Today was an exciting day for us here in Codlea, as we had the first ever infant baptism in our church. While Catalina and I have experienced many other infant baptismal ceremonies, including the ceremonies of our two children, this one was unlike any we had seen before. Sure, it was in Romanian. That was a first. But the truly unique aspect was that it was a ceremony unto itself. It wasn't a five minute ceremony sandwiched in the middle of a church service. It was its own event. The baptism took place on a Saturday, much of the church and many friends and family from outside the church attended, we had corporate worship, and then we all ate together. It was the the most weighty and celebratory baptism we had ever been to.
When you get a little older, it is sometimes funny to look back on some of the things you believed and just laugh - or cringe. This happens to everyone regardless of what background you have. We all have biases and blindspots based on the beliefs of our parents, community, culture, and country of birth as well as from our personal experiences. While many of the beliefs we develop and inherit may hold true once we test them out, there are a number of assumptions we make and beliefs we create that are simply unsubstantiated. As I began to test out the Christian faith in college, I did not find it wanting. There was no doubt in my mind that the God of the Bible is the one and only, true, living God. But as I hashed out some of the finer points of theology, I was drawn towards the coherence I found in Reformed theology. There are certainly some very glaring difficulties in the Reformed faith, but I found it to hold up under the scrutiny of reality much better than anything else. In the end, the last doctrine that kept me from being fully on-board with our new church and its Reformed faith was the doctrine of infant baptism.
As Catalina and I got closer and closer to having kids, the weight of baptism theology really began to weigh on me. I spoke with a number of individuals in our church, I read a number of books, and I did a good bit of research. Nothing helped me in my decision. I was 50-50 all the way. I understood the idea behind infant baptism, but I just couldn't get far enough to make that leap of commitment. Then I happened across a fantastic book that was published in 1884. It was far better and far more thorough than any of the more modern works I had read. Not only was this little book extremely insightful, but it was also a fun read. Authors back in the day were pretty feisty fellows who threw witty remarks back and forth. What is rude to us today was quite commonplace back then, it seems. You can see this alone in the title of the book, "The Impotent Argument Against Biblical Baptism." This book addressed the historical mode of baptisms, the cultural context of baptism in the New Testament, the theology behind baptism, proof texts, and it defended the strongest arguments against infant baptism and sprinkling. It is a fantastic read. If you have never really thought about why you believe what you do about baptism - if you haven't ever tested your view - I strongly recommend that you check out this book. It helped me to go from 50-50 to 70-30.
That brings us to the post at hand. My goal here isn't to change your mind as to how one should be baptized. In fact, the author of the aforementioned book says kind of the same thing. He thinks that the biblical baptism is for infants of believing parents (and new believers, if they have never been baptized) and is most accurately performed through sprinkling, but he doesn't think it's an issue that pertains to salvation. Rather, he's pushing back against those in his day who were trying to make a case that wasn't there, and then imposing that view on everyone else in order for them to be considered a good Christian, or a Christian at all. My goal here, then, is to present some of the most meaningful reasons I believe in infant baptism and sprinkling. I don't intend to defend this position as much as I seek to explain why infant baptism is important to me and how I believe this view elevates the beauty of this sacrament that God has instituted. If you want to see my more lengthy defense of the subject, you can find that here.
1) Who does the work in baptism?
My journey to the Reformed faith was a long one, with the first seeds sown in my life by my middle school history teacher, Mr. Renoe. I attended a private school, in case you were wondering. While I didn't fully commit to Reformed thinking for over a decade - after college - the core belief that kept drawing me in throughout that whole journey was where the emphasis in reformed thinking lay. The older I got and the more reflective I grew, I began to see my own heart as much darker than I could have ever imagined, and I began to throw off some of the cultural blinders I had inherited that elevated individualism and humanity. Unlike the assumptions I held early in life - that man was basically good and we just needed a little boost to do the right thing and choose God - the Reformed faith told me how sinful I truly am, along with the rest of humanity. It showed me how desperately I needed God to save me all the way. While both views acknowledged the need for God in salvation, the views on the role and state of God and man were significantly different. I just couldn't reconcile a non-Reformed view of man and God with the Bible.
I think the issue of baptism is sort of a summary of one's view on salvation. Whereas I used to see baptism as my profession of faith unto God, my current view is that baptism is a representation of God's work on us. How are we raised unto new life? We are sprinkled with the blood of the lamb. The Holy Spirit comes down upon us. The imagery we see in the Bible of ceremonial washings, proclamations, and cleansings is one where the element comes down upon the person - David's head has oil poured on it, the altar is sprinkled with blood, the Holy Spirit comes down upon Jesus. The vessel is come upon by the element. While baptism is rightfully experienced by new believers, it is much more than us telling God that we're on his team now. It is a reminder to us that "the wind blows wherever it pleases..." and that wind has landed upon us and birthed us in the Spirit. The Reformed view of baptism makes it a sacrament that shows the work as being done by a God who comes upon our lives and cleanses us unto sanctification. Yes, baptism is in a sense a profession of faith when it is administered to new believers. But its administration is first and foremost a declaration of God's work on us.
2) Who is baptism for?
One of the key distinctions between many Reformed denominations and other evangelicals is their view of covenant theology. Covenant theology essentially views the Bible as one big, connected work of God. All throughout history God has instituted the covenant of grace. Other evangelicals tend to hold to dispensationalism. Dispensational theology seems to view the Bible more in stages. While the Bible is all connected, it is more segmented. I like to think of covenant theology as one long movie that ties everything together whereas dispensational theology seems to be more like a James Bond series. While every Bond movie has the same main character, though it often has a different actor, and the object of all the movies is essentially the same (save the world), there is a lot of discontinuity. You can view some Bond films on their own, enjoying and understanding them just fine. While it may help to have reference to all the other films to understand every in and out, the movies often work just as well separately as they do in a collective.
I absolutely love the continuity that covenant theology brings to the Bible. It connects everything. It made me much more interested in reading the Old Testament - something most people never do because they don't see the relevance, especially under dispensational theology. Why watch an old black and white Bond film (do those exist?) when I could just watch the newer more updated ones? When you begin seeing the work of God as one continuous, coherent work - everything connects. When we view the Bible in a much more connected way and we look back to what preceded baptism and ask how baptism came about and what it symbolized, we see some very interesting connections.
The first symbol God instituted for his covenant people was circumcision. This mandate preceded the ceremonial law and was instituted not only for consenting adults, but for all members of their families - including infants. There are two important things to note here. First, since this wasn't a ceremonial observance, like sacrifices, it's hard to say that circumcision just goes away with the rest of the ceremonial law, because it's not a part of that. Second, if God included infants in the visible covenant body in the Old Testament, it seems strange that God would narrow the community and exclude infants in the New Testament covenant community.
So let's take a look at baptism as an extension of circumcision. Circumcision was a visible sign of God's covenant with someone. It was done to all male members of the community even before a decision could be made to enter that community. Circumcision was done to male converts as well, and was also applied to their children. Circumcision was not a guarantee of God's salvation, but was rather a promise of God that he would work within this visible community to move beyond a circumcision of the flesh to circumcise the heart.
Baptism seems to be a very obvious extension of circumcision if you view God's work under Covenant Theology. Baptism was the new sign of the visible, covenant body of God. It was done not only to those who came to faith in Christ, but to their families (Acts 16:25-34). Baptism is a sign of God's promised work on us (circumcision of the heart/cleansing of the heart) and not a guarantee of salvation. And in the New Testament, rather than seeing this sign retracted, we see it expand. In the OT only male Jews were circumcised. In the NT, males and females are baptized. How strange it would seem to then detract from the group that God had already approved in the OT by removing the sign of the covenant from children of believers and converts. It would have been absolutely foreign to the Apostles to initiate new believers into the covenant family without also initiating their children, yet we see no specific command that such a thing be done. The context of the Old Testament inclusion, the context of the New Testament baptism of households, and the context of silence in prohibition amidst the common Jewish understanding at the time all point towards baptism being extended to the children of believers.
Throughout God's redemption of humanity he has chosen to work through families. It seems strange to change such a notion so late in the game, especially when no change is expressly stated. When you consider that through much of church history - many Christian sects throughout most of Christian history since some of the earliest recordings of the early church baptized in this manner - it seems crazy to not at least give the baptism of infants a hearing.
3) What benefits does baptism provide to parents and infants?
Baptism benefits infants and children by treating them as the church.
If baptism is best symbolized by sprinkling or pouring, as it represents God's spirit and cleansing coming upon us - and if baptism is for all who believe and for their children (including infants), then how does this change the modern notion many evangelicals in the United States have of baptism? First and foremost it places the emphasis on God.
Baby dedications can be wonderful things, but I think they stand in sharp contrast to infant baptisms in a number of ways. A baby dedication is placing the emphasis on the work of the parents. Parents are telling God that they give their child to him and vow to train their child and take good care of him or her. While many infant baptisms have similar sorts of vows (see below), the event feels much different. Rather than handing my child over to God, I am acknowledging that God, in his providence, has placed my child in our family and has already begun his work in my child's life. I am not handing my child over to God, I am acknowledging that God already has my child and I am submitting to him. That slight but significant distinction can only be made because the reformed tradition acknowledges that the children of believers are part of the visible covenant family.
[Parental vows at our child's baptism]
1. Do you acknowledge your child’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit?
2. Do you claim God’s covenant promises in (his) behalf, and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for (his) salvation, as you do for your own?
3. Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before (him) a godly example, that you will pray with and for (him), that you will teach (him) the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring (him) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?
We obviously understand that just because you baptize your children, it doesn't mean you hold this high view of their incorporation into the community of Christ. One of the reasons so many Christians believe infant baptism is vacuous (and one reason I used to be numbered among them) is because many churches who institute infant baptism do so either merely ritualistically or they have smuggled in notions that baptism is a saving work. I get that. But you need to understand that if you truly believe and live out the theology behind the infant baptism that's on paper, you won't find anything else that is so powerful in conveying the importance of children in the corporate community of the church. As parents, this is a terrible thing to behold - for the weight of responsibility that comes with the duty to train and the duty to avoid being a stumbling block is immense. But it is also a beautiful thing to behold because its symbol is a reminder that God is mighty to save and it is he that we must rely on to do a work in our children, and to continue bringing his good work to completion within ourselves as well. Infant baptism is a scary, but hopeful theology.
Last October we lost a child through a miscarriage. This event of course brought up some theological questions in a new light, namely "what happens to children who die?" The pat answer I have always received is that all children who die go to heaven. I understand God's affinity for children and I understand that he is just, but I also know that we are born sinners and we go to hell because of who we are, not because we didn't have a chance to accept Christ as our Lord. Yes, choosing to follow Christ saves us, but the lack of opportunity is not what condemns us. Our own sin condemns us. If those who died outside of Israel in the OT and if those who have never heard today are condemned, then why not children? We know that nobody is without sin and we know that everyone who comes into this world will sin if given the opportunity, so how could the circumstance of an early death grant someone a ticket to heaven? That view seemed naive to me. But for as long as I believed that it was my decision that was the linchpin for my salvation, it was the best answer I could give.
It may seem strange to some to believe that there is even a question about whether or not all children who die are saved (see this article for various views). But for those who believe in original sin or federal headship, this topic is up for debate. If Adam represented all of humanity, showing us what we all would have done if given the same opportunity, then we are all guilty. In some ways that doesn't seem quite fair, as I didn't commit the sin of Adam. Yet I was in Adam. I come from Adam. And because of this - because of the fall - before anyone is born we can already be 100% confident that they will live a life of choosing evil. It is who we are.
While this guilt in Adam is an unfortunate truth, federal headship is also awesome because though through one man (Adam) we are all sinners, this representation allows us all to be redeemed through one man (Christ). Federal headship, or representation, is vital to our salvation and is one of the ways in which God works. But what is really cool is that God also does this on a smaller scale in the family. In I Corinthians 7:14 we see Paul say, "For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." The children of at least one believing parent are considered as set apart and distinct because their parent represents them before God.
Once I understood Reformed theology I became much more satisfied with my options in answering such a difficult question as "what happens to children who die?" Salvation moved away from the realm of chance, circumstances, and the mustering of willpower to make a decision, and moved into the realm of God's power. The God who could fill John the Baptist with his spirit while in the womb is able to speak to and save some, any, or all whom he wills - regardless of their age or mental state. He does not choose based upon circumstance, but rather upon his good pleasure and will, based upon his just and merciful character. Knowing what I know, that God tends to work through families and sets them apart, knowing that God calls the children of his children "clean" and "holy," and knowing that my God is powerful to initiate and save, I trust that my child has been called to him. While our child was obviously never baptized, it isn't the baptism that saves. It is God. But believing what I do about salvation, as represented in the mode and method in which we baptize, I believe that God has saved our child because it is our God who comes upon us to save.
The baptism of infants is a sign and seal of God's provision and calling
Let me start with a quote from Mackay's book, keeping in mind that the term "Baptist" here represents those who believe in believer's baptism:
If a friend should propose to inveﬆ valuable property for the infant child of a Baptiﬆ and should wish the parent to sign certain papers, would that Baptiﬆ say, Of what benefit can this ceremony be to an unconscious child? Would he indulge in expressions of ridicule at the thought of doing such a thing for a “senseless baby?” Baptiﬆs might as well ask in regard to the children of God’s ancient Church, What good will circumcision do? for little children, eight days old, could not underﬆand the nature of it. Indeed, there were some who asked this very queﬆion. And the apoﬆle, with a holy indignation, made reply, “Much every way” (Rom.3:1-2). In the days of His flesh our Lord blessed little children. These children were “infants.” They could underﬆand no more than infants can now underﬆand; but yet Chriﬆ blessed them. Was that blessing “no good?” Will Baptiﬆs say that our Lord’s blessing was “a mockery,” “a meaningless form,” “a farce?” They dare not. Then I argue that if Chriﬆ could beﬆow a blessing – a real spiritual blessing – on unconscious infants, in the days of His flesh, He can beﬆow a blessing – a real spiritual blessing – on unconscious infants ﬆill. And who can say that He will not do it if they are dedicated to Him in solemn ordinance by believing, praying parents? Here the teﬆimony of the great and good Matthew Henry on this point: – “I cannot but take occasion to express my gratitude for my infant baptism; not only as it was an early admission into the visible body of Chriﬆ, but as it furnished my parents with a good argument, and I truﬆ, through grace, a prevailing argument, for an early dedication of myself to God in my childhood. If God has wrought any good work upon my soul, I desire with humble thankfulness to acknowledge the influence of my infant baptism upon it.”
I want to emphasize again that baptism isn't an issue of salvation. Nevertheless, it is one of the two sacraments we observe in evangelical churches and it is vital that we understand what God is trying to convey. With the Eucharist, I believe God is providing us with a tangible means of the work he did through Christ to pay for our sins. It is the broken body and the spilled out blood for the remission of our sins. It is God's work towards us. I think baptism is intended to likewise be a tangible reminder of something spiritual. It is the representation of God's spirit being poured out on his people and cleansing them. Like the Eucharist, I believe it is intended to be a symbol of something God does towards us.
In reformed circles, while infants are baptized they are not given communion. It might seem a little backwards, as if the symbol of washing and sprinkling should follow the sacrifice. But we believe that salvation faith is preceded by regeneration and washing. God first comes upon us to renew us, and that renewal is what opens our eyes to believe in faith. Just as the offering in the OT was eaten after atonement was made by the sprinkling of blood on the altar, so it is with baptism and the Eucharist here. Though the lamb is slaughtered for the sacrifice before its blood is sprinkled on the altar of atonement, it is only feasted upon after one has been cleansed.
I believe that instituting baptism in the manner I have advocated upholds scriptural integrity, church tradition, and the most accurate depiction of God's work in salvation. If the Reformers who threw out just about every vestige of ceremonial Catholicism they found man-made and vain at the time, yet kept infant baptism, such a church history says a lot. They kept this baptism because they thought it appropriately emphasizes God's extension of grace towards us rather than making salvation a celebration of our work of faith. This view of baptism also provides believers with a reminder of God's special work through families and provides parents hope and assurance especially as it pertains to the loss of a child. This view of baptism appropriately continues the legacy of treating children of believers as members of the visible church and provides those children with a sense of confidence and awe as they look back to the mark God placed upon them before they could speak his name.
I hope you were able to give this issue some good thought and I hope you'll pick up Mackay's digital book linked at the top. We would love to dialogue with you and answer any questions you might have. Thanks for hearing us out and walking beside us as we seek to learn together.
*If you're interested in a much more in-depth look at the reasons we baptize infants and use the mode of sprinkling or pouring, you can find that here.