On Infant Baptism and the Complete Gratuity of Salvation

It is a simple historical fact that the Church has always baptized infants. Even our earliest documents speak of the practice. For example the Apostolic Tradition written about 215 A.D. has this to say:

The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. (Apostolic Tradition # 21)

Scripture too confirms that infants should be baptized if you do the math. For example

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15-17 NIV)

So the Kingdom of God belongs to the little Children (in Greek brephe indicating little Children still held in the arms, babes). And yet elsewhere Jesus also reminds that it is necessary to be baptized in order to enter the Kingdom of God:

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)

If the Kingdom of God belongs to little children and we are taught that we cannot inherit it without baptism then it follows that Baptizing infants is necessary and that to fail to do so is a hindering of the little children which Jesus forbade his apostles to do.

So both Tradition and Scripture affirm the practice of baptizing infants. Strange then that some among the Protestants (not all) should criticize us for this practice. Even stranger that the Baptists are usually be the ones to do so. You’d think with a name like “Baptist” they’d be more into baptism. (Truth be told, most of the other Protestant denominations do baptize infants). It is primarily Baptists and some Evangelicals who refuse the practice.

Part of the reason for this is that they seem to water down (pardon the pun) the fuller meaning of baptism, no longer seeing it as washing away sins and conferring righteousness per se. Rather they seem to see it more as a symbol of faith already received when they said the sinners prayer and accepted Christ as their savior. No time here to argue the full logic of their position and why it falls short of a biblical and Traditional understanding of Baptism.

But, for those of us who do continue the ancient and biblical practice of baptizing infants, the practice says some very wonderful things about the gratuity of salvation and the goodness of God. Consider these points:

1. The baptism of infants is a powerful testimony to the absolute gratuity (gift) of salvation. Infants have achieved nothing, have not worked, have not done anything to “merit” salvation. The Catechism puts it this way: The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism. (CCC # 1250) The Church is clear, salvation cannot be earned or merited, and infant baptism teaches that most clearly. Salvation is pure gift.

How strange and ironic that some of the very denominations which claim that Catholics teach salvation by works (we do not) also refuse to baptize infants. They claim that a certain age of maturity is required so that the person understands what they are doing. But this sounds like achievement. That the child must meet some requirement seems like a work, or the attainment of some meritorious status wherein one is now old enough to “qualify” for baptism and salvation. “Qualifications….Achievement (of age)….Requirements….it all sounds like what they accuse us of: namely works and merit.

To be clear then, the Catholic understanding of the gratuity of salvation is far more radical than many non-Catholics understand. We baptize infants who are not capable of meriting, attaining or earning.

2. The Baptism of infants also powerfully attests to the fact that the beauty of holiness and righteousness is available to everyone regardless of age. To be baptized means to be washed. Washed of what? Original Sin. At first this seems like a downer, “Are you saying my baby has sin?” Yep. All of us inherit Original Sin from Adam and Eve. We are born into a state of alienation from God that is caused by sin. The Scriptures are clear: [S]in entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (Rom 5:12). So even infants are in need of the saving touch of God.

Now why would we wish to delay this salvation and resulting holiness for 7 to 12 years? The Catechism says this, Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by Original Sin, children also have need of new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and be brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God….The Church and parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth. (CCC # 1250).

St. Cyprian Bishop of Carthage in the 3rd Century was asked if it was OK to wait to the 8th day to baptize since baptism had replaced circumcision. He responded with a strong no: But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day We [the bishops] all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. (Epist# 58).

So then, here is the beauty, that infants are summoned to receive the precious gift of holiness and righteousness and that they are summoned to a right relationship with God by having their sin purged and holiness infused. Infants are called to this dignity and should not be denied it. With this done, some of the holiest and most innocent days of our lives may well be our first years. Then as the will begins to manifest and reason begins to dawn the grace of holiness gives us extra strength to fight against the sinful world that looms.

3. The Baptism of Infants also attests to the fact that faith is gift for every stage of development– To be baptized is to receive the gift of faith. It is baptism that gives the true faith. Even with adults, true faith does not come until baptism. Prior to that there is a kind of prevenient faith, but it is not the Theological Virtue of Faith.

Now faith is not only an intellectual assent to revealed doctrine. It is that but it is more. To have faith is also be be in a righteous and trusting relationship with God. An infant relates to his parents long before he speaks or his rational mind is fully formed. He trusts his parents and depends on them. It is the same with God. The infant trusts and depends of God and is in a right relationship with God. With his parents, this relationship of trust leads the infant to begin to speak and understand as he grows. Here too it is the same with God. As his mind awakens the infant’s faith grows. It will continue to grow until the day he dies (hopefully) as an old man.

That faith accompanies us through every stage of our life and develops as we do is essential to its nature. An infant needs faith no less than an old man. An infant benefits from faith no less than a teenager or an adult.

To argue as some Protestants do that you have to be a certain age before faith can exist, hardly seems to respect the progressive nature of faith which is able to bless EVERY stage of our human journey.

I have some very vivid memories of my experience of God prior to seven years of age and I will say that God was very powerfully present to me in my early years, in many ways even more so than now, when my mind sometimes “gets in the way.”

Another post too long. Forgive me dear reader. But please spread the word. Too many Catholics are waiting months, even years to have their children baptized. Precious time is lost by this laxity.

Infant Baptism speaks powerfully of the love that God has for everyone he has created and of his desire to have everyone in a right and saving relationship with Him. Surely baptism alone isn’t enough. The child must be raised in the faith. It is the nature of faith that it grows by hearing and seeing. Children must have faith given at baptism but that faith must be explained and unwrapped like a precious gift for them. Don’t delay. Get started early and teach your child the faith they have received every day.

39 Replies to “On Infant Baptism and the Complete Gratuity of Salvation”

  1. Msgr. Pope, besides baptism of infants, the Eastern Catholic Churches confer Chrismation (Confirmation), and first holy communion on infants. In other words all three sacraments of initiation. Is there any reason we Latin Rite Catholics don’t do so also, other than custom? It seems like some of what you said about baptizing infants could be true of the other sacraments as well.

    1. The way I understand it is this:

      Of all the sacraments, the sacrament of Baptism is considered most necessary, hence the urgency with which the Church encourages infants to be baptized (cf. Can. 816 §1). This sacrament begins the life of grace in the person, and prior to the age of reason, is the faith and supernatural life of Holy Mother Church that nourishes them. The sacraments of Confirmation and The Most Holy Eucharist, while of great importance and objectively efficacious (as are all the sacraments), are different. The character of Confirmation can certainly be imprinted on the soul before the age of reason, and children in danger of death in the West are indeed confirmed – not because the grace of the sacrament is necessary at that point, but because it adds to the child’s glory in heaven. The grace of the sacrament (the active power to defend and profess the faith), however, is not needed until the child reaches the age of reason (at which point, however, there comes a grave obligation to receive it in due time). Similarly, while the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist is objectively infinitely efficacious, the application of its grace to the individual soul is dependent upon that person’s receptivity to the grace of the sacrament, which is not present prior to the age of reason.

      I know this is a topic of debate amongst theologians, so any correction or challenge is certainly welcome!

      1. I think you have presented a good answer here Rev. Deacon. I might only add that the various ages at which we extend sacraments would be more in the realm of disciplinary norms that deep doctrinal differences. Since there are sectors of the Church where the practice is different in terms of age it is helpful to see it in this way.

        1. One reason for separating the sacraments was also practical. The bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation. He couldn’t always be present for every baptism.

          1. Scripture only shows the bishops/apostles confirming, so as the church grew, this became impractical very early on and something had to give. The bishop could not be at every baptism. The West kept the bishop as the ordinary minister of confirmation, the east gave the faculty to the priest while maintaining chrism blessed by the bishop.

            Acts 19:5-6 – Paul confirms. He is part of the episcopate.
            Acts 8:14-17 – Peter and John confirm people. They are part of the episcopate.

            “And when he was healed of his sickness he did not receive the other things which it is necessary to have according to the canon of the Church, even the being sealed by the bishop. And as he did not receive this, how could he receive the Holy Spirit?’”
            Pope Cornelius (251-253 AD)

            “He would likewise be permitting this to the Apostles alone? Were that the case,He would likewise be permitting them alone to baptize,them alone to baptize, them alone to Confer the Holy Spirit…If, then, the power both of Baptism and Confirmation, greater by far the charisms, is passed on to the bishops…”
            Pacian, Epistle to Sympronian (392 AD)

            “That this power of a bishop, however, is due to the bishops alone, so that they either sign or give the Paraclete the Spirit…For to presbyters it is permitted to anoint the baptized with chrism whenever they baptize…but with chrism that has been consecrated by a bishop; nevertheless it is not allowed to sign the forehead with the same oil; that is due to the bishops alone when they bestow the Spirit, the Paraclete.”
            Pope Innocent [401-417 AD]

      2. Too often in our culture, we act like the threat of infant death is non existent and the need for infant baptism is not emergent. In the US each year, approx 25,000 babies born alive die in the first 28 days of life.

        From what I have seen, most Catholic parents have NOT prepared themselves to do an emergency Baptism. I have met a few who have done it but they are rare. I have known of Catholic babies to die with a family member at their side “waiting for the Priest”. We as the laity need to know our faith well enough to know when and how to do an emergency Baptism.

        One Priest in our Diocese uses the feast of the Baptism of the Lord to teach this information. At my Church, the Deacon who does marriage prep also teaches it. I wish more clergy would teach this and that families would pay attention.

    2. We were received into the church three years ago, and my entire family was baptized, then confirmed and received first Holy Communion that Easter Vigil. Now that we go to Catholic school, I find that the children are not confirmed until Grade 8 … but they go through first Holy Communion in Grade 2, so I am also perplexed why confirmation does not happen sooner, and why it does not precede first Holy Communion. My understanding is that Confirmation is like Pentecost, with the gifts of the Holy Spirit raining down on us.

      I was baptized as an infant, and I believe that the graces poured out on me saved me from myself, and brought me back to Christ. Nothing else can explain the protection I’ve rec’d in the face of danger.

  2. “That faith accompanies us through every stage of our life …”.

    As a parent (and a godparent) who has spoken for the infant at their baptism does that not mean we have a very large responsibility to bring the faith to these? What if we just don’t? what if we have them baptized and then get them to rel. ed. when first communion comes around. What sin have we committed? If its a sin to neglect our children’s faith, is it grave? Just wondering…

  3. One objection I have heard to infant baptism is that you will inevitably baptize some who will grow up and reject the faith. I’m not sure how to answer that one when it’s put to me?

      1. Here are two bible verses that involve Judas Iscariot:

        Matthew 26: 50: And Jesus said to him: Friend, whereto art thou come? Then they came up, and laid hands on Jesus, and held him.

        Revelation 21: 14: And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them, the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

        1. But would the twelve foundations have Judas’ vacancy filled with the name of Matthias as mentioned in Acts 1:23-26? Mystery?

    1. I think your concern, as Heather points out, would be applicable no matter when we baptize someone. Anyone might later reject the faith. Yet not knowing this now we confer the sacrament presuming that such will not be the case and that the actual conferral itself will bring graces for the future.

  4. Heather, you’ve asked a good question. This is answered by the opening verses of 1 Cor. 10, which gives OT figures of not only infant baptism but infant communion. The little ones were carried through the Baptism of Moses in the authority of their parents’ faith, and the “all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink,” Yes, later God was not pleased with some of them–but does these people’s rebellion and sin revoke the promises and faithfulness of God?

    I’d also like to point out that saying a person must have “understanding” to receive the Sacraments says that God’s work is contingent on our knowledge–and this is gnosticism.

    1. Well, OK Jack, but I wouldn’t be so categorical. Knowledge is helpful, and upon the dawn of reason we are reasonably required to teach before giving sacraments. That said, I think the Western Church is not unreasonable in asking that children be able to distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary bread. But we do this as a discipline not as a dogmatic insistence that Knowledge is a sine qua non for the Eucharist or confirmation. It is simply a pastoral practice.

  5. Padre Pio once chided the parents of a baby who waited a month after the birth so that they could bring the baby to him for baptism. I believe he sent them to another priest after scolding them for allowing the baby to be under the devil’s domain for a whole month.

    1. “he sent them to another priest”.
      “allowing the baby to [remain] under the devil’s domain for” the duration of the trip, right?

  6. Evangelicals will usually quote scripture like Mark 16:16 to debunk infant baptism: After the Resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples and said, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believes not shall he condemned.” This seems to imply that we must believe before being baptized, something infants are incapable of.

    1. Yes, one Scripture does not a Biblical argument make. Further, as stated in the article, there is not a denial of some preveniant grace to believe in some human sort of way. But the Theological virtue of Faith requires baptism to be operative. As for infants being incapable of belief, says who? The inner life of infants is largely unknown to us.

  7. I’d also like to point out that saying a person must have “understanding” to receive the Sacraments says that God’s work is contingent on our knowledge–and this is gnosticism.

    You hit on a very important point, which is that as much as anti-Catholics labor under the error that we believe in salvation by works actually are usually promoters of what I call salvation by intellectual works. One of the most astounding things I’ve read was the claim by a fundamentalist that C.S. Lewis was in Hell. Why? Because he believed in something resembling Purgatory.

  8. Of course, there is also the fact that several times in Acts and in one of Paul’s Epistles entire households are baptized all together, and I think that included the servants families–and back then people had more children.

      1. And don’t forget that “households” in the NT included the servants and slaves as well!

  9. It seems to me that St. John the Baptist himself had a “type” of Baptism, by Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, in the waters of his mother’s womb.

    From the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Now during the sixth month, the Annunciation had taken place, and, as Mary had heard from the angel the fact of her cousin’s conceiving, she went “with haste” to congratulate her. “And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant” — filled, like the mother, with the Holy Ghost — “leaped for joy in her womb”, as if to acknowledge the presence of his Lord. Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should “be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb”. Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin. When “Elizabeth’s full time of being delivered was come. . .she brought forth a son” (1:57); and “on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father’s name Zachary.”

  10. Recall in Acts 8, when Eunuch requested to be Baptized, Phillip agree to do so only if the Eunuch believed. If you also look at the Early Church, Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus were not baptized until they were adults. Tertullian goes so far as to say ‘According to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally in the case of little children. … Let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ.’ (On Baptism). Tertullian continues that Baptism is declarative and not salvific, ‘We are plunged into the water not in order to stop sinning but because we have stopped sinning, since we are already washed in our heart’ (ibid.).

    This is why Menno Simmons and the Anabaptists affirm we are not saved because we are baptized, but we are baptized because we are saved, in the Dordrecht Confession: VII ‘Of Holy Baptism’

    Regarding baptism, we confess that all penitent believers, who through faith, the new birth and renewed of the Holy Ghost, have become united with God, and whose names are recorded in Heaven, must, on such Scriptural confession of their faith, and renewal of life, according to the command and doctrine of Christ, and the example and custom of the Apostles, be baptized with water in the ever adorable name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to the burying of their sins, and thus to become incorporated into the communion of the saints; whereupon they must learn to observe all things whatsoever the Son of God taught, left on record, and commanded His followers to do.

    1. Your announcement of Scripture and the Fathers is partial, further you reject Sacred Tradition, but perhaps as an anabaptist your error is reflexive. Infants have always been baptized. Those who propose they should not be engage in novelty and have rejected sacred tradition and the apostolic witness. Yet another witness to antiquity, in addition to the Apostolic Tradition of the second century and the quote form Cyprian already mentioned is a Quote from Saint Gregory Nazianzen who said, “Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit…. Give your child the Trinity, that great and noble protector.” I will choose the ancient Tradition from the time of the apostles over innovators like Menno any day. Finally the fathers you mention were baptized as adults because they converted as a adults, but they baptized infants. Further, Tertullian was schismatic) and is less than reliable in the quote you give viz the other Fathers.

      1. Tertullian is no good example, and should be approached with caution, as he did not die in communion with the Church. Menno Simmons was likewise an apostate. When St. Peter talked about Baptism in Acts 2, he said, “This promise is to you AND TO YOUR CHILDREN”. And St. Peter also said, “Baptism now saves us.”

        We do know that to this day the Rite of Mikveh (Jewish antecedent of Baptism) is part of the conversion of a Gentile to Judaism, and requires three immersions in the ritual pool. This applies even to Gentile infants adopted by a Jewish couple they intend to raise as Jews, so you can’t say that infant baptism was something invented by that nasty ole pope feller, as I’ve seem some Protestant controversialists claim.

    2. Tim,

      Eph. 1:1,6:1 – Paul addresses the “saints” of the Church, and among these were the children he exhorted to obedience. Children become saints of the Church only through baptism.

      “For He came to save all through means of Himself–all, I say, who through Him are born again to God–infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.”
      St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (A.D. ~180)

  11. Lev. 12:3 – The circumcision of eight-day old babies was the way of entering into the Old Covenant.

    Col. 2:11-12 – Baptism is the new “circumcision” for the New Covenant. Therefore, baptism is for babies as well as adults.

  12. What a shame that people do not read prayerfully the bible for themselves and allow the Holy Spirit to bring conviction individually concerning the truth of scripture.
    Christianity begins with a personal acknowledgement before God of the need for forgiveness through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ God the Son.
    We come as little children because we must see ourselves as helpless and untrained and just dependent in order to come to a condition to yield to the call to be saved. Yes we need to be saved. Salvation cannot be obtained by the actions of anyone else. We cannot believe for anyone else. So is baptism actually translated Baptiso meaning total immersion. Its significance in the early church was to identify with Christianity and symbolically show what has already happened in the believe’s heart.

    It is only Christ we shall have to answer to, the final Judge. Are you ready to meet him?
    Jesus gave a commission to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, baptising in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching men to observe all things that he had taught them.
    Baptism spiritually takes place when we first trust (in the Holy Spirit by whom we are sealed) This can only be outwardly demonstrated by a human of understanding age. My bible does not say anything directly about Infant baptism. I believe in the greater part that infant baptism an act of superstition in the hope it may influence the decision of the child to become a Christian when they are of an age to decide.

    1. Baptizein means to wash, not immerse. Beyond your technical error, I find the arrogance of your remark significant since you seem to assume that those who do not agree with you have not prayerfully reflected on the Scriptures. The Church has baptized infants for 2000 years yet somehow you, Gordon, have more prayerfully and accurately discerned scripture than the very church from which those scriptures emerged. Further, most Protestant denominations also baptize infants. So, it would seem, according to what you say, that all of us have not prayerfully reflected on Scripture but you, Gordon, and others who agree with you, have in fact done so. Well pray on, but I’ll take the teachings of the ancient Church, and the apostolic tradition, of those who actually knew Christ as he walked this earth, over Gordon any day

  13. Gordon,

    Take some time to read the scriptural evidence that has been posted by several people. Please also note the extrabiblical and historical evidence in the writings of St. Irenaeus, who was a hearer of St. John, and a friend of St. Polycarp, who was a student of St. John. I say this because he affirms infant baptism in his writings without any doubt as can be seen below.

    “For He came to save all through means of Himself–all, I say, who through Him are born again to God–infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.”
    St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (A.D. ~180)

  14. I believe that it is a waste of time for Baptists/evangelicals and Lutherans/orthodox Christians to discuss the Doctrine of Baptism without first agreeing on the “HOW” of salvation. Unless we come to agreement on how God saves sinners, our respective views on Baptism will never make sense to the other group, and our debate over Baptism will always end in a stalemate, as it has for the last 500 years.

    So how does God save sinners”

    Does God save sinners by this method?

    1. A sinner hears the Gospel and is convicted of his sin and his need for a Savior.
    2. The sinner makes a decision to believe, based on his intelligence and the maturity of his decision-making capabilities.
    3. The sinner asks Christ to save him and repents of his sins.

    Or does God save sinners by this method?

    1. God predestined, before the world existed, that you would be his child.
    2. Then, at some point in your life, at a time of his choosing, not yours, God quickens your spiritually dead soul by the power of his Word, gives you the free gift of faith, creating belief and repentance.

    Baptists and Lutherans are in full agreement that it is by faith that we believe and repent in salvation. Our difference is HOW the sinner acquires faith. If faith is a gift from God, then salvation is truly free. If faith is produced by the sinner’s intelligence and mature decision-making capabilities then the sinner is providing assistance in his salvation.

    Does God need or allow the assistance/cooperation of the sinner to save him?

    Unless we can reach agreement on this crucial question, Baptists and Lutherans will never agree on the Doctrine of Baptism.


    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  15. Lutherans DO believe that a person can make a Decision for Christ

    Lutherans believe that one CAN make a decision for Christ…but it is AFTER God has saved him!

    We believe that God gives the free gift of salvation without any assistance or even any cooperation of the sinner. In this way salvation really and truly is FREE! God lays the gift of faith and salvation into your “lap” and you believe and repent. We do not believe that there is any decision making in any of these actions. We view the believing and repenting as reflexive REACTIONS. When a doctor strikes your knee with a reflex hammer, your conscious brain is not required to make a decision for your knee to reflexively jerk forward.

    Now that the new Christian has the free gift of salvation, he does have a free will in spiritual matters, where before salvation he did not. The believer can choose to reject Christ, turn from him, and live a life of willful ongoing sin two seconds after his salvation or forty years later…and when he dies he will most likely wake up in hell.

    Lutherans do NOT believe in eternal security. Our salvation in not dependent on how many good deeds we do, but a willful rejection of Christ (eg. converting to Islam or becoming an agnostic or atheist) or choosing to live in ongoing, willful sin, can cause the Holy Spirit to leave a believer as happened with King Saul in the OT. If the Holy Spirit leaves the one time believer, he is no longer saved, if he dies without repenting and returning to Christ, he will go to hell.

    Human beings DO have the opportunity to make a decision for or against Christ AFTER they are saved…they do NOT have the ability to make a decision FOR Christ before they are saved.

    So Lutherans and Baptists/evangelicals actually end up at the same place: a person CAN make a decision for Christ, we just disagree when the decision can occur. It is this point of disagreement that precludes Baptists and many evangelicals from accepting infant baptism. You require a decision before salvation. You are absolutely correct, infants cannot make decisions…but infants can REFLEXIVELY believe and repent, in the same manner an adult reflexively believes and repents, at the moment that God quickens his spiritually dead soul. This quickening and reflexive believing and repenting will ONLY happen to the Elect. This is why Lutherans do not run everyone in the neighborhood through the baptismal waters.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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