With the birth of my son, I have been thinking a lot about baptism. This has been intensified by a period of discerning whether or not I could, should, or would begin the process of discerning ordination in the Church of England. What follows is my attempt to come to terms with the beliefs of those around me and my own understanding of the subject during this period. It is in no way academic or comprehensive but serves as a way for me to somehow work through my thoughts on the matter.

I am a layman and haven’t studied this formally so please forgive any glaring errors or omissions, they are not intentional. I am painfully aware that the more one says the more one is likely to say something stupid, and I am saying a lot here on a subject that is not my expertise. So please forgive any stupidity you find.

My own experience

I was baptised at 16 into the Church of England into which I had been born. My parents came from different backgrounds but believed that I and my brother should be the ones, not them, to commit our lives to Christ when we were convicted of the Gospel and our lives as members of the Church. Growing up I was conscious of going forward for communion with my parents at a young age, to receive a blessing from our minister. I always remember feeling like it was deeply important, despite the informal setting, and the words the minister spoke I remember even now. Yet I was conscious that I wasn’t participating in communion and came to a place where I wanted to commit myself and follow Christ who commanded us to share in his body and blood.

My minister upon hearing my desire began a process of what I now understand to be the catechism. I would go to his house and have a series of long conversations and where we walked through questions regarding the faith and pray about this upcoming event. It wasn’t formal, my minister had known me for the better part of my life and was like family. Despite this, he wanted to make sure I actually knew what I was doing and if I fell short in knowledge could be corrected. We continued and at the next easter, I was baptised.

The baptism itself was at the main church in our parish, the bishop came down and I was baptised at the same time as other, younger, children were being confirmed. I was asked to give an account of my faith before the congregation and when it came to me the bishop and my minister stood me in a pool and by the name of the Trinity, and a profession of faith baptised me by immersion. Subsequently, those from my local church and those I knew in the parish were then asked to stand for me whilst I was subsequently prayed for. I still think about that day frequently and I consider it the moment I was, to use an evangelical phrase ‘born again’. My minister still keeps an interest in my faith even now.

My brother to this day, however, is not baptised and I realise, by the views of most Anglican clergy I’ve talked to, that they would ideally have seen both of us baptised at a much earlier age. I can’t deny this has raised questions over whether or not my baptism, and others like it, was viewed by those clergies aware of it as somehow second class, or that my parent’s decision was errant. Particular because I find this reasoning mirrored in the views I’ve heard expressed when talking about the idea of my son’s baptism and my voicing the view that I would hesitate to baptise a newborn should I have been ordained myself.

My own views have largely been that I am supportive of the parents to decide whatever they wish for their children but that my preference has always been for the child, or whomever, themselves to request and pursue baptism, whatever age they find themselves. I also wish that Churches would only baptise those who were actually regular and committed members of the local congregation. Something which isn’t really the case in many Church of England churches who will baptise seemingly indiscriminately. My own stumbling block was the idea of baptising newborns myself, I recognise such an act as valid but have personally seen little positive fruit come from such an act at an age where the person in question cannot recall or place themselves in the act. I think such a thing would bring judgement on myself before God if I was to theoretically baptise someone and then step away from any involvement in their life. Liturgy is meant to be embodied, it is to be experienced and isn’t an abstraction, but to a newborn isn’t it precisely that? Worse does it lend artificial security and a licence to antinomianism if conducted without suitable confession and repentance?

Through this process, my views have developed somewhat but I will save that for the end of this series.

On the effects of baptism

One of the topics that came up early on, particularly when talking or reading the works of those outside my own tradition is on what baptism exactly does. There is a good deal of theology behind this but the more informal conversation tended to focus more on questions like Do people baptised later in life take their faith more seriously? Does the infant who is baptised turn out a better disciple of Christ than those who aren’t?

The consensus I came to was that in, after trading anecdotes with a great many, I cannot say definitively one way or another. Baptism makes a difference to an individual but there is no discernible difference in the behaviour of people en masse regarding the timing of Baptism. It depends on the broader context, those around the person baptised and the providence of God himself.

My own experience as an Anglican, where many unchurched infants are still baptised at the unchurched parent’s request, was that I grew up amidst a great many peers who were baptised and took security from it when I was not. Yet I was the only one, of a small minority, who attended a church growing up. Later in life, at university, all the Christians I knew were credo-baptists, as were all the flourishing churches they attended. Paedobaptists, if they did exist, didn’t participate in the Christian intervarsity bodies present on campus. The Church of England and Roman Catholic churches were only, apparently, occupied by pensioners, barring one person I knew, and I don’t know what his views on baptism were. I say this having gotten the chance to know the local CoE parish quite well having done some work for them after graduation. The trend of me encountering paedobaptised ‘nones’ and credobaptised confessing Christians continued (and largely continues) until I started interacting with more Anglicans, and clergy, my own age after moving to London some years ago.

To counter the aforementioned I’ve heard is that the situation is very different in America where credobaptism is more prevalent. US paedobaptists have stressed to me that my own experiences of the UK paedobaptised can be mirrored in that of the US credobaptised. My own minister at my current parish confesses however that whatever you do it doesn’t seem to make much difference as an act itself practically, it is dependant on the context around them. Yet this doesn’t stop me engaging in counterfactuals; would my brother be a Christian today had he been baptised as an infant? Would I have fallen away or lapsed had I not been baptised of my own accord? God only knows. Much ink has been shed on this topic but any effect is hard to discern across traditions. I say this based on my now fairly frequent interactions with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants of many stripes on a fairly regular basis where I live now. Yet all parties acknowledge it to be important and whether one is advocating credo or paedo as a mode of baptism it is frequently asserted ‘yes’ it makes a difference albeit sometimes in distinct ways.

Baptism in scripture

Explanations and justifications for baptism inevitably arise from scripture. This is also a massive area itself but I will try and cover the sections of scripture that have been raised during this period. This will no doubt fail to be comprehensive but reflects my thinking on the various passages. These won’t be all passages on baptism, but ones I’ve had raised or encountered with a significance one way or another.

New Testament

John’s baptisms…

“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make His paths straight.’ ”

Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”

Matthew 3:1-14

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.”

Acts 19:1-7

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. For John had not yet been thrown into prison. Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified—behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

John 3:22-36

The first time we see baptism as something compelled is early on in the gospels and is unsurprisingly practised by John the Baptist. From what we see here this baptism is linked explicitly to repentance as a means of salvation. This is also positioned in direct contrast to John’s claim against the Pharisees and Sadducees as those seeing themselves saved by means of their privilege as inheritors and participants in the Abrahamic covenant.

With John’s language of ‘fruit’ emerging from ‘trees’ in the above passage we also see as a pattern later taken up by Paul in Galatians but with reference to the signs of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is something John himself also refers to. Yet he points out that the Holy Spirit is not as something he baptises by but something Christ will do later on. This is something John didn’t see himself exempt from.

This wasn’t Christian baptism and John’s disciples later must be baptised into the Christian community. The baptism was one of repentance, as a result they did not receive the Holy Spirit and all that inevitably entails. Should this be used as a pattern for our own baptism? John saw a relationship between his baptism and that to be done by the Holy Spirit. So could we say John’s model of baptism was a prototype of that which was to come? I do not think that entirely unreasonable. The key difference we see, however, in the passage I’ve quoted in Acts above is that subsequent Christians were baptised into Christ. Something John himself was aware that even he had been in need of. We also see in John 3 that Jesus’s disciples were already baptising during the same period as John. John see’s no conflict with this, despite the envy his disciples feel given Jesus’s popularity. So John’s mission and baptism was not a precursor necessarily but a means of bringing people to repentance in order to point them to Christ. His ministry perhaps waned as Christ’s established itself, which was fine with John.

John himself concludes this discussion with his disciples with statements pointing to the trinitarian nature of God being expressed through Jesus’s ministry. Which points us in turn to the name of the Trinity by which we are to be baptised. Yet the emphasis on the direct repentance of the subject being baptised is something that has never gone away.


There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

John 3:1-8

To be ‘born again’ is a phrase I used to notice a lot amongst Christians before I moved to London. It is this passage in John that, more than any other, perhaps gives the foundation for it. What that means is its own topic but I think it is interesting that Jesus here talks about water and the spirit. Also that by using the image of birth it raises the question of choice. Do we choose when we are born? Either by flesh or by spirit? Yet in any case, it seems to allude to baptism by use of the term ‘water’ and that this is the means to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus asks ‘how?’ effectively ‘what agency must I exert in order to bring this about?’ Yet Jesus instead talks about the Spirit implying this is who determines who is born again rather than an individual’s will. This is some ways seems more sympathetic with paedobaptism but it does seem to necessitate an engagement of the will which fits very comfortably with a view that requires some form kind of confession by the subject.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares…

“Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ””

Matthew 13:24-30

This passage was raised by a paedobaptist to me as indicative of the fact that the good and the bad are to be found in the visible body of the Church. That it is inevitable and can be evidenced by the many people mentioned in the Gospels and other NT texts who go astray despite receiving baptism. Its a form of argument against the view of baptism being a panacea for all wrongdoing or that the Church is entirely made up of the elect. In this they are correct but I think it a misnomer to say that therefore we shouldn’t worry so much about who we baptise, that the ability to baptise is an authority without responsibility. I can’t help but attaching such a reading to this discussion as comparable to adopting a laisez faire attitude on the subject on baptism which no tradition extends to adult baptism. Again suggesting the act is actually something functionally different to when an adult gets baptised, a bifurcation we don’t see anywhere else. Whatever our views and approach to baptism, it should be unified and done in the knowledge that baptism is in no way a solution to the existence of tares, or weeds, in the body, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be discerning.

Let the little children come…

“Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.”

Matthew 19:13-15

This was one that was put in front of me early on as an argument for allowing infant baptism. The argument being that the believer should not withhold baptism from a child just as Jesus welcomed children which the disciples rebuked. My first reaction is that, if this was what the passage is about, I actually agree with this. The issue is I do not think this is about baptism and that I do not have an issue with children wishing to be baptised. What I find problematic are infants who cannot yet participate in any form. Newborns who cannot do what the children in the given passage details here.

This is also a passage I saw alluded to in Tertullian’s text ‘On Baptism’. The relevant segment reads…

“The Lord does indeed say, Forbid them not to come unto me. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to ask for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given to him that asks.”

Tertullian, On Baptism: Chapter 18 Of the Persons to Whom, and the Time When, Baptism is to Be Administered

Now many are quick to bracket anything of Tertullian says with the fact that he was later a schismatic and a montanist. These things are problematic for him, and using him as a guide, but I do wonder if in this case, such cautions are a means of playing the man rather than the ball. If I focus on the reasoning employed by Tertullian here, I find myself agreeing with it. Yet there is also a line here which warrants further exploration “Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins” which I will return to later on as a matter of consideration.

For the promise is to you and to your children…

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Acts 2:38,39

These verses are brought out frequently in discussions pertaining to the timing of baptism. The question, however, is when children are to be baptised. Paedobaptists say often ‘as early as possible’ as an analogue to Jewish circumcision rites. ‘Credobaptists’ upon a profession of faith as a response to God’s circumcision of the heart in a believer.

In bringing up this passage I can’t help but be reminded of John’s rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees…

“…do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

Matthew 3:9

By invoking Abraham we are reminded that his children were and are children of the promise, not children of the flesh. As Paul explains in Romans…

“But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”

And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”

Romans 8:6-13

We also see this echoed in the words of Jesus who when approached by his family responded…

“…He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?”  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:48-50

So when we see talk of children, this can extend to biological children but it is predicated on them being those who “does the will of My Father in heaven” according to our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no qualifying age limit to this but baptism is seen inevitably as a response to the ‘promise’ and not the ‘flesh’. Paul’s invocation of Jacob and Esau seems particularly cutting here and I have thought about this passage a lot in the light of the relationship between myself and my own brother. If we baptise on the basis of biology alone, or the faith of another, this does not seem in keeping with the understanding of children revealed here.

Ananias and Sapphira…

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”

Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.

Acts 5:1-11

This passage was raised by paedobaptists a number of times to indicate that even if one is baptised this is no sure sign that they are regenerate. Other examples include Judas and Simon Magus. The argument generally is that we actually cannot tell who is regenerate other than by their conduct and even that is no guarantor. You cannot pick the regenerate man so easily out of the crowd. Therefore we shouldn’t concern ourselves with such things when considering baptism. This however again raised the question of the effectual nature of baptism, because one can read about it extensively but practically this seems to be impossible to effectually discern authoritatively. At least in the conversations, I have had on this topic. Of course, it is ultimately impossible to totally judge the character of those baptised, especially in advance but does that mean we shouldn’t endeavour? I will cover this later but the early church placed stringent guidelines before those about to be baptised implying there was at least an attempt. This is obviously not extended to newborns but practically this floats the idea that in praxis infant baptism and adult baptism can’t help but be different things given how differently the participants are treated in advance. Even if the theology claims to be the same in both cases, yet we don’t see such a bifurcation in scripture but a consistent standard applied to those baptised.

The Ethiopian eunuch…

So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”

Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”

And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.

Acts 8:34-38

I was challenged by a paedobaptist on the basis of this passage that catechism is not required in advance of baptism. The problem I saw with framing the passage in this way was that we see a profession of faith in advance of the baptism. This is one where the clear binaries break down for me between credo and paedobaptism. A profession of faith always seems to anticipate baptism. This also happens to be commentated on in Tertullian’s writings on the subject…

“If Philip so easily baptized the chamberlain, let us reflect that a manifest and conspicuous evidence that the Lord deemed him worthy had been interposed. The Spirit had enjoined Philip to proceed to that road: the eunuch himself, too, was not found idle, nor as one who was suddenly seized with an eager desire to be baptized; but, after going up to the temple for prayer’s sake, being intently engaged on the divine Scripture, was thus suitably discovered — to whom God had, unasked, sent an apostle, which one, again, the Spirit bade adjoin himself to the chamberlain’s chariot. The Scripture which he was reading falls in opportunely with his faith: Philip, being requested, is taken to sit beside him; the Lord is pointed out; faith lingers not; water needs no waiting for; the work is completed, and the apostle snatched away. But Paul too was, in fact, ‘speedily’ baptized: for Simon, his host, speedily recognized him to be an appointed vessel of election. God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it; every petition may both deceive and be deceived. And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children.”

Tertullian, On Baptism: Chapter 18 Of the Persons to Whom, and the Time When, Baptism is to Be Administered

Tertullian here seems to be essentially saying that discernment is meant to be exercised pertaining to the context and how God has led up to the moment in question. In both cases detailed Philip and Simon ‘recognised’ the recipients of baptism as those appointed to God. Now whilst we are not Ethiopian Eunuchs or Paul himself surely some measure of discernment may be exercised by those undertaking and carrying out baptism? Doesn’t the disposition of the subject have some measure of involvement? It seems so.

Just before moving on from this point, reading around on this passage, it turns out that the confession of faith on the part of the Ethiopian eunuch doesn’t universally appear in all available manuscripts. However, Irenaeus, writing around the same time as Tertullian in the 2nd century attests to its existence in his well-known text “Against Heresies” but this profession of faith is actually omitted from later manuscripts. Why is anyone’s guess but I’ve seen people speculate on the Ethiopians confession being a flashpoint for earlier debates on the topic of baptism without profession by the subject, as is the case with newborns?

Cornelius’s household…

Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.”

Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all— that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

Acts 10:30-48

Cornelius’s household, and others like his, I found were an almost foundational text on which arguments for the baptising of newborns are made. The idea being that Cornelius, Lydia, Stephanas, the Philippian Jailer and others had children in their households who were baptised at the same moment as the head of the household. This isn’t unreasonable and I find that acceptable. I don’t have an issue with children being baptised so much as those without a profession. Yet the text doesn’t qualify, it doesn’t mention children but it doesn’t exclude them so whilst its an argument from silence it is still an argument which we should look at.

If we are speaking specifically to this passage we can note that all those who were baptised began to “speak with tongues and magnify God”. This criteria for me seems an acceptable one for baptism given what Peter had previously experienced in the run-up to the household. If we once more consider Tertullian’s words “God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it” in this passage we see it amongst all who were baptised. This story, and those like it, are often framed in the context of the head of household’s conversion bringing about baptism but this isn’t the case in Cornelius’s household. They all responded by speaking tongues and magnifying God. A pattern we also see with the Jailer’s family in Acts 16:30-34 where Paul throughout the night tells the family of Jesus, whom they accept, before proceeding with baptism.

If we state there must be some level of maturity that is requisite for baptism, then that is clearly not true and we do not see this. Yet we do see the profession of belief in Jesus before baptism. Jesus himself tells people that far from saving households he is as likely to split them. In Matthew 10 we read…

For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:35-37

Jesus here explicitly invokes the term household as a site of division which affirms the agency of the individual in coming to Christ or rejecting him. We likewise see Paul talk, in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy…

For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

1 Corinthians 7:14

When discussing this a paedobaptist peer pointed to this passage to argue that children are made holy by baptism. Whilst children ‘are’ made holy by baptism I’m not sure this is what is occurring in this context, at least not to the degree imagined. It is also worth noting that this passage serves to point out that the early church was familiar with mixed-faith households, so not everyone was baptised upon the conversion of a patriarch or dominant household member. So this passage in a sense upholds Our Lord’s warning about setting division amidst the household and also points to the individual nature of conversion.

What I understood of Paul’s writing here to suggests that an imputation, a form of spiritual osmosis, via the proximity of the believer in the household drawing family members towards Christ both via their witness but also the agency of the holy spirit in the believer. The work of the spirit isn’t decontextualised geographically but is at work in the homes, towns and nations in which believers are found providing a blessing for even for those who have not yet accepted Christ. This passage points to a form of the sanctification of the household separate from that of the world and a freedom from the pagan practices that surrounded them. John Chrysostom said on the passage…

“What then, is the Greek holy? Certainly not: for he said not, He is holy; but, He is sanctified in his wife. And this he said, not to signify that he is holy, but to deliver the woman as completely as possible from her fear and lead the man to desire the truth. For the uncleanness is not in the bodies wherein there is communion, but in the mind and the thoughts. And here follows the proof; namely, that if you continuing unclean have offspring, the child, not being of you alone, is of course unclean or half clean. But now it is not unclean. To which effect he adds, else were your children unclean; but now are they holy; that is, not unclean. But the Apostle calls them, holy, by the intensity of the expression again casting out the dread arising from that sort of suspicion.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 19 on First Corinthians

Circumcision of the heart…

For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

Romans 2:25-29

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

Romans 4:9-12

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

Colossians 2:11-12

And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Deuteronomy 30:6

The topic of circumcision seems at the heart of baptism for those who hold to unconditional paedobaptism particular in the reformed tradition. This was something I didn’t really encounter amongst laity but quite a lot amongst those Ministers who actively championed the Reformed tradition as their own. I will confess I find this argument equally the most plausible but also the most overly complicated and obscure. It feels simultaneously like it is clutching at straws and yet on to something but never managed to stop feeling somewhat esoteric.

The main thrust seems to be that just as the Old Testament gave the sign of the circumcision as a marker of the covenant, the New Testament has effectively ‘hot-swapped’ baptism as a new circumcision of the heart. The passage above from Colossians is often pointed to as it describes baptism as the circumcision ‘made without hands’ which touches on the Deuteronomy passage describing the circumcision of the heart. This too touches on Romans 4:11 which describes circumcision as a seal of Abraham’s persistent faith. This is a lot like how we talk about baptism and considering Israel circumcised their newborns we should, therefore, baptise ours. This is very broad strokes but this seems to be a decent top-level view.

The issue with the baptism as circumcision argument is that, whilst an overlap undeniably exists, it runs the risk of falling into the same trap the Pharisees and Sadducees fell into, which John the Baptist accused them of. That is essentially conflating the visible body of Israel with Israel proper. Paul expands on this in Romans 9…

“I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.”

Romans 9:1-8

So Paul here draws a distinction between Israel and Israel proper, many Reformed likewise draw a distinction between the Church visible and the Church invisible. Thomas Cranmer in an early draft of the 39 Articles wrote…

In the Scripture, the word “Church” has two main meanings, apart from others; one of which means the congregation of all the saints and true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head and are sanctified by his Spirit. This is the living and truly holy mystical body of Christ, but known only to God, who alone understands the hearts of men. The second meaning is that of the congregation of all who are baptised in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. This meaning of “Church” corresponds to its status in this life in that in it the good are mixed with the evil.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: Thirteen Articles

However this raises the question which I mentioned beforehand, how can one ever really determine if one is a member of both the visible Church and the invisible Church? Israel or Israel proper? Is baptism now a means of gaming a circumcision of the heart previously unavailable to the people of Israel? Or is it effectively a less physically drastic and scarring form of the circumcision of the flesh? Can we force the law of God to be written on our heart? Or is baptism not really a sign or seal of such things? This form of baptism it seems, in effect, boils down to a rite by some definitions different only in style to Jewish circumcision and not nature. Which is ironic given the grief Baptists are given for their approach to Baptism which in a certain light seems to be taken more seriously. Some traditions believe in an ex opere operato form of baptism but it seems to me that baptism is inevitably a response to God’s work beginning in a person’s life that precedes baptism, this is evidenced by the account of Cornelius’s household and the Ethiopian eunuch, they are essentially the same story in many ways told in different contexts. Baptism is a seal, but it is a seal of something God has already begun and is bearing visible fruit, this fruit anticipates baptism which brings the full measure of the holy spirit.

The first ecumenical council…

And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.

Acts 15:1,2

In debates around baptism as circumcision, I find it interesting that the first council of Jerusalem isn’t brought up more frequently. The reason for the gathering is precisely because some people insist on the continuation of circumcision within the infant church so that the law of Moses is fulfilled. This is rejected by the apostles under James and yet no overlap on the roles of baptism or circumcision is raised despite the perfect opportunity being presented. Rather than rejecting the premise why didn’t they instead tell those in error that baptism was actually the new circumcision? It would be a win-win result. Christians converts have a circumcision of the heart in baptism without still operating under the law and necessitating the actual physical act. This is the argument we see people invoking with the use of passages like Colossians 2:11-13. Yet this is conspicuous in its absence suggesting the line drawn between the two isn’t quite as clear-cut as it’s made out by some commentators. We see this when we read on in Acts 15.

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Acts 15:6-11

Here we see again, with reference to the heart, the idea of a circumcision of the heart we read about in Deuteronomy. The first council made it clear that it wasn’t complying with the law of Moses that saved now but by faith through the grace of God and evidenced by the Holy Spirit. Can we game a circumcision of the heart by baptism in those who cannot or would not give a sincere profession of their faith? No. Faith seems a call to which Baptism is the response.

Old Testament Emphasis

Noah’s Ark…

…when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.

1 Peter 3:20-22

By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

Hebrews 11:7

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation.

Genesis 7:1

But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.

Matthew 24:37-41

When we read the story of Noah and his Ark we clearly see salvation for a household on the basis of Noah’s faith alone, not that of the individuals in the household. This is then explicitly linked to baptism by Paul (I believe) in Hebrews. We notice in Genesis chapter 9 that this is despite the character of his household being a mixed bag  (Canaan in particular). This seems to suggest a form of ex opere operato form of salvation, the deed itself is effectual, just as the Ark was effectual in delivering salvation from the waters, I find this argument quite convincing. Some point to the combination of the wood and water as the combination of the cross and baptism. Ambrose of Milan wrote on this…

All flesh was corrupt by its iniquities. My Spirit, says God, shall not remain among men, because they are flesh. Whereby God shows that the grace of the Spirit is turned away by carnal impurity and the pollution of grave sin. Upon which, God, willing to restore what was lacking, sent the flood and bade just Noah go up into the ark. And he, after having, as the flood was passing off, sent forth first a raven which did not return, sent forth a dove which is said to have returned with an olive twig. You see the water, you see the wood [of the ark], you see the dove, and do you hesitate as to the mystery?

The water, then, is that in which the flesh is dipped, that all carnal sin may be washed away. All wickedness is there buried. The wood is that on which the Lord Jesus was fastened when He suffered for us. The dove is that in the form of which the Holy Spirit descended, as you have read in the New Testament, Who inspires in you peace of soul and tranquillity of mind. The raven is the figure of sin, which goes forth and does not return, if, in you, too, inwardly and outwardly righteousness be preserved

Ambrose of Milan, On The Mysteries 3:10-11

Yet the unspoken element here when this is raised is that Noah’s household, for all their failings, were different to the rest of the people during this period for they alone entered into the Ark and did so consciously. They did not mock and scoff at Noah like the rest of the generation. To really claim that Noah’s household was saved eternally on the basis of the faith of a parent alone seems to suggest a form of antinomianism. We know this does not bear up because sin persisted in the seed of Noah from which all people alive are now inheritors, it didn’t last much beyond them getting out of the ark. Particularly if we note the contrast between the eventual fates of Canaan’s descendants and the Israelites. If baptism and the cross save does this negate our own agency? No. To believe otherwise is to fall, once more, into the error of the Pharisees and Sadducees which John lambasted. Our agency enables us to respond to the Holy Spirit and brings us to repentance. Just as the agency of Noah’s household was exercised in bringing them into salvation from the flood. Just as it was the agency of Lot that saved his household from the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah, yet it was that same agency of his wife to be lost via her disobedience. We cannot be perfect in our discernment but that does not me we should abdicate discernment when baptising.

The Red Sea Crossing…

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land,and the waters were divided. So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Exodus 14:21,22

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

1 Corinthians 10:1-5

I’ve had this passage raised to me with individuals offering that because the entirety of Israel passed through the sea, all were thus baptised. Thus we should not make a distinction in regard to the age when we baptise. We see Paul make the link between the crossing and baptism and textually there is the contrast between the Israelites and the Egyptians as an echo of Noah and his Generation. The argument, as a result, is essentially the same in both cases although in this instance all ages are inevitably included in the host of Moses.

John Chrysostom’s homily on 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 is really excellent on this passage and highlights the link between the crossing and the subsequent food and drink as mirroring baptism and the subsequent communion meal we experience in the church. However, he is at pains to emphasise that this ultimately profited them nothing, all those who crossed the Red Sea perished. He says…

As touching His gift then, such is the case: now let us observe also what follows, and consider, whether when they showed themselves unworthy of the gift, He spared them. Nay, this you can not say. Wherefore also he added, Howbeit with most of them God was not well-pleased; although He had honored them with so great honor. Yea, it profited them nothing, but most of them perished. The truth is, they all perished, but that he might not seem to prophesy total destruction to these also, therefore he said, most of them. And yet they were innumerable, but their number profited them nothing: and these were all so many tokens of love; but not even did this profit them, inasmuch as they did not themselves show forth the fruits of love.

John Chrysostom, Homily 23 on First Corinthians

Someone hearing the above may be tempted to draw two conclusions on the passage. One is a more laisez faire attitude of ‘it doesn’t seem to matter then when baptism is experienced’. The other is ‘let us then baptise those we know (as best is able) would be grateful for these ‘tokens of love’ such that they aren’t squandered’. Far from all being ‘baptised’ in the Red Sea, they did so only to find their bodies ‘scattered in the wilderness’. Baptism, therefore, seems the ordinary means of salvation but it is no guarantor of it and a judicious application inevitably seems wiser than an indiscriminate one.


Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. And he said:

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction,

And He answered me.

Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,

And You heard my voice.

For You cast me into the deep,

Into the heart of the seas,

And the floods surrounded me;

All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.

Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight;

Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’

The waters surrounded me, even to my soul;

The deep closed around me;

Weeds were wrapped around my head.

I went down to the moorings of the mountains;

The earth with its bars closed behind me forever;

Yet You have brought up my life from the pit,

O Lord, my God.

“When my soul fainted within me,

I remembered the Lord;

And my prayer went up to You,

Into Your holy temple.

Those who regard worthless idols

Forsake their own Mercy.

But I will sacrifice to You

With the voice of thanksgiving;

I will pay what I have vowed.

Salvation is of the Lord.”

So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah 2:1-10

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.

Matthew 12:39-41

Jonah is one of my favourite stories in the Bible because it is a twice-told story of repentance. The first being that of Jonah itself and the second being that of the Babylonian people. At the same time, I can’t help but empathise with Jonah’s character as he is constantly torn in two directions, his own and that of the Lord’s on every step of the journey. Jonah’s own story, however, mimics that of baptism. On the boat, we see confession, in the water we see his death and at his arrival on dry land his resurrection. This is a pattern we see repeatedly and is mirrored in the aforementioned stories of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Cornelius in the New Testament. Confession, death and resurrection which mirrors the pattern we see across the Bible: Creation, Decreation and Recreation.

The sign of Jonah also prefigures and joins us to Christ in baptism. John Chrysostom said, commenting on Matthew 12:41…

“Now is He striking the first note of the doctrine of His resurrection, and confirming it by the type.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 43 on Matthew

And later on…

“For this cause we everywhere show forth His death, both in the mysteries, and in baptism, and in all the rest. Therefore Paul also cries with a clear voice, God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)

John Chrysostom, Homily 43 on Matthew

Now can we have baptism without confession? No. Can we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ without confessing him as Lord? No. Without confession Jonah, and those with him would have been lost to the waters. Instead, the committing of Jonah to the waters also brought about the repentance and thanksgiving of those with him. A pattern we see with the subsequent repentance of the King of Nineveh and his subjects. It wasn’t the repentance of the King alone that saves Nineveh but the repentance of all peoples of the city that brings salvation and stays God’s judgement.


There are more passages I could bring up. Passages concerning Aaron’s washing before entering the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:19-20). Washing as part of ritual purification (Leviticus 15). Ezekiel washing and anointing with oil (Ezekiel 16:9) or Naaman’s baptism in the Jordan river (2 Kings 5:10-14).  Yet I do not think these specifically speak to the timing of baptism. I have however tried to cover the passages I think have some immediate significance to the timing of baptism, coming away with the impression that anytime is the right time for baptism when preceded by a confession of the subject.

Baptism is linked to circumcision but different to the latter in that it is, to use Abrahamic language, predominantly in relation to the ‘promise’ wherein the other is one attached to the ‘flesh’. It seems inevitably attached to an individual’s coming to faith that may be part of, or distinct from, the conversion of a broader household. Salvation seems inevitably attached to such an act in the majority of cases although we have numerous examples in scripture of those who subsequently fall away suggesting that not all who are baptised are regenerate or actually saved. These examples include: Judas, Ananias and Sapphira, Simon Magus and those Paul calls out in his epistles as having departed from the truth or had been ‘delivered to Satan’ by the church. However, all of these are baptised under the impression that as best can be discerned they are repentant and confessing Christ as he revealed himself and subsequently taught by the apostles.

The act itself is by immersion or dipping is done in response to public confession and in the name of the Holy Trinity. After which individuals are considered full-fledged members of the Christian community.

I’ve tried to focus on passages that might impact the discussion of the timing of baptism but am aware there is much more to be said on scripture on this topic. However, I am aware this is quite long and have hoped to go for breadth rather than depth in this. I will in the subsequent sections go into more detail on the practice and how discussions and decisions around this have manifested themselves in the church. I will also explore the relationship of baptism to communion and related topics like confirmation or chrismation.

In the next section, I will attempt to parse my views on the topic in the light of the patristic discussion on baptism and early church practice.


3 thoughts on “On Baptism and it’s timing. Part One: Introduction and Scripture

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