Therefore, let it be without controversy, that God is so good and liberal to his people, that he is pleased, as a mark of his favour, to extend their privileges to the children born to them. - John Calvin (Inst. 4.16.15)
There has been a lot of baptism talk around me recently. In fact one could say that the last three years have been one lengthy discussion on the subject matter of baptism. On this blog, I've discussed the doctrine as it relates to my personal change of heart and I haven't shied away from comments on baptism from time to time.
My most recent set of thoughts have come in the form of some random garble and investigating the Holy Spirit's relationship to the covenant. Those are useful articles and ideas but they haven't dug to the center of my views on baptism and covenant.
So this is it. My attempt to describe my views on baptism in a clear way.
Thesis 1: Baptism Correlates to Circumcision
I don't know many individuals that argue with this. Paul in Colossians makes the point quite clear,
11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. - Colossians 2:11-12
Discussion of the word baptism in this context will be necessary. Is Paul speaking of water baptism or "Spirit baptism." But there is even more in this distinction. For I am convinced that one's prior opinion on baptism as a promise to and not a testimony of salvation affects our understanding of the text. In this distinction I side with both circumcision and baptism being visible and material signs of God's promises to His people. I also admit I was persuaded by John Calvin on this,
Certainly, if circumcision was a literal sign, the same view must be taken of baptism, since, in the second chapter to the Colossians, the apostle makes the one to be not a whit more spiritual than the other. For he says that in Christ we “are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” In explanation of his sentiment he immediately adds, that we are “buried with him in baptism.” What do these words mean, but just that the truth and completion of baptism is the truth and completion of circumcision, since they represent one thing? For his object is to show that baptism is the same thing to Christians that circumcision formerly was to the Jews. (Inst. 4.16.11)
On the surface, we must accept that the symbols of baptism and circumcision are placed alongside each other in Paul's mind. The easiest correlation is physical circumcision in the flesh to physical baptism with water. Admittedly, there is a Biblical concept of a spiritual circumcision of the heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4) but it is not as easily proven, in this context, to equate with Spirit baptism (Matt 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). I am convinced of the physical baptism/circumcision perspective because of my prior conviction that both speak of promise,
19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. - Romans 4:19-21
In this passage, Paul teaches that Abraham's faith was in God's ability to give them a child. Paul includes the description "as good as dead" not for laughs but to link it to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our current promise to participate with Him (Rom 6:1-4). But physical circumcision then and physical water baptism now speak to the promise of their spiritual realities (heart circumcision and baptism in the spirit) that are received solely by faith.
When the Lord enjoins Abraham to observe circumcision (Gen. 17:10), he premises that he would be a God unto him and to his seed, adding, that in himself was a perfect sufficiency of all things, and that Abraham might reckon on his hand as a fountain of every blessing.These words include the promise of eternal life, as our Saviour interprets when he employs it to prove the immortality and resurrection of believers: “God,” says he, “is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mt. 22:32). - John Calvin (Inst. 4.16.3)
Thesis 2: Circumcision Correlates to Covenant Participation
It is quite evident that circumcision is the basis of covenant participation,
10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. - Genesis 17:10-11, 14
There are multiple interesting points here. First, circumcision is the covenant. The opening lines from God clarify this for us. From the human perspective the covenant was found in the circumcised flesh. This point is tied strongly to the third point mentioned below. Second, circumcision is the sign of the covenant. This shows the unique and tight relationship between the sign and the reality of the covenant. When the sign is given the covenant is given. And when the sign is witnessed the covenant is witnessed. The Jews were given an objective sign (that is something visible/manifest in space and time) to remind them of the realities they possessed.
Third, not having circumcision removes one from the covenant. There are some important questions revolving around this text (Gen 17:14). Is this verse referring to children or to grown adults? I think both. It is a universal statement because any uncircumcised male would not be able to participate in the Passover,
If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. - Exodus 12:48
There really is no way around this. A male who is not circumcised could not partake. But what is even more interesting, an individual who does not circumcise his house cannot partake either. Get this! Individual circumcision matters. Household circumcision matters. The Passover was the great watershed moment of Israel's history and it pointed to their redemption as God's people and possession (Exo 19:5). And not being circumcised prevented people from obeying God's commandment to remember God's act of redemption.
This is why God sought to kill Moses prior to sending Moses into Egypt to redeem his people (Exo 4:24-26). His children were not circumcised! Moses himself could not participate in the Passover, that was to come in Egypt, let alone lead God's people through it. Circumcision is that essential to being in God's covenant community.
Thesis 3: Baptism Correlates to Covenant Participation
This is another place that almost all paedobaptist and credobaptist agree. Baptism is the indicating marker of being apart of the church which is God's covenant people,
41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. - Acts 2:41
This is a fairly common text to quote to show that baptism brings people into the church. But I personally find another text more important. And that is the incredibly important text in Paul's epistle to the Ephesians,
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. - Ephesians 2:11-13
Now this is where things get a little tricky. Paul is here addressing "you Gentiles." These were uncircumcised people and hence it stands to follow for Paul that they were "separated from Christ," "alienated from Israel" and "strangers to the covenants of promise." How did all of these things change? By Christ. And what experience for "us Gentiles" causes this change to be manifest such that Paul can say "at one time" instead of "still currently"?
I believe the experience and event is baptism. Note the way that Paul introduces us to this whole discourse in contrasting circumcision. The Gentiles remain "uncircumcised" with respect to the flesh and the circumcised in the flesh enjoy pointing it out. But what Paul is implicitly saying is: they are circumcised in the circumcision made without hands.
That should sound familiar. It comes directly from Paul in Colossians (Col 2:11-12). I've already established that I believe the baptism in Colossians to be water baptism that promises greater realities. And in that context Paul highlights that this circumcision points to being raised from the dead. In Ephesians Paul has just finished discussing participation in Christ using the same language (Eph 2:5-6). Because of these similarities, I believe Paul is addressing baptized Gentiles and telling them that they are no longer "separated from Christ," "alienated from Israel" or "strangers to the covenants of promise." Instead now they are "fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (Eph 2:19).
Perhaps the argument from Ephesians and Colossians seems to have holes. It might. But I believe it is consistent with the very words of Paul in Galatians,
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 2:27-28
Who does this verse speak to? Those that are baptized into Christ. This fits so well with Colossians and Ephesians. This fits well with the Covenant aspects of Ephesians. In Ephesians Christ made "one new man" (Eph 2:15). So also in Galatians, for the baptized, there are no distinctions based upon the flesh.
Baptism is the means of covenant initiation. It is the marker that sets apart those estranged from the covenant and those within it. Almost all Covenant theologians agree with these general premises. But they leave a few remaining questions: 1) What type of baptism are we talking about in these passages? and 2) Who are the proper recipients of these baptisms? Based upon my understanding of Colossians, I am lead to say that the type of baptism Paul is referring to is in fact water baptism.
Thesis 4: Infants are to receive Covenant Baptism
This is where the rubber meets the road. The Old Testament clearly teaches that infants are a part of the Old Covenant. I believe I've made a strong enough case that the New Covenant includes them as well here and here. It is typically at this point that the Reformed Baptist step away and say that though infants might have been circumcised, infants are not to be baptized. They are many arguments that can be levied from both sides. There are decent arguments surrounding Jeremiah and Hebrews. But I think there is a clearer text,
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. - 1 Corinthians 10:1-5
What is ultimately important in this text is what Paul says happened in the Old Testament: baptism. He doesn't say "brothers, all our fathers were circumcised." He says that they were "baptized into Moses" and then subsequently ate and drank from Christ. He doesn't say that they received the Old Covenant sign. He says they received the New Covenant sign. And who participated in this? All the covenant people including the nursing children. Interestingly enough, the children are an incredibly important part of the exodus story,
8 So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, “Go, serve the Lord your God. But which ones are to go?” 9 Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old. We will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, for we must hold a feast to the Lord.” 10 But he said to them, “The Lord be with you, if ever I let you and your little ones go! Look, you have some evil purpose in mind. 11 No! Go, the men among you, and serve the Lord, for that is what you are asking.” - Exodus 10:8-11
Prior to the final plague the children are actually a bargaining chip. The children were to participate for they are no less God's covenant people. They walked out of Egypt with the old and were baptized "in the sea" with the old. This was not a spirit baptism but a water baptism. This baptism united the people of Israel to Moses their head and leader. Likewise, water baptism unites the church to Jesus Christ,
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. - Galatians 2:27
Though many more words could be spent defending this doctrine, I believe these thesis are sufficient to express my view point on the issue:
- Baptism and circumcision point to the same spiritual reality.
- Circumcision was the marker of an old covenant member.
- Baptism is the marker of a new covenant member.
- Baptism, like circumcision before it, is properly administered to covenant children.
My family practices covenant baptism. And I will teach my kids to practice covenant baptism. I believe the sacrament of baptism is a special means of grace by which God blesses all individuals who are baptized. And I believe that baptism, like preaching, must be responded to in faith to receive the promised blessings contained in it.