- Religion and Philosophy
Holy Children - Why Infant Baptism
We have all sorts of names for our children: cute, precious, little darlings, kids, chips off the old block.
“Holy” is not one of them.
But that’s what God calls the children of his people. We are told so in I Corinthians 7:14. God commanded his people in the Old Testament to mark as holy their infant sons with the sign of the covenant, circumcision. Since the coming of Christ, much of the Christian church practices infant baptism as the sign of the covenant. It wasn't until the Reformation that the Anabaptists, in reaction to the Roman Catholic distortions of the practice, rejected infant baptism altogether. But a sizable proportion of Christian churches today continue the practice, Presbyterians chief among them.
In a nutshell, when we place the sign of baptism on our children we acknowledge that God has a saving interest in the whole family. We call on Him to act graciously and powerfully in the hearts of our children and to overrule parental failures.
When God called a people to be his own, He ordained that a visible mark be placed upon them. You will find this in Genesis 17:1-14. At the time Abraham was 99 years old, but Sarah was only 89. God renewed the basic promises of the covenant; namely, that Abraham would sire a great and numerous people, they would enjoy a land of their own and be an agency of blessing for the whole world. Then God commanded that Abraham embrace the plan by having himself and every male in his household circumcised. That must have hurt. But we read, “that very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised.” A year later Isaac was born and, of course, he too was circumcised, (Gen.21:4). Ever since, faithful Jewish families had their sons circumcised on the eighth day.
It's significant that God did not have to instruct Abraham how to perform a circumcision. Why? It was already a common practice in those days. The Hittites, among other Gentile nations, did circumcision, but as a rite of passage. When a young boy grew up to be a warrior he was inducted into manhood by means of circumcision. It was a mark of achievement.
But God commanded Abraham to apply it to his eight day old sons. All they had achieved so far was to suckle, cry and dirty their diapers. Come to think of it, that's a metaphor that describes humankind of every age. But I digress.
Abraham: God's template for blessing us
I doubt that Abraham understood fully the meaning of God's covenant promise and of its sign. And yet he obeyed. In light of Christ and consequent New Testament teaching it all comes together for us.
Abraham’s descendants blessed the whole world by delivering Jesus Christ, the Messiah by whom God saves his people. Abraham’s great and numerous people now comprise a vast multitude from every tribe and nation who come to faith in Christ. God’s special protection has taken the form of his presence among us by the indwelling Spirit. While Abraham was promised a piece of real estate on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea; we look forward to a New Heavens and a New Earth.
Just as Abraham had a sign of the covenant, circumcision; so do Christians, baptism. And just as that sign was placed on infant boys in Abraham's day, so in our day a new sign, baptism, is placed upon infants as well, but both boys and girls.
In what sense holy?
In general, when the Bible uses the word “holy” we are to understand “set apart for a particular use or relationship." But there are at least four different ways that word is used in the Scriptures. There's the absolute, declared, moral and ceremonial sense in which the word "holy" is used
This is a common phenomenon in language. If I say to you "I love ice-cream," you know exactly what I mean. Or if you hear, "I love my wife," you also know what I mean, but you know that it is different from my earlier use of the word "love." I also love my grand-children. Again, a different sense of the word "love." And these different nuances are not insignificant. If I loved my grand-children the same way I love my wife... well, there's a published list of undesirables. My name would land on it. If I loved my wife the way I love ice-cream, there wouldn't be much left of her.
So the word "holy" is found in Scripture in the absolute sense, as in Holy Spirit. He is set apart by his absolute flawlessness. The word is also used in the declared sense. God declares believers to be holy because they are united to his holy (absolute sense) Son by faith. So it is that Paul can address his readers in Philippi as "saints", which translates the same word as "holy." Then there's the moral sense of "holy", as when Peter writes, "as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct." I Peter 1:15 Here "holy" means practical loyalty and obedience toward God. Though we know we shall never be perfect in this life, God calls us to strive to be holy. Finally there is the ceremonial use of the word. In OT times God named certain meats "clean" or holy. The temple is holy. So are it's artifacts and the priest's vestments. There's no virtue in any of these things, but God calls them holy so that his people may learn the difference between the common and the special, the profane and the holy. Leviticus 10:10.
In what sense are the children of believers holy? We can rule out the absolute sense easily. Also, as cute and innocent as young children appear they don't strive to be obedient and loyal to God. Actually they go the other way. No child ever needed training to complain, lie or steal. So they are not holy in the moral sense. The most reasonable conclusion is to see that God regards them as ceremonially holy. God simply names our children holy that we may regard them specially advantaged to embrace the gospel. Why? They see it displayed in their parents and are taught it as they grow up.
In summary, God desires believing parents to treat their children as ceremonially holy with the expectation, not guarantee, that early on they will be declared holy by virtue of their faith in Jesus.
It's all about the gospel
So why did God have Abraham apply a heathen puberty ritual to his infant sons? As mentioned above, by the eighth day they were hardly in shape to fling a spear and wield a shield.
Already in the days of Abraham God was beating the gospel drum-roll. "It is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this (the faith) is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." Ephesians 2:8,9
Every time a Christian parent brings a child to receive the sign of the covenant the gospel is front and center. Parents thereby confess that it's not their parenting skill or their own godly behavior that saves the child, but the grace of God totally apart from any merit.
Colossae was one of several towns in modern Turkey where a group of new gentile converts had formed into a church. The church was probably founded by Epaphras, one of the Apostle Paul's co-workers. So it's not surprising to find Paul writing to the Colossians especially since they were in need of some theological clarification.
As gentiles, they found great joy and relief in embracing the gospel, the good news that they had become friends of the true God through faith in his Son, Jesus. Paul opens his letter with an exuberant commendation of their spiritual progress. He'd heard of their faith and of the love with which they treated each other.
But some Jewish converts to Christ had joined the largely Gentile church. These Jews had been circumcised according to Old Testament practice and then been baptized when they came to Christ. They looked down on their Gentile brothers because they had not been circumcised. Even though they now rested on Christ alone, they had not shed their old habits of thought. It is very hard to accept that only by faith do we grasp God's blessing; and even that faith is a gift from God. Ephesians 2:8-10
Paul wrote the following reassurance to the Colossians. "In him (Christ) you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by the cutting off of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having being buried with him in baptism, in which you were raised with him through faith in the powerful work of God, who raised him from the dead." Colossians 2:11,12 Did you catch it? The Colossians hadn't been circumcised but they had been baptized. Paul calls baptism the "circumcision of Christ."
So it is that circumcision, the bloody sign of the covenant limited to little boys, has now been replaced by baptism, the non-bloody sign available to boys and girls.
The best on Infant Baptism
Abstract theology or useful truth?
That's always the question to be asked. What difference does believing this or that teaching make on everyday life. If it makes no impact at all on your life then either it is not true; or it is true but you don't believe it.
First, since God claims our children from infancy, we shouldn't. God intended that the child need the parent, not the other way around. Many parents are so in need of their children's approval that they fail to exercise proper discipline when it matters most, early on.
Further, of God has claimed your child you can be sure that he intends to give you the physical, emotional and spiritual resources to rear your children. Many parents seem overwhelmed with the task.
God's timetable is not ours. Avoid too rigid a set of expectations for you children.
Respect your children, for they too, bear the image of their creator and are called to love and serve Him.
Now hold it all with a loose grip
I believe strongly that what I have written above reflects accurately the teaching of Scripture. My brother-in-law believes just as strongly that I've misunderstood the Scriptures on this matter. He's a Baptist minister. We love and respect each other. My wife and I currently attend a church where infant baptism is not practiced. This church teaches quite clearly that baptism is for those who have already trusted the Savior. Yet we delight in the worship and fellowship of that church.
There will be some readers of this hub who will feel compelled to show me how wrong I am. Of course I welcome any corrective humbly administered. But we also have an opportunity to demonstrate to a watching world that faithful Christians can disagree strongly on some points, but love each other deeply and serve our Lord together.
© 2012 Frank P. Crane