Infant baptism vs believer’s baptism (a.k.a., “adult baptism”): Which is correct? And why is baptism important anyway? Here’s what you need to know about Christian baptism.
When my oldest son was born, my husband and I had a decision to make: Would we baptize him as an infant or wait?
My husband was baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church we still attend today. I was baptized in 4th grade at the church my family happened to be attending at that time. Which one was correct?
Both Catholics and Protestants see baptism as very important, and yet the two groups differ on details such as when a person should be baptized, how a person should be baptized and what baptism does, exactly. Hopefully this post will shed some light on the various positions.
First, let’s start with the basics.
What is Baptism?
At its most basic, baptism is a practice common to all Christian churches that brings new members into the faith. It uses water and words in a special ceremony.
There also has to be the intent to baptize someone — kids “playing church” can’t accidentally baptize each other!
A person can be immersed (dunked all the way!) in water, or water can be sprinkled.
A Christian baptism invokes the Trinity with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Some baptisms also include the words, “…buried in the likeness of His death, raised in the likeness of His resurrection” to declare the new life in Christ.
Christening vs Baptism: What’s the Difference?
The terms baptism and christening are often used interchangeably, but there is a slight difference.
Baptism is the ceremony with water and words to admit someone (baby, child, or adult) into the Christian faith.
Christening is a naming ritual that isn’t often used anymore. Way back when, a child was baptized and given an official Christian name at the same time. Now, people usually just mean “baptism” even when they say “christening.”
In this post, I am talking only about baptism.
How Did Christian Baptism Begin?
Did Jesus Invent Baptism?
Before Jesus: Baptism was around before the beginnings of Christianity. It is not a Christian invention. Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist, probably in a Jewish purification ritual called a mikvah.
Jesus did command his followers, “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
So Jesus didn’t invent baptism, but He did command it and establish it as part of Christian practice.
After Jesus: Some Jewish-Christian communities began baptizing converts around the time Christianity began. The converts were first interrogated to make sure they believed in Jewish teachings. Then they were baptized naked (and males were circumcised!) in order to become fully accepted into the community. (Both these practices have changed, thank goodness!)
Is Infant Baptism in the Bible? How About Adult Baptism?
There is some question about whether or not the Bible mentions infant baptism. It does say that “households” were baptized (Acts 10 and 16; 1 Corinthians 1), but there is disagreement as to whether or not this included infants. It does not say that only adults were baptized.
The Bible does not explicitly mandate either adult baptism or infant baptism.
220 A.D.: The oldest explicit account of infant baptism we have today is by Tertullian around 220 A.D. This is about 120 years after the last book of the Bible was written, but Tertullian is one of the earliest writers to describe the early Christian church.
What Was Christian Baptism Like After Jesus?
In the early church, adult baptism was the norm because Christianity was so new that most people converted into it, rather than being born into it.
Adults were required to convert before they could be baptized. However, both infant baptism and adult baptism were practiced without conflict. Both methods were acceptable and people were pretty much free to choose.
Early Church Fathers: Not a single church father found infant baptism unlawful, though they all had their own opinion on when the “optimal” time for baptism. There was no serious controversy about when baptism should happen.
253 A.D.: The Council of Carthage condemned the practice of withholding baptism from infants until the eighth day, and infant baptism became the new norm. Infant baptism was practiced nearly universally until the 16th century.
416 A.D.: Infant baptism was made compulsory by Roman Law.
16th Century: During the Protestant Reformation, some Protestant groups began to question whether infant baptism was actually Biblical. Some groups re-baptized people; others began waiting till people were adults. Not all Protestants switched sides however. Some Protestant groups (including Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists) maintained the practice of infant baptism even till today.
Today: Christians practice both infant baptism and adult baptism. This is the same mix that existed in the early church, but not everyone gets along like they did in the early church. (When researching for this post, I found a TON of very heated, opinionated and hateful arguments. It was very annoying.)
What is Adult Baptism (or Believer’s Baptism)?
Beliefs and practices vary between Protestant churches, and there is no “official” Protestant baptism belief. I’m sharing the practices of the Baptist church I grew up in, and comparing them with the Catholic baptism practices I’ve learned about.
Many Protestant church practice “adult baptism,” also called “believer’s baptism.” Adult baptism is for those old enough to make a conscious decision to be baptized and make their profession of faith.
This is sometimes called “adult baptism,” but it depends on the ability to make a profession of faith, not really on age. Kids as young as 7 are commonly baptized with believer’s baptism.
What is Infant Baptism?
The Catholic Church and many mainline Protestant churches, such as the Episcopal, Reformed, and Lutheran churches, practice infant baptism. Babies as young as a few days old are baptized, and godparents make the baptismal promises for the baby.
Many Catholics baptize their babies as soon as reasonably possible. They do this quickly because they believe that a baby’s salvation depends on baptism removing original sin.
Does Baptism Remove Original Sin?
First, what is original sin?
Original sin simply refers to our fallen human nature, and the tendency of humans to choose sin. Saying that a baby is born with original sin does not mean that the baby has committed a sin.
Catholics believe that baptism is the way to remove original sin from someone’s soul, regardless of age. They cite the following verses (italics added):
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. (Acts 2:38-39)
To those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:20-21)
He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4)
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5)
The concept is also expressed in the Nicene Creed, which states, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission [or forgiveness] of sins.”
Why Is Baptism Important for Infants?
Protestants will say that baptism should be a personal choice, but Catholics counter that with a couple arguments to support infant baptism.
First, waiting for baptism could have grave consequences.
Say your baby was sick and dying and you had a medicine that would cure him. Would you wait until your baby was old enough to choose the medicine? Or would you, as the parent, make the best choice for the child, considering the grave consequences? Baptism is viewed as healing a soul born into original sin.
What’s more, Catholics recognize that the child still has personal choice.
Even baptized babies can still grow up to be nonbelievers. Infant baptism isn’t forcing anyone to be a Christian. Baptism simply removes original sin while the baby is too young to choose. A child can grow up to sin all they want if they like.
But the Bible Says People Have to Become Christian First!
Where? It’s true, the Bible gives several accounts of people who gave a profession of faith and then were baptized. But there is a difference between reporting what some people did, and giving instructions to people. The Bible isn’t an all-inclusive manual to Christianity.
And remember, Christianity was a brand new religion when the Bible was written, so more people were converting to it than were being born into it. As babies were born into Christian communities, new practices developed and were accepted. This is why we turn to church history to fill in the blanks.
Why Is Baptism Important for Adults?
People are baptized with adult baptism because they choose it as a symbol of faith — it is not to remove original sin. In Baptist and other Protestant churches, they’ve already made a decision to follow Jesus.
So if they are already Christians and don’t need baptism to remove original sin, why choose to be baptized at all?
- Baptism is important because the Bible commands it: “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38).
- The purpose of baptism is to make a public profession of faith (though it doesn’t actually have to be public). This is important as an individual and communal declaration — “I am a Christian, in this community of Christians.”
They don’t do it because they believe that baptism has any power in itself.
- In Protestant baptism beliefs, baptism does not forgive original sin. (That happens prior, when a person repents and makes the conscious decision to follow Christ, or “accepts Jesus as personal Lord and Savior.”)
- Baptism is a rich symbol, but it’s just a symbol. It doesn’t necessarily “do” anything.
Interesting Fact: Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, believed that baptism was more than a symbol. He believed that it offers forgiveness from sins and grants eternal salvation.
Why Is Infant Baptism Important for Catholics?
Infants are baptized because parents choose it. For Catholics, baptism is a means of salvation because it washes away the effects of original sin.
- By washing away original sin (and since babies are too young to commit personal sin), baptism guarantees salvation if a baby were to die young.
- The Bible commands baptism, and Catholics see no good reason to withhold the graces or to wait.
- Infants should be baptized as soon as possible, as their salvation depends on it.
Catholics don’t baptize someone as “just a symbol” — they believe that baptism has a real spiritual effect.
- While baptism guarantees salvation for infants, once the person reaches the age of reason, they must then consciously choose to follow Jesus. Otherwise, they can lose their salvation. (Baptism removes original sin, not personal sin committed later after knowing that something is wrong.)
- Similarly to how Protestants added baby dedications, Catholics added confirmation, in which a Catholic young person makes their official profession of faith.
What Is the Typical Baptism Age?
The typical baptism age for adult baptism is anywhere from the age of understanding (around 7 or 8) to any adult age. For believer’s baptism, you may be too young to be baptized, but you are never too old.
The typical Catholic baptism age is from just a few days old to any adult age, including on the deathbed. For Catholics, you are never too young or too old to be baptized.
Interesting Fact: At one point, many people began putting off baptism until they were on their deathbed. This was because the church believed that baptism washes away all mortal (serious) sin, and people didn’t want to risk getting baptized, committing a mortal sin, and then having to do penance afterwards. So they would wait.
Do You Have to Be Baptized to Go to Heaven, According to Protestants?
Protestants believe that you do not have to be baptized to go to heaven. They do see baptism as an important step in Christian life, for sure:
- Baptism is a part of following the Bible’s commands.
- Baptism is a public declaration of a fundamental belief.
- And baptism identifies you with a Christian faith community
But baptism is not necessary for salvation — you can choose whether or not to receive it.
Do You Have to Be Baptized to Go to Heaven, According to Catholics?
Catholics believe that baptism is a part of salvation, and a person must be baptized to go to heaven. (But keep reading!)
The Bible says that baptism is necessary for salvation, and Catholics take this very seriously.
But Catholics also believe:
- Martyrs are considered “baptized in blood” and have all their sins wiped clean at the moment they die (even if they were never baptized by water).
- If a person dies before they could be baptized, but they truly desired to be baptized, that’s enough for salvation (this is called “baptism by desire”).
- While infants are usually baptized by a priest or a deacon, anyone — even a non-Christian — could baptize a person, especially in an emergency situation, and it would still be considered valid.
How Many Times Can You Be Baptized?
Baptism should happen only once in a Christian’s life.
Infant baptism was not really controversial until the Reformation. Then the Anabaptists began re-baptizing people who had already been baptized as babies, saying that baptism must happen after the age of reason (“Anabaptist” means “baptize again“).
For Catholics, baptisms done in other Christian churches are still considered valid as long as they are done with water (immersion or sprinkling, it doesn’t matter) and with the words “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Someone was baptized this way doesn’t need to be re-baptized if they convert to Catholicism.
What are the Requirements for Adult Baptism?
In the Baptist church that I grew up in:
- People should be baptized of their own free will.
- They must be old enough to understand what baptism is and what it means.
- They must make a confession of faith.
- Classes may or may not be required.
A white robe is often provided, but is not necessary.
What Are the Requirements for Catholic Baptism?
In order for the Catholic Church to recognize a baptism as valid, there must be three things:
- The words ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (or some version thereof, naming all three)
- The intent of baptizing.
Also, in most cases, you will also need at least one consenting parent or legal guardian, and reasonable assurance that the child will be raised Catholic.
Catholic godparents, special clothes, candles and oil are all customary as well, though not required.
What Is a Typical Believer’s Baptism Like?
Who: Anyone who believes and is old enough to want to be baptized. Believer’s baptisms are typically done by the pastor.
Where: Many churches have a baptismal font right behind the stage, which is accessed from behind. People also have the option of getting baptized in a river, pond, lake, etc., which sometimes happens at special church camps or events.
When: Some churches keep the water warm to baptize anyone who wants to come forward and “accept Jesus” at the end of the service on any given Sunday. Others will wait and have a baptismal service where they baptize several people at a time.
- People are baptized by full immersion to symbolize Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection.
- They typically wear a robe with normal clothes underneath (and bring clothes to change into for afterwards!)
- The pastor will generally give a short introduction and the person will probably share their testimony.
- The pastor will ask the person some “Do you believe” type questions to make sure the person is a believing Christian.
- The pastor will dunk the person while saying “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
- Much applause and rejoicing from everyone watching!
- And yes, you can hold your nose! (I know; you were curious.)
For infants: In denominations that don’t baptize infants, there is often a baby dedication ceremony instead. Basically, the mother and father present the baby (or toddler) in front of the congregation and promise to raise the baby in the faith. In turn, the congregation promises to do everything in their power to help, and the pastor says a prayer that the child will grow up to know God.
What Is a Typical Infant Baptism Like?
Who: Anyone. Babies born into Catholic families are generally baptized as infants (from birth to the first few months of life). Children over 7 years and adults are baptized upon conversion and completion of education classes about the Catholic faith (RCIC or RCIA).
Where: At the baptismal font, usually in front of the church.
When: Typically on Sundays. Either during mass or after mass as part of a private ceremony for family and invited friends.
- The parents and godparents state their intentions/promises for the child (to baptize them and raise them in the Catholic faith).
- The priest, parents and godparents make the sign of the cross on the baby.
- One or two Scripture passages are read.
- Prayers are said.
- The baby is baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by immersion, pouring or sprinkling. (Any method is fine. Immersion is rare, but it isn’t unheard of!)
- Candles are lit.
- The baby is anointed with oil.
- The priest blesses the parents.
- The baptismal certificate is filled out and filed.
Unlike the Protestant practice, which is pretty informal and doesn’t take more than 5 min at most, the Catholic practice is generally longer and more formal.
You can find a detailed description here: Rite for the Baptism of One Child.
Information about the symbolism of the various parts here: The Symbols of Baptism: How Do They Work?
And a personal account of one baby’s Catholic baptism here: Blessings Abounded at Our Baby’s Baptism.
Thanks to those of you who were up late with me on Facebook last night filling me in on all the details!! 🙂
So What Did We Ultimately Decide?
Like I mentioned in the introduction, when our first son was born, my husband and I had a choice to make about infant baptism vs adult baptism: Would we baptize him in the Catholic Church or not?
Here’s what we decided.
First, we met with a priest to learn more about Catholic baptism. It was during this meeting that I first learned that the Catholic Church believes that baptism washes away sin. This was news to me! After about an hour in the church basement, they sent us home with a pamphlet.
Over the next few days, I poured over the pamphlet and the Scriptures. At first, I found plenty of verses that seemed to support my Baptist position on adult baptism. Then, I found quite a few verses that seemed to support my husband’s Catholic position on infant baptism. I wasn’t completely and utterly opposed, but I definitely wasn’t convinced.
I told my husband that I had some reservations about baptizing our son in the Catholic Church since I didn’t wholeheartedly agree with everything the Catholic Church teaches about what that meant. BUT I also said that I would let him make the decision as the spiritual leader of our family. Whatever he chose, I would support.
We didn’t end up baptizing our son in the Catholic Church.
Instead, one night my husband decided he couldn’t put it off any longer, we both woke our son up, and my husband baptized him right there on a towel on our living room floor! (Yes, you can do that!)
This was the absolute perfect solution for us. My husband and I were (and still are) in complete agreement about our decision, and so far none of the priests we’ve mentioned it to have had any problems with it. We baptized our second and third children the same way.
Later, so that their baptisms would be officially recorded in the church, all three were baptized in our Catholic church in a beautiful, private ceremony for just our family. These were conditional baptisms, which is what the Catholic church does for people whose previous baptism that is a little unsure (this is not considered “re-baptizing” — remember, once is enough!).
Personally, I think if the early Christian church can get along–we should be able to too. While I don’t see anything wrong with being baptized as an adult, I also don’t see any good reason to wait either.
I’d love to hear your thoughts though! Leave them in the comments section below!
This is post 9 in my series Letting God Lead: My Journey Through Protestant and Catholic Beliefs. While you can read this post by itself, I encourage you to check out the rest of the series as well. Find all the posts plus additional resources here, or read individual posts from this list below.
Resources and Further Reading
I’m not asking you to believe because I say so. Please DON’T take my word for it! The purpose of this series is only to share what I’ve learned on my journey in order to inspire you to begin a journey of your own. Here are a few helpful resources to get you started.
*This post contains affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you!
Christian History Made Easy by Timothy Paul Jones, PhD