Why Do Presbyterians Baptize Their Infants?

When Ali­cia & I start­ed vis­it­ing a Pres­by­ter­ian church a cou­ple of months ago, I knew that there were two areas of the­ol­o­gy which I’d have to get used to — those of Covenan­talism and infant bap­tism. I come from a firm dis­pen­sa­tion­al Bap­tist back­ground, and so have heard infant bap­tism and Covenan­talism derid­ed as hereti­cal untruths.

I still pro­ceed with cau­tion regard­ing Covenan­talism, though I con­fess that it is mak­ing pro­gres­sive­ly more sense to me; and the more sense it makes, the more frac­tured the Scrip­tures look when viewed through my pair of dis­pen­sa­tion­al glass­es that I’ve been hang­ing on to.

How­ev­er, today was essen­tial­ly my intro­duc­tion to infant bap­tism “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. The sub­ject of today’s new mem­ber’s class at church was, “What do we believe about bap­tism?” and a good por­tion of the class dealt with why Pres­by­te­ri­ans bap­tize babies. 

I will say that right now, I’m still cling­ing ever so cau­tious­ly to my Bap­tist roots in this mat­ter. Per­haps I shouldn’t,:”(Indeed, many such of my Bap­tist roots have already with­ered and died: King James Only­ism, the idea that con­tem­po­rary or rock wor­ship music is sin­ful, the idea that women must not wear pants, con­gre­ga­tion­al­ism, Semi­pela­gian­ism, and so on…)”: and time will tell that.

I do, how­ev­er, want to share with you what Pas­tor Tom briefly cov­ered in the class today. If you con­tin­ue, please remem­ber that for my part, the issue is between the Bap­tists’ “believ­er’s bap­tism” and the Pres­by­te­ri­ans’ view of bap­tism. The issue has noth­ing to do with bap­tism regen­er­a­tion or oth­er here­sies taught by such as the Roman Catholic Church.

Very quick­ly, if you do not already know what “believ­er’s bap­tism” is: Believ­er’s bap­tism is the prac­tice of bap­tiz­ing (typ­i­cal­ly, or exclu­sive­ly [as I have been taught], by immer­sion) only those who have believed in Jesus Christ as their Sav­ior, pro­fess­ing Him to be such before oth­ers. In oth­er words, infant bap­tism is pre­clud­ed because an infant can nei­ther under­stand who sin & sal­va­tion, let alone exer­cis­ing a salvif­ic faith in Jesus Christ.

So what of the Pres­by­ter­ian view of bap­tism? I’ll go through the out­line as objec­tive­ly as pos­si­ble, shar­ing what I learned as I learned it with­out attempt­ing to per­suade you to accept or reject the prac­tice. I’ll be fill­ing in some details that I remem­ber from the class as well as my own under­stand­ing of the Bible as well, for com­plete­ness’ sake. I’m in com­plete agree­ment with the first two points of the out­line (“What is a sacra­ment?” and “What is bap­tism?”), so I’ll jump in at the third point, “Who should be bap­tized?” in this first part. Part 2 (and pos­si­bly a Part 3) will con­tin­ue the out­line with answers to com­mon objec­tions to infant bap­tism and “How should bap­tism be admin­is­tered?”, respectively.

You are, of course, more than wel­come to ask ques­tions or strike up con­ver­sa­tion on any­thing to follow.

If you had a copy of this out­line in front of you, you would see that the answer to the ques­tion “Who should be bap­tized?” is a sim­ple one: “Those who pro­fess faith in Christ, and chil­dren of those who pro­fess faith in Christ.” So, why is that?

An Infant Baptism

There are a cou­ple of reasons:

(1) Abra­ham! Remem­ber Gen­e­sis 17? The Lord had made a covenant with Abra­ham, and as an out­ward sign of that covenant, cir­cum­ci­sion was insti­tut­ed (vv. 12,13). Now, “cut cut, snip snip” might not seem fan­tas­tic to our minds — indeed, nowa­days it is done most­ly for non-reli­gious rea­sons — but for Abra­ham and his prog­e­ny it was a very sig­nif­i­cant act, rep­re­sent­ing a covenant between them & the Creator.

So what does that have to do with infant bap­tism? Cir­cum­ci­sion, as a sign of faith and obe­di­ence in the covenant with God, was not just applied to believ­ing adults. It was also applied to their chil­dren (typ­i­cal­ly at 8 days of age) and even to their whole house­hold (ser­vants included).

The clos­ing few vers­es of Romans 2 make it very clear that the cir­cum­ci­sion insti­tut­ed in Gen­e­sis 17 is not what made a per­son an heir of the promise of Abra­ham. Indeed, those who were not cir­cum­cised out­ward­ly but were inward­ly faith­ful to God were count­ed as cir­cum­cised in His eyes. How­ev­er, cir­cum­ci­sion was such an impor­tant sign and was so close­ly tied to the covenant that we have vers­es such as Gen­e­sis 17:14 which link the two. We find the same kind of strong links in the New Tes­ta­ment between the for­give­ness of sins and bap­tism, actu­al­ly, which some have wrest­ed into teach­ing bap­tismal regeneration.

Any­way, I’m get­ting off the point here: Abra­ham applied a sign of faith to his chil­dren. This sign did not save them, nor did it prof­it them any­thing if they were not faith­ful to God.

Because of Abra­ham’s prac­tice, it stands to rea­son that Chris­tians — which have their roots in the Scrip­tures, not just the New Tes­ta­ment — may also apply a sign of faith to their chil­dren, infants included.

(2) As Chris­tians, that sign of our faith is not cir­cum­ci­sion; the prac­tice of bap­tism has super­seded it, as we can see in Colos­sians 2:9–12:

For in Him all the ful­ness of Deity dwells in bod­i­ly form, and in Him you have been made com­plete, and He is the head over all rule and author­i­ty; and in Him you were also cir­cum­cised with a cir­cum­ci­sion made with­out hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the cir­cum­ci­sion of Christ; hav­ing been buried with Him in bap­tism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the work­ing of God, who raised Him from the dead. NASB

I think most Chris­tians would accept that bap­tism is a sign of our faith eas­i­ly enough, so I won’t go too much into it here.

(3) The uni­fi­ca­tion of the Tes­ta­ments. “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abra­ham’s off­spring, heirs accord­ing to promise” Gala­tians 3:29, NASB.

Sim­ply put and as the out­line states, “The new Tes­ta­ment is the ful­fill­ment of the covenant with Abra­ham.” Go back and read Gen­e­sis 17 to refresh your mem­o­ry as to what the covenant with Abra­ham was; note care­ful­ly that it was between him and his off­spring. Now here we have a verse which states that Chris­tians are Abra­ham’s off­spring? What then? Well…

(4) Chris­tians have the same priv­i­lege as Old Tes­ta­ment believ­ers! Putting all of the above togeth­er, Chris­tians are free to bap­tize (bap­tism hav­ing replaced cir­cum­ci­sion) their chil­dren and infants (indeed, their whole house­holds) because as heirs of the promis­es made with Abra­ham, we have the right to apply a sign of faith to them.

This sign of faith is a com­mit­ment made by the par­ents to raise their chil­dren in the ways of the Lord, that one day (Lord will­ing) they would have their knowl­edge of God endued with faith in Jesus Christ by the grace of God.

I’m still some­what of a neo­phyte when it comes to Covenan­talism, how­ev­er it seems that infant bap­tism has its roots in it, at least accord­ing to what we can learn from the above. If “Abra­ham’s covenant” is sep­a­rate from “Moses’ covenant” which is sep­a­rate from the “New Covenant in Christ’s blood,” as Dis­pen­sa­tion­al­ism main­tains, then one could argue much more eas­i­ly for believ­er’s bap­tism. How­ev­er, due to the inter­con­nect­ed nature of the Tes­ta­ments, the fact that the gifts and the call­ings of God are irrev­o­ca­ble, and that in no uncer­tain terms Chris­tians are linked with the Abra­ham­ic Covenant, infant bap­tism seems eas­i­ly defensible.

Con­grat­u­la­tions, you’ve made it to the end of Part 1! I’m sure you have ques­tions or com­ments, so feel free to leave them. If you object to these teach­ings, speak up! Let iron sharp­en iron, though I do ask that that you not make bap­tism a mat­ter of division!:”(Unless, of course, you are teach­ing bap­tism regen­er­a­tion, which I believe to be a cor­rup­tion of the true gospel and thus a grounds for separation.)”:

In Part 2, you’ll find out the Pres­by­ter­ian answers to some com­mon objec­tions to the prac­tice of bap­tiz­ing infants. (And, if I feel like going far­ther, Part 3 will dis­cuss the mode of bap­tism — dunk­ing, pour­ing, or sprinkling?)

[Image cred­it & license. For the appella­tive­ly curi­ous read­ers, the baby’s name is Eamon. No, I do not know how it is pro­nounced, though Ä?-mun and Ä“-mun come to mind.]

Note: This was orig­i­nal­ly going to be one mono­lith­ic post cov­er­ing the entire sec­ond half of the out­line, but real­ized it’d be too big as I fin­ished up the “rea­sons why” por­tion, at which point I went back and added ref­er­ences to a tri­par­tite blog series. In light of that, there may be some por­tions of this post which still seem as though there should be more to this first part, though I did read through it once to make sure the con­ti­nu­ity was okay. If it isn’t, I apologize.

3 thoughts on “Why Do Presbyterians Baptize Their Infants?”

  1. I hap­pen to be split over the issue. I admit, I am a covenan­talist, as much as I know of the word (which, mind you, is very lit­tle. Haha­ha!). But, I affirme believ­er’s bap­tism over infant bap­tism, because, as was men­tioned, I think a Chris­t­ian must be able to rec­og­nize their sin­ful estate and be able to appre­ci­ate the mean­ing of bap­tism. Infants lack such capacities.

    But, I also find no fault with infant bap­tism because the Bible is so qui­et on it. Sure, we can look at the insti­tu­tion of cir­cum­ci­sion, but that does­n’t direct­ly say, “Bap­tize infants!” So, I believe that this issue is such that it should be decid­ed as the indi­vid­ual and the church, and nei­ther should con­demn the other.

  2. Paul Richard Strange, SR.

    I am a 53 year-old hus­band, dad, and grand­pa whose believ­ers’ bap­tism cer­tain­ties were jolt­ed many years ago by read­ing a pam­phlet writ­ten by the late Fran­cis Scha­ef­fer, who I great­ly admired! But, as the writ­ers above, I held on to the believ­ers bap­tism view, as a pref­er­ence, in spite of not see­ing it as a strict con­vic­tion. It seemed at this time that some­thing could be said for being aware of the con­scious par­tic­i­pa­tion of one’s baptism.

    God prov­i­den­tial­ly pre­vent­ed me from hav­ing the influ­ence to make a strong case for the priv­i­lege of infant bap­tism, once I became thor­ough­ly con­vinced that it has enor­mous­ly pos­i­tive ben­e­fits for Chris­t­ian cul­ture over generations!

    The Evan­gel­i­cal Covenant Church is one which treats both views equal­ly, which is very dif­fi­cult. I com­mend them!

    Soon, my heart is over­whelmed with joy that my first grand­son will be born in Octo­ber 2007 and bap­tized as a covenant child in ful­fill­ment of God’s promise to Abra­ham. This could help influ­ence my oth­er chil­dren, who lean toward covenan­talism, to go ahead and accept the log­i­cal con­clu­sion of the fact that Chris­tians are Abra­ham’s kids!

    In the King of kings

    119 Mar­vin Gardens
    Wax­a­hachie Texas 75165

    [email protected]

  3. King James Only­ism, the idea that con­tem­po­rary or rock wor­ship music is sin­ful, the idea that women must not wear pants, con­gre­ga­tion­al­ism, Semipelagianism.…

    Obvi­ous­ly, these have noth­ing to do with the his­toric Bap­tist faith. And from my expe­ri­ence, you find as many crack­pot Pres­bys as Bap­tists. For them, it is most­ly extreme views around scrip­ture, divine omnipo­tence, pre­des­ti­na­tion, atone­ment, and church and state. The mad­den­ing thing is the Pres­bys think all their views are obvi­ous even though they were unknown on the ear­ly church. But that’s the prob­lem with arro­gance, it’d a psy­cho­log­i­cal fruit of igno­rance that is sub­con­scious­ly recognized.

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Rick Beckman