In a fairly recent blog post written by G. Shane Morris titled “The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Infants,” he sets out the reasons that he believes that some denominations do not engage in the practice of infant baptism.
Friends (especially those expecting children) ask me with surprising frequency why I believe in infant baptism. For a couple of years, I replied by giving what I think the best biblical reasons are. But I usually don’t take that route anymore, because I’ve realized that’s not what convinced me.
Indeed, there are those who make arguments on both sides from Scripture as to why or why not to engage in the practice. And, just as a point of disclosure, I sympathize with Shane in that I was raised in a denomination (Presbyterian) in which it was a regular sacrament and I, as an infant was baptized into. He continues,
For most evangelicals, what stands in the way of baptizing infants isn’t a lack of biblical evidence, but an interpretive lens they wear when reading Scripture. That lens–shaped by revivals, rugged individualism, and a sacramental theology untethered from the church’s means of grace–makes conversion the chief article of the faith. We should expect this, since American evangelical theology was forged on the frontier, in camp meetings, to the sound of fire-and-brimstone preaching.
There seems to be a lack of reflection on Shane’s own argument in that he is also reading Scripture through an interpretive lens. By saying that baptism is somehow “the church’s means of grace” makes me wonder if Shane is a Roman Catholic, in which case that would beg a whole new set of questions, but I find parallels in his arguments to my non-Baptist Protestant brethren so we’ll continue by saying, yes, it is the proclamation of the Gospel that brings repentance and faith. As Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17, ESV)
and also later,
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:14, ESV)
The evangelical that he is referring to, a Baptist like myself for example, will argue that it is the proclamation of the Gospel, not baptism, that is the means of grace because that is how God has decreed that man should come to knowledge of his condition and how he may enter into a relationship with his Creator and God. The outlet by which such proclamation is made is only relevant as far as it is fulfilling that end.
The core assumption here is that you must have a conversion experience to be saved. You must turn away from a past life toward a new one, usually with tears and laments attesting your sincerity. And this view of Christianity works well in an evangelistic setting, where many have lived as open unbelievers. The problem is it’s an awkward fit when it comes to multi-generational faith.
I would argue that he has that backwards: one must be saved to have a conversion experience. It’s true that some or even most people do not have a dramatic conversion experience. However, most believers can point back to a time and admit that there was a change that occurred when something happened, when what they believed actually had an effect on them and became more than something dogmatic. But is there really such a thing as “multi-generational faith“? If so, how does it come about?
Anyone who was raised in a Christian home and still believes in Jesus knows that there wasn’t a time when he or she transitioned from “unbelief” to “belief.” We were never “converted.” It was simply inculcated from infancy, and for as long as we can remember, we have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, whether we were baptized as a baby or not.
Have you really? I was raised in a Christian home and there was a time when, even though I had certain things “inculcated” in me, I simply did not believe them. I accepted them as part of the reality of my family, but they had no effect on me. I could sing “Jesus Loves Me” with all my heart and had the Lord’s Prayer memorized, but I didn’t know him. Then one day I suddenly realized that I didn’t love Jesus and I was crushed by that reality. My need for a savior drove my 9-year old frame to the floor of our living room like someone had shot me through the heart. And when the Gospel was extended, I responded. The means that God used to save me was the family that I had been born into, but it was God that saved me. And I, in faith, made sure that my children would be in a position to be exposed to the truth and can say that both have made professions of faith and are living faithful lives.
But because of the baptistic emphasis on conversion, many (if not most) raised in those churches found ourselves “converting” over and over, reciting the “sinner’s prayer” at countless altar calls during our childhood and teenage years, certain that each time, we were truly sincere, but always finding ourselves back at the altar. Some of us even asked to be re-baptized upon our fresh conversions. And everyone raised in evangelical churches will know what I mean when I say “testimony envy,”–that real and perverse jealousy you feel when someone who lived a nastier pre-conversion life than you shares their story.
I would argue that it’s a Scriptural emphasis, which is why I like the way the New King James renders Acts 3:19,
Repent therefore and be converted…
If we are all sinners in Adam, then it follows that we need to be converted. In fact, genuine repentance and faith implies that one has been converted. I do agree with the point that there seems to be a sense that we want the most salacious conversion stories, that the abusive drunk or the violent drug fiend gets the most attention, but that doesn’t make the person saved at the age of nine any less saved, rather it proves the necessity and power of grace to,
[…]save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through [Jesus]…(Hebrews 7:24, ESV)
that if they, the drunk and the drug fiend, were in so desperate a need for salvation, what does that say about you?
This is where I think the chief difficulty with infant baptism lies, at least for American evangelicals. I don’t believe baptistic evangelicals really view their children as unregenerate pagans before their “credible profession of faith.” If they did, they wouldn’t teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer or to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I think what’s really going on is a kind of alternative sacramentalism, where a dramatic conversion experience, rather than baptism, is the rite of Christian initiation.
Wait. How does engaging in infant baptism follow from the view of seeing ones children as “unregenerate pagans“? It simply doesn’t. In fact, and this is where Presbyterians have had to struggle with federal vision theology that undermines certain tenets of their confession. I love my Presbyterian brothers and find myself aligned strongly with them on many issues, and find myself turning to thinkers like Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and Robert Gagnon for thoughtful, gospel-centered materials, but this is simply setting up a straw man. Does he teach his children “Jesus Loves Me” or the Lord’s Prayer because they have been baptized or does he do so in spite of it, because he knows that apart from a clear and demanding proclamation of the Gospel and God extending grace to save them that all he did was get them wet?
According to the Paul, we (Christians) were all,
[…]dead in the trespasses and sins…, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— …[living] in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:2-3, ESV)
I think that is Shane’s problem: he doesn’t see children as “unregenerate pagans” who need the gospel proclaimed to them for salvation. He seems to not understand that salvation and regeneration is what makes a person a Christian, not baptism. This is one of the problems that I find in dealing with atheists who claim to have been Christians. They might have done “the stuff” that made them appear, outwardly, to be Christian. It’s the one who continues in the faith that will be saved not the one “initiated” into it. This, I believe, is the primary, demonstrable difference between religion and Christianity at its highest sense, because Christianity is not a club that you join, its heartbeat is a relationship. Shane seems to conflate the two. The Christian assertion, not Baptist nor Presbyterian nor Methodist nor whatever denomination (religion), is that it is conversion that changes those “dead in trespasses and sins” and “under wrath” to those,
[…]alive together with Christ…(Ephesians 2:5, ESV)
not an application of water.
Shane says, drawing a conclusion from his point,
Thus, children raised in this setting feel the need to manufacture tearful conversions over and over to prove their sincerity. And rather than their present trust in Christ, they’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) to look back to a time, a place, and a prayer, and stake their salvation on that.
I’m going to call that a straw man too. Neither of my sons had “tearful conversions” and there’s many I know that haven’t either, and they were not placed in a position to feel that they had to. Further, and this is simply anecdotal, given the number of churches that I have been a member in, I have never even heard of such a thing. However, there was a pronounced realization that there was something wrong and they were incapable of dealing with on their own apart from their trust in Christ. The reason for looking back to where you were is so that you can tell how far you’ve come or whether or not you’ve actually moved. If we take Paul as our example in Scripture, he was always looking back at that moment, which is what made him realize just how indebted he was to God for saving him and his response was to proclaim the Gospel far and wide. Having spent nearly 20 years in various Baptist churches I have never seen such an environment as he describes. Could there be some out there that have such emphasis unduly placed? Absolutely, and I would argue against settings where emotionalism is used. However, there’s a difference in response that cannot be denied and no one can use their experience as the standard for all experiences. By not baptizing our infants we are demonstrating and emphasizing exactly what he claims we aren’t: the reality of the unregenerate nature and the necessity of conversion. We aren’t going to confuse our children on the nature of baptism and its symbolism of death to sin and resurrection to new life (which is the fundamental difference between those who engage in baptism by immersion and those who engage in that other stuff [wink-wink]).
Infant baptism runs counter to this entire system. It declares visibly that God induces a change of heart and a saving faith in those too young to even speak or remember their “conversions.” It illustrates that the branches God grafts in to His Son aren’t sterile. They bud and blossom, producing new branches that have never drunk another tree’s sap. And most importantly, it matches the lived experiences of believers’ children, rather than continually imposing a system on them that was designed for first-generation converts.
Um, could we get some scriptural justification for that assertion? I’m not going to deny some of the premise, but it seems to be a misrepresentation of the sign itself. This again demonstrates the problem that I mentioned earlier that just because you have been baptized, it doesn’t follow that one has been regenerated, hence why such positions pose problems with claims of atheists and in regard to those who proclaim baptismal regeneration. He seems to be under the assumption that those who do not believe in infant baptism do not believe that God can save without baptism, which is either a sad misunderstanding or a deliberate straw man. Let me be clear: I believe, and this is speaking as a Baptist, God can save anyone at anytime. However, it simply does not follow, given the broad testimony of Scripture, that baptism somehow obligates God to do anything. I wonder how Shane feels about the millions of children who have been murdered by abortion: could God save any, or all, of those children even though they were cut off and unbaptized? His argument comes off as a desperate and emotional plea rather than one that has been justified by Scripture.
What does Jesus have to say about this? In John 15:1 Jesus says that he is the vine and his Father is the vine dresser. God is constantly tending the vine of the faith that is Christ, grafting in new limbs to him. That means that every believer is, by definition, a first generation believer. Citizenship in heaven is determined by ones relationship to God through Christ, not by ones relationship to another believer. Again, this does not mean that God cannot use me, as a parent, as a means by which to draw my children to himself but it is God’s business and it his choice to extend grace sufficient for their salvation. Nothing that I do can accomplish that fact. That is why, as an evangelical, and a Baptist, I do not believe that infant baptism is either Scriptural or efficacious for anything.
Shane means well, but his entire argument is steeped in emotional appeals, questionable premises, and assumptions that simply do not follow. Not once does he muster a meaningful attempt to justify his position, he simply asserts it as the default and has to set up what I perceive as a straw man to attack. Where are the actual arguments? Why not interact with someone who does not believe what you believe? As a person who comes out of that tradition I cannot rectify such assumptions with the commands of Scripture, namely the command of Christ to “make disciples” after which follows the command to baptize (Matthew 28:19).
Here is a fair, balanced, debate that handles the subject with grace and scholarly aptitude.