Believer’s baptism or infant baptism?

Evangelical Protestant baptism by immersion (Wikipedia) Baptism of a child by affusion, (Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear

Should infants be baptised or is baptism only for believing adults? Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant churches advocate and practise infant baptism. Baptists, many Pentecostals, Churches of Christ (Australia) and some other denominations consider baptism is only for Christians who have believed in Christ for salvation. Which is it?

But let me say at the outset that this is not core Christian doctrine. I will not use baptism as a divisive issue to separate Christians who love the Lord.

I was doing some posts on Christian Fellowship Forum and I stated: “Infant baptism is an addition from about the third century onwards”.[1] Tertullian was the first to mention infant baptism around AD 200 (see below).

Richard wrote:

“Unproven statement. Some evidence to the contrary exists, particularly the Biblical evidence that whole households were baptised, which would likely include infants. There is no evidence that a whole household excluded young children.

“You may want to maintain your position based on your doctrinal understanding, but you do not have a historically sound basis for it. Likewise, I may want to maintain my position, and I do have hints of a historical basis for it, although those hints do not rise to the level of historical proof”.[2]

Since he and his church (Roman Catholic) are advocates of and practise infant baptism, I expected this kind of response. I was baptised as an infant by my religious, but not born-again, parents in the Methodist church. When they came to faith in Christ in 1959, through the preaching ministry of Billy Graham, they investigated infant vs believer’s baptism. Why? The weight of evidence from the Scriptures supports believer’s baptism. When I came to faith in Christ alone for salvation, I investigated this issue and was baptised as a believer by immersion – even though I had been sprinkled as an infant.

This debate has been going on for centuries, so I am well aware of the baptism issues: infant baptism vs believer’s baptism. I’m aware of the “household” advocacy to include children in baptism that Richard was using (Reformed people will use the covenantal issue). Let’s look at the NT evidence.

A.  New Testament precedent

The Book of Acts demonstrates by example that those who were believers, following a confession of faith, were baptised. In the early chapters of Acts we read:

  • “Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41 ESV).[3]
  • “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12).

B.  Household baptisms

Do household baptisms indicate that infants are included? We have three confirmed cases of “household” baptisms in the NT and one where there is a strong inference that an entire household was included. The implied inference is that of Cornelius (Acts 10:47-48; 11:14). Those of definite household baptism are: Lydia (Acts 16:15), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:33-34, and Stephanas in 1 Cor. 1:16. The argument has been going on for centuries as to whether these “households” included children.

Let’s examine these:

1.  Cornelius (Acts 10:47-48; 11:14)

We know from Acts 11:14 that Peter “he will declare to you [Cornelius] a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (ESV). However, we know that infants could not have been included in the household because Acts 10:46 tells us that when Peter preached the Word and the Holy Spirit fell on them and they were speaking in tongues and extolling God (ESV). Then they were commanded to be baptised.

This could NOT have included infants because they could not speak in tongues and magnify the Lord by speaking. Peter commanded those who spoke in tongues and extolled the Lord to be baptised. This is impossible for infants. As I say, it is a strong inference from Acts 11:14 that those who spoke in tongues and praised the Lord were Cornelius and his household. If that inference is correct, there is no way that these believers could have been infants. Therefore, no infants could be baptised.

2.  Lydia (Acts 16:15)

Lydia was a worshipper of God (16:14) and “after she was baptized and her household”, Timothy, Paul and Silas were invited into her house to stay “if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord” (16:15). There is nothing here to indicate that infants were baptised. Besides, Jesus required baptism to be part of discipleship (Matt. 28:19-20). This is impossibility for infants.

Let’s check out a few people who support infant baptism for their views on the “household” baptism of Lydia.

  • Henry Alford: “It may be that no inference of infant baptism is hence deducible”;
  • Paton J. Gloag: “Evidently the passage in itself cannot be adduced as a proof either for or against baptism; there is in it no indication whether there were or were not infants in the household of Lydia”.
  • H. A. W. Meyer: “No trace is to be found in the New Testament, speaking of the baptism of the children of Christians”.

However, it would not be inconsistent to use another example from Acts 16 as a template for whether or not “household” baptism included infants. Let’s examine….

3.  The Philippian jailer (Acts 16:33-34)

In the context, it states that “they spoke the Word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” (Acts 16:32 ESV). Then 16:34 tells us that “he [the Philippian jailer] rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed”. It is impossible for infants to do this rejoicing over the jailer’s positive response to the speaking of the Word of the Lord. It is impossible for babies to have believed in the Lord. Therefore, this is another example of believer’s baptism.

4.  Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16)

In the context of 1 Corinthians, we know that “the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (1 Cor. 16:15).

Imagine that coming from infants! The household of Stephanas later devoted themselves to ministry to the saints. No theology of children’s baptism can be found in this passage. If we are to be consistent interpreters of Scripture (and we need to be), the children who are part of household baptism must also be devoted to service to Christian saints. This is impossibility, so the example of Stephanas proves again that it did not include infant baptism but believer’s baptism.

5. Jesus’ view on baptism after His resurrection

Jesus gave a very clear understanding of the association of baptism with Christian believing in Matt. 28:19-20:

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 (ESV).

Jesus is crystal clear that baptism is associated with making disciples of all nations. Discipleship is an impossible task for infants. The foundational requirement cannot be achieved by infants.

Therefore, the consistent picture of the NT is that “household” baptism does not include infants, but, based on the words of Jesus, baptism is an important dimension of Christian discipleship. Infants are incapable of becoming disciples of Christ.

C.  Wayne Grudem on household baptism

Grudem’s view of household baptism is:

The examples of household baptisms in the New Testament are really not decisive for one position or another. When we look at the actual examples more closely, we see that in a number of them there are indications of saving faith on the part of all of those baptized. For example, it is true that the family of the Philippian jailer was baptized (Acts 16:33), but it is also true that Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house” (Acts 16:32). If the Word of the Lord was spoken to all in the house, there is an assumption that all were old enough to understand the word and believe it. Moreover, after the family had been baptized, we read that the Philippian jailer “rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God” (Acts 16:34). So we have not only a household baptism but also a household reception of the Word of God and a household rejoicing in faith in God. These facts suggest quite strongly that the entire household had individually come to faith in Christ.

With regard to the fact that Paul baptized “the household of Stephanas” (1 Cor. 1:16), we must also note that Paul says at the end of 1 Corinthians that “the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (1 Cor. 16:15). So they were not only baptized; they were also converted and had worked at serving other believers. Once again the example of household baptism gives indication of household faith.

In fact, there are other instances where baptism is not mentioned but where we see explicit testimony to the fact that an entire household had come to faith. After Jesus healed the official’s son, we read that the father “himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:53). Similarly, when Paul preached at Corinth, “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household” (Acts 18:8).

This means that of all the examples of “household baptisms” in the New Testament, the only one that does not have some indication of household faith as well is Acts 16:14-15, speaking of Lydia: “The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. And when she was baptized, with her household.” The text simply does not contain any information about whether there were infants in her household or not. It is ambiguous and certainly not weighty evidence for infant baptism. It must be considered inconclusive in itself.

With regard to Peter’s statement at Pentecost that “the promise is to you and to your children,” we should note that the sentence continues as follows: “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39). Moreover, the same paragraph specifies not that believers and unbelieving children were baptized, but that “those who received his ward were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls”(Acts 2:41).[4]

For an extended discussion on baptism, see chapter 49 of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (1994), which is available HERE. He concludes in favour of believer’s baptism:

We have argued above that baptism symbolizes regeneration or spiritual rebirth. But does it only symbolize? Or is there some way in which it is also a “means of grace,” that is, a means that the Holy Spirit uses to bring blessing to people? We have already discussed this question in the previous chapter,23 so here it only is necessary to say that when baptism is properly carried out then of course it brings some spiritual benefit to believers as well. There is the blessing of God’s favor that comes with all obedience, as well as the joy that comes through public profession of one’s faith, and the reassurance of having a clear physical picture of dying and rising with Christ and of washing away sins. Certainly the Lord gave us baptism to strengthen and encourage our faith—and it should do so for everyone who is baptized and for every believer who witnesses a baptism.[5]

But Grudem also urges Christians not to make baptism a divisive issue:

Do Churches Need to Be Divided Over Baptism? In spite of many years of

division over this question among Protestants, is there a way in which Christians who differ on baptism can demonstrate greater unity of fellowship? And is there a way that progress can be made in bringing the church closer to unity on this question?

One way forward could be for paedobaptists and advocates of believers’ baptism both to come to a common admission that baptism is not a major doctrine of the faith, and that they are willing to live with each other’s views on this matter and not allow differences over baptism to be a cause for division within the body of Christ.29 Specifically, this would mean allowing both views of baptism to be taught and practiced in denominations on both sides of the question.[6]

D.  Evidence from the early church fathers

What do the early church fathers have to say about infant baptism?

1. Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165):

“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, … are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated [born-again] in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. . . And for this we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father, . . . the name of Jesus Christ, . . . and in the name of the Holy Ghost. . .”.[7]

2. Tertullian (ca. 130-230) speaks of baptism for children who believe:

“Consequently in view of the circumstances and will, even the age of each person, a postponement of Baptism is most advantageous, particularly, however, in the case of children. For what need is there, if it is not so urgent, that the sponsors also should be brought into danger, being as they are themselves also by reason of their mortality capable of falling short of their promises and being deceived by the development of an evil disposition? The Lord indeed says: ‘Forbid them not to come unto Me.’ Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught whither to come; let them become Christians, when they have been able to know Christ. Why hurries the age of innocence to the remission of sins? Shall we act more cautiously in worldly matters? Shall one to whom earthly substance is not entrusted, be entrusted with heavenly? Let them know how to seek salvation, that you may be seen ‘to give to him that asketh'”.[8]

3. The Didache (ca. 95-150)

We don’t learn much about baptism and salvation from this document:

” CHAPTER 7

7:1 But concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: having first recited all these precepts, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water;

7:2 but if thou hast not running water, baptize in some other water, and if thou canst not baptize in cold, in warm water;

7:3 but if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

7:4 But before the baptism, let him who baptizeth and him who is baptized fast previously, and any others who may be able. And thou shalt command him who is baptized to fast one or two days before. . .

9:5 And let none eat or drink of your Eucharist but such as have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for of a truth the Lord hath said concerning this, Give not that which is holy unto dogs”.[9]

4. Hippolytus of Rome (died ca. 235)

In his writing, ‘The Apostolic Tradition’, he wrote:

At the hour in which the cock crows, they shall first pray over the water. 2When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water. 3Then they shall take off all their clothes. 4The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. 5After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water.

” 6At the time determined for baptism, the bishop shall give thanks over some oil, which he puts in a vessel. It is called the Oil of Thanksgiving. 7He shall take some more oil and exorcise it. It is called the Oil of Exorcism. 8A deacon shall hold the Oil of Exorcism and stand on the left. Another deacon shall hold the Oil of Thanksgiving and stand on the right.

9When the elder takes hold of each of them who are to receive baptism, he shall tell each of them to renounce, saying, “I renounce you Satan, all your service, and all your works.” 10After he has said this, he shall anoint each with the Oil of Exorcism, saying, “Let every evil spirit depart from you.” 11Then, after these things, the bishop passes each of them on nude to the elder who stands at the water. They shall stand in the water naked. A deacon, likewise, will go down with them into the water. 12When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” 13And the one being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” 14He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. 15Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?”

16When each has answered, “I believe,” he shall baptize a second time. 17Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” 18Then each being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” And thus let him baptize the third time.

19Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” 20Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church.

21The bishop will then lay his hand upon them, invoking, saying, “Lord God, you who have made these worthy of the removal of sins through the bath of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with your Holy Spirit, grant to them your grace, that they might serve you according to your will, for to you is the glory, Father and Son with the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Church, now and throughout the ages of the ages. Amen”.[10]

Verse 4 notes: ‘The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family‘. This statement alone does not indicate that children who were baptised were not believers. In fact, defacto people (parents or relatives) could speak for those children who could not speak for themselves. This verse does not state that these children were infants who could not believe.

If we want to emulate Hippolytus exactly, then one would need to do all baptisms in pure running water and not in some baptismal font in a church building. In addition, with all baptisms, adults and children shall take off all of their clothes. I could not imagine that being acceptable in twenty-first century Western society. A fellow on a Christian forum (in a private message) challenged me with using Hippolytus to support believers’ baptism when Hippolytus was alleged to have included infant baptism. I could imagine that that fellow would create quite a ruckus if he were to go onto this public forum and be a full advocate of what Hippolytus recommended. As you know from what I’ve written above, I’m committed to what the Scriptures state about the nature of baptism.

I take up the challenge of this fellow in my inclusion of Hippolytus in support of believers’ baptism. However, from this passage in Hippolytus, there is no guarantee that he is supporting paedobaptism as practised by the infant baptism promoters in contemporary society. If we accept what Hippolytus wrote in relation to baptism, we would need to conclude:

(a) He was confused in his understanding of baptism (thus making Hippolytus just another author, but with no scriptural authority).

(b) He recommended baptism in the nuddy, and

(c) There shall be no baptism of anyone using a baptismal font in a church; the water MUST be pure and flowing.

I am convinced from the biblical evidence that a strong case can be made for believer’s baptism, but there are many Christians who love the Lord who support infant baptism. I will not use the mode of baptism as a means to cause division in the body of Christ.

Notes


[1] Fellowship Forum, The Fellowship Hall, “David Wilkerson killed”, #170, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=162&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=120662 (Accessed 15 May 2011).

[2] Ibid., #172, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?webtag=ws-fellowship&nav=messages&msg=120662.172 (Accessed 15 May 2011). On 7 August 2019 this link was not working. The website has been closed down.

[3] Unless otherwise stated, all Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible, available from Biblegateway.

[4] Wayne Grudem 1994. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, p. 978.

[5] Ibid., pp. 980-981.

[6] Ibid., p. 982.

[7] First Apology, Chapter LXI, available from: http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/anf01/htm/viii.ii.lxi.htm (Accessed 15 May 2011).

[8] Concerning Baptism, para 18, available at: http://www.tertullian.org/articles/souter_orat_bapt/souter_orat_bapt_04baptism.htm (Accessed 15 May 2011).

[9] Available at: http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/St.Pachomius/Liturgical/didache.html (Accessed 15 May 2011).

[10] Available at: http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html, emphasis added (Accessed 15 May 2011).

Copyright © 2011 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at Date:  07 August 2019.