One of the most common arguments for infant baptism is found in the climax of the apostle Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2. Peter has just set forth the redemptive work of Jesus (vv. 22-35) and proclaimed that He is both Lord and Christ (v. 36), and his Jewish listeners are cut to the heart, asking, “What shall we do?” (v. 37). Peter responds in Acts 2:38-39:
Repent and let each of you be baptized 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 for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself (Acts 2:38-39).
The argument for infant baptism is found in Peter’s declaration that “the promise is for you and your children”—not just you, but you and your children. According to paedobaptists, the promise that Peter refers to in Acts 2:38-39 is the same promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 17:1-8. As Robert Booth explains:
This was a promise that [the Jews] would have heard of and talked about many times. Since they were now entering the new covenant era of the church, the question of their children’s relationship to the church would naturally have been on their minds. Being a Jew, Peter was certainly aware of their concern and immediately moved to address the issue. He assured them that the promise was still for them and their children.
Therefore, writes Booth, “If the children of believers are embraced by the promises of the covenant, as certainly they are, then they must also be entitled to receive the initial sign of the covenant, which is baptism.”
To evaluate this argument from Acts 2:39, it is helpful to consider three basic questions: What is the promise?; Who were the recipients of the promise?; and Who was baptized?
What Is the Promise?
In Acts 2:39, Peter says that “the promise” is for his hearers, for their children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord calls to Himself. Even though Peter does not specify the content of the promise here in this verse, his meaning was clear to his original hearers, for he had already referred to this promise several times in the earlier part of his sermon: (a) “I [God] will pour forth My Spirit” (v. 17); (b) “the promise of the Holy Spirit” (v. 33); and (c) “you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). This promise is the gift of the Holy Spirit and the salvation that accompanies Him.
This understanding of the promise is further supported by Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4. In Luke 24:49, Jesus speaks of the coming Holy Spirit, saying, “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Then, just before His ascension, Jesus commands His disciples “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised” (Acts 1:4), a clear reference to the Holy Spirit.
But upon whom exactly will He pour out the Holy Spirit? To whom has He made this promise? This leads to the second question.
Who Are the Recipients of the Promise?
In Acts 2:39, Peter identifies three groups of individuals who are the recipients of this promise: (a) “you,” (b) “your children,” and (c) “all who are far off.” But Peter doesn’t stop there. Instead, he qualifies all three groups with the clause, “as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.” In other words, to how many of you has God promised the Holy Spirit? As many as the Lord shall call to Himself! To how many of your children has God promised the Holy Spirit? As many as the Lord shall call to Himself! To how many of those who are far off has God promised the Holy Spirit? As many as the Lord shall call to Himself! God has promised to give the Holy Spirit to those whom He effectually calls and draws to Himself in salvation. This includes Peter’s immediate hearers (“you”), succeeding generations (“your children”), and even Gentiles in distant places (“all who are far off”).
The Greek words translated “as many as” (hosos an) in Acts 2:39 qualify and limit the recipients of the promise to those whom God calls to Himself in salvation. Their use in Mark 6:56 is similar:
And wherever He entered villages, or cities, or countryside, they were laying the sick in the market places, and entreating Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as [hosos an] touched it were being cured (Mark 6:56).
Not everyone was cured—only those who touched the cloak. Likewise, in Acts 2:39, not everyone is a recipient of the promise—only those whom God effectually calls to Himself. This is clear from verse 38 as well, for only those who repent in response to the gospel will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, in the very passage that paedobaptists hold up as an express indication of continuity, there is an express indication of discontinuity. After all, the promise is not for all of your children without exception (like the Abrahamic promise), but rather only for those whom the Lord calls to Himself in salvation.
As Paul Jewett notes, the paedobaptist ear appears to be so attuned to the Old Testament echo (“you and your children”) that it is deaf to its New Testament crescendo (“and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself”). In fact, most of the time that paedobaptists quote Acts 2:39 as an argument for infant baptism, they leave off the final clause—”as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.”
In no way, then, does Peter single out the children of believers as recipients of the promise apart from the effectual calling of God, and in no way does he identify them as automatic members of the New Covenant and therefore rightful recipients of baptism as the sign of that covenant. What then, if anything, does this passage indicate about the recipients of baptism? This leads to the third question.
Who Was Baptized?
After his declaration in Acts 2:39, Peter continues by exhorting the people of Israel to repent and be saved (Acts 2:40), and “those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). What strikes me here is Luke’s description of those who were baptized: “those who had received his word.” Not “those who had received his word and their children“—just “those who had received his word.” Period. Only those who repented in response to the gospel were baptized.
In the end, the corresponding parallel that paedobaptists are looking for between Genesis 17 and Acts 2 is simply not there. Consider the differences: In Genesis 17, the covenant is “between Me and you and your descendants after you” without qualification (v. 10); but in Acts 2, the promise is for you and your children, but only for as many of you and your children as the Lord shall call to Himself (v. 39). In Genesis 17, the eight-day-old males are to be circumcised (v. 12); but in Acts 2, only those who repent are commanded to be baptized (v. 38). In Genesis 17, infants are circumcised; but in Acts 2, only those who received Peter’s word are baptized (v. 41). The account in Acts 2 actually provides better support for believer baptism than it does for infant baptism.
[This article was adapted from Matt Waymeyer, A Biblical Critique of Infant Baptism (The Woodlands, Tex: Kress Christian Publications, 2008).]