A Baptismal Debate II

This is my second rejoinder in the debate between myself and Jonathan Winsley over the nature of baptism and whether it ought to be applied to infants. In my previous post I sought to show the nature of baptism; that being that it is a covenantal oath made before God and men and by which God will judge those who do enter into His covenant.

In this post I will seek to do two things:

  1. Offer a better understanding of Jeremiah 31 than what Jonathan’s Baptist faith is able to afford. The Baptist interpretation of participation in the New Covenant hinges largely upon a certain understanding of Jeremiah 31 and I will show that their interpretation is not the only possible understanding of this passage nor is it even the most appropriate.
  2. Set forward why it is that a proper understanding of covenant participation does lead to the baptism of infants and that the practice ought to be observed by all.


In His last post Jonathan compared Hebrews 8-10 with passage from Jeremiah 31 in attempt to prove that there can be no breaking the New Covenant. The emphasis is on these three verses:

“Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, the which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and will be their God and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:32-34)

Now this passage clearly promises a new and better covenant, one which will not be broken; and I think I can state that this point is agreed upon by both Baptists and Presbyterians. The differences in opinion appear when we try and discern in what ways our New Covenant is better. The Baptist argument is that none apostatize from it and that all who partake of it are elect and will persevere in their faith as given unto them by the Spirit. To use Mr. Winsley’s specific language “God promises his people in the New Covenant that he will put His law in their hearts and forgive their sins. Only believers receive these promises. Therefore, only believers are members of the New Covenant.” (format changed from original) So the Baptist’s inference into this passage is clear, only those who are saved are truly covenanted. Over against this interpretation is the Presbyterian understanding which places the primary focus elsewhere, as I will now show.

  1. The giving of the Holy Spirit – It is here promised that the God will write upon the hearts of His people and that He will reign amongst them directly as their God. This is the single greatest point where the New Covenant eclipses the Old; Christ’s atoning work has made it possible for God to directly indwell formerly condemned men in a way that was not manifest in earlier ages. Paul speaks of this in 2 Corinthians 3:5-9 saying, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to think anything, as of ourselves: but our sufficiency is of God, Who also hath made us able ministers of the New Testament, not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life. If then the ministration of death written with letters and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not behold the face of Moses, for the glory of his countenance (which glory is gone away.) How shall not the ministration of the Spirit be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.” The ministry of condemnation is now past and the glorious truth and plan of God has been revealed as He now directly indwells His people under the new ministration of righteousness.
  2. Covenant finality – The new and greater covenant will never be broken. This is a point upon which Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians actually agree! The New Covenant is a covenant which cannot be broken, just as God promises, but this in no way would seem to suggest that all of those who partake in it are, in fact, saved. Rather the proper focus of this covenant promise is that the Church, as a whole, as the Bride of Christ, will never finally or entirely break the New Covenant as Israel had under the Old. Now the fact that there will be false members within the Church when Christ returns in glory is no less a fact than that there were still many faithful members of the Old Covenant whom God mercifully enrolled into Christ’s Church when He cast of the unbelieving elements of Israel. There is just no way to interpret this passage as saying that every covenanted person does have saving faith, it is not the focus of the passage. That there will be unsaved people within the Church throughout history, even as late as the last judgment, is everywhere assumed by the Apostolic writers, even by Christ Himself. Many of Christ’s parables focus on this very theme. The parable of the wedding feast speaks of judgment upon people whom have come unto the feast, it says, “Then the king came in, to see the guests, and saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment. And he said unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither, and hast not on a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot: take him away, and cast him into utter darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few chosen.” (Matthew 22:11-14) In like manner Matthew 25 contain three parables which all foretell of Christ’s judgments upon His own kingdom, reminding us that there are those present who have not saving faith and are merely ‘called but not chosen.’ For the Baptist to say that there are no negative sanctions doled out by God within the covenant in this age is to do hermeneutical gymnastics with these Scriptures here listed as well as the ones listed in my last post and to take the teeth away from the implications of passages such as Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. The fact that the Church, as the whole Bride of Christ, will in fact accomplish her covenant task in no way gives guarantee that all who would reside within her walls are elect.
  3. Millennial glory – I have already shown that it cannot be readily accepted that all who are part of the covenant between Christ and His Bride are necessarily elect, but in order to accept my own interpretation of Jeremiah 31:31-34 which is being put forward, one more aspect of this passage must be dealt with: the idea of all men knowing the Lord. Specifically in verse 34 we read “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord.” This passage has two primary interpretations in history: the Baptists viewing it as present ecclesiological reality and the Presbyterians seeing as the yet to come glorious state for Church on earth. The Baptist view was taken to its logical conclusion by the Radical Reformers during the Anabaptist movement when any teaching or instruction within the churches was rejected, using this verse as support for the practice. The second interpretation places a more eschatological focus upon the passage and sees it as finding its fulfillment in accompaniment to the Church’s accomplishment of her covenantal commission. Holding Jeremiah’s depiction of the Church in her New Covenant manifestation here as a yet future reality brought about by the now past (still future for Jeremiah) accomplishment and enthronement of Christ and the impartation of the Holy Spirit has several advantages. For one it avoids the illogical potential conclusion listed above but it also aligns more ably with other Old Testament prophecies of the future glory of the Church on earth. Prophecies such as Isiah 2, which says “It shall be in the last days, that the mountain of the House of the Lord shall be prepared in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it, and many people shall go, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths, for the Law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3) Here we see it prophesied that all men shall be taught the ways of the Lord and shall come unto His mount to learn of His ways. Now these two passages need not be set to oppose one another; all people learning of the Lord versus all people knowing the Lord, rather they are both to be seen as figurative depictions of a still future great gospel ingathering. This also fits nicely with Habakkuk 2:14, which tells us “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” As well as Zechariah 14:20-21: “In that day shall there be written upon the bridles of the horses, The holiness unto the Lord, and the pots in the Lord’s house shall be like the bowls before the altar. Yea, every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy unto the Lord of hosts…”. So we see that Jeremiah 31:34 best fits in with other Old Testament prophecies concerning the future ingathering of the peoples unto Christ’s Church, and need not be seen as a present ecclesiastical condition.

Hopefully having here given a more satisfactory interpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the New Covenant, it is still before me to establish why it is that baptism ought to be administered unto infants. In my previous post I established the basic function and nature of baptism and now I will demonstrate how that naturally and Biblically leads to its application upon the children of communicate church members. We must begin by revisiting and recognizing that the all-encompassing nature which Christianity possesses is precisely why we have spoken of it as a covenant. The Great King, in establishing His treaty, has demanded the allegiance of His subjects in every area of their lives. The entire basis of the Old Testament and the old covenant which accompanied it was the establishment and maintenance of the covenant community. God had called Abraham unto Himself and Abraham was supposed to be faithful in all that the Lord commanded him. The transition to the new covenant changes little in this regard, men are still called to participate in God’s covenant, and their obedience is demanded.

It is not improper to say that the covenant functions like a nation. It has good and bad citizens; and just like any nation, Christianity (the covenant community) has a few basic prerequisites of citizenship. The most basic of these requirements is Baptism. This theme was explored in an introductory fashion earlier and it was seen how Baptism is a vow, an oath of allegiance. Baptism before the Lord could be likened unto the entry bar which all people are required to meet in order to become citizens of the United States. It is a promise that one will live by the law of the land. The often distorted truth is that Baptism is no more than that. It is the external symbol of covenant participation and that only. Baptism is in no way the cause of a person’s salvation. Just as the circumcision of the Jews did not prevent Jesus from raising up children for Abraham from stones (Matthew 3), He will not spare unworthy members of the covenant. Being baptized is not a magic wand which man may use to ward off God’s judgment; quite to the opposite it actually invites God’s inspection. But just as Baptism should never be equated with salvation, it should never be totally separated from it either. It is the symbolic entry into communion with Christ, a ceremonial binding. For some the act never will be anything more than symbolic, they are not truly part of God’s elect, but either way, elect or reprobate, God takes an individual’s Baptism seriously. And for the Church, Baptizing the nations is its earthly objective. The often quoted (one of my favorite passages) Great Commission says,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

The importance of this passage cannot be overstated. The Church must issue the Great King’s call to submission. The Church must proclaim Him as the rightful ruler of the world; call for and see to the submission of every nation to His reign as well as instruct the nations in the terms of the Covenant. In essence, the Church’s job is no less than to expand God’s covenant to include every nation and people group on earth. To go about accomplishing this task Christ tells His followers to start at the beginning, by baptizing the nations.

Understanding the serious nature and proper dispensation of Baptism comes into clearest focus when we properly understand its old covenant counterpart: circumcision. God’s requirements for circumcision, as given to Abraham, were clear,

“And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 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 17:9-14)

Abraham was to circumcise every male in his house, whether born there or added as a servant; this was the sign of the covenant. As we learn from Abraham’s own children and grandchildren, having the marks of the covenant conferred at birth do not guarantee one’s good standing with God. That is rather irrelevant in the face of the realization of God’s command to circumcise every male child on the eighth day. These were the terms of God’s covenant and He promised to enforce them. In Exodus we read:

“At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him (Moses) and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4:24-26)

God, in enforcing the terms of His covenant, was willing to kill even Moses, His servant for failing to circumcise his son. For Moses, or any Hebrew to fail in circumcising his male children was to both regard his own son as a stranger to the covenant and break God’s commandments. Neither one of these actions would seem very wise yet this had become the standard practice by the time Joshua led the people across the river Jordan, for once the people were on the western shore of the river he circumcised them at Gilgal. For the men of the camp to go uncircumcised would have signified their disinheritance from the blessings and privileges conferred upon their fathers by God. Joshua understood this and duly acted before moving ahead with any military action against the Canaanites. As long as there were uncircumcised men participating in the affairs of the Israeli camp then the people were out of covenant with God. God had bequeathed unto Abraham a symbol of the covenant and everyone who forsook that symbol would be cut off per Genesis 17:14. The thing which we must recognize, and especially Christian parents today, is that the uncircumcised child was no part of the covenant and had no business learning the ways of the Lord. God only extended His grace through the covenant, not through any other means. By promising to cut off the uncircumcised child (and apparently the whole family as in the case involving Moses) God was only recognizing the decision made by the parents to exclude their children from the covenant. It should be reaffirmed here that the birthright of covenant participation was an advantage (Romans 3:1-3) but it did not guarantee election. In Deuteronomy Moses exhorts the people, all of them circumcised no doubt, to hearken unto the Lord. He says,

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” (Deuteronomy 10:16)

Again I will say that there is no confusion here of covenant participation and the effective calling of the Spirit. Moses is here reminding the people that their circumcision means nothing in the face of their rebellion.

All of these things being said, the point which I should really like to drive home with my audience is the importance of including the children in the covenant. Notice how God tells Abraham in Genesis 17 that the covenant is established with him and his descendants. The Israelites were especially commanded to train their children in all the ways of the Lord, Deuteronomy 6:6-7 reads,

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

In other words, the Hebrew’s were to raise their children in the constant admonition of the ways of the Lord. But the children could not be participators in such religious activities if they were strangers to the covenant. In Genesis 18 God stresses the importance of rearing the children within the covenant, saying,

“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:19)

Notice how in that verse the incorporation of the children into the covenant is the crucial factor in receiving the promised blessings. The Psalms also exhort us unto raising our children within the covenant, we read,

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which commanded our fathers to teach their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children…” (Psalms 78:1-6)

One of the primary focuses of God’s covenant was to establish His commandments and judgments with the chosen people throughout their generations. God did not intend to covenant anew with every generation, rather the people were supposed to introduce their children into the covenant at birth and then train them in all of its ways. We again see the burden which the parents bear for their children in the Decalogue,

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner that is within your gates.” (Exodus 20:8-10)

The Lord does not here give commandments to only those who will listen. He assumes children to be part of the covenant which He is here establishing with the fathers. To return to our consistently useful analogy of a conquering king; if the king has made his treaty with adult generations in the nation he has subdued, will he allow the children of the covenanted people to stray? Will he extend a covenant to adult generations and then say to them, ‘allow your children to decide for themselves if they want to keep my gracious covenant or not,’? If he did he would not be a very wise king for he would be forced to recapture the same territory every time a new generation came along. God, however, is a wise King and establishes His covenant in perpetuity, He is a conquering King. When He covenants with an individual He demands the submission of their every sphere of activity. The early Christians understood the ways in which this pertained to Paedobaptism very clearly, Rushdoony says,

“The relationship between circumcision and baptism, the one succeeding the other as the sign of the covenant, was so close that, as we have seen it required in Cyprian’s day the action of a church council to permit baptism before the eighth day. Because the law of circumcision required that the rite be performed on the eighth day, it was believed that baptism should not precede the eighth day, and council action was necessary to alter this. The early church thus not only recognized that baptism was the successor to circumcision as the covenant sign, but also that the same laws governed both. Precisely because this fact was always recognized, infant baptism was inescapably a fact in the early church.”[1]

The fact that children born into houses with just one believing parent makes them covenant members should weigh heavily upon us. And that this is indeed the case is clearly affirmed in Scripture:

“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-14)

It cannot be said here that Paul is insinuating that the faith of one person in the household is effective for the salvation of all for he clearly states that they are unbelieving. What he means is that the household is brought into covenant with God thorough the faith of just one believing member. That is clearly seen in the commandment given to Abraham, he wasn’t told to ask for a profession of faith from acquired servants and slaves, he was commanded to circumcise them. They would be part of the covenant by being a part of his household. This too was recognized by the early church, in Acts we read,

“Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be save, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them in the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” (Acts 16:30-33)

The Jailer would have well understood that he was submitting to the rule of a King. This was not an inward and spiritual or merely personal conversion, it demanded the new allegiance of his entire household. The household of a man of his position would have been quite large but the book of Acts tells us that everyone was baptized. This doubtless included infants because they would now be raised as members of the covenant. They understood that the new covenant operated exactly like the old, just as Abraham was promised that the covenant belonged unto his children, as long as they were faithful, the new covenant faithful have the same promise:

“For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:39)

Baptizing an infant in no way forces the Holy Spirit upon them, the Bible provides ample proof of that. But the Christian community cannot remain in good standing and neglect the covenant participation of their children. For the Church to refuse to recognize the children of communicant members as covenant participants is on par with a nation which refuses automatic citizenship to children born unto rightful citizen parents but instead makes every generation apply for immigration status. Obviously any nation which did so would not last long and no nations on earth (to my knowledge) employ such practices for good reason. It cannot be misunderstood, children who are not brought into the covenant externally have no right to be instructed in the ways of the Lord. If any alien sought to become a part of old covenant Israel than they were required to circumcise their entire household. God restricts the blessings of the covenant to only those who join it; He instructs Moses very explicitly saying,

“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)

The implications are clear. If we understand that partaking of the Passover was the action which, both literally at its inception and then afterward symbolically, set the covenant people apart from the rest of the world, to be forbidden access to it symbolized covenant death. And covenant death was the official status of any uncircumcised male and his household. If a Hebrew man refused to circumcise his children and raise them in the ways of the covenant, his household was excommunicated. For in reality, the foolish man who did so had excommunicated himself. He had severed his posterity from God’s covenant. The same rules apply today over Infant Baptism. Any child not externally covenanted to God has no right to be raised in the covenant community. The parents have chosen to excommunicate their children, cutting them off from rightful access to the blessings promised for those who dwell therein. God establishes His covenant in perpetuity, what a shame that many Christians today excommunicate every younger generation, forcing them to resubmit to God’s covenant law. Let us be thankful that we live in an age of increased mercy and staying of judgment, but let us never allow this grace to subsidize our own sluggishness in taking seriously the ways of the covenant.

In the preceding I do not wish to be found offensive towards my credo-Baptist brothers and I take seriously the fact that for all intents and purposes they do recognize their children as part of the covenant. In so far as they take their children to church, teach them from the Bible and in the ways of prayer and giving worship unto God, they treat their children as the inheritance of the Lord; I only wish that they would officially bring them into the covenant as the Lord commands.


[1] R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), pp.755-756

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