Infant Baptism, Baptismal Regeneration, and Original Sin
The last column drew comments ranging from, “Thanks for showing that your church teaches the same as ours about sin,” to “he does not know, does not understand, or does not believe what the Bible teaches.” Some asked why I quoted theologians as well as Scripture. That’s because people look at the same verses and come away with different answers. Writers ancient, medieval, and modern can show that an idea is not new, but is what the majority of Christendom, based upon the clear word of Scripture, has always taught. Now the discussion of original sin ties us to a related subject, Infant Baptism.
Q: Why do some churches baptize babies while others insist that people wait until they’re older?
A: As I said last time, baptismal practice is based in large part upon our understanding of sin and who is held responsible by God. It also deals with God’s commands and promises. Those who deny original (birth) sin, who say that at most the young are weak or only inclined toward sinfulness, or who claim that there is no accountability until some age of reason is reached will normally baptize older children and adults. Those who believe that sin is in the youngest child, that by Adam’s fall we have all fallen, will practice infant baptism.
Some say that baptism is an outward sign of one’s choice to follow Jesus and His words. Others teach that baptism is God actively seeking out lost and condemned sinners and restoring them to life. If baptism is only a sign of God’s love or the ratification of our choice, it does not have the immediate importance it does for those who believe that baptism is nothing less than the Gospel Word of God with all its saving power poured out in liquid form.
Some arguments against infant baptism parallel those against original sin. If babies aren’t born outside of the perfect relationship God demands in His Law, they need no salvation. Others will say that baptism signifies the choice one makes to follow God; until a person reaches an age of accountability — until he can think rationally — baptism is useless.
The Bible never sets an age. We read of “households” being baptized. Christ, in Matthew 28:19, speaks of “all nations.” Peter told the Jews that the promise of Baptism was “for you and your children. (Acts 2:38-39)” The earliest Christian writings after Bible times already mention the baptism of infants. Infant baptism has been the practice of the majority of the Christian Church since early times. Most people who are from Christian families were themselves baptized as infants. That’s because Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican-Episcopalian, Lutheran, and other churches all teach and practice infant baptism, and these bodies hold the vast number of those claiming the title of Christian.
What it comes down to is — again — the question, “How do you interpret the words of Scripture?” Do you accept or deny that all are born spiritually blind and dead — enemies of God and focused on self? Does God seek and find us, or do we seek and find Him? Does God create faith in us, or is faith something that we have intrinsically? Is baptism God actively forgiving, or is it merely a sign of something that already exists? Is it God promising Himself to us or us promising ourselves to God? If you believe that the Scripture says the first part of each of these questions is correct, then infant baptism is clearly what should be practiced. If you believe that the second part of each is correct, then baptism can, and probably should, be delayed.
In light of these questions, consider 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism ... now saves you ... through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The Bible has much inclusive language when it speaks of who sinners are. Check John 3:36, Romans 3:9, Isaiah 53:6, Ephesians 2:3, Psalm 51:5, and Genesis 8:21. Everyone ever born needs to be saved! No Scripture establishes a bottom age limit or an “age of accountability” for Baptism. The Bible never says, “Wait!” All of us need what Titus 3:5 calls “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
Those who worry that baptism should be delayed until children can believe should check Christ’s words in Matthew 18:6, where He warned about causing sinful offense against “one of these little ones who believe in Me.” The word translated as “little one” is used in Greek (the language of the New Testament) to mean children under three years of age! Jesus seemed to think that tykes two and under were capable of receiving and exercising the gift of faith. I think that I’ll follow Jesus’ lead in this.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
Send email to Ask the Pastor.
Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.