My son, Jadon, is going to be baptized this upcoming Lord’s Day, November 18th, 2012, at the age of 11 weeks. About a month ago, a friend asked my wife why we are baptizing him, since she knew we are not Roman Catholic. I wasn't surprised by this question. Infant baptism is a common practice throughout the Roman Catholic Church. The reason why they baptize babies is because they believe the ceremony itself mysteriously, but literally, “washes away” sin, thereby granting the baby a "ticket to heaven." In the Roman Catholic view, the person baptized doesn’t necessarily have a choice either. One does not have to believe in order to be baptized. One gets baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, and then receives a one-way ticket to heaven (or purgatory, which eventually leads to heaven anyway).
So then, why are we baptizing our son? Doesn't Jadon have to make that decision for himself? Isn’t it better to give him that choice, and to avoid the mistaken view that baptism is an automatic ticket to heaven?
To understand why we are choosing to baptize our child, and why historically it has most certainly been considered orthodox to baptize a child, I will be focusing upon two theological issues, and only two issues:
1) God always saves people by means of a covenant1 – His covenant. Unfortunately, 21st century Christians generally don’t seem to view God’s plan of salvation in terms of a covenant. Instead, the modern trend among evangelicals appears to view salvation merely in terms of some activity by the Holy Spirit. Some evangelicals even claim that a mere profession of belief that "Jesus is Lord" is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s saving activity, and a one way ticket to heaven. Biblically, as well as historically, God’s people have not been identified merely as people in whom the Holy Spirit operates. God’s people have been identified primarily as people chosen by God through some objective sign and seal of his covenant.
2) Nowhere in the Bible do we find people who initiate a relationship with God. God is the one who seeks out a people for Himself. He reveals Himself to them, and invites them to know Him, serve Him, and glorify Him. And there are two, and only two, circumstances in which the Lord seeks out people to be in a covenant with Him: people who are already outside of God’s covenant, and people who are born into the world. These two circumstances are normative in Scripture. All other circumstances are extra-ordinary circumstances in history.
All throughout the epistles of the New Testament, gentiles are learning about Jesus and are choosing to be baptized because they were previously identified as “foreigners” and outsiders of God’s covenant (Ephesians 2:12, 19). They believed in God and then chose to be baptized as acceptance that God sought them out graciously, and chose them for himself. In other words, they chose to be baptized because they no longer wanted to remain outside of God’s covenant. But what about the second type of person whom the Lord seeks out? What about children born into this world? Some children are born into the world as outsiders of God’s covenant; that is, in fact, how the gentile converts of Scripture were born and raised. But it’s obvious that not all children enter God’s world this way. Some children are born into a family that does, in fact, believe in God, and has been given the terms of God’s covenant. God Himself promises to be faithful in showing covenant loyalty to the generations that love Him and keep His commandments (Ex. 20:6; Deut. 5:10). In other words, the Bible reveals from cover to cover that God works within the context of families already in covenant with Him through faith, not just with outsiders who know nothing of or about God. This promise of God working through families is so important, and yet often neglected by modern evangelicals, that I feel the need to discuss it in greater detail.
What God has revealed is that from the very beginning of human history, in the Garden of Eden, where Adam’s fall affected all his children and their relationship with God, we learn that God’s promise of grace after the fall also affected Adam’s children: “I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman and between your seed and her seed” (Gen. 3:15). Clearly God’s grace was going to be given to a child of Eve. Historically we know that child was Seth (Gen. 4:25-26). Moreover, we learn that God continued this pattern after the Flood with Noah. God promised Noah, “I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you” (Gen. 9:9).
Now, when God reveals something once, that ought to be good enough. When God repeats Himself twice, we had better pause. But when God repeats Himself three or more times, we are without excuse if we neglect what He says. And God said again, only this time to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). Likewise, God repeated Himself to Isaac (“…to you and your descendants…” Gen. 26:4) and Jacob this same way (“…to you and your descendants with you…” Gen. 28:4). This is why we find Jesus' apostles baptizing parents and their households, without any further explanation. Further explanation is not needed if salvation is viewed in terms of God's covenant. The apostle Paul illustrates this pattern in Acts 16:31 when he proclaims to the Philippian jailer, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household." And verse 33 says, "And immediately he and all his family were baptized." Shortly thereafter in Scripture we find a woman named Lydia becoming a believer. But not only was she herself baptized; "her household" was also baptized (Acts 16:14-15). Likewise, on another occasion, Paul mentions that he baptized the "household of Stephannas" (I Cor. 1:16).
So let's step back for a second, zoom out, and take a look at the big picture again. When God looked at Adam and Eve, He spoke of families that would be in covenant with Him and families that would not. When God graciously chose Noah and Abraham and their descendants, he invited and chose families, not just individuals, to be in covenant with Him. The same was true of the Mosaic and Davidic covenants, but I’m hoping this point has been sufficiently made already. This is why Peter, without any further explanation, can proclaim loud and clear at Pentecost:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins... For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself. (Acts 2:38-39)
Now that we understand that God's promise is not only to individuals from outside the covenant, but also to the households of believers, I want to go back to a point I made earlier: God initiates everything. This point can’t be stressed enough. God initiates, as seen in the words of Peter in Acts 2:38-39. God's promise is for "everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself." God initiates, which is precisely the outward, visible sign on display when a child is baptized. This is also true of a grown-up stranger and “outsider” of God’s covenant who is baptized. God’s sovereign initiation is on display in baptism. But since no one reading this post is seriously concerned about grown-ups choosing to receive baptism, and this discussion is really about the ramifications of baptizing infants, I want to discuss a little more about children that are born into believing families – families already in covenant with God.
Many Christians today argue that one must believe first in order to be identified among God’s people; that is to say, to be in a covenant relationship with Him. This proposition is offered as a dilemma for those who wish to baptize infants because it's very difficult to identify the expression of faith in an infant who barely expresses anything other than being hungry and wanting a diaper change. But is belief a prerequisite? Is this really the way God reveals membership into His covenant? Even under the Old Covenant, God required participation from Abraham and his children, without the children's consent:
And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised." (Gen. 17:9)
If Abraham was to be faithful to the covenant with God, he and his sons would have to bear the "sign of the covenant" (verse 11), which, at that time, included circumcision for every male. Every male of every age who was not circumcised would be "cut off from his people" because "he has broken My covenant" (Gen. 17:14). As a result, male Israelite children who received the sign and seal of God's covenant (i.e. circumcision) truly became heirs of God's promises, without ever first demonstrating true faith or "making a decision for themselves."
Some Christians still think that this evidence isn't convincing because it isn't practical enough. As a counter argument, they insist that faith in God is a prerequisite for baptism because that way the believer should be held accountable to God based upon his own free choice of entering into that covenant relationship. Allegedly, if an infant is baptized, it would be unfair for that infant to be held accountable because he entered into a covenant with God without his own consent. However, upon further reflection, this really isn't a helpful argument either. Not only does it ignore the very clear teaching of the Scriptures that God chooses parents and their household to be in covenant with Him, but it also assumes that someone should only be held accountable to God if they first agreed to enter into the covenant, which an infant does not do. But what we find in the Scriptures is that God does in fact hold covenant children accountable to Him in order to remain a member of His household. Everyone we find in Scripture who is in covenant with God had to be faithful to Him. That includes children too. They had to repent and they had to believe in the God that set them apart to serve them. The Scriptures overwhelmingly testify to this fact. If a member of any age would later manifest himself or herself as apostate (i.e. rejecting God’s covenant), the result would be a loss of inheritance. Even the Mosaic economy of redemption which God designed was replete with laws pertaining to the inheritance of God's people. The symbolism of such revelation is obvious too: not all members of God’s covenant are regenerate in heart, but all members are set apart with covenant obligations. They must embrace God’s promises and exercise faith, or they would inevitably lose their inheritance with God’s people.
Today, baptism is the sign that marks the covenant people of God, the worldwide Christian Church. It would take too long for just one blog post to demonstrate the relationship between the old covenant sacraments of baptism and circumcision, and why circumcision no longer remains a sign and seal of God’s covenant, while baptism does remain. (Yes, I said that right. Baptism was an old covenant sacrament, along with circumcision for males.) Perhaps I’ll need to discuss those tedious details in a future post. But the bottom line is that baptism is the sign that marks the covenant people of God under the New Covenant, and that same covenant-keeping God still works within the context of families already in covenant with Him through faith, not just with outsiders who know nothing of or about Him and His covenant.
This means that Christian men and women are required to raise their children as Christians. When God looks at the children of baptized men and women today, He sees children who are in covenant with him because He has promised to be God to His people and to their offspring after them. Baptism simply ratifies the covenant into which the children were born. Like the Israelites before them, children of the New Covenant still have to repent and believe in the God who calls them to be holy like He is holy (I Cor. 7:14). Each child has a choice to be faithful to the living and true God that has graciously saved their parents, and by extension, their household. Until covenant children reject God, they ought to be treated as heirs of God’s promise because God has identified them as heirs of His promise. Notice carefully that the apostle John addresses "little children" as Christians (I Jn. 2:12), and likewise, when Paul addresses "the saints" in Ephesus (Eph. 1:1), he includes children among those saints (Eph. 6:1). In other words, Christian parents have every right to treat their children as Christians, identified as being in a covenant with Him, because God treats them as Christians.
As Jadon grows and matures, he will learn a lot about the God of the Bible. We will teach him that God knew him before he was born, and that God chose him to be our son, knitting him in the womb of a Christian family for the purpose of serving Him and raising up another Godly family in the future to serve Him. Jadon will know that our family worships The Creator, Lord, and only Savior of the world, the triune God revealed in the Scriptures. He will know that God sees him as His child, and that he needs to trust his Heavenly Father in all things. My wife and I will model what it means to repent and confess our sins to God. We will model a life that belongs entirely to God and will teach Jadon that his life also belongs to God, and there is nowhere he can run or hide to escape that reality; and to pretend otherwise, suppressing the truth of God, rejecting His promises, despising His grace, will bring the sure covenant faithfulness of God: the loss of inheritance with the family of God. Instead of treating Jadon as an outsider, Jadon will be loved as a child of God. He will be nurtured and admonished as a child of God. He will receive a happy, worshipful, loving, and Godly environment in which to live as a child of God. At no point in Jadon’s childhood will he be raised to think of himself as anything but a child of God. And unless he proves otherwise, we have every right to embrace God’s promise that he is a true child of God. Jadon will grow up knowing that God graciously chose him, and that any response of faith on his part, is because of God’s grace in choosing him.
So why are we going to baptize our son? In short, we are not. God is going to, because God is the one who always initiates. We’re just embracing His promises by faith, and trusting in His grace.
1. Different sources will provide different nuances of meaning, but whenever I use the term "Covenant" in this post, I am operating with a definition provided by the philosopher and Christian apologist, Dr. Greg Bahnsen, who stated that the Biblical concept of a covenant is: "A mutually bonding compact between God and His people sovereignly transacted by the Lord wherein a promise is made by God which calls for trust on the part of His people and entails obligations of submission which are sanctioned by blessings and cursings." -- Greg Bahnsen, PhD, Outline of Systematic Theology, http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/system.pdf