Paedo-baptism and covenant membership

The other day I highlighted three of the big arguments for paedo-baptism, here is the fourth. This has particularly become associated with the Federal Vision thinking of Douglas Wilson, Peter Leithart and James Jordan, however it is not exclusive to them, rather you find it present in a lot of contemporary paedo-baptist arguments and particularly from Presbyterian quarters. However, the Federal Vision approach pushes hard on this and the way it handles questions about signs, faith, regeneration and faith makes it particularly problematic.

The argument is this, baptism represents entry into the covenant so that you become part of God’s people and a recipient of the privileges and benefits of the covenant as well as the responsibilities. It is for this reason that some argue not just for paedobaptism but also for paedo-communion.  The baptised child is then part of the covenant people of God.

Part of the thinking here links to the use of Acts 2 to talk about the promise at Pentecost being for “you and your children.” If the promise is to the children then this means that in some way they are part of God’s elect so that we can rely on God’s promise to save them.  However, this creates a problem because many children are baptised and later in life walk out on Christianity, not just falling away from a profession of faith but never having professed faith in Christ.  So how do we account for that?

Well, one response is to argue that the one who walks away, is walking away from their baptism vows and that is serious. It is not merely that they are rejecting the offer of the Gospel but that they re apostate from it. If you believe that they never can be lost, then I presume you would have to assume that one day through God’s discipline they will be restored. Another approach has been to distinguish covenant membership from saving faith. The child is elect to the covenant, they belong to the people of God and receive all the benefits of that. However that child has not yet received saving faith and therefore we cannot say yet that they have been elected to saving faith.

Note at this point that the reason this is particularly problematic for Federal Visionists is that whilst other paedobaptists allow for the possibility that there is a separation between the sign and the thing signified so that calling, election and faith may both predate and follow after baptism, Federal Vision theology focuses heavily on the sign as an objective event closely intertwined with the thing signified, in other words the baptism does something, it is the sign itself which means that the person is part of the covenant and note at this point that some Federal Visionists would suggest that it therefore regenerates the recipient.

There are a number of problems with the second suggestion that spring immediately to mind, so let’s take a walk through them. First of all, we need to return to Acts 2 and see exactly what it is that is promised to the children. Here is Acts 2:37-39:

“37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “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. 39 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.” 

The promise that Peter is talking about here, the one that the people want to receive and in fact are desperate to receive because they are convicted of their sin in rejecting and murdering Jesus is that they will be forgiven and that they will receive the Holy Spirit. The promise, dependent upon repentance and baptism is the Holy Spirit.  So, if Acts 2 is a guaranteed promise for your children and the seal of that promise is baptism as circumcision was in the old covenant then our expectation should be that our children will receive the Holy Spirit at baptism.

It is worth remembering too that God’s covenant to Abraham and then on to Moses was that God would bring together a people who would live in his presence and enjoy his blessing, this for those before Christ was focused on the immediate physical blessing of life in the land. For those after Christ, it means that now, we enjoy life in God’s presence under his blessing because we have received the Holy Spirit so that we are blessed with gifts and fruitfulness. 

Secondly, Romans 4 is pertinent to our conversation, particularly 4:9-12 where Paul says:

“9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

What is the blessedness that Paul is talking about? Well, from v 1-8 we know that it is the blessedness of justification, of being right with God and having your sins forgiven and covered over. Paul says that this blessing is for both circumcised and uncircumcised and we know this because Abraham was justified before his circumcision so that circumcision acted as the seal of his righteousness not the cause.

Then in verse 11, Abraham is described as the father of both circumcised and uncircumcised. This is important because for Abraham to be your father is for you to be part of the covenant. In other words whilst circumcision does something in terms of marking you out as physically part of the covenant people (physically) what it does not do is bring you into the covenant blessings.  For Israel, physically that happened through crossing the Red Sea and then later the Jordan so that indeed it seems that proselytes were asked to undergo both circumcision and a form of baptism and that those baptised by John and later by the early church were in effect admitting that before that, even if circumcised they had not been within the benefits and blessings of the covenant.

It is further worth noting at this stage that Paul doesn’t just say that the circumcised and uncircumcised are justified but that that it is those who have faith that are so that Abraham is specifically the father of those:

circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

This links us to the crucial argument Paul makes in Romans 9-11 and specifically to these words:

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[b] In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[b] In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

This is another way of saying again that there would be people who could trace their ancestry back to Abraham, who had been circumcised but whilst they might benefit from the benefits of the Mosaic covenant, physical life in the land of Canaan under the Law, they were not participants to the blessings of the covenant with Abraham because they did not have faith. 

Indeed, the implications for baptism are therefore clear. You can get baptised at whatever age you like, you can baptise small babies or you can wait until they are teenagers or adults, you can sprinkle with a little water or you can dunk someone in a deep tank of the stuff, you can even take them out to the River Jordan in the Holy Land but unless and until that sign is accompanied by the reality of saving faith then that person cannot and has not entered into the blessings, benefits, privileges or responsibilities of the covenant.

This I think has implications for us. I struggle with the implications of this theology and think it is very risky. I believe that paedobaptists are really saved (both in terms of salvation from sin and in terms of ecumenical unity within the church) by their inconsistencies, that they do know and practice the need to call people, even those baptised as children to repentance and saving faith in Christ. In fact, what we might say about the Federal Vision is that it promotes a more rigorous and consistent understanding of paedobaptism. The problem is that this is a situation where being consistent in your views is not a good thing.

So the consistency of some here in pursuing a position on baptism to its dangerous conclusions means that in the case of Federal Visionists such as Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart, we must warn about the danger of their theology and practice. However, whilst debating and challenging other paedobaptists, we will continue to enjoy good fellowship.  It does however raise a serious question about something else.

There has been increased discussion about the possibility of dual-practice churches. In other words, some churches have tried to remain neutral on the position of baptism and allow for both infant baptism and believers’ baptism in the same fellowship. Note that this is not the same as allowing for someone to join a church who has a different view on baptism, it is about facilitating the practice.

Now, if we are in a situation where some people want to have babies baptised on the understanding that this reflects promises made in hope, trusting that the child will take them up for themselves and one day have faith then although not easy, it may be possible to just about accommodate both practices. However, if what is meant is that the baptism represents covenant membership, then I simply do not see how it is possible to do that in the same church body as it will lead to two classes of membership, two ways of treating children in the church and a whole lot of mess, heartache and potential division between families within the church.

Finally, I would insist again that it is believers’ baptism that best reflects and follows New Testament teaching not just explicitly on baptism itself but on what it means to be part of God’s covenant people.

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