Pastor Jeff VanGoethem
It might not seem much of a thing to fight about – whether we should baptize infants or not (people were fighting about this long before I came on the scene, but there are some fights I am glad to join. I will only say that I promise to “fight nice” as my mother used to say to us kids).
Some might ask, what can it hurt if a little one, who is oblivious to what is being done, has a little ceremony performed over him or her and a little water splashed on the head? What is the big deal? And if an infant grows up and wants to be baptized again, as a believer, he or she can certainly do so, as many countless people have done. So what is the problem?
There are a number of reasons why I remain opposed to the practice of infant baptism and I think you should consider them also.
First, it is unscriptural. That is, the Bible does not teach or model such a practice. There are no CLEAR instances of an infant being baptized in the New Testament. Not even one clear example. Those who promote this practice often say, “well, it COULD be here or it COULD be there” (as in a passage like Acts 16:33). Apart from the obvious point that “hearing and believing” preceded these baptisms (no infant can “hear and believe”), there is no passage which commands infant baptism and no passage which definitively models it. So this argument is based on silence and supposition. I think you need something much more than supposition to establish such an important practice in God’s church.
Moreover, we see so many instances in the New Testament of the opposite practice – believer’s baptism, of converts voluntarily (after conversion) agreeing to be baptized. You find this consistently in the book of Acts (e.g. Acts 9:18, Acts 10:47-48). I believe we ought to practice baptism as it IS in the New Testament, not as some suppose it or wish it to be.
Second, it has a faulty history. There is no evidence in the earliest days of the church of the practice of infant baptism. In some of my journeying I have seen with my own eyes the little baptismal fonts where Martin Luther and John Wesley were baptized as infants. These fonts still exist. But one does not have such artifacts from the New Testament era or the earliest days of the church. The “Didache” (circa. 120-180 A.D.), the earliest manual of Christian practice and doctrine, does not seem to establish or mention any such practice. The earliest reference to it in church history seems to be around or a little earlier than 200 A.D, after which it became increasingly more common, and even at some point universal.
Given this fact, infant baptism must be viewed as an invented practice, not one which descends from apostolic practice or a biblical foundation. And all through church history, even after it had gained widespread acceptance, there have always been those, like me, who have spoken against it, not to be insufferable, but to protect and preserve the true biblical practice.
Third, it is based in faulty theology. The practice of infant baptism grew up in the church alongside of other erroneous doctrine. As the church began (incrementally) to adopt a sacramental theology, infant baptism became a logical step. Sacramentalism says that I can acquire pardon and enter a state of saving grace by participating in some ordinance or ritual. In time infant baptism was justified in the attempt to “wash away original sin” and render the child “safe” by means of this baptism.
This infused the practice with saving power. That the Medieval church, in particular, fell into this thinking there is no question. But that we should fall into it or defend it in any way, shape or form, is another matter. Baptism is not a sacrament which washes away sins. Only the Holy Spirit, through regenerating power, leading to personal faith in Christ’s atonement, can wash away sins. Baptism is meant to be a mark of the convert’s salvation not the cause of it.
Fourth, it is a misleading practice. Those who baptize babies continue to invest in it some saving benefit. The Catholics teach that it washes away the guilt of original sin and places the child in a state of grace. The Lutherans say that the faith of the sponsors latches on to the atonement of Christ on behalf of the child, and so renders the child “in the faith” or “in Christ.” And the Reformed Christians say the act places the child “under the covenant” much as did circumcision in the Old Testament and thus the child is “part of the family of God” and safe under the covenant.
Now in fairness I must say that I have found few practitioners of infant baptism, at least on the Protestant side, who are willing to come out and say, “baptism saves the child and grants them salvation.” But if it does not do this, what does it do? What spiritual benefit does it convey to the child? If it does convey some spiritual benefit, short of salvation, then spell out what it is and defend it from Scripture. I find explanations of what infant baptism supposedly does do to be misleading and confusing. I also know first–hand how common, ordinary, pew-sitting people are confused and misled by this practice.
A pastor who practiced infant baptism once informed me that it “plants a seed.” Well, I asked, “what does that mean? Explain that to me in theological terms.” I am still waiting for an answer. I have talked to other pastors who do not believe that strongly in infant baptism but still do it, along with believers’ baptism, depending on the preference of the party seeking baptism. This treats church members like they are customers in our ecclesiastical enterprises. What happened to sticking to biblical convictions and “thus says the Lord?” Are we to submit our doctrines to the preferences of one and all?
Thus, I think the practice and its defense tends to lead the faithful astray, as they are led to put their trust in some ritual which has a meaning that is difficult to explain. Moreso are those who are churched but not converted. Such unfortunate souls often think that baptizing their children will reserve a place for them in heaven. Listen, there is only one way to be in the faith and one way to be sure of one’s salvation, and baptism of any kind has nothing to do with it. We are saved when by faith we believe into Jesus Christ who atoned for all of our sins before God. That is the only way to be saved and it is misleading to assign ANY saving benefit to ANYTHING else.
Fifth, it robs the convert of his glorious moment of confession. I have read many of the great missionary stories and biographies. When William Carey went out to India and Hudson Taylor to China, I guarantee you that they ached for the day when they could baptize converts in those needy and spiritually dark lands. They didn’t go around baptizing infants to establish the Christian faith, I can tell you that. They understood that the day of baptism was especially reserved for the convert, who had heard and believed the Gospel, to clearly and willingly take that public step of identifying with and following Christ. And it was a mighty thing when it happened in those days, as it is now. Adoniram Judson changed his view on baptism on the boat ride out to Burma in 1812, embracing the believers baptism view. How he and his converts suffered when it came time to baptize new believers! Shall we not honor such a testimony (and many others like it) by at least requiring our own converts to be baptized?
Are we going to take that fateful step away from our converts and say it is not important that they confess Christ in the way that He Himself said to do so? It is a God honoring and glorious moment when professing converts step forward and say “yes, we are Christians, Christ has saved us, we are now following Him.” I live for those days in our church when we baptize converts. So should you.
Finally, it robs the church of its great day of celebration when new converts are welcomed in. I suppose the baptism of a child or infant has a certain appeal to some people. It is a touching moment and perhaps makes them feel that they are doing something they are supposed to do. But this is nothing like that wonderful moment, witnessed by many, when converts step into the waters of baptism and declare of their own spirit-enabled volition that they are followers of Christ. This goes beyond anything infant baptism can deliver.
In Russia they break open the ice, in Africa they find a river, here in North America, we build special tanks into our church facilities in anticipation of those special days when converts are baptized. It is like a wedding day for the convert and it is like a wedding celebration for the church. I remain opposed to the practice of infant baptism because I am jealous for these days in the life of God’s church.
Now I am not interested in persecuting those who baptize babies. They’ll answer to God for their deeds just like I will. But when someone recently asked me about it, I thought this through again and was forced to admit that really, deep down, I AM AN IMPLACABLE FOE OF INFANT BAPTISM. And I found that my reasons seemed sound. In other words, I agreed with myself. I hope you do too.