In paedobaptist teaching, baptism is seen as a mark of divine ownership, a sign and seal given to those who are God’s own possession. When an infant is baptized, not only does he enter God’s covenant family, but “his parents declare that their child belongs to God” (Daniel Doriani). In this way, baptism is considered a sign of initiation by which an infant is received into the church and “reckoned among God’s children” (John Calvin). As John Murray writes, infants who are baptized “are to be received as the children of God and treated accordingly.”
This idea that children of believers are automatically children of God provides part of the rationale for infant baptism. According to one paedobaptist, “The children of Christians are no less the sons of God than the parents, just as in the Old Testament,” and since “they are sons of God, who will forbid them baptism?” In this view, just as “the adoption of sons” belonged to infants in Old Testament Israel (Rom 9:4), it now belongs to infants in the New Testament Church, and therefore the latter should be baptized just as the former were circumcised. Although it is true that baptism is a mark of divine ownership which should be given to those who are children of God, the practice of baptizing infants betrays a misunderstanding of the doctrine of divine adoption. Specifically, it ignores a significant point of discontinuity between corporate adoption in Old Testament Israel and individual adoption in the New Testament church.
In the Old Testament, the corporate adoption of the nation of Israel was such that individual Jews were considered sons of God regardless of whether they themselves were personally saved. In Deuteronomy 14:1-2, Yahweh said to Israel:
You are the sons of the Lord your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave your forehead for the sake of the dead. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth (Deut 14:1-2).
God chose Israel, set His love upon her, and redeemed her out of slavery (Deut 7:6-8), and as a result He was a Father to her (Deut 32:6; cf. Exod 4:22; Mal 2:10). But not all Jews who were part of this adoption were in a right relationship with God. In fact, throughout the history of Old Testament Israel, most were not, but nonetheless they were still children of God in a corporate and non-salvific sense.
This corporate adoption of Old Testament Israel can be seen in the New Testament as well. In Romans 9:2-4, as the apostle Paul expresses his desire to see fellow Jews come to Christ, he describes the various privileges which belong to the nation of Israel:
I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption of sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises (Rom 9:2-4).
According to this passage, Israel enjoyed the status of being adopted as Yahweh’s children even though the nation was largely unbelieving. Under the Old Covenant, then, a Jew who was part of the covenant community could be considered a child of God even though he himself was unsaved and on his way to hell, in need of the very gospel that Paul proclaimed.
According to paedobaptists, the continuity between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church requires us to baptize infants of believers. Regardless of their individual spiritual status, it is believed that they are children of God and therefore should be baptized as a mark of divine ownership just as infants were circumcised in the Old Testament.
Precisely where the paedobaptist sees continuity, however, Scripture indicates discontinuity, for under the New Covenant, only those who believe in Christ are children of God (Gal 4:5). The New Testament knows nothing of a corporate, non-salvific adoption of God’s people, but instead teaches an individual adoption unto eternal salvation (Eph 1:5). For example, in Romans 8:15-17, the apostle Paul writes:
For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption of sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
As Greg Welty notes, in Old Testament Israel, adoption belonged even to those who were destined for condemnation (Rom 9:2-4), but under the New Covenant it belongs only to those are destined for glory (Rom 8:15-17). This can also be seen in John 1:11-13, where the apostle John describes how the nation of Israel rejected her Messiah:
He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
According to this passage, nobody starts out as a child of God, regardless of his ancestry. An individual becomes a child of God not when he is born to Christian parents but rather when he believes in the name of Christ and is born again by the Holy Spirit. For this reason, unlike with the Old Covenant, everyone who is a child of God under the New Covenant has a right standing before Him and is eternally secure in Christ.
Baptism is indeed a mark of divine ownership, just as paedobaptists say it is. But as such, it should only be given to those who give evidence of having been redeemed and adopted by God as His children—those who profess repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
[This article was adapted from Matt Waymeyer, A Biblical Critique of Infant Baptism (The Woodlands, Tex: Kress Christian Publications, 2008).]