Presbyterians are sometimes accused of holding the doctrine of infant baptism with a bad conscience.

This couldn't be further from the truth, though our Christian young people are sometimes swayed by others into questioning the validity of their baptism, seeking to persuade them, that, should they not be baptised as adults on profession of faith, they are being disobedient to the clear command of Christ.

This is sad, because, on the contrary, young and old alike may have full confidence in Baptism as practised in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland - once its Biblical basis is understood.

In the sacrament of Baptism, as with the Lord's Supper, we believe that what matters most is what God is doing to us and for us - and not what we do - although our participation is important. i.e. We are at the receiving end of his activity.

Baptism, in the Presbyterian Church is firmly based on the Covenant, established in the Old Testament and renewed in the New Testament i.e. the relationship into which God enters with his people, expressed in the words "I will be your God and you will be my people".

1. The Promise

In the Old Testament the idea of covenant is paramount. This speaks of a relationship into which God enters with His people, first through Abraham. The covenant was to be forever, and include both believing adults and also their children (Genesis 17:7, 10).

Believers are in a covenant relationship with God (c.f. Hebrews 6:13-18). The covenant was given a newness in Christ, but the special relationship still applies.

Logically, as in Abraham's, day, children are still included in the covenant. "They will be blessed" says the Psalmist in Psalm 37:26. In a very special way they are holy too, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:14. To exclude children from the blessings of the new Covenant (as some would seek to do) would not only place children of believers in a less favourable position in God's eyes after Christ had come than they were before; but it would also suggest serious inconsistencies between the benefits of the Old and New Covenants.

2. The Sign

In Old Testament times, the spiritual promise was sealed with a physical sign - circumcision. Genesis 17:10ff. God placed his emphasis not on the outward rite, but on the inward reality. Romans 2:28,29. Circumcision, then, was the sign and seal of that Covenant relationship. There was only one Covenant; but there was a change in its form after Christ, and this led to a change in its sign - from circumcision to baptism. We believe that baptism (in the New Covenant) took over from circumcision (in the Old Covenant), stated in Colossians 2:11, 12.

Circumcision was applied to the male children of believers in the Old and early New Testament times, while today baptism is applied to all infant children of believers both to boys and girls. Gal. 3:28. Both sacraments, then, are rooted in the covenant: - the Lord's Supper taking the place of the Passover. 1 Corinthians 5:7,8
- Baptism taking the place of Circumcision. Colossians 2:11,12.

3. The Practice

Believing, then, that the promise is for us and for our children. (Acts 2:38, 39) we confidently seek for our children the sign of the covenant - baptism.

As in the Old Covenant only believers and their children received the sign of circumcision, so too, under the New Covenant, only believers and their children receive the sign - now baptism. Adults, who have not been baptised in infancy, also are baptised on profession of their faith.

At a baptismal service, parents are asked these two questions by the minister:-

  1. In presenting this child for baptism, do you profess your faith in God as your heavenly Father, in Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord, and in the Holy Spirit as your Sanctifier and Guide?

    One or both parents must be able to say "I do."

  2. Will you, by God's help, provide a Christian home, and bring up this child in the worship and teaching of the Church, so that your child may come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour?

    One or both parents must be able to say, "I will."

Just as water makes us clean, so baptism pictures how God, through Jesus Christ, can make our whole lives clean, forgiving our sins and giving us new life in the Holy Spirit.

4. The Significance

  • Cleaning up sin in our lives. This comes from the use of water and the idea of washing associated with baptism. Read Acts 22:16 and note the link between baptism and cleansing from sin.

  • Being united with Christ. Paul reminds the Christians both in Rome and in Colossae that they are joined to Jesus through baptism. (Romans 6:4; Col. 2:11-12).

  • Admission to the Church. Baptism symbolises becoming a member of the church, the body of Christ. 1 Cor. 12:13.

  • Covenant of grace. In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul says that Christians have been circumcised by Christ and baptised into Christ.
  • i.e. it is the one covenant expressed in two ways.

5. The Method

Presbyterians do not believe that immersion is necessary for baptism. We believe that dipping of the person into the water is not necessary - but that baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water on the person.

The Greek words for baptise do not mean exclusively to immerse in the New Testament. Cases which appear to prove immersion are inconclusive.

Pouring is an apt symbol of the coming of God's Spirit upon a person. Sprinkling was the main Old Testament mode of ceremonial purification and the Greek word for baptism is used to describe this in the New Testament (Hebrews 9:10).

6. The purpose

We need always to remember that baptism is an outward sign pointing to a work of God which happens in the heart and life of the individual.

Does baptism make a child a Christian? No, baptism doesn't confer anything on anyone. It is a sign to demonstrate a work of the grace of God. The status of the covenant child is not of one who is automatically a Christian because of the covenant but rather of one to whom the promise of salvation is particularly offered.

What is offered in grace must be received personally by faith. Infant baptism, then, anticipates a time when the child will receive Christ as Lord and Saviour by personal faith.

The plan of salvation in the Bible is a covenant of grace which begins in the Old Testament, and finds its fulfilment in the New Testament in Jesus Christ. Properly understood, baptism as practised within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, is a witness to the love and grace of God, and brings great comfort and reassurance to Christian people concerning that which Almighty God is doing both in their lives and in the lives of their children.