Is Infant Baptism Biblical?

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Image by Josh Applegate. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

Last edited on 23/Mar/2021

The Bible’s Answer

Introduction

Ever since the time of the Protestant Reformation, the question on whether or not infants can be baptised has proven to be a highly controversial topic within Christendom. Most Christian denominations accept infant baptism as a biblical practice, but some do not. In spite of the debates, a careful reading of the Bible leads us to the conclusion that infant baptism is in fact a proper and acceptable Christian practice. When researching topics like this, it’s important for us to examine what the Bible does say about baptism and what it doesn’t say.

What the Bible Does Say

Children of Christian Parents Can Be Baptised

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (Acts 2:38–39, ESVUK)

The biblical text gives us no indication of the specific age or level of maturity for the children mentioned here. It simply says that baptism is “for you and for your children”. If there were restrictions on who can or cannot be baptised based upon age or mental capacity, we would expect the Bible to mention them here, but it doesn’t.

Baptism Is the Circumcision of Christ

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. (Colossians 2:11–12)

Circumcision was performed on baby boys in Old Testament times as part of the Covenant obligations Israel had with God; they had to be circumcised in order to be a part of Israel. By calling baptism the circumcision of Christ, and therefore a new and better circumcision, this indicates that baby boys and girls (since it’s new) can be baptised to be joined to Christ and his body, the church (the New Israel) (Galatians 6:16). In fact, we become members of Christ’s church through baptism (1 Corinthians 12:12–13).

Entire Families Were Baptised

And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:15)

And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. (Acts 16:32–33)

(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) (1 Corinthians 1:16)

There is a good chance that there were infants in these families, but we don’t know for sure based on the biblical data. However, there’s no doubt that if the apostles made a practice of baptising entire households in the first century that they would have eventually come across families with infants in them. Furthermore, the Bible does not specify what should be done if families have infants in them, something that we would expect if the Bible really did not permit infant baptism; it simply says that the apostles baptised entire families.

Christians Are Commanded to Baptise All Nations

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19–20)

Even if infants aren’t directly mentioned here, we know that infants are included in all nations so there is no biblical reason to exclude them. If one wants to exclude infants from being baptised because of their age or mental capacity (not biblical reasons), then they must also exclude infants from being taught all that Christ has commanded us because of their age and mental capacity, too, if they are to be logically consistent.

Baptism Saves Us

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 3:21).

All people are in need of salvation, including infants, because everyone (except for Jesus) is conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12, 18–19; John 3:5). Baptism is one of the ways in which God gives eternal life to babies of Christian parents who are too young to fully articulate their faith in Christ. Furthermore, because God saves and forgives us of all our sins in baptism, this means that baptism is God’s work, not ours. We are the passive recipients of God’s gifts in baptism. But someone may argue that baptism is only of benefit if the recipient has faith (as Jesus indicates in Mark 16:16). The next Bible teaching addresses this point.

Infants Can Believe

Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. (Psalm 22:9)

And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:14–15)

For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:44)

As we have seen in Acts 2:38–39, one of the benefits of baptism is that in it we are given the Holy Spirit, who creates faith in our hearts (1 Corinthians 12:3). In the above examples, we see that not only can infants believe in God, but they can also be filled with the Holy Spirit. In baptism, God sends the Holy Spirit into the hearts of infants to create in them child-like faith and trust in Christ, which the Christian parents then nurture throughout their lives. Infants may not be able to fully articulate their faith in Christ, but they can still know and trust in him at a basic level, in the same way that a baby knows and trusts in its mother.

What the Bible Does Not Say

  • The Bible does not give us any restrictions on who can or cannot be baptised based upon age, maturity, or mental capacity.
  • The Bible does not teach an age of reason or accountability for when children become morally accountable for their actions, at which point they may choose to be baptised.
  • The Bible does not teach that infants cannot believe in Christ.
  • The Bible does not teach that infants cannot receive the Holy Spirit.
  • The Bible does not teach that infants are born sinless.
  • The Bible does not teach that because adults must believe in Christ before being baptised, that infants of Christian parents therefore must be able to fully articulate their faith before they can be baptised, even if they will be raised in the faith from birth.
  • The Bible does not teach that baptism is just a public testimony of one’s faith that is purely symbolic and does not save.
  • The Bible does not teach that baptism is only a human work, not God’s.

Church History Supports Infant Baptism

In addition to the Biblical evidence, the early church practised infant baptism. For example, in the third century Origen wrote that “according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants” (Homilies on Leviticus, 8:3:11 [A.D. 244]).¹ In addition, Hyppolytus wrote: “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [A.D. 215]).² Furthermore, the practice of infant baptism was never an issue prior to the Protestant Reformation.² If it were a contentious issue, we would at least expect to see debates over this, but there just aren’t any. The church has always supported it.

What About Passages Like Acts 8:36–38?

Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” 37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:36–38, NKJV)

Some Christians cite this Bible passage and other similar ones as evidence that infants cannot be baptised, because they indicate that you must first believe before getting baptised. However, this is an incorrect conclusion. Philip was addressing an adult in this conversation, not an infant, so the instructions here are for adults specifically. As an adult, the eunuch had to believe before getting baptised because he was a non-Christian who had only just heard about Jesus Christ for the first time.

With infants of Christian parents it’s very different, because the parents promise to raise the baby in the faith from birth; in other words, they will always have had faith in Christ and been a part of the Christian community. In the same way that it would not make sense to postpone baptism after you have converted to Christianity (and is even sinful to do so), it makes no sense to withhold baptism from a baby who is already being raised as a Christian (that would inevitably lead to postponing their baptism after they are already Christians).

In both examples, faith and baptism are inseparable (just as they should always go together, see Acts 2:41; 9:17–18; 10:46–47). One happens at a very young age with a Christian upbringing, the other happens later in life with no prior Christian upbringing. Churches which practice infant baptism have a Rite of Passage called Confirmation in which Christians who have been baptised as babies are instructed in the faith and can then publicly confirm their baptism and faith for themselves before the congregation.

Why, Then, Was Jesus Baptised When He Was 30?

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, (Luke 3:21–23, ESVUK).

Some Christians cite this passage to show that Jesus himself was baptised at 30 years of age, and argue that because of this, we should not baptise infants. The problem with this reasoning is that Jesus was not baptised for the same reason we get baptised. We get baptised to receive the forgiveness of sins and to be joined to Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3–5), but Jesus got baptised purely in order to begin his priestly ministry, since it was his anointment from the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38).

Another problem with this reasoning is that Jesus was baptised with John’s baptism, which came before he instituted Christian baptism (Matthew 28:19–20), the baptism which we receive today. Peter specifically said that Christian baptism is: “for you and for your children” (Acts 2:38–39), which clearly means that if possible, we should get baptised well before we are adults. One final problem is that this would mean that every Christian would have to postpone getting baptised until they are thirty, if we are to be logically consistent. The Bible teaches, however, that baptism should be the first thing that happens upon conversion (Acts 10:46–47).

Conclusion

Jesus invited even babies to come to him to receive a blessing and taught that the Kingdom of God belongs to them (Luke 18:15–17). Who are we, as Christians, to deny our babies the gift of baptism that they may come to Christ and receive his blessings of life and forgiveness? Based on the Biblical evidence above, we see that while there is no biblical mention of infants specifically being baptised, there is also nothing in the Bible which forbids or discourages the historical practice of infant baptism either. Instead, we see Bible passages which not only indicate the legitimacy of infants being baptised, but which also encourage it, because as a means of grace, it is one of the ways in which God saves us and creates faith in the hearts of infants of Christian parents. Because of this, it can be safely concluded that the Bible permits infant baptism.

References

1. Infant Baptism, Catholic Answers, last viewed on 3/Jun/2020, <https://www.catholic.com/tract/infant-baptism>

2. What the Early Church Believed: Infant Baptism, Catholic Answers, last viewed on 3/Jun/2020, <https://www.catholic.com/tract/early-teachings-on-infant-baptism>

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