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  • « No Hope Outside of Christ by Paul David Tripp | Main | Whosoever Will May Come »

    The Purity of New Covenant Membership as a Defense of Credo-Baptism

    Some of you may wonder, "Why even post on such a controversial topic, when many godly men and qualified exegetes may be found on both sides of the question?" I agree that there are other more important issues on which we should expend the bulk of our energies; but baptism is a precious sign from God, and its importance should not be diminished, either. So when a Baptist friend of mine asked for some feedback on an article he had written defending credo-baptism (the link to his article is at the bottom of this post), I decided to post my response here, as well. I trust that any dialogue may be useful in helping all of us grow up to greater doctrinal maturity, and will be employed with love and an acknowledgement of our unity in the gospel.

    Although many credo-baptists will base their argumentation on the fact that every clear New Testament example of baptism follows a confession of faith, there are some who recognize the problem with this argument, namely, that while it is helpful and gives clear exemplary warrant for the practice to be followed in like cases for the church today, it does not provide any example to be followed for the case in question: what do we do with the children of believers. If we had a clear New Testament example for this situation, the debate would be effectually over. But as it is, we are forced to bring other scriptural data to bear on a question which is not explicitly addressed in the bible. Recognizing this shortcoming of exemplary New Testament texts, these Baptist apologists have largely based their arguments on the prophesied difference between the Old and New Covenants, with respect to the purity of their respective membership. On a number of points, they are to be commended; for first, they have recognized the need for additional biblical evidence; and second they have sought this additional evidence in the right place – they have honed in on the true locus of the debate. The strands of evidence we must employ, in the pursuit of a biblical stance on the baptism issue, have ultimately to do with the nature of the New Covenant, and the quality of its members.

    In this light, the most substantive credo-baptist argument hinges on Jeremiah 31:31-34, which asserts a difference between old and new covenants that has ultimately to do with universal purity within the covenant membership. If the new covenant differs from the old in this respect, then how do we justify the bestowal of the covenant sign upon those who have not given sufficient evidence of covenant faith?

    But even at the outset, this reasoning is fraught with difficulties. For instance, the New Covenant is established with those whom the Lord calls, in sets composed of adult believers and their children (Acts 2:38-39); the possession of the Kingdom, which is shorthand for participation in the New Covenant, is attributed to certain infants by our Lord himself (Luke 18:15-17); and in fact, we are taught that God considers infants of adult believers to be “holy,” which would certainly qualify them as “pure” members of the covenant (I Corinthians 7:13-14). So then, even given the necessity of pure covenant membership, how are we to say that infant children of believers are any less qualified in this regard than adults having made a profession of faith? It is certainly not as though either of these qualifications are unerring marks of genuineness, when human judgment comes into play. Any evangelical credo-baptist would have to admit that many adults who received baptism upon the confession of faith have turned out to be imposters who will bear their eternal judgment, just as many who have received infant baptism may turn out to be illegitimate children. In short, the ideal of pure covenant membership cannot be perfectly held up in our choice of the subjects of baptism, no matter how diligently we attempt to make the reception of the sign correspond to the reality of the thing signified. Recognizing this, we must labor to do the best we are able, and realize that the ultimate outcome is in God's hand. And we have just as much reason for assuming covenant legitimacy among the children of believers as we do among adult professors.

    But returning to Jeremiah 31, we meet with more difficulties. The forcefulness of the argument derived from this passage, for a credo-baptist position, largely dissolves upon the recognition of three truths:

    1.The Covenant made with Abraham was likewise cast in unequivocal terms of pure membership.

    When the sign of circumcision was given to Abraham, it was connected to an unqualified promise, “I will establish my be God to you and your seed after you” (Genesis 17:7). That God is our God is the heart of the covenant promise; and this promise, which necessitates covenant purity, is given without qualification to Abraham's children, throughout their generations. The principle of divine election comes into play here, as it does in the New Covenant – but both are cast in terms of pure membership, both include signs indicative of faith and regeneration (cf. Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 4:11; I Peter 3:21), and in the former, at least, the talk of purity does not negate the legitimacy of the bestowal of the sign upon one who is yet unable to express his faith. In other words, if you see paedo-baptism as a problem in light of the New Covenant description in Jeremiah 31, you have an identical problem at the inauguration of the Abrahamic Covenant; but this problem you are not permitted to circumvent by restricting the covenant sign to adults. A different answer must be found; and whatever this answer is (which I think must be formulated in terms of divine election and the already/not yet aspect of covenant realities), if it answers the Abrahamic problem, it is equally qualified to answer the Jeremiah 31 problem.

    2.The prophecy in Jeremiah 31 is explicitly made to contrast, not with the Abrahamic Covenant, at which the sign of circumcision was given, but the Mosaic Covenant.

    Consider well: the New Covenant will be “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt...” (Jeremiah 31:32). If circumcision were a Mosaic institution, the difference here mentioned might concern the scope of sign-recipients. But circumcision was not given as a sign of the Sinaitic Covenant – it was given as a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, of which we today are made full heirs (Galatians 3:29). The Mosaic Covenant was in discontinuity with the Abrahamic Covenant and its fulfillment, the New Covenant; but that is no reason to suppose a disjunction between the scope of membership within the Abrahamic Covenant and the New. It simply has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

    3.The New Testament speaks of the possibility of formal covenant members being broken off.

    Romans 11 speaks very clearly of a certain continuity between covenant members of the Old and New Testaments; and that is, that as those displaying unbelief were broken off in the Old, so those who display unbelief will be broken off in the New (Romans 11:19-21). This indicates that there were persons who were formally members of the Old Covenant, but who did not partake of its essence. It is clear how this could be the case: many were given the formal sign of inclusion, but eventually displayed their unbelieving hearts. Now, given the truth that the same reality is a New Covenant factor, we must grapple with the fact that there will indeed be New Covenant members (formally) who are not genuine, and who will be broken off. The Hebrews warning passages, especially 6:4-6, bear out this truth as well. This one observation cuts away the foundation of the pure-membership argument. It is not as though we should not strive for purity of membership, but we must do so, first, by using the canons of inclusion that God has given us, which is ever spoken of in terms of those whom he has called and their seed; and second, acknowledging the fact that this attempt for purity will not be finally successful until Jesus returns to separate the sheep from the goats. Just as the Abrahamic Covenant was cast in terms of a pure membership, but was not perfectly realized in its formal ranks; so the New Covenant is cast in terms of pure membership, but will not be perfectly realized until the consummation. This observation has the effect of making the pure-membership argument a moot point for the question of the proper subjects of baptism, and throws us back upon the old questions of continuity with the Abrahamic Covenant, correspondence of signs (in this regard, cf. Colossians 2:10-12), and the manner in which Jesus and the apostles spoke of the children of believing parents. And these strands of evidence, I believe, point definitely to the legitimacy of Reformed paedo-baptism.

    In the end, while I appreciate how these Baptists have endeavored to follow the instructions of scripture, using the word of God in a fair and honest way, I remain unconvinced by their argumentation. However, I trust that we who are united in the gospel may labor together in love and unity, for the sake of our Savior, notwithstanding any difference of opinion on this issue. Baptism is indeed a glorious sign of union with our Lord, and its importance should not be diminished. But at the same time, I rejoice to labor together with my Baptist brothers who cling to the gospel of God's free grace, and work fervently for the spread of the Kingdom of Christ.

    * This post was developed in response to a defense of credo-baptism, by Chris Poteet, a friend and co-laborer in the gospel. Feel free to follow the link for a fuller explanation of his position, or to discuss the matter with him.

    Posted by Nathan on April 20, 2007 11:01 PM


    I appreciate the response to "Confessing Believers"/credo baptism. I've been wanting to understand more (in a concise) direct way why on earth believers (pedo/infant baptism) are so excellent in New Covenant Gospel theology -thus the whole glorious Word of God and then go off on a seemingly different basis for their hermeneutics/interpretation of this! I am presently before God wanting to not listen again to any of the teachings of these fellow reformed believers of whom I've grown to love & greatly appreciate who teach the glorious Word of Life/Grace in Christ, but immediately seem to go on a different tangent in interpretation style when it comes to this. ----Sure, all who are elect are just that –before they/we were born. God knows this. Following the NT pattern, believers only know to be baptized when they are sure they are believers. I will not allow my children to be baptized until they are older /upper teens+ as to have their ‘own faith’ in our Lord Jesus Christ before Father. (I know I really opened a can a worms in this last sentence! :) Glory to God, brother. Thanks for your time.

    This post made its rounds!

    I don't get the term "Reformed Baptist". It is a contradiction in terms/words. That is assuming the word "reformed" stands for Calvinism and the doctrines of grace and the term "baptist" stands for someone who holds too the thought that only full grown professors of the faith can be baptized.

    A person cannot be both consistently Reformed and consistenly baptist at the same time.

    What sparked my thoughts on this was the following comment.

    """Following the NT pattern, believers only know to be baptized when they are sure they are believers. I will not allow my children to be baptized until they are older /upper teens+ as to have their ‘own faith’ in our Lord Jesus Christ before Father."""

    This comment was made by what I presume to be a reformed baptist. But this is far from a Reformed way of uderstanding faith.

    In view of the doctrines of grace (tulip, calvinism) when is this persons children going to ever believe enough to earn the right to be baptized? What if this persons child is 16 years old and shows faith and repentance and this person allows them to be baptized, but then 10 years later the child walks away from the faith, obviously the child had no sure faith and should not have been baptized; but then what if another 10 years goes by and this child now has faith again, I suppose we should baptize them again, the first one didn't take, hopefully this one will. But then what if later the child falls into backsliding and produces no fruit.

    You see it will never be enough, we will never have enough faith to earn baptism, it does not matter if you are 5 or 75, you are a sinner and can not have enough faith to earn baptism.

    Either Reformed Baptist's do not understand baptism or they do not understand Reformed (calvinism).

    Baptism shows forth the work of God whereby dead sinners are brought into union with Christ, and baptism's central expression is this union. Baptism actually expresses the entire gospel, ecspecially that of the doctrines of grace and the order them.

    -effectual calling
    -conversion (repentance and faith)

    In view of the doctrines of grace you should see how baptism is passively rather then actively administered. Baptism is a picture of the whole of regeneration, which is the work of God alone. A sinner is dead, regeneration makes him alive, we know the sinner is not active in regeneration because he is dead. Only God can raise the dead. As soon as he is regenerated he is alive, and is brought in "union" with Christ. Nothing that is signified in baptism can be done actively by ourselves. This of course is where some of my baptist friends have erred. Baptist's say.

    -baptism should be given only to adults, because only adults are capable of performing the activity which baptism signifies.
    - baptism signifies that activity by which man joins himself to Christ

    The baptist theologian AH Stong said "The essence of baptism is the joining of ourselves to another (Christ) before the world"

    In light of the doctrines of grace you could see why I would reject these baptist views and would not support baptism as ones own giving up of sin and uniting oneself to Christ and as ones own public display to the world.

    That is why I had my children baptized, because God is capable of creating this same union with them just as he did with me. Both of us are equally "spiritually" dead no matter what our age is. If I am consistent with the doctrines of grace, if I am a good calvinist, I have to know this, I cannot keep my children, who are in covenant with God, from the covenant sign. I did not render up enough of my own faith to earn baptism and neither should they have too. Salvation is a gift from God, and baptism is a sign and seal of this gift.

    I believe it is the practice of infant baptism, not believers-baptism, that comes from a place of silence in scripture, not the other way around. There is scripture upon scripture that states BELIEF must precede baptism, and also states it was adult "men and women" that were being baptized, not children. Acts says, "But when THEY BELIEVED Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, BOTH MEN AND WOMEN WERE BAPTIZED." Acts 8:12

    The Bibles overwhelming omission and silence on infant or children being baptized is too hard to deny. When Philip was witnessing to the eunuch, Philip stated that belief MUST come first: And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “IF YOU BELIEVE with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

    I know infant baptism advocates like to couch their doctrine in the word "household" - again the Bible is silent on IF there were infants in that household—its total assumption to say that there were. I would not want to build my theology on something that is so silent and absent from the scriptures or that is based on speculation - when the Bible is very vocal on belief before baptism time, and time and again.

    Here are a few more passages where the Bible is NOT silent about belief, understanding, confession, and repentance preceding baptism. And knowing it is impossible for a infant to not only understand scripture, but realize their sins, and their need of a Savior, and REPENTING - how could any of these verses apply to an infant?

    The Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and WERE BAPTIZED by him in the Jordan CONFESSING THEIR SINS. Matt 3:4-5

    Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all BAPTIZED by him in the Jordan River, CONFESSING THEIR SINS. Mark 1:5

    Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. HE WHO BELIEVES, AND IS BAPTIZED will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. Mark 16:15-16

    Then Peter said to them, “REPENT, and let every one of you be BAPTIZED in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2

    Then THOSE who gladly RECEIVED HIS WORD WERE BAPTIZED; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And THEY CONTINUED steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Acts 2

    And BELIEVERS were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both MEN AND WOMEN. Acts 5

    I believe the "ABSENCE", the silence, of infants and children in these verses is deafening.

    On an added note: if one is going to use the argument of O.T. covenant equating circumcision and infant baptism, then wouldn't that also preclude sprinkling due to Biblical and historical Jewish ritual spiritual-cleansing baths of submersion?

    I must be honest - I am married to the most wonderful man in the world, who happens to also be a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran. And have found it difficult to broach these subjects with him without an argument. So I do come to you, to this site, to learn BIBLICALLY where his ideas are coming from, and how best to understand them. However, I only really appreciate discussion and reasoning that comes from the Bible alone. Outside references do not impress me. I hope you will allow me the privilege of "reasoning through the scriptures" here with you, as to save my dear husband any grief from me.

    Thank you,
    God abundance always,


    Just a couple quick comments, then a couple links.

    First, you are right that the practice of infant baptism is nowhere to be found explicitly in scripture; but neither is the explicit forbidding of infants to be baptized; so if you are looking only for a prescriptive example, then both the credo-only and the paedo position come from silence. And merely listing out the places where evangelists told adult nonbelievers to believe (or repent) and then be baptized does not change that fact: both positions believe that adult converts must exercise faith and repentance before baptism.

    However, prescriptive examples are not the only type of argument that may be found in support of any theological position, and certainly not baptism. If you were looking for the answer to whether or not it is right to gamble, go out to eat on Sunday, etc., etc., it would be a foolish and limiting choice to confine your study to answering the question, "Did the apostles or early Christians ever gamble in the inspired book of Acts?". And when you are looking for the answer to the proper subjects of baptism, it is likewise too restrictive to ask, "Did the apostles or early Christians clearly baptize infants in the inspired book of Acts?", and to let the answer to that question be the final solution to your problem.

    This post did not address what those other theologically-derived arguments might be, as it was merely a response to one possible theological argument for credo-only baptism. But those arguments do exist; in substantiation of which, I would encourage you to look to this letter by Dennis E. Johnson:

    or else this article that I wrote when I finally became convinced of the scriptural legitimacy of the paedo position:

    Blessings in Christ,

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