Why do many parents want to have their newborn babies baptized? Different parents have different reasons, but the most prominent reason is that parents want their children to be forgiven of sin (“Early Teachings on Infant Baptism”). But infants have no sin! Jesus said: “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). This statement suggests that people are baptized and become Christians in order to be like little children. If little children are lost sinners, why would the Lord tell us all to be like children (see Matthew 19:14)?
Of course, little children (including infants) are not lost. They are not old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong, so they cannot intelligently choose to do wrong, and thus they cannot sin. Baptism saves us from sin (1 Peter 3:21), and babies cannot be saved from sin, since they have not yet sinned. Young children are not in need of being saved, but instead are in a safe condition. Kyle Butt offered an insightful example:
Does the Bible teach that babies go to hell when they die? In order to answer this question, we must find a biblical example in which an infant died, and in which his or her eternal destination is recorded. To do such is not difficult. In 2 Samuel 12, King David’s newborn son fell terminally ill. After seven days, the child died. In verses 22 and 23, the Bible records that David said: “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is clear that David’s dead infant son would never return to this Earth, but David also said that one day, he would go to be with his son. Through inspiration, David documented that his own eternal destination was going to be “in the house of the Lord” (Psalm 23:6; cf. Psalm 17:15; 103:1-5; Isaiah 37:35; Acts 13:34; Hebrews 11:32). Therefore, we can conclude that “the house of the Lord” would be the eternal destination of his infant son to whom David would one day go. King David was looking forward to the day when he would be able to meet his son in heaven. Absolutely nothing in this context gives any hint that the dead infant son’s soul would go to hell (2003).
Some suggest, however, that David acknowledged inheritance of original sin, because he stated: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). An example of this erroneous approach is that of Matthew Henry, who commented on what David wrote in Psalm 51:5:
He confesses his original corruption.... David elsewhere speaks of the admirable structure of his body (Psalm 139:14,15), it was curiously wrought; and yet here he says it was shapen in iniquity, sin was twisted in with it; not as it came out of God’s hands, but as it comes through our parents’ loins. He elsewhere speaks of the piety of his mother, that she was God’s handmaid, and he pleads his relation to her (86:16;116:16), and yet here he says she conceived him in sin; for though she was, by grace, a child of God, she was, by nature, a daughter of Eve, and not excepted from the common character. Note, it is to be sadly lamented by every one of us that we brought into the world with us a corrupt nature, wretchedly degenerated from its primitive purity and rectitude; we have from our birth the snares of sin in our bodies, the seed of sin in our souls, and a stain of sin upon both. This is what we call original sin, because it is ancient as our original, and because it is the original of all our actual transgressions (n.d., 3:431, emp. in orig.).
A “companion” passage to Psalm 51:5 is Psalm 58:3, where David wrote a similar statement: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” At first glance, it might seem that David affirmed that children are born, as it is frequently phrased, “black with sin.” Is that what David meant? If the Holy Spirit inspired David to write that infants are inherently sinful at birth, then at least some infants need the remission of sins. The truth is, there are several possible interpretations of these two verses, but none of them authorizes infant baptism.
First, notice that the context of Psalm 51:5 and Psalm 58:3 includes poetic, hyperbolic language. In verses three and four of chapter 51, David declared: “And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned...” (emp. added). One possible meaning of Psalm 51:5 and Psalm 58:3 is this: much of David’s life was characterized by sin, and, because David was so conscious of his sin, he expressed his sorrow by using hyperbolic, figurative language (see Jackson, 1998, p. 46; see also Coffman and Coffman, 1992, p. 434). This is a strong probability, because David wrote that children speak lies “as soon as they are born” (Psalm 58:3). Since infants cannot speak lies, we can assume that David did not intend to convey a literal meaning in Psalm 58:3. Plus, that verse indicates that all wicked people speak lies, which is not necessarily true. People can sin in ways other than practicing dishonesty. Job, obviously employing hyperbole, said that he had cared for orphans and widows since he was born (Job 31:18; see Jackson, 2000). Since Psalm 58:3 lends itself heavily to the hyperbolic interpretation, then interpreting Psalm 51:5, which contains seemingly hyperbolic language, as being figurative, also is reasonable. If the language of Psalm 51:5 is taken literally, and one reads into the literal language the Calvinistic doctrine of original sin, the verse contradicts other plain passages of Scripture (Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 14:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). But the Bible does not contradict itself.
Second, when some still insist that Psalm 51:5 demonstrates that David was born “black with sin,” we should remind them that David’s mother, being an adult, was a sinner. If the language of this verse is to be understood literally, then the sin of which David wrote must be the sin of his mother. However, David did not mean that he inherited the sin of his mother (see Butt, 2004). Many people suffer from the consequences of their parents’ sin, but infants are not responsible for their parents’ sin. This is because the soul does not come from human parents, but from God (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Hebrews 12:9; see Jackson, 2000). People do not become sinful until they choose to sin, and that happens sometime after birth (see Genesis 8:21; Ecclesiastes 12:1; Jeremiah 3:25).
A third plausible interpretation of Psalm 51:5 is that David simply noted that he was conceived and born in a world in which sin is prevalent. In that sense, any of us could truthfully say, “I was born in sin,” without contradicting Scripture, or even admitting personal sin, especially in view of the fact that our parents are sinners (see Jackson, 2000).
Fourth, because David wrote Psalm 51 as a prayer of repentance, some have suggested that the Psalmist was using poetic license to put words into the mouth of the child who was conceived as a result of David’s illicit affair with Bathsheba. In that context, the text could literally read: “In sin my mother conceived me.” While the possibility that this interpretation is correct cannot be ruled out, it seems on the surface to be a “stretch”—David’s meaning is not as obvious when we use this interpretation as it is when we use others.
A fifth possibility, though remote, is that David referenced the fact that he was the tenth generation in the lineage of Judah, who had an incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law, Tamar (see Genesis 38). Since Deuteronomy 23:2 reads: “One of the illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord” (emp. added), it is possible that David simply made reference to the sin of Judah and Tamar, which haunted his family.
David never claimed that infants are sinful at birth. However, even if it could be scripturally proven (and it cannot) that children are born in sin, infants still would not be proper candidates for baptism, because belief and repentance are prerequisites for baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 3:19).
Butt, Kyle (2003), “Do Babies Go to Hell When They Die?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2255.
Butt, Kyle (2004), “Do Children Inherit the Sins of Their Parents?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2543.
Coffman, James Burton and Thelma B. Coffman (1992), Commentary on Psalms (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
“Early Teachings on Infant Baptism” (2004), Catholic Answers, [On-line], URL: http://www.catholic.com/library/Early_Teachings_of_Infant_Baptism.asp.
Henry, Matthew (no date), Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (McLean, VA: MacDonald).
Jackson, Wayne (1998), “ ‘Yes, We Baptize Our Babies....’—A Response,” Christian Courier, 33:45-46, April.
Jackson, Wayne (2000), “ ‘Original Sin’ and a Misapplied Passage” [On-line], URL: http://www.christiancourier.com/archives/originalSin.htm.
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