I am a paedobaptist and paedocommunionist. This essay, whose title is the Dutch word for children, briefly summarizes my reasons for holding to these convictions.
Dad was raised in the Dutch Catholic Church, and Mom was raised in a Baptist church. When they married, they settled in the Methodist church, where I was baptized as a baby. Later on, we joined a series of credobaptistic Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, and I was re-baptized at the age of 14.
For several years we were members of a credobaptistic church that was Calvinistic in its soteriology and also Charismatic. This was my first exposure to Calvinism, although it was mostly just woven into preaching and teaching, rarely named explicitly. After college, my wife and I joined a related church in the area where we lived, and there Calvinism was owned much more self-consciously. I quickly embraced it; Cornelius Van Til’s Christian Apologetics served to clinch my convictions. I went on to other reading at my pastors’ recommendations; the one other book that most served to reorient me was Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology. My eyes were opened to the consistency of God’s gracious plan of redemption throughout the entire history of salvation. While I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, this began to plant the seeds of a Calvinistic ecclesiology and sacramentology.
My wife and I had our first child, and over the course of a few years a number of influences coming together brought me to embrace paedobaptism and paedocommunion. We’ve remained in the same church, so we are non-practicing paedobaptists. We love our pastors and our church family, and trust that it is best to submit to the authority that God has placed over us for our good.
There are three primary reasons that I hold to paedobaptism and paedocommunion, which serve as general categories for many of the supporting arguments.
First, we must take our children’s repentance and faith at face value. When I lead my daughter in repentance to Mommy, Mommy gladly forgives her and we rejoice in the forgiveness and restoration. Likewise, when we lead our children in repentance to God, we have every expectation that God has truly forgiven them, and we rejoice together in his forgiveness. Jesus instructs us to welcome our children as full citizens of his kingdom, and we must not withhold from them all of the blessings of restored fellowship with him, including baptism and communion.
Second, a Christian’s children belong covenantally to God. God has promised to be their God.
Finally, from the earliest age, the Holy Spirit is at work in our children, even to the extent of causing them to have age-appropriate faith in Jesus.
Taken together, these convictions serve as a powerful engine to godly parenting. If God has pledged himself to our children and set his Spirit at work in them, we can be greatly encouraged by this, and also greatly spurred on to help fan their faith into flame. Properly understood, paedobaptism and paedocommunion should not result in parental complacency and presumption, but in strengthening both our faith and our will to work (Phil. 2:12-13). Certainly, paedobaptism and paedocommunion are just one piece of the larger puzzle of godly parenting; they are necessary but not sufficient. What I want to see is a kind of evangelical paedobaptism, high-octane paedobaptism, or Pentecostal paedobaptism — a paedobaptism that is earnestly pursuing all the life and energy and power and growth of the Spirit.
With the help of the Spirit, our children’s learning to believe is like learning a language. They can already recognize our voices at birth, and there is no moment when they become an English speaker. Likewise, our children can already recognize and respond to God’s speaking to them through us, and God intends for them to grow up never having known a time when they did not know, love, trust and obey him.
From the earliest age, before they can even talk, we are discipling our children: teaching them what it is to obey, helping them to see and know Jesus their savior and king. It is vital to note that God does not instruct us to lead our children to the way, but rather to train them in the way (Prov. 22:6). And quite simply, disciples are to be baptized (Matt. 28:19), so we ought to baptize our infant disciples.
Discipleship is a facet of God’s church, covenant and kingdom. To say that our children are disciples is to say that they are part of Jesus’s church, members of his covenant; that his kingdom belongs to them and they are in Christ.
Biblical theology’s understanding of God’s historical development of salvation is important to understanding covenant theology. In particular, biblical theology reveals that grace and gospel have been present from the very beginning. The deeper we look, the more we realize that, even before Jesus, salvation was by faith alone, grace alone, through Jesus alone, and only by the regenerating power of the Spirit. The only effectiveness that sacrifices had was not in themselves (Heb. 10:4), but in faith’s looking forward to the promised seed (Gen. 3:15).
Covenant theology is often accused of importing too much of the old covenants into the new. But really it is quite the reverse: covenant theology recognizes just how much grace was present in the old covenants, and how much they depended on the new covenant in order to have any efficacy at all. Because of this, covenant theology is able to plunder the old covenants for insight into covenants, sacraments, faith, salvation, parenting, and the gospel. (There is much debate over the continuities and discontinuities between the old covenants and the new. In an important sense, this debate misses a key point: God’s covenants are everywhere continuous and everywhere discontinuous: in each new covenant, as Jesus is more fully revealed, creation itself is put to death and made new.)
Circumcision and baptism are not exactly analogous. They are both initiatory covenant signs, but their symbolism is quite different. Circumcision was sacrificial, dividing the human body in two, bloodying one of the four horns of the human altar. It was connected to the coming of the promised seed to the priestly people. Importantly, circumcision was not necessary for salvation: uncircumcised Gentile God-fearers were not required to be circumcised in order to be saved and to serve God with a clean conscience. But in Jesus, salvation and priesthood are collapsed; and baptism is a priestly symbol, hearkening back to the washing of priestly ordination. Now all believers must become part of the priestly people, the church, the body of Christ, in order to be saved. However, baptism unites us to circumcision’s antitype (Col. 2:11-12), so baptism subsumes the sacrificial typology of circumcision even as it adds to it.
So in spite of their differences, with baptism’s serving as a typological superset of circumcision, infant circumcision is thus highly suggestive of infant baptism. More than that, because of circumcision’s sacrificial symbolism, we must be careful not to reduce it to a mere sign of national identity, or a mere sign of physical salvation and blessing. Circumcision no less than baptism is a sign of regeneration and repentance (Deut. 10:16, Jer. 4:4, Rom. 2:29, Col. 2:11-12) and of faith (Deut. 30:6, Rom. 4:11-12). When the prophets called Israel to repentance, they did not repudiate Israel’s circumcisions and their being set apart for God; rather, they called Israel to account, sometimes on the very basis of their circumcision (Jer. 4:4, 9:25). Despite the differences between circumcision and baptism, their similarity is sufficient that credobaptism is quite unable to defend God’s purpose in instituting infant circumcision. Credobaptism cannot give an account for why God would institute a sign of new life, repentance, and faith, and yet administer it to those who can give no profession of repentance and faith. In insisting that infant baptism is a profound muddling of the gospel, credobaptism cannot explain how infant circumcision is not the same. Yet the gospel is for all, including infants.
The underlying question is this: is the new covenant the same kind of covenant as the old; is it possible for someone to be a covenant member without necessarily being regenerate, elect; is it possible for someone to fall away from the new covenant? Is the new covenant unconditional or conditional?
In this essay I will not delve into this question in great depth. In the bibliography I recommend some helpful reading on this topic. In some ways, this question is too facile; there are different senses in which we would answer “yes” and “no” to these questions for both the old covenants and the new. This is not to be coy; it simply recognizes that there are multiple perspectives on God’s eternal decrees and the way the Spirit brings them to pass in time and history. Our systematic theology has to be sufficiently nuanced to allow for Christians to have great assurance of their salvation, to allow the church to confidently speak of itself as the elect; while also humbly recognizing that we cannot know who God has elected, and wrestling with the reality of covenantal warnings (e.g., Heb. 10:29). Pastorally we resolve this by remembering that our assurance rests in Jesus and in the promises of God, not in our discovering our election. But being able to speak about election in both certain and tentative senses requires a nuanced systematic theology, such as Calvin’s own distinction between general and special election.
However, there are a few basic assertions we can make. First, from the perspective of the sacraments, and from our history-bound evaluation of who is a member of Jesus’s church, both credobaptists and paedobaptists must make a judgment of charity. No baptism, whether infant or adult, can infallibly reflect whether someone is a part of Jesus’s body. The question to ask is whether Jesus himself considers our infants to be a part of his body.
Second, it is important to note that Luke and Paul speak comfortably of household baptisms (Acts 16, 18; 1 Cor. 1). We cannot know whether any infants were baptized in these cases, but this is not my point. Rather, the authors continue to use what we would consider to be “old-covenant” language of salvation by households (e.g., Heb. 11:7). The Spirit is never careless in breathing the word; there is some reason that Luke and Paul wrote this way. But credobaptism cannot give an account for it, since it conceives of baptism as being a radically individual act of obedience.
Finally, Jeremiah 31:31ff (and its use in Hebrews 8 and 10) is really the key ground of contention regarding what kind of covenant the new covenant is. There are other passages that are appealed to, but the core of the argument centers on this prophecy. Credobaptists appeal to this passage to show that the new covenant in Jesus only includes those who are regenerate, and then go on to argue that infants cannot thus be covenant members because they cannot be known to be regenerate.
Below I address the question of whether our infants are ordinarily regenerate. But in terms of covenant theology, Jeremiah 31:31ff does not prove the credobaptist point. First, we must admit that there is an eschatological dimension to this prophecy; we do not yet enjoy its complete fulfillment; the law is not perfectly written on our hearts, and we remain in need of each other’s exhortation. So it is a stretch to use this passage to categorically prove that there are no defective members of the new covenant here and now. Second, Jeremiah and the author of Hebrews are both concerned primarily with whether God himself will end the new covenant, not with whether individuals might break it. Third, while this prophecy is ultimately fulfilled in the new covenant in Jesus, the context clearly shows that there is a proximate fulfillment in the restoration covenant (e.g., Jer. 29:10, 30:3). Whatever theological conclusions we draw from this passage should be sensitive to how it would have been understood in the exilic context and fulfilled in the restoration context. In particular, there are references to children in the passage and its context that emphasize their inclusion in the covenant and its blessings (Jer. 30:10, 19-20; 31:1, 17, 27, 34). Finally, the greater outpouring of the Spirit promised here and elsewhere (Joel 2, Acts 2) all adds up to a much better reading: instead of assuming that infants cannot experience the work of the Spirit, and then reasoning that they must not be covenant members, we should be encouraged based on these and other promises of God that our children are in Christ, and thus that the Spirit is and will be at work in them to a greater degree than at any other time in history. Throughout Scripture there are a great many such promises that our children belong to God. We can appropriate these promises today.
You made me trust you
We have many reasons to be encouraged that God will give life to our children. Childhood and sonship are not an accident of creation. God himself is Father and Son, together with Spirit who proceeds between them and to us. The church is the bride of Jesus, who through the Spirit brings new life into the world. We are ourselves sons of God. And while our families will not endure into eternity, they are meant to reflect God and his Triune life. Before the fall, man’s fruitful multiplication would have resulted in generational faithfulness. Even after the fall, one of God’s primary intentions in marriage was to produce godly offspring (Mal. 2:13-16), and in Jesus through the work of his Spirit this will increasingly be realized. We know that Jesus has particular compassion for children and for the fatherless, and his very name is one of faithfulness to thousands of generations (Ex. 34:6-7).
Earlier I referenced a few of the many promises that lead us to expect the Spirit to be at work in our children. In addition to these promises, we know that it was Israel’s regular confession as they sang the Psalms that the Spirit had been at work in them from before their birth. Three Psalms express this particularly clearly: Psalm 22:9-10; Psalm 71:5-6, 17; and Psalm 139, where the Spirit’s nearness is exhaustive, from heaven to earth and sea, from light to darkness, from the womb to the grave. Many other Psalms speak of generational covenant blessings and instruction. Israel was right to teach and believe these Psalms concerning her children, and we have even more warrant to do so in this age of the Spirit.
There are several particular examples in Scripture of the Spirit’s regenerative work in the womb. These include Jeremiah (1:4-8), John the Baptist (Luke 1:44), and Jesus (Psalm 22 is a Messianic Psalm). Jesus is a particularly potent example, because we as his people live in union with him. His life, death, resurrection and ascension are the very reason that our children can experience the life and power of the Spirit even in the womb. The blessings of Jesus on our little children (Mark 10:16) are not platitudinous wishes; he truly gives them his Spirit.
It has been the consistent confession of the church, even of credobaptists, that Jesus receives all infants and young children who die in a Christian home. We confess that salvation is by faith alone, and this is no less true for our children; the Spirit works faith in our young children just as we have seen confessed in the Psalms. In death they entrust themselves to their Savior, as willingly and completely as they entrust themselves wholly to our care in life. It is true that their faith has much to grow in the way of understanding. Nevertheless, infants, young children, the mentally handicapped, and the senile may all be saved by the simplest of genuine faith.
All of this does not undermine the doctrines of original sin and of depravity. Our children are not saved because they are good by nature or have escaped Adam’s curse (Ps. 51:5). Rather, they are saved because the only Savior has pledged himself to them.
It is no more incredible that the Spirit works a promised seed of faith in our infants than it is that they should be judicially given a seed of original sin.
The one for whom Christ died
We know that Jesus welcomes our infants and young children into his heavenly presence. The worship of the church is itself a kind of drawing near to Jesus (Heb. 12:18ff, and elsewhere), and we know that Jesus accepts the worship of our children (Matt. 21:16). So it is entirely appropriate, even necessary, for us to clothe our children in the washing of baptism so that they can stand before their king (Matt. 22:11ff). By comparison, in the Old Testament, sanctuary worship was the one thing that was not permitted to those who were unclean, who had not been ceremonially cleansed by washing — baptism. Jesus regards our children as cleansed, since he accepts them and their worship, so we ought to baptize them.
If baptism is the sacrament of entry into the covenant, the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of continuing in the covenant. Israel’s covenant children participated in her covenant feasts. And if Jesus welcomes our own children to his heavenly feast, he certainly welcomes them to its earthly foretaste. For me, paedocommunion has been much more a “felt need” than paedobaptism. I can teach and remind my unbaptized children that they belong to Jesus almost as well as if they had been baptized. But when they are excluded from communion, week by week they experience a visible sign that they are separated from Christ, strangers to the covenant, in a sense even without hope, having no possible means of coming to him. This has the effect of teaching them that there is something more, something adult-like, that Jesus requires of them before they can sit at his table. But Jesus requires nothing more than childlike faith. Jesus does not welcome our children into his presence in worship only to refuse them access to his table. The gospel does not make us wait for our salvation.
Excluding our children from the table subjects us to some grave warnings. Jesus commands us to let our children come to him (Matt. 19, Luke 18). By excluding our children, we are training them to doubt that Jesus accepts their childlike faith, subtly undermining their faith and their understanding of the gospel, potentially destroying one for whom Christ died (Rom. 14). In this, we set a stumbling block before them, making millstones for ourselves (Matt. 18, Mark 9, Luke 17). We fail to discern the body — that is, discerning our children’s place in it — so we eat and drink in an unworthy manner, bringing judgment upon ourselves (1 Cor. 11). In refusing table fellowship with those whom we know Jesus welcomes to his heavenly table, we are not walking in step with the gospel, and so we stand condemned (Gal. 2).
I struggled with assurance for many years, and I think this is the reason. The evangelical church trains its children for a dozen years or more that something — whether it is their faith, understanding, sincerity, or maturity — is not good enough for Jesus to accept them in baptism and table fellowship. In the first place, this trains our children to doubt Jesus’s acceptance of them in the gospel; after so many years, baptism will not overnight assure them that they finally have enough sincerity. Moreover, it trains our children in the futile task of searching inside themselves for assurance instead of looking to Jesus and his faithfulness in keeping his promises. And this is true not just in our approach to the sacraments, but to parenting in general. We tend to conceive of the task of parenting young children almost entirely in terms of evangelism rather than discipleship; we think in terms of a moment of repentance and faith, rather than a life of ongoing and growing repentance and faith.
We scoff at Limbo and Purgatory, but we have created a living limbo for our children, treating them as second-class citizens of the kingdom in spite of their faith. I wonder if we have also set a stumbling block before the world in this; has our exclusion of our children from the body of Christ contributed to the plausibility structures of abortion?
At the very least, credobaptists (and paedobaptists who do not practice paedocommunion) ought to tremble at this. Even in terms of credobaptist principles, no child who is able to articulate the simple confessions “I love Jesus” and “Jesus is Lord” should be denied baptism or communion.
Baptism now saves you
We are accustomed to speaking of baptism as an individual expression of obedience, an enacted profession of faith. But this does not match the way that God speaks about baptism: it is much more something that God does to us than that we do before him, and it is something that in some sense brings to pass our death, salvation, and union with Jesus. As evangelicals, we tend to react strongly against this way of speaking, since it smacks of sacerdotalism. But we should strive to conform our way of speaking to God’s.
I’ve found it helpful to think of baptism in terms of a groom’s presenting a ring to his bride (“with this ring I thee wed”), or a minister’s pronouncement of marriage (“I pronounce you . . .”). These kinds of effective speech acts are called performative utterances. We do not say that the ring or the minister cause the marriage. But we do say that the giving of the ring and the pronouncement accomplish or effect the marriage. In the same way, baptism certainly does not cause us to be saved. But baptism is nevertheless God’s declaration and pronouncement, through his church, that we are saved. God uses baptism to accomplish our salvation.
So we can speak of baptism as God’s public pronouncement, through his church, that we are united to Jesus (Rom. 6, Gal. 3); that we are adopted, his beloved sons (Matt. 3); that we are saved (1 Pet. 3); that we are justified (1 Cor. 6:11); that we have been definitively buried and raised (Col. 2); that we are placed in the church, the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4). We have already seen that baptism typologically relates to the washing of the ordination of the priests (Exodus 29:4, 40:12), so that baptism is God’s publicly ordaining us into the priesthood of all believers. As the sign of entry into the new covenant, baptism is essentially the gateway to Jesus’s church, our establishment in the new creation, our participation in a new family.
In fact, the baptism of our infant children does not at all suggest that they may inherit life, grace, or salvation from their parents. On the contrary, it is a repudiation of their family ties, a recognition that their salvation is only to be found in Jesus and his church, a giving them to God and receiving them back only as stewards, as elder brothers and sisters. Recognizing this, the baptism of infants and young children has nothing to do with blood lines; adopted children are to be baptized as well. God’s own adoption of us in Jesus is the very heart of the gospel. Baptism is covenantal, accomplishing our entry into the new covenant, into a new family.
There’s a slight argument from catholicity for paedobaptism. It is rare for credobaptists to accept others’ infant baptisms; given their assumptions, this is reasonable. But it puts credobaptists in an awkward contra mundum position, where they must repudiate the majority of Christian baptisms throughout church history.
Interestingly, by conceiving of baptism as a performative utterance, the idea of re-baptism really becomes incoherent. If someone is properly baptized, then in a sense the name and claim of Jesus has been publicly placed upon them, placing on them the sober responsibility to live as a faithful son of God. If for some reason they only later come to trust in Jesus, then they are finally living true to the promise and claim that has already been laid upon them. It is not really possible to renew this claim, any more than parents must adopt a runaway child when he returns home. Credobaptists claim that infant baptisms are nothing more than wet dedications; but when we realize that baptism is a performative utterance made by God through his church, we see the opposite is true, that re-baptism is incoherent.
One possible lingering concern with infant baptism is the mode of baptism. It is not the case that the word baptism itself exclusively indicates immersion. For example, Hebrews 6:2, 9:10 use it to refer to Levitical washings that would have been performed using water from the elevated laver and basins of cleansing. And the connection of immersion to Jesus’s burial (Rom. 6:4) is a weak one, since we know that Jesus was buried in a cave rather than the ground. Furthermore, there is a repeated pattern throughout the entire Bible of elevated, heavenly firmament waters that bring life and cleansing and refreshment, contrasted with earthly waters that bring judgment. Israel’s baptism in the cloud and sea (1 Cor. 10) was precisely a sprinkling with heavenly waters (Ps. 77) and a salvation from earthly waters (Ex. 14:26ff). Noah’s baptism (1 Pet. 3:20-21) was the same. Israel’s baptism in their great exodus is evidence for infant baptism, for they all truly ate and drank from Christ (1 Cor. 10): the body of Moses was in fact the old-covenant expression of the body of Christ. There are many other exodus-crossings of whole families from outside the land into God’s land through baptismal waters that are symbolic of the firmament boundary: Abraham returning from Egypt and Philistia, Isaac returning from Philistia, Jacob returning from Paddan-Aram, Israel entering Canaan with Joshua, and more. (In a way, God’s act of separating earthly from heavenly waters in Gen. 1:7 is itself the very first of many exoduses in the Bible.) Thus, we see that it is both fitting for us to baptize our children, and also for us to baptize using waters from above, a picture of our passage through the heavenly firmament waters into the new creation, into Jesus’s presence.
Another remaining concern is the problem of apostasy: not all children who grow up in the church remain in the church. There are several things we can say about this. First, part of the reason this is true may be that we have not believed God’s promises: we have not believed that the Spirit is already at work in our children, have not received this as a gift from God, and by our lack of faith have quenched the Spirit rather than fanning the Spirit’s work into flame. Second, the solution to rampant apostasy is not to wait a little longer to be sure before we baptize someone, since baptism is a sign of new life and not mature life. Rather, the solution is to faithfully instruct and discipline, even practicing church discipline if necessary: we diligently train our children to know and love and trust and obey God, to believe God’s promises and heed his warnings. Yet, finally, we must grapple with the problem of apostasy. God himself, the perfect father, had sons Adam and Israel wander astray. We may encourage ourselves greatly to see how diligently God pursued his sons even in their rejection of him. And, pastorally, we cannot allow the possibility of apostasy to sap our faith that God is at work in our children and that they belong to him. Yet in terms of our systematic theology, we have to be able to speak of people who had a temporary experience of the Spirit (Heb. 6), a temporary grafting into the body of Christ (John 15:6, Rom. 11:17ff), but who ended up putting their trust in something other than Jesus, in something other than the promises that God had so graciously held out to them. You may be surprised to know that Calvin made room for such a category in his own theology.
The children of Christians are Christians. More than any other time in the history of salvation we have confidence that this is so. The curse is broken, the Spirit is given in fullness of power, and you might even say that in Jesus it is cleanness and not uncleanness that is contagious (consider Matt 9:20-22). Jesus is lord of every facet of creation and our existence, and he is most certainly lord of our children. We ought to baptize them and welcome them to Jesus’s table.
This annotated bibliography is in thematic rather than alphabetical order.
Horne, Mark. “Why Baptize Babies?” Horne presents numerous arguments for paedobaptism.
Horne, Mark. “Is God the God of the mature professing Christian only?” Horne responds to a lengthy argument against paedobaptism.
Wilson, Douglas. To a Thousand Generations. Wilson presents his own arguments for paedobaptism.
Wilson, Douglas. Standing on the Promises. This is a very helpful book on parenting; Wilson applies his theology to the task of encouraging parents to trust in God’s promises and work heartily.
Strawbridge, Gregg, et. al. The Case for Covenant Communion. A number of writers contributed essays arguing for paedocommunion.
Moonen, Scott. “Covenant Children.” This is an earlier essay of mine that attempts to summarize much of the Scriptural evidence I was able to identify at the time.
Vos, Geerhardus. Biblical Theology. This book began to open my eyes to the grace and work of the Spirit in the Old Testament, helping me better understand covenant theology.
Lillback, Peter. “Calvin’s Covenantal Response to the Anabaptist View of Baptism.” In this article, Lillback summarizes Calvin’s covenantal theology specifically with respect to infant baptism.
Lillback, Peter. The Binding of God. Lillback explores Calvin’s covenant theology in great depth. Calvin integrated both the eternal perspective of God’s decrees and the temporal perspective of their working out in history. In particular, he often uses the doctrine of adoption as a helpful way of understanding God’s covenants.
Wilson, Douglas. Reformed is Not Enough. Wilson presents a vision of covenant theology very much like Calvin’s.
Lusk, Richard. Paedofaith. Lusk argues that the Spirit is at work in believers’ children from before birth.
Poythress, Vern. “Indifferentism and rigorism in the church.” Poythress argues that we should accept the professions of young children.
Poythress, Vern. “Linking small children with infants in the theology of baptizing.” Poythress builds on the previous essay to argue for paedobaptism.
What is baptism
Leithart, Peter. Against Christianity. Leithart presents a comprehensive description of Christianity and the church, including a compelling vision for how sacraments function in the church.
Leithart, Peter. The Baptized Body. Leithart expands on the previous book to present a more comprehensive theology of baptism as a performative utterance, an investiture, the accomplishment of our incorporation into the church.
Leithart, Peter. Priesthood of the Plebs. This is Leithart’s doctoral dissertation, so it is a more technical work, but he expands further on his theology of baptism, in particular drawing connections to the Old Testament’s priestly ordination.