Defending infant baptism (or paedobaptism) is a complex endeavor. A lot of people want those who believe in it to point to a clear instance in Acts when infants were baptized, or to a verse where Paul said, “Baptize your children, y’all” (my paraphrase). But the argument doesn’t rest on mere prooftexting; the argument hinges on whether or not children are truly part of the church. We can determine this by looking through the Biblical story, and specifically the covenants.
Who is Part of the Church?
Reformed theologians have made a distinction between the visible church and the invisible church. The invisible church is comprised of those all around the world who have been, are, or will be truly made alive in Christ. But the visible church is composed of all people who profess to be Christians, whether they are or will be truly saved or not. Most people will agree with this. What people may not agree on is that the children of professing Christians are also part of the visible church,1 and thus are eligible to be baptized along with their parents. But how do we determine this? That’s where the idea of covenant comes in.
The Abrahamic Covenant
In Genesis 12, we read about the call of Abram.
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2–3)
Previously, God made a promise to send someone (hint: it’s Jesus) to come and destroy evil. In the Abrahamic covenant, God makes this promise more specific; he was going to do it through this family. Genesis 15 is where God establishes his covenant with Abram, who in response believes and is saved (v. 6). We know because of this verse that this covenant wasn’t merely about a particular parcel of land; Paul quotes it in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 to show that Abram was here saved by faith, just as we are. We’ll get to that point soon.
Then, in Genesis 17, God expands on the covenant:
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. (Gen 17:7–8)
God establishes a physical sign of this covenant for Abraham and his offspring to receive: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (v. 10).
The Meaning of Circumcision
What did the sign of circumcision represent? Often, people assume it represented only the promise that Abraham’s family would inherit Canaan, or it signified only that the circumcised person was part of national Israel. But if you read through the Old Testament, you see circumcision is much more than that.
The Bible refers to people having uncircumcised lips, hands, and even hearts (Exodus 6:12, 30; Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10; 9:25). Call me crazy, but last I checked, these parts of the body don’t have foreskins. What is being shown, as John Murray wrote, is that “Circumcision signified fundamentally the removal of defilement of uncleanness to the end of participation in the covenant blessings.”2 Circumcision represented the spiritual reality that God had removed someone’s sin and made him holy.
In addition to that, Paul said in Romans 4:11 that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” Circumcision was the sign of the very faith that Abraham had expressed in Genesis 15, not merely a sign that his offspring would inherit a parcel of land.
Later in the New Testament, Paul uses this language of circumcision to specifically represent salvation (Romans 2:28–29) and membership in the church (Philippians 3:3). So ultimately, circumcision was a sign of the faith through which God had removed sin, made a person righteous, and made him part of his people.
A Promised Son vs. a Physical Son
After giving the sign of circumcision to Abraham, God promises something incredible: he’s going to give the hundred-year-old Abraham a son by his ninety-year-old wife Sarah, and this son, Isaac, is the one through whom God will keep his promise to Abraham. (vv. 15–16). An incredulous Abraham points out that he already has a son, Ishmael, and offers him to be the covenant child (v. 18). “He’s already been born,” Abraham is saying, “and surely you can’t give me another son at my age.” But God responds that, while Ishmael will be blessed as a physical son of Abraham, God intends to establish this covenant with the promised son Isaac. (vv. 19–21).
The odd thing, though, is that both Abraham and Ishmael are circumcised as part of this covenant. (vv. 23–27) Ishmael, of whom we have no evidence that he was saved (and evidence that he definitely wasn’t, cf. Gen 16:11–12; 21:7, where his laughing is understood to be mocking Isaac), received a sign representing salvation, despite the fact that God had specifically excluded him. In fact, God had commanded that be circumcised despite his unsaved state when he said “every male among you shall be circumcised” (v. 10). Why?
Because Ishmael, as a member of Abraham’s physical family, is, in a very real sense, part of this covenant. He is part of the outward administration of the covenant, but not part of its substance. Another way to say this, to call back to earlier in the post, is that Ishmael is part of the visible church—that is, Abraham’s physical descendants—but not part of the invisible church—Abraham’s children of faith. He isn’t saved, and never will be, but he is part of God’s people at this point in his life.
This distinction between substance and administration continues through the Old Testament with Israel; Israel is called God’s people in Exodus numerous times, but nearly all of them wind up dying in their sins in the wilderness on the way to Canaan. Those who do are part of the outward administration, but not the substance.
Israel = The Church
“Okay Adam,” you may be thinking, “That’s great with Israel and all. But what does this have to do with infant baptism, or the church now?” The answer is everything. That covenant that God made with Abraham is the very covenant that we are part of today. Here’s what Paul says in Galatians 3:
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal 3:7–9)
Paul adds in v. 17: “the law [the covenant with Moses], which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” When God established the covenant with Moses, he didn’t remove or end the covenant with Abraham. In fact, when Jesus came, he ended the covenant with Moses specifically, but not the covenant with Abraham.
In other words, the promise that God made to Abraham was to save an innumerable amount of people through his family. We, as those who have been saved through the same kind of faith that Abraham had, are his spiritual family. This is what Paul means when he says that Jews and Gentiles are part of the same olive tree in Romans 11:13–24. The church is not a separate entity from Israel; it is the same. It is the continuity and fulfillment of it.
And, just as in the Old Testament, the covenant has a substance comprised of truly saved believers and an administration of the saved and unsaved. This is how John can say that those who leave the faith were never of it (1 John 2:19) while Peter says those who leave the faith are in a worse state than before (2 Peter 2:20). They were really part of the people of God, but only part of the administration, not the substance. They were never saved, but they will face harsher judgment for their actions than those who were never in the church to begin with.
The Great Assumption of Credobaptism (Believer’s Baptism)
Here is where I ask you to hang up your assumptions for a moment. Most people, even Reformed people who believe that the church and Israel are one, make the assumption that, when the Holy Spirit descended during Pentecost in Acts 1, the people of God suddenly became “pure.” They’ll admit that, in the Old Testament, the people of God contained saved and unsaved people. But they’ll say in the New Testament, unsaved people are not part of the church in any sense at all. In addition, the children of believers, who were very much part of God’s people in the Old Testament, are now out.
But the question is: why? There is nothing in the New Testament that says as such. As we’ve shown, the substance and administration distinction in the covenant is very much in effect today. And if we’ve established that we, the church, are part of the Abrahamic Covenant, which included Abraham’s physical and spiritual children, then why is it that now it doesn’t? Wouldn’t it make more sense to believe that the children of believers are part of the covenant—something that is explicitly stated in the Bible—unless a later passage of Scripture removes them?
Children in the New Testament
If you read the New Testament, you’ll see it has a very high view of the children of believers. It doesn’t speak to them or about them as pagans; it treats them as covenant church members. Paul tells them in Ephesians 6:1–3 (a letter written to a church) to “obey your parents in the Lord” and exhorts them to do so by quoting the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” He says something similar in Colossians 3:20: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” Would it make sense for Paul to instruct pagans to please the Lord and obey parents in the Lord?
Would it make sense for Jesus to tell his disciples, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14; cf. Matthew 19:14; Luke 18:16) when he was planning to kick them out of the covenant only a few months later during Pentecost?
And would it make sense for Paul to call the children of even one believer “holy” rather than “unclean” in 1 Corinthians 7:14 if they were really in no better state than the pagan?
So what does all of this have to do with infant baptism? I believe we’ve established that the children of believers are part of the church of God. They have been ever since God made his covenant with Abraham, and nothing in the New Testament has changed that. But should we baptize them? I think if you agree with me up to this point, you’d say yes. But just in case, let’s consider what baptism represents.
Circumcision, as we’ve already established, represents salvation. This sign was given to the children of Israel as young as eight days old, before they made any profession of faith. But Jesus established a new sign of the covenant to take its place: baptism. And baptism represents the same thing as circumcision.
It represents the removal of sin, because John the Baptist preached “the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). It represents membership in the people of God (1 Cor 12:13). It represents “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) that we receive when we are saved. And, in fact, Paul draws a direct correlation between baptism and circumcision in Colossians 2:11–12, where he calls it “the circumcision of Christ” and compares it to “putting off the body of the flesh.” And if children received the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament—the sign of salvation—what reason is there to deny them the sign of the covenant and salvation now?
An Instance of Infant Baptism
Finally, if you’re still asking for a specific instance of child baptism in the Bible, let me give you one. In 1 Corinthians 10:1–2, Paul says the following: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”
What is he saying? Who were our fathers? Clearly this is Israel. When did Israel pass through the sea? In Exodus 14, when they crossed the Red Sea and escaped from Egypt. Paul calls this their baptism. This baptism represents Israel passing from slavery to Egypt to being the set-apart people of God, which is typological of our redemption from sin into the church.3 And, to repeat an oft-quoted cliche of paedobaptists, do you really think that, among the numerous multitude of the people of Israel, there wasn’t one child? Keep in mind as well that God himself performed this baptism, the very God who knew full well that a vast majority of the people receiving his baptism were unsaved and would die in their sins. Yet he still did it. And so should we.
To sum up, we’ve seen that there is one people of God through the entire Biblical story, continuing up to today. We’ve seen that we are part of the Abrahamic Covenant, which includes the children of believers and a mixed group of saved and unsaved people. We have not seen any indication that this changed at Pentecost, and have seen examples in the New Testament indicating that it hasn’t. We’ve seen that the children of believers received the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament at a very young age, before anyone could see any evidence of faith. And if all of this is true, the case for infant baptism is Biblically compelling in my opinion. So, if you agree, grab a water bottle, your pastor, and your baby, and let’s celebrate these little children whom God loves.
1 I don’t want to suggest that the children of believers are only ever part of the visible church. We can’t see the heart, especially of a child so young that he can only express himself by crying and laughing. It’s entirely possible that God has transformed the heart of your infant and saved him or her. In fact, John the Baptist was actually saved before he was even born (a special case to be sure). But, for the sake of argument, we’ll say that children are part of the visible church.
2 Muray, John. “Is Infant Baptism Scriptural?” The Westminster Presbyterian. Accessed May 30, 2017. http://www.westminsterconfession.org/worship/is-infant-baptism-scriptural.php. Originally published in The Presbyterian Guardian, volume 5 (1938).
3 “What is the importance of the parting of the Red Sea?” GotQuestions.org. Accessed June 1, 2017. https://www.gotquestions.org/parting-Red-Sea.html.