The short answer to this question is that infants are in need of the same forgiveness that adults need, because they have inherited the sinful nature of their parents. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Human nature has been corrupted by the sin of Adam, and that sinful nature is passed on from generation to generation. King David acknowledged this corruption in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Infants are in need of the same forgiveness that adults need.
Infants are not innocent, as many imagine, but are sinful even at conception. Like the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 16:7), we tend to look at the outward appearance of things and then make a judgment from that about what a person is like inside. What that means in connection with this topic is that, since we don’t see little babies committing gross sins like adultery or murder or theft, it appears to us that they must be innocent. That’s a backward approach, however. When God looks at the inner being of an infant, what He sees is the sinful nature that has been passed on to him from his parents. From God’s perspective, everything the baby does is sin. That sin, apart from God’s forgiveness, merits for him eternal condemnation. That’s how our natural birth leaves us all.
Entrance into the kingdom of God requires a new birth, one which only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. How does the Holy Spirit accomplish this new birth? Ultimately, this is the question that needs to be answered. But we don’t get to decide the answer to this question. God decides the answer. It is, after all, His kingdom, not our own. He alone determines how to grant sinners access to His kingdom. Again, in John 3, Jesus gives us the answer: “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (verse 5).
Notice how Jesus states this. He doesn’t say, “Unless an adult is born of water and the Spirit,” but, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit.” The implication is that this is true for everyone, not just those who are older. The more important issue, however, is how this new birth is accomplished. It is accomplished only by the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, which God has attached to water in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. If God said it, it must be true.
The Apostle Peter certainly understood this truth. On Pentecost, the people were “cut to the heart” by his preaching and asked him, “What shall we do?” He responded, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call”
The Bible teaches us that Baptism is God’s appointed means to bring the gift of forgiveness to sinners, that they might enter into His kingdom and be saved. Since all people are, from conception, sinful and in need of forgiveness, Baptism is meant for all for the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, we baptize even infants, because Baptism saves even them (cf. 1 Peter 3:21).
Frank Gantt is pastor of St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lemmon, South Dakota.