Should We Baptize the Babies?

I would like to direct your attention to an interesting discussion taking place on the Reformation21 Blog. Various reformed theologians and personalities contribute to this blog, and the format is somewhat of a conversation among the various contributors.

Yesterday, the lone Baptist contributor, Justin Taylor, asked the paedo-baptists the following question: “According to covenant theology, what is the difference between the baby of a Presbyterian and the baby of a Baptist? . . . what privileges and benefits would [a Baptist baby] lack?”

To my mind, this is the million-dollar question that my Presbyterian brothers cannot answer sufficiently. Rick Philips attempted a response today, but I think he hit way wide of the mark. Allow me to elaborate on my disagreement as I comment on excerpts from Philips’s response:

We baptize our babies not to bring them into covenant relationship with God but because of their covenant relationship with God . . . Since baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the church, we apply it to our children. We do not believe that by birth our children possess eternal life, but we do believe that by virtue of being our children, they are in covenant with God

This statement gets to the heart of the difference between Baptists and Paedo-baptists. Unlike paedo-baptists, Baptists believe that the New Covenant is “not like” the old Covenant. In the New Covenant all covenant members will have the law written on their heart and will have their sins forgiven (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-13). Unregenerate children do not participate in these new covenant privileges (the law on their heart and the forgiveness of sins), even though their Christian parents may be nurturing them in the instruction of the Gospel.

Contrary to Philips, for Baptists baptism signifies much more than what he alleges. Philips says that Baptists hold baptism to be “an outward sign of an inward change.” This statement is partly accurate, but actually leaves the Baptist position open to caricature. I have often been told by paedo-baptist brothers, “You believe that baptism signifies your faith, but we believe it signifies God’s promise.” They seem to imply in this that Baptists think baptism signifies what a person does for God, while Presbyterians believe it signifies what God has done for us in the Gospel. This is an effective rhetorical device and has caused many a reformed Baptist to blush for holding a position that seemingly contradicts the sovereignty of God in salvation. But our own historic Baptist creeds demonstrate that this is not an accurate description of our position.

Our best creeds explain Baptism as signifying no less than two things: (1) what God has done for His people in the Gospel, and (2) the believer’s participation in the Gospel. For instance, chapter 29 of the London Baptist Confession says that baptism is “a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection.” In other words, Baptism signifies in the first instance Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf (what God has done for us) and our participation in what Christ has done for us (see also “The Abstract of Principles”). For Baptists, this is the most faithful way to understand texts like Romans 6:1ff where Christ’s work on our behalf and our participation in it are both signified in baptism: “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). [There is much more to be said here, but I will leave it at that for the sake of space].

To my mind, Philips never adequately answered Justin’s question. Philips writes:

So what is the cash value of infant baptism for us, which we think Baptist babies are denied? We believe that the Baptist approach fails to recognize the place of children in the church, with very real privileges and obligations.

What Philips fails to do is to answer what these “privileges and obligations” consist of. Certainly it is much more than the ability to say the Lord’s prayer, which he says only baptized infants can do with any theological integrity. Both kinds of children are brought up having the Gospel preached to them, so what benefit does the baptized baby have? I would still like to know.


  • WLC

    hmmm… this looks very interesting! That is quite a good question. What is the difference in the two babies? One is wet while one is dry? There must be more… Philips says:

    “We do not believe that by birth our children possess eternal life, but we do believe that by virtue of being our children, they are in covenant with God”

    I want to know what the significance of the covenant is. Based upon his statement here it can’t be a covenant of eternal life. So what does the covenant mean? Baptism brings the child in to the church, they are born in the covenant at physical birth, but they don’t have eternal life??? I am very lost?

    am I understanding the position correctly,

  • Marc

    I tried to debate some Catholics on infant baptism a few years ago on the blogosphere. It did not get very far (up to agreeing to disagree), particularly when one implied that my unbaptized son (5 at the time) was damned. You can mess with me all you want, but when you mess with my child you’re asking for trouble.

    That’s what makes this such a sensitive issue, that somebody would imply that your children are unsaved unless they are baptized. I believe it comes down to what the baptismal candidate brings to the table, where their heart is and if they honestly/publicly proclaim their love for Jesus and accept His death for them by giving Him their life.

    Otherwise I don’t see a difference between a priest mumbling some words and sprinkling water on a baby’s head vs. placing a baby under a faucet. A baptism is a step of faith, showing that you are ready for more. Is it right to baptize those who have not even learned to walk?

  • Anonymous

    “According to covenant theology, what is the difference between the baby of a Presbyterian and the baby of a Baptist? . . . what privileges and benefits would [a Baptist baby] lack?”

    To my mind, this is the million-dollar question that my Presbyterian brothers cannot answer sufficiently.


    The question should rather be put this way: “What is the difference between a child of the covenant and a pagan child?” After all, baptists, if they are consistent, should view their children as little pagans! And we would all agree that there is a vast difference between a child of the covenant and a pagan who is told that they are a pagan and do not belong to the household of faith. Can we really deny that the child of a Christian is different from the child of a Muslim?

    We, us Presbyterians, cannot answer this question sufficiently because of what is called the “glorious inconsistency” amongst, mainly, Reformed baptists. They basically treat their children like little Christians. For example, I’ve stayed with Reformed baptist families who pray WITH and FOR their children when, in actual fact, they can only pray FOR their children until they are baptized. Therein lies the “glorious inconsistency”. So, Justin’s question is really a case of a horns of a false dilemma.

    If baptists didn’t treat their children like little Christians, then the answer, for us, would be easy! But, baptistic inconsistencies make it difficult for us answer this question sufficiently.

  • Anonymous

    “Unlike paedo-baptists, Baptists believe that the New Covenant is “not like” the old Covenant. In the New Covenant all covenant members will have the law written on their heart and will have their sins forgiven (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-13).”

    This comment basically shows that baptists do not understand covenant theology at all. Shame really.

  • Denny Burk

    It’s not that I don’t understand covenant theology. It’s just that I refuse to define the New Covenant community in the way that covenant theology does.

    Are you suggesting that the only reason I disagree is because I don’t understand?

  • Anonymous

    You write: “In the New Covenant all covenant members will have the law written on their heart and will have their sins forgiven (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-13).”

    Well, it seems to me that you’re positing an illegitimate dichotomy between the so-called Old and New covenant. Perhaps you’ll indulge me and give the following comments a fair-minded reading?

    The law “put within them” and “written
    on their hearts,” associated with the dawn of the new covenant, is not an experience unknown before then.

    The idea of “heart circumcision” is not only a future (new covenant) indicative (Deut 30:6) but a present imperative (Jeremiah 4:4), finding its response in the likes of David and other Pslamists (e.g. 1:2; 19:7-11, 14; 119).

    Even though in Israel such heart-renewal was not typical, perhaps quite infrequent, is really beside the point. It may not have been typical but it was normative; it was an integral aspect of old covenant religion realized over the
    centuries in the true Israel (Rom. 9:6-8), in a ‘remnant chosen by grace’(11:6)”.

    To argue, like some, that the law was only externally known in the Old Testament whereas in the New it becomes internally known is problematic (ie: categorical
    external-internal). To say that Pentecost brings heart-internalization for the first time, not only undermines the unity of biblical religion generally but strikes at the center of Paul’s insistence that, before as well as after Christ’s coming, there is but one justification by “faith working through love”
    (Gal. 5:6). Faith that results from something other than the inwrought
    regenerating work of the Spirit is just not the faith of Abraham.

    I’m almost finished my MA thesis on this subject and would willingly send it through if you would like an overview of the history of covenant theology with special emphasis on John Owen’s understanding of the history of revelation.

    Mark (

  • Anonymous

    What then, substantially speaking, is the difference between the two besides the abrogation of the ceremonial law?

    It seems to me that you are minimizing the eschatological fulfillment that needs to take place re: Jer 31. & Heb 8. The eschatological fulfillment of Heb 8 is similar to that of Heb 4 (re: the Sabbath rest).

    Also, I would not make the new covenant co-extensive with salvation and so the broader context of Heb 8 (Heb 6 & 10) are determinative in helping us to properly understand the nature of the new covenant and the extensiveness of its salvific value to the new covenant community.

    The difference between presbyterian babies and baptist babies may not be all that significant because of how most baptists treat their children as Christians (i.e. “Our Father”). But, the waters of baptism become either a curse or a blessing (we enlarge our theology of baptism so as to see it in a more comprehensive symbol of the eschatological judgment that consummates in the covenant of which baptism is the sign – Kilne) and so greater obligations are put on children who have been formally admitted to the covenant community.

  • C Miller

    I have not read Philips discussion in its entirety. However, although I understand Acts 2:39 as an important verse in the discussion, it does not stand alone. Add Gen. 17:7 (God’s covenant promise to Abraham), Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33, I Cor 1:16 (household baptisms) to name a few. On either side of the coin, baptism is discussed based on foundational views of Scripture ane theology. Baptism is not the foundation itself. I believe Scripture presents a Canonical continuity in covenantal language. I think one must define who God includes in a “household”. From Scripture, who are members of a family? If the answer to this question includes children, which I believe is true, then that should effect our understanding of passages that talk about the household.

    Check out John Scott Johnson’s article on Baptism: There are other good resources as well.

    I will read the Phillips/Burk discussion.

    As always, thanks for the post!


    Ill take a shot at this.
    “so what benefit does the baptized baby have?”
    The same benefit that a married person has before God, versus a non married “intimate” couple. Both are doing the same thing. But one is actually married, therefore seen as married and treated as one who is married. Therefore has benefits before God that non married people who are shacking up dont get. The baptized baby is in covenant. Therefore God treats them differently. So one benefit would be that discipline is working within the covenant, as a christian, and not outside. When i discipline my children, then hold them as they cry, kiss them, and they ask for forgiveness and then receive it with us all laughing and excited, we are all living out the gospel together. as plain as i can say it, this is more effective in the covenant. Because outside the covenant, the children are not seen as repentant christians, but pagans acting like christians.

  • Pamela

    Baptism to me is like a birthmark connecting us to the Lord. He is our Father in Heaven and baptism is saying that we belong to Him. No one is saved through baptism because as sinners we can stray away from lord at any age even adults who get baptized. This world tests our faith in many ways and it is through Grace with faith that we are saved. We can’t work our way or simply living a perfect life. I am sure there are non Christians who live a very upstanding life but who wouldn’t be saved because they are leaving out the most important person in this world and that is God. At my church we baptize babies and then we continue teaching them through Sunday School and it is through confirmation is when the child is a real member of the church which is done in the 7th and 8th grades. Building a relationship with God is a lifelong process that does not end with baptism and it does not stop until God calls us home.

  • shelby

    didn’t read all the comments, but the privileges and responsibilities are possibly hard to define because at least some of them are spiritual in nature. God’s people as a whole (of any age, at any time in history, OT or NT) shows the watching world how God deals with his bride. it is a testimony of the relationship. this included babies in the OT as well as currently. also, someone who is covenantal would disagree w Presbyterians on the topic of whether babies can receive communion. (not because communion saves, any more than b/c circumcision “saved”, but because it is the right and privilege, as well as the means of grace to the believer who receives it in faith, which children can have). this is where federal vision got doug wilson into heaps of trouble, but it is a subtle point that needs to be FULLY considered before heading out on a witch hunt…in spite of the westminster catechism’s stance on faith, CAN children, even babies have faith? (peter leithart has a great book that describes this well called The Baptized Body. also rich lusk’s Paedofaith covers this topic well). if you believe faith is aN *intellectual* act, then babies cannot have faith. but if faith is a leaning into, a dependency on, a trusting of someone to care for you, then even babies in the womb can do that, like David, John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus. not that the children of all believers are BORN with faith, but that they certainly COULD be. and that we are told to trust that God will bless the seed of those He enters into a promise with. He does not just see individuals, He sees entire streams of generations of people, connected to Him through covenant. anyway, if you want to understand the topic better, check out doug wilson’s stuff on canon press website. he would say that Baptists teach their children constantly by what they say and do, what they withhold from them, that THEY DO NOT BELONG TO GOD. and this, unfortunately, can be a self-fulfilling prophesy as the child grow up thinking church is not for me, communion is not for me, sermons are not for me…they are an outsider to the grace of God from a young age. not a way to treat “the least of these”, IF they rightly belong to God. and that, of course, is the question.

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