Where to Find Covenant Theology in the New Testament

Where to Find Covenant Theology in the New Testament March 31, 2021

This is the 4th and final article in my series on covenantal theology and infant baptism. Thus far, I have made efforts to explain why so many American evangelicals do not understand Infant Baptism, highlighted fundamental differences between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism, and built a scriptural basis for the practice of Infant Baptism within the church today.

This article highlights several passages in the New Testament that present anecdotal evidence of Christians operating within a covenantal, theological framework. I will freely admit, this is an article I have looked forward to writing for some time. Over the years, it is these texts that have solidified, in my mind, that infant baptism (as a default consequence of covenantal theology) is doctrinally veracious. Still, I am writing on these issues knowing that they are secondary to the gospel of Christ. Baptism, while very important, should never be an issue that gospel, bible-believing Christians should divide over. My overarching aim in this series is to combat those who believe infant baptism has no scriptural basis whatsoever. I hope that this series helps generate healthy dialogue among Christians and demonstrates that, while you may not agree with the conclusion or interpretation of the texts, infant baptism is not a doctrine pulled out of thin air (or left over Roman Catholicism). For me, and other classical, reformed theologians, it is much more than this; it is faithful to the word of God.

As I have pointed out previously, anyone looking for an explicit scriptural statement or command to baptize infants will never find it. However, the converse is also true. There is not a verse stating that baptism belongs to only believers alone. To address the issue appropriately, we all must reduce our study upon two fundamental basis. First, we must consider the framework by which we read/study the bible. Second, we must explore the New Testament for evidence that might imply one way or another how the early church dealt with the issue.

As I have already dealt with the first basis in other articles, below is a collection of New Testament texts that personally impacted my position on infant baptism. Admittingly, some of the text examples below may be more compelling than others; I did not rank them. Also, I shall remind the reader to recognize that these texts are not being presented as proof texts, but more as footnotes and anecdotal evidence of my prior arguments on the validity of covenantal theology, and subsequently, the baptizing of infants. Therefore, if you have not read the articles linked to above, I encourage you to do so before moving on.

 

The Household Baptisms

One of the more common scriptural claims evidencing a covenantal framework within the New Testament is the household baptisms found in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians. The primary argument here is that, like the nation of Israel, the early church adopted a covenantal approach to adopting faith within the home. The first century of was full of new Christian converts. They would have followed the sequential model of repentance and then baptism. But what about this new covert’s children, slaves, servants, etc.? Aside from Acts 2:38, which includes children in the promise, scripture gives us the household baptisms to help understand this.

To me, there is something very natural about the household baptism. As Christian parents, we want to raise our families in the fear and admonition of the Lord. We teach them the bible, take them to church, show them how to repent, and we encourage them to make our faith their own. I view this is similar to what is happening in the texts below. Christian parents, new in their faith, are submitting their entire households to the law of Christ.

  • “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well… (Acts 16:14-15a)
  • “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.” (Acts 16:31-33)
  • “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:8)
  • “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) (1 Corinthians 1:1-16)

 

Holy Children

This text, found in Corinthians 7, is a very interesting one to study from almost any angle. However, for our current topic of interest, take notice of how Paul classifies children with only a single believing parent. Paul writes, “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. (1 Corinthians 7:14).

Paul refers to  children with a single believing parent as being “holy”. He cannot mean they are without sin. Rather, as covenantal theologians would argue, he is saying, by proxy of growing up under a Christian parent, these children are set apart from other children; they are special and part of the covenant church community. This is similar to what it might have been like growing up in ancient Israel. You are given the sign of the covenant and grow up learning about your religion. Children of Israelites were holy, when compared to the unclean gentiles.

 

The Command with a Promise

For the next text, we will go to the book of Ephesians. To begin, I want to draw attention to the structure of Paul’s letter to the church of Ephesus. After a discourse of wonderful theology in chapters 1-4, he begins addressing certain people groups within the church in chapter 5. Reader, take notice of how Paul sequentially addresses people using a structure like that of a covenantal household. He begins with instructions for husbands and wives (5:22), then addresses children (6:1), and lastly bondservants (6:5). I have always found this harmony to be fascinating.

Let us examine the text on children in more detail. Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise (Eph. 6:1). Notice that Paul cites that a child’s obedience to his parents is “in the Lord”. Can children be expected to follow a commandment for a covenant for which they do not belong? It is possible that all of the children within the church were professing believers, but more likely, Paul is addressing them as a whole. The children were considered part of the church body and when this letter was read to the congregation, it was read, with an intent for all children to hear that might repent and obey their parents.

 

Children in the Gospels

There are a few texts in gospels that, while not directly addressing covenantal theology or infant baptism, can help us understand the ethos of the New Testament’s attitude towards families and children. I have found them help in minor ways over the years.

For example, early in the gospel of Luke, we find a prophecy being fulfilled about John the Baptist. Luke writes, “he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

It is well known that John the Baptist came to prepare a way for Jesus’ ministry. Yet, in this prophecy, there is a phrase that is not spoken of often. Luke points out (citing Malachi 4:6) that John will “turn the hearts of the of the fathers to the children”. I find it beautiful that woven within the preparation plan for the coming kingdom of God is a focus on the restoration of the relationships within families. This is later signified with repentance and baptism.

Another text worth citing requires little explanation, as the meaning is straightforward. In Matthew 19:14, Our Lord Jesus commands “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Our Savior was tender and generous towards children, as we should be. But do we expect children to find the “kingdom of heaven” outside of the church? No, as members of the visible church, we bring them to sit under the teaching of God’s law. We do not hinder them. We bring them to Christ, baptize them, and pray He saves them.

 

Apostasy

The final verses I will share come from the book of Hebrews. These texts have been stumbling blocks for many non-classical covenantal theologians and are favorite proof texts for those who think a Christian can lose their salvation (you cannot).

Hebrews 6:4-8 reads, “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.”

I think why many struggle with this text is because, with a natural reading, it can sound like someone can lose their salvation. Moreover, this can be especially challenging if you idealize the invisible church as to be identical to the visible church (1689 Federalism, for example). However, with a reformed and covenantal framework, there is no need to systematic theology gymnastics to make sense of this text.

Rather, as we approach this text, with the understanding that there is an invisible bride of Christ within an ecclesiological visible body, the meaning clears tremendously. What the author is Hebrews is describing is a tragic situation where someone has grown up in the church, experienced wonderous things, and later apostatized. The author of Hebrews even says that they have  “tasted the goodness of the word of God” and “the heavenly gift.”  This implies perhaps they were baptized and took communion, but because they never realized true faith, the rain has fallen on them they bear “thorns and thistles.” The text says they are “worthless”, and their end is to be “burned.” In their time within the covenant church community, they likely “ate and drank judgment” upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29). They were part of the visible body but never professed true faith. They were members of the visible church, but never part of the invisible bride of Christ. That is to say, they may have been in church, but they never became the church.

Let us also consider Hebrews 10:29-31. It reads, ”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.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Here we find a similar situation as presented in Hebrews 6. The author is warning of someone who has been sanctified by the covenant but also remains under God’s judgment. This dichotomy can be difficult to reconcile with some Baptist systematic theologies. To that point, how can this situation exist if we only make no ecclesiological distinction between the invisible and visible church? If one only understands the new covenant to be solely spiritual and unbreakable, how can this man have had his sins paid for by Jesus but also be subject to the judgement and vengeance of God? This text, maybe more than other the New Testament, makes a clear distinction of a two part system within Christian local church ecclesiology. This can be a challenging verse to fit within a dispensational or 1689 Federalism framework. Yet, within a covenantal hermeneutic, the text, while terrifying and tragic, reads naturally and logically. This person was sanctified by the covenant he was baptized into. But, like the text above, he apostatized and has “profaned the blood of the covenant”.

 

Conclusion

If you have read all 4 articles, thank you. I pray they have blessed you. While I do not expect anyone to change their theology after reading this, I do hope it has given some credence to covenant theology in your mind, and by default, the practice of infant baptism. To my Baptistic brothers and sisters, I am grateful that we are co-laborers in the Kingdom of God. I am certain we will not agree on these texts. But, if nothing else, I pray healthy, godly discussion is gained.

 

 

 


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