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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

20 November 2008

The Case for Infant Baptism

Expanded from the Archives

BibleWhen first published, the previous 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. I do so 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 has always taught.

The following question and my reply integrate Christianity’s teachings regarding original sin, baptismal regeneration, and infant baptism. My arguments, rooted in Holy Scripture, will again reference Church history and the fathers of the ancient Church.

Q: Why do some churches baptize babies while others insist that people wait until they’re older?

A: As I said previously, 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 newest of newborns, who are convinced that by Adam’s fall we have all fallen, will practice infant baptism.

Believer's BaptismSome 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.

Often, the 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 a minimum baptismal age. We read of “households” being baptized. Christ, in Matthew 28:19-20, speaks of His followers going forth to “make disciples of all nations” — not “of the adults of all nations” or “of those giving rational assent of all nations” — “baptizing them ... and teaching them....”

Saint PolycarpThe earliest Christian writings after the Apostolic Age already mention the baptism of infants and it has been the recognized and preferred practice of the majority of the Christian Church since early times. One of the earliest indications of infant baptism comes from the account of the death of Saint Polycarp. By using extant records, we can determine that he received this holy washing at a most early age.

Through present 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.

SheepThe Bible has much inclusive language when it speaks of who the sinners are. Some of these passages also clearly illustrate original sin and its consequences. “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:36)”; “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin (Romans 3:9)”; “All we like sheep have gone astray ... every one — to his own way (Isaiah 53:6)”; “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh ... and were by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3)”; “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5)”; and “the Lord said in his heart, ‘... the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth’ (Genesis 8:21).”

Addressing our interpretive questions, the preceding Scriptures clearly indicate that we are sinners by nature, stained already at conception, and born outside of a loving relationship with our Creator. These same passages, and others, also tell us that we are unable and unwilling to move toward God. Therefore, He comes to us: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)” There is no saving faith apart from the work of the Holy Spirit: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith...? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ ... [and] we ... receive the ... Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:2-3, 11, 14)”

How, then, does God move to save us? What are His tools for the creation of faith? By His Gospel, through the work of His Holy Spirit, He calls us to be baptized; i.e., to receive God’s washing, albeit through human hands. No act of will removes sin’s stain; no intellectual assent makes us right with God. Instead, all of us need “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)” We don’t save ourselves; God saves us. He doesn’t tell us, “Wait to be baptized until you can offer informed consent once you attain the age of accountability.” He tells us, “Baptism now saves ... you. (1 Peter 3:21)”

Philippian JailerThe New Testament records instances where entire households were baptized. If it was God’s plan to exclude children from Baptism’s blessings, wouldn’t He have led Saint Luke, the writer of Acts, to pass on this important caveat? Yet Luke never specified “the adults of the household” or “those twelve and up of the household.” Instead, he recorded that as faith came to one member of the family, everyone else was also baptized. So it was with Paul and Silas in Philippi, as they baptized the households of Lydia (Acts 16:15) and the jailer (vv. 31-32). Paul also reminded the Corinthians that he had baptized “Crispus and Gaius ... also the household of Stephanas. (1 Corinthians 1:14, 16)”

On Pentecost, after condemning the Jewish crowd for their sinful rejection and crucifixion of Jesus in his sermon, “Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you ... for the forgiveness of your sins.... The promise is for you and for your children and for ... everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (Acts 2:38-39)” Near and far, young and old, Jew and Gentile — all whom “God calls to Himself” are candidates for Baptism. “Everyone” means everyone!

Finally, those who confuse faith and intellect, who worry that baptism should be delayed until children can believe, should ponder Christ’s words in Matthew 18:5-6, where He commends anyone who “receives one such child in [His] name” but condemns anyone who causes “one of these little ones who believe” to stumble; i.e., to disbelieve or to sin.

Let the Children Come to MeIn New Testament Greek, the word translated as “child” in verse 5 usually denotes infants and toddlers, children under three years of age. In verse 6, “little one” is used for the Greek μικρϖν (mikrōn — as in “microscopic”). So here in Matthew, Jesus teaches us that tiny tykes, aged two and under, are capable of receiving and exercising the gift of faith.

Can one concoct any good reason not to follow Jesus’ lead in this?

Additional Reading: See Aardvark Alley for the difference between Credo- and Paedobaptist and the essay Dear Reverend Spurgeon. Earlier Ask the Pastor posts addressing this topic include One Baptism and Baptismal Blessings. To investigate further, use these links to search ATP for these terms: Baptism, infant baptism, Baptism saves you, baptismal regeneration, sacrament(s), or design your own search.

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.

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Edited and expanded update of newspaper column #6


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