When Reformed Christians defend the practice of infant-baptism, we generally present a detailed delineation of covenant-theology. The problem, however, is that most evangelicals just don't know what the covenant is. They do not understand "covenant theology" and, therefore, our defense of infant-baptism based on the inner workings of the covenant generally sounds forced, contrived, and disjointed.
That's not to say that covenant arguments are useless. On the contrary, they are clear and definitive arguments: since Christ did not come to abolish the law but to restore it, the nature of the covenant and its administration has not changed in the slightest (Mt. 5:17). It was and still is a covenant of grace. Man comes into union with God by grace alone. This was the clear implication of God's calling of Abram from the land of Ur. God showered grace upon Abram and his entire family — including the male infant who was only eight days old. Since the covenant under the immediate administration of Christ is also of grace, our insistence that infants are still included in the new covenant, as they were in the old, is most fundamentally true.
Unfortunately, too many Christians no longer think in terms of covenant. Moreover, they tend to expect all theological answers to be as simple as pointing to a verse in the Bible, and express great suspicion with arguments that are more complex. Take for example the most common objection to infant-baptism: But show me a passage from the New Testament that commands it.
The Traditional Approach
A typical response to this objection is to rehearse a litany of covenantal evidence starting in Genesis with Abraham, Isaac and circumcision, following through to Malachi to show that for nearly two thousand years God had included infants in the covenant of grace. And the main reason for marshalling this evidence is to get our brethren to think seriously about the nature of the covenant. We want them to realize that God's covenant is not an individual thing — it is fundamentally corporate and familial. But we also want them to understand that that their dependence on a New Testament command is misleading. The issue isn't whether the New Testament explicitly commands the baptizing of infants; it is that the New Testament does not explicitly (or implicitly) forbid it. Had the exclusion of infants been mandated by the coming of Christ, not only would this have been a dramatic shift in covenant policy, but also God would have clearly revealed the change. However, He did not, so we cannot exclude them.
Notwithstanding, using a fully developed covenant argument to defend infant-baptism involves a total theological reorientation. Reorientation takes a great deal of effort, and, more specifically, time, for the critic to rethink every text he believes justifies "adult-believers-only" dogma. All of this is a dilemma for the covenantally-minded apologist.
The Lordship Approach
How does an apologist for the covenant unequivocally defend the Biblical necessity of infant-baptism, knowing that many evangelicals don't understand the covenant, and have been conditioned by an anti-intellectual American culture to expect answers to be as easy as sound-bite news? Answer: The Lordship of Christ.
Notwithstanding the effectiveness of a covenant argument, the most straightforward — dare I say the easiest — argument that justifies the Biblical necessity of infant-inclusion, is the fact that Christ is the Lord. Christ's Lordship makes infant-baptism an absolute necessity!
I realize that some may find this a little hard to swallow. But these are not bald assertions. Think about it: what is Lordship if it doesn't involve complete mastery over everything we are and own? If Christ is Lord, then He is the Lord over every square inch of our existence. If He is Lord, then we may not withhold anything from Him. If He is Lord, then He is Lord of our whole household. If He is Lord, then He is entitled to receive that which is most precious to us — our children. Obvious isn't it? To make it clearer, consider the relationship between Christ's sovereignty and baptism in the Great Commission.
Lord of the Nations
All Christians recognize the evangelistic imperative of the Great Commission: "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …" But many Christians, including Reformed Christians, have overlooked its connection to baptism and its implication for infants. This is unfortunate because the Great Commission not only establishes the evangelistic imperative, it teaches us that Christ has divine right to own and administer every nation on earth. In concrete terms this means that Christ has the divine prerogative to claim every individual, and every family in every nation.
Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, has always owned the nations. He is, as Paul describes Him, the "firstborn" of creation (Col. 1:15). This is a title that established His legitimacy as the rightful heir of the world.1 However, in the time-space continuum, Christ did not directly rule over and administer the world. This task was delegated to another — Satan (Mt. 4:8; Lk. 4:5-6). The Bible speaks of Satan ruling the nations (Jn. 12:31; 16:11; Eph. 2:2). This is a difficult concept to appreciate. Nevertheless, the Bible teaches that the nations were held under the rule of Satan, until the coming of the rightful heir, Christ. Naturally Satan used and abused his authority to deceive the nations and cause them to rebel against God.
When Christ appeared in redemptive history, He was commissioned with a number of objectives: destroy the work of sin by atoning for the sins of the church, and loose the nations from the grip of Satan. Christ did just that. In coming as the rightful heir, Christ systematically began to destroy the work of Satan (Mt. 12:25-30; Lk. 11:20-23). On the cross He completely destroyed the judicial effects of sin, and He toppled Satan's regime, and consequently Satan's influence over the nations (Jn. 12:30-33; 16:11; Rev. 12:10). Christ's work throughout His earthly ministry, culminating on the cross, dethroned Satan.
Christ's defeat over sin and Satan merited not only the Father's favor, but also the Father's reward. And the Great Commission is the fulfilment of the Father's inheritance promise to Christ. From all eternity the Father promised the Son that He would grant Him direct authority to administer and enforce His direct reign over the inheritance.
I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, "You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter's vessel" (Ps. 2:7-9).
Discipleship of All Nations
The nations under Satan's administration were deceived, and they rebelled against God. With the coming of Christ, however, God placed His King, Christ, on the throne of the universe. Essentially, the Father fulfilled His vow when Christ arose from the grave and gave Him, the rightful heir, the deed to every nation under the sun. That didn't mean that every nation immediately became a Christian nation; it simply meant that Christ was given the right to rule directly over the inheritance. The nations had always been His, the difference now is that the nations are His to organize and administer directly into the kingdom.
In practical terms, the Great Commission is simply the undoing of Satan's work and influence over the nations. Under Satan the nations were deceived, and they rebelled. But under Christ they are being discipled to submit. Therefore, the Great Commission is Christ's policy of kingdom reconstruction. Christ is undoing the effects of Satan's reign by reconstituting every nation to reflect His policies. Christ accomplishes this through the church. Christ is marshalling His disciples forward in the task of breaking all rebel states with a "rod of iron" and "dashing them to pieces" with the gospel of the kingdom.
Naturally, this has bearing on infant-baptism. But to see the connection, we need to deal with the concept of "nation" in the Great Commission. What does Christ mean by nation? Is He referring to different groups of people, to various ethnic groups in the world? Or is it rather to geography; is He calling us to go to all the different places in the world and to make disciples there? What does He mean?
The underlying assumption for many is that Christ can't literally mean all nations, including every individual and family germane to a nation, because such a task would seem entirely implausible. The predominant belief is that Christ is simply commanding us to go and make disciples "out of" all the nations. There is a major problem, however, in that the text does not support such a view.
The text is emphatic: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." The wording is very specific and it categorically implies corporate-ness. Christ wants the nation as a corporate entity discipled. Moreover, He means to disciple all that makes a nation a nation. In other words, He wants to make disciples of the whole nation, including all people in the nation and all the essential cultural institutions that are unique to that nation (i.e., its civil government, judiciary, schools, religious institutions, etc.).2
Dr. Ken Gentry, author of The Greatness of the Great Commission, agrees. He states:
The term [that] Christ employed carries with it an important significance He calls for the discipling of "all the nations" (ethnos), involving men as individuals united together in all their social-cultural labors and relations.3
The aim of the Great Commission is to undo the influence of Satan in every facet of a nation's life. Put positively, the Great Commission seeks the comprehensive influence of Christ's sovereignty over every facet of a nation. Obviously, national institutions like supreme courts or civil governments can't be discipled in the strictest sense, only people can. Nevertheless, national institutions play a vital role in the social fabric of every nation because they are an expression of the will and passion of people, and so they must be subjected to the reign of Christ; after all, without people cultural institutions don't exist. Therefore, since Christ wants all people discipled in every nation, it is indicative that the social fabric of a nation must become completely permeated by the policies of Christ — the nations must be discipled. Matthew Henry puts it this way:
Christianity should be twisted in with national constitutions, …the kingdoms of the world should become Christ's kingdoms, and their kings the church's nursing fathers [we must] make the nations Christian nations Christ the Mediator is setting up a kingdom in the world, bring the nations to be his subjects.4
Discipleship Begins with Baptism
So far, all we've established is that Christ wants the nations of the world. But we still haven't answered the question of infant-baptism.
Since we are trying to establish that infant-baptism is a necessary outworking of Lordship, it is important to see the relationship between discipleship and baptism. A disciple is simply someone who has been brought into the organic kingdom of Christ. The question of regeneration, election, or the inorganic kingdom is a point I will soon address.
How does one go about making a disciple? Those who argue for believers' baptism only would insist that the process begins first with preaching the gospel to individuals and thus eliciting faith in them. Some might even assert that it involves teaching the law, since Christ said: "teaching them all that I have commanded." But the ordo salutis (order of salvation) is not necessarily the concern of this text. What is of concern is discipling, and the text makes clear that the process of discipling officially begins with baptism. Christ says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Some believers-only advocates might want to argue that the Great Commission actually justifies their theology since Christ is commanding us to make disciples, then baptize them and then teach them. But this rendering is incorrect. The assumption that we must first lead someone to faith before we can baptize, and then begin instruction in morality, is incorrect. Although in most cases, faith probably precedes baptism and instruction in righteousness, it is not necessarily the case. Many people have come to faith after baptism, not before. Moreover, the actual rendering of the text places no primacy on the order of salvation. Christ does not say make a disciple first, then baptize him, and then teach him to obey. He says that someone who has been baptized has become a disciple, after which the process of instruction begins in earnest. Regardless of the order, a person does not become an official disciple of Christ until he is baptized in the Name of the Triune God. Therefore discipleship, in that sense, begins with baptism.
How does this relate to infants? Christ wants all the nations to become His disciples. He wants disciple-nations, and the process of discipleship begins with baptism. Therefore, discipling the nations as nations means He wants them baptized corporately. The baptism of the nations is essential to the Great Commission. He simply will not accept the idea that the baptism of a few individuals here and there is in keeping with His commission. Christ wants the nations baptized in His name so that the nations might be organized into His kingdom and come under His direct administration.
Is It Possible?
At this point the critic may say that such a task is impossible. It is impossible because its universal scope hardly seems plausible, or that it is erroneous because such a view of the Great Commission turns baptism into a political sacrament, and thus would be no different from baptism by political coercion. It is impossible because we cannot expect the whole nation to be "born-again."
In the first case, the universal scope of Christ's commission is entirely plausible since it is not accomplished in our own strength. Christ made sure of that when He gave the disciples these comforting words: "and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Second, when the Father promised the Son that He would "dash" the nations in pieces and "break them with a rod of iron," the Biblical language undeniably conveys some type of coercion; of that we need not apologize. Christ is Lord. As Lord He demands total submission — or you pay the consequences: total annihilation in this life and in hell. I realize this sounds harsh, but it is true. Nations that refuse to bow their national knee will be wiped away. The history of redemption is replete with examples.
Then again, although coercion plays a role, it is not the type that comes by humanistic means. It doesn't involve military means, manipulation, or economic repression. It comes by disarming the national philosophies of a nation through rhetoric, preaching, debate, teaching, instruction, and acts of love. It comes by engaging the cultural ideas at every level of the nation with the truth of the gospel, believing that over time the gospel will disarm and destroy all lofty speculation — so much so that the nation at every level will give itself over to Christ.
And finally, do we expect every citizen in every nation to become saved? Our answer must be clear: we can't. We cannot ensure that nations, let alone individuals will be "born-again." Even if we strategically execute the commission with great success, we can do nothing to save anyone. But Christ isn't asking us to do that. He is not asking us to make "elect" nations. He is asking us to make disciples of the nations — and this is an important difference.
Not every discipled nation is necessarily a society of elect individuals. Christ is not asking us to go and make regenerate believers. Although every born-again believer is a disciple, not every disciple is necessarily born-again. Of course, the ideal is a genuine salvation, and a regenerate society, but this is not what Christ is commanding. He is simply commanding that we work to expand His kingly influence over the affairs of the world, and that means we must make disciples of the nations — leaving the question of their regeneracy and election to Him.
Christ wants to extend His administration over every nation that He now owns. He is seeking to reverse the effects of Satan's reign. Making disciples of the nations by baptizing them and teaching them is the divinely decreed means by which Christ's reign advances throughout the world. Making the nations "covenantal" commonwealths is what the Great Commission is all about.
If this is true for nations, it is also true for all families, including the infants. If Christ owns the nations, does He not own all the families in the nations? And if He has commanded that the nations, as nations, should be baptized and instructed, irrespective of their election, then is this not true of all the infants in their respective families? Christ owns the families of the world. Christ owns every individual in the world. They are His by divine decree, by divine right, by divine inheritance. But He wants them in His kingdom. He is their Lord. The Great Commission presents the single greatest challenge to our individualistic view of Christianity and, therefore, if I have correctly interpreted the Great Commission, infant-baptism is a necessary consequence of Christ's sovereign reign.
1. Many cults have used this passage to establish the creaturely status of Christ. The phrase has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ's creation. As the Second Person of the Trinity, He has always existed. It is simply referring to His status as the rightful heir of the world.
2. Even if one argued that ethnos, the Greek word for nations, only refers to the "Gentile tribes," and therefore does not involve the modern concept of a social-political entity (thus dispensing with the idea that we need to disciple a nation's essential cultural institutions), there is still an essential "corporate-ness" to Christ's commission. If the nations, strictly speaking, are only Gentile tribes, then Christ wants the tribes as tribes discipled, meaning the whole tribe, and not simply "some out of" the tribe.
3. Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., The Greatness of the Great Commission (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics), 54. It should be noted that Dr. Gentry explores this point further, by stating: "He calls His followers to 'make disciples of all the nations.' He does not merely say 'disciple all men' (although this lesser point is true also). In that case he would have chosen the Greek word anthropos, which would allow the reference to indicate men as individual humans, rather than as collected races, cultures, societies, or nations. Neither does He call for the discipling of 'all kingdoms' (basileia), as if He laid claim only to political authority."
4. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, n.d. ), 5:446
- Tristan A. Emmanuel