Can Babies Believe?

That’s what people sometimes ask when they put together two facts about Lutherans: (a) we are firm in our belief that God’s Grace is received ‘by faith alone’; and (b) we routinely baptize infants to receive the blessing of God’s saving Grace (a practice we share with traditional Christendom).  But since no one (including Lutherans) actually thinks that infants are intellectually equipped to understand Christian beliefs, much less affirm them, and since baptizing infants is not specifically commanded in the Bible, doesn’t that prove that this is an erroneous practice?  (That’s the position of Baptist/Evangelical theology.)

Let’s start with a more basic question: “Can babies be saved?”   For that question, we do have a clear answer from the lips of Jesus Himself when He said: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)   Since the parallel account in Luke 18:15-17 tells us that “they were bringing even infants to him…” it’s quite clear that salvation isn’t restricted only to those with developed mental abilities.  In fact, when Jesus says; “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” He seems to be suggesting not an inferior, but a superior ability to put total trust in Him (which is the essence of faith).

Now, those who equate ‘saving faith’ with an intellectual decision rationalize an exception for infants by holding that there is no such thing as ‘original sin’  – that a baby is fully innocent until it can make consciously bad choices.  That sounds appealing, but it flies in the face of consistent Biblical teaching that ever since mankind’s fall we are each born sinners, corrupted copies of the divine image in which we were created (see That Damn(ing) Virus).

But, if we are born corrupted, how can the simple act of putting water on a baby’s head make a difference?  After all, it’s not like they then become smarter!  But the answer to that question takes us to the very heart of what Baptism is all about:  it’s not merely a personal action to affirm belief in Christ, but an actual ‘means of Grace’ by which God brings the baptized into a covenant relationship with Him.  We believe that God uses Baptism to create faith and through it begins the work of reorienting our hearts to Him: a gift of both opportunity and ability.  It’s not the application of the water – it’s the power of God’s promises put into action – being brought into His covenant of salvation accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross (Romans 6:4)

So why doesn’t the New Testament specifically record any examples of infant baptism?  Rather, we have several cases of adults being baptized after a confession of faith.  But it’s instructive to note that in some of those incidents it’s also mentioned that the convert’s entire household was baptized too (e.g., Acts 16:15, 16:33).  For the Apostles, all of them Jews, it would have seemed entirely natural that the believer’s household (including infants) should be brought into God’s New Covenant just as households were brought into the Old Covenant by Circumcision (Genesis 17:1-14).  Indeed, the Apostle Paul draws a parallel between Circumcision and Baptism when describing the New Covenant life in Christ (Colossians 2:11-12).  And Peter, when instructing the Jewish crowds on Pentecost to “repent and be baptized”, also assured them that “the promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39) – a phrase which echoed God’s assurance that Circumcision sealed His Covenant with Abraham and his offspring.

Both Circumcision and Baptism are God’s means for bringing each new generation into a covenant relationship with Him.  But neither represents an accomplished end unto itself: in both cases, the child’s family and the community of faith assume the responsibility to nurture growth into a mature believer.

None of us is saved by our intellectual knowledge of Christ, nor by words which parrot Christian truths.  We are saved only by our relationship with Jesus Christ – a relationship which we did not in any way earn, and which God Himself creates.  Just as we invest our children with full family membership, regardless of intellectual capacity, so too does our loving Father when He adopts us in Baptism.  In water and the Spirit, God plants the relationship that will sustain and save.  It is then our responsibility as His People to nourish and encourage its growth into a mature belief that will faithfully serve Him.

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