. 1:16). It must have happened thousands of times, often including infants.
You and Your Children
Paul’s promise to the Philippian jailer, that salvation would come to his whole house if he believed in Jesus, was no different from what Peter told three thousand adult converts at Pentecost. The promise of the Holy Spirit, Peter said, was “for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (Acts 2:39). These converts had just been called by the Lord into fellowship with himself, and many other adults (then “far off”) would be called in the future, but the children of these converts formed a third category: they were called into fellowship with Christ together with their parents (or even merely one parent: see 1 Cor. 7:14). Such is the grace of God to the children of believers! We can only infer that the children of the first Christian converts were baptized, brought up in the Christian faith (see Eph. 6:1–4; Col. 3:20–21), and, whenever it pleased the Lord, given the Holy Spirit promised to them.
When we look carefully at the teaching of Scripture, we see that the sign of the covenant was applied to infants prior to Christ, and presumably continued to be applied to them when Jesus changed it to baptism. And when we look closely at the household baptisms described in Acts, there can be little doubt but that infants were commonly baptized in the apostolic church. They were baptized then, and they should be baptized now, on the basis of God’s promise to bless the children of believers. The faith of a parent qualifies a child to be baptized and raised as a disciple of Jesus. He welcomed them into his kingdom, and so should we.
The author is the managing editor of New Horizons. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, July-August 2000.