Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Since I’ve been pastor here at MPC, the question has periodically come up, “Why do we baptize infants?” So, this month’s Link article briefly explains the “why” behind the practice.
First, it is important to understand that we do not baptize infants because we think it saves them (baptismal regeneration); nor do we do baptize our children because it is just something we’ve always done (tradition); nor is it simply a sentimental dedication. Rather, we practice infant baptism because we believe that the Bible tells us we must. The baptism of infants is obedience to God.
The sacrament of baptism consists of the application of water to a person in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Baptism both signifies and seals a person’s engrafting into Christ, partaking of the Covenant of Grace, and engagement to be the Lord’s (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27; WSC 94). How is this? In either of the two sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), the sacramental sign (water or the bread and wine) is spiritually united to what it signifies. The name and effects of what is signified are appropriated to the sign. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s body is signified by the bread and Christ’s blood is signified by the wine, both symbolizing Christ’s work. In baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is signified by the water applied—the Spirit’s work.
Baptism of the Holy Spirit is where God bestows upon the believer all the benefits of Christ, such as the washing away of sins (Eph. 1:13-14; Titus 3:5). The Spirit, given as God’s seal, guarantees to the believer the inheritance of the Covenant of Grace. When we say baptism is a seal, we mean it is a visible pledge by God to honor his covenant when the conditions laid out in his covenant are met (Eph. 1:13-14; cf. Bryan Chapell, Why Do We Baptize Infants?, 13-15).
Although infants cannot make a profession of faith, we baptize them because the promises of the Covenant of Grace are not only for the believer, but also for the children of believers (Acts 2:38-39). The roots of this sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace go back to the covenant with Abraham in the form of circumcision.
In Genesis 17:7, God’s covenant is made with both Abraham and his children. This language is consistent with Peter’s proclamation in Acts 2:39, where, after calling for the people to repent and be baptized, he said that the promises (i.e. the promises of the covenant) were for them and their children. In Genesis 17:10, God gave the sign of the covenant to be circumcision of all males, and in v. 12 stipulated that all males would be circumcised on their eighth day. So, the covenant sign and seal of circumcision was, by God’s command, to be given to children. In Genesis 17:14, it is made clear that those who did not receive the covenant sign of circumcision would be cut-off from the covenant. This emphasizes the seriousness of the command. Finally, in Genesis 17:23, Abraham and his whole household are circumcised as per the covenant stipulation.
This language of household circumcision is consistent with the language of Acts 16:15; 16:33; and 1 Corinthians 1:16, where the household of Lydia, the Philippian jailor’s family, and the household of Stephanas are baptized when they became believers. What is a household? The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible informs us that a household consists of “Persons who live in the same place and compose a family or extended family. In biblical times a household included father, mother(s), children, grandparents, servants, concubines, and sojourners.” While these New Testament passages do not specify that children/infants were parts of these particular households, they do not specify that children/infants were excluded. In Acts 10, when Cornelius and his household were baptized, it would have been perfectly natural for Peter to baptize the children (likewise for Paul with the households of Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Stephanas). Such would have been consistent with the application of the sign of the covenant to the household of those of faith throughout the history of Israel. Under the New Covenant, however, the sign and seal to be given, circumcision, was replaced by baptism. Despite this change, the scriptures give no command or reason to cease providing the sign of the covenant to the children of a household, and there is no indication that the practice ceased.
The New Covenant is the fulfilment of the Old Covenant in Christ (Jer. 31:31-34; Gal. 3:24-25; Mark 14:24; Heb. 8). There is continuity between the Old and the New, spanning both the Old and New Testaments. They are two historical aspects of the one Covenant of Grace. This Covenant of Grace was “differently administered in the time of the Law and in the time of the Gospel” (WCF 7.5), and it was put in place before the Law was ever given (Gen. 3:15; chs. 15; 17; Gal. 3:17; Heb. 8; cf. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 272ff.). This continuity of the Covenant of Grace is evident in the status of those who believe in Christ—being the sons and daughters of Abraham and heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:6-9). Colossians 2:11-12 emphasizes this continuity of the covenant and the change in the nature of the sign of the covenant, saying that we were “circumcised not by the hands of men, but circumcised by Christ, through baptism…” (cf. Ezek. 36:26-27).