And Peter said to them, “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 for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)
The practice of infant baptism (paedobaptism) has been both administered and present throughout the history of the church as opposed to believer’s baptism (credobaptism). This topic is highly controversial because infant baptism is not explicitly commanded in scripture and therefore reprimanded by many Christians. However, it is important to realize that it is not explicitly admonished in Scripture either and is given an account in several places in Scripture (Acts 16). Infant baptism is practiced because it is believed to be the New Covenant fulfillment of circumcision in the Old Covenant. Therefore, in order to fully understand the practice, it is necessary to understand the relationship between circumcision and infant baptism and the view of Scripture through the lens of covenant theology.
What is covenant theology? Covenant theology is the view of Scripture through the various covenants established between God and His people. It is where God establishes that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” It is the belief that covenants are the way God has established His kingdom expansion here on earth, and this is clearly displayed throughout Scripture. Covenant theology links both the Old Testament and the New Testament together in order to see a unified view of God throughout Scripture. Most importantly, covenant theology displays how the Old Testament points to the coming Messiah and how the New Testament shows the fulfillment of the covenant relationship with God and His people through Christ.
If infant baptism is not explicitly commanded in scripture, why is it practiced? Covenant theology views the modern-day church as the fulfillment of Israel in the Old Testament. Covenant theology replaces the sacraments of the bloody signs of God’s covenant in the Old Testament with the bloodless signs of the new covenant in Christ. For example, the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament is a replacement of the Passover in the Old Testament. Both sacraments are similar, as they occur more than once and the partakers of the sacrament are active participants. However, the Lord’s Supper does not require a sacrifice because Christ’s death and resurrection are a fulfillment of that necessary sacrifice. Likewise, the sacrament of infant baptism, like circumcision in the Old Testament, is similar, as it is administered once to believers and their households.
Infant baptism, like circumcision, is a promise of the covenant. The purpose of infant baptism is to demonstrate the sign of a covenant establishment from God through Christ on a family and the seal of that promise. Infant baptism does not save a person, but is a promise given to a child and signifies them becoming apart of the Church and being accepted and committed to the Church. After infants are baptized, they become a non-communicant member of the Church. A non-communicant member of the church has become a member of the church, but because they have yet to put their faith in Christ can not participate in the Lord’s supper. The Church promises to raise, support, and nurture the faith of the children who are administered infant baptism. This ceremony is a beautiful picture of covenant theology and a charge to the parents and the church to raise their children in truth in hopes that the child will one day put their trust in Christ.
A better understanding of baptism as an established seal of the covenant might better take place once paralleled with an account of circumcision in the Old Testament. In Genesis 17, God gives the sign and seal of the Abrahamic Covenant to Abraham, which is circumcision. God commands Abraham to be circumcised along with his whole family, slaves, and any male older than eight days old. This is an establishment and a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant between God and Abraham as God says, “This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you.” Romans 4 continues to talk about Abraham’s circumcision as a seal of the Covenant, as it says, Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. Abraham circumcised Isaac when he was eight days old as God commanded Him to. Isaac received circumcision as a seal of the righteousness through the covenant given to Abraham’s family by God. Similarly, in the New Testament, under the New Covenant of grace in Christ, the Philippian jailer and his family are brought to faith and he and his family are baptized as a representation of God’s covenant with the whole family it says “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household. And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God” (Acts 16:31-33).
Both of these passages, through the lens of covenant theology show how God works the same way in both the Old and New Testament. However, in the New Testament, the covenant is fulfilled in Christ and the bloody sign of circumcision is no longer needed and replaced with the bloodless sign of baptism. Abraham’s household and the Philippian jailer’s household are both given the sign and seal of the covenant: circumcision being one and baptism the other. Colossians 2 continues to show the connection between circumcision and baptism. Paul writes,
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. -Colossians 2:11-12
Through these passages, we can clearly see the established relationship of baptism in the New Testament with circumcision in the Old Testament.
Infant baptism displays the sovereignty of God and His grace towards His people through salvation in a new light. While believer’s baptism focuses specifically on the individual’s decision to choose and follow Jesus, infant baptism represents God’s sovereign hand over His chosen people. When an infant is baptized, it demonstrates the sovereignty of God over the individual’s life. Infant baptism shows the extent of God’s grace to a believer and shows the very extent of our depravity and helplessness in salvation. Just as we were dead in our sin and helpless, much like an infant, God so graciously pulled us out of our depravity and gave us new life. This is what infant baptism hopes to picture, as it is a sign and seal to the child of his/her salvation under the covenant of grace. It represents how the salvation of a believer is an act of mercy and was in no way contributed by the individual. Infant baptism displays this truth in a new light as God promises to extend His grace towards the believer and their children. (Acts 2:39) Infant baptism, unlike credobaptism, places the focus on the work of God in His people’s hearts, instead of putting the focus on the individual and their decision.
In the end, if anything, I hope this article gave you a Biblical defense of infant baptism through the lens of covenant theology. I understand that this topic is highly controversial and not without its immense depth and complexities. I hope that I was able to give you a little clarity on the topic and insight to the reasoning behind infant baptism. I would love to discuss any further questions or comments you have.