To answer the question, Does the Bible teach the baptism of disciples only, one must begin with defining terms. What is a disciple and what is baptism? The Baptist position is that a disciple is a person who has heard the Gospel and has responded positively to its message. The Baptist position is also that infants are not capable of such a kind of faith and so ought not be baptized. This is not the Presbyterian position. The Presbyterian position is that discipleship begins with baptism itself, not merely the profession of faith.1 In this way, baptism can precede or follow “faith” per se and so the Presbyterian affirms those worthy of receiving the sign are those who profess the true religion and their children.2 And so, terms must be defined.
As defined above, the issue peels further into whether or not infants are disciples. According to the Baptist, infants are not capable of cognitive, emotional, spiritual responses of “faith” and so are not to be baptized. According to Presbyterians, infants are able to be discipled according to their stage in life and presuppose that “faith” will express itself in an age appropriate manner. Further defined, “faith” is not always “saving” and so the Westminster Standards wisely caveat, “those who profess the true religion.”3 As a disciple, the infant is raised and trained in the life of the covenant with the expectant hope that perseverance will ensue.
To answer the question, Are infants the proper subjects of baptism, one must begin with what the presuppositions are re: both infants and baptism and the relationship between those two and God as the one who oversees and governs his creation as transcendent Sovereign.
We will begin with the latter of the three and argue thence. The relationship between God and his image bearer in the Bible is called a covenant and this covenantal relationship is dependent upon the ontological Trinity. All three members of the Godhead are in a covenantal relationship wherein each dies a sacrificial death of love and service to glorify the other members—indeed, it is a relational, structural bond which joins the three Persons of God in a community of life, and in which man was created to participate.4
When Adam began to live under the hierarchy of God’s ethical mandate with its promise of death for disobedience, he was to begin a life of humility and submission to God which would eventually lead him into a more and more mature glory. This covenantal relationship, too, eventually would spread out into the society of his marriage and family and civil life. But sin did enter into the equation and, thus, brought into effect the sanctions of covenant life: death for sin. Without sin, there still would have been good deaths to be had by all as all men, immature as they would be in sinless glory, would die to themselves for the good of others. One could very well imagine that God could have laid out the Deuteronomic sanctions before Adam and closed as he did through Moses, “I have laid before you both life and death; therefore, choose life.” Or one could imagine God’s giving one stipulation to Israel: “Do not covet.” It was a simple act of obedience for his subject required by the Sovereign King over all.
It is the nature of the covenant that is at stake in this debate. What one says about the nature of the covenant will determine how he answers this question of baptism. There are two heads of humanity according to the Apostle Paul and so there are “two” covenants. The covenant with Adam in the Garden of Eden is the covenant under which all men find themselves and if a man remains in Adam he will die; if he is raised to newness of life in Christ, he will live. The covenant in Christ is simply the covenant with Adam resurrected and in this sense it is a new covenant. However, from Adam to Christ there were various other heads of humanity with whom God covenanted and further developed a life of the covenant which would be brought to fruition in the person, ministry, and kingdom of Jesus of Nazareth.
While all these covenants were still in Adam and “insufficient” as the author of Hebrews says, it was not the ontology of the covenant itself which was lame but the surety upon which it was based. What needs to be understood by the reader of scripture, then, is the ontology of the covenant. It is not the nature of the covenant that is “new” in the new covenant but the fruition of its basis in Jesus Christ.
The nature of the covenant which governs the life of all men under God is this. God is God and man is not. God is the transcendent Sovereign who rules over his creation by his Word and Spirit. As Sovereign he directs man in the way he should go with an ethical system of “do’s and don’ts.” Compliance to this ethical standard is met with blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience or “life and death” as it were. It must be understood that this way of life established by God for man is not directly related to what is normally called eternal life, so that salvation from God’s just wrath due to sin both in this life and the next was never, ever through obedience to God. No, this way of life established by God for man was simply “life-the-way-it-should-be.”
Finally, the obedience of a man up to this point would then determine how the future would play out and “in the covenant” children are the future (who knew Whitney Houston was a covenant theologian!). Were a man to comply with God as faithfully as he could in a fallen world, he would ipso facto direct his children in the way they should go.5 It is this model of the covenant which must be understood in order for the Presbyterian argument. Within the life of the covenant all men are either faithful or unfaithful, believing or disbelieving, obedient or disobedient, humble or rebellious. Entrance into the covenant as a disciple according to Jesus is begun by baptism and so, baptism is a ritual of initiation.
Now to the nature of baptism in part. I say in part because we cannot address every theological nuance belonging to the sign.
It is within the covenant life of Adam and Noah that God “cuts off” the flesh of Adam and singles out Abraham’s descendents for service to God and the nations with the rite of circumcision. Circumcision is ¼ the ritual of priestly ordination wherein the other ¾ of the ritual are completed in the Levitical ordination as Yahweh’s “palace servants” with the typified circumcisions of the ear, thumb, and toe. It is the latter three “circumcisions” which help to illuminate the former. The priestly ordination-circumcision of the hand, foot, and head proves that the circumcision of the male organ was primarily priestly in nature.
With this in mind, let us consider circumcision as ordination as priest for the life of the world. There were two people groups in the OT who were saved: Israel and Gentiles. Only one of these were priests to God for the life of the other. There were plenty of OT Gentiles saved by faith who received the “circumcision made without hands” and whose “uncircumcision” was considered “circumcision.” No Gentile was required to be circumcised for salvation in the OT.6 Why should he be? Only Israel was ordained as priest to the nations. It was only if an “alien” wanted to participate in Passover wherein he was required to be circumcised (and thereby receive ordination as priest and adoption as a “son”) with a circumcision made with hands. Baptism, then, corresponds to this. Baptism, first of all, is an ordination to priestly service to the world and now, in Christ, all alike are baptized as priests.
Infants are therefore the proper subjects of baptism in the same way they were the proper recipients of circumcision. In infancy, children of believers were to be ordained for service in the kingdom; not to be disciplined as enemies of God but as children of God, as disciples. The symbolism of this priestly rite extended further than mere ordination, too. Baptism, like circumcision, is transitional. The symbolic week of the ritual points to this. For 7 days (one creation week) the child was dead in Adam and on the eighth day he was raised to newness of life. This is not strictly soteriological but covenantal. It might have to do with true salvation but that is not essential; it is, however, always essential that it is covenantal.
Ordination to service in God’s kingdom required the symbolic removal of that which is unclean. All children are unclean by nature because all children are iniquitous by nature. Children were never “naturally” born of God simply because born to covenanted parents.7 Even the children of covenanted parents were born dead in trespasses and sins. In order for children to be accepted by God, that which corrupted them needed to be “covered” or “cut off.” The ritual, then was transitional (an adoption, if-you-will) and not transformational. 8
Baptism, holds the same symbolism. In baptism, God says, “There is something inherently wrong with this child and I am doing something about it. This child is dead and unless I make him alive, he remains unclean and subject to death.” Baptism, therefore, is for the forgiveness of sins and covenantally and symbolically speaking baptism does wash away sins. Being comfortable with this way of speaking takes time if one is raised to believe the Baptist position.
Baptism is a covenantal sign of initiation and as such it has dual sanctions. On the one hand, it holds out the promise of life for those who by faith live out its positive benediction. On the other, it holds out the threat of death for those who live contrary to its design. Just as the waters of Noah and the Red Sea gave life to the people who passed through, so, too, those same waters destroyed the wicked. That is the nature of covenant signs. Think of Paul’s allusion to the “inspection of jealousy” in I Corinthians 10 and 11. The Lord’s Supper brought forth both life and death. It just depends upon the posture of the participant.
This perspective allows for the continuity of the application of the sign to be given to children. Children then, are ordained for service in God’s kingdom and receive God’s promised benediction of life when faith is lived out. However, it is also those same children who can prove to be “sons of Eli” and receive the curse of the covenant if faith is not lived out.
This is the nature of the covenant which has not changed. The covenant sign when applied, ordains all its recipients into the regeneration of the kingdom. Are all recipients of the sign also recipients of its benediction? No. Not all participants in the kingdom persevere in faith. Many make shipwreck of their faith.
The position which affirms that the Bible only teaches that disciples are to be baptized must take these definitions of disciple, baptism, and covenant into account. These are the terms.
1 Salvation is always by faith alone soteriologically speaking. Covenantally speaking, no one is “saved” without baptism. Do not misunderstand this way of speaking “Presbyterian-ly” otherwise we will be talking past one another.
2 Ironically he could affirm that the Bible does teach only “disciples” are to be baptized.
3 Westminster Confession of Faith 28.4 and Shorter Catechism 95.
4 James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 4. Emphasis in the original.
5 By the way, it is interesting to note that translation of Proverbs 22.6 could very well read, Train up a child according to his way and when he is older he will not depart. And so if one lets a garden grow the way of nature, eventually it will be a jungle.
6 Nor were any Israelites required to be circumcised in order to be “saved.” Whatever “cut off” means, it did not mean “no circumcision = no salvation.”
7 In an unfallen world however, this paradigm would have been effected as every son of Adam would be God’s son, too.
8 The former is to speak as a covenant member and the latter is to speak as a Roman Catholic.