The issue whether infants should be baptized or not is a question of what baptism signifies and accomplishes.
If baptism remits the guilt of original sin, as theologians like Augustine held, and infants are born tainted with this original sin, then infant baptism is needed so that those who die young may still be saved. But if the original sin in infants is overlooked by God, and only those sins that are performed by the grown, rational individual counts, then infant baptism is not necessary, at least not for that.
If baptism is an affirmation of belonging to the Christian community, similar to the Old Covenant’s circumcision, infant baptism is good. A connection can be made between Jesus’ order to baptize all people and God’s order to circumcise all Jews. But Barth asks if this doesn’t reduce baptism to a social phenomena.
If baptism is a sign of being a Christian, infant baptism may be good, but then the question of what it means to be a Christian arises. Tertullian asks if one can be a Christian unknowingly, without it being one’s own choice and without actually “knowing Christ“. Baptists hold that baptism is a declaration of faith of an individual, which can only take place if he or she is converted knowingly.
If baptism was for all, without exclusion, in Jesus’ missionary command, children should be baptized too. Who are we, Luther asks, to leave out children, when Jesus elsewhere explicitly demands that all children be allowed to come to Him.
If infant baptism was practiced by the apostles it is good. If not, it is something added later, and should according to Protestants be abolished if it doesn’t have enough scriptural foundation. Luther and Zwingli found this foundation, or at least nothing to contradict it, but this was not accepted by all, hence the rise of Baptists
If the act of baptism is sufficient in itself, as a sacrament that acts ex opere operato, i.e. regardless of the faith and knowledge of the performer/receiver, as most Catholics hold, infant baptism is right. If there is something else that is needed, it may be wrong.
If baptism is a gift from God to us, infants should not be deprived of it. If it is something we do ourselves or on each other, either as a work for salvation (I have salvation because I am baptized) or as a declaration of such work (I have chosen to strive for salvation, therefore I am baptizing myself), infant baptism is meaningless.
If baptism is a sign of repentant conversion, infant baptism is questionable. Bonhoeffer (whose stand on infant baptism I am unaware of) called forgiveness without repentance and baptism without church discipline “cheap grace”. Hence Baptists re-baptize adults who were once baptized as children on the basis that baptism without conversion, repentance and knowledge is false baptism and thus does not give salvation.
If baptism and the other sacraments are invalid without faith, like most Protestants hold, infant baptism may be contradictory. But Luther puts larger emphasis on the power of the Lord’s Word in the sacraments than the power of our own faith. The Word manifests as a sacrament and makes it what it is. Thus, when Jesus commands that children be brought to Him, we baptize them as if they had faith, just as we are not supposed to question the faith of an unbaptized adult who wants to be baptized. We may never know if anyone, young or old, has enough faith to be baptized, and that does not matter because baptism is not a work executed by faith but a gift received by it. Thus, according to Luther, whether one is baptized as an infant or as a grown up, one needs to live out one’s baptism in a Christian faithful life, every moment. If salvation and forgiveness through baptism is based on faith, we may doubt our salvation, but if it is based on God’s promise, we may forever be sure, however lowly we feel.
If baptism is somehow connected with bestowment of the Holy Spirit, infant baptism is pleasing to God, Luther writes. Far from letting us be deluded by a false concept, God has bestowed Holy Spirit on many adults who had been baptized when they were infants, thus stating His approval of the practice. There would be no Christianity otherwise since infant baptism has been practiced since the beginning of the church whereas the notion of adult baptism is relatively new.
Where do I stand in all this?
I believe that Jesus has shown Himself capable of removing all our sins, inherited and performed, without the help of any ceremony or even His death on the cross. He can do this because He is God. He came to show us this, so that we may believe. Thus we carry on, and baptism is part of this constant reminder of God’s love. His love does not reach us only in baptism, but baptism is way for us to receive it in an external way. Thus baptizing children as a welcoming into the community of Christians and baptism as a sign of being a Christian gives every individual a confirmation that God is for him or her personally. Baptism gives us an identity: I am baptized, I am a Christian, I belong to Christ’s community. If this happens when we are infants, we must trust in it, and if it does when we are adults, we can remember it. In either case it is legitimate. Because it is by the order of Christ that we are baptised and even if we may forget that we are, He doesn’t. God is in charge of our salvation, and though we need to reciprocate and cooperate with Him in faith and knowledge, it is He that does the work. It is He who gives us faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit regardless of if we are baptized as infants, children, adults or not at all. Thus He is not dependent on baptism, but we are. Letting ourselves be baptised is opening up to His grace and a is channel for receiving it into our lives. The ceremony happens once, but, as Luther writes, a Christian life is a constant baptism, we need to choose God every moment of our lives. By this I am not saying that I think baptism unnecessary. On the contrary, I believe that God’s promise, as it comes to us through His Word, is all we need, and baptism is like an external exhibition of that Word coming to us. Thus baptism is as vital to Christian life as the Lord’s Supper or reading the New Testament, though none of these qualify us for salvation or makes us justified, God does that.
Sources: Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1966, Pages 359-374. McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell 2011, Pages 420-423. Henriksen, Jan-Olav: Guds virkelighet: Kristen dogmatikk (God’s Reality: Christian Dogmatics), Oslo: Luther Forlag 1994, Pages 225-232.