Let me start by saying that we consider ones view about baptism an open-handed or secondary doctrine. According to the Bible there are close-handed or primary doctrines that you must believe in order to be a Christian e.g. God is Trinity, salvation by faith alone, the bodily resurrection of Christ etc. Secondary doctrines, however, do not affect our salvation and Christians may disagree e.g. view on form of church government, alcohol, and speaking in tongues etc. You might not agree with what I’m writing, however we can disagree as Christians.
Typically Baptists would hold that faith and repentance are pre-conditions for baptism. They would argue that since babies cannot repent or have faith in Christ they should not be baptised. Baptists would quote Acts 2:38 (“Repents and be baptised”) and highlight all the examples in Acts where new believers are baptised.
Those that practise covenant baptism believe that baptism is not only for new believers but for their children as well. The main reason we think this is because of our view of the Bible, particularly the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. God has made a covenant with his people and while the signs of the covenant have changed, the framework of the covenant hasn’t.
1. Circumcision was the Old Testament sign of God’s covenant
In Genesis 1-2 God created a good world and human beings to live in that world under his word and rule. Genesis 3 records the tragedy of Adam and Eve deciding not to live under God’s rule but trying to be gods unto themselves. They now decide for themselves what’s right and wrong. Human beings have lived this way ever since. Adam and Eve are cast out of God’s presence and incur his judgment.
The Bible could have ended at Genesis 3. Human beings separated from God and under his judgment. But out of pure grace God calls Abraham and makes a covenant (promise) with him to bless him and his descendants and ultimately people from all the nations of the world (Genesis 12:1-4). In Genesis 17:1-14 God repeats the promise and gives circumcision as the sign of the covenant. The crux of the promise is that God will be their God and they will be his people.
Circumcision is not the promise, but merely the sign that points to the promise. Circumcision did not make you right with God, believing the promise did (Genesis 15:6). Only boys were circumcised, but girls were also seen as part of covenant community. In later generations all baby boys were circumcised and any non-Israelite adult male wanting to serve Israel’s God was also circumcised.
As an Old Testament believer you would have your baby son circumcised demonstrating to God and your community that you believed God’s promise that he would bless his people.
2. Baptism replaced circumcision as the sign of God’s covenant
Many hundreds of years later a prophet known as John the Baptist arrived on the scene and he announced that the time of God’s salvation had come with the coming of God’s Christ. The long-awaited Saviour, a descendent of Abraham (and King David) was on his way. John called people to repent and to be baptised as a sign of their repentance towards God. Note that he did not call for people to be circumcised. Why did John the Baptizer call for baptism?
God’s law in Old Testament prescribed many types of ceremonial washings and cleansing, sometimes even called baptisms (cf. Mark 7:4 where Mark calls a ceremonial washing a “baptism”). Baptism was a familiar practise that symbolised washing or cleansing. Baptism is therefore a great sign of the new covenant because through faith in Jesus our sins are washed away and we become clean before God. Ceremonial washings or baptisms in the Old Testament included sprinkling, pouring and washing in rivers – so the amount of water you used was not the issue. Bottom line: John baptised, not circumcised.
Jesus in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel did not say, “Go and make disciples of all nation circumcising them…” Jesus said go and “baptise”. Baptism is the new sign. Circumcision involved the shedding of blood, but now that Jesus’ blood has been shed once-for-all for us, we have a new sign, baptism, which pictures the washing away of sin.
After Pentecost, the Apostle Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached. He proclaimed that Jesus whom they had crucified was God’s King and Saviour. The listeners were “cut to the heart” and asked what they should do. Peter said (Acts 2:38),
“Repent and be baptized (not circumcised) 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.”
“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 gospel promise or new covenant sounds very similar to the old promise or old covenant given by God to Abraham. The gospel promise is also for believers and their children.
The conversion and baptism of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16 is interesting. Did you notice that though only he was converted, his whole household was baptised – including children and probably slaves? Acts 16:33-34 says,
“And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he (singular) had believed in God.” (ESV)
The Philippian jailer had come to faith and his household was baptised.
Just as circumcision was the Old Testament sign for believers and their children that God would be their God, so baptism is the New Testament sign for believers and their children of God’s promise to be our God.
3. Baptism is a sign (symbol) and a seal (visible pledge)
Romans 4:9-11 says,
“9 Is this blessing (salvation) then only for the circumcised (Jews), or also for the uncircumcised (gentiles)? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”
Abraham believed God’s promise (he had faith) and was declared right with God. (Genesis 15:6) Faith saved Abraham before he was circumcised, while he was a Gentile. In other words, you don’t have to become Jewish (or religious) first in order to be saved. Circumcision was the sign of that promise or covenant. But, according to v11, it was also a seal, that is, a visible pledge or a guarantee. With the sign of circumcision, God was making a visible pledge to his people that he was with them and loved them, and as long as they kept the covenant conditions the covenant blessings would be theirs. What are the covenants conditions? Faith in God’s promises.
Baptism operates in the same way. As a sign it pictures the washing away of sin through the gospel. As a seal it is a pledge from God that he loves you and as long as you keep the covenant conditions (faith in Jesus, cf. John 3:36), the covenant blessings will be yours.
When a believer is baptised, they have kept the conditions (faith in Jesus) and the covenant blessings are theirs.
When a child is baptised: they have not kept the conditions yet, but the promise still remains that when they do – all the covenant blessings will be theirs. Baptism is like a visible sermon. It’s as if God is saying to the child, “I love you, I am your God. I have made a covenant with my people and your parents. You will grow up with all the covenant privileges. If you keep the covenant conditions, all the covenant blessings will be yours.” Like a sermon it can be followed by faith or ignored. Baptism is about God’s faithfulness not ours.
1. Baptism can never save
The big question is not, “Have you been baptised?” But, “Are you trusting in Jesus?”
2. Children of believers are “holy” or “set apart”
1 Corinthians 7:14 is a very astounding verse. It says,
“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.”
The Apostle Paul says that the children of believers or the children of at least one believing parent are “holy” or “set apart”. They are not saved, but are considered by God as different from the children of unbelievers. That is, they are set apart as children of the covenant community. This is indeed how we as Christians treat our children. We don’t treat our children like pagan unbelievers.
Pagans don’t pray (in the real sense), or read the Bible, or go to church. Yet we teach our children to pray. We don’t say, “You can’t pray until you make a proper, rational commitment to Christ and believe in the penal substitution!” We read the Bible with our children from a young age. We don’t say, “You’re not a Christian, your mind is still blinded by the god of this age and you can’t understand spiritual things, so I’ not reading the Bible as you won’t understand it anyway.”
We bring our children up “in the Lord”, within the covenant. We don’t treat them as non-Christian outsiders or unbelievers. Of course, this also means that we remind them of the gospel, as we also constantly need to be reminded ourselves. We pray that our children will have a very “boring” testimony in that they will be able to say one day, “there was never a time when I was not trusting Jesus as saviour”. Obviously as our children’s knowledge grows their faith will be more informed, but nevertheless we pray that they will grow up within the covenant community with all its privileges.
If all this is true, the covenant sign should not be withheld from them.
3. As parents remember their children’s baptism, it is a call to raise them as God directed
As I remember that my daughter, Amélie, is a covenant child and has received the covenant sign, it should motivate, remind and prompt me to keep praying with her and for her; to keep reading the bible with her and for her; to keep modelling to her what a Christian looks like and to keep loving her as God loves me. We may get depressed knowing that we all fail so often as parents, but baptism reminds us that it is more about God’s faithfulness than ours.