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Baptism and Covenant

Christian baptism, which has the form of a ceremonial washing (like John’s pre-Christian baptism), is a sign from God that signifies inward cleansing and remission of sins (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:25-27), Spirit-wrought regeneration and new life (Titus 3:5), and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as God’s seal testifying and guaranteeing that one will be kept safe in Christ forever (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:13-14). Baptism carries these meanings because first and fundamentally it signifies union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-7; Col. 2:11-12); and this union with Christ is the source of every element in our salvation (1 John 5:11-12). Receiving the sign in faith assures the persons baptized that God’s gift of new life in Christ is freely given to them. At the same time, it commits them to live henceforth in a new way as committed disciples of Jesus. Baptism signifies a watershed point in a human life because it signifies a new-creational engrafting into Christ’s risen life.

J.I. Packer

There is nothing more central to Christian faith than the person and work of Jesus the Christ.  There is nothing more central to his work and message than the gospel - the good news of what he has done, is doing and will do in redeeming sinners and this fallen world.  In walking together as the church in every age there are few things more central than the sacraments/ordinances Jesus gave to us.  Yet there have been few things which have brought up as much debate amongst Christians as the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper.  This essay has very small goals.  I will briefly treat the different views of baptism held by those who have a covenantal understanding of the gospel. I am looking mainly here at covenant baptism; the view that baptism is a sign and seal of the new covenant marking a person as belonging to Jesus and part of the church. In circles of confessing believers, I am speaking of baptism as viewed by those in reformed traditions, those who seek to trace their views back to Scripture in the Protestant view. 

There are many debates surrounding baptism which can take place along various lines. Very common are the questions of who should be baptized and the age at which is should be administered.  Additionally, there are debates about methodology: immersion/dunking, pouring, sprinkling, shaken but not stirred.  Here I only want to look at two simple questions. 1) First, the relation of baptism to the new covenant and 2) Who then should be baptized. After answering these two questions I become a bit less concerned.  Though I believe that immersion in water is the NT model that fits most clearly with the meaning of baptism, I find no problem with sprinkling, pouring, or dipping if/when environmental circumstances come into play.  Let me just get to the issue directly and tackle the issue of covenantal understandings of baptism and whether it should it be for babies or not.  OK, this is for my reformed and Baptist type friends.

Agreements

There is a wonderful agreement about baptism with those who hold to certain tenants of reformation theology.  We all believe the following:

  1. Baptism was commanded by Jesus (Matt 28:18-20) and practiced by the apostles (Acts 2)
  2. Baptism signifies the gospel and our union with Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3,4)
  3. Baptism marks a person as part of new the covenant community. It is the outward signifier that a person is under the new covenant of grace and part of Jesus’ church (Colossians 2:12)

Now when we come to the question as to when it should be applied; here we find our differences.  Historically reformed churches (Presbyterians, RCA, CRC and others) typically baptize infants as a sign of the covenant and a confession of the faithfulness of God to his promises. Baptistic types (Various Baptists, Bible Churches, Non Denominational) wait until a person has expressed faith in Jesus and applies baptism after conversion rather than physical birth.  Let us look very briefly at some support offered for both positions.

Baptism after Birth (Paedo Baptism or Infant Baptism)

It is a no small task to rightly give the traditional reformed view of baptism.  For that I refer you to a volume of essays entitled The Case for Covenental Infant Baptism edited by Greg Strawbridge. Here I only want to highlight a few of the biblical/theological arguments for baptizing infants:

  • In the New Testament we see statements that the promise of the gospel is for you and your children and those who are far off (See Acts 2:37-39).  The promise in the OT included children so in the New Covenant it does as well. 
  • Household baptisms - there are several circumstances in the NT where “households” were baptized.  Acts 16 has Lydia and her household as well as the Philippian jailer’s household being baptized.  1 Corinthians 1 has the “household of Stephanas” being baptized.  The assumption here is that infants and/or children would have been baptized as well as those who had believed.
  • There is a symmetry seen between Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism as the sign of the covenant.  In the OT the children of believers were included as members of the covenant community and in the NT this is the same.  Baptism signifies such membership and thus should be applied to children. As such the person is subject to the blessings and curses of covenant membership (see Deuteronomy 28).
  • Church tradition – it was an early and long standing practice in church history to baptize infants. 

Baptism after the New Birth (Credo Baptism or Believers Baptism)

  • Makes note that in the Bible there are no recorded instances of infants being baptized. Every record of baptism in the New Testament are of people who have heard the gospel and then placed faith in Jesus Christ. 
  • Household baptisms are an argument from silence and hence prove nothing as to who was actually baptized. Furthermore, in some cases, as in Acts 16, the word of the Lord was spoken to all in the house and all in the house rejoiced and had a party.
  • There is a break in continuity between Old and New Covenants.  Though baptism is the sign of the new covenant, it is applied not simply to males as was circumcision in the Old; it is applied to all who believe. As such the time of application is also different.  It follows regeneration/new birth exemplified by repentance and faith.
  • Meaning of baptizo - the meaning of the word baptism in the New Testament means to dip or immerse.  Sprinkling of babies would not be in view. 
  • Though this gets a bit towards the “mode” debate, it is clear that baptism is reflecting a “burial/death with Christ” and a raising “to live a new life” (See Romans 6:3,4 and Colossians 2:12). 
  • People also walked down into water to be baptized.  Jesus himself in the gospels and the ethiopian in the book of Acts (See Acts 8).  These rights seem to describe adult actions and is reflective of believers.
  • Practice of the church.  One of the earliest documents we have of early church practice, The Didache, gives details on the practice of baptism and it reflects believers baptism. For instance you cannot “order an infant to fast two days before his baptism.”

So what do we make of the two views? First, I agree that we should not loose the meaning of baptism as “sign of the covenant.”  When baptism was taught by some early Christians to “remove original sin” (this was Augustine’s view) the desire and motive for baptizing infants became enormous.  If a person was not baptized he was not saved.  This doctrine is not taught in Scripture but became a big deal in the church. If baptism is the means by which God removes original sin, then you must baptize as soon as possible.  Hence all matter of reasons, theologies etc were made to explain this application of baptism.  Some Roman Catholic theologians crafted a  doctrine of “limbo” to keep babies out of hell if they were not baptized. 

Later during the Reformation, those studying the Bible clearly brought into question the “saving power” of baptism.  The reformers were clear that it is the gospel that saves as God saves sinners through Jesus’ work on the cross. Their baptism signifies and seals this truth but does not save them in and of itself. However, many reformed churches created a sort of half-way view which is reflected in covenant infant baptism.  My thought is that once you sever baptism/salvation and maintain the proper meaning and symbolism as a outward sign of conversion (see JI Packer quote at the top) then it must be applied when it signifies an actual state of affairs. The person has been saved and at this point they ought be baptized.  Reformed thinkers acknowledge that the earlier Catholic view that baptism saves is flawed. Here is the 19th century reformed theologian Charles Hodge’s take. I will give the entire context of his 8th point arguing for infant baptism and then ask some questions.

On this point all Christians are agreed. All churches —the Greek, the Latin, the Lutheran, and the Reformed —unite in the belief that infants need “the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” and the renewing of the Holy Ghost in order to their salvation. The Reformed, at least, do not believe that those blessings are tied to the ordinance of baptism, so that the reception of baptism is necessary to a participation of the spiritual benefits which it symbolizes; but all agree that infants are saved by Christ, that they are the purchase of his blood, and that they need expiation and regeneration. They are united, also, in believing that all who seek the benefits of the work of Christ, are bound to be baptized in acknowledgment of its necessity and of their faith, and that those who need, but cannot seek, are, by the ordinance of God, entitled to receive the appointed sign and seal of redemption, whenever and wherever they are presented by those who have the right to represent them.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Originally Published 1872. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 3:557. 

I have made bold the above portion of the quote to emphasize the right turn that is made by Hodge. He is right to say that the Reformed have separated salvation from the ordinance, he is incorrect then in shifting back towards the view that those can receive who have not been regenerated in the gospel and exercised faith.  If he would end his sentence above with the word “faith” I would find complete agreement. Yet because of a theological system, he tacks on the clause I have highlighted.  We should be baptized upon our acknowledgment of its necessity (it is commanded by Christ) and of our faith.

If this be so, we ought to apply the sign at the time someone enters the New Covenant, and believe it or not, many are agreed that this happens at the new birth.  Now what are some in the Reformed tradition afraid of being lost in the process.  I believe it is child’s place in the covenant community. This indeed would be a terrible loss that I stand with them against.  Yet I believe we can maintain the “sanctification” or “set apart nature” of children of believers because Scripture actually teaches this in 1 Corinthians 7.  We do not need to baptize them to signify this. As a community we can hold up and pray for the babies (boys and girls) and then baptize if they become spiritual babies when they repent, believe and place their faith in Christ.  I love the interpretive framework of covenantal theology; I just don’t see that we must submit to something absent from Scripture in order to see the holistic covenant of grace unfolding in the Bible.

The current edition of the doctrinal statement of Jacob’s Well has this position that drives my hardcore Baptist friends nuts.  It is written to affirm what we see as the biblical teaching on baptism and show charity to other confessional Christians in regards to church membership. It is very close to the positions John Bunyan and John Piper.  

At Jacob’s Well we only perform and teach baptism by immersion for believers who profess personal faith in Jesus Christ. We believe that water baptism is symbolic of the fact that we have repented from our sins, we have been cleansed of our sins and God has forgiven us, we are buried in Christ in death and have risen with Him in newness of life (Isaiah 1:18; Matthew 28:19; Acts 8:36–38; Romans 6:3–5; Colossians 2:12; Acts 10:47). Additionally, baptism is the sign and seal which marks a person’s entry into the new covenant community of the church. This is our only practice of baptism, though we will receive people into membership who have been baptized by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion as long as it was performed by a biblical local church, the person now evidences conversion and where the baptism was performed in the name of the triune God.