Question on Infant Baptism

Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002

The Question…

Dear Rev. Schlissel,

I have two questions for you. First, what made you change from Judaism to Christian Reformed? Why not Pentecostal?

Secondly, how can I explain infant baptism from Scripture. I myself believe in infant baptism but have a hard time explaining it to others. They always respond with the verse, Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mk16:16). I reply, What about the passages where whole families were baptized? They ask, How do you know there were any babies there? Furthermore, when I ask the pastor, Where does it say in the Bible that circumcision takes the place of baptism?, they don’t even know how to explain it. Is it something you just have to believe because it is nice and a great comfort, or are we missing something in the Bible?

(name withheld)
Ontario, CANADA

The Answer…

These are both questions put to me frequently, in one form or another. To the first question: I didn’t change from Judaism to Christian Reformed. I was changed from unbelief to faith in Jesus the Messiah. This came about through a personal study I undertook (I know now it was the working of God) in my early twenties in which I sought the meaning of life. I was convinced that this must be answered in light of the knowledge of death. What happens to a person – to me- at death? Is there continued existence, or is it ashes to ashes, dust to dust, period? I searched diligently amongst philosophers, ancient and modern, religious and non-religious, to find the answer. Looking to the Bible as one additional source, I was confronted with Jesus Christ. Never a man spake like this man! I had learned the proper questions from the philosophers (one of whom had said that death is the business of true philosophy). I found the answers in my Savior. So, ironically, it was through a study of death that I found eternal life.

Having come to a rudimentary faith through the study of Scripture, I began my search for a denomination. I took out a book from the public library, Religions in America, by a Jew, Leo Rosten. I reviewed the various denominations and contacted several listed. Through various and interesting providences, my wife (a former Roman Catholic) and I ended up at a Jewish mission in Coney Island. That work, through several changes, is now Messiah’s Congregation. You’ll either have to come to New York or bring me to your church for the full dope (all the details). One other thing: I am not Pentecostal because Pentecostalism is not the system of doctrine and practice taught in the Bible. For a good treatment of Pentecostalism, send for the booklet, Try the Spirits, by Rev. David Engelsma. (Free by request but, of course, a donation would be appreciated) It’s available from the Evangelism Committee of the S. Holland Protes­tant Reformed Church, 16511 S. Park Ave., S. Holland, IL 60473 (USA). Phone: (312) 596- 3113.

To the question of infant baptism, let me first say that I probably had as much difficulty coming from my Baptistic Christian indoctrination to the Reformed faith, as it touches this issue, as I had in coming from a Jewish background to Christian faith. I really had to struggle to see the validity of this sacrament applied to unbelieving infants. When the smoke cleared from my brain, however, I came to see that the stumbling block (I’m giving you a simplified answer) which keeps people from seeing the appropriateness, the beauty of infant baptism, is the absence of a covenantal eye. The way we read the New Testament evidence on this issue is determined by the way we read the New Testament. Let me explain.

If we understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments to be one of basic continuity, of promise and fulfillment, then we will presuppose the continuing validity of Old Covenant ordinances unless they are specifically revoked or modified by the Holy Spirit, the author of Scripture. If one presupposes discontinuity, then one will require explicit commands to be given in the New Covenant if one is to regard a practice as normative for the church. It is vital to understand this lest much effort be wasted in fruitless surface argumentation, when the unexpressed presuppositions are determining the way the evidence is interpreted.

Down to cases. If a person who presupposes discontinuity goes to the New Testament for guidance on the subject of infant baptism, he will be looking for a specific commandment to baptize infants. Not finding any, he will conclude that it is contrary to God’s will. When a Reformed person, that is, one who presupposes a basic continuity between the covenants, goes to the New Testament for guidance on this question, he knows that for two thousand years before Christ, covenant infants had been the recipients of the sign and seal of covenant entrance by Divine decree. Thus, the very silence which convinced Mr. Discontinuity that it is inappro­priate to administer the covenant sign and seal to infants, that very silence proves that it remains God’s will for covenant babies to receive that sign.

Furthermore, he will see in Peter’s Pentecost sermon the confirmation of his presupposition of continuity: Repent and be baptized…The promise is for you and your children (Acts 2:38,39). The household baptisms hold no problem for him, whether there are infants or not. (See Acts 10:48 (cf.11:14); 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16) Mr. Continuity will understand that if, after two thousand years of having their children included in the covenant, the fulfillment of that Covenant in Christ now meant the exclusion of their children from the covenant (for if they are in fact members of the covenant, to withhold baptism would be to exalt the sign above the reality signified), if they were now excluded, that would not only be regarded as covenant regression, it seems reasonable to assume that quite a ruckus would be raised over that very point and would have needed to be addressed in the early church. So again, silence is what Mr. Continuous expects and finds.

That the covenant sign has changed from circumcision to baptism is seen in Colossians 2:11,12: In Him you were also circumcised…having been buried with Him in baptism. One reason for the change in sign is that, with the coming of Christ, God’s blood requirements have terminated in the sacrifice of His dear Son. Thus, the sign of covenant entry is no longer blood, reminding us of the problem of sin, but water, reminding us of the solution to sin. (Yes, much more could be said.)

One further word. Baptism is not so much a sign and seal of promise as it is a sign and seal of the covenant. The covenant contains both promises and threats. Cf. Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. It is lack of appreciation for the covenant’s two-edged sword that has led to confusion, complacency, irreverence and irresponsibility. We all need to consider if our thinking and practice are reflective of the full-orbed richness of the covenant of grace.


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