In this essay I briefly present my reasons for believing that baptism is intended only for people who are old enough to responsibly choose to become disciples of Jesus. I will first offer several biblical arguments, then offer a supporting argument and conclude by responding to several objects to believer’s baptism.
Baptism and Discipleship. It’s my conviction that baptism was originally intended as the initiating rite into the New Covenant and the Kingdom community and thus was intended only for people who are old enough to make a responsible decision to submit their life to Christ. While there is precedent in the New Testament for dedicating young children to the Lord, I don’t see any precedent for baptizing them.
In contrast to the Old Testament in which God entered into a covenant with an entire nation, in the New Testament God’s covenant is with all believers. The class of those who are in covenant with God changed from a national class (the Jews) to a class of people who personally decide something (believers). Consequently, it made sense in the Old Testament to give the sign of the covenant (circumcision) to infants, since they were part of the nation God was covenanting with. It makes no sense in the New Testament to do this, however, for God’s covenant is with believers, and infants can’t believe.
The Ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus. Throughout the New Testament salvation is offered, and baptism is commanded, only to people who can meet the condition of repenting, believing and obeying Jesus Christ. We see this even in the ministry of John the Baptist who was preparing the way for Jesus Christ. Mark writes:
People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him [John] and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mk 1: 5)
The ones who were baptized, we see, were the ones who were confessing their sins. Infants, of course, can not do this. Hence we have no reason to suppose that infants were among those whom John baptized.
The same may be said about the ministry of Jesus. Though Jesus didn’t personally baptize people (Jn 4:2), his message was essentially the same as John’s. “[T]he kingdom of God has come near,” he taught, so people must “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). What made a person a participant in the kingdom of God was their willingness to repent, believe and obey the Gospel. This is why his disciples only baptized people who were old enough to be made disciples (Jn 4:1-2).
The same point is reflected in Jesus’ great commission when he says:
Go…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Mt 28:19-20)
The ordinance of baptism was intended to be part of the process of making someone a disciple: “make disciples… baptizing them….” Baptism only makes sense in the context of disciple-making. It was not intended for people too young to be taught and to personally decide whether or not they want to obey all that Jesus commanded.
Baptism in the Early Church. The truth that baptism is a part of disciple-making is becomes even in the ministry of the earliest disciples. They obeyed Jesus’ command to make disciples and to therefore baptize and teach them. On the first sermon preached after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost, Peter exclaimed:
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him. (Acts 2:38-39)
Whereas in the Old Testament it meant something to be born a Jew, as opposed to a Gentile, in the New Testament the only thing that matters is whether or not one repents and submits to Jesus Christ. This is why the sign of the covenant is different. In the Old Testament it was given to any male born a Jew. In the New Testament it is given only to those who are “born again” into Jesus Christ (Jn 3:5). Only if one “repents” of their sin does baptism into Jesus Christ mean anything.
It is true that in this passage Peter promises that the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is promised not only to the adults, but to “their children.” Those who practice infant baptism argue on this basis that baptism must be administered to children of believing parents. In my opinion, this interpretation reads too much into the text. We must note that Peter goes on to say that the promise is “for all who are far away.” But no one interprets Peter to be suggesting that we should therefore baptize all Gentiles. The promise is for them in the sense that God wants to pour out his Spirit upon them (Ac 2:16). But they only become recipients of the promise — and we should only baptize them — when they make a personal decision to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. This is why Peter immediately adds that the promise is for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” It is not for everyone in general. It is for everyone who will repent and believe, and thus for everyone whom God calls.
The same holds true for Peter’s assertion that the promise is not only for the adults in Peter’s audience, but for their children. God wants their children to receive the Holy Spirit, but the promise is only applied to them, and we should only baptize them, when they personally repent and believe.
Believer’s Baptism in the New Testament. It’s important to notice that every example of someone being baptized in the New Testament was of a person old enough to decide to follow Christ on their own. Never do we read about infants being baptized.
For example, it was only after the Samaritans “believed Philip” as he preached the good news that “they were baptized, both men and women” (Ac 8:12). It was only after the Ethiopian eunuch embraced the good news about Jesus that he was baptized (Ac 8:35-36). The apostle Paul was baptized after he encountered Jesus and obeyed the heavenly vision (Ac 9:18). Peter commanded Cornelius and his household to be baptized only after he saw evidence of their faith in Jesus Christ (Ac 10:44-48). It was only after God opened Lydia’s heart and she believed that she and her household were baptized (Ac 16:14-15). And it was only after the disciples of John the Baptist accept Paul’s teaching about Jesus that they were baptized and received the Holy Spirit (Ac 19:5-6). Without exception baptism follows faith and constitutes the first act of discipleship made by a responsible person who has decided to turn from their sinful way of life and submit their life to Jesus.
Defenders of infant baptism argue that the references to households being baptized in Acts suggests that infants were baptized along with adults (Ac 11:13-14; 16:15; 30-34; 18:8). There is no reason to assume this, however. While all servants were included in a “household” in the ancient Roman world, children generally were not. This seems to be Luke’s perspective, for in the same context in which he speaks about households being baptized, he speaks about households being taught, believing and rejoicing (Ac 16:32; 34; 18:8).
Baptism and the Christian Life. Finally, some of the meanings given to baptism in the New Testament imply that it is intended only for people old enough to be disciples. For example, Paul says that baptism shows that we “our old self was crucified with [Christ]” (Rom 6:6) and that now we should “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Such a significance can hardly be attributed to an infant, however. Similarly, Peter says that baptism “now saves you” not as a literal washing “of dirt from the body” but “as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (I Pet 3:21). But how can an infant have a good (or bad) conscience? We are justified, therefore, in concluding that baptism should be administered only to those who are old enough to make a decision to die to sin, walk in a new life, a enjoy a good conscience before God.
A Supporting Argument
The Importance of Discipleship. History testifies to the truth that infant baptism tends to produce nominal, apathetic Christians. If someone is considered a “Christian” by virtue of being born to “Christian” parents (or in a “Christian” state), then the urgency of stepping out on one’s own and making the radical decision to follow Jesus is compromised. This is not to any way suggest that all Christians baptized as infants are passionless or that the practice of infant baptism causes one to be passionless. It is simply to observe that this practice invariably tends in this direction, and for obvious reasons. By contrast, the practice of adult baptism forces each individual to make their own decision to follow Christ or not.
Response to Objections
1. Opposing Scriptural Passages. Paedobaptist point to several clusters of texts which they believe supports their practice. For example, as I mentioned above, they often point to the New Testament practice of “household” baptism. But as I said, these passages do not require, or even suggest, the conclusion that infants were baptized. Some try to support infant baptism on the basis of Paul’s statement that children are “sanctified” by believing parents (I Cor 7:14). But this passage says nothing about baptism. Paul is simply claiming that children are “set apart” – viz. for a unique godly influence – when their parents believe. Finally, some try to support infant baptism on the basis of Jesus’ practice of accepting and blessing little children (e.g. Mk 10:14-16). But again, this passage says nothing about baptism. Of course Jesus loved and accepted children! But he never tried to make disciples out of them! So why should we suppose he would approve of baptizing them?
2. The Continuity of the Old and New Covenants. It is sometimes argued that believer’s baptism ignores the continuity between the Old and New Covenants in general, and their “signs”–circumcision and baptism–in particular. In reply, we agree that the covenant concept does connect the Old and New Testaments. The Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled in the New Covenant. However, infant baptists have failed to see the decisive shift in the New Covenant as it relates to the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise. It is no longer a genetic connection that determines the child of Abraham, but rather the conscious act of faith.
Paul makes this unequivocally clear when he writes :
Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed” ( Gal 3:6-9).
God’s elect people are no longer a nationality. Instead they are a people who do something: namely, believe. Hence, while the sign of belonging to the covenantal community could be given to physical new-borns in the old covenant, it should be reserved for spiritual new-borns in the new covenant.
3. Modern Individualism. Some argue that the practice of believer’s baptism has been unduly influenced by western individualism which rejects the biblical view of familial corporateness within the saved community. In the Bible, it is argued, infants of covenant keepers were regarded as belonging to the covenant because people in biblical times, unlike people today, didn’t define individuals apart from their association with a community.
In reply, it is not western individualism that drives the believer’s baptism position. Rather, it is the New Testament’s concept of personal salvation. Each individual must be “born from above” just as each individual must be born from the womb (Jn 3:3-6). We agree with our infant baptist sisters and brothers that believers are to belong to, and be mutually defined by, their involvement in the community of God’s covenantal people. But first they must individually decide to become disciples. And, according to New Testament teaching, the first act of obedience they perform as disciples is to be baptized.
4. Church Tradition. Finally, the believer’s baptism position is often rejected on the grounds that it runs counter to the majority view throughout Church history. Two things must be said in response.
First, evangelicals cannot appeal to Church tradition to settle an issue. The affirmation of sola scriptura means that Scripture is our sole authority in matters of faith and practice. We should not easily set aside traditional perspectives. But we can and must do so if traditional views disagree with our understanding of Scripture.
Second, while it is true that infant baptism has been the majority perspective throughout Church history, it is also true that there is no explicit evidence of infant baptism until the second century, and no evidence that it was dominant until much later. This is plenty of time for an aberration of Christian practice and theology to take place. Indeed, most evangelicals would agree that the dominant theology of baptism was becoming aberrant by the mid-second century since people at this time were increasingly holding that baptism literally washed away sin and was necessary for salvation, a view almost all evangelicals reject.
In light of all these considerations, I am persuaded that the New Testament’s teaching on baptism is that it is intended as the sign and ceremony that initiates a person into the New Covenant and Kingdom community.