October 4, 2013

Does Acts 2:39 Support Infant Baptism?

by Matt Waymeyer

BaptismOne 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).]

Matt Waymeyer


Matt teaches hermeneutics and Greek at The Expositor's Bible Seminary in Jupiter, FL.
  • name19

    How do you address the specific salvation and baptism examples of “and her/his/their household,” such as the case of Lydia. That’s the argument I hear more than the verses analyzed in this article.

    • Matt Waymeyer

      Good question. A sufficient answer would necessitate a five-part series, so I’ll just give you the bottom line: In
      four of the five household baptisms in the New Testament, it is clear that everyone who was baptized
      first believed in Christ. In the case of the fifth—that of Lydia and her
      household—the probability is that no infants were involved, but the passage
      simply does not say one way or the other. What is clear is that the consistent
      pattern throughout the New Testament is that only those who professed faith in
      Christ were baptized.

      • Great job, Matt.

        Not to mention, if the paedo view were correct, then we ought to be trying to get people baptized at work and on the street as well, instead of wasting our time hoping they believed the gospel first. 🙂

      • Stephen Slomp

        The word used in the text is for households, it’d be silly to assume there was no infants in any of these households (the word Oikos was specifically used for households and families, it’s quite clear actually). Also, if infants were included in the covenant before baptism you’d think there would be some note of it in the Bible or the history of the Church if suddenly infants were no longer included in the covenant.

        • Justin Meyer

          Stephen, you can’t say its silly to think one way, or the other when the bible does not specify either way. You’re arguing against an assumption with an assumption. Its not saying that children aren’t included in the covenant, but that they have to respond and believe for themselves. Its a call and answer. The call is there, If you’re not able to comprehend what promise is there, how can you answer?

        • I’ve always thought that “note” was in Jeremiah 31:31-34, where God tells us that one of the distinctive features of the New Covenant will be that it is not a mixed covenant community — i.e., that a man will not have to teach his neighbor to, ‘Know Yahweh,’ because everyone in the covenant community will know Yahweh, from the least to the greatest.

          In other words, whereas the covenant community of Israel included both believers and unbelievers who nevertheless received the sign of the covenant, one of the distinguishing differences of the New Covenant community is that those who receive covenant blessings will only be believers (they will all know Yahweh).

          So, if the New Covenant community is an unmixed community made up only of believers, only the members of that community (i.e., believers) should receive the covenant sign.

  • Johnny

    Excellent summary. For something as important as this, if believers were intended to be sprinkling their unrepentant babies with water, you would think that Scripture would be a lot more clear about this, as there would have been plenty of babies around in the early church. But the Bible doesn’t make a peep. It’s a very hard teaching to try to defend.

    As it stands, Presbyterians are swell people and I jokingly refer to infant baptism as a “gateway ordinance” that could lead Christians back to Rome…

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  • Kip’

    What about the OT promises which say the reception of the Spirit will be for the people and their children e.g Isaiah 44:3-5 and 59:20-21?

  • Stephen Slomp

    In the Old Testament infants were always part of the covenant, as they were circumcised as infants. And in the New Testament the word used for household (oikos- my father knows hebrew, latin, and greek) is used in this text. If the covenant switched from including to not including infants this would have been most definitely noted in the Bible or the history of the Church but there was none. Suspicious no?

  • CD

    Funny timing, I literally just finished reading a piece by Walter Chantry on this very topic, and clicked over to the cripplegate and voila! Providence is cool like that…

    With the blogmasters’ indulgence here’s a link to Chantry’s well written polemic: http://www.reformedreader.org/rbb/chantry/bc.htm

  • tovlogos

    Straightforward exegesis as usual Matt. However, the first thing thing that came to mind was Jesus’ analogy of children and those in the kingdom of heaven, in Matthew 18:3 — making the innocence of children a passport to the kingdom.
    The challenge for the adult is to have the wisdom greater than Solomon’s, and at the same time possessing the innocence of a child — in other words — just like Jesus. For the adult it about, choice, as it was for Mary and Martha.

  • Web Bailey

    Seems to me that if everyone would just except Dispensationalism,this would all be cleared up, but then what would we have to talk about, right?

  • Christopher Engelsma

    But Gal. 3:14 makes clear that the promise God gave to Abraham WAS the Spirit. The promise to Abraham = the promise of the Spirit.

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