“No way will anyone pour water on my kid’s head,” my recently converted dad said to our seminary-trained pastor. Having been raised in the Roman Catholic church, my father was understandably skittish at the thought of baptizing babies, associating the practice with the false doctrine and ceremony of Rome. So our Reformed pastor patiently explained the practice of infant baptism in a way that made sense, and my dad eventually gave permission for his eldest son (me) to be baptized.
Being born into a Presbyterian pew, typical questions about infant baptism started popping in my head as I grew older: “Why do we baptize this way?” “Does an infant’s baptism have any connection with his or her eventual ‘conversion’?” and “Doesn’t this look a little too Roman Catholic-y?”
It took awhile to sort out the complexities involved with baptism, specifically the infant variety. The “click,” the light bulb, and the “Aha!” moment occurred when someone helped me ask the right questions like, “Whom does Scripture include within the new covenant people?” As I tinkered with the idea of a covenant people, the meaning of the covenant sign started to take shape.
Point-counterpoint volleys on baptism can be dizzying, even annoying at times. I hope to clear away some of what causes that fog, and to clarify some of the reasons your neighborhood Presbyterians think it’s a good idea to pour water on unsuspecting babies. (You can read many of these arguments on both sides hosted by The Gospel Coalition in recent years.)
What I Am Not Arguing
First, tuck away all those household arguments for another time. While they might be useful for making a cumulative case for infant baptism, relevant household passages (Acts 16:13–15, 32–34; 1 Cor. 1:16) seem inconclusive on whether infants were crawling around households whose members were collectively baptized.
Second, scrap the “oldest practice wins” case. Historical arguments, like whether evidence for infant baptism in the early church exists, can also lend a hand toward making a comprehensive case. But those historical arguments can seem speculative, except to the already convinced. Some historical evidence (quotes from Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and so on) might gesture in the direction of infant baptism as a practice in the early church, but we lack undeniable, conclusive proof of baby-sprinkling during those initial post-apostolic years.
Arguments Off the Table
If you’re a credobaptist, you may have more in common with your paedobaptist friends than you think. Presbyterians not only believe in credobaptism, they practice it; they just don’t believe in exclusive credobaptim. This means that every instance of adult/believer/credobaptism in Scripture fits within both the paedobaptist view and the credobaptist view. They are celebrated examples of someone who was formerly outside the new covenant, now in the new covenant.
But if the new covenant sign of baptism represents only cleansing and conversion, one significant example throws a wrench into that idea: Jesus’s baptism (Matt. 3:13–17). Under a paedobaptist reading, Jesus gets baptized as one coming from the old covenant (Luke 2:21) into the new. He received baptism not because he needed to be cleansed, nor because he experienced “conversion,” but because as both covenantal cause and covenantal recipient, he ushered in a new covenant with a new covenant sign for both him and his people (Mark 10:39).
So who now qualifies for receiving the sign of the new covenant? Rather than focusing on any particular instance of baptism, we might uncover more by peering into how Scripture as a whole describes those who are in the new covenant.
In the section on apostasy in the book of Hebrews, specifically in Hebrews 10:26–30, the writer describes someone who
(1) has received the knowledge of the truth,
(2) has been sanctified by the blood of the covenant (and therefore is in the covenant, by which he has been sanctified)
(4) goes on to sin deliberately,
(5) has set aside the law of Moses,
(6) dies without mercy,
(7) no longer has a sacrifice for sins,
(8) has outraged the Spirit of grace, and
(9) has profaned the blood of the covenant.
If being “in the covenant” means “being saved”—regenerated, effectually called, salvifically united to Christ, and so on—then the person described here in Hebrews cannot exist. If we equate “being in the new covenant” with “being saved,” then the person in Hebrews 10 loses salvation, and losing salvation is not possible for any stripe of Reformed theology—Baptist or Presbyterian. (That topic—the “perseverance of the saints”—deserves a separate article all to itself. Its centerpiece would include a number of marquee passages from Scripture like John 10:26–30, demonstrating that once someone receives salvation, it cannot be lost. See also John 3:16.)
John 15:1–6 throws another kink into the “new covenant = salvation” formula. Jesus uses a metaphor for himself (the vine) and his people (the branches). He speaks of someone who
(1) is in Christ
(2) does not bear fruit,
(3) does not abide in him,
(4) is taken away, and
How can someone be in Christ yet fall away? Scripture reveals an important distinction and nuance between being in Christ/covenant salvifically, and being in Christ/covenant ecclesiologically, or as a member of God’s people. If that covenantal distinction gets flattened to include only a salvific sense, then John would be saying that someone can be in Christ/in the covenant salvifically, yet able to be taken away and burned—able to lose salvation. Again, that conclusion is not an option.
What to Do with Baptizing Babies?
From these and other biblical passages, the presence of unbelievers, as part of the new covenant within the church, seems to be part of God’s intentional design of the new covenant, not a design flaw.
When we read about the new covenant through this lens—where those who are in the new covenant include not only those who are in Christ salvifically (the invisible church of true believers) but those in Christ ecclesiologically (the Sunday-attending, visible church of both believers and unbelievers)—much of the New Testament reads more naturally. For example, 1 Corinthians 7:12–16 makes more sense, because when an unbelieving spouse converts to Christianity, the other members of that family—even the members who are unbelievers, including the children—are made (ecclesiologically, non-salvifically) holy. New covenant blessings extend beyond one’s own individual conversion. When working through 1 Peter 4:17, we expect the household of God to be judged (as we saw in Heb. 10:30), because within God’s household we find not only believers but unbelievers. The new covenant church expects its members will include faithful believers, but also those who have not “obeyed the gospel of God.”
So are children of those in the church “in the new covenant”? A thousand times yes. They are born into Christ’s church, into the people of God, into the new covenant, though not necessarily into salvation. It is foreign to the design of the new covenant church to treat our children as those who participate outside of God’s covenant family. Scripture never speaks about children in that way. Though we cannot know whether an individual infant has received salvation, we do not need to guess and speculate about such a thing in order to know whether that child is in the covenant. We operate as if the child belongs to the new covenant people of God in the church.