Why Do Parents Speak for Babies at Baptism?

baptism_illustration1“Scripture says ‘Believe and be Baptized’. Since babies cannot do that, and we in the LCMS have the parents speak on the child’s behalf…does this then not in a round about way ‘sort of cover’ for this sequence? I do believe babies are in need of Baptism (we are conceived in sin and born into a sinful world, and Christ does command us to be baptized). Why then do we in the Baptismal Service have the parents say, ‘I (baby name) do swear’, etc? This is something we asked another pastor a while back, but it comes up from time to time and I don’t know how to answer it. I also know that it is what is done to us not in any way what we do (gift of grace).”

Such a great question, and one that I had wrestled with for a long time since I came from a “Believers baptism” (you have to be able to confess and articulate the faith before approaching baptism) background.

Before we attack that question head-on, let’s start with a recap on baptism. We already know that we’re sinful from conception, as this individual stated in the question (Psalm 51:5). We know that baptism is a means of grace (1 Peter 3:21). In other words, it’s a way through which God relays his saving grace. God relays his saving grace through his word (Romans 10:17). Baptism brings us into the Christian church as members of the body of Christ and gives us the assurance of our salvation in something outside of us. So we don’t have assurance of our salvation because we’re so devoted that we chose to get baptized. We don’t have our assurance because we felt the warm and fuzzies during a worship service. We don’t have our assurance because God relays his grace through lightening bolts. No! We have assurance that God’s word is for us because of what CHRIST has done FOR us, which culminated in his death and resurrection. And in the waters of baptism our sins are washed away and we are covered in the perfection that Jesus won for us. In the same way in the bread and wine we taste and see that the Lord is good. In the words of the pastor announcing the absolution we hear the promise again and again that in repentance and faith – given by God (Ephesians 2:8) – we have assurance that that promise is true…that through Christ our sins are forgiven.

Here are some passages from our Lutheran Confessions on the matter:

“Concerning baptism it is taught that it is necessary, that grace is offered through it, and that one should also baptize children, who through such baptism are entrusted to God and become pleasing to him.” – The Augsburg Confession Article IX. Concerning Baptism.

“For it is most certain that the promise of salvation also pertains to little children. But it does not pertain to those who are outside the church of Christ, where there is neither Word nor sacrament, because Christ regenerates through Word and sacrament. Therefore it is necessary to baptize little children in order that the promise of slavation might be applied to them according to Christ’s mandate, ‘Baptize all nations.’ Just as salvation is offered to all in that passage, so baptism is also offered to all-men, women, children, and infants. Therefore it clearly follows that infants are to be baptized because salvation is offered with baptism.” – The Apology of the Augsburg Confession IX. Baptism.

Now, back to the main question at hand: Why do parents speak FOR the child?

Parents do a TON of things for their children, on behalf of their children, and for the welfare of their children. Parents go to the doctor and sign off on forms on behalf of their child. Is the parent the one receiving the treatment? No. Is the treatment being done because of something to do with the parent? No. But, the child is not able to write or speak in such a way yet as to indicate the need for the desired treatment. We don’t say, “My child has a 103-degree fever, and we’re happy to treat him just as soon as he can say, ‘I’m sick, help me!'” The child can feel that there are problems and can indicate through crying that pain and suffering are present, but cannot articulate that issue.

In the same way. In baptism, the parents stand in the stead of the child, in the child’s place, to bring the child to the waters of baptism where sins are washed away, the Holy Spirit is given, and the child is placed into the care of the family (both biological and congregational) to be raised in the Christian faith. A child (or anyone) should NEVER be baptized and then not raised in the Christian faith. Baptize AND teach is the command of Matthew 28. To not teach is to misuse the sacrament and would be a detriment to any person who is baptized. When an adult hears God’s Word and expresses a desire to be baptized as commanded in Scripture, we discuss the saving work of Jesus and what baptism is leading up to baptism. It’s not their work to show devotion, but we explain the significance of what baptism is. It’s God work to bring assurance of salvation through Christ (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12) and we passively receive that gift. When a child is baptized we see the greatest example of our passive role in salvation. Our faith is not our own work, it’s God’s work (Ephesians 2:8). All who are baptized continue learning about the teachings of Christ and grow in the understanding of God’s Word in the joy of salvation rather than in an attempt to attain salvation. There’s a misconception that parents don’t want to “sway their children” by forcing religion down their throats. The problem is, our actions and words teach our children either way. Either we teach them that church and salvation is important and that Christ is the only way to salvation, or we teach them there is no God and if there is it’s not important enough to teach about him. Why would we not baptize and teach our children if we desire to have them grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ?

Here’s a great quote from Luther in a baptism booklet that was incorporated into many catechisms in Luther’s day. He writes the following in response to many people who aren’t taking baptism seriously and aren’t looking to it with the reverence it is due.

“Out of a sense of Christian commitment, I appeal to all those who baptize, sponsor infants, or witness a baptism to take to heart the temendous work and great solemnity present here. For here in the words of these prayers you hear how plaintively and earnestly the Christian church brings the infant to God, confesses before him with such unchanging, undoubting words that the infant is possessed by the devil and a child of sin and wrath, and so diligently asks for help and grace through baptism, that the infant may become a child of God.

Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy. Thus it is extemely necessary to standy by the poor child with all your hear and with a strong faith and to pelead with great devotion that God, in accordance with these prayers, would not only free the child from the devil’s power but also strengthen the child, so that the child might resist him valiantly in life and in death. I fear that people turn out so badly after baptism because we have dealt with them in such a cold and casual way and have prayed for them at their baptism without any zeal at all.”

“For this reason it is right and proper not to allow druken and boorish priests to baptize nor to select good-for-nothings as godparents. Instead fine, moral, serious, upright priests and godparents ought to be chosen, who can be expected to treat the matter with seriousness and true faith, lest this high sacrament be abandoned to the devil’s mockery and dishonor God, who in this sacrament showers upon us the vast and boundless riches of his grace. He himself calls it a ‘new birth [John 3:3, 5], through which we, being freed from the devil’s tyranny and loosed from sin, death, and hell, become children of life, heirs of all God’s possessions, God’s own children, and brothers and sisters of Christ.” – Book of Concord, The Small Catechism, Baptismal Booklet, 371-373.

The big problem that comes in for many people is actually the comment that started this question: “We know babies can’t believe.” So the basis of everything for this question begins with an assumption that infants are incapable of faith AND that the nature of baptism require that YOU do something. If we confess that our belief is passive, a work of the Holy Spirit, then who is to say that infants cannot have faith just like adults? If it’s not a work for an adult, then it’s not a work for a child either. Faith is never described in Scripture as a cognitive activity. We talk about articulating the faith, but faith is not a chemical reaction in the brain. If that were the case we would have to count out of the kingdom all who have mental disorders and are not capable of expressing or comprehending all of the wonders of God (not that any of us can comprehend ALL of the wonders of God). Faith is a gift from God by God’s grace. It’s the thing that holds on to God’s promises. Faith always has an object. So we don’t just have faith. Instead, we have faith in something or someone. In this case…the only case that gives life…we have faith in Jesus Christ alone as Lord for the forgiveness of our sins and in the waters of baptism, that gift is delivered to us. OUR faith doesn’t make the baptism valid. Our faith is just what trusts in the validity of God’s promise in baptism. If someone lied when they went to the font as an adult and said they believed, but didn’t, their baptism would still be valid despite the misuse of it. That baptism wouldn’t be helpful to them, but God’s promise is there. If that person was brought to faith later, they wouldn’t need to be re-baptized, they need only trust God’s promise when they were baptized.

We don’t assume a child doesn’t have faith. In the Large Catechism we read this (The Large Catechism on this topic is super helpful if you want to see the full text…the text used in that link is Old English in nature. We have some Book of Concord copies in the church library if you would like a more updated translation):

“Thus we do the same with infant baptism. We bring the child with the intent and hope that it may believe, and we pray God to grant it faith. But we do not baptize on this basis, but solely on the command of God. Why? Because we know that God does not lie. My neighbor and I – in short, all people – may deceive and mislead, but God’s Word cannot deceive.” – The Book of Concord, the Large Catechism, Baptism, p 464.

We pray for God’s blessings on every person who approaches the waters of Holy Baptism. We trust God’s promise, rather than our own determination. To demand signs and soliloquies from people before baptism is to misrepresent the Word of God and how it talks about baptism. Some people believe in Jesus and then approach the Waters of Baptism in accordance with God’s Word and to have that promise of salvation placed on them as a blessing in their salvation. Others, like children, are brought to the waters of baptism trusting in God’s promise of salvation as the church prays that God will strengthen the child’s faith to hold onto God’s promise as the child grows and is taught more about Jesus. Take a look at Titus 3 all about God’s work for us being salvific in the washing of regeneration and the Holy Spirit.

We can also look at church history and find that baptism of infants wasn’t brought up as a concern (nor was the Lord’s Supper being the body and blood of Christ) until rationalism and the enlightenment when people started saying, “Hey! I can’t SEE that or prove that with science tests so it must not be true.” They didn’t trust God’s promise by faith. Instead, they wanted the proof. Ironically, in rejecting the tangible, outward proofs given by God’s command for the forgiveness of sin, these people turned to inward sentiment and personal works as a sign of faith and hope. It leads to people not trusting God’s complete work but always needing to add in some of their own work somehow to make God’s promise valid. For example, “I need to believe and prove it, THEN God will love me” (compared to “Christ died for us while we were still sinners Romans 5 and he gives me an outward sign for my hope. I don’t need to trust my feelings or experiences. Instead, I trust God’s promise in the waters of baptism”). We don’t have faith in water, but in God’s promise that is tied into the water that God has provided for our washing and assurance.

So…in the end: We don’t assume a lack of faith in infants, and parents speak on behalf of their child in baptism (followed by teaching in the Christian faith), just as they speak on behalf of their child in any area that’s a matter of life and death which a child does not yet, fully comprehend or is not yet fully able to articulate. Faith comes through hearing God’s Word (see the book of Romans) and our regeneration comes through baptism.

(Since I know a question will come from the last statement…let me just answer it really quickly here: “What if someone is on the way to be baptized and they die?” We’re saved by grace through faith in God’s promise in Christ. We get baptized according to God’s command and for hope in God’s promise, but death without baptism doesn’t mean we go to hell. God gives his gifts in multiple ways: The Word, Baptism, The Lord’s Supper, Absolution. In each case, we have peace as we hear God’s promise, and yet each is unique and experienced in a different way. If we start asking, “How little can I do and still be okay?” Then that’s a whole different issue altogether).

Hopefully I’ve articulated all of this in a helpful and caring way that helped. If you have questions or want to talk about it in more detail, feel free to message me.