At my other blog I’m writing my way through the Bible, one of the best things I’ve ever done, and something I highly recomend for anyone who loves Scripture and likes to write. The last couple mornings I’ve been focused on this passage in Acts, and I make the case that all Jewish Christians, which would have been all the first Christians, would have baptized their children. I think I make a pretty good case. If you’re open or curious, here it is:
Peter just finished the first Christian sermon in history, and the those who are listening, all “God-fearing Jews,” were “cut to the heart.” They ask him what should they do, and his response is the first altar call in human history:
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
The Holy Spirit is now available to all who change their minds (repent, i.e., turn from one way of looking at reality, to another), and are baptized for the forgiveness of sins. This doesn’t mean that one must first be baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit because as we’ll see later in Acts that some people have received the Holy Spirit but had not yet been baptized. The point is that it’s a package deal, baptism being a sign of an internal reality based on the promise of God.
Clearly Peter was speaking to adults, people who could respond to his message and call to repent, and be baptized. So why does he bring children into it? Credobaptists tell us, well, for no reason at all! At least most of them. They claim that the promise Peter is speaking of is the promise of the Holy Spirit that Jesus referred to before he was taken up into heaven, and that’s clearly true, but that’s not all. The promise is much bigger, I would argue, going all the way back to the Garden and God’s promise to Adam and Eve:
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
This one promise is then reiterated throughout redemptive history to Noah, Abraham, and the Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, and David, through the prophets, to its ultimate fulfillment in Christ of whom Peter speaks. The promise is a person! I believe baptism isn’t primarily about someone’s response to the call, but primarily about the promise of God to save his people. It’s a God-centered, rather than a human-centered, sacrament.
So this promise is of course not just for individuals, but their children as well. All throughout the Old Testament children are always included as part of the covenant community, and partake of the covenantal community signs, including circumcision. There are 324 references to children in the Old Testament, and when applicable they are always included in God’s promises and blessings. Are we supposed to believe children are now excluded from this new and better covenant, and its signs? To me, Peter’s first sermon seals it, the promise and signs are “for you and your children.”
In addition, Peter, the Apostles, and all the people hearing him that day were Jews, as were all the first Christians. Until Paul and his missionary journeys more than a decade later, Christianity was in fact a Jewish sect, and all the first Christians saw themselves as Jewish. In fact they were not even called Christians until many years later in Paul’s ministry in Antioch. Credobaptists mostly forget or ignore this fact. To think that in an instant Jews would stop acting like Jews, and consider their children in effect strangers to the covenant and God’s promises to his people, makes absolutely no sense at all. And as we’ll see later in Acts 21, Jewish Christians were concerned that Paul was teaching Jews not to circumcise their children, which he denied.
To me it’s a massive leap to think that these Jewish followers of Jesus would make such a radical break with their Jewishness, and something tied so integrally to it, their children as part of their faith and the faith community, including baptism. I can just imagine these first Christians having babies automatically baptizing them because they assume that’s what they’re supposed to do. All of a sudden just prior to the ceremony, some authority figure comes running screaming, “Wait! You can’t do that! Baptism is only for adults who repent!” The reply might be, “But Peter said the promise is for us and our children, as it has always been so. Are you telling us our children are no longer part of the covenant community, even though we still circumcise them, and you have no problem with that?” Jews would certainly act like Jews and baptize their children.
One thing credobaptists do is take the phrase Peter uses after children, “and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call,” and claim it somehow negates the application of baptism to children. I’ve never understood that. The far off simply refers to gentiles, or non-Jews, to whom God promised Abram though him would be blessed. It has nothing to do with the promise belonging to the Christian’s children.
Luke tells us this sermon wasn’t this short:
40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
The “save yourselves” as it is rendered in many translations is not good. Peter isn’t exhorting them to save themselves, but rather to be saved! God is the one who does the saving. We repent and are baptized, but that’s not what saves us. It is the power of God that transforms our souls, raises us from spiritual death to life, from God’s enemy to his child, and only then can we repent, believe, and trust in Jesus. And God did that for about three thousand that day. Quite a bit different than before the Holy Spirit was given, when almost all Jesus’ followers left him to die alone, and just a foretaste of what’s to come.