Monday, January 9, 2012

Can Infants Believe? Thoughts on Infant Baptism

Presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple.

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may have new life (Romans 6:4).

Some who teach that there is no merit in baptism other than being a symbolic act use this parable to illustrate their point:
A certain man thought that by being immersed he could find salvation. A friend of his had quite a time explaining to him that it was not so. But this man insisted that, as water could purify the body, so water consecrated by a minister or priest would purify the soul. Finally, to demonstrate that baptism did not mean regeneration, the friend decided upon an object lesson.

“Here,” he said. “I take an ink bottle, cork it tight, put a string round the neck, and drag it through the river. How long will it take to clean out the inside?” The answer was obvious, “You will never in the world clean it out that way.” We must understand once and for all that no outward act will ever cleanse us within. Repentance is an act that takes place within us, while baptism is an outward act that demonstrates to the world what has already happened in our hearts. Thus, neither John the Baptist nor anyone else in the New Testament speaks of “repentance of baptism” but of “baptism of repentance.” Baptism depends upon and is caused by repentance and not vice versa. It does not make sense for the unrepentant to be baptized.
Continuing with this line of reasoning, baptism is merely a symbolic act. It cannot save an adult, let alone an infant, who cannot profess its faith. However, Holy Scripture paints a different picture for us. While infant baptism is not expressly mentioned in Scripture, it is supported by several passages in the New Testament. Further, as for the idea that children and infants cannot have faith in Christ until they reach an “age of accountability”, Scripture shows us that this is clearly untrue, and that infants are capable of receiving God’s blessings:

For he [John the Baptist] will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb…When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy'" (Luke 1: 14, 41-44).

There are several reports in scripture where people bring their children to Christ to have him touch and bless them. One such passage is in the Gospel of St. Mark:

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10: 13-16).

Our Lord clearly indicates that children have a part in the kingdom of God. St. Luke also gives us some insight into this event as well in his Gospel, by identifying the age group of some of the children that were brought to Jesus. St. Luke writes:

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them (Luke 18:15).

Again, children clearly have a part in God’s kingdom. Not only that, being born in the flesh, children have a sinful human nature, and need the forgiveness that Christ offers in baptism. Scripture tells us that all people are sinful from the time of their birth. “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” St. Paul tells us in Romans 3: 23-24. Christ distributes this grace to us in the sacrament of baptism. The psalmist also tells us:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).

Those that would argue that children are not sinners but are righteous and innocent, and that as long as they have not achieved the use of reason they will be saved in this innocence without baptism, not only reject the idea of original sin, but also teach contrary to the Word of God.

On the contrary, there is a long tradition in the church of baptizing children, derived from Scripture, dating back to apostolic times. Infant Baptism was common practice in the early church. Scripture lends support to this when it reports that the Apostles baptized entire families – some of which, at least, would normally include children. One example is the conversion of Lydia in Acts:
When she [Lydia] and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us (Acts 16:15).

Again in Acts we are told:

At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized (Acts 16:33).

When entire families, and all indeed who belonged to them were baptized, it is probable that if there were a number of children in these families, the Apostles did not exclude them. Not only that, the Apostles could refer Jesus’ command to “let the little children come to me,” to the rite of circumcision from the Old Testament. This rite of initiation was performed on infants eight days old. It would be odd to refer to Baptism as the “circumcision of Christ” if Baptism of infants was to be forbidden while circumcision was given almost exclusively to infants.

In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in Baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12).

Baptism is a counterpart of sorts to Old Testament circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant, establishing his people[1]. After having been circumcised, no Hebrew male could live a day without being reminded of God’s promise to send a savior. It was a physical sign connected to a spiritual reality by the promise of God. A baby did not choose to be circumcised; it was administered on the eighth day after birth. In Christ, God’s promise to bless all people through Abraham has been fulfilled[2]. The new covenant has now been established with a new circumcision, one made without hands – baptism.

In the story of the ink bottle, one must suppose that the ink bottle that is stopped tightly with a cork represents man, and the ink contained within represents the stain of sin. The story is correct that no amount of water could wash the ink out as long as the stopper remained in place. However, the author overlooks two important things: First, the ink bottle cannot remove its own stopper. Some outside force must do that. Man is powerless to come to God of his own decision[3]. On the contrary, we are all called by the Gospel, and God creates faith in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. He distributes the gift of salvation to us that Christ won on the cross through baptism – in effect, removing the “stopper” of our sinful human nature and washing away the ink stain of our original sin.

Second, the water of baptism is not simply water, but, in the words of Martin Luther, “the word of God in and with the water,” that does these things. Without God’s word, Luther says, the water is plain water and no baptism. However, with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life giving water, rich in grace and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit:

He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying (Titus 3: 5-8).

Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, for baptism, which works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

End Notes

[1] Genesis 17:9

[2] Genesis 12:3

[3] 1 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:7; Ephesians 2:8-9