To Us and To Our Children

I’ve wanted to write this post for some time but I’ve lacked the right words (and frankly, the right amount of motivation) to do so.  I also wanted to let the dust settle after I basically let the proverbial cat of the bag regarding my new stance on baptism.  I had both positive as well as negative reactions.  And I expected as much.  I’m not saying that going from credobaptism to paedobaptism cost me friends or anything like that, but a lot of people who know me wanted to know exactly why I landed where I did.  So here we are.  I promised some good friends of mine that I’d write such a post and so I’ll do my best to articulate my reasons.

This is by no means an exhaustive argument for the Reformed view of paedobaptism.  I’m not writing an polemic or theological treatise on the matter.  This is merely an expression of my own journey to covenant theology through a careful examination of the Scriptures and the implications of what I was reading.

The Status of Children

When I was a Baptist, something always bothered me about the status of children in the New Covenant.  I was taught that the covenant sign and seal which we see given to children in the Old Covenant (circumcision) was replaced with baptism in the New.  This is true.  Yet only those who could articulate a profession of faith in the New Covenant were supposed to receive the sacrament of baptism.  There was a clean break rather than a continuity between the covenants.

Certainly we were to do our best to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  Everyone agrees with that.  Yet I kept wondering in what sense children of believers differed from children raised by pagans.  I even had a Reformed Baptist pastor acknowledge to me that children of believers do indeed have a special blessing and benefit, but he couldn’t really articulate what that is or what really set them apart as such.  This nagged at me as time went on.  If my children are outside of the covenant, then how do I pray for them?  How do I disciple them?  These were serious questions which demanded serious answers.

The Nature of the New Covenant

Was the New Covenant something so drastically different from the Old that only professing believers could receive membership into the covenant people of God?  One thing I knew for sure was that the debate over baptism was not going to be solved by debating what was meant by the word “household” in the New Testament.  To me, these are merely supplemental arguments as part of the bigger picture.  What it really boils down to in the end is having a proper understanding of the nature of the New Covenant itself.  In order to justify their position, credobaptists routinely invoke Jeremiah 31:31-34 as their proof text:

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lordbut this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

What we see here is a covenant people whose hearts are changed.  They are delighting in God’s law because they have a genuine faith wrought in them by the Holy Spirit.  This, credobaptists argue, is the nature of the New Covenant as we see it today.  Thus, the only valid recipients of baptism are those who outwardly profess the Christian faith and demonstrate a changed life as a result.  Sounds reasonable, right?  Indeed, as we read in Hebrews 8:6, Christ is the Mediator of a better covenant.  And what better covenant do we have than when all of its members exhibit the outward signs of an inward reality of salvation?

The Problem of Apostasy 

Yet there’s a problem with this interpretation.  There remains in the New Covenant people of God today the problem of apostasy.  The credobaptist practice of limiting the covenant sign and seal to those who profess faith in Christ does not in any way solve the problem of apostasy.  I can recall over the years people I knew in the church who made what seemed like a genuine profession of faith, were examined, received the sacrament of baptism, and yet are no longer abiding in the Christian faith today.  And certainly credobaptists themselves acknowledge the fact that there are those in their midst who become apostates.  We all agree that such persons were never regenerate to begin with and their departure from the church signals an inward reality of its own (1 John 2:19).

In other words, no church today is a pure church.  On this end of the Parousia, the church will always be a mixture of wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30).  As we’ve seen both in Scripture itself as well as examples throughout church history (especially the American church today), there are those in the visible church who do not in fact possess a saving faith.  Since we are fallible human observers, we cannot see into the hearts of men.  At times, the tares in the church reveal themselves through their apostasy.  But scary as it may sound, there are those tares who remain in the visible church and who go to their deaths with a false assurance of salvation (Matt. 7:21).  This should rightly give us pause.

So how should we understand Jeremiah 31:31-34?  I humbly assert that we need to see this passage in light of future fulfillment.  Indeed, this isn’t speaking about the church as we see it today in our age but rather in the age to come.  We can accurately assert that credobaptists who use this passage in order to argue in favor of their position have an over-realized eschatology in that sense.

A Better Covenant?

All of this brings me back to Hebrews 8 and the discussion about the New Covenant being a better covenant, one that is inherently superior to the Old.  What Paul is doing here (and yes, I believe in the Pauline authorship of Hebrews) is exegeting Jeremiah 31:31-34.  He says that the New Covenant is built on better promises (v. 6) and then proceeds to explain what these promises are.  At the end of the chapter, Paul articulates that the Old Covenant is passing away.  Consistent with the theme of Hebrews itself, he’s pointing to the fact that the entire ceremonial system of the Old Covenant is obsolete and no longer binding upon the people of God.

That God’s covenant people possess these inward spiritual realities is an example of the “already but not yet” dichotomy.  We see solid examples in the present church of hearts changed and genuine faith lived out, but we also realize that we aren’t seeing these promises manifested perfectly in this current age.  The church is continually sanctified and the promises of the New Covenant ultimately point toward that day when we will perfectly obey and love our Lord.

So what does all of this have to do with baptism?  The fact that this is a better covenant has implications for how we view this baptism debate.  Last year I read through the 1541 edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and came across a passage where the Reformer picked up on this point:

What excuse, therefore, do we have for not testifying and sealing it today as was formerly the case? It cannot be claimed that circumcision was the only sacrament appointed to witness to it, and that circumcision is now abolished. There is a ready answer to that: our Lord ordained circumcision for a time, but after circumcision was ended there was still reason to confirm the covenant, since it is common to us and to the Jews. That is why we must always carefully reflect on what we jointly have in common and what is different. The covenant is common, and the reason for confirming it is the same. The difference lies only in the fact that for them it was circumcision which confirmed it, and that for us baptism now serves that purpose. Otherwise Christ’s coming would have meant that God’s mercy was less familiar to us than it was to the Jews, supposing we were denied the testimony which they had concerning their children. If such a thing cannot be said without greatly dishonouring Jesus Christ, through whom the Lord’s infinite goodness has been more richly than ever exhibited and shed upon the earth, we must allow that God’s grace must not be more veiled or less assured than it was under the shadows of the law.

In other words, Calvin is pointing out that it is a contradiction to say that this is a better covenant if we’re also at the same time going to conclude that the children of believers are now excluded from the covenant.  It can’t be a better covenant if our children are in a worse position in the New Covenant.  For me, this was the most powerful argument and served as the tipping point for me moving to embrace paedobaptism.

Abraham is the Model

A proper reading of Scripture gives us a proper understanding of the covenants.  When we compare the people of God in the Old Testament with the people of God in the the New Testament, we see that there is one overarching Covenant of Grace separated into two administrations–the Old and New covenants.  Even though we no longer practice circumcision (an administration of the Old Covenant), the substance of the Covenant of Grace remains the same.  Baptism replaces circumcision, but the candidates who receive the sacrament are still the children of believers.

Put another way, Abraham is still the model.  The pattern established in the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 17:7-8 is repeated in Acts 2:37-39.  There is a continuity despite these different administrations in the Covenant of Grace.  Again, this is not meant to be an exhaustive study of this issue.  I’m only laying out the issues as I came to see and understand them.  There are plenty of books, articles, podcasts, and blog posts out there which go much deeper than what I’m doing here.  I urge my readers to avail themselves of these resources.

Today my family and I are members of a Reformed Presbyterian congregation.  As of this year, all of our children have received the covenant sign and seal of baptism.  I don’t write this with any sense of pride.  In fact, those who seriously wrestle through issues like this quickly learn to bury their pride.  I was wrong about baptism before and I now humbly submit to biblical teaching on this matter.  And so I write this as an encouragement to other men who also wrestle with this issue and are looking to lead their families accordingly.  I’m thankful that God placed men in my life who helped me as I struggled to understand.

Most of all, I’m thankful that I can now tell each of our covenant children that Christ is their Mediator.  I can disciple them accordingly and rest in the promises God has given to believing parents.  In pointing them back to their baptisms, I can show them these promises in a very tangible way.

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