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Jesus clearly commanded people to be baptized (Matt. 28:18-20), yet there is much disagreement about who should be baptized.
Some religious groups baptize babies. But other people say that, before one is baptized, a person should be old enough to accept the responsibility to make his own decision whether or not to be baptized and to live the Christian life. That is, they teach individual responsibility and personal accountability. The purpose of this study is to learn what the Bible says about infant baptism.
We begin with an important basic principle: In order to participate in a religious practice with God's approval, we must find New Testament teaching authorizing that practice.
Everything we do in religion must be done by Jesus' authority (Col. 3:17). The Scriptures provide us to all good works (2 Tim. 3:16,17), so if a practice is not included in God's word, it must not be a good work. If a practice is not authorized in the New Testament, then it must be human in origin and therefore not pleasing to God (2 John 9; Gal. 1:6-9; Matt. 15:9; Prov. 14:12; etc.)
According to these Scriptures babies should be baptized only if we can find statements in the New Testament that show that God wants us to practice this. To prove infant baptism is unacceptable, we do not have to find a passage that expressly forbids the practice. Rather, if the Bible tells us specifically who to baptize, and if infants are not included in those instructions - i.e., if the gospel teaches individual responsibility and personal accountability - then the practice of baptizing babies should be abandoned.
Please consider the following Bible teaching:
The Bible reveals that a person must do certain things before he can be baptized. If these things are not done, then the baptism would not be Scriptural. So we ask whether or not a baby can fulfill the Scriptural prerequisites of baptism.
Note that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34,35; Rom. 2:11), so there are not two sets of prerequisites for baptism - one for babies and one for adults. Whatever the Bible requires of some people to be baptized, it requires the same of all people.
Mark 16:15,16 - All who are baptized, must first have the gospel preached to them. But what good would be done by preaching to a baby?
John 6:44,45 - No one can come to Jesus without being taught from the Father. This does not just mean simply hearing sounds. One must "learn"; he must understand the meaning of what is being taught. Can babies do this (cf. 1 Cor. 14:20)?
Acts 2:36,41 - This example shows what it means for people to learn the gospel before they are baptized. The people were given evidence that Jesus is God's Son (v14-36). They were told that, on the basis of this evidence, they must "know assuredly" that Jesus is Lord and Christ (v36). Those who were baptized were those who gladly received this message (v41). Can babies hear and learn in this way?
Mark 16:15,16 - Every creature who is baptized must first believe the gospel which they have been taught. Baptism is only for those who are capable of hearing and believing the gospel. No one is included in the command if they cannot first hear, understand, and believe the gospel. Can a baby do these things?
Galatians 3:26,27 - However many people are baptized, all of them must do so by faith. Everyone who is baptized must first understand the gospel well enough to believe it.
Acts 8:12 - When the people of Samaria gave heed to the gospel that was preached (v5,6), both men and women were baptized. When were they baptized? When they believed, not before. Can babies believe? If not, they should not be baptized until they do believe.
In all Bible examples of baptism, people were baptized only when they personally had full faith, based on their own understanding of the gospel. Never were they baptized on the basis of someone else's faith, such as their parents. No one else can believe for us, just like no one can be baptized for us.
[See also Acts 8:36-39; 18:8; Rom. 1:16; 10:13-17.]
Acts 2:38 - Every person who is baptized ("every one of you") must first repent. Repentance is a change of mind - a decision to turn from sin and begin to live for God (cf. Matt. 21:28,29). This decision involves a commitment to put God first, and to live all our lives faithfully serving Him.
Note that the person who is baptized is the same person who must first repent. This is a personal choice. No one else can make this decision for us. Can a baby make this choice? (Note that we will see later that babies do not even have any sins to repent of.)
Some people claim that "children" in v39 means babies are included in those to whom this "promise" was made. But "children" simply means offspring, regardless of age (note Matt. 3:9; 10:21; 21:28; John 8:39). The "promise" here is for those who repent and are baptized (v38); but babies cannot repent, nor can they do other things required in the context (v36,40,41,42). The "promise" to the "children" was fulfilled when they were old enough to do what God requires, not while they were babies.
[See also 2 Cor. 7:10; Mk. 1:4,5.]
Romans 10:9,10 - To be saved, one must believe in his heart and confess Christ with his mouth. How can a baby confess Christ when it cannot even speak?
Acts 8:35-39 - Here is an example of confession before baptism. The candidate for baptism must make an understandable statement, so that the one who does the baptizing knows they are baptizing someone who has faith. Babies cannot communicate regarding their faith in any understandable way, therefore it is not Scriptural to baptize them.
Churches that baptize babies often have a practice called "confirmation." People are baptized as babies, but later when they get old enough to understand and make their own choice about serving God, they are taught and are asked to publicly "confirm" their faith and their desire to live for God. The very existence of such a practice is an admission that the child did not understand, believe, and repent before he was baptized.
We have now learned four things which the Bible says every person must personally do before he can be baptized. God is no respecter of persons, so the plan is the same for everyone. Before anyone can be baptized, he must hear and understand the gospel, believe it, repent of sins, and confess Christ. Little babies cannot do any of these things. Therefore, the command to be baptized is not addressed to them. To baptize them anyway would be to act without God's authority. It would be doing something different from what God says must be done.
Romans 6:17,18 - To be freed from sin, one must obey from the heart the teaching delivered. This includes obedience in baptism (v3,4). God is pleased only when we serve Him from the willing choice of our own hearts. Our acts of service are valueless if someone else forces them upon us against our will or without our consent.
Acts 2:40,41 - People were commanded to be saved, and they responded by being baptized. Each individual personally made his own decision. No one else can obey God for us, and no one else can make that choice for us.
Other people may teach and encourage us to obey God, but they cannot decide for us whether or not we will obey. This includes obedience in baptism. Since a baby cannot possibly make this decision and cannot communicate any such decision to us, to baptize it anyway would violate God's law of personal responsibility.
[See also the notes below on Ezek. 18:20 and 2 Cor. 5:10. Cf. Rom. 2:28,29; 1 Pet. 1:22; 3:21; 2 Cor. 8:5; Rev. 22:17; Phil. 2:12; 1 Cor. 13:1-3.]
Again, since God is no respecter of persons, the purpose of baptism must be the same for all who are baptized. He did not give two different purposes, one for adults and another for babies. What are the proper purposes for which all must be baptized?
Mark 16:16 - He who believes and is baptized will be saved.
Acts 2:38 - Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.
Acts 22:16 - Be baptized and wash away your sins.
1 Peter 3:21 - Baptism also now saves us.
As shown above, our service to God pleases Him only if it is offered from the right motive and purpose. So the person who is baptized must do it for the purpose of being forgiven or saved from his sins.
Consider the Lord's Supper as an illustration. Even if a person does the right actions, but if his reasons are wrong, he displeases God (1 Cor. 11:23-29). Likewise, if a person is baptized, but if he does not do it to receive forgiveness of sins, then the baptism is not Scriptural. But a baby cannot understand the meaning of baptism, so how can he be baptized from a proper motive?
(See the links at the end of this study for further information about the purpose of baptism.)
Since baptism must be done for the purpose of receiving forgiveness of sins, a baby could Scripturally be baptized only if it was guilty of sins and needed forgiveness. But is a baby guilty of sin?
We become sinners when we transgress God's law (1 John 3:4; James 1:13-15; Isa. 59:1,2). But a baby cannot understand God's law, so how could it be held accountable for violating it?
Some people believe that babies need baptism because they have inherited guilt from Adam. But consider:
Ezekiel 18:20 - The child does not bear the iniquity of the father, but the wickedness of the wicked is upon himself. The only person held accountable for Adam's sin is Adam, not his descendants.
2 Corinthians 5:10 - Each one will be judged according to what he has done in the body, good or bad. This means no one will be condemned for Adam's sin, except Adam!
Note that this also confirms that no one will be justified because someone else decided to do good. Specifically babies are not held accountable for a parent's decision to have a child baptized. Each person will be judged for what he chooses to do, not for what others choose to do.
Further, the Bible says that Jesus was without sin (Heb. 2:14,17; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 3:5). How could He have been without sin if babies inherit the guilt of Adam's sin?
If babies are guilty of sin, if one dies without baptism, then wouldn't it follow that he is eternally lost? Almost no one will accept this conclusion, yet to deny the conclusion is to admit that babies really are not guilty of sin.
Further, since baptism is essential to salvation, if a baby is a sinner, then its salvation from sin must depend entirely on the actions of others. It must rely entirely on its parents to choose to baptize it. It has no choice in the matter, and cannot possibly influence its own destiny. This contradicts all the scriptures we have quoted showing that salvation is a matter of individual choice (2 Cor. 5:10; etc.).
Since salvation is a matter of individual choice, and since a baby cannot choose or express a choice to be baptized, we conclude that the baby is not lost to begin with. Therefore it does not need baptism.
Since we now know that babies have committed no sin and have inherited no sin, it follows that they must be innocent. Notice other Scriptures that confirm this conclusion:
Psalms 106:37,38; Jeremiah 19:4,5 - Babies sacrificed to idols were "innocent."
Hebrews 12:9 - God is the Father of our spirits, in contrast to human fathers (fathers of our flesh). Adam was a father of our flesh, but not of our spirit. God is the Father of our spirits. Would God give us sinful spirits? [Zech. 12:1; Ecc. 12:7]
Matthew 19:14; 18:3 - The kingdom is for those who are like little children. To enter the kingdom, we must be converted and become like little children. If children are sinners, would this not mean that we must be converted and become like little sinners?
Yet other passages show that to enter the kingdom we must become innocent or cleansed of sin (Col. 1:13,14). Therefore, becoming like little children must mean, among other things, that children are innocent.
But since Jesus said to let little children come to Him, some people say this means we should baptize babies so they can come to Him. But Jesus did not baptize the babies who came to Him. They came into His physical presence so He could touch them and pray for them (Matt. 19:13; Mark 10:13-16), not so He could baptize them. They were already acceptable to Him just as they were, without baptism.
A baby does not need forgiveness because he is not guilty. He is in a safe condition, not accountable for sin until he is old enough to be able to understand and accept the responsibility to obey God. Since baptism is for the remission of sins, and since a baby has no sins, it follows that babies do not need baptism.
Some people admit that babies have no sin, but they baptize them anyway as a "dedication" to encourage parents to train the child properly. But where does the Bible say this is the purpose of baptism? The purpose of baptism is to receive remission of sins. And furthermore, we have learned that no one can decide that another person will be dedicated to God. Each person must decide that for himself.
So no matter how you look at it, infant baptism perverts the purpose of baptism.
When a person is baptized, he is making a commitment to live all the rest of his life according to the Bible. He automatically and immediately becomes subject to certain responsibilities that the Bible requires of all baptized people. A person should not be baptized unless he understands this commitment and makes it freely of his own choice.
Here are a few of the responsibilities that God requires baptized people to learn to fulfill. Can babies understand this commitment and make it freely of their own choice?
1 Corinthians 12:13,25,26 - Note first that baptism makes people members of Jesus' body, which is the church (Eph. 1:22,23; 5:23). Some people baptize babies, but still do not consider them to be members of the church. God's word says that, when one has been Scripturally baptized, he is automatically in the church. Then all members in the church should care for, suffer with, and rejoice with other members. Can a baby learn to do this? [cf. Heb. 10:22-25]
Ephesians 4:16 - In the body (the church) every joint and each part is to work to edify and build up the body. Can babies understand this responsibility and commit themselves to learn to fulfill it? If not, then they should not be baptized into the body.
Acts 2:38-42,47 - Note again that, when people were baptized, the Lord added them to His church (v41,47). To baptize people and yet consider them not fully members of the church would be unscriptural. These baptized people then continued in the acts of worship named: breaking bread, prayer, the apostles' doctrine, etc. Can babies do this?
1 Corinthians 14:15-20 - Members of the church (this includes all baptized people - 1 Cor. 12:13) are to assemble with other Christians to sing, pray, and teach. All this should be done with understanding. But the Scripture expressly says that babies cannot do these things with the understanding that God requires (v20).
Notice the passage carefully: Members of the church should understand what is done in worship. Babies cannot understand. Therefore, babies should not be baptized into the church!
1 Corinthians 10:16,17; 11:23-29 - All members of the body (i.e., all people who are baptized - 12:13) should eat the bread and drink the cup in communion (10:16,17). Do churches that baptize babies have them partake of communion?
When members partake, they must remember Jesus' death and discern the meaning of it. If they eat without understanding, they eat and drink damnation to themselves (11:23-29). Can babies remember and discern this? If not, they should not partake. But all members of the body should partake, therefore babies should not be baptized into the body!
Clearly, God requires all members of the church to make a commitment that babies cannot make. Therefore, the command to be baptized is not addressed to babies and does not include them.
Romans 6:3,4,11-18 - When people are baptized, they come into Christ and should walk in newness of life. They are made alive to God (newness of life), so they must not let sin reign in their bodies, but must use their members as instruments of righteousness. Obeying the gospel makes us free from sin and slaves to righteousness. But babies cannot make such choices and commitments. They should not be baptized until they are able to accept this responsibility from their own hearts.
Romans 12:1,2 - This passage is addressed to "brethren" - i.e., children of God, members of God's family, the church. But people become children of God, born again as brethren in the family, when by faith they are baptized (Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; 1 Tim. 3:15). Such people should present their bodies as living sacrifices to God, not being conformed to the world. This commitment must be accepted by one who is baptized. Can babies make such a commitment?
1 Corinthians 15:58 - Brethren (i.e., people who became children of God at the point of baptism) should be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord's work. If one is not able to understand this commitment and make it freely, he should not be baptized. Can babies understand and make this commitment?
Matthew 28:19,20 - Baptized people should be taught to obey all Jesus' commands. This shows that it is not necessary, at the very point of baptism, for people to know all the specific commands they must obey after baptism. But they must be capable of learning those commands. And they must have a heart willing to accept by their own free will everything Jesus says.
This is the commitment that a person makes when he repents and is baptized. No one should be baptized unless he has made such a commitment. A baby cannot do this, so he should not be baptized until he is old enough to choose for himself to do so.
Note carefully that we have learned what God says people must do before they can be baptized, during baptism (the proper purpose), and after baptism. And babies do not qualify in any of these areas. To baptize babies, then, would be to act by human authority without God's authority, thereby violating the will of God.
And, by studying what Scriptural baptism involves, we have not only shown why babies should not be baptized, but we have also show how people should be baptized properly.
Remember that practices displease God unless they are authorized in His word (see our introduction). We now know that the gospel clearly teaches conditions regarding baptism that babies cannot possibly meet. Yet some folks still claim that infant baptism is Scriptural. We have briefly answered several such efforts already. Let us notice some more.
Some people claim that babies can have faith, and therefore they should be baptized (note Matt. 18:6). But remember that denominations typically baptize babies as young as a few days or a few weeks old. Can anyone seriously believe that babies, at this age, can have the kind of faith the Bible requires before baptism?
The only way anyone can have faith is by being taught God's word. Do churches that baptize babies teach them before baptizing them? Of course not. So they are baptizing people who have no faith.
They do, however, try to instill faith in these children later in life in "confirmation." Why is this necessary, if the child had faith and knowledge from infancy? The practices of these churches prove of themselves that they know babies do not have knowledge and faith.
And remember that 1 Cor. 14:20 expressly states that babies are not capable of having sufficient understanding to be baptized and be members of Jesus' church.
We have shown that these are also required before baptism. Can babies do these? And remember that the confession must be understandable so that other people know the candidate has sufficient faith to be baptized.
Can babies do these too? Remember, all baptized people are in the church and must learn to fulfill these duties. Even if babies had faith, that would only be part of what God requires. Other things are required, both before and after baptism, that babies cannot possibly accomplish.
But the Bible says to baptize the ones that believe and not the ones that do not believe (Mark. 16:16; Acts 8:12,36,37; etc.). Do folks who practice infant baptism make a distinction between the babies that believe and those that don't? If so, how?
The Bible describes different degrees of faith (Heb. 10:39; cf. Jas. 2:19; John 12:42,43; Matt. 14:31). Children gradually grow in understanding and in faith, but they do not have "saving" faith, sufficient to be baptized, until they are old enough to repent, confess, and fully accept the responsibility of living the Christian life, as we have already studied.
Some people refer to Bible examples where whole households were baptized. They claim that these households must have included babies, so infant baptism is authorized. But notice:
Many households do not include babies or even small children. If the Bible does not mention babies, then to claim there were babies in the household would simply be an unproved assumption. The simple fact that households were converted proves nothing by itself. Unless these passages themselves show us that babies were included, then we must settle the issue on the basis of other passages on the subject.
We have cited clear, specific evidence that people who were baptized must always first hear, believe, repent, and confess, and that they must be baptized for the right reason, and that they must be able to accept the responsibilities of church membership. Babies can do none of these things. It is a misuse of Scripture to assume without proof that babies were included in the household conversions, in contradiction to this evidence.
Notice each of the Bible examples of household conversions:
Cornelius' household - Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:7-11
Peter taught these people that God is no respecter of persons (10:34). So whatever anyone in the household did to be baptized, all the rest must have done the same things. Peter did not give two sets of rules, one for babies and another for adults.
Notice some things that people in this household did that babies cannot do: all in the household feared God (10:2,35); all came together to hear and receive what God had commanded (10:33,44; 11:1,14); they heard and believed (15:7,9; 10:43), they repented (11:18), and they were told to work righteousness (10:35). No babies baptized here!
Furthermore, since God is no respecter of persons, we are not going to find any examples of conversion in which less was required of people than in the examples we have already studied. Some examples may give fewer details, but no one in any household was baptized without faith, repentance, confession, etc. If such a case existed, God would be a respecter of persons.
Lydia's household - Acts 16:13-15,40
In this case there is no reason to believe that Lydia was even married, let alone that she had little children. The Bible teaches that, if a woman has a husband, he should be the head of the household (Eph. 5:22-25). So whenever the Bible refers to the activity of a household, if the husband is included in that activity, if the wife is mentioned by name then the man is also mentioned. (Notice how the other household conversions demonstrate this. Genealogies also followed this rule.)
Since Lydia's household was baptized, the fact that no man is mentioned would imply that she was the head of the household. Her household may have included relatives, especially older relatives, and perhaps servants, but no husband is implied, let alone children.
Paul later "encouraged" those who were brethren (NKJV), including Lydia's house (v40). Did this include babies?
The Jailer's household - Acts 16:23-34
Before this household was baptized, Paul spoke the word to all in the house (v32), and they believed (v31,34). Again, babies can't do these things, so no babies were included in the number baptized here.
Stephanas' household - 1 Corinthians 1:16; 16:15
Again, what verse says there were babies in this household? Note that Stephanas' house ministered to the saints. Again, people who are baptized must be old enough to be active in God's work as members of the church. This does not include babies.
The household conversions do not disprove what we have learned elsewhere. Instead they harmonize with it. All who are baptized must do things that babies cannot do. Therefore, the command to be baptized does not include babies. When people baptize babies, they follow human authority, and they displease God.
Infant baptism is objectionable for several reasons. By examining the problems in infant baptism, we have also shown how people should be baptized properly.
First, infant baptism is an unauthorized change in God's pattern for baptism. God tells us whom to baptize. He tells the conditions people must meet in order to be baptized, but babies do not fit. To baptize babies is to act by human authority without divine authority.
Second, infant baptism leads people to believe they are saved when they are not. God requires people to be baptized for the remission of sins when they are old enough to make their own decision about the matter. But many people have been baptized as babies. Then, when they are old enough to be responsible for their conduct so they should be baptized, they refuse because they believe they have already done so. But their infant baptism was not Scriptural. So the person goes through his whole life never having been Scripturally baptized, and therefore he never has received forgiveness of his sins!
A final objection to infant baptism is that it is almost always done by sprinkling or pouring, not by immersion. But the Bible says that baptism is a burial (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). A person must go down into the water and come up out of it (Acts 8:38,39; Mark 1:9,10). Bible baptism requires much water (John 3:23). Infant baptism does not fit God's pattern on any of these points. The evidence clearly shows that Bible baptism is an immersion, not a sprinkling or pouring.
What should a person do if his baptism was not done the way the Bible teaches? He should realize that he simply has not yet obeyed God, and he needs to obey God by being baptized according to the Bible (Acts 19:1-6). If this is your need, we urge you to find a faithful local church belonging to Christ and be baptized Scripturally today!
Copyright 1998, David E. Pratte
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Things that Are Essential to Salvation
Is Obedience Essential to Salvation?
The Purpose of Baptism
Individual Responsibility in Salvation
Importance of Repentance
Should Babies Be Baptized?
Is Baptism Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
Should Alien Sinners Pray for Forgiveness
What about the Thief on the Cross?
Divine Authority vs. Human Authority in Religion
Original Sin and Inherited Depravity
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.