Infant Baptism: Does the New Testament Teach Paedobaptism?
Does the Bible teach infant baptism (also called paedobaptism)? Many denominations of Christianity practice infant baptism, but an exploration of the Scriptures describing baptism and its purpose challenges the practice. Baptism in Scripture involves internal factors such as belief and repentance which do not fit infant baptism.
There was a young couple talking about marriage. Their relationship was moving along nicely. They had so much in common, and they shared many common dreams for a life together. But one day the young man decided to share what he disliked about his wife’s family. He didn’t think it would be a big deal. He and his girlfriend had made a commitment to be transparent about virtually everything, and so far, that had gone smoothly. So when he shared his thoughts about this, he couldn’t believe her negative reaction.
This young man didn’t realize that by criticizing what his fiancée’s family had done, she would think he was criticizing her parents’ character and rejecting her entire family. She was very upset, to say the least. In fact, she was so upset that she called into question the prospect of their marriage together. His criticism was a huge deal to her because family is a touchy subject for anyone.
In a similar way, as we approach the contents of this article, we realize that what we say may be a big challenge. So, let us clarify upfront what we are not saying:
- We are not questioning the motives and the hearts of those who practice infant baptism.
- We are not diminishing the faith of parents, nor are we attacking the genuineness of the faith of those who uphold infant baptism.
- We are not criticizing those who want to dedicate their children to God.
“We are not diminishing the faith of parents, nor are we attacking the genuineness of the faith of those who uphold infant baptism.”
We value and seek to honor the faith of all who seek to trust and follow Jesus, regardless of their traditions. We think that God looks at the heart, and that is where we want to look, as well (Acts 16:9).
But we want to know what God’s Word teaches us and how we can follow it. There are many different beliefs in the Christian world about when a person is ready for baptism. By following God’s Word, we’ve found several principles to guide this topic.
First, a person must believe in Jesus Christ to be baptized.
In the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Then, Peter describes baptism as the point at which a person was saved because it was at that time that they pledged a good conscience to God (1 Pet. 3:21; Acts 22:16). God’s Word indicates that only those capable of personally believing in Jesus, pledging a good conscience, and calling on his name were baptized.
Second, baptism is a pledge of repentance.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter told at least three thousand people that they were to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). The promised gift of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins were available only to those who could repent and be baptized. Thus, to be baptized, a person should be at a point of moral development where they realize the wrongs they have committed and their need to repent of their actions to be right with God.
These are important distinctions because in the Old Testament God’s people were born into the faith. Jewish parents made the decision for their children. Infants were automatically put into the community of faith when their parents had them circumcised. But the New Covenant is different: it is only open to those who will repent and follow Jesus Christ by faith.
“The New Covenant…is open to those who will repent and follow Jesus Christ by faith.”
The difference is that in the New Testament parents could not make a faith commitment for their children. Biblical faith is one in which the person enters into a saving relationship with God only by their personal choice. Notice how the Apostle Paul contrasted the two systems of Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism:
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. (Col. 2:11-13, NIV)
“The hands of men” circumcised infants who did not have (and could not have) faith at that point in life. Their parents acted for them. That’s why baptism is unlike circumcision, because in baptism the one being baptized expresses “their faith in the power of God.”
Infant Baptism? “In baptism the one being baptized expresses ‘their faith in the power of God.’”
Baptism in the Bible is an expression of and commitment to personal faith. In this sense, it is not something that parents can do for their children. If we are to follow the Bible, the only people eligible for baptism are those old enough to make the personal decision to turn away from their sins and trust in Jesus Christ.
Infant Baptism and the Early Church
This also explains the reason infant baptism did not become a common practice in church history until hundreds of years after the Bible had been fully written. The first clearly recorded infant baptism dates to the latter part of the second century (100 years after the Bible was written). We know this because the church father Tertullian opposed it on the grounds that it would be safer and more profitable to wait until faith was formed in the believing adult. Infant baptism did not become an established practice until the fourth century.
Even the respected professor and author Kenneth Stewart—who serves as a seminary professor for churches that support infant baptism—admits infant baptism has little objective support. In his writings, he says that he finds no clear evidence in the Bible or in the earliest years of church history that supports infant baptism.
6 Truths That Speak to Infant Baptism
We want to summarize the reasons for what we believe about this issue. Here are six truths that direct us away from supporting infant baptism:
- There are no passages of Scripture that clearly teach infant baptism in the New Testament.
- There are no clear examples of infant baptism in the New Testament. All of the clear and unambiguous examples are believers who were baptized (Acts 8: 36ff; 22:16; etc.). The ones that are not clear were “households” that were baptized in the Bible (Acts 11:14), but a careful reading shows that households included their “relatives and close friends,” and these are adults (Acts 10:24-27). To add infants to this description is to add something that must be read into the text.
- The New Testament correlates circumcision—as a sign that one is in the covenant—not with baptism but with the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 2:29), given when a person believes in Christ (Eph. 1:13-14). This means that infant circumcision is not correlated to infant baptism.
- Believer’s baptism—when those who personally believe are baptized—was the practice of the church in the years immediately after the Bible was written, which excluded infants.
- The tradition of infant baptism substitutes what the Bible clearly teaches. Almost all scholars teach that believer’s baptism is biblical. Those who practice infant baptism, however, follow something that must be read into the New Testament. In the process, something that is (at best) an inference becomes a substitute and a replacement for the Bible’s clear teaching.
- Infant baptism does not require faith on the part of the person being baptized. Since justification can only be granted through faith, infant baptism skews the teaching of God’s Word about faith.
“Infant baptism does not require faith on the part of the person being baptized.”
In summary, if we are seeking to follow God’s Word, the following three guidelines will help us apply the biblical truths we’ve covered in this section.
- First, only those who believe can be baptized.
- Second, repentance from sin, coupled with the commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus, must be a driving factor in baptism.
- Third, there is no clear support in the Bible or in the earliest years of the church to support infant baptism.
 A child’s inherent standing before God (Matt. 19:13-15) and the sanctifying cover of a parent’s faith (7:14) are to be trusted as enough to keep children safe until they reach the necessary level of spiritual development, where they can make the personal decision to turn away from sin (even as a future life path) to faith in Christ.
 See F. LaGard Smith, Baptism: The Believer’s Wedding Ceremony (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing, 1989), 115-116. See also Larry Stalley, Baptism In The Early Post-Apostolic Church (M. A. R. Guided Research, Harding University Graduate School, 1980); Jack P. Lewis, “Baptismal Practices of the Second and Third Century Church,” Restoration Quarterly vol. 26 (1983): 1-17; and Everett Ferguson, The Early Christians Speak (Abilene, Texas: ACU Press, reprint 1994). Attempts to find infant baptism within the description of households coming to faith typically minimizes the fact that “households” in the ancient world typically included relatives, in-laws, and slaves. A careful examination of the conversions in Acts 10 demonstrates this truth.
 Kenneth J. Stewart, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 128-140.
Excerpted from Tony Twist, David Young, and Bobby Harrington, Baptism: What the Bible Teaches (Renew.org, 2019).