Module 5 | Cross-Testamental continuity of the covenant sign

The New Covenant is where we bring our discussion of circumcision full circle. Many antipaedobaptistic arguments historically have tended to circumvent the covenantal fabric that links the Old and New Testaments. As Rothwell has pointed out,

“Although baptism is a sacrament of the new covenant, that does not mean we understand it from only the new covenant relation. In fact, some of the most important teaching about baptism and its significance is given in the Old Testament.” (“Baptism and Circumcision,” Tabletalk, October 2017, Vol. 41, No. 10, p. 49)

In the New Testament, we find that all of God’s people, Jew or Gentile, are blessed according to the covenant of faith (Ephesians 2:11-19). Apostle Paul reminded us that God promised Abraham, (Galatians 3:8, cf. Genesis 12:3) “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” Since this covenant is still in effect, we who have faith in Christ are blessed as Abraham’s spiritual descendants. Just like God’s provision was the object of faith for Abraham, God’s provision of Christ for our salvation is the object of our faith, which is why Paul wrote, (Romans 15:8) “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,” and, (Galatians 3:9, 14) “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. … so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

In the Old Testament, the head of the household spoke first for himself and then for his family, such as (Joshua 24:15), “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” Jewish patriarchs, part of the covenant community, had their newborn boys circumcised for at least 1,500 years before Christ. It was a clearly accepted precept that those in Jewish households were represented by the faith of the father, or the federal head, and were members of the covenant community by extension. They were practicing this for generations before baptism was commanded by John and later baptism became the covenant sign of the church.

As mentioned earlier, it is a great sin to neglect conferring the covenant sign to anyone who is eligible for it as a member of the covenant community. When Moses failed to circumcise his son, God in His anger nearly put Moses to death. No one should dispute this pertains to circumcision, as it was God’s commandment.

The point where Christians dissent from either the paedobaptism or antipaedobaptism position, is whether or not there is strict continuity in Scripture between circumcision and baptism, and how we basically define God’s covenant people. Paedobaptists contend that children of believers should be included in the New Covenant based on the perpetuity of the promises God made to Abraham.

Drs. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, two leading scholars of Puritan theology, summarized the 17th-century discourse among Puritan theologians that took place concerning the Abrahamic covenant:

“The debate focused on how the Abrahamic covenant relates to the new covenant. The question … is whether we may speak of the Abrahamic covenant (singular, so Reformed) or Abrahamic covenants (plural, so the Baptists). The antipaedobaptists had to speak of two covenants made with Abraham: works and grace. By doing so, they were able to argue that circumcision belonged to the Abrahamic covenant of works and not to the Abrahamic covenant of grace. Reformed paedobaptists would view this as a forced exegesis that is wholly unpersuasive — particularly in light of Romans 4:11 — and a major departure from classic Reformed covenant theology.” (A Puritan Theology, pp. 740-741)

Among the Puritans, the intramural debate about baptism and circumcision came to a head. When confronted with the relationship between the Old Covenant sign and the New Covenant sign, the antipaedobaptists contrived an interpretive escape by bifurcating the Abrahamic covenant into one covenant of works and another covenant of grace. Let’s recall that wherever the Hebrew Bible refers to the Abrahamic Covenant, it always refers to it in the singular (Exodus 2:24, Leviticus 26:42, II Kings 13:23, I Chronicles 16:15-16, Psalm 105:8-9). Since the Baptists’ distinction is one that Scripture itself does not make, it therefore doesn’t conform to the Baptists’ own hermeneutic rule of LBC 1.6. Berkhof concurs: “It is an unwarranted procedure of the Baptists to split this covenant up into two of three different covenants.” (Systematic Theology, p. 541)

There are definite points of discontinuity between circumcision and baptism; the most obvious being that circumcision is a rite that involves a cutting action and blood, and baptism is a rite that involves water. Another point of discontinuity is that the Old Covenant to which circumcision points does emphasize the ethnic aspect of the nation of Israel, because the covenant promises were bequeathed through blood lines as well as national ties. However, I must argue that the points of discontinuity are superficial when we keep in view the ultimate purpose of both, which indisputably is a spiritual import. In their “essential identity of meaning” — to use the Puritan writer John Murray’s phrase — both circumcision and baptism symbolize the cleansing power of atoning blood sacrifice. Therefore, certain conventions that were part of circumcision have transferred to baptism as its covenant sign replacement in the most important meaning of it, which is spiritual.

The paedobaptist position identifies in apostolic teaching a key continuity of these two covenant rites that is immediate and unavoidable:

(Colossians 2:11-13) “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. 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 …”

On Colossians 2:11-12, Berkhof states,

“The last passage clearly links up circumcision with baptism, and teaches that the Christ-circumcision, that is, circumcision of the heart, signified by circumcision in the flesh, was accomplished by baptism, that is, by that which baptism signifies. Cf. also Gal. 3:27, 29. But if children received the sign and seal of the covenant in the old dispensation, the presumption is that they surely have a right to receive it in the new, to which the pious of the Old Testament were taught to look forward as a much fuller and richer dispensation.” (Systematic Theology, p. 542)

Antipaedobaptists will try to argue that this passage is referring to circumcision of the heart, that is, circumcision in the spiritual sense, and baptism in the natural sense, so to say there is a direct correlation between circumcision and baptism is to conflate these two. However, this argument doesn’t logically comport, because physical circumcision has spiritual significance just as much as physical baptism does, yet there is a distinction between simply being circumcised and being circumcised in heart — facts that were repeatedly acknowledged by Moses in the Old Testament. Circumcision pointed to the need for regeneration under the Old Covenant in the same way that baptism now points to the need for regeneration under the New Covenant.

Not only does Colossians 2:11-12 indicate how closely circumcision and baptism are related, it links that similarity with the element of man’s state apart from Christ, “since, in Adam, we can do nothing but die,” to borrow Calvin’s words (Institutes, 4.16.17). Reformed theologians typically view baptism as an initiatory rite into covenant with God because of this analogy between circumcision and baptism directly identified in Colossians 2:11-12. This is why the Belgic Confession, one of the oldest doctrinal standards of the Reformed tradition, states:

“He, having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood has instituted the sacrament of baptism instead … Neither does this baptism only avail us … [but] the baptism of the infants of believers, whom we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised, upon the same promises which are made unto our children. … Moreover, what circumcision was to the Jews, that baptism is to our children. And for this reason Paul calls baptism the circumcision of Christ.” (The Belgic Confession, chapter 34)

Here I once again defer to Dr. Packer, who expounds other points outlined in BCF 34:

“Christ instructed his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). This means that the covenant relation which baptism formally confers is once of acceptance by, communion with, and commitment to all three Persons of the Godhead. When Paul says that the Israelites were ‘baptized into Moses’ (I Cor. 10:2), he means that they were put under Moses’ control and direction. Thus, baptism into the name of the triune God signifies control and direction by God himself.” (Concise Theology, p. 213)

And to several helpful summations of Dr. Pratt:

“When Reformed theology speaks of baptism as covenantal, the sacrament is viewed in the context of the unity of the covenant of grace. The meaning of baptism is not found in the teachings of New Testament alone; it is also inferred from the manner in which baptism fulfills Old Testament patterns of faith. … Baptism administers the New Testament dispensation of the covenant of grace in ways that are analogous to the administration of the Old Testament dispensation of that same covenant.” (Baptism as a Sacrament of the Covenant, p. 6)

“Reformed theology also draws upon the analogy between circumcision and baptism to point out that saving faith is required of those who receive baptism. As with circumcision, baptism is not an end in itself. It serves as a visible reminder of the need for God’s covenant people to internalize their religion. … Physical circumcision expressed externally what was required to be true of the inner person. It called for a deeper commitment to life in the covenant, true repentance and wholehearted devotion to God and his ways.” (Baptism as a Sacrament of the Covenant, pp. 8-9)

“Every stage of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David) gave special place to the progeny of believers as the expected — though not guaranteed — heirs of the covenant promises (Genesis 9:9; 15:18; 17:7; Deut. 7:9; Pss. 89:28-29; 132:11-12). The theology exhibited in this Old Testament pattern explains several significant passages in the New Testament. For example, Jesus paid special attention to the children of those who followed him, laying his hands on them with reference to children that ‘the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ (Matt. 19:14), meaning that it belonged to the children who were brought to him and to others like them. It should not be surprising, then, that Peter announced a special place for the children of believers when he said, ‘The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call’ (Acts 2:39). The order of priority is the same in the New Testament as it was in the Old. God’s promises are first to believers, second to their children, and third to others who are far off.” (Baptism as a Sacrament of the Covenant, p. 11)

“The unity of the Scriptures expressed in the unity of the Covenant of Grace supplies a number of contours for the doctrine of baptism. Baptism initiates into the covenant, calls for internalization of the faith, distinguishes two communities among those who are baptized, and justifies the baptism of the children of believers. It is in these ways that Reformed theology speaks of baptism as covenantal.” (Baptism as a Sacrament of the Covenant, p. 12)

“Until Christ returns in glory it is not only permissible and helpful, but also necessary to speak of certain people as consecrated or sanctified to God by their close associations with the people of God and with the activities of true believers. For this reason, it is quite appropriate to speak of the children of believers as sanctified or consecrated by their involvement in the more external dimensions of life in the new covenant even though they may not be regenerated. The internalization promised in the new covenant by no means opposes to the baptism of infants. … until that day we live in a time when the new covenant still includes people who become covenant breakers, who benefit only from the external dimensions of the new covenant, and who have never been regenerated. Until that time, we continue to have children to multiply and to fill the earth. As a result, we baptize our children as believers circumcised their sons in the OT. We baptize them as the expected heirs of the new covenant, those blessed with a heritage of faith and special privileges and responsibilities before God.” (Jeremiah 31: Infant Baptism in the New Covenant)

And to Dr. Chapell:

“Just as a seal is the pledge of its author that he will uphold his promises when described conditions are met, so circumcision was God’s pledge to provide all the blessings of his covenant when the condition of faith was met. Our faith does not create God’s covenant or cause it to be extended to us — he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) — but our faith does claim (and live out) the covenant blessings that God provides by his grace and pledges with his seal.
A seal’s validity does not depend on the time that the conditions of the covenant accompanying it are met. Like the seal of a document, the seal of circumcision could be applied long before recipients of promised and signified blessings met the conditions of the covenant. The seal was simply the visible pledge of God that when the conditions of his covenant were met, the blessings he had promised would apply (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith XXVIII.6). For this reason, God did not require that covenant parents wait until a child could express faith before commanding them to administer the covenant sign and seal of circumcision.” (Why Do We Baptize Infants?, p. 12)

“While the covenant continues, its sign changes to reflect what God has done to maintain his promises. The bloody sign of circumcision that prefigured the shedding of Christ’s blood no longer remains appropriate after the Lamb of God has shed his blood once for all in order to remove our sin (cf. Heb. 10:10; 1 Peter 1:18). Therefore, New Testament believers receive a new sign for the covenant that indicates what Christ has accomplished for them. Baptism with water is the sign of the washing away of our sin (cf. Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 9:14).” (Why Do We Baptize Infants?, p. 13)

Also to Dr. Berkhof:

“This [Abrahamic] covenant is still in force and is essentially identical with the ‘new covenant’ of the present dispensation. The unity and continuity of the covenant in both dispensations follows from the fact that the Mediator is the same, Acts 4:12; 10:43; 15:10, 11; Gal. 3:16; I Tim. 2:5, 6; I Pet. 1:9-12; the condition is the same, namely, faith, Gen. 15:6; (Rom. 4:3); Ps. 32:10; Heb. 2:4; Acts 10:43; Heb. 11; and the blessings are the same, namely, justification, Ps. 32:1, 2, 5; Isa. 1:18; Rom. 4:9; Gal. 3:6, regeneration, Deut. 30:6, Ps. 51:10 spiritual gifts, Joel 2:28, 32; Acts 2:17-21; Isa. 40:31; and eternal life, Ex. 3:6; Heb. 4:9; 11:10. …
According to the Bible the covenant is clearly an organic concept, and its realization moves along organic and historical lines. There is a people or nation of God, an organic whole such as could only be constituted by families. This national idea is naturally very prominent in the Old Testament, but the striking thing is that it did not disappear when the nation of Israel had served its purpose. It was spiritualized and thus carried over into the New Testament, so that the New Testament people of God are also represented as a nation, Matt. 21:43; Rom. 9:25.26 (comp. Hosea 2:23); II Cor. 6:16; Tit. 2:14; I Pet. 2:9. Infants were considered during the old dispensation as an integral part of Israel as the people of God. They were present when the covenant was renewed, Deut. 29:10:13; Josh. 8:35; II Chron. 20:13, had a standing in the congregation of Israel, and were therefore present in their religious assemblies, II Chron. 20:13; Joel 2:16. In view of such rich promises as those in Isa. 54:13; Jer. 31:34; Joel 2:28 we would hardly expect the privileges of such children to be reduced in the new dispensation, and certainly would not look for their exclusion from any standing in the Church. Jesus and the apostles did not exclude them, Matt. 19:14; Acts 2:39; I Cor. 7:14. Such an exclusion would seem to require a very explicit statement to that effect. … the language of the New Testament is perfectly consistent with a continuation of the organic administration of the covenant, which required the circumcision of children.” (Systematic Theology, pp. 541-543)

And finally, to the succinct statement of B.B. Warfield:

“The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established His Church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances. Among these ordinances is baptism, which standing in similar place in the New Dispensation to circumcision in the Old, is like it to be given to children.” (The Polemics of Infant Baptism)

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Covenant theology, sacramentology, systematic theology