The Lutheran Difference: Infant Baptism

Lutherans are inveterate paedobaptists.

Okay, that’s a mouthful. Basically, it means we baptize babies. Always have and, so far as I can tell, we always will.

And here’s the reason why: as we’ve seen over the past several weeks, we have a slightly different understanding of how a Christian comes to be saved. We flatly reject the notion that any part of our salvation is left up to us. There’s no “sinners prayer.” There’s no “making the decision.” Nothing like that at all. Instead, God (more specifically, the Holy Spirit) is the one who calls and creates saving faith (which, remember, Lutherans understand as a relational thing, not a cognitive exercise) in a nonbeliever which then brings them to faith. So the question is, if it’s totally up to God, then why can’t He do it for a baby?

The answer, at least to Lutherans, is that He absolutely can and does.

The reason why this has to happen is because infants, like all of us, are born sinful and corrupt. We take the words of Psalm 51:5 seriously. Human beings are born into sin, period. We don’t buy into the “age of accountability” business that you find in other Christian denominations. We believe that God can and does create saving faith in infants through the waters of baptism, even if the infant isn’t aware of what’s happening.

That’s because relationships can and do exist even when we’re not aware of them. Think about it this way:


That’s a picture of my wife and me after our younger son was born. He was placed with us the day he was born.

Now think about it from his perspective: he was knit together inside his mother’s womb. We know now that children can learn to recognize their mother’s heartbeats and even voices while they grow. Then one day, these two big blobs who make weird sounds that he’s never heard before are suddenly there. He had no idea what they were. But these blurry blobs took care of him. They fed him. They comforted him. Eventually, he learned that they would come if he cried. As more time passed, he came to associate certain sounds with these people: one was “dada” and the other “mama.” And if he made those noises, that specific person would come to help him.

Now my son, who just turned five, knows that we’re Mommy and Daddy. He knows that we feed him and take care of him. He knows that if he does something wrong, we’ll be upset with him. He knows that we adopted him. But he doesn’t have a full understanding of what, exactly, that means. As he continues to grow older, he’s going to learn more and more about how he came to be, what it means that my wife and I made him a part of our family through adoption. And eventually, he’ll have a full understanding of our relationship with him.

But does that relationship’s reality rest solely on his understanding?

Of course not! That relationship was forged four days before he was born, when my wife and I met his birth mother and agreed to adopt him. The moment he was born, he was our son. The relationship was there, even if he wasn’t aware of it.

Lutherans believe that the same thing can be true when it comes to infant baptism. The baby being baptized may not understand that God has called him or her by name and made that child His, but God understands. God understands that grace has been poured into the life of another human being, making them His.

For Lutherans, baptism also comes with a promise. By bringing our children to be baptized, parents are making a promise that they will educate their children on what it means to be Christian. We promise that we will raise them in the faith so that they come to understand who God is and what He has done through baptism.

Now I realize that this may be unpersuasive to those who come from a tradition that doesn’t practice infant baptism. You may be tempted to ask me to point to a passage that talks about infant baptism and, when I admit that there is no such passage, you might be tempted to triumphantly state that that means infant baptism is bogus.

Well, not so fast. If I may make a few points on that subject:

  1. Just because infant baptism isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible, that doesn’t mean it’s unbiblical. By that logic, we’d have to reject the idea of the trinity. After all, the word trinity is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible either. And this comes with additional thoughts:
    1. If we weren’t supposed to baptize infants, why didn’t Jesus explicitly tell us not to? Why, when He gave the Great Commission, didn’t He say, “Go and baptize all nations…except for the infants, because that’s just silly”?
    2. Just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly say that the early church baptized babies doesn’t mean that they didn’t. Think about it this way: can you name me one instance where the Bible says any of the apostles went to the bathroom? Applying the same logic, then we have to conclude that not only did the disciples never go to the bathroom, we have to follow their example and abstain as well!
      Okay, so maybe that’s a little sarcastic, but think about it this way: if you come from a tradition that espouses the “sinner’s prayer” or uses the phrase “let Jesus into your heart,” you’re on thin ice because neither of those phrases are directly referenced in the Bible either.
  2. There are plenty of examples in the book of Acts of entire families being baptized at once. I can think of three examples off the top of my head, namely that of Cornelius, Lydia, and the jailer at Philippi. And while the Bible doesn’t explicitly say that children were involved, it seems unlikely that so many households would have zero children in them.
  3. There’s also the parallel between circumcision and baptism that we really shouldn’t ignore. When God gave the sign of circumcision to Abraham, He instructed him to circumcise on the eighth day, making the child part of the covenant even when the child didn’t know what was happening. I think the same sort of logic applies to baptism. And I’m not the only one. Paul himself draws a parallel between the two in Colossians 2:11-12

Since the Bible doesn’t talk about infant baptism, it’s also interesting to see what the earliest church fathers have to say on the subject. One of the earliest explicit mentions of infant baptism was a guy named Tertullian, who did his thing in the early third century (approximately 200 AD or so). Here’s the interesting thing: Tertullian actually wasn’t sure if the Church should baptize infants. But from the way he phrased his questions about the subject, it’s pretty clear that he was asking about a practice that was commonly done. He was asking, “Are we sure we should be doing this?” not “Why are we doing this new thing?”

As a matter of fact, all of the earliest church fathers were pretty much unanimous about baptizing infants (check out this link; I know it’s a Catholic source, but this is one of those times when Lutherans and Catholics pretty much see eye-to-eye on a subject).

Ahem. Sorry. I seem to have gotten a little carried away. For some reason, this subject is one that I’m passionate about.

But before we end this post, I want to remind people that I’m not actually trying to persuade anyone that I’m right and they’re wrong. This isn’t the opening salvo of a debate. This is simply may way of trying to explain why Lutherans do what we do and why we believe what we believe.

Unless someone hits me with a doozy of a question that requires a follow-up post, we’re going to move on to how Lutherans understand Holy Communion. Brace yourself. There’s a quote from Bill Clinton coming.

Seriously. Come back next week to see what it is.

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  1. Pingback: 2016 in Review – John W. Otte

  2. Howdy, John. I’m looking through your series on the recommendation of Adam Collings. Finding it interesting.

    I’m not a Lutheran by the way, I’m a Baptist. It is actually really common for people to be in between Calvinist and Armenian, by the way. I would say only a tiny minority of modern Christians are truly fully Calvinist or truly fully Armenian. So I don’t think Lutheranism is quite as distinctly different as you state it is…but you will notice I did not comment on that page, but rather on the page of Baptism.

    Baptist have seen the decision to get baptized as one a person IS capable of making once they have already come to faith. Sure, I agree that coming to faith is a work of God that may or may not be expressed by prayer at that moment (having people say a “sinner’s prayer” is an attempt to “prime the pump” of faith–we may agree that it is a futile attempt, but few people actually believe the prayer itself has the power to save a person. Most would say if and only if it is an expression of faith that came prior to the prayer would it have any value.)

    As to baptism, it has antecedents in the preaching of John at the river Jordan, “Repent and be baptized!” which people obviously chose to do or not do do, making it totally different than coming to faith in a way that brings salvation. Nobody was calling literal dead people into the river and nobody was dunking infants there either that is recorded–and it would make no sense to do so, since the choice to repent is only for those who can hear and respond.

    How could an infant even respond to John’s call at all? His baptism of repentance was clearly for people with a sense they needed to repent and was performed as an act of the will. His baptism also would only symbolize a faith a person may have had prior to baptism and actually had no direct causative effect on anyone becoming a Christian. But that is the context of Christian baptism.

    The context of John’s baptism is itself in Jewish ritual washing, purification for sin. This was performed by people with an awareness of their sin. Circumcision was done for Jewish boys to join them to Israel, but washing was part of a number of commands related to cleanliness which had been expanded prior to the time of Christ (as revealed in the Dead Seas Scrolls). A Jewish ritual washing was thought to have a LITERAL connection to putting aside sinfulness (though I would say God’s purpose was really to get people to be clean at times, it also was at times to emphasize the importance of purity and separation from sin).

    The overall context of the baptism seen in the New Testament is that it indicated a commitment a desire to join and participate. It also showed a desire to put away sin. That is why it became the first step in joining any Christian church (whether the one in Jerusalem, or the one in Antioch, or elsewhere).

    It IS true that entire families were baptized. It is probably the case that in that culture, all it would take would be for the father to come to faith and he could decide for everyone else, including his wife and any household slaves, as well as the children, that they as a family would make a commitment to being Christian. (Though while we could argue instead that all of those in the family able to express faith in Christ did so, the Scripture does not actually spell out that is what happened.)

    That form of baptism, daddy saying we all are going to go in the water no matter what, is sure NOT what the Lutheran Church nor any other modern church practices. The Baptist concept though of each individual getting to decide for himself or herself at the right time is conceptionally closer to that than infant baptism.

    Why? Because most people who are Lutheran or any other denomination who practices infant baptism are raised in their faith. They don’t remember their own baptism. The original context of baptism indicating a commitment and a desire to put away (personal) sin is completely gutted as a result. (Sure, a PARENT can feel a sense of commitment for a child, which isn’t a bad thing–but the act does nothing for the infant.)

    Christ didn’t have to tell his disciples not to baptize infants because they all knew what baptism meant–commitment to follow, putting away sin, the parallel with ritual washing (not with circumcision–because the first Christians were Jews and continued to practice that separately). Christ DID command to make disciples and while infants can be protected and loved and held until they are old enough to become disciples, an infant cannot become a disciple of Christ because the word “disciple” means “student” and you have to grow up a bit before you are ready to study.

    The actual reason some churches insist on infant baptism is the Catholic church saw it as a step in a person’s salvation, as washing away their original sin. An unbaptized infant therefore could not go to heaven. Luther was raised Catholic and walked away from many Catholic doctrines, but not all of them.

    You correctly assert that salvation is an act of God, but at least some Lutherans feel that an unbaptized infant will not go to heaven! (I have been told this by a Lutheran who knew what she was talking about.)

    Baptism thus becomes a human action to try to assure somebody else has a chance to enter heaven (an infant) rather than a commitment by a person (note this is also a human action) to follow God and put aside personal sin. Infant baptism indicates a LACK of trust in the idea that God will work through faith in somebody, even if they are an infant, because if we don’t get that sick baby baptized before it passes away, it won’t make it to heaven! (So the parents are CAUSING the infant’s condition of faith via baptism by an act of THEIR will, which is directly the opposite of trusting God with the salvation or lack thereof of their newborn.) That isn’t what Scripture teaches.

    If you are going to say “Sola Scriptura” then you have to define things by what the Scriptures say they are. And baptism is consistently shown as a response, a decision, a commitment–though in a few cases, the commitment was made by a father on behalf of the entire family…(which is of course the channel through which infant baptism evolved, but there is no need for me to go through that history right here–I have written enough already). Baptism is not a way to make sure a baby who dies goes to heaven, any idea of commitment or putting aside sin completely forgotten.

    Of course, you couldn’t have gotten to the position you are without encountering somebody saying something at least somewhat similar to what I just said more than once. However, I think my understanding of what was really going on with families getting baptized isn’t quite standard…so think it over. Pray about it. It is my sincere hope you will understand the Scriptures better as a result.

    By the way, thanks for saying this in a forum where I have a place to comment and thanks for listening. God bless you.

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