As a Presbyterian minister, I often get asked about why I believe in baptizing infants. The sheer number of questions that I get tells me that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about this doctrine. Part of the reason for this misunderstanding is that many members of paedobaptist churches have not been able to give good biblical justification for what they believe. This may be because paedobaptist churches are not adequately preparing their members to do so, or it may simply be because baptism is not a defining doctrine for paedobaptists in precisely the same way that it is for many others. Our Baptist brothers and sisters, for instance, distinguish themselves from most other Christian traditions by their position on baptism, which means that their average church member often receives more thoroughgoing teaching on this doctrine than ours will.
Another part of the reason why people misunderstand paedobaptism is that they misunderstand the covenant theology that lies behind it. I recently taught a seminary class on baptism in which I asked my students to read an article written by a Baptist brother on why he believed paedobaptism is unbiblical. What surprised me most about this brother’s article was how frequently he misunderstood covenant theology and its implications for baptism. Before we can ever move forward together on this doctrine, we need to correct these kinds of misunderstandings with as much clarity and grace as possible. And it is in that spirit that I offer the rest of this article.
The Abrahamic covenant is substantially the same as the new covenant.
Having acknowledged this, the first thing I would say is that the paedobaptist position embraces virtually everything that the credobaptist position does about the recipients of baptism. We wholeheartedly affirm that baptism is rightly administered to adults (never before baptized) when they profess faith in Christ. The term paedobaptist is thus something of a misnomer. We don’t merely baptize young children; we baptize both professing believers and their young children, and, in that sense, we are both credobaptist and paedobaptist. What distinguishes us from our credobaptist brothers and sisters is the word only. Credobaptists baptize professing believers only, whereas we baptize professing believers and their children.
I mention this to indicate that it takes more than simply pointing to the examples of professing believers being baptized in the New Testament to prove the credobaptist position. Paedobaptists acknowledge the baptism of professing believers too. Our credobaptist brothers and sisters have to demonstrate that the Bible teaches that professing believers, and no one else, are to be baptized.
The second thing I would say is that Genesis 17 explicitly states that God commanded the outward sign of His covenant (circumcision) to be applied to their infant sons at eight days old. Given that fact, we need only show that the Abrahamic covenant is substantially the same as the new covenant and that the theology of circumcision mirrors the theology of baptism in order to validate the children of believers’ receiving the covenant sign under the new covenant as they obviously did under the Abrahamic covenant.
Romans 2:28–29 and 4:11, together with Deuteronomy 30:6 and Jeremiah 9:25–26 (among others), indicate that circumcision was never intended by God as a badge of ethnic identity but was intended as an outward sign pointing to an inward spiritual reality (a circumcision of the heart). It pointed backward to what had already happened on the inside—as in the case of Abraham, who believed and then was circumcised—or to what was expected to happen in the future—as in the case of most Jews who were circumcised at eight days old and then were expected to follow in the footsteps of Abraham’s faith when they were older (Rom. 4:12). Colossians 2:11–12 makes the theological connection between circumcision and baptism explicit by applying both spiritual circumcision (of the heart) and spiritual baptism (of the Holy Spirit) to the Christian. If inward circumcision and inward baptism are linked, then surely their outward signs—that is, physical circumcision and water baptism—are as well.
Galatians 3:16 and Romans 4:11–12, furthermore, teach us that the Abrahamic covenant is essentially the same as the new covenant. Galatians 3:16 states that Christ is the offspring of Abraham, which means that only those who are “in Christ” are children of Abraham—whether in the Old Testament or in the New (see Gal. 3:7, 14, 29). Romans 4:11–12 confirms this when it says that Abraham is the father of every (uncircumcised) gentile who believes and the father of every circumcised Jew who “walk[s] in the footsteps of the faith . . . that Abraham had before he was circumcised.” This faith, as John 8:56 tells us, is a faith that looks to Christ. It is a faith that looks to heaven and to spiritual realities and blessings rather than to an earthly promised land and temporal realities and blessings (Heb. 11:10, 16).
Are we really to believe that children are now cut out of the covenant community?
The Abrahamic covenant was, therefore, not a physical or temporal covenant enacted with the biological descendants of Abraham. It was a spiritual covenant enacted with the spiritual descendants of Abraham. It was a covenant that was substantially the same as the new covenant. Christ—the seed of Abraham—ensures that this is the case. Circumcision, moreover, was not a sign of ethnic identity but a sign that called the biological descendants of Abraham to become his spiritual descendants by following him in the same faith that he had.
Given these realities, it should be no surprise that the New Testament speaks of “household” baptisms. The continuity between the covenants—and between the covenant signs—indicates that this is exactly what we would expect. Ever since Genesis 17, God’s people had been practicing “household” circumcision, applying the outward sign of God’s inward covenant to professing adult believers (who never received it before) and to their children. Indeed, we would expect to find some mention in the New Testament if, after thousands of years of including children in the covenant community as recipients of the covenant sign, things were supposed to be so radically different in the new covenant era. Are we really to believe that children are now cut out of the covenant community and that the old covenant is, for that reason, greater and more inclusive than the new? What is the basis for this? It runs counter to the principle of expansion that we see at work everywhere else when we move from Old to New Testament. Not only is paedobaptism consistent with the continuity that we see between the covenants and between the covenant signs, but it is also consistent with this principle of expansion because it applies the covenant sign to both men and women and to their male and female children.
Dr. Guy M. Richard is executive director and assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He is author of several books, including Baptism: Answers to Common Questions.