ASK BOB: What about infant baptism?

Occasionally people ask my opinion on various personal or church issues. I recently received the following question which I have reprinted below, followed by my response.

QUESTION

Dear Bob,

I recently attended a mainline denominational service that began with infant baptisms (sprinklings). I received a booklet that explained the Biblical basis for this, and I will try to explain it as best I can. The gist is that, just as infant circumcision was a sign of God’s being with His people as Abraham’s descendants in the Old Testament, infant baptism is the New Testament’s sign of God still being with His people as Abraham’s descendants. That promise is still in place.

The booklet pointed to several early church references in support of the position that infant baptism was practiced from the Church’s beginning. Specifically, Acts 2:39 speaks of baptism as being for “you and your children.” Acts 16:25-40 records the baptism of the Philippian jailer and his whole family. I believe there are other references to whole families being baptized in the New Testament (which presumably included children), but I don’t know the “address.”

I would be interested in your thoughts on this topic. I think that there’s nothing wrong with infant baptism, but (as the pastor pointed out) it does not represent a decision made to follow Christ as an adult baptism does. I did not ask concerning their belief in the desirability of adult baptism. Thanks in advance for your thoughts on this matter.

 

MY ANSWER
Your question about infant baptism is one I was frequently asked as a pastor.  I’m glad that the minister you quoted attempted to explain that there is a difference between parents dedicating a newborn to God and the child later making a personal decision to follow Christ. They are indeed two different things. Infant baptism is something parents attempt to do for the child. Christian baptism is an individual personally responding to God’s grace.

I have several concerns with infant baptism.  First, in the New Testament baptism was practiced by those who first believed in Jesus and repented of sins. Mark 16:16 says, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.”  Acts 2:38 reads, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Belief in Christ and repentance from sin are to precede baptism. Those personal choices cannot be made by an infant.  As you indicated, there are a couple of Scriptures that mention entire households being baptized but there is no reference to any infants in those households and there is no reason to assume there were.

Secondly, baptism was originally by immersion.  Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist who had chosen a spot in the Jordan River where there was “much water there” (John 3:23). We read, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him (Matthew 3:16).

The first description of baptism in the early church speaks of the person being baptized going “down into the water” and “coming up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39).  Total immersion is a symbol of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. (See Romans 6:1-4.) It’s also a symbol of our total allegiance to Christ.  I’m of the conviction that followers of Christ should attempt to maintain the ordinance of baptism in its original form. We should want to be baptized in the same manner that Jesus was baptized.

In the church I served, we frequently had baby-dedication services, although that tradition is not specified in Scripture.  We tried to make it very clear that baby dedication was a time to introduce new additions to the family and a time for the congregation to rejoice with the family over the birth of a baby.

We asked the parents to make a pledge to teach their child to know God’s Word and to follow Christ.  We presented a letter to be opened by the child when the day came when he/she made a personal decision to repent of sins, trust Christ for salvation and be baptized into Him.  That served as a reminder that while it’s commendable for parents to want their children to be Christian, following Christ is a personal decision.  Someone said, “God has no grandchildren; just children.”

One other downside of infant baptism is that instead of being called a parent dedication or a baby dedication, it is called a “baptism.”  When the children grow older and the time comes for them to accept Christ they will often say, “I’ve already been baptized” and as a result, in their minds, they are left without an adequate expression of their decision to follow Christ.  I always encouraged them to follow Jesus’ example and be immersed as an adult believer. Those who did so were always glad they did.

There’s an old saying, “An impression without an expression leads to depression.”  In the New Testament when a person decided to accept Christ and be born again, God provided baptism by immersion as a divinely ordained expression of faith and a benchmark of a new birth. That’s why I think churches do well to make a definite distinction between a baby dedication (which is not specified in Scripture) and a personal choice to accept Christ and be baptized, which is a Biblical command.

Titus 3:5-7 reads, “…he saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

– Bob

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