Child Dedication or Baptism?

by Bruce McDowell August 9, 2017


By Bruce A. McDowell, Minister of Global Outreach

As Tenth Church has infant baptisms today, some may be wondering about the question in my title. Most Christian parents of newborn babies feel the need for some kind of dedication of their child to the Lord. They believe their child to be different than those of the “world” of unbelieving parents. Reformed believers baptize their child because they believe he/she is a member of the new covenant community in Christ, having been sanctified through a believing parent (1 Corinthians 7:14), given the covenantal promises (Acts 2:39), and welcomed into the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:16; Luke 18:15–16).

Although widely practiced in Protestant churches today, the rite of infant dedication is a very recent one, which would cause one to pause and ask “Why?” As we look closely at the texts in Scripture that are used to support such a practice, we find that they are the same ones used to support infant baptism or they are texts lacking any convincing evidence for such a practice. Although there are infant dedications in the Old and New Testaments, they were for particular children specially called by God to a task. There were no normative, ongoing patterns of infant dedication.

The Scriptural examples we find are: Samson (Judges 13:3–5) set apart by God as the final judge of Israel; Samuel dedicated by his mother Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11, 24–28), who became the great prophet of Israel; and John the Baptist (Luke 1:13–17), the last of Israel’s prophets. All three of these were dedicated to be a Nazirite from birth (Numbers 6:1–21), indicating their special consecration to God’s service. Hannah’s other children were not similarly dedicated. None of the details for sacrifice and consecration are followed today. For Samson and John the Baptist, it was not their parents that dedicated them as Nazirites, but God did so for his redemptive purposes. Finally, Jesus was brought to the temple (Luke 2:22–24) when 41 days old (Leviticus 12:1–4; 8), having been circumcised when eight days old (Luke 2:21). All the ceremonial law completed by Mary has been fulfilled in Christ. Even Jesus’ presentation in the temple as a firstborn son with a sacrifice of atonement was a fulfillment of a command instituted by God at the Passover when the Israelites left Egypt (Exodus 13:2, 15). Jesus was set apart to the Lord, as God commanded for the firstborn of Israel (Exodus 13:12–13; Numbers 3:40–41; 18:15), that he might “fulfill all righteousness” in keeping the law and be set apart for his sacrifice of atonement on the cross.

This is further evidence for infant baptism in that Israelite infants were “redeemed” through a blood sacrifice of a lamb or two turtledoves (Leviticus 12:6, 8). Because children of believers were washed of sin guilt by a blood sacrifice, which was a type of Christ’s sacrifice, then they should receive baptism to wash them because they were “made partakers of the sacrament of Christ’s suffering and death shortly after they were born, by offering for them a lamb, which was a sacrament of Jesus Christ” (Belgic Confession of Faith, 1561). Similarly, baptism is a partaking in the sacrifice of Christ’s atonement on the cross. In none of these dedications described above did it replace circumcision, which is a sign of the covenant ratified through sacrifice, which baptism now also signifies (Colossians 2:11).

A baptized child is received into the covenant community as a child of God because of the promises of God for him/her. Baptism is a matter of God’s sovereign initiative and grace, through which is expressed his love for us before we loved him (Romans 8:29–30, 37; 1 John 4:10). However, dedication is celebrating the parents’ promise to raise the child in the Lord. But God always initiates grace (Deuteronomy 30:6; John 1:13, 16–18). He takes the initiative of giving our children his promises of being part of the covenant in baptism even as unknowing infants (cf. Luke 18:15–16). These promises are received through faith alone.

The only practice found in Scripture for a believing parent(s) to give their child to the Lord by trusting in his promises is in circumcision before Christ sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and in new covenant baptism since then, signifying atonement for sin and filling with the Spirit. For this reason, Paul calls baptism “the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11–12).