On October 15, God-willing, Melissa and I plan to have our new daughter Julia baptized at our church. She will be one month old, and I am fairly certain neither a full immersion nor a personal profession of faith by her will be a part of the ceremony! This upsets many Christians – and confuses many friends of mine – so I thought I would give a brief explanation, as a father and an Anglican pastor, to try to walk you through why over 80% of Christians globally (and almost all historically) baptize their babies.
DISCLAIMER: I want to start by saying this is not a “gospel issue” for me, that is to say, I don’t believe the act of baptizing a baby or not is worth splitting the Church over. This is certainly an issue Christians in Canada and historically in Europe have feuded over, but it is not one that I feel in our current cultural climate is worth spending much time or energy fighting for or against. The gospel is the good news of great joy for all people that God so loves the world that He willingly offered up his one and only beloved Son, and that whoever believes in Jesus will not perish but instead, amazingly, will share in God’s eternal life. The Christian faith is all about God’s grace, there is no form of baptism or human works that merits this incredible gift that came at such an incredible cost. The Kingdom of God is at hand, this is good news for all people, and the details of how you or I conduct baptism is not as important as proclaiming God’s gospel to a world that is dying to hear it.
For some, this is a big issue. Churches have split over this. Christians have murdered Christians over this. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have said to me, “I love the Anglican Church, I would gladly join it, but I just can’t get over infant baptism.” Fair enough. Let me try to explain where we come from.
God’s Covenant with (not just) Abraham
I want to focus on only one biblical text to defend baptizing believers’ babies: God’s covenant with Abraham and his family in Genesis 17.
God in His limitless grace chooses an infertile, adulterous, nomadic nobody named Abram and promises him blessing, land and a massive family. And God says,
“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (Genesis 17:7)
Question: Who is included in God’s covenant with Abraham?
…and one other party:
3: Your [Abraham’s] offspring after you. (to underline the point, God mentions this two more times in the same breath, in verses 9 and 10)
God’s covenant with Abraham, one of the most important passages of Scripture, is not God’s covenant with only Abraham, but includes in it Abraham’s future descendants, none of whom exist yet. Think about that! Abraham has no legitimate children at this time, he is old, his wife is infertile, and yet, God brings Abraham’s non-existent children to the table and includes them in this cosmic covenant – without any personal profession on their part! Abraham speaks on behalf of his family and his descendants when he accepts God’s covenant.
The sign of this covenant is circumcision of the male infants born to Abraham’s family – a visible sign of the invisible promise God made in Genesis 17. They are children of God by birthright, before they have any idea of what that means.
In biblical history, God chooses a people and makes them His people. God chooses a family, not just an individual, and makes a covenant with them. And throughout Scripture children are included from birth into God's covenant.
I assume you see where I am going. God’s covenant with Abraham is actually God’s Covenant with Israel, with Abraham’s whole future family, even though they had no agency to accept or reject God’s promise.
Baptism is the New Circumcision
Paul in Colossians 2:11-12 draws the line between circumcision for Israel in the Old Testament and baptism for the new People of God in the New Testament:
"In [Jesus] 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." (Col 2:11-12)
For Paul, baptism is the new circumcision, the new visible sign of God’s invisible grace. Paul calls baptism the circumcision of Christ, and suggests baptism operates in much the same way as circumcision did for God’s people in the Old Testament, opening the door for infants to be baptized just as infants were circumsized.
Critique #1: Absence of a Personal Profession of Faith
“But what of a personal profession of faith?” You demand. “What of faith being required for salvation?”
A personal faith in the saving work of God through Jesus Christ is required for salvation. It always has been that way, and it always will be.
A baptism of any form at any age without any faith ever exhibited in that person holds no power to save anyone. I don’t believe any kind of baptism has the final say in the salvation of an individual. If a baptism determined one’s salvation, then salvation comes by human works; actions that we commit meriting our salvation. This notion betrays the gospel of grace that we have received.
For churches such as mine which baptize babies, we require, once the child is of age to make their own decision, a public, personal profession of faith. This is called Confirmation, where an individual confirms the baptism vows their parents made on their behalf. Confirmation is when a person confirms the faith present in their family at their baptism is now their own as well, and by making a personal profession of faith the person becomes a mature disciple of Jesus. I still believe a personal profession of faith is crucial to following Jesus.
Critique #2: New Testament Precedent
But what of biblical precedent? Jesus was baptized as an adult, as were every other convert whose baptism is told of in Scripture. So how can I claim to be "biblical" when there is no clear biblical precedent?
For this we need to use common sense. There obviously weren’t any Christians before Jesus’ generation, which is the time the New Testament was written in. So of course no babies were baptized, because no one was baptized (in the Christian sense)! No one had faith in Jesus before Jesus, so no one was baptized in his name, so none of their children would have been baptized yet either.
Once the New Testament starts to deal with the generation after Jesus, namely in Acts, we get, as we would expect, three accounts of an adult coming to faith, and then immediately being baptized with their entire household (a word which includes the children of that family). So it is conceivable, although not explicit, that as early as the generation after Jesus, children were baptized into their parents’ faith before they had any idea of what was happening. (See Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33; 1 Corinthians 1:16)
My goal is not to get all my Baptist, Pentecostal and Anabaptist friends to rush to baptize their babies (despite a title that may explicitly suggest the opposite!). God in His wisdom has given us a beautiful diversity of churches with distinct and beautiful expressions of biblical faith. I have no problem with believers’ baptism, and celebrate when anyone comes to faith in Christ in any biblical church.
But I hope I have at least opened your hearts to the slim possibility that I am not a heretic, that it is possible to be a Bible-believing traditional Christian and yet still celebrate the baptism of babies to Christian parents.
So this Sunday, at 11am, come and celebrate Julia, and the grace that she has been born into.