The issue of baptism is one that not all Christians agree on, but sometimes the lack of agreement in this area leads to an assumption that this isn’t an important issue. That simply isn’t the case. Jesus commands his people in the great commission to make disciples by baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20). There’s good, earnest Christians on either side of this issue. But regardless of where you fall on this, it is very important. What follows is adapted from the explanation I gave before baptizing my son Felix. My hope is it may be helpful for others in understanding the Reformed, covenantal view of baptism.
I’m not a person who is naturally acquainted with Children’s songs. My wife Neva grew up around little kids for most of her life, so she’s always surprising me with all these little kids songs that she knows. I basically know two: wheels on buses go round and round, then another one that some of you may know – “Jesus Loves Me.” If you don’t know the words to the latter, it goes something like this:
Jesus loves me, this I know!
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
We are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.
The reason why I sing this song is because it is one of the best ways I know of how to tell my children about the steadfast, covenant love of God. I want our children to know every day that there is a God in heaven who has committed himself to them in love.
As I’ve thought about the song more, I’ve realized that you could actually change the song so it would say something like this:
Jesus Loves Me This I Know
For my Baptism tells me so
You see, baptism is a sign of God’s covenant love; that in Christ he has set his love on us.
We find in the Bible that God relates to his people through covenants. Now the word ‘covenant’ isn’t a word we use very frequently in modern language. But ‘covenant’, in its most basic usage, means an agreement between two parties. An example of a covenant today is marriage. One of the first covenants in the Bible is what we call the Abrahamic covenant, because God makes this agreement with Abraham. We find this covenant in Genesis 17:8-11,
“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
There are a couple things I want to point out from this text. First, who the covenant is for. God says that this covenant isn’t just for Abraham, but it is Abraham and all of his descendants. Second, the covenant contains promises from God to his people. And here we read that those promises are, “I will be your God, I will give you an inheritance, I will be God to your children, and I will give them an inheritance.”
Finally, this covenant was accompanied by a sign. That sign was circumcision. And because the promise was for Abraham and his offspring, both male adults and infants were to receive the sign. It was a sign that pointed to the fact that God has made covenant promises to his people, in love, to be their God.
Now I want you to notice that when God made covenant with Abraham, children of those who professed to follow God were included in the covenant. This is why they too were to be circumcised. So unless God at some point explicitly removes children from that covenant, we must continue to understand that children remain in that covenant.
So unless God at some point explicitly removes children from that covenant, we must continue to understand that children remain in that covenant.
After careful examination, we find throughout the Bible is that there is no place where God removes children from his covenant of grace. In fact it is quite the opposite. As the Scriptures unfold into the New Testament, children of professing Christians are regarded in the same way as they were in the Old Testament. Look with me quickly from the book of Acts. Here, Peter is preaching the resurrection of Jesus Christ and calling on people to repent and trust in Christ. When he is asked by the people how they are to respond, here is what Peter says in Acts 2:38-39,
Repent and be baptized 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. 39 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.
So again, a couple things to notice here. First, Peter’s command is that people trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and that they be baptized. The reason why Peter doesn’t command them to be circumcised is because something significant has happened. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, has come, lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, died the death that we deserved for our sins, and he was raised again to new life. He has freed all who follow him from the power that sin and death had over us.
Jesus ushered in something called the new covenant. The new covenant does not outright replace everything that came before it, but instead it is the climax of the one story that God has been writing since the beginning of time. It’s kind of like those connect the dot pictures: all throughout the Old Testament we see dots being put down, forming one unified story. Jesus comes and completes that story by connecting those dots and filling in the picture that was being drawn all along.
The new covenant does not outright replace everything that came before it, but instead it is the climax of the one story that God has been writing since the beginning of time.
And just like the old covenant which we saw with Abraham, a sign was given to point to the promises, and that sign was baptism. Circumcision was a sign that was given to point forward to Jesus; baptism is a sign that points back to what has been accomplished now by Jesus.
This is why, whether we are talking about the covenant with Abraham, or the new covenant ushered in by Jesus, we speak of them as being under one single covenant of grace. Abraham didn’t earn God’s favor, nor do we. God looks upon his people with love and favor, he pursues them, and he extends his promises to them. His promises reach their peak in Jesus Christ. And when we accept those promises by faith, when we believe those promises to be true for ourselves, we receive the substance of those promises. We get God, and the promise which he made to Abraham long ago – I will be God to you and your descendants – is fulfilled.
Second, notice who Peter says this promise is for. Just like the covenant made with Abraham, Peter says this promise of the New Covenant is for you and your children. We baptize our infants just like we used to circumcise our male infants. In other words, at no point have children been removed from receiving the sign of the covenant grace, but instead their entrance into this covenant is only reaffirmed throughout the whole course of Scripture.
At no point have children been removed from receiving the sign of the covenant grace, but instead their entrance into this covenant is only reaffirmed throughout the whole course of Scripture.
This is why I sing to Felix the way I do. Baptism is not a guarantee that Felix will come to faith, nor is it a sign of his faith. It is a sign given to us in the Bible which tells us that God has extended a special love toward his covenant people, and it is a love that when we receive it by faith, it means we come into possession of God himself – and all of the many blessings that come from him.
One last thing. Peter doesn’t stop with just you and your offspring: he says the promise is for all who are far off, all whom the Lord our God calls to himself. If you’re a witness of this baptism and you have not put your trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, God is calling you to himself. This sign you’re about to see be given to my son is a sign for you: God is extended all of these promises to you. He will be your God. Put your trust in Jesus Christ, so that you too may obtain the substance of all these promises – God himself.
In some forgotten context not long ago I came across the idea that the “promise” of Acts 2:39 is the “promise of the Holy Spirit” of v. 33 and “what My Father has promised” which Jesus would send (hm. filioque?) per Luke 24:49. Sounds friendly enough to the covenant of grace and Abrahamic circumcision (with its figurative and familial extension to regeneration even in Deut. 30:6), but this may nuance discussion.
True enough! The promise is of the Holy Spirit – and what does the Holy Spirit bring us? All the benefits of being “in Christ” and access to God. Therefore, one could say that the promise to Abraham is fulfilled (God becomes our God), in our union with Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is pretty incredible to think about each person of the Trinity and their role in the covenant and our redemption.