A monograph on covenant baptism from the normative perspective

by Peter Benyola
In various civilizations of the ancient world, contracts were authenticated with a wax imprint from a sealing stamp bearing a personal emblem. image: public domain

Endorsements

“Baptism, so central to Christian faith and life, simply cannot be understood without reference to covenant theology. In this work, Peter Benyola clearly draws the lines that connect God’s saving covenant, His work in both Old and New Testaments, and the sacrament of baptism that we celebrate in our churches today. The result is an irenic explanation of paedobaptism that I pray the Spirit will bless to many.”
— Dr. Joel R. Beeke
President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics
Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Pastor, Heritage Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids (HRC)
Author, Bringing the Gospel to Covenant Children and Knowing and Growing in Assurance of Faith

“Peter Benyola’s concise presentation offers an excellent introduction for those who want to gain a good overview of what covenant theology is and why it’s important. He provides a solid foundation for how the New Testament flows out of the Old Testament and establishes the necessary conclusion for the powerful application of baptism to all of God’s covenant people. I commend this work to you.”
— Randy Booth
Pastor, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (CREC), Nacogdoches, Texas
Director, Covenant Media Foundation
Author, Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism

“My friend Peter Benyola has assembled a large amount of biblical and historical information in this volume. He is committed to a biblical, covenantal, and Reformed perspective, and you will find a good case for infant baptism here.”
— Dr. John M. Frame
Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Emeritus
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida
Minister, Central Florida Presbytery, Presbyterian Church in America, Honorably Retired
Author, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief and Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and Its Significance

“Peter Benyola provides a useful resource which covers the familiar loci of the infant baptism debate among evangelical and Reformed thinkers. The compendium of texts cited and quotes is very handy. Beyond addressing covenants, signs of covenant, and mode of baptism, which are all common in the discussion, there is also an interesting excursus addressing the Book of Mormon’s renunciation of infant baptism.”
— Dr. Gregg Strawbridge
Pastor, All Saints Church: A Reformational & Covenantal Congregation (CREC), Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Presiding Minister, Augustine Presbytery, the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals
Author, Covenantal Infant Baptism: An Outlined Defense
Editor, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism

“Peter Benyola has compiled a large collection of historical and current thoughts on the subject of infant baptism. He has analyzed this material and given much thought to the contemporary questions and objections on infant baptism. It is well reasoned and shows great contemplation on the topic at hand. Much thought was given to organization and explanation. Any Christian would benefit greatly from this book.”
— Dr. Kenneth G. Talbot
President, Whitefield College and Theological Seminary
Senior Pastor, Christ Presbyterian Church (RPCGA), Lakeland, Florida
Author, Confirming Our Faith: A Reformed Covenantal Theology of the Sacraments and Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism

 

Contents

Introduction
Module 1 | Overview of Covenant theology: how God has historically identified his people
Module 2 | The covenant sign in the Old Testament: circumcision
Module 3 | The covenant sign in the New Testament: baptism
Module 4 | The New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 and its corporate-solidarity characteristic
Module 5 | Cross-Testamental continuity of the covenant sign
Module 6 | Modes of administering baptism
Module 7 | Post-apostolic evidence of infant baptism in early church practice
Excursus | Response to the Book of Mormon’s renunciation of infant baptism
Summary
Conclusion
Further study

Introduction

“According to your mercy, You, O God, have established a covenant with us in Holy Baptism in which You have obligated Yourself to be our God and to forgive our sins for Christ’s sake. Thanks, everlasting thanks, be unto You this gracious covenant. And now grant us grace to believe Your Word, and strength to persevere to the end, that we may adorn our profession in all things, through Jesus Christ. Amen.”
(Martin Luther’s prayer on Psalm 105, The Summaries of the Psalms, 1531, translated from the Weimar Edition, vol. 38, and the St. Louis Edition, vol. 4)

Baptism is a lavish blessing. Like its counterpart sacrament of the church, the Lord’s Supper, baptism is a visible, tactile indicator God has given to remind His people of His faithfulness in fulfilling all He has promised us for this life and the next. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the vincula which bind together the members of Christ’s body. The magisterial Reformers used to say, “The sacraments are visible words.” That is, they communicate to us and assure in graphic, dramatic ways, what we have heard communicated to us and assured by the preaching of God’s Word. God appeals to all our senses, so in the proclamation of His Word, prayer, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we are able to hear, see, touch and taste our salvation.

The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum, from the root word sacer which means sacred or holy. Sacramentum is derived from the Vulgate’s rendering of the Greek word musterion. In essence, sacraments are holy mysteries, not in the sense that they are indiscernible, but in the sense of the truth they reveal. Baptism does reveal a mystery, namely, the obedience of faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sacraments also are called “the ordinary means of grace” because they’re the normal means God uses to teach us the gospel — but the eternal truths they point to are extraordinary, such that, (I Corinthians 2:9)What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

The men who were divinely inspired to write Scripture were the same ones who first received the burden to pastor the Lord’s church. These apostles intended baptism to set apart and divide God’s people from the world, not for baptism to divide God’s people from God’s people. True to its essence, they meant for baptism to unite — unite us first with the Lord who graciously brings us into covenant with Himself, and unite us with each other because we share this spiritual bond with the Lord. Stemming from differing views on ecclesiology — having to do with who is considered part of the church — some Protestant Christians hold that infants of believing parents should be baptized and others hold that only professing believers should be baptized. On both sides there are conscientious Christians and distinguished scholars of Scripture, including Reformed thinkers.

The first misconception about infant baptism that we should dispel is that Christians who practice it do so because of some sort of sentimentalism, or because of some vestigial tradition from Roman Catholicism, to get rid of original sin in case an infant dies before coming to faith. Nor is infant baptism carried out just as a social nicety to appease family or clergy. The Protestant Reformers did not “forget” to reform the doctrine of baptism. Simply because Rome baptizes infants believing the saving power is in the water, for the Reformed church to withhold baptism from infants would be to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.

I want to assert graciously yet unapologetically that Christians should baptize our infants because the Bible instructs us to do so. Baptism is a covenant rite: when parents know Christ, their faith represents their children, therefore children of believers are proper candidates for baptism as members of the covenant community. Moreover, baptism joined with discipleship is central to the Great Commission, and the primary means throughout history that God has used to fulfill that mission and expand His kingdom has been through families. In a related way, Christians’ prayers and evangelism should target entire families, societies and nations.

The praxis of infant baptism is not new, as Dr. Louis Berkhof pointed out,

“Many theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took the position described in the preceding, namely, that infants of believers are baptized, because they are in the covenant and are as such heirs of the rich promises of God including a title, not only to regeneration, but also to all the blessings of justification and of the renewing and sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit.” (Systematic Theology, GLH Publishing Reprint 2017, p. 547, et al.)

The overarching reason why I’m persuaded of the propriety of infant baptism is that baptism isn’t primarily something we do for God — baptism foremost is something God does for us, of course, through the obedience of believers. This isn’t a false dichotomy, because Scripture teaches that the reason we do anything in true obedience is because the Holy Spirit has renewed our hearts, enlivened us to respond to Him in faith, and has supernaturally empowered us to work out our faith by striving in obedience to what His law commands (II Corinthians 7:1, Ephesians 2:8-10, Philippians 2:12-13, Titus 2:11-14).

This has been historically true: When God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, it was a physical as well as a spiritual salvation. The Israelites’ obedience was commanded not so that God might redeem them, but because God had redeemed them (Exodus 18:10, 19:4-8). In the context of the covenant administered by Moses’ sprinkling of blood on the Israelites, God’s people promised obedience to the Ten Commandments before and after they were given (Exodus 19:8, 24:3-11). God first saved His people and declared them to be His treasured possession, then issued the requirement of obedience to His people, and in response, they promised to obey God (Deuteronomy 26:18).

In the past several centuries of church history to today, baptism has been a regular subject of debate and sometimes hot contention. For example, in 17th-century England, polemical debates pertaining to infant baptism between Puritan writers such as Philip Cary and John Flavel were carried on in published back-and-forth letters that were months in between, and sometimes resumed even years later. With 21st-century technology, everyone has a platform and one does not have to look very far in Reformed groups on Facebook to find threads where opponents from Geneva to Guam can impulsively launch back responses in seconds, some of which are more thoughtful and constructive than others, but all equally visible for the world to see.

Sometimes the debate is healthy and edifying, and often not. Because baptism is meant as a uniting blessing for Christians, it’s historically ironic that baptism so often has been a common point of agitation in the body of Christ. Yet isn’t that how our diabolical adversary would most like to divide the church, by causing discord over exactly that element which God intends to unite us?

Yet, there is a sturdy place to stand on the issue that is both biblical and historical. Evidence points to infant baptism as the monolithic praxis of the church since the apostolic period, that is, the New Testament church, until the Anabaptists questioned it during the 16th-century Reformation. Though at times dissension has taken place in the church concerning baptism, there also have been mature teachers, pastors and theologians in the Reformed community who set a good example by having their respective convictions on baptism, yet working alongside, and treating those with love and respect who hold to the other view. For example, R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur are good friends; Ligon Duncan and Mark Dever are good friends. They’ve shown that disagreement about important yet noncritical matters of doctrine are opportunities to extend grace and patience to each other, in keeping with the priority of our Lord’s prayer for unity among His people in John 17.

First, let’s establish a few rudimentary points about baptism that fall well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy — that is, Evangelicals on either side of the baptism question should be able to agree on these points without dispute.

  1. At its most fundamental, baptism is a rite that represents cleansing and repentance, and it exhibits union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. This union with Christ is the source of every element in our salvation.
  2. Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace, in which a person is marked off, or “stamped off,” identifying the person with the covenant community, and adopted by God into His family.
  3. The duty of all Christians is to be baptized.
  4. The physical event of baptism is closely tied to a person’s spiritual regeneration in that in a visible way it points to the metaphysical reality of salvation — yet the person’s saving event does not normatively and temporally depend on that baptism.
  5. Faith is from the heart, not an outward act — so baptism, though it is the sign of faith, does not guarantee that its recipient has come to faith or will come to faith.
  6. No matter a Christian’s age or his spiritual understanding, he never qualifies for baptism because of his own faithfulness or even his believing parents’ faithfulness, but at any point in his life, always because of the Lord’s faithfulness.

Whatever else we can say about baptism, we all should be on the same page with these basic points, so there’s no point in laboring that which we already agree upon. Evangelical Christians understand that baptism as a rite does not justify a person, rather baptism denotes the reality of the promise of God’s salvation. A person’s salvation is not automatic on account of having been baptized, nor can any clergy “force” a person into the Kingdom through baptism. If someone contends that a person cannot be saved without baptism, he immediately thrusts baptism into the tier of critical gospel-doctrine, thus putting him at odds with how most of Christian orthodoxy interprets Scripture.

For us to understand how sound Reformed theology particularly views baptism, it helps to examine how closely baptism is connected to the preaching of God’s Word. For example, John Calvin identified three marks of “the true church” — that is, a church that is true to what God designed: first, the faithful preaching of God’s Word, and second, the proper administration of the sacraments (as well as church discipline as the third). These marks are enunciated because they comprise two methods by which God’s Word is conveyed to His people: the preached Word and the visible Word. Because these two methods are so closely associated, Reformed theology consistently has viewed them as distinct, yet also working together to save God’s people.

The preaching of the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit is the normative means God uses to imbue saving faith in those He has chosen for Himself, as stated by Paul, (Romans 10:17) “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Therefore, we recognize that no rite or ceremony can serve as this primary function. Baptism, which is a visible ceremony, is added to the preaching of God’s Word in order to confirm the truth of what is heard and what we experience through the inner transformation of the Holy Spirit connected with that preaching.

My late pastor, Dr. R.C. Sproul has written,

“The power of baptism is not in the water but in the power of God. … The validity of baptism does not rest upon the character of the minister who performs it or the character of the person who receives it. Baptism is a sign of the promise of God of salvation to all who believe in Christ. Since it is God’s promise, the validity of the promise rests on the trustworthiness of the character of God.” (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, pp. 225-226)

Berkhof elaborated,

“In view of the fact that according to our Reformed conception, this baptism presupposes regeneration, faith, conversion, and justification, these surely are not to be conceived as wrought by it. In this respect we differ from the Church of Rome. … The believer’s incorporation into mystical union with Christ is also presupposed. Word and sacrament work exactly the same kind of grace, except that the Word, in distinction from the sacrament, is also instrumental in the origination of faith. The sacrament of baptism strengthens faith, and because faith plays an important part in all the other operations of divine grace, these are also greatly benefited by it.” (Systematic Theology, pp. 540-541)

Also helpful are the devotional thoughts by Robert Rothwell:

“So, baptism tangibly confirms God’s promise to cleanse from sin and give new life to all whom He has appointed. In itself, the rite of baptism does not confer new life, but the sacramental union between baptism and regeneration means that ordinarily, no one is regenerated without also, at some point in his life, receiving the sacrament of baptism. When we struggle to believe that God has granted us new spiritual life we can remember our baptism and be encouraged that the Lord, who cannot break His promises, has regenerated all who believe in Christ alone for salvation.” (“Baptism and Regeneration,” Tabletalk, October 2017, Vol. 41, No. 10, p. 45)

“Ultimately, there is mystery here that must be preserved. We tend to err by collapsing the sign and the thing signified together such that baptism regenerates all who receive it, or by so divorcing the sign and the thing signified that baptism confers no spiritual benefit to the elect.” (“Baptism and Union with Christ,” Tabletalk, October 2017, Vol. 41, No. 10, p. 48)

Now having briefly dealt with the Reformed view of the baptism’s efficacy as it relates to salvation; among Evangelical Christians, the differences to discuss concern the subject and the mode of baptism — that is, who should receive baptism and how they should receive it. And, we’ll find that at the center of these is a difference in how God defines the church. This is why baptism is an important matter, in fact, a matter of ecclesiology.

Whichever position we subscribe to, as long as we don’t hold baptism as a normative requirement of the new birth (a.k.a. Spiritual regeneration), then we can claim solidarity with each other on the nucleus of the gospel: justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Baptism reflects that reality. Yet, in a counterintuitive way, the way a person views the work of God in salvation will inform his reading of many doctrines put forth in the Scriptures from beginning to end, including the sacrament of baptism.

Baptism has similarities in some ways to the Lord’s Supper, so it’s often useful to discuss both sacraments together. The New Covenant is sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Zechariah 9:11; Matthew 26:28; John 1:29; Hebrews 9:12; 10:4); and baptism and the Lord’s Supper, both visible signs of this New Covenant, testify to this invisible-as-yet reality. Yet, there are nuances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper that warrant them being treated separately. As some have worded it — namely my own pastor, Dr. Burk Parsons — baptism for the believer is an “initiating sacrament,” not a “graduating sacrament,” as is the Lord’s Supper. To avoid unnecessarily protracting the present discussion, we’re going to table the Lord’s Supper and immerse ourselves in baptism.

During the past several years, baptism has frequently come up among Christian friends from different traditions and I’ve been asked what I believe. I easily could refer my friends to a multitude of quality resources. Yet, there’s something more meaningful about providing a personal answer to someone who asks why I am persuaded in this direction. Since the subject keeps coming up all the time, I’m attempting this for others’ benefit as well as my own. I owe a tremendous scholastic debt to the various theologians quoted herein.

While I’m open to discuss anything published at Benyola.net, my purpose isn’t to instigate anyone to argue. I don’t expect to change the minds of those who have already arrived at a conviction about baptism. At the very least, the Baptist reader should benefit from this information at least to understand the Presbyterian angle. All the sacred tenets of our faith are important, but on those that do not touch the heart of the gospel, (Romans 14:5) “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”

I’ll admit at the outset that the Bible has no explicit command to baptize infants — that is, it doesn’t spell out for the church to practice this. Opponents of infant baptism likewise must concede that in the Bible exists no explicit command against baptizing infants. Also, nowhere does the New Testament say or even imply that baptism requires an adult confession of faith, including those born and raised in Christian families. Therefore, a sound biblical argument either for or against infant baptism must be an argument from implications — a conclusion that follows a series of compounding propositions that must be presented and explained.

As we’ll discover, just because a teaching of Scripture is an implicit one, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less clear or less regulative than an explicit teaching of Scripture. Any complex argument from implications isn’t something that can be explained in a couple minutes, so I ask for the reader’s patience as I endeavor to thoroughly and succinctly make the point.

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Covenant theology, sacramentology, systematic theology