I have great respect for my Baptist brothers in the Christian faith, especially those such as John Gill and Charles Spurgeon who have enriched the Reformed tradition so profoundly. However, I have heard some Baptists criticize the practice of paedobaptism (that is, infant baptism, named ‘Christening’ by many Anglicans) by calling it a man-made tradition, or a hangover of the corrupted Church of Rome. There are indeed heretical reasons to baptize infants (such as the mistaken belief found in Romanism that the physical act of baptism itself, performed by a priest, is salvific), but this is not the motivation of the confessional Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans who baptize their children, who have so faithfully striven for a pattern of public worship founded in God’s Word, and who find paedobaptism proved therein.
Covenant of grace
The key foundation of paedobaptism is the unity of the Old Testament and the New Testament, whereby believers both pre- and post-incarnation are saved through Christ, the unity of God’s covenant people in all ages, the unity of various covenants comprising one universal covenant of grace. In Genesis 17, God makes a covenant with Abraham and thereby binds not only on him, but also on his entire household including his male descendants, the sign of circumcision. This event in redemptive history is invoked by Paul in Romans 4 where it is expounded that Abraham was not justified by works, but by faith, and this faith was counted to him as righteousness. Abraham had this imputed righteousness, through faith by grace, even before he was circumcised, yet circumcision was given to him as ‘a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised’ (Romans 4:11). Here we see that circumcision was indeed tied to regeneration, but was not inseparable from it. In this manner, Abraham’s male descendants, and all the Old Testament nation of Israel, received circumcision in infancy, even though some among them were reprobate and would apostatize from the faith of their fathers. Therefore, circumcision signified membership in the visible community of grace, the nation of Israel, by virtue of parents, even though the physical act was no guarantee of salvation. Likewise, for Christians, baptism signifies membership in the visible community of grace, the church, even though the act of water baptism is no guarantee of salvation. Though tied to regeneration – like circumcision – in the actual conferring of grace promised (to the elect to whom that grace belongs), baptism is nevertheless not tied to regeneration in the time and place of its administration.
Baptism and circumcision
The single covenant of grace is administered in different ways in the old and new covenants (or testaments). Under the New Testament, the sign of circumcision is abrogated (as it is decreed in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15). Presbyterians argue that the sign of baptism is a replacement of circumcision on the covenantal basis of Genesis and Romans, and also on that of comparisons drawn between the two signs in passages such as Colossians 2:11-13:
In whom [Christ Jesus the Lord] also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.
If in the old covenant the sign of righteousness in faith was given to the children of believers who at that time did not have faith, should we really expect that the new-covenant sign of righteousness in faith would be withheld from the children of new-covenant believers? To argue against paedobaptism for the lack of any explicit reference to it is to argue from silence. Rather, we would expect that Jewish Christians, in the absence of any commandment not to baptize children, would continue to apply the new-covenant sign to their children. If anything, the sacraments of the New Testament are more inclusive rather than less, and Jesus certainly did not forbid children from coming to Him (Matthew 19:14), even speaking of them honourably in his similes (Matthew 18:3). We would also expect the New Testament to concentrate on believers’ baptism, as the new covenant had only just been ushered in.
Now some may object to the equation of circumcision with baptism because circumcision continued among Jewish Christians after the introduction of baptism. Even Timothy was circumcised in adulthood by Paul so as not to offend the Jews. However, the old types continued alongside the new until the destruction of the Temple in AD 70: for example, as it is recorded in Acts, Christians continued to observe the Jewish Sabbath on the seventh day, in the synagogues and the Temple, and other abrogated Jewish holy days such as Pentecost, in addition to the Lord’s Day, or the Christian Sabbath, on the first day. Early Christians also kept the Jewish Passover in some form, which became Easter, even though the sign of the Passover is replaced by the Lord’s Supper, which is not tied to any particular annual festival. The continuation of old types is not an argument against their replacement by new types.
We now look to apostolic practice to affirm our exegetical case for paedobaptism. Not only is it recorded in the New Testament that believers were baptized, but also their households (Acts 16:15), in the same manner that the sign of circumcision was given to Abraham and his household, which in that case explicitly included male children. Furthermore, it is written in Acts 8:38-39 (emphasis added),
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
The baptism of a believer’s children is consistent with their being called holy, by virtue of their parent’s place in the covenant, in 1 Corinthians 7:14.
Aside from the comprehensive scriptural proofs, it is also worth nothing the strong case for the practice of paedobaptism from the early Church (although scripture alone has ultimate authority in matters of doctrine and practice, church tradition is nevertheless informative). It was not until Tertullian, who notably bore witness to the widespread practice of infant baptism at least as early as the second century, that a Church Father made a case against paedobaptism; in fact, he encouraged the delay of baptism because of unscriptural notions of childhood innocence and worries about post-baptismal sins such as fornication among young adults weak in faith, as if the physical act of baptism purged sins, and those sins accrued after baptism would have irreversible consequences. I argue that the Baptist tradition has no provable ancient heritage other than conjecture; that it is far more likely that the sign of faith continued to be applied to children by the Apostles, and was passed down through all generations of the Church (even if doctrines concerning baptism were at times corrupted), rather than that the Baptist doctrine – in addition to its not being explicitly taught in scripture – was entirely lost from history, only to be restored in the 16th/17th century. This is why I remain steadfastly Presbyterian.
I hope that with this brief article I have allayed any concerns some have that infant baptism is merely a human tradition.
Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized. (Westminster Confession of Faith 28:4)