As we consider Baptism we are reminded that the Church does not extend Baptism on the basis of our ability to see with certainty that all who receive the sign of Baptism receive the thing signified. With adults whom we baptize we have no certainty that their confession is legitimate … still we baptize adults on the basis of God’s command and promise. Those who want absolute certainty can never dispense any sacrament to anybody. We likewise baptize our children on the basis of God’s command and promise and not on the basis of our ability to do what only God can do and that is to know with certainty the elect vs. unelect status of the one coming for Baptism.
Still, having said that we are likewise confident that those who receive the sign of Baptism and never repudiate, by word or action in a sustained direction, God’s covenantal seal, are saved because of God’s faithfulness to His covenant.
Having said that by way of introductory comments let us examine some of what the Scripture teaches on Baptism.
1.) First of all, we need to overcome our astonishment over the fact that the New Testament nowhere explicitly mentions infant baptism. In point of fact it would be unusual if infant baptism would have been explicitly mentioned in the NT since the ancient frame of mind was covenantal. People seldom make a point of droning on and on about that which is obvious and which everyone knows and in the ancient world everyone knew that God dealt with families covenantally — God’s household had always included children. The astonishment does not lie in the fact that the NT nowhere explicitly mentions infant baptism. The astonishment should lie in the fact that the NT nowhere explicitly mentions that the children are no longer partakers of the covenant and recipients of God’s promises until reaching some magic but undetermined age of discretion.
Another reality we must take into consideration here is that with the NT we have the age of the collection and expansion of the Church come of age. Jesus told his disciples to disciple the Nations and we would expect to find that in that first generation those who would be first discipled and Baptized would be adults, and so of course it is adults that we find first mentioned as Baptized, yet still with hints about the inclusion of children.
There is another astonishment factor here and that is if the current popular view is correct we should be astonished that there is no record in the NT of adult children of previously baptized adults being Baptized.
2.) In the OT the sign of the covenant was circumcision. According to Colossians 2:11-13 this circumcision, having fulfilled its function as a bloody rite that was indicative of Christ’s bloody sacrifice, gives way to Baptism as the non bloody sign of the covenant. In Colossians 2 St. Paul is not mixing his metaphors when he seamlessly glides between circumcision and Baptism.
11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
St. Paul seamlessly glides between these two because he understands that there is a relation between the two of them as there is a relation between shadow and fulfillment. Circumcision was the shadow covenant sign that, with its bloody rite, pointed towards Christ but Christ having come, the bloody rite gives way to a water rite that points back to the cleansing Christ accomplished via the spilling of His blood. It was the Lord Christ Himself who ordained Baptism as the covenantal rite of membership.
Because of St. Pauls language here, as well as the way the rest of the NT speaks, we see it as legitimate to speak of Baptism as God’s means by which He cures us of sin. Men are born sinners, bent on insisting that he is the creator of meaning and that all reality must orbit with him as the center. Men, apart from Christ, are bent. They are rebellious and selfish. God offers Baptism as the cure to this wound in man that will bring man back to his senses. Such a statement is not meant to diminish the importance of regeneration, faith, and conversion, it is merely to note the Baptism is the objective marker which proclaims these elements of the ordo salutis. When we Baptize our children we are proclaiming that we agree with God that they are sinners. When we baptize our children we are agreeing with God that our children can only find the cure for sin in God’s provision.
3.) Note in the Colossians passage that there is an objective subjective nexus which we often speak of here. Objectively the cure for our sins is the cutting off (Circumcision) of Christ. When Christ was cut off God’s elect were saved. However, that salvation was made existential to them when they were baptized and so that salvation provided for them, in the death of Christ, is applied to them in Baptism and so they are saved. It is fascinating that here the “forgiveness of sins” is connected both to Christ’s Objective work on the Cross AND to a Baptism conveyed in space and time to each one of the saints. Because this is true, for the rest of our lives, we look back through our Baptism in order to see our death and resurrection with Christ. When we are beset with temptation we remember our Baptism. When we desire to grow in Christlikeness we talk about “improving our Baptism.” When we attend a Baptism service we are reminded again that we have been marked as the people of God eager for good works. When we see the consecrated water we are reminded that we were regenerated by the washing of the Word.
Baptism communicates Christ. It is not merely so much water and a mental recalling of what Christ has done. It is, in God’s ineffable ordination, the work of Christ come to us for the washing away of sin.
4.) Because in the Colossians passage there is such a seamless gliding between OT circumcision and NT Baptism we become convinced that those who received the sign of the covenant in the OT ought to be the same who receive the sign of the covenant in the NT. In the OT children were recipients of the sign of the covenant — circumcision. In the NT likewise it should be the case that children are included in the household of God.
Paul uses this phrase, “The Household of God” in Ephesians and we would only note that God’s household in the OT was always busy with children and there is nothing that would indicate that God’s household in the NT is now bereft of children.
5.) We would note there that the seamlessness between circumcision and Baptism is not the only indicator that children as members of the covenant should be given the sign of the covenant. We need to remember that the covenant is the means by which God in space and time connects the invisible elect to the visible Church. The covenant has always been the means by which God collects His elect into the Church and God does so in a very concrete and organic way. This covenant that God has ordained to be the means by which the elect are gathered into the visible Church has never been established by means of collecting a set of abstracted individuals. Throughout time God has collected His Church through the channels of family. As the family belonged to God, so the children of that family belonged to God. The covenant embraced children not just for the sake of their person as isolated, but instead as connected to their families as considered historically as “the people of God.” When we delimit Baptism as belonging only to atomistic individuals we delimit the organic interconnectedness of the one people of God in their generations throughout time and space. When we delimit Baptism as belonging only to atomistic individuals we testify against the faithfulness of God to a thousand generations.
On this score Dutch theologian Bavinck could offer,
“Specifically the children are regarded in their connection with their larger family. There is a kind of communion of parents and children in sin and misery. But over against this, God has also established a communion of parents and children in grace and blessing. Children are a blessing and heritage from the Lord (Ps. 127:3). They are always counted along with their parents and included with them. Together they prosper (Exod. 20:6; Deut. 1:36, 39; 4:40; 5:29; 12:25, 28). Together they serve the Lord (Deut. 6:2; 30:2; 31:12–13; Josh. 24:15; Jer. 32:39; Ezek. 37:25; Zech. 10:9). The parents must pass on to the children the acts and ordinances of God (Exod. 10:2; 12:24, 26; Deut. 4:9–10, 40; 6:7; 11:19; 29:29; Josh. 4:6, 21; 22:24–27). The covenant of God with its benefits and blessings perpetuates itself from child to child and from generation to generation (Gen. 9:12; 17:7, 9; Exod. 3:15; 12:17; 16:32; Deut. 7:9; Ps. 105:8; and so forth). While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations. “For the infants of believers their first and foremost access of salvation is the very fact of their being born of believing parents.”
6.) The idea of Baptism for children is given credence by the way that Jesus speaks of and interacts with children. Despite the fact that Israel is rejecting Christ, the Lord Christ continues to speak of the children of the children of Israel as belonging to the covenant (Matt. 18:2ff.; 19:13ff.; 21:15–16.; Mark 10:13ff.; Luke 9:48; 18:15ff.). The Lord Christ calls the children to himself, embraces them, blesses them, lays hands on them, tells them that theirs is the Kingdom of heaven, insists that adults must become like children to enter into the Kingdom, warns adults of the consequences of offending his little children, tells us that their angels watch over them, and receives the Hosannas of the Herald children as fulfillment of prophecy. The Lord Christ connects children to the covenant in all of this and yet we are to believe that children should be abused by not giving them the sign of the covenant?
Now couple that observation with the observation that in the book of Acts the Jews complain bitterly about Gentiles coming into the Kingdom without Circumcision and yet we hear not a peep in the book of Acts from anybody complaining about the idea that their children, who for generations received the sign of the covenant and so were members of the covenant, are no longer to be regarded as members of the community of God. Never has a argument from silence screamed so loudly.
7.) Reading the NT corpus we understand that the covenant of Grace established with Israel remains in essence the same though its outworking is altered slightly with the reality come in Christ. The Church has superseded Israel as the people of God with God as their Father. Here we find the theme of organism again. The Church is Temple, it is a body, it is a household. And here we pause briefly at the idea of household.
Repeatedly in the NT we find the fact that Households were baptized (There are specific references to household baptisms in the New Testament. See Acts 10; 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16). We readily concede that children are NOT specifically mentioned in those Baptisms, but even in the light of that concession we still glow about how the household Baptisms scream for inclusion of God’s children. As long as household baptisms were pursued it really is irrelevant whether or not children were present in those Baptisms since what Household Baptisms communicates is that on the principle of household Baptism if children had been present they would certainly have been concluded. Even with the Lord Christ we find Zacchaeus believing and our Lord saying, “that salvation has come to his house (Luke 19:9).” Note … not just to Zacchaeus but to his house.
When we consider all this we now can hear Acts 2:39 with different ears. “The promise is to you and to your children and to all who are afar off whom the Lord our God shall call.”