Thoughts on Baptism

“Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” John iii. 5.

None can be saved, unless the blood of Christ, the Immaculate Lamb of God, be imputed to him; and it is His gracious will that it should be imputed to us, one by one, by means of outward and visible signs, or what are called Sacraments. These visible rites represent to us the heavenly truth, and convey what they represent. The baptismal washing betokens the cleansing of the soul from sin; the elements of bread and wine are figures of what is present but not seen, “the body and blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.”

So far the two Sacraments agree; yet there is this important difference in their use, that Baptism is but once administered, but the Lord’s Supper is to be received continually. Our Lord Christ told the Apostles to baptize at the time that they made men His disciples. Baptism admitted them to His favor once for all; but the Lord’s Supper keeps us and secures us in His favor day by day. He said, “This do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

Here, then, a question at once arises, which it is important to consider: At what time in our life are we to be baptized, or made disciples of Christ? The first Christians of course were baptized when they were come to a full age, because then the Gospel was for the first time preached to them; they had no means of being baptized when young. But the case is different with those who are born of Christian parents; so the question now is, at what age are the sons of Christians to be baptized?

Now, for fifteen hundred years there was no dispute or difficulty in answering this question all over the Christian world; none who acknowledged the duty of baptizing at all, but administered the rite to infants, as we do at present. But about three hundred years ago strange opinions were set afloat, and sects arose, doing every thing which had not been done before, and undoing every thing which had been done before, and all this (as they professed) on the principle that it was every one’s duty to judge and act for himself; and among these new sects there was one which maintained that Infant Baptism was a mistake, and that, mainly upon this short argument, that it was nowhere commanded in Scripture.

Let us, then, consider this subject: and first, it is but fair and right to acknowledge at once that Scripture does not bid us baptize children. This, however, is no very serious admission; for Scripture does not name any time at all for Baptism; yet it orders us to be baptized at some age or other. It is plain, then, whatever age we fix upon, we shall be going beyond the letter of Scripture. This may or may not be a difficulty, but it cannot be avoided: it is not a difficulty of our making. God has so willed it. He has kept silence, and doubtless with good reason; and surely we must try to do our part and to find out what He would have us do, according to the light, be it greater or less, which He has vouchsafed to us.

Is it any new thing that it should take time and thought to find out accurately what our duty is? Is it a new thing that the full and perfect truth should not lie on the very surface of things, in the bare letter of Scripture? Far from it. Those who strive to enter into life, these alone find the strait gate which leads thereto. . . .it does not at all follow, even if it were difficult to find out at what age Baptism should be administered, that therefore one time is as good as another. Difficulty is the very attendant upon great blessings, not on things indifferent. . . .

Scripture has not undertaken to tell us every thing, but merely to give us the means of finding every thing; and thus much we can conclude on the subject before us, that if it is important, there are means of determining it; but we cannot infer, either that it must actually be commanded in the letter of Scripture, or that it can be found out by every individual for and by himself. . . .

I say it is not difficult to see, as the Church has ever been led to see, that God would have us baptize young children, and that to delay Baptism is to delay a great benefit, and is hazarding a child’s salvation. There is no difficulty, if men are not resolved to make one.

  1. Let us consider, first, what is Baptism? It is a means and pledge of God’s mercy, pardon, acceptance of us for Christ’s sake; it gives us grace to change our natures. Now, surely infants, as being born in sin, have most abundant needof God’s mercy and grace: this cannot be doubted. . . .If, indeed, Baptism were merely or principally ouract, then perhaps the case would be altered. But it is not an act of ours so much as of God’s; a pledge from Him. And, I repeat, infants, as being by nature under God’s wrath, having no elements of spiritual life in them, being corrupt and sinful, are surely, in a singular manner, objects of Baptism as far as the question of desirableness is concerned. . . .

Will it be said that infants are not properly qualified for Baptism? How is this an objection? Consider the text. “Except one be born of water and the Spirit,” says our Lord, “he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” There is nothing said about qualifications or conditions here which might exclude infants from Baptism, nothing about the necessity of previous faith, or previous good works, in order to fit us for the mercy of God. Nor indeed could any thing be said. Christ knew that, without His grace, man’s nature could not bear any good fruit, for from above is every good gift. . . .To defer Baptism till persons actually have repentance and faith, is refusing to give medicine till a patient begins to get well. It would be hard indeed, if Satan be allowed to have access to the soul from infancy, as soon as it begins to think, and we refuse to do what we can, or what promises well, towards gaining for it the protection of God against the Tempter. . . .

  1. But, in fact, we are not, strictly speaking, left without positive encouragement to bring infants near to Him. We are not merely left to infer generally the propriety of Infant Baptism; Christ has shown us His willingnessto receive children. Some men have said (indeed most of us perhaps in seasons of unbelief have been tempted in our hearts to ask), “What good can Baptism do senseless children? you might as well baptize things without life; they sleep or even struggle during the ceremony, and interrupt it; it is a mere superstition.” This, my brethren, is the language of the world, whoever uses it. It is putting sight against faith. If we are assured that Baptism has been blessed by Christ, as the rite of admittance into His Church, we have nothing to do with those outward appearances. . . .

I would reply by citing our Savior’s “own word and deed.” We find that infants were brought to Christ; and His disciples seem to have doubted, in the same spirit of unbelief, what could be the good of bringing helpless and senseless children to the Savior of men. They doubtless thought that His time would be better employed in teaching them, than in attending to children; that it was interfering with His usefulness. “But when Jesus saw it, He was much displeased.” [Mark x. 14.] These are remarkable words: “much displeased,” that is, He was uneasy, indignant, angry (as the Greek word may be more literally translated); and we are told, “He took them up in His arms, put His hands upon them, and blessed them.” Christ, then, can bless infants, in spite of their being to all appearance as yet incapable of thought or feeling. He can, and did, bless them; and, in the very sense in which they then were blessed, we believe they are capable of a blessing in Baptism.

  1. And we may add this consideration. It is certain that children ought to be instructed in religious truth, as they can bear it, from the very first dawn of reason; clearly, they are not to be left without a Christian training till they arrive at years of maturity. Now, let it be observed, Christ seems distinctly to connect teaching with Baptism, as if He intended to convey through it a blessing upon teaching, “Go ye and teach all the nations, baptizing them.” If children, then, are to be considered as under teaching, as learners in the school of Christ, surely they should be admitted into that school by Baptism.

These are the reasons for Infant Baptism which strike the mind, even on the first consideration of the subject; and in the absence of express information from Scripture, they are (as far as they go) satisfactory. At what age should we be baptized? I answer, in childhood; because all children require Divine pardon and grace (as our Savior Himself implies), all are capable of His blessing (as His action shows), all are invited to His blessing, and Baptism is a pledge from Him of His favor, as His Apostles frequently declare. . . .

To conclude. Let me beg of all who hear me, and who wish to serve God, to remember, in their ordinary prayers, their habitual thoughts, the daily business of life, that they were once baptized. If Baptism be merely a ceremony, to be observed indeed, but then at once forgotten, a decent form, which it would neither be creditable, nor for temporal reasons expedient to neglect, it is most surely no subject for a Christian minister to speak of; Christ’s religion has no fellowship with bare forms, and nowhere encourages mere outward observances.

If, indeed, there be any who degrade Baptism into a mere ceremony, which has in it no spiritual promise, let such men look to it for themselves, and defend their practice of baptizing infants as they can. But for me, my brethren, I would put it before you as a true and plain pledge, without reserve, of God’s grace given to the souls of those who receive it; not a mere form, but a real means and instrument of blessing verily and indeed received; and, as being such, I warn you to remember what a talent has been committed to you. There are very many persons who do not think of Baptism in this religious point of view; who are in no sense in the habit of blessing God for it, and praying Him for His further grace to profit by the privileges given them in it; who, when even they pray for grace, do not ground their hope of being heard and answered, on the promise of blessing in Baptism made to them; above all, who do not fear to sin after Baptism. This is of course an omission; in many cases it is a sin. Let us set ourselves right in this respect. Nothing will remind us more forcibly both of our advantages and of our duties; for from the very nature of our minds outward signs are especially calculated (if rightly used) to strike, to affect, to subdue, to change them.

Blessed is he who makes the most of the privileges given him, who takes them for a light to his feet and a lanthorn to his path. We have had the Sign of the Cross set on us in infancy, shall we ever forget it? It is our profession. We had the water poured on us, it was like the blood on the door-posts, when the destroying Angel passed over. Let us fear to sin after grace given, lest a worse thing come upon us. Let us aim at learning these two great truths: that we can do nothing good without God’s grace, yet that we can sin against that grace; and thus that the great gift may be made the cause, on the one hand, of our gaining eternal life, and the occasion to us, on the other, of eternal misery. – from Parochial and Plain Sermons 7, no. 16.


*Image: The Baptism of St. Augustine by Carle van Loo, 1755 [Basilica of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris]

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was made a cardinal by Leo XIII in 1879, beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010, and canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019. He was among the most important Catholic writers of the last several centuries.