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Faculty Publication: Rev Principal Michael McClenahan, "Why baptise babies?"

Rev Principal Michael McClenahan


The following article was originally published in the September 2013 issue of the Presbyterian Herald:


In the last few weeks and in the oddest of places I have heard all manner of views about infant baptism. I’ve heard that no child should be baptized and I’ve heard that all children without exception should be baptized.

Many ministers in our denomination have cause to reflect that it is often people who are most zealous for the cause of Christ who are most uncertain about infant baptism. And it is often those who relatively indifferent who are most insistent that their child ‘is done’.

For a moment then it is important to consider our reasons for infant baptism and some of the implications for church life.

Why do we baptize our children?

This is an important place to begin because not all Christians who baptize infants do so for the same reasons. Criticisms of some reasons given for infant baptism are perfectly valid. For example, when Presbyterians hear someone claim that children should be baptized because the church has the authority to decide the matter, we readily join forces with those who reject such a position. Or again, when someone seeks to defend infant baptism on sentimental grounds - ‘isn’t it just lovely?’ – we again have to firmly demur.

Presbyterians baptize children because the Lord Jesus requires it. The baptism of God’s people is commanded by Christ (Matthew 28:19). This conviction is rooted in what our forefathers called the covenant of grace. Scripture teaches that God made special promises to our father Abraham and these special promises – the covenant – shape our faith.

It is important that we recognize that these promises to Abraham were gospel promises. The covenant with Abraham is not something old that the gospel has replaced. In Genesis it is the gospel that is proclaimed to Abraham – the good news that God is ours and we are his because of his grace. The New Testament reveals more substance of the gospel, but it is the same gospel, the same covenant promises, in both testaments. There is only one covenant of grace. The first coming of the Lord Jesus marked not a radical break with the past but a final fulfilment of God’s promises (Luke 1:54-55).

In particular, the promises to Abraham included his descendants. In words often read at baptismal services the Lord said to Abraham: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). It should not surprise us then that the God of Abraham treated Abraham’s descendants as his own. When Israel sinned grievously the Lord called their little ones ‘his children’ (Ezekiel 16:20). Children are a blessing from the Lord, ‘like olive shoots’ around the table (Psalm 128:3). They belong to God’s people, they are his children.

In Genesis the Lord not only made astonishing promises to Abraham, he also gave him a sign of his purposes. In Genesis that sign is circumcision. The sign itself may seem rather odd to us at first, but when we recall that the Lord was promising blessing to Abraham’s descendants (his seed) the purpose of the sign becomes clearer. And as God commanded, so it was to be. The sign was not optional (Exodus 4:24-26).

In the New Testament the sign of the one covenant of grace changes from circumcision to baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). No longer is it appropriate for the sign to include the shedding of blood, for Christ’s blood is a final and sufficient sacrifice. The Lord now commands all his people (male and female) to receive the new sign of covenant belonging – washing with water in the name of the Trinity.

A central issue now arises. Many Christians feel instinctively that if Christians are meant to baptize their children then the New Testament should say more about it. Where are the texts, they often ask, which tell new Christians to make sure that their little ones are baptized too? The problem with this question is that it treats the New Testament as something fundamentally new and different to the Old. Yet in reality the reason this issue did not need to be explicitly addressed in the New Testament is that it would never have occurred to the apostles that children might be excluded from God’s covenant people. The thought was unimaginable. The promises of the new covenant spoke of greater blessings for covenant children, not the removal of covenant privileges (Acts 2:17). The question we should ask is not where are the texts that speak of infant baptism but rather where are the texts that announce the removal of infants from the covenant people of God? Such texts are noticeable by their absence.

Does this mean that the children of believers are Christians?

A few years ago I was stopped in my tracks at the Armagh Show by a tract-wielding man who demanded to know ‘if I was saved’. It was a hot day and I was rushing through the crowds to catch up with someone. I said, probably too indignantly, ‘I’m a Presbyterian minister.’ Apparently this was not the reply he was looking for – ‘that doesn’t mean you are saved!’

At this point we need to be very clear about what we mean. The word Christian has a number of different meanings. In our Protestant culture many people use it to describe someone as ‘saved’. What they mean by this is they view the person as certain of a heavenly home. Sometimes we hear people say that Mrs so-and-so is a ‘real Christian’ or Mr such-and-such is ‘definitely a Christian.’

Historically Presbyterians have avoided this sort of judgement and for very good reasons. When Scripture uses the language of belonging, that is, when someone is described as a ‘Christian’, or a ‘disciple’, or a ‘believer’, or even a ‘child of God’, the intention is not to pass an infallible judgement on their spiritual condition. Judas, after all, was a disciple. These terms refer to the outward profession of someone’s life. In other words, as far as we can tell, Mr Smith is a Christian. He belongs to the people of God. Will Mr Smith enter heavenly glory? We can make no certain judgement, God alone knows the heart.

This is a significant point when we consider how we relate to other adults and it is vitally important for our assessment of children. Is a baptized child a Christian? Absolutely. They belong to the covenant people of God and are baptized in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But are they a Christian I hear some ask? Are they born again, regenerate, alive in Christ? Will they go to heaven? Are they ‘really Christians’?

Again, here we must pause. It is not for the church, let alone individuals, to decide if anyone is ‘really Christian’. We exercise a judgement of charity. If a man professes faith in Christ and his life is without scandalous sin we receive him as a brother. We do this because the Lord has commanded us to receive such a one as a brother. He may very well not be regenerate. He may in time show this by his fruits – he may deny the faith and commit heinous sins. But until he does we exercise a judgement of charity because the Lord requires it. It is the same with covenant children. We receive them in the family of the church at the Lord’s command. We receive little girls as little sisters in Christ and little boys as little brothers. We rejoice in our fellowship with them and in God’s abundant covenant promises to us all. We worship with them, we serve with them, and we seek to grow in our faith with them too.

In Ephesians the Apostle Paul first stresses the wonderful realities of the gospel before elaborating the implications of the gospel for the church community. It is instructive for us to note that when he comes to children he treats them as true covenant members:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

Ephesians 6:1-2

Children are in the Lord, their little lives can please the Lord, and their faithfulness brings blessing upon them. They are not outsiders who need to be brought into the people of God. They are rather members of God’s people who are called to pursue ever increasing faithfulness and blessing. Within the home children are to receive the spiritual food they need to grow – ‘the instruction of the Lord.’ (Ephesians 6:4). Children do not live by bread alone but by every word their Heavenly Father has given to nurture them in true faith, hope, and love.

Perhaps the most important question we can ask ourselves in light of infant baptism, is whether we do all we can in our fellowship with covenant children to ensure that they grow and flourish as faithful children of their Heavenly Father?

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