Christian LivingDoctrine

Little ones to him belong

Over 40 years ago, Jay E Adams opened his little book, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism, with an observation that still rings true today: “obviously, some immersionists speak overmuch on the subject; but just as truly, most of those who disagree with them say far too little”.[1]

The above observation might be most true amongst evangelical Anglicans. For many of our brothers, infant baptism is something of an embarrassment, with some prominent ministers at home and abroad even withholding baptism from their own children. They defend themselves by observing that Article 27 says that infant baptism is only“agreeable” with Scripture—not mandated!

With confusions abounding around the sacraments, particularly as they relate to Anglo-Catholic practices, a certain hesitance around infant baptism is understandable. The great irony is that the above reading—that infant baptism is merely “agreeable”—is itself an Anglo-Catholic way of reading the Articles! It was John Henry Newman, the leader of the Oxford movement, who claimed concerning the Articles: “we have no duty towards their framers”.[2] As Reformation Anglicans, surely we ought to read the Articles as they were intended to be read.

And how were they intended? Article 27 declares that the baptism of the children of Christians is not merely agreeable with Scripture, it is “most agreeable with the institution of Christ” (Article 27). In the context of the day, “most agreeable” did not mean “one option that remains valid”—but rather the only option available![3] The reformers held onto infant baptism, not as a plea to placate the church of Rome, nor as an endeavour to ensure they were instep with a 1500 year old tradition, but because it best fits with the whole counsel of God.

Below are just three reasons from the Bible why the baptism of the children of Christians is “most agreeable with the institution of Christ”.

1. Children have always been included as a part of God’s people

The first time children are mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 3: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring” (v. 15). Children are not presented as little autonomous beings, rather they are blessed, or cursed, depending on their parents. Consider Noah, who alonefound favour with God (Gen 6:8), yet whose children were saved from the flood waters. Likewise Abraham, who was given circumcision as a sign and seal of righteousness (Rom 4:11), gives this same sign to his children, including Ishmael, even though he knew that Ishmael did not walk before God and that the covenant would not be established through Ishmael (Gen 17:18–21).

In the Old Testament God continuously deals with households: saving them by the blood of the passover lamb (Exod 12:3), and commanding that the entire household celebrate the remembrance meal (Deut 12:7). God graciously saves not just Rahab, but her entire household (Josh 6:17), and likewise condemns Achan’s entire household (Josh 7:24). The household is the primary place of discipleship (Deut 6) and a central image for the people of Israel (Num 12:7; Jer. 31:31; Amos 5:25-27; Amos 9:11). This image is picked up and applied to the New Testament church, repeatedly referred to as the “household of God” (Eph 2:19; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 4:17).

2. Most baptisms in the New Testament are household baptisms

Following his sermon at Pentecost, the Apostle Peter called on the crowd to “repent and be baptised every one of you” (Acts 2:38). Some have understood this response to outline a mechanistic order: in other words, you cannot be baptised until you have repented. Luke doesn’t tell us the age range of the people present at Pentecost, but we do know from the Gospels that the annual trip to Jerusalem was one that the whole family went on (Luke 2:42). How would those Jews, standing there with infants in their arms, have understood “every one of you”? How would they have understood Peter’s following words: “this promise is for you and you children and all who are far off” (Acts 2:39)? These are explicit Abrahamic and New Covenant terms (Gen 12:1-3; 17:7; Isa 54:13). With these words, surely Peter was not meaning to say: “your children, who moments ago were counted as God’s people, are now no longer counted as God’s people”. From the outset, children, like the Gentiles—those who are “far off” (Acts 22:39; Eph 2:13)—are declared to be the recipients of this promise.

Following Pentecost, there are five explicit references to household baptisms in the New Testament: the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:47), the household of Lydia (16:15), the household of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:33), the household of Crispus (18:8), and the household of Stephanus (1 Cor 1:16). Considering that neither Paul, nor the Ethiopian Eunuch (for obvious reasons!) had no children, that their baptisms weren’t household baptisms need no comment. That leaves only two references to explicit “credo” baptisms: the disciples of John in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-5), and Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:12).

3. Infant baptism is a better picture of the gospel

As well as better reflecting the way God relates to his people, infant baptism is a better picture of the gospel itself. Realising this was central for my own move from credo to paedobaptism. The helplessness of an infant, being marked as a part of God’s people through no power of their own, is far better picture of God’s sovereign work of salvation than a “public declaration of faith”. This truth is perhaps best captured in the baptismal liturgy below:

For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered.
For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary.
For you he uttered the cry, “It is finished!”
For you he rose from the dead
and ascended into heaven
and there he intercedes—
for you, little child, even though you do not know it.
But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true.
“We love him, because he first loved us.”[4]

The nature of the sacraments “hath given occasion to many superstitions” (Article 28). These superstitions exist not only in the church of Rome, but within the very denomination that warns against them! In light of this, the caution of our brothers around infant baptism is to be expected.

But every aspect of the gospel is prone to misunderstanding. A potential for misunderstanding calls for clearer teaching, not total abandonment of the doctrine! Think of Paul’s words in Romans 5:20-6:1, where the radical nature of grace could easily be misunderstood as a licence to sin. Paul still teaches us about grace, but he makes it clear what it doesn’t mean. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Given the weight of witness from Scripture, the practice of God’s people for millennia, the vows made at ordination, and the clear picture of the gospel in the baptism of the children of Christians, let’s not neglect the practice of infant baptism and rejoice in the grace shown to all who are far off.

“Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong.”


[1] Jay E. Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism, (Pittsburg: P&R Publishing, 1975), v.
[2] John Henry Newman, Tract 90.
[3] It is worth noting that, during Edward VI’s reign (1547-1553), there were only two heretics executed. These heretics weren’t Roman Catholics, but anabaptists.
[4] cited in David and Jonathan Gibson, Eds. From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 20.

Recommended reading

Jay E Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism, Pittsburg: P&R Publishing, 1975.
Kevin DeYoung, ‘Why I Baptise Babies’, The Gospel Coalition, 28 July 2009.
Liam Golligher, ‘Why I changed my mind about infant baptism’The Gospel Coalition, 6 August 2013.
Glen Scrivener, ‘Little child, for you.’,Christ the Truth, 10 February 2015.
Gregg, Strawbridge (ed.), A Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, Pittsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003.