Sunday, December 6, 2009

Infant Baptism

Question: Please explain what the Bible teaches about infant baptism. Should we not wait until a child has grown up and become a believer?

Answer: To ask the question of whether or not infants are to be baptized is really to ask the question, “What is the relationship of the children of believers to the covenants of God?”

There is no doubt that when God made covenants with men in the Old Testament, those covenants included their children. We have several examples of this (Gen. 6:18; 17:7-14; Num. 25:12-13; Ps. 89:3-4; Jer. 35:18-19).

Even covenants between men included the children of the parties concerned. David’s kindness to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth is a prime example (2 Sam. 9:1-7). David and Jonathan had made a covenant with each other (1 Sam. 18:3; cf. 20:8), a covenant that included one another’s entire households (1 Sam. 20:15-17). We see the outworking of this covenant when Jonathan died and David showed kindness to Jonathan’s son, “for Jonathan’s sake” (2 Sam. 9:1). Scripture says David showed him this kindness, “because of the oath of the LORD [the covenant] that was between them, between David and Jonathan” (2 Sam. 21:7). A promise to show kindness and mercy to someone is necessarily a promise to show kindness and mercy to his children.

God’s covenant with Abraham is the most instructive example for our purpose in considering infant baptism. When God made a covenant with Abraham, it included his entire household (Gen. 17:7-14). Furthermore, God gave Abraham circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant (Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11). For an analogy, think of a wedding ring as a sign and seal of the marriage covenant. It is a token of the vows that are exchanged.

In a similar fashion, circumcision was given to Abraham as a token of God’s covenant with him. And this circumcision of the flesh was a type of the circumcision of the heart (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25-26: Rom. 2:29)—that is, it was a type or a shadow of regeneration or the new birth.

Now was Abraham to apply this sign to himself alone? No. He was to apply it to his children, as well. Was he to wait to circumcise them until they reached an age of maturity and they “made a decision” for themselves to follow the Lord? No, he was to circumcise them on the eighth day after their birth (Gen. 17:12). Not only this, but all the males of his household were to be circumcised as well, including his servants purchased with money (numbering in the hundreds, Gen. 14:14), and his servants’ sons, too (Gen. 17:10-13). Thus, we read, “Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin that very day” (Gen. 17:23). Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised. Ishmael was thirteen. And when Isaac was born, he was circumcised on the eighth day according to God’s command.

Furthermore, when a Gentile was converted to the faith of Abraham, he was to be circumcised, too, as were all his sons (Ex. 12:48).

What’s the point, you ask? Just this: In the New Testament Paul connects baptism with circumcision in Colossians 2, and he connects them in such a way as to show that baptism is the New Testament counterpart to Old Testament circumcision. He says, “in him [Christ] you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands…by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism…” (Col. 2:11-12a). In other words, by baptism, they were reckoned to have had a circumcision “made without hands,” a spiritual circumcision, a circumcision of the heart—the very thing that circumcision of the flesh was intended to represent. So he connects baptism with circumcision.

The question then becomes, “If in the Old Testament children were regarded as members of God’s covenant with their believing parents, and received the Old Testament sign of the covenant [circumcision], why should children of believing parents not receive the New Testament sign of the covenant—baptism?”

Is it because children are no longer participants with their believing parents in the covenant of God? God forbid! Are we to believe that God is less gracious in the New Testament than he was in the Old? Certainly not! We are told that the New Covenant is a better covenant, enacted on better promises (Heb. 8:6). If the Old Covenant contained promises that included the children of believers, how much more the New Covenant!

Accordingly, on the day of Pentecost we hear Peter preaching, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).

Later, while explaining his encounter with Cornelius to the elders of the church at Jerusalem, he said, “He told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (Acts 11:13-14). This is the same message the apostle Paul gave to the Philippian jailor, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). This is why we read several times in the New Testament of household baptisms (Acts 16:14-15, 32-34; 1 Cor. 1:16). These included the baptism of all who were a part of the household: parents, children, and servants—all who were under the authority of the converted head of the household.

This is a topic I never tire of addressing because few things demonstrate the covenant mercies of God as beautifully as the promises he makes to believers with respect to their children. And nothing sets this promise forth quite like baptism. Consequently, I encourage further questions. Let's continue to plumb the topic together to the bottom.

4 comments:

Jeremy said...

Hi Doug, I haven't commented for a long while so here goes (from a Baptist of course):

In your argument you state: "God’s covenant with Abraham is the most instructive example for our purpose in considering infant baptism. When God made a covenant with Abraham, it included his entire household (Gen. 17:7-14). Furthermore, God gave Abraham circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant (Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11). For an analogy, think of a wedding ring as a sign and seal of the marriage covenant. It is a token of the vows that are exchanged.

In a similar fashion, circumcision was given to Abraham as a token of God’s covenant with him. And this circumcision of the flesh was a type of the circumcision of the heart (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25-26: Rom. 2:29)—that is, it was a type or a shadow of regeneration or the new birth."

This suffers from at least one logical fallacy; you import the presupposition that ALL COVENANTS MUST HAVE AN OUTWARD SIGN and then reason forward. But that's not a necessary premise. Examples are not necessarily prescriptive. (Have I ever thanked you for your helpful logic material? j/k!)

More importantly, the New Covenant is more spiritually oriented, as the Old Covenant could never profer salvation. So to be in the New Covenant "you must be born again". Without the Spirit's new birth, you do not belong to the Kingdom, indeed cannot even see the Kingdom of God (John 3).

Paul makes this even more clear in that he connects circumcision of the flesh--not to baptism--to the circumcision of the heart, i.e., the Spirit's work of renewing the inner man (Col 2:11-13, Phil 3:3) This of course is a work of God, and has nothing to do with physical descent. All are sons of Abraham who are joined to him by faith (their own, not their parents, so Rom 4:12).

Thanks for the always helpful posts, brother!

Doug Enick said...

You say: "You import the presupposition that ALL COVENANTS MUST HAVE AN OUTWARD SIGN and then reason forward. But that's not a necessary premise. Examples are not necessarily prescriptive."

Response: True enough, but can you think of a biblical covenant that doesn’t have a sign? And if baptism isn’t a sign of the covenant, what is it?

You say: "More importantly, the New Covenant is more spiritually oriented, as the Old Covenant could never profer salvation."

Response: Are you sure? Were the OT saints not saved? Did they not have the forgiveness of sins (Ps. 32:1-2)? Were they not justified by faith (Gen. 15:6)? Did they not have communion with God (Ps. 73:28)?

You say, "So to be in the New Covenant "you must be born again". Without the Spirit's new birth, you do not belong to the Kingdom, indeed cannot even see the Kingdom of God (John 3)."

Response: In both covenants there is an outward administration as well as an inward reality. In the Old Covenant, the outward administration included profession of faith in the God of Abraham followed by circumcision, so that if a Gentile came to believe in the God of Abraham and wished to identify with the covenant people, he was to be circumcised (along with his children, Ex. 12:48). In the New Covenant, the outward administration includes profession of faith in Jesus Christ, followed by baptism, so that if an unbeliever comes to faith in Jesus Christ, upon his profession of faith he is to be baptized (along with his household). The new birth was as real and as necessary in the Old Covenant as it is in the New Covenant.

You say, "Paul…connects circumcision of the flesh…to circumcision of the heart, i.e., the Spirit’s work of renewing the inner man (Col. 2:11-13, Phil. 3:3)."

Response: True, but in Colossians he indicates that what his Gentile readers were reckoned not to have had because of their uncircumcision, they were reckoned to have because of their baptism.

You say, "Thanks for the always helpful posts, brother!"

Response: And thank you for your always helpful feedback.

Jeremy said...

Q: Can you think of a biblical covenant that doesn’t have a sign? And if baptism isn’t a sign of the covenant, what is it?
A: Joshua 8, 1 Sam 18.
I can almost grant that is a sign of the covenant, but not quite. It's a public proclamation, a ceremony not a "sign". A sign in Scripture entails tangible, permanent reminders, not a once in a lifetime ceremony (see Sabbath as sign, rainbow, circumcision, phylacteries, Immanuel, etc.). The sign that one belongs to Christ is love to God and love to one another (=new heart).

Q: Were the OT saints not saved? Did they not have the forgiveness of sins (Ps. 32:1-2)? Were they not justified by faith (Gen. 15:6)? Did they not have communion with God (Ps. 73:28)?
A: OT saints were indeed saved (Heb 11, Rom 4).
They were indeed in need of forgiveness (Rom 2-3).
They were indeed justified by faith (Rom 3-4). But that's precisely Paul's point in Romans. We, sinners, MUST be justified by faith because the covenant made at Sinai with the people of Israel did not and cannot proffer salvation (I mean here not the sense of "offer" but the sense of "provide" or "tender"). So Jeremiah 31:32. The covenant made at Sinai produced death. In Galatians 3, Paul pits salvation by the law against salvation by faith, for the one aggravates our condition while the other remedies it--it could not proffer salvation to sinners. Futher, one could belong to Israel, be a Jew according to the law, and yet have no inward reality to which his very Jewishness was pointing (Gal 2:15, "Jews by birth"). That is why I say it is not of the same spiritual nature as the New Covenant. I cannot be born into the New Covenant merely by the flesh as I could into the old.

You say: The new birth was as real and as necessary in the Old Covenant as it is in the New Covenant.
Response: Yes the new birth was necessary, but the whole problem with Old Covenant is that it did not and could not produce that new birth, which was why a new and better covenant that could actually atone for sin, cleanse the conscience, impart faith, and make a new creation was necessary. So Paul, Rom 4:13-16; so Jeremiah, 13:23, 30:12, 31:32. That some people had the new birth is very different from saying that the Old Covenant entailed the new birth. This is certainly not the case, for all the prophets testify that Israel is an unfaithful nation, has an incurable wound, etc., and a New Covenant must and will be installed to remedy this situation.

Regarding household baptisms, I say I agree, if all of the household likewise are exercising faith in Christ (which we have no reason textually to say it is / not the case). "Household" does not support the argument either, for see 2 Tim 4:19 where the word is used almost certainly without infants in mind. The practice of infant baptism must be decided on other grounds. The most decisive texts I think are the prophecies of the New Covenant. How do you understand Jer 31:33-34, and Ezek 36:26-27--that a person cannot belong to this New Covenant without being born again by the Spirit of God (using John's descriptive language)?

Thanks Doug

Jeremy said...

An afterthought:
Baptism itself is not in the New Testament addressed as a sign of the New Covenant, but an identification with someone/something. In Matthew 3 John the Baptist is baptizing, but no covenant is in view there. Covenantal language is also absent when Jesus addresses his disciples on the issue in Matt 28. It accompanies the New Covenant, but is not itself a part of it in the way circumcision is of the Old Covenant. What do you think?