I love babies. And I love baptizing babies. I have lived in a few places in the country where that idea was in the minority. There are traditions within the Church that believe (pun intended) that only believers ought to be baptized, only people who can make a personal profession of faith and accept the gift of salvation that Jesus offers.
Interestingly enough, most people who adhere to believer-only baptism criticize Churches that baptize babies for the idea that the baby is now saved. “Baptism is not what saves. Faith saves.” Why this is interesting is that, by not allowing babies to be baptized, believer-only practitioners show they really have the same understanding of baptism that they criticize. Only those who are saved get baptized.
Let’s move the conversation in a different direction. Look at what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:
Brothers and sisters, I want you to be sure of the fact that our ancestors were all under the cloud and they all went through the sea. All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. However, God was unhappy with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. These things were examples for us, so we won’t crave evil things like they did.
God came to the Israelites in Egypt and offered them grace–he did not give the Law until they were at Mt. Sinai. In this grace-filled state, all the Israelites passed through the waters of deliverance. Once they passed through these waters, they all had a spiritual meal and drink.
Paul uses this reality to show that baptism is about being delivered by grace into a covenant relationship with God. Salvation is not “get immediately into heaven,” but rather “live in a covenanted relationship with God.” And there is the different between the two understandings of baptism.
One group thinks that if you are baptized you are saved, whether the baptism did the saving or it is merely a sign of the salvation–and that salvation means you get to go to heaven when you die. The other group thinks that if you are baptized you are now a part of the covenant people of God–and it is up to you to faithfully live within that covenant.
Most of the Israelites who passed through the waters of deliverance dropped dead in the wilderness because they failed to keep the covenant. Not everyone who is baptized will keep the covenantal faith and stay in relationship with God. Does that mean we should not baptize? Absolutely not! God bestows his grace upon us through the faithful response we make to his leading in our lives by the sacrament of baptism. But what we do with that grace is up to us.
But what about babies? The Bible only knows two classes of people: those who are a part of the covenant people of God and those who are not. There is no third category of “heathen children of believers.” Just as the Church is the natural growth of Israel (see Romans 11), so too baptism is the natural transformation of circumcision. Jewish boys did not have a choice in their circumcision, in whether or not they would be a part of the covenant people. They did have a choice of whether or not they would be faithful to that covenant. As everything in the Old Testament prepared the way for the New Testament, baptism takes the place of circumcision (and now both boys and girls can experience it because in Christ there is no male or female!).
It will still be up to those baptized children whether or not they will be faithful to the covenant God has made with them.