Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
It is a very common idea now-a-days to believe that only adults should be baptized. Why? Because it is thought that only those who truly can repent and have faith should receive it. This, however, does not make much sense from what we see in Scripture and Tradition. It is there that we will see Judaism's use of circumcision, the New Covenant parallel to baptism, the early Church Fathers' emphasis on it, and the empty faith of the paralytic.
Consider the Old Covenant. Jewish families always had their children circumcised as infants, for it was a sacred ceremony of their religion. God commanded that infants be circumcised on their eight day out of the womb to be a sign of His Covenant with Israel (Gen. 17:11-12). That was how one entered into a relationship with God, for God is generous and did not only want adults. It was a "seal" of righteousness (Rom. 4:11). Infants did not have to profess faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be Israelites. They did not have to do anything, all they did was receive the grace of God.
Now, fast forward to Pentecost Sunday, and St. Peter preached in Acts 2 the message of Jesus's offer of salvation to the Jews. He says that the "promise is to you and to your children" (Acts 2:39). If the Jews were used to their babies being apart of the religion, why in the world would God stop being generous in the New Covenant? Why would babies suddenly stop receiving God's grace? God would not be more generous in the Old Covenant than in the New. For the Old was supposed to be but a "shadow" of the New and more glorious faith (Heb. 10:1).
This is why we see entire households baptized in the New Covenant. See Acts 16:15 and 16:30-34. Salvation was not just for the high-standing men in Roman society, but for everybody in the house: the wife, the kids, the servants, etc. Baptism was the fulfillment of circumcision, the entryway into the New Covenant relationship with God. Paul calls baptism the "circumcision of Christ" in Colossians 2:11-12.
This is why the early Church called infant baptism an "apostolic tradition." Origen of Alexandria (180 - 254 AD) said, “The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]).
Thus, the Church practiced it from day one. Even the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, believed in infant baptism, as did Calvin, who called it the “designs of Satan” to believe that infants can’t be baptized (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536, trans. Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983, 2:554). It was only the Anabaptists who followed Luther's "reformation" that stopped infant baptism.
Truly, baptism is not just for those who have faith. Faith is something that the individual does, but baptism is something another person does - namely God. God washes clean the individual as a grace received. The faith of the individual needs to be present as a condition to be baptized, but not if faith is impossible! Infants do not have use of their intellectual abilities yet!
It is the faith of the Church that causes this spiritual rebirth to occur. This concept has a biblical foundation in Mark 2. It is there that Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic - not because of his faith - but because of the faith of those who carried him to Jesus. The text says, "And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'My son, your sins are forgiven.'" (Mk. 2:5).
As we have seen, baptism is not only for those who have faith. Rather, it is those who have the capability of faith that should have faith. But if you do not have that capability, God is generous and will still become your Father. This can be seen from Judaism's use of circumcision, from the paralytic in the New Testament, and from the early Church Fathers. Truly, this message of salvation is for all.