Baptism, paedo-baptism and a question of inclusion

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I want to come back to the discussion about baptism that has been generated by this quote attributed to Bob Letham.

One comment that has come back from paedobaptists following my response to the quote is that Dr Letham’s remarks are about the issue of inclusion and exclusion. The point is that a consequence of Christ’s death and resurrection then Pentecost is meant to be greater inclusion. The covenant sign of circumcision was restricted to male, physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but the New Covenant and the sign of baptism is available to Jews and Gentiles, male and female. The charge then is that Baptists re-impose a new exclusion by excluding infants from the signs of the covenant.

I want to suggest that there are a few problems with that. These arise because of a category and prioritisation mistake.  It is true that a consequence of The Cross and Pentecost is that visibly a wider array of people are included. However, that is not the primary purpose of those events. This is the mistake that The New Perspective on Paul makes. It assumes that because justification by faith means that both Jews and Gentiles can be justified that it is primarily or even purely about breaking down that horizontal barrier between Jews and Gentile. The truth is that The Cross deals first with the vertical problem between God and us. The breaking down of the wall of hostility between fellow humans is a consequence that flows out of that.

Secondly, there appears to be a little bit of blurring and confusion here. Whilst daughters could not receive the physical covenant sign of circumcision that does not mean they were excluded from covenant membership. It’s worth remembering that membership of the covenant is in one sense not the end in and of itself. Being party to a covenant is for the purpose of enjoying the goods of that covenant. For the Israelites, corporately that meant enjoying life in God’s land under his rule, in his presence.  The covenant was with all the people and the sign given to some was a reminder of that. 

This is important because the benefits or goods of the New Covenant are forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and receiving the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, the Holy Spirit can be seen both as a benefit of the covenant and the seal/sign that replaces circumcision. All that Baptists are really saying is that we will, to the best of our knowledge ability baptise and accept into physical membership of the local church those who have entered into the covenant and received the seal. 

Further, what paedobaptists omit to mention here is that they too add in their restrictions. They decide to exclude.  If the promise was for

“for your children and for all who are far off”(Acts 2:39)

Then really we should be baptising anyone and everyone.  Good vicars should be standing atop their church towers and steeples with hosepipes showering passers by with blessed water pumped from the font and announcing the Baptismal liturgy.

“Ah” comes the response “but those words are controlled by wider Scripture and theology.”

“Brilliant” I respond “Why not start with the immediate controls and limits put in place.”

You see, the controls that paedobaptists tend to end up with are along the lines that baptism of infants should be limited to the children of believing parents. But on what basis? Remember that the promise is not just to children but to those far off. If we insist that it is to do with children, then even still that raises questions about why the limiting factor is the beliefs and actions of immediate parents.  It does seem to unfairly exclude some kids because their parents enjoy a lie in on a Sunday morning.  Couldn’t we at least include the grandchildren and great grand children of believers. What if a believing neighbour is willing to step in and speak for the child at the baptism? What if they commit to bring the child to Sunday School every week and give them Bible story books for Christmas?  Isn’t that why we have godparents.

Paedobaptism is not inclusive, rather it’s exclusive. And let’s face it, that was already intended to be the case. Nor should we have a problem with recognising that there is an exclusivity to the Gospel. That word “whoever” in John 3:16 reminds us that at one and the same time the Gospel includes and excludes. Reformed paedo-baptists should get the point most of all.  That’s the point of election and Definite Atonement.

So why not allow the words in Acts 2:39 to be controlled by their immediate context.  “You, Your children and those far off” is controlled and limited by two things.

What comes after

“…everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

This reminds us that it is God’s work of grace alone from start to finish.

And what comes before

“Repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of sins.” (v38). So again. Credo-baptists and paedo-baptists exclude. The question is on what basis. Do we exclude on the basis of what is true about the candidate’s parents or on what is true about them?

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