Epiphany, “believer’s baptism,” “falling away,” and infant regeneration

This Monday was Epiphany, a holiday—and the beginning of a lengthy season of the Church year—celebrating the manifestation or revealing of God and his glory to and among the nations. (Including the Magi from the East in Matthew’s Gospel, which is why Epiphany is the first day after the Christmas season.) This brings me to a collection of points I’ve been wanting to get down for a while now, for which, after some consideration, Epiphany seems the most apropos occasion.

The dominant metaphor of Epiphany is that of light and sight suddenly coming in place of darkness and blindness.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined.

The Bible tells us that God is light, and that human beings are by nature both dead and blind. Thus epiphany comes not when we act, choosing to open our merely closed eyes, but when God acts, putting his Spirit in us to regenerate us and give us the ability to see.

Another symbol that, when interpreted properly, makes much the same point is baptism (which I am convinced is not only a symbol). For all that adult converts choose to undergo the rite,it is done to the believer. Baptism is the sign of entrance into Christ’s Church (in the late Roman era, outsiders—and even believers who had not yet been catechized and baptized—were permitted to observe some of the Church’s regular services, but were not permitted to observe other parts of the liturgy) and into his covenant. It is a sign of God’s claim on the person as a member of “God’s peculiar people,” as his special possession. While we rightly ask adult converts to profess their faith–or, better yet, learn the basic doctrines of the Faith (the catechism) as well—to reduce the chance of administering the sacrament to a quote-“believer” who is not actually saved and thus will not show a changed life later, that profession is not the point: Baptism says, not “this person has chosen to follow Jesus,” but rather “God has chosen to save this person.”

And that requirement of a “profession of faith,” or of learning the catechism—limiting baptism to those who call themselves believers, and to “adults”—does not entirely succeed in its aim of preventing the baptism of those who will later “fall away” from the visible Church and by their “fruit” show themselves to not have been true believers. Given the proverbial principle (Proverbs 22:6) that in general a child who is “train[ed] up …” in the way of the Lord “will not depart from it,” the historic and traditional practice of baptizing infants who are going to be carefully brought up in the Faith would seem to better meet that goal.

Since, as I said above, baptism is a sign of election and regeneration, not of our decision, we should also consider the question of “infant regeneration.” (Election, of course, is “before the creation of the world,” as Paul says in the letter to the church at Ephesus.) When a person is regenerate but either does not yet believe himself or herself to be “a believer” or has not yet heard the full gospel, he or she will make profession of faith or “pray for salvation”—receiving the Good News with joy—essentially the first time the gospel is preached, just as anyone who is not (or no longer) blind and has been walking in deep darkness will begin to walk by a light as soon as it dawns.

We see this repeatedly in the first chapters of Acts (the cases of the Ethiopian eunuch and of the household of Cornelius are the chief examples), we see it in the reports from a few missionaries to previously-unreached tribes in the modern era, and we see it over and over in “believer’s-baptism-only” churches: Children “get saved” at essentially the first opportunity (and parents and leaders have to take great care that they’re not seeing these “results” from nothing more than a child’s desire to please a parent or other trusted and beloved adult) and are subsequently baptized as soon as the church is convinced their profession of faith is genuine and that the child understands.

From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.

Denying the sacrament of baptism to children we have reason to believe are regenerate leads all to easily to wrong thinking about baptism—in my church nowadays the usual explanation is that “like a wedding ring it symbolizes the believer’s commitment to Christ,” which picks a good analogy but then explains it precisely backward. And it requires parents and leaders to bring regenerate children to at least one artificial “crisis of faith” at a formative age, which I suspect is of dubious value at best and may well be harmful.

God makes himself known—the Light dawns—on those he chooses, not those who first choose to open their blind eyes to him. Thank God!

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