Christians who practice believer's baptism believe that saving grace and church membership are gifts from God by the recipient's faith alone and cannot be imparted or transferred from one believer to another person (such as from parent to child) by sacraments such as baptism. These tenets render infant baptism useless within their belief system. Because infants cannot hear or believe the gospel message, they also cannot repent and need not repent or confess Christ as the Son of God. Children are already subjects of the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16), until they come to the age of accountability for their own sins.
Believer's baptism is held by some Baptists and some Evangelicals to have no saving effect, but to be a public expression of faith, symbolically representative of the baptisand's own conscious conversion experience. Other Christian groups hold baptism to have salvific value. Churches of Christ for example, teach that baptism by immersion is a necessary part of salvation without which one cannot enter into the kingdom of God, John 3:3-5. The church, set up by Christ with the keys given to the Apostles (Matthew 16:16-18, 18:18) was established on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 and required baptism for "remission of sins" amongst the penitent believers and promised the "gift of the Holy Spirit." Without the indwelling Holy Spirit obtained at the time of immersion, there is no salvation, Acts 5:32, Romans 8:9-11, 16.
Defenders of infant baptism sometimes claim that baptism replaces the Jewish practice of circumcision, and is therefore appropriate for infants. Advocates of believer's baptism counter that no New Testament passages state that baptism replaces circumcision. On the contrary, the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 was called to clarify circumcision, long after the practice of baptism was established. In the old Covenant, males were circumcized. In the new, all - - male and female, Jew and Greek, bond and free - - may join the family of God.
Many Reformed Baptists, however, agree with the principles of Covenant Theology and agree that Baptism has, in a sense, replaced circumcision as the sign of covenant. They disagree with the typical Reformed argument that, as the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament (namely circumcision ) was administered to infants, so should the sign of the covenant in the New Testament church (namely baptism) be ministered to infants. They argue that the covenant community in the Old Testament constituted the physical sons of Abraham and made up physical Israel whereas the covenant community in the New Testament constitutes the spiritual sons of Abraham and thus form the spiritual Israel. Thus, they argue, the sign of the covenant should only be administered to spiritual sons. From Galatians 3:7, they argue that it is “people of faith who are the sons of Abraham” and baptism should be administered only to confessing believers and not infants, who are incapable of producing the requisite faith.
Theologians from churches that teach that baptism is required for salvation sometimes point to Jesus' statement that children should be allowed to come to him. Advocates of believer's baptism counter that Jesus blessed the children and did not baptize them.
Defenders of infant baptism have attempted to trace the practice to the New Testament era, but generally acknowledge that no unambiguous evidence exists that the practice existed prior to the second century. The oldest surviving manual of church discipline, the Didache, envisions the baptism of adults. Defenders of infant baptism point to statements by Origen, Justin Martyr, and other early Christians writers that children were baptized. However, none of these statements are from the apostolic era, and many speak only of the baptism of children, who may be adolescents, and not infants specifically. Advocates of believer's baptism contend that non-Biblical sources are not authoritative, and that no evidence exists from the Bible or early Christian literature that infant baptism was practiced by the apostles.
Another argument posed by some advocates of believer's baptism concerns the fact that most churches that practice infant baptism were churches that were heavily intertwined with the state in medieval and Reformation-era Europe. In many instances, citizens of a nation were required under penalty of law to belong to the state church. Infant baptism marked the infant as a citizen of the nation and a loyal subject of the reigning political order as much as it marked the infant as a Christian. To denominations like the Baptists, which have historically stressed religious liberty, toleration, and separation of church and state, this practice is an unacceptable violation of the basic human right to self-determination in matters of spirituality and religion.
Among credobaptists, differences in denominational practice (and in psychological development among children) can cause the "age of accountability" to be set higher or lower. Many developmentally challenged individuals never reach this stage regardless of age. Sometimes the pastor or church leader will determine the believer's understanding and conviction through personal interviews. In the case of a minor, parents' permission will also often be sought.
However it is a major assumption that all credobaptists believe in an "age of accountability." Not all denominations or assemblies who practice credobaptism believe in this doctrine. Many believe in predestination, and that God will prolong a person's life until they are capable of receiving baptism of their own free will.
Furthermore, not all credobaptists believe in the doctrine of original sin. Many credobaptists believe that we are only held responsible for our personal sins, and that Jesus addressed the sins of Adam on the cross. As a result, according to some credobaptists, an infant does not need to repent and baptize away sins they have never personally committed.
In the liturgical churches, it is generally held that (infant) baptism is the initiatory rite that believer's baptism also marks. Infant baptism differs from believer's baptism in that the baptisand is not making a profession of the faith for themselves. The liturgical traditions transfer this aspect of Christian life to confirmation, where the one-time infant baptisand publicly assumes the responsibilities of his baptismal covenant and makes his own profession of faith (usually using the words of the Apostles' Creed).
In some denominations, believer's baptism is a prerequisite to full church membership. This is generally the case with churches with a congregational form of church government. Persons who wish to become part of the church must undergo believer's baptism in that local body, or another body whose baptism the local body honors. Typically, local churches will honor the baptism of another church if that tradition is of similar faith and practice, or if not, then if the person was baptized (usually by immersion) subsequent to conversion.
In Holiness, many Baptist, and some other churches, a ritual known as Dedication or Infant Dedication supplements or replaces infant baptism. However, unlike baptism, the rite is centered upon the parents, who dedicate the child to God and vow to raise him/her in a God-fearing home. Although Dedication often occurs at the same age as infant baptism, it is not considered a replacement for baptism nor is it considered salvific for the child.
Believer's baptism is more prevalent in Christian traditions which maintain that there is a state of innocency from birth to the age of accountability (if the believer, due to mental or emotional disability, is not likely to gain the ability to judge the morality of his or her actions, this state of innocency persists for life). Credobaptism is less prevalent in traditions which maintain that the corruption of original sin is present at birth and is sufficient guilt in the eyes of God to cause the child to be damned or be in limbo, should it die before baptism.
Many churches that baptize infants, such as the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox denominations, have functioned as national, state-established churches in various European and Latin American countries. During the Reformation, the relationship of the church to the state was a contentious issue, and infant baptism was seen as a way to ensure that society remained religiously homogeneous. As a result, groups that rejected infant baptism were seen as subversive and were often persecuted.
Statistics based on membership totals reported by various denominations state that churches that practice infant baptism represent about 80% of Christians. However, these statistics do not reflect the fact that different denominations use different criteria for counting members, and that infant-baptizing churches count young children as members, while denominations that practice believer's baptism do not. Churches that practice believer's baptism generally do not consider individuals with formal church membership who do not actively practice Christian spirituality (for example, see Cultural Catholic) as true Christians. Many churches that practice believer's baptism also practice congregational self-government, which makes it difficult for statisticians to collect complete data. These and other factors make church membership statistics suspect. The fastest growing branches of Christianity are evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which nearly always practice credobaptism.
Another objection is that it implies that families in a congregation with young unbaptised children are comprised of both Christians and non-Christians, which usually does not reflect the actual belief and experience of those families or of the congregation.
Even in theological circles where some response to God's call is considered necessary for the convert (such as belief, confession, repentance, and prayer), a believer's baptism is usually categorized as a work instead of a response of faith, though not always (see Churches of Christ).