Question: Please explain what the Bible teaches about infant baptism. Should we not wait until a child has grown up and become a believer?
Answer: To ask the question of whether or not infants are to be baptized is really to ask the question, “What is the relationship of the children of believers to the covenants of God?”
There is no doubt that when God made covenants with men in the Old Testament, those covenants included their children. We have several examples of this (Gen. 6:18; 17:7-14; Num. 25:12-13; Ps. 89:3-4; Jer. 35:18-19).
Even covenants between men included the children of the parties concerned. David’s kindness to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth is a prime example (2 Sam. 9:1-7). David and Jonathan had made a covenant with each other (1 Sam. 18:3; cf. 20:8), a covenant that included one another’s entire households (1 Sam. 20:15-17). We see the outworking of this covenant when Jonathan died and David showed kindness to Jonathan’s son, “for Jonathan’s sake” (2 Sam. 9:1). Scripture says David showed him this kindness, “because of the oath of the LORD [the covenant] that was between them, between David and Jonathan” (2 Sam. 21:7). A promise to show kindness and mercy to someone is necessarily a promise to show kindness and mercy to his children.
God’s covenant with Abraham is the most instructive example for our purpose in considering infant baptism. When God made a covenant with Abraham, it included his entire household (Gen. 17:7-14). Furthermore, God gave Abraham circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant (Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11). For an analogy, think of a wedding ring as a sign and seal of the marriage covenant. It is a token of the vows that are exchanged.
In a similar fashion, circumcision was given to Abraham as a token of God’s covenant with him. And this circumcision of the flesh was a type of the circumcision of the heart (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25-26: Rom. 2:29)—that is, it was a type or a shadow of regeneration or the new birth.
Now was Abraham to apply this sign to himself alone? No. He was to apply it to his children, as well. Was he to wait to circumcise them until they reached an age of maturity and they “made a decision” for themselves to follow the Lord? No, he was to circumcise them on the eighth day after their birth (Gen. 17:12). Not only this, but all the males of his household were to be circumcised as well, including his servants purchased with money (numbering in the hundreds, Gen. 14:14), and his servants’ sons, too (Gen. 17:10-13). Thus, we read, “Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin that very day” (Gen. 17:23). Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised. Ishmael was thirteen. And when Isaac was born, he was circumcised on the eighth day according to God’s command.
Furthermore, when a Gentile was converted to the faith of Abraham, he was to be circumcised, too, as were all his sons (Ex. 12:48).
What’s the point, you ask? Just this: In the New Testament Paul connects baptism with circumcision in Colossians 2, and he connects them in such a way as to show that baptism is the New Testament counterpart to Old Testament circumcision. He says, “in him [Christ] you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands…by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism…” (Col. 2:11-12a). In other words, by baptism, they were reckoned to have had a circumcision “made without hands,” a spiritual circumcision, a circumcision of the heart—the very thing that circumcision of the flesh was intended to represent. So he connects baptism with circumcision.
The question then becomes, “If in the Old Testament children were regarded as members of God’s covenant with their believing parents, and received the Old Testament sign of the covenant [circumcision], why should children of believing parents not receive the New Testament sign of the covenant—baptism?”
Is it because children are no longer participants with their believing parents in the covenant of God? God forbid! Are we to believe that God is less gracious in the New Testament than he was in the Old? Certainly not! We are told that the New Covenant is a better covenant, enacted on better promises (Heb. 8:6). If the Old Covenant contained promises that included the children of believers, how much more the New Covenant!
Accordingly, on the day of Pentecost we hear Peter preaching, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).
Later, while explaining his encounter with Cornelius to the elders of the church at Jerusalem, he said, “He told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (Acts 11:13-14). This is the same message the apostle Paul gave to the Philippian jailor, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). This is why we read several times in the New Testament of household baptisms (Acts 16:14-15, 32-34; 1 Cor. 1:16). These included the baptism of all who were a part of the household: parents, children, and servants—all who were under the authority of the converted head of the household.
This is a topic I never tire of addressing because few things demonstrate the covenant mercies of God as beautifully as the promises he makes to believers with respect to their children. And nothing sets this promise forth quite like baptism. Consequently, I encourage further questions. Let's continue to plumb the topic together to the bottom.