“Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:13-15
While a minister was baptizing a baby, and while the same baby was crying at the full capacity of his lungs, an eight year old boy in the pews turned to his father to ask, “Is that what they mean when they say, “Suffer the little children to come unto me?”
After all, to sprinkle cold water on the head of a tiny unsuspecting child, to hold him up for all to gawk at! Why, the child has no idea of what is going on. And there are some who’d say such practice makes a travesty of the Bible!
But not so fast! Not so fast! Years ago Jesus sat on a hillside, and parents were bringing their children to the Lord that He might touch them and bless them. The disciples, trying to shield Jesus from unwarranted intrusions, told the parents to take their kids and get lost! But Jesus said, “No! Allow the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Just exactly what does all this mean? Where do our children fit into the economy of God’s grace? Can a strong biblical case be made for infant baptism?
The Old Testament
Old Testament Jewish families were a very tight knit patriarchal family. What the father decided went for the entire home.
Genesis 7:1 and following tells us that Noah was one righteous man amidst a people in serious moral decline. He was told to construct an ark and bring his entire family on board and so be saved. None of his children are called righteous. Just Noah. But it seems his covenant with God is allowed to extend over his whole household.
Abraham, we are told “believed God and it was accounted unto him as righteousness.” He was commanded to circumcise his tribe, all of the males, and to do so when infants were eight days old. Certainly the child was too young to accept God’s covenant. But the parents understood. God understood. And in time, the child would come to understand and embrace it himself. So they got started early.
When the angels went into the wicked city of Sodom to bring Lot out, it wasn’t the head of the household alone they wished to save. He was told to bring his wife and children with him (Genesis 19:12).
Then there is the story of the Passover (Exodus 12:21, following). Fathers were to take their entire family indoors, slay a lamb, and mark the door frames of their homes with the blood. Thus, when the angel of death passed and saw the blood of the covenant, he would pass over that home. Again, parents were doing for their children what their children weren’t old enough to understand. Parents were simply including their little ones in their covenant with God.
The New Testament
When one reads through the New Testament it becomes clear that the sacrament of baptism has at least five meanings. Just as one can examine a house from the basement, the front, inside, from the roof, and from the sides, so baptism can be understood from several perspectives.
Romans 6:3-4 gives the popular view of baptism as a dying to sin and rising again to newness of life. Acts 22:16 mentions baptism as the washing away of one’s sins. 1 Corinthians 12:13 holds that baptism is the rite of initiation into the church. Genesis 17:1-4 and Luke 2:21 call circumcision, baptism’s Old Testament forerunner, a mark of ownership. As an artist signs his work, so God marks us out as his own with baptism. And, finally, there is Titus 3:5-6, which suggests baptism is a symbol of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.
Luke 1 explains that Jesus was taken into the temple when eight days old and dedicated to God. The covenant symbol was circumcision. His parents included Him in their covenant.
Jesus, later as an adult, chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. Why? Did He need to die and rise again from sin? No. Did He need sins washed away? No! Did He need the Spirit poured out in His life? No!
At first it seems a puzzlement— Christ’s baptism. But if you understand that John the Baptizer was baptizing at Gilgal on the Jordan River at the very place Israel crossed from the wilderness into the land of milk and honey to become a new nation, then it begins to make sense.
John was preaching that there needed to be a new Israel. The old Israel had transgressed the covenant. There would be a new people called the Church. And Jesus was baptized to identify with God’s new Israel. He was the first born of many brethren, the very head of the new church!
And, clearly, just as in the Old Testament, God’s covenant wasn’t just for adult believers; entire families could be brought in.
Acts 2:39 following is the sermon Peter preached to the crowd on the day of Pentecost. He said, “The promises of God are to you and to your children…” And he invited people to come to Jesus to repent and be baptized. Thousands that day believed and were baptized.
There follows in the New Testament a host of what we call “believers’ baptisms.” This is what one would expect. At first there were no Christians. The apostles began to preach. The first to hear and understand were grown persons. They believed and soon submitted to baptism.
Quickly however, new converts with families began to ask, “What place do our children have in the New Covenant? Under the old Jewish covenant we could bring our children with us by circumcision and by the observance of the Passover.
There can be very little doubt that the disciples remembered Christ’s rebuke when He said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
As evidence the early leaders of the church allowed children of believing parents to be baptized in infancy just as Jewish children had been included in the covenant by infant circumcision, we find several household baptisms quietly chronicled in the New Testament. The first convert in Europe was a woman called Lydia. She was baptized with her whole household (Acts 16:15). There follows the Philippian jailer and family (Acts 16:3). The household of Crispus (Acts 18:8), the household of Stephanus (1 Corinthians 1:16), and more.
It is true the Bible does not explicitly mention there being actual children in these households or in the crowd Peter preached to and mass baptized on Pentecost. Yet it is reasonable to assume there were. What with their tight knit families, Jewish roots, and covenential way of understanding God’s plan of salvation, the baptism of households meant father, mother, and children, even infants as yet too little to understand.
Post New Testament Evidence
After Peter, Thomas, John, Andrew, and the rest of the twelve dies, the leaders who took their places were men we call “the early fathers.” Origen was one of them. We still have his writings. And in them he says, “We received the tradition from the holy apostles to baptize all people into the faith, even infants.”
Polycarp was a church leader martyred February 23, A.D. 155, at the age of 86. He was given a chance to deny Jesus and live. But the old man refused, saying, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Notice Polycarp died at 86 yet testified he’d served God 86 years. Only infant baptism makes sense of such a statement!
Here let me testify myself. One man says, “I’ve loved many women in my life. But when I met Jane in my twenty-seventh year it was love at first sight. We were married within the month. And now that we are celebrating our 25th anniversary, I love her more than ever!”
Another man says, “I’ve never loved any woman but Sarah. We were childhood sweethearts! In elementary school I gave her a friendship ring. In college I gave her my fraternity pin. In graduate school we were engaged. Now that we’ve been married 25 years, why, I love her more each day!”
Both men are in love. Both are married. Yet one was a late-coming love at first sight, the other was an early appearing love, a gradual path leading to wedded bliss.
The important thing is not how you fall in love, but that you are in love.
The same with Christ. The Bible records Paul’s sudden conversion on the road to Damascus, and his subsequent baptism and service. But Bible also tells us of young Timothy who came to Christ early on, who had a believing mother and grandmother.
I myself was baptized in infancy. I can’t remember a time when I have not known and loved Jesus Christ. My parents brought me into the covenant of faith when I was but a few days old. I grew up in a Christian family. My earliest memories are of the church nursery. In church schools I was taught Bible stories, prayer, worship, love. I’ve said yes to the things of God since I can remember!
Oh, to be sure, there have been times I have publicly professed my faith. Reciting the Catechism, at Confirmation, going forward during a revival, before a mocking classmate at school.
You might say I married my childhood sweetheart. I know God loves me. I know that Jesus is my Savior. Repentance, faith, and His indwelling Spirit have been and still are the most real part of my life.
To be sure, the sacrament of infant baptism with its roots in the family and biblical covenential theology has been historically and is not the most widely practiced form of baptism in Christendom.
Here in the southern portion of the United States infant baptism is often misunderstood and derided by those stressing believer’s baptism. And believe me you, there is nothing wrong with believer’s baptism, if that is the best one can do! Coming to Christ late is better than never coming at all! But being reared in a Christian home, put under the covenant from birth, and growing to early trust Christ personally is better!
In the Bible it is always God who initiates salvation. He sought Adam and Eve when they sinned and hid themselves. And He seeks our children even before they are old enough to understand.
To make a child wait until he is old enough to understand before he is baptized and included in the covenant is like saying to your child, “I love you! But I’m not going to kiss you until you are old enough to understand love.”
We do not baptize a child because the child loves God. We baptize him because God loves the child.
God moves first. Even before our birth. And we can but respond.
To be sure, we do not believe infant baptism saves a child. It only puts God’s mark on a child. It is but the initiation of a covenant God makes with parents to nurture a child to faith.
When a Jewish lad turns 12, he often celebrates his “bar mitzvah.”
He literally becomes a “son of the covenant” as he stands in public to profess, “I do now declare of my own free will the faith that my parents put me under when I was circumcised.” Likewise, we pray our children will early on come to a time when they are confirmed in the faith, a time when they acknowledge themselves sinners and trust Jesus to be their redeemer.
When I was eight or nine years old my parents gave me a burgundy corduroy sport coat that was about three sizes too big for me. “He’ll grow into it,” I heard my father say. I wore that coat for two years. It hung down to near my knees. The sleeves were rolled up. And people smiled at the little guy in the big jacket. But over time, as my parents fed and disciplined and loved me, I grew into it.
Likewise, at whatever age one is baptized into Jesus Christ, we’re given a covenant too big for us. In my infancy, all baptism meant was the initiation of a covenant, a mark of ownership. I would be 17 before I would die to sin and self and rise to life in Him. I would be 21 before I embraced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And I was in my mid to late 20’s when I realized what the church was and sought to be a part of the Body. I can stand today and affirm more deeply than ever before the covenant of Christ made at my baptism!
Surely God keeps His word! Even before we can speak, He speaks to us. Before we call His name, He calls ours. Before we have faith, He has faith in us. Before we seek Him, He seeks us.
I will not say that infant baptism is the only way to Christ.
Infant dedication and, hopefully, a later believer’s baptism is a way.
And certainly other paths to conversion are legitimate.
But when a child is born to believing parents, one is on strong scriptural grounds and can’t do better than to baptize their child into the covenant and begin to nurture their faith.
Lord, I want all that baptism means to happen in my life. For Jesus’ sake. Amen!