The investigation of historical evidence for believer’s baptism1 has been less profitable than one might wish. It did little to persuade my paedo-baptist friends to convert to credo-baptism. And the ensuing discussion made me a little concerned about whether they are still my friends. Before going forward with the last part of the discussion, let’s look at biblical evidence for infant and believer’s baptism.
First, what do the Scriptures say was done under the supervision of the apostles? The book of Acts tells of new believers who were baptized and welcomed into the church. The baptism of believing adults was part of the missionary endeavor of the church. Jesus commanded it in the Great Commission.
In Acts 8:36-38, Philip finishes explaining the gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch.
And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”2 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.
Baptists sometimes point to v. 37 as a clear statement about what it takes to be baptized: faith. But a closer look will show that it doesn’t logically exclude infant baptism. The eunuch asks, “What prevents me from baptism?” Peter answers: faith. “Me” in this question is an adult. What prevents an adult from being baptized? Faith. Reformed paedo-baptists would give the same answer today. Like Philip, they refuse to baptize an adult who does not give a credible profession of faith. But the eunuch only asked about himself. He didn’t ask about infants.
Paedo-baptists also believe that the oikos formula (“and his/her household”) indicates infant baptism.3 The book of Acts mentions several households that were baptized. Paedo-baptists argue that a “household” in this day was a large multi-generational group, which surely included infants. So, if households were baptized, we should assume that infants were baptized. Acts 16 offers an example:
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (ESV, Acts 16:13-16)
But if the use of oikos for baptisms proves infant baptism, it must also prove other things, such as infants fearing God (Acts 10:2), infants rejoicing (Acts 16:34) and infants believing (Acts 18:8).
The answer of a good conscience
The foyer of my childhood Lutheran church had a small tract about infant baptism. As I remember, it read, “The Apostle says, ‘baptism now saves us.’” I thought, “Wow, that would seem to settle it—is that really in the Bible?” It was.
There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (NKJV, 1 Pet. 3:21)
Despite its use by my Lutheran church to defend baptismal regeneration, this passage may be read differently. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown describe the word “answer”:
answer—Greek, “interrogation”; referring to the questions asked of candidates for baptism; eliciting a confession of faith “toward God” and a renunciation of Satan ([AUGUSTINE, The Creed, 4.1]; [CYPRIAN, Epistles, 7, To Rogatianus]), which, when flowing from “a good conscience,” assure one of being “saved.” Literally, “a good conscience’s interrogation (including the satisfactory answer) toward God.”4
In other words, accepting baptism is the answer that comes from a person whose conscience has been made right—regenerated. The early church conflated baptism with regeneration in much the same way that some modern Baptists have conflated praying a sinner’s prayer with regeneration. Many modern Christians speak as though (and even believe) that praying a prayer saves us. We would not have prayed for salvation if we didn’t believe. For us, a prayer was the response of the regenerated sinner. For the first century Christian, baptism was the response. And it “saved them” in the same sense that the sinner’s prayer “saves.”
Others read this as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (e.g., ESV). The appeal could include either a new believer asking God for forgiveness or perhaps parents appealing to God, by means of baptism, for the future regeneration of their child.
1 Corinthians 7:14 tells us that the children are made holy by believing parents. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether the rite of baptism is a means of that sanctification. There is a sense of expectant waiting in this verse regarding unbelieving spouses. Similarly, we should expectantly await the regeneration of our children. The question of whether to baptize them in anticipation of this or to wait for signs of faith is not addressed in this passage.
Buried with Him in baptism
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (ESV, Col. 2:11-12)
Both sides use this passage. It is possible that this refers primarily to spiritual baptism into Christ. It is said to be a circumcision “without hands.” And it does say, “through faith.” Paul is saying that the baptism he has in mind works through faith. There are objections from paedo-baptists: First, whose faith is in view? Some see the faith of the parents or of the church. Second, at what point in time does the faith work? Can faith follow the baptism, but still work through the knowledge of the event? Can baptism help us understand that we are in God’s family, even though it happened to us long before we were regenerated? After all, the old covenant believer was “cut off” from the world to God long before he was able to demonstrate faith. And circumcision was to remind him later in life that he was “cut off.” This brings up the question of the similarity of, or difference between, the covenants. This will be discussed in Part 2.
This study has not been exhaustive, but to my knowledge, there is no clear direct Scriptural evidence for or against either form of baptism. What one side holds as clearly supporting their view the other side simply views another way.
2 There are textual challenges to the last half of verse 36. Trends towards baptismal regeneration and infant baptism would seem to incline editors to remove rather than to add this statement. If it was added, it is more likely to have been added by a believer in believer’s baptism.
3 For an extended discussion, see: Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, Joachim Jeremias, Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 1960, pp. 76-78.
4 Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary on 1 Peter 3, available online: http://www.blueletterbible.org/commentaries/comm_view.cfm?AuthorID=7&con…. Square bracketed content original.