Should We Baptize Babies or Only Confessing Believers?
A Debate Between Baptist and Presbyterian Theology
 

 
Greg Thornberg       June 30, 2019

Issue
This article will defend the Baptist’s position on baptism — that baptism is proper only when administered to those who are able to make a credible profession of faith. This position excludes infant baptism or baptism of young children where a credible profession of faith cannot be reasonably determined.

In contrast to this, the paedobaptist view (a view I used to defend) [1] holds that the proper subjects of baptism consist of both confessing believers and their children. The ground for this view is largely found in their understanding of the unity between the Abrahamic and new covenants. Both covenants, they argue, are the same but differ only in their outward signs. They both represent the same covenant of grace but in different dispensations. From this is it argued that since the sign of baptism replaces circumcision, it is to be applied to infants just as circumcision was applied to infants. Thus, if Abraham gave his entire household, including infants, the outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant (circumcision), so believing Christians should give their entire households the outward sign of the new covenant (baptism).

Which of these views are correct? It is my thesis that professing believers are the only proper subjects of baptism because the new covenant is only for believers, thus its outward sign is only for believers, and also that this position best matches the Great Commission along with the New Testament church’s practice. In short, it is the only view that is warranted from Scripture.

My method will be to demonstrate that the new covenant community consists only of believers and thus only confessing believers should receive the external covenant sign of baptism. Concerning the new covenant, I will survey the Old Testament, the gospels, the historical practice in Acts, and the clear teachings of Paul. These will show that the new covenant is like the Abrahamic covenant in many ways, but also different in others. Both covenants are alike in that they require an external covenant sign to all members. They are different in that old covenant members were physically born into the covenant community whereas the new covenant members are spiritually born through faith in Christ. Therefore, what defines the covenant member is what defines the recipient of the covenant’s outward sign.

Positions on the Issue

Paedo-Baptism
The paedobaptist view is argued largely in terms of covenantal continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant Christ enacted by his death (Luke 22:20). Louis Berkhof is one of the more popular defenders of this position. He described the relationship between the two covenants this way:

[The covenant made with Abraham] is still in force and is essentially identical with the “new covenant” of the present dispensation. The unity and continuity of the covenant to both dispensations follows from the fact that the Mediator is the same . . . the condition is the same, namely, faith . . . and the blessings are the same, namely, justification . . .  [2]

From the continuity between the covenants, it is argued that because infants shared in the benefits of the Abrahamic covenant and likewise received that covenant’s outward sign of circumcision, so also baptism is applied to infants in the “essentially identical” new covenant.[3] In other words, from similar covenants we should expect similar practices. As circumcision was applied to infants, before they could demonstrate credible signs of faith, so baptism is applied to infants in the new covenant household. Here Berkhof essentially draws the same conclusions as the Westminster Confession, which states,

Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptized.[4]

Berkhof also illustrates, from church history, that infant baptism is not a novel practice. It is ancient, dating back to the second century.[5] It is true that this practice has ancient origins, but while the application of baptism to infants arose in the second century, it did so for reasons closer to baptismal regeneration than on the grounds Berkhof argues for.[6] Further, when we consider that Berkhof’s argument arises no earlier than the Reformation,[7] his appeal to historical precedence loses weight. The earliest origin for this covenant continuity argument is with Ulrich Zwingli, and was later affirmed by John Calvin. This makes Berkhof’s position a sixteenth century one rather than second century in origin. It was Zwingli who first “found an analogy between the old covenant practice of circumcision and the new covenant practice of infant baptism.”[8] Calvin later agreed, writing:

There is now no difficulty in seeing wherein the two signs [baptism and circumcision] agree, and wherein they differ . . . Wherefore there is no difference in the internal meaning, from which the whole power and peculiar nature of the sacrament is to be estimated. The only difference which remains is in the external ceremony, which is the least part of it, the chief part consisting in the promise and the thing signified. Hence we may conclude, that everything applicable to circumcision applies also to baptism . . . [9]

A more modern advocate for paedo-baptism, R.C. Sproul, used this same logic. Sproul wrote:

Even though [Baptists] see some discontinuity between circumcision and baptism, continuity is predominant. Circumcision in the Old Testament was the sign of the old covenant, and baptism is the sign of the new covenant. We know for certain that God commanded the sign of the old covenant to be given both to adults and to their children. This is an important covenant precedent, which suggests that the sign of the new covenant should also be given to the children of believers.[10]

So we find that both (Dutch Reformed) Berkhof’s and (Presbyterian) Sproul’s arguments are in agreement and both are based on the covenant continuity argument originally formulated by Zwingli.

There are a number of factors that commend the paedobaptist view to us. It is without doubt that continuity exists between the Abrahamic and new covenant. Circumcision and baptism are used almost interchangeably by Paul in Colossians 2:10-13. Paul largely, clearly, and intentionally linked the two in meaning.[11] If this was not Paul’s intention, the weight of his argument in Colossians 2 would be diminished. Circumcision and baptism are also both signs of faith.[12] Using a similar comparison in Galatians 3:1-9, Paul argues that the same faith that justified Abraham is the same faith justifying the new covenant people. Therefore, circumcision, like baptism, is received as a sign of faith and Paul is rightly able to appeal to the former as proof of how God justified those of the old covenant and now those in the new. Making this same appeal, Paul concluded in Romans, “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom 4:11). If this is how God justified Abraham, this is how he will justify us. Paedobaptist theology has much to contribute to the doctrine of justification and the study of covenants.

To summarize, it is not as if the paedobaptist view is entirely novel. It argues from true and biblically warranted continuity between the Abrahamic and new covenants. It also has at least some theological historic precedence. In other words, the application of baptism to infants does not arise later in church history but very early. But I must stop here. While there are other arguments in its favor, space requires that the strongest paedobaptist arguments will have to suffice.
 
Credobaptism
The traditional Baptist view also has much to commend it. It holds that “only those who give a believable profession of faith should be baptized.”[13] The main arguments Baptists use to uphold this view include the fact that believer’s baptism matches the commands of Christ, that it is the only form of baptism illustrated in the New Testament, and that it is consistent with the language of repentance coming before baptism. It is also consistent with the nature of the new covenant and the theology of the epistles.

The command of Christ sets an ordered pattern of first preaching the Gospel, making disciples, and finally baptizing them. This order of preaching, making disciples, followed by baptizing is always the order of the later historical narratives (i.e., Acts). From the order of Christ’s Great Commission, Allison makes this point:

First, in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives the Great Commission imperative, according to which baptism is to be administered to disciples, his followers, who are to be taught to obey his commands. Proponents of believer’s baptism insist the most natural reading of this text leads to the conclusion that these recipients of baptism are disciples who are capable of hearing the Word of Christ, understanding it, and responding obediently to it.[14]

The Great Commission pattern matches most and probably all of the historical narratives. Where the word was preached, the people believed, repented, and were subsequently baptized (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:44-48; 16:14-33; etc.). Believer’s baptism is thus consistent with the language of repentance coming before baptism.
As to the fact that infant baptism is never mentioned in the New Testament,
Berkhof himself conceded, writing, “It may be said at the outset that there is no explicit command in the Bible to baptize children, and that there is not a single instance in which we are plainly told that children were baptized.”[15] Wayne Grudem, defending the credobaptist view, writes, “The narrative examples of those who were baptized suggest that baptism was administered only to those who gave a believable profession of faith.”[16] So believer’s baptism, it seems, is the only view consistent with the historical narratives.

There is also the logically decisive language of Paul, who wrote in Galatians 3:25-27,

[25] But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, [26] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. [27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

The main thrust of this passage is that those who were baptized are those who believed. Important to our discussion are the words, “For as many of you [ὅσοι] as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (v 27; emphasis added). Paul’s main point could likely be reworded: All of those who were baptized were believers. If Paul is saying that every baptized person is a believer, then the all-encompassing language here means that all baptized people were also believers without exception, otherwise Paul could not say that “as many as were baptized” were believers. If true, paedobaptism directly contradicts Paul.

To summarize, the credobaptist position appears to best match the command of Christ and explain the evidence we find in the historical narratives that follow. It also appears to be the easiest and most natural explanation of the biblical data. Although my introductory treatment of the credobaptist position here has been short, it will be elaborated more below. The introductory matters above should suffice to set the stage for the discussion below.
 
Defending Credo Baptism
 
The New Covenant
Having already laid much of the groundwork for why credobaptism is favored by the biblical data, it would be good to more directly address paedobaptism’s most clear contradictions with Scripture. As I mentioned above, what defines the covenant community is what delineates those who receive the outward covenant sign (and vice versa). That Jeremiah 31:31-34 describes what the new covenant is. That he limits the covenant community only to those who “know” God is instructive. Jeremiah 31:34, in particular, says about this new covenant community,

And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. [Emphasis added]

All new covenant members “know” God. Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry interpret this passage to mean,

Thus only believers are members of the new community: all members are believers, and only believers are members . . . There will be no such thing as an unregenerate member of the new covenant community. [Emphasis original][17]

Ironically, even paedobaptists such as O. Palmer Robertson make this same interpretation without realizing its implications. Robertson says, “The knowledge of God shall be the immediate possession of every participation in the new covenant.”[18]

Here again paedobaptism contradicts the biblical data. Since paedobaptists hold that infants are born and baptized into the covenant community[19] before coming to faith in Christ (thus not knowing God) they permit some who do not know God into a covenant community reserved exclusively for those who know God. This would make it a community of some who are unregenerate at the same time a community where only the regenerate can be members. This meets the criteria of a true contradiction.

In conclusion, since the covenant community shifts from entrance by birth to entrance by personally knowing God, the application of the outward covenant sign (baptism) must be restricted to those who know God. When arguing from Galatians 3:27 below, this is exactly how baptism is applied — to believers only. So while paedobaptists argue correctly that there is some continuity between the Abraham Covenant and the new covenant, the two are not identical. Into the first, all members are naturally born regardless of their faith in God. Into the latter, all members are spiritually born through faith in Christ. The Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant are the same in only some senses, but the Abrahamic covenant has clearly been amended such that the nature of the covenant and its members have been progressively modified.[20] This would not be unusual for God to do, however, but is rather how all covenants progress from one to the next. Based on God’s prior covenant amendments, change should actually be expected in the new covenant epoch.
 
The Gospel Facts
The language of the Gospels likewise shifts from physically-born old covenant members to spiritually-born new covenant members. This is repeatedly emphasized in the Gospel of John. The book opens with John 1:12-13 saying,

[12] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John’s opening is a major shift from the old physically-born community to the new spiritually-born one. F. F. Bruce helpfully comments,

This divine birthright has nothing to do with racial or national or family ties. It is spiritually irrelevant to be descended from Abraham in the natural order if one is not a child of Abraham in the only sense that matters before God – by reproducing Abraham’s faith.[21]

The error of paedobaptism, then, is that it makes too much of physical birth when the New Testament unambiguously rejects it as a ground for inclusion. By doing so, paedobaptists ignore the new spiritual birth emphasis that comes with the new covenant. They also ignore various places where, for example, Christ says, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). In doing this, paedobaptists are repeating a common error of Christ’s Jewish audience, among whom it was assumed that natural birth was at least some grounds for covenant inclusion (Matt 3:9; John 8:33).

In conclusion, paedobaptists confuse being physically born to believing parents with being born into the new covenant community of God. Thus they emphasize a connection between birth and covenant community that is directly refuted, rebuked, and rejected by the New Testament authors.
 
The Historical Narrative Facts
When one surveys baptism historically, as it was practiced throughout the New Testament, one finds that the pattern of Gospel proclamation, followed by faith, and then baptism are consistently followed. This pattern was first commanded in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), which reads,

[19] Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . .

In all historical narratives that follow this command, Grudem points out, “The narrative examples of those who were baptized suggest that baptism was administered only to those who gave a believable profession of faith” (emphasis added).[22] For example, preaching the Gospel, followed by faith, and then baptism is seen in every chapter of Acts where baptism is mentioned (Acts 2; 8; 9; 10; 16; 18; 19; 22). It is not surprising, then, that no instance of infant baptism is ever mentioned.[23]

That only confessing believers are baptized is entirely consistent with the nature of the new covenant. Only believers can be members of this covenant (Jer 31:31-34), only the spiritually born are part of God’s household (John 1:12-13), only those of faith are true children of Abraham and heirs of the promise (Rom 4:16), and thus only believers are baptized (Gal 3:27). This is consistent with the new covenant’s shift away from physical birth to spiritual birth (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8; etc.). And it is consistent with the pattern of the Great Commission — proclamation, faith, and then baptism (Matt 28:19-20).

In response to this data, paedobaptists are quick to point out that there are household baptisms mentioned in the New Testament. The implication is that if entire households were baptized, children would likely have been baptized. Berkhof argues this way, saying,

It is entirely possible, of course, but not very probable, that none of these households contained children. And if there were infants, it is morally certain that they were baptized along with the parents.[24]

Berkhof argues from a possibility that “if there were infants” it would be a “moral certainty” that children must have been baptized. This falls below the standard of hard evidence for one main reason: the infants he seeks are not mentioned. Arguments by unproven “ifs” are not decisive. The credobaptist could just as quickly and unhelpfully retort, “If there were no infants, then it is morally certain that we are correct,” without actually proving anything either.

An examination of these household baptism passages is helpful. First, the best historical narratives Berkhof can appeal to are found in Acts 16. Acts 16:14-15 reads,

[14] The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. [15] And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

The first difficulty is that the passage is silent on the age of who was baptized in Lydia’s house. As such, it is not decisive for either side of the baptism debate. Presuppositions may lead one to suspect certain conclusions, but exegesis of the text will not. Acts 16:32-34 contains a similar story about a jailer believing and his family being baptized, which reads,

[32] And they spoke the word of the Lord to [the jailer] and to all who were in his house. [33] And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. [34] Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Again, the age of the baptized household members are not mentioned, so no decisive verdict can be given. However, it appears that the members were at least old enough to have the Gospel preached to them and to rejoice with their father. Grudem takes this rejoicing as a sign that “the entire household had individually come to faith in Christ.”[25] While we cannot prove the age of household members, what we can decisively prove is the order of events. The Gospel is preached to the entire household, the jailer believed, the entire household was baptized and rejoiced with their father. This is the same order as given in the Great Commission – proclamation, baptism, and discipleship.

In conclusion, the passages regarding household baptism fail to overcome the hurdle of offering decisive and direct proof for paedobaptism. The evidence, even on Berkhof’s own admission, doesn’t exist. Secondly, as we argued above, the totality of Scripture shows that only believers are members of the covenant community. This is a decisive blow to paedobaptists logically. The New Testament authors expressly reject earthly household status as grounds for new covenant inclusion. In fact, the New Testament states that only faith includes us in Abraham’s promise (Gal 3:23-29). This leads to our final assessment of the data: what Paul says about the connection of faith and baptism below.
 
The Epistles
The credobaptist position best matches the logic of Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:27 — “For as many of you [ὅσοι] as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” All who were baptized were believers. The phrase “for as many of you” makes it clear that all who are baptized are also believers. There is no room for “some” who are not. You cannot have some who are unbelieving enter a community where all must be believers. Either it is a community where some believe and some do not or it is a community where only believers may enter. It cannot logically be both at the same time. Paul says all who are baptized have put on Christ and on this statement alone paedobaptism falls.
 
Conclusion
Wrapping up, this article has attempted to show that professing believers are the only proper subjects of baptism because the new covenant community, by definition, consists only of believers. The language of the new covenant demonstrates that only true believers (those who know God) are members of the community. Furthermore, the Gospels reject physical birth as grounds for admission into this community, the historical narratives fail to show even one example of infant baptism, and the language of Paul equates all baptized members with believing members. Consequently, paedobaptism is contrary to the nature of the new covenant, it makes too much of household membership where the New Testament rejects such grounds, it eisegetically conflates the historical evidence, and it logically contradicts clear and decisive texts on the matter. It does not work.
 


BIBLIOGRAPHY
 
Allison, Gregg R. Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
 
Allison, Gregg R and Grudem, Wayne A. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine: A Companion to Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
 
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941.
 
Bruce , F. F. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983.
 
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Henry Beveridge. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.
 
Gentry, Peter J and Wellum, Stephen J. God's Kingdom through God's Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015.
 
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: 2000.
 
Robertson, O. Palmer. The Christ of the Covenants. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980.
 
Sproul, R. C. Truths We Confess, Volume 3: The State, The Family, The Church, and Last. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006.
 
Westminster Confession of Faith.

 
 
 
FOOTNOTES
 
[1] I will primarily deal with Louis Berkhof, John Calvin, and the Westminster Confession of Faith because these represent my former theological position and are the most popular defenders of this position.
 
[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 633.
 
[3] Ibid., 633-634.
 
[4] Westminster Confession of Faith 28.4. The WCF uses as one of its proof texts Genesis 17:7, 9-10, which is the Abrahamic covenant sign of circumcision is applied to infants, as Berkhof argued above.
 
[5] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 635.
 
[6] Ibid., 626. Berkhof acknowledges that Augustine argued for infant baptism believing that it had the ability to “cancel original sin, but does not wholly remove the corruption of nature.
 
[7] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers : The Doctrine of the Church. Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 343. Allison writes, “[P]aedobaptism cannot claim pre-Reformation historical precedent for its position.”
 
[8] Gregg R Allison and Wayne A Grudem. Historical Theology : An Introduction to Christian Doctrine : A Companion to Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011) 626.
 
[9] John Calvin, Institutes 4.16.4.
 
[10] R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, Volume 3: The State, The Family, The Church, and Last (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006), 121.
 
[11] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 634.
 
[12] Sproul, Truths We Confess, Vol. 3, 122. Sproul writes, “Another point of continuity is that whatever else circumcision indicated, it was a sign of faith, just as baptism is a sign of faith.”
 
[13] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 970.
 
[14] Allison and Grudem. Historical Theology, 339.
 
[15] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 632.
 
[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 970.

[17] Peter J Gentry and Stephen J Wellum, God's Kingdom through God's Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 233. Emphasis added.
 
[18] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 294.
 
[19] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 638.
 
[20] Peter J Gentry and Stephen J Wellum, God's Kingdom through God's Covenants, 34. Gentry and Wellum point out that in the progressive nature of covenant, “As later authors refer to earlier texts, they build upon what is given . . .”
 
[21] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub, 1983), 38-39.
 
[22] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 970.
 
[23] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 632. Even Berkhof admits, “It may be said at the outset that there is no explicit command in the Bible to baptize children, and that there is not a single instance in which we are plainly told that children were baptized.”
 
[24] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 634.
 
[25] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 978.

 



Greg Thornberg

Greg is the father of 13, grandfather, husband, author, and itinerant speaker.
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