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Why Do We Baptize Babies?

Why Do We Baptize Babies?

Exploring the Rich Theology and Covenantal Roots Behind Baptizing Babies


Jon Delger

Executive Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

March 19, 2024

I serve as a pastor in a healthy, large, non-denominational church. On the surface, I imagine that we look like many other non-denominational churches. We talk a lot about Jesus, we preach the Bible boldly, we worship passionately, and we don’t show a lot of signs of being “traditional.” 

However, as people get to know us through regular Sunday attendance, participating in our membership class, serving, or joining a small group, they realize that under the hood we have some rich Reformed theology. And… when they attend one of our baptism services, there are many who are shocked to find that we baptize babies. 

Why would a church that doesn’t have “Presbyterian,” or “Reformed,” or “Lutheran” in its name baptize babies? Why would any church baptize babies? Is it because of tradition? Is it because they are being careless with the sacred sacrament of baptism? 

The real answer is that we believe this practice is deeply biblical. We are not beholden to tradition (though we do value practices, confessions, and catechisms of Christians who have gone before us). We are not careless with sacred baptism. We have studied the Scriptures and believe (though we still love our baptist friends) that this is the best practice according to God’s Word.

While whole books have been written on this topic, in this short article, I will seek to provide a concise answer to the question: Why do we baptize babies?

What is Baptism?

In order to understand why we would baptize babies, we first need to understand baptism itself. In order to understand baptism, we first need to understand a major theme of the Bible — covenant. 

Covenants & Covenant Signs

Covenant isn’t a word frequently used today. Nonetheless, there is still one place many people will recall having heard the term. When a man and a woman are joined in marriage, it is referred to as a covenant. While much could be said about the meaning and history of covenants, a covenant could be simply defined as a relationship sealed by promises. This is precisely what we witness in a marriage. Two people have been in a relationship for some length of time. They have spent time together, grown to appreciate each other, and at some point they decided that they now want this relationship to be life-long and exclusive. In the wedding ceremony, the relationship, becomes defined and protected by promises — in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, till death do us part. What was once only a relationship, now becomes more than a relationship, it becomes a covenant. This covenant involves greater commitment, but it is also matched by greater intimacy. Because of the promises inherent in the covenant, the two parties have a deepened trust for one another which allows for even deeper relationship. 

One of the things that accompanies a covenant is a sign. In marriage, the covenant sign is a ring. Wedding rings are typically made of precious metal symbolizing the preciousness of the relationship and the promises. Rings are also in the form of a circle, a shape without end-points. The never-ending nature of the circle symbolizes the promise of a relationship that can only be ended by death. The wedding ring is a visible sign of an invisible reality. Whenever a married man or woman looks at their ring, they are reminded of the precious and life-long covenant they have with their spouse. This sign is also a seal (or guarantee, or assurance) that the covenant is true. When a married person has reason to doubt the surety of their marriage, they need only look down at their finger to be assured that the covenant is true. When a married person faces temptation, they need only look down at their finger to be reminded of their covenant commitment. 

The Bible is a story of covenants. One example is the story of Noah and the flood. After destroying the earth with a flood while carrying Noah and his family safely through on the ark, God makes a covenant with Noah. God and Noah already have a relationship, and now God adds promises to that relationship. God promises that he will never again destroy the earth by a flood (Gen. 8:20-9:17). To assure Noah and his descendants of the truth of this covenant, God provides a sign — the rainbow. The rainbow is a sign and seal for God and Noah of the covenant between them. 

Another very important example of covenant in the Bible is the story of Abraham. God called Abraham to leave his home and former way of life and to follow him. At the beginning of this story, God promises Abraham three things: land, descendants, and blessing (Gen. 12:1-3). However, this covenant is not really about earthly blessings. The heart of the covenant is summarized when God says “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:7 ESV). What is at the heart of the covenant between Abraham and God? Relationship. This promise is repeated throughout the Old Testament in the words, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It is fitting that we began this discussion of covenant with the example of marriage. This is just what God enters into with his people. He is the bridegroom and they/she is the bride. 

God also provides Abraham and his descendants with a sign of this covenant, although the sign may seem a bit strange. Circumcision. Really? This is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham? The heart of God’s promise to Abraham is relationship. How is circumcision a sign of relationship? In order to answer that question we must ask another. What does it take for a holy God to have a relationship with sinful people? The great problem in the story of God and man is sin. In order for a holy God to have relationship with sinful people, the problem of sin must be resolved. Sin must be cut away. Sinful people must be cleansed. This is just what circumcision symbolizes. A part of the body is cut away so that the body may be clean. The Old Testament attests that this was in fact the symbolism of circumcision. Just as the body was circumcised, so surely did God promise to circumcise the hearts of those who put their faith in him, thus removing their sin so that they could have everlasting relationship with God (Deut. 30:6; Rom. 4:11-12). 

So a covenant is a relationship sealed by promises. Covenants are accompanied by signs and seals that symbolize and assure people of the truth of the covenant. The central covenant of the Old Testament is a promise of relationship, and the sign and seal of this covenant is circumcision which symbolizes cleansing from sin. 

So what is Baptism?

Now when we look at the New Testament, we might notice some similarities. Circumcision symbolized cleansing from sin so that a person could have relationship with God. Baptism likewise symbolizes cleansing from sin for relationship with God. 

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).   

The Apostle Paul even connects the Old Testament sign of circumcision with the New Testament sign of baptism in a single verse.

“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. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:11-14). 

Baptism is a visible sign of an invisible reality. Just as surely as water cleanses the body from dirt, so surely does the blood of Jesus cleanse the heart from sin. It is a seal or assurance of the gospel promise that all who put their faith in Jesus will receive forgiveness of sin and everlasting relationship with God.

One of the things we believe about the Bible is that the New Testament and Old Testament are connected. Perhaps the best description of this connection is that of promise and fulfillment. The Old Testament provides promises and foreshadows, while the New Testament provides fulfillment of these promises and shadows. For example: The OT promises a Messiah who will overcome sin and rescue God’s people. It also foreshadows this Messiah in characters such as King David. In the NT we find the fulfillment of these promises and shadows. Jesus is the Messiah who overcomes sin and rescues God’s people. David was a great king and hero; Jesus is the greatest king and hero. 

When we consider covenants and covenant signs, we find the same thing. God promised Abraham a relationship (Gen. 17:7). In order for this relationship to happen, sin had to be overcome. God declared Abraham righteous not on the basis of works, but faith (Rom. 4:11-12). Circumcision was the sign given to symbolize and provide assurance of this promise. 

Isn’t this the gospel preached in the New Testament? God promises to have everlasting relationship with his people. Jesus pays for sin on the cross to remove the obstacle to relationship. God declares his people righteous not on the basis of works, but faith in Jesus. Baptism is the sign and seal of this reality. Just as surely as water cleanses the body from dirt, so surely does the blood of Jesus cleanse the heart from sin.

The gospel preached in the New Testament is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. The sign of baptism given in the New Testament is a fulfilled version of  the sign of circumcision in the Old Testament. Just as the New Testament provides fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant promise, so it also provides a fulfilled version of the Old Testament covenant sign. So what is baptism? Baptism is a covenant sign and seal of the gospel. 

An Important Point

At this point, let me pause to make something clear that is extremely important. Baptism does not save people. 

One of the things we have to understand about covenants is that they are conditional. This may sound strange at first because we are used to talking about God’s love toward us being unconditional. However, the gospel is a conditional promise. What is the condition? Faith. The good news of the gospel is for those who believe (John 3:16). 

This same thing is true for the signs of the covenant. Just as the covenant is conditional, so is the sign. The gospel promises salvation for all who believe. Baptism provides a sign and seal of salvation that is only realized in those who believe. 

Long ago, kings would write letters and put their seal upon them with melted wax and a signet ring. In these letters, the king might promise to do something for one of his subjects once a certain condition was met. His wax seal then became a sign and seal of his promise. As surely as that seal bore the king’s mark, so surely could the recipient of the letter trust that the king would do as he promised. However, this promise was still conditional upon the recipient doing what the king asked. If the recipient did not do as the king asked, then the recipient could not expect the king to do as he promised. The king provides a sign and seal that his promise is true, yet the seal only provides a guarantee if the conditions of the covenant are met. 

Baptism works the same way. It is a sign and seal of a conditional promise. Just as surely as water cleanses the body from dirt, so surely does Christ’s blood cleanse us from sin if you put your faith in him. In fact, if the recipient of a covenant sign does not complete the conditions of the covenant, the sign actually stands as a mark of judgment against them. It signifies that just as surely as you did not meet the condition of the covenant, so surely will you not receive the covenant promise. 

Why do we baptize babies?

Thus far, we have seen that a covenant is a relationship involving promises. Covenants are accompanied by signs and seals that symbolize and assure people of the truth of the covenant. Covenants and their signs are conditional, meaning that only those who meet the conditions really receive what is promised in the covenant and receive assurance from the sign. The gospel is a covenant promise that was foreshadowed in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament. In the Old Testament the covenant was accompanied by the sign and seal of circumcision, in the New Testament the covenant is accompanied by the sign and seal of baptism. 

So why do the children of believers receive the sign of the covenant? The short answer is this: because the children of believers have always been treated as a part of the covenant people and received the covenant sign. 

God dealt with families in the Old Testament. The promise of relationship with God for all who put their faith in his promise was for Abraham and his children. Israelite boys received the mark of the covenant at 8 days old. This sign was a mark of a conditional promise. These children did not automatically receive eternal life by their circumcision or their being children of Israelite parents. In fact, we know that many Israelites did not ultimately put their faith in God and were not saved even though they received the sign of circumcision (Rom. 9:6-8). The meaning of the sign, cleansing from sin for relationship with God, was only true for those who fulfilled the condition of the covenant — faith. Nonetheless, the (conditional) covenant promise was given to the Israelite people, God’s covenant people, and thus the sign was for them and for their children. 

God continues to deal with families in the New Testament. The good news of relationship with God for all who put their faith in Jesus is the gospel promise. This promise is for believers and their children, just as it was in the Old Testament. There is no indication in the New Testament that the children of believers should now be excluded where they were previously included. 

Jesus and the apostles speak of the continuing special place of the children of believers. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter affirms the special place of covenant children in relationship to the promise. 

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38–39 ESV)

When his disciples try to ward off children from coming to him, Jesus affirms the special place of covenant children. 

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them. (Mark 10:13–16 ESV)

The early Christians were converted Jews. The Jews had included children in the covenant people and given them the covenant sign throughout the entire history of their people. As much discussion as there is about whether or not to continue Jewish practices in the New Testament (Acts 15), you would think that if the apostles thought people should stop marking their children with the covenant sign they would have said so. How would these Jewish people, who have always applied the covenant sign to their children, have known not to apply it to their children?

Throughout the majority of church history, Christians have believed that God deals with families. Outside of the New Testament, we have evidence that within the first two centuries after Christ Christians were practicing infant baptism. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that Christians began to question this practice. While church history is certainly not the Bible, it is worth noting that infant baptism was the primary practice of the church for 1500 years, while not baptizing infants has only been a practice of the church for the last 500 years. 


Baptism is a sign and seal of the gospel. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, “As surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly His blood and His Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, in other words, all my sins.” 

Believers and their children receive this sign to assure them of the truth of the gospel. All who put their faith in Jesus will be washed clean of sin and enjoy everlasting relationship to God. Praise God for the gift of baptism.

For Further Study

This essay provides a concise explanation of the practice of infant baptism. Much more could be said about this topic and much more has been written. For further study, check out “The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism” edited by Gregg Strawbridge. 

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