Many have asked me how I became a Presbyterian, or more specifically, how I came to embrace infant baptism after years of arguing against it. So I’d like to finally present to everyone the trail of arguments that led me to baptize babies. In the end, my shift came about as my social imagination changed. In other words, the assumptions undergirding how I view the world, God, and individuals underwent slow changes over a number of years that began to make credo-baptism unimaginable and paedo-baptism commonsensical.
A Few Qualifications
Before diving in, I need to make a few things clear. First, I didn’t make this journey alone, and you shouldn’t either. The final straw that broke my Baptist back dropped after a couple of Presbyterian pastor friends left me with some challenging questions to take back to my fellow elders. Months of wrestling together as a council, after years of wrestling with the traditional arguments for and against covenantal baptism, finally resulted in us agreeing together that we had been wrong. Theological shifts like this shouldn’t be made alone for a number of reasons. For one, it’s easy to have blind spots and to be driven to new theological convictions for the wrong reasons. Friends can help us see our hidden-to-ourselves motivations and our blind spots. For another, if you’re a pastor or church member, your theology needs to be worked out with your ecclesial community and officers. These people have a responsibility to watch over you and protect you from false and dangerous doctrine. Working out our theological convictions must not be a private affair.
Second, I know this presentation will probably not convince skeptics. It’s not meant to. I’m taking a lot for granted here and not attempting to defend every piece of the argument. I’m merely seeking to show the logic of what I began to see in Scripture. I don’t have time to make an extensive and tight argument filled with exegetical arguments on every debated passage. Rather, I’m inviting you to look at the question from a different angle in the hopes that the biblical texts will begin to make new sense in a different light.
Third, the following presentation tells the story of my shift from a “Reformed” credobaptist position. For many years I held to a more Reformed understanding of salvation, of the sacraments (i.e. signs and seal of the covenant, a real means of grace rather than a simple memorial view), and of church governance/polity (plural elder rule, connected rather than autonomous churches, the regulative principle, church membership and discipline, etc.). So the insights that led to my shift may not be helpful for many credobaptists not already on board with a Reformed understanding of salvation and the church.
The Starting Point
For many credobaptists, the case that baptism should only be applied to those who are Christians and have given a credible profession of faith seems commonsensical, straightforward, and simple. There are a few simple arguments:
- The word baptism (baptízō) means ‘immerse,’ which should not be done to infants.
- The clear examples of baptism in the New Testament follow conversion, so it’s the only biblical conclusion to draw from the pattern.
- Jesus commands us to be baptized, and so it is the responsibility of each person to decide to obey by publicly identifying with Jesus through baptism.
- Baptism pictures spiritual realities brought by the Holy Spirit, so it shouldn’t be applied to those who do not possess the reality.
For my part, these arguments, although they fit with it, never grounded my credobaptism conviction. They’ve always struck me as falling prey to Biblicism, which Michael Horton defines as “the tendency to free oneself from the theology of Scripture by limiting its normativity to explicit proof-texts.” For me, credobaptism was grounded in my understanding of the nature of the New Covenant community.
- The New Covenant is the climactic fulfillment of the redemptive covenants of the Old Testament, making it both continuous with the older covenants while also discontinuous and distinct. [This is a relatively new but increasingly common position between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology espoused by D.A. Carson, John Piper, Russell Moore, Peter Gentry, Stephen Wellum, and others.]
- The New Covenant is a promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit in all covenant members who, subsequently, all know the Lord personally.
- The church consists of the regenerate, of Christians, and should not include anyone who is not a Christian. This differs from the older covenants which include believers and their unbelieving children. This difference exists because Israel was a nation that received earthly blessings, but the New Covenant promises spiritual blessings in Christ which can only be received by faith.
- Baptism, like circumcision, is the sign of entrance into the covenant community, and therefore, it should only be applied to believers.
- We can only consider a person a believer if he or she provides a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and we should be rigorous in examining a person before accepting their profession because the New Covenant is only for believers.
When you compare the two lists, you’ll notice that I was a credobaptist because of how I understood the covenants of the Bible to fit together and not because of some notion that a collection of verses made the case. In other words, I never thought this question was as simple as citing a few verses related to baptism and suggesting the proper practice was quite plain. I’ve long believed that a proper understanding of baptism must arise out of the sweep of the biblical story regarding the covenantal nature of redemption and the people of God.
The traditional Covenant Theology case runs along these lines:
- There is one covenant of grace running through the entire story of redemption, beginning with the proto evangelium in Genesis 3:15 and culminating in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
- Salvation comes through God’s covenant of grace confirmed and made explicit in God’s promises to Abraham. To be a child of God one must become one of Abraham’s children.
- Circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, marking those who were recipients of his promise and sealing his pledge to provide for those who had faith in him.
- The sign of the covenant was applied to believers and their children as a pledge of God’s faithfulness to bless all who believe in him.
- The New Testament makes clear that the Abrahamic covenant is still in effect in the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ. (See Romans 4 & Galatians 3)
- The New Covenant bloodless sign of baptism replaces bloody circumcision because Jesus has accomplished what the Abrahamic covenant promised.
- The New Testament does not revoke the idea that the covenant sign should be applied to the children of believers, so we should assume the principle continues in the New Covenant.
- The New Testament gives examples of baptisms of whole households in which there were almost certainly infants.
While I largely agreed with this line of arguments (and now definitely still do), here was the crux of the issue for me: the New Covenant community is different from the Old Covenant community in that the Spirit of God was poured out on all its members, so while there is continuity between Old and New in that the New fulfills all the promises of the Old, the New Covenant community is not a mixed community. I rejected infant baptism because Paedobaptists talked about admitting non-Christians (infants) to the covenant community through baptism, which seemed completely out of step with the nature of the New Covenant community as I understood it.
Covenant theology wasn’t fully convincing to me on baptism because it didn’t adequately address the idea that non-Christians were being welcomed into the church.
Here’s how that all changed.
An Outline of the Shift In My Thinking
My journey to infant baptism was part of a broader paradigm shift taking place in my theology from an individual salvation paradigm to a more global understanding of the work of God in Christ by the Spirit. The following is a trail of arguments I hadn’t encountered before which I will outline under various topics with related questions.
1. Rethinking the Idea of a “Credible Profession of Faith”
“What constitutes a valid or credible profession of faith?”
As I wrestled with this question, it became clear that I had stricter requirements and higher expectations that raised the bar for entrance into the visible church higher than what we see in the New Testament. There seems to be an eagerness to receive people into the church in the New Testament due to a trust that discipleship and church discipline would expose false converts.
Consider the apostles’ readiness to baptize at Pentecost in Acts 2 or Simon the Magician in Acts 8. The Apostles didn’t always get it exactly right by baptizing only genuine believers. Even fellow workers of Paul fell away (1 Tim.1:18-20 and 2 Tim. 4:10, 16). I came to believe I was too afraid to get it wrong, to baptize an unbeliever. I should be more concerned about discouraging new/young/immature believers by not admitting them to the church because they are incapable of providing an adult explanation of the gospel.
This article by Vern Poythress was helpful in distinguishing between rigorism and indifferentism (the problem at the opposite end of the spectrum).
John Starke (a Baptist) argues we should be eager to affirm evidence of faith rather than skeptically cautious, allowing the process of discipleship and church discipline to address potentially false faith.
“How do we determine whether or not a person has faith if they are incapable of providing a mature profession of faith (i.e. the mentally handicapped, the infirm, those with memory loss, infants)?”
Not all Baptists are bothered by this question because they (rightly) argue baptism is not necessary for salvation. So they see no harm in excluding people in this category from the visible church.
I wasn’t and am not comfortable with this idea because it excludes from the community of faith, the community which serves as a kingdom outpost on earth pointing people to the kingdom, those who are vital to that witness. Jesus himself points to little children to teach about the kingdom and commands us to become like them.
The standard requirement of a credible confession of faith for baptism and entrance into the visible church ends up excluding everyone who is not an adult of good health, mental ability, and rational development.
2. The Family as a Covenant Community
As I pastor, I’ve done a bit of teaching on marriage and family. For years, I sought to show congregants that the family is a covenant community, that is, a community formed through promises with specific responsibilities and blessings. Children enter this community, not by making promises, but by birth. They are responsible to live into their covenant responsibilities even though they had no choice in the matter. Furthermore, they receive the blessings of the covenant never having made a decision to join the family.
I also began to see that the New Testament had little to no teaching on parenting. That seemed odd until I realized that the apostles assume the wealth of Old Testament teachings are sufficient under the New Covenant. The picture of the family and of parenting in the Old Testament rests on the assumption that the children are part of the covenant community of God, are already on the path of the fear of the Lord, are to be instructed throughout life to continue on that path, and are warned not to depart from that path. In other words, in the Old Testament, the children of believers are considered little believers who must be encouraged, taught, and disciplined in the faith, not pagans who must be converted. Nothing in the New Testament suggests this assumption should be abandoned; in fact, the New Testament refers and alludes to the Old Testament with regard to parenting.
“So, is there, then, apart from a credible confession of faith, other evidence that can serve as a credible reason to consider a person a Christian?”
Yes, if a person is born into a believing household, it is right to assume they are already believers and should be nurtured in the faith rather than evangelized.
“Doesn’t this deny that children are born sinners, hostile to God, absent of faith?”
No. This affirms that children are born in sin, but it recognizes faith as trust that grows in understanding. As soon as a child begins to receive the love and care of his parents, he is exercising trust. And when a child trusts in his Christian parents who have been placed by God over him in the covenant of the family (or, sent to him by God, we might say), he is trusting in God himself (cf. Mt. 10:40).
This shouldn’t surprise us because the same God who redeems is the God who has created and providentially sustains. God has created the family to work this way where children come to love what parents love, believe what parents believe, and hope for what parents hope for. Notice how children usually become fans of the same sports teams as their parents, adopt many of the same hobbies, enjoy the same music and foods, and come to share the same religious beliefs. God made the world to work this way, and redemption usually runs along this same course.
Now, of course, this doesn’t always last, and there can be all sorts of sin and pain in a family that leads to hatred, fragmentation, or a low-grade distrust. In other words, not all children continue in the way of their parents. That’s good for those who are born in non-Christian families. They can believe the gospel and join God’s family. And of course, sadly, Christians don’t always see their children remain in the faith.
So there is no guarantee that a child of believers will remain in the faith, and thus, we never know for sure that a child born to Christians has faith. But that is also true of those who give a credible profession of faith as adults. They also can turn away at a later time. We cannot ever be sure, but we can try to look at credible evidence that a person is a believer.
“Doesn’t Scripture teach that faith comes from hearing the Word of God? How can a person become a believer without hearing the gospel?”
Certainly, the ordinary way people outside the covenant community develop faith is through the proclamation of the gospel, which is what I think Scripture speaks to in places like Romans 10:17. But this is not a restrictive statement about the only way faith in Jesus is brought about by the Holy Spirit.
“Does Scripture teach that Jesus will divide families and warn that being born into a God-fearing family shouldn’t create the assumption that we’re saved?”
Yes. But the very reason why Jesus teaches that his disciples must love him and hate their family is because our loyalties to our families are naturally so strong that they can jeopardize faithfulness to Jesus. He is speaking to the danger inherent in this deep sociological reality that children tend to grow into the faith (whatever it might be in) of their parents.
And yes, it’s true that we shouldn’t merely assume we are Christians just because our parents are Christians while we don’t personally trust in Jesus and while we go about doing whatever we want. But notice the person who gives a credible profession as an adult and is baptized should also not assume they are born again if they continue in unrepentance. In other words, the Bible regularly warns against presumption when a person assumes they know God because they belong to the visible covenant community but remain far from God in heart and disobedient in action. The Bible doesn’t reject the assumption that the children of believers are Christians. It does warn everyone not to presume upon God when their hearts are far from him.
3. Reconciling Covenant Theology with New Covenant Theology
My problem with Covenant Theology and Presbyterians was always the idea that they would let unbelievers into the covenant community. But I learned this isn’t the only way Presbyterians have understood how it works. There is a long history of the view I have laid out (See Lewis Bevens Schenck’s The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant) that existed before American Revivalism which altered the way Evangelicals thought about conversion. In the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, Evangelicals adopted the idea that a person is not a Christian until he or she has a conscious moment when he or she experiences a radical conversion.
As I have talked with Presbyterians, I have come to see that most of them do regard their kids as little Christians. They teach them to pray, “Our Father, in heaven…,,” to repent of their sin, and to trust in God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. However, most Presbyterians today encourage and still look for a time where the child seems to come to a clearer understanding of grace and personally appropriate the promises of the gospel as an important marker in their spiritual journey (a sort of confirmation that usually involves starting to take communion). But even before this, Presbyterians consider their children unconfirmed Christians.
I tend to think this is overly scrupulous. As I’ve said, the kids who are baptized are not really in a different position than every other baptized adult. We’re all unconfirmed until we persevere. We’re all growing in our understanding of God and grace. I’ve personally had several “breakthrough” seasons in my life where it was as if I learned the faith anew or saw a huge breakthrough in a struggle against a particular sin. Each one would probably be considered a conversion by many Baptists, but I understand these to be dramatic moments of growth in understanding and in grace. I don’t know when this process began for me because I can’t remember a time I didn’t believe in God and in his Son.
Baptism doesn’t guarantee the baptized is born again. Nor does it mean the baptized no longer needs to be called to repentance and faith in the gospel.
“Are Covenant and New Covenant Theology different?”
Yes and no. Covenant Theology emphasizes the continuity of the biblical covenants, in particular, noting that the New Covenant is the fruition of the Abrahamic Covenant. In other words, those who are in Christ have become Abraham’s children, children of the promise that was given to him. Additionally, it emphasizes the mixed nature of the covenant community. There are both believers and unbelievers in the visible community until Christ returns.
New Covenant Theology emphasizes the way this fulfillment goes beyond the covenants of the Old Testament. For example, it emphasizes the presence of the Holy Spirit in the whole community rather than special anointed figures, and it emphasizes the global makeup of this community through the inclusion of the Gentiles. All who have faith are included in the covenant community, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, but only because of faith in Christ.
These differences seem huge, but I believe they’re really only a matter of emphasis. Covenant Theology is right to note that the visible church is a mixed community. Certainly, there are people in it that do not know God personally. New Covenant Theology is right to point to the assumption throughout the New Testament that those who have been baptized have the Spirit and are in Christ. This is, of course, speaking of the connection between the two but not guaranteeing that both are true of each person, for even Baptists acknowledge there are false converts in the visible church. The question then becomes, “But should we admit people we know aren’t Christians to the community?” Both agree the answer is no. The difference is how we regard our children. If we presume they are little Christians by God’s grace through the covenant community of the family, which is the means by which they receive the covenant of grace, then the differences between the two disappear.
“Is there a connection between circumcision and baptism and if so, does baptism replace circumcision?”
Yes. Just as circumcision served as a sign and seal of the Abrahamic Covenant which visibly marked out the covenant community, so also is baptism the sign and seal of the New Covenant which marks out those who belong to God as recipients of his promises. Circumcision signified God’s promise to bless Abraham’s seed, to remove spiritual uncleanness from God’s people, and to cut off of all those who break covenant with God. Baptism signifies our ingrafting into Christ, regeneration, the washing and forgiveness of sin, consecration for God, sonship, and new resurrection life.
Both circumcision and baptism signify the promises of God given to Abraham but finally fulfilled in Jesus. Circumcision was a shadow sign. Baptism is a sign of the reality. Both circumcision and baptism seal God’s pledge to give the blessings to all who believe. Both mark out God’s people in the world. Both signified realities that had to be appropriated by faith by the covenant community. Circumcision called for circumcised hearts; baptism calls for hearts made new by the Holy Spirit. So baptism replaces circumcision because it signifies the fulfillment of what circumcision anticipated.
Both should be applied to the children of believers, considered members of the covenant already on the path of the fear of the Lord, and both call the person to live into the reality by faith.
4. Faith and Identity Formation: Western Individualism & the Bible
Another key aspect of my shift flows from what I’d been learning from Charles Taylor, Robert Putnam, James K.A. Smith, Alastair Roberts, and Tim Keller about the Modern Western formation of personal identity. In short, I’d been raised to think of my identity as something I personally had to discover, choose, form, and authentically express. These thinkers, in various ways, have shown that this is a unique approach to identity formation differing from almost every other culture in the history of the world. Everywhere else, identity is largely determined by those that come before you (family, community, and culture). It is assigned, received, and embraced as a calling to embody. Rather than looking inward and constantly fighting to throw off the expectations of culture which threaten to prevent me from being me, most people throughout history have looked outside of themselves and sought to conform to their given roles. This makes sense at face value. People tend to believe what their family believes, love what their culture loves, and imitate the morality of their community.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the Bible shares the latter perspective. Western Individualism cannot comprehend the way individuals are treated according to the group of which they are a part. This corporate responsibility is not absolute, for people can reject their received identity. Fortunately, those outside God’s covenant community can reject their former ways and embrace the God of Israel. Sadly, those raised in the covenant community can apostatize. But the assumption of the Bible is that children receive and live into the identity of their parents.
With regard to baptism, consider how Modern Western identity formation has impacted our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. The Evangelical church has largely embraced an unbiblical understanding of identity formation by insisting that a person raised by a Christian family does not share in that Christian identity and must have a conversion experience in order to be credibly considered a Christian. While I appreciate the danger of nominalism and sinful presumption, this concern shouldn’t lead us to overturn the Biblical pattern that God works redemption through families. Salvation comes to households (Acts 16:31).
In this light, the question of household baptisms becomes clear. Credobaptists often downplay the household baptisms or remark that in a few cases, it says the whole household believed. The assumption they carry is that the household must have only included people old enough to “hear and receive the word” so that they could give a credible profession of faith. Paedobaptists often counter by arguing that this is highly unlikely and that some of the household baptisms make no mention of each person receiving the word. Therefore, there must have been infants in some of these households that were baptized. This debate faces an impasse as long as both sides assume infants cannot have faith.
But once we see that our Western Individualism has blinded us to the reality that identity formation has a huge corporate component, household baptisms make sense. Salvation comes to households because the identity of every member of the household will be linked to the head of the community. Not absolutely in every case with every individual always. But the reigning assumption of Scripture is that when Jesus comes to a household, he transforms everyone there.
The practice of naming children gives us some insight here. A father (and mother) names his son or daughter, giving the family name and assigning the identity. Then he nurtures and admonishes the child to grow up into that identity. The father doesn’t wait until the child grows up and chooses to belong to the family before giving the family name. So it is with baptism. The children of believers are washed in the Triune name, assigning the child a Christian identity into which they grow as they are nurtured and admonished along the way.
5. Other Pieces Related to the Question of Baptism
“Doesn’t the word baptism (baptízō) mean ‘to immerse’?
Yes, generally it does. But there are examples in the New Testament of the word being used for other sorts of modes of washing with water. In 1 Corinthians 10:2, Paul uses it to describe Israel’s journey through the waters during the Exodus. In Hebrews 9:10, the word is used to describe various ritual washings. The baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5 & 2:17) was a pouring out of the Spirit. So it doesn’t only mean to immerse.
“Isn’t it true that the clear examples of baptism in the New Testament follow conversion? And doesn’t that suggest it’s the only biblical conclusion to draw from the pattern?”
Yes, it’s true the clear examples of baptism in the New Testament follow conversion, but this shouldn’t surprise us for two reasons. First of all, the New Testament (especially books like Acts) tells the story of the growth of the church as it extends to people outside the covenant of faith. We don’t hear stories of the next generation, but it makes sense that these new Christians would treat their children just as the Old Testament saints treated theirs. Second, the New Testament records a time of transition from Old to New Covenant. So circumcised Jews that came to believe Jesus is the Messiah had to receive the New Covenant sign of baptism. This means there was an unusually large amount of baptisms in response to the preached word.
The examples in the New Testament are not prescribing the timing of all baptisms. They record the transition from Old to New and show us how those outside the covenant community come to join it. But this in no way replaces the Old Testament assumption that the children of believers are part of the covenant community and should receive the covenant sign of baptism.
“Isn’t Baptism supposed to be the way a person individually identifies with Jesus, proclaiming to the world that he believes in Jesus?”
No, that is not primarily what is communicated in baptism. This is a common but misguided way of thinking of baptism which emphasizes the action of the one baptized over the communication and act of God through the sign. In baptism (as in the Lord’s Table), it is primarily, first and foremost, God who speaks. He signifies and promises. The subject of baptism is passive and it is only in a derivative way that baptism identifies the person as a member of God’s family.
To return to the example above, a father names his child. The child is identified with the father’s family, but it is not the child that makes this identification. A name is given by another.
So it’s a mistake when credobaptists talk about baptism as a person’s opportunity to proclaim their faith publicly or a symbol of a person’s faith. God is the one who proclaims in baptism. He signifies and promises, which is to be met with faith by the subject of baptism and the church community as a whole.
“Since Jesus commands us to be baptized, isn’t it the responsibility of each person to decide to obey by publicly identifying with Jesus through baptism.”
Usually, when credobaptists claim that baptism is commanded by Jesus, they are referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28. But notice, Jesus is commanding his apostles (and consequently, the elders of his church) to baptize as the means of making disciples. Strictly speaking, he didn’t command all Christians to be baptized. He commands his officers to baptize. In other words, baptism is a sign and seal given to the church to administer faithfully. To receive the church’s proclamation of the gospel is to submit to baptism, but it’s not quite right that baptism is a command that each individual must choose to undergo.
“Since baptism pictures spiritual realities brought by the Holy Spirit, it shouldn’t be applied to those who do not possess the reality.”
I’ve already addressed this argument in several ways above. First, we cannot ever be certain a person is a true believer until he or she perseveres. So the question becomes, how sure must we be? What counts as credible evidence the person is a believer? As I have explained above, membership in a household of believers gives us credible evidence the person is a believer. But this confidence cannot ever be absolute, just as in the case of an adult who gives a credible profession.
Second, circumcision also pictured spiritual realities brought about by the Holy Spirit, namely, a circumcised heart. Yet, circumcision was applied to children even though it was possible the child was not and would not be a believer as he grew up.
Summing It All Up
The authors of the New Testament regard the children of believers as recipients of God’s promises (Acts 2:39), “holy” (1 Cor. 7:14), “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1), and “little ones who believe in [Jesus]” (Mt. 18:5-6). In short, the operating assumption of the New Testament is that the children of believers, like other members of the visible church, are Christians.
The credobaptist argument that baptism should follow faith rests, in large part, on the premise that infants cannot be considered believers. Once I began to reconsider what I had assumed about children, identity formation, households, and the covenantal nature of redemption, infant baptism began to make sense. The examples of baptism and calls to be baptized that we find in the New Testament should not be surprising since they are directed at those outside the covenant community. But these examples do not prescribe the way all people should approach baptism. Just like the saints of the Old Testament, our children should be recognized and raised as covenant members.
In the end, I think “Reformed” Baptists who hold to New Covenant Theology differ from Covenant Theology far less than it appears at first glance. Both traditions emphasize different considerations and settle at an impasse because they both tend to assume the children of believers cannot presumably be Christians. However, a more consistent reading of the Old Covenant and a closer look at the Reformed tradition shows that covenant children should be treated like little baby Christians.
Interestingly, this solves another long-debated theological conundrum. What happens to the children of believers who die in infancy? Almost all Christians want to say they are with the Lord, but few have a defensible reason why they can say that. Now we can see it’s appropriate to assume they are with the Lord like other believers who die (See the Westminster Confession of Faith, 10-3). That’s not a reason to adopt paedobaptism, but it’s a wonderful consequence of the position.
As I said above, I haven’t sought to make a thorough argument here, so I welcome pushback, challenge, questions, and comments.
Additional Related Reading:
Greg Johnson’s very helpful piece Infant Baptism
Alastair Robert’s excellent post about his journey to adopting infant baptism.
Alistair Robert’s article on the when of baptismal grace
Infant Baptism: How My Mind Has Changed by Dennis E. Johnson
Baptism: Answers to Common Questions by Guy Richard
“The Sociology of Infant Baptism” in The Baptized Body by Peter Leithart