There are two stories for salvation that I’ve heard that help highlight the important differences between the historic Christian practice of infant baptism and “believer’s” baptism (adult only baptism) as it is practiced by some churches today.
Imagine you’re treading water in the middle of the ocean. Unless God comes sailing by and tosses you a life ring you’re going to drown. As God sails by you shout for help and God tosses the life ring. Jesus is that life ring and you can choose to cling to Him and be saved or not.
In this analogy the focus is on what you do. Sure, Jesus had an important part to play in your salvation, but He was only a minor supporting character in your story.
Now imagine the same scene, only this time the ocean is full of the floating bodies of those who have already drowned, yours is among them. God comes sailing by and Jesus jumps overboard, drags your lifeless body onto the deck of the ship. He breathes life back into you, and then, alive once more, all you can do is thank Him and join the party on deck with the rest of those who have been saved. Or you could reject that grace, jump back in, and drown once more.
In this analogy the focus is on God, on what He did for you through Jesus. You are just a small character in His story.
No analogy is perfect, but, of the two, which sounds like a faithful depiction of salvation? Check out Ephesians 2 and decide for yourself.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world…and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one man boast.” – Ephesians 2:1-9
Simply put, dead people can’t do a whole lot. They can lie very still. They can rot. But they can’t decide to be saved.
When it comes to salvation, God is the active party. God does the calling. Don’t believe me? Think back to all of your favorite Bible stories.
Who chooses whom?
Adam and Eve. They sinned and hid from God. But God sought them out. He didn’t wait until they had repented, come to their senses, or gone looking for Him.
Abraham. God choose Abram to be the father of the nation of Israel, even changed his name to Abraham, and sent him away from his homeland. Abraham didn’t go looking for God.
Israel and Moses. God took the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt by His grace and in His own timing. God used Moses as His instrument (and Moses wanted nothing to do with that job, but God didn’t take “No” for an answer).
Joshua. He famously commanded Israel, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) You might think that this is proof that we can choose God, but, set in the context, Joshua was speaking to people whom God had already chosen. Their “choice” was like the “choice” in the second story above: a choice between rejoicing in a life they did nothing to earn or returning to death.
To be fair, many people whom I’ve talked to who hold to a “believer’s” baptism speak about their salvation as being a matter of grace. But then they point to that decision that they made for Christ as being the reason that they are in fact saved. Doing that makes that decision a “work” (something they added to God’s grace as a prerequisite for receiving it). Check out the picture above. Who is getting the glory in that act? According to the plain words on the shirt, it’s all about that individual’s decision. This is one reason why the historic Christian church from the beginning has always baptized infants. Below is a snapshot of what God says about us and our need before Him:
- From conception (and by our very nature) all people regardless of age or mental condition begin life separated from God because of sin. (Ephesians 2:3; Psalm 51:5-6)
- God desires all people (once more regardless of age or mental condition) to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)
- No one is saved apart from Jesus. There is no promise in scripture that babies/children/mentally handicapped are given a pass until they reach a certain age or can make a decision for themselves. (John 14:6)
- Baptism is given as a means of salvation (Acts 2:37-39; 1 Peter 3:21)
Those who don’t baptize infants, children, and the mentally handicapped sometimes claim that the practice of baptizing infants was a later addition to Christianity. But in fact, this practice traces its roots back to the very beginning of the church.
Let’s start with the Bible. Consider what Peter says just after Pentecost. After hearing his sermon many of the Jews gathered in Jerusalem are cut to the heart and cry out, “What shall we do?” Peter said, “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 all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.” (Acts 2:37–39)
Two things to note about the passage above. Peter explicitly includes children. He doesn’t set an age of accountability, nor does he require that a child be able to decide for himself or herself. Peter also explicitly states that those who are invited to repent and be baptized are those who first are called and enabled by God to do so!
In addition to this passage, the apostolic Church baptized whole “households” (Acts 16:33; 1 Cor. 1:16), a term encompassing children and infants as well as servants. While these texts do not specifically mention—nor exclude—infants, the very use of the term “households” indicates an understanding of the family as a unit.
While we’re on the Bible, I would be remiss not to bring up Romans 10 because it contains a passage often cited by people arguing for a “believer’s” baptism. Paul writes, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved…For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-10, 13)
This passage seems to indicate the exact opposite of what I’ve written above, yet as Paul continues he explains how this all works. “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14, 17)
Faith comes by hearing. Faith comes only when God makes the first move. We are passive. According to the Bible our wills are bound to sin. From conception, we are not free to choose between good and evil, or God and Satan. Only an act of God can take a person dead in sin, and make them alive. And only after being made alive can a person “choose” to follow Christ, or even repent.
Now, for the history buffs, we can also trace the practice of infant baptism back into the first generation of Christians after the apostles. Jesus died around 30/33AD. John (the last of the original twelve apostles) died around 100AD. Irenaeus (a bishop in what is now Lyon, France) was likely born around 140AD, although some sources place his birth as early as 115 or 120AD. He was born in a Christian home in Smyrna and was baptized as an infant likely by Polycarp (the bishop of Smyrna), who was himself a disciple of the apostle John. Irenaeus’ birth and baptism are within 15-40 years of the apostle John’s death. This short amount of time between the death of John and the baptism of Irenaeus is important because it shows that the practice of baptizing infants and children wasn’t a later addition to Christianity. It was happening right from the beginning.
Here is what Irenaeus has to say on the subject of baptism:
“He [Jesus] came to save all through Himself; all, I say, who through Him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore He passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age . . . [so that] He might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age” [Against Heresies 2:22:4 (A.D. 189)].
“‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” [Fragment34 (A.D. 190)].
And Irenaeus does not stand alone as an early witness to the baptism of infants and children. Hippolytus says:
“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” [The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 (A.D. 215)].
And Origen says:
“Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. . . . In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous” [Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 (A.D. 248)].
“The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” [Commentaries on Romans 5:9 (A.D. 248)].
Also Cyprian of Carthage says:
“As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. [Notice that the argument here isn’t over whether infants should be baptized, but whether they should be baptized before the eighth day of their life] No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” [Letters 64:2 (A.D. 253)].
“If, in the case of the worst sinners and those who formerly sinned much against God, when afterwards they believe, the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from baptism and grace, how much more, then, should an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has done no sin, except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does he [an infant] approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven him are not his own but those of another” (ibid., 64:5)
In this way Christians have always understood that it is through baptism (as a means of grace) that God can and does actually give faith and wash away sins…not by a performance of the act itself, but because God’s Word, which is attached to that action and active in it, does what He promises. It takes us who are dead in our sins and makes us alive!
Beginning the adventure that is living as a child of God doesn’t start with a decision on your part. It doesn’t begin only when you’ve cleaned up your life enough to be acceptable to God. And it doesn’t begin only after you are sorry enough for your mistakes (I mean how sorry do you think Saul was before Jesus showed up and struck him blind and told him he would serve Him?).
It’s not about you reaching out, but about God reaching down. As Jesus said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you!” (John 15:16)