Infant Baptism Debate Recap — Wes McAdams

I previously wrote an article on why it’s not biblical to baptize an infant. Because of that article, I was invited to join Presbyterian minister Randy Booth on the Moody Radio program Up For Debate to discuss the issue of infant baptism. After accepting this invitation, I took some time to educate myself about Booth’s position. I was actually surprised to learn I was mistaken in my assumptions about why many denominations baptize infants.

I had previously assumed all infant baptisms were done for the same reason, to wash away “original sin.” The Catholic church, of course, teaches children are born with sin and when the priest administers the water, inherited sin is washed away. There are several problems with this understanding, but this is actually not the understanding of many religious groups that practice so-called “infant baptism.”

My opponent in the debate, Randy Booth, not only explained his position on the radio program, but he also explained his position in his book, Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism. His two primary arguments are these:

  1. He believes the Old and New Covenants are one covenant, the New Covenant simply being a more inclusive version of the Old Covenant.
  2. Because he believes the Old Covenant is still in force, he sees baptism as merely a new form of circumcision, an outward sign that a person belongs to God’s covenant community.

Based on these two arguments, he (and millions of others who hold the same position) have concluded that infant baptism should be just as important for Christians as infant circumcision was for the Jews. Booth is so confident that baptism correlates directly with circumcision that he wrote, “Any argument against infant baptism is necessarily an argument against infant circumcision.”

The Old and New Covenants

The primary problem with Booth’s doctrine and practice is that it springs from a misunderstanding about how to read the Bible. His belief that the Old and New Testaments are one covenant is a fundamentally flawed understanding. The Hebrew writer, quoting from the prophet Jeremiah, expressly said a New (and better) Covenant had been established by Christ. He said this this New Covenant “makes the first one obsolete” (He. 8:13).

Ironically, one of the hallmarks of the New Covenant is that within the covenant people of God, “no one will have to teach his brother, “saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (He. 8:11). What does this mean? Why do New Covenant people (Christians) not have to say to their brethren, “Know the Lord” and why is this different from the Old Covenant?

Under the first covenant (the Old Testament), people became a part of the nation by simply being born and being circumcised as infants. They could (and many did) grow up not being taught about God. One Israelite could say to another, “God says such-and-such,” and his brother could respond, “Who is God?” and honestly not know the God with whom he was supposed to be in covenant. But that cannot happen under the New Covenant.

Under the New Covenant, the only way to come into the covenant community is by faith. You have to know the Lord before you ever come in. You have to hear who He is and what He has done, and upon this knowledge pass through the waters of baptism.

This is why an infant cannot enter into the covenant. If an infant could enter the covenant, the promise that no one would have to teach his brother to know the Lord would be invalidated. You can only enter the new and better covenant by faith in Jesus Christ (see Romans 10).

Baptism Is Not Circumcision

In his book, Booth spends the vast majority of time comparing baptism to circumcision. The problem is, there is only one verse in the Bible that makes any sort of comparison between baptism and circumcision and it is far from a one-to-one correlation. Paul wrote in Colossians 2:11-13:

“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses…”

If you’ll notice, Paul is saying Gentiles were two things: they were uncircumcised AND dead in their trespasses. Paul says, in Christ we receive a spiritual circumcision; that is, our sin is done away with.  He also says, with another metaphor, we are “buried with [Christ] in baptism.”  And when we are buried with Him, we can be “made alive together with Him.”

Do you see?  Baptism is not even called circumcision; it is called a burial (see also Romans 6).  There are two different metaphors being employed here: a spiritual circumcision that Christ performs and a burial with Christ in baptism.  Yes, these things happen simultaneously, but the simple truth of the matter is, Paul did not call baptism a circumcision.

Baptism Is Not An “Outward Sign”

Booth was actually a Baptist minister before he transitioned to the Presbyterian denomination, changing his position on infant baptism. It probably sounds strange to many Baptists that someone would go from the biblical pattern of immersing adults upon a confession of faith to sprinkling babies. But if you consider the Baptist position on baptism, it actually makes perfect sense why he would make that transition.

Most Protestant denominations—whether they sprinkle or immerse—have essentially the same understanding about baptism. They believe baptism is “an outward sign of an inward grace.” In other words, like circumcision, they believe baptism is the sign of the covenant.

It is true that with a covenant, there needs to be a sign, seal, symbol, or token. When God made a covenant not to flood the earth again, He said about the rainbow, “It shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Ge. 9:13). Paul said about Abraham’s circumcision, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Ro. 4:11). So the rainbow and circumcision are examples of how God signifies His covenants with man.

But the problem is, baptism is NEVER called a sign or a seal. Never. Not once. This doctrine is completely made up. It is not taught in Scripture at all, but sadly it is believed by millions.

In fact, by saying baptism is the sign of the covenant, they are ignoring what the New Testament actually teaches about the sign of the covenant. The New Testament teaches, “[You] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance” (Ep. 1:13-14). And, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ep. 4:30). And, “[God] has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Co. 1:22).

The Holy Spirit is the sign (or the seal) of the covenant, not baptism. There is no biblical support for saying baptism is an “outward sign” of being God’s covenant people.

Wedding Rings

I was not given an opportunity to respond when Booth made the argument in the radio debate that baptism is like a wedding ring. He said a wedding ring does not make people married, it is simply a sign that they are married and belong to one another. He said baptism is like the wedding ring—it doesn’t put us into a relationship with God, it is simply a sign that we are already in a relationship with God.

But a biblical comparison would be to compare baptism to the wedding ceremony (which actually does make the couple married) and the Holy Spirit would be like the wedding ring. Our baptism is when we make our vows to the Lord and then the Holy Spirit—like a wedding ring—is given as a guarantee, a seal, a sign that we belong to the Bridegroom.

When a person is immersed in water, like a wedding ceremony, he is making a commitment. Paul says at baptism we commit ourselves to be dead to sin (Ro. 6). Jesus says at baptism we commit ourselves to being His disciples (Mt. 28:18-20). Again, if we are going to use the wedding metaphor, baptism must relate to the wedding ceremony, not the wedding ring.

Household Baptisms

When asked if he could show a biblical example of infants being baptized, Booth referred to the book of Acts. He believes that when Scripture says whole households were baptized, it included infants. But there are several big problems with that argument:

First, even Booth admits there is no way to prove there were any infants in those households. So any attempt to argue for infant baptism from these passages is an argument from silence.

Second, the people in these households who were baptized, listened to the word being preached (Ac. 10:44), spoke in tongues and praised God (Ac. 10:46), repented of their sins (Ac. 11:18), and rejoiced after their baptisms (Ac. 16:34). These are all things in which infants could obviously not participate. So if there were any infants in these households, they were not baptized.

“But the Bible doesn’t say some in the households were baptized and some weren’t,” Booth might argue. The answer to that is found in passages like Mark 1:5, which says about John, “All the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Although Mark recorded that all of Judea and Jerusalem were baptized, he obviously didn’t mean infants, because infants couldn’t confess their sins. He also didn’t even mean all adults, because the Pharisees rejected John’s teaching and baptism (see Mt. 3:4-10; 21:25).

Whether in a household or in a region, when all the people were baptized, it is all the people who had repentant faith.

Faith, Baptism, and the Forgiveness of Sins

Many find it difficult to reconcile what the New Testament says about grace, faith, salvation, forgiveness, and baptism. They struggle to understand, “If we are saved by grace through faith, how can baptism have anything to do with that?” Because of their confusion, they concoct explanations for baptism (i.e. “outward sign of an inward grace”) which are not biblical.

The host of the radio program, Julie Roys —who is undecided about infant baptism—seemed stunned by the fact that I believe one must be baptized to be saved. She reacted as if she had never heard of such a position. I explained that the New Testament clearly teaches that baptism, when done in repentant faith, is the moment at which a person is saved.

To prove this point, I quoted passages like Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21 and Acts 22:16 to show that is exactly what the Bible teaches. Yet she, and so many others, are preconditioned to reject any doctrine that ties salvation to baptism…even if that doctrine comes straight from the pages of the Scripture.

It really isn’t that hard to understand. The Lord offers to deliver us from slavery to sin, if we will put our trust in Him and follow Him. Like the Israelites God delivered from slavery in Egypt, we must pass through the water into the Promised Land on the other side (see 1 Corinthians 10:2). When we pass through the water, we become a part of God’s covenant community (the church) and are sealed with the Holy Spirit for salvation.

Wes McAdams is the preaching minister at the Baker Heights Church of Christ in Abilene, TX. 

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