Baptism and the Burden of Proof

Who bears the burden of proof in the argument over infant baptism? The New Testament (NT) neither explicitly commands the baptizing of infant children of believers nor forbids it. Sometimes what is NOT said speaks loudly to us. In this case, the absence of a direct command regarding infants and baptism strongly supports one position on this issue over the other.

Given that the people of God in the Old Testament (OT) had been putting the sign of the covenant (circumcision) on their infant children for nearly 2,000 years when Jesus arrived on the scene, it is logical to infer that NT believers, who were overwhelmingly Jewish, would have assumed that the NT sign of the covenant (baptism) would be applied to their children as well. The absence of any prohibitions on baptizing the children of believers or even any discussion of this as an issue in the churches to which Paul wrote suggests that this was NOT an issue in the early church. The only way it could be a non-issue is if there was no fundamental change in the way the sign was applied to the children of believers.

While there is no explicit command to baptize the infant children of believers, there are at least two occasions in which entire households were baptized when the head of the household was converted. Lydia believed (Acts 16:14), and her entire household was baptized (Acts 16:15). The Philippian jailor believed, and his entire household was baptized (Acts 16:33). The latter half of Acts 16:34 is most literally translated by the English Standard Version: “And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” They all rejoiced and were baptized because the head of the household believed the gospel. Salvation had come to these families and the sign of that salvation was placed on all under the authority of the head of the household. No further explanation is needed since the pattern would have been obvious already.

When Peter preached at Pentecost, he labored to prove from the OT that Jesus was the promised Messiah. When his hearers came under conviction and cried out, Peter told them to repent and be baptized, saying, “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.” (Acts 2:39, NKJ). What was THE PROMISE to which Peter referred? We want more clarity, but, of course, a group of faithful Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost would have understood perfectly well. THE PROMISE was the covenant promise they had been given in Abraham. For example, God had said to Abraham, “And 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” (Genesis 17:7, NKJ). The NT connects believers in Christ to this same promise, saying, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29, NKJ). Once again, the NT does not have to tell parents explicitly to apply the sign of the covenant to their children; it would have been obvious given the explicit connections to the OT covenant promise and its associated sign (see also Colossians 2:11-12).

In any argument it is incumbent on the side asserting a claim to support that claim with evidence. Support for infant baptism includes the explicit OT witness of including children in the covenant with its attendant sign, the actual practice of the OT people of God for nearly 2,000 years, NT passages that seem to assume the continuation of the OT pattern, and the striking absence of any explicit changes to the way children are to be treated in the NT church. It would seem, then, that those who think the NT suddenly takes away the sign of the covenant from the children of believers bear a substantial burden of proof. In this case, the lack of an explicit NT command forbidding the baptizing of covenant children amounts to a very meaningful silence.

24 Comments

  1. Jon Stallings May 28, 2015 at 11:38 am #

    Hey Rich, I was wondering if you could help me with some clarification regarding infant baptism. I have to admit I am a bit of a mutt theologically. I grew up Presbyterian but as a young adult started attending a Pentecostal church. And I have been pastor for several years with Pentecostal denomination.

    I was baptized as an infant and then again as an adult. Growing up I always thought that my infant baptism always meant I was saved. My church never really taught on the subject. (I may have slept through that day in catechism class). However a while back I read Kevin DeYoung’s book on the Heidelberg Catechism in which he indicated that it was a sign of the new covenant as part of the child’s family but was not a sign of actual salvation. The child will still have to make that confession when he is older. Is that the typical Reformed teaching on infant baptism?

    • Austin Brown May 28, 2015 at 8:52 pm #

      Hi Jon,

      If you don’t mind me jumping in (and perhaps Rich will see this and respond), allow me to just say that the answer is yes. Children must believe and be saved. Water baptism doesn’t save them. That’s the typical Reformed teaching.

      Glad to have you here, by the way!

      • Jon Stallings May 28, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

        Thanks Austin for the reply. That is what I suspected. It also clears up a rather large misconception between those who practice infant baptism and those who don’t.

        I have been studying quite a bit of reformed theology over the past year or so. The reformed bloggers I follow are very passionate about the Word. That passion seems to be lacking in a lot of areas of the church today.

        • Austin Brown May 29, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

          I couldn’t agree more, Jon. Passion for the Word is often hard to find.

          If you don’t mind me asking, what have you been reading? Anything in particular strike you as especially interesting?

          My own journey has been one of growing up (at least for a while) in the Assemblies of God. After that it was the Christian and Missionary Alliance. It was there where my pastor started feeding me good reformed literature. But alas, I guess he fed me too much 🙂

          Hey, have you or do you listen to John Piper? If not, I’d love to introduce you to him. Great passion with solid theology.

          • Jon Stallings May 31, 2015 at 7:12 pm #

            Hey Austin I have read a few books by John Piper. I am also a regular reader of the blogs by Mere Orthodoxy, Kevin DeYoung and Tim Challies. I also have several pending books in my ever growing “to read list” I am open to any other resources you might suggest.

          • Austin Brown June 1, 2015 at 6:12 pm #

            Excellent stuff! And yeah, isn’t it true about the ever growing to read list! With the reading of books there is no end. lol.

            What might I suggest? That’s a tough one. I guess it would depend upon where you’re at and what interests you.

            In terms of soteriology, would you call yourself a Calvinist, at least broadly speaking? Or what about how you put your bible together? Would you say you are more dispensational or covenantal?

            Personally, I’m Calvinistic and hold to Covenant Theology, and I’d love to recommend a couple short reads that helped me on my journey.

          • Jon Stallings June 1, 2015 at 9:49 pm #

            As I mentioned in my initial comment I am a hybrid theologically. But I would say that tend to lean more towards the Calvin / Covenant theology side of things.

          • Austin Brown June 2, 2015 at 9:01 am #

            I’ve found the following to be personally helpful:

            A New Testament Biblical Theology, G.K. Beale: It’s a whopper of a book, but it’s a treasure trove of insights. Seriously good stuff.
            A more digestible book that was of considerable help, when I was nearing the end of my journey away from dispensationalism, was Dr. Riddlebarger’s volume, A Case for Amillennialism.
            If you search under the topic of audio on this website, you’ll find a host of audio picks that I’ve recommended over the course of time. I continue to find John Piper to be one of the most helpful exegetes of Scripture. I’d say to keep feeding your soul with his messages.

          • Jon Stallings June 2, 2015 at 8:16 pm #

            Thanks Austin, I will be adding these to my growing “To read List” I really do appreciate the kind and helpful dialogue. It is wonderful when it is OK to have differences in doctrine and we can still learn and help one another grow in our walk with Christ.

      • Ray June 1, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

        Jon and Austin,

        If I may jump in.

        I agree with Austin that the water baptism doesn’t do the saving, but I’m not sure that his answer does well to completely answer the question about baptism being a sign of actual salvation or not.

        To paraphrase the Heidelberg catechism and the Westminster standards – baptism IS the sign and seal of the covenant and of salvation of those to whom the grace from God belongs.

        That means that the efficacy of the sacrament isn’t the water but God’s work to regenerate at whatever time He sees fit according to the council of His own will (if He sees fit).

  2. Thomas May 28, 2015 at 4:36 pm #

    Haven’t thought much about the sign of the new covenant being baptism. Could not the sign of the new covenant be the in dwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ? Circumcision of the heart. Just wondering.

    • Kyle Borg June 2, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

      Thomas,
      I hope you don’t mind me weighing in! If so, feel free to shoo me away! If I can ask, how would you define a “sign”? For instance, when Abraham was said to have received the “sign” of circumcision, why is circumcision called a sign?

      In Reformed theology–and all the authors here are Reformed–a “sign” is an “outward and sensible” thing that signifies an “inward and spiritual grace” (see Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 163). By “sensible” we mean something relating to the five senses–something that can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled. Or, like Augustine said, “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” Thus Abraham received the outward sign of circumcision which signified the righteousness he had through faith (Romans 4:11), a righteousness that comes only in union with Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12-21). Thus, circumcision was a sign of union with Jesus. That, also, is what the sign of baptism signifies as Paul makes clear in Romans 6:1-4 and Colossians 2:11-12. The “outward and sensible” sign is baptism, the “inward and spiritual grace” is union with Jesus.

      So, according to Reformed theology the answer to your question: “Could not the sign of the new covenant be the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ,” would be no, since that would conflate the sign and the thing signified.

      So, it all depends on how you define “sign.”

      Blessings!

      • Thomas June 3, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

        Hey Kyle,
        Thank you so much for responding. I completely agree with your definition of a “sign”. That’s exactly why I haven’t considered baptism the sign of the new covenant. For example, I was circumcised as an infant. I was also baptized at the age of thirteen. If you were to examine me now (I’m 54) you would find physical evidence of circumcision in my flesh. There would be no such evidence for baptism. My baptism was a sign only for those who witnessed it.
        Regeneration, on the other hand, is something that should be observable. I live for Christ because He lives in me. I walk in the works that He has foreordained that I should walk in. These things are “outward and sensible” things that signify an “inward and spiritual grace”. My life should be the “sign” of the new covenant. Jesus said that everyone will know that we are His disciples, if we love one another. Sounds like a sign to me.
        I don’t know. What do ya think?

  3. John June 1, 2015 at 8:03 am #

    Hi Jon Stallings,

    You are aware that the John Piper and Tim Challies are Baptist, and of course are very passionate for Gods Word. Kevin De Young is also passionate just like the Baptist, but he is not one, mainly because of his Dutch background.

    BTW, Piper and Challies have great articles refuting baby sprinkling. Highly recommend them!

  4. Jim June 1, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

    “The absence of any prohibitions on baptizing the children of believers or even any discussion of this as an issue in the churches to which Paul wrote suggests that this was NOT an issue in the early church. The only way it could be a non-issue is if there was no fundamental change in the way the sign was applied to the children of believers. ”

    Really? I would think that giving girls the “sign of the covenant” was a fundamental change. And yet, one doesn’t find any discussion of this, either.

    • Ray June 1, 2015 at 11:08 pm #

      Except for when females are baptized…

      • Jim June 2, 2015 at 6:39 am #

        Sorry, Ray. I’m really not sure what your trying to say.

        Rich argued that the lack of any discussion about the supposed change of the covenant sign from circumcision to baptism demonstrates that it was a non-issue, and not viewed as a “fundamental change”. The point that I was making is that the change from circumcising only boys to baptizing both boys and girls most certainly would have been a fundamental change, and yet we don’t find any discussion of that in the early church, either. Meaning that if one assumes a paedobaptist position, silence proves nothing and the lack of discussion in the written record does not mean that there was no discussion.

        However, it seems to me that the more natural explanation is just the opposite. I actually think that the basis of Rich’s argument has some validity. Although we cannot argue from silence with any kind of certainty, it does seem that there was no great controversy over the issue. I’m saying that if the sign of the covenant was changed from circumcision to baptism, and from an exclusively male rite to an inclusive rite, there would, indeed, have been discussion and great controversy. The early church was, at the beginning, and for some period of time, exclusively Jewish. Their covenant sign, stretching back to Abraham, was circumcision. Now, the apostles come along, after 2,000 years, and tell them, “Guess what, guys. We’re changing the sign”, and nobody bats an eye? That, I contend, is inconceivable.

        It seems to me that the silence is better explained not by the replacement of circumcision with baptism, but with the fulfillment of the sign of physical circumcision by the reality of circumcision of the heart, i.e., regeneration, and the institution of the initiatory rite of baptism which was not to be seen as the continuation of circumcision by other means, but as the symbol of union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection, ala Rom. 6, which comes about as a result of regeneration which leads to faith, as in Col. 2.

        That seems to fit the evidence much better, since we do have much discussion and controversy over just these issues in Acts and the epistles.

        • Thomas June 2, 2015 at 8:45 am #

          Amen, brother Jim. I couldn’t agree with you more. Good stuff! Thanks

          Thomas

        • Kyle Borg June 2, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

          Jim,
          Interesting thoughts! I hope you don’t mind me thinking out loud a little bit.

          I really appreciated Rich’s post. I think it’s a little confusing to say, as you pointed out, “no fundamental change in the way the sign was applied.” There are some changes (e.g. given to boys and girls!). But the way I read it is “no fundamental change [in the covenant] in the way the sign was applied.” In my reading, Rich’s point is that these things don’t strike at the essence of the covenant only the outward administration. The reason I point that out is two-fold:

          1. If children are no longer included as covenant members this would strike at the very essence of the covenant since they were, according to God’s institution, parties of the covenant relationship, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring” (Genesis 17:7). That would be problematic on at least two points: a) it’s called an “everlasting covenant;” and b) Christ came to confirm that covenant to the Gentiles (see Romans 15:8, Galatians 3:14, Revelation 21:3). If God had revoked the children’s place in the covenant I cannot conceive how this wouldn’t cause a major crisis and confrontation. Are you comfortable acknowledging that children–male and female–are still members of the covenant community?

          2. It seems to me that some of those things pertaining to the outward form/administration or life of the covenant were–if the silence of Scripture is any indication–non-issues. This isn’t, of course, true across the board as Acts 15 illustrates. But, for instance, without discussion or great controversy the Lord’s Supper supersedes Passover (see Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 5:7, 11:17-34) and no one bats an eye. So I wonder is it really that inconceivable that applying baptism to boys and girls didn’t cause a raucous since it didn’t strike at the very essence of the covenant but only the outward form?

          And one more thing. I’m trying to understand your last paragraph especially this: “…but with the fulfillment of the sign of physical circumcision by the reality of circumcision of the heart, i.e. regeneration.” Could you clarify?

          Cheers!

        • Ray June 2, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

          No need to apologize, I had misread your comment. The fault in misunderstanding is mine.

  5. Ben June 29, 2015 at 1:44 am #

    Perfect example of how to assume your conclusion! Circular reasoning only takes you in circles. If you’re looking for progress, don’t look at this article. Move along, folks, nothing but mindlessness to see here.

    • Kyle Borg June 29, 2015 at 11:58 am #

      Ben,
      Thanks for the drive-by comment! They’re always welcome.

      I’m wondering if you could point out–maybe in syllogistic fashion–how this takes one in a circle. I’d be interested in seeing your take.

      Thanks!

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