Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in again…
Ah, my old friend paedobaptism. I try, I really do try, to let sleeping dogs (or infants who are suddenly dribbled with water) lie. Then all of a sudden, minding my own business, I run across something and just have to speak out. Les Prouty posted two essays on baptism, one from Dagg on the Baptist perspective and one from Benjamin Shaw of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on the paedobaptist perspective. Mr. Shaw’s essay, Thoughts on Infant Baptism, ponders the question of what value is there in baptizing an infant
A question often asked of those who argue for infant baptism is, “What good does it do the infant?” Those who ask this question generally think they have nailed the defender, as there is no obvious benefit to the infant. The infant hardly seems to be aware of what is transpiring, let alone being aware of any benefit. Many who were baptized as infants, coming to faith as adults, desire to be baptized as adults, rationalizing that their baptism didn’t mean anything to them.
Mr. Shaw then launches into an explanation of why that perfectly valid question misses the “true meaning” of baptism. The truly disturbing part of the essay comes a few paragraphs later and it was this doctrinal stance that prompted me to write this post.
God takes the covenant sign seriously. Thus a child, who would otherwise be a member of the covenant people, God considers him to be no part of the covenant people if he does not have the sign of the covenant. So a child of believing parents who is not baptized is considered by God to be none of his. It matters not how much care the parents may lavish on the child, or how much they may teach him the Bible. They have disobeyed God on one point, and their children are cut off.
Wow. Isn’t that a dangerous line of reasoning? God cuts them off based on the action or rather inaction of their parents? It seems that Mr. Shaw is creating a division here between the elect and the covenant community. In other words, you can be elect and not be part of the covenant community one the one hand and on the other hand one can be part of the covenant community and not be in the elect. I really don’t understand how you can seriously say that someone is part of the New Covenant community and yet that person will spend an eternity in hell.
I have to wonder though, if a child is one of God’s elect, is that child elect based on receiving baptism as an infant? If an infant that is born of believing parents is not baptized, are they “cut off” from the covenant community regardless of being born-again later? The language Mr. Shaw uses sounds very sound and reasonable but when you start to dig into it, you find that there are troubling implications when faced with the stark reality of the New Covenant.
The argument is that circumcision is the sign of membership in the Abrahamic covenant and baptism is the sign of membership in the New Covenant. Mr. Shaw points to Colossians 2: 11-12 as evidence of the linkage between circumcision and baptism. There is of course a problem with that argument as evidenced by what the text actually says.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off 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 powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2: 11-12)
Now a cursory examination of this text might give one the impression that circumcision=baptism more or less. Is that what is going on here? Certainly not. I would argue that there is a linkage here that is unwarranted. It is pretty clear that even when the New Testament is speaking of circumcision, when it comes to the New Covenant community it is speaking of the circumcision of the heart. That is Paul’s point in Colossians 2, not that we should treat physical circumcision and baptism as one and the same. Physical circumcision was a type and shadow of the inward change that would be wrought in believers. In fact, physical circumcision is spoken of in an almost negative light (see Galatians). Likewise, we were “raised with him through faith”. That is not indicative of water baptism at all but rather baptism of the Spirit. Water baptism does not correspond neatly to circumcision as the paedobaptist would argue, instead physical circumcision corresponds to circumcision of the heart (see Ezekiel 36: 26-27).
What is the basis for covenant membership in the New Covenant (you know, the one that is called “New” and “not like the old” for a reason)? It is not water baptism. We need to of course look at the New Covenant, originally prophesied in Jeremiah 31 and affirmed as being mediated by Christ in Hebrews 8:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31: 33-34)
The overall error here is failing to recognize that while the covenants have many similarities, they are not the same in purpose, mediation and administration simply by virtue of being a covenant. The covenant with Adam is not the same as the covenant with Abram. The covenant with Moses is not the same as the New Covenant. They are all part of the grand scope of redemption but they cannot be viewed as being virtually indistinguishable other than name. The heart of the New Covenant is the forgiveness of sins. There are none who are still in their sins who are in the New Covenant community and there are none who are forgiven of their sins who are outside of that community, water baptism not withstanding. The defining mark of the New Covenant community is not parentage or physical signs, it is faith that stems from an internal change. What is really ironic is that infant baptism flies smack in the face of the core fundamentals of Reformed theology, the idea of election, monergistic regenerations and effectual calling. My Reformed paedobaptist brothers will stand firmly for the core doctrines of Reformed theology on the one hand and then essentially sidestep them in defending infant baptism. When Christ “instituted” the Lord’s Supper, He was quite specific about this:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26: 26-28)
The New Covenant is in His blood, a blood that is poured out for the forgiveness of the sins of His elect. There are clearly non-elect children of believers and if you follow Reformed theology, especially particular or limited atonement, it naturally follows that His blood was not shed for them. As such, they are not beneficiaries of the New Covenant promise and in no way should be given the sign of that very covenant. Galatians 4: 21-31 seems applicable here as well regarding the idea of two covenants, one physical and one spiritual. Paul is directly dealing with the Jewish influence in the churches in Galatia who are insisting on applying the sign of physical circumcision to Christians. Paul is adamant about this:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)
If you are saying that water baptism corresponds to circumcision, then you might as well say neither baptism nor unbaptism counts for anything. In Christ Jesus, the Savior and the mediator of the New Covenant, what counts is faith. Not water baptism, not physical circumcision, not parentage, not church membership.
This is so pivotal. I would not argue that this should be a point of separation between brothers at all, but baptism is an important and hotly contested doctrine. What is being described here by Mr. Shaw seems to be, taken to its logical extreme, a cutting off of people from the covenant community of God not based on their status as one of the elect or based on being born-again, but instead based on the action or inaction of their parents. That certainly was true in the Old Testament (see Genesis 17:14) but it has no warrant in command or example in the New. Those who are, following the admonition of Genesis 17: 14, not circumcised will be cutoff but again, the defining characteristic of the New Covenant is that we are circumcised in the heart, not a circumcision made with hands and baptized by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, not by water baptism.
We are not saved by water baptism nor are we in or out of the New Covenant community of Christ based on being water baptized either as an adult or as an infant. This idea of two churches, one a “visible” church with people in the covenant community who are not elect and another, “invisible” church, is an error and has no place under the New Covenant administration. I remain convinced, ever more so the more I study it, that infant baptism is a holdover from Rome, one of the areas that the magisterial Reformers left “unreformed”. Taken as a series of unrelated proof texts, infant baptism can be marginally defended but when you examine the role of water baptism in the grand scope of Scripture, especially in light of the New Covenant and the contrast between the external “types and shadows” that prefigured the New Covenant and the New Covenant internal changes (circumcised hearts and baptism of the Spirit), there simply is no Scriptural justification for “baptizing” infants.