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Can Infants Be “Born Again”?

Jason Evert

When Peter delivered his sermon after Pentecost, he told the people to “repent and be baptized.” So why does the Church baptize babies? If you get baptized without repenting, you’re just a wet sinner.

The question is not merely about the time that baptism should be administered, but about the very nature of the sacrament. So if the question of infant baptism comes up, it is wise to discuss baptismal regeneration first.

The Catholic understanding is that baptism is a sign that effects what it symbolizes, bringing about several things. One of these effects is regeneration—God’s very life comes into the person, taking away the guilt of original sin and infusing sanctifying grace into the soul, making the person a new creation.

Evangelicals agree that baptism is a sign but not one that communicates grace to the believer. Rather, it symbolizes that the person has already been born again. If baptism is merely a sign that signifies a previous repentance and does nothing to the soul, then babies should not be baptized. But Scripture reveals that baptism does regenerate the soul and so should not withheld from infants.

Before giving the supporting evidence for this, it is good to clarify that an adult is not to be baptized without having first repented. The normal process for an adult would be to believe, repent, and then be baptized (see “Of Water and the Spirit,” page xx). Since Peter was speaking to adults in the passage quoted above, he said “repent and be baptized.”

Okay, we’ll deal with baptismal regeneration first. Where is that in the Bible?

Since we are dealing with the topic of being “born again,” it is best to start where that phrase is used—in John 3. In the first chapter of John’s gospel, he speaks of the baptism of Christ, where the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends. Two chapters later, the Lord says, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:3,5). Immediately after saying this, Jesus takes his disciples to baptize others (John 3:22). Therefore, one is born again when he is baptized.

Some argue that the phrase “water and spirit” does not refer to baptism, but rather to the natural birth in water (amniotic fluid) and the supernatural birth in the spirit. This interpretation has several flaws: For one, the context of the passage clearly points towards baptism, and there is no evidence that the Greek word for water (hudor) represents amniotic fluid. If St. John had wished to show a dichotomy between water and the spirit, he would have said, “born of water and of the spirit,” thus indicating two births. When John speaks of being born of water and the spirit, he mentions them as being a part of the same spiritual rebirth that takes place at baptism (Tit. 3:5). All of the early Christian writers understood John to be speaking in this way, and they unanimously agreed that John 3:5 referred to baptism.

Irenaeus was one such Church Father from the second century, who said, “‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (Fragment 34 [A.D. 190]).

Irenaeus knew the regenerative powers of baptism because he was so familiar with the apostolic teaching. Though Christians today do not have the advantage of living within a century of the apostles, Scripture still indicates why all Christians for at least the first five hundred years took for granted that that they had been born again at baptism.

But where do you see babies being baptized in the New Testament?

Before offering biblical evidence that infants should be baptized, notice the presupposition in the above question: “Where is it in the Bible?” The underlying premise is that if X is not explicit in the Bible, then a Christian need not accept X. This idea of sola scriptura must be addressed in your conversations, though only a short treatment can be offered here.

The Bible does not explicitly recount children being baptized. Nor does it mention any infants that were refused the sacrament or any children that received it only upon reaching the age of reason. The fact is, Scripture is quiet about babies and baptism. For this reason, Protestantism is divided over the matter. Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists baptize infants, while Baptists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational churches do not. All of the above groups believe that the Bible is the only rule of faith, but they have come to different conclusions on infant baptism. This is a good time to point out that the Bible commands Christians to hold fast to apostolic traditions that are not written down (2 Thess. 2:15).

The Bible does provide some indication that babies are to be baptized, though. When a person was converted, it is often said that his entire household was baptized (Acts 16:16,33; 1 Cor. 1:16). The Greek word for household is oikos, which can include infants.

Also, it is worthwhile to examine the connection between circumcision and baptism. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign and seal of the covenant. On the eighth day after a boy’s birth, his parents would have him circumcised, bringing him into the covenant with God. In Colossians 2:11–12, Paul indicates that baptism had replaced circumcision. The important difference is that while circumcision could not save a person (Gal. 5:6, 6:15), “Baptism . . . now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). So, if a parent could bring an infant into the family of God through circumcision under the Old Covenant, why would God exclude infants from the family of God under the New Covenant?

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:38–39). These are the words of Peter after Pentecost, but very little attention is paid to the fact that he extends a “promise” to the children.

What is the promise? At the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus says to the apostles, “I send the promise of my Father upon you.” This “promise” is a reference to the Holy Spirit, and so when one reads the book of Acts, he should keep in mind that it is continuation of the gospel of Luke. In Acts 2:38–39, Peter is extending the promise of the Father—which is the gift of the Spirit—to everyone at baptism. He mentions no qualifier about needing to reach the age of reason.

Isn’t infant baptism a medieval invention?

Infant baptism is a practice of apostolic origin. Catholics do admit that in the third century there was a debate over infant baptism. Cyril records the disagreement: “As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” (Letters 64:2 [A.D. 253]).

You can see that the debate was not about whether or not to baptize infants; the issue was whether to wait until the eighth day to baptize a child as was the practice with circumcision (Lev. 12:2–3).

As Cyril mentioned, the Church rejected the innovation of Fidus to delay baptism. The apostolic practice had already been firmly passed on, as was recorded by Hippolytus in A.D. 215: “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16).

Origin also mentions that in the year 248 infant baptism was nothing new: “The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of divine sacraments, knew there is in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9).

What is significant is that in the midst of numerous affirmations of the practice of infant baptism, one does not find a single voice crying out that the practice was an invention. Those who propose the idea that infant baptism was a later innovation of the Church are usually unfamiliar with the writings of the Church Fathers and how they spoke out vociferously against any new teaching that had not been passed on from the Apostles. If the person you are speaking with brings up a historical objection, it provides an open door for you to encourage him to see what the very first Christians taught regarding any topic.

So, if someone asks, “Have you been born again?” don’t reply, “Of course not, I’m Catholic!” We would much prefer that you refer some of the verses above, and let them know you were “born again” the Bible way—as an infant at baptism.

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