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Why do we baptize infants?

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  ASK THE PASTOR BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     Question: “Why do we baptize infants? Shouldn’t baptism only be given to those who make a profession of faith in Christ?”

     Answer: People often misunderstand the meaning and purpose of baptism because they do not understand what a sign of the covenant is. When God gave His covenant promise to Abraham, He also gave him a sign to accompany the promise: "This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised...and it will be a sign of the covenant between Me and you." (Gen. 17:10-11). By God's instruction, this sign of circumcision was to be applied to every male (8 days and older) in Abraham's household. Because Abraham, the head of the household, believed God's promise and it was credited to him as righteousness, everyone in his household was considered under God's Covenant. From that time on, that would be true of every household in Israel. Circumcision was a sign that this household was a part of the Old Testament. church, the visible people of God. However, it didn't mean that every member of that household had necessarily put their faith in the promises of God and were therefore justified like Abraham.

     What did circumcision mean? In Deuteronomy 30:6, the Lord makes it clear that it was a picture of the change of heart which is necessary for salvation, "And 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, that you may live." (Cf., Ezekiel. 11:19-20). In Jer. 4:4, 14 we see that circumcision represents repentance and cleansing from sin, "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your hearts...O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you might be saved." In Romans 4:11, Paul says that circumcision represented justification by faith alone, "... [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also..." So, God's Word teaches that circumcision represented regeneration, repentance, cleansing from sin, and justification by faith alone.

     What does baptism mean? A study of the New Testament shows that it represents the same things. It is a picture of our regeneration: Titus 3:5-7 says, "...He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us.” It is a picture of repentance: Acts 2:38 says, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." It is a picture of cleansing from sin: Acts 22:16 says, "Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord." And it is a picture of our being united to Christ by faith alone:  Romans 6:3-4 says, "Or do you not know that as many of you as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." So both circumcision and baptism are signs of the Covenant between God and His one people, and they represent the same inward, spiritual changes that the Lord brings about in our hearts when He saves us. Baptism represents the circumcision of the heart.

     When Jesus Christ came to fulfill God's promises to His people, many of the shadows and rituals of the Old Testament were fulfilled and done away with. However, the Lord instituted two sacraments for the Church, both of which were based upon and continuations of Old Testament practices. In the place of the celebration of God's deliverance from slavery in Egypt in the Passover, our Lord instituted the Lord's Supper as a celebration of our deliverance from bondage to sin and death (See Paul's comparison between the Lord's Supper and Passover in 1 Corinthians 5). And in place of the Old Covenant sign of circumcision, our Lord instituted the sacrament of baptism. In both cases, the outward form changed, but the essential meaning remained the same.

     There are two passages where Paul shows us that baptism has been given in the New Testament to take the place of circumcision as the sign of the Covenant. In Galatians 3:27-29, Paul says, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ...and if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Notice the connection between being baptized and being Abraham's seed. But even more to the point, Paul says in Colossians 2:11-12, "In Him, you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." Paul says that the circumcision of Christ is baptism. Baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the Covenant.

     This truth is vital to understanding what happened in the early church as it is recorded in the book of Acts. When Jesus told the church to "Go therefore and make disciples, baptizing them...,” the question would immediately come up, "To whom should this sign be applied?" The church was thoroughly Jewish at the beginning. If baptism was the new sign of the Covenant, taking the place of circumcision, then should it be applied in the same way that circumcision was, to believers and their households? If this was not to be the case, then the Apostles would have needed to make that abundantly clear. We would expect a statement something like this: "Under the Old Covenant, the sign was to be applied to your whole household, believing adults and children, but now, under the New Covenant, there is a big change. The sign of the Covenant must now only be applied to believing adults." If this were the case, then you would expect to see repeated warnings and instructions given throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles not to apply the sign of the Covenant to infants, since that had been the practice among God's people for centuries. But, on the contrary, there are no warnings or instructions to that effect. In fact, there are many statements which show that the baptisms were applied to believers and their entire households (which undoubtedly often included small children and infants). For example, Acts 2:38-39 says, "Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ...for the promise is to you and to your children..." Acts 16:14-15 says, "Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us...The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized..." Acts 16:31-33 says, "So they said, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household...And immediately he and all his family were baptized."; 1 Corinthians 1:16, "Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas." The language used is consistent with the Old Testament practice of applying the sign of the Covenant to believers and their children.

     This practice of household baptism helps to explain one passage of Scripture that would otherwise be mystifying. In 1 Corinthians 7:12-14, Paul tells a Christian who has a spouse who doesn't believe to stay with him or her, "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy." Of course, this doesn't mean that unbelieving children or an unbelieving spouse are in any way made actually righteous because of the Christian's faith. Paul is saying that, because there is one believing parent in the household, that household is considered a part of the Covenant community of God. Therefore the children ought to be baptized, because they are "holy" or set apart to a holy purpose and considered a member of a holy community.

     Baptism is a sign of God’s entire work in saving us – from election to glorification, not merely a sign of our faith response to His work. It is a picture that points to the inward work that the Spirit of God must carry out in order for a person to find forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ: regeneration, renewal, repentance, and justification by faith. It is only an outward sign, whether it is applied to a believing adult or to an infant, the act of baptism does nothing to that person's heart. For the believing adult who is baptized, the sign points back to that moment when he or she was converted by God's grace. For the infant child of believers, the sign points forward to the conversion that God must bring about in that child's heart if he or she is ever going to experience forgiveness or new life in Christ.

     The sign doesn't guarantee that the child will be converted or saved, any more than the adult's baptism would guarantee that they were truly converted in the past. The sign marks the child and it says to the world that this child belongs to the visible Church, the Covenant Community of God. This child will be raised among God's people, will be taught the Word of God, will enjoy the privileges of living in this community of believers, and will be held accountable to fulfill the responsibilities that go along with being a member of that community. A child who grows up in that community and then rejects Christ and His church becomes a "covenant-breaker," and is therefore under greater condemnation than those who were raised outside of the church. "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more." Luke 12:48

Posted by Rev. Dan Kiehl with