Why do the churches which arose directly out of the Reformation (Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian) baptize the children of Christian believers, rather than waiting for said children to come to faith at a mature age, and baptizing them upon a clearly articulated profession of faith? There are many possible answers to this question, but millions of Christians since the sixteenth century, from Baptists to Pentecostals to Reformed thinkers like Schleiermacher and Barth, have found all of them unconvincing.
There are, of course, peculiarly Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox justifications for infant baptism. The Catholic Church’s strong doctrine of original sin, championed by St. Augustine, was tied to the proclamation that baptism washes away the original sin of infants, sin which, even without being accompanied by personal or actual sin, was sufficient to damn these little ones. (Note well, though, that infant baptism did not arise because of a doctrine of original sin; Augustine states that original sin must be true because the Church was already baptizing infants). The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, had a much less forensic doctrine of ancestral sin, and consequently their justification for infant baptism was an appeal to the continuous practice of the Church since the apostles, as well as the belief that the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit, which dispels the darkness of ignorance and sin, is a process that begins with baptism. Better that the process of illumination starts in infancy than adulthood.
But what about those of us who are Reformation Christians? Surely there must be a peculiarly Reformed answer to why we baptize infants—an answer that makes sense within the grammar of our theological heritage, not merely within the grammar of others’. In this post, I will detail the reasons for infant baptism I find the most compelling, the most beautiful, and the most consonant with the grace-centric character of the Reformation.
Firstly, infant baptism beautifully coincides with, is even made necessary by, Jesus’ teaching on the relation of young children and infants to the kingdom of God. His most important teaching in this regard is contained in a well-known story that appears in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). When the three accounts are spliced together in proper order, here is the full passage:
Then people were bringing little children and even infants to him in order that he lay his hands on them and pray; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He called for them and said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. Then he went on his way.
What does this passage reveal that is relevant to the issue of infant baptism? First, that it is natural for parents who love their children to desire Jesus to bless them. These parents saw that Jesus had a spiritual authority to heal and bless people in wonderful ways, and because they loved their children, they wanted them to receive this blessing also.
Second, there exists, even among Jesus’ followers, a tendency to dismiss small children and infants as not being proper recipients of Jesus’ blessing. Perhaps it is because they cannot “do” anything. They cannot understand Jesus’ teaching yet, nor can they make the individualized decision to believe in Him, let alone perform good works for the advancement of His kingdom.
Yet Jesus was vexed by this attitude toward children and taught his disciples that not only were children not to be prevented from being blessed, but that the blessing of the kingdom was especially appropriate for them. Why? It is surely not because children and infants are sinless. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”; “no one is good, no, not even one.” Anyone who has ever interacted with toddlers or small children has seen the selfishness and petulancy with which they conduct themselves when they do not get what they want. Children can be a petty and self-absorbed lot. Even if childhood possesses a certain innocence, this has more to do with an innocence of knowledge, not moral innocence. There are many things children do not know, and should not know, until adulthood, but this ignorance does not make them righteous.
No, the kingdom of God belongs to children and “even infants” because of their total dependence. They cannot clean themselves, feed themselves, or take care of themselves when sick. They rely completely on their parents, in whom they place their trust. As a result, children do not typically act as if they are “self-made.” St. John calls this “the pride of life”: thinking you are a somebody because of your accomplishments, wealth, education, or some other status marker. Because children cannot have even the illusion of being a somebody in that way, they do not usually have the pride of life, which is an obstacle to entering the kingdom. The kingdom of God belongs to those who have no pretense of having earned their entrance into it.
But admission into this kingdom is not automatic, as Jesus teaches Nicodemus in John 3: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above [or born again]…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit.”
Jesus teaches here, and the New Testament writers teach elsewhere, that the world is made up of two kingdoms. There is the kingdom of this world, which is subject to sin and under the power of Satan, “the ruler of this world.” It is into this world that we are all born physically, that is, born of the flesh. Then there is the kingdom of God, into which we must be born again through water and the Spirit. This is a clear reference to baptism and was interpreted as such by all the Church Fathers who commented on this passage. The transferal from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of God is affected by baptism.
To summarize, Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to children and infants. Jesus also says that one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Therefore, if the kingdom of God belongs to children and infants, and baptism is the way one enters that kingdom, then it is entirely appropriate to baptize them. Baptism of infants and children is the way in which these little ones enter the kingdom that belongs especially to them and in which they are welcome as members.
To not allow infants and children admission into the kingdom until they come to the intellectual maturity and intentionality necessary to make a profession of faith is to say that the kingdom of God is only for those who are old enough, mature enough, and intentional enough to “do something”—in other words, the kingdom of God is for adults, or at least for the adultlike. It is to say that children need to become like adults to enter the kingdom, rather than that adults need to become like children.
We adults may think that our ability to make a conscious “decision” to believe in Christ makes us more inherently save-able than infants or children, but the truth is that spiritually, we adults are helpless to save ourselves from our sins. Even if we are baptized as adults, we are every bit as helpless as infants when it comes to salvation. It is in this sense that “every baptism is an infant baptism.”
This is ultimately why infant baptism makes sense, not only within the Roman and Eastern traditions, but within the Reformation traditions. Above all, the Reformation exalted the grace of God—that unearned, unmerited, undeserved favor that God extends to us in Christ. The Reformers stressed that it is God who takes initiative in all things, not us, especially when it comes to salvation. There is no purer illustration of God taking the initiative and extending his grace to one who has done absolutely nothing to earn, merit or deserve it, than infant baptism. The Reformers understood this, and that is why all the major branches of the Protestant Reformation, sans the Anabaptists, agreed that “the Baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” Infant baptism ties together biblical teachings on grace, the kingdom of God, and Christ’s love for infants and children in a much more satisfactory way than delaying baptism until a profession of faith. It is not something of which we need to feel ashamed or for which we need to apologize.
So do not be afraid to bring your infants and small children to Jesus for his blessing. Do not be dissuaded by those who, like the disciples, protest that infants are not yet the proper recipients of God’s grace. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these, and therefore so does the sacrament which provides entrance into that kingdom. Jesus will not turn away our children and tell them to wait until they can do more for Him. Instead, he will cleanse them by the washing of water with the Word and transfer them from the dominion of darkness into his kingdom. What could be a greater blessing than that?
 Romans 3:23; Psalm 14:3
 1 John 2:16
 John 3:3; 5-6
 John 14:30
 Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, Article XXVII
 Ephesians 5:26
 Colossians 1:13