Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Of Such is the Kingdom
A Biblical Defense of Presbyterian Baptism
by Bill Baldwin
I worry about defending infant baptism. When we single out infant baptism, we make it sound like a sacrament in its own right. We seem to separate this practice from the doctrine of adult baptism, defending it upon entirely different lines of reasoning. And I believe this attitude persists -- even in Presbyterian circles. Parents converted later in life are not really taught to think that their children, being sprinkled with water in the name of the Triune God, are receiving an identical gift to the one they received after they had come to faith. But that's exactly the case.
This study maintains that children ought to be baptized for the same reason as adults: 1) As a sign and seal of their incorporation into the Kingdom of God, and 2) As a means of calling them to continued faith in their union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.
To defend the doctrine of infant baptism we must first describe the Biblical doctrine regarding infants, and then the Biblical doctrine regarding baptism. Having done so, we will discover that infants of one or more believing parents have a right to the sacrament of baptism. And we will discover that the nature of the sacrament is by no means violated when applied to those too young to understand.
The Biblical Proof For Infant Baptism
THE "HOUSE" IN BIBLICAL THOUGHT
In Baptistic circles we mocked infant baptism. We said the position rested entirely upon a tenuous inference from Acts that when "houses" were baptized, children were included in those households. But, we cried, there is never the explicit mention of a single infant being baptized in those texts. We were missing the point.
The point is that Scripture relentlessly speaks of God as dealing with households by virtue of his dealing with the head of that household. This is true for the Old Testament as well as the New.
Note just a few of the Old Testament uses of the concept:
Genesis 7:1 "Then the LORD said to Noah, "Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation." (Note in this instance that the word "you" is singular, referring to Noah only. Yet, by virtue of Noah's righteousness, his whole family is taken into the ark. Peter compares this event to Baptism in 1 Peter 3:20,21)
Genesis 12:17 "But the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife."
Genesis 18:19 "For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him."
Deuteronomy 14:26 "And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household."
Joshua 24:15 "And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."
1 Samuel 25:6 "And thus you shall say to him who lives inprosperity: 'Peace be to you, peace to your house, and peace to all that you have!"
There are dozens and dozens more. These passages speak of houses being blessed or condemned by virtue of the spiritual status of the head of that household. Joshua, cited above, even takes responsibility not only for his own serving the Lord, but for his family's as well.
And just as significant are those passages that mention the household but explicitly exclude children:
Genesis 50:7-8 "So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the house of Joseph, his brothers, and his father's house. Only their little ones, their flocks, and their herds they left in the land of Goshen."
1 Samuel 1:21,22 "Now the man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice and his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, 'Not until the child is weaned; then I will take him, that he may appear before the LORD and remain there forever.'"
The exceptions prove the rule. In both of the above cases, when the biblical writer mentions the entire household, he feels the need to point out in this case that the children are not included. He would not point this out unless the term "house" presumed otherwise.
Joachim Jeremias sums it up neatly:
The phrase "he and his (whole) house" denotes the complete family; normally husband, wife and children. In no single case is the term "house" restricted to the adult members of the house, though on the other hand children alone may be mentioned when the whole house is meant. Whilst slaves are very often not reckoned as part of the "house," the inclusion of the children is taken for granted. Indeed, the Old Testament repeatedly lays special emphasis on the very smallest being reckoned in.
Only one question remains: Does the New Testament use the word "house" in the same way? Clearly so. To quote Jeremias again:
I have not found in secular Greek usage any examples of "house" referring to "adults exclusively." As regards the phrase of the type "[So and so] and his house" no literary examples are found in the dictionaries generally in use.... In view of the dissimilarities of the New Testament phrase "he and his house" to secular Greek ... and its agreement with Old Testament usage ... there can be no doubt that it represents a heritage from biblical language.
In other words, the phrase "and his house" in the New Testament is clearly borrowed from the Old and meant to cover the same territory. it is irrelevant that children are not specifically mentioned in the household baptisms of the New Testament.
Even if it could be historically proven that every household baptism of the New Testament was -- by some fluke -- a baptism of a household with no very young children -- even that would be irrelevant. The point of the household language is that children, if any, are included unless explicitly excluded. If the Holy Spirit had meant to exclude children from baptism, the Scriptures would have to say, "[So and so] and his household were baptized, all who were at an age of understanding and could credibly profess their faith." Or "[So and so] was baptized and -- there being no young children in the household but only such as were of an age and actually believed -- the entire household were baptized with him."
To get the full flavor of this truth, we ought to see the entire New Testament witness. Look at these verses one by one, remembering the normal meaning that any Jew or instructed Gentile would attach to the word "house" and let the cumulative force of these verses overwhelm you:
Matthew 10:12-14 "And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet."
Luke 19:9 "And Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham'"
John 4:53 "So the father knew that it was at the same hour in which Jesus said to him, 'Your son lives.' And he himself believed, and his whole household."
Acts 2:38-39 "Then Peter said to them, '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. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.'"
Acts 10:2 "[Cornelius was] a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always."
Acts 11:14-18 "'[Peter] will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, 'John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God? When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, 'Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.'"
Acts 16:14-15 "Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.' So she persuaded us."
Acts 16:31-34 "So they said, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.' Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household."
Acts 18:8 "Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized." (Note well that Paul refers back to this event in 1 Corinthians 1:14 as the baptism of "Crispus." It is clear that in Paul's mind, to baptize "Crispus" is necessarily to baptize the members of his household under his headship as well.)
1 Corinthians 1:16 "Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other."
2 Timothy 1:16 "The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain."
Hebrews 11:7,9 "By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.... By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise."
The household language of the Bible is not the only evidence for infant baptism. But it is powerful. It is more than an argument from silence, that is, an argument claiming we should baptize infants because we aren't told not to. The above verses demonstrate that the baptism of infants is everywhere proclaimed by the New Testament witness -- unless someone wants to claim that the word "house" is being used in a strange and unattested sense.
But let's pretend the argument for infant baptism is an argument from silence. We should note that the opposing side makes its own argument from silence. And its argument is worse. To quote Oscar Cullmann:
Those who dispute the Biblical character of infant Baptism have therefore to reckon with the fact that adult Baptism for sons and daughters born of Christian parents, which they recommend, is even worse attested by the New Testament than infant Baptism (for which certain possible traces are discoverable) and indeed lacks any kind of proof.
For further information on the Biblical use of "house", see Lee Irons's Paper The Oikos Formula
THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT AND THE SIGN OF CIRCUMCISION
The covenant made with Abraham is, for Paul especially, the covenant that foreshadows the New Covenant made in Christ's blood. Paul refers to it repeatedly to demonstrate that we are justified not by works of the law but by faith in the promised Seed, just as Abraham was (Romans 4:1-3, Galatians 3:6-9). So the true nature of that covenant's sign (circumcision) will prove of interest to us.
Paul says that Abraham "received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith..." (Romans 4:11a), succinctly defining circumcision not as a physical but a spiritual sign. This verse undergirds Strimple's Rule (named after Prof. Robert Strimple at WTS CA):
There is no objection to infant baptism that Abraham could not have leveled against infant circumcision.
This rule is a basic gauntlet thrown down against the baptistic position.
Imagine Abraham arguing with God. Why should he put this seal on infants? Infants don't have faith. In what sense is it a seal if it's possible for the recipient to grow up and deny the faith it seals? Why not wait for them to profess their faith and then apply the sign? These are good questions. The point of this paragraph is not to answer them but to show that they need to be answered. Because there is no question that God commanded circumcision of infants. Abraham didn't have the option of reasoning baptistically and concluding that people shouldn't receive the seal of faith until they are seen to have faith.
God had already prophesied against Ishmael (Genesis 16:11,12) by the time he instituted circumcision for Abraham and all his male children. Abraham could easily have objected that it is wasteful and downright blasphemous to place the sign of faith-righteousness on one who does not have faith and will not have faith. (And he would be right about the blasphemy, but the blasphemy is Ishmael's, not Abraham's or God's.)
But what does circumcision have to do with baptism? Quite a lot, it turns out. Circumcision was the seal of Abraham's faith in the promised Seed, Christ. And baptism is an engrafting into Christ, the seal of a union that is laid hold of by faith alone.
Paul makes the continuity explicit 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.
(Remember Strimple's Rule before you object to applying such language to infants.) We'll deal with other aspects of this passage later. For now notice that baptism is defined in terms of circumcision, a "circumcision made without hands." Someone might object that this proves the baptistic point: circumcision is a fleshly sign applied to a fleshly people; baptism is a spiritual sign for spiritual people. Remember Romans 4:11. Circumcision is a spiritual sign as well, a seal of faith-righteousness. Physical circumcision points to the same spiritual event as physical baptism. (But only baptism, in the superiority of the new covenant, unites you to that event -- the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. But this is never spoken of as changing the nature of the recipients, only of the benefits made available to the recipients as they grasp the sign by faith.)
With such explicit continuity, the presumption -- to say the least -- is that if infants were circumcised in the Old Testament, they ought to be baptized in the New.
DO NOT FORBID
In the Old Testament, God gave "The Aaronic Benediction," a special blessing for the High Priest to pronounce upon the people:
23This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them:
24"The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 The LORD make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace."
26So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.
This "blessing" of verse 23 is defined as God putting his name on the children of Israel in verse 26. And this is done as Aaron lifts his hands (Leviticus 9:22), symbolically laying hands upon the entire congregation to bless them. So it becomes tremendously significant when Luke records the story of Jesus blessing the children of Israel by laying his hands on them:
Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16But Jesus called them to Him and said, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God." (Luke 18:15,16)
(Matthew and Mark also record this incident and relate it to "children"; but Luke's account tells us what sort of children they were -- "infants." Christ lays his hands upon the children in the traditional posture of blessing. Thus, to borrow the language from the Aaronic Benediction, he places the name of God upon them.
And where in the New Testament do we find that unique event in which God places his name upon his people? In baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Clearly, Christ sets an example that we ought to follow. The disciples who prevented those mothers probably reasoned that Jesus had more important things to do than touch infants who were incapable of recognizing him. Let us learn from Christ and avoid their mistake.
Luke's story offers further proof for infant baptism in its very language, "do not forbid them." This word, "forbid" crops up frequently with reference to baptism. When Christ comes to be baptized by John, John attempts to forbid him (Matthew 3:13). When Philip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch, the eunuch replies, "Look, here is water! What prevents [same word] me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:36). When Peter sees the household of Cornelius blessed with the Holy Spirit, he says, "Can anyone forbid water that these should not be baptized...?" (Acts 10:47). Defending his action later, he says, "Who was I that I could hinder [same word] God?" (Acts 11:17). And the non-canonical Gospel of the Ebionites records how John asked Jesus to baptize him and Jesus prevented him.
What Scripture seems to preserve is the wording of an ancient baptismal ritual (now lost) in which the congregation was asked, "What hinders this person from being baptized?" This is not unlike our modern marriage ritual, "If anyone knows just cause why these two should not be joined together, let him speak now or forever hold his peace." The number of times this word occurs with reference to baptism -- even when the resulting sentence is awkward (as in Acts 10:47) -- justifies this conclusion. If this is so, the incident of Jesus blessing the children applies to baptism not merely implicitly but explicitly.
The foregoing concerns -- the makeup of the "house", the continuity with circumcision, and our Lord's blessing of infants -- make it clear that we should baptize infants. But we still need to establish what the event signifies or baptism is a meaningless ritual.
The Significance of Baptism
BAPTISM SIGNIFIES AND SEALS SALVATION
Like circumcision, baptism is a seal of the righteousness that is by faith. Westminster Shorter Catechism 94 says
Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord's.
This means that baptism does more than just symbolize or represent salvation. It seals salvation to us. By that, the Divines meant that baptism makes our salvation secure and acts as a stamp of approval, officially designating us as those who have been saved by Christ.
Paul agrees. Baptism takes us out of the old life and puts us into the new:
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore 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.
We must be true to this radical language or our baptisms will prove unuseful. When I reflect upon my baptism, I think, "That is the moment when I died to sin and was made alive again to righteousness. That is when God set his seal upon me. That is when I pledged myself irrevocably to God. (Notice, by the way, how different this is from the modern evangelical insistence that we be able to testify of a dramatic "conversion experience." Baptism is the Biblically sanctioned drama of the "conversion experience." And it says wonderful things.)
But what then? Does Baptism automatically save the person being baptized? Clearly not. Some are baptized and fall away. Yet that does not detract from the significance of baptism. It simply means that -- since baptism is a seal of God's grace -- it is received and benefited from by faith alone.
BAPTISM IS A CALL TO FAITH
Look how Paul goes on to treat baptism in Romans 6. He tells the Romans, you've died to sin and been made alive to God. But he doesn't stop there and say, "Therefore, since that's been done, you won't ever sin." No. He calls them to believe, to have faith, in what their baptism says, and thus to turn from sin:
Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
Without faith, their baptism is useless; they are still in their sins.
Remember from verse 3 how Paul assumed they didn't fully understand their baptism and therefore weren't benefiting from it. He tells them they're dead to sin, fully expecting that this will surprise them. "Or don't you know..." he continues, obviously assuming they were unaware.
Note this well: Paul does not say the solution is for them to be "re-baptized" (which is impossible) because they didn't understand what they were doing the first time around. His solution is to call them to faith, to tell them to start getting the benefit of their baptism.
This has immense implications for our children and for you who were baptised as children. The significance of baptism is that it is there, waiting for you. As soon as you are able to understand, it preaches to you that you are dead to sin and alive to God; and it calls you to faith in that statement. Since you were born into the kingdom -- through one or both believing parents -- you have a right to this testimony and summons to faith from the very start.
BAPTISM WARNS AGAINST UNBELIEF
There is a negative aspect to baptism as well. It is a sign of judgment as well as salvation. 1 Peter 3:20,21 says that Noah's Ark is a picture of baptism -- the judgment waters of God which Noah and his family escaped. 1 Corinthians 10 speaks of the Red Sea in the same way -- the judgment waters which Israel passed through but the Egyptian army was consumed.
And Jesus, looking forward to the cross, said, "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished." There, at the cross, the judgment of God came down upon our Savior and consumed him.
Baptism speaks of this judgment, warning that if we do not grasp Christ by faith, we ourselves will be judged with the judgment with which Christ was judged on the cross. All baptized persons -- children and adults -- have a right to this admonition.
BAPTISM BRINGS A PERSON INTO THE CHURCH
Lastly, baptism is a seal of membership in the body of Christ. This we know from Jesus saying "of such is the Kingdom." Baptism is the sign of entry into that kingdom. It entitles the bearer to a "judgment of charity", to be treated as a brother, exhorted as a brother, loved as a brother.
This is slightly different from the doctrine known as "presumptive regeneration." That doctrine says we presume our children are saved until they show us different. This doctrine says we treat them as saved.
What does that mean? All baptized persons, including children, have a right to:
- The preaching of the word, and especially the preaching of the gospel. This must be their motivation to good works. Notice, in this regard, how Paul structures the book of Ephesians. Up front he tells the Ephesians that they are saved, elect, redeemed, children of light. (He says this to all, even though he knows some may not be saved. Their baptism entitles them to this preaching until they fall away and prove unworthy of it.) It is this that must motivate the husbands to love their wives, the wives to submit to their husbands, and ... you see it coming ... the children to obey their parents (6:1). You see. Even the children have a right to be motivated by the gospel, the declaration of God's love for them.
- Worship. All baptized persons have a right and a duty to worship God. This is why we do not have "children's church" in which we send our children away from worship (or at least preaching). They have a right to know from their earliest years that this is the place where God's people meet to sing and pray to him, and I am one of those people.
- Training. All baptized persons have a right to be instructed in the faith. The child down the street doesn't have this right, but ours do. The parents have taken a vow to raise that child "in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord."
- Church Discipline. When a baptized person strays away, we don't just let them go. They have a right to be exhorted, admonished, censured, disfellowshiped, and excommunicated as a last attempt to restore them to the flock. We do not pursue the children of the world in this way. But our own children have a right to this.
- The Judgment of Charity. This means we are not left to our own discretion to decide, this one is really saved, and, that one is just faking it. No individual in the church has the "power of the keys" to admit into the church or send out from it. Only the elders, sitting together, have that authority. And they must admit to the church all children of professing Christians. And thus, you and I must treat all such as brothers in Christ.
As a final note, I should add, not all baptized persons have a right to the Lord's Supper. Baptism is a one-time act which can be benefited from by faith for the rest of your life. The Lord's Supper is a repeated act which requires the presence of faith for each individual partaking. When Paul speaks of the Corinthians' ignorance regarding the Lord's Supper, he doesn't treat it like the Romans' ignorance regarding baptism. He doesn't say, now is the time to start getting the benefit of all those past suppers. Rather he says,
For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. 30For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. 31But if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged. 32But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned along with the world.
1 Corinthians 11:29-32
But our children do have a right to be prepared to take that holy supper by being trained in the faith. And when they make their profession and come to the Table, we praise God that their baptism has done its work. It has called them successfully to faith in Christ.
May it do that work continually in all of us.
Bill Baldwin - 8-22-97
For further discussion of this topic see Lee Irons's paper Presumptive Regeneration?
William Baldwin is an ordained as a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He studied under Meredith G. Kline, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.