Infant Baptism and Sovereign Grace
Rev. Ronald Hanko
And although our young children do not
understand these things, we may not therefore exclude them from
baptism, for as they are without their knowledge, partakers of the
condemnation in Adam, so are they again received into grace in
This passage from the Form for the Administration
of Baptism used in Reformed churches very nicely sums up what we
wish to show here, that is, that infant baptism is part and parcel of
the doctrine of sovereign grace, and that a denial of infant baptism is
essentially a denial of sovereign, irresistible, and efficacious grace.
The argument of the Form for the Administration of
Baptism is founded on the truth that infants can be and are saved by
Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:15; Mark 10:13-16). If they can be saved, they can
also receive baptism as the sign of salvation. To say that they
cannot have the sign when they can have the salvation to which
the sign points is inconsistent, to say the least.
A baptist will argue, however, that a person must
give evidence of having salvation before he can receive the sign. He
will insist, therefore, that faith must precede water baptism. So, he
says, water baptism ought to be administered only to believers. The
bedrock of baptist teaching is, then, the idea that faith must precede
This teaching is based on a misinterpretation of
Mark 16:15-16. These verses, however, do not say that faith must
precede baptism. Nor does any other Scripture passage. The argument that
this is the order of the passage is really no argument at all. It is
true that faith is mentioned before baptism in
Mark 16:15-16. That order is important. But that does not prove that
the order is a temporal order, i.e., first faith, then baptism.
The passage does not say, "He that believeth and then is
baptized shall be saved." Baptists assume that it says "then" but it
does not. The order in
Mark 16:15-16, is simply that of priority, i.e., that faith is
more important than baptism, something we all believe.
Following the Baptist line of reasoning, one might
just as easily prove from
II Peter 1:10 that calling comes before election, because it is
mentioned first. In fact, following the Baptist line of reasoning, the
Mark 16:15-16, is first faith, then water baptism, then
salvation; an order no baptist could accept. All
Mark 16:15-16, proves, then, is that faith, baptism and salvation
are very closely related to each other.
The main point of the Form for the Administration
of Baptism, however, is that infants are saved "without their
knowledge." In this way the Form connects infant baptism and
That infants are saved without their knowledge is
self-evident. But this means that there is no other way to save an
infant than by sovereign grace. He cannot respond to the Gospel,
exercise saving faith, make any decision, or do any works, and must,
then, be saved solely by the sovereign grace of God. Infant salvation,
therefore, is a powerful demonstration of salvation by grace alone.
What is more, the salvation of infants demonstrates
what is true for everyone whom God saves. We must all become like little
children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven, that is, we must be
saved in the same way that a little child is saved, without our having
done anything in order to be saved.
Many baptists believe this. Holding to the doctrines
of grace and believing the sovereignty of God in salvation, they insist
as we do, that God is always first in the work of salvation. Faith,
therefore, is not something that precedes salvation, but is itself part
of the gift of salvation (Eph.
2:8-10). It is not something we produce in order to be saved, but
something God gives us in saving us.
Yet, the same baptists who insist that faith cannot
not precede salvation, say that it must precede the sign of salvation.
How inconsistent! Ought not the sign correspond to the reality? If it is
not necessary to have faith before God can begin to save us, then the
sign ought to say so. In infant baptism it does!
The truth is, of course, that no one is saved because
he first believes the Gospel. He is saved through believing, but not
believing. That would make faith a work and be a denial of salvation by
grace alone. When we believe it is because God has already begun His
work of salvation in us. Yet even those baptists who believe in
salvation by sovereign grace say that a person's receiving the sign of
salvation does depend on his faith! He can receive salvation "without
his knowledge," that is, before he is capable of responding and while he
is still dead in sin, but cannot receive the sign of that salvation in
the same way.
We do not deny, of course, that sometimes water
baptism follows faith. In the case of adults converts it is often so
(but even then it marks the fact that they entered the kingdom as little
children). We are only saying that it need not be so. The very
idea that one must believe before receiving the sign of salvation
and of entrance into salvation is implicitly Arminian—a denial of
salvation by grace. This should be clear to anyone who understands the
doctrines of grace.
It is even clearer when we understand that water
baptism is only the sign of baptism. The real baptism is the
washing away of sins by the blood of Jesus Christ (Rom.
Titus 3:5). The real baptism is not something that depends on our
believing response, or even follows our response, but is "without our
knowledge." Indeed, it was principally accomplished already at the
cross, long before we were born (Rom.
5:8). How fitting that the sign should match the reality at this
Not only that, but we actually receive true baptism,
the washing away of our sins, as soon as we are reborn into the
family of God. At that time we are still "infants" in understanding and
5:12-14). Is it so strange, then, that we should receive the sign of
baptism at the time of our first birth and when we are still infants?
Baptism as the sign of salvation ought to reflect the
character of that salvation, especially its free and gracious character.
It does that in a very wonderful and beautiful way when infants are
baptized. In fact, it is our conviction that only the teaching of infant
baptism fits the doctrines of grace and the truth that salvation is by
grace alone without works. What a beautiful picture of salvation by
sovereign grace it is when a tiny infant, not even aware of what is
happening to him, receives the sign of God's grace and salvation through
the blood of Jesus! Just as that infant receives salvation "without his
knowledge," so also he receives baptism as the sign of that salvation
"without his knowledge."
All this is the reason why
Mark 10:13-16 is sometimes used a proof for infant baptism even
though it does not mention baptism at all. The children who were brought
to Jesus were infants (the Greek word shows this, as does the fact that
they were "brought"). And, without even the possibility of any kind of
believing response from them, Jesus grants them salvation; for what else
is it, in being brought to Him, being received by Him, and blessed by
Him, but to be saved in Him? The argument, therefore, is that insofar as
these infants received salvation from Him, the sign of that same
salvation should not be withheld from them. How could it be withheld?
The Belgic Confession of Faith uses this same
argument (Article 34):
And indeed Christ shed his blood no less for
the washing of the children of the faithful, than for adult persons; and
therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that, which
Christ hath done for them.
When an infant is baptized, therefore, it must be on
some other ground than his believing response to the Gospel promises. He
is incapable of such a response. He must, in fact, be baptized simply on
the ground of God's promise to be the God of His people and of their
Acts 2:39). Because of that promise of God we may expect a response
from him in later life, but neither his salvation nor his receiving the
sign of that salvation depends on his response.
This promise does not mean that every baptized infant
will be saved. Nor does some vain hope for the salvation of all
their children cause believing parents to have their children baptized.
The foundation for infant baptism is the PROMISE of God made to
believers that He will be their God and the God of their children (Gen.
Acts 2:39). Believing parents, therefore, expect that God will
gather His elect from among their children and have their children
baptized in the sure hope that God who promised will also perform it.
But why should all our children be baptized, when we
know that not all will be saved? For the same reason that we bring them
all under the preaching of the gospel. Believing parents have all
their children baptized because they understand that baptism is a kind
of visible gospel that will have the same twofold fruit among their
children that the preaching of the gospel has, according to God's own
purpose in predestination. Baptism, like the gospel, they believe, will
be used by God for the salvation of those of their children who are
elect, and for the condemnation of the rest.
Thus infant baptism teaches us that salvation does
not depend on us, but on the sovereign grace of God, who grants
salvation to sinners in the same way that they came under condemnation
in Adam, that is, without their knowledge.