In a missionary situation the first subjects of baptism are always converts. But throughout Christian history, attested as early as Irenaeus (c. 202) and Origen (c. 185-255) with a reference back to the apostles, it has also been given to the children of professing believers. This has not been solely on the grounds of tradition, or in consequence of a perversion, but for what have been regarded as scriptural grounds.
In this article, Reverend Michael Babcock, pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, puts forth an apology for infant baptism.
In addition to the sermon today, I want to include a few other remarks to help us all understand the history of paedobaptism.
We understand the sacraments of the New Covenant, established by Christ in the Church, to be the fulfillment of the types and images that were foreshadowed in the Old Covenant, between God and the people of Israel (cf Heb. 9-10). In the Old Testament, circumcision was the means by which a Jew entered into the covenant of Abraham. In the New Testament, it is baptism which marks our entrance into the kingdom of God, the beginning of our Christian life. Just as Jewish boys were circumcised as infants, so also the children of Christian parents are baptized as infants (cf. Colossians 2:11-12).
One of the arguments used against infant baptism is that it is not referred to in Scripture — that is true. But there is also no mention in Scripture of the practice of Christian parents waiting to baptize their children until they are older, either. But to say that infant baptism is an argument from silence is not accurate. We have the clear teaching that the OT practice of circumcision, which signified justification by faith (Rom. 4:9-11), was commanded to be given to children in Gen. 17. The NT equates circumcision with baptism in Col. 2:11-12. The Scriptures also teach that the children of believers are covenantally holy (1 Cor. 7:14). Furthermore, Peter says that the promise of the Holy Spirit is the reason we are to be baptized (Acts 2:37), but this promise is “for you and your children, and those far away” (v. 38). Moreover, “the phrase ‘he and his (whole) house’ denotes the complete family; normally husband, wife and children. In no single case is the term ‘house’ restricted to the adult members of the house. . . the inclusion of the children is taken for granted. . . . Since the primitive Church takes the phrase over as a firmly established biblical expression, the statement ‘it includes small children as well as others’ applies to its employment in the New Testament as well” (Jeremias, The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Study in Reply to Kurt Aland, trans. Dorothea M. Barton [Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1963] p. 24). Jeremias cites too many OT verses to prove the point, so I only give a few: Gen. 5:1, 12:17, 18:19, 47:12, 50:7-8; Dt. 6:5, 15:20; Judges 16:31; 2 Sam. 6:21; Jer. 38:17. So, when we come to the NT, we are given a biblical expectation that “household baptisms”, (Acts 11:14-18, 16:14-15. 16:31-34, 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16, 10:1-2; Heb. 11:7) included everyone in the house, and if there were infants in that house, it would be anticipated that they too would have been baptized.
Indeed, infant baptism has been the normal practice of Christians throughout the entirety of the Christian era, from the early church up to the present time. Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) was one of the earliest apologists to equate baptism to circumcision, “And we, who have approached God through Him [Christ], have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism, since we were sinners, by God’s mercy; and all men may equally obtain if (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, 43:1). The earliest explicit reference to child or infant baptism was by Hippolytus, about 215 A.D.: “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” (Apostolic Tradition 21:15, c. 215 A.D.). Origin [A.D. 185-253] went on to write, “According to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants. And indeed if there were nothing in infants which required a remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of Baptism would seem superfluous.” (Homilies on Leviticus, 8:3) and “For this reason, moreover, the Church received from the apostles the tradition of baptizing infants too.” (Homily on Romans, 5:9). Irenaeus [178 A.D.] wrote, “For He came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.” (Against Heresies, II.2.4 where the term “born again” refers to Jn. 3:5 which was then understood to refer to water baptism and the grace given by the Holy Spirit.) Augustine wrote, “And if any one seek for divine authority in this matter, though what is held by the whole Church, and that not as instituted by Councils, but as a matter of invariable custom, is rightly held to have been handed down by apostolical authority, still we can form a true conjecture of the value of the sacrament of baptism in the case of infants, from the parallel of circumcision, which was received by God’s earlier people, and before receiving which Abraham was justified, as Cornelius also was enriched with the gift of the Holy Spirit before he was baptized.” (On Baptism against the Donatist, IV.24.31).
When does a person’s Christian life begin? For an adult, it begins at the time that one embraces the apostolic faith in Christ. But for a child born into a Christian home, the Christian life begins at birth, as his parents teach him to love God, reading the Scriptures to them and teaching them to pray, and as they bring him to church regularly to worship with other believers. Baptism marks the beginning of our Christian life, so each of us must continue daily to persevere in our faith until the end of our earthly life.
For further study
R.C. Sproul presents before John MacArthur’s church a case for infant baptism.