Who Chooses Whom? Why Christians Baptize Babies (and Adults)

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.

Story 1:
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.

Story 2:
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)





14 thoughts on “Who Chooses Whom? Why Christians Baptize Babies (and Adults)

  1. Thanks for the really good article. I’m a “believer’s baptism” kind of guy, so I will have to read this several times to make sure I get all the info.

    But for now… “Jesus died around 30/33AD”

    I thought the “A.D.” (Anno Domini, or something like that I’ve heard it called) means “After Death”. So, the year Jesus died would have been zero (or one). Is this not correct?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is exactly the kind of resource that I was hoping to find and share with my confirmation class when teaching on this subject. Thanks for including information on early church history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Baptism is not essential for salvation. The thief on the cross is a good example of someone who did not have the opportunity to be baptized and yet was in God’s kingdom.

      On the other hand, the Bible is clear that baptism is the norm and expected of believers, and it is offered to adults and children/infants alike with real promises of salvation attached.


      1. Thanks for your answer. A couple of more questions – salvation is not required, but it contains real promises of salvation – how are those promises different than the promises that come with a confession of faith? I understand that baptism is the norm and should be practiced, but if it is not a requirement for salvation, why would we want to worry about the age at which it occurs? Are you saying that babies don’t go to heaven unless they are baptized? Also, the example of dead men confuses me – how can dead men reject God? Or does God choose who he desires to be saved and choose who will be left “dead” in sin?


  3. Your Welcome Dan,

    We don’t worry about the age at which baptism is practiced, because the scriptures don’t worry about the age at which it is practiced. Acts 2:38-39 makes it clear (along with mentions of whole households being baptized along with adults) that the promise of forgiveness attached to baptism is for everyone, even infants.

    Faith in Jesus is the only way a person regardless of age goes to heaven. The scriptures speak of faith in relational terms, not primarily intellectual terms. What I mean by that is that baptism connects us to the death and resurrection of Jesus. see Colossians 2:12-14. There is no scripture that states that babies, or anyone for that matter, who die automatically go to heaven until they reach a certain age.

    As to the example of dead men, it is really only that, an example so you can’t push the analogy too far. Both Ephesians (which I quoted there) and Colossians 2, cited above speak of our condition apart from Jesus. We aren’t merely drowning in our sin. We are dead in sin and only God can make us alive, through no choice or invitation of our own. Dead men cannot reject God, we begin life in a state of already having rejected God. This is the reality of original sin. As to your last question about who God chooses there is good news. God desires all to be saved and come to repentance.

    Those who are saved, owe their salvation only and entirely to God alone. Those who are damned have no one to blame but themselves. This paradox is sometimes called the theologians cross (If you google that term you can probably find some better resources that explain it in more detail).


  4. Very well written article, though I do still have misunderstandings as to the purpose of baptizing an infant if it has nothing to do with their salvation. What is the actual purpose? In my experience, it almost seems more for the peace of mind of the infant’s parent(s). How off am I there?

    Thank you for the article. I’ve always enjoy reading/learning/hearing/conversing on this issue. In terms of the Acts 2 passage. I have heard that used as to defending infant baptism but the focus only seems to be on Peter saying the “be baptized” part. It seems that the “repent” is just glossed over. If that is a verse to justify infant baptism, I would think that both “acts” should be completed by the person believing. So, how exactly does an infant repent?

    Also, I get what “households” would encompass, but the reality is that neither you nor I know for sure that there were infants in that household. As an example, I’m 44 years old and my “household” has no infants (though I have 4 children – 16, 14, 11, 9 in my house). Beyond that, I would argue that the majority of households in my city community (and in my church community) do not have infants present in the household so I think it’s a rather big assumption to assume that the households mentioned in the Bible where people came to faith automatically had infants in them. Does that make sense? So, I find no specific (for sure) example in Scripture of an infant being baptized, though I find numerous ones of people who are old enough to make a decision to repent & put their faith in Jesus who are baptized (for I agree that baptism is the norm and is expected of believers). In fact, in your making that exact point in response to someone above, I feel like you’re contradicting yourself – it’s expected of “believers” & are infants in actuality, “believers”? They don’t even have that capacity. Or am I wrong?

    If you could address the questions in each of my 3 paragraphs, I would greatly appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely Jeremy. Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I hope that my response will at least help you to understand more fully where I’m coming from on this issue.

      1. I wouldn’t say that baptizing an infant has nothing to do with it’s salvation. It actually has quite a lot to do with their salvation. Although I don’t doubt that some parents treat baptism as a peace of mind thing. So, first I would say that it is God’s Word which makes alive. And Jesus instituted baptism as a means of delivering salvation, as God attached promises of salvation to it. In adults God’s Word comes to bear on them before they are baptized. So I would say that an adult who “makes a decision for Jesus” can only make that decision because God through His Word has made them alive already. Baptism then seals and confirms the promises of salvation to the individual. It gives them something concrete to hold on to so that when/if they begin to doubt their salvation their assurance doesn’t just rest on their “decision” but on God’s action in cleansing them of sin in baptism. So for an infant (and those mentally incapable of confessing their faith) baptism becomes the only means by which God has promised to work salvation. (for scripture here I am thinking both of Acts 2 and Matthew 28 especially where Jesus lays out that disciples are made through baptizing).

      2. For the Acts 2 passage, I agree that the initial emphasis is on repenting and being baptized together. Which makes sense as Paul is addressing a crowd of adults upon whom God has already worked through Peter’s message. They’ve been convicted of their sin and want to know how to be saved. The proper response is repentance and baptism. But then Peter goes on to say that that same promise stands for them and their children. (one could argue that Peter means the promise is only for their children once they’ve grown enough to verbally repent themselves, but other passages remove that possibility). Which leads into your last question…

      3. It is true that “households” could encompass many different possibilities. It is also true that there is no specific proof text for infant baptism (what I mean by that is that there is no one text where you see an infant baptized in the way that we have the account of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. This is why in the post I was careful to first lay out the theological framework that necessitates infant baptism (the rough sketch being that we are all born into sin, God desires all people to be saved, Jesus is the only means of salvation, and baptism is given as a means by which we are connected into Jesus death and resurrection…Colossians 2) But in addition to this, nowhere do we see people getting a pass on their sin for a certain period of time.

      But the final linchpin for me when it comes to infant baptism is the historical record. What we know from the early church is that infant baptism was practiced from the beginning. We have reliable records that show that families were baptizing infants immediately. In Colossians 2 Paul highlights why they were doing so, as he connect baptism to circumcision. Israelites didn’t wait until their children were old enough to decide for themselves whether to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The boys were circumcised on the eighth day of their birth. This also explains why for much of the church’s history (until recently) churches that practice infant baptism would baptize almost immediately (typically within a week). Now many people hold off until the right amount of family can make it into town (at least in my own experience here).

      Yes, repentance is expected of believers. And once infants are able to verbalize repentance in our churches they do so. Formally this happens at confirmation, although as soon as they can talk and follow along in worship they repent each week along with the congregation.

      It’s very possible that I wasn’t as clear as I could have been with Dan or you, so if you’ve got any more questions feel free to ask away.

      God’s blessings on your day!


      1. Thank you so much for answering all the points and for your respectful tone. I truly appreciate & respect that.
        I guess what confuses me is that on one hand you say that the individual (infant, for example) is not saved by baptism (in fact, you say, rightly that a person does not even have to be baptized to be saved) but yet you say the individual should look back to their infant baptism as their “assurance” in “God’s action of cleansing them of sin in baptism.” If God has cleansed their sin in baptism, how are they not saved by it? That’s where I never understand reconciling whether or not those who practice infant baptism see it as salvation or not. I hear songs like “Welcome to the Family” sung in baptismal celebrations & that makes it sound like the person was made a part of God’s family (saved) in baptism but then they say (again, rightly) that it is our faith alone that saves. Is the belief that faith (God’s gift – Eph. 2) is given in the baptism? That I would understand a bit more though I don’t know any scriptural backing for that (like there is for “faith coming from hearing and hearing from the Word of God”).
        To be honest, I’m personally not persuaded (although I can understand how some are) by what the early church did. There were already false teachers (and thus false teachings) present in the early church at the time the epistles were written so that is not a convincing argument for me. I’m solely concerned with what the Bible says (isn’t that what Luther meant by Sola Scriptura – I’m not Lutheran so I don’t know that for sure, please feel free to correct me on that assumption).
        Last question based on what you said on point 3. Would you then say that any child (infant again, for example) that dies without having been baptized would not go to Heaven?
        Thanks again for the dialogue.


      2. I’ll try to catch all your questions again, but let me know if I miss any.

        “I guess what confuses me is that on one hand you say that the individual (infant, for example) is not saved by baptism (in fact, you say, rightly that a person does not even have to be baptized to be saved) but yet you say the individual should look back to their infant baptism as their “assurance” in “God’s action of cleansing them of sin in baptism.”

        To that point, there are people who say that baptism saves. And even 1 Peter 3:21 uses this language…”baptism, which corresponds to this now saves you…” What stands behind that verse is that baptism saves only in so much as God uses baptism as a tool to bring about salvation. Baptism as a mere ceremony couldn’t do anything on its own. I understand that in baptism God is the active party. To the point about looking to baptism (God’s action) for assurance I speak this way because I hear the Scriptures speaking this way. (Get up, be baptized, and wash your sins away – Acts 22:16) Note that when Paul and the other writers of the NT were penning their works they were speaking to an audience of adult converts, who like the Ethiopian Eunuch had been convicted by the Word of God and then baptized. And yet Paul doesn’t once point people to look to their “decision” or “response” to God’s Word. Instead, he points back to baptism as the point whereby we are connected into Jesus’ death and resurrection. (All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ – Galatians 3:27)

        “Is the belief that faith (God’s gift – Eph. 2) is given in the baptism? That I would understand a bit more though I don’t know any scriptural backing for that (like there is for “faith coming from hearing and hearing from the Word of God”).”

        Yes, Faith (trust in God is given as a gift through baptism) And here I am understanding faith in more relational terms than cognitive knowledge. As far as Romans 10:17 goes, faith does come by hearing the Word of God. Those infants baptized do hear the Word of God as they are baptized. (and many of them have heard it for months in their mother’s wombs. The struggle we have as adults is divining what effect that Word has. In adults we can “see” some of the effects in that we can converse with the people we are sharing that good news with. As a scriptural example there is the account in Luke 2 of John the Baptist, in the womb, hearing Mary’s greeting (as she was carrying Jesus) and leaping for joy.

        “To be honest, I’m personally not persuaded (although I can understand how some are) by what the early church did.”

        I love that you brought out this point. As someone coming from a reformation church (Lutheran) I was raised with a very healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to any argument that is based on history/tradition alone. This is why I put the church history quotes at the very end and the scriptural basis for infant baptism at the beginning. But there are some today that teach that infant baptism was a later addition to Christianity. Historically that is simply not the case. As I noted in the case of Irenaeus, who was baptized as an infant in Smyrna where Polycarp was stationed, (Polycarp being a disciple of John one of the twelve), Ireneaus’s baptism likely falls within 15-40 years after John’s death. I find it highly unlikely that he was among the first to be baptized as an infant. None of that is something you base a doctrine on, but as I mentioned there is reliable historical evidence that this was the practice of the church from the very beginning of the apostles themselves. The same cannot be said for the practice of withholding baptism from infants and children.

        “Last question based on what you said on point 3. Would you then say that any child (infant again, for example) that dies without having been baptized would not go to Heaven?”

        No, I would not say that that child would not go to heaven. (Technically it is impossible for us to say of anyone with 100% certainty whether they will be in hell or heaven in eternity. – We can’t see into people’s hearts) However, for a child who is baptized there is as much certainty as there is for the adult Christian. As Paul says in Galatians 3:27 they were baptized and clothed in Christ. There have been some theologians who have made a distinction between the death of infants of Christian parents who were unable to have their children baptized and the death of infants of non-Christian parents who were not baptized, Its been awhile since I’ve read that stuff though so I would have to go back and look at it again for their arguments. My guess is that it goes back to the hearing of the Word in utero although I could be off on that. What I cannot say, because Scripture does not say, is that infants who die apart from having been baptized are automatically saved and in heaven. To the contrary Scripture makes it quite clear that from conception we are all starting off on the other side of the salvation line. In ministering to parents who have lost children in those situations I speak honestly about what I do and do not know, and I speak about the grace and mercy of God toward sinners. That is a really tough situation though.


  5. I would not say that faith in the infant is due to hearing the gospel while in utero. Rather, I would say that faith in the infant is the result of the baby receiving the Holy Spirit through baptism, and that the Holy Spirit gives that infant faith.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s