At the point of baptism, a person comes into contact with water. On that much we all agree. However, that is where the agreement stops and the controversy begins. There is, of course, much discussion and debate regarding the mode of baptism—that is, whether the individual should be sprinkled, immersed, or otherwise. But the more fundamental question concerns the subjects of baptism. Put simply, who should be baptized?
On one side of the debate is the position of infant baptism—sometimes referred to as paedobaptism—which says that infant children of believers should be baptized. The primary argument for infant baptism flows out of the continuity of God's relationship and dealings with His covenant people throughout redemptive history. In the Old Testament, God instituted the sign of circumcision to be applied to male infants of His people Israel. Circumcision did not save, and it did not indicate that the one circumcised had been saved. Instead, it was a way to mark an individual as a member of God's covenant people.
The key to understanding the paedobaptist view is to understand the connection between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism. As paedobaptist Mark Ross explains:
Those who subscribe to covenantal infant baptism maintain that baptism has now replaced circumcision as the mark of covenant membership, and that baptism's meaning and application are essentially the same as circumcision's in the Old Testament period. Included with this is the idea that the children of covenant members today are members of the covenant, as in the Old Testament period.
To the paedobaptist, then, there is a direct correlation between circumcision and baptism. Like circumcision, baptism does not save, nor does it indicate that the one baptized has been saved. Rather, it marks out a given individual as a member of God's covenant people.
In contrast, the position of believer baptism is that the ordinance of water baptism should be administered only to those who make a profession of faith in Christ.In opting for the label “believer baptism” instead of the more common “believers' baptism,” I am following the lead of Jewett (1978: 226). The title “credobaptism” (from the Latin credo—“I believe”) perhaps more accurately reflects my position, for as a pastor, I baptize an individual on the basis of his profession of faith in Christ, not on the basis of my infallible knowledge that he is indeed a believer. The obvious implication of this view is that infant children of believers are not to be baptized, because they themselves have not come to the point of repentance and faith in Jesus. In this way, baptism marks out those individuals who profess to be followers of Christ.
Despite the difference between the two positions, proponents of both views come to the debate with a mutual commitment to the authority of God's Word. In other words, both sides agree that the question should be decided by looking not to one's tradition or personal preference, but rather to the clear teaching of the Bible.For this reason, when I began my study of infant baptism, I started where most people do—in search of a clear biblical command. This leads me to what I believe is the first and most obvious weakness of infant baptism: Nowhere in Scripture are believers commanded to baptize their newborn children.
This point is agreed upon by both sides of the debate, but its significance oftentimes goes unappreciated. If infant baptism is taught in Scripture, those believers who do not baptize their infants are disobeying God—they are in sin because they are refusing to obey a divine mandate.The problem with infant baptism is this: Where exactly is that command? It simply does not exist. As paedobaptist Geoffrey Bromiley concedes, “Parents are not disobeying any clearcut command if they withhold baptism from their children.”
Arguing in favor of infant baptism, John Sartelle makes the connection between baptism and circumcision and poses a hypothetical question:
What would you have said to God if you had been Abraham? “Lord, I don't think I ought to circumcise Isaac. We had better wait until he professes his own faith before we apply the sign of salvation to him.”
Sartelle's point is clear: believers today should no more refuse to baptize their infant children than Abraham should have refused to circumcise Isaac. The obvious breakdown in this analogy is that although God directly commanded Abraham to circumcise his descendants in Genesis 17:12, nowhere in Scripture are believers directly commanded to baptize their infants. Nowhere, in fact, are they indirectly commanded to do so. For this reason, it seems that believers are being exhorted to obey a command that is nowhere stated in the actual pages of the Bible.
This difficulty is highlighted well by the testimony of former paedobaptist Fred Malone:
One problem with infant baptism, which often bothered me as a Presbyterian pastor, is that it is not sufficiently clear in the Scriptures for ordinary Christian parents to determine their duty of infant baptism without “help” from pastors and complicated theological studies. Many have expressed to me: “If it is a command to obey, why is it not more clear in Scripture?”
As Malone writes, “If infant baptism is biblical, then parents should be able to see this for themselves in Scripture in order to obey God by having their infants baptized.”
Not surprisingly, this lack of clarity is common among paedobaptists, even paedobaptist pastors. In fact, the president of a prominent reformed seminary in America has written that, based on his years of training pastors, he has become
quite convinced most Presbyterians, whether in the pulpit or the pew, do not understand clearly why they baptize their infants. If asked to explain why Presbyterians baptize infants...I would expect that many Presbyterians would stumble and blunder the explanation.
Instead of simply believing and obeying what God says clearly in the Bible, it seems that Christians are being asked to carefully piece together an intricate puzzle which, at most, merely hints at the need to baptize infants. I suspect that this may be the silent and uneasy concern of a good number of people who attend churches which baptize babies. For me, it is the first reason I have come to reject the teaching of infant baptism.