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The Church: 14. Paedobaptism or Adult Baptism?

The Church: 14. Paedobaptism or Believers' Baptism?


So, bottom line, should we baptize babies of a believing parent or only baptize believing adults?  How do we use the Bible appropriately to answer this question?  Frankly, does the Bible answer this question?

This post is at the request of a friend, and he has caught me at a busy time right at the beginning of the semester.  So, without the care I’d like to give the subject, here are a few thoughts on a very, very old debate.  Nobody should be under the impression that this is an exhaustive or detailed discussion! 

Why place this on a 'Bible and Mission' blog site?  The issue arises acutely in a post-Christian context for Western nations.  Baptism is a Christian practice that speaks to the mission concerns of the relationship between Church and society, evangelism and initiation into the Church, and the witness of believers.

This essay is meant as an Evangelical discussion, and certain assumptions are made from the start.  Baptism does not save us.  Scripture is God’s Word and authoritative in our lives.  It does speak to the issue to some degree.  Good Christians hold to different practices—differences of perspective should not divide the Evangelical movement.

Some Exegetical Issues

First, the New Testament links baptism to participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it is our faith in the person and work of Christ that saves us.  Two key passages are from Paul:

Romans 6:3-5   Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Colossians 2:11-12   In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ;  12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Second, baptism is an ‘entry-point’ into the faith.  For the author of Hebrews, it is beginning stuff for young believers:

Hebrews 6:1-2 Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God,  2 instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

Paul says,

Galatians 3:27  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Third, according to Paul, it is a practice that everyone undergoes so that it is a symbol of unity.

1 Corinthians 12:13  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Ephesians 4:4-6  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

This is why, in 1 Corinthians 1.13-17, Paul emphasizes that he did not baptism many of the Corinthians—lest they use this as a way to divide among themselves.  If baptism is a symbol of unity, far be it for Paul to let believers take pride over others because they were baptized by the apostle.

Fourth, baptism is linked symbolically, like Jewish ritual baths[1] and John the Baptist’s baptism, to moral purity.  This is already clear from the passages already cited in Romans 6 and Colossians 2. (Note that the correspondence in Col. 2 is between circumcision of the heart and baptism, not between circumcision and baptism, as has far too often been stated.  The activity is also not, as with circumcision, the human act as a sign of covenant commitment but Christ's act of dying and our participation in His death.) We might add what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:

1 Peter 3:21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for[2] a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ….

One can see the connection between a ritual activity involving water and the theological truth of spiritual cleansing through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in a passage that does not even mention the word ‘baptism’:

1 Corinthians 6:11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified[3] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

John the Baptist’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (e.g., Mk. 1.4).  As such, it was a practice of a people already related to God in the covenant who were preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom.  It was a ritual cleansing symbolizing repentance before God, the Judge of the whole universe, comes.  The Christian theology of baptism drew this practice around Christ, as we have already seen.  The cleansing, Christians believed, was only something that Christ could accomplish, and he did so on the cross.  As John says, ‘the blood of Jesus his [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1.7).  The focus on the work of Christ on the cross for us introduces the element of faith into our understanding of baptism: baptism is an outward expression of the faith that we have in Jesus Christ, the one who cleanses us from all our sin.

Fifth, baptism has the danger of being treated as more than a symbol.  It functions to symbolize the washing and purity of the transformed life and salvation in Christ.  The passage just cited from 1 Peter 3.21 makes this distinction.  Similarly, the passage already cited from Colossians 2 is careful to interpret baptism with reference to spiritual circumcision, not physical circumcision.  Physical circumcision, Paul emphasizes throughout his ministry, accomplishes nothing toward salvation (e.g., Ephesians 2.11, and this is a major thesis in Galatians).  Similarly, baptism could be mistaken as another outward act that accomplishes something spiritual rather than being an outward symbol of a work that Christ accomplishes.  The author of Hebrews even uses the word ‘baptisms’ for Jewish practices associated with an outward religion of sacrifices, food regulations, and certain practices to do with the body (Hebrews 9.10).

This error—associating the outward symbol too closely with the actual work of salvation that Christ accomplishes through his shed blood—is one of the reasons for the Reformation.  Whether it was an offering to get a friend or relative sprung from Purgatory, a ritualistic approach to the faith in church attendance and confession of sins, or baptism, the Church by the 16th century had come to confuse the work of Christ too much with the outward works of human beings. 

Sixth, the New Testament gives us no example of the practice of baptism apart from believers.  Some persons in the history of the Church have attempted to find the practice of infant baptism in Scripture.  Paul’s jailer in Philippi came to faith, and ‘he and his entire family were baptized without delay’ (Acts 16.33).  The assumption some make is that the family had an infant or two that was baptized as well.  Note that the next verse also has an ‘entire household’ statement.  The NRSV simply mistranslates the end of the verse: ‘and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God’ (v. 34; similarly the ESV).  The NIV captures the meaning better on this occasion: ‘he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God-- he and his whole family.’  The point is that baptism is associated with newly found faith in God.  If we want to argue that there were babies being baptized, we might as well argue that the babies also came to faith.  Seriously, however, Luke has earlier used the language of a household, its faith in a message about Jesus, and salvation.  Peter is sent by God to Joppa to speak to the Gentile centurion and his household about Jesus: the text says that he ‘will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved’ (Acts. 11.14).  Moreover, we read, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’ (Acts 11.18).  For John the Baptist, baptism symbolizes the repentance that leads to eternal life, and the early Church added that this salvation from sin and judgement comes through belief 'in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 17).  Later in Acts, Crispus, the synagogue leader in Corinth, ‘became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household’ (Acts 18.8).  Households in these passages are believing households.

Summary of Findings Thus Far

From these six points, we might gather the following points.  Christian baptism, whatever its form or practice,

1. points to the work of Jesus Christ that saves us.
2. is an initiation, an entry-point into the faith.
3. symbolizes Christian unity in Christ and the Holy Spirit.
4. symbolizes repentance, cleansing, and moral purity accomplished by Christ and the
5. only symbolizes and does not itself accomplish what Christ accomplishes.
6. is never associated with children, only believers, in the New Testament.

A Caution

Perhaps one is thinking at this point that we should all support believers baptism and nothing else.  We need to realize, first, that this is in part an argument from silence.  We really do not know what people did with children when a household came to faith.  Concern for children must have been higher than what we have experienced since the early twentieth century, especially in the West.  Since that time, households have become smaller and infant or child mortality has greatly subsided, thanks to modern medicine.  Prior to that time, however, child death was all too common.  The Bible gives us no word about children who die before they are old enough to come to faith.  We are, quite simply, left in the dark—but not without the firm conviction that ‘the Judge of all the earth’ will do what is just by not putting the righteous to death along with the wicked (Gen. 18.25).  That is, despite our view of original sin, there is such a thing as innocence, and who better than children would qualify?

Moreover, in a logic that is already found in Genesis 18, Paul allows that a household is made holy when there is only one believing spouse.  This includes the children (1 Cor. 7.14).

If baptism is taken to symbolize unity, and if a unity in holiness is accomplished through a single believer in the household, then one could argue for baptism of the children.  However, this is only one symbolism of baptism, and Christian unity is more focussed on faith and salvation than on association with those of faith.

Baptism as a Practice

Much of the discussion of baptism is focused on the question of what the right theology of baptism is.  In this analysis, the evidence from Scripture is so far pointing rather strongly in favour of believer’s baptism.  I would, however, suggest that, if baptism is symbolic and not something that accomplishes something in itself, that there is some room for diversity.

Consider the difference between a marriage vow and baptism.  When someone says, ‘I do’ in response to a minister’s question, ‘Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?’, the woman’s words are not just words.  Nor are they symbolic.  They are a vow that accomplishes the marriage.  The ring is the symbol; the words are a ‘speech-act’ of marriage.  The New Testament texts emphasize that Jesus’ death on the cross is the act that accomplishes our salvation.  Baptism, then, can only be symbolic—like the ring—of this.

In this, Protestants have been right to insist that baptism is not itself salvific—we do not believe in baptismal regeneration.  However, if this is so, then we might look at baptism not simply in terms of what is the right theology of baptism but in terms of what constitutes a good, symbolic practice of baptism?

Consider, first, the practice of the Lord’s Supper.  This symbolic meal can be practiced in different ways.  We can sit in our pews and pass the elements.  We can walk forward and receive the elements from a priest.  We can eat crackers or bread.  We can drink from one cup or little cups.  We can sit silently and repentantly or sing worshipfully or experience joyful fellowship around a table.  We can open the table to children (and why not?—children sat at the Passover meal, and families don’t exclude children from the table) or hold children back from partaking until they are confirmed.  There are different ways to practice the Lord’s Table.  Moreover, we can go through a practice poorly or well: there are good and bad performances of the same practice.

Similarly, baptism can be spoken of in terms of practices and performances.  We can identify various practices with baptism.  We can immerse someone in deep water or sprinkle the person.  We can use running or still water.  The Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) offers such alternatives and states that the best practice would be running water.  Importantly, however, it states that alternatives are acceptable.

I recall an incident of my uncle preparing for communion.  He discovered too late (the shops used to be closed on Sundays in South Africa) that he did not have grape juice.  So, he mixed some strawberry or raspberry jelly into a liquid and drove off to the service.  By the end of the service, the mixture had hardened—speaking symbolically, it had coagulated.  We might say that this was not ‘best practice.’  Nor, for that matter, is the practice of passing around small crackers instead of breaking bread from a single loaf (cf. 1 Cor. 10.22: ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’).

With such distinctions in mind, we might note that believer’s baptism can have better or worse practices, and such practices might be performed poorly or well.  Similarly, infant baptism can be examined in terms of its practices and performances.  Too much would have to be said to go over all of the options this raises.  I will, however, point out a few things.

First, believer’s baptism is more powerfully symbolic when performed at the time someone comes to faith.  As such, it strongly symbolizes the person’s faith.  Moreover, it is better practiced, as the Didache suggests, in flowing water.  Many baptistic Christians, however, hold off baptism too long for their children, who grow up in the faith more than they come to faith on a certain day.  Also, many baptistic Christian baptize people in a baptismal pool, whereas a flowing river might carry much more symbolism.  However, some baptistic believers fly all the way to the Jordan River to be baptized in the ‘Holy Land’ and in the river where John the Baptist baptized people.  In so doing, though, they are often baptized away from the Christian church of which they are a part—some of the symbolism of unity is lost.

Second, infant baptism can be very poorly practiced if it fails to convey faith, purity because of Christ, repentance and holiness, and so forth.  The infant in a white baptismal gown almost suggests the infant’s purity more than the purity through Christ’s blood.  A European country that has experience mass baptism in the era of Christendom has come to practice baptism very poorly.  What good is a nation of baptized pagans?  In such a context, believer’s baptism is a strong challenge to a failed faith in a post-Christian country.  Yet one might argue that infant baptism could symbolize something powerful: that, on the basis of the faith of a believing parent, the children, too, are made holy.

Far more needs to be stated here.  I would suggest that the best practice is believer’s baptism—of children and adults but not infants.  I can appreciate baptizing an infant or child of a believing parent when the child is facing an early death.  I would, however, suggest that the symbolism of baptism allows for different practices, and perhaps in this we might find more charity for the diversity we experience among ourselves as Evangelicals.  The infant baptism practiced among Protestants is a form of infant baptism crafted in the 16th century—it was never understood in the history of the Church as it was stated in the Reformation.  Tertullian, for example, argues to hold off on baptism rather than baptize children too young because, he already believes at the beginning of the 3rd century, that it cleanses people from their sins: better wait till someone gets through the wilder years of youth (On Baptism).  But Protestants in the 16th century rightly insisted that baptism does not save us, and so the notion that it is a sacrament of promise came about for those continuing to practice infant baptism: the child will come to faith.  This is powerfully symbolic if the child does come to faith.  It is a terribly sad, even contradictory, practice if this does not happen.  Far stronger a testimony is the practice of believer’s baptism in a pseudo-Christian country in which many have been baptized as infants.

I would even suggest rebaptism would convey the faith better than simply accepting the baptism performed at infancy—but if baptism is a matter of symbols, this is not to be considered a requirement.  However, consider the case of someone who came to faith but who was raised in a faithless church that practiced infant baptism.  Or consider the case of someone baptized as an infant who lived a profligate life and denied the faith but who then came to faith.  In such cases, baptism on the grounds of the person’s faith, even though he or she had been baptized as an infant, would prove to be a strong testimony of faith.  It would be a good opportunity to confess the faith out of a good conscience before God, and it would be a strong testimony to the nominal Christians around the person.  (If a sacrament is an outward symbol of an inward event, I see no reason to insist that this symbol can only be practiced once in a person’s life—even a sacramental view of baptism should be open to rebaptism—or, rather, two different types of baptism.)  On the other hand, a child who was baptized as an infant in a believing family who grew up in his or her faith would have no need for rebaptism.  If we think in terms of what makes best practice and good performance, we might think more clearly about this matter than if we simply ask, ‘What is the Biblical teaching?’  Symbols, practices, and performances allow for more diversity than the question supposes.


The thrust of this argument is toward believer’s baptism.  However, it also suggests that there might be different practices and performances, even if some are better than others.  Just what the limits of these are, and which are better than others, would need more space to explore, and a process of discernment rather than a final decision is the more likely outcome.  The greatest challenge for believer’s baptism is when children have believed in Jesus since their early years and have held off on baptism too long.  The greatest challenge for infant baptism is when the children grow up to deny the faith.  The best practice of any sort of baptism is in the extent to which it captures the meaning of baptism discussed in this essay.

[1] I am not here coming down on one side or the other about whether Christian baptism is more linked to Jewish ritual baths (mikvoth) or proselyte baptism (Gentiles joining the Jewish synagogue).  I think the point is overly debated: both symbolize moral purity, whether practiced as an entry point or as a recommitment.
[2] The Greek can read ‘from’—an appeal from a good conscience to God (reading the Genitive as carrying the idea of the source of something).  The NIV has ‘the pledge of a good conscience toward God,’ reading the Genitive as objective by translating ‘eperōtēma not as ‘appeal’ but as ‘pledge.’  It might also be translated as ‘request.’  Unfortunately, there is not much else to say to resolve the matter: we simply have an ambiguous text.
[3] This word might be translated, ‘made righteous,’ despite the preference of English translations (wrongly, in my view) for ‘justified.’