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Monday, February 10, 2014

Let the Little Children Come: On The Arguments for Infant Baptism.


Not yet thirty years old, Felix, a young Christian preacher, was going to die.

More specifically, he was going to be drowned.

To his enemies it was sweet, poetic justice, a fitting sentence given the charges levied against him.

Felix was a “re-baptizer”, a heretic by both Catholic and Protestant standards, who had been immersed after previously being sprinkled as a baby and who had re-baptized others and spread the “heresy” of re-baptism.

And on January 5th of 1527, Felix Manz became the first of many martyrs in the quest to recover the biblical form of baptism.

This budding pioneer of a new movement was bound hand and foot, weighted with a pole, and surrendered to the cruel waters of Lake Z├╝rich in Switzerland.

Manz and the other Anabaptists (as they were called by their enemies) refused to be bullied or intimidated; they had searched the Scriptures and found in it no justification for the baptism of those who had not professed faith in Jesus.

And it is those justifications offered by paedobaptists (literally “child baptizers”) in defense of infant baptism I want to critically examine in this post.

One such justification of given is we humans are born spiritually dead, needing the regeneration that comes in baptism:

Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1250)

This view is common among Protestant and Catholic faithful, but is it an accurate description of the spiritual state humans are born into?

Paul the apostle in Romans 7:7-11 writes the following:

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 

But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 

I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.

According to Paul, for sin to take effect it must work in tandem with the law.

And not just the presence of the law, but the knowledge of the law on the part of the sinner.

While some would have us believe Paul was born spiritually dead, he pinpoints the exact time he died in sin, namely, “when the commandment came.”

Paul died when he became cognizant of his relationship to God under the law, not before, because sin is powerless apart from such knowledge.

Have you ever wondered why the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden wasn't called the “tree of good and evil”, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

The Bible never says that Adam and Eve were sinless before the fall (Romans 5:13), but by virtue of their denied access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were ignorant of their sin in such a way that kept them in the cocoon of God’s grace until their ignorance was removed and they died in their sin.

This ties directly in to the doctrine of the age of accountability which we can formulate as such:

1.      The Bible teaches there is a time before people truly understand right and wrong (Deut. 1:39; Isaiah 7:15-16; also Romans 7:9),
2.      The Bible also teaches that “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17),
3.       Therefore, we cannot charge the mentally handicap and young children with accountability for sin because they do not know right and wrong.

 As Jesus says in John 9:41, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains”.

One last passage we may examine is in Romans 5:

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned— To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law… But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (12-13, 15, 18-19)

There is a lot here, but I only want to hit on some keys points.

Firstly, the switch between “many” and “all” may trip some people up, but as most commentators note, the “many” is not in contrast to the “all”, but to the “one man” Jesus.

Secondly, we see again that where there is no knowledge of the law, sin is not taken into account.

Thirdly, we read that “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people”.

I appreciate what Jack Cottrell has to say on this point:

According to Romans 5:15-19, the consequences of Adam’s sin (however interpreted) are completely canceled out for the whole human race (and have been since the beginning, with Adam’s children) by Christ’s “one act of righteousness” (5:18), i.e., his atoning death on the cross. Although through Adam’s sin “the many died,” this was counteracted by “the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ” (5:15). 

Whereas from Adam we received judgment and condemnation, Christ’s free gift “brought justification” (5:16, ESV). Although through Adam “death reigned,” the “abundance of grace” and the “gift of righteousness” enable us to “reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (5:18). 

Yes, through Adam’s disobedience “the many were made sinners,” but “through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (5:19).


When taken together, we may conclude that humans are born, not into sin, but God’s grace, and are not in need of the washing of regeneration that is baptism before they reach the (undefined) age of accountability.

Others may take a different route, arguing that children are members of the New Covenant and therefore ought not to be denied baptism:

Baptism is a sign and seal of entering the community of Christ, the community bought with Jesus' blood and given life by his Holy Spirit.” This view sees baptism as replacing circumcision in the New Covenant. (Christian Reformed Church of North America statement on infant baptism.)

The primary question here is does baptism replace circumcision?

While I find the entire “covenant theology” system theologically wrongheaded and biblically unjustifiable, a detailed examination would lead us outside the scope our discussion.

Furthermore, even if we assume the truth of covenant theology, I still argue no biblical basis for identifying baptism and circumcision exists.

The key passage in this discussion is Colossians 2:11-12:

 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

 The argument is that as circumcision was available to children as initiation into the Old Covenant, so baptism is available to children as initiation into the New Covenant.

The glaring problem with this view, a problem I have not seen addressed by any of the major commentators promoting it, is that baptism is not being paralleled with physical circumcision, but spiritual circumcision.

There are two types of circumcision in the Bible, the physical type and the spiritual type often spoken in the Old Testament:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done-- burn with no one to quench it. (Jer. 4:4)

Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. (Deut. 30:6)

I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity (Lev 26:41)

Nothing in any of these passages has anything to do with the cutting off a foreskin (which is used for analogical reference), but speak to a condition of the heart changed or yet to be changed by God.

And it is this category baptism falls into, meaning there is no intrinsic or direct connection being drawn between baptism and circumcision of the flesh.

This  leaves Covenant Theology with a covenant in need of a covenant sign.

Finally, let’s look at the question of household baptisms.

There are four cases in Scripture said to show whole households, presumably containing at least one child/infant, that were baptized.

Before looking at the specifics, I want to question whether we can infer children from household in these texts.

Speaking of the initiation of entire households into the community of faith, Robert J. banks says:

Infants, however, were probably not involved in view of the distinction generally drawn in the ancient world between children and household, the close association between faith and baptism in both Acts and Paul, and the special status accorded to children simply by birth into a family where one member is a Christian (1 Cor 7:14). (Paul's Idea of Community, 79)

So even before we get off the ground, the paedo-baptist must show that no distinction between infants and the household being made in the “household baptism” passages, a distinction such as we see in the relevant citations (1 Tim 3:4,12, Gen 18:19, 36:6,47:12, 50:7;1 Sam 1:21).

However, we can go one step further and show the immediate context of each of these passages precludes the involvement of infants in the baptism process.

In the example of the Philippian Jailer, (Acts 16:33-34) we are told Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” and that the jailer “rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God”.

Paul and Silas surely would not have spoken God’s word to babies and children who could not have understood what such words meant and, even more certain, the infants would not rejoiced at the Jailer’s faith in God.

All this shows that infants are not in view here.

With respect to the household of Stephanas, (1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15-18) we read that they had “devoted themselves to the service of the saints” upon the conversion, again excluding infants from view.

About the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:47-48; 11:14) Alexander Campbell explains it best:

Who was Cornelius, and what was his house or family previous to hearing Peter preach? Cornelius, a proselyte of the Jews' religion, was a Roman Centurion — "a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house." This looks like infants in the first place!! 

Peter was sent to preach to him, and convince him that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ or Messiah of the Jews. "Cornelius called together his kinsmen and near friends." — Peter" preached to them all — "The Holy Ghost fell upon them all which heard the word' v. 44. Then Peter commanded them all to be baptized. What now comes of the supposed infants of Cornelius' household? 

They all feared God, they all heard the word of the Lord, "the holy spirit fell on them all," "they spoke with tongues," "they magnified God" "and they were all baptized." The imaginary infants of the household of Cornelius when the 10th chap, of the Acts is read, come out distinguished believers and notable saints. (Debate on Christian Baptism, 70)

 Lastly, we have Lydia’s household (Acts 16:15).

This instance requires the briefest sketch as it is often admitted by paedobaptists that this passage is too obscure to draw any conclusions about infant baptism from it, but in verse 40 we read that Paul and Silas has stopped by Lydia’s house before leaving the region and they “encouraged” the “brothers”.

Again, from Campbell: So that these supposed infants were brethren in the faith, capable of receiving comfort from the words of the apostle.  (71).

Obviously that is not a tenable position. 

Much more could be said about this, including the positive support for believer’s baptism over infant baptism, but I'll end with a quick word about the Early Church.

It is routinely claimed with the most egregious kind of historical broad-brushing that the early church baptized infants.

Of course, even if this is true in the way many claim it is, the earliest Christians are witnesses to the truth, not determiners of it, and if we cannot find infant baptism in the Scripture that “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”, we are not justified in making it a dogma or overturning the Scriptural witness against it.

However, Everett Ferguson in his baptism book to end all baptism books finds the following:

There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century. This fact does not mean that id did not occur, but it does mean that supporters of the practice have a considerable chronological gap to account for. 

Many replace the historical silence by appeal to theological or sociological considerations. . . . The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. 

There was a slow extension of baptizing babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about its propriety into the fifth century. It became the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries. (Baptism a Biblical Study, 856-857)

That’s all I’ll say on this point.

In conclusion, the Bible teaches children are born without knowing good from evil, spiritually alive by virtue of God’s grace, and as such without need to be baptized.

 Here are some practical considerations of this study:

A.    If you have had a young child die, be all the more confident (like David in 2 Samuel 12:15-23) he or she is with God forever in heaven.
B.     If you have been baptized as an infant, I encourage you to thank God for whatever saving work He has done in your life and submit yourself to Him in baptism as a penitent believer.

 And if you are not at that point yet, I hope you will continue to study this issue and give it its due diligence.

Helpful resources:

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