by Kevin L. Hester
In my previous article, we examined the theological significance of baptism. We saw that baptism provides a picture of salvation from repentance to consummation in the resurrection of the last day. Baptism teaches us that our salvation comes by virtue of our union with Christ and wrests in His work on our behalf. We also noted that when an individual comes to baptism he or she testifies to the work of grace done in his or her life and pledges him or herself to a life of obedience to God’s covenant.
In this article, we will examine how these biblical truths of baptism impact our understanding of the proper subject of baptism (who is an appropriate candidate for baptism). We will see that believer’s baptism is the most appropriate understanding and application of these biblical images.
Biblical Data Concerning Believer’s Baptism
The primary passage that teaches believer’s baptism is the Great Commission of Christ to his disciples. This commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16. Since the authenticity of the Markan passage is not attested in many of the earlier manuscripts, we will here confine ourselves to the passage in Matthew.
Christ commands His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. The verb here is “to make disciples.” It is surrounded by three attendant circumstance participles: go, baptize, and teach. The simplest and most probable reading of this verse is that in order to make disciples, the apostles must go, baptize, and teach. This teaching would be made up of Jesus’ commandment that is the Gospel. We should therefore see that any proper subject of baptism should be able to be taught.
Acts 2:38 also comes to bear on the concept of believer’s baptism. Peter commands the Jews on the day of Pentecost to “repent and be baptized.” This again would seem to imply that the proper subject of baptism should be able to repent.
These primary passages on baptism seem to indicate that it should be preceded by faith and repentance. In Christ’s command, one must be able to believe and be taught in order to be a disciple and therefore receive the ordinance of baptism. Since infants are incapable of faith, repentance, or belief, they should not be considered proper subjects of baptism.
However, proponents of infant baptism have raised a number of objections. Here we will consider a few of them.
Objections to Believer’s Baptism
One of the first arguments for infant baptism that deserves attention is the historical precedent of infant baptism. This cannot be denied. We know that by the third century Tertullian, speaking as an opponent of infant baptism, notes its practice. In response to this, we should first note that the concept of baptismal regeneration that came to be common in the primitive church would easily have led to this type of practice. As the early church came to understand baptism as necessary for salvation, it is easy to see how infant baptism could be so easily accepted. We should also note that although the practice of the early church is to be highly valued, only Scripture is to be seen as normative for the body of Christ.
Another common objection concerns the response of Christ to the disciples when they forbade the bringing of infants to Him for His blessing. In Matthew 19:14 Jesus says “suffer the little children to come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (AV) or the “kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (NASB). The assertion is that since the kingdom of heaven is made up of infants as well as believing adults then why should we not baptize them as well?
In his work Christian Baptism, the paedobaptist John Murray rightly identifies toioutos as referring to the class of infants, but he neglects to see the metonymy of the term “children” as a reference to those believing in Christ. The kingdom does not belong to them exclusively, but to those that are “such as them.” Matthew 18:3 seems to shed more light on this passage. Here, Christ calls a child to Him and placing him on his knee he says, “unless you become like children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” We see then that this verse speaks of the humility and trust of a child. In the light of this verse and its similarities with 19:14, we should likely interpret this verse in the same way.
Another common objection to believer’s baptism is the instances of household baptisms in the New Testament. In Acts 16:15, 33, and 1 Corinthians 1:6 we find mention of such baptisms. This argument from silence states that it is highly unlikely that none of the households mentioned contained infants. While it is possible that there would have been infants in such houses, we must make several observations.
First, in reference to “all” of the household being baptized, we must be careful to define “all” according to its discourse. If we see the Great Commission of Christ in the background, we must infer that no infants were baptized in such houses. Moreover, the baptism of the jailer’s household in Acts 16:33 is followed by a statement in verse 34 that, “he and all his household had believed.” This demonstrates explicitly, even if we deny the comment regarding the discourse of “all”, that all the members of his household had fulfilled the requirements of baptism before the ordinance was offered.
Perhaps the strongest argument against believer’s baptism is the relationship between the circumcision of the Abrahamic covenant and the baptism of the New Covenant. Both were initiatory rites of spiritual covenants. Both were administered by Christ and extended to the members of the covenant and their children. It is also presumed that the two, respectively, are “signs and seals” of the same reality. Because of these similarities and because infants were circumcised then infants also ought to be baptized.
The first two premises will be granted. However, we should not deny the differences of the two covenants. The New Covenant is called a “better” or a “more complete” covenant in Hebrews 8:6. The superiority lies not in the spiritual nature of the New Covenant over the physical nature of the Old because both are spiritual. The superiority lies in the “promise.” Namely, the word will be placed upon their minds and written upon their hearts.
Under the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision was meant to denote participation in the covenant as a natural descendant of Abraham and the inner reality of faith. Paul reminds us that not all Israel is Israel and there is a circumcision that is uncircumcision (see Rom. 2:25 and 9:6). Ishmael was circumcised as a descendant of Abraham, yet he did not exhibit the inner spiritual reality. In the New Covenant the sign is narrowed to denote only the spiritual reality. Baptism is therefore more narrow than circumcision in scope even though it proclaims many of the same promises. The faith which was meant to be portrayed in circumcision has been made a reality in the New Covenant where Christ has written the law upon our hearts and placed it in our minds. This reality seems to demonstrate that believer’s baptism, as the initiatory rite of the New Covenant, is better in that it more closely appropriates the spiritual reality of the covenant of redemption.
It should also be noted that Abraham was specifically commanded to circumcise infants, yet we have not been so commanded to follow this practice in baptism. Similarly, while women were not circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant, they are admitted to baptism because of explicit references to their baptism in the New Testament.
We have examined the signification of baptism and its promises. We have also looked at the biblical passages which seem to teach the precedent of believer’s baptism and attempted to answer many objections to a believer’s baptism-only position. It seems that as baptism signifies many aspects of redemption such as regeneration, union with Christ and adoption-all of which are received through faith-it is best to adopt the position that believer’s baptism only is to be preferred.
The biblical data seems to agree with this assertion in that it appears to teach that candidates for baptism must be able to repent, believe, and be taught. We have also seen that the application of circumcision to infants is not to be carried over to baptism because of the narrower application of the New Covenant. It seems then best to conclude that the proper subject of baptism should be a believer in Christ and not infants who are incapable of such belief.
 John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1952), 61. This work was reissued under the same title by P&R Publishing in 1992.