Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Some thoughts on baptism and covenant

Among evangelical Christians there are some radical differences in the understanding of how, and in what manner God’s covenant exists today and who participates in that covenant. If you’re a Baptist or have a view of baptism that is similar to the Baptist position, then your conception of the covenant will be drastically different than someone, like myself, who has a different understanding of what baptism is and who should be baptised.

Most evangelicals today have a baptistic understanding of baptism. They believe in “credo” or “believers” baptism “only.” To reject paedobaptism for a credobaptist position requires a very different understanding of some important biblical/theological matters.

Historically the great majority of evangelicals have held to the paedobaptism position. Christians who hold to “paedo” or “infant” baptism believe that new converts and the children of believers are both proper recipients of baptism. And, unlike our baptistic brethren, most of us also believe that baptism is not just an ordinance from God, but it is also a sacrament. We also believe it ceremonially places us in a covenantal relationship with God.

The view mentioned above is quite alien to the Baptist way of thinking. But is not alien to most historic evangelical Christian thinking. Below are the first two questions and answers from the catechism, which John Calvin wrote to instruct children in the faith.

Teacher: My child, are you a Christian in fact as well as in name?
Child: Yes, my father.
Teacher: How is this known to you?
Child: Because I am baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

You must remember several things when you read the questions and answers above. Calvin certainly did not believe in baptismal regeneration, nor did he believe that all baptised children of believers would persevere in the faith, yet he did understand that all these baptised children could rightly say that they were Christians, because they were baptised as infants.

John Calvin was truly a Calvinist. He believed in the doctrinal teachings that now bear his name. He believed that all baptised children of Christian parents were in covenant with God. Jonathan Edwards believed the same thing. I know that these things very likely don’t make much sense to most, if not all, of my Baptist/Baptistic brethren. That is because they have a radically different understanding of the meanings of both baptism and covenant than did Calvin, Edwards, the Puritans, etc... All of who were certainly very evangelical.

In a little more than 100 years after John Calvin wrote his catechism for children, the Puritans of England and the Presbyterians of Scotland produced the Westminster Confession of Faith and the accompanying Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The authors of these documents were all Calvinists and staunchly evangelical. I would like to quote from questions 94 and 95 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Q. 94. What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our engrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

Q. 95. To whom is Baptism to be administered?
A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptised.

Notice that these men said that baptism signified and sealed “our engrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace.” Notice also that converts and the children of believers are to proper recipients of baptism. Like Calvin in the previous century these men did not believe that the waters of baptism literally washed away original sin, but they, like Calvin, saw it as a covenant sign.

Children of believers, from the Reformed understanding, are, as were Israelites of old, born into the covenant and receive the New Covenant sign and seal, which is baptism. Does this give them an automatic ticket to heaven? No. They must, like the Israelites of old, trust and believe in the Messiah in order to inherit eternal life. Yet at the very same time they are, in this life, greatly privileged to be born in covenant with God. This too was true of the Old Covenant Israelite. Even though he could be (and often was) spiritually lost, he was still born with covenant privilege.

It is sort of like being born an American citizen. No one born here does anything to gain the privilege of such a citizenship. We have it because of our parents. Does being born an American citizen guarantee that you will prove worthy of that blessing? No it doesn’t. We can squander our citizenship in this country in many ways. In this world being born an American citizen means we are born with privileges that much of the world envies, and we can squander and loose those privileges if we live a life that is unbefitting our citizenship.

Like all analogies this one is not perfect, but I do hope it makes the point. Israelites had great privilege because they were born into God’s covenant people. Many if not most, because of sin and unbelief, squander that great privilege, but that does not mean that the privileges were not then and are not now very real. They certainly were and still are. Look at what Paul says in Romans on this very subject. He writes:

For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
(Rom 2:28-3:3)

In the above text Paul makes the point that the true Jew, the one who was saved, is a true Jew not because of outward inheritance or circumcision, but because of inward circumcision. Yet he still drives home the point that the ethnic Jew, even if he should loose his covenantal blessings because of unbelief, was still born with real privileges because he was born a Jew and a member of God’s covenant people (i.e. outward circumcision).

My children were born into a covenant relationship with God. They were born and are now, according to Paul in 1 Cor. 7, “holy.” Paul also makes the point that if neither of the parents of certain children is a believer, than those children are “unclean.” Here are his words “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.” This is covenantal language. Notice that even the unbelieving spouse is declared “sanctified” (i.e. holy [Gk: hagiazo]). Paul also tells the church members at Corinth that if neither parent is a believer the children are than “unclean” (Gk: akathartos). How can this be? I believe it only makes sense when viewed covenantally.

The children of believers in the New Covenant, like the children of believers in the Old Covenant, are born to privileges that others outside the covenant don’t possess (unless grafted into it upon conversion). But they can and often do lose those privileges because of unbelief.

Does this mean the covenantal blessings were not real? Certainly not. They are very real, but just like privileges we possess by our own U.S. citizenship, which we have by being born in America, they can be wasted and lost by sin and unbelief.

Dominus vobiscum,

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