Infant Baptism: God's Grandchildren
by Dr. Michael S. Horton
The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism
"God has no grandchildren." That statement, attributed to Billy Graham, was a maxim I well remember from my youth. To this day, I have a great appreciation for the Baptist emphasis on the importance of one's personal relationship to God in Christ, and now that I run in predominantly paedobaptist (infant-baptism) circles, I see the biblical wisdom in the evangelist's words. All too often, I meet young people in Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican circles who do not appear to have any personal interest in the things of the Lord, and yet to suggest that they may not be genuine believers would be perceived as a great insult. Others cling to their infant baptism, not as God's means of conveying the promised grace, but as a superstitious rite that automatically guarantees their salvation. Exercising presumption in baptism rather than faith in Christ, many sever the sacrament from its purpose-to seal the children in God's gracious covenant-and assume that to have the former renders the latter superfluous.
To be sure, there are dangers in the paedobaptist position. Nevertheless, there are also dangers in the Baptist view. First, it is just as easy for men and women to place their faith in the extrabiblical rite of "making a decision" or responding to the invitation during an "altar call." Human nature is forever looking for ladders to climb into God's presence and favor, and unbiblical "sacraments" are no less prone to this use than are biblical ones. At the end of the day, abuses must never be allowed to cloud our vision of the biblical data and to that data we must ultimately submit, regardless of the practical consequences.
As important as one's personal relationship to God surely must be, is it true that "God has no grandchildren"?
No one questions the fact that a grandfather is a person who is the father not only of the next generation of his children, but also of future generations as well. In the sacrament of the rainbow, God announced to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (Gn 9:12-13). This Noaic covenant was not salvific (saving in nature), but was a covenant of common grace. It was made between God as Creator and his whole creation, not between God as Savior and his redeemed people. And yet, the principle was already established: As God had been a "father" to the human race in the beginning, he was even still committed to the preservation of the human race and of the natural world. It was "a covenant for all generations to come."
When we come to Abraham, however, another covenant is enacted-or rather, re-enacted, since it was actually inaugurated with the first couple after their disobedience in Eden. God directed Abram's attention to the stars and promised him, "So shall your offspring be," and "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gn 15:56). Thus, Abram was justified by grace alone through faith alone and God established his covenant not only with Abram, whose name was now changed to Abraham, but with his descendants. God has always condescended to our weak faith, and when the patriarch asked God how he could trust this promise, God commanded him to sacrifice a heifer, a goat, and a ram, along with a dove and a pigeon, instructing him to cut each in half (vv. 9ff). What was all of this about? It was a legal agreement that announced to both parties what would happen if the covenant was broken. In effect, God was saying, "May the same happen to me if I do not keep my promise to you-may I, too, be cut in half and may the curses of violating the covenant fall upon my head." But the same was true for Abraham and his descendants. If they did not keep the covenant, they too would bear the full brunt of its curses.
Not long after, God solemnized this covenant with Abraham and his descendants in the sacrament of circumcision:
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. . . . I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gn 17:3-5,7).
Even in the change of his name from Abram, meaning "father," to Abraham, "father of many," we see the covenantal theme coming into sharper focus. There are three things we notice immediately from this passage: It is an "everlasting covenant," it is established by God and not by Abraham, and it incorporates Abraham's descendants.
(1) It Is an Everlasting Covenant
Because it is everlasting, this covenant cannot be interpreted as being limited to the patriarch's time and place or even to a particular point in history. Influenced by Dispensationalism, however, many evangelicals today confuse the shadow with the reality, awaiting a promised land that is ultimately earthly rather than, with Abraham, "longing for a better country-a heavenly one" (cf. Heb 11:8-16). This everlasting covenant begins, in fact, in the Garden of Eden, when God promises a Seed to Adam and Eve who will redeem them in the future and seals the covenant by covering them in the skins of animals he himself has sacrificed (Gn 3:21).
(2) It Is Established by God
Since it is established by God and not by Abraham, it is unconditional in the ultimate sense. As Paul declared, "If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself" (2 Tim 2:13), although "If we disown him, he will also disown us" (v.12), since the participation of individual Abrahamic descendants is conditioned on faith in the promise. An entire generation of Israelites was barred from entering the promised land centuries later under Moses because they had disowned the promise of Christ, and the writer to the Hebrews warns believers against making the same mistake: "For we also have had the Gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest. . . " (Heb 4:23).
Simply being a physical descendent of Abraham was not enough, as the prophets warned-a theme picked up especially by Paul:
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code" (Rom 2:2829). "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. . . . In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring" (Rom 9:68). Therefore, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:29).
This is especially difficult to grasp for those of us who have been raised in Dispensationalism, with its division between Israel and the Church, but these passages (and many like them) lead us inexorably to the conclusion that the "true Israel" consists of all-Jew or Gentile-who are "children of the promise," and there is no "everlasting covenant" with any but these.
To wax biographical for a moment, when I first encountered the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism, I was immediately put off by the concept because I misunderstood the radically God-centered, unconditional character of this "everlasting covenant." While others may dissent from this view for other reasons, my problem was that I viewed baptism as my own "sacrament," my own act of obedience in which I declared my resolve to follow Jesus. How could a child acknowledge, "I have decided to follow Jesus"? and make this public profession before the whole church? What jarred my confidence in this position, however, was the testimony of the Scriptures as to the nature of this covenant. Just as the rainbow was a sacrament of divine, not human, resolve, and the ceremony of the halved animals was a sacrament of God's commitment to the covenant, baptism is God's announcement of his intentions to bring me into his dynasty of faith. Faith was necessary, but faith was promised by God in the covenant through Word and Sacrament.
John Calvin observed, "Baptism, viewed in regard to us, is a passive work: we bring nothing to it but faith; and all that belongs to it is laid up in Christ." But how can a child bring faith to baptism? "Those who were baptized when mere infants, God regenerates in childhood or adolescence, occasionally even in old age," as the seed of faith is planted in the heart of the covenant child. "Infants are renewed by the Spirit of God according to the capacity of their age, till that power which was concealed within them grows by degrees, and becomes fully manifest at the proper time," Calvin wrote. None of the reformers believed that this was an optional sacrament any more than was circumcision in the Old Testament. Calvin stated, "Whoever, having neglected baptism, feigns himself to be contented with the bare promise, tramples as much as in him lies, upon the blood of Christ, or at least does not suffer it to flow for the washing of his own children. Therefore just punishment follows the contempt of the sign, in the privation of grace . . . because the covenant of God is violated." (Institutes, Book 4, chapters 15 & 16)
(3) It Incorporates Abraham's Descendants
In Genesis 17, God changes Abram's name and institutes the sacrament of circumcision. "This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you" (Gn 17:9-11). Someone might say, But Abraham was circumcised after he believed, a point that Paul is anxious to affirm in Romans 4, and that is correct. Paul underscores the fact that Abraham was justified by grace alone through faith alone, not by circumcision. And yet, what did Abraham do with his children? They were circumcised on the eighth day. Why? Because they were heirs of the promise, children of the covenant.
Throughout both Old and New Testaments, God delights in calling himself the father of future generations (see Ex 20:6, 31:13; Dt 7:9; Ps 22:30, 31:11, 45:17, 89:1, 90:1, 100:5, 105:8, 119:90, 145:13; Is 51:8; Lk 1:48; Phil 3:5, 21; Col 1:26). In other words, God is quite cheerful about the notion of being a grandfather.
But What about the Differences between the Old and New Testaments?
If there is one "everlasting covenant" running from Genesis to Revelation, a covenant of grace, and that covenant embraces both Jews and Gentiles whose trust is in the Lord for salvation, we should not invent discontinuities where the text does not explicitly provide them.
There is, to be sure, a discontinuity between the manner in which the covenant of grace is administered in both testaments. In the Old Testament, it is promised through types and shadows. In the New Testament, it is embodied as the fulfillment of those promises in the GodMan, the promised Messiah. Furthermore, in the Old Testament, circumcision is the sacrament of this covenant and it is only performed on male children. Does this not disqualify a one-to-one correspondence between circumcision and baptism? Not if we recognize the progressive unfolding of the redemptive drama. Joel's famous prophecy declares, "And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days" (Joel 2:28-29). This prophecy is confirmed by Paul in Galatians: "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:26-28). Even women, who according to ancient custom were not entitled to inherit anything, are, in God's new society, made "sons"-that is, titled heirs. Therefore, they too are entitled to share in the sacrament of the covenant of grace, a sacrament that refers to the Spirit being "poured out" on men and women alike.
Are there any further discontinuities between circumcision and baptism? It does not seem so. In fact, Paul states, "In him [Christ] you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col 2:11-12). Throughout church history, "baptism" has always meant one and the same thing: The sign (water) and the thing signified (regeneration by the Holy Spirit). But in our day, many who otherwise insist on taking the Scriptures literally and "at face value" will argue that passages such as this one and others, like Titus 3:5 ("He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously . . ."), refer merely to a spiritual baptism and not to water baptism. One must beware of a gnostic dualism that separates spirit from matter, as if it is somehow less than spiritual for God to bring people into his family through a common, everyday liquid. To be sure, there is a danger is attaching superstition to rituals and material signs, but God reveals himself and saves us through matter, not in spite of it. God "became flesh," wrote a book with ink and paper, and confirms it with water, bread, and wine. He does communicate his heavenly grace through the earthly creations that he sets aside by Word and Spirit for sacred use.
This is why the reformers refused to divide what God had joined together: the sign and the thing signified. Calvin wrote the following: "Seeing then that these two things [remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit] are accomplished in us by the grace of Jesus Christ, it follows, that the virtue and substance of baptism is included in him. And, in fact, we have no other laver than his blood, and no other renovation than his death and resurrection. But as he communicates his riches and blessings to us by his Word, so he distributes them to us by his sacraments." The sacrament does not merely symbolize something that may or may not have taken place, but is truly a "means of grace," a manner of distributing directly to us that which he promises generally.
Is it the most natural reading of such passages, then, to simply read "spiritual, not water, baptism" wherever it appears in the text that God is actually doing something in baptism? Such an approach seems arbitrary at best. It is safest, then, not to divide the Word of truth where there is a seamless fabric.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us that we are heirs of an even better administration of this "covenant of grace." The New Testament administration of this covenant excels the Old in so many ways, but does it fall short in this point of including our children? In the Old Testament, the children were included in the covenant and made heirs to the promises-God was the eternal father of these generations, as Abraham was of the earthly generations-but now are we to believe that God wishes to exclude our children in this ostensibly better testament?
Continuity between the Old and New Testament on Baptism
If there is one covenant of grace in both testaments and circumcision and baptism are the sacraments of the Old and New Testament administrations of that one covenant, the burden of proof would seem to fall on the side of those who deny infant baptism. Often, paedobaptists are the ones put on the defensive (I know, because I used to be on the offense), and are the ones who must demonstrate clear New Testament examples of infant baptism. "Why isn't there a single command to baptize children?" the paedobaptists are asked.
However, if the accent falls on continuity (Old Testament promise, New Testament fulfillment), there would be no reason why the apostles should take great pains to argue for a covenantal theology that incorporates whole families rather than simply individuals. But, of course, that is an argument from silence. In actual fact, the book of Acts provides us with explicit declarations of continuity. On the steps of the temple at Pentecost, Peter proclaimed, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:38-39).
In spite of the fact that most candidates for baptism would have been adult converts (as would be the case in any place in which missionaries had just brought the Gospel), there are examples of "household baptisms." In Acts 11:14, Peter tells how an angel had appeared to some men from Caesarea and announced to them that he would bring them the Good News: "He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved." In Acts 16:31-33 Paul and Silas are asked by their jailer "What must I do to be saved?" They reply, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved-you and your household." As a result, "immediately he and all his family were baptized." Paul noted that although his calling was not to baptize, he had baptized "the household of Stephanus" (1 Cor 1:16). The testimony of the early church fathers is unanimously in favor of paedobaptism, and one wonders how the disciples of the apostles themselves could have universally embraced the practice without any debate if, in fact, it had been an innovation. Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, who himself had been John's closest pupil, along with Origen, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and other fathers, referred to the practice as of apostolic origin. Church tradition, it is true, is never conclusive, but it is difficult to understand how it could not have been the apostles' custom if such universal claims to that effect did not spark the slightest controversy.
But still the most convincing evidence comes from the biblical text itself. The Old Testament warns, "The Lord's curse is on the house of the wicked . . . but those who are righteous will go free" (Prov 3:33;11:21). The children of believers were not considered unregenerate pagans, "for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them" (Is 65:23). But the New Testament has the same message. Paul assured the Corinthians that one believing parent sanctified the children: "Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" (1 Cor 7:14).
Those who deny infant baptism do not have a way of interpreting such passages, it seems to me, since the New Testament no less than the Old distinguishes between children of believers and the children of unbelievers. Once one acknowledges this, the only question left is, "Why should we withhold from the children of believers the sacrament ordained by God in the New Testament if they received the corresponding sacrament in the Old?" If our children are unregenerate pagans and must be treated as such until they "make a decision" or a public profession of faith, then surely they ought not to be given such a great mark of divine ownership. But if there is a difference between the "house of the wicked" and the "house of the righteous"-that is, between those who are unbelievers and those who wear the righteousness of Christ-then the sacrament no less applies to our children than it did to Abraham's.
Like the covenant itself, baptism implies blessings and curses. For those covenant children who combine the hearing of the Gospel with faith (see Heb 4:2), baptism is a great comfort in times of doubt and fear. Calvin warns us against depriving ourselves of "the singular fruit of assurance and spiritual joy which is to be gathered from it [baptism] . . . For how sweet it is to godly minds to be assured, not only by word, but by sight, that they obtain so much favor with the Heavenly Father that their offspring are within his care?" Like the rainbow, this sacrament takes the general promise and particularizes it. Not only does God save sinners, he saves me, and baptism is God's testimony to that fact, not mine. To be sure, many covenant children wander in the wilderness and often the seed does not send out its first blade for some time. It is possible, as Calvin argued, for God to regenerate infants as well as adults, but whatever the case, "God keeps his own timetable of regeneration."
Nevertheless, for those who take it lightly or do not combine it with faith, there are inherent dangers in being baptized. Covenant children are more responsible than unbelievers, since they are heirs of the promise. In the covenant of grace, they are hidden from God's wrath because the blood is on the doorpost and Christ's righteousness covers their unrighteousness. But if a covenant member spurns that blood and rejects the promise, he or she is no longer "under the blood" and will surely be swept away with all unbelievers in the day of God's fury. Therefore, all baptized children of grace would do well to consider whether they have themselves turned from their own works as well as sins in order to be clothed and ruled by Christ's righteousness.
The good news in all of this is that God is in the business of saving entire families. We hear a great deal about "saving the family" these days, and moral and political solutions are usually in mind. But the Scriptures fix our eyes on Christ, the Mediator by whom God has reconciled us to himself and us to each other. While we must be wary of a smug presumption that leads covenant children to apathy and ultimately to a rejection of the promise, we must also be careful not to reject the gracious provision that God has made for us and for our children. Sacraments are meant to strengthen our faith, not compete with it, and too often we view faith and baptism as if they were at odds.
It is through the means of grace-Word and sacrament, by the power of the Spirit-that faith is born and strengthened, however God in his marvelous and miraculous way chooses to do that. In a day of broken promises, broken dreams, and broken homes, that is no slight anchor to hold us to the Rock. Is this not reason enough to build dynasties of faith and is that mission not sufficient for creating a vision for our families that is large enough to take us through the rough times that inevitably rock our lives as sinful Christians?
Finally, this covenantal approach that we find in Scripture requires more from us as parents. In the various Reformation baptismal liturgies, the parents promise God and his church that the children will be raised in the Gospel doctrines and in the commandments of God's Word. The congregation itself adds to the parents' oath its own, to assist the parents in the care and nurture of the child. To what extent in our era of individualistic Christianity is there this sense of mutual responsibility? This solemn sacrament draws the community of faith together in a bond of duty-yes, duty, the word that has become so repugnant to our entitlement society. If we really made those promises in good faith, as parents or as a parish, it means that we will make certain that there are regular periods of instruction for our children at home and in the church. It requires us to treat them as the heritage of the Lord, not as consumers to be entertained to death in youth groups, as they are themselves going to pass this heritage down to their children.
A great deal of our present crisis in the church is due to our own laziness, the pace of our worldly lives, and the failure of nerve in taking seriously this divine mandate to build dynasties of faith. It is time that Christian fathers take their priesthood in the home more seriously than ever, leading the baptized household into the promised land of rest where Christ, our true Joshua, has already brought us at the cost of his own precious blood.