Thinking Out Loud

December 29, 2016

The Opposite of Infant Baptism: Why Evangelicals Opt Out

This article was a link list item two weeks ago, but I found myself thinking about it somewhat continuously since, and last night it came up again at the supper table. The writer blogs at Patheos under the banner Troubler of Israel but I’m otherwise unfamiliar with his work.

I’ve quoted this in full, though you are strongly encouraged to read it at source and join the over 300 comments; just click the link in the title below. The only difference here is that I’ve placed one paragraph in bold face type which I believe deserves special attention.

The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies
by G. Shane Morris

Friends (especially those expecting children) ask me with surprising frequency why I believe in infant baptism. For a couple of years, I replied by giving what I think the best biblical reasons are. But I usually don’t take that route anymore, because I’ve realized that’s not what convinced me.

For most evangelicals, what stands in the way of baptizing infants isn’t a lack of biblical evidence, but an interpretive lens they wear when reading Scripture. That lens–shaped by revivals, rugged individualism, and a sacramental theology untethered from the church’s means of grace–makes conversion the chief article of the faith. We should expect this, since American evangelical theology was forged on the frontier, in camp meetings, to the sound of fire-and-brimstone preaching.

For Evangelicals, this is the far more familiar image which comes to mind at the mention of the term 'baptism.'

For Evangelicals, this is the far more familiar image which comes to mind at the mention of the term ‘baptism.’

The core assumption here is that you must have a conversion experience to be saved. You must turn away from a past life toward a new one, usually with tears and laments attesting your sincerity. And this view of Christianity works well in an evangelistic setting, where many have lived as open unbelievers. The problem is it’s an awkward fit when it comes to multi-generational faith.

Anyone who was raised in a Christian home and still believes in Jesus knows that there wasn’t a time when he or she transitioned from “unbelief” to “belief.” We were never “converted.” It was simply inculcated from infancy, and for as long as we can remember, we have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, whether we were baptized as a baby or not.

But because of the baptistic emphasis on conversion, many (if not most) raised in those churches found ourselves “converting” over and over, reciting the “sinner’s prayer” at countless altar calls during our childhood and teenage years, certain that each time, we were truly sincere, but always finding ourselves back at the altar. Some of us even asked to be re-baptized upon our fresh conversions. And everyone raised in evangelical churches will know what I mean when I say “testimony envy,”–that real and perverse jealousy you feel when someone who lived a nastier pre-conversion life than you shares their story.

This is where I think the chief difficulty with infant baptism lies, at least for American evangelicals. I don’t believe baptistic evangelicals really view their children as unregenerate pagans before their “credible profession of faith.” If they did, they wouldn’t teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer or to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I think what’s really going on is a kind of alternative sacramentalism, where a dramatic conversion experience, rather than baptism, is the rite of Christian initiation.

Thus, children raised in this setting feel the need to manufacture tearful conversions over and over to prove their sincerity. And rather than their present trust in Christ, they’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) to look back to a time, a place, and a prayer, and stake their salvation on that.

Infant baptism runs counter to this entire system. It declares visibly that God induces a change of heart and a saving faith in those too young to even speak or remember their “conversions.” It illustrates that the branches God grafts in to His Son aren’t sterile. They bud and blossom, producing new branches that have never drunk another tree’s sap. And most importantly, it matches the lived experiences of believers’ children, rather than continually imposing a system on them that was designed for first-generation converts.

Almost always, I see the lights come on after explaining this point to an evangelical friend. And in most cases, their acceptance of infant baptism isn’t far behind.



  1. But I do see my children as unregenerate pagans. That is why I teach them about Jesus and the Christian world view. At some point they will have to own the faith for themselves.

    Comment by Keith A. Wadley — December 29, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    • Having grown up with the ‘baptistic’ mindset, it’s really hard for me to re-frame baptism in a different paradigm. The author doesn’t mention it, but there’s also the issue of “household salvation” mentioned in the book of Acts, where whole families were baptized at once. There’s also the issue of an ‘age of accountability’ as taught by most Evangelical churches; whereas the opposing view, including child baptism, seems to allow for an “inherited faith” as one is baptized before having any direct input into the matter.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 29, 2016 @ 11:21 am

      • Inherited faith seems to follow a theology that I am not familiar with in which the seed of Adam is somehow purified from passing on inherited sin into the child? My personal belief is to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling while loving others as I would want to be loved and talked to.

        Comment by Keith A. Wadley — December 29, 2016 @ 11:35 am

  2. “Anyone who was raised in a Christian home and still believes in Jesus knows that there wasn’t a time when he or she transitioned from ‘unbelief’ to ‘belief.’ We were never “converted.’”

    Therein lies the problem for evangelicals. “Repeat customers” that come to the altar again and again, with multiple baptisms as well, is one problem. “Growing up Christian” is another. Our daughter has learned to repeat statements about loving Jesus and being loved by him, saying bedtime prayers and grace before meals, and never misses a church service. But that doesn’t make her a Christian. Believing in Jesus and quoting the scriptures doesn’t make one saved. Until she believes in her heart and confesses with her mouth (Romans 10:9) then she is not a born again believer. Baptism is for believers, which is the model I see in the New Testament. Infants are not believers.

    “Almost always, I see the lights come on after explaining this point to an evangelical friend. And in most cases, their acceptance of infant baptism isn’t far behind.”

    That has to be wishful thinking.

    Comment by Clark Bunch — December 29, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

  3. One cannot ride on one’s parents beliefs and every testimony with Jesus in it is great, and seriously not messing up into sinful lifestyles is good and a great testimony(I’ve been in churches where the worse the person was before Christ the better the testimony but that is bogus) I am in hearty acceptance of those who hold to infant baptism, yet I hold to coming to a realization of faith in Christ then baptism. So I see both sides as valid. I don’t think much of hyper testimonies and testing people’s sincerity by tears and their remorse over sin, it’s a bit deeper than that.

    Comment by jesusfollowingishard — January 1, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

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