Earlier this week Calvinist Batman and I discussed covenant theology, baptism, and Reformed identity. That led to a follow-up discussion with some listeners. For the sake of brevity and clarity I have re-worded and abbreviated some of the questions and I have revised some of the original answers.
Craig and Sean: Circumcision was national and given only to males but baptism is broader and given to both sexes. Do not those differences point us away from infant baptism?
HB: Paul addresses this in Galatians 3. The Abrahamic covenant was instituted 400 years before the national Israelite covenant was instituted. Paul says,
To give a human example, brothers:even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise (Gal 3:15–18; ESV)
Please note how Paul interprets the Abrahamic covenant: “God gave it to Abraham through (δι᾿) a promise (ἐπαγγελίας). In other words, according to Paul, the Abrahamic covenant is of a different kind, in some important respects, than the Mosaic. According to Paul, the Abrahamic is prior to, distinct from, and persists after the Mosaic covenant has expired. In short: Abraham was not Moses
It is the Abrahamic covenant, not the Mosiac, that unifies the history of redemption: The Abrahamic covenant unifies the history of redemption.
So, the question is what circumcision signifies in the context of the Abrahamic covenant? What did God promise to Abraham in Genesis 17? God is identified in 17:1 as Yahweh, the Lord of the covenant. The covenant is not primarily about national Israel. It’s a promise first that God will make out of Abraham many nations: ““Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (v. 4). Again in v. 5 Yahweh says, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (ESV). Again, in v. 6 “I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” What is the covenant promise, what is the substance of the covenant with Abraham? Verse 7:
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your seed after you”
Who is “the seed” Paul explains:
Now to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as to many but as to one, “and to your seed,” who is Christ.
Thus, the seed promise in Genesis 17:7 is not primarily about national Israel nor even primarily material (e.g., about Canaan). See the essays on the Abrahamic covenant for more explanation of this.
Christ was the promised seed and Christ is the Savior, which is Paul’s point to the Galatian Judaizers. They tried to use the Mosaic covenant to leverage (control, change) the Abrahamic and Paul isn’t having any of it. Moses works for Jesus. Moses is a servant in God’s house but Christ is the owner (Heb 2). The Mosaic covenant was temporary, national, and fulfilled by Christ and expired. It was added to the Abrahamic in the way we add a codicil to a pre-existing agreement. That’s just how Paul puts in Galatians 3.
Further, to cement the case that the Abrahamic covenant is really about God’s grace and salvation in Christ, Paul goes on to say in Gal 3:29 that we, who believe, are Abraham’s seed. For Paul, as for Jeremiah and Joel, the Abrahamic covenant is fundamentally, essentially a spiritual covenant that pointed to Christ (“Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” John 8:56) and that was about salvation not about Canaan or national Israel.
That is why Paul says that we who believe are now “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16) because, according to Matthew 2, Jesus is God’s Israel. He went down to Egypt and came back up and we become the Israel of God in him. For more on this see: The Israel of God.
Yes, there were foreshadowing and typological aspects (bloodshed, land promises) to the old administration of the Abrahamic covenant. Under the new covenant, the new administration of the covenant of grace, those have all been fulfilled. We have and live in light of the reality of the incarnation of God the Son.
Regarding Matthew 28:18-20. Scripture says, “having gone therefore (πορευθέντες οὖν) disciple all the nations (μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη)” [this gets us back to “the nations” coming out of Abraham by grace alone, through faith alone]. In what circumstance is this done? “Baptizing them in the name….” (βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα). This instruction could have been given to Abraham. Indeed it was. He was to circumcise himself, his household and any strangers (including Gentiles) who entered the community. We know that Abraham circumcised not only adult converts but also covenant children.
It’s a general commission not a detailed charter of the administration of the new covenant. The conclusion that only professing believers may receive the sign rests on assumptions about the nature of the new covenant. On this see: Untangling Webs of Assumptions About Baptism and On the New Covenant.
This is not mere supposition. There were “household” baptisms in Acts. On this see Household Baptisms In Acts. We know from Genesis etc what “household” meant in the Old Testament and we know from the NT and post-NT Christian literature what “household” meant. It was an inclusive term. There’s discussion of this also in this essay.
- Yes, Reformed theology has always recognized that there are discontinuities between circumcision and baptism. Circumcision was instituted under the period of types and shadows. Yes, circumcision (by its nature) was only applied to males. There was a reason for this, as I pointed out to Craig (see the links above). Circumcision pointed to Christ, “the seed” (see above). In the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant, i.e., of the covenant of grace, the types and shadows having been fulfilled, now males and females receive the sign of admission to the visible covenant community.
- It is not correct to say that females were not members of the covenant community under the types and shadows. It’s true that they were not circumcised but they are regarded as members. They did participate in other ways and they were regarded as members.
- It would be helpful to distinguish between “the old covenant” and Abraham. See the link to the essay on “The New Covenant” above. In the NT the phrase “the old covenant” does not refer to Abraham. It refers to Moses. See 2 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews chapters 7-10. The Old Covenant is said to be fading, inferior etc. These things are never said about the Abrahamic covenant nor about the covenant of grace. It’s very important not to confuse Abraham and Moses. It’s Abraham who is the father of all believers. According to Paul in Romans 4, Abraham believed before he was circumcised and thus he was the first Gentile believer. He believed after he was circumcised. Thus, he was the first Jewish Christian, as it were.
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Rom 4:9–12; ESV
According to v. 11, Abraham (not Moses) is the father of all who believe. Abraham is the paradigm for believers. See the links above on the Abrahamic covenant. See also the explanation of Galatians 3 above.
- As I said in the episode, the point of Colossians 2:11–12 is not to make a direct connection between baptism and circumcision. Rather, the point is that when Paul seeks to explain the nature of the Christian life as a dying to sin, he turns first to circumcision and then to the cross, and then to baptism. The point is that, in Paul’s mind, circumcision and baptism are linked by the cross. Circumcision was a ritual death that foreshadowed Christ’s death, his circumcision (as it were) on the cross. Baptism is the sacrament that looks back to Christ’s circumcision/death.Here are some resources on this: Abraham, Moses and Circumcision
- According to Paul it has always been the case that true circumcision has always been spiritual. Paul says, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:28–29; ESV).
Circumcision has never made one a true Jew nor has baptism ever made one a true Christian. Both have always been external signs of what is true of believers. Nevertheless, that did not prevent God from instituting infant circumcision, did it? Hence Paul says,
Still, the outward administration of the covenant of grace is important. Paul says:
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar…. (Rom 3:1–4; ESV).
Again, in Romans 9:4–5:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
Here’s the distinction that Paul is making: between the substance of the covenant of grace and the outward administration of the covenant of grace. The question is whether the administration of the Abrahamic covenant has changed in the NT such that the children of believers are no longer eligible to receive the sign? The Baptist answer, in my view, rests on the assumption that the new covenant is such that the children of believers could not receive the sign but if God really has changed the administration of the covenant of grace why did he not tell the Jews at Pentecost, “Yes, I know that you’ve been imitating you children in the visible covenant community for 2,000 years but that’s all done now”? Instead, what he said was, “for the promise is to you and to your children and to the gentiles I will call.” That’s the Abrahamic promise as it had been understood by believers for 2,000 years. Here’s an essay on the substance of the covenant of grace.
From the Abrahamic perspective, every command to baptize is a command to baptize believers and their children. After all, the promise is: “I will be a God to you and to your children.”
The covenant of grace has always had a substance (salvation), which is received by grace alone, through faith alone (which is down to election) and an outward administration. Obviously, not everyone who receives the sign of the covenant is either actually a believer or comes to faith. Esau received the sign and he was reprobate. There were those in the NT who received the sign and yet who did not believe (see Acts 5 for a case of church discipline). The book of Hebrews was written to professing Jewish Christians, who were tempted to go back to Moses, the types and shadows. People participated in the outward administration or might have (Heb 6 and 10:29) done who nevertheless did not believe.
No Baptist minister, when he administers baptism to a professing believer, knows with ontological certainty that the candidate for baptism is actually regenerate and really a believer. Ultimately, he doesn’t really know any more about the professing believer than the Reformed minister who baptizes believers and their children. We baptize on the basis of God’s promise, “I will be your God and your children’s God,” which he gave to Abraham, which he repeated through the prophets, and which he confirmed at Pentecost.
CB: Why don’t truly Reformed people believe in paedocommunion, since communion is a form of Passover from the OT and children participated in that. Seems like it would be consistent.
HB: To be sure in the institution of passover it seems that younger children participated in the passover meal but we do not know that infants did so. The children in the narrative are able to ask questions and understand God’s saving acts. Second, as Cornel Venema and others have argued, there is a marked difference between the way the institution of passover is described and the way its practice is described. Finally, the connection between passover and the Lord’s Supper is less direct than often assumed. On these see the resources linked below.
The confusion of baptism and communion is, from the perspective of Reformed theology, a Baptist and Greek Orthodox error. Baptists confuse the sign of initiation into the visible covenant community with the sign of renewal. God instituted two distinct signs with two distinct functions. In broad terms, for Baptists, there is really only function: confirmation of what has already happened (new life and true faith, as best anyone can judge). In that case, in some Baptist paradigms, baptism and the supper play virtually identical roles. Often then, in such paradigm, since baptism has already confirmed that one is a believer, the supper becomes practically irrelevant.
For us, however, communion is a renewal of the covenant of grace whereas baptism is the sign of admission to the visible covenant community (the visible church) in which the means of grace, which God uses to bring his people to faith, are administered outwardly. Here’s what we say about distinguishing baptism and communion:
- Who may come to the Lord’s Table?
- Children At the Lord’s Table? A Review
- On Profession of Faith and Communion
CB: If a child is baptized, doesn’t seek God for decades, moves far away, then comes to faith: Does the Reformed church just take his word that he was baptized before or do they call his parents to confirm that they made vows? Also, what is the public declaration to the church and to the world that they are following Christ if baptism isn’t it?
HB: Good question but it assumes the wrong paradigm (see “Untangling Webs of Assumptions”), however. Circumcision was and baptism is a sign of admission to the visible covenant community and a promise of what is true of the circumcised or baptized person when they are regenerated and believe. It’s not a mark that they already believe. When did Isaac come to faith? Let’s say that he believed after he was circumcised. Should he be re-circumcised? That would be difficult. So too with baptism. The child has already been initiated into the visible covenant community and, in God’s providence and grace has come to new life and true faith and by faith has apprehended all that was promised in baptism. That’s a cause for rejoicing not for re-identitying someone outwardly with Christ’s death.
On the second question it’s a paradigm problem that I addressed above in the distinction between the sign of admission and the sign of renewal.
CB: So what is the purpose of being in the visible covenant community? What are the benefits?
HB: Paul says:
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom 3:1–2; ESV).
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen (Rom 9:4–5; ESV).
In both cases Paul is answering this question: what benefits are there to participating in the visible, external administration of the covenant of grace. The root of the question, in context is the problem created by the inclusion of the Gentiles. If God can freely save Gentiles sola gratia, sola fide now, at this point in redemptive history, after after 2,000 years of promises to Abraham and the 1600 years after the national covenant with Israel, what good did it do to be a Jew? What benefit was their in participating in the external administration of the covenant of grace under Abraham and Moses.
The visible covenant community is where God the Spirit ordinarily operates (works) to bring the elect to new life and to true faith in Christ. Baptism is an essential part of the external administration of the covenant of grace. To be baptized is to have the name of the Triune God placed upon one. To be baptized is to receive, outwardly, at least a new identity and a new name. To make profession of faith and to receive communion is to be fed, through the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, by the body and blood of Christ. How this happens is, as I say, a mystery but it true because Jesus said, “this is my body” and “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:53–55). That happens, ordinarily, in the context of the visible covenant community. We might just as well ask why Hebrews 10:24, 25 says “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” What did God assemble his redeemed people at the foot of Sinai? Because he desired us to worship him there. The preaching of the Word is the means that Spirit uses to bring his elect to faith.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10:14–17).
Public worship in the covenant assembly is where our piety begins, where we experience and practice the “communion of the saints,” which we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, where we “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). Here’s an essay on this question.
CB:Like literally, if people just wanted to come to church but not come to faith, would you require them to get baptized?
HB: No. Paul has a category for such a person. He calls such a person an “outsider” or “unlearned” or “uninstructed” (ἰδιώτης) in 1 Corinthians 14:16, 24. In context it seems to be the case that such a person has not been instructed, is not a believer, and yet is present in the worship service. Here is an attempt to work out the implications of the οἶκος (household) baptisms in Acts.
CB: I get that people would naturally see the new covenant as a continuation of the Abrahamic covenant, but due to all the new Gentiles coming in, you would think the Bible would have made it way more clear than it seems to (if paedo is the biblical way). All I see in the NT (particularly with the Gentiles) is believe/repent (FIRST) and then be baptized. Not believe/repent and then have communion.
HB: The Bible did make it very clear 2,000 years before Pentecost. That’s a long-established pattern: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” Where does God revoke this pattern?
With the inauguration of the new covenant, those who had not yet received the sign of the new covenant were called to acknowledge their sins and to receive the Messiah and the accompanying signs. As I mentioned above, Abraham was circumcised and his sons. “The promise is to you and to your children” is pretty clear. It certainly does not obviously mean, “I know that your children have been included in the visible covenant community for 2,000 years ago but we’re not doing that any longer.”