The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism

Gregg Strawbridge P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ August 1, 2003
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The debate over infant baptism goes back almost five hundred years to the sixteenth-century when the Swiss Brethren (whom their opponents called Anabaptists) affirmed that the Bible demonstrates that water baptism should follow conversion and that therefore infants should not be baptized.

The debate continues today between baptistic groups and paedobaptists (advocates of infant baptism). This book, another foray against adult baptism, consists of essays by sixteen authors who are Presbyterian or Covenant Reformed pastors or theology professors.

The editor is pastor of All Saints’ Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The polemics of this book follow the standard antibaptistic arguments, supporting the practice of infant baptism as a part of covenant theology. A classic argument used by paedobaptists, and one that is mentioned a number of times in this book, is that the households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, Crispus, and Stephanus (Acts 11:14; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16) surely included infants. But since this is an argument from silence, and since it is a mere assumption, little weight can be given to it. In fact several authors in this book admit that “there is no explicit case of infant baptism in the Bible” (p. 3; cf. pp. 18, 77).

Several factors argue against infants being included in those household baptisms. For example in Cornelius’s household the Holy Spirit came on all who heard Peter’s message and they spoke in tongues and were baptized. Nowhere does this book explain how infants could be the recipients of the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues.

The covenant of grace is repeatedly mentioned as the covenant by which God provides salvation in both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament “sign and seal” of this covenant is said to be circumcision, which was replaced in the New Testament by infant baptism. Paedobaptists emphasize that the Abrahamic Covenant results in spiritual blessings. But this book is remarkably silent about the fact that the Abrahamic Covenant guarantees that the nation of Israel will possess the land of Canaan and beyond, as already stated in Genesis 15:18–21 and 17:8. The only explanation of Genesis 17:8 in this book is that “God was promising the world to Abraham, and not just the land of Canaan” (p. 291). However, there is no basis for such an interpretation.

Colossians 2:11–12a (“In him you were circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism”) is frequently cited as proof that infant baptism replaces circumcision. However, this again is a case of eisegesis, for the passage says nothing about paedobaptism. Also it overlooks the fact that Paul was speaking of spiritual baptism, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in which He places believers at the moment of salvation into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).

Paedobaptists readily affirm that infant baptism does not save. They correctly emphasize that salvation comes only by faith. However, some statements in this book come alarmingly close to saying that people who were baptized as infants are saved. “God in His grace can regenerate a child from the earliest age, even in conjunction with baptism itself” (p. 42). “They are received unto grace in Christ” (p. 52). “Our baptism testifies to us of union with Christ, because we have truly died with him and been raised with him” (p. 122). Baptized infants “belong to him [the Lord] and his people [and] are recipients of his gracious promise in Christ” (p. 229). These infants “are promised forgiveness of sins” (p. 242). “The regeneration of elect covenant infants … can take place before or after their baptism” (p. 243). “The children of saints are saints” (p. 295).

How then do paedobaptists explain the fact that some people who were baptized as infants and are therefore allegedly in the New Covenant can be lost? Several authors in this book answer this by pointing to Hebrews 10:28–30. Such people are said to be “New Covenant breakers” (pp. 4–5; cf. 214–15, 281). Since some people are unregenerate covenant members, there is no reason, it is argued, to withhold baptism from infants. This, however, overlooks the view that Hebrews 10:28–30 can be referring to believers who have become spiritually rebellious and who therefore will suffer divine retribution in this life. (Numerous statements in the Book of Hebrews point to the fact that the addressees were believers.)

Another argument given several times in this book in support of baptizing infants is that Ephesians 6:1–4 and Colossians 3:20 refer to children of believing parents. It is argued that these children are therefore not excluded from the New Covenant. Again this is a weak argument, for these verses say nothing about infant baptism or the New Covenant. They simply give instructions to children. Also paedobaptists point out that Jesus spoke of children being in the kingdom (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). Of course, young children can be saved when they place their faith in Christ, but to suggest that these verses support the idea that infant baptism places children “under” the New Covenant reads into the text something that is not there.

Authors of the essays in this book occasionally slip into the amillennial error of identifying Old Testament believers as the church (p. 201) and saying that God is now in the present age fulfilling all the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant to believers (pp. 168–225).

Proponents of infant baptist also cite Acts 2:39 in support of their view, and they say that unbaptized infants who die are hopelessly lost. For answers to these and several other arguments of paedobaptists see this reviewer’s Precious in His Sight: Childhood and Children in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 228–38.

The overall impression one receives in reading this book is that paedobaptists seem so committed to their view of the so-called “covenant of grace” (a term nowhere used in the Bible), that they end up reading into the Bible things that are not there. And one still wonders how the sprinkling of infant boys and girls is analogous to the circumcision of baby boys. Surely the practice of baptizing those who have placed their faith in Christ is the obvious New Testament pattern.

—Roy B. Zuck

July 1, 2005
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2005 vol. 162 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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