This post is written in honor of my baby girls, Addie Lee and Reagan.  At ages 19 months and 10 weeks, respectively, they will both receive the sacrament of baptism this weekend at Gordon’s Chapel United Methodist Church.  The girls will be baptized from a font dedicated to the memory of J.A. and Annie Epps Stone, and will be amongst the fifth generation of  Stone descendants to be a part of this church community.  “Grandpa and Grandma Stone” were both in attendance at the first meeting of a community that became Gordon’s Chapel, held underneath a brush arbor in Sanford, GA.  Undoubtedly, they will also be present at the baptism of my girls, amongst the great cloud of witnesses that are watching as they participate in this first step of faith.

During my years of service in ministry in the evangelical world, I heard many criticisms of churches that were liturgical in nature.  As I’ve grown older (I won’t say more mature…just older),  I’ve come to realize that there’s tons of misunderstanding in the Protestant world about sacramental theology.  I might hear the theology and the frequency of use of the communion table criticized in evangelical circles from time to time, but the hot button topic always seems to be baptism.

Sacramental churches don’t always dunk (or immerse, for those of y’all who need to be more holy-soundin’).

Even worse…They baptize babies.

When I first journeyed outside of the Methodist church, the Baptist body I became a part insisted that my baptism in the UMC at age 11 wasn’t legitimate, because I hadn’t prayed “The Sinner’s Prayer”.  Once I was filled with a sufficient enough amount of doubt to pray that prayer,  I was then told that my method of baptism, sprinkling, was wrong in every way.

As an immature believer, I didn’t mind praying the prayer, even if it was only for my own assurance.  I resisted being re-baptized, though, until the time at which I discerned God’s call on my life for ordained ministry.  At that time, I submitted to my denominational leadership’s request that I be baptized via immersion.

I regretted my choice the moment I entered the water, and have ever since.  I understand the requirement that I adhere to denominational standards, but now I realize that those standards didn’t have a sound base.

Now, you won’t find any argument here that  “believer’s baptism”…baptism which occurs after someone does a profession of faith…is wrong.  My path was different, though.  I was a covenant child.  My parents had taught me about Christ from an early age, and I never remember a time in my life that I wasn’t aware of my sinful state, or that I didn’t realize that Christ had died for my sins.

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that not every Christian takes the same path to Christ.  It’s not so much the pathway to faith that matters, as long as the object of your faith is correct.  I’ve grown to believe that  infant baptism is a pure, true, and legitimate expression of what God is doing in a child’s life..  It doesn’t represent salvation, but it does represent the beginning of the work of the Holy Spirit in that individual.  Infant baptism isn’t about how we feel about God;  instead, it’s a rite of adoption, a reflection of the great affection God feels toward us.

Some time ago, I was blessed to hear Bishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Diocese of the South (ACNA) share his thoughts on infant baptism, and I will note that I borrow liberally from his teachings in my own ideas on the matter.  Below are a couple of reasons I believe that infant baptism is legitimate, interspersed with random commentary, and thoughts from that “great cloud of witnesses” I mentioned earlier.

So, why do I believe that infant baptism is legitimate? 

1) Children were never excluded from the Kingdom

Mark 10:13-16 says this…

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them,“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

The Greek word used for “children” here is paidia, which translates literally into “babes in arms”.  Luke 18:15-17 parallels Mark’s account of the event, and the ESV translation used denotes the same word as “infants” in that passage.

These were babies.  Now, they weren’t being baptized, but their age and lack of knowledge did not prevent them access to Christ, nor did it inhibit their ability to receive Christ’s blessings.

Let’s take the idea even one step farther.  Luke 1:15 says that John the Baptist was a “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”  The Holy Spirit has no boundaries that it cannot cross, in terms of age, maturity, or knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of scripture.

2) Examples of possible infant baptisms are present in Scripture.

Acts 16:15…Lydia and her whole household are baptized.

Acts 16:33…The Philippian  jailer and his whole family are baptized.

I Cor. 1:16…Paul baptized the entire  household of Stephanas.

In the language of the Old Testament and the New Testament, household means everyone!  Everyone includes everyone, from grandma and grandpa, to servants and field hands.  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some of these households included infants.

Finally, at the close of Peter’s amazing sermon (Acts 2:38-39), he states the following…

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.”

The promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit is stated to be for all, including children.

3) There is silence in the New Testament on the subject.

Some folks just won’t buy the idea that the above examples point to the legitimacy of infant baptism.  However, no one can say that the NT prohibits the practice…And it was most certainly a practice of the earliest generations of Christians, as we will see below.

4) Lack of Controversy in the Early Church on the subject.

If you read the reports from ecumenical councils, you will find debates on a number of subjects.  Some of the arguments were so heated, they erupted into fistfights (St. Nick could pack a punch!).  Infant baptism, though, was never a point of contention.  It was a common practice for the time, and the Church Fathers had no issue with it.  There was controversy over a lot of things, but not over infant baptism.

Here’s some thoughts from the Church Fathers…

For he came to save all by means of himself — all, I say, who by him are born again to God — infants, children, adolescents, young men, and old men.  (Irenaeus,  Against Heresies II.22.4)

And they shall baptize the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family. And next they shall baptize the grown men; and last the women. (Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 21.3-5)

Infants are baptized for the remission of sins. Of what kinds? Or when did they sin? But since “No one is exempt from stain,” one removes the stain by the mystery of baptism. For this reason infants are baptized. For “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Origen, Homily on Luke 14:5)

For this also the church had a tradition from the apostles, to give baptism even to infants. For they to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were given knew that there is in all persons the natural stains of sin which must be washed away by the water and the Spirit. On account of these stains the body itself is called the body of sin. (Origen, Commentary on Romans 5:9)

For from the infant newly born to the old man bent with age, as there is none shut out from baptism, so there is none who in baptism does not die to sin. (Augustine, Enchiridion; ch. 43)

“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (St. Gregory Nazianz, Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7 [A.D. 388])

“Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!” (Irenaeus,Fragment 34 [A.D. 190])

By the way, I really like the word “pusillanimous”.

St. John Chrysostom had perhaps the strongest words I’ve seen on infant baptism…

“Whoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized, or say that they are indeed baptized unto the remission of sins, but that they draw nothing of the original sin of Adam, which is expiated in the bath of regeneration . . . let him be anathema [excommunicated]. Since what the apostle [Paul] says, ‘Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so passed to all men, in whom all have sinned’ [Rom. 5:12], must not be understood otherwise than the Catholic Church spread everywhere has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith even infants, who in themselves thus far have not been able to commit any sin, are therefore truly baptized unto the remission of sins, so that that which they have contracted from generation may be cleansed in them by regeneration”  (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388])

5) Even the reformers practiced infant baptism.

The idea that infants should not be baptized is relatively new…only about 500 years old.  For the first 1500 years of the Church, it was practiced without question.  Many of the men who sparked the split from Rome, the great reformers, had no problem with the practice.

“Hence it follows that water-baptism was given even when there was no faith, and it was received even by those who did not believe.” (Ulrich Zwingli)

“Since our baptizing has been thus from the beginning of Christianity and the custom has been to baptize children, and since no one can prove with good reasons that they do not have faith, we should not make changes and build on such weak arguments.” (Martin Luther)

“If in Christ we have a perfect pattern of all the grace, which God bestows on all his children, in this instance we have a proof that the age of infancy is not incapable of receiving sanctification.” (John Calvin)

All of this leads us to the question…

What are we doing when we baptize infants?

1.   We, as parents, are dedicating them to the Lord.

2.   We are committing to raising them in Christian faith and the Church.

3.   We are exchanging covenant promises.  In the baptism liturgy, the parents make commitments to the Lord and to the child.  The church community also does the same.

4.   We are asking God to begin His work in their lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.

5.   We are claiming by faith the child for the Kingdom of God. 

At the end of the baptism liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, the sign of the cross is made with anointing oil on the forehead of the child, and the words “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever” are spoken This is symbolic of us giving the child to Christ, and Him receiving the infant.

Finally, some closing thoughts from Fr. William Porcher DuBose…

Baptism is not an act of man which his faith goes before and accomplishes, it is an act of God which his faith comes after and accepts and appropriates and realizes or actualizes in himself. We do not tell our children that, if they will repent and believe, they will be or become children of God. That is just what they cannot do, or make themselves. We tell them that they are children of God, that God’s grace has gone before and made them so, that not only all the right and title but all the grace and power of it are theirs in Christ, and that their part is only to be and do what God in Christ will be and do in them. It is only their faith and will to be and do that, that is needed to enable them to say out of a full experience of the heart, with St. Paul: “I can bear all things, I can do all things, I can be all things, through Him that loved me.” In His name, His grace is sufficient for all my needs. “Because we are sons, God sends forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying Abba, Father.” We are not sons because we have the spirit of sons, we have the spirit of sons because we are sons. And nothing will give us or bring us the spirit and disposition and reality of sonship but the realizing that we are sons. Baptism is not magic, it is the simplest, plainest, most direct address and appeal to our intelligence, our affections, our will, our whole selves that is possible. It simply tells us immediately from God Himself that He is one with us and we are one with Him in Christ: that through simple faith in and realization of that fact we become the objects and subjects of His eternal love, infinite grace, and perfect fellowship of life. Just let us take that in, and it will work itself: a real or realizing faith is patently the sole condition of a real and self-realizing divine grace.

It is not necessary that children should realize or know all at once the entire rationale and operation of grace working through faith. Let them at first, as St. John says, simply “know the Father”; and they can know Him really only as “the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” The simplest knowledge of God will beget, and nourish with its own growth, the instinct of holiness, righteousness, and eternal life. The sense and full experience of sin will come of itself in due course and with it the need and experience of the redeeming power and operation of grace. Let us know, as we need it, that we have all these in Christ–and we have them. “Behold,” says St. John, “what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God–and we are.” But it is not enough that we should be called,–we must call ourselves, realize and know ourselves to be, if we would really and actually be.

(Turning Points in My Life, Ch. V,The Theology of the Child)

For a look at the baptismal liturgy of the United Methodist Church, click here.