Why we are a Reformed Church that does not baptize infants - Part 1 of 2
It is clear that the New Testament teaches believer’s baptism. This is such a plain reality that both credobaptists (those who practice only baptism upon confession of faith; hereafter CB) and paedobaptists (those who also practice the baptism of the children of believers; hereafter PB) recognize this fact. Both sides agree together that we are to preach “believe and be baptized” and extend that baptism to those who have made a profession of faith. The Bible is perfectly clear on this. The question is whether the Bible calls for a second kind of baptism -- the baptism of the children of believers. (cf. Challies) I, as well as Covenant Reformed Church, believe it does not. This post and next will explain why this is the case.
While it is true that many Reformed denominations affirm the baptism of infants, it is also true that not all Reformed churches and denominations, pastors and theologians would follow this practice; John Piper, Mark Dever, John MacArthur, Sam Storms, Bruce Ware, Thomas Schriener, etc. are just a few who are Reformed in theology, but do not adhere to infant baptism. There are also Reformed denominations that would also be of the same ilk. In fact, the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, led by Douglas Wilson, allows their member churches to affirm either CB or PB or both.
I feel compelled to lay out a few cautions before we enter this discussion:
This is an intramural debate between two sides who believe in the same gospel, who adhere to the same Scripture and who preach the same biblical theology. What unites us is far greater than what we quibble over.
I believe this should not be an issue that divides believers, nor becomes such a contentious issue that it gives unbelievers a weapon against the gospel and the church. Unfortunately, some denominations in the Reformed tradition would not recognize our church as a 'true church' on account of our practice of baptism. This saddens me greatly. For reasons that will become clear later, I believe this to be the wrong way to deal with this issue.
I believe that all believers, both CB and PB, should be welcomed in each others churches, preach in each others pulpits, and, should together, participate in the Lord's Supper.
A WAY to brief overview of the PB postion
[Note: To be fair to the PB position and its arguments please see the following sources - from the Christian Reformed Church, from the Canadian Reformed Church, Why Do We Baptize Infants by Brian Chapell, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism by Gregg Strawbridge]
The argument for the PB position rests on two primary pillars (and one additional point):
Their understanding of the connection between the signs of the old and new covenants.
Their exegesis of Colossians 2:11-12.
The examples of household baptisms in Acts and the house of Stephanus in 1 Corinthians.
Let me quote Kevin KeYoung who defends the PB position by appealing to the covenantal unity of circumcision and baptism,
In Genesis 15 God made a covenant with Abraham. This covenant was sealed with the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17. God promised to bless Abraham. For Abraham this meant two things in particular, offspring and land. But at the heart of the covenant was God’s promise that he would be a God to Abraham and his children (Gen. 17:7, 8).
...Circumcision was full of spiritual meaning. The circumcision of the flesh was always meant to correspond with circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:25-29). It pointed to humility, new birth, and a new way of life (Lev. 26:40-42; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 6:10; 9:25). In short, circumcision was a sign of justification. Paul says in Romans 4:11 that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” God’s own interpretation of circumcision is that it was much more than just a physical sign for national Israel.
Remarkably, though, this deeply spiritual sign was given to Ishmael as well as Isaac, even though only Isaac was the continuation of the promised line. The spiritual sign was not just for those who already embraced the spiritual reality. It was to be administered to Abraham and his sons. Circumcision was not a simple equation. It didn’t automatically mean the recipient of the sign was in possession of the thing signified. Circumcision, like baptism, also pointed to belonging, discipleship, covenant obligations, and allowed for future faith that would take hold of the realities symbolized. Just as there were some in Paul’s day who were circumcised but not really circumcised (Rom. 2:25-29), some children of Abraham who were not truly children of Abraham (Rom. 9:6-8), so in our day there are some who are baptized who are not truly baptized. Children should be marked as belonging to the covenant, but unless they exercise saving faith, they will not grab hold of the covenant blessings.
Children today are baptized based on this same covenant with Abraham.
Colossians 2:11-12 is the main text for the PB. The argument is made that baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of the covenant and that it should be applied in the church the way it was applied in Israel, namely, to the children of the covenant member -- Israelites then, Christians now. So for example the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God says, "The seed and posterity of the faithful born within the church have by their birth an interest [a share] in the covenant and right to the seal of it and to the outward privileges of the church under the gospel, not less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament."
Why we should NOT baptize infants
With those things in mind, let's get into the reasons I believe the CB position is correct, and PB is in error. I have compiled 10 of them, 5 will be dealt with today, 4 next time. I begin with the most general of the arguments. Next time we will discuss the more complex theological points.
[Note: my arguments have been gleaned from a myriad of sources. I am particularly indebted to work done by John Piper, Sam Storms and the volume edited by Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright, Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ.]
#1 -- There are no explicit examples of infant baptism in the New Testament.
In the three "household baptisms" mentioned - the household of Lydia in Acts 16:15; the household of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:30–33; the household of Stephanas, in 1 Corinthians 1:16) no mention is made of infants. In the case of the Philippian jailer, Luke says explicitly, "they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house" (Acts 16:32). This seems to imply that the household who were baptized could understand and respond to the Word that was preached to them.
#2 -- It seems clear that in all examples of so-called “household” baptisms the broader contexts make clear that only “believers” were baptized.
As for Acts 16:15 and 16:33, members of the "household" were old enough to hear and understand "the word of the Lord" spoken to them and old enough to understand what it meant for a person to believe in God and thus have reason to rejoice because of it. As for 1 Corinthians 1:16, we see in 1 Corinthians 16:15 that the "household" of Stephanas, whom Paul baptized, "were the first converts in Achaia" who "devoted themselves to the service of the saints." As for the "children" in Acts 2:39, they are at least old enough to be "called" by the Lord (v. 39). And then, as if to confirm it, Luke records that "those who received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41). There is no indication that those who were too young to respond to the "call" of God and too young to "receive" God's word were baptized. (Storms)
#3 -- Baptism is portrayed in the New Testament as a symbol of the beginning of spiritual life (Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:12, et. al.). We will get into Colossians 2:12 in more detail below, for now 1 Peter 3:21 will be our focus. This text says “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience -- through the resurrection of Jesus Christ". (italics mine) Baptism is "an appeal to God for a good conscience." It is an outward act and expression of inner confession and prayer to God for cleansing, that the one being baptized does. An infant is not capable of this activity of the mind and heart. This text, as do the others, seems to restrict baptism to those who can consciously trust Christ.
#4 -- Baptism is consistently portrayed as inextricably connected with (conscious) faith and repentance (e.g., Acts 2:38,41; 8:12-13,36; 10:47-48; et. al.).
This is especially the case with Colossians 2:11-12, the key text for this issue.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
PB argue that this verse connects Old Testament circumcision to New Testament baptism. Thus, the argument goes, we should baptism infants, since it was infants who were circumcised in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, this text, when understood correctly, does not support the PB position and in fact argues for its opposite.
This text, and other New Testament texts, make clear that the New Testament counterpart to circumcision is not baptism; it is spiritual regeneration or the new birth. Or, to put it differently, it is the spiritual circumcision of the heart, not water baptism, that corresponds in the new covenant to old covenant physical circumcision. As Sam Storms notes, water baptism is a sign of the circumcision of the heart and the new life and cleansing from sin that it brings. The sign of the new covenant is not baptism, but spiritual circumcision, regeneration, the "cutting away" of the heart of flesh, of which water baptism is an outward, symbolic expression. In fact, the Old Testament predicts exactly this aspect of the new covenant in places like Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26; and Jeremiah 31:33.
But more important still is Paul's reference to "faith" in v. 12. John Piper has summarized this in a clear and insightful manner: (Buried and Raised in Baptism through Faith)
If baptism were merely a parallel of the Old Testament rite of circumcision it would not have to happen 'through faith' since infants did not take on circumcision 'through faith.' The reason the New Testament ordinance of baptism must be 'through faith' is that it represents not the Old Testament external ritual, but the New Testament, internal, spiritual experience of circumcision 'without hands.'
Those two words, 'through faith,' in verse 12 are the decisive, defining explanation of how we were buried with Christ in baptism and how we were raised with him in baptism: it was 'through faith.' And this is not something infants experience. Faith is a conscious experience of the heart yielding to the work of God. Infants are not capable of this, and therefore infants are not fit subjects of baptism, which is 'through faith'".
#5 -- When the New Testament church in Acts 15 debated whether circumcision should still be required of believers as part of becoming a Christian, it is surprising that not once in that entire debate did anyone say anything about baptism standing in the place of circumcision. (cf. Piper)
This is not an insignificant point given the importance of the meeting of the early church in Jerusalem and the topic it met to discuss.
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved"... Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. (vv. 1-2; italics mine)
The issue that was the center of discussion for the "apostles and the elders" was whether or not Gentile believes must be circumcised in order to be saved. In response to the question at hand, the decision of the apostles is clear and direct,
But we believe that we [Jews] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentiles] will. (v. 11)
Therefore my [James} judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God... (v. 19)
What a perfect time for the apostles to point out that circumcision is a non-issue because baptism is its new covenant replacement. This line of thinking, were it theologically correct, would have settled the issue immediately! Let me expand. If baptism is the replacement of circumcision as a sign of the new covenant, and thus valid for children as well as for adults, as circumcision was, surely this would have been the time to develop this line of thinking and so show that circumcision was no longer necessary for Gentiles AND Jews alike.
This is an argument from silence to be sure, but why would the apostles not use this line of argumentation to settle the dispute if indeed baptism has supplanted circumcision as the sign of the new covenant? This manner of thinking would have ended the debate quickly and decisively, yet New Testament baptism it is not even mentioned! At the very least this curious and calls into doubt the connection that PB want to make between the old covenant sign of circumcision and the new covenant sign of baptism.
This concludes our discussion for now. Next time we will discuss the connection between circumcision, baptism and the new covenant and discuss the error that PB make between their definition of sacrament (which I believe is correct) and their practice of infant baptism as a sacrament (which does not fit with their definition of sacrament). We will also answer the key question -- so can we all get along? Or in the context of our particular church, can PB and CB serve together, participate in communion together and be fellow members of Covenant Reformed Chruch? (Hint - yes!)
Soli Deo Gloria