Does the Bible teach that baptism is for disciples only? In the following exchange, I will be arguing the affirmative for a number of reasons, namely, the positive institution of baptism, the revealed participants in biblical examples of baptism, the specific Scriptural meaning of baptism, and biblical covenant theology.
Matthew 28 records the institution of New Covenant baptism: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.” I agree with Wallace that “baptizing” and “teaching” are two participles of means, so that the way by which Jesus’ followers were to make disciples was to baptize and to teach. Obviously, the paedobaptist wants to put a wall between these two so that somehow, baptism is to be given to those who cannot be taught Jesus’ commands, such as a 2-week old baby.
But that wall does not stand. From this Great Commission, Jesus’ followers immediately went out making disciples by teaching and baptizing those who could respond to the gospel call. At Pentecost in Acts 2 3,000 responded to Peter’s preaching and were baptized. Notice what Peter says in verse 38-39, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Paedobaptists often appeal to this text to support infant baptism because the phrase “to you and your children” supposedly re-establishes an Old Covenant principle of either household faith or entrance into a covenant through physical descent. But, the context is not re-affirming a principle of the Old Covenant, but is actually the demonstration of New Covenant blessings and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. Consequently, paedobaptists usually ignore at least three things.
First, verse 41, says “so those who received his word were baptized.” It doesn’t say “so those who received his word and their children were baptized,” as if someone else’s profession of faith merits the baptism of any person. Only those who responded to the call of the gospel were baptized. Second, it is very clear that the promise in verse 39 is neither the Abrahamic covenant nor the covenant of grace, but the specific promise of the Holy Spirit that was prophesied in Joel 2, which is quoted in verses 17-21. Third, notice Peter’s command in verse 38. The command “repent” is second person plural, matching “of you,” while the command “be baptized” is third person singular, matching “each one of you.” So a literal rendering is, “You all repent and each one of you all – that is, the ones repenting – be baptized.” There is no question that in Peter’s perspective, the ones to be baptized are the same ones who repent.
This concept of believer’s baptism continues throughout the NT. Acts 8:12 recounts, “When they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized.” After Peter sees the pouring out of the Spirit in Acts 10:47 he says “can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?”
Even the household baptisms in Scripture demonstrate the baptism of disciples. This is ironic because household baptisms supposedly support infant baptism. But, this argument fails firstly because no infants are said to be in any of these households. Secondly, in almost all of these cases the members of these households cannot be infants. The family of the Philippian Jailer was baptized after Peter preached “the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house.” Verse 34 also says “he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God” (Acts 16:34). How is it possible for a two-month old baby to rejoice because the father converted to Christianity? And why would anyone in the household rejoice at their father’s conversion while they remain in their sins and in rejection of the very same word that was spoken to them? The fact is, this is household faith, just like we read earlier in John 4:53 with the Roman official, “And he himself believed, and all his household.”
Paedobaptists also often quote I Corinthians 1:16 where the household of Stephanus was baptized. But they fail to mention 16:15 where we read that “the household of Stephanus were the first converts in Achaia.” Again, household faith. Acts 18:8 says, “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.” Again, the whole household is not just being baptized, but they’re believing as well. Acts chapter 10 records the conversion of Cornelius and his household. But notice what these baptized people were doing. They are described as: having heard the word (10:44); having received the Holy Spirit (10:44-47; 11:15-17); having spoken in tongues (10:46) as at Pentecost (11:15); as believers (implied in 11:17); and having repented (11:18). So since infants cannot hear the word, speak in tongues, believe, and repent, it is evident that Luke does not intend for his readers to assume that infants were involved in the baptism mentioned here (10:48). The household of Lydia in Acts 16:14-15 doesn’t give much information. But given the pattern we’ve observed of the early church, there is simply no basis to conclude that this was anything other than household faith and baptism. It would be a radical departure for the church to start baptizing unrepentant individuals like infants and to have household baptisms without household faith.
In this brief survey we’ve seen how the institution of baptism and the fulfillment of that institution in the early church are in favor of the baptism of disciples alone. Infant baptism is neither instituted, nor recounted in the early church, nor even mentioned anywhere in Scripture. And since I agree with the Westminster (21.1) and London Baptist Confession that an ordinance of the church must be positively instituted by Scripture itself, no argument from silence is sufficient to allow the baptism of infants. So if you hear my opponent demanding a verse that specifically excludes infants from a covenant or church membership, you can be sure that he’s missing the point and making a poor argument.
The meaning of baptism also contradicts paedobaptism. Scripture teaches that baptism signifies new life and union with Christ in the one being baptized. The authors of Scripture always assume that those who have been baptized have also personally trusted Christ and experienced salvation. Galatians 3:27 says “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” He does not say “some of you who were baptized have put on Christ,” or “As many infants have put on Christ.” The Apostle assumes, practices, and teaches the baptism of disciples alone.
Romans 6:3-4 says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.” Paul could not have said “all infants who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death,” unless you believe in regenerative baptism. This text teaches that baptism signifies both the death and resurrection of Christ for the one being baptized. One is reminded of Philip and the eunuch in Acts 8:38-39 where “they both went down into the water” and then “came up out of the water.” Colossians 2:12 says the same thing: “you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Baptism does not signify being potentially buried and raised with Christ, as if infants are baptized into “future repentance and faith,” but baptism is meant to signify actually being buried and raised with Christ.
Most paedobaptists and credobaptists agree that baptism is a sign or initiatory rite of entering into the New Covenant. But what is this New Covenant?
I again agree with the Westminster and Baptist Confession of Faith when they assert that we must go to the places of Scripture that speak most clearly on any given issue (1.9). And I would argue that the nature of the New Covenant is most clearly addressed in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8. I also believe in a consistent, Reformed hermeneutic that gives primacy to the New Testament interpretation of the Old. All of this means that we must pay special attention to how the author of Hebrews understands the New Covenant promise in Jeremiah 31 since he directly quotes and explains it for the church.
Hebrews 8 of course, is a defense of the superiority of Christ and the “covenant in his blood.” And what’s interesting and challenging to many paedobaptists is that the focus is on discontinuity, not the continuity between the Old and New Covenant. In fact, the author says the Old Covenant is “obsolete” and fading away (8:13). So, how is the New Covenant so radically different? Verse 8-11 says,
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
Most paedobaptist and credobaptists agree that the knowledge in verses 10-11 is a saving, internal knowledge of God. There were many in the Old Covenant who didn’t have this. One thinks of Eli’s sons who were priests in the Old Covenant. They knew about the Lord. But I Samuel 2:12 says they did not “know the Lord.” Their knowledge was merely external, no less external than their circumcision. One could list countless others who bore the covenant sign of circumcision but weren’t true believers like Esau and Ishmael.
According to Hebrews 8, those days are over with the coming of Christ. The New Covenant people of God consists of true believers – covenant members are the true “Israel of God.” It is a covenant in Christ’s blood, where all who are in it have their sins forgiven. While the Old Covenant was a breakable and mixed covenant consisting of elect and non-elect, believers and unbelievers, the gathering of God’s people in the New Covenant is the gathering of those who profess Jesus Christ. Ezekiel 36:25-27 speaks of the same New Covenant age when it talks about how God will remove their hearts of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Romans 11 provides another picture of the New Covenant, where unbelieving Jews were a branch broken off the tree of Israel, and believing Gentiles are grafted in so that the end result is a single tree, a unified people of God who all know the Lord. Paul provides an additional picture of a “new man” in Ephesians 2:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two. (Eph 2:11-15)
In short, the members of the New Covenant are all of God’s elect; there is no remnant in the New Covenant like there was under Abraham, under Moses, and under all the pre-Christ covenantal administrations. For that reason, the New Covenant is the fullest expression of the Covenant of Grace, since only God’s elect are members. The mediator of the New Covenant is not Moses or any priest, but Christ Himself, our high priest.
So the New Covenant is not merely an expansion or renewal of the Old Covenant. It is better qualitatively, not quantitatively. Classic Reformed theologians such as John Owen have masterfully argued this point. If this is true, and if the sign of a covenant corresponds to the nature of a covenant and the participants of that covenant, then baptism should be given only to those who are in the New Covenant, that is, to those who know the Lord. The same obviously applies to the other New Covenant ordinance of the Lord’s Table.
Presbyterians shore up a number of defenses for paeodobaptism, including the assertion that baptism is the NT equivalent of OT circumcision and that this is taught in Colossians 2:11-14. But this text says nothing of physical circumcision at all; a parallel is being made between regeneration (“circumcision made without hands”) and baptism. We must also remember that the nature of a covenant determines the sign of that covenant, and baptism and circumcision signify two different covenants and thus different realities. Circumcision marked out a male line of descent from Abraham to David to Christ, served as a physical sign to mark out a nation and to distinguish them as people who would prepare the way for the Messiah, and was part and parcel of Mosaic law. None of this is true for baptism.
But, didn’t circumcision point to new life like baptism does? Yes, but there’s a difference between looking forward to something and looking back to something after Christ has accomplished his work. As Sam Waldron puts it, “Baptism, therefore, professes what circumcision demanded. Circumcision did demand a new heart, indeed, but it did not profess a new heart. Baptism professes a new heart.”
This is the teaching of the NT. Romans 2:28-29 says “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” Colossians 2:11-14 says “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh.” Clearly, those in the New Covenant in Christ are those who are believers. Faith, and not physical descent, is what determines who are covenant members. That’s why Paul can say in Romans 9:6 and 8, “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel…it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Galatians 4 asserts something similar in talking of two sons of Abraham. Verse 28-29, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” Clearly, the children of the promise that are counted as Abraham’s offspring are born of the Spirit, not those born of the flesh. That’s why Paul said earlier in chapter 3, “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe,” and then in verse 27 and 29, “for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
The paedobaptist confuses all of this. They suggest that because infants were circumcised according to their physical posterity in the Old Covenant, infants should be baptized just the same in the New Covenant. But this conflates the spiritual seed of Abraham with the physical seed, so that the church is actually supposed to baptize the physical seed (infants) of the spiritual seed (believing parents). This teaching isn’t found anywhere in Scripture, and it ignores the fact that members of the New Covenant are spiritual children (those born of God) not physical children (those born of the flesh).
Of course, one may try to appeal to other texts that mention children, like when Jesus said about children in Luke 18, “for such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” But none of these texts are speaking of infants, none mention or contain baptism, and none identify the parents of these children as believers. Appealing to these kinds of texts to support infant baptism is desperate argumentation.
As for historical theology, we have no record of infant baptisms until about a hundred years after the writing of the NT, and even then, infant baptisms were given for reasons other than those offered by my opponent such as to regenerate infants or remove original sin. In fact, some of the earliest historical references such as Justin Martyr, the Didache, and the Apology of Aristides lend support to the baptism of disciples.
Space has run out, but I think it has been made clear that baptism should be given to believers, those who confess faith, disciples of Jesus Christ alone. I thank Pastor Finley for participating in this exchange, and pray that it is edifying to the church.