Infant baptism is one of those issues that can really throw people for a loop. Often, even Christians who practice it have very little idea of why they do so and other groups don't. Those who don't can look (with a jaw-hanging-open kind of look) at those of us who do and wonder, "Why in the world would they ever do such a thing?" Those of us who do can look at those who don't and think, "Let's just make sure baptism doesn't come up in the conversation."
So, this post is not at all an attempt to try to persuade our friends who "don't" that we're right. Rather, incase it does come up in the conversation next time we're with you, it's just an attempt to keep you from feeling the need to drop your jaw open and perhaps you might even think, "They may not be like us, but they're probably not heretics."
My little girl will be baptized on Sunday at the age of seven months, very close to the same age at which our son was baptized a few years ago. This will obviously have nothing to do with anything she has done nor with any decision she has made.
Of all the potential issues surrounding baptism, I think that is both why infant baptism has come to mean so much to me and also why many others are opposed to it.
In a super-generalized way, I think almost all* Christians' views of baptism either fall on one side of that issue or the other, so I'll see if I can briefly give a bit of background on each and address a few common misconceptions.
Before I go any further, it's essential to realize that folks on either side of this can find reasonable support for their beliefs in Scripture. Neither side has thrown the Bible out the window, but rather, both sides have developed their respective practices of baptism in an attempt to be consistent with what we have read there. For the purposes of trying to keep this post to a readable length, I won't attempt to try to go into a full biblical study here. If people's comments indicate that doing so would be helpful, I can attempt it in another post.
Those Who Don't
This may sound odd from someone who has had his children baptized as infants: I really think that those who don't practice infant baptism refrain from doing so for good reasons. Because in the New Testament, we often read of people being baptized after having repented of their sin and as a symbol of leaving their old life behind to be raised to a new life in Christ, to them, baptism is primarily a means of a person declaring publicly that they too have done so.
It's a very significant thing in a person's life to come to that point. They've come to the end of reliance upon themselves, have decided to replace that with reliance upon God and his mercy offered to us through Jesus, and an important part of that is making a public declaration of the decision they have made by doing what individuals in Scriptures did.
As followers of Jesus, this is seen as one of the primary ways that we begin our life of following him, by deciding to come and be "baptized with water for the forgiveness of sins." Although Jesus was sinless, even he submitted himself to this baptism, and therefore we can imitate him by doing so once we have repented and accepted his mercy.
Common Misconceptions from Those Who Don't (Practice Infant Baptism) About Those Who Do
1. Since baptism as described above is essentially connected to a person's experience of repentance, forgiveness, and conversion, it's easy to see why baptizing an infant wouldn't make much sense to them. When they see it done and still interpret baptism through this framework, it can be inferred that the act of baptizing a baby (or anyone too young to make a decision for themselves) is meant to be a substitute for that child's need to come to that point of repentance, forgiveness, and conversion. Some even interpret this as the parents' attempt to determine the child's eternal destiny. (In conversation, this can get confused with the doctrine of Predestination, but that's a whole separate, unrelated issue.)
This couldn't be further from the reality of the beliefs behind infant baptism. As I hope to support below, when our kids are baptized, it's done as a way of recognizing God's faithfulness to them, which- we hope, pray, and strive for- will one day bring them to a point of responding to God's goodness, cooperating with God's love for and work in them, as they repent of their sin, ask for God's forgiveness, and then seek to live new lives in Christ.
Yes, in some parts of church history, there have been groups that have adopted a set of beliefs about baptism such as, "a baptized baby who dies goes to heaven and an unbaptized baby goes to hell." But just because some have done so, let's not throw out the baby with the baptism water... This has never been the majority view among those who practice infant baptism.
2. Sometimes it's assumed that the practice of baptizing infants must be something that came out of the middle ages along with a slew of other misguided Christian-disguised practices (such as paying priests for forgiveness), and that adult/believer's baptism obviously goes all the way back to the New Testament. Yet the reality is that infant baptism has been practiced as far back as we can trace in church history, while believer's baptism didn't emerge until the Anabaptists in the 16th century.
It's somewhat ironic that as heavily as the theology of the Protestant Reformation has influenced most groups who do not practice baptize infants, many of the Reformation heroes (including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli) were strongly among those who do.
3. It's often assumed that "those who don't" are willing to re-baptize people, while "those who do" are unwilling to do so. (This is another super-generalization to which there are plenty of exceptions.) Yet the assumption isn't very accurate. Even though the Anabaptists got their name because it meant they were the ones who re-baptized people, even they disagreed with the name, since any adults they baptized had come to believe that their baptism as infants really didn't mean anything. Therefore, their baptism as adults was the first "real" baptism. Assumably, then if one backslid, that baptism also didn't mean anything and they could come again for their first real deal.
Again, this reflects how the emphasis in baptism of "those who don't" is placed on the person being baptized and the process they have been through.The emphasis for "those who do" is not on the individual and their sincere repentance, but on God, and God's grace and faithfulness. Therefore, whether I backslide after being baptized or not has nothing to say about the validity of my baptism. The only reason "those who do" would ever need to be re-baptized would be if God didn't hold up his end of the covenant and needed to start all over. Hopefully you can see why we're not eager to encourage any means that might lead someone to think that had happened...
4. Both views of this highly value following Christ's example in being baptized, but they differ in what it is about Jesus' baptism that we are to imitate.
For those who don't, it really matters that we imitate Jesus' method of Baptism: that he was an adult when he was baptized, as well as how he was baptized ("he came up out of the water" indicates that he went under, rather than just getting some water on his forehead).
For those who do, Jesus' baptism is equally a model, but the focus is more on imitating Jesus' motive for baptism. That's not to say that the method doesn't matter, but it can't be the primary focus. The occasion for Jesus' baptism was that John was calling Israel to repent when Jesus was an adult, and therefore he couldn't/wouldn't have had any reason nor opportunity to be baptized as a child. And yes, perhaps he did go all the way under the water, but does that always have to be the case? Even if I try to imitate him by finding a river for my baptism, any rivers within driving distance of where I live certainly don't have enough water in them to cover my 6' 7" frame- even regardless of whether I'm vertical or horizontal.
So, if not the method, what was Jesus' motive? It's safe to say that he wasn't trying to make a public declaration about a process of personal repentance that he had just been through. So what was it that motivated Jesus to go into the water that day? That requires a fuller explanation about...
Those Who Do
Not surprisingly, I also think there are good reasons for having children baptized as infants, and these reasons are fundamentally different from the reasons above. (And, not surprisingly, I'll take a bit more room to explain here.) Obviously when my little girl is baptized this coming Sunday it will not be because she's gone through a sincere process of repentance. It won't be a public declaration of any decisions she has made. She isn't leaving all seven previous months of her life behind and rising to a begin again just over halfway through her first year. She hasn't accepted God's mercy toward her.
So, if her baptism isn't about all of the things that baptism precisely is to so many people, what is it about?
In short, it's about God's grace.
In not-so-short: In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign that someone was a part of the people with whom God had made a covenant. This covenant and practice began with Abraham, to whom God had made the promise, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." Those descendants of Abraham that came through his son, Isaac, and Isaac's son, Jacob (who was later given the name Israel) became the Jewish people. Christians believe that this promise God made to Abraham meant that every ethnic group would eventually be blessed through one person who would come from the Jewish people, Jesus, the Messiah/the Christ.
Even from the time of Abraham, God began working through Abraham and his descendants, always staying faithful to his side of the covenant even in the face of their unfaithfulness. Regardless of how often Abraham's descendants turned their backs on the God of their ancestor, trusting in other gods or other things for their welfare, regardless of how immoral those descendants became, completely ignoring the laws of God that they had been given, though at times it was as if God were keeping his marital vows to a persistent harlot (as depicted in the life of the prophet Hosea), regardless of anything that happened... God kept his end of the covenant.
That covenant and all that happened through the course of God's constant faithfulness to a wavering people came to fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.
The moment during the +/- 2,000 years between Abraham and Jesus that came to mark the identity of their people more than any other was when, after being enslaved for 400 years in Egypt, they were led by God from captivity to freedom by passing through the Red Sea.
In Mark's gospel, there is no hint of a Christmas story. Rather, he begins by saying in the first verse, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God..." Then, as quickly as verse 2, we see John the Baptist. As quickly as verse 9, Jesus is coming to be baptized. It's as if Mark is telling us that the moment that marks the coming of the Messiah, the fulfillment of God's centuries-old promise to Abraham, is when Jesus comes, along with "all the people of Jerusalem" to be baptized by John. Again, as with Moses and the Exodus, we see God's people [this time even God's Son!] passing through water. As Moses did, he too would lead them into freedom- this time from captivity to their sin.
After Jesus accomplished all that he came to do, his earliest followers quickly recognized that circumcision could no longer be the symbol of entrance into God's covenant people. It no longer had anything to do with genetic lineage or gender. The old covenant was fulfilled in Jesus. How would God's people now be identified? They would begin in the same place Mark says this act of God's work began: in the water, together with all the people following our Messiah from captivity to sin into the freedom of life in Christ.
In the years following Jesus' ascension, the old promise continued to be unveiled before the eyes of Jesus' earliest followers. People from outside the confined reaches of the old, circumcision-represented, covenant, came to be blessed by the Messiah who fulfilled it. And as they responded "they were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12), Jews and Gentiles, often along with all the members of their households, which would almost certainly have included children (Acts 16:15, 16:33, 18:8, 1 Cor. 1:16).
When the Israelites passed through the water on their way out of Egypt, no one in the crowd thought it was anything of their own doing. None of them had caused the plagues nor the miracles, particularly for the sea to part for them. God, by his own action (i.e. grace), was liberating them.
When Jesus' first generation of followers passed through the water in baptism, they knew that they had not been liberated by their own doing. None of them had caused the old promises to be fulfilled in the Messiah, particularly for him to be raised from the dead. God, by his own action (i.e. grace), was liberating them.
Many Christians from that time on have had experiences similar to one I had several years ago. I was invited to preach in the church where my family attended when I was born and where I was baptized as an infant. As I stood in the pulpit that day, I looked down at the spot where I would have been baptized. I had no memory of it. I did not choose it for myself. In the +/- 30 years in between the day of my baptism and the day that I stood in that pulpit, I had often turned my back on the God of my parents and grandparents, trusted in other things to satisfy me, completely ignoring the kind of life in Christ that had been offered to me. But that morning, it hit me: Regardless of anything that happened... God kept his end of the covenant.
My baptism was in no way about anything that I had done. No repentance. No decision. It was completely about God's covenant of grace (i.e. his own action of bringing me from captivity to sin into real life in the Messiah), and about God's covenant people- my family and our church- who were promising to model God's ways for me and teach them to me.
There would come a point later in my life when I did repent. I made a decision. But even that was simply a response to how God had always been acting in my life (i.e. grace) in fidelity to the covenant that was part of my baptism as an infant.
My son's baptism was a day he will not remember, though it's one we will never forget, and we will do all we can to help him "know" that day as much as possible. My daughter's baptism will be the same. We will do what followers of Jesus have done as far back in Christian history as we know: We will go with everyone in our church, present our child as one entering into God's covenant people, all dedicate ourselves together to teaching her the ways of life in Jesus, and she will join with millions upon millions of God's people before her and go through the water. Then, when we stop afterward and reflect on it, we will be in awe that this precious little girl, completely dependent and incapable of doing anything for herself, will never, never, never be let down by God. Although it is sure that she will fail, this covenant will never have to be remade, because God will never be unfaithful to her.
The grace of the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the Father of Jesus, and of Peter, Stephen, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Asbury, Edwards... and of my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, and of all of my household will never fail my little girl.
Her baptism on Sunday will be outward and visible sign to always remind us of this wondrous reality of God's grace.
* These over-generalizations don't represent all Christians. There are also some Christian groups, such as the Quakers, who do not practice water baptism at all. I also think they have good reasons, but no room for that in this post.