Baptizing babies seems to be quite a controversial practise these days and often the baptizers are accused of flouting biblical principles for the sake of unbiblical tradition.  Convinced Baptists argue that we should only be baptising believing adults because there are, they maintain, only explicit biblical examples of believers’ baptism in the New Testament and because, they maintain, baptism is reserved only for those that have expressed faith in Jesus.

I would like to challenge both those assertions.

The Church of England in South Africa is certainly not opposed to baptising believers, and regards that practise as biblical and indeed mandatory.  Article 27 of our statement of faith reads:

Baptism is a sign of the faith we profess and a mark that differentiates Christian persons from those who are unbaptized; and it is also a sign of regeneration or new birth by which, as by an instrument, those who receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church, the promises of forgiveness of sin and of our adoption to be the sons of God are visibly signified and sealed, and faith is confirmed and grace increased by virtue of prayer to God.  The baptism of young children is under all circumstances to be retained in the Church as a practice fully agreeable with the institution of Christ.

Four fifths of the above article refers to the baptism of believers, but as the article confirms, we also hold that it is biblical for (believing) parents to baptize their small children as a sign and seal of the new covenant, in continuation of the sign and seal of circumcision under the old covenant.

The question we must ask then is what was circumcision all about?

In Genesis God made a covenant with Abraham to bless families from the entire world.  The covenant sign would be the circumcision of all the males in Abraham’s household, including the butler, the domestic help and the children (Genesis 17:9-14).  Abraham’s descendents were to keep the sign by circumcising all male babies.

Circumcision was then applied to those who had not yet expressed their faith in God.  This may seem to be at odds with our natural evangelical inclination to see faith as a prerequisite to almost everything, but Paul explains the reasoning in Romans 4:11 when he refers to circumcision as a “sign” and a “seal”.  As a sign circumcision marked out the covenant people and illustrated that salvation involves the shedding of blood.  As a seal circumcision was a visible pledge from God to honour his covenant for those who expressed faith in him.  The seal is simply a visible pledge from God that when the conditions  of the covenant are met, the blessings he promised would apply.

Under the new covenant this principle remains true, as Peter implied when he told the Jewish crowd that the gospel promise was for them and their children (Acts 2:39).  The covenant sign is no longer circumcision as the shedding of blood has already taken place, but the sign is now baptism which pictures the washing away of sin (cf. Colossians 2:11-22).  So baptism continues to function as a sign and a seal of a family’s faith in God and thus in the New Testament we have examples of whole families being baptised when a parent becomes a Christian (cf. Acts 16:30-31, 33).  When men and women in the New Testament turned to Jesus they were baptized (believer’s baptism) and children present were also baptised as a visible pledge from God that he would fulfil his covenant promises when the child in the future fulfilled the covenant conditions or obligations.

Both believers’ and infant baptism must therefore be understood as visible pledges or observable reminders from God to us (like the Lord’s Supper), not pledges from us to God, of the gospel promise that all who trust is Jesus will be accounted righteous.

John Calvin wrote, “Since God imparted circumcision, the sign of repentance and faith, to infants, it should not seem absurd that they are now made partakers of baptisms unless men choose to act against an institution of God…For it is most evident that the covenant, which the Lord once made with Abraham, is not less applicable to Christians now than it was anciently to the Jewish people, and, therefore, that word has no less reference to Christians than to Jews. (Institutes 4.16.20, 6)

Why then do we baptise believers’ babies?  Because God’s covenant, the framework within which he operates, has not changed.