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 â€“ 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 â€œholy,â€ which would certainly qualify them as â€œpureâ€ 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, â€œI will establish my covenant...to be God to you and your seed after youâ€ (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 â€“ 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 â€œnot 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...â€ (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 â€“ 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.