Infant Baptism and a Puzzling Text

From age 18 to 28, my schooling became increasingly less congenial to believers’ baptism.

My History

I grew up in a Southern Baptist home and church. Then Wheaton College broadened my world, and I learned the word “Evangelical.” I discovered that there were Presbyterians who were better Christians than I was. Then Fuller Seminary challenged me again as the debate grew more intense.

Then at the University of Munich, I was totally alone. All the German students were Lutheran, and the few foreigners besides me were Presbyterian. Once I attended a class on “Spirit, Word, and Baptism in 1 Peter,” and was the lone voice for believers’ baptism, which to most of them seemed sectarian.

In the challenges I faced, I never found the case for infant baptism compelling. One reason was that I had read Paul Jewett’s Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace when I was in seminary. To this day, I find it totally compelling for believers’ baptism.

A Presbyterian With a Big Exception

Jewett was ordained in the American Baptist denomination, but became a Presbyterian minister while I was at Fuller—with one exception. He got a special dispensation from the Presbytery—I don’t know how—that he not have to believe or teach infant baptism. That is how convinced he was.

Here is an example of how he helped me. Often 1 Corinthians 7:13–14 is used to defend infant baptism.

If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy(hagiastai)because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy (hagiastai) because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy (hagi).

This text poses significant problems if one claims that the “holiness” of the children warrants their baptism. For example, that same “holiness” of the unbelieving partner does not warrant his or her baptism. Perhaps that incongruity is owing to the fact that in this context, the “holiness” of the children and the spouse has nothing to do with baptism.

Perhaps it refers to the “sanctity” of lawful marriage and legitimate children. The marriage is still lawful (though one is an unbeliever), and the children are legitimate (though born of this mixed union). The “sanctity” (holiness) of marriage and birth are not compromised.

Here is Jewett’s summary interpretation:

The sanctity of the original marriage, which the Corinthians were doubting, the apostle is affirming. Therefore, “let not the believer leave the unbeliever,” he says, “because the unbeliever has been and still is [Greek perfect tense of hagiazo] sanctified by the believer”; that is, he/she has been and still is set apart by the believer through the marriage covenant for his/her exclusive enjoyment in the marriage relationship. . . . Otherwise, our children would be “unclean,” that is, illegitimate. But you know that is not so; rather they are “holy,” that is, legitimate (135–136).

Then Jewett, shows from Jewish sources like the Mishna, that the Hebrew stem for holiness (kadash) is used in just this way at least ten times, signifying the setting apart of a woman to be a man’s wife. “A man ‘sanctifies,' that is, espouses, a wife by himself or by his messenger” (136).

The point here is not that this settles the issue of infant baptism. The point is to simply bring some clarity to a puzzling text, lest it seem too obviously to support infant baptism.

And just like in the old college days, I still keep running into Presbyterians and Anglicans who are better Christians than I am.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.