When it comes to infant baptism, there are many believers on both sides of the argument. Some people believe that baptism should only take place once a person reaches an age of understanding and able to make a personal decision to be baptized. Others believe that (for various reasons) baptism should take place as soon as possible after birth.
Let’s explore both sides of the issue and see if we can conclude whether or not infant baptism is a good idea.
What is infant baptism?
What is infant baptism?
Infant baptism is the ritual in which a baby or young child is “baptized” usually by sprinkling or pouring water on the head. This practice is most common in Christian denominations such as Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran churches. Nearly every Christian denomination, however, practices water baptism as a category. This is different than the other types of baptism found in scripture.
There are a few different schools of thought on why infant baptism is performed. One belief is that baptism washes away “original sin”.
Another reason for the practice of infant baptism is that it is seen as a sign of the covenant of God with his people. When a baby is baptized, they are placed into the covenant community of believers and become a part of God’s family. We will take a look at the validity of these reasons, and other arguments in this article.
The History of Infant Baptism
There are plentiful resources citing evidence for baptismal practices in the first centuries after Christ’s death. Evidence specifically for the practice of baptizing babies exists from as early as around 130 A.D. Much of it is anecdotal quotations that presume the authors intended baptism. These include, for example, statements from Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus in 190 A.D.:
The argument from this quote is that Polycrates is exclaiming his infant baptism. Otherwise, he would not have been “in the Lord”. Notice carefully that this statement does not mention anything about baptism. Is it possible that Polycrates coincided with this statement his supposed baptism as an infant? Sure. However, it’s also possible that he simply intended the term in the general sense. Much like the term A.D. means (that is, “in the year of our Lord”).
Whatever his meaning, my opinion is that “early church” practices don’t necessitate the duplication of that practice. Certainly, we would agree that the crusades were an evil practice. Yet, we do not model them simply because they were closer to the time of the church’s founding in Christ. Likewise, the practices of various Christians in the first centuries after Christ should not bear approval or disproval for our current practices. Proximity in time to Christ does not convey necessity.
Common Arguments In the Infant Baptism Debate
Some argue that baptism should only happen once a person is old enough to understand what it means to make such a commitment. Others argue for a requirement of baptism for infants’ purification so they can go to heaven.
Let’s take a closer look at both sides of this debate. In the following section, I will illustrate common arguments in favor of infant baptism, and some responses to those arguments.
Cleansing "Original Sin" Argument
The most common argument in favor of infant baptism is that all men possess “original sin” passed down from Adam. In this view, we are born with the guilt of sin already as infants. Baptism, therefore, symbolizes forgiveness and cleansing from original sin. By undergoing baptism, an infant is cleansed and forgiven in the eyes of God.
This is a very common reason why infant baptism occurs today. Many who accept the view of “original sin” believe infants cannot enter heaven without cleansing the inherited sin through baptism.
My Response to the Original Sin Argument
I do not accept that original sin exists. At least not the original sin defined by the passing on of guilt from the first sin committed by Adam and Eve. If your definition of original sin, on the other hand, is that all mankind has an “inclination” to sin, then I agree that original sin exists.
The main reason that I reject children bearing guilt from parents and ancestors is because of the evidence found in Ezekiel 18. This entire chapter of the Bible deals will this subject. It shows that judgment comes to every man only by the things that they do, not the deeds of their parents. For example:
Reading through Ezekiel 18 makes it clear: children do not bear responsibility for their parent’s wrongdoings. This necessarily includes Adam and Eve. If this is the case, baptism is unnecessary for infants because they have no sin that needs cleansing.
There are other verses that some attempt to use as evidence for original sin (guilt-bearing of infants). I intend to detail these arguments and a more thorough response in a dedicated article sometime in the future.
Entire Households Were Baptized Argument
There are some New Testament examples of believers being baptized along with their households. This argument claims its reasonable to infer the inclusion of infants in this mix. Therefore, we have an example of infant baptism which serves as approval and endorsement for the practice.
Two examples of this are the conversion of the patroness Lydia and the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. After an earthquake broke the prison doors free, Paul and Silas wind preventing the jailer from committing suicide. The jailer “and all his household” were subsequently baptized. This argument states that “all his household” must have included infants.
My Response to the “Household Baptism” Argument
The first problem with this argument is that Acts 16:34 says that “he and his whole household had come to believe in God”. This is a problem if his household necessarily included infants. How can an infant believe anything? They cannot, so this statement must mean either there were no infants, or that infants were not included in the term “household”.
Second, this argument fails to consider the collective Mediterranean culture present during this time (and still to this day). As a collective society, patrons played a vital role in caring for those less fortunate. Patrons established relationships with individuals (clients), adding them to the larger collective. This is what the “household” probably refers to, especially in Lydia’s case in this chapter. It doesn’t mean every single individual in a small family unit (i.e. Mother, Father, Child). Rather, those clients whom the patron “shepherded” over.
My third challenge with this argument is the assumed inclusion of infants in the household. Why assume there were infants? This is quite a large jump to make when seeking to establish a Biblical practice aligned with God’s will.
Baptism as a Spiritual Circumcision Argument (or Entering the Covenant)
Some advocates for the baptism of babies argue that baptism is a new covenant sign in the same way as circumcision was with Adam. In other words, baptism is a sign of circumcision under the New Covenant. Therefore, since children were circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant, so should children under the New Covenant circumcision in Christ.
The difference is that a person is placed into the New Covenant by baptism rather than circumcision. Much of this argument is based on the idea that the Abrahamic covenant is still in effect today.
My Response to the Spiritual Circumcision Argument
I accept the concept of “spiritual circumcision”. Phrases like “circumcision of the heart” (Romans 2:29) support this idea. I also accept the idea that Abraham’s covenant is still lasting. Yes, Abraham’s covenant is still lasting. That is, God did not cancel it. But it was fulfilled in Christ. He is the promised seed that would bless all nations. That means there awaits no more promise. In other words, the Abrahamic covenant no longer requires that anyone enter it. This is why the Hebrew author makes this statement:
How a Covenant Can Be In Effect, but Also Fulfilled
Consider an example of this principle. Imagine that someone promises they will pay you $1,000 to walk their dog every day for a whole year. You have responsibilities, and they have a promise. You both agree to this (establishing a covenant). After a year passes, you are paid $1,000 for a job well done and you both go on your way.
Was the covenant canceled? No. It was fulfilled. Therefore, you no longer bear the responsibility of walking the dog. It’s still in effect because you have 1,000 dollars. Until (or unless) the other party decides to take the $1,000 away from you, the covenant remains in effect. There is no longer a need to “enter” into this covenant. The same is true with the Abrahamic covenant. Christ fulfilled it, therefore there is no longer a requirement to adhere to its sign (circumcision).
Oddly enough, phrases like “circumcision of the heart” in Romans 2 are also why I disagree that children must be baptized. If acceptance of the New Covenant (through baptism) is a matter of a person’s heart, then it must by necessity exclude children. At least, children whose hearts cannot be circumcised. All parents naturally understand that it takes a while for children to become capable of committing to a way of life.
This illustrates an important distinction between circumcision and baptism. Circumcision identified a biological child of Abraham as belonging to God’s chosen nation. Therefore also setting a boundary of who was part of the promise. You didn’t have a choice about the matter if you were a Jew. Baptism differs from this in that a person’s volition places them into the covenant or not. As it says in 1 Peter:
If entering the New Covenant is a matter of personal choice, then the inclusion of infants is impossible. This is not bad news in my view, because infants are born innocent and have no need of redemption.
The Promise Is “For You and Your Children” Argument
One argument used in favor of the baptism of infants is Peter’s exclamation of God’s covenant promise in Acts 2. In this context, Peter tells the crowd of Jews that God’s promise is for the audience and their children. Here is the confirmation of the promise:
This argument claims that Peter taught that baptism (mentioned in the previous verse 28) is for the children of the audience hearing his message. This interpretation views the “children” as those who are in the immediate family of the audience members. Therefore, this must include infants.
My Response to the Promise “For You and Your Children” Argument
Was Peter saying that the promise is to the immediate family members of the audience? No. The point he was making is that all your descendants are being called to the Lord. They still have to accept that call, and themselves call upon the name of the Lord. But the offer is now available to everyone. That includes sons, daughters, old men, young men, male servants, female servants, descendants (children), and all who are far off.
This does not mean immediate family members (e.g. infants, toddlers, teenagers, adult children, elderly children). It’s simply a statement to say that everyone is now included from now until forever.
Peter was still referencing the promise that Joel spoke of. That is, “anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (verse 21). My point here is that baptism is how we call upon the name of the Lord. Yes, baptism is our way of accepting the covenant, but it must be accepted willingly. You cannot enter into the covenant by force (e.g., the baptism of babies).
Additionally, the promise spoken of in verse 29 refers to the baptized believers who receive the “gift of the Holy Spirit”. For various reasons, I believe this to mean “accepting” the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is, accepting the good news message that Peter and the other apostles had just finished speaking. Therefore, the promise is that anyone who accepts the message of the Holy Spirit through baptism will have forgiveness of sins.
Should we baptize babies? Final Thoughts
No, we should not baptize babies. However, I am under no disillusion that simply reading the arguments in this article will convince everyone who reads it. You may still feel compelled to baptize your infant. If that’s the case, don’t let me stop you. My exhortation to you, however, is that infant baptism is in no way a substitute for an accountable person accepting Christ. Your child must make this choice when they understand the person of Christ, and what it means to commit to him.
When the time comes that they are ready to make that commitment, urge them to be baptized at that time, calling on the name of the Lord.
Other Baptism Questions:
- Who can baptize? Can anyone perform a baptism or does it need to be a priest or elder?
- Can you get baptized twice? Or is a second baptism unscriptural?
- What is baptism of the dead? Is this practice found in scripture? Who practices and why? Should we?
- Can you baptize yourself? Or is it always necessary that someone baptizes you?