The Sign of the Covenant: A Biblical Defense of Infant Baptism

The Sign of the Covenant: A Biblical Defense of Infant Baptism March 29, 2021

This is a 3rd part in a series defending the biblical practice of Infant Baptism. If you missed the first 2 articles (or you do not recall them), I would suggest you read them before you start this one. The articles are intended to work together in building the overall case for Infant Baptism. I will add that this series has been written largely with American Evangelical doctrinal predispositions in mind. If you’re an evangelical opposed to Infant Baptism, then I strongly encourage you to start at article 1.

Article 1: Why so Many Evangelicals Don’t Understand Infant Baptism

Article 2: The Understructure of Infant Baptism: Covenant Theology

In this piece, already having established a precedent for how one is into interpret the covenants of the bible, my aim is to focus on the parallels between circumcision and baptism. Much of the weight of a biblical argument for Infant Baptism depends on a proper framework and understanding of scripture. Anyone looking to close the case on a few proof texts, will never rightly understand the practice and theology of Infant Baptist, but they will certainly stunt their doctrinal growth as well. The bible is not meant to be read that way. Holy Scripture is not a comprehensive a list “do this” and “don’t do that” rules (although, there are certainly some explicit instructions here and there), rather it is a collection of 66 books, inspired by God, and written over thousands of years. Collectively, they form special revelation of God, His character, His law, and His plan and purpose for redemption. As it has been said, “Scripture interprets scripture.” This is how one is build a strong foundational theology and understand the doctrine if paedobaptism.

To begin, let us briefly consider the the people of God in the Old Testament. I start here because to understand the unique relationship of circumcision and baptism, we must know its function for the people of God in pre-Christ times. Whenever we speak of Old Testament Israel, we do so often in a cultural and/or sometimes nationalistic sense. That is to say, we fundamentally recognize them as a visible entity. Even today, we think of Israel in a corporeal way. Circumcision was the rite that makes this possible. It is a visible sign of the covenant for the people of God in the old covenant. To be an Israelite meant that every male in household was circumcised.

There was a tremendous amount of value and design associated with the sign of circumcision. Some Evangelicals can quickly look past this, writing off circumcision as something old, gone, and largely unimportant to the modern Christian. However, the Apostle Paul does not shy away from stressing the value of circumcision for the people of God. In Romans 3:1, he writes, “what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

Paul understood that role and purpose of circumcision was paramount in a right understanding of ecclesiology. He is reminding us that built within the practice of circumcision is the institution of the covenant with Abraham. I would go as far as to say the two (the old covenant and circumcision) are almost synonymous. Pay careful attention the dialogue between Abraham and God in Genesis 17:

“Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant’ (v.9-14).

Notice that God says: “This is my covenant” (emphasis added) when establishing the ritual of circumcision. In a sense, the Abrahamic covenant is materialized in the practice of circumcision. God then ends the statement to Abraham with some very severe warnings about those who are not circumcised – they will be cut off from the people of God. Clearly, God took the perpetual practice of circumcision very seriously. At one point, God almost killed Moses for not circumcising his children (Exodus 4:24)!

Since the institution of circumcision, the Israelites broke up into many diverse groups and sects (such as the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) with various differing ideas and theologies. There was no shortage of disagreements among the Israelites. Yet, one belief that always united them was the practice, importance, and rite of circumcision. It was tantamount with their national identity and their relationship with God. Because of its significance, there was a incredible amount of pride and honor built into the tradition. Many Jews in the New Testament saw circumcision as a parallel to righteousness. In fact, Paul spent a great deal of time tearing down these misconceptions about the true source of righteousness. Using imagery familiar to the Jews and others in the time, he writes that “a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart” (Romans 2:28-29).

Although many Jews miscalculated the soteriological themes of circumcision, Paul does not count circumcision as altogether vain and worthless. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant that entitled the Israelites to God’s law and revelation. The Apostles Paul says that, through circumcision, the Jews were “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1). Here, he certainly means the people of God and all the promises contained within. That is, more specifically, the people of God are entrusted with “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4). Circumcision was the sign that visibly organized this reality is a ecclesiological way. The sign was given to all male children, as well as, male slaves. Thus establishing the notability of a covenantal household. It was, and is still, necessary that the people of God be identifiable with a visible sign.

Having established some of the weightier ecclesiastical considerations for circumcision, I now want to follow along Paul’s logic in Romans 9 as he addresses the need for a spiritual reality to accompany the outward sign. Paul, drawing distinction between the visible church and invisible church, just a few verses later, clarifies that “not all Israel is Israel” (9:6). It is no secret that there were many Jews who were unfaithful – hence the very crucifixion of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Within the visible people of God, there have always been some with true inward faith and some without. We can understand then, that the economy of the church in the old covenant is like what we have today. Not every person who has been baptized and attends church on Sunday has been imputed with the righteousness of Christ (lest we forget the sobering “depart from me, I never knew you” texts within the gospels). The visible church contains both. I will add that is by design. It is impossible for man to know the hearts of man. Any attempt to perfectly align the invisible church with the visible will fail. Only the Lord knows the hearts the men. This, I content, a main point of contention between traditional covenantal theologians and 1689 Federalism. I will address this in a bit more detail in a future article.

It is then critical to establish that God never does away with the practice and establishment of a invisible church existing within a visible entity. The basic structure, between the old and the new, is the same and so are the general benefits to the people of God. With a covenantal sign visibly applied, we uphold the establishment and organizational benefits of a visible church. That is “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises”. I hope you are beginning to appreciate and see the ecclesiastical value and importance of the covenant sign for God’s people. What was weighty and true for the Israelites is even more so for Christians today.

Aside from the ecclesiastical value mentioned above, John Murray points out that “circumcision signified fundamentally the removal of defilement or uncleanness to the end of participation in the covenant blessings” (Exod. 6:12, 30; Lev. 19:23; 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 6:10; 9:25 help make this point). Murry goes on to write that, “circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of the faith that Abraham had while he was yet uncircumcised (cf. Rom. 4:11). These two basic significations, the one the removal of defilement or purification, the other the imputation of the righteousness of faith, it will readily be seen, are not contradictory but rather mutually complementary. It is well for us to pause and confront ourselves with this fact: that by divine appointment and express command the sign and seal of spiritual realities — realities that could only be applied to men through the gracious operations of the Spirit of God — was administered to infants.”

Due to the continuity of the covenants, we can then understand that the same general function applies to Christians. We are the children of Abraham. We are heirs to the same covenantal promises. Christians are heirs to the promises given to Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David. They are fulfilled and made in whole in Christ. I also think it is important to quick draw attention to the fact that the order of covenant sign giving, and faith are interchangeable. Paul explains in Romans 4 that, “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. In what context was it credited? Was it after his circumcision, or before? It was not after, but before” (9-10). Yet, we know that the covenant sign, circumcision, is from then on given to infants.

In baptizing the infants of Christians, we visibly proclaim to the world that his child is set apart, and will be brought up under the theological and cultural teaching of the church. We are passing on the law of Christ to the next generation in corporeal sense. We do not believe that infant baptism saves, but we recognize that upon receiving the sign, the child is marked with covenant sign of grace.  As it relates to salvation, the baptized infant still needs to make a profession of faith a follow Christ. The waters of infant baptism do not save. However, the hope, is that the mark of baptism will be a perpetual call to faith and repentance – a circumcision of the heart.

John Murray explains that “it so happens that circumcision signified basically the same thing as baptism. That baptism signifies purification from the defilement of sin by the regeneration of the Spirit and purification from the guilt of sin by the righteousness of Christ — the righteousness of faith — appears on the very face of the New Testament. That, we have found already, is the real meaning of circumcision. There is, therefore, a basic identity of meaning and signification. Circumcision, bearing the same basic meaning as baptism, was administered to infants who were born in the covenant relation and privilege flowing from the covenant made with Abraham.”

This is extraordinarily compelling when you go to consider Peter’s words at Pentecost and the establishment of the sign of the new covenant. Peter commands, “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” (Acts 2:38). In this incredible moment, Peter is ushering in a new, more expansive, and better covenantal sign to visible people of God. It unsurprising that Peter includes children in this promise. For such has been the practice of God’s people for thousands of years. From the very beginning, God has sustained the significance of the  familial unit.

Acts 2:38 is often used to combat infant baptism, pointing out that Peter commands repentance before baptism. Yet, I think this argument is weak and slightly short-sighted. First and foremost, Peter includes children in the proclamation. The fact that mentions them at all is extremely compelling on its own. If New Testament ecclesiology were solely limited to a invisible church, why mention children at all? Additionally, we must remember the context of the event. Peter is speaking to a specific generation of people. More than once, Peter speaks of specific events relevant to this specific group of people. For example, he calls them out as the exact Israelites who crucified the Lord Jesus. Remembering this, he commands that repentance must come first. These men and women committed heinous sins.

The question then becomes, as it relates to our current study, what about this generation’s children? After repentance, is the covenant sign given to their children? Personally, I think Peter makes that very clear in his text when he includes children. He does not feel the need to elaborate the point because he is speaking to Israelites who have practiced the giving of the covenant sign to children for thousands of years.

In closing, I want to go back to John Murry one more time. His commentary on the perpetual nature of the covenant sign is not only helpful, it summarizes the whole issue rather well. He writes:

“It cannot be too much stressed that the New Testament economy is the elaboration and development of the Abrahamic covenant. If infants are excluded now, it must be understood that this change implies a complete reversal or repeal of the earlier divinely instituted practice. And so we must very seriously ask: do we find in either Testament any hint or intimation of such reversal? More particularly, does the New Testament revoke so expressly taught and authorized a principle as the inclusion of infants in the covenant sign and seal? Has a practice followed in the divine administration of the covenant of grace for some two thousand years been discontinued?

When we examine our New Testament we can find no such evidence. But, in view of the basic identity of meaning in circumcision and baptism, in view of the unity and continuity of the covenant in terms of which this covenant sign was given, we can say with confidence that evidence of repeal is mandatory if the practice or principle is to be discontinued. And so, in the absence of repeal and in the presence of evidence for continuance, we conclude that the administration of the sign to the infant seed of believers has perpetual divine warrant and authority.”

In my next, and final article in the series, I will point out numerous places in the New Testament where we can see the covenant realities. These texts are wonderful evidence of covenant theology, and then by default, infant baptism. Additionally, this article will serve to show divergences between classic Covenant Theology and 1689 Federalism (Reformed Baptist theology).

For more on the topic discussed in this article (if the multiple quotations don’t give it away), I recommend Christian Baptism by John Murray.

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