In my last post, I tried to clear away some arguments that clutter the discussion on whether Christians should baptize their infants. One could walk way from that post thinking that I endorse infant baptism. But I don’t. At least, I think that the case for believer’s baptism has more scriptural support, even though I think there is some support for infant baptism.

Now, I must say that I have not studied this issue in depth. I’ve never read any books on the subject, nor have I worked through all the believersbaptismimportant passages in detail. I’m sort of thinking out loud in this post as I’ve thought about this issue on an informal level. I’d love to see if I’m missing something in my reasoning.

So, here are my “working thoughts” on why I still believe in believer’s baptism.

First, I mentioned in the last post that the correlation between circumcision in the Old Covenant and baptism in the New Covenant has been used to justify infant baptism. The main problem I have with this is that the most pervasive sign of the New Covenant is not baptism but faith. Read Romans 4:9-16, Galatians 3:6-9, and 5:2-5 and notice that circumcision has been superseded by faith, not water baptism. And faith, here, refers to a confession that Jesus is Lord, that He has been raised from the dead, not the general “faith” that pervades a believing household. Therefore, there seems to be discontinuity between the sign of the Old Covenant (circumcision of an infant) and the sign of the New Covenant (faith in the risen Lord).

Second, and this one is perhaps the most important, there is discontinuity between Old and New Covenants in terms of covenant membership. This is a bit complex, so let me explain. In the Old Covenant, one could be a “member” but not “saved” or right with God. As stated in the last post, plenty of wicked kings of Israel were wicked (i.e. they weren’t saved) even though they lived under the banner of the Covenant.

But not so in the New. Notice that Jeremiah says that the New Covenant will not be like the Old (31:32). In the Old Covenant, there was an external law to obey and members of the Covenant had to be taught it. As circumcised infants would grow up, some would obey and learn the law while others (Ahab, Manasseh, etc.) would not. But the New Covenant will be different. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” God tells Jeremiah. “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (31:33-34).

Follow me here. Whereas in the Old Covenant, you had members of the covenant who were circumcised as infants who may or may not follow the believer's baptism 2LORD later on, it will be different in the New. In the New Covenant, every member will be “saved”—they will have the law written on their heart. They will not need to be taught it, not in a general sense of learning the Bible, but in a salvific sense of “knowing” God. Unlike the Old Covenant, members of the New Covenant would become covenant members when they confess faith and are therefore saved.

Now, these two arguments don’t quite settle the debate, but they do seem to give believer’s baptism some scriptural momentum, as we look at those tough “household baptism” passages in Acts (e.g. 16:15, 33-34).
When you read these passages, it seems very well possible that Lydia and the Philippian jailor baptized their children. After all, when the jailor was converted, “he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (16:33).

This is one of the strongest cases for infant baptism. However, notice that the previous verse says that Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” (16:32). The verse after says that the jailor “rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God” (16:34). Indeed, it’s not entirely clear whether his kids (if he had any) were baptized. But Acts seems to say that everyone in his household who was baptized were the same people who listened to Paul speak and rejoiced when they heard the message.

In all the other household baptism passages, never are infants or children specified. And the case of the jailor seems to suggest that those who were baptized were old enough to respond to and rejoice over the message.

Again, this passage—or any single passage—doesn’t settle the issue. But together with the ideas that faith, not baptism, is a sign of covenant membership and that there’s discontinuity between the covenants, I lean toward believer’s baptism.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve wondered as well about the household passages if our limited understanding of what entailed a ‘household’ back then is what makes us think of children. In other words, today, a household is a father and mother and kids. So we naturally think of kids when ‘household’ is mentioned. Without being an expert, I’m pretty sure that back then ‘household’ was much broader and included servants, as well as household managers, and probably other relatives, etc. So when a whole household is mentioned, it seems less likely that kids are what are being emphasized…

    • Indeed, Josh, household included slaves, kids, clients, etc. If someone was a wealthy Greco-Roman person (Lydia, perhaps the jailor), kids probably would have made up only a small portion of their household (e.g. average # of kids was 1-2; different from Judaism).

  2. Preston,

    Let me say upfront that I hold to infant baptism, and also
    that I appreciate your openness in regards to this issue. I once, too, held to
    believers baptism, but after really wrestling through the issue became
    convinced that it was not biblical. So it is an issue that I have thought a lot
    about, and if you would allow me to, I would like to address some of the
    reasons you gave for why you hold to believers baptism.

    The first thing you addressed was the distinct New Covenant
    emphasis on faith. But faith is not actually distinct to the New Covenant.
    Circumcision bound Israelites in covenant to God and placed upon them the duty
    to exercise faith in him (Heb 3:19-4:2), which is why God could, through the
    prophets, upbraid them for being merely circumcised in the flesh (Jer 4:4;
    9:25). He was in effect telling them to start actually living in accordance
    with their status as covenant members. So faith in the Old Testament was very
    much a duty of those in covenant with God.

    Also, to address the passages you cited where Paul
    emphasizes faith in Romans and Galatians, I think it is important to keep in
    mind that Paul is emphasizing faith in order to make a specific point. He is driving
    home the point that Gentiles, who did not have the Law and were therefore not
    circumcised, could, by faith and in spite of not being circumcised, be brought
    into the same covenant status which up until that point had been limited to
    “the circumcised”. So he is making a very specific point and not really
    discussing the relationship between baptism and circumcision, so I think we
    need to be careful with how we apply it to this issue. Colossians 2:11-12 more
    directly discusses the relationship between baptism and circumcision. In the
    context of the whole letter, Paul is talking to Gentiles and encouraging them
    that they belong to God in spite of the fact that they are not Jewish
    (2:16-17). That is why he tells them that, although they have not been
    circumcised, they have been “circumcised”—that is, in their baptism. This
    creates a very explicit connection between circumcision and baptism.

    The second point you brought up was the issue of whether or
    not the New Covenant can be broken according to Hebrews 8. This passage was
    actually really big for me when I was wrestling through the issue, because I,
    too, held to the idea that the New Covenant was unbreakable in light of this
    passage. The first thing to note is that the whole context of Hebrews
    presupposes that the New Covenant can indeed be broken. This can be seen, for
    instance, in Hebrews 10:29. It can also be seen in the parallels between Old
    Testament Israel and the Church in 4:16ff (cf. 1 Cor 10:1ff). The entire letter
    assumes through and through that the Christians who are being addressed can
    fall from grace, just as people did in the Old Covenant.

    Also, notice that in the context leading up to Hebrews 8 the
    writer is arguing for the passing away of the Old Covenant priesthood in order
    to make way for the true Priest, Jesus. So the passage from Jeremiah is quoted
    to say that, in the New Covenant, it will no longer be only the priests (the
    teachers of the Old Covenant, Deut 33:10) who have this special access to God,
    since they failed (Jer 2:8; 3:15; Malachi 2:8), but, rather, “they shall all
    know me”. “From the least of them to the greatest”, then, refers not
    necessarily to every single individual, but to classes of people (Jer 6:13;
    8:10). So the point is that God is doing away with the Old Covenant system (Jer
    3:16), to include the priests, and in the New Covenant everyone, not just
    priests, is granted this special access into God’s presence.

    It is true that the New Covenant will not be broken as the
    Old Covenant was, but that is dealing with the Church corporately, and the
    point is not necessarily to say that no individual can break covenant (Heb 10:29). So this new venture known
    as the Church will not fail, as Israel failed. Christ will build his Church and
    the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. In short, I think we need to be
    careful with the Hebrews 8 passage that we’re not reading too much into it. The
    interpretation that the author is saying that the New Covenant is unbreakable
    fits very oddly into the context, and is, in my opinion, not the point being
    made.

    Lastly, let me address the household baptisms in the New
    Testament. A lot of times the discussion of these passages centers around
    proving whether or not infants were present. The passage does not say one way
    or another, so I don’t know. The important thing, however, is the significance
    of the household mentality throughout Scripture, and the reaffirmation of it in
    the fact that households are baptized in the New Testament. It may surprise us
    that God would enter into covenant with not just believers but their households
    as well, to include infants if they are present. But throughout Scripture this
    is how God relates to people—and it is truly gracious. When Israel crossed the
    Red Sea, there were no doubt infants present, and Paul says that the Red Sea
    crossing was a type of baptism (1 Cor 10:1-2). So there you have infants being
    “baptized”. When we see households being baptized in the New Testament, we are
    seeing households pass through the Church’s “Red Sea”, being led by the greater
    Moses, Jesus. So it doesn’t matter whether or not infants were baptized in the
    household baptisms recorded for us (although it is certainly a possibility).
    The point is what the household baptisms point back to. They point back to the
    strong household emphasis throughout the Bible, reaffirming it.

    So these are just some things to think about as you wrestle
    through the issue. I’m sure a lot more could be said, so I’d be happy to
    continue the discussion. Either way, may God bless you in your studies.

    • Raul, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’ll let Preston respond to your points if he wants to, but I wanted to run this by you since you’ve obviously given this issue some rigorous thought (certainly more than me!).

      A friend of mine was recently wrestling through this issue and asked an interesting question:

      If paedobaptists affirm that God enters into covenant with entire households, should not a believing husband also baptize his unbelieving wife? After all, a wife is under the headship of her husband, just as children are to their father, and thus consistency would seem to demand her baptism as well–even if she flatly refuses to believe in Christ.

      Is this a valid question, or is my friend not thinking in the correct categories? How might you respond?

    • Thanks, Raul, for weighing in. Your thoughts are very helpful and challenging. You’ve given us all much to think about!

      I can’t respond to all of that what you said. Some of it I’ll need to chew on. But here’s some brief thoughts/clarifications.

      First, I’d avoid saying that believer’s baptism is “not biblical.” I don’t hold to infant baptism but I would never say that it’s “not biblical.” Phrases like this only stifle dialogue.

      Second, yes, OT believers had faith. Certainly. And Paul had a narrow focus about Gentiles and covenant membership in Rom and Gal. Even still, circumcision (not faith: enumah/pistis) is the sign of the Covenant according to Gen 17. When a covenant member grew up and exercised faith (Isaiah yes, Ahab no: both were circumcised), then they would be right before God (i.e. justified), but this is not the same as possessing a sign of the covenant. But in the NT, faith, not circumcision/baptism is the sign of the covenant. (Of course, for adult converts, bap/faith usually happened together.) Just because Paul applies this to the debate about Gentiles in Rom/Gal does not mean that this particular application nullifies the broader principle. In other words, Paul argues FROM the universal truth that faith is the only prerequisite for covenant membership to argue against the necessity of circumcision (for Gentiles).

      I think we still might be missing each other in our points! I’m sure our audience is utterly confused, so I’ll stop this point…

      Third, with the new covenant, I was thinking of Jer 31 not Heb 8, and again, I think we may be missing each others point here. I wasn’t trying to say that the NC could not be broken while the OC could. That’s an interesting discussion indeed! But I wasn’t trying to make that point. Rather, I was suggesting that there is…if I can say…”structural discontinuity” between how one becomes a covenant member. In the OC, you were born into it and circumcised. Step one. And then there was the growth of faith and obedience by which one “got saved” (more accurately “remained in”) that covenant; step two. Faith is in the OT: yes! But circumcision is the sign of covenant membership. But for the NT, both the “sign” and “means of salvation” are one and the same: faith.

      Even still, your thoughts are very challenging and I’ll have to keep chewing on them. Again, I don’t have it all ironed out so I very much appreciate your forcing me to re-think my position!

      • Thanks for the correction on me calling believers baptism “not biblical”. It was meant in an entirely non-personal way, but at the same time I, too, want to avoid inflammatory language in dialogue with others, so thank you.

        Also, thank you for your clarification on Paul’s discussion of faith in Romans and Galatians. I think I see what you’re saying. You’re
        essentially saying that Paul contrasts faith and circumcision, thus showing that faith is the new circumcision, the new covenant sign. I can see the logic behind that. I would point out, however, that Paul is making his point in regards to adult Gentile believers, and we cannot necessarily apply that to the children of those Gentile believers. The requirement of adult-like faith cannot be assumed to apply to children. It needs to be demonstrated that Paul himself would have made that logical step.

        So the issue we are dealing with is ultimately the status of our children. The controversy stems from the fact that the New Testament does not deal with this issue as directly as the Old Testament. I just think that the little the New Testament does say about children and household inclusion reaffirms the status granted to children in the Old Testament.

        As far as Jer 31:31-34, I understand your point in regards to structural discontinuity. One thing I would like to understand better is why you interpret the text the way you do. I understand Jeremiah to essentially be saying that God is going to remove the priestly intermediaries of the Old Covenant, and replace them with himself as the new law-giver. The priests were the ones who were supposed to “know” God (Jer 2:8), and communicate that knowledge to the people (Jer 3:15). They were granted special access into God’s
        presence, “knowing” him more intimately than the people for the purpose of leading them in their relationship with God. Still, the people did not “know” God in the same way that the priests did. They knew God from a distance, as it were.

        So the priesthood was somewhat of a centerpiece of the Old
        Covenant, the means whereby God administered his relationship with Israel. That covenant, however, was broken and the priests of the covenant were unfaithful. So in Jer 31 God is saying that he is going to remove these teachers, the priests, and establish himself as the new mediator between himself and his people, which happened in Jesus. In Jesus, the entire covenant community “knows”
        God in the sense of having the close, intimate access to him that was restricted to the priests in the Old Covenant (Heb 10:19-22). This is why the author of Hebrews cites this text in Heb 8, building up to it with his discussion of the priesthood in Heb 7. The question of whether or not the children of believers are brought into this close proximity to God that the church has is, in a sense, another issue. To answer that question, we must look to New Testament texts that deal, as much as possible, more directly with the status of children.

  3. I was glad to read this post and the previous one. It is a great demonstration of how we as believers who hold different views can still respect and love one another while trying to work through them. I grew up in a PCA church but a pastor that we had for 40 years didn’t believe in infant baptism. So the church in that way was shaped to follow his lead. He retired around 93 I think but his influence still persists. I was raised by my parents to believe in believers baptism but because of my own studies I have come down on the side of infant baptism. I am still wrestling with the topic myself though.

    There are two thoughts that I wanted to offer you regarding this.

    First, There are those of us that believe in infant baptism that think you can be a covenant member without being saved. To be baptized without faith as rather an adult or an infant will not save you, but it will bind you to the New Covenant. A covenant breaker then in the time of the Old or New Testaments would be someone who entered covenant and does not believe, does not love God. Because they do not have that relationship with God they do not obey (John 14:15). This would then be true of the Old Testament covenant members like Ahab and also people living today. This idea then leads you to the question “Can you be saved without baptism?” Still one to wrestle with.

    Secondly, I think the role of communion in covenant membership should be examined. Luke 22:20 says “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”

    The cup “is” the new covenant. That is difficult to understand and requires our attention.

  4. While I definitely think that what we might call the “household principle” holds throughout Scripture, that is not to say that Scripture deals with every problem it raises. So this is a wisdom issue that we need to use a bit of common sense in dealing with, but no matter what the solution is, it neither proves nor disproves the principle itself. We start with theology and then move to application. So with that being said, I don’t think it would be inconsistent for someone who holds to household baptism to not baptize his unbelieving wife, because while household baptism may be set forth in Scripture, the details of it are not spelled out with a degree of clarity sufficient enough to bind a man’s conscience when it comes to this unique situation.

  5. Hi Preston!

    I just want to first thank you for all your blogs. They are not only all very theologically informed, but also very well written! I enjoy the level of thought that goes into each of them. I don’t know how you do it!

    As I also agree with you that this is not a slam dunk argument for either side (paedo or believer’s baptism), I fall on the paedo side. I was just wondering what are your thoughts on the household baptism of Acts and the language of “you and your household.” It seems that the Greek text is verbatim of the LXX (more or less) in the OT in these passages, Deut 14:26; 15:16, 20. Though, these OT passages are not directly addressing circumcision, they are considering families that have been circumcised.

    I wonder, since the phrase, “you and your household” is such a loaded phrase from the OT, if the writer of Acts would have written it verbatim in the NT without such OT understanding?

    What do you think? I would love to know your thoughts. All right, have a great day Preston!