Sometimes in the middle of the night my wife Sarah will suddenly wake me up in the following way:
I will hear next to me a sudden GASP!, followed by her jumping out of bed, sprinting to the kitchen, opening the drawer to the freezer of our fridge. I then hear some fumbling around with various items in the freezer, then the drawer closing, with footsteps moving across the kitchen to the sink, where I then hear a THUD, as something hard hits the stainless steel kitchen sink. And then…silence, a pause of (logistical) reflection. Finally, much more softly, footsteps make their way back to the bedside.
“Ummm… Is everything okay?” I moan.
“Yes!” Then a pause and maybe an embarrassed giggle. “I forgot to get the [insert a frozen item, usually a meat item, or possibly fruit or vegetables] out of the freezer, so it has time to thaw!”
This recurring nocturnal phenomenon happened recently–on the night before our twin daughters’ birthday.
The next day, on the way to school, I told the girls about it. Because it was their birthday I was celebrating them and how much their mother and I loved them, and one very recent example was their mother’s midnight dash to the freezer to make sure their birthday dinner would be ready.
One of them said, “So Mom was busy loving us by getting dinner ready while we were sleeping?”
“Yep,” I replied. “And I just wanted you to know…”
I then recounted a story that they’ve heard countless times: how their mother and I couldn’t (and still can’t) have kids; how we began to explore the world of fertility medicine; how we learned about all the “left over” embryos (some 500,000 at the time) in fertility clinics throughout America, and how we decided to put two of those (who were biological siblings) inside Sarah; and how unbelievably grateful we are (more than ever!) that we couldn’t have kids of our own, because now we get to be their parents.
It was all our idea: we initiated; we pursued; we wanted a relationship with them; we “adopted” them. (My parents humorously referred to them once as “the frozen chosen.”)
For many, infant baptism just doesn’t make sense at all. Indeed, it can even be offensive: the child doesn’t know what’s happening; they’re not of an age to hear the gospel and understand it, much less articulate it for themselves.
In fact, they won’t even remember their baptism.
So what’s the point?
Baptizing an infant makes a mockery of two very American values, values highly prized by Western cultures of late modernity: preference and experience.
That is, if we don’t have a say and if we don’t feel a certain way, ummm…, then what’s the point?
And surely this is true when it comes to the sacrament of baptism: if there’s no volitional or existential “pow,” then what significance could it have?
(Underlying preference and experience is, perhaps, the fundamental dogma of modernity: individualism. “I” am the basic unit of society. So what if for the majority of the world’s past, not to mention for the “majority world” at present, this basic unit is the household.)
Baptizing babies fails to “get” all this. And here’s why.
In Scripture baptism is a bath that brings belonging. Jesus commanded the apostles “to baptize [i.e., ceremonially wash] the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Baptism visibly communicates how God makes us spotless so that we can be special. But “special” in what way? By belonging to Him. The word “name” in the phrase “in the name of” communicates authority and responsibility: parents of a newborn baby place their last name upon their child to show that they have authority over and responsibility for the little one.
Baptism visibly communicates how God gives the ‘unclean’ nations of the world a bath so they can belong to His family.
Like a filthy (but cute!) stray dog that must be rescued and given a home, the nations, says the resurrected Jesus, will now be rescued, cleansed, and consecrated by the Triune God. Baptism visibly communicates what He is now doing in a world where He has given all authority in heaven and earth to His resurrected Son, now seated at His right hand.
So baptism is all about what He’s doing, not what we’ve done. It celebrates His initiation, His pursuit–what He has done for us and to us.
Ask any sincere Christian (of any denominational flavor): when you came to faith in Jesus, were you pursuing God or was He pursuing you?
Or ask them: Was God at work in your life long before you put your faith in Jesus?
Any Christian knows that while s/he was asleep in spiritual death, in love God got up in the middle of the night and was getting things ready for them.
Nor is this a one-time act on God’s part. In fact, it’s just the beginning of lifetime of a Heavenly Father who is at work in our lives in countless ways long before His children even begin to recognize (much less appreciate) it.
And, as a sacrament, infant baptism powerfully, visibly communicates precisely this.
Like any good parent, God doesn’t wait around for His children to have a preference for His love or even to experience His love. That would be disastrous. Writing to the Romans of how the Father “demonstrates his love toward us,” he declares, “while we still God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”
This isn’t to assume–as, it seems so many assume today–that infants can’t feel a certain way or even have a say. Scripture indicates just the opposite. David declares to God:
“Yet you brought me out of the womb
You made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.” (Ps. 22.10)
“From birth I have relied on you;
you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 70.6)
And Psalm 139 speaks wondrously of God’s intimate interaction with David within the womb:
“You were the one weaving me in my mother’s womb . . .
My form was not hidden from you,
when I was fashioned in a hidden place . . .
Your eyes beheld my incomplete frame . . .”
There is incredible divine attention and interest given to what is altogether undisclosed and ignored by humans, a reality monstrously lost on those who murder the unborn today.
When I baptized my infant daughter Julianne, I spoke to her the words that I speak to every other infant I baptize:
“Julianne Simone Clark, beloved child of the covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Julianne, for you Christ came into the world; for you he suffered and died on the cross. When he cried, “It is finished!” it was for your sins that he paid the penalty. Julianne, for you he ascended into heaven and sends his Spirit to us even now. He did all this for you, Julianne, although you do not yet fully understand it.”
I then turn to the congregation and quote from 1 John 4.19: “And so ‘we love, because He first loved us.'”
Salvation was His idea, not ours.
Infant baptism–or, more accurately, covenant baptism–is weird to a world (and to a church so often influenced by the world) that worships preference and experience, and the autonomy (or, to use a religious phrase, “the personal decision”) of the individual.
To state it theologically, infant baptism proclaims–indeed, it visually epitomizes–the priority of (divine) grace over (human) faith.
Scripture celebrates human individuality, never human individualism, just as it celebrates strong community, but never an absolutist collectivism.
Praise God that He didn’t wait around for me to have a say or feel a certain way. I love that I can’t remember my baptism: why did He choose to intervene so early in my life? That’s so incredibly undeserved. And how embarrassingly humbling it is that I had absolutely no say in my salvation. And how encouraging it is to know that, while I’m really thankful for the times when I do feel God’s love, it was there in my life long before I could ever feel it (although who’s to say what an infant can and can’t feel?). That gives me very good reason to believe that God’s love is still there–you know, in the times when I don’t feel it. (Wow, it’s almost as if my feelings aren’t everything.)
Praise God that even now He is busy loving me in so many ways that I don’t see and won’t see even in my lifetime.
Because that’s what any good parent would do.