On Babies, Baptism, and Universal Salvation

I grew up very evangelical. Very, very evangelical. For me, any mainline denominational or liturgical practices were fairly alien. My parents took us to a Methodist church for a year or two when I was a fairly small child, but before long, we were going to a non-denominational full-gospel Charismatic church, and I grew up very non-denominational.

While we were in the Methodist church, I saw an infant baptism take place, but it meant nothing significant to me at the time. I’d given my heart to Jesus at age 5 or 6, but never been baptized, nor had my parents.

As I grew up and learned more about Christian faith, I knew of other denominations that practiced infant baptism, and I remember some controversy about it, but it was fairly far off my radar. I decided that baptizing an infant didn’t make sense to me, since the infant wasn’t able to proclaim – or even understand – the ceremony, and I had been taught (as a good little evangelical) that salvation was based on a personal decision to follow Jesus, and in fact that the baptism was just a sign and not something that itself conferred salvation.

So when I was a bit older, and beginning to truly own my personal faith, I volunteered to be baptized when the annual opportunity was offered. That year I was baptized in a church ceremony in the nearby river. It was a big day in my faith journey, and a big deal for my parents too, especially since they were baptized at the same time.

So, spring forward maybe 40 years, to 2023.

For this morning’s New Year’s Eve service, I went to a VERY liturgical Episcopal church. As part of the service, they held a baptism ceremony for a one-year-old baby. At the conclusion of the ceremony this was read: “Esther, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen. Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit, you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised her to the new life of grace. Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.

Not long ago, I would have dismissed this as unevangelical false doctrine: baptizing an infant (instead of an mature believer’s baptism), and asserting that an uncomprehending infant could be considered a Holy-Spirit-sealed believer (instead of requiring an informed adult decision for Christ).

I would have based this dismissal on a few scriptures. For example, in Acts 2:38 Peter says “repent and be baptized.” Jesus, in His final instructions to His disciples in Mark, says “whoever believes and is baptized.” Baby Esther clearly has no capacity to believe or repent of anything yet.

I would further have disputed infant baptism as being salvific, because plenty of other scriptures talk about salvation from belief (such as John 3:18; John 5:24; John 12:44; John 20:31, and 1 John 5:13) and from faith alone (Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:6-22). Clearly an infant cannot have intellectual belief or faith in Jesus.

But is this all there is for salvation?

If you’ve read or listened to me for a while, you’re likely aware that I’ve been persuaded for some time that God will eventually and patiently bring all humans – past and present, dead and alive – into His family, even if it takes millennia of loving and gentle persuasion. Call it universal reconciliation or universal salvation or Christian universalism; it’s starkly different than the model I inherited: one lifetime’s shot at salvation, followed by eternal unending hell for any who failed to trust Jesus while they had the chance alive on this fallen planet. That no longer makes sense to me, for many reasons, and you can find a few posts on my blog and podcast. (https://crucibleofthought.com/for-two-billion-years/, https://crucibleofthought.com/what-is-salvation-anyway/)

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to simply call it universalism, shorthand for the more accurate “universal salvation in Christ” (since I do believe that it is precisely and only Jesus Christ’s life and death that bring salvation).

So this morning, for the first time in my life, I watched a baptism ceremony from a starkly different framework of universalist understanding. And it was of an infant, not even an adult.

And I was immediately struck by the idea that if one is a universalist, then why not believe that this infant is in fact saved? If Jesus’ sacrifice WAS truly once-for-all, and if I DO believe that His work to redeem all mankind truly WAS COMPLETED on the cross, not just OFFERED to sinful humans as a result, then in some sense baby Esther is in fact – just as we all are – marked as “Christ’s own forever” – whether or not she ever grows up to have a chance to say “the Sinner’s Prayer,” or understand the Four Spiritual Laws, or perform some other appropriate ritual.

Suddenly, then, this infant baptism ceremony seemed a lot less alien.

I had never noticed it before, but to more fully read Acts 2:38-39, Peter says (emphasis mine) “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.” Maybe “your children” refers to future generations, but I can’t help but think that in that ancient culture where more than half of all babies died in infancy, Peter was giving hope to families for their current children.

Now, despite these words, I don’t think that baptism is the entire answer – whether adult or infant. Going back to those words read by the priest this morning, “by water and the Holy Spirit, you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin.” Looking at the entirety of scripture, I’m not sure that “by water” is really part of the answer to salvation. A sign? Certainly. A necessity? I don’t believe so.

Now, I’m well aware that I’m jousting against a lot of well-established orthodoxy. For example, the Episcopal Church – since I’m talking about an Episcopal service I attended – formally teaches that there is something particular and potent about baptism. Its website says “This is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the church. God establishes an indissoluble bond with each person in baptism. God adopts us, making us members of the church and inheritors of the Kingdom of God (BCP, pp. 298, 858). In baptism we are made sharers in the new life of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. Baptism is the foundation for all future church participation and ministry.
Similarly the Catholic Church is fairly vocal about the necessity of baptism, and in fact urges baptism at the youngest possible age so that the infant, if it dies early, will be protected against eternal damnation. The Catechism says “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.
And other denominations have similar strong language about baptism.

But such insistence is far from universal among Christians. I’m far enough removed from liturgical church teaching, and raised long enough on evangelicalism, to see these ideas about baptism with a rather jaundiced view. I think that the idea that such a baptism ceremony itself confers salvation (in some form) is odd. It’s almost a bit magical-thinking, an incantation-based cultish practice, teaching us that our eternal destiny depends on a ceremony. (I’m not using “cultish” here in the sense of something unholy and strange; instead from the Oxford dictionary it means “of a system of religious beliefs and practices.“) At any rate, I rebel against any idea that God’s acceptance of His children is predicated on anything physical or mental that we do or say, using just the right words and practices.

I suppose I’m wrestling with that general idea right now – the balance between a vibrant relationship with a living and loving creator God who describes Himself as a father, versus a temple cult where infinitely many possible failures will result in death and hellfire, but only a few very specific successes will result in heavenly life. There are simply too many ways to be separated from God, which goes against the Bible’s own testimony that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), and just as through Adam sin entered the world, so through Christ justification and life were bought for ALL people (Romans 5:18). In light of Christ’s final and utterly victorious answer to sin, I find it unbelievable that any failure to perfectly carry out a specific ceremony would result in a human’s eternal – or even long-term – separation from God. It just isn’t consistent with the overall picture of God we see in scripture.

But at the same time, I can’t yet shake the idea that God (apparently) gave a lot of specific rules for how we are supposed to approach the throne in worship. At least, we could say that a bunch of motivated priests and writers said that God did give these specific rules. I’ve been wrestling with the question of how much of the Old Testament was truly given by God as prescriptive and proscriptive, versus it being a God-ordained faithful descriptive documentation of man’s fumbling attempts to figure out how to approach a fearsome God safely and confidently. Discerning that answer remains a deep dark chasm for me at the moment. Either way, the Old Testament is filled with a lot of very specific and detailed descriptions of how to enter God’s presence safely.

But still, I also can’t shake Jesus’ assertion that the two utterly simple “love God / love neighbor” commands encompass the requirements of all those cultish things. In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” In Matt 5:17-20, in the midst of a lengthy discussion of specific Hebrew Bible commands about righteousness, and how to truly incorporate those commands into a life that honors God, Jesus said about the complicated system of laws and commandments that He did “not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Some assert that “fulfilled” simply means that Jesus did those things perfectly as God still today expects us to attempt; others (I think more believably) consider that to mean that Jesus completed them for all time, on behalf of all humanity, releasing grace in place of law and liturgy.

I honestly don’t have any problem with liturgy. I think humans (some at least) really do need a predictable and comfortable set of practices that are tied to their faith, for their own mental peace at least. The same idea, in New Testament terms, would apply not just to baptism, but also to the practice of communion, or perhaps footwashing ceremonies. But the idea that a practice itself is what confers spiritual guarantees doesn’t sit well with me. To me, these things are important for bringing eternal truths to our current awareness, and regularly reminding us of important things we know to be true. But I have a very hard time believing that failure to practice them – or to do so in some precise manner – would keep us separated from God. This would mean, functionally, that people unable to properly practice them for many different reasons would be prevented (through no fault of their own) from salvation. And I think scripture testifies that this is not the case. Again, God is unwilling that any should perish.

And so I return to today’s beautiful scene, played out with a very happy priest, a delightfully calm infant, a font of water and a towel, and a crowd of family members and friends looking on.

Actions were taken. Words were spoken. Promises of God were remembered. Hearts were encouraged. Did any eternal destinies change? I truly don’t know, but I doubt it: I’m convinced that baby Esther is eventually going to be eternally in God’s presence either way, along with every other human ever born. The only question is what path she will take to get there.

So what did change today? The main tangible change I can expect would be a true strengthening of the relationships present in that room, and a strengthening of expectations of God’s involvement in all of their lives. And that, to me, is sufficient. It’s what God desires for all of us. And so it’s holy, whether or not it’s necessary. And I can live with that.

If you liked this article, then please follow us on Twitter logo and or join our email notification list.

1 thought on “On Babies, Baptism, and Universal Salvation”

  1. Sondra Eklund

    I like this way of looking at it! I too have come from very evangelical to universalism. These days, I attend a Methodist church. I enjoy the infant baptisms, but maybe felt a little aloof from them, because of not really believing that’s how it should be done. But wait, as you say — I believe they are saved! Why not celebrate that fact? Nice!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top