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Infant or Adult Baptism?

A dozen years ago my wife Susan and I began receiving phone calls from our married children who had recently had babies asking about baptism.  Here was their dilemma:  All three of our sons-in-laws were raised in covenantal churches where they were baptized as infants.  Now several of their parents really wanted their grandchildren baptized as well.

Similarly, our children were baptized as infants.  However, we raised them from middle school on, believing that baptism was only for older children or adults who have made a decision to follow Jesus. Now married, each of the couples attended covenental churches in spite of the fact that all the husbands and wives had real reservations regarding infant baptism. “So Dad, what should we do?  Is it ok to have our children baptized?”  What follows was my advice to them.

In the last week’s blog, I covered the underlying theological understanding that dispensational and covenant churches have different views on Sunday observance.  If you’ve not read it, you may want to because their respective biblical worldviews deeply affect their views on adult vs. infant baptism as well.

Covenant theology regarding baptism

For protestant covenantal churches, many of whom refer to themselves as Calvinists or Lutherans; there is only one people of God – the church.  In the Old Testament it was Israel, the people of God.  In the New Testament the church includes both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus.  This theological framework is important to the biblical case for infant baptism because it provides a reason for thinking there is strong continuity between the Old and New Testaments.  It provides the bridge linking the two Testaments together.

Covenant theologians believe that the New Testament, especially the book of Hebrews demonstrates that many of Israel’s forms of worship and signs of God’s Covenant of Grace have been replaced by the person and work of Christ.  The result is that some important forms of worship in the Old Testament now have New Testament equivalents.

For instance, it is across the bridge of covenant theology that the sign of Abraham’s covenant with God, circumcision, walks into the New Testament.  It was a bloody sign in the Old Testament but because Christ has shed his blood, it has been transformed into a bloodless sign, i.e. washing with water in baptism.  Passover was a bloody form of Old Testament worship (the killing of the Passover lamb), but transitions into the New Testament in the bloodless form of bread and wine.

In the Old Testament, circumcision was performed upon the male children of Israelites as a sign of their covenant with God as “His” people, but not as a guarantee of true faith.  The Old Testament records many Israelites who turned from God and were punished, showing that their hearts were not truly set on serving God.  Circumcision did not save.

Infant baptism – the new circumcision

In the New Testament, circumcision is no longer seen as mandatory for God’s people.  However, covenant theologians believe there is compelling evidence to suggest that the Old Testament circumcision rite has been replaced by baptism.  For instance:  “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism.” (Colossians 2:11-12a)

Those who believe in infant baptism, think this analogy of baptism to circumcision correctly points to children, since the historic Israelite application of circumcision was to infants, not generally to adult converts, of which there were few.  However, there are no New Testament stories of infants actually being baptized, although there are several references to whole households being baptized, which presumably could have had infants in them.

Covenant theology, then, identifies baptism less as a statement of faith than as an assumption of identity; that is to say, infant baptism is a sign of covenantal inclusion.  For them, the ceremony of profession of faith or confirmation, not adult baptism is that public, personal commitment to identify with Christ.  In fact, most Covenantal churches feel strongly that adults who have been baptized as infants should not be re-baptized as that would be a denial of a person’s first baptism.  (The explanation for why they believe that is too long for this blog.)  However, all covenantal churches do baptize adults who come to faith as adults.

The argument for baptizing adults only

In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus commands his followers to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…”  In one of the last commands Jesus gave while on earth, he told his disciples to baptize all who call themselves his disciples or followers.  And they did!

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:37-38

In other passages such as Acts 8:12 and 10:47-48, it is evident that baptism followed an individual’s decision to trust Christ alone for salvation, which can obviously only happen to children old enough to understand, or adults.  The New Testament only records the baptisms of adult believers.  In all but a very few Protestant churches and the Catholic church, baptism was never intended to provide salvation for an individual, but rather to publicly identify a person with Christ.  In Romans 6:1-11, the apostle Paul explains how the immersion mode of baptism identifies the believer with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Going under the water represents Christ’s death and coming out of the water illustrates His resurrection.

While it’s the position of churches who baptize only older children and adults that baptism by immersion paints the truest picture of “dying to sin and arising to Christ and a new life”, some will honor the request of individuals by sprinkling, or based on a compelling physical reason or disability.

I do not believe a person must be baptized to be born again, any more than you must exchange rings to be married.  But, if the inner commitment to trust Christ alone for salvation has been made, then the outward symbol of baptism should be as valued and as visible as the gold ring on a newlywed’s finger.  Baptism is an obedience issue, not a salvational one.

Non-covenantal churches strongly encourage Christian parents to have their children dedicated.  In this waterless ceremony God’s blessing is formally invoked upon the children, and both the parents and the church publicly pledge themselves to raise these children to love God in accordance with the teachings of Scripture.

My advice to our children

“So Dad, what should we do?  Should we allow our children to be baptized even if neither of us believe in infant baptism?”  “Obviously, that’s your decision, but I’d recommend doing it,” I said, and, here’s why.”

“I believe the command to “honor your father and mother” comes into play here.  If it worries your parents that their grandchild is not baptized, go to your pastor and tell him what you both believe and why. And if your church will baptize them in spite of your reservations, then do it.  However, I would only agree to do so under the following conditions:

First, that you take seriously the pledge you’ll make at that ceremony (essentially a dedication with water , in my opinion ) to do everything you can to raise your child to love and obey God.  Secondly, that you understand that nothing will happen to your child in that ceremony to guarantee they are saved and you’ll help them to understand that reality when they are older.  Thirdly, in the interest of full disclosure, you need to tell your in-laws and their pastor that when your children grow up, you intend to allow them the freedom to be baptized as adults if that’s their conviction.  (That may end the discussion as many covenantal pastors will not baptize infants, if the parents intend to encourage re-baptism.)  However, in this way, you are both being faithful to the 5th commandment and to your personal convictions.

Be thankful!

To those of you who were baptized as an infant and re-baptized as an adult, or you’re contemplating doing so, you should go to your parents and thank them. It was a serious commitment your parents made, before God to do everything in their power to raise you to love God.  Likewise, it was also a promise your parent’s church made to you and your parents, to do everything they could to help you become a true follower of Jesus.

Explain to them that by being baptized as an adult you were (or are not) denying your first baptism, in effect you are completing it!  Those commitments made by your parents and your church were a gift of God to you and you now love God as a result!  So, you should thank them for their faithfulness, culminating in your faith!  Honor your father and your mother.”

Question:  Do you agree or disagree with my advice to our children?

Following Jesus in Real Life

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