Module 3 | The covenant sign in the New Testament: baptism

We observe the following points about the covenant sign during the current administration of God’s covenant of grace.

1. Like circumcision, God instituted baptism as a sign and seal of His covenant union with His people through Christ.

(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.”

(Colossians 2:11-12) “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Paul’s instruction in Colossians 2 of baptism’s supersession over circumcision is made even more clear for us in the narrative of Acts 15, where the apostles and elders discussed and determined that circumcision would cease to be required of New Testament believers, and that baptism alone would be sufficient as the initiatory rite for the Christian church.

2. This baptism represents the removal of spiritual uncleanness, and is an external reminder to those with faith, the true children of Abraham, of the promises of forgiveness and regeneration — in other words, remission of sins and the spiritual change God would effect in the hearts of His people. As it was with circumcision, baptism as a sign must be matched with the thing signified: evidence of a changed life.

(Colossians 2:13) “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses …”

(Galatians 3:7-9, 26-29) “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. … For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

(Ephesians 2:11-12) “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

(Titus 3:3-8) “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.”

3. Along with these covenant promises, baptism symbolizes purity, sets aside its recipients for a holy purpose, and obliges its recipients to walk in newness of life. Members under a believing head of household are called to the same standard.

(Romans 6:3-4) “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

(I Corinthians 7:14) “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”

What Apostle Paul argued for with the word “holy” is the sanctification of unbelieving spouses married to believers, through association — not sanctification in the sense of inward transformation, but of consecration: being set aside in holiness. According to Paul’s language at the opening of the same letter (I Corinthians 1:2), being “holy” or “sanctified” was equivalent to inclusion in the church. In the New Testament, some people may not be genuine believers but are superficially blessed just to be involved in the more external features enjoyed by the covenant community.

(Ephesians 6:1) “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

The apostle’s careful qualifier “in the Lord” sets a spiritual expectation upon a presumably believing youngster. On this verse, Dr. Kevin DeYoung teaches his congregation,

“Children in the church are not treated as little pagans to be evangelized, but members of the covenant who owe their allegiance to Christ.” (The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism, p. 133)

4. Baptism initiates membership into the covenant community. The precept of baptism was commanded by Jesus and the apostles, as the mark God appointed to sanctify His people — that is, to separate His people from the world and make them holy.

(Matthew 28:18-20) “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'”

(I Corinthians 12:12-13) “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

5. God instructed baptism to be given to entire households once the head of the household identified with the covenant community. As the New Covenant is a very inclusive covenant, females are eligible for baptism and they, just like males, are represented with the covenant sign through the standard of federal headship.

(Acts 2:38-39) “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.'”

Here, the language Peter used with the Jews present was univocal with the language God used with Abraham so many generations before (Genesis 17:9-11). By alluding to this Torah passage that every Jew present would have known, Peter strongly suggested that the Abrahamic Covenant has not been annulled. The promise here refers to the Holy Spirit, and to receive the Holy Spirit is to have a change of heart and to be converted to Christ (Romans 8:9).

Dr. Bryan Chapell exegeted,

“Peter frames his call to salvation in Christ in covenantal terms by speaking of a promise that applies to his listeners and to their children as well as to others who are yet far off. The apostle assumes that God continues to relate to us as individuals and as families — that the covenant principles are still in effect. Individuals (even in covenant families) are still responsible to express their personal faith, but God continues to work out his gracious promises in families as well as extending the covenant to others.” (Why Do We Baptize Infants?, pp. 12-13)

Berkhof likewise elaborated,

“The Lord Himself instituted another rite, and on the day of Pentecost Peter says to those who joined the Church that the promise is unto them and to their children, and further to as many as the Lord Himself shall call. This statement of Peter at least proves that he still had the organic conception of the covenant in mind.” (Systematic Theology, p. 545)

Though Peter tied baptism with salvation very closely in his sermon at Pentecost, later in his ministry when he dealt with baptism again, he carefully qualified his statements with,

(I Peter 3:21) “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ …”

The water of baptism which cleanses the body is not what literally effects salvation, it’s what that baptism points to: the appeal to God for a clean conscience. Just like circumcision had under the Old Covenant, the New Testament clarifies that baptism isn’t simply an external formality. It not only identifies recipients with the covenant community and covenant relationship with God — baptism also calls for internalization. Those who receive baptism are to be cleansed, not simply outwardly but more significantly, inwardly.

There is a close relationship between “the sign and the thing signified,” to borrow the wording of WCF 27.2, yet since the Scriptures don’t explain in detail the connection between saving grace and baptism, the two things are not to be conflated. In regard to the close, nearly inexplicable relationship between baptism and the bestowal of divine grace, Dr. Richard Pratt has helpfully written:

“Reformed theology views baptism as a mysterious encounter with God that takes place through a rite involving physical elements and special ceremony. Through this encounter, God graciously distributes blessings to those who participate by faith and also judgment to those who participate without faith.” (Baptism as a Sacrament of the Covenant, p. 1)

This relationship is further clarified with Rothwell’s devotional remarks:

“Because water is a cleansing agent for dirt on the body, it is a fitting visible sign for the spiritual cleansing that God effects for our souls in Christ. But note that the reality of forgiveness to which baptism points comes to pass only as baptized individuals repent. Peter joins the necessity of repentance with baptism in today’s passage, so we see that as with regeneration, there is no automatic connection between the rite of baptism and the experience of divine forgiveness. God makes a true promise to forgive sin in baptism but that promise is made only to those who repent. Without repentance, we do not benefit from the grace signed and sealed by the sacrament. But if we are living lives of faith and repentance, the water of baptism assures us that God has cleansed us from our sin and forgiven us.” (“Baptism and Forgiveness,” Tabletalk, October 2017, Vol. 41, No. 10, p. 47)

Peter’s statement at Pentecost makes it clear that God’s New Covenant promises are as much for present believers’ children as the Old Covenant promises were for the children of Old Covenant believers. However, the covenant does carry stipulations:

“Preeminently, repentance and faith are the covenant obligations for those who receive the sacrament. Just as those who were circumcised had to repent and believe, so must those who are baptized repent and believe. If we do not, we will be cut off from God’s people and from eternal salvation.” (“Baptism and Circumcision,” Tabletalk, October 2017, Vol. 41, No. 10, p. 49)

As mentioned earlier, the apostles considered children of believers to be “holy” by association. Therefore, the underlying principle of corporate solidarity, that is, between parents and children, remains in place, as Peter stated in his sermon on Pentecost. If infants and young children share status of being in the covenant as their parents do, then it is fitting to confer upon them the sign of this status and their position in the community of believers, and it is unfitting for the church to refrain from it. This fitness finds its basis in the conferral of the covenant sign upon covenant community members’ children in Genesis 17:7-25.

I readily acknowledge that the following instances of baptism in the Acts narrative do not specify that individual members of these households personally professed faith. However, a baseline early in the book is provided in Peter’s apostolic instruction, and a consistent reading of the text indicates that the members of the household were represented in baptism by their believing patriarch or matriarch.

About a quarter of the baptisms mentioned in the New Testament state that entire households were baptized. The New Testament in these examples never indicates that involving the household was out of the ordinary, but instead refers to it as a matter of course. Whether or not infants or small children actually were included in these instances, the underlying principle of representative faith is still present in these cases.

(Acts 16:15) “And after she [Lydia] was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us.”

(Acts 16:29-33) “And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”

(I Corinthians 1:16) “I [Paul] did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.”

Dr. John Sartelle contends,

“Some have said that we cannot prove there were children in those households. However, to assume that these homes, along with the other households baptized in the entire Mediterranean area, had no children is a presumption bordering on prejudice. Can we say that the household baptisms mentioned were the only ones and that in every case the converts were childless and that their servants were childless?” (What Christian Parents Should Know About Infant Baptism, p. 8)

It’s very important for us to take into account that the narrative catalog of baptisms that took place in the New Testament is of adults who previously were unbelievers. The reason for this is obvious: the gospel was a recent revelation, the church as they knew it was new, baptism in the covenant was new, and the first members of the church were first-generation Christians. It shouldn’t be surprising to us that in a missionary phase such as the apostolic period, the baptism of adults naturally was the priority. Given other considerations that have to be taken into account, although the New Testament records people who were baptized after believing in Jesus, this is descriptive of what took place in this setting and should not necessarily be given prescriptive weight.

Aside from these observations, if we’re to look to Acts to derive clues about who was considered part of the covenant community, then we also must consider other episodes that occurred in the narrative. Luke was careful to inform readers of Acts that the covenant principles carried over into the current (New Testament) administration. Building on Zechariah’s prophecy (Luke 1:67-79), after Pentecost, Peter reminded a group of Jews,

(Acts 3:25-26) “You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.”

In another situation, believers in Jerusalem were concerned that Paul as an apostle was teaching the cessation of children as members of the covenant community. In order to resolve the misunderstanding about the rumor that had been circulating about him, Paul accommodated a request made by these believers at Jerusalem, in order to show that children should still be included as covenant members.

(Acts 21:17-26) “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.’ Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.”

Though the Scripture doesn’t detail for us all the circumstances of this situation, we do know that representative faith was one of the subjects that surfaced. It had already been resolved by this point that believing Gentiles were not bound to the law of Moses (Acts 15:1-41), so the issue here was whether or not the Jewish Christians who were dispersed among the Gentiles should continue observing ceremonial aspects of the law. In this vein, The Reformation Study Bible explains,

“Though Paul has no objection to Jews’ following their ancestral customs and does so when ministering to Jews (16:3; 18:18, see 1 Cor. 9:20), he opposes any attempt to impose the observance of Mosaic ceremonial laws on Gentiles, or to make such observance in some way necessary for salvation (Rom. 14:1-8; Gal. 2:3; 5:2-6). Always careful to avoid giving unnecessary offense, Paul’s flexibility in such matters shows that the interests of the gospel are always foremost in his mind (1 Cor. 9:19-23). He even counsels Jewish believers in Corinth against a misguided attempt to reverse their circumcision (1 Cor. 7:18, 19).” (The Reformation Study Bible, footnote on Acts 21:20, p. 1957)

6. As important as baptism is, mere outward reception of the covenant sign is of no ultimate benefit. Consequently, people may receive the covenant sign without actually being converted, and conversely, it is possible to be saved without the covenant sign.

(Galatians 6:12-15) “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

(Hebrews 6:4-8) “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”

(Hebrews 10:29-30) “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.'”

This warning is derived from Deuteronomy 32:26, which was directed to those under the Covenant of Law. In applying it to the people of the New Covenant, the author of Hebrews equated the stipulation that Israel had under the Old Covenant, now to the situation of those who enjoy New Covenant status awaiting Christ’s return. Judgment was possible for the Old Covenant community, just as it is now for the New Covenant community. Logically, judgment proceeds only from breaking the covenant, not from keeping the covenant. Conversely, since it’s possible to break the covenant even by one who has the covenant sign, then so also is the judgment that is God’s vowed reaction to that apostasy (Leviticus 26:40-42, Ezekiel 18:5-20).

7. “It is a great sin to contemn or neglect” (borrowing the wording of WCF 28.5) to give the covenant sign to anyone who is eligible for it. Baptism became part of the law of Israel when the last “Old Testament” prophet before Christ, John, commanded a baptism of repentance. To not submit to baptism was disobedience.

(Luke 7:29-30) “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.”

(Acts 10:47) “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

In identifying with sinful humanity, Jesus insisted that John baptize him (Matthew 3:15) “to fulfill all righteousness.” Since God delivered His law, baptism, to Israel through the prophet John, Jesus sought baptism not because He Himself was sinful, needed to repent and be forgiven, but because His perfect active obedience to every part of the law was required for Him to be guaranteed as the Lamb of God, to propitiate the wrath of the Father as a suitable sacrifice for His people.

8. Baptism is implied to have been given to non-elect persons who were legitimate members of the covenant community but who apparently demonstrated their profession of faith was not a true saving faith.

(I Timothy 1:19-20) “… holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

(I John 2:19) “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

After adults find admission into the covenant by faith and conversion, they should receive baptism on the ground of their New Covenant standing — as is described in so many conversion and baptism instances in the church of Acts. The Dutch commentator Geerhard Kramer in 1897 reiterated this position of John Calvin, as it is rendered in one translation:

“Calvin finds occasion here in connection with infant baptism, how that he has taken the standpoint of the covenant, to draw the line farther. Up to this point he has not called attention to the fact that adults too are baptized according to the rule of covenant. And therefore it might seem that there was a difference between the baptism of adults and that of children. The adults to be baptized on the ground of their faith, infants, on the ground of the covenant of God. No, the Reformer declares, the only rule according to which, and the legal ground on which, the Church may administer baptism, is the covenant. This is true in the case of adults as well as in the case of children. That the former must first make a confession of faith and conversion, is due to the fact that they are outside of the covenant. In order to be admitted into the communion of the covenant, they must first learn the requirements of the covenant, and then faith and conversion open the way to the covenant.” (Het Verband van Doop en Wedergeboorte, p. 122 f.)

9. Baptism, like its Old-Testament counterpart, circumcision, was to be administered only once.

(I Corinthians 7:18-19) “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”

Simon, the magician, believed and was baptized. Whether or not his belief was a true saving faith, he was instructed by Peter to repent without mention of a re-baptism, and the absence of that mention should be considered.

(Acts 8:12-13, 18-24) “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. … Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.’ And Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.'”

On the idea of being baptized more than once, Dr. Sproul has remarked,

“Because baptism is the sign of God’s promise, it is not to be administered to a person more than once. To be baptized more than once is to cast a shadow of doubt on the integrity and sincerity of God’s promise. Surely those who have been baptized two or more times do not intend to cast doubt on God’s integrity, but the action, if properly understood, would communicate such doubt. It is every Christian’s duty, however, to be baptized.” (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, p. 226)

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Covenant theology, sacramentology, systematic theology