10 arguments for baptising infants I find unconvincing: a reply to David Robertson

David Robertson recently published a post on his blog outlining 10 reasons why he baptised his baby granddaughter. These are the same reasons he baptised his own children. You can read David’s article here.

I always appreciate David’s clarity and thoughtfulness. I appreciate that he believes this to be a biblical position and am grateful to him outlining some of the key grounds upon which he believes it.

Toward the end of his post, David said this:

Those are the biblical reasons – you may not accept them, or my understanding of them – (and I don’t intend to have a pointless time-wasting debate about them) but I hope at least you will understand why I baptised my granddaughter.

Again, I appreciate that. He isn’t trying to get into an argument with anybody but wants us (I assume particularly Baptists) to understand his position. To that end, I have no intention of arguing. He’s a lot clever than me anyway, so would undoubtedly win! But I thought it would be interesting and helpful to explain why, from my Baptist point of view, his ten reasons do not convince me of the position he advocates.

Children of covenant?

David lands on Acts 2:39 to argue that children of believing parents belong in the covenant:

The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.

Should this verse be teaching that children of believers ought to be baptised on the grounds that the promise is ‘for you and your children’, consistency would push us to baptise ‘all who are far off’ as well given that the promise is clearly for them too. Unless we believe everybody should be baptised – even those who are far off – it seems convenient to limit this verse only to ‘you and your children’.

By contrast, Baptists would argue that the promise is, indeed, for you, your children and all who are far off equally. Each of them receives that promise by faith. Those who belong in the covenant are those who have entered by faith and the sign of the covenant is then given to those who belong.

Household baptisms

The household baptisms have long been contested by Paedobaptists and Baptists. As I commented previously here:

All the baptisms we read about were of those who professed belief. Were there children among the households who were baptised? Probably. But we are told in Acts 10 that ‘all who heard the message received the Holy Spirit’ and it is apparent that this is perceived through the speaking of tongues, prompting Peter to baptise them all. Acts 16 has the household baptisms of Lydia and the Philippian jailer. In the jailer’s case, v34 makes clear he ‘had believed in God’ and this along with ‘all his household’ – implying everyone who was baptised had themselves believed. Lydia’s household baptism is less clear, but there is no explicit statement of paedobaptism (nor obvious implication). Most committed paedobaptists accept the household baptism are, at best, unclear. Apart from appeal to the household baptisms – of which only Lydia’s permits the possibility – there are no examples of any paedobaptisms in scripture.

The new covenant is more generous than the old

Here, Paedobaptists and Baptists agree. Where we disagree is how it is more generous. Paedobaptists say by giving its sign to whole families, not just males. Baptists say by now including Jews and Gentiles (and, obviously vastly more people overall because there are eminently more Gentiles) on the same terms by faith as opposed to through a singular nation of Jews.

David lands on Col 2:12-13 and argues Paul associates the old covenant sign of circumcision with the new covenant sign of baptism. He then argues, if the old covenant sign was extended to children, why not the new covenant sign? He goes on, ‘why do we have no example in the New Testament of a child born into a Covenant home having to wait until they were of age until they were given the Covenant sign?’

The Baptist would argue that Paul is not linking circumcision to baptism, but that circumcision was a type of the circumcision of the heart that Paul mentions directly in Col 2:12. The sign of the new covenant is, then, to be given to those who belong in the covenant, that is those who have had their hearts circumcised by the Spirit and received Christ by faith as a result. Paul is linking circumcision of the heart (the antitype) to the outward sign of that same antitype (baptism).

David’s question is answered by noting there are no examples of children coming into the covenant except those that we’re told believed (see above). They didn’t need to wait for baptism because the circumcision of heart was affirmed in each case of children being present by the speaking of tongues. There would have been no need to wait (should a Baptist feel the need to do so) because there was immediate evidence of the Spirit’s work; the children, along with the adults, spoke in tongues as proof of regeneration. Many Baptists wouldn’t wait, at any rate, but would baptise upon credible profession of faith which, again, was present in these examples.

Belonging to the church?

David lands on Eph 6:1 to argue that children belong to the church (I agree, these are directed at children who belong to Christ). But it is a logical leap to assume that instructions given to believing children therefore necessitate that all children in the congregation belonged to the church. We need to see the flow of the passage to get the point.

In Ephesians 5:22-33, is Paul making these comments to all husbands and wives, or is he directing them at Christian husbands and wives? Evidently, most people agree, it is to Christians. Is Ephesians 6:4 directed at all fathers, or Christian fathers? Evidently it is Christians in view. Is Eph 6:5-9 directed at all bondservants and all masters, or Christian servants and employers? Evidently it is Christians again. Given that context, and the comment to children comes in the middle of these instructions, are these given to all children or to Christian children? Context suggests it is to those who believe. The phrase ‘in the Lord’ only makes sense to those who would consider themselves to be believers – the command is toothless otherwise.

The Baptist would argue these verses do not indicate that all the children present in the gathering were Christians who belong to the church anymore than all the husbands, wives, slaves or masters who attend are necessarily Christians either. The children who belong are the Christian children who have entered the covenant in the same way as everyone else.

Holy children?

David uses 1 Corinthians 7:14 to argue that children belong to the covenant because ‘they are holy.’ Children of believers, he argues, are holy. But, as with ‘those who are far off’ in Acts 2:39, we have to contend with the preceding comment that unbelieving husbands and wives are also called holy. Unless we want to argue that those who actively don’t believe and reject Christ as adults still belong in the covenant based on these verses, it seems convenient to only apply the same comment to children we want to baptise.

The need for the Holy Spirit

Again, a point of agreement – everybody needs the Holy Spirit in order to believe. Unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). David rightly says:

Water baptism is deeply connected with Spirit baptism. The one is a physical sign of the other.  Water baptism is an initiation into the visible church.  Spirit baptism is an initiation into the invisible church. Water baptism does not confer the Spirit on a child, just as it does not confer the Spirit on an adult.  But it is a sign. 

On all this we agree. The point of disagreement is when the sign should be applied. Paedobaptists say at birth in anticipation of future belief. Baptists say upon confession of faith, the evidence of Spirit baptism. Interestingly, the baptisms that took place in Acts all took place after belief. Water baptism is the outward sign of the Spirit baptism that has already taken place in a believer.*

Need for forgiveness

Again, we agree. Everybody needs to be forgiven. David rightly notes that baptism is for the forgiveness of sin and does not confer forgiveness itself. But the verse David quotes, Acts 2:38, is quite clear that one must ‘repent and be baptised.’ Peter appears to suggest repentance comes before baptism. One receives forgiveness and then receives baptism that marks one out as a forgiven covenant member.

Because of faith

David lands on the story of the paralysed man and argues, ‘You can’t have faith for other people – but you can bring people to Jesus is faith.’ Again, on this we agree. The faith of the men bringing their friend to Jesus led to his healing. We can bring others to Jesus but we can’t believe on their behalf.

Specifically because that is true, Baptists reject the idea of baptising on behalf of others too. If you can’t believe for them, you can’t bring them into the covenant on their behalf, and thus you can’t baptise them on their behalf either. It would be to signify what is not there.

Because Jesus wants us to bring little children to him

David recognises this verse is not about baptism. So, we can essentially leave this one there. Jesus certainly welcomes children and we should want them to know about him. None of this leads Baptists to think we ought to thus baptise our children.

David does try to draw a comparison with dedications. But many Baptists (including me) don’t believe in dedications. We don’t see any Biblical warrant for them. Those that do still wouldn’t view them, as David suggests, as ‘dry baptisms’. But, essentially, Baptists generally view dedications as unnecessary (or unbiblical) as infant baptism.

Because God is faithful

Indeed, he is. More agreement again. However, David says, ‘When I baptised my granddaughter I was saying neither the parents nor the grandparents can care for this precious child as much as you can O Lord. You are faithful. We entrust her to you.’ Baptists would certainly want to say those things too, we just don’t believe that is what baptism signifies.

The Baptist would say the Lord is faithful to his promises, he sent the Lord Jesus into the world as he promised he would. He has chosen a people for himself as he promised he would. He has saved them by the blood of Jesus and they have received salvation by grace through faith in Christ. God is faithful to his promises, he just hasn’t necessarily promised to save the individual children of believers in either the Old or New Covenant.

Anyway, there is some gentle Baptist pushback on those arguments. I don’t intend to get into a long and fruitless argument with anyone about these things. You can compare David’s post to mine and make up your own mind.

*The couple of examples we have of Spirit baptism following water baptism are notable because they are unusual. The context makes clear that the delay was for the benefit of the Jewish believers. To prove to those who would have cause to doubt that Gentiles are included, the Lord delayed the granting of the Spirit to show that Gentiles are included on the same footing as the Jews i.e. by faith alone in Christ alone. Most Reformed believers (Baptist and Paedobaptist) agree that, today, receipt of the Spirit and faith are logically ordered but occur simultaneously so that there is no such delay between Spirit baptism and the expression of faith.