Some doctrines divide. Others unite. There is a third class of doctrines: those that are misunderstood. Let’s look at one. It’s a big one— one of the two sacraments — baptism. Now, let’s go deeper: Infant baptism. Infant baptism, i.e., the baptism of believers’ little children, is not only rooted in Scripture but was the practice of the Church in the first four centuries after the ascension of Jesus. No scholar has done more to demonstrate the normality of the baptism of believers and their children than Dr. Joachim Jeremias in his scholarly, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries. However, history is not our ultimate guide. We must look to the Scriptures.
There is a saying that I often refer to: "Let us cooperate without compromise." In saying this, I am appealing to fellow believers, "Let us agree on the gospel of Jesus Christ. In those places where we differ in the application of these fundamentals, let us do so with Christian charity, respecting each other’s convictions of conscience on Scripture, loving and respecting one another." I am under no illusion that my words will convert the thinking of a brother or sister in Christ who is convicted that missionary baptism — "believers’ baptism" as it is also called — is the only way. However, I do trust that my fellow believers will understand the biblical grounds that we appeal to when we baptize infants.
God's Covenant of Grace Is Seen in Infant Baptism
The baptism of all, whether those in a missionary environment, with a first-generation being baptized or the children of baptized believers, is firmly rooted in the beautiful doctrine of the covenant of grace. In this promise of God, the Lord does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He provides the righteousness we need to stand before a holy God, as we have none of our own. The Lord provides a substitutionary atonement for our sins. Jesus Christ is the mediator of that covenant. The promise to Abraham was that all the families of the earth would be blessed by him and his acceptance of the gift of God's grace. God would give two great signs in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Jesus and continue to this day, even until the second coming of Jesus Christ. One is the sacrament of identification which was given at the very anatomical place of family. The circumcision of all males of Israel, in its first "missionary" conception, included adult males. Afterward, the sacrament would be applied to the male children of those believers. Circumcision is, therefore, the old covenant sign of the cutting away, the washing away, and the grace – grounded inclusion of unworthy sinners into the family of God. That sacrament continues, to believers — male and female — and to their children. As Matthew Henry wrote in his commentary on Acts 2 that it would be inconceivable to believe that Peter would baptize all of those people and then neglect their children. Such an act of sacramental significance, administered in the name of God, would be inconceivable to one reared in the faith of the covenant made to Abraham.
God's Plan for Salvation Works through Godly Lines
Another foundation stone for the baptism of the children of believers, including infants, is God's desire for a godly line. Several times during an infant baptism I asked the congregation to raise their hand if they heard the gospel, firstly, from one of their or both of their parents. It was a majority, every time. Hence, God's plan for the church is for unbelievers to come to him and to rear their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. There is no greater way than Deuteronomy 6, where the children are grounded in the Word of God from infancy on. Then, as faith matures, the children come to a place where they either receive Christ as their own or not. Of course, there are others who receive him, confirming their faith, only to realize later in life that they had not truly repented. Such is the case in both infant baptism and the baptism of adolescents or adults. The exception does not overrule the norm. And the norm for the church in Jesus Christ is that believers rear their children in the gospel and those children grow and through the power of the Holy Spirit confessing Christ as Savior. And the line continues "unto a thousand generations."
God's Glory Is Magnified in Infant Baptism
An often-overlooked foundation stone to the practice of infant baptism is how infant baptism glorifies God. The extending of the covenant sign with the intention that that child will one day profess Christ brings such magnificent glory to God. It is entirely His work of grace and mercy flowing through the great commission to "teach them whatsoever" Jesus commanded. Infant baptism in no way assumes the salvation of the child or even that the child's faith would be confirmed in later years without the means of grace: the teaching of the parents, worship, Sunday school, family prayer, public prayer, and individual private prayer. All of these expressions of Word, sacrament, and prayer are God-ordained ways that you and I come to be born again through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, one of the most compelling foundation stones for the baptism of the children of believers, including their infant children, is the very nature of baptism. While there are many believers who view baptism as the testimony of a convert, a ceremonial washing away of sin, as in the baptisms by John the Baptist, (which was for Jesus a veritable anointing to the priesthood of Melchizedek, and that is yet another article), the sacrament of baptism, was initiated in circumcision as a sign of identification with the covenant promises of God. In this sense, the very nature of baptism is God's sign and seal of the covenant promises He has made to mankind.
Jesus Blessed Infants
My professor of systematic theology in seminary was the late Dr. Robert L. Reymond, Sr.; in teaching on baptism, Dr. Reymond reminded us that the sacraments are divine pictures. They are the King’s seal, His very own sign of authority, and His certain promise. Dr. Reymond then looked up from his notes, and uttered words I can never forget, "The most beautiful picture of God's grace coming down on an unworthy sinner is that divinely ordained life painting of the covenantal waters of baptism flowing down from Heaven over the precious head of a sleeping infant." Even now, I have tears as I recall these words. Indeed, we are saved by grace through faith. It is not of our works (Eph. 2:8-9). Baptism, like communion, is a sign of that kind of salvation. The former, baptism, is a one-time sign signifying membership and identification with the people of God. The latter, the Lord's Supper, is a sacrament to be repeated throughout our lives so that we are continually brought back—our compasses of faith recalibrated— to the foot of the cross. The baptism of little children, in a way, also brings us back to a place in time when Jesus held infants in His arms (Mark 10:13-16; Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17). The Bible says that He blessed them. It is a wondrous passage. For it states that Jesus imparted spiritual blessings upon the souls of infants (Dr. Luke, like the exacting man of science that he was, clarifies those whom Matthew and Mark call “little children;” they were, in fact, “brephos:” nursing infants). The disciples forbade parents to present their babes to the Master. The befuddled disciples missed the power of the encounter. They reacted with shallow disdain to Jesus expending time and ministry on such unimportant creatures as those infants who could not even perceive Jesus’ presence, much less His blessings. Such an attitude aroused an ardent response from the Savior. Jesus corrected the disciples while memorializing this sacred moment with the infants:
“But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and told them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And He took the children in His arms, placed His hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:14 ESV).
My old professor was exactly right. There is nothing more beautiful than the covenantal waters sprinkled or poured over the heads of God's children, whether a new Christian who is an adolescent or an adult who had no covenantal family to teach them the gospel, or a babe of a believing parent.
A Pastor’s Beautiful Story of Infant Baptism
It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful day. All sides of the family had gathered for the baptism of a newborn daughter. I faced the congregation, to remind them of their baptisms, and the meaning of baptism—“It is the Sacrament of identification with Christ and His Church. Baptism is not our testimony. Baptism is God’s testimony.
“Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments“ (Deuteronomy 7:9 NKJV).
I continued, “Christ welcomed the infants, and blessed them. So, we welcome this covenant child into God’s family. As the covenantal waters flow over her little head, yet she is unaware of the glory of God’s grace coming down upon her soul. She had no say in being born to a Christian family. She will be told of the gift of God’s love sealed in this baptism, though she will not remember this event. The waters of baptism do not save the human soul, whether infant, child, or adult. Neither did the Old Testament sign of cutting away, identifying with God and His Promise, save anyone. Circumcision was the old covenant sacrament of identity, of covenantal inclusion in the family of God. Just as circumcision can only be administered but once, so baptism is administered but once. The sign is for believers and their children. According to Deuteronomy 6, if a child is reared in the faith, the parents’ faith will influence the maturing of biblical faith in the child. I read the Word of God and charged the parents with the solemn responsibility of rearing this child in the faith once delivered:
Deuteronomy 6:20-25 (NKJV): When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the Lord showed signs and wonders before our eyes, great and severe, against Egypt, Pharaoh, and all his household. Then He brought us out from there, that He might bring us in, to give us the land of which He swore to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day. Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us.’”
Thus, I charge the parents that just as they are to take care of the physical needs of Lisa, so, also, they must attend to her spiritual needs until that time when she becomes either a covenant keeper or a covenant breaker. We trust and pray that if you rear this child in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord, she will receive, and she will not ultimately turn away. Holding Lisa, I turn to the parents and read the Promises of God to believing families:
“For to you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto him. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (Acts 2:39; Gen. 17:7; Acts 16:31).
I, then, asked Lisa’s mom and dad the questions that require a vow. I asked them to respond prayerfully as unto the Lord.
1. Do you acknowledge your child’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit?
2. Do you claim God’s covenant promises in (his) behalf, and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for (his) salvation, as you do for your own?
3. Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before (him) a godly example, that you will pray with and for (him), that you will teach (him) the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring (him) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?
Therefore, we pray that Lisa will hear the gospel from her mom and dad, from other members of her family; that she will watch you, the Christian community where God has placed her. Then, by God’s grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit, Lisa will ask, “Dad, Mom: What do these things mean?” O how many times have I seen a covenant child come, and follow in the pattern of Deuteronomy 6, and inquire, repent, and receive Jesus Christ as their resurrected and living Lord.
So, we trust God that Lisa will confirm these vows and God’s promises by repenting and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. I take water into my hand, pouring it over the head of the infant, I recite the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, "Lisa and Louise, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen." We hope she will never know a day when she did not know the name Jesus. This is the beauty of baptism to believers, and, according to Scripture, to their children.
Some years after I baptized the infant, Lisa, a sweet little girl appeared one morning in my office doorway. "Pastor, I want to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I know I need a Savior. I love the Lord and I want to let others know that Jesus is my Lord." I smiled without speaking. I could not help but look into the tearful eyes of those parents who stood with me on that special day when Lisa was baptized. Smiling, and sensing the wondrous presence of the Lord Jesus, I leaned in, and looked at Lisa. I could only think of one thing to say, "O Lisa, we have been waiting for you.”
I walked to the baptismal font and knelt before Lisa. “Lisa, do you know what happened right here?” “Yes Sir.” She smiled and looked at the font and then looked back at her parents. “Well, I was baptized here.” As quiet as her words were, they nevertheless reverberated through the sanctuary. Her mother, looking at Lisa, spoke in a whisper, “Lisa, God keeps His promises.” We bowed our heads and for a while prayed without any words. The picture of us all back at the place of baptism spoke more than I could ever say. I would have such moments many times in a career of pastoral ministry. I would always remember that Lisa’s mom gave the purest, most biblical, and Christ-centered confession of faith.
After all of the scriptural defenses of infant baptism, nothing is more powerful, poignant, and compelling than little Lisa’s confession of faith, and her parents’ trust that “God keeps His promises.”
*The above photo is the author baptizing a child in church. ©Dr.MichaelAMilton
*Permission is granted to Salem Web Network for use of the song, “Let the Children Come,” copyright ©️2007 words and music by Michael Anthony Milton (Bethesda Music, BMI, CCLI).
Main article stock photo credit: ©GettyImages/JasonDoiy
MICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]