People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” ~ Mark 10:13-14
(This article was originally written for Faith Lutheran Isanti’s newsletter, March 2015)
We’ve all had that conversation, whether we’re a Baptist asking the question or a Lutheran struggling to answer it: “Why does your church baptize infants? You know that’s not in the Bible, right?”
These conversations tend to be largely frustrating and unsatisfying. This is mostly due to the fact that we Lutherans (I can’t speak for the Methodists or Catholics) don’t do a very good job of teaching our people why – biblically speaking – we baptize infants. This article is step toward that end. If you’re a good Baptist and you’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to this question, read on. If you’re a Lutheran or other baptizer-of-babies looking to understand your own tradition more deeply, read on.
Why do we baptize babies? Because it’s biblical – we just have to let the Bible tell its story, and then listen to what it says.
Those who practice adult-only baptism tend to draw a line (commonly referred to as the “age of accountability”) and claim that under a certain age you can’t really receive Jesus because you don’t have the mental tools to understand what it means to need to Jesus. Until the day comes when you reach that age (usually not defined, though some have put it at 7 and others at 13) you don’t really need Jesus (or Jesus covers you temporarily until you reach said age) – you’re innocent by virtue of ignorance and therefore the promise of God in Jesus Christ isn’t for you yet. When you become aware of your own sin, any coverage you might have had from Jesus or your own innocent ignorance lapses and you need to go and make your personal decision for Jesus and only then can you be baptized. It’s an orderly system, but this division-by-age concept is foreign to the Bible.
In the Bible, from the first time God spoke to Abraham (and prior to this, though it’s not as clear), God’s work and promise weren’t age-dependent. Abraham was circumcised as an old man, but Israelite boys after him, including his son Isaac, were marked with the sign of God’s promise at eight days old. Jacob and Esau were struggling with one another for the promise from before their birth. John the Baptist was already preaching Christ in his mother’s womb (see Luke 1:44). And when God became flesh, he came as a newborn baby. This is why the command of Jesus to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” is so broad – “all nations” is about as inclusive a group as there is, and last I checked, most nations include babies (don’t quit reading yet, we’re getting to the good stuff).
God’s work could not operate otherwise, because sin, death, and devil do not discriminate based on age – Pharaoh ordered Israelite babies murdered; Herod sent out his soldiers to kill infant boys in order to protect his throne; you, I’m sure, can think of a dozen more examples of little ones being victimized or treated as expendable – the powers of evil do not discriminate in dealing death, so our Lord does not put up walls when giving his promise. Infancy is no barrier to God’s work. So it’s no surprise that Jesus is indignant when the disciples try to keep the little ones from him.
Christians who baptize only adults also claim that because no babies were baptized in the book of Acts, the church’s earliest historical record, we have no command from God to do so now. There are three reasons that this claim needs questioning.
First, Acts recounts a very brief period of church history and tells only a handful of baptism stories. To claim that we can’t baptize babies because there’s no specific story about it in the Bible is just an argument from silence. No Swedes or Norwegians or Germans were baptized in the Bible either, and yet, here you all are.
Second, the criteria for baptism are set out clearly at the beginning of the book and kiddos are included: “Get up and be baptized, every one of you…this promise is for you and your children…” (Acts 2:38-39). Peter, who speaks this sentence, seems to be assuming, as the Old Testament does, that children were every bit as much the people of God as were adults. So even if we have no stories of specific babies being baptized in Acts, the book itself includes the children of Christians as eligible to receive the promises given in baptism.
Third, we actually do have some stories of children being baptized in Acts; there are three instances where an entire “house” is baptized. In the world of Acts, a “house” included all members of the family and their children, and all household slaves and their children. The most remarkable thing about these stories is that the only people who demonstrate faith in them are the heads of the households – they have faith and are baptized, but the rest of the members of the household (some of whom are presumably children) are baptized with nothing said about their demonstrated belief or lack thereof. They are simply baptized – washed in a promise that they could not ask for, but which they receive because God only gives his promises to those who need them so badly they could never ask for them (don’t close that window just yet!).
That brings us to the final point: the go-to argument for those who baptize only adults is that a baby or young child is unable to choose Jesus for themselves (and therefore unable to choose to be baptized). So even if God has always included infants in his work, he can’t include them in this. And even if Acts says stuff about whole families being baptized and about baptism being for “children”, it couldn’t possibly mean babies. Why? Because babies can’t choose anything. The primacy of human choice becomes the test that every biblical word has to pass – if a particular Bible story makes it look like human choice isn’t the thing that’s getting a person into the kingdom, then you must have missed something.
For these Christians, baptism is something the believer does to demonstrate their faith, but a baby can’t demonstrate much of anything…except displeasure and adorableness. But, again, this doesn’t follow scripture. The Bible never talks about baptism as something that I DO for God or anyone else. And it never talks about baptism as a mere demonstration of something else that happened already. Every single time the Bible talks about baptism it is said to be GOD’S work—a work that he does to bind a person to Jesus in his death and resurrection. Humans RECEIVE baptism passively, the same way a baby boy receives circumcision – we sit back and take it, not necessarily by our own choice! In fact, Paul even compares baptism to circumcision in Colossians 2:11-12. Elsewhere, he says that baptism is being “buried with Christ” (Rom. 6:1-6), and that it is a “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5-8). Peter says that “baptism now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Ephesians 5:26 says that Jesus has cleansed us by the “washing of water with the word,” so that the word of God’s promise comes to us in the waters of baptism and speaks – preaches even! These are all rather strong statements about the power of God’s word working in the waters of baptism. They certainly give the impression that the baptism God gives is much more wonderful than a mere “outward sign.”
That’s what it comes down to in the end: Baptism is not something that I DO; at least the Bible says it’s not. Baptism is something that GOD DOES TO ME. So for a Lutheran, baptism is not a sign of my faith; it is God giving me his promise in and through a thing (water), the same as he gives his promise to me in and through the mouth of a preacher, and in and through bread and wine. Baptism isn’t made good by my commitment; it’s made good by God’s promise. So instead of using baptism like a flag that I wave to show which team I’m cheering for, I use baptism like a hat rack, and I hang my faith on it, because God made me a promise there, and when God makes a promise, I can count on it.
Baptizing a baby is about proclaiming God’s promise to someone who can do nothing to earn that promise (in this way all baptisms, whether given to babies or octogenarians, are really infant baptisms). So we don’t baptize a baby because it’s just so darn cute, and we don’t do it as “fire insurance”; we do it because our little ones also need a promise from God to hang onto. They need something to which they can cling all the days of their life – something to which their parents and pastors can point and to which they can return when they’ve gone wayward for a time. They need something that can hold them through whatever life may throw their way. This is what God gives in baptism. It’s not my work. It’s not magic. It’s a promise for you and for your children. Amen.