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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Why do we baptize the children of believers?
Text:LD 27 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 7

Psalm 105:1-3

Hymn 58

Hymn 1

Psalm 89:1-3

Scripture readings:  Genesis 17:1-14, Acts 16:11-40

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 27

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Baptism seems to always be a topic for discussion, and especially infant baptism.  Some of us have family or friends who grew up in our Reformed Churches but then, at some point, somehow they started questioning things.  They began to doubt that infant baptism was taught in Scripture, they eventually rejected it, and so they ended up leaving and going somewhere else.  Typically, they end up being baptized again.  At least we would say that they were baptized a second time.  They would say that they were being baptized for the first time, because the first time wasn’t a real baptism.  Family and friends are left wondering:  how could this happen?  How could someone born and raised in a Reformed community turn their backs on something like their baptism as a baby? 

Questions around infant baptism actually figure quite prominently in the history of our churches.  Back in the Netherlands over a hundred years ago, there was a famous minister and professor named Abraham Kuyper.  He and his followers believed that infants should be baptized, but it was the reason why that caused trouble.  Kuyper and his followers said that the children of believers should be baptized because we presume that they are regenerated or born again.  If, when they grow older, it becomes evident that they have not been born again, then their baptism was not a real baptism.  It was just an apparent baptism, a playing with water in the church service.  That ended up causing trouble because the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands started binding everyone to this view.  Synods said that everyone has to believe what Kuyper taught on this and if you don’t, you’re out.  That was part of what led to what we call the Liberation of 1944.  Klaas Schilder and others refused to submit to the tyranny of these synods and so they were kicked out.  That led to the establishment of our sister churches, the Liberated Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Many of our parents and grandparents have their roots there.  When they immigrated, they came from those churches.   So there are not only present struggles over infant baptism, there are also historical struggles.

That means that there are at least two good reasons to spend some time looking at exactly why we baptize the children of believers in a Reformed church.  It’s good to know where we’ve come from and struggles in the past.  We want to learn from history.  But it’s also good to be equipped to deal with the problems and questions of today.  When someone asks, “Why do we baptize the children of believers?” all of us should be able to give a good answer.  So that’s the question we’re looking at this afternoon and we’ll see that there are at least five good reasons why we baptize the children of believers.

Our first three reasons are found explicitly in QA 74 of the Catechism.  First off, along with their believing parents, children belong to the covenant of grace.  The covenant of grace is that special relationship that God has with his people.  In that relationship, he promises to be our God and he expects us to respond with faith and then the fruits of faith. 

The origins of the covenant of grace are in the Old Testament.  Already in Genesis we see God establishing a covenant relationship with certain people.  One of those people was Abraham and we read about that in Genesis 17.  The important thing to realize in Genesis 17 is that the covenant of grace was not only with Abraham, but also with his children.  It’s right there in Genesis 17:7, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”  Throughout the Old Testament, the same can be said.  God always covenants not only with believers, but also with their children. 

As we turn to the pages of the New Testament, there is no evidence that this pattern changes.  There is no evidence whatsoever that suddenly God throws the children of believers out of the covenant of grace.  Instead, we see the opposite.  We see that the children continue to belong to this special relationship.  In Acts 2, after preaching his Pentecost sermon to all the Jews gathered in Jerusalem, Peter doesn’t suddenly lob a surprise at them on this point.  He doesn’t say, “I know your children used to belong to the covenant, but now that Christ has come and done his work of redemption, now that’s all changed.  Sorry, they don’t belong anymore.”  We don’t hear Peter saying anything like that.  Instead, what he says in Acts 2:39 is, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”  You see, the pattern simply continues.  The children of believers belonged in the Old Testament and they continue to belong in the New Testament.  God doesn’t suddenly change his mind and become less inclusive because he sent his Son into the world.  Why would he do that?  And since Hebrews describes the new covenant administration after Christ as being better, how is it better to be less inclusive?  Wouldn’t you expect a covenant of grace to continue graciously including the children?

So, the children of believers belong to God’s covenant.  The Catechism is exactly right.  And if they belong to God’s covenant, they should receive the sign of the covenant in holy baptism.  It only makes sense.  Children are not baptized on the basis of anything in them – so no presumptions about regeneration and so on – but on the basis of what God has done in drawing them into the covenant relationship with himself.

The second reason our Catechism gives is that they also belong to the congregation -- they belong to the church of Christ.  Because they belong already from conception, they also need to publically incorporated into the church.  That happens through baptism.  Baptism is an official public declaration from God that also this child is a member of his church.

Now that’s what the Catechism says, but is there any proof in Scripture that this is the case?  Yes, there are several places which lead to this conclusion.  There’s Mark 10:13-16.  People were bringing their children to Jesus so that he might bless them.  Now remember that these were covenant children, not some vanilla children out in the Roman Empire somewhere.  The disciples rebuked the people and tried to keep the covenant children away from Jesus.  Jesus was too important for these little kids.  Mark says that when our Saviour saw this, he became indignant.  He was upset by what his disciples were doing, trying to keep these little covenant children away from him.  He said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”  Notice how he speaks about the kingdom of God here.  The church and the kingdom are not exactly the same thing, but there’s a lot of overlap between the two.  The church is where the keys of the kingdom are exercised for instance.  More importantly, the church is where you find the citizens of the kingdom.  That’s a rather strong indication that, in the eyes of our Saviour, the little children belong to his kingdom and therefore also to his church.

Loved ones, this becomes even clearer in the beginning of Ephesians 6.  Remember, Paul’s letter was written to the church at Ephesus.  As he writes to the church, he speaks to these people at different stages of life and with different callings.  He first has words for the husbands and wives.  But then at the beginning of chapter 6, he turns to the children and he addresses them too, he tells them to obey their parents in the Lord, for this is right.  Why would Paul address the children if they were not part of the church?  The same thing happens in the letter to the Colossians.  The children in Colossae were members of the church too and Paul addressed them as such. 

So Scripture is clear that the children of believers also belong to the church.  If they belong to the church, then they should receive the sacrament of public initiation into the church.  The case is getting stronger.

The third reason why we baptize the children of believers is that baptism has replaced circumcision.  As the Catechism says, in the old administration of the covenant of grace, people were incorporated by circumcision.  After the coming of Christ and a new administration of the covenant, the bloody sacrament is gone, replaced by the pure waters of baptism.

Brothers and sisters, we see this in Scripture in Acts 10 with Cornelius.  Cornelius was a Roman centurion, a Gentile.  Yet Scripture tells us that he was also a devout man, someone who feared God, who prayed continually.  He was almost what you would call a Jewish proselyte.  Almost.  You see, there was one thing that Cornelius had not done:  he had not been circumcised.  For whatever reason, he had never taken that step.  Moreover, he never did.  After he became a Christian, he wasn’t circumcised.  Instead, he was baptized.  It was clearly recognized that baptism was the appropriate sacrament of initiation, not circumcision.  Baptism was the way in which someone receives the sign and seal of God’s covenant and gets officially brought into God’s people. 

That’s confirmed in Colossians 2:11-12.  In that passage, the “circumcision made without hands,” or “the circumcision of Christ” is not baptism, but the circumcision of the heart by Christ.  There is also an implication there that circumcision is over and done with and baptism has replaced it.  Paul was arguing that, after the coming of Christ, circumcision is obsolete.  Then verse 12 maintains that baptism is the new sacrament of initiation into the covenant of grace.  Why?  Because it signs and seals not only the promise of a circumcised heart, but also the promises of burial and resurrection in Christ.             

So there is this connection between circumcision and baptism.  Both baptism and circumcision point to Christ and the promises bound up in him.  Circumcision was bloody and appropriate for the time before Christ.  Baptism is bloodless and appropriate for the time after Christ and his work on the cross.  Circumcision was administered to the male children of the covenant in the Old Testament.  Similarly, but better, baptism is to be administered to all children (male and female) of the covenant today.  Baptism has indeed replaced circumcision and is richer and better.  But it is not better if it becomes more restrictive and leaves out the children of believers!

So children of believers are baptized because they belong to God’s covenant and congregation and because baptism has replaced circumcision.  These are the reasons given in the Catechism and they are the strongest.  However, there are also a couple of other reasons that can be given.  The first is a more circumstantial argument looking at some of the baptisms found in the book of Acts.  We see that not only believers were baptized, but also their families.  There are two examples in our reading from Acts 16.

Paul brings the gospel to Philippi.  As he was preaching, a woman named Lydia was listening.  Scripture says that “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  She heard and she believed.  Then Acts 16:15 says that she was baptized, but not only her, also her household.  When Lydia was baptized, her family was as well. 

The same thing is seen with the Philippian jailer later in the chapter.  After he believes, not only does he get baptized, but also his family.  Verse 33 says, “and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” 

Those who hold to believers-only baptism say that in both these cases, the whole family must have believed.  However, there’s no evidence in the text to support that assumption.  With Lydia, she is the only one who is said to have believed.  With the Philippian jailer, it says clearly in verse 34 that he was the one who believed.  They were all baptized, but it was on the basis of his having become a believer.  That demonstrates that when God draws someone into the covenant, he draws the family with the believer.  In the covenant, God works through families and households.  It was that way in the Old Testament, and it would be very odd for God to suddenly change this in the New Testament.  You would expect that if he had changed it, he would have made it abundantly clear.  As it is, there is no reason to believe that God has changed his way of dealing with people within the covenant of grace.  Believers belong, and so do their children.  And as those belonging to the covenant, they should and must receive the sign and seal of the covenant in holy baptism. 

Now you would expect that if this was the practice of the church in the time of the apostles, you would expect to see it carrying on after the time of the apostles.  Sure enough, there is historical evidence from the early church that the children of believers were baptized.  Now that doesn’t carry the same weight as the arguments from Scripture, but it does illustrate that the church understood the teaching of Scripture and carried on the practice from the apostles. 

There are ancient Christian graves of children which indicate that they were baptized.  These go back to the third century, the 200s.  Justin Martyr spoke of Christians who had been such since their childhood – implying that they had been baptized as children or infants.  The church father Irenaeus mentions infant baptism in the year 185.  In that same year, Origen also mentioned infant baptism and said that it had been the practice of the church since the time of the apostles.  In the year 220, we find the Canons of Hippolytus, a sort of church order.  That document clearly speaks about the baptism of infants as well.  Cyprian also lived in the third century, in the 200s.  At a certain point, he had to deal with the question of when infants can be baptized.  Some in the church had the custom of baptizing after the eighth day and the question was whether it could be done before then.  The answer was that baptism should be done as soon as feasible and no one should be hindered from it.  But the fact that they were discussing such a question demonstrates that infant baptism was the normal practice in the 200s.  More examples could be given. 

You see, there is a fair bit of historical evidence to suggest that infant baptism was not introduced later on, but had always been practiced from the time of the apostles.  Now it’s true that as time went on, the sacrament was thought about in wrong ways.  People came to believe that baptism washed away sins and so on.  When the Reformation happened, people began thinking about baptism in a biblical way again.  The church had gone astray on baptism in some respects.  But the Reformers all maintained that the one thing the church had been right about was who should receive baptism.  The church had been correct to maintain baptism as a sacrament not only for believers, but also for their children. 

That brings us to today and we still maintain the practice.  We do so, not so much because of the history, but because of what Scripture teaches us.  And it’s especially because of what Scripture says about the covenant of grace and who belongs to it.  We believe that Scripture teaches that both believers and their children are graciously included in this relationship.  That’s the key. 

Now there are other questions that do come up.  Let me just briefly deal with one.  What happens to the children of believers who die in infancy?  Last time, when we looked at baptism in general, we saw that there is a personal responsibility for everyone who receives baptism to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.  That personal responsibility comes to everyone who reaches what we call an age of accountability.  That age differs from person to person – we can’t and shouldn’t set a number on it.  The question is:  what about those who never reach such an age, those who never have the opportunity to repent and believe for themselves?  What about the child who dies in the womb?  Or the child who dies at two or three years old?  The Canons of Dort speak directly to this situation, summarizing what the Bible says.  Look with me for a moment at Canons 1.17 [look up and read].  Believing parents need never doubt when God calls a little child to himself.  They can take comfort.  They can trust that, because of God’s covenant with them and their children, those children are received by God in grace.  Faith in Christ is still involved here, but it’s the faith of the parents. 

That’s an exceptional circumstance and it by no means takes away from the personal responsibility of children as they get older for them to repent and believe in Christ for themselves.  Moreover, it doesn’t mean that parents can be lazy and irresponsible in raising their children.  As Christian parents, we have the calling to disciple our children and to make them see God’s promises and the right way to respond to them:  with repentance and faith in Christ.   We have all promised to do that at the baptism font.  Parents, you need to take that calling and those vows seriously.  The eternal welfare of your children depends on it.  If you love your children, disciple them, teach them what it means to be a Christian:  how to turn away from sin and to turn to Christ with a true and living faith.  Baptism doesn’t substitute for that -- instead it leads us to it.                     

There’s no doubt that infant baptism will continue to be a hot topic.  We’ll continue to face questions and challenges with this doctrine.  But, as we’ve seen this afternoon, we’re on solid biblical ground in maintaining this teaching.  The children of believers belong to the covenant of grace, they belong to Christ’s church and as such, they have to receive the sign and seal that has replaced circumcision – they must be baptized.  They must be baptized just as the families of believers were baptized in the New Testament and in the early church.  Brothers and sisters, let’s continue to hold this teaching, not just because that’s what we’ve always done, not out of custom or superstition, but because God himself teaches us this in his Word.  AMEN.


Father in heaven,

Thank you for your covenant of grace.  We thank you for embracing not only us, but also our children.  You’ve claimed us all for your own, and for that we are grateful.  Father, please help us to always value your relationship with us, signed and sealed in our baptism.  Help our children to see the riches of the covenant promises.  Please work in each one of them with your Holy Spirit so that they take those promises for themselves, that they would all be regenerated and repent and believe in Jesus alone.  We pray for the parents in our congregation too, please help all of them to disciple their children faithfully.  Father, may none of these little lambs be lost.  May they all appear before you in glory, clothed with the righteousness of Christ the only Saviour.    





* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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