And For Your Children: On Household Baptism

The question of whether or not the children of Christians are to receive baptism has been one of much debate, sometimes heated, for years by men wiser and more godly than me on both sides. I am aware, then, that my contribution may not really be much of a contribution at all. I certainly am not saying anything new (in fact, if I were I would be worried.) This issue has been a part of a recent paradigm shift for me that is still in development; it is for that reason, then, that I write this brief explanation and defense of the practice of household baptism, both to help myself learn through writing and to explain this change.

At the outset of a consideration of the proper recipients of the sacrament of baptism, it is important to acknowledge that the New Testament gives no explicit statement saying that either “only confessing believers are to be baptized” or “the children of confessing believers are to be baptized,” (though Acts 2:39 comes close to just that.) Neither the baptist nor the paedobaptist has an explicit verse; but this does not mean that neither have a case for their practice. In this article, I will be considering how children have been regarded in biblical history, whether or not this appears to change in the New Testament and the practice of the early church, and the importance of church history in the discussion.

Throughout biblical history, God has extended His promises to the children of His covenant people. This simply has been His normal practice. From the covenant with Abraham to the covenant with Moses, His people’s offspring are considered members of the covenant. The covenant with Abraham suggests that this is an eternal pattern- through Abraham, all the families of the earth would be blessed. When we come to the New Covenant, we should expect an explicit statement regarding the exclusion of children from God’s covenant if this has changed. The people of the NT as well as the early readers would need to be thoroughly persuaded that their children are no longer part of the people of God until a “conversion experience.”

However, when we come to the New Testament, we find just the opposite. The Lord rebukes His disciples in Luke 18 when they bar infants from being brought to Him by their parents and says “Let the children come to me… for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 18:16-17) Jesus welcomes little children, and states that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. He does not say the Kingdom belongs to adults who exercise child-like faith, but that “…to such belongs the kingdom of God.” In the New Covenant, infants and young children are welcome in the Kingdom of God.

As we move on to the inauguration of the New Covenant church, we find similar evidence. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has descended to indwell God’s people, and Peter preachers to those skeptics and mockers who supposed that they were drunk “with new wine” (Acts 2:13) They ask “…what shall we do?” in response to his sermon, he instructs them “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…” (vv. 37-39.) So, right from the start, after the Holy Spirit has descended upon Christ’s Church, the apostles establish what is new about the New Covenant- the New Covenant is characterized by the activity and presence of the Holy Spirit. One thing that remains the same is that God’s promise is “for you and for your children…” Peter made sure to state the inclusion of children in God’s promise right from the start of the church.

As the Church spreads in Acts, Luke records significant accounts of conversions and baptisms. There are nine of these accounts. Of these nine, five are said to include households. Did these households include infants? Luke does not say explicitly either way, but whether they did or not is in fact irrelevant- they were baptized on the basis of the faith of the head of the household. And this should be no shock; God’s promise is “for you and for your children..” When we look at non-household accounts, we see that these either had not children/ household, or did not have their household present, such as the 3,000 men at Pentecost, disciples of John, Samaratins, Simon the Sorcerer, Paul, and the Ethiopian eunuch. So, everyone who had a household present had their household baptized. This is certainly a strong establishment of practice for household baptism.

As we look at church history, the practice of baptizing the children of believers was virtually uncontested by those who were orthodox, although the surrounding circumstances and practices were certainly not monolithic.  It was not until about 1500 years into church history that those who were otherwise doctrinally orthodox opposed the practice. Frankly, I cannot bring myself to believer that the Holy Spirit, who guides Christ’s church, could not convince anyone of the error of infant baptism until 1500 years into the church’s history. Baptizing the children of believers has simply been what the Christian church has done. Is it simply a coincidence that the rise and popularity of the baptistic tradition has coincided with the rise and influence of individualism in Western society and the breaking down of the traditional household economy? I think not.

Children of God’s people, then, are rightly heirs to God’s promises, members of Christ’s church, and proper recipients of Christ’s sacraments. Our Lord is their Lord; His answer to the question of infant baptism is “do not forbid them.”

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2 thoughts on “And For Your Children: On Household Baptism

  1. Hey Jacob,
    I am glad to hear you have wrestled with this issue. Clearly you have done a considerable amount of research on paedobaptism. As I have studied I have constantly arrived at various impasses which have not enabled me in good conscience to change my view. Maybe you would have some insight that might help me understand the paedobaptist position more clearly. The first relates to the covenants. I present it in a nutshell: As I understand God made a covenant ultimately, though not primarily, with Israel (Jacob) and his descendants. Thus each Israelite through physical birth is born into a covenantal relationship with God. This covenant is demonstrated by the sign of circumcision, usually on the eighth day. Now it would seem that there would be a parallel to this in the new covenant and baptism would seem to be the obvious sign, but the sign by necessity must follow that which it demonstrates (i.e. birth into the covenantal relationship). When does birth into the new covenant occur? I struggle to assign this to birth into physical families in the church, not because I want to reject children as part of the new covenant, but because I cannot seem to get around text like Matthew 12:50 and Luke 14:26 which indicates that physical birth is not enough to give someone a covenant relationship with God. And the tenor of the NT, especially Romans, in stating that being a physical Israelite is not enough, the new covenant seems to demands spiritual birth and what should follow spiritual birth but a sign of such a birth. It still seems to connect the two signs and it actually connects the two births, thus the covenants are paralleled yet maintain some distinction: one being “old” with the necessity of being replaced and the other “new” a better one. What might I be missing in this?

    • jghanby says:

      Bryan, thank you for commenting. I have to let you know, I had meant to write you and let you know my conclusion, but never get to it. I’m glad you wrote in here.
      The post, I’m sure you understand, is very much a summary presentation of the arguments that I find most convincing.

      In response to your question of baptism being the sign of birth into the NC; I would suggest that baptism is more that just a ‘sign’ of this birth, but an instrument.
      In short, Jesus’ baptism by John is, I believe, the paradigm for Christian baptism. Thus, when the Lord says in John 3 that we must be born again of water and the Spirit, it makes sense that He is referring to baptism; that is to say, just as in Jesus’ baptism He received water and the Holy Spirit, so our baptism, as John the Baptist says, is not water only, but a baptism with the Spirit. In baptism, God anoints His people with the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.
      So, when the Lord, and Paul, and Peter speak of what baptism does… they really mean that it does those things. We are in baptism united with Christ, buried with Him and raised with Him (Rom. 6), and forgiveness of sins is extended to us (Acts 2), etc.
      Of course, simply receiving baptism is not a guarantee of eternal salvation. A thorough doctrine of apostasy shows that we can truly experience at least some extent of the Spirit’s presence and activity, and still fall away, but those who persevere to the end (God’s eternal elect) will be saved. The warning passages of Hebrews and 1 Corinthians have helped me understand this.

      So, really, my understanding of baptism is more in line with an Anglican and Lutheran than (contemporary) Presbyterian understanding. Some writers who have been helpful for me have been Peter Leithart, Rich Lusk, James Jordan, and, of course, Calvin, Bucer, and Luther.

      More thoughts are welcome.
      Again, very good to hear from you. Grace and peace of Christ be with you, brother. I miss you.

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