Most churches practise infant baptism. Even when the ceremony is called ‘christening’ it is usually regarded as baptism, as when I was a baby. One of the arguments used in its favour is that if circumcision in the OT could occur on the eighth day, why not infant baptism in a more gracious covenant? This is to forget that infant boy circumcision, unlike that of Abraham, was initially a marker of nationality, of belonging, and what is sometimes known as a ‘naming ceremony’ among Christians is more akin to it. In Christendom or the ostensibly theocratic regime that operated in the Middle Ages, baptism also signified belonging. If lack of circumcision robbed a baby boy of national status in the OT, it was deemed to do the same in NT times. Nowadays, it is felt by some that just as circumcision indicated that a baby boy was a true Jew born of Jewish parents and hence legally in the covenant (see Genesis 17), so a naming ceremony held in a church is sufficient to indicate that the baby is in the care and nurture of the Christian church. However, my intention here is to demonstrate that baptism, truly and strictly interpreted, rules infants out of court.
The Baptism of Infants
First, the so-called baptism of infants lacks a biblical foundation; on the face of it, it is an ecclesiastical rite. On what grounds do I say this? Unless it is clearly perceived as belonging exclusively to the new covenant, as opposed to the old, baptism is simply not Christian. Of course, many would argue that we are all now living in new covenant times and therefore, since babies are included, they should be treated accordingly. But infant baptism fails to take into consideration the realities of human development, specifically portrayed in biblical as opposed to traditional covenant theology. (1* See my Covenant Theology, Covenant Theology in Brief, Covenant Continuity and Discontinuity.) The elementary point is that all human beings begin at the beginning. What do I mean? I mean that just as Adam was first created in the ground and Eve emanated from him, so now all human beings without exception are procreated and ‘born of woman’. If the earth is our original mother, then our present human mother symbolizes the earth (flesh). The truth of this was manifest at Jesus’ incarnation; he became flesh when he was born of Mary (Mt. 2; Luke 1,2; Gal. 4:4). The NT indicates his earthly nature, first, by suggesting that in effect through his mother he stemmed like Adam from the ground (Eph. 4:9), second, by drawing attention to his fleshly continuity with Adam whose son he was (Luke 3:38), and, third, by implying that as the second Adam he had to begin as dust like the first Adam (1 Cor. 15:47-49). Indeed, unless he had been capable of re-enacting to perfection the abortive ‘ascension’ (cf. Eph. 4:9f.) of the first Adam and all his successors, he could not have served as man’s Saviour. In other words, he had, first, to be a true human being; second, to assume what had to be healed (Heb. 2:14, cf. Gregory Nazianzen who claimed that what was not assumed was not healed), and, third, to fulfil the law that originally promised (eternal) life to man (Adam) (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, cf. Rom. 7:10, etc.),
Life From Beginning to End
So as man Jesus, like all other men and women (Heb. 2), had to begin at the beginning and then progress through the various stages of life recapitulating the gestation (cf. the Garden of Eden), infancy, childhood, adolescence, adult manhood (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; 14:20, etc.) common to man until he attained to its culmination in glory (John 17:5,24; Rom. 8:30). He had in other words to progress from ground to glory or from Eden to eternity. Why is it important to stress this? Because it inevitably means that Jesus could not be baptized until he had lived: first, a fleshly existence like that of the animals without understanding of good and evil (Isa. 7:15f., cf. Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11), second, a Gentile or heathen life like his forebear Abraham under Noah and thereby recapitulate the race’s heathen experience in Egypt (Mt. 2:15), third, as a servant under the law of Moses (Luke 2:40-52), and, finally, as a son, the Son, under the leading of the Spirit. All this is conveniently etched and summed up in Galatians 4:1-7. In plain terms, he had as a true son of Adam to live to perfection a fully human, or first Adamic, life in the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:3) until he finally ascended (re)transformed (i.e. back from incarnation to the glory he had before the foundation of the earth, John 17:5) into heaven (John 6:62, etc.) where he took his seat at his Father’s side (Heb. 1:3, etc.).
To express the issue another way, since, far from being flatly and statically uniform, human life necessarily, that is, by divine decree, involves dynamic development or progress from immaturity at creation (procreation) to maturity or perfection, Jesus had to begin his incarnation from scratch, that is, as imperfect or immature. (The idea held by fundamentalists that Adam was created fully mature in one literal day must be dismissed as absurd. If it were true, Adam was not a man, least of all prototypical or representative man according to the flesh.) If he was the second Adam, he had to begin where the first Adam began. If his goal from the start was perfection (cf. Heb. 2:9f.; 5:9; 6:1; 7:11,28; 12:23; Phil. 3:12-14), the perfection of God himself (Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; Mt. 5:48; 19:21), then the perfecting process was inherently necessary till its pinnacle was achieved in the Father’s presence (Heb. 1:3). Perfection involves a teleological or perfecting process (cf. Heb. 7:11,28; 12:1f.) which, like progressive revelation cannot be achieved in one fell swoop. There were no short cuts even for the Son of God himself. As a true human being, genuinely incarnate, he had to pass through the same stages of physical and spiritual growth and development as all other human beings (Luke 2:40-52; 1 Cor. 13:11; 14:20; Heb. 2:10; 5:9, cf. Gal. 4:1-7). Thus his life followed the pattern established by his forebears concisely expressed by Paul as born (or becoming) of woman and under the law (Gal. 4:4). But Paul goes on to add the profoundly significant words: “to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons” (cf. Heb. 2:9-13). In order to do this, it is obvious that until he had been circumcised like every other Jewish boy and been rigorously tested and approved under the law, he could not be baptized and confirmed as God’s Son. We may well ask, why?
The Meaning of Baptism
This question prompts us to delve into the meaning of baptism which is an exclusively new covenant rite. It is generally agreed that in contrast with circumcision, which signifies law (Rom. 2:25; Gal. 5:3), baptism is the sign of faith, repentance and regeneration. However, as John the Baptist recognized, since Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, cf. Mt. 3:14), he did not need to repent. Consequently, his baptism indicated not only faith but primarily regeneration. Traditionally, Christians following Augustine have wrongly associated regeneration with (original) sin. In fact, in its pure form it has nothing to do with sin at all, as Jesus’ own case makes clear. Moreover, what he says in John 3:3-8, where he conspicuously fails to mention sin, underlines this view. The reason why, against the natural instinct of John the Baptist (Mt. 3:14), Jesus submitted himself for baptism was that he had successfully completed his test under the law (cf. Ex. 16:4; Dt. 8:2,16), met its requirements to the satisfaction of his Father and was granted eternal life in accordance with the promise first made to Adam (Gen. 2:17) and later extended to all his progeny (Lev. 18:5, etc.). Otherwise expressed, he was the first and only man in history to receive the promised Spirit and eternal life as the result of keeping the law. To serve uniquely as Saviour he had to become spiritually alive himself (Isa. 45:22-25, cf. Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:10-13). As the hymn There is a green Hill has it, he had to open the hitherto closed door of heaven and let the rest of us in. Having confirmed his pedigree by his performance, he was baptized by God spiritually and invisibly and by man visibly, audibly and tangibly (Mt. 3:13-17, cf. 1 John 1:1-3). Thus set apart and consecrated (cf. John 1:32), he was confessed and acknowledged (Mark 1:9-11) as the one who belonged to God (cf. Rom. 8:9; 1 John 4:13), in fact as God’s own (regenerate) Son. What he was by nature, he had proved by action: he had confirmed his ontology by his conduct. So it is that we who follow in his tread by faith and are accounted righteous in him also become by baptism the regenerate sons and daughters of God. For us, his Christian followers, the baptism of Jesus was and remains prototypical and paradigmatic. As God’s firstborn (Rom. 8:29), he was the foundation member (1 Cor. 3:11) of a large family (Heb. 2:10-13), and it was precisely he who as the firstborn was worshipped by angels on arrival in heaven (Heb. 1:6; John 17:5). What is more, since as risen from the dead he was also the first fruits of those who have died (cf. Col. 1:18), he underwrote the resurrection of those who belong to him (1 Cor. 15:20-23; John 6:35-40; 11:25f.; 12:26; 14:3; 17:24).
Of course, the churches in general recognize that baptism signifies regeneration, or birth from above, and eternal life. Without it we cannot finally be saved as passages like John 3:1-8 plainly indicate. Not unnaturally, however, when our spiritual forebears read such verses, they assumed that the only way they could ensure their children’s salvation was to baptize them. And since original sin was deemed to exclude them, baptism seemed to be an unavoidable necessity. However, this kind of thinking was clearly in error. Why?
Original Sin and Human Development
First, it cannot be stated too emphatically that the Augustinian dogma of original sin which teaches that Adam’s sin was either transmitted (Catholics) or imputed (Protestants) to his offspring is contrary to Scripture. (2* See my various articles on original sin) Paul makes it clear beyond equivocation that where there is no law, there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15; 7:8). In light of this we are compelled to conclude that infants who know neither the law nor good and evil are innocent (Dt. 1:39, etc.). Next, we must recognize that whatever impact our parents including Adam may have on us (cf. Ex. 20:5f.), we all sin on our own account (cf. Ex. 32:33; Ps. 106:6, etc.). Like Adam before us, we all fail to keep the commandment we receive as we emerge from infancy (cf. Dt. 1:39; Prov. 1:8; 4:1-9; 6:20; Rom. 7:9f.). To express this point more positively, we all earn our own wages by breaking the law in our youth (Ex. 32:33; Ezek. 18; Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 6:23; 11:32, etc.). Only Jesus, in contrast with Adam and the rest of his offspring, avoided doing this (1 Pet. 2:22).
Second, once we have gained sufficient knowledge or understanding of the law to make sin a possibility (cf. Rom. 7:7f.), we also have the knowledge on which to base faith even if it is only of a very immature kind. In contrast with the new birth, faith is relative and can be exercised even by children. It was so in OT times, it remains so now. In Hebrews 11 during the minority of the race, while faith is prominent, regeneration is conspicuously absent (though note 11:39f.). Why? Because faith and repentance are the first steps on the road to justification which must of necessity precede the new birth (Lev. 18:5, etc.). (3* See my The Order of Salvation, Cart-Before-The-Horse Theology, etc.) Furthermore, just as we saw above that the Jews were tested under the law (Ex. 15:25; 16:4, etc.), so an immature faith is tested before it is permanently sealed in justification and regeneration. But it must be stressed that until Jesus came and kept the law to perfection, regeneration remained nothing more than a promise (Dt. 29:4; 30:6, etc.). The same remains true even in NT times. While faith of the kind found in the OT may well be exercised, it does not reach its culmination in regeneration until Christ specifically is consciously and intelligently received by faith. It is not till then that we are justified or accounted righteous and receive the Spirit in accordance with the promise (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5, etc.). Any attempt to reverse this order and give the new birth priority is to commit the same kind of error that Paul accused the Galatians of, that is, beginning with the Spirit and ending with the flesh (Gal. 3:3)! No wonder that “baptized” babies have so often historically failed to provide evidence of their Christian commitment. (4* Pace Luther and his famous ‘baptizatus sum’.)
If all this is true, what are the specific grounds for rejecting infant baptism as Christian?
First, infant baptism ignores the human development implied by a truly biblical covenant theology which reflects nature, law and grace (John 1:10-13; Rom. 1-3; 7-8; Gal. 4:1-7). According to the Bible, initial creation, and therefore our own procreation, is uncovenanted, that is, it lacks a covenantal guarantee. The first covenant God made was with Noah when mankind had by his day undergone a degree of development. Indeed, as one who was made in the image of God unlike the animals, he was able to appreciate the significance of the rainbow and to undertake the task originally assigned to Adam in faith and confidence (Gen. 1:28; 9:1). There would never again be a flood to threaten the very existence of the earth (Gen. 8:21f.). (5* See my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?)
Second, infant baptism fails to treat infants as infants. If the baptism of Jesus, the man who had kept the law, was the occasion of his regeneration or his confirmed and acknowledged sonship, it must serve as the paradigm of every Christian baptism. As we have seen, baptism is the sacrament of the new birth, but the new birth could not occur until Jesus himself had gained righteousness by keeping the law to perfection (Lev. 18:5). So the same must hold in the case of all his disciples who are not greater than their Master. We cannot be properly baptized and hence born again until we gain righteousness by faith exercised specifically in him, the inaugurator of the new covenant. It should be added here that infants, since they know neither good nor evil, are still merely flesh and physically on a par with the animals. In this condition they cannot possibly feed on anything other than material bread (milk) which does nothing to offset their natural corruptibility and mortality (John 6:22-63, cf. Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8). It is only when they are capable of eating spiritual food (Mt. 4:4) and drinking spiritual water (John 4:10,13f.) that they are on the road to regeneration and ultimate perfection. In their case the inappropriateness of baptism ought to be obvious. It is not until they have passed through the heathen stage of their lives under Noah (and, if they are Jews, under the law), that they are in a position to graduate to maturity under Christ. It should be noted that Jewish girls who were not circumcised and were in fact often ranked with the heathen, can, given faith in Christ, be baptized and so attain to maturity apart from the law (Gal. 3:28). Technically, all Gentiles who become Christians are likewise uncircumcised and true children of Eve, the mother of all living, whose sin differed from that of Adam and Jewish men (1 Tim. 2:14). But as Paul says, while circumcision and uncircumcision are nothing, obeying the commandments is everything (1 Cor. 7:19).
Third, historically, the raison d’etre or justification of infant baptism is original sin which does not and indeed cannot exist where there is neither law (Rom. 4:15) nor knowledge (Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11). Put bluntly, the transmission or imputation of sin is a lie. Little wonder that we cannot be punished for the sins of our fathers (Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18).
Next, in effect, infant “baptism” ignores both nature under Noah and law under Moses. (6* It is not without significance that Jewish Christians in the early church wanted to have Gentile converts circumcised, Acts 15:1,5. For them progression through the law would have seemed natural. Paul however recognized that circumcision signifying law was unique to the Jews as the chosen people of God. He was obviously not unaware that it was Eve, not Adam, who typified the Gentiles as Romans 7:7ff. indicates! There is another point to make. Those who stress the so-called unity of the covenant almost inevitably link circumcision (law) with baptism (regeneration). On the basis of an appeal to and bad exegesis of Colossians 2:11-13 some virtually equate circumcision with baptism and thus apply the latter to infants. When they do this they in effect do the very thing that the apostles disallowed.) Furthermore, it dispenses with faith, since infants who lack all knowledge cannot exercise it. It implicitly sounds the death knell of justification by faith so grandly re-discovered at the Reformation. It is not without interest therefore that Peter sees Noah as undergoing merely a symbolic form or type of “baptism” when he was saved from the flood (1 Pet. 3:20). Again, Paul regards the Israelites as being symbolically “baptized” into Moses when they passed through the sea at the exodus (1 Cor. 10:2f.). Given this perspective, infant baptism is clearly anomalous. Baptism proper, that is, Christian baptism belongs to the new covenant which is experienced personally only by faith in Christ, our elder brother (cf. Heb. 2:10-13). It involves separation from both the heathen and the Jews. It constitutes them corporately a third race (1 Cor. 10:32).
Fifth, infant baptism inevitably implies baptismal regeneration. It makes the new birth the result of a mechanical act (opus operatum) and empowers priests to play God. What happened at Jesus’ own baptism is relevant at this point. While John the Baptist was the human agent on this occasion, the real baptizer was God himself, as Matthew 3:13-17 makes indisputable. John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus indicates that he felt himself to be unfitted for his role and in fact confessed his need for Jesus to baptize him. (Indeed, until he had himself been baptized and ascended, Jesus was in no position to baptize him, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45b.; John 7:39.) In sum, the only warrant for Christian baptism is personal confession of faith in Christ. Even John’s own baptism of (with a view to) repentance required personal submission. (The notion of vicarious repentance is unsupported by Scripture and intrinsically alien to it.)
Sixth, infant baptism puts the cart before the horse (cf. Gal. 3:1-5). In the Bible we attain to regeneration by a process of maturation under the sovereign providence of God. Yet in churches ruled by tradition, regeneration comes first in the order of salvation (e.g. the Westminster Confession of Faith ch.10). Apart from it we are regarded as dead in Adam’s sin (contrast Eph. 2:1,5, etc.). Thus what is really the goal of our unregenerate life under law, that is, eternal life (Gen. 2:17) becomes foundational and turns theology upside down. What a contrast with Paul who informs us that like Adam and Eve he had ‘life’ till he received the commandment but when he broke it, he like them earned its wages in death (Rom. 7:9f., cf. 5:12). Needless to say, he was baptized when he was converted (Acts 9:18). (7* See my Cart-Before-The-Horse Theology.)
Seventh, specious arguments used to support infant baptism like covenant theology, prevenient false grace, family membership and so forth are in fact spurious. To use the idea of human solidarity to the exclusion of individual responsibility is surely to err. (8* See my Solidarity and Separation)
If what has been argued above is anything like the truth, far from being categorized with the adiaphora (Stott, p.385) infant baptism is a major obstacle to our understanding of biblical theology and anthropology. Man is by nature subject to development and recapitulation and cannot sensibly undergo baptism and the regeneration it implies until he has been tested under (the) law and achieved a degree of intelligent maturity. Since he cannot keep the law (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16, etc.) in order to be justified and gain the life it promises (Lev. 18:5, etc.), he can nonetheless by the grace of God be born again through faith specifically in Christ who was justified by keeping the law and so received the Spirit. If biblical history is to be our guide, even this kind of faith needs to be shown to be a credible profession subject to reasonable testing. This, however, is a subject that requires more extensive treatment.
Additional Note on the Law
It is often alleged that since Christ is the end (terminus) of the law, it no longer applies. This is a profound misunderstanding of the biblical position. Christians may have died to the law through faith in Christ (Gal. 2:19) and they are now under the law of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23). For unbelievers, that is, the unregenerate, however, (the) law in one form or another still stands and is not replaced until they enter the new covenant by faith. Hence the need for evangelism and the admonition and care (not the persecution as in the Middle Ages) of the church. Jesus tells us plainly that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it (Mt. 5:17f.). It follows from this that it is fulfilled only for those who believe in him, not for all and sundry.
John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, Leicester, 1992.