Westminster Shorter Catechism #95

Q. To whom is baptism administered?
A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized. 
Genesis 17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

I know the temptation is to just jump right into the issue of infant baptism, but I urge you, if you have not read our prior blogs on what sacraments are and what baptism is, please do so. As I said in those posts, there's absolutely no point in talking about who should receive the sacraments if we do not understand what they are and what their nature is. 

This week's question gives us two answers as to who should receive the sign of baptism. The first answer is a fairly accepted concept among Christians. No one outside of the visible church, that is, no one outside of that "outer" covenant community that we talked about last week, should receive the sign of baptism. That is because, by it's very nature, baptism is a sign and seal of our entrance into the covenant community. It is a sign and seal of a person's inclusion into the covenant that Christ has made with his people. Now, we talked last time about how this outer covenant community is a mixed community. That means that there are true believers who are part of it, and there are those who have professed with their lips but not believed in their hearts who are also part of this community. This is important to understand. Many people use the term, "believer's baptism". That term is not helpful because the reality is, whether you are baptizing infants or you are only baptizing people who are old enough to make a profession of faith, every church is baptizing people who are not truly Christians. Perhaps a better term to use is "professer's baptism". Notice the catechism says the sign should not be given until a person "professes" their faith in Christ. The London Baptist Confession of 1689 uses the same language. This is because these confessions recognize that baptism is based upon a profession of faith, not the true heart-condition of the person being baptized. The best the church can do is to judge whether or not a person's profession of faith is sincere or not, and apply the sacrament accordingly. And no church will ever get that right 100% of the time. So we end up with a visible church, an "outer covenant community" that is a mixed number. And it always has been that way. There were people who, in the Old Testament, were circumcised, who went through the ceremonial washings, who were not truly "of Israel". We baptize based upon what we judge to be a credible profession of faith with the full realization that we can and are wrong on many occasions. We baptize in hopes that the person will live out the reality of what their baptism points to. We baptize with the hopes that in bringing this person into the visible community of God, as he or she is exposed to the community of the church and the church's religious life, as he or she is exposed to the ordinary means of grace week after week, the Holy Spirit will make sure that the seed of that person's faith is planted in good soil. 

Now, some may argue against the idea that in the New Covenant, there is a visible/invisible, an outer/inner distinction to the covenant community. This is based upon Jeremiah 31:31-34 and an understanding of that passage that leads some to believe that all who are part of the New Covenant community are those who have experienced both regeneration and the full forgiveness of their sins. The problem with this understanding of Jeremiah 31 though is the fact that it doesn't match the reality of the New Testament church as we see in the epistles of the Apostles, or in the book of Acts. We still quite clearly see a "mixed company" in the New Covenant community. We have every reason to believe, given the content of many of the New Testament writings, that the covenant community, the local visible churches, do indeed contain those who's profession of faith would prove to be true, and those who's profession of faith would prove to be false. The covenant community is, even in the New Covenant, made up of a visible and invisible reality. And that's important to remember, particularly as we talk about what baptism is, what it does, and who should receive the sign. 

As we now talk about why we baptize infants, I encourage you again to remember that what happens in the New Testament does not happen in a bubble. We saw last week how baptism has its roots in two very important Old Testament rituals; ceremonial washings and circumcision. And we saw how those ceremonies changed a person's administrative status from "unclean" (or "unholy" in a ceremonial sense) to "clean" (or, ceremonially holy). Those ceremonies gave a person access to the benefits of the covenant community such as participation in the religious life of Israel, participation in the community of believers, it got them within the "proximity of the gospel" where they would be exposed to the means of grace, and so on. And we see how baptism really does do the same thing. Baptism brings a person into the covenant community (not the invisible, inner covenant community unless you believe in baptismal regeneration, but rather, that "outer" community) where they can participate in the religious life of the church. Baptism brings you into membership within a local church body. Baptism gives you access to the Lord's Supper. Baptism gets you into "the proximity of the gospel" as it is preached in both word and sacrament. This is why baptism is part of Christian discipleship! This is why, when Jesus gave the Great Commission and commanded his followers to "make disciples", he said that we do it by baptizing them and teaching them everything Christ has told us. And so the question is, if we understand and believe all this, why wouldn't we give the sign of baptism to our children? If the sign of the covenant was freely given to the children of believing households in the Old Covenant, and if there is continuity between the Old and New Covenants, that is, if they are both expressions of the same Covenant of Grace, and if the New Testament sacraments don't happen within a bubble but rather, build upon what came before them, if the New Testament never gives us the command to stop giving the sign of that covenant to our children, and we all agree that we are to make disciples of our children, then on what grounds do we withhold the covenant sign from our children? 

We are fully aware that some will say, "The Bible never tells us to baptize our infants and we have no example of infants being baptized in the New Testament". That is true in once sense, but we could say in response, "The Bible never tells us to withhold the covenant sign from our children until they are old enough to make a credible profession of faith for themselves either, nor do we have any New Testament example of a child growing up in a believing household who had the covenant sign withheld from him until he was old enough to make a profession of faith." So on some level, both sides of this debate are arguing from silence. But the question is, if we are both arguing from silence, which side of the debate has the burden of proof? This is what John Frame says about this issue:

We can assume continuity with the Old Testament principle of administering the sign of the covenant to children, unless the New Testament evidence directs us otherwise, and this is the paedobaptist (infant baptist) approach. Or we can assume that only adult believers are to be baptized, unless there is New Testament evidence to the contrary and this is the baptist approach. On the first approach, the burden of proof is on the baptist to show New Testament evidence against infant baptism. On the second approach, the burden of proof is on the paedobaptist to show New Testament evidence for it. In this case, deciding the burden of proof pretty much decides the question, since there is little explicit New Testament evidence on either side and since the two parties are essentially agreed on the Old Testament data. It seems to me that the first approach is correct: the church of the New Testament is essentially the same as the church of the Old.

If John Frame is right, then it means that ultimately the burden of proof, when arguing from silence, falls on those who would cut the ties of covenant continuity between the Old and New Covenant.  But Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost show us this continuation with the Old Testament covenant community when he says, "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." Peter is taking words here from Deuteronomy 29:28 when Moses writes, "But the things that are revealed belong to us and our children." Of course, Peter also includes the Gentiles now in this promise ("for all who are far off"), as a fulfillment to God's original promise to Abraham that he would make Abraham the father of "many nations". But here, in a New Covenant reality, Peter reemphasizes the idea that the covenant promises are not only for us, but also for our children. They always have been, and they still are today. 

We also see this strong continuation with the Old Testament in the household baptisms of the book of Acts. Some will rightly point out that, "we don't know if any infants were included in those baptisms". But, that's not the point. The point is that when the head of household converted to Christianity, he (or in the case of Lydia, "she"), had their entire household baptized. They all received the sign of the covenant. This is in lines with what we see happening in Genesis 17, where after Abraham received the sign of the covenant, every male in his house was also circumcised. The issue is not whether there were infants in the household, the issue is, the head of the household is acting as a covenant representative for his wife, children, and even his servants, and the household receives the sign of the covenant based upon the faith of the head of the house. The promise was for Abraham and his children, and his children received the sign and seal of that promise.

The real question concerning baptism, then, is this. Are our children part of the covenant community, or aren't they? If they aren't, then I agree the sign of baptism should be withheld from them. But I encourage you to think about the ramifications of that. Not only does it mean that your child should not receive baptism, but it also means you treat them as someone who is outside the covenant community. I know of no Christian parent who treats their children as if they're outside the covenant community. Todd Pruitt, a PCA pastor, once said, concerning this point and his own Baptist upbringing, that: 

"My parents instinctively knew that there would be something different about a child born into a Christian home than a child born into a non-Christian home...There's a Biblical instinct, if you like, that pointed them to the fact that you don't treat their own children like the reprobate...They recognized instinctually that God has given proactive grace to that child by placing him or her in a Christian home."

His point is a good one. Instinctually, even those who would not baptize infants recognize that there is a special grace given to the children of believers. We believe God has already been gracious to them by placing them within a Christian home. We do not treat them as the reprobate, as those outside of the covenant community. And while we also don't assume that they are Christians, as we still proclaim Christ to them and pray for them, we also don't treat them as non-believers who are cut off from the communion and fellowship of the covenant community. And, as we have every reason to believe from the testimony of Scripture from the earliest pages of the Old Testament up through the New, if children are part of the covenant community, then by all means, we should be giving the sign of that covenant to our them! 

The New Covenant is more inclusive in every way from the Old. As I said in prior posts, yes there is continuity between the old and new covenants, but there are some things that are "new", that is, expanded upon, in the New Covenant. Baptism is a good example of this. In the Old Covenant, it was the males only who received the sign of the covenant. But in the New Covenant, male and female now receive the sign of the covenant. And if the New Covenant is more inclusive, if it expands in the New Testament to Jew and Gentile, to male and female, then why would people, such as our children, who were previously part of the covenant community, now be excluded? Brothers and sisters, our children, the children of believers are part of the covenant community. The promise is for them. Let us gladly mark them with the sign and seal of the covenant, and pray fervently that just as they are now ceremonially marked as clean, ceremonially marked as holy, they would, through the power of the Holy Spirit as he works through the family, the church, and through the ordinary means of grace, grow to become spiritually clean and holy.  

*A great debt of gratitude is due to C. John Collins and his essay, "What does baptism do for anyone?", published in the "Presbyterion", Spring 2012. The essay served as an invaluable resource as I've worked on this series of blogs. 

This blog was written by Andy Styer