Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Baptismal Water

In college, I attended a men’s group Bible study that met Thursdays, dark and early. Over burnt coffee and powdered donuts, our rag-tag band of Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, non-denoms, and everything in between read and discussed the Bible. It was a catalyst of spiritual awakening and discovery that changed the course of my life. It was there that I met Mike Avato, a Presbyterian minister who lived nearby.

If I didn’t have to run off to an early class, Mike and I would walk the campus talking about school, life, family, and theology. He began patiently introducing me to the tenets of Reformed Theology, like the supremacy of Scripture, the total depravity of man, the sufficiency of Christ’s life and death to save sinners, and the sovereignty of God in man’s salvation. But no doctrine was more difficult for me to see in Scripture than infant baptism. Maybe you’ve wrestled with the same questions: Is infant baptism biblical? Are the children of church members, members of the church?

While there is no silver bullet verse to settle the matter, there is a clear path of Scriptural steppingstones, a way one can walk to the truth by good and necessary consequence. And it starts with God’s love.

God’s Covenant Love Displayed

God loves believers and their households. That is, God is pleased to allow the family members of believers to share in the external, non-salvific blessings of the believer’s faith. To see the point, just ask a few questions of OT history:  

Why were Noah’s wife and children allowed on board the ark? Because “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9a).

Why were Lot’s wife and daughters rescued by angels from doomed Sodom? Because Lot was a righteous man (2 Peter 2:7).

Why were the children of Hebrew slaves passed over by the angel of death as he stole through the streets of Egypt? Because their parents trusted and obeyed the Lord, smearing lamb’s blood on their doorposts (Exodus 12:13).

Why were all those gathered in Rahab’s house spared during Israel’s siege of Jericho? Because Rahab had owned the God of the Hebrews as her own, saying: “The LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11).

When we come to the NT, we see Paul calling the children of believers “holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). Is this because children are justified by their parents’ faith? Not at all. Rather, these children are sanctified (i.e., set apart) from the rest of the world. Children of believers have parents who pray with and for them, who teach them the doctrines of our holy religion and raise them in the discipline of the Lord, who model godliness in the home, who shield them from the evils of the world and the devil, who bring them to church to hear the gospel proclaimed and to be enveloped in the loving cloud of witnesses. God has always been pleased to invite the families of believers to share in the external benefits of the believer’s faith.

God’s Covenant Love Declared

This covenant, household love of God displayed in the above passages is declared in Genesis 17 when God promised Abraham, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). To signify this promise and to separate Abraham and his offspring from the rest of the unbelieving world, God marked them, not with a rancher’s brand, but with a blade: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:10).

“But that’s the Abrahamic Covenant.” you might say. “What’s that got to do with me, a New Testament Christian, a born-again believer?”

Answer: everything! We stand with Abraham beneath the soul-saving shade of God’s Covenant of Grace. Like you, Abraham was redeemed by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in the promised Christ alone. Though his understanding of that promise was limited by his time and place in redemptive history, “…he believed the Lord and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Thus, Paul called the good news God preached to Abraham “the gospel” (Galatians 3:8), and Jesus said that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). You see, the covenant by which Abraham was saved is the same covenant by which we are saved. There is only one covenant by which any sinners have ever been reconciled to God: the Covenant of Grace sealed in the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

God’s Covenant Love Depicted

Then what of circumcision? Circumcision, the sign of the Covenant before Christ, has been retired (Galatians 5:6) and replaced by Christ with a new, better, bloodless sign that can be administered to all the children of God, not just the sons of Abraham. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). We find Peter doing just that ten days later, at Pentecost. After preaching a Spirit-anointed sermon, he called upon the Jews who heard him to “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” But he didn’t stop there. He attached the new sign of baptism to the old Covenant of Grace, essentially quoting Genesis 17:7, “For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:38-39).

Since baptism and circumcision signify the same spiritual reality, as Paul insists in Colossians 2:11-12, and since the children of Old Testament believers were always included in the covenant community and bore the circumcision-sign of that inclusion, it follows that the children of New Testament believers be received as members in the covenant community, the church, and receive the baptismal-badge of that membership.

That’s why Lydia, after she believed the gospel Paul preached, was baptized, “and her household as well” (Acts 16:5). That’s why when Paul wrote to the churches in Ephesus and Colossae, he directly addressed the children whom he included among their number (Ephesians 6:1, Colossians 3:20). That’s why Jesus was indignant when the disciples tried to keep believers from bringing their children to him that he might bless them, saying, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God (Mark 10:14).

What is the kingdom of God? Well, where is Christ hailed as king? Where is his law the law of the land? Where do his officers rule on his behalf? Where do his people gather beneath his banner to render unto him the tribute of prayer and praise?

Where else but the visible church? Thus, access to Christ and his benefits in the church are the birthright of believers’ children. If the kingdom belongs to them, should they not then receive the sign of that kingdom citizenship? Should they not then be baptized?

Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, MS

Related Links

Podcast: "From Shadow To Substance" (with Sam Renihan) 

“A Baptism Q&A” by Calvin Goligher

"Improving Your Baptism" by Ryan McGraw

Pastoral Perspectives on Baptism by Brian Cosby and Sam Renihan

The Christian's True Identity by Jonathan Landry Cruse

Image: First Steps, after Millet by Vincent can Gogh