Baptism vs. Dedication


How would you answer a Reformed Baptist concerning the following question: I have a newborn and I want to better understand paedobaptism. What is the difference between dedicating your child in the Sunday morning service and baptizing your child? If I am a covenant member and my child receives certain blessings because of my faith in Christ, what is she "missing out on" because she is not baptized?


There are a couple important differences between dedication and baptism in general.

First, the Bible instructs us to baptize people but it does not instruct us to dedicate them. There are examples of people dedicating themselves to the Lord, as in Exodus 32:29 where the 3,000 Levites who killed their idolatrous brothers dedicated themselves to God. Notice, though, that this dedication was a specific call to a particular job or life. The same is true in the example of Samuel's "baby dedication" in 1 Samuel 1: Samuel was given into the priest's care for his upbringing, so that he grew up in the temple rather than in his parents' home (1 Sam. 1). This is not to say that Reformed Baptist baby dedications are wrong - they don't violate anything in Scripture, and the sentiment is a godly one. Rather, it is to say that there is no scriptural basis for the practice as a distinct rite.

Second, baptism is a covenant sign that ratifies, as it were, the covenant between God and the individual (this is generally admitted by Reformed Baptists when it comes to credobaptism). In the Bible, dedications also function as a form of vow or covenant, obligating the individuals dedicated to a particular course of action. But dedications obligate people to lesser vows or covenants, whereas baptism obligates one to the covenant, that is, to God's covenant with his people.

So, dedications (regardless of the age of the one dedicated) are not bad, and they can be good. But they cannot replace baptism because they are neither commanded in Scripture nor an aspect of God's overarching covenant with his people.

Now, for the specific question of the unbaptized covenant member, it is important to look at circumcision in the Old Testament in order to understand the modern Presbyterian position. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign of covenant membership. Those males who were not circumcised were to be cut off from their people, estranged from the covenant blessings and subject to its curses (Gen. 17:14) - heavy stuff for an infant who didn't have a say in it, but still the way it was. Also, the parents who failed to circumcise their children were in grievous sin - God almost killed Moses for failing to circumcise his son, but Zipporah's intervention saved Moses (Exod. 4:24-26). Moreover, God did not allow the adult Israelites to inherit the Promised Land (a covenant blessing) until they had been circumcised (Josh. 5:2ff.). These facts indicate that circumcision in the Old Testament was very serious business, and that the blessings of the covenant hung in the balance. With such a severe attitude toward the covenant sign in the Old Testament, we should expect baptism to be a serious issue for the church in the New Testament era, both for adults and for children.

Reformed Presbyterians do not generally teach that an unbaptized person cannot receive the covenant blessings and must be doomed to hell - that conclusion is inconsistent with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. However, we do teach that it is now a sin not to be baptized just as it used to be a sin not to be circumcised, and most Reformed Baptists I know agree with this position with regard to believers. That circumcision was treated as such a serious sin in the Old Testament, and that realization of the covenant blessings was tied explicitly to it, implies that failure to be baptized is now a serious sin and that the realization of some covenant blessings in this world is tied to baptism.

Reformed Presbyterians argue that the same significance and obligation attaches to infant baptism that attaches to believer baptism. If it is a sin not to be baptized as a believer, it is also a sin not to be baptized as an infant and not to have your infant baptized. Of course, this conclusion is based on the idea that the children of believers are in covenant with God, which many Reformed Baptists deny. We might say that the difference between Reformed Baptists and Reformed Presbyterians is many times an issue of ecclesiology rather than of sacramentology.

From a Reformed Presbyterian perspective (which I believe to be the correct perspective), an unbaptized child of a modern believer is in a similar position to an uncircumcised infant in the Old Testament - he or she has broken God's covenant (Gen. 17:14). Christ keeps covenant perfectly for believers, so that all our sins are forgiven and we are ultimately blessed in him. But at the same time, our actions of covenant breaking and covenant keeping also have repercussions in this life (cf. Ps. 1). God is more inclined to bless us in this life if we keep his covenant, and less inclined to bless us if we do not (all other things being equal). So, an unbaptized child of a believer "misses out" by being less likely to receive some of God's covenant blessings in this life. The parents are in a similar position, just as Moses was in Exodus 4:24-26, being less likely to be blessed in this life and more likely to be disciplined.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.