Did Peter Authorize Infant Baptism?
While there is no documentation of infant baptism in Acts 2, some allege that Acts 2:39 proves the necessity of infant baptism (e.g., Lenski, 1961, p. 110; Barnes, 1972, p. 54). Acts 2:39 reads: “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” (emp. added). This immediately follows Acts 2:38, which reads: “Then Peter said unto them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ ” The phrase “to all who are afar off ” implies that Gentiles would have the opportunity and obligation to submit to baptism for the remission of sins (see Coffman, 1977, p. 57; Lenski, 1961, p. 110). But what did Peter mean when he said “the promise is to you and to your children”? Did he command infants to be baptized?
When Peter said, “the promise is to you and to your children,” he was not speaking specifically about infants or implying that young children needed to respond to the commands of Acts 2:38. Peter’s presentation was designed for the people who shared responsibility for the crucifixion of Christ (verse 36), a group that certainly did not include children. Peter assured his listeners that the promise of salvation was not limited to them, but would be available to every future generation. Albert Barnes commented on the “promise” of Acts 2:39:
Similar promises occur in Isaiah 44:3, “I will pour my Spirit on thy seed, and my blessing on thine offspring;” and in Isaiah 59:21, “My Spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord from henceforth and for ever.” In these and similar places their descendants or posterity are denoted. It does not refer merely to children as children... (1972, p. 54, emp. in orig.).
Luke intended the reader to understand “children” to mean “descendants” in Acts 13:33, so it is not unreasonable to suggest that the same meaning is present in Acts 2:39. One meaning of teknois, the Greek word translated “children” in Acts 2:39, is “descendants” (Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, 1979, p. 994). Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker suggest that teknois does denote “descendants” in Acts 2:39. This interpretation fits in the context of Peter’s discussion concerning the fulfillment of prophecy: Joel prophesied that everyone who called upon the name of the Lord would be saved (Joel 2:32), and Peter affirmed that the blessings associated with conversion would be available not only to those in his hearing, but also to the members of every subsequent generation who obeyed (see Longenecker, 1981, p. 285).
The idea that God cares for all people in every generation, and desires that all be saved, is not unique to Peter’s comments in Acts 2:39. God said to Israel, “ ‘As for Me,’ says the Lord, ‘this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,’ says the Lord, ‘from this time and forevermore’ ” (Isaiah 59:21). The message of concern for future generations is evident in the New Testament as well. The text of 2 Peter 3:9 reveals that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
If Peter’s use of the word “children” did include a reference to the children who were in his audience, Peter did not command the children to be baptized. Nor did Peter imply that Joel, Isaiah, or David prophesied concerning infant baptism (see McGarvey, 1863, p. 44). Peter simply said that the “promise” was partially for the children. Of what promise did Peter speak? In the context of Peter’s presentation on Pentecost, it appears that the promise was salvation through Christ, but nowhere did it imply the necessity of infant baptism (see Longenecker, 1981, p. 285; De Welt, 1967, p. 49; Reese, 1983, p. 79). Wayne Jackson observed:
Peter affirmed that the divine promise (of salvation with its accompanying gift of the Spirit) would be available to future generations (expressed by the phrase “your children”). Contrary to the assertions of some (cf. Lenski, 110), there is no support here for infant baptism. Prof. Howard Marshall of the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) declared that to use this passage in support of infant baptism is to “press it unduly” (81). Babies can neither believe nor repent, hence, are not valid candidates for immersion (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38). Hackett renders the phrase “unto your descendants” (cf. Acts 13:3) [2000, p. 28, parenthetical comment in orig.].
Not every gift given to children is intended for children to possess and enjoy at the time the gift is given. Instead, gifts often are intended to be used by recipients after they mature. In such cases, the gifts will be ready when the children are ready for them. Peter said that the gift of salvation is available to all those who were called by God (Acts 2:39)—and God calls people by His Gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:14). But people who cannot yet understand the Gospel cannot believe in Christ and obey the Gospel (Romans 10:13-16). Furthermore, infants cannot repent of wrongdoing or decide to cease sinning, because they cannot choose to do wrong. Peter commanded the members of his audience to repent, so the applicability of his message was not to infants. Only those who can believe and repent can be included in the “children” of Acts 2:39, because the “promise” was conditioned on belief and repentance (see McGarvey, n.d., p. 40).
As children grow up, they learn the difference between right and wrong, and, eventually, they reach an age when they have the ability to choose sin. All mature humans sin at some point (Romans 3:23). It is at that time that we need to have our sins washed away by Christ’s blood—we need to be baptized, but not when we are infants.
Arndt, William, F.W. Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker (1979), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), second edition revised.
Barnes, Albert (1972 reprint), Barnes’ Notes on the Old and New Testaments: Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Coffman, James Burton (1977), Commentary on Acts (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
De Welt, Don (1967 reprint), Acts Made Actual (Joplin, MO: College Press).
Jackson, Wayne (2000), The Acts of the Apostles: From Jerusalem to Rome (Stockton, CA: Courier).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961 reprint), The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Longenecker, Richard N. (1981), The Expositor's Bible Commentary, F.E. Gaebelein, Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
McGarvey, J.W. (1863), Original Commentary on Acts (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth), ninth edition.
McGarvey, J.W. (no date), Commentary on Acts (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).
Reese, Gareth L. (1983 reprint), New Testament History: Acts (Joplin, MO: College Press).