“Is Your Baby a Born Sinner? Does Your Baby Need Jesus?”

“You baptize babies?  Isn’t that a left-over tradition from Rome?”  Most Presbyterian & Reformed pastors have heard something similar.  Even from folks who attend and appreciate their Reformed worship service.  They appreciate the Christ-centered preaching, the honesty about our sin and the wonder of God’s grace, the order of worship, the riches of Reformed theology.  But this paedo-baptism thing?  Presenting my little ones for this “sacrament”?  Not so sure about that.

How does a pastor respond?  In the past, this pastor responded, I think, like many P&R pastors do:  with (at least!) a 20-30 minute discourse on systematics, biblical theology, and church history.  We lay the groundwork by explaining covenant theology, by highlighting the redemptive-historical sweep of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, by citing the nearly universal practice of church history (“not authoritative, of course, but instructive” and all that), etc., etc., etc.

And then I would notice the glazed eyes.  So I would assure my beloved inquirer to just give it a little more time.  Often, paedo-baptism is the last domino to fall for folks.  From monergism to infant baptism, in just three to five short years (!).  And from time to time, I would check in, repeat the discourse, and eventually wear them down.  Of course, the exegetical and theological basis of infant baptism must be explained.  Church history is a good and helpful witness.  But I began to realize that my approach actually missed the main point:  the Gospel point, the pastoral point of infant baptism.

Now I start with two simple questions:  1) “Is your baby a sinner?”  2) “As a sinner, does your baby need Jesus and the benefits of His Gospel?”  I also instruct as before, answer questions, provide reading material, etc.  But no longer at the expense of the biblical bottom line.  Our children are born sinners.  They need Jesus.  That’s why we present them for baptism.  The promise of the Gospel is for us, and for them (Acts 2:42).  That’s the wonder of the covenant of grace.

I’ve heard some presentations of infant baptism which are more an apology for it, than an apology of it – if you get my drift.  I’ve heard some so disavow the sacramental nature of baptism that they practically present it as an infant dedication – plus water.  A wet baby dedication, if you will.  That is not Reformed.  Many emphasize the covenant community aspect – that by this sacrament, the infant is made part of the visible church.  That’s true enough – and part of our biblical confession – so it ought to be explained.  But that’s not a sufficient explanation.

Baptism is a means of graceBaptism has efficacy.  The Westminster Confession of Faith says so, because the Bible says so.  Check the Scripture proofs.  WCF 28.6 speaks of the “efficacy of baptism.”  Admittedly, the context for that phrase is one of qualifications.  No, baptism isn’t necessarily efficacious at the moment of the administration.  No, not everyone baptized receives the promised Gospel benefits.  Only the elect do.  Yes, (God-given) faith is necessary for the sacraments to become effectual means of salvation (see WSC 91-92).  But WCF 28.6 continues “…yet, notwithstanding [these qualifications!], by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.”

Sometimes we are so focused on what we AREN’T saying when we confess baptism’s efficacy.  As a result, the Gospel promise of covenant baptism dies the death of a thousand qualifications.  We end up unintentionally instilling doubt (“What is God’s hidden decree regarding my children?”) rather than faith (“What is the promise of the incarnate, crucified, risen Jesus TO my children?”).

Is your baby a born sinner?  Does your baby need Jesus?  Does your baby need His forgiveness & perfect righteousness, cleansing from sin, regeneration, the gift of the Holy Spirit, adoption as a child of God, and the promise of the resurrection?  Then bring your baby to Jesus, by way of the means of grace.  Bring them to the font.  Because these precious promises of the Gospel are for you and for your children.

About pastor tony phelps

Pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield, RI
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7 Responses to “Is Your Baby a Born Sinner? Does Your Baby Need Jesus?”

  1. John Bugay says:

    Hey Tony, thanks for looking at this, from this pastoral perspective. I’m really one of those whose eyes have glazed over whenever there are theological discussions of baptism. And I know the theological discussions are necessary. They were necessary at the time of the Reformation, and they really have not been resolved then, nor since the time of the earliest church. In that respect, “doctrines of baptism” seem to fall into the category of ἀδιάφορα, adiaphora, “indifferent things”. Not quite, of course. But I have a hard time believing that our Baptist friends are lacking anything “in Christ” because of their views, and while I have some difficulties with Lutheran characterizations, I’m not sure I’d say that they are lacking in that respect as well. It’ll be interesting to follow these discussions as time goes on.

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  2. pastor tony phelps says:

    Thanks for your reply, John. It is ironic, isn’t it, that baptism is one of the things the apostle Paul appeals to as the basis for our unity in Christ (Eph 4:1-6). And yet it has become a pretty divisive issue. Our Reformed Baptist brothers are still “in Christ” though they deny infant baptism. I do think they err by focusing on mode and the proper recipients (professing believers) – while denying baptism as a means of grace. Read their section on baptism in the London Baptist Confession of Faith. Then read what they say about the Lord’s Supper. The latter section retains Westminster’s (and Scripture’s) high view of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. Their revised chapter on baptism focuses primarily on mode & proper recipients, and its symbolic (sign only) nature. One of these things is not like the other. In general, I think we’re closer to the Lutherans, i.e., that baptism is a means of grace. Miles apart, of course, on the “when” of its efficacy, and whether the benefits of it can be lost (nay on our part, yea on theirs). Baptism is closely associated with the blessings of the Gospel in Scripture (Rom 6, Titus 3, 1 Pet 3, Acts 2, etc). WCF 27.2 & 3. I think this is something our Baptist brothers are sadly missing.

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  3. pastor tony phelps says:

    That’s very cool. Thanks for sharing it. I think it would be a TALL order to do a side-by-side comparison of the BOOK of Concord and Westminster and / or 3F of U. A lot of the Lutheran confessions seem to be more ad hoc / occasioned by immediate theological / ecclesiastical / political-religious controversies (e.g., Augsburg, Smalcald) rather than a thorough-going effort to comprehensively / systematically confess the faith (a la WCF). Could be done by theological category, I suppose. If you write the book, John, I’ll buy it! :-)

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  4. Ken Rapoza says:

    Great point about the pastoral implications for baptizing our covenant children. To piggyback on your thoughts here, would it also be helpful to look at it from the perspective of covenant families? To explain that the gospel promise has always been bound up with the idea of the covenant family (Gen. 12:3; 17:7; Ex. 4:24-26; Acts 2:39; 1 Cor. 7:14; Eph. 6:1; etc…), and that God’s expectation is that we will raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4), and as we do so we trust God’s promise to be God to our children. From a practical perspective we could point out that we are Christians today because God chose us in Christ since before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). We also know that God chose where and when we would be born in order that we may seek Him and know Him (Acts 17:26-27). So, if God chooses to grant children to a Christian household, is it not for the purpose of extending His gospel promises to the next generation? In the Old Testament, children were always seen as a great blessing and inheritance from God. The people of God in that era certainly didn’t have the perspective that all the adults in the household were the true Israelites, whereas the children were a group of unbelieving Amalekite outsiders who had to be tolerated at the dinner table. Are our children any less of a blessing and inheritance now that we are in the New Testament era of the church? Baptism reminds us that God works through families and the oikos baptisms we see in the New Testament are consistent with how God has ordered His kingdom.

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    • pastor tony phelps says:

      Hey Ken – great to hear from you! Absolutely, the biblical category of covenant families is an important part of the apologetic / exegetical basis for covenant infant baptism. I “amen” each of your points here, and would use them in explaining the biblical & covenantal basis of infant baptism. My emPHAsis now, however, is pastoral. That means I will try to start with the pastoral point, and return to it as often as possible! It’s kind of like apologetics & evangelism. We can spend so much time presenting a reasoned defense of the faith that we sometimes forget to actually proclaim the Gospel. By analogy, I want Christian parents to understand that baptism – as a sign & seal of the covenant of grace – is “good news” for them & their covenant children.

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