As an ardent Particular Baptist, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve had a recent fling with paedobaptism. Like a relationship with that girl from church camp you had one summer back in 10th grade, my dive into covenants, signs, and things signified, was passionate, fervent, and animated. For some time, I was almost certainly convinced of paedobaptism as a system. I was ready to toss my 1689. I had the Westminster in my Amazon shopping cart. I was giving my friends the Presbyterian Pat, assuring them, “don’t worry, you’ll get there someday”. I was ready to die on this hill.
But then, like that summer dalliance, september rolled around, school started back up, she started hanging out with her other boy-toys again, and you realized that the deep passion and romance you felt for her was nothing more than lustful infatuation, not founded on any real substance. Reformed paedobaptism is just that: infatuation with the tradition of Calvin and Geneva couched in sophisticated systematics that thoroughly lack any exegetical substance. There, I said it.
What distinguishes the Reformed view from other views more than any particular system of theology is its approach to letting God speak through scripture to convey a single, coherent, consistent revelation of Himself, and I am convinced that paedobaptism is an interjection of tradition into exegesis. More personally, my own Christian walk began in the absence of discipleship in a church. I was faithfully discipled by a few, but in large part my walk with God revolved around the only Word that mattered. What marked my early Christian years was a voracious appetite to know the Bible, and what has marked my more recent years is an increased desire to submit to it. God has taught me to ask, “what does the Word say?” and He is teaching me to believe what it says regardless of whatever damage it does to my systematics. Whereas tradition, history, and systematic theology are helpful tools to frame our thoughts and contextualize the meditations and motivations of our hearts, we must nevertheless begin with what God has spoken in the Bible whenever there is a question regarding faith or practice.
In brief, I believe that the arguments which underly paedobaptism are hermeneutical errors which conflate, confound, or otherwise confuse continuity with fulfillment. Further, I believe that paedobaptism ignores the clear, didactic teaching of the scriptures concerning the New Covenant. Let me explain.
The central structure of paedobaptist covenant theology can be summarized as “one covenant of grace, two administrations”. In short, both the Old and the New Covenants are different dispensations, administrations, or ways that God governs His people, but they are both manifestations of the overarching Covenant of Grace, the covenant which promises that God will save those who put their faith in Christ. Their arguments in support of this framework are compelling. We know that Abraham was saved by faith, as was Isaac, Jacob, David, and many other Old Testament saints. We know that they believed in Christ, because the scriptures tell us that they did; it is said of Abraham:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3)
And additionally, the Old Testament was full of odinances and rituals which were types of Christ. I have argued elsewhere that circumcision is a sign of faith, pointing forward to the bloody sacrifice of Christ, and also pointing inward, reminding a Jewish man to circumcise his heart in like manner as his foreskin, just as his forefather Abraham had done. In like manner the sacrifices of bulls and goats were performed in part to demonstrate how Christ would accomplish salvation for His people: without the shedding of blood, there is no foregiveness of sins; a covenant must be cut in order to be binding (Hebrews 9:17-22). And so on and so forth, the signs and rituals and festivals of the Old Covenant were given by God to point to Christ and to faith; none of this I would contest in any way.
Where I part ways with the paedobaptist is in reference to how these things are applied to interpretation of the New Testament scriptures. The key hermeneutical emphasis for the paedobaptist is continuity. Their claim is that, whereas the Old Covenant was mixed, containing both circumcised regenerate and circumcised unregenerate men in it, so it must be that all covenants are mixed, filled both with covenant keepers and covenant breakers. They then impose these categories upon the New Covenant; since both circumcision and baptism were signs of faith, and children were circumcised, so children ought to be baptized. Whereas unbelievers were present in the congregation of Israel, so unbelieving children are present in the congregation of the Church. And some (though a great minority) even say that, whereas the covenanted Israel partook of spiritual food and drink, we should not withhold the eucharist meal from our baptized children. For the paedobaptist, the difference between the Old and the New is really only a matter of quantity, with the Old having only a small faithful remnant, and the New having a faithful majority. Qualitatively, approximately the same covenantal structure exists. You can be a part of the covenant and yet be an unbeliever; you can be covenanted with God through baptism and yet be His enemy through unbelief, and so be cut off from the tree of the covenant like a dead branch.
Revealed and Inaugurated
For a struggling baptist, these covenantal arguments are compelling and elegant. Many lay Reformed Baptists have not even considered or heard of “covenant theology”, and this is to their disadvantage. I have argued elsewhere that my Reformed Baptist brothers should strive to be covenantal in their baptistic convictions, to answer our paedobaptist brothers on their own terms. Many of the Reformed in our nation are paedobaptists, and so it is our burden to demonstrate to them that there is such a thing as a “covenantal baptist”, and that baptist covenant theology is consistent with the testimony of scripture.
In my own considerations of paedobaptist covenant theology, the stumbling block for me was always the simple didactic teaching of Bible concerning the New Covenant. Jeremiah 31, cited in Hebrews 8, plainly says this:
Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will bring about a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in My covenant, and I did not care about them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they will not teach, each one his fellow citizen, and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful toward their wrongdoings, and their sins I will no longer remember.” (Hebrews 8:9-12)
There are some of my paedobaptist brothers who believe that this passage will be eschatologically fulfilled; that this is a thing that will be fulfilled “down the line”, but not necessarily today. I have heard no good argument for this which does not cleave the text in two. For in what other covenant does God promise forgiveness of sins? In the New He says “their sins I will no longer remember”. Is that to be fulfilled eschatologically, or is it something which we confess we have access to now, in Christ?
Certainly an eschatological fulfillment is out of the question, as this fact is inescapable: the New Covenant is not only quantitatively different from the Old, but qualitatively. It is a completely different animal. Whereas the Old was broken, the New is unbreakable. Whereas in the Old the law was written on tablets of stone, in the New it is written on hearts of stone. In the Old you could be cut off, but in the New, “I will be their God, and they will be my people”. In the Old you could be ignorant of God, an enemy of God, not knowing God, but in the New, “they will all know Me”. In the Old you had to come to the temple “year after year” to offer sacrifices, an annual reminder that the guilt of your sins had not been dealt with, but in the New Covenant, “their sins I will no longer remember.”
This is where the Reformed Baptist rightly emphasizes fulfillment over continuity with respect to understanding the New Covenant in light of the Old. Though the Old contained types and signs and other things which pointed to Christ and to faith in Him, progressively and typologically revealing Him through ordinances, rituals, laws, and promises, those things were not fulfilled until the inauguration of the New Covenant. As it is written:
The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food, drink, and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things having come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made by hands, that is, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all time, having obtained eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:8-11)
What other covenant in scripture promises forgiveness of sins but the New Covenant? If the sins of Abraham were forgotten (and indeed they were), they were forgotten under the New Covenant, and not under the Old, for Christ died for “the violations that were committed under the first covenant” so that “those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” promised in the New (Hebrews 9:15). One Covenant, not Two, which forgives sins; not one covenant in two administrations, but one covenant, revealed and inaugurated.
Unlike the paedobaptist view, wherein baptism is the continuation of circumcision as the sign of the covenant, the baptist says that circumcision is fulfilled, not in the ordinance of baptism, but in the reality of spiritual circumcision. Whereas all were physically circumcised in the Old Covenant, so under the New Covenant all are circumcised of heart. This reality is reflected other places as well. Whereas all in the Old Covenant participated in the physical sacrifices of bulls and goats, all in the New Covenant participate in the one sacrifice of Christ for all time. Whereas the high priest under the Old Covenant entered into a physical tabernacle, in the New Covenant Christ entered a spiritual tabernacle, namely Heaven. And so on, and so forth; the shadows of the Old are fulfilled in the New, not simply by continuing them, but by accomplishing what they were originally given to signify.
The fulfillment of circumcision is given explicitly in Colossians 2, where the Apostle says,
In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision performed without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)
So it is that physical circumcision pointed to the cross, where Christ’s body was cut off. But unlike the circumcision of sinners, which accomplishes nothing for salvation, the cutting off of Christ’s flesh was the cutting off of ours; not the tissue of our bodies, but the sin which dwells within our flesh. In Christ we were not circumcised physically, but a circumcision was given to us which was done without hands, spiritually, pertaining to the renewal and regeneration of the heart. In Him we were buried in baptism, not a baptism with water, but a baptism into Christ, a baptism which raised us with Him through faith. The physical was not fulfilled in the physical, but in the spiritual; it is not baptism which fulfills circumcision, but spiritual circumcision which does so, and it does it in Christ.
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