credo baptism… the baptism of believers

Christian Baptism

Some Christians believe in infant baptism (paedo-baptism) and others think only believers should be baptised (credo-baptism) Who is right?

Whole books, of course, have been written on the subject. This is a very simplified discussion of the issues and admittedly comes from a believers’ baptism perspective while trusting it fairly represents paedo-baptist beliefs.

Believers’ Baptism

While most who hold to believers’ baptism also hold it should be by immersion, immersion is not the main issue. Indeed, sometimes, if a person is infirm, immersionists may pour water on the head instead.. Immersion, however, is the usual practice for credo-baptists. Aside from word studies and some texts that imply baptism is by immersion (Matt 3:16, Jn 3:23; Acts 8:38; 1 Cor 10:2) the main argument for immersion is what baptism signifies. Baptism signifies complete cleansing (Acts 22:16). and death and burial with Christ (Roms 6:1-4); immersion more naturally expresses these realities.

The real question therefore is not the ‘how’ of baptism but the ‘who’.

Those who advocate infant baptism have two main arguments.

  • Under the OT covenants children were circumcised and so became part of the covenant family. Baptism, they say, is the NT and new covenant equivalent of circumcision and therefore believers’ children should be baptised.
  • When we read the Acts of the Apostles households were baptised and these would include children.

A credo baptist counters these arguments by pointing to the following:

  • Not all children in the OT were given the sign of covenant membership; only male children carried the covenant sign. Immediately we see that a simple correspondence between circumcision and baptism doesn’t work; in the OT, the initiatory sign of circumcision is applied only to males while in the NT, both male and female are baptised. Covenants don’t carry over to one another seamlessly.
  • There is no doubt that the argument of continuity between covenants is the main argument supporting infant baptism. However, although there is indeed continuity between the OT and the NT (or the old covenant and new covenant), there is also discontinuity. The OT is promise, while the NT is fulfilment. The OT is infancy, while the NT is maturity. The OT looked forward to the kingdom and in the NT the kingdom arrives. This is a massive change (Mat 11:11; MK 2:22). In particular, the new age is the age of the new covenant (Lk 22:20; Jer 31:331,33; Hebs 7:22). Change between covenant practices in the OT and NT should not surprise us; the new has come. The old covenants conferred membership on the basis of family whereas new covenant membership is on the basis of faith. The old covenants demanded circumcision of the flesh but the new covenant provides circumcision of the heart (Col 2:11,12). In other words, in a way not true of the OT covenants, the new covenant’s participants are believers. John puts it like this:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

  • Here John contrasts birth into a human family and birth into the family of God. In the New Covenant those eligible for the baptismal sign of covenant (and so church) membership in the family of God can only be those of faith. It is faith that brings membership to the new covenant. In the old covenants blood gave access to the covenant privileges, in the new covenant only belief gives access. This distinction between covenants is very important. It is not birth or background that provides a place in the new covenant but belief. It is those who believe that are children of God and members of the new covenant community; those and none else. This is why credo-baptists baptise only believers for only believers are covenant members and eligible for baptism. Unless we are born again we cannot see the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3).
  • Baptism is both a proclamation of personal faith and a symbol of God’s activity in salvation. This is why it is disciples that are baptised (Matt 28: 19. Cf. Acts 2:41). In fact, as we noted, the symbolism of baptism is that the participant is cleansed from sin (Acts 22:16) and has died and risen with Christ (Roms 6:1-6). In Acts it is regularly those who believe who are baptised (Acts 2:38,41;10:12). New birth precedes baptism. Of course, not all who profess faith in Christ and are baptised will prove to be real, however, all are baptised assuming that their confessed faith is real and only time will tell.

But what of the other plank of the paedo-baptist argument namely that households are baptised in Acts on the strength of a the faith of the head of the household.

  • At first sight this has a little weight but it quickly disappears. There are a few examples of households being baptised in the Bible. The question is whether the household members were baptised because the head of the house believed or because each member also believed and wished to be baptised. Certainly the heads of households held significant authority in those days. Society was much less individualistic. Patriarchal authority may have persuaded the rest of the household to believe. This seems likely. On the other hand it seems unlikely that patriarchal authority would force commitment to the Christian faith not least because Christianity was avowedly individual. Faith was always a personal choice and never forced.
  • When we examine the cases of ‘household baptism’ documented we see the high likelihood of personal faith being present (Acts 10; Acts 18:8,9; Acts 16; 1 Cor 1:16, 16:5. Cf. John 4:53). In each of these faith is embraced by the household and not simply by the head of the household. In the example of Lydia in Acts 16 there is no mention of her household believing, only of their baptism, however, the case has been so well established by Luke that faith is personal and precedes baptism in households as well as individuals that there is no need for him to rehearse all the details once again. In fact, we do not even know if young children were part of these families.
  • Louis Berkhof, a leading exponent of paedo-baptism confessed: It may be said at the outset that there is no explicit command in the Bible to baptize children, and that there is not a single instance in which we are plainly told that children were baptized. This does present paedo-baptism with an uphill battle.


The case for paedo-baptism rests principally on assumed covenant continuities and examples of household baptism. For the reasons given these arguments seem to be insecure. Beyond these objections, the case for the baptism only of believer’s seems uncontroversial and self-evident. The new covenant upon which the church is based is composed of believers. All participation in church life is premised on confessed faith. In the NT the overwhelming evidence is that it is believers who are baptised.


Perhaps what hinders some paedo-baptists being baptised as an adult is a sense of disloyalty to their baptism as a child. It may be helpful to think of adult baptism as the realisation of that to which one’s infant baptism aspired, rather like Jewish believers may have viewed their circumcision giving way to believers’ baptism.

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