Sunday, February 20, 2022

Why I am a Baptist – and why you should be one, too (Heb. 8:10-12)

A Baptist is a Christian who (among other things!) believes that the rite of baptism is administered properly only to disciples who trust in Christ (subject) by an immersion of that disciple in water (mode) as a part of their profession of faith in Christ.  Thus, we differ from paedobaptists[1] in the matters of the mode and subjects of baptism.  Whereas they believe baptism is for disciples andtheir children, we believe it is for disciples only.  Whereas they believe that it is properly administered by sprinkling water upon the subject, we believe that it is only properly administered by immersing the subject in water.

In my interaction with Reformed paedobaptists, both personally and in the literature, it seems to me that there is one main argument for paedobaptism.  It is made through an appeal to the covenantal structure of the Bible.  (Note: for the purposes of this article, we will be interacting almost entirely with the Reformed tradition.  There are other traditions, like the Roman Catholic tradition.  This tradition does not appeal to the Biblical covenants, but rather to its view that baptism actually confers salvation and washes away original sin.)  In particular, in this argument, paedobaptists argue that the New Covenant is essentially the same as the Abrahamic covenant (see Gen. 17).  Since the sign of the Abrahamic covenant was given not only to Abraham but also to his children, it is argued that the sign of the New Covenant should also be given to believers and their children, especially since (they argue) there is no abrogation of the principle “believers and their children are in the covenant.”  Along with this is the fact that in the New Testament baptism and circumcision are parallel and point to the same realities; therefore, there is a strong presumption that the subjects of circumcision (believers and their children) should also inform how we practice baptism (also believers and their children).

There are other arguments as well, such as the practice of household baptisms in the book of Acts, and the example of the practice of infant baptism very early in the history of the church.  So it is argued that the facts of church history, both Biblical (Acts) and later on (beginning in the second century), support the argument from the covenants of the Bible.

Do the Biblical covenants support this argument?  Should we baptize, not only disciples, but also the children of disciples?  I think not, and I would like to give you the reasons why I think the Baptist position is the Biblical position.

Before I do so, however, I want to make the point that this is not a primary doctrinal difference.  In other words, genuine brothers and sisters in Christ can differ about how to practice baptism.  Some of my favorite theologians were and are paedobaptists.  I think of guys who like Augustine the fourth century African bishop, John Calvin, many of the English Puritans (like John Owen), Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, J. C. Ryle, John G. Paton, John Murray, and many others whom I respect, were all paedobaptists and greatly used of God.  Apparently, the Lord does not think that this difference over baptism is as big a deal as some folks (on both sides of the debate) make it out to be.  

Furthermore, you might wonder why I am addressing this issue at this time, especially when there are much more pressing issues confronting the church in our day.  Well, I agree that this is not the most important issue of our day.  But baptism is a Biblical issue, and it is an ordinance that our Lord gave the church.  Baptism, therefore, should be accorded our due attention as Christians because we want to honor what the Lord has ordained for his church.  Though we don’t want to make it more important than it is and dishonor our Lord by neglecting his people, neither do want to make it less important that it is and dishonor our Lord by neglecting his will.

So how should we respond to the argument from the Biblical covenants?  Since we have just looked at the New Covenant in Hebrews 8, I think it is appropriate to consider this argument now, and especially since I think that the terms of the New Covenant – though they don’t address the issue of baptism directly – they do bring with them strong implications for believers’ baptism (in my opinion!).  Incidentally, I will not here be addressing the issue of the mode of baptism, only the issue of the subjects of baptism.  In this message, I want to start with the New Covenant as the main point, but then also append two other arguments that I think support the Baptist position.

The New Covenant Argument

Let me get down to brass tacks.  In Heb. 8:11, which is a quotation of Jer. 31:34, we read, “And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.”  There is it.  The New Covenant is characterized by this fact: “all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.”  The “all” here means “all who are New Covenant members.”  The New Covenant is characterized by the fact that every covenant member will know the Lord.  And as we saw last time, this is a knowing which is saving, as in John 17:3 – “This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

And just to underline the fact, the Lord says this is not “all” in the sense of “most but not everyone,” but this is an “all” in the sense of “from the least to the greatest.”  In other words, there are no exceptions to this rule.  If you are embraced by the New Covenant and belong to the New Covenant community, then you know God.

However, if this is the case, then it follows that the sign of the New Covenant belongs only to those who are saved.  We should give the sign of the covenant, not to infants who cannot give a credible profession of faith, but only those who can give a credible profession of faith, that is, to disciples.

What about the Abrahamic Covenant?

Now, at this point, the Abrahamic covenant is inevitably appealed to by our paedobaptist friends.  They will say that these two covenants are essentially the same.  And therefore, what is good for the goose is good for the gander: if infants are included in the Abrahamic covenant, they should also be included in the New Covenant.  Moreover, they will appeal to the promise in verse 10 (“and I will be to them a God and they shall be to me a people”; see Gen. 17:7) as a reason to put an equals sign between the two covenants.  In both covenants, God is setting apart a people for his name.  In other words, Baptists are rebuked here because they do not see the continuity between the two covenants.

We do agree that there is significant continuity.  We also agree that believers in Christ are embraced in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant.  The apostle Paul makes this point in Rom. 4 and Gal. 3-4.  However, that does not mean that every aspect of the Abrahamic covenant carries over into the New Covenant.  For example, God very specifically promises Abraham the land of Canaan, which is not something that is incorporated into the New Covenant.  Also, in the Abrahamic covenant, God is separating Abraham’s physical offspring from the nations, and he does this in part by the rite of circumcision (one of the things incorporated into the Law of Moses which theologians often call “boundary markers”).  In the New Covenant community, however, the rite of baptism goes in the opposite direction: it is for all the nations (cf. Mt. 28:19).  In other words, though we agree there is significant overlap between the covenants (and we should expect this since both covenants are a part of the unfolding of God’s one plan of redemption in Christ), there is also discontinuity, discontinuity that is owing to what God was doing as a part of the historical outworking of his plan to bring his Son into the world through the family of Abraham.

In particular, we can see that there was a specific reason for the incorporation of Abraham’s physical offspring into the covenant; it was to set apart the physical family of Abraham from the nations so that the Messiah promised could be identified as the son of Abraham (see Mt. 1:1).  Now that the Messiah has come, there is no longer any need to do this.  Circumcision as a boundary marker has fulfilled its purpose and has passed away with the coming of Christ.  But it seems to follow that this aspect of circumcision, which incorporated not only Abraham but also his physical offspring into the covenant, has passed away.  We should not, then, look to circumcision as a reason to embrace believers and their children in the covenant community.

So my objection is that our paedobaptist friends don’t properly understand the discontinuity between the covenants.  Nevertheless, I would also argue that they don’t properly understand the continuity, either.  The continuity is not found in the principle of “believers and their children.”  Rather, the continuity is this: the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant are for the sons of Abraham.  But according to the apostle Paul,  these blessings, insofar as they are incorporated into the New Covenant, are for the children of Abraham by spiritual descent (that is, by faith).  Note well how the apostle Paul puts it to the Romans: “And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed to them also: And the father of the circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11-12).  Of whom is Abraham the father?  He is the father of all of them that believe.  Paul will put it this way to the Galatians: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heir according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).  You must belong to Christ if you would inherit the promise of salvation which is promised in the Abrahamic covenant, and Paul makes it very clear that “ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (26).  In other words, again and again, in the New Covenant, the promises are always attached to personal faith, not the faith of the parents.  Abraham is your spiritual father if you trust in Christ and in no other way.

What about circumcision?

But what about the parallel between circumcision and baptism?  At this juncture, Col. 2:11-12 is often appealed to: “In whom [Christ] also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who had raised him from the dead.”  In this text, both circumcision and baptism point to what is essentially the same reality: the reality of our union with Christ in his redemptive work.  That’s all well and good: but it does not therefore logically follow that the practice of circumcision defines the practice of baptism.  Even so, the text itself points in another direction: in verse 12, baptism and faith are once again put together.  If you are buried with Christ in baptism, you have also risen with him through faith.  This is not an argument against believer’s baptism, it’s an argument for it.

In any case, we do not define the church in terms of the way the community of Israel was defined by the Abrahamic covenant (and, later, the Mosaic Covenant).  The church is not the physical seed of Abraham; the church is made up of the spiritual seed of Abraham, which the New Testament defines in terms of faith in Christ.

What about the promise of Gen. 17:7?

But what about the promise in Heb. 8:10 which is so like the promise in Gen. 17:7?  Doesn’t this mean that the New Covenant community is simply an extension of the community created by the Abrahamic Covenant?  For our paedobaptist friends argue that because the promise “I will be their God” is part of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 17:7), the New Covenant is essentially the same covenant as that established with Abraham.  It is further argued that this phrase points, not necessarily to a saving relationship with God, but to the establishment of an external covenant community (see, for example, Exod. 6:7).  Therefore, it follows that the descriptions in the New Covenant are compatible with being a community in which not all its members are actually regenerate, forgiven, and saved.

In response to this, I first note that there seems to be a failure at this point to see the connection between Old Covenant and New Covenant in terms of type/shadow and fulfillment.  The type is analogous to the reality it represents.  In the same way, the description of Israel being the people of God is analogous to the church being the people of God.  But analogies are not meant to be one-to-one correspondences.  The family of Abraham which would be constituted under Moses as a nation was constituted as the people of God in a very real sense, but only as a type and a shadow of the community constituted by Christ in the New Covenant.  Similarly, the forgiveness offered through the Old Covenant ritual sacrifices did grant ritual cleansing but not real forgiveness (unless the one who offered the sacrifice was connected by faith in God’s promise to the benefits of Christ’s future redemptive work).  However, it did point to the one, final sacrifice that our Lord offered on the cross.  There is some correspondence, true, but not a one-to-one correspondence.  

Thus, it is simply a mistake to say that the phrase, “I will be their God and they shall be my people” must be understood in exactly the same way, whether you are talking about the Abrahamic Covenant versus the New Covenant, or the Old Covenant versus the New Covenant.

This is actually something the terms of the New Covenant demonstrate.  Who are God’s people in the New Covenant?  Not believers and their children.  There is not a word of that.  The New Covenant community is composed of those who are regenerate, who know God in a saving way, and whose sins are forgiven.

In order to get around the clear implications of these realities, it seems to me that paedobaptists have to downplay the descriptions of the New Covenant promises.  So, they will say that to have God’s law written in the heart is only a difference in the form the law will take in the New Covenant. This is the argument that Presbyterian pastor Guy Richard makes in his book on baptism, for example.  (Though to be honest, what exactly he means by that, I do not understand.)  The New Covenant is a promise that God will write his law on his people’s hearts.  Now this happened under the Old Covenant, so there is no difference in that sense.  But it was not guaranteed to all the Old Covenant members.  Just because you were an Israelite did not mean you were born again!  (If you don’t believe me, read about King Ahab.)  However, the New Covenant does imbed that guarantee in this promise.  If you are a New Covenant participant, you are born again.  To say anything less than this is to water down and to misinterpret the promise.

In the same way, Richard says that the promise that all will know God is simply a reference to the fact that all God’s people in the New Covenant will have access to and knowledge of God’s law, and not just the privileged few, like priests and prophets in the Old Covenant.  He also says that the New Covenant is different in the clarity it provides.  Now, I’m not disputing that we are made a kingdom of priests by Christ.  Nor am I disputing that the New Covenant provides greater clarity.  But to reduce the promise here to that is, to say the least, to impoverish its richness.  To know God is to be saved (Jn. 17:3).  This is what is promised in the New Covenant.  It is not a promise that your children might be saved, or that you should hope that they will be saved since they are “covenant children,” but a promise that everyone – from the least to the greatest – in the New Covenant will be saved, for they will all know God.  

In the same way, the promise of the remission of sins is a promise of real forgiveness to all who belong to the New Covenant.  It is not simply saying that the blood of Christ is superior to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.  That is true, of course.  But that is not all that is being said here.  It is not that the remission offered is superior, but that the real remission of sins belongs to everyone in the New Covenant: “For I will forgive their iniquities, and I will remember their sin no more.”  This is the promise of the personal forgiveness of sins to all who relate to God in the New Covenant, not simply the promise that the fulfillment of the type is coming or has come.

So it’s hard for me to see how we can look at these promises, promises which define those who belong to the New Covenant community as regenerate and saved and forgiven, and go away with the impression that it is okay to include as visible members of the New Covenant community those who display no evidence of an internal work of God’s Spirit upon their hearts.  The character of the New Covenant community is such that only those who are true believers belong to it.  And therefore, baptism, the sign of the New Covenant, belongs only to those who are true believers.

Two More Arguments

Why not grandchildren?[2]

With this question, we come back again to the Abrahamic Covenant and notice that the argument from the Abrahamic Covenant, if it were consistent, would actually not only include children but also all the physical descendants of believers in the covenant community.  This is because God did not just command Abraham to circumcise Isaac.  Rather, the covenant required all his male offspring to be circumcised: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10).  So actually, there is no principle of “believers and their children” by which is meant “children but not grandchildren.”  The principle of the Abrahamic Covenant is “Abraham [the Believer] and all his physical seed.”

In fact, you see this played out as Israel is about to begin the conquest of Canaan.  In Joshua 5:2-9, we read how Joshua had to have all the males in Israel circumcised.  It is because “all the people that came out of Egypt were circumcised: but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised.  For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the people that were men of war, which came out of Egypt, were consumed, because they obeyed not the voice of the LORD: unto whom the LORD sware that he would not shew them the land, which the LORD sware unto their fathers that he would give us, a land that floweth with milk and honey” (5-6).  Why were these fellows circumcised?  Not because their parents were believers.  Their parents had perished in the wilderness because of their unbelief.  They weren’t circumcised on any principle of “believers and their children.”  They were given the sign of the covenant because they were the physical descendants of Abraham.

So why not grandchildren?  If we really want to press the continuity between the covenants in this way, it would seem to be a legitimate question.  However, as we have already seen, the real parallel is not “believers and their children.”  The parallel is “Abraham and his seed:” in the Old Covenant, this meant the physical seed of Abraham, and in the New Covenant it means the spiritual seed of Abraham.

The Great Commission

For our last argument, we come to the Great Commission, where our Lord gives these instructions to his apostles: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Go ye therefore, and teach [make disciples of] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt. 28:18-20).  This is a commission to the New Testament church.  It is a commission to declare the word of Christ and to make disciples.  And there are two things we are to do with those who become disciples: we are to baptize them, and we are to teach them all that Christ has commanded.

However, the main thing I want to point out is that this is the only commission in the Bible that gives the church the authority and the right to baptize.  There is no other commission.  And the fact of the matter is that the only commission to baptize in the New Testament is a commission to baptize disciples.  There is no word here about baptizing disciples and their children, though it would have been incredibly easy to say that here.  You will look in vain for a commission to baptize infants because there is none.

It won’t do to appeal to the Abrahamic Covenant and “just and necessary inference” because, as we have seen, there is no just and necessary inference from the Abrahamic practice of infant circumcision to the New Testament practice of baptism.

It won’t do to appeal to the book of Acts for the necessary justification.  The household baptisms are inconclusive either way.  It is at best an argument from silence.  There is just no clear example of an infant being baptized in the book of Acts, or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter.

It won’t do to appeal to early church history as a justification for infant baptism.  I gladly grant that infant baptism began very early, as far back as the second century.  What I do not grant is that the early church got everything right.  If you read early church history, it becomes painfully obvious that the church embraced elements of a sacramental system of salvation very early.  

Even so, it can be established that infant baptism was not a universal practice at the beginning.  In fact, the first undisputed reference to infant (or child) baptism is actually an argument against it, not for it.  It is by the second/third century theologian Tertullian, and here is what he said in his book De baptismo:

According to everyone’s condition and disposition, and also his age, the delaying of baptism is more profitable, especially in the case of little children. For why is it necessary — if [baptism itself] is not necessary — that the sponsors should be thrust into danger? For they may either fail of their promise by death, or they may be mistaken by a child’s proving of wicked disposition. . . . They that understand the weight of baptism will rather dread the receiving of it, than the delaying of it. An entire faith is secure of salvation! (Chapter 18)[3]

 This is an argument, whether you agree with it or not, in which Tertullian is arguing that baptism should be delayed, especially in the case of little children.

Conclusion

One thing we don’t want to do here is to conclude that because there is so much disagreement on the issue, we shouldn’t have to decide either way, or that it doesn’t matter.  Because this is an ordinance given by our Lord to the church, we don’t have the luxury to ignore it.  Here is what Jesus said to do: make disciples, baptize them, and teach them.  We can’t ignore baptism because people disagree about it anymore than we can ignore evangelism or discipleship because people don’t agree on the best way to do those things either.

Also, it means that if you believe in Jesus Christ, if you have embraced him as Lord and Savior, if you believe that God raised him from the dead – in other words, if you believe the gospel and if you love Jesus as he is presented to us in the Bible – then part of your obedience to Christ is to go public with your faith and to be baptized and to join the church.  This is the consistent message of the New Testament: believe the gospel and be baptized.  “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).  Over and over again you see the pattern: people believe and are baptized.  It is the same today.  It is part of our glad obedience to Christ.

If you ask: but why is baptism so important?  What’s the point?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  And at this point I will say something about the mode of baptism.  Baptism is by an immersion of the body in water.  That is just what the word means.  Baptism no doubt points to the cleansing which we receive in the forgiveness of sins (and what better way to do this than by immersing the body in water!).  But it does more than that: it points to our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6:3 and Col. 2:12).  Baptism symbolizes that reality.  In doing so, we are celebrating in a very vivid way our participation in these redemptive events.  As we do so, our faith is helped and strengthened through this act.  It also strengthens the faith of the church as we rejoice with those who have come to faith in Christ and see again a physical picture of a wonderful spiritual reality.

So, if you are a believer in Jesus and have not yet been baptized, there is one thing for you to do: confess your faith in the Lord by being baptized.



[1] Paedobaptist comes from two Greek word which mean “infant” and “baptism,” hence, it refers to people who embrace the practice of infant baptism.

[2] This is an argument that I borrow from Gavin Ortlund.  See his argument here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/why-not-grandchildren-an-argument-against-reformed-paedobaptism/

[3] See https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-old-is-infant-baptism

1 comment:

  1. As far as my understanding goes at this time I agree 100 percent with the biblical presentation of why I am a Baptist!

    ReplyDelete

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