Baptism is a covenant sacrament, the sign and seal God has used to remind those redeemed and faithful in Christ of his promise to grant eternal life in heaven. Baptism signifies union with the person of Christ and also with the body of Christ. God gives new spiritual life to individual people, and normally, he does this in the context of community. Therefore, as has historically taken place with covenant signs and seals, God is expressing through baptism that he is saving not only individuals but also saving a people for himself. Either position on baptism is presumptive: credobaptism, to the exclusion of paedobaptism, presumes upon the credible testimony of a man; while paedobaptism, including credobaptism, presumes upon the credible promise of God.
God provided an everlasting covenant through Abraham that culminated in the provision of Christ for the salvation of his people. Christians are called Abraham’s sons by our kinship in the same faith, though we may not be his blood descendants. God’s promises were not only for Abraham but for his entire house, therefore Abraham was to devote everything he had to the Lord and to demonstrate it by conferring upon his son the covenant sign. All the faithful in Christ also are the spiritual children of Abraham, so unless we are part of the Abrahamic Covenant, we are not members of the household of faith.
As we carefully follow the redemptive-historical grid that spans Scripture, we see that because the New Testament states the promises God made to Abraham are perpetual, we recognize that children are included as members of the New Covenant. The precedent established by Abraham was carried through the law of Moses and throughout the history of Israel, and Joshua’s declaration is emblematic of the head of household’s right to speak on behalf of his family: (Joshua 24:15) “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
On this basis of perpetuity, Reformed theology has understood the governing principle of both the Old Testament and the New Testament to be the grace of God in Christ. Throughout the biblical economy, we observe God working his grace as well as his judgment through families. The Old Testament finds its meaning in the New Testament, as well as the New Testament is understood through the principles of the Old Testament.
To particularly understand the relationship between baptism and circumcision, we must be incisive with our hermeneutical procedure. Both circumcision and baptism illustrate the spiritual reality of the cleansing power of atoning blood sacrifice. All the promises of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in Christ, so circumcision was the erstwhile sign of the Lord’s covenant of grace in its former administration, and baptism is the current sign of the Lord’s covenant of grace in its present administration.
Paul the apostle was opposed to the imposition of the Mosaic law upon anyone as a condition of salvation (Romans 14:1-8, Galatians 2:3, 5:2-6). The New Testament strongly insists that circumcision no longer can serve as the covenant sign (Acts 15:1-2, 21:21, Galatians 2:3-5, 5:2-6, 6:12-15). At the same time, Paul never discouraged circumcision as a Jewish custom for those who wished to continue it, and he balanced that with the qualification that circumcision no longer signifies the promise of the covenant or the presence of faith (I Corinthians 7:18-19). Paul allowed the continuation of Jewish religious customs so that the gospel would not become a casualty of the debate concerning the old law, thereby ensuring the gospel would always prevail (I Corinthians 9:19-23).
Circumcision no longer has spiritual significance for God’s people. By divine authority, baptism has superseded circumcision as the initiatory sign and seal of the covenant of grace. Although there are clear physical dissimilarities between these, the key parallel between baptism and circumcision is that they both point to the same spiritual promise: eternal life for those with faith. Even though the covenant sign has changed, the features of the covenant of faith are the same. Certain important aspects of circumcision have continued into baptism — namely, the faith of the head of a household represents his children. This would have been so obviously understood by the apostles and any first-century Jewish patriarch, that it would have been a foreign concept, actually an almost outrageous notion, for his family not to also receive the covenant sign on account of his covenant community membership.
The question of who should receive baptism is one of a burden of proof. The reason Scripture doesn’t explicitly command the church to baptize infants is because this mandate of the covenant sign based on federal headship was so clearly and widely accepted as the standard in the first-century apostolic setting, when baptism became the sign of the New Covenant. Thus, paedobaptists do not need to furnish proof of a clear command in Scripture that children should be baptized. In fact, the onus is upon antipaedobaptists to produce an unequivocal contrary command, clearly demonstrating exactly when and where in Scripture this longstanding underlying principle of federal headship was abruptly repealed after being practiced for about 1,500 years. Rothwell wrote,
“… the objection (that the New Testament does not tell us explicitly to baptize children) assumes a large degree of discontinuity between the old and new covenants, that something from the old covenant must be explicitly commanded in new covenant for it to remain in force. But that is not how Jesus read the Bible (Matt. 5:17-20). Following Jesus’ example, the Reformed way to interpret the Scriptures is to assume continuity, to follow Old Testament prescriptions unless we are told otherwise. The New Testament never tells us to stop applying the sacrament of regeneration to the children of believers.” (“Baptism and Children,” Tabletalk, October 2017, Vol. 41, No. 10, p. 51)
With the preponderance of attention the apostles gave to the issues of circumcision and dietary laws throughout the New Testament, opponents of infant baptism are obligated to explain why the same apostles never once said a word even hinting that the early church should change or reverse the rule of conferring the covenant sign upon the children of a believing head of household. Berkhof put it this way:
“Moreover, the question may be raised how the Baptist himself can prove the correctness of his own position by an express command of Scripture. Does the Bible anywhere command the exclusion of children from baptism? Does it command that all those who are born and reared in Christian families must profess their faith before they are baptized? Clearly, there are no such commands.” (Systematic Theology, p. 545)
We must keep in mind that the record of baptisms that took place in the New Testament are of adults who previously were not believers. The reason for this should be obvious: there were no children being born into the New Covenant yet, and those who received Apostle Peter’s command to “repent and be baptized” could not have been the children of believers, so they were first-generation Christians. To this point, Berkhof elaborated,
“The absence of all definite references to infant baptism finds its explanation, at least to a large extent, in the fact that Scripture gives us a historical record of the missionary work of the apostles, but no such record of the work that was carried on in the organized churches. And here, the tables may be easily turned on the Baptist. Will he show us an example of the baptism of an adult who had been born and reared in a Christian home? There is no danger that he ever will.” (Systematic Theology, p. 545)
Therefore, infants of believers who should be baptized are in a different class than first-generation Christians who should be baptized. Under the Old Covenant, whenever an individual or group joined Israel’s communion, he had to be instructed in torah, or the law of the Lord, before he received the covenant sign of circumcision. Because he was from another nation, his faith was not represented by a covenant family head. In the same way, when any person comes to faith in Christ and he is the first generation in his family known to be a Christian, he should be baptized. This is the appropriate situation for a believer’s baptism.
Wherever we observe baptisms take place within the book of Acts, we also should conscientiously take into account the clues within that same narrative which indicate that the covenant community continued to include children as rightful members. For instance, after his Pentecostal sermon, Peter addressed Jews and reminded them they were sons of the covenant and rightful heirs to Abraham’s promised blessings (Acts 3:25). In another instance, when believers in Jerusalem were concerned Paul had been teaching that children were no longer to be initiated into the covenant community, Paul went out of his way to participate in an exercise to clarify, among other things, that covenant status still belongs to the children of covenant members (Acts 21:17-26).
Many Reformed theologians throughout history, such as John Calvin and Herman Bavinck, agree that a Christian’s baptism is not on the ground of faith, however, his baptism is always on the basis of God’s covenant — this is true for the child as well as the adult.
When a person is born to Christian parents, the faith of the believing parent or parents represents that child and everyone else in the household. Even having one believing parent makes the child “holy,” in other words set aside already as a member of the covenant community. This federal-headship aspect of the New Covenant obligates believing parents to baptize their newborn — and with a thoroughgoing understanding of the New Covenant, it should be not only their obligation but their joy to do so. God does not want just rote obedience. Like with anything normative in Scripture, it should not merely be our duty to obey, but our delight.
When the head of a household baptizes his child, the parents and the covenant community are committing to raise the child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and to look to the mercy signified by the child’s baptism whenever both parents and children inevitably at times fail in word and deed. If baptism is anyone’s expression besides God’s, it’s an expression by the parent and community — we ask the only One who can save us and our households to have mercy on all of us.
As baptized children are reared, parents, family and friends pray that the Lord will be merciful to them, as we look back to their baptism as a reminder of their obligation to set the example for those youths to follow the ways of the Lord. In this way, said the 19th-century Southern Presbyterian pastor R.L. Dabney, baptism is a sacrament to the parent as well as the child. Children should not be presumed to be elected just because they were born to Christian parents, yet, they should be raised as the appointed heirs of the promised covenant blessings unless they speak or behave in a way that evidences otherwise.
Above all, baptism signifies what God is doing in salvation. Christian parents in respect to faith represent their child, and baptism is a pledge God makes that the child will receive the promised benefits of the covenant — the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the gift of eternal life — when the terms of the covenant are satisfied: specifically, trusting in Jesus Christ. (Recall that in the ancient context, seals were appended to promissory covenants to vouch for its truth, but the bequeath of the promised good was stipulated with conditions.)
Though the person who has received baptism must have faith in Christ to be justified, that faith is not possible without the Lord doing the regenerative work in the person’s heart. The covenant sign and seal is contingent on this gift of faith and repentance to make it effectual and meaningful. Therefore, baptism must primarily be about God and his promises, not about us and our response. Preaching on Romans, Dr. Sproul once said, “In the sacraments, God guarantees the consequences of justification to all who believe, not to all who receive the sign.”
As circumcision initiated infant boys into the visible nation of Israel, baptism brings children into the visible church, those who claim citizenship in heaven, which according to the apostles is, (I Peter 2:9) “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,” bound for (Hebrews 11:10) “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”
Circumcision signified and sealed the righteousness that Abraham already possessed through faith, as a believing adult. Notwithstanding, Abraham also was commanded to circumcise his sons even before they were old enough to express an intelligent faith commitment. Because this is an indisputable fact, it is erroneous as a matter of principle to refrain from administering the sign of the covenant before the faith of that covenant is active. In interpreting the connection between circumcision and baptism consistently, we understand that baptism is properly applied to converts who are adults after they profess faith, and baptism also is legitimately extended to their children although those children might not yet be able to profess or exercise faith. Berkhof adeptly points out,
“He [the Baptist] argues as follows: Active faith is the prerequisite of baptism. Infants cannot exercise faith. Therefore infants may not be baptized. But in that way these words might also be construed into an argument against infant salvation, since they not only imply but explicitly state that faith (active faith) is the condition for salvation. To be consistent the Baptist would thus find himself burdened with the following syllogism: Faith is the conditio sine qua non of salvation. Children cannot yet exercise faith. Therefore children cannot be saved. But this is a conclusion from which the Baptist himself would shrink back.” (Systematic Theology, p. 546)
Infants under the Old Covenant who were circumcised did not comprehend what the sign meant, but they were circumcised actually for the mortification of their corrupt and sinful nature — a mortification to which they aspired afterward as they became older and came to know the Lord. In the same way, infants are baptized today “from nonage,” to borrow John Calvin’s term; in the hope that as they grow, they will aspire to mortify their flesh, imitating the faith of their parents, the faith that first belonged to Abraham, as is affirmed in the New Testament,
(Romans 4:11-12) “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
Many Baptists will say that baptism in a professing Christian is a seal of Christ’s righteousness, however Romans 4:11 indicates that circumcision also points to the selfsame righteousness by faith. Both circumcision and baptism signify circumcision of the heart.
Yet, just as it was with circumcision, neither believer’s baptism nor infant baptism in themselves guarantee the presence of saving faith in their subjects. Generally, the New Covenant is a very inclusive covenant, more so than was the Old Covenant: New Covenant members may be male or female, they may be Jews or Gentiles, and they may even be true Christians or not true Christians. The New Covenant has not been internalized for such people who are unregenerated, yet by association, they are blessed just to share the more external features enjoyed by the New Covenant community, if not in a true, experiential way.
The fourth-century church father Augustine described the visible church as a corpus permixtum, or “mixed body.” That is, the church is an aggregate of all forgiven sinners and unredeemed professors. Until the end of the age when the Lord returns to separate the wheat from the chaff, there will be a mixture of truly converted people who are baptized and unconverted people who are baptized, both dwelling in the company of the visible church. This reality is shared by Presbyterians who have baptized covenant children in their churches and by Baptists who have only professing believers baptized in their churches.
Hebrews establishes that just as people could break the Old Covenant, so also people could break the New Covenant. This does not mean that truly born-again people can lose their salvation, but those who are broadly considered a part of the covenant can prove themselves to be apart from the covenant (cf. Matthew 25:1-30, I John 2:19). Until the return of Christ, it should never be misunderstood that the New Covenant is inviolable. In fact, the New Testament sets an expectation that some participants in the New Covenant will break that covenant. Some people, lacking saving faith, will falsely bear the mark but that does not make the mark itself false. Therefore, just because some infants who are baptized may eventually prove to be covenant breakers is not valid basis to reject the practice of paedobaptism. Just as the Old Covenant was, the New Covenant is elliptical: it contains blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Whoever breaks the covenant terms God stipulates will be subject to the sanctions of the covenant.
Baptism is not a choice decided by a person’s cognitive capacity any more than salvation, that promise which it signifies, is a choice from his cognitive capacity. Every time salvation occurs, it’s because God elects — whether a person is baptized as a child or an adult, his baptism follows either his parents’ faith or his own faith, and faith is God’s gift, so either way he does not “choose” baptism.
Operating from our 21st-century paradigm which exalts an individualistic mindset, we as modern Christians are instinctively inclined to think of our spiritual commitments as our own, not decided by the head of a household. “It’s because of my faith … my baptism … my commitment … my obedience … my choice …,” and so on, is so often the clarion call of the present-day Evangelical. That is completely normal thinking in our culture, yet it would have been unfamiliar to the Jewish families of the early church, which understood that salvation is not based on, nor is it expressed solely by a person’s autonomy. Just as a Jew who had the mark of circumcision as an infant indicated a heritage of faith for which he should be grateful, a Christian who has the mark of baptism as an infant indicates a heritage of faith for which he should be grateful. Even as a typical father has dependent children in his household, our heavenly Father has dependent children in the household of faith.
I don’t believe all opponents of covenant baptism have some kind of sinister “individualistic” motive. The perennial challenge for Christians during any period in history has been to try to understand Scripture through the context of the 1st century, and conversely try to avoid filtering it through the lenses of modern cultural presuppositions.
Though not directly relating to circumcision, the New Testament relates baptism to Old Testament concepts that deserves our consideration. In both of his epistles, Peter correlated baptism with the flood waters through which the world perished, and Noah and his family were chosen by God to be saved (I Peter 3:20-12, II Peter 2:5). Paul also correlated Christian baptism to the Red Sea through which the Egyptian army was destroyed, and Israel was sprinkled clean from above and was saved (I Corinthians 10:1-5, Psalm 77:14-20). In fact, the apostle directly refers to God’s feat as baptism. Just as the ancient Israelites enjoyed physical and spiritual salvation through baptism, being eventually delivered to their promised land, as Christians, in baptism we die to the world and are consecrated to enter a new one.
We might even reconsider John the Baptist’s ministry through the lens of Joshua chapters 3 through 5. In these chapters, we have explicit reference to a miraculous parting of waters with the Ark of the Covenant carried by the priests (Joshua 3:13-16); the circumcision of the new generation of Israel (Joshua 5:2-8), and their consequent death to the stigma of Egypt (Joshua 5:9) as special rites of consecration (Joshua 3:5), preparing the Israelites to conquer Canaan, their promised land. At the end of the Old Testament era, John assembled Jewish people at the Jordan River to prepare them to reconquer the promised land, under the leadership of the new Joshua, Jesus Christ — though the conquest would not be in their expected way.
Circling back, in the final analysis, the most important thing about a person’s baptism — perhaps the only important thing — is that his baptism actually signifies true conversion. With the absence of saving faith, baptism is moot. To define baptism as a personal profession of faith more so than God’s pledge of his own faithfulness, is to make salvation itself man-centered instead of God-centered. We have nothing to boast. Dr. Jones has written,
“We must trust in the Lord to benefit from His covenant promises. Abraham responded in faith: he ‘believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness’ (Romans 4:6), and the Lord blessed him. Even here, however, God by His Spirit grants to His elect the responses of faith, and so guarantees our fulfillment of our covenant obligations Himself (Eph. 2:8-9).” (“What is a Covenant?,” Tabletalk, May 2014, Vol. 38, No. 5, p. 7)
It is, after all, not simply our baptism and our salvation. It is God’s authority to forgive, God’s baptism and God’s salvation (Psalm 37:39, Jonah 2:9, Mark 2:5-7).