15 Arguments in Favor of Covenant Child Baptism

Here are 15 arguments in favor of covenant child baptism by sprinkling or pouring, 10 on the subjects of baptism and 5 on the mode

Paul clearly makes a connection between circumcision and baptism. Be careful, though! These verses are not referring to either physical circumcision or water baptism, but rather to the spiritual reality to which these covenant signs point. Both circumcision and baptism are covenant signs that point to the regenerating and cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. However, circumcision was an Old Covenant sign, given only to boys and with the shedding of blood. Now that Christ has shed His blood, baptism is given to both male and female and with the washing of water, not the shedding of blood.

 

15 years ago, I wrote a small booklet on Covenant Child Baptism (Children of the Covenant: One Presbyterian’s View on Infant Baptism). I wrote this when I was freshly “converted” from being a staunch Reformed Baptist to covenant child baptism. I still retain great respect for my Reformed-minded brethren who hold to believer’s baptism and I still benefit from the teaching and preaching ministries of the Baptist pastors I named in my booklet.

But respect is not the same thing as agreement. Over the past 15 years, I have come to believe even more firmly in the covenant baptism position. In recognition of 15 years of being a “paedobaptist” (not my preferred term), here are 15 arguments in favor of covenant child baptism by sprinkling or pouring, 10 on the subjects of baptism and 5 on the mode . . .

But first, COMMON GROUND:

I have read many arguments from Baptists which assume that Presbyterians who believe in covenant child baptism hold to some Roman Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran ideas about baptism and the church. I am not going to deal with these distinctions, but I want to clarify the common ground between Baptists and Presbyterians on this issue . . .

1. Water baptism does not save anyone. Spirit baptism is the saving work of the Holy Spirit in bringing us cleansing and new life. This Spirit baptism is pictured and promised in water baptism, but water baptism itself saves no one. Nor do we believe that God saves someone by Spirit baptism at the same time as water baptism. Water baptism can either follow Spirit baptism (in the case of an adult convert to Christianity) or it can precede Spirit baptism (in the case of covenant children), but they do not occur at the same time.

2. Many people are baptized who are not saved. Sometimes Baptists will argue that only regenerate people can be baptized and admitted into church membership. Frankly, this is an impossible standard. Sometimes, Baptists will also argue, “What do you do about someone who is baptized and considered a member of the church, but they never come to faith in Christ?” Well, what do Baptists do about people who make a profession of faith and are baptized and thus admitted to membership and the Lord’s Table but who later clearly evidence that they are not regenerate, that their profession was false?

3. You must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. You cannot inherit salvation passively through your parents’ faith. The “covenant blessings” of being in the household of faith do not equal an automatic salvation; in fact, they do bring a higher degree of accountability, for “to whom much is given, much is required.”(Luke 12:48)

10 Arguments in Favor of Baptizing Covenant Children as Infants

1. Baptism is the initiation into the covenant community and the children of believers have always been included in the covenant community. 

If I had to summarize the main reason for my convictions regarding baptism, this would be it. Contained in this first argument are several other key truths:

  • What is baptism? It is a sacrament, the sacrament of initiation into God’s household, His covenant people.
  • Who should be baptized? Those who belong to the covenant household of God, the church, the community of believers.
  • Should infants be baptized? Yes, if they are the children of believers, because these young children have always been included in the household of faith, in both the Old Testament, when they received the sign of circumcision, and in the New Testament,
Many of these truths will be defended and supported by Scripture in what follows . . .

2. Circumcision in the Old Covenant served the same function as baptism in the New.


In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. – Col. 2:11-12  

Paul clearly makes a connection between circumcision and baptism. Be careful, though! These verses are not referring to either physical circumcision or water baptism, but rather to the spiritual reality to which these covenant signs point. Both circumcision and baptism are covenant signs that point to the regenerating and cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. However, circumcision was an Old Covenant sign, given only to boys and with the shedding of blood. Now that Christ has shed His blood, baptism is given to both male and female and with the washing of water, not the shedding of blood.

3. When Jesus gave the Great Commission, He did not tell us to baptize only disciples but to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. 

Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matt 28:18-20

Some have argued that when Jesus commanded us to “Go . . . and make disciples . . . baptizing them . . .” He was making it clear that only disciples should be baptized. But that doesn’t line up with the grammar of the command. A more literal translation would read: “Go therefore and disciple all nations, baptizing them . . . teaching them . . .

Jesus gives one command: “make disciples” or “disciple.” He gives us two means for carrying out this command: Baptizing, which identified someone as belonging to God’s people, and teaching, which builds them up in the knowledge of a disciple. So, when do Christian parents start to disciple their children to be followers of Christ? When do they start teaching them to obey all that Jesus commands? If we will disciple and teach from birth, why delay baptism until many years later?

4. When Peter spoke at Pentecost, he repeated the covenant promise “for you and your children.”

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” – Acts 2:38-39

When Peter said, “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” he was repeating, proclaiming, expanding and applying the central promise of the covenant of grace to his audience. God’s covenant promise has always been expressed to believers in terms of “you and your children” and Peter affirms this pattern and expands it to “all who are far off,” likely a reference to Gentiles, though Peter himself didn’t fully understand that.

God nowhere in Scripture rescinds the “you and your children,” but He does repeatedly affirm it. (For more on this covenant promise pattern, see my booklet. It’s free – http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/Children_of_the_Covenant.pdf)

5. Jesus welcomed the little children (infants) and said the kingdom of heaven belonged to them.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 19:14

These are the little children (babies and toddlers) of believers and Jesus welcomes them as part of His kingdom. The church is the visible manifestation of the kingdom of heaven of earth; therefore, these same little children today should be welcomed into His church and have His name put upon them in baptism.

6. Whenever a convert in the Book of Acts was part of a household, the whole household was baptized.

“He [the Philippian Jailer] brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. – Acts 16:30-32

This pattern is in keeping with how households are treated in the Bible and in the Roman world. Remember Joshua’s famous final speech, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)? God instituted marriage and the household at creation and He still deals with households in His covenant administration today.

7. When Paul wrote letters to churches, he included under-age children in his instructions “to the saints.”

Look at Ephesians and Colossians, in particular. These letters are addressed “to the saints” and are clearly written to believers within the church. Yet in both letters, Paul addresses children and reminds them of their covenant obligations within their households. He doesn’t treat them as outsiders, but as another group within the church.

“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”- Colossians 3:20

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”” – Ephesians 6:1-3

8. Paul declares the children of a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever to be “holy” (sanctified).

“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” – 1 Cor. 7:14

Children, and even spouses, partake of covenant blessings through the believer who is in the household. This “holy” does not imply salvation, but rather is a kind of sanctifying effect of being in the household with a child of God. But for the children especially, this does indicate that they have a different standing before God than an unbeliever’s child.

9. The warning passages in Hebrews make the most sense when applied to covenant children who walk away from the church and abandon the faith.

“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.” – Hebrews 6:4-8

As a father of three baptized covenant children, this is sobering. Very sobering. But who is the author of Hebrews addressing here? He is talking about people who were in the church and who experienced covenant blessings and then walked away and abandoned the faith. Now this can apply to adult converts who make a false profession, but it certainly is a warning against covenant children. We all realize quite well that when a covenant child rejects Christ, he or she is walking away from the faith, abandoning and rejecting the Lord.

10.  Both Baptists and Presbyterians treat their children as belonging to God and as disciples.

This comes from an observation I made based on a tract I saw in a Baptist church that made things crystal clear for me. The tract was entitled, “What to do now that You’re Saved.” The tract was obviously written for new converts to Christianity, and it listed 7 things for new believers to do:

1. Get baptized.
2. Go to church regularly.
3. Read and study your Bible.
4. Pray regularly.
5. Obey God’s commandments.
6. Give 10% of your income to God.
7. Share your faith with others.

Something very obvious struck me as I read this tract. Faithful Christian parents teach their children to do all of the things listed in #2 – #7 as soon as they are capable. They take their children to church, read the Bible to them and then teach them to read their Bibles, teach them to pray, teach them to obey God, teach them to give money to God in the offering, and even teach them to share Jesus with their friends. They don’t wait for them to make a mature and personal profession of faith before they teach them to do these things. If they did, we would probably question how faithful they were at being Christian parents.

So, if Christian parents do #2 – #7 with their children from the earliest days of life, then why should they skip #1 and leave it until some later date?

Conclusion: This tract reminded me of what I think is the source of confusion. As we read the Book of Acts, we do see a clear pattern: People hear the Gospel. They repent and believe and are saved. Then, they are baptized. So, we are tempted to take this pattern and apply it, but we can’t simply do that. The Book of Acts unfolds in a frontier missionary context, as the Gospel is penetrating unreached people groups. We do not see a pattern for children who grow up in the church and in the faith, except for in Timothy’s life . . .

BONUS: 11. The example of Timothy shows us a young man who grew up in the faith. (Though we don’t know for sure when he was baptized.)

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” – 2 Tim. 1:5-6

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” – 2 Tim. 3:14-15

Five Arguments for the Mode of Baptism Being Pouring (or Sprinkling)

1. John the Baptist made a direct comparison between baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

“I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”- Mark 1:8

The few visual pictures we’re given of the baptism of the Holy Spirit are not immersion but descending or pouring out. When the Spirit came on Jesus, He descended in the form of a dove.

2. When God promised His Holy Spirit, He said He would “pour” Him out.

“until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high” – Isaiah 32:15

“I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” – Isaiah 44:3

“I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 39:29

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” – Joel 2:28

3. When God did send His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, He was poured out and came down on the heads of the Apostles. 

“And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” – Acts 2:2-4

And when Peter stood to explain this phenomenon, he quoted Joel: “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” – Acts 2:16-17

4. The word “baptizo” thus evidently does not mean “immerse.”

This is one of the confident assertions made by those who practice immersion. They claim that the Greek word “baptizo” means “immerse.” Thus, baptism cannot be performed any other way. If I believed that “baptizo” meant “immerse,” then I would agree, but “baptizo” is best translated “baptize” without reference to mode because it’s used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to various ceremonial washings (see Heb. 6:2), some of which happened by immersion but others of which happened by dipping, sprinkling, scrubbing, etc. The word is defined by the sanctifying ceremonial significance and not by the mode.

But even if you knew no Greek, you could tell from these verses quoted in #1-3 above that “baptize” can’t really mean “immerse” because John the Baptist said Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and God consistently uses the verb “pour” to describe the giving of the promised Holy Spirit.

5. Ain’t no way the Apostles immersed 3,000 people individually in just a short time on Pentecost morning.

(All good theological points should begin with “ain’t no way”)

Think about it:

  • At 9:00 a.m., Peter is preaching. (Acts 2:15)
  • Later, at 3:00 p.m., Peter and John are going up to the Temple to pray (Acts 3:1).
  • So, Peter preached, people responded, the Apostles immersed 3,000 new believers individually in water and then Peter and John are walking up to the Temple to pray, all within 6 hours? I doubt it. If each baptism took 1 minute, it would take 50 hours to baptize 3,000 people. If they could somehow manage to immerse someone every 30 seconds (how?), it would still take 25 hours.

It’s much more natural to think that such a mass baptism took place by sprinkling, much like the High Priest did with blood on the Day of Atonement.

A Plea for Unity

I have read rigorous defenses of believers’ baptism by immersion by men I greatly respect. I understand that position. I see where they get it from Scripture, although I disagree with their interpretation of those texts. What I really find unfair and uncharitable is when Baptists take their interpretation of Scripture regarding baptism and use it to dismiss the baptisms of the vast majority of Christians and churches through the ages. Here’s what I mean:

Believers’ baptism by immersion is a minority position in church history, and yet Baptists will assert that it is the only true baptism and that my children are not baptized. They will claim that I do not perform baptisms, that John Calvin and John Knox and R.C Sproul and Ligon Duncan have never performed baptisms and were not baptized themselves. Then, based on this minority view on baptism, they would deny us membership in their churches and a seat at the Lord’s Table in fellowship with them. That’s wrong. That’s sinful schismatic behavior and, for it, Baptist churches should repent.

The Baptist view on baptism is similar to classic Pentecostal views on speaking in tongues: Pentecostals go through the Book of Acts and find that when people get saved and receive the Holy Spirit, they speak in tongues. Ignoring the historical context of Acts, they conclude that the sure sign of receiving the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. Thus, because I do not speak in tongues, I have not received the Holy Spirit. Theirs is a minority position, and I can see where they are getting it from Acts, but I can’t agree with their condemnation of all non-tongues-speakers as deficient in the Holy Spirit.

We need to accept one another and learn to disagree over points of interpretation, even big and important points of interpretation, without condemning or slandering one another. We’re actually commanded to do so:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:1-5   

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.