For the promise is to you and to your children and to all those who are far away, as many as the Lord our God shall call. 1
This passage is an important text in the Reformed understanding of the continuity of the covenant of grace. As we understand the history of salvation, as we say in Westminster Confession of Faith (7.6): “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.” There is one covenant of grace in multiple administrations. The New Testament writers typically point to Abraham as the paradigm of the covenant of grace (e.g. Romans 4 [all]; Gal 3 and 4 [all]). In this they were following the Old Testament believers who also repeatedly appealed to the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (e.g., Ex 32:13; Deus 29:13–15; 1 Chron 16:15–18; Ps 105:8–11; Jer 33 [all]; Isa 29:22ff; 41;8ff; 51:2ff; 63:16ff; Micah 7:20). Direct quotations and allusions and indirect, i.e. modified or adapted, allusions to Abraham and to the promises God made to him abound in Scripture (Ex 2:24–25; 3:6ff; 4:5ff; 6:3ff; 32:13ff; 33:1ff; Lev 26:42).
It is not too much to say that, in the law, the prophets, and writings, i.e., the entire Old Testament, the three promises to Abraham, the land (Gen 12), the seed (Gen 15), and to be a God to Abraham and to his seed (Gen 17) are a unifying thread to redemptive history and they find their fulfillment in Christ. Christ is the seed (Gal 3:16). He is the land and he is the one who was said, “I will be a God to you and to your children,” and the seal of the promise.
It is this last promise that is at issue in Acts 2:39. In Genesis 17:7, Scripture says: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (ESV). Variations of the promise recur in Exodus 6:7, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God…,” in Jeremiah 7:23, “…I will be your God, and you shall be my people…”, Jeremiah 30:22, “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God,” and in Ezekiel 36:28, “…and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
To be sure, in each of those contexts the promise is applied or contextualized in the various administrations of the covenant of grace but the language is unmistakable. These are direct echoes of Genesis 17:7. Obviously, the land promise was important, and the seed arguably (according to Paul) even more important, but above all is the promise that God will draw near to his people and be their God.
In light of the importance of the Abrahamic promise throughout the history of redemption it can hardly be doubted that, when, at Pentecost, with thousands of Jewish heads of households gathered (representing thousands more Jews), Peter says, “For the promise is to you and to your children…” the allusion is to the Abrahamic promise.
My Baptist friends, however, have sometimes made two objections to this reading of Acts 2:39. First, they object, the reference of the promise is not to Genesis 17:7 but to Joel 2:28–32, which Peter had quoted earlier (in Acts 2:17–21):
‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (ESV).
The objection assumes that there is no connection between Joel’s prophecy and the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 17:7. A better understanding of this language, however, is that it is a symbolic, re-casting of the Abrahamic promise. After all, this is hyperbolic language. The Spirit is not being poured out literally on “all flesh.” The moon and sun did not change colors. That is hyperbole. Who saw a vision? Who dreamed dreams? Yet, despite the obvious discontinuities between the language taken literally and as it was understood and applied by Peter, as far as he was concerned what happened at Pentecost was a fulfillment. The connection with Abraham is that God has once again, in a dramatic way, drawn near to his people. He has again demonstrated his faithfulness to his promise to be “a God to you and to your children.” This was preeminently true in the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to which Peter next turns in his sermon. He explained that all of the promises were fulfilled in Christ. Pentecost happened because of Christ and because of the fulfillment of the promises in him (Acts 2:32–33). Remember, at Pentecost God the Spirit was poured out on his people. This is God drawing near to his people.
If one is going to appeal to a proximate Old Testament quotation it should be to Psalm 110:1, which Peter quotes in 23:34–35 but that promise points, ultimately, to God’s drawing near to us in Christ. The contrast there is between Christ the living, reigning King of all and David, whose bones are in the ground still awaiting resurrection.
It is after Peter explained all of this that the Israelites were “cut to the heart” (2:37) and cried out. It was in response to their cry that Peter, speaking to Jews, said: “repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). The Jews had a category for this way of speaking and thinking. To put it plainly: they were not Baptists. They assumed the continuity of the covenant of grace. In order for Jews, who had been initiating their children into the visible covenant community for 2,000 years to be convinced that they must no longer do so, they needed to be told explicitly that the Abrahamic promises were no longer in effect but Peter said nothing that would indicate that the Abrahamic promise was no longer in effect. He did not say, “I know that we used to initiate our children in the covenant but this is the New Covenant and that is all changed now.” Indeed, Peter said the exact opposite. He repeated the Abrahamic formula from Genesis 17. After all, the Jews present at Pentecost had themselves had been initiated into the covenant of grace and, on God’s explicit command, they had initiated their children into the covenant of grace. By applying the sign to their children, they were recognizing “the promise is to you and to your children.” Insofar as circumcision is a bloody baptism (and baptism is a bloodless circumcision; Col 2:11–12) Peter was speaking to paedobaptists, as it were. They knew what it was to be uncircumcised and to need the sign (Joshua 5) to be applied. They also knew what it was to apply the sign to themselves and to their children. That had been the pattern for 2,000 years. Everything so far is true to form. In essence, this is all Abrahamic stuff being portrayed before their eyes and ears.
Thus, when we get to the explanatory “for,” we expect the ground for the gospel offered: “for the promise is to you and to your children and to those who are far away, as many as the Lord our God shall call.” The Lord is Yahweh. “Our God” is telling expression. The God to whom Peter was calling them is “our God,” i.e., the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Our God” has always been for believers and their children. The Baptist paradigm presupposes that there is no actual outward administration of the covenant of grace but the Jews would not assume that and there is no evidence that Peter assumed that. The Abrahamic pattern continues. The sign of initiation into the visible covenant people is applied to believers and to their children. Abraham was not to presume to exclude children until they were able to make profession of faith and neither was Peter and the other Jews.2
This gets us to the second objection: the promise is to the elect alone. My Baptist friends argue this on the basis of the last clause of Acts 2:39: “as many as the Lord our God shall call.” The assumption underlying the objection is that what Peter had in view is efficacious vocation. In other words, the argument is that, in effect, Peter had become a Baptist and this is his way of limiting the application of baptism to believers.
Again, this objection rests on assumption more than exegesis. First, misses the logic of the verse. According to Peter, the promise is to those who had just cried out (were they all elect?), to their children, and to those who are far away. This last clause is a restatement of Acts 1:8b, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (ESV). He knew that the covenant of grace has two aspects, external and internal, and that the covenant of grace must be administered externally to all those who are eligible. Until the cross and Pentecost the Gentiles were not formally eligible to see the sign of initiation into the covenant people. They were, in OT terms, strangers to the covenants and the promises (Eph 2:12; cf. Rom 3:2; 9:4). Paul wrote to Gentile Christians, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12; ESV). That separation is over. The gospel is going to the nations, to the Gentiles, to the ends of the earth. God had, after all, promised Abraham as many offspring as the sands on the sea shore and stars in the sky. It was all about to come true. The sign of covenant initiation is now no longer limited to Jews. It is for Gentiles too.
Does “as many as the Lord our God shall call” restrict the administration of the sign to believers? No more than it did under Abraham. It has always been the case that only the elect will ultimately receive what the sign signifies but that fact never limited application of the sign to professing believers alone. The Baptist reading of Acts 2:39 relies on discontinuity with Abraham when the whole thrust here is continuity with the Abrahamic promise. That is certainly how thousands of Jewish men heard it. They would have beens scandalized to their core to think that the Abrahamic pattern was now overturned and that their covenant children were now to be regarded as strangers and aliens to the covenant of grace.
Peter was not a Baptist any more than Abraham was a Baptist. Neither of them assumed that the sign of initiation is only for those who make profession. They knew that the sign was not an indicator of what they had done, i.e., believed, but rather it has always been a sign of what God has promised: I will be a God to you and to your children.
Read in light of the history of redemption as interpreted in both the Old and New Testaments, Acts 2:39 is a resounding, clear affirmation and re-statement of the highest Abrahamic promise: that God will be a God to us and to our children. He has ratified that promise on the cross and he is applying salvation to his elect just then and commissioning them to the faithful external administration of the covenant of grace following the ancient Abrahamic pattern of applying the sign of initiation to believers and to their children.
1. ὑμῖν γάρ ἐστιν ἡ ἐπαγγελία καὶ τοῖς τέκνοις ὑμῶν καὶ πᾶσιν τοῖς εἰς μακράν, ὅσους ἂν προσκαλέσηται κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν.
2. HB commenter Bill Duncan reminds us of this passage in Turretin:
The ‘promises of the new covenant’ are said to be ‘more excellent’ (Heb. 8:6), relatively, not simply. Not with regard to the substance of the promises, but with regard to the mode both of setting them forth more clearly, of enlarging them and efficaciously impressing them and of extending them to the Gentiles also. Therefore, the preeminence of the New Testament is wholly in mode, not in the thing, and has relations to the nonessentials and not to the essentials of the covenant. For more excellent promises as to the matter cannot be granted than were made to Abrahem, Issaac, and the other fathers (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 12.5.34) .
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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Some years ago I remember reading the writings of an Early Church Father (Can’t remember who) that mentioned that the Apostle Peter practiced/taught baptizing the infants of believers. I have tried to find the source, but haven’t been able to. Are you familiar with this?
I’ve not seen this.
I see a clear relationship between Acts 2:39 and Acts 13:48 with the phrase “as many as,” especially since the context of Acts 13:48 is the beginning of Paul’s first missionary journey and the record of the first Gentile converts under his preaching. This relationship makes me understand that the point is gracious election that underlies the fulfillment of the covenant promise by God Himself. “and to all that are afar off” must be controlled by sovereign, gracious election. I think John 10:13-16 also come into play.
I’m not sure I understand your point.
Can you explain more fully what you’re saying?
Here is an essential point of difference between Reformed and Baptists who want to call themselves Reformed. The Reformed view is that the sign of initiation is just a sign pointing to the grace, God provides, through the faith that he gives to his elect, in the OC as circumcision, and baptism in the NC. Baptists want to make baptism the sign that proves God’s election, to justify their views of the NC church that must consist of only true believers. This view seems to be the basis of much of their criticism of infant baptism. They view physical circumcision as the sign that certified a person a member of an earthly covenant at birth, and the practice of paedobaptism, if it is the replacement of physical circumcision, as falsely declaring a person a member of the new covenant of grace, regardless of faith. They insist that OC circumcision survives in the NC only as spiritual circumcision of the heart. (Jeff Johnson even calls the Reformed view of baptism as having the same meaning as circumcision the fatal flaw!) They do not accept the Reformed understanding of an inward relationship to the covenant of grace that is established only when the person comes to believe what the sign represents. As this article shows, being children of professing parents qualifies them to receive the outward sign, on the basis of the promise, to you and your children, repeated in the NT. It is restated in Acts 2:39 and never revoked. The outward inclusion in the NC community becomes an inward relationship through faith, by grace, through faith alone. That is true for both the OC sign of circumcision and the NC sign of baptism, as both being administrations of the covenant of grace. God always deals with his people by grace, through faith. That is the true Reformed view of redemptive history, I believe, and it is a contradiction of the meaning of what Reformed means, to deny the clear teaching of the Reformers of one covenant of grace under different administrations.