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Baptism for the Church Member {A Presbyterian View of Baptism}

Posted April 12, 2023

I would like to represent the Presbyterian view of baptism not as a theologian or even as a pastor but as a church member. Important theological matters like baptism have been the concern of many well-written scholarly essays and systematic theologies for many years. Your favorite search engine can no doubt confirm this and supply you with much reading material about the biblical and theological support for any major view—including that of the Presbyterian tradition. However, an explanation of the belief and practice from the perspective of those in the congregation is not as common.

Just like theologians and pastors, church members also love and study God’s word. But in daily life, the average church member does not engage in obsessive interpretive research or theological argument. Instead, the body of Christ holds its convictions in worship and fellowship and daily Christian living through lived experience. Over time, a particular church culture forms, and that has a shaping effect upon the people who make up the congregation. The practices of baptism are part of that larger set of practices which define a church and in turn slowly mold people as Christian disciples.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments practiced in church life in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism is the welcome into the family of God’s people, and when baptized church members have also made a credible profession of personal faith, those members (now called “communicants”) are invited to come to the Lord’s Supper for their ongoing spiritual nourishment. The part of this which is perhaps most distinctively Presbyterian is that baptism is applied to both adults and children, since we profess that baptism is a sign of the covenant of grace which God makes with us and our children through his promises in Jesus Christ.

There are compelling biblical arguments for this way of understanding baptism. I use the word “arguments” because there is no single Bible verse which settles the matter for all evangelicals. No biblical text explicitly clarifies that infants are to be baptized along with their believing parents in the New Covenant church. Similarly, there is no single prooftext to give indisputable support for the “believer baptism” view. No passage spells out that the inclusion of infants and children in the Old Testament covenant with the accompanying covenant sign (circumcision) is now discontinued in the New Covenant with respect to baptism. Were the book of Acts and the epistles to describe a second generation of Christians who had grown up in the church and later professed their personal faith in some form, perhaps that would help resolve the matter. But alas, we have no such apostolic accounts of a second-generation situation in the church.

A number of biblical observations lead to the Presbyterian conclusion that infants of believers should be included in baptism. Presbyterians and those in Reformed traditions see continuities in the covenant of grace, which is God’s promise to believers in all ages to save them through faith in his Son. Those continuities span the Old and New Testaments, such as how Abraham’s faith is a pattern for our own saving faith (see Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:1-12; and Jam. 2:20-23). Moreover, the apostles’ connections between circumcision (Col. 2:11) and baptism (Col. 2:12) indicate that these covenant signs have parallel meanings and usages in the Old and New Covenants. This provides a framework for why the Old Testament practice of circumcision for sons (Gen. 17:9-14) would have application for all members of believing families to receive the new covenant sign of baptism. We see this practiced in Acts 16 (vv. 15 and 33) and supported by the description of those born into Christian families as being “holy” (1 Cor. 7:14), even though neither of these passages explicitly refers to the baptism of infants.

These are strong arguments, yet my humble observation is that the Presbyterian practice of baptizing infants and young children even before they confess their faith in Jesus is more often embraced through observing the practice in congregational life. As people see and experience the sacrament of baptism, the biblical and theological arguments become compelling or even downright convincing.

Perhaps I can make a comparison to another aspect of life in which convictions are held not by abstract reasoning but by appreciation of the lived experience: Consider whether you think it’s “right” to open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. How did you become convinced that one of those times is right each and every year? Obviously, most of us simply absorbed this practice from our families of origin, or perhaps from the community where we saw Christmas celebrated in a way we found meaningful. I grew up in a family where presents were always opened on Christmas Eve after dinner. It made sense to me. We got to the presents earlier, and it saved more of Christmas day itself for meaningful traditions. (Did I mention that by opening presents on Christmas Eve we got to the presents earlier? This was a very compelling reason to me when I was a child!) I had no desire to ever switch to opening gifts on Christmas Day.

However, once I married my wonderful wife Elizabeth, I learned that she had always opened presents on Christmas morning and it was her strong desire to carry on that practice with our own children once we had them. The reason I was won over to the “Christmas morning” view is because I started doing it and came to appreciate it. I don’t think I could have been convinced by logic or historical arguments to abandon my original preference for opening presents on Christmas Eve. Certainly, there was no single Bible verse to settle the matter. It was only my lived experience that made me see the issue from a different point of view.

I grant that this is a very distant analogy, but I think you will get my point. There are three aspects of lived experience in a Presbyterian setting that persuade me of the practice of infant baptism:

1. Presbyterian baptism is consistent with Christian doctrine.

The one who doesn’t hold the Presbyterian view might assume that by baptizing an infant we are saying that a child is saved or that this little girl or boy doesn’t need to embrace Jesus in the future. But the baptism of little ones does not get in the way of presenting the gospel clearly—that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (John 3:16, 6:40; Eph. 2:8–9). As an image of union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4) and the washing of regeneration through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5), the very act of water baptism preaches the gospel and calls sinners to believe in Christ to save them. In fact, it has been a blessing to see Christian parents in Presbyterian church life steadily sharing the gospel with their kids without any thought that baptism somehow removed the need or the urgency to do so. The Christian message is a call to repent from sin and believe in Jesus Christ (Mark 1:14-15), and the Presbyterian application of baptism has never seemed to send any different message.

2. Presbyterian baptism is a great tool for discipleship.

By applying the covenant sign of baptism to our littlest ones as well as those who are older and more capable of giving a clear Christian testimony, baptism reinforces the call to live as followers of Jesus Christ at each stage of life. Those who are young are reminded that they are marked out from others in the world as belonging to God’s people and participating in Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). They have a responsibility to live as a distinctive Christian people because they are in the covenant and have the covenant sign. There are not very many 8-year-olds, for example, who are ready to make a life-long commitment to Jesus Christ through professing faith, but all Christian parents of 8-year-olds can confirm that, even at this young age, kids need to be reminded that God doesn’t want them to follow the pattern of this world. They belong to God through birth into a household of faith which has a calling to be holy (1 Cor. 7:14), and God would have them live for him! Baptism communicates this early need for discipleship.

When those same children grow up and profess faith as communicants, it’s not a different obligation to now live according to a new set of rules. Rather, the calling is the same, but by their profession and their regular place at the Lord’s Supper, they remember the obligation comes not only from God’s promise put on them but through their expressed commitment to Christ as well (2 Tim. 1:5–7; Phil. 3:14; 1 Cor. 11:27–28). Baptism in the Presbyterian tradition is not a hindrance to discipleship. Baptism expresses further outward signs for why we ought to live faithful lives at every age and every stage of Christian maturity.

3. Presbyterian baptism helps believers identify with the story of God’s people.

We teach that the covenant of grace extends through the Old and New Testament. It follows, then, that our application of the covenant sign of baptism to infants shows that believers and their children are set apart for the Lord. We can feel a little bit closer to Abraham who was told to circumcise Isaac as a sign of God’s covenant with him (Gen. 17:9-14), we can resonate with Hannah’s joy in the arrival of Samuel (1 Sam. 1:27-28), and we can remember when we too joined the church as a household (Acts 16:15, 33) through God’s kindness.

When I think about God’s faithfulness to his covenant people from infancy to old age, I remember the words of Psalm 71: “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me until I proclaim your might to another generation” (Ps. 71:17–18). No, it’s not a proof text for infant baptism. However, this song resonates with those who experientially see God setting us apart from our earliest days as babies, through our youth, and until our final breath when we enter glory (Ps. 71:6, 9).

In a Presbyterian church, this reality is matched through the practice of baptizing believers and their children as set apart to the Lord through God’s promise in Jesus Christ. It’s a theological conviction and a result of biblical interpretation, but it’s best understood when it’s experienced in the congregation of God’s people where we can rejoice in God’s promises which are, by his design, for us and for our children (Acts 2:38-39).

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Dave Holmlund

Dave Holmlund serves as a church planter in the Philadelphia area for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). He is married to Elizabeth, and they have five children from high school down to kindergarten.