Engaging With 1689 (7): John Spilsbury Contra Infant Baptism (part 2)

Last time we began looking at one of the earliest figures in the history of the Particular Baptist movement(s), John Spilsbury. We are considering his treatise, mostly by way of survey, against infant baptism (paedobaptism). This work is particularly interesting because at the heart of his case is his understanding of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17. Unlike most of the other writers we have surveyed (and criticized) so far, Spilsbury wants to assert a kind of continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant. Here we must observe more fully the nature of the continuity he sought to affirm. For Spilsbury, because the covenant of Genesis 17 was a covenant of grace it has always been the case that only those who received its benefits by grace alone, through faith alone were ever actually in the covenant (p. 13). The promise gives one entry into the covenant of grace but every covenant has two parts. There is a mutuality in the covenant of grace. God’s part in the covenant is to promise and it is our part to believe, which faith is granted to the elect, whom God regenerates. Thus, as in the New Covenant (“the Gospel”) only believers are ever actually in the covenant of grace so it was under Abraham. Ishmael was never really in the covenant of grace.

For Spilsbury, there was really only ever what the Reformed writers called “the substance” of the covenant of grace. There has always and only been one way of being in the covenant of grace, by grace alone, through faith alone. The only way infants could ever be in the covenant of grace would be if they were born regenerate (p. 14), born in a “saving estate of grace.” He knew, however, from Scripture that any such doctrine of infant regeneration “makes void many heavenly and divine truths that speak to the contrary” (ibid). He was quite aware of examples to the contrary, e.g., John the Baptist, but these, he argued were special cases about which we have divine revelation. We have no such revelation about our children and thus that example is not probative.

The treatise has a dialogical or catechetical (question and answer) structure and one of the objections that he sought to answer was the Reformed complaint that his denial of infant baptism effectively reduced (rather than enlarged) the extent of the covenant of grace (p. 15). He affirmed unapologetically that it does. When Christ came, he argued, “the flesh” was “taken away.” He returned to his doctrine that infants were ever only involved in the covenant of grace under Abraham by “special command” and that being absent in the New Covenant (a priori the nature of the New Covenant is such that it had to be repeated to be continued) their inclusion was abrogated.

As to Reformed objection that Scripture says, “I will be a God to you and to your seed,” he replied that was merely the ground for circumcision (p.16). It was not a general promise that carried over into the New Covenant. Again, he made an argument from the silence of the New Testament. Further (pp. 17–18) the promise was to believing Abraham. We have no confidence that infants believe, therefore they have no interest in the New Covenant until such time as they are brought to faith. God shall be their God, when they come to faith (p.18). Anyway, he argued, the language of Genesis 17 was really “figurative” speech about the “outward and temporal” blessings of Canaan (ibid). Further, the temporal promises were conditioned upon “faith and obedience.” They had to be “circumcised in heart.” Thus, as noted above, such promises and the inclusion of infants in them “ended in Christ, in whom all stands from only such as believe, as Gal. 3” (ibid).

From here he moved to a brief exposition of Galatians 4 (pp. 19–20). For Spilsbury, Hagar signifies the “old state in general” (p. 20). Ishmael was the physical son of Abraham but “no child of the promise.” Sarah stands for the New Testament, “the true spouse and wife of Christ.” Isaac represents all the elect, regenerated people in New Testament church. As to the corporate baptism of the Israelites, to which Paul appeals in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4, he argued that benefit was only for the Jews because they were God’s national people. That arrangement ended with Christ and there therefore it says nothing to us in the New Covenant about whom we should baptize or even about the nature of the covenant of grace (pp.22–23). In both cases, he interpreted the passages using the categories and principles he had already articulated.

<b>Analysis And Response</b)
The work continues for another 60 pages or so but we have come to the point where, after the principles have been established and applied a few times, we are able to begin to predict the outcome. We have a reasonably good sense of how Spilsbury read the Abrahamic covenant, the history of redemption, and the hermeneutic (approach to interpreting Scripture) he used.

What began formally as an appeal to continuity between the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace and the New Covenant only works if the Reformed reader makes some major concessions. Perhaps the most important of these was his notion that there really is only ever one way of being in the covenant of grace. His account of how Ishmael and Isaac were in the covenant of grace was, frankly, incoherent. The reason for this incoherence is that he had rejected the Reformed doctrine that there has always been two ways of participating in the covenant of grace. The Reformed theologian Caspar Olevianus (1536&ndash;87) distinguished between the “substance” of the covenant of grace and its external administration. According to the Reformed reading of redemptive history we must affirm the reality of both. We agree that only the elect, whom God brings to faith, ever receive Christ and his benefits by grace alone, through faith alone but this does not answer the question of whom God has ordained to participate in the external administration of the covenant of grace.

Despite his formal distinction between Abraham and Moses, ultimately, if in a round about way, Spilsbury ultimately turned Abraham into Moses via circumcision. He regarded circumcision as really only about the earthly and temporal promises, as essentially a Mosaic practice which was (inexplicably) projected back into the Abrahamic covenant. We know from Hebrews and from John 8, among other places, that Abraham’s hope was never in an earthly land and that Canaan was a picture of heaven but it is important to see that, for Spilsbury, the Abrahamic covenant was not as spiritual as he initially seemed to make it.

Though he appealed to the New Testament regularly, from the Reformed perspective, he did not actually allow the New Testament to shape his reading of Abraham and Moses. He did not allow Paul to teach him how to read Scripture nor did he permit Hebrews to teach him what the nature of the external administration of the covenant of grace is in the Old and New Testaments. Read on its own terms, in its own context, the very problems with which pastor to the Hebrews was struggling testifies against Spilsbury’s over-realized eschatology and that was grounded in his literal reading of Jeremiah 31. Where, for Spilsbury, the command to initiate infants (in Genesis 17) into the visible covenant community, into the outward administration of the covenant of grace (to hear the preached gospel which we pray and trust the Lord will use to bring covenant children to new life and to true faith and thence to profession of faith, thence to the communion, and to a fruitful Christian life) he took Jeremiah 31 literally. By contrast, the Reformed recognize that Jeremiah was speaking figuratively about the New Covenant, using hyperbole. Even our Baptist friends recognize this when the employ pastors to preach. Evidently, there is some need to say “know the Lord” in the New Covenant.

Spilsbury seemed to see a connection between circumcision and baptism but he interpreted the former in light of his Baptist view of the New Covenant. Baptism, he knew a priori, could only be an affirmation (his language) of existing spiritual realities in the believer. If there is an analogy between baptism and circumcision then, a fortiori, circumcision was really only a recognition of what had already been accomplished. Because of this approach, his account of why infants were circumcised should not persuade those who are trying to account for what Scripture says.

It is interesting, however, to see in the 17th century the same phenomena that we experience today. Spilsbury’s discussion of infant regeneration was enlightening in that regard. To be sure, there were Reformed writers in the period (e.g., Beza) who argued for infant initiation and thus he might be forgiven for thinking that the Reformed believed such a doctrine. Nevertheless, the Reformed did not confess that doctrine. We do not baptize on the basis of the speculation that an infant is regenerate. We baptize on the basis of the promise, “I will be a God to you and to your children after you” and on analogy with the inclusion of infants in the external administration of the covenant of grace.

The real question is why Spilsbury found the Baptist case so attractive? The answer almost certainly is to be found not in his text but in his circumstances, in the history of the English church. In Spilsbury we see the effect of the separatist reaction to the state-church. We do not have time to survey English church history in any detail but suffice it to say that from the moment the faith came to England, it came through the king to the people. Church and state have always been intertwined. Missionaries operated with permission of nobility and kings. One day a village was pagan and the next day it was “Christian.” One day the English church was Roman and her king (Henry VIII) was a Luther-hating “Defender of the [Romanist] Faith” and the next, the English church was nominally Protestant.

Both the separatists (e.g., Congregationalists, e.g., Ames and Presbyterians, e.g., Cartwright) and the non-separating orthodox Reformed (e.g., Sibbes and Perkins) recognized the problem of nominalism in the English church. There were too many who, though baptized and churched, did not seem to have been regenerated, they did not seem to have closed personally with Christ in true faith. They did not seem to be giving themselves over to godliness and good works as a consequence. For the more radical separatists, those with a highly realized eschatology, there was no time to seek reformation. The only solution was to separate from the established church. Revulsion toward the manifestly mixed nature of the established church, in reaction to the sometimes violent hostility by the establishment toward spiritual and ecclesiastical reformation in England, drove the separatists farther from the established church. They began to look for pure, separated congregations, e.g., the Brownists. By the late 16th century, England was an uncomfortable place for separatists generally (as William Ames would tell us) and thus some of them fled to the Netherlands. Two of those were John Smyth (1554–1612) and Thomas Helwys (c. 1550–c.1616), who emigrated from England to the Netherlands, where they came into contact with the Mennonites. For more on this see, e.g., Chute, Finn, and Haykin, 14–14.

As much as congregationalists such as Ames and Presbyterians such as Thomas Cartwright longed for a spiritual and ecclesiastical reformation in England, as persecuted as they were by the establishment, there were real theological differences between them and the radicals, the Brownists, and those who would become Baptists c. 1611. They were more realistic. Their eschatology was less realized and their hermeneutic was more traditional. Ames, Cartwright, Perkins, and Sibbes, to think about less radical English Protestants, were more sympathetic to Luther whereas the radicals were fundamentally more sympathetic to the concerns of the Anabaptists. Their eschatology was more like that of the Anabaptists. This is not the say that they agreed with the Anabaptists on everything but when Smyth and Helwys met the Mennonites (Anabaptists), they met kindred spirits in important, even fundamental ways.

Next: Keach Turns Abraham Into Moses.


  1. What a clever argument from silence! Since the covenant of grace only began with the purely spiritual new covenant, established with the death and resurrection of Christ, all the fleshly promises had to be abrogated as well, when the old covenant ended. Children are of the flesh, and circumcision is made in the flesh for earthly promises, so they cannot carry over to infant baptism, as an initiation into the new covenant, which is the covenant of grace that can only be entered by spiritual regeneration. So by virtue of eliminating the covenant of grace as the uniting principle in understanding Scripture, and having it start only with the new covenant, this argument from silence is made, without a single proof text, on the basis that there is only one way of relating to the covenant of grace. That is that you must first be regenerated. Therefore baptism can only be a demonstration of what is already true, rather than functioning as a means of grace, as a spiritual sign, like circumcision, that points to the objective promise of saving faith, which God made when He made the promise to Abraham that He would do all that is required, and suffer the death penalty so that all who believe the promise, would receive the spiritual promise of eternal life with God.

    • Angela, I was baptised as an infant. Much later in life my faith, by the work of the Holy Spirit came to life and I understood that I was now a believer. I have not participated in the baptist tradition of believers’ baptism simply because I trust God. My baptism was a demonstration of that which was already true. It was already true that I was elected unto salvation in eternity past, it was already true that the Father had made a pact with the Son that he would enter into His creation to call his sheep, and when I was baptised it was already true that my sin and rebellion had been paid for and Christ’s righteousness imputed into my account. Therefore, my baptism met your criteria. Furthermore, my church and parents had no biblical mandate to deny me the covenantal sign of baptism given I was born into a covenant (Christian) household. It would have been akin to rejecting the promises of God seen most clearly in Genesis 17:7 and Acts 2:39; let alone ignoring the pattern of the early church seen in the Apostles baptising whole households. To suppose there were no infants in any of these households is patently absurd.

    • Adrian, I agree with most of what you stated. I was simply outlining the subtle argument that Keach uses to get rid of the covenant of grace before the death and resurrection of Christ, and with my clumsy attempt at irony, trying to show how he uses that argument from silence to insist that only “proof” of regeneration would qualify a person to receive the new covenant sign because the covenant of grace, according to the PBs, did not start until the new covenant, and therefore only grace through faith in Christ would allow a person to receive the sign of initiation into the covenant of grace.

      Yes, you were baptized as an infant, on the Abrahamic promise that God makes to believing parents and their children, and we see that continuing in the new covenant with the promise, in Acts, that it is to you and your children, and the stranger who is far off, as many as the Lord shall call. We also see household baptisms in Acts as there were household circumcisions, when there were new believers in the old covenant.

      When you were baptized, you were brought into outer membership in the church, where the covenant of grace is administered through the Word and sacraments. You had a right to the sign of baptism through your believing parents, according to the Abrahamic covenant promise “I will be a God to you and to your children.” When the Holy Spirit brought you to faith, God’s election from all eternity, became actually sealed and true of you. You then became an inward member of God’s Church. Every child of believers has a right to outward membership in the Church, but not every child is elect from all eternity. Only the elect will come to true faith through the administration of the means of grace. The Church is a mixed fellowship. There are two ways of being in the Church and relating to the covenant of grace. Baptism is not a guarantee of regeneration, not every child will progress from outward membership to inward membership through true faith. That is only to be realized by those who are elect from all eternity, and are therefore brought to saving faith through the means of grace administered in God’s Church.

      The PBs see only one way of relating to the covenant of grace, and church membership, because they have an over realized eschatology where they think the new covenant is fully realized as described in Jeremiah 31, so only those they believe to be regenerate are to receive the sign of the new covenant. Their argument rests on proving that the new covenant is completely different, getting rid of the Abrahamic covenant as the new covenant, and insisting that the covenant of grace did not begin until the death and resurrection of Christ. That is what allows them to make baptism a sign that can only demonstrate what is true of the recipient, rather than functioning, like circumcision, as a sign given to helpless infants, that says, if you believe what this sign points to, you will have eternal life with God. My clumsy attempt at irony, to show how Keach cleverly argues from silence, was obviously confusing. I hope this clears it up.

    • Sorry, I got my PBs mixed up! So much of what they say is true of any of them. I should have written Spilsbury, not Keach.

  2. “Ames, Cartwright, Perkins, and Sibbes, to think about less radical English Protestants were more sympathetic to Luther whereas the radicals were fundamentally more sympathetic to the concerns of the Anabaptists. ”

    This reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about lately. Speaking as an “almost-Presby/former Baptist” here (maybe a bit of study and a few nudges away), I wonder if our shared historical context hasn’t provided Baptists with a certain degree of resistance to Presbyterian and Reformed arguments. What I mean to say is, I always found the P&R arguments for paedobaptism rather unconvincing–this after attending conservative Presbyterian churches for years, impassively hearing a good number of sermons on paedobaptism and witnessing paedobaptisms.

    Finally, I won’t go into why, I decided to tackle the subject in full. I read a Presbyterian book and, due to some misrepresentations and what I considered questionable interpretations of some Scripture passages, dismissed much of it. Then I read a Lutheran book (“Scriptural Baptism: A Dialog Between John Bapstead and Martin Childfont,” by Saarnivaara, Uuras).

    Now I am not Lutheran, nor do I intend to be. And there were sections of this book I disagreed with strongly (Lutheran baptismal regeneration, etc.), being much closer to Presbyterianism in outlook. But it was a brilliant book. Not only was it convincing, it was amicable and an enjoyable read. There was some overlap in content between it and the Presby book, but the approach and perspective were fresh and broke through my theological defenses in a way that the Presby-Reformed approach hadn’t. Ha, I’ve still got some issues to work through, digging into some Scriptural passages and commentaries yet, but I might become a Presbyterian because of a Lutheran book. All this to say, I wonder if P&R folks haven’t become a bit tone deaf–and Baptists a bit deaf–due to the long history of exchange between the two groups.

  3. Dr. Clark – I have recently discovered the Heidelblog, and I have enjoyed it immensely. The clarity of your analysis and writing is refreshing to me, having clarified a few things on the issue of paedobaptism.

    According to your Part 1 taxonomy, I am an OPB (by conviction, not because I am part of the separatist movement from the English church). 🙂

    I have many questions, but I will begin with this: Certainly, the covenant-cutting ceremony in Gen 15 is unilateral, taking place while the man Abram is asleep. In this, we most certainly see the Covenant of Grace, whereby God Himself is committing to fulfill all of the demands of said covenant without any contribution from man; this is why I’m OPB and not merely PB. In contrast, is not the language of Gen 17, however, reminiscent of the Covenant of Works, i.e., the responsibility of man to uphold the terms of the Covenant of Circumcision lest he be condemned? For example, “…an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Gen 17:14) This language is quite similar to “do this and live; don’t do this and die.” As a case study, we see God’s anger directed toward Moses in Ex 4:24 as a result of his not keeping the Covenant of Circumcision.

    Thank you, in advance, for your response.

    • What is the opinion of a representative Baptist: concerning a professing convert who refuses to be baptized, and join his local church?

      I can imagine a Baptist saying: “Baptism isn’t a covenant sign as you Presbies take it. False-Christians can assume the sign, but no True-Christian will refuse it.”

      Seems like a reply like that just dodges the issue. God has ordained a sign for his people in NT terms, and refusal to take it is a contrary witness to the lips.

      So also, refusal to be circumcised (or to circumcise one’s son). When God says: “He is cut off,” it’s a statement about aligning the witnesses of heaven and earth.

      Among other things, literal “cutting off” from the reproductive member in circumcision was a ritual death, and a separation from the residue of death (in the flesh) cast off.

      To keep hold of that flesh (refuse circumcision) was to signal preference for death in the flesh, even the sentence of the covenant of works. No, what’s being said in Gen.17 isn’t a “do this and live” equivalent. It’s a testimony to there being deeper issues.

    • Bruce,

      Thank you. This is what I intended to say.


      We can’t read back the argument with the Judaizers, in the NT, into the institution. The Judaizers tried to turn circumcision into a covenant of works. Ergo, Paul rejected it for that purpose but the Judaizing abuse of circumcision did not turn circumcision per se into a covenant of works.

      There is always, as Bruce noted, a judgment on apostates. There was a judgment on apostates in the NT too.

      In #5 of this series, I addressed Gill’s argument that the judgment associated with circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant turned it into a covenant of works. As I noted there, if that’s true then the Lord’s Supper is a covenant of works because we know that people became sick and died because they abused it.

      We need to try to look at circumcision per se (as distinct from the Judaizing abuse of it) as the OT typological sacrament of initiation into the visible covenant community.

      See the essays on the covenant theology/baptism resource page on baptism and circumcision.

    • God makes a gracious covenant promise to not only do all that is required to fulfill the stipulations of the promise, but to take your death penanalty for your inevitable covenant breaking, and seals it with a gracious sign to confirm that it actually does apply to you in a personal way, when you accept it. That is a sacrament, not a covenant of works. As with any sacrament, to refuse it or abuse it means you do not believe, and therefore do not accept the gracious promise it points to. That is why refusal to circumcise would cut you off from the gracious promise of the One who would fulfill all righteousness on your behalf. Similarly, refusal to accept a new covenant sign would cut you off from the spiritual blessings it points to. It is simply false that the command to circumcise makes the Abrahamic covenant into a covenant of works.

  4. Bruce, Dr. Clark:

    Thank you for your response(s).

    First, I see a category difference in Bruce’s response, i.e., the situation posed (“a professing convert who refuses to be baptized”) concerns a person who has professed faith in Christ, presumably not an infant, whereas the infant is slipped into the later argument concerning a “preference for death in the flesh.” This is one of the major disconnects between us, I think, and is only merely a restatement of the problem. Perhaps we will eventually get to this disconnect. 🙂

    Second, I am not convinced based on the context of Gal 3 that I am “reading back the Judaizers…into the institution,” i.e., it’s not clear that Paul is rejecting circumcision as a covenant of works. In fact, the issue of “works of the Law” is front-and-center throughout the entire argument (3:2, 3:5, 3:10), including the quotation of Lev 18:15 in Gal 3:12. I believe 3:10 is especially instructive on this point; Paul is saying, “Go ahead. Be circumcised. Rely on the works of the Law. And be cursed.” It is interesting that Paul seems to be conflating the Mosaic (the Law) and Abrahamic (circumcision) Covenants in this argument, something which you have written extensively on in this series.

    Third, I was not attempting to read back the Judaizers onto Gen 17. I was just reading the Text of Gen 17 and pointing out that it, in fact, reads as “do this and live.” The idea that this is “a testimony to there being deeper issues” must be extracted from the Text, being careful not to read that into the Text of Gen 17. How would one establish these “deeper issues”?

    Thank you, again. I appreciate the perspective.

    • Stephen,

      From a Reformed pov, it seems that you are assuming the Baptist understanding of the New Covenant. As we understand circumcision (per se, i.e., circumcision in itself, apart from its administration under Moses and apart from its corrupt by the Judaizers) it was no more legal than baptism. This is why Paul, in Colossians 2, when he wants to explain sanctification illustrates it with circumcision and baptism. See the two essays, in the linked resources, on the relation between circumcision and baptism. His point there was not to explain baptism and circumcision but the assumption that circumcision was/is inherently legal defies or makes nonsense of his argument there, which is to say that they signify identity with death. They do not signify our accomplishment but Christ’s death. That’s the work of a gracious sacrament.

      The whole point of Galatians 3 is to refute the Judaizers. That’s why it won’t do to appeal to it to norm circumcision per se.

      It is not the case that, if conditions, then legal. There are different kinds of conditions. There are consequent conditions. In a properly Reformed church, a baptized person, who professes faith, who then apostatizes is subject to discipline. That is not a covenant of works. That is the loving response of a church administering the covenant of grace.

    • Ex.12:48 describes a situation in which a foreigner wishes to join the chosen people, and partake of national religious life (particularly the Passover). He must be circumcised, and also identify his whole house with the practice. Unless you drive a wedge between the earlier practice of circumcision (when there’s but one family-congregation of the faithful) and the later, then they are one ordinance.

      So, I’m genuinely not following the “categorical difference” that seems apparent to you. I appealed to the least-controversial matter between the sides: the adult who obviously took the OT covenant-sign of his own volition. I know no distinction between what the sign meant when applied to a grown person, and another meaning for the sign when it was applied to the infant. I know no distinction between the import of adult baptism, and the import of infant baptism.

      In the case of the adult, his outward act is intended–from the church’s standpoint, regardless of how imperfect in this life–to align the witness from the convert’s side (earth) and from God’s official ministry (heaven). To refuse baptism, as previously to refuse circumcision, is tantamount to refusing to let God bear a public witness to his claim.

      As for the infant: it is required of those who are baptized at any age to bear a life-long testimony to faith in that of which baptism is a witness. Teaching the faith to the baptized is what is known as catechism–again, the age of the disciple is immaterial. The life-long aim should be for the baptized to make his witness and heaven’s witness one witness.

      The sign is, as ever a sign was, effectual only unto faith. It is required of the baptized child (as much as it was of the circumcised son) that he not repudiate the sign given him, but acknowledge it as signal of that cleansing–apart from which death clings to him.

      What is hating of God, his ways, and his salvation but a love of or preference for death? Will baptism upon such an apostate yet mean for him “the remission of sins,” Act.2:38? No, and in OT terms his circumcision was rendered as uncircumcision, Rom.2:25.

      You say you are just reading the text of Gen.17 (in splendid isolation?), and gathering from it nothing beyond a simple “obey and live” rubric. Doesn’t that same narrowness of context and surface reading call for a similar conclusion on Act.2:38? Or Act.22:16, “be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord”?

      I’m not saying you think so of those NT texts; but it seems to me that forcing a legal-regard upon the Gen.17 passage, but making consistent allowance for NT faith-connection respecting baptism (by drawing on the fullest possible context) is evidence of animus. Moses, the author of the Gen.17 passage, is also the first author to make multiple references to heart-circumcision. Don’t those passages supply true context and teach a proper understanding of the OT sign?


    • The Jews had made circumcision into a ceremony they trusted in to make them right with God, rather than understanding it as the sign pointing to the One who would save them. They were trusting in their performance for a right standing with God rather than the One it pointed to. That is why they still wanted to insist on circumcision, even though the one it pointed to had arrived! And they wanted to make it a requirement for their justification, thereby denying that the One circumcision pointed to had provided all the righteousness they required for their justification. Their abuse of circumcision, in making it into a requirement for justification in the new covenant does not make the use of circumcision, as a sign pointing to the coming Savior, into a justifying work for salvation, in the Abrahamic covenant so that the Abrahamic covenant is a covenant of works.

  5. Bruce, Angela, Dr. Clark:

    Thank you, again, for your response(s). They have been helpful. The truth is that, until recently reading one of the Heidelblog posts, I had never considered the Gen 17 Covenant of Circumcision as a Covenant of Works (CovWorks), and I really do appreciate the perspective. As such, I concede the point and am willing to affirm that Gen 17 does not constitute a CovWorks.

    Per Dr. Clark’s last response, I also concede that I am “assuming the Baptist understanding of the New Covenant.” In my first Comment, I did identify myself as a thoughtful OPB, after all. 🙂

    Upon reading mutliple Heidelblog posts regarding baptism and circumcision, I am glad to finally get to Col 2, which (as I see it) is a major part of the issue/disconnect between the Baptist and Reformed perspectives on baptism. In the article “Circumcision and Baptism”, there is much that I agree with:

    I agree that Paul is “speaking to Christ confessors.”

    I agree that Paul is not directly saying “baptism replaces circumcision.”

    I agree that Paul is saying that, in both baptism and circumcision, the recipient is identifying with Christ’s death.

    I agree that Paul is linking baptism and circumcision TO Christ’s death.

    However, I agree with “HB reader Allan” when he writes (which was quoted in the article “Circumcision Was Always About the Necessity of Regeneration”) that the NT apostolic doctrine is that OT circumcision of the flesh is replaced by NT circumcision of the heart.” That is, Paul is linking baptism and circumcision TO Christ’s death, and he is doing so THROUGH regeneration.

    The rest of that article is plain enough, but (in my opinion) the overwhelming testimony of the New Testament converts the promise (“Behold the days are coming…”) into a reality, as all of the promises of God find their Yes in Christ. The physical land of Canaan becomes a spiritual salvation even as Joshua, the type, finds a fulfillment in Jesus. Thus, we have no more need of a sign and seal that portends a promise, but we have the reality as signified in the identification of a professing Believer with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

    The pattern of the NT is: repent, believe, be baptized.

    The pedagogical Texts on baptism (e.g., Rom 6, Col 2) always articulate characteristics of a professing Believer.

    Even if we note that both Ishmael (the son of the flesh) and Isaac (the son of promise) received physical circumcision, then I believe it follows that the corresponding New Covenant sign of baptism ought only be applied to the New Covenant sons of Abraham, which are limited to those who have faith (Gal 3:7).

    The true children of the New Covenant are born “not of blood” but “of God” (John 1:13). Thus, it is these and these alone who have been spiritually circumcised and so ought to receive baptism.

    • Stephen,

      Just for fun, try to put yourself in my shoes. Try to see how we read the very same NT data and texts that you do. Ask yourself this, “how does the NT interpret Jer 31” and related episodes and texts? You might not come to agree with the Reformed but try to understand how we come our conclusions.

    • It seems to me that what you are saying is that baptism, as new covenant/covenant of grace sign should only be given to those who already have spiritual life through regeneration and a circumcised heart. You see it as sign that declares what is already true of a person. Therefore it would be wrong to give this sign of the circumcised heart to unbelieving family members. The Reformed view is that baptism does not declare that baptized infants are regenerate believers with a circumcised heart, it only functions as a sign that points to the blood of Christ which cleanses us through the washing of regeneration, when and if we believe what the sign represents. That is what circumcision of the heart means. You are right, both circumcision and baptism are outward signs that point to the spiritual reality of a circumcised heart. Both circumcision and baptism point to the necessity of the circumcised heart, which does not become true of the recipient until through faith they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Then the bare sign becomes a seal guaranteeing that which the sign points to is true of the recipient.

      If someone outside the covenant community of Isreal wanted to become a member, they were instructed, and when they repented of their false beliefs, and confessed faith in the faith of the Isrealites, they were circumcised along with their household, and their later born infant children would also be circumcised as a sign of the faith, not a guarantee of the spiritual benefits that could only be accessed by true faith. In the New Testament times, first generation converts who wanted to become Christians needed to follow the same pattern as those who joined the Istealites, they needed to come to faith through regeneration, repent of their false beliefs, and then be baptized, but their households were then also baptized as we see in Acts, and their infant children would then also recieve the sign.

      Both circumcision and baptism point to the need for regeneration with a circumcised heart. When that becomes true of the recipient, the reality that the sign points to becomes true, sealing the promise to the recipient. The sign is only a sign until the thing it points to is received spiritually, in true faith. Both circumcision and baptism identify us with Christ, his death a cutting off on our behalf, as you point out, through regeneration and true faith which is the circumcised heart. Both circumcision and baptism point to the requirement to be born again into God’s true people with a circumcised heart.

  6. “Evidently, there is some need to say “know the Lord” in the New Covenant.”

    Here is where I would like some help understanding. I have always taken Jeremiah’s word there quite literally, because I have always understood being in the New Covenant as being in Christ; not as membership in a local, visible church (of course ideally there shouldn’t be discrepancy between the two).

    In Jeremiah, and then quoted in Hebrews the New Covenant is the putting of God’s Laws in hearts, and the Hebrews writer further states (Heb 10:17) that it is the forgiveness of sins. That seems very clear to me to say the NC = Christ. Isn’t that why Jeremiah said there was no need to say know the Lord? If local church membership is the new covenant there is still that need, but also we can’t say that the sins have necessarily been forgiven, right? What am I missing?

    Maybe I’m just more radical than I realized 🙂

    • If you take them “literally,” this more-or-less commits you to the principle that there is no “external administration” of the covenant of grace today. Only a Spiritual administration, something so purely heavenly that there is no need to acknowledge an earthly sphere–someplace where imperfect men handle spiritual things for heaven’s sake, where they speak for God, where they function as disciplinarians in the place of Jesus. Because we aren’t in heaven yet.

      This is what RSC is talking about when he describes such a hermeneutic and ecclesiology and all that as “over-realized” eschatology. It is really a Christian ministry if they don’t administer Christ’s government in between the passing age and the age to come? But if they do, then this perspective requires some measure of dealing with people who are embodied, who are imperfect in significant ways, who are married with children.

      What does it mean that Isaiah, speaking about the New Covenant age, writes as he does in Is.59:21-60:4. Put your children out, then invite them in IF they will take an oath of renunciation and devotion? Does God acknowledge them no more? Yes, but only after they like to retain a knowledge of God? Where in the picture of restoration the prophet gives us is there any hint of that impression? The Baptist says, “We each come alone; the Lord accepts only naturalized citizens anymore.”

      You cannot divorce the discussion of the NC in Jeremiah or Hebrews without addressing the institution of the priesthood, the investiture of a permanent Priest. The reason for telling *believers* their sins are forgiven, is because they are permanently and finally due to the successful and efficacious ministrations of our High Priest. This was not something that could be said in the old order–even to believers–with the same definitive force. The whole service had to be repeated annually (at the very least).

      The point of Jeremiah and Hebrews is not: that the NC eliminates all earthly administration by asserting that in the later day (before the Last Day) there will be none but believers within the pale. In every pre-eschatological era the population is mixed. Just as in every era there are those who participate in both the inward and outward administration; and some who only pay lip-service. All “discrepancies” are removed only when there is no more sin to deal with.

      We don’t improve the holy-depiction of the heavenly gathering in our churches by first excluding children which have had promises made concerning them in the Word, and then taking them back in only if/after they self-declare. It is impossible to have a perfect picture on earth; and it is untrue and unkind and contrary to the expressions in the promises to preemptively exclude all children of the faithful (including those elect) because we are aware that there are possibly some reprobates mixed in. It certainly cannot be said that adult-only baptism proves the gathering is “more pure.”

    • David, I just thought I would try to explain it from my more simple minded perspective. Here again the differences between Baptist and Reformed become obvious. The Reformed see the church as the place where God makes available and administers the means of grace, through which He brings the elect to saving faith. God calls believers with their families and the stranger who is far off into fellowship, and outer membership through baptism and profession of faith. Only God knows who is truly regenerate, so those who are baptized and profess faith are treated as believers unless they prove otherwise. Those who are truly elect will be brought to saving faith through the means of grace that are provided in the church. That means the church will necessarily be a mixed group until the Lord returns and purifies the Church. Then it will be the Church in Jeremiah 31. The Baptists want to see the Church presently as the escstalogically pure church of Jeremiah 31. That is why they insist on believer’s baptism, and they believe they can determine who is truly regenerate so as to baptize them. To them the church is a fellowship of those who have the law written on their hearts, all know the Lord, and do not need their neighbor to teach them, so the church as the place where the means of grace is available and administered is practically unnecessary! That is why baptism is seen as a sign that points to salvation, and only becomes sealed to the recipient when it is received by believing, in the Reformed church. The Baptists see it as a declaration that the person has been regenerated, so it may only be given to those who are considered to be regenerate. The Reformed see the new covenant as begun but not fully realized until it is consummated at Christ’s return. Until then the church will be a mixed group, to which God is administering the means of grace, and bringing the elect to saving faith and progress in being confirmed to the image of Christ in sanctification.


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