Are you interested in attending a Presbyterian or Reformed church, but you just haven’t been able to be convinced of the validity of infant baptism? If so, this post is especially for you.
The first thing to keep in mind in this: In Reformed theology, our belief in infant baptism doesn’t come from isolated Bible proof texts, but by considering Scripture as an organic whole.
In this post, I’ve tried to refine down the most concise and compelling case for Reformed infant baptism. Many of these ideas are influenced by Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology.
What is Christian baptism?
First, what is Christian baptism? In paraphrasing the Belgic Confession (Article 29), baptism is a sign that marks us as belonging to God and to His church (compare Exodus 12:48 with 1 Peter 2:9). It serves as His pledge to forever be our God, and the God of our children (Genesis 17:7). It also serves in the place of circumcision as the sign and seal of the righteousness of faith (compare Romans 4:11 and Colossians 2:11).
Baptism signifies that similar to the way water washes and cleans our body from dirt (1 Peter 3:21), the blood of Christ—by the power of the Holy Spirit—also internally cleanses the soul of sin and regenerates us and makes us pure in His sight (Hebrews 9:14). The promise of the gospel, which is sealed by baptism, is for us and our children (Acts 2:39).
Reasons for Infant Baptism
With this understanding of baptism, what is the strongest case for infant baptism? It’s ultimately built on three foundational pillars:
First, the children of believers are members of the covenant of grace.
They are members of the visible covenant community. God promised Abraham that He would be God to us and our children (Genesis 17:7). God’s promise was never cancelled; it was fulfilled in Christ (Galatians 3:16). All those who have faith in Jesus Christ are the true sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:7).
Second, baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant.
When Abraham believed God, God gave him the sign of circumcision, as it was “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (Romans 4:14). One must note that it was not related to Abraham being an ethnic Jew since Israel did not yet exist.
This is why Calvin could say, “Christ…accomplishes in us spiritual circumcision, not through means of that ancient sign…but by baptism” (Commentary on Colossians 2:8).
Berkhof also concurred that, “The covenant made with Abraham was primarily a spiritual covenant.”
We can see from these statements that baptism is the Christian equivalent to Jewish circumcision. Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). This is why believers are no longer circumcised. Baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace.
Thirdly, in the covenant of grace, the Old and New Testaments comprise one organic whole.
The Abrahamic promise (the beginning of the covenant of grace) is described as an “everlasting” covenant (Genesis 17:7). It is distinct from the Mosaic Law, which came 430 years later (Galatians 3:17). It was not annulled but came to fruition in Christ during the New Testament (Galatians 3:14).
Paul even calls the promise of the Abrahamic covenant “the gospel” (Galatians 3:8). He points Christians to Abraham as the paradigm of our faith, saying that Abraham is the father of us all (Romans 4:16).
“The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation” – John Calvin(Institutes 2.10.2).
The Westminster Confession describes this dynamic as, “There are not…two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.” There is one covenant of grace, which has two historical outworkings: the Old and New testaments.
In Acts 2:39, Peter assures the Jewish people of the unity of the Abrahamic promise and the gospel. With echoes of Genesis 17:7, he declares, “the promise is for you and for your children.” It is no accident that Peter used this phrase, since it shows the cohesiveness and unity of the covenant of grace.
Objections to Infant Baptism
As the concept of infant baptism begins to seem plausible in your mind, there are probably some objections your inner Baptist, friend, or family member may have. The top 3 objections are usually these:
Objection #1: Circumcision was just for ethnic Israel.
It’s true that circumcision later took on added significance as the covenant of grace progressed, but how does Paul use it? Notice that he directs us to the original reason Abraham received it (Romans 4:11). It was the sign and seal of the righteousness of faith, not a genetic marker for being an ethnic Jew.
If it was only for believers who professed faith, why did Abraham give it to his son Ismael? Here, we see the household concept in its Old Testament form. As a covenant child, Ismael received the sign without a profession of faith. Because the promise was for Abraham and his children, the covenant sign belonged to him as a birthright. Paul and Peter build on this same promise in the New Testament.
Objection #2: The New Testament never explicitly says to baptize children.
As Bavinck said, in the end “the validity of infant baptism depends exclusively on how Scripture regards the children of believers.” If we go back to the beginning, we see that children are included in the covenant community with the professed faith of even one of their parents (Genesis 17:7). For this reason, one should not overlook the significance of household baptisms in the New Testament (Acts 16:15,33; 1 Cor 1:16).
Additionally, think about this: If Baptists truly want to practice only those things explicitly said in the Bible, why do they celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday? Why do they allow women to partake of the Lord’s Supper? Where does the Bible command us to exclude children from baptism? Can we find these explicit commands in the New Testament? The short answer is no, we can’t.
Objection #3: We should just baptize based on a credible profession of faith.
The gospels and Acts describe a unique historical time of massive evangelism. Thousands and thousands of adults believe and are baptized. However, Acts also focuses on cases when only one parent came to faith: Lydia believed and “was baptized, and her household as well” (Acts 16:15). When the Philippian Jailer believed, “he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:33). No mention is made of a credible profession of faith by the other family members.
I use these examples, not to prove conclusively they are infant baptisms (although I believe it’s highly likely), but to show how consistent they are with the Abrahamic paradigm of giving the sign of the covenant to a believer’s household. After all, Peter gave his word that the gift of the gospel was for the believer and for their children (Acts 2:29).
Remember, the validity of infant baptism is connected to one’s membership in the covenant of grace. An infant is entitled to it “not by faith and repentance but only because of the covenant” (Bavinck).
Ultimately, the reason Reformed Christians baptize infants is that their children are in the covenant of grace. Although the covenant is administered differently in the New Testament, it is the same in essence. Hence, the children of believers are still included.
The case for infant baptism is similar to a circumstantial case in the world of Law. We do not have a smoking gun bible verse that says, “baptize your babies!”, but we have enough biblical evidence that, when compared, give a reasonable inference that infant baptism is true.
It is also a systematic theology case—similar to the Trinity. The Bible never says the word “Trinity” or the phrase, “baptize your babies!”, but it is implicit, meaning that it is implied though not plainly expressed. Infant baptism is a good and necessary consequence that is deduced from all of Scripture. It’s actually an extremely reasonable inference, especially with Paul linking circumcision with baptism (Colossians 2:11).
As you consider this case and prepare to render a verdict, remember that there is one Lord, one Faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8).
When you look at Scripture in this way, as one organic whole coming from one divine author, you can begin to see the complete picture: The promise of the gospel, and its sign and seal, is for you and your children.