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Christian Baptism for Infants

A sermon on Belgic Confession Article 34 / Deuteronomy 29.2-13; Acts 2.36-47


by Tim Gallant

Beloved family of Jesus Christ,

This is now our third week in looking at matters of baptism as we consider Article 34 of our Confession, and I wish to wrap up this evening by focusing on the message of that closing paragraph, which defends infant baptism.

God seals His promises to believers' children in baptism. This evening, we will pay attention to the old covenant inclusion of children in the types of Christian baptism, and then we will see that the new covenant relationship to children affirms fulfillment of those types.

1. God seals His promises to believers' children in baptism. We note first the old covenant inclusion of children in the types of Christian baptism. By types, I am referring to a word we used two weeks ago. It is language Paul uses twice in 1 Corinthians 10. The things that happened to old covenant Israel were types for us, meaning they gave us a pattern. What we experience takes on its peculiar shape due to the way God dealt with them. We noted that it's like a fiberglass mold - the shape and structure of the mold itself will determine the shape and structure of the item produced by the mold.

So what is the case regarding children with these types? I think that we are all aware the answer is pretty obvious. Infants and children were never excluded from the types; they were always included.

Let's begin with the first event explicitly mentioned in Scripture as a type of Christian baptism. Two weeks ago, we read from 1 Peter 3 and noted that it identified the great flood in Noah's day as a baptism, and set it in parallel to our baptism in Christ. Who was on the ark? All of Noah's family. Now, I'm not going to claim that any of Noah's children were infants. They were in fact all grown men and married. I'm simply drawing attention to the fact that a family principle - a household principle - was in operation.

The other Old Testament event explicitly identified in the New Testament as a baptism is the passage through the Red Sea. As we saw from 1 Corinthians 10, Israel was "baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the Sea." Is this referring to adults only, or to every member of Israel, including the small children?

Well, we certainly know that the children crossed over with their parents. But was this merely an incidental thing? Obviously, the parents are not going to leave their children behind. But would it be accurate to say that the children too were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea?

Indeed, it would. We know this, both because it fits with the total thing God was doing in the context of the exodus, and also because of the way Moses speaks of Israel's little ones later on.

What was God doing in the exodus? He was saving a people for Himself, rescuing them, and the children were completely a part of that. Think of Exodus 11-12. God says that He is going to destroy the firstborn of the Egyptians, and that He is going to rescue the firstborn of Israel. In both cases, it is young and old alike. The smallest firstborn infant of Egypt was going to die. And for Israel, every household was to take a lamb, kill it and sprinkle blood for God to see and pass over that house. His express intention at the Passover was to rescue His people, including the little ones. When Moses told Pharaoh that the people were to go into the wilderness, he said in Exodus 10.9, "We will go with our young and our old; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we will go, for we must hold a feast to the LORD." All along, the deliverance in view was total. For God to rescue His people, He must rescue the children. If the people are His, the children are His.

But there are much bigger clues that we find in the books of Moses, regarding the fact that the children really were baptized into Moses, formally inducted into the covenant. I could point to the familiar passage in Deuteronomy 6, where Israel is told to teach the law - the covenant - to its children in every circumstance, getting up and going in. Why? Because the covenant belonged to them, and they to it. Perhaps the most telling passage is Deuteronomy 29, which we read earlier. Here is Deuteronomy 29.10-13 again:

All of you stand today before the LORD your God: your leaders and your tribes and your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones and your wives - also the stranger who is in your camp, from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water - that you may enter into covenant with the LORD your God, and into His oath, which the LORD your God makes with you today, that He may establish you today as a people for Himself, and that He may be God to you, just as He has spoken to you, and just as He has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

That passage raises the bigger issue. In truth, to this point I have completely ignored the strongest argument why we should think that children would be included among those "baptized into Moses." And that is simply that the event of the passage through the Sea is related to the promises God had already given to Abraham, and those promises in turn were sealed in the rituals that God gave Israel. There is nothing plainer than the fact that both in Genesis 17 and in Leviticus 12, circumcision - which, you will remember, was the entry into baptism - circumcision was performed at eight days old.

And underlying that ritual: God had promised in Genesis 17.7, "I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you." That is the context for the institution of circumcision. Once again: baptism and the rituals that underlie it are, before anything else, promissory. They have to do with God's act, His Word of promise. That is the reason they are also about faith: God's Word of promise calls for faith.

But that faith-demanding promise does not wait until a child is 18, or 12 or even five. God comes to Abraham, and says: "Your little ones are mine." He comes to Israel in Deuteronomy 29 and says: "Your little ones are part of the covenant I am establishing." That is His clear pattern throughout the Old Testament.

2. So we have seen very clearly that children were the objects of God's actions in the Old Testament events and rites which looked forward to Christian baptism. But as you are aware, for the past couple of weeks we have looked at both continuity - that is, how Christian baptism is related to its ancient roots - and we have also seen discontinuity - that is, how Christian baptism is new, how it differs from those events and rituals which served as its types.

So this raises the question: Granted that children - and indeed, infants - were included in "the old days," how are we to determine whether their inclusion is a matter of continuity - something that belongs to the pattern, something that still holds when we come to Christian baptism?

God seals His promises to believers' children in baptism. I am going to argue here that the promises are not just old covenant things that fell by the wayside. The new covenant relationship to children affirms fulfillment of those types we have looked at.

Our Baptist brothers tell us two things: first, that Jesus never tells us to baptize babies. Second, that Jesus does tell us to repent and be baptized, or to believe and be baptized, and since - according to them - babies cannot do that, they are not to be baptized.

If all we had was the New Testament, and no Old Testament background, those arguments might be quite compelling. But that is not the case. Everything we have said over the past couple of weeks matters to our subject this evening. Infant baptism is not some isolated thing that stands off by itself; it is an integral part of the biblical theology of baptism. It is true that Jesus never tells us point blank explicitly that babies are to be baptized. But the reason for that is not because they should not be baptized; the reason is because He didn't have to say that. It was a point that was already clear enough.

Moreover, while our Baptist brothers criticize us for - supposedly - ignoring the command to repent and believe in connection with baptism, this criticism can only arise because they either do not understand the biblical theology of baptism which we have already explored, or they fail to make the connections that biblical theology of baptism demands. The truth is that what is new in Christian baptism is not the command to repent and believe, as such - but the fact that it is now clearly and definitively tied to the work of Christ as He has come in the fullness of time.

What I mean is that faith and repentance were always tied to the types of Christian baptism. Faith means committing yourself in trust to God and His Word. Repentance also means committing yourself to God, in turning away from the world. If you don't think it took faith for Noah to build a big boat that he couldn't move to the sea, you've missed the point of the Genesis account. And if you do think Noah and his family entered the ark without turning their backs on the world, then you're missing the whole point of their entry into the ark.

Similar things could be said with regard to the Red Sea. At the Red Sea, the people had a great crisis of faith - but they still crossed in response to the Word and the demonstrated power of God. And they too were turning their backs on Egypt, which was for them "the world."

So too with the rituals. Romans 4.11 tells us that circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith for Abraham. And when he became circumcised, it was an act of faith. But on the same day he became circumcised, all the males in his household also became circumcised, and that indeed was part of how his faith was expressed.

To put it another way: if a non-Israelite wished to join Israel, he would need to repent and be circumcised. But his infant males would have been circumcised with him. Thus the call to repent and believe in association with the sacrament is not new; we simply need to apply it in the way that Scripture itself does.

Next Sunday morning, Lord willing, I am going to again be preaching on Mark 3. As you heard this morning, Jesus ran into conflict with His own family. They thought He was crazy. And His response - in the verses that we read but did not focus on this morning - Jesus' response was to say that He was redefining the family.

And that redefinition is important, and we will explore that next week. But we must not over-read the situation. The issue is that Jesus redefines relationships around Himself. The ones who do the will of God are His family. But that is quite different from saying that all of the family-related promises which provided structure to the way things worked in the Old Testament - saying that all is done away with.

No, the New Testament evidence indicates precisely the opposite. On the point of the Old Testament-New Testament relationship regarding the children of the people of God, we do not have a matter of careless inclusion in the old covenant, giving way to abandonment in the new. The relationship rather is one of promise and fulfillment.

This is what was anticipated by the Old Testament itself. We have already mentioned God's promise that He was making a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, but it goes further than that. It reaches to the prophecies regarding the new covenant. For example, Isaiah 65.23 gives this promise regarding the new covenant: "They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth children for trouble; for they shall be the descendants of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them." As long as God gives children to His people, He includes them and calls them His own.

And therefore, it is not with a blank slate that we approach the evidence of the New Testament. The pattern of the Old Testament, its use of language regarding children and so on - all of this provides a mold, a type for how we are to hear the New Testament texts which speak about households and children and so on.

When we have all of this in the back of our minds, then, the fact that we repeatedly read of household baptisms in the New Testament strikes a familiar note. We recognize that the old principle is still at work.

And now we come again to Peter at Pentecost. Read again verses 36-41; Peter says:

"Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.

When we read Peter speaking of baptism for remission of sins, we of course know that his hearers knew the structure of the old covenant very well, and that baptism belonged in the same cycle as circumcision. It would never have occurred to them that their children would be excluded from the rite of cleansing he was describing.

And then when we read that Peter goes further, that he pointedly brings up the matter of children; that he refers explicitly to the promise and says that it is to their children - we cannot fail to hear the whole long history of God's dealings with the children of believers; we cannot fail to understand that of course Peter's hearers would have understood that their children were to be baptized.

And finally, when we read that Peter is calling upon Israel to be saved from a perverse generation, like Noah and his family were saved from the perverse generation leading up to the flood, and as many other households were saved since - we cannot fail to recognize that Peter's hearers had no doubt in their minds whether they would bring their families with them into the ark, whether they would bring their families with them across the Red Sea.

In brief, Peter didn't need to say, "Oh, and your children should be baptized with you." That point was clear to his hearers; the only reason it is sometimes unclear to us is because we have forgotten the Old Testament and have failed to understand how it relates to the New.

Is infant baptism important? It's almost the wrong question, because there again, we are isolating infant baptism, as if it stood off by itself. The real question is: Is baptism important? And we know the answer to that; we have been hearing it over and over again for the past several weeks. In baptism, God is acting, and God is promising. In baptism, God marks us as His own and adopts us. Of course baptism is important.

And baptism, with its promises, is important to our children no less than to ourselves. As the Confession puts it, "Christ shed His blood no less for the washing of the children of believers than for adult persons; and therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that which Christ has done for them."

No less for children than adults. Jesus doesn't say they need to become adults to inherit the kingdom; He says that adults need to become like children. And that takes us back to the Baptist claim mentioned earlier. How dare we say that infants and small children cannot believe, when Jesus says that of such is the kingdom? No, we have things upside down. The oddity is not infant faith; the oddity is adult faith, because the adult must become like the infant. Of such is the kingdom, and we dare not say they have no faith. The kingdom is a gift, and no one is better suited to receive that gift than our little children, upon whom God bestows promises before they can so much as apprehend them.

God promises and God acts. He says, "I will be God to you and to your children." He doesn't say: "When they get to be a certain age." He claims them from day one, calls them His own, calls them to trust Him and walk with Him. That is His mercy to us and to them, and we need to celebrate that mercy with our children.

Amen.

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