The Controversy about Infant Baptism

We all benefit from studying, knowing, and having a conviction about the doctrine of baptism and its practice in the church. Our goal is not to win an argument, to rally support to our cause, or to shame those who possess a differing opinion. Rather, what drives us is a serious consideration of our Lord’s call to worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23). Therefore, we seek truth, desire to know truth, and put that truth into practice. Consider the above with regards to baptism. Study, pray, and then be led by your conscience. The Lord is lord of the conscience. Our view of baptism matters, so we want to know why we believe what we believe.

 

Baptism. In American Christianity one only has to say the word and positions are taken, defenses go up, and arguments are made ready. Should we spend time studying, knowing, and having a conviction about this doctrine and practice of the church?  What is all the “to-do” about this one sphere of Christian doctrine and practice? Is it really worth it? Should churches and Christians be so vocal about this one practice of the Church? Wouldn’t it be better to just allow each Christian and church to operate according to what they believe and call this an “off-limits” subject?

There are subjects which Christians would do well to place on the taboo list of conversation, but this is not one of them. On the one hand, our doctrine of baptism is a secondary issue. But on the other hand, baptism is foundational and our view of it should be well-informed and biblical. We must know why we believe what we believe about it.

Maybe G.C. Berkouwer gives the most important reason. He stated in one of his works, “That is why the controversy about infant baptism is so important: it involves that which God himself signifies and seals. Those who oppose infant baptism are therefore accusing the Church of exceeding its qualifications by speaking of what God does in the midst of the community.”

Berkouwer is rightfully noting that if those who baptize their infants are not doing so according to God’s command then they are attributing things to God which are untrue. This borders on (or actually is) blasphemy. They are in essence, putting words (and especially promises) in the mouth of God. Therefore, if we are going to hold to infant baptism, then it must be with great conviction and solely upon the foundation that this is what the Scriptures teach, God commands, and therefore we are to embrace. It should not be done in ignorance, out of a desire for a “cute” moment in the service, because it is the history of our family, or it makes us feel good. We should only baptize our children if convicted that it is the unadulterated teaching of the Scriptures.

On the other side, it is also important to know why we would oppose infant baptism. If children are to be baptized, counted as members of the covenant community, and are to receive this sign and seal of God’s covenant, then those who are opposed to infant baptism are robbing our covenant children of one of God’s chief means of grace in their lives. This is a grave offense against the church and a serious error in the parenting of our children. No Christian should ever want to avoid seeing God’s means of grace meted out to His people. If our children are His people and we are not baptizing them, then we are robbing them of this sign and seal.

Either way, one of us is doing a great injustice to the Church and dishonoring God’s covenant. That is why the “debate” about baptism is not idle theological discourse. It is important. It is important enough to spend time studying, knowing, and having a conviction about this doctrine and practice of the church.

The Reformed tradition’s basis for belief in infant baptism can be articulated from three streams: the Covenant of Grace, the New Testament Scriptures, and the testimony of the Church.

The Covenant of Grace

Reformed theology maintains a bi-covenantal system. God entered into a covenant with Adam, which is called the Covenant of Works. Upon the Fall, God entered into a second covenant called the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Grace, as an overarching covenant that threads itself throughout the Scriptures, underscores the continuity of the Covenant in the Scriptures and likewise the continuity of the people of God from one testament to another. This has great implications for the sacrament of baptism. As shown in the graphic below, if one covenant overarches both testaments, the primary result is continuity. Children were included and counted among the people of God in the Old Testament dispensation. This inclusion is never repealed in the New Testament dispensation. Old Testament children received the sign of this inclusion, circumcision, therefore children are to receive the sign of this inclusion in the New Testament dispensation, baptism. Circumcision and baptism are the rights of initiation for their respective dispensations. They each symbolize the need for cleansing, being cut-off from the first Adam, covering in blood, and identification with the people of God. Circumcision was bloody, because it pointed to Christ to be crucified. Baptism is unbloody, because it points back to Christ already crucified.

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