Infant Baptism: A family affair

By John Pacheco

The first thing that should be pointed out is that child baptism is a tradition of the early church with evidence going all the way back to the first century, and there is certainly no quarrel about the practice in the early church. The first explicit doctrinal pronouncement on the question occurred at the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D., which affirmed the long-time practice of the necessity of baptism for the remission of the punishment due to original sin, which necessarily includes not only adults but children as well.

Many Evangelicals argue that child baptism is not necessary since only faith is necessary to save. Yet, even their beliefs do not hold to this general premise. For the Evangelical, there is no punishment due to original sin, and therefore persons who have not yet attained the age of reason are not precluded from heaven should they die. It is personal sin only which cuts a person off from heaven and since infants cannot sin they are thus believed to enter heaven should they die. Yet, once the Protestant admits to the exception of 'infant salvation without faith', then the Fundamentalist cannot turn around and say to the Catholic that 'baptism without faith' is not a valid avenue for salvation. It would be a perfect example of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black! And while the Catholic has a solid biblical justification for 'baptism justification' along with substantial evidence of this practice in the early church, the Evangelical cannot claim the same privilege for his view on baptism or original sin, which holds that there is no punishment due to original sin.

It is this belief of original sin which is the foundation on which the Evangelical doctrines of 'assured salvation' and 'justification by faith alone' rests. The central defining axiom of the Evangelical doctrine on justification is based on the belief that original sin does not keep us from God. This doctrine, however, is clearly unbiblical. It is undeniable that the Bible is explicit in revealing our fallen nature and its mortal consequences. Saint Paul teaches that "For if by the transgression of one, many died… So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men" (Romans 5:15-18). The Apostle is clearly teaching that original sin ('the one transgression') resulted in condemnation to all men, not only or simply personal, actual sin. In addition, there are many other passages which support the mortal nature of that first sin: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me" (Psalms 51:5). And "from the woman came the beginning of sin, and by her we all die" (Sirach 25:33). The Protestant position can hardly escape these texts and, therefore, there is a serious problem in suggesting that only personal sin separates us from God and not original sin also.

The notion of infant initiation is certainly not an innovation of the Catholic Church. For two thousand years, God had established the covenant with Abraham and his offspring which always had included infants. God made it explicit that the covenant with Abraham would not just be with him or his fellow adults. God's covenant promise included infants: "This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you; every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations… " (Genesis 17:10-12).

God's covenant with Abraham was not the first or the last instance of where He allows curse or blessing to pass not only to one individual but to their 'households' as well. The curse of original sin was not simply transmitted to Adam and Eve but to the whole human race, which includes infants. Likewise, God saved not only Noah but his family as well (Cf. Genesis 8:16), not all of whom were necessarily faithful (Cf. Genesis 9:25). The Lord spoke to Moses, commanding him to tell his people to "take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers' households, a lamb for each household" (Exodus 12:3). The importance of this passage cannot be overlooked. The lamb was not taken for each individual, but rather for each household for the household's salvation. Not only is this concept of 'household salvation' reinforced in the Adamic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants, but it is further emphasized in the last of the Old Testament covenants, the Davidic covenant (Cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-16). Therefore, the Old Testament covenant always included infants, and covenant-initiation has been a family affair from the very beginning.

The New Testament itself provides compelling, if not conclusive. evidence for infant baptism in light of the continuation of this household covenant. In fact, the secular Greek word for 'household' is rendered "oikos", which included children. The baptisms of whole households provide this support, for it is logical that at least one of these households included infants [Stephanus' household (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:16), Lydia's household (Cf. Acts 16:15), the Jailer's household (Cf. Acts 16:33), and Crispus' household (Cf. Acts 18:8)].

In light of this evidence, the opponent of infant baptism must then turn his gaze away from the irrefutable and compelling argument offered by the Old Testament, and charge that the New Testament changes all that. Of course, the opponent will argue that we must choose to be baptized, and since children cannot choose, they should not be baptized. This argument falls quickly on two fronts. First, at the very minimum, the mention of baptizing whole households, as discussed above, should be enough of a reason to at least consider infant baptism a possibility. Second, both circumcision and baptism are initiations into God's Covenant family. Are we to conclude then that God would offer less graces in the New Testament than in the Old Testament? Can it be successfully argued that although God included infants in the Old Covenant, He would exclude infants in the New Covenant? Does this make sense, especially in light of the New Testament not prohibiting such a practice?

In fact, the 'argument from silence' which Protestants use to refute infant baptism (i.e. the Bible does not teach that we should baptize babies) is not conclusive proof against the practice. But even the assertion that infant baptism is not found in the New Testament is itself false. At Pentecost, when Peter first preached the Gospel, he did not say that the 'promise was just for adults'. On the contrary, after indicating the necessity of baptism just one verse before, he makes the very natural and consistent teaching that had always been part of the Jewish covenant: "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself" (Acts 2:39).

This is the same promise that was given by God to Abraham, and then restated by Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians: "And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Galatians 3:27). An heir, after all, does not make the initial choice to be an heir. He is born into it - just as a prince becomes the heir to the throne at birth. True, the prince can renounce his inheritance, but when he is 'born' he is born an heir nonetheless whether he likes it or not. Likewise, baptism does to the soul what birth does to the body: as a person did not ask to be physically born, neither does the person necessarily ask to be spiritually reborn. In His anxiety to dwell in our soul, God presumes upon our acceptance, and claims us as his divine children through adoption until we later forfeit that inheritance through unrepented sin. We become children of God automatically until we attain the age of reason when we confirm our baptism for ourselves through faith.

Christ's love of children certainly would not allow the Church to exclude children. "Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me…" (Mark 9:37, Cf. Matthew 18:5). Notice that Jesus is not saying, 'Whoever receives one like a child…' On the contrary, He wants children to be 'received' by the Church, and the way the Church 'receives' a child is through baptism - the sign of initiation into Christ's Church. Many Evangelicals abhor the notion that one can receive grace without first asking for it. This is one of their underlying difficulties with infant baptism.

The principle of receiving graces without asking for it, however, is well established in the New Testament. Consider Jesus laying his hands on the children (Cf. Matthew 19:15). Is it to be understood that no graces flowed from Jesus' hands to these children even though there is no evidence of the children explicitly asking for Jesus' blessings? And what about the centurion's slave in Luke 7:2-8. When the centurion [Cornelius] asked Jesus to cure his servant, did Jesus say: 'Sorry, Cornelius I can't do that unless your servant explicitly asks for healing?' Of course not. Jesus cured the centurion's slave because of the faith of the centurion. Likewise, the faith which infants lack is supplanted by the faith of the Church, just as the centurion's faith was sufficient for his servant's healing.

Another example of this 'faith-substitution' is found in Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed (Cf. Matthew 15:21-28). And, is it even necessary to have faith in order to have graces communicated to someone? No. Consider the widow in Luke 7:12-15. Now, in the previous examples, it was shown that the benefactors of Our Lord's grace did not need faith, only the person interceding for the sick person. In this instance, the benefactor of Jesus' power is even dead! The notable point in this passage is that the widow herself is not described as having faith. The only reason Jesus raised the widow's son from the dead was simply that He felt compassion for her.

Of course, the Evangelical would retort that these examples only show physical healings not spiritual ones. First of all, the general principle has been established, namely that Jesus does not need our approval or request to help us. But even this charge, that Jesus does not communicate his spiritual grace unrequested, is unbiblical. Consider the healing of the paralytic: "And being unable to get to Him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying. And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, 'My son, your sins are forgiven…I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.' And he rose and immediately took up the pallet and went out in the sight of all" (Mark 2:4-12). The singular thing to note here is that not only does Jesus heal the paralytic man based on the crowd's faith yet again, He also forgives the man's sins without the man explicitly asking for his sins to be forgiven!!!

For the Evangelical, his 'born again' relationship with God is based on a conversion 'experience', and because infants cannot 'experience', they cannot be born again so there is no point to baptizing them. This doctrine, however, is not biblical. God does not base salvation on man's 'experience', however 'real' that may appear to the person undergoing such an experience. While it is true that such a conversion experience is sometimes necessary for salvation for persons who attain the age of reason, there is no biblical evidence that it is sufficient. Notwithstanding this, however, Evangelicals claim that infants cannot 'experience' salvation. This is a totally speculative proposition on their part. In fact, it could very well be that infants cannot remember the experience, but that does not mean that it did not happen. There is even biblical evidence to suggest that infants may 'experience' when it is recalled that John the Baptist leapt in his mother's womb "for joy" (Cf. Luke 1:44).

Before the Fall:Why We Need Baptism
Infusion vs. Imputation: Two views of justification
Water in the Old Testament: A sign of God's presence
Baptism in the New Testament: Baptism now saves you!
Answering the Evangelicals: A biblical response to objections
A Visual Image and Some Closing Thoughts
Return to Apologetics of Baptism

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