Samuel Rutherford On Acts 2:39 In Defense Of Infant Baptism

Q. What warrant is there, Act. 2. 39. for Infant Baptism?

Ans. I shall not contend for the actual baptizing of them at that instant. But every one of you be baptized ἕκαστος father and sons. Why? the promise is to you and to your children, break the Text into an hundred pieces, and blood it as men please, the Genuine Thesis which cannot be neglected, is, These to whom the promise of the Covenant does belong, these should be baptized, ἐπαγγελία. But the promise of the Covenant is to you and to your children. Ergo, you and your children should be baptized. The assumption is the express words of Peter and the Proposition is Peters. Every one of you be baptized, ὑμῖν γὰρ ἐστιν for to you is the promise of the Covenant. Calvin, Bullinger, Brentius, Gualther clear it.

2. Who they are, who are in the nearest capacity to be baptized, he explains, when he showeth, that the Covenant promise is made to those who are far off, to the Gentiles, who the Lord shall call, then all that are under the call and offer of Christ in the preached Gospel, as Prov. 9. 1, 2, 3, 4. Matth. 22. bid them come to the wedding, Luke 14. 16, 17, 18. &c. are externally in Covenant, and such to whom the Covenant is made, and should be baptized, its presumed they give some professed consent to the call and do not right down deny to come, else they should be baptized against their will.

3. Calvin shows Acts 2. 39. that the Anabaptists in his time, said, the promise was made to Believers only, but the Text saith, it is made to you and to your children, to infants, to the children of the Prophets and of the Covenant made with the fathers, Acts 3. 25. Now what ground do Anabaptists give that all infants believe, or that some believe, since to them, their children were as Pagans without Christ, without the Covenant? if to the children when they come to age and shall believe? but what need to add, and to your believing Children? for these are not children but men of age, their fathers and they both being believers. Now Peter sets down two ranks, the aged who heard the word with gladness, and were pricked in heart, v. 37. 41. and the children, and to both the promise is made, and what ground is there to exclude sucking children? for the word, Acts 2. 39. is Matth. 2. 18. 1 Cor. 7. 14. where sure the word is taken for sucking children of whose actual faith the Scripture speaks not.

2. The promise is to you and to your children, can have no other sense then, the promise and word of the Covenant is preached to you and to your children in you, and this is to be externally in Covenant, both under the Old and New Testament. If it have another sense it must be this, the Lord hath internally Covenanted with you the 3000. who have heard the word and with your children, and you are the spiritual seed, and sons of promise, predestinate to life eternal: as Rom. 9. they expone the seed in Covenant:

But 1. Were all the 3000. Ananias and Sapphira and their children the spiritual and chosen seed? for he commands all, whom he exhorts to repent, to be baptized:

And 2. Now to Simon Magus and Demas, and numbers of such, Peter could not have said, the promise is made to you and to your children, if it be only made to real and actual believers, as they say, Peter therefore must own them all whom he exhorts to repent, as the chosen seed. But if the former sense be intended (as how can it be denied?) to wit, the word of the Covenant is preached to you, an offer of Christ is made in the preached Gospel to you. Then it cannot be denied, but the promises to all the Reprobate in the Visible Church whether they believe or not, for Christ is preached; and promises of the Covenant are Preached to Simon Magus, to Judas and all the Hypocrites who stumble at the word, to all the Pharisees, as is clear, Math. 13. 20, 21, 22, 23. Acts 13. 44, 45. Acts 18. 5, 6. Math. 21. 43. 1 Pet. 2. 7, 8.

(3.) The promise, I will be your God, and ye shall be my people, must be one way expounded in the Old Testament, to wit, you are externally only in Covenant with God. But in the New Testament, it must have this meaning, I will be your God, 2. Cor. 6. 16. that is, you are all predestinate to life, and the sons, by promise, and the spiritual seed, to whom I say, I will be your God: But so it may well be said, there were no internal Covenanters in the Old Testament, and there be none but only internal Covenanters in the New Testament, so that when the Lord sayeth, Rev. 11. 15. The Kingdoms of the earth are mine, and my sons. He must say, the Kingdoms, Egypt, Assyria, Tyrus, Ethiopia, &c. are chosen and the spiritual seed, and these Covenanted Nations and the Kingdoms of the Gentiles are all internally and effectually called, and there are no Visible Churches in the New Test. but only all invisible and saved.

4. If these words, The promise is to you, and to your Children, be limited, to as many as the Lord shall effectually call, either fathers or children: But Mr. Stev. Marshall judiciously observes; there is no more a Covenant-favour holden forth to their children, then to the children of Pagans; for the children of Pagans, if God effectually call them, have the promises made to them.

5. Its clear that external Covenant-holiness, is to these men ceremonial holiness now out of date; and then external calling the only means of internal and effectual calling, Math. 22. 14. 1 Cor. 1. 18. 23. 24. Luke 15. 1, 2. and the fixed Church-hearing of the Preached Gospel is a ceremony.

2. That God should be the God of Infants of the seed of the Jews, a mercy to fathers and sons coming from free love, Deut. 10. 15. Gen. 17. 7. Deut. 7. 6, 7, 8. and Prophesied as a mercy to the Gentiles by all the Prophets was a ceremony removed now in Christ. Yea

3. External covenanting and adopting, and choosing of Israel is no mercy, except that a Pedagogue of the Law is a mercy for a time.

4. The promise is to you and to your Children, must be in a contradictory way expounded, to wit, the promise is no more made to your Children so long as they are Infants, then to Devils. Yea Fathers and Children not believing, though chosen to life, are excommunicated from visible Adoption, calling, hearing the Gospel-promises, for there is no covenanting now under the New Testament, but only internal covenanting of the Elect.

5. Young Timothy and children of believing Parents, and all the aged within the visible Church, have no right to hear the preached Gospel, before they believe and be the holy seed, more then Pagans. Yea

6. They can have no command of God, to hear the Gospel, nor any covenant or Gospel warrant, until they be believers, for if there were no promise made to hearing and considering the word, if they shall believe, while as yet they believe not, and until they be effectually called, there can be no command, and no Law, to hear the Gospel and the covenant offer made in Christ. It shall then be no more sin for unconverted persons to turn away their ears from the Law, and not to hear the Gospel.

7. It were non-sense to say to men under the externally proposed covenant, repent, hear the Gospel, use the means, receive the seals, and yet you have no right to hear, nor have we any warrant to baptize you, until ye believe; for there is no promise made to you, nor to your seed and Children, until first you believe. And it must say there was no threatening to Adam. Gen. 2. 17. before he sinned, and no promise to Adam nor to any now, do this and live, until Adam first sinned, and first obeyed the covenant; and so, if John covenant to labour in Peters Vineyard, and Peter promise to him four pence, so he work twelve hours, otherwise he shall not pay him 4. pence, though John accept of the covenant, and work but one hour, whereas his covenant is to work for twelve hours, then no man can say to John (work, for there is a promise made of four pence to you) the other might deny; no such promise was made to me, except I work twelve hours. It were, sure, unfaithful dealing to John to say so. For the four pence ought not, by this Covenant, to be given to him except he work twelve hours: but he cannot without palpable falshood, say, I have broken no Covenant, in not working twelve hours: For though I consented to the covenant, and began to work an hour, yet the promise was not to me simply, but to me as working twelve hours; but there is neither face nor faith in this Answer: For the fulfilling of the covenant is only to give four pence to John, if he work 12. hours; but the promise and covenant was made to him and he hath foully broken. Yea a conditional covenant agreed unto and accepted, is a covenant, if we shall (as in reason we ought) distinguish between a covenant, in its essence and nature, and a covenant broken or fulfilled, a covenant or threatening, is a covenant and threatening obliging Adam, fit shall be agreed unto by silence, as Adam accepted the threatening, Gen. 2. 17. by silence, and Professors within the visible Church, by their professing of the Doctrine of the Gospel or covenant of grace, their receiving of the Seals and professed hearing of the Word, are under the covenant of Grace, and engage themselves to obey commands, promises, threatenings, and therefore promises are as properly made to them, Act. 2. 39. As commands, and threatenings, exhortations, invitations, and Gospel-requests are made to them. But though the Anabaptists ignorantly confound the promise, and the thing promised; the covenant, and benefits covenanted. The promise is to you, and so are the commands, and threatenings, whether ye believe or not, the command is to you, and lays an obligation on you, whether ye obey, or obey not, and the threatenings are to you, whether ye transgress or transgress not. It is true indeed, the promise, that is, the blessing promised, righteousness and eternal life is not given to you until you first believe.

Object. Is not the promise made the same way to the aged as to the children; and the same thing required of both: The promise is to you and to your Children. But the promise is made to the aged only, if they actually believe. Ergo, the promise is made to the Children only, if they actually believe, and so not to Infants.

Answ. Neither proposition nor assumption can bear weight. For the proposition when God saith, I will be thy God O Abraham, and the God of thy seed. Is it needful that God require the same conditions, that is actual believing that he may save Father Abraham, & also actual believing from hearing the word of the covenant preached from all Infants born of Abraham and dying in Infancy, or then all these Infants so dying must be eternally damned? nay, we believe many Infants (we reserve to the holy and glorious Lord his liberty of election & reprobation, Rom. 9. 11. 12) among the Jews were saved by the covenant of grace, though they died Infants. And this we condemn in Anabaptists, that they show no revealed way of God of saving Infants of believing Parents dying in Infancy, more then of saving Pagans and their Infants, for to them both are alike without the covenant of grace and without Christ; and therefore believing Parents have no word of faith, or of the Gospel to pray for the salvation of their children dying in Infancy, for such prayers have neither warrant in the covenant of Works, nor in the covenant of grace by their way. And yet that we are to pray, is to be gathered from Gen. 19. 18. 2 Sam. 12. 16. Job. 1. 5. Mark 10. 16. Psal. 28. 9, and if we pray for their salvation, they must be saved by either Law or Gospel Its not enough, to say that we may pray for savages that never heard of the Gospel, nor of the covenant of grace, that they may be saved. For seeing there is no name under Heaven by which men may be saved, but by the name of Jesus, Acts 4. 12. John 14. 6. There is no other warrant of praying for such, then that God would send them the Gospel, and since Christ prayed for Infants and blessed them, which is a praying for them, Gen. 48. 15, 16 Deut. 33. 1. 6, 7, 8. &c. Eph. 1. 2. Gal. 1. 3. 1 Cor. 1. 3. 1 Tim. 1. 2. 2 Tim. 1. 3. See Mar. 10. 16. he must own them as blessed in Christ, in whom all the Nations of the earth are blessed, and so covenanted with God in Christ.

2. It is false that the promise is made only to the aged, upon condition of actual believing. 1. It is made to their children expressly in the Text, and for the way of their believing, we leave it to the Lord. Nor is it true, that the promise is made to the aged, upon condition of believing. The promise is made to them absolutely, whether they believe or not. But the blessing of the promise and covenant of grace is given and bestowed only conditionally, if they believe. The promise is absolutely made: its called conditional from the thing conditionally given.

Obj. But is not this an approven distinction, that persons are within the Covenant, either externally, professedly, visibly, or internally, really, or according to the intention of God? Ergo, such as are externally within the Covenant, are not really and indeed within the covenant of grace.

Ans. The Adverb (really) relates to the real fruit of the fulfilled covenant, and so such as are only externally within the covenant, are not really within the covenant, for God never directed, nor intended to bestow the blessing covenanted, nor grace to perform the condition of the covenant upon them? but they are really covenanted and engaged by their consented profession to fulfill the covenant. And as the commands and threatenings of the covenant of grace lay on a real obligation, upon such as are only externally in covenant, either to obey or suffer, so the promise of the covenant imposes an engagement & obligation upon such to believe the promise, but sometimes, we say the promises of the covenant of grace are not really made to the Reprobate within the visible Church, because God intends and decrees to, and for them, neither the blessing promised, nor the saving grace to fulfill the condition or to believe. And therefore these words are figurative, Heb. 8. 10. This is the Covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, I will write my Law in their minds, &c. that is, this is the special and principal covenanted blessing, I will give them a new heart: which must not be called a simple prediction, though a prediction it is, but it is also a real promise made absolutely to the Elect, which the Lord fulfills in them: And this is called the Covenant. Because

1. They are no better then nonCovenanters upon whom the Lord bestows not this part and blessing of the covenant.

2. The truth is, the promise of a new heart is not made to the visible Church, which is only visible: but to the Elect & invisible Church. And if Anabaptists shall expone these words, Acts 2. 39. The promise of a new heart is made to you and to your Children, upon condition that you and your Children believe, which they cannot do until first they have a new heart, its as good as Peter had said, God promiseth to you and to your Children grace to believe, and a new heart to obey him, upon condition that you first believe. And that is, Gods promise to you to believe upon condition that ye believe, which is ridiculous, and therefore we cannot say that this promise of a new heart is made to all that are commanded to believe and repent and be baptized. For Elect and Reprobate, and all are under these commands, if they be members of the visible Church. But the promise of a new heart is not made to all within the visible Church.

Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened or A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (Edinburgh, 1655), 86–93.

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  1. Rutherford’s A Covenant Of Life Opened is a brilliant treatise on infant baptism as well. The Puritans were the Redwoods in the forest of Church History. No Twitter or TV as distractions.

  2. ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they ALL shall know Me, from the least of them, to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Jer. 31:33,34

    Only those who have had this New Covenant prophecy fulfilled in their spirit, that is, are regenerate, and thus who do personally know the Lord, are within the New Covenant. A child can have this, but faith will necessarily be involved.

  3. Stephen Marshall said if after thousands of years of precedent including children in covenant administration, Acts 2:38ff is odd language indeed if they are suddenly excommunicated from covenant privilege. Especially when not a few chapters were spent over dietary law changes in the New Testament. Would it not be odd, a much more vital and important change such as the exclusion of children from the visible church occur without one word or controversy if it be so? Marshall said if the baptists are correct, and they are not, such an unannounced radical change would turn the good news of Pentecost into the great day of family excommunication.

    The fundamental error is covenantal. God has not made these things difficult. As B.B. War field simply said God put children in the covenant in the days of Abraham and He has nowhere indicated he put them out. The household dynamic is everywhere plain. If such a radical excommunication took place as our baptist brethren read into the text, not only would there be an express word confirming such a change as in all other changes in the New Testament. When God’s truths continue via different administrations explicit declarations are not required but assumed. Only when previously explicit promises and practices are fulfilled are they explicitly declared as no longer relevant.

    Children being included in covenant administration is nowhere declared obsolete or abrogated. The Household administration from the book of Genesis which was directly tied and a result of the covenant promises to be a God to us and our seed is nowhere discontinued in the New. If the administration was suddenly without precedent or precept changed to only professors of the faith and the household practices would likewise change, as this long standing precedent was only associated with covenant solidarity of children under their parents. If God were intending a radical change and excommunication of children this would be very misleading language for God to use. For God to inspire Peter on the day of Pentecost to repeat in form and substance the Abrahamic pattern of the promise is for you and your children and those afar off with household administration it would be cruel indeed and confusing to all if this same language which induced faith and practice for millennia to now secretly imply the radical abrogation and covenant excommunication of children. However, the missionary age of the New Testament expression of the church is replete with household administrations of the covenant promise.

    The warnings of the NT about wheat and chaff within the church also indicate that not until the eschaton will the body of Christ be pure as the already not yet promises of Heb 8 and 10 iterate. The New Testament is also clear as a bell that baptism is the replacement sign of promise and initiation into the visible church, taking the place of circumcision under Abraham. Both signs signifying and sealing the same gospel promises, pointing to the same circumcision and baptism of Christ on the cross. Baptists must ignore and import much to come to their conclusions. If we see the scriptures as one whole text by one whole author with one people and one Savior much error in the church would be resolved.

  4. I think two things hinder most baptists, or at least hindered my when I was a baptist. The first is the misunderstanding of what baptism actually is. Is it a declaration that the gospel promise has already been received by faith and is only for such as have already been united to Christ by faith, or is it a visible declaration of the gospel promise, that any and all who believe will be washed clean of their sins by the blood of Christ as the water washes the body? Baptism is the latter of the two. To err on this one must assume then only those who have already trusted in Christ are to receive baptism. This is to take the baptismal passages out of context.

    When the NT speaks of baptism it speaks of it in the same manner it spoke of circumcision, it was a sign and seal of the gospel promise, not s sign and seal the promise was received. Yes in the case of adults it may, but it doesn’t require that only those who have believed are to receive it. When the NT says As many of you as have been baptized have been buried with Christ or are clothed with Christ, it doesn’t mean each and every person undergoing the ritual. It means in context only those who have trusted in Christ have been United and clothed. That does not imply that only those who have believed can receive it for we know the promise of the covenant signs were always given to professors and their children. Thus it’s possible there are those in the visible church who have undergone baptism who have either made a false profession or are yet infants or children within the covenant who have yet to express faith. Otherwise Paul would be saying each and every person baptized is regenerate. But the “As many of US as have been baptized are dead and raised with Christ” in Rom 6 has a context. The US gives the context. Who are the US? They are those already justified by faith Rom 5:1. The sacerdotalists and Lutherans also stumble at the surface reading ironically here Not seeing the context of Paul’s statement in light of faith. Baptism is a visible sign and seal of the gospel, not that the gospel has been appropriated one way or another by us. This is a promise about God and His gospel, not our response to it. Otherwise Paul’s statement would imply every person baptized is saved. This cannot be the case based upon a wider contextual reading of the NT.

    Secondly, the other stumbling block is how many well intentioned Reformed brethren confuse the efficacy of baptism for the children of the covenant. Instead of continuing the biblical truth that justification is always and has always been sola fide. The mere application of circumcision did not grant a seed of faith in every recipient of the sign. Nor was it an indication of God’s elective purposes, as though Gods promise to be our God and our seeds implied he would save every single one of our children. This was not the case with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Why would it be different for us. This also shows the sign of the gospel promise is still to be applied because the promise is for them. We are not privy to His secret decrees. But the promise is graciously given to us and our children. He has commanded that we apply the sign of promise to our children and raise them in the Lord. We are not to assume they are regenerate due to mere physical lineage to us. No they must be born again. Nicodemus was a covenant child but Jesus told him he must be born again. Being born into a covenant home has great privilege but they must be born again. Many Reformed mistakenly assume regeneration and have little place for telling their children what Jesus told Nicodemus. This is an error, and is not biblical. Yes we are commanded to give the sign to our children. But it is the sign that if they believe they will be washed clean of their sins by the blood of Christ.

    These types of errors turn off many baptists and scare them. It can declare we teach and confess some type of physical family salvation by the first birth rather than the second. Rather, we need to recover the Abrahamic understanding of the efficacy of the sacrament and be biblical in our understanding. This will keep a church healthy and not scare away others.

  5. Lads, Rutherford wanted every single child born in the kingdom of Scotland to be baptised, irrespective of their immediate parents. See John Coffey’s biography (1997). He’s not a good model for modern Presbyterians.

  6. Rutherford may have erred on this point but is correct insofar as he accords with the system of doctrine set forth in Holy Scripture. In the case of his views on Acts 2:39 he is spot on. His book A Covenant Of Life Opened is excellent as well. But like all fallible men they are only to be followed as they follow the Word; in those areas they err they are not.

  7. Dear Brethren,
    In Acts 2:39, is “the promise” a reference to the Abrahamic covenant or the promise just espoused, namely that “I will pour out my Spirit… and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”? And, this promise is to you and your children, and as many as the Lord our God will call. Thus, calling is also essential to receipt of the promise.
    Further, in verse 38, who were the ones to be immersed (the English translation of “baptizo”, cf. Calvin’s commentary on John 3:23 and Acts 8:38) but those who repented, and, as v. 41 says, “those who received his word were immersed.”
    It seems to me that it is believers who were and are to be immersed in water as a sign and seal of their profession of faith in Jesus Christ, the very Gospel that Peter preached in Acts 2, and in obedience to Christ’s commission in Matthew 28:19.
    By grace

    • The promise in Act.2:39 is to “forgive your sins” for nothing but faith in the Messiah. That was the essence of Abraham’s faith in “the promise,” looking forward, Rom.4:2-3. And that is the essence of Abraham’s seed’s faith who looked forward with him, Rom.9:8; and with them we also in the NT era, Gal.3:29, but backward at Messiah’s finished work.

      You’ve labeled as the basic promise: having a share in the Spirit’s outpouring; but that’s a subsidiary blessing of having your sins forgiven on the basis of the finished work.

      Calling was also essential to receipt of the promise God gave to Abraham, Gen.17:18-19; cf. Rom.9:6-7. Trying to drive a wedge between the covenant B.C., and the covenant A.D. on this basis fails.

      Baptist boilerplate on the definition of βαπτιζω remain as unconvincing as ever. This is not the way actual language works. The basal word-origin, if it was helpful to know it, is something akin to the English “whelm,” and not strictly “immerse.” Since Scripture (and extra-biblical Gk) employ the term in settings and ways that are obviously distinct from whelm or immerse, the borrowed word “baptize” became the theologically rich term it has become, and is not a mere description (even literal, as the Baptist insists).

      Of course, those who baptize the infants of believers also baptize repentant, believing adults on their profession as a baptismal norm; so a simple appeal to NT descriptions and settings where we see that action specified is unimpressive. It appears you base your baptismal practice on Gospels and Acts descriptions (as you interpret them), then make the theology of baptism that appears later in the epistles be “reflections” on the agenda–theology follows practice.

      The Reformed don’t derive their baptismal practice starting from narrative events. We begin with didactic Scripture, blend that theology of baptism with a robust biblical theology, then compare the descriptions of NT baptisms with our conclusions. The descriptions found in Gospels and Acts were written by men in full possession of the Scripture’s theology of baptism–practice follows theology.

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