I want to give a disclaimer right at the beginning of this article. People will disagree with the conclusion this article makes, and that’s okay. You might be one of them, and that’s fine. All of our hearts desire should be to conform to the word of God, and yet in our fallibility we sometimes reach differing conclusions. To echo Dr. J. Gresham Machen’s last words, such realities bring to light why we should all be thankful for the active obedience of Christ (that he has a tangible righteousness to give us), for there is no hope without it.
Baptism is not simply a casual washing. It is not merely symbolic of God’s grace. Baptism of infants from believing families is not a superstitious tradition of man. It is God’s visible seal to His church that He has made known through His word, and we are commanded to perform it in believing households. So when it comes to the sacrament of baptism, the church in accordance with Scripture and God’s redemptive will should most certainly urge and sanction the covenant sign and seal of baptism to be administered upon all children of believers.
I would like to illustrate this point with a hypothetical that assumes the apostles were only performing baptisms for those who could make a profession of faith – this is most commonly referred to as believers’ baptism. Imagine a Jew during the early New Testament church. Let us say this Jew was a father of five and he’s overhearing for the first time the Apostle Paul talking about a new and better covenant now available through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. He begins to be compelled by the message Paul is sharing. Everything this Jew has known is overtly covenantal. He understands both himself, his children, and his wife are a part of God’s uniquely set aside Abrahamic family. He then hears Paul claim that everything about this new covenant is far better than the old covenant (in line with passages such as Hebrews 8:6). Yet it’s at this very point the Jew dismisses Paul and walks away. Why did this Jew walk away? Because he believes Paul is now a deceiver. But why did this man have a sudden change of heart?
For the Old Testament Jew covenant promises were accompanied with signs and seals that their children shared in, by virtue of their being a part of that community. If the believer baptism position were correct – not everything about the new covenant is superior. It would have created a period of limbo within families waiting until a verbal profession could be stated before they could truly be welcomed into the congregation. Not to mention potential life-long limbos if there were profound physical or mental handicaps for a family member preventing them from professing their faith. If this discontinuity were true, the new covenant would be less inclusive in several instances.
God however, is a God of continuity. His redemptive design, long before His commission to go throughout all the world (Matt 28:16-20), and before He redeems a nation beginning in Exodus, is one where He redeems and blesses families. Consider this, in the book of Genesis, more numerical years of redemptive history are covered in that one book (which focuses on families), than the other 65 books of scripture combined. God even becomes a member of a family, with a line that can be traced from Adam all the way down to Himself (Matt 1:1-16, Luke 3:23-28). So throughout history God welcoming families to be identified in His promises is normative. Also, to those families, He has continuously offered them visible signs of His faithfulness. With Adam’s family He gave perceptible imagery of God crushing the head of the serpent and a gift of clothing for the family to cover themselves in – made from His own hands (Gen 3); To Noah he gave the ark to weather the flood for his family and then the rainbow as a sign to both Noah’s entire family and the generations that followed (Gen 6-9); To Abraham He called his family out of Ur (Genesis 11), and promised a childless man and wife a great multitude (Genesis 15), and then in Genesis 17 gives Abraham the visible sign of circumcision. Which, it should be noted that Abraham administers to his son Ishmael even though Abraham has been told by God that Ishmael is not the son of the promise (Genesis 17:18-19) but also in addition to Ishmael’s circumcision, the rest of Abraham’s household (his servants) receive that same sign and seal (Genesis 17:23-27).
However thus far I have looked at baptism with only a lens that emphasizes covenant theology. I must admit many opponents of covenant baptism would argue that baptism is separated from the overtly ‘Hebraic’ covenantal nature of scripture once we get to the New Testament, and so before concluding this article, I would find it unfair to not at least look at one instance of baptism for a gentile within the New Testament. In Acts chapter 16 we encounter Paul and Silas in prison. They had been arrested for disturbing the peace, and while in prison, a great earthquake occurred which opened all the doors to the prison and unchained all the prisoners. The jailer looking at the prison and seeing what had occurred was about to commit suicide. He was about to selfishly take his own life. Paul then intervenes before the jailer carries this out and tells the jailer that none have left and he doesn’t need to harm himself.
Then, the jailer still fresh from the emotions of nearly taking his own life, asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” His question to Paul and Silas focused on himself. It would have been a question that would have been very comfortable in our modern American culture – where individualism flourishes and community flounders. And how do Paul and Silas respond? They state, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” … or do they? … No they do not. They actually say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you (singular in the Greek) and your (singular in the Greek) household. To this man who was about to kill himself with little regard for his personal household – they say, not only will you be saved, but this promise is for your family as well. They gave a gentile with an individual question, the consistent ‘Hebraic’ covenantal promise which included his family– and then the account finishes with these two verses (Acts 16:33-34): And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he (the jailer) was baptized at once, he (the jailer) and all his family. Then he (the jailer) brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he (the jailer) rejoiced along with his entire household that he (the jailer) had believed in God.”
Notice that the family emphasized celebrating the jailer’s baptism at the end of verse 34. But why would they, if all were baptized based upon individual professions? Why would the household center upon the jailer in their celebration if this is what took place? The celebration centering upon him, makes best sense with a ‘Hebraic’ understanding of covenant theology. The household appreciated that the promise to one (the jailer), has now blessed the many (this household). This is in line with the consistent biblical pattern from our first parents in the Garden, to Noah, to Abraham, to David, and others. On that night, the jailer first, and by extension his household received a new and better covenant promise, than even Abraham himself had received roughly 2000 years earlier in Genesis 17.
God still enjoys blessing families as he always has, and encourages them all to receive the sign and seal He has appointed – so that we all, from many nations, and from many families might be engrafted into one family with our head of house – who is Christ. So let us go therefore and baptize our households in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, (echoing Matthew 28:19) teaching them (those who have now been baptized) to obey all that God has commanded (echoing Matthew 28:20).