Infant Baptism: The Crux of the Matter

Dec 02, 2016

This is the seventh post in a series on Infant Baptism. Check out the first post, Robert’s previous response, or the series index.

We are in the wrapping up stage of our debate. I have enjoyed the opportunity to engage Robert on this subject, and I must thank him for his cordial and gracious attitude throughout. His most recent response can be found here.

Since I went first in our opening statements, I’ll present my closing statements here and let Robert finish out the debate.

Framing the Debate

From the beginning, our argument has not been about baptism - at least, not directly. I’ve granted Robert’s premise that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant (as circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant). Given that assumption, the answer to the question “Who should be baptized?” is reducible to “Who is a member of the New Covenant?”

There is no doubt, for either of us, that believers are members of the New Covenant. This much we can agree on.

Robert has argued that children of believers are also members of the New Covenant. This is the point where I have focused my criticisms. In order to make my case, I need to prove that unbelieving children are not members of the New Covenant, and Robert needs to prove that they are. He recognizes this when he writes:

…the process of covenant admission (which is at the heart of this discussion) is never expressly altered beyond the fact that baptism is established as being the new circumcisions.

I have argued against this position in the preceding three articles. The scope of the New Covenant is expressly altered. It belongs to “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” It belongs to believers.

This is made dramatically clear in Hebrews. The author explicitly contrasts the Old Covenant, which did not take away sins, with the New Covenant, which does. Robert and I agree that forgiveness of sins is an exclusive benefit for believers. Therefore, if the New Covenant forgives sins, its members must all be believers.

And if all members of the New Covenant are believers, then only believers are eligible to receive baptism.

This has been my argument from the beginning. Robert has yet to attempt a refutation of this argument or to present his own exegesis of Hebrews. If my argument above is not refuted, his parallels with circumcision are irrelevant. Robert has not offered any positive Scriptural support for infant baptism. He just repeats his mantra: “The Bible doesn’t say children shouldn’t be baptized!”

He is in the unfortunate position of making an argument from silence on an issue that Scripture is not silent about.

Instead, Robert now appeals to church history.

The History of Infant Baptism

Gregory Nazianzen

Infant baptism dates back at least to a couple hundred years after Christ. It is undoubtedly ancient. But it is not the only ancient misconception about baptism. Although we look to church history for wisdom and guidance, it must be Scripture - not history - that is the final arbiter of truth.

The early church believed that baptism was a means of grace to wash away sins. They also recognized the reality of original sin - the idea that all of us are born with Adam’s taint. They therefore baptized children to erase this original sin:

Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace?  Are we to baptize them too?  Certainly, if any danger presses.  For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated.

A proof of this is found in the Circumcision on the eighth day, which was a sort of typical seal, and was conferred on children before they had the use of reason.  And so is the anointing of the doorposts, which preserved the firstborn, though applied to things which had no consciousness.  But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament; that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctify them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration.  For this is how the matter stands; at that time they begin to be responsible for their lives, when reason is matured, and they learn the mystery of life (for of sins of ignorance owing to their tender years they have no account to give), and it is far more profitable on all accounts to be fortified by the Font, because of the sudden assaults of danger that befall us, stronger than our helpers.

Gregory Nazianzen, “The Oration on Holy Baptism” (XXVIII) [emphasis added]

(Notice that even in this case, Gregory advised to wait until the child was old enough to understand where possible. Clearly, credobaptism too has ancient roots!)

If the ancient Church could have these long-standing misconceptions about the nature of baptism, it is not a stretch to suppose that the notion of infant baptism itself may be one. It is Scripture, not history, that must settle this dilemma for us.

Baptism and Forgiveness of Sins

Despite the early church’s misconceptions about baptism, they captured something that Robert has not: the connection between baptism and the washing away of our sins.

“And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
Acts 22:16

I have argued that one of the key differences between the Old and New Covenants is the forgiveness of sins. This, Hebrews tells us, is why a New Covenant was necessary: because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

Baptism, as the sign of the New Covenant, is also a symbol of forgiveness - of being washed clean. This connection is highlighted in passages such as Acts 2:38 and Romans 6:1-11. But this significance is lost in the Presbyterian scheme, which divorces forgiveness of sins from both baptism and the New Covenant.

Credobaptism perfectly captures this Biblical connection between baptism and cleansing from sin.

In Conclusion

As Baptists, we don’t teach our children that they inherit a special place in the kingdom by virtue of their parents’ position. We teach our children that they, like everyone else, are sinners. They must personally repent of their sins, believe in Jesus, and be baptized. No one else can do this for them.

Church is a place where sinners are welcome, but where only Christians truly belong.

As our children grow up in this environment, they learn what God requires. They are brought up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” giving them a foundation of righteousness and wisdom on which to build their lives. But we also remind them that neither their upbringing nor church participation will save them. They must come to Christ on their own.

This is not to be interpreted as an accusation that Presbyterians do not believe or teach these things. I am quite certain that they do. But only one of us has a concept of baptism that testifies to these truths. Only credobaptists (and Scripture) link baptism tightly to salvation.

This is the seventh post in a series on Infant Baptism. Robert’s final response can be found here.