Monday, March 09, 2015
A Primer on Covenant Theology & Baptism
Immediately after the fall of man God promised that he would inflict a deep seated hatred between the seed of the woman and the seed of the Satan. That promise, which would come to fruition being a promise(!), included the good news that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Then the Lord of the covenant covered with skins the two who were naked and ashamed (Genesis 3:21).
God later expanded upon his promise with respect to the seed, saying that he would establish his covenant between himself and Abraham; but not only would God establish his covenant promise with Abraham, he would also establish it with Abraham’s seed after him. This promise that was made to Abraham and his seed was that God would be a God to them and that they would occupy the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession (Genesis 17:7, 8). In response to the promise of God, which was one of redemption of a people and land for them to occupy, Abraham pleaded that his son Ishmael might live before God in faithfulness. (Genesis 3:18) God refused Abraham’s request, saying “as for Ishmael, I have heard thee… but my covenant will I establish with Isaac” not Ishmael (Genesis 17: 20, 21).
God’s promise of redemption of the seed would come to fruition; yet it did not apply to all of Abraham’s physical descendents. In fact, it even applied to those who were not of physical descent. Notwithstanding, all those who were of the household of Abraham were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant, as if they themselves were partakers of the promise of God. Even more, those within a professing household who did not receive the sign and seal of the covenant were to be considered outside the people of God and covenant breakers. In other words, infants who did not receive the sign of the covenant due to a parent’s spiritual neglect were to be considered lost and, therefore, under the dominion of Satan (Genesis 17:13, 14). This sign of the covenant was so closely related to the covenant that it was actually called the covenant by the Lord (Genesis 17:10). Consequently, those who had received the sign were to be considered in covenant with God; whereas those who had not received the sign yet qualified to receive it were to be treated as covenant breakers. We might say that the invisible church was to be found within the visible church, "out of which there was no ordinary way of salvation" (Acts 2:47b; WCF 25.2).
When we come to Galatians 3 we learn something quite astounding. The promise was made to a single Seed, who is the Christ; and it is by spiritual union with him, pictured in the outward administration of baptism, that the promise is received by the elect (in Christ). “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ…For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ… And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:16, 26-29) The apostle in no uncertain terms teaches that the covenant promise is established with the God-man - the incarnate Christ, and by covenantal extension with all who would be truly, by the Spirit, buried and raised with him in baptism.
Although God’s covenant was established from the outset with the elect in Christ, it was to be administered to all who professed the true religion along with their households. The theological distinction of the visible and invisible church was well in view, even at the time of Abraham. Although this was the theology of the Covenant, the apostle still had to labor the point to the New Testament saints at Rome. After telling his hearers that nothing could separate God’s people from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39), the apostle had to explain how the people of God who had an interest in the covenant could have fallen away. How, in other words, could the people of God become apostate if the promise of redemption had to come to fruition being a promise from God? With his pedagogical background in place, the apostle explained the timeless Old Testament Covenant Theology, which is that although God established his covenant only with the elect in Christ, it was to be outwardly administered to the non-elect as long as they were of the household of a professing believer and had not demonstrated visible apostasy. Consequently, it is not hard to imagine that they are not all true Israel who are from external Israel (Romans 9:6); and that all the New Testament church is not the true church. “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (Romans 9:8).
With respect to the promise of the land of Canaan, it too was a type as were the sacrifices that have passed away. And also, the land was a microcosm (i.e. part-for-whole) of that which would be realized in the consummation of the earthly eschaton. The promise was seen as part-for-whole even by Abraham, who in his own time was looking not for the dirt of Palestine but the streets of gold, “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (Hebrews 11:10). In fact, all the “heroes of the faith” died without receiving the promises, “but having seen them afar off…confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth… For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God [the very essence of the covenant! “I will be your God...”]: for he hath prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)
In sum, God’s promise was that he would redeem a people that he would place in his recreation, the church. The church’s final destiny is the consummated New Heavens and New Earth, wherein righteousness dwells. Until God separates the sheep from the goats, the visible church will contain unbelievers and hypocrites. Upon consummation, the visible church and the elect will be one and the same.
From a proper view of the covenant, we can now take a look at the practice of covenant baptism.
As we just saw, under the older economy, although the covenant of promise was established solely with the elect in Christ it was to be administered to the households of professing believers. This means that the children of professing believers were to receive the mark of inclusion and, therefore, be counted among the people of God prior to professing faith in what the sign and seal of the covenant contemplated. Covenant children, even if they were not elect, were to be treated as the elect of God and heirs according to the promise based upon corporate solidarity with a professing parent.
When we come to the New Testament nothing has changed with respect to the heirs of the promise. The promise remains established with the elect in Christ, as it always was. The question Baptists ask is whether the children of professing believers have somehow lost the privilege of receiving the sign of entrance into the New Testament church. They say YES, which places a burden of proof upon them to demonstrate such a conclusion by good and necessary inference if not explicit instruction.
By way of review, God's promise to save Abraham and his "seed" was without any preconditions (Genesis 17:7) that had to be met by those prior to God establishing his promise with the elect. Abraham responded to God's promise of salvation in faith, which was first issued in Genesis 12, whereby he was justified (Genesis 15:6). Although God promised Abraham and his elect son Isaac salvation, God rejected Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-21). Nonetheless, Ishmael was to receive the outward sign of the covenant-promise, which was circumcision (Genesis 17:10ff). Accordingly, God's precept was that his covenant sign be administered to the household of Abraham, even though God established his covenant solely with the elect in Christ. The apostle Paul reminds us in Romans nine that the promise of salvation was not intended for every single person to whom the outward administration of the covenant was to be administered. In fact, the apostle explicitly tells us that the children of the "promise" are counted as Abraham's seed, and not the children of the flesh (Romans 9:8). Accordingly, all those who would believe the promise are the true children of Abraham (Romans 9: 8; Galatians 3:9). Most importantly, the "seed" to whom the promise was made was actually Christ alone (Galatians 3:16). It is through union with Christ, the single Seed of Abraham, that we become seeds of Abraham. As Galatians 3:29 states, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, and heirs according to the promise."
Some misguided arrows, continuity and discontinuity
With respect to national implication as it pertains to circumcision, we must keep in mind that Abraham was not Jewish. Indeed, Israel according the flesh eventually came from Abraham's loins, but the promise was that Abraham would be the father of many nations. Israel did not even become a nation until 430 years after God called Abraham according to the promise (Galatians 3:17). Consequently, contrary to what so many evangelicals think, the sign of circumcision primarily had spiritual significance as opposed to national or ethnic significance. As Romans 4:11 states, "[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith..." The verse does not state that Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of his ethnic origin. God always had an elect people, which he so happen to form into a nation about 2400 years into redemptive history. Nonetheless, the promise both precedes and transcends the nation and could, therefore, not be abrogated upon the apostasy of the nation. God has now taken the kingdom away from the nation of Israel and has started his final building project, the church. The church is the international people of God, a "nation" bearing the fruit of the covenant. Consequently, when one is converted to Christ he need not become part of the nation of Israel; for Christ has sent his followers into the world to make disciples of all nations.
God commanded 4,000 years ago that the sign of the covenant be placed upon the males within the household of professing believers. Although the sign of entrance into the people of God has changed from circumcision to baptism, God never rescinded his covenant principle concerning the subjects who were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant promise. In the same way that all Israel was not Israel, all the church is not the church. Nonetheless, we are by precept to place the sign of covenant membership in the church upon those who qualify, per the instruction of God – which was never rescinded or abrogated.
The disagreement and the error of both groups, Baptists and Paedobaptists
Here's the problem that many paedobaptists run into when dealing with Baptists, especially so-called "Reformed" Baptists. "Reformed" Baptists argue that the Old Covenant was established with the elect and reprobates in professing households since many who were to receive the sign of the covenant fell away. Then they rightly show that the New Covenant is established only with the elect. Accordingly, they reason: if the covenant has changed from including non-believers to including only true believers, then baptism should be reserved only for professing believers in order to ensure (as best as possible) that the visible church resemble the true regenerate church of the New Testament. The paedobaptist gets tripped up by that argument when he tries to argue that both the New and the Old Covenants are established with both the elect and non-elect within professing households, which Randy Booth tries to do in his book "Children of the Promise." Such paedobaptists are certainly correct with respect to the continuity from Old to New but they cannot argue effectively that the New Covenant is established with certain unbelievers because Scripture doesn't support it. Consequently, the Baptist argument often goes like this: "Hey Mr. Paedobaptist, you and I agree that the Old Covenant was made with the visible people of God, which includes believers and unbelievers (since many Israelites fell away from the true religion); therefore, we can agree that circumcision was to be administered to all males, elect or not, within a professing household. However, since the New Covenant is clearly made with the elect in Christ who will persevere in the faith (unlike unfaithful Israel), then it is reasonable to maintain that the covenant has changed with respect to inclusiveness. Therefore, the sign of the covenant should be reserved for those the elders are persuaded are actually believers." In other words, the Baptist argues that since the people of God fell away under the older economy, then the Old Covenant promise must have been made with at least some reprobates; yet the elect of God will not fall away in the New Covenant, therefore, the New Covenant promise must be made with the elect alone. There is a flaw in reasoning that must be considered. The Baptist is contrasting the Old Testament visible church with the New Testament invisible church. By using a faulty comparison, the Baptist is trying to prove whom the Old Covenant was established with by showing who were to receive the sign (elect and reprobate); then he argues for the proper recipients for New Testament baptism on the basis of God establishing his NT covenant with the elect alone. By changing their criteria in this way, they arrive at logically unsubstantiated conclusion. In other words, our Baptist brethren establish with whom the covenant was established under the older economy by looking at who was to receive the sign; then they try to establish who is to receive the sign under the new economy by looking at with whom the New Covenant was made! That's simply fallacious.
The one, single covenant of promise was established with the incarnate Christ and all who were elected in Him; yet this covenant, although established with the elect in Christ, was to be administered even to the reprobate who qualifies, by precept, even by birth.
Now, for those who like formal proofs:
The Best Baptist Argument Out There:
1. In the older economy the covenant was established with professing believers and their households (whether elect or not)
2. It should be ensured as best as possible to place the mark of the covenant upon those with whom the covenant is established
3. Therefore, the mark of circumcision was to be placed upon professing believers and their households (whether they would ever believe or not)
4. The new covenant is established only with those who possess saving faith
5. Given (2 and 4), we should therefore wait until someone makes a profession of faith before admitting them to baptism
The Baptist argument has many problems:
1 is False: The old covenant was established only with the elect.
2 is True: The question is who qualifies?
3 is True: The conclusion is true but it is logically unsound because premise 1 is false. The reason the mark of the covenant was to be placed upon the households of professing believers is not because the covenant was established with them but because due to the head of household’s professed faith it was to be administered to them by biblical precept.
4 is False: Both covenants are established with the elect and the sign is to be administered to those who profess faith, along with their households
5 is False: The falseness of 4 is sufficient to make 5 false.
A Sound Paedobaptist Argument:
1. An Old Covenant precept was that whenever possible the sign of entrance into the covenant was to be placed upon all who were to be regarded as God’s people
2. Children of professing believers were to be regarded as God’s people under the Old Covenant
3. Children of professing believers whenever possible were to receive the sign of entrance into the Old Covenant by way of precept (1, 2)
4. God’s precepts may not be abrogated without explicit instruction or good and necessary inference
5. God never abrogated the Old Testament precept regarding who was to receive the sign of entrance into the Old covenant
6. The sign of entrance into the New Covenant is water baptism
7. God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive the sign of entrance into the New Covenant (3, 4 and 5)
8. God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive water baptism (6, 7)
A Reformed Baptist use of Jeremiah 31
Baptists, of course, will disagree with point 5. They will say that the abrogation of the principle in view is implicit in Jeremiah 31:34: "...they will all know me....”, which they say means that the New Covenant is made only with believers who know the Lord. Accordingly, they reason that we should ensure as best as possible to administer the New Covenant only to those who profess faith in Christ, which infants cannot do. The problem they run into with this line of reasoning is that the verse does not teach that the covenant is only made with those who posses belief! The promise of Jeremiah 31 is a promise of greater fidelity (verse 32), greater empowerment (verse 34), and a greater depth of knowledge (verse 34). It does not address the qualification for covenant entrance. (I’ll address “depth of knowledge” later). Verse 34 does not speak to the question of with whom the covenant will be established. It merely teaches that those with whom the covenant will be established will indeed “know the Lord.” Before considering what it means in that context to “know the Lord” we must first appreciate that verse does not teach us that the covenant will be made only with true believers after they believe. At the very least, if Baptists were correct, then the knowledge of the Lord would not be a blessing of the covenant but rather something that first must be obtained in order to enter into the covenant! Moreover, the verse cannot possibly exclude infants from covenant entrance who will grow up to “know the Lord” because the verse does not imply a change in qualifications for covenant entrance, but rather it speaks to the increase of blessings that will be received by those with whom God establishes the New Covenant. The verse is not speaking of a new qualification for entering into the covenant; rather it is speaking about something different that will occur under the newer economy as compared to the older economy for those who will be in covenant.
The glory of the New Covenant
Since the Old Covenant was established with the elect alone, we may safely say that a saving knowledge was granted to all with whom God established the Old Covenant, barring no early deaths that would preclude saving knowledge. Consequently, the verse must be speaking to the quality and depth of that saving knowledge under the newer economy as opposed to the mere possession of it, which all those with whom God established the Old Covenant would have received. Not surprisingly, that is what we see in the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant with the establishment of the priesthood of all believers, through the revelation of Christ, the completed Canon and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – we all “know the Lord”(!) in a manner vastly different than that under the old economy. In summary, Jeremiah 31 may not be used to defend a more stringent entrance examination for covenant privileges simply because it does not imply anything more than increase of blessings. Thankfully the glory of the New Covenant is not to be found in the exclusion of infants!