This past Sunday, our firstbon son Isaac was baptised into the visible church of God. Though too young yet to fully understand what it will mean to make the personal choice to commit himself to trust and obey the Lord his God, we his parents presented him before the people of God to initiate him into the New Covenant community, speaking on his behalf as Isaac began his journey of faith: I turn to Christ. I repent of my sins. I renounce evil.
The Problem With This
But surely there is a problem with this! If it requires individual personal faith to receive the gift of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ in dying upon the cross for our sins and rising again for our justification, then how can we ‘turn to Christ’ on Isaac’s behalf?
God has no grandchildren is a little phrase that I have often found incredibly helpful in explaining to people that having parents who trust in God — and are therefore adopted into God’s family — isn’t enough for you to be part of God’s family. You must trust in God yourself!
And thus it is common for earnest (ana-)Baptists to argue that the baptism of infants is an unbiblical superstition, an unjustifiable corruption of the church that somehow crept into Constantinian Christianity as radical Christian discipleship was diluted into respectable European citizenship.
The Covenantal Argument
Although I had seen infant christenings in the occasional Anglican service, the logic of it was never explained, and if anything it seemed to inspire a tangible squirmishness from the more evangelical members of the congregation. It was only at CPC that I first heard the argument in defense of baptising babies. (If you’re interested, you can listen to a brilliant example here).
There are a number of different directions you can come at it from, but the one I found most helpful was the observation that God does not change (Malachi 3:6), and saved sinners before the time of Christ not by works but by faith (as Paul argues in detail with regards to Abraham and David in Romans 4) — just as He does in the New Covenant. And yet circumcision — the covenant marker given to new-born babies, as well as to (male) converts — is described in Romans 4:11 as “the seal of the righteousness of faith”.
So a visible sign of faith is given to an infant — thus negating the argument that since baptism is a sign of faith, an infant who is too young to make the decsion to have faith should not be baptised.
Aside: Three Aspects of Circumcision
It’s worth pausing to untangle three aspects of the meaning of circumcision, the covenant sign of the people of God who inherited and shared in God’s promise to Abraham. Pointing out these three distinct meanings of circumcision helps us to understand the apparently contradictory attitudes of the New Testament (specifically Paul) towards circumcision, and will then help us to work out how New Covenant baptism relates.
First, circumcision is seen–as I have just pointed out from Rom. 4:11–as being (at least in the time of Abraham and David) the “seal of the righteousness of faith”. To be circumcised is to be part of the visible people of faith.
Second, circumcision is seen (specifically by the so-called ‘Judaizers’, who wanted the Galatian Christians to be circumcised) as a sign of being under the Law of Moses. Thus Paul writes in Galatians 5:3 that “every man who accepts circumcision… is obligated to keep the whole law.”
Third, circumcision is seen as a sign of being a Jew. Thus in Acts 16:3 “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places”.
So then, circumcision continues to be a sign of Jewishness, and a male Jew today should be circumcised and circumcise his sons–even once he has come to trust in Yeshua as his Messiah. As a sign of faith, however, circumcision is replaced by baptism–because if circumcision is not just a sign of faith but also a sign of being Jewish, then there must be a different sign of faith in order for both Jews and Gentiles to be visibly part of the covenant community of faith–but not for Gentiles to merely become Jews. And as a sign of being under the Law of Moses, it is vital to say that the ‘Judaizing’ legalists were mistaken in thinking that the Law ever was necessary for salvation: this is not something that changed with Jesus and the New Covenant–rather, salvation has always been by grace, through faith.
Children are part of God’s church
The key cornerstone of the Anabaptist argument having crumbled, and the different significances of circumcision having been properly drawn out, it then seems increasingly important to baptize children in recognition of their full membership in the visible church of God. Baptised children are not just potential Christians, they are Christians! (Though let me be clear, just being a baptised Christian will never save anyone–you must be born again.) The statement of the YWAM values puts it really well: They are not only the Church of the future; they are the Church of today!
All theology is done in some particular context, and my attempts are no different, so here for the record is my story. I was not baptised as a baby. I grew up in a missionary family, regularly hearing the gospel call to repent of my sins and trust in Christ Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. I genuinely responding at periodic intervals. As a teenager I finally chose to be baptised at the age of seventeen, but it wasn’t until a year later that I had my first significant encounter with God–which some might call my conversion experience, although I was already converted, and some might call my baptism in the Spirit, though I didn’t speak in tongues until another divine encounter three years later.
So in baptising my son Isaac, my prayer is that he would come to encounter God more powerfully and more quickly than I have. I pray that he would know the importance of personal faith, but also know the blessing and the grace of being born into a story which God has already begun. I pray that he would know that he doesn’t need to wait until he’s become a prodigal with a testimony of despair before he can come running into the joyful festivity of the house of God.
Having said that, we need Baptists
So this is why I have baptised my son. But let me finish by saying that although I have come to be more persuaded by the reasons for baptising babies than for not, and although I find myself increasingly welcomed into the Anglican fold, I remain first and foremost a mere Christian and an interdenominational missionary.
And on the subject of what baptism is and how we should do it, I think one of the most important things to point out is that the New Testament gives us no detailed instructions on the subject. If God were incredibly worried about whether or not we baptise infants, then we would have a New Testament version of the book of Leviticus!
The key verse here is John 4:2, which points out that in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. And his disciples have a responsibility to think through the rationale behind why we do what we do, attempting to line up our fallible theologies with God’s infallible truth, while nevertheless boldly walking forward in faith that even our imperfect offerings are acceptable to God when given with a broken heart and contrite spirit.
We need those who will only baptise adults to remind us that faith is a personal decision, and that without individual repentance there will be no salvation. But we need those who will baptise children to remind us that salvation is not merely a solitary individual’s hope but a social reality, that our personal decisions are profoundly influenced by the community around us, and that before faith can be a voluntary decision there must a supernatural work of grace within the individual’s heart.
So whatever your convictions are regarding baptism, I ask that together with myself, and Taryn, and Isaac’s godparents, please would you (in the words of the baptismal liturgy)
–welcome Isaac and uphold him in his new life in Christ,
–trust God for his growth in faith,
–pray for him, draw him by your example into the community of faith and walk with him in the way of Christ,
–care for him and help him to take his place within the life and worship of the church.
May almighty God deliver Isaac from the powers of darkness, restore in him the image of his glory, and lead him in the light and obedience of Christ.