The Biblical Basis of Infant Baptism (1)

In compliance with a request, and because of the importance of the matter, the publishers of THE OUTLOOK have scheduled a series of three articles on Baptism in general, and Infant Baptism particularly. Rev. Henry Vanden Heuvel, writer of these articles, is pastor of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa.

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The subject of baptism in general and infant baptism in particular has been at the center of discussion and controversy almost from the beginning of the Christian Church. This is true, of course, of the sacraments in general, including the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But clearly the doctrine of baptism, its significance, its authority, and its subjects, is still one of the issues that divides evangelicals more than any other single doctrine. As Reformed Christians, we have a great deal in common with our Baptist brethren. We certainly hold to the great central themes of Scripture. We together stand on the doctrine of the authority of Scripture, the efficacy of the work of Christ for our salvation, and the necessity of the Spirit’s work in opening the hearts of man unto salvation. But when it comes to the question of baptism, we are immediately separated poles apart.

The differences between evangelicals on the question of baptism has often caused doubts to come into the minds of Reformed Christians as to the biblical ground for infant baptism. Possibly because our Baptist friends pride themselves in their stand on the biblical basis for adult, believer’s baptism, we sometimes find ourselves at a loss to defend the basis for infant baptism.

Nor is this problem only found among so-called uneducated Reformed Christians. It is also found among some graduates of the seminary. It was told to me that at .the time of the classical examination of a candidate for the ministry in the Christian Reformed Church, the question was asked as to the ground for our practice of infant baptism. The candidate could come up with only one proof, and that was that in the New Testament Church, the apostles were known to have baptized entire households; and the candidate reckoned that there may well have been young children and infants among those families that were baptized. It is certain that if our leaders have difficulty justifying the practice of infant baptism, it is no wonder that our people will express doubts concerning this doctrine.

In the light of these considerations, and having received a request to do so, the publishers of THE OUTLOOK thought it well to devote a few articles to the general subject of baptism, and infant baptism in particular. In order to consider this subject clearly, it is my purpose to inquire first into the authority of baptism itself. This takes us into the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ, where He commanded the practice of baptism. The formula that is used in baptism to this very day is found in that Great Commission, so it is first of all necessary to look into that formula.

Then in a following article I hope to consider the meaning and significance of baptism as found in the many related references in Scripture. It is also important in connection with the differences that exist between the Reformed position and the Baptist position to discuss the mode of baptism. That is, is sprinkling a proper mode of baptism, or is immersion, as most Baptists teach, the only possible means of baptism? And then in the final article, the Biblical proof for infant baptism will be examined by bringing together the lines that have been drawn in the various preceding articles.

The Institution of Baptism

Baptism was instituted by Christ after He had finished the work of reconciliation and had received the approval of the Father in the resurrection. This is not the first reference to baptism, of course. The baptism of John was a baptism unto repentance which John preached. It was preparatory to the baptism instituted by Christ. Strictly speaking therefore, Christian baptism begins with the institution of baptism by the Lord Jesus in the Great Commission.

The statement of the Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:19, 20 and in the parallel passage, Mark 16:15, 16. “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and 10, 1 am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” In Mark 16:15, 16 we read, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned.”

It is important to notice that the words of the Great Commission as recorded by Matthew follow immediately upon the authority that Jesus had received as the Mediator. He says in vs. 18, “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and in earth.” This authority was given by the Father in response to the mediatorial work that Jesus had finished on the cross. To show that the redemptive work of Jesus had been accepted by the Father, God the Father raised Him from the grave. And now, says Jesus, He has also given me all authority in heaven and on earth. It is with that authority that Jesus now sends His disciples into all the earth, for all nations are made subject to Him, in order to teach and to baptize.

For the purpose of this discussion on baptism, therefore, it is clear that the sacrament of baptism finds its basis in Jesus Christ Himself. It is not merely the teaching of the church, or the desire of believers to have their children baptized. It is the command of the Lord Jesus who is the Lord of heaven and earth.

The Place of Baptism

It is evident from what Jesus says in Matthew 28;19 and 20 that the disciples were to go into the whole world to preach the gospel to all nations in order to bring people to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus called the disciples to go into the world and “make disciples” of the nations tells us something about the place of baptism in the Christian Church.

Those who accepted Christ by faith were to be bapti7.ed into the name of the Triune God as a sign and seal of the fact that they had entered into a new relationship to God. This new relationship is described by the word “discipline” or follower of the Lord. By becoming disciples, the believers not only accepted the teachings of the Lord, but also placed themselves under His authority. Baptism was the sign and seal that they had in fact accepted Christ’s authority as the new rule and law for their lives. They now promised by the very fact of their baptism to live according to the authority of the Lord Jesus.

Furthermore. the statement of Jesus here speaks of the fact that those who became disciples of the Lord Jesus were also to be brought under the preaching of the Word. That included the proclamation of the Gospel of course, but also the instruction as to the duties and responsibilities of the new relationship into which the believers had now entered. Baptism called them to place themselves under that instruction, in order that they might accept the duties and responsibilities of the new covenant of which they now were a part.

The Formula of Baptism

Of particular importance to the understanding of baptism is the formula found in Matthew 28:19, 20. Jesus instructed the disciples to baptize “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The important word is the preposition “into.” What does this preposition refer to in the formula of baptism?

One suggestion that is made is that baptism into the name of the Triune God means that one is baptized on the authority of the Triune God. However. the Greek word that is used for the preposition “into” is not the same as the word that refers to the idea of “in the authority of.” There is a formula that is used elsewhere in the New Testament that does carry with it the idea of baptizing on the authority of God; and in that particular formula, the preposition used is quite different from the word that is used here by our Lord. Rather the preposition “into” speaks of a relationship to the Triune God.

One who is baptized into the name of God enters into a relationship with God as a disciple. He enters a state of allegiance to God and fellowship with Him. That is the significance of the preposition “into” that is used by Jesus in this formula. This interpretation is given by most of the commentators on the book of Matthew, as well as the lexicons of the Greek New Testament.

The relationship into which the believer enters through baptism can be further seen by an interesting use of the preposition “into” that is found in secular times in ancient Greece. The same word that is translated by “into” here in Matthew 28 was used to describe a business transaction among the Greeks. One would sell something “into the name” of the person who purchased the article. The expression was then used to indicate that the article in question had become the property of the person who had purchased it.

It is then most instructive to see that the Lord Jesus chose this very expression current among the people to describe the relationship into which the believer entered through baptism. When the believer was baptized into the name of the Triune God, he became the property of God. Christ had purchased him, and his baptism was the seal of the Lord that he now belonged to God. This formula “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” takes on beautiful and significant meaning with the understanding that comes to us from the word “into” as it was used in ancient times.

Although it is true that in the baptism recorded in the book of Acts, the Trinitarian formula was not used, this does not mean that the disciples either did not use that formula, or that baptism for them means something different than what Jesus intended it to mean. Rather in the various references to baptism in the book of Acts, the nature of baptism as “into the name of Jesus” was emphasized. The disciples by using that formula were pointing the believers to their new relationship to Jesus Christ who had purchased them.

Certainly one’s acceptance of Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord included belief and a saving relationship to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. To be baptized into Christ is to be brought into relationship with the God who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Later on when the Church felt the need for a formula, it could find no better than that contained in the words of the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the next article, we shall consider the meaning and significance of baptism.