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Who Should be Baptized?

Most of us would agree that baptism is for believers. But, of course, this is something that’s been debated for hundreds of years, and we work closely with churches who disagree on this with us. So why would we believe that baptism is only for believers? Here is a brief summary of the argument.

Argument for Infant Baptism

To start out with, we need to understand the argument on the other side of this debate. Some of us may be surprised—and a bit unprepared—for how good an argument it is. Now, most people alive today who baptize their babies do so because they believe that baptism removes original sin. Because they’re Roman Catholics. And they don’t believe in salvation by faith alone. That's not really the point of this article. Instead, the focus with those who agree with us on the gospel—like evangelical Presbyterians and Anglicans—yet who still baptize infants. To use a technical term, who is a “paedobaptist.”

In short, the argument is that baptism is the New Covenant continuation of the sign and seal of circumcision. A paedobaptist will point out that in the Old Testament, God intended children to be part of the covenant he made with Israel, and the sign and seal of that covenant was circumcision. Circumcision wasn’t only for infants, but it was mainly applied to infants. And this rite was so important that the Lord says to Moses in Exodus 12 that no uncircumcised male should participate in Passover.

So when we get to the New Testament, the strong presumption is that children will continue to be included in the covenant—unless we get clear teaching to the contrary. But now, the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism, not circumcision. So now it applies to all children, not just baby boys. Not surprising then, in Acts 2 when Peter proclaims “Repent and be baptized” as I read earlier, he follows with “For the promise is for you and for your children.” Case closed.

Argument for Believer-Only Baptism

So what does Northside say to that? A summation of a few points may be helpful here. Please note that the controversy here isn’t whether believers should be baptized. Virtually no person on earth who calls themselves Christian would disagree with that. It’s whether believers alone should be baptized.

Let me give you a few statements about this question:

When the New Testament describes what baptism depicts, it describes new life in Christ. So take those verses from Romans 6 I just mentioned. We are raised to newness of life, it says. The assumption is that the person being baptized has been changed. They’ve been regenerated.

When the New Testament parallels baptism and circumcision, it parallels baptism not with the Old covenant circumcision of the flesh, but with circumcision of the heart. By way of context, it’s useful to remember that through the Old Testament, God periodically reminds his people that what he’s most interested in is not circumcision of the flesh but circumcision of the heart. So look carefully at Colossians 2 to see where the parallel is.

11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 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.

When someone says “absent any teaching to the contrary, we should continue to consider unsaved infants as members of the covenant, there is some sort of agreement there. But Colossians 2 is pretty clear teaching to the contrary, isn’t it? The continuity is not between circumcision and baptism, but between circumcision of the heart and baptism. It is between saving faith and baptism.

There are no clear examples of infant baptism in the New Testament. In fact, references to baptism talk about conversion. So Peter in Acts 2 that I mentioned, talks about “repenting” and being baptized. To be sure, as he says, this promise is for your children: they can repent and be baptized as well! But not baptized without repenting. And, as we read on, the promise isn’t just for our children. It is “for your children and all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” We need to think of our children in the same category of all who are far off, with the desire that the Lord our God should call them to himself.

The only example of baptism in the New Testament that doesn’t describe the recipients of baptism hearing the Word or believing is Lydia’s in Acts 16. And as a female, traveling merchant away from home, she is the least likely to have had young children with her.

There are no known references to infant baptism in the early church—though there are many references to believers’ baptism. [1] The first reference we see to infant baptism is Tertullian around A.D. 200 who is actually arguing against it. The first defense of infant baptism there isn't until Cyrprian around A.D. 250—and he was arguing for it as something that was salvific (leading to salvation). [2] Not the argument for infant baptism that is heard today. One would expect that if infant baptism was widespread and if it was not universally accepted (which it clearly wasn’t) then there would be more reference to it in the writings of early church leaders—but there isn't.

[1] Didache (AD 100-110), Epistle of Barnabas (AD 120-130), Shepherd of Hamas (AD 150)

[2] Perhaps Irenaeus described infant baptism in AD180—but most likely that’s not what he was writing about (Jewett p. 26). “By the Council of Carthage in 418, anyone who taught against infant baptism was anathematized. In the sixth century the emperor Justinian made infant baptism mandatory throughout the Roman Empire. (Dever, Mark: The Church, page 103)

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