Baptism and Infants

October 21, 2006

by Steve Owen

Dr Dennis Johnson is Associate Professor of Theology at Westminster Seminary in California. The essay (linked below), originally a letter written to his daughter, has been praised as one of the simplest and most persuasive defenses of the practice of Infant Baptism. What follows is an attempt to review his essay from a Baptist perspective.

Infant Baptism: How My Mind Has Changed by Dr. Dennis E. Johnson.

“The difference of views on infant baptism unfortunately does affect Christians’ ability to demonstrate in practice our unity as the Body of Christ. “Infant baptizers” can and do recognize the baptism received by “believer baptizers” as genuine Christian baptism (although we may think that it’s administered later than it should be in the case of children of Christian parents). But “believer baptizers” cannot acknowledge that believers who were baptized as infants have been baptized at all. So if “believer baptizers” are right – if people who have received infant baptism have not received biblical baptism at all – then there have been hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Christian believers who have never obeyed the Lord’s command to be baptized in his Name, believers such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, J. Gresham Machen, J. I. Packer, John Stott, R. C. Sproul, etc.”

This is disingenuous to say the least. Dr Johnson seeks to put the blame for disunity among Christians on the shoulders of Baptists. But in doing so, hundreds of years of discrimination, if not outright persecutions of Baptists by Paedo-baptists have been airbrushed out. Even today, a widely published and read Presbyterian declares that the children of Baptists should be christened by force if necessary, and discussions on a reformed internet discussion forum claim that Baptists ‘sin’ by not sprinkling their children and are in danger of hell if they do not repent. It is undeniable that the ministries of paedo-baptists like Latimer, Whitefield and many others have been greatly blessed by the Lord, just as those of Christmas Evans, Spurgeon, Carey and many other Baptists have been. Clearly the issue is not one of salvation. But one view has to be right and the other wrong, and if infant baptism is not valid, it is no good saying that it is for the sake of peace. It is Christ’s bride, His Church which is affected when unbelievers are admitted into it by infant baptism, and that is a serious matter.

Johnson continues:-

Acts never explicitly describes a situation that would make crystal clear how the apostles handled the situation of children born to Christian parents. (Obviously, if Acts had spoken directly and clearly on this point, the discussion between “believer baptist” and “infant baptist” would have been settled long ago.)

Well, I believe that the book of Acts is specific as to who was baptized, and therefore as to who is to be baptized by those who take the Bible as their rule of practice. Johnson’s argument is quite simply an argument from silence. The Bible knows nothing of infant baptism, but only that of professing believers. Consider:-

‘Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers’ (Acts 2:41-42 ).

But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized’ (Acts 8:12 ).

It is believers who were baptized and no one else. They heard and understood the preaching, believed that which was preached and were baptized. They then continued in the doctrine that they had received. Can infants hear and understand preaching? Can they continue in that which they have understood and obeyed? Of course not! Moreover, it was open to the Holy Spirit to add the words ‘And their children’ to either of those texts. He did not do so and it is not for us to add them (Prov 30:5-6 ).

Johnson continues (I pass over the question of household baptisms for the moment):-

Acts and the rest of the New Testament never record any statement by the Jesus or the Apostles that the infants of believers are now to be treated differently in the New Covenant from the way that the infants of Israelite believers were treated in the Old: namely, the New Testament never states that whereas Israelite children were treated as part of the covenant community, the children of Christians are to be treated as outside the covenant community that is under Christ’s Lordship.

This is just plain wrong. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that those who are in the New Covenant are very different from those in the Old (Mosaic) Covenant.

‘”Behold, the days are coming,” Says the LORD, “When I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,” Says the LORD. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” Says the LORD: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people”’ (Jer 31:31-33. cf. also Heb 8:8-10 ).

The New Covenant differs from the Old at this very point. Everyone who is in the New Covenant has God’s law written on his heart (cf. 2Cor 3:3 ) and knows the Lord (Jer 31:34; Heb 8:11-12 ). Clearly this means that infants are not born New Covenant members (Psalm 51:5 ); they must be born again (John 3:3-8 ). We cannot know absolutely that everyone who professes faith in Christ is truly born again, but we are only to baptize, as the Apostles did, those who do make a credible profession of faith and to discipline and expel those who show themselves afterwards not to be true believers (1Cor 5:13; 1Tim 1:20; Titus 3:10 ). Christ’s Church is to be kept as pure as possible.

Johnson then gets onto the subject of circumcision.

One clear place to start is with the fact that circumcision was administered to infant Israelite boys at the age of 8 days (Gen. 17:9-14 ).

Now we need to recognize that baptism and circumcision are not the same thing. They don’t look alike, and they certainly don’t feel alike! Nor are they administered to the same people. Biblical circumcision was for males only, and never is it associated with anyone’s faith but Abraham’s (Rom 4:11 ) and his saving faith came before, not after he was circumcised (Gen 15:6 ). Israelite boys were circumcised as babies and foreigners were circumcised if they wanted to eat the Passover (Exodus 12:43 ) along with their households, but nowhere is faith in Jehovah mentioned. Indeed, Naaman the Syrian, who did profess faith (2Kings 5:15 ) was not circumcised, presumably because he was not a sojourner in Israel.

Baptism, on the other hand is administered to both men and women and is expressly and frequently associated with belief and discipleship. Look at Matt 3:5-9; 28:19; Mark 16:16; John 4:1; Acts 2:41, 8:12, 36-37; 16:33-34 ). Never is baptism clearly separated from faith, even if it is not invariably true, saving faith (Acts 8:13 ).

If baptism is the New Covenant replacement for circumcision, how is it that when the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem met to discuss circumcision (Acts 15 ), baptism was never so much as mentioned? How is it that Paul does not tell the Galatians that they do not need circumcision because they have been baptized? How is it that Paul is quite relaxed about the Jerusalem Jewish Christians continuing circumcision and other old covenant practices (Acts 20:20-21 ), but dead against Gentile Christians being circumcised? The answer is that circumcision and baptism are two very different things. Circumcision is an ordinance for the physical descendants of Abraham (John 8:31ff), baptism is for his spiritual descendants (Gal 3:7 ), for the children of promise (Gal 4:28 ) for whom, ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation’ (Gal 6:15 ).

Abraham was instructed to circumcise all his male household, whether they believed or not; but that did not bring them into God’s covenant. Nothing is more clear from Gen 17:18ff than that Ishmael was not in the covenant.

‘And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him’ (Gen 17:18-19 ). As it is written elsewhere: ‘But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called” (Romans 9:6-7 ).

Baptism is for the spiritual heirs of Abraham, for those who have the faith that he possessed before he was circumcised. Paul tells the Galatians, ‘ Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7 ) and a little later he tells them, ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’ (Gal 3:27-29 ). It is by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that we become Abraham’s seed, not by birth, and therefore baptism into Christ is only for those who have ‘put on Christ’- that is those who have trusted in Him for salvation. Does that mean that we can tell infallibly who is a Christian and therefore eligible for baptism? Of course not! We are to baptize those who make a credible profession of repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus. If the profession turns out to be false, then we must tell them what Peter told Simon Magus; “You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:21 ). The fact that we cannot invariably distinguish false professors from true ones is no reason for baptizing all and sundry. A bank cannot infallibly ensure that none of its customers are crooks, but it will still run credit checks on them! In the Bible, it was those who professed faith and repentance that were baptized. If we claim to be Bible-believing Christians, we should follow the Bible.

Johnson writes,

Circumcision and Baptism Mark the Boundaries of the Community that Is Under Christ’s Lordship.

This was certainly not true of circumcision. In Isaiah 29:13, God declares of the Israelites, “These people draw near with their mouths and honour Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.” Likewise, can we really say that the paedo-baptistic Church of England is under the Lordship of Christ? Or PCUSA? Or the huge majority of Methodist churches? Are they not more like apostate Israel of old, of whom the Lord declared; ‘”Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised– 26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab, and all who are in the farthest corners, who dwell in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart”’ (Jer 9:25-26 ).

It remains just to touch on a couple of texts used by Dr Johnson.

Firstly, Acts 2:39. “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Dr Johnson correctly states that ‘all who are afar off’ refers to the Gentiles (Eph 2:13 ), but the only relevant question for us is, what is the promise? Surely it is that if we, our children and everyone else will repent, trust in Christ for salvation, they should be baptized, and will all be saved. There is nothing in this that contradicts the Baptist position, quite the opposite. It goes without saying that children must be old enough to understand the Gospel before they can believe it.

Next, Luke 18:15-16. It is true that our Lord received the little children and that He blessed them. What He did not do was to baptize them. Parents cannot bring their children physically to the Lord today, but they can and should bring them before the Lord in prayer and teach them about Him and encourage them to come to Him themselves in repentance and faith. What does verse 17 mean? Surely it means that those who come to Christ must set aside their worldly philosophies, doubts and prejudices and come in simple, child-like faith?

Thirdly, Johnson mentions Paul’s words to children in Eph 6:1 and notes that he does not distinguish between believing and unbelieving children. This would be remarkable if it were true. Whatever one’s view of baptism, it is vital that children come to faith. In fact, Paul treats them as unbelievers; he points them to the law. ‘The law was out tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith’ (Gal 3:24 ).

Finally, a brief word on ‘household baptisms.’ Paul wrote (1Cor 1:16 ), ‘Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanus.’ Were there infant children in Stephanus’s house? Apparently not, unless the infants were remarkably precocious! For in 16:16, we learn that that same household ‘have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints.’ Since there is no mention of a husband for Lydia (Acts 16:14-15 ), it is likely that she was either single or widowed, but if we insist upon a husband so as to endow her with infant children, then we also have to imagine that he would also have been baptized against his will so as to complete the household baptism! Finally, the Philippian jailor. We know that jailors were usually retired Roman Legionaries, so he was probably in his sixtys and his wife of similar age; but even if we imagine a young bride and newborn babies for him, it does not help the paedo-baptist cause, because we are told that he ‘Rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household’ (Acts 16:34 ). The natural reading of that sentence is that the whole household believed, but even if we deny that, it must still be admitted that everyone there was old enough to know what was going on and rejoice at it which they would hardly have done if their religion was going to be changed against their wills.

A very last question: does it matter? Only in this respect, and here I speak from personal experience. If children are encouraged to believe that they are Christians when they are not, they become Gospel-proof. Why do they need to repent and trust in Christ, they wonder, when they are already Christians? I wrongly believed that I was a Christian for almost forty years purely because I had been christened as a baby and had not (in my own eyes) committed any very terrible sins. A recent survey showed that 70% of British people think that they are Christians. To anyone who knows the state of spirituality in this country, that is nothing short of bizarre, and it can only be that people think that baptism makes them Christian. They are going to hell with a false promise in their hands. The Lord Jesus tells that unless we are born again, we will not so much as see the kingdom of God, much less enter it. Baptism is to be administered after the second birth, not the first.

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