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The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies: A Response to Shane Morris

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On November 29, 2016, G. Shane Morris wrote an article titled, “The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies.” Since I am an evangelical who doesn’t baptize babies I was instantly curious what the “real reason” is. To say that I disagreed with virtually everything in this article is not an overstatement. I may be wrong, but I think a number of paedo-baptists would also disagree with much in the article. Continue reading . . . 

On November 29, 2016, G. Shane Morris wrote an article titled, “The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies.” Since I am an evangelical who doesn’t baptize babies I was instantly curious what the “real reason” is. To say that I disagreed with virtually everything in this article is not an overstatement. I may be wrong, but I think a number of paedo-baptists would also disagree with much in the article.

Morris begins with the assertion that,

“For most evangelicals, what stands in the way of baptizing infants isn’t a lack of biblical evidence, but an interpretive lens they wear when reading Scripture. That lens–shaped by revivals, rugged individualism, and a sacramental theology untethered from the church’s means of grace–makes conversion the chief article of the faith. We should expect this, since American evangelical theology was forged on the frontier, in camp meetings, to the sound of fire-and-brimstone preaching.”

I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve always justified baptizing only believers, among other reasons, because there simply is no textual evidence whatsoever that anyone in the New Covenant ever baptized a baby. I’ve written on this elsewhere (“Why I am a Baptist,” which you can read in full at my website, www.samstorms.com; it was published on December 25, 2006). Here is a relevant portion of that article.

First, the narrative examples in the New Testament portray baptism as being administered only to believers. See Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:44-48; etc.

Second, baptism is portrayed in the New Testament as a symbol of the beginning of spiritual life (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12), as well as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21). Unless one is prepared to predicate salvation and spiritual life of unbelieving infants, or suggest that they are capable of making a conscious appeal to God for a good conscience, it would appear that baptism is restricted to those who consciously trust Christ.

Third, baptism is consistently portrayed as inextricably tied up with (conscious) faith and repentance (e.g., Acts 2:38,41; 8:12-13,36; 10:47-48). This is especially the case with Colossians 2:12, which I'll deal with below.

Fourth, in all examples of so-called “household” baptisms the broader contexts make clear that only “believers” were baptized. As for Acts 16:15 and 16:33, members of the "household" were old enough to hear and understand "the word of the Lord" spoken to them (Acts 16:32; thereby excluding infants) and old enough to understand what it meant for a person to believe in God and thus have reason to rejoice because of it (Acts 16:34; thereby again excluding infants; see also John 4:53).

As for 1 Corinthians 1:16, we see in 1 Corinthians 16:15 that the "household" of Stephanas, whom Paul baptized, "were the first converts in Achaia" who "devoted themselves to the service of the saints." As for the "children" in Acts 2:39, they are at least old enough to be "called" by the Lord (v. 39). And then, as if to confirm it, Luke records that "those who received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41). There is no indication that those who were too young to respond to the "call" of God and too young to "receive" God's word were baptized.

Fifth, and finally, I can't help but notice the absence in the New Testament of any explicit portrayal of an infant ever being baptized.

But let's look more closely at Colossians 2:11-12, where Paul writes, "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."

Contrary to the paedo-baptist argument, the New Testament counterpart to Old Testament circumcision isn't baptism; it's regeneration or the new birth. Or again, it is spiritual circumcision of the heart, not water baptism, that corresponds in the New Covenant to Old Covenant physical circumcision of the flesh. [By the way, even if one were to concede that water baptism is the New Covenant counterpart to Old Covenant circumcision, the former is consistently predicated on the faith of the individual, unlike the latter. Indeed, this is the very point of Colossians 2:12, as I'll note below.]

Water baptism is a sign of the circumcision of the heart and the new life and cleansing from sin that it brings. The sign of the New Covenant isn't baptism, but spiritual circumcision or regeneration or the "cutting away" of the heart of flesh, of which water baptism is an outward, symbolic expression.

But more important still is Paul's reference to "faith" in v. 12. John Piper has summarized this better than anyone I've read, so let me close by quoting his words:

"If baptism were merely a parallel of the Old Testament rite of circumcision it would not have to happen 'through faith' since infants did not take on circumcision 'through faith.' The reason the New Testament ordinance of baptism must be 'through faith' is that it represents not the Old Testament external ritual, but the New Testament, internal, spiritual experience of circumcision 'without hands.'

Those two words, 'through faith,' in verse 12 are the decisive, defining explanation of how we were buried with Christ in baptism and how we were raised with him in baptism: it was 'through faith.' And this is not something infants experience. Faith is a conscious experience of the heart yielding to the work of God. Infants are not capable of this, and therefore infants are not fit subjects of baptism, which is 'through faith'" ("Buried and Raised in Baptism through Faith," 5-11-07; http://www.desiringgod.org/).

Now, back to Morris’s article. He writes:

“The core assumption here is that you must have a conversion experience to be saved. You must turn away from a past life toward a new one, usually with tears and laments attesting your sincerity. And this view of Christianity works well in an evangelistic setting, where many have lived as open unbelievers. The problem is it’s an awkward fit when it comes to multi-generational faith.”

“Core assumption”? Well, yes, of course! But I’d prefer to describe it as a consistent biblical truth. Yes, “you must have a conversion experience to be saved” [I’m not including here the question of the salvation of those who die in infancy or those who are so severely mentally impaired that they are not cognitively capable of understanding and responding in a morally accountable way to the gospel.] And at least for me and my family, it isn’t in the least “an awkward fit”. Again, Morris writes:

“Anyone who was raised in a Christian home and still believes in Jesus knows that there wasn’t a time when he or she transitioned from ‘unbelief’ to ‘belief.’ We were never ‘converted.’ It was simply inculcated from infancy, and for as long as we can remember, we have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, whether we were baptized as a baby or not.”

This is a stunning statement. I’ve known countless individuals raised in a Christian home who can provide a detailed narrative of their transition from unbelief to belief, myself included. To say that “we were never ‘converted’” is simply misinformed and altogether unbiblical. The fact that the gospel message may have been “inculcated from infancy” is no argument against the necessity and experiential reality of being born again at a point in time and coming into the conscious experience of saving faith, even if that “experience” is more gradual than punctiliar and is not as vivid in one’s memory as we might like it to be.

Morris continues:

“But because of the baptistic emphasis on conversion, many (if not most) raised in those churches found ourselves ‘converting’ over and over, reciting the ‘sinner’s prayer’ at countless altar calls during our childhood and teenage years, certain that each time, we were truly sincere, but always finding ourselves back at the altar. Some of us even asked to be re-baptized upon our fresh conversions. And everyone raised in evangelical churches will know what I mean when I say testimony envy,’–that real and perverse jealousy you feel when someone who lived a nastier pre-conversion life than you shares their story.”

I don’t doubt for a moment that people have misunderstood the nature of genuine conversion and yielded to evangelistic pressure to convert “over and over,” but the fact that some (perhaps many) have distorted the biblical necessity of personal conversion is no reason for denying it or for finding in it a justification for infant baptism. This sort of logic baffles me entirely.

Morris digs himself in even deeper with this next statement:

“This is where I think the chief difficulty with infant baptism lies, at least for American evangelicals. I don’t believe baptistic evangelicals really view their children as unregenerate pagans before their ‘credible profession of faith.’ If they did, they wouldn’t teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer or to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ I think what’s really going on is a kind of alternative sacramentalism, where a dramatic conversion experience, rather than baptism, is the rite of Christian initiation.”

I can only speak for myself (although I think I could also speak for most evangelical credo-baptists that I know), but I most assuredly was viewed by my parents as an “unregenerate pagan” before my conversion and I raised my two daughters with the same self-understanding.

Says Morris:

“Thus, children raised in this setting feel the need to manufacture tearful conversions over and over to prove their sincerity. And rather than their present trust in Christ, they’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) to look back to a time, a place, and a prayer, and stake their salvation on that.”

Again, I don’t recognize the world that Morris describes. I never once felt the need “to manufacture tearful conversions over and over” to prove my sincerity, and I have consistently urged my own children and others to resist any such unbiblical pressure.

Here, in conclusion, is why Morris believes infant baptism to be superior. Yet, as I read his explanation I find this to be one of the chief reasons why it is unbiblical:

“Infant baptism runs counter to this entire system. It declares visibly that God induces a change of heart and a saving faith in those too young to even speak or remember their ‘conversions.’ It illustrates that the branches God grafts in to His Son aren’t sterile. They bud and blossom, producing new branches that have never drunk another tree’s sap. And most importantly, it matches the lived experiences of believers’ children, rather than continually imposing a system on them that was designed for first-generation converts.”

Yes, you read that correctly. He argues that with infant baptism “God induces a change of heart and a saving faith in those too young to even speak or remember their ‘conversions.’” I don’t know how else to take this but as an assertion that by virtue of being sprinkled an infant who cannot as yet understand the gospel is nevertheless saved. I say “saved” because I don’t know how else to interpret the words “induces a change of heart” (if this isn’t the new birth, what is it?). And Morris eliminates all doubt about what he intends by saying that a “baptized” infant has “saving faith.”

I love my paedo-baptist brothers and sisters, but I’ve always argued that this is one of the greatest dangers of the practice: it has the potential to give the unregenerate and unconverted an assurance of salvation that simply does not yet exist. I often wonder how many openly defiant and Christ-denying adults there are who stand on the brink of hell while presumptuously thinking they are “saved” because they were “baptized” as infants. To underplay the urgent necessity of conscious faith in Christ and heartfelt conversion to him is to come dangerously close to granting the assurance of salvation to those who know nothing of the saving grace of God.

I wonder if most paedo-baptists would agree with the way Morris portrays this sacrament. In my article noted earlier, “Why I am a Baptist,” I explained at least what I thought was the standard understanding of what occurs in infant “baptism” on the part of those who practice it. I wrote:

“It does not guarantee the salvation of the infant, but sets them apart as children of covenant parents who are thus included in the external blessings and responsibilities of the people of God. Baptized infants are thus ‘under the umbrella,’ so to speak, of God’s new covenant blessings. Parents of the infant pray that he/she will personally receive the blessings of salvation in Christ which baptism signifies. They hope and trust that baptism is the foreshadowing of what will take place when their child personally embraces Jesus as savior.”

I greatly appreciate the desire of such paedo-baptists to avoid the error of assuming their “baptized” babies are saved. But what these paedo-baptists consciously avoid, Morris appears to explicitly affirm. I hope that I have misinterpreted his comments, but until such time as I see much-needed clarification, I remain deeply concerned with the implications of his view.

3 Comments

Sam, though I am a paedobaptist, I share many of your reactions to the statements of G. Shane Morris. While I can agree with him that the interpretive lenses we wear when reading Scripture affect our conclusions, his claims seem more than a bit overstated.

I'm surprised you didn't also comment on the line at the end of the Morris quote, " And most importantly, it matches the lived experiences of believers’ children, rather than continually imposing a system on them that was designed for first-generation converts.” Isn't this the false belief that the Bible should be interpreted to fit our experience instead of our thinking and interpretation of experience being shaped by the Biblical truth?

The last is part is dangerous especially when we are reminded of an adult in Acts 8, who was baptized, yet unconverted: Simon the Sorcerer. We find out in verse 13 that Simon believed and was baptized, yet in verse 19 he attempts to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit, giving birth to the term simony. And here was Peter's reply:

But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity(Acts 8:20-23)."

Given an opportunity to repent, Simon does nothing of the sort, but instead merely asks Peter to pray that those things don't happen to him:

And Simon answered, "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me(Acts 8:24)."

This is the last we hear of S the S. We can only conclude from text that he never repented. Might he have? Of course. But if he did, shockingly, the Bible doesn't tell us-perhaps to illustrate for us that water baptism has no saving power.

So in conclusion, it would be foolish and dangerous to assume God regenerates the hearts of all babies who are baptized. If an adult who professes belief and is baptized doesn't come to saving faith, there's no reason to think babies who can't profess belief(or faith) will. As a side note, notice Acts 8 says nothing about Simon's faith, only that he believed. Clearly his soil was not fertile.

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