Should a child be baptized at birth? Why do some churches christen newborns? How can we know when a child should be baptized? If a child of Christian parents dies, what is the child's fate in eternal life?
Geoffery Bromiley’s book, “Children of Promise,” considered by many to be the best defense for infant baptism, admits there is no real evidence that infants were baptized in the churches of the New Testament. Some suggest the household baptisms in Acts may have included infants, but this is speculative at best. In the case of the Philippian jailer the Scripture says, “They spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in the house” (Acts 16:32), which seems to indicate all in his home were old enough to hear the gospel message.
Throughout the New Testament, baptism followed immediately after a believer expressed confidence in Christ, as a witness of his faith (Acts 2:38).
So when did the christening of newborns begin?
Early church leaders such as Irenaeus, who wrote a five-volume treatise on theology, made no reference to infant baptism (paedobaptism). The Epistle of Barnabas in the second century mentions only the baptism of believers. It is not until the earliest part of the third century that Tertullian, a leader in the church in North Africa, argued against the baptism of infants, “insisting that children should come for baptism when they understand what they are doing” (Edwin Lutzer, “Doctrines that Divide” p. 119). Tertullian’s objection indicates that paedobaptism had begun, in at least some churches, by the year 200.
Cyprian, also from North Africa, links infant baptism with spiritual regeneration in 251, but adds that babies should also be given communion (the first signs of sacramentalism, which stresses that salvation comes through the church’s channels of grace as the sacraments are administered). Augustine, a fourth century theologian from North Africa, taught that both sacraments (communion and baptism) were necessary for salvation; therefore, both should be administered for infants (Paul Jewett, “Infant Baptist and the Covenant of Grace" p. 40). Today, sacramentalists still believe a baby who dies un-baptized will go to hell, or at least his eternal destiny is in doubt, which is the reason a priest is quickly called to perform the ritual when a baby’s life is in jeopardy.
With the development of christening, the idea of having parents sponsor the child began, a practice Tertullian also opposed.
The practice of paedobaptism and the giving of communion to infants apparently began in North Africa around the year 200 due to the belief that forgiveness of sins came through administering the sacraments of the church.
Once Constantine overcame the Roman ruler, Maxentius, in 312, Christians were no longer to be persecuted, but their faith was to now be embraced by the government. Christianity would become synonymous with the Roman Empire and infant baptism became the link by which the church and the state were united. Though paedobaptism began due to the theological convictions of some (who believed the ritual washed away the effects of sin), every child would now to be christened (made a Christian by participating in a ritual) both a member of the church and a member of the Roman Empire. Therefore, Anabaptists (those re-baptized as adults because they refused to believe that a baptism which embraces everyone could be valid) were severely persecuted not just for theological reasons, but for political purposes. By the time of Charlemagne (800 A.D.) those who were re-baptized after coming to faith in Christ were put to death, because infant baptism was the glue that united the church and state and the power of the state enforced the religion of the state.
By the time of the Reformation, some reformers were having serious doubts about infant baptism. Ulrich Zwingli, the people’s priest in Zurich, initially confessed that it grieved him to baptize infants. “I call it neither right or wrong; if we were to baptize as Christ instituted it, then we would not baptize any person until he has reached the years of discretion; for I find it nowhere written that infant baptism is to be practiced” (Leonard Verdium, “The Reformers and Their Stepchildren” p. 198). However, by 1525 Zwingli had changed his mind after he viewed Anabaptists as being disruptive to the social order and he believed he may have found theological grounds to support the practice of infant baptism (explained below).
Since Martin Luther believed justification was by faith alone, to defend the practice of infants being regenerated by baptism he suggested in his commentary on Galatians that infants can hear the gospel and believe easier than adults. He never gave up the practice of paedobaptism, but explained: “There is not sufficient evidence from Scripture that one might justify the introduction of infant baptism at the time of the early Christians after the apostolic period, but so much is evident that no one may venture with good conscience to reject or abandon infant baptism, which for so long time has been practiced” (Verdium, p. 204).
Zwingli and John Calvin, who also admitted there was no record in Scripture of infants being baptized, believed they found theological support for paedobaptism when they proposed a relationship between the Old Testament sign of circumcision and the New Testament sign of baptism. They contended that the rite of circumcision, which was administered to all Jewish males on the eighth day, proves that God’s blessings are bestowed on children as well as their parents. Calvin would later teach baptism does not effect the regeneration of infants, but is only a sign that the “seeds of repentance lie in infants by the secret working of the Spirit.” Therefore, infant baptism is a sign of the New Covenant just as circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant (Col. 2:11-12), which is today referred to as Covenant Theology. Baptism is therefore not a sign of the child’s faith, but rather a sign of what the parents believe or hope God has done or will do for that child.
However, since some children who had been baptized as infants did not embrace the Christian faith as they grew older, confirmation was instituted to confirm the decision the parents had made for their children. Therefore, baptism to them was the outward sign of the grace an infant will receive if he grows up and believes.
Many theologians could not embrace this explanation, but pointed to the Catechism of the Church of England that claimed infants became a child of God and a member of the church by means of infant baptism. They contended that circumcision was a sign of earthly, temporal blessings the Lord gave to the Israelites (offspring of Abraham) that pointed to the ultimate spiritual benefits for those who would believe. However, in the church, one’s genealogical record does not guarantee such special blessings and baptism is certainly not the regenerative agent for bringing one to a saving faith in Christ.
Charles Spurgeon, a famous preacher of the nineteenth century, in his opposition to the practice of infant baptism, declared . . . since no outward ceremony can save anyone and parents cannot believe for their children, the practice of infant baptism should be abandoned within the Protestant Church. He urged all who may be resting their hope of salvation on this rite to “shake off this venomous faith into the fire, as Paul did the viper which fastened to his hand.”
Spurgeon and many others believed the N.T. clearly taught that those who had been regenerated from spiritual death unto life, who had placed their faith in Christ and His atoning work at the cross and who were willing to repent of their sins were the ones who should be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by immersion, as a sign of being united with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 8:12, 8:36-39). This is known as believer’s baptism.
As for your question about babies who die, most believe those children go to heaven. However, if that is true, it is not because they are born innocent or their baptism at birth washes away the effects of their sinful nature. Salvation is of the Lord, so everyone (including infants) who is saved is redeemed by God’s sovereign mercy and grace through Christ’s atoning death at the cross. The salvation of all infants is in the hands of the Lord, not in the hands of men who administer a ritual.
Should a child be baptized at birth? There is no clear teaching from Scripture advocating or commanding this practice. However, for those who choose to accept the proposal that infant baptism is a sign of the New Covenant just as circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant and that baptism is not a sign of the child’s faith, but rather a sign of what God has done or will do for that child, this practice provides some comfort; however, it is not the belief or practice at Wellington.
Why do some churches christen newborns? They either believe baptism to be the regenerative means of removing sin’s effect upon the life of a child, which provides or guarantees salvation or they embrace the propositions of Covenant Theology as suggested by Zwingli and Calvin.
How can we know when a child should be baptized? When a child believes in Christ and trusts in His atoning work at the cross.
If a child of Christian parents dies, what is the child's fate in eternal life? Salvation is of the Lord, so everyone (including infants) who is saved is redeemed by God’s sovereign mercy and grace through Christ’s atoning death at the cross. The salvation of all infants is in the hands of a loving, merciful, gracious, holy, and righteous God. For us to speculate beyond what scripture clearly teaches is an exercise in futility and may lead to a false understanding of His truth.