by Brian E. Coombs Pastor of Messiah’s Church
The sacrament of baptism is a deep subject, and unfortunately, a subject of controversy and division within Jesus’ Church. How shall we baptize? Immersion? Sprinkling? Pouring? Whom shall we baptize? Only those who profess faith in Christ, or the children of such people also? The latter question is the subject of this essay.
Our Baptistic brethren historically have objected to the practice of “infant baptism,” or more accurately stated, the baptism of non-professing children of one or more believing parents. We believe that the Bible recognizes the appropriateness of this practice – the children of one or more believing parent should be recipients of the sacrament of baptism. We believe the issue (and our position as a church) should be stated in just this way. It would be misleading to say merely that we believe in and practice infant baptism, for we do not believe that all infants should be baptized, but only those of Christian parents. In this regard, we do not only baptize infants, but all children of professing parents – regardless of the children’s age or maturity. Thus, our position is to baptize the children of a household wherein there is at least one believing (i.e., professing) parent, regardless of the spiritual maturity of the children.
But the question is, “Does the Bible teach this?” For starters, though the Bible never gives an explicit command to “baptize small children before their profession of faith,” it also does not give a command to “baptize children who have been raised in a Christian home.” Moreover, it is incomplete to base one’s position on the record of Church history, a New Testament study of the word “baptize,” or even the study of “New Testament Christianity.” The right approach is to recognize the principle of “Both Testament Christianity” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And that is our approach here.
That the children of at least one believing parent should receive baptism regardless of their spiritual maturity, can be set forth in four points:
- There is one Covenant of Grace that unites both the Old and New Testaments. A divine “covenant” (as opposed to a mere human covenant) is a relationship that God Himself initiates, establishes, directs, and maintains. God made such a Covenant with Adam, requiring perfect obedience upon the threat of death (cf. Genesis 2:15-17; Hosea 6:7). By Adam’s disobedience, all mankind whom he represented fell into a state of sin, misery, and separation from God. They are under the curse of death – spiritually, physically, and eternally (cf. Romans 5:12-14). The Covenant of Grace is an acceptable way of describing how God relates to His special people whom He saves from this state of sin, misery, and death. By this Covenant, God saves sinners from the state and effects of sin through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is a “Covenant” in that God alone accomplishes and applies His peoples’ salvation. It is “of Grace” in that sinners do not deserve it, nor of themselves can earn or contribute anything to it (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10).In short, this term “Covenant of Grace” is one and the same with “the good news,” or, Gospel, that was first declared against the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed. He shall crush you on the head, and you shall crush Him on the heel” (Genesis 3:15). The rest of the Bible is an unfolding of the fulfillment of this great theme in Jesus Christ, but our first point is to recognize that this Covenant unites both Testaments of the Bible.
- The Old Testament sign, circumcision, was administered to the children (male) of a believing parent.Beginning with Abraham, and continuing throughout the entire Old Testament, God signified His Covenant of Grace in the circumcision of all male children extending from Abraham (cf. Genesis 17:1-14; 21:4; Leviticus 12:1-3). The covenant was between God, the fathers, and the children perpetually (cf. Genesis 17:7). In fact, this sign of the Covenant was so central to the Covenant itself that the Jews came to call it the “Covenant of Circumcision” (cf. Acts 7:8 with Genesis 17:10).But what was the purpose of the sign/practice of circumcision? It signified four things:
i) Union & Communion with God When God commanded Abraham to circumcise his sons (cf. Genesis 17:10-14), it was in the context of Abraham’s preexistent, covenantal relationship with God. God had already covenanted with him at chapter 15:1-18, but encouraged him again to “walk before” God and “be blameless” (17:2) as God would bless him richly and do great things through him (vv.4ff). So, it was in the context of Abraham’s communion with God that circumcision was to be performed in regard to his household (vv. 10-14, 23-27). In this light, the Apostle Paul, when considering the Gentiles before their conversion noted that they were “…separate from Christ…strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world…” The Jews rightly saw them as “uncircumcised,” though ironically, they did not understand the spiritual significance of the sign toward themselves (Ephesians 2:11-12). But Paul clearly implied that the significance of circumcision from the perspective of the Old Testament was communion with the true God of Israel.ii) Righteousness of Faith Circumcision signified what God would do through Abraham on the basis of faith. In light of God’s covenant promises, Abraham “believed in the LORD” and that faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:1,5-6). Thus, he was circumcised (cf. Genesis 17:11,24). The Apostle Paul also recognized the true import of circumcision – the righteousness of faith – when he said, “we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh…found in Him, not having a righteousness…derived from the Law, but that which is on the basis of faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:3,9).
iii) Removal of Impurity The predominant usage of the Hebrew word for “uncircumcised” reflects the idea of disobedience, impurity, or iniquity (cf. Leviticus 26:40-42); Jeremiah 9:25-26). Circumcision, then, signified the removal of impurity or iniquity. Thus, God addressed a disobedient and impure Israel, “Circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no more” (Deuteronomy 10:16). And Jeremiah urged, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD and remove the foreskins of your heart…lest wrath go forth like fire…because of the evil of your deeds” (Jeremiah 4:4). Uncircumcision was associated with impurity; thus the sign of circumcision signified the spiritual removal of moral impurity.
iv) Membership in the Covenant Community Circumcision, not mere geography or national constitution, was the God-ordained means of distinguishing the non-covenant community from the covenant community. Abraham and his household were so identified even before the land was given or before his people even became a nation (cf. Genesis 17:1-8).
If a foreigner desired to partake of the Jewish feast of Passover, a basic requirement was that he be circumcised, for then he would be acknowledged by the Jews “like a native of the land” (Exodus 12:48). On the basis of his circumcision he was accepted among the people of God. To be uncircumcised meant to be separated from the people of God. Thus, Jacob’s sons could not in good conscience give their sister Dinah to the uncircumcised Shechemites without their circumcision first (cf. Genesis 34:13ff). The impropriety of a marital covenant with a non-Israelite explains why Samson’s parents were grieved at his selection of a Philistine wife (cf. Judges 14:3). If a male was uncircumcised it was a breach of God’s covenant, meaning separation from God’s people, “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” (Genesis 17:14). Remember Paul’s word about the uncircumcised, “…excluded from the commonwealth of Israel…” (Ephesians 2:12).
Thus, the sign of circumcision – significant of communion with God, the righteousness of faith, the removal of impurity, and membership in the covenant community – was administered to the children (male) of believing parents.
- This sign was replaced by baptism under the New Testament.When we come to the New Testament form of the Covenant of Grace, the sign of baptism replaces the sign of circumcision. (For this reason, we here gave much attention to the Old Testament sign). The Apostle Paul most directly taught this replacement in Colossians 2:11-12:”…in Him (i.e. Christ) you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism…”His point? The Christian Gentiles need not undergo the Covenant rite of circumcision. Its spiritual significance (i.e., “removal of the body of the flesh,” that is, the sinful nature) was already realized “by the circumcision of Christ…a circumcision made without hands,” (i.e., by the Spirit, not a physical knife). By Jesus’ work of salvation, He accomplished everything to which the Old Testament sign of the Covenant of Grace pointed. The testimony to this now is evidence in “being buried with Him in baptism.” No doubt the emphasis is on the spiritual significance of water baptism, but certainly Paul indirectly is referring to the sacrament which signifies that.Water baptism signifies the same as circumcision:
i) Union and Communion with God Paul noted, “…all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death…” (Romans 6:3-4). Clearly, his point was that baptism signifies participation in Christ’s redemption, to Whom we are united by faith, with Whom we have communion by faith.ii) Righteousness of Faith Having already addressed Paul’s words at Philippians 3:3,9, we would note in connection with Romans 6:3-4 above that these words concerning baptism immediately follow chapters 4-5, which develop the idea of being righteous before God on the basis of faith (cf. 5:1), again, much like Abraham (cf. 4:9-11).
iii) Removal of Impurity Like Colossians 2:11-12, the association between “the washing to regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) and water baptism is spiritual as to physical. The spiritual import of the sign is described with the physical sacrament being only inferred or assumed in the text.
iv) Membership in the Covenant Community Like circumcision, baptism signifies being a part of the covenant people. In fact, it visibly initiated the person. Per his normal approach, Paul referred to the spiritual import of water baptism when he wrote, “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit”
(1 Corinthians 12:13). The body into which we are baptized is Christ, whose body is the Church (Colossians 1:24). Thus, spiritual union with Christ is signified by water baptism within the context of the Church.
So, circumcision was replaced by baptism under the New Testament form of the one Covenant of Grace. The only significant discontinuities between baptism and circumcision are the form (water vs. knife) and the subjects (male & female vs. only male). Otherwise, the significance essentially is the same.
- Therefore, baptism is to be administered to the children (male & female) of believing parents.
We believe this final proposition is the logical (and biblical) result of the first three. Since the only difference is the form of the sign, we believe the sign nonetheless is still applicable to the children whose parents are in covenant with God.
Peter’s counsel to the Jewish men who asked what they should do in light of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension was “Repent…be baptized…for the promise is for you and your children…” (Acts 2:38-39). They were crossing from the shadows of the Old to the fullness of the New. Thus, the New sign was required of them, and since Peter’s appeal exactly follows God’s covenant with Abraham (cf. Genesis 17:7ff, 23-27), the implication was that their children should be baptized as well. No Jew in attendance at Pentecost would have thought differently, and strangely, Peter offered no qualification if he meant otherwise. This very principle was applied and recorded as people were brought into covenant with the Lord (cf. Acts 16:13-15, 25-34).
Though in a sense different than the Apostle John’s intent, we summarize this way, “I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you , which is true in Him” (1 John 2:7-8).
On the basis of this biblical summary, we as the Reformed Presbyterian Church require and practice the baptism of the children of Christ-professing parent(s). Such is the design of God’s covenant. Such is our practice under God’s covenant.