There are people who have wanted me to write a series on this issue. I’m afraid I am going to disappoint them; I believe the matter of who we should baptize is fundamentally a very simple one; far too many words have been wasted complicating it; thus I am going to focus quite relentlessly on the key question which decides the outcome of all the others.
Here it is:
Who is a member of the new covenant?
This is what it all boils down to, because there is one overriding axiom with which all Christians—or all that I’ve spoken with and read on this matter—agree:
The sign of a covenant should only be given to members of that covenant.
If you disagree with this axiom there is little I can say to you; but if you agree with it, then there is little else we need to worry about. The question of what continuities and discontinuities exist between the various old covenants and the new one, between circumcision and baptism, and so on, are all very interesting, but completely beside the point. The question is as simple as determining the qualifications for membership in the new covenant, and giving the sign of that covenant—baptism—to only those people who qualify.
Is that believers only? Or do infants qualify too?
It is a very easy question to answer:
31 “Look, the days are coming”—a declaration of Yahweh—“and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors on the day of my grasping them by their hand, bringing them out from the land of Egypt; my covenant that they themselves broke, though I myself was a master over them”—a declaration of Yahweh. 33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—a declaration of Yahweh: “I will put my law in their inward parts, and on their hearts I will write it, and I will be to them God, and they themselves will be to me people. 34 And they will no longer teach each one his neighbor, or each one his brother, to say, ‘Know Yahweh’—for all of them will know me, from their smallest and up to their greatest”—a declaration of Yahweh—“for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will no longer remember.” Jeremiah 31:31-34
Here Yahweh promises to make a new covenant with his people—the covenant we are currently under. It will be different to the old one because:
- The people it is made with will not break it;
- They will not break it because they will all know Yahweh—that is, they will all have an intimate relational knowledge of him apart from human teaching (the same kind of “knowing” we find in Matthew 7:23).
How is it that the members of this covenant will “know” Yahweh in this way? Ezekiel 11:19–20 explains:
And I will give to them one heart, and a new spirit I will giver in their inner parts. And I will remove their heart of stone from their body, and I will give to them a heart of flesh, so that they may walk in my statutes, and they will keep my regulations, and they will do them, and they will be to me a people, and I myself will be to them as God. Ezekiel 11:19–20
This promise is reiterated in Ezekiel 36:24–27, and alluded to in John 6:44–45:
No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who hears from the Father and learns comes to me. John 6:44–45
Being drawn by God is an allusion to Jeremiah 31:3, which frames the passage about the new covenant later in that chapter. Being taught by God is a direct reference to Isaiah 54:13, but is also a clear allusion to Jeremiah 31:33–34—the covenant people of God do not need to be taught by men in Jeremiah 31:34 because they have been taught by God.
I trust I don’t need to labor the obvious point: Those who are drawn by God, taught by God, and come to God, are taught, drawn, and come through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Ezekiel 36:27 explicitly says that God’s Spirit will reside in their hearts. To paraphrase into more familiar theological language, they are regenerated, gifted with faith, and respond in love.
They are, in other words, believers.
According to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the new covenant is made with these people, and only with these people. Covenant members kept breaking the old covenant. The new covenant is not like that. That’s because while membership in the old covenant was by birth, membership in the new covenant is by rebirth—and you can’t be spiritually “unborn”. You can’t break the new covenant because the new covenant is the one in Jesus’s blood—the one where God covenants to save you if you accept Jesus’ work on your behalf. And accepting that work is a gift of the Spirit, which is not a gift you can return.
(If you’re not a Calvinist, this is all going to fall apart on you; but if you’re not a Calvinist, hiccups over covenant theology are not your biggest problems.)
Broadly speaking, everyone physically descended from Abraham was given the sign of the old covenant, because the old covenant was a covenant of physical descent and physical blessings. That’s why its sign was placed on the generative organ. By the same token, everyone spiritually descended from Abraham is given the sign of the new covenant, because the new covenant is a covenant of spiritual descent and spiritual blessings. That’s why its sign is a metaphor for the Spirit’s work in washing away sin.
Put in very simple terms:
The qualification for membership in the new covenant is the indwelling Spirit causing regeneration and faith.
That is why the Spirit is called a seal and a guarantee (2 Corinthians 1:21–22; Ephesians 1:14; 4:30; Romans 8:16). The new covenant comes with a promised inheritance. Every member of the new covenant is an heir to the promise. Every member of the new covenant receives the Spirit as a seal of the promise. Anyone who has not received the Spirit is not an heir to the promise. Anyone who is not an heir to the promise is not a member of the new covenant. That’s because while the inheritance of the old covenant was the land of Israel, the inheritance of the new covenant is the land of heaven. Those in the new covenant are those who are going to heaven.
So who should we baptize?
Easy. People who qualify for membership in the covenant. That is, people who are temples of the Holy Spirit. People who are regenerate, have faith, and love God.
In other words, we should baptize believers, and only believers.
But what about…
In one sense, there is no “but” here. The logic is simple and airtight. If our axiom is right—we should only apply the sign of the covenant to members of the covenant—and if the Bible says unequivocally that only those who are indwelt by the Spirit are members of the covenant, then whatever you think other passages are saying, they cannot be saying we should baptize infants, since we have no way of knowing whether any particular infant is regenerate. Indeed, if you didn’t already have the notion of infant baptism in yer noggin, you wouldn’t find it in any other passages—it literally is not there.
That said, we should at least have a response to pedobaptist arguments. So let me briefly canvass four of the main reasons pedobaptists most commonly give for baptizing babies:
1. The Bible models entire households being baptized
Pedobaptists appeal to the example of Lydia, of whom Acts 16:15 records, “she was baptized, and her household as well.” So, the argument goes, everyone who was under the “covenant head” of that household received the sign of the covenant. This would have included young children, if she had any.
Ignoring that this is simply incoherent in light of how membership in the new covenant works, and ignoring that it’s an argument from silence since we don’t know if Lydia had young children—and probably did not given that she appeared to have no husband and traveled 300 miles from her hometown on business—let’s suppose she did and see how this hermeneutic works when applied to other passages about households.
- In Acts 16:31, Paul and Silas tell the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (cf. Acts 11:14). Do pedobaptists think that the faith of the “covenant head” saves everyone under him? Obviously not. Salvation is by personal faith; not vicarious faith. And indeed, the very next verses record that “they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house…and he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:32–33). But if pedobaptists can recognize that the unconditional language of the salvation of a household is implicitly conditioned on a response of faith, why can’t they recognize that the unconditional language of the baptism of a household is implicitly conditioned on a response of faith?
- Paul instructed Timothy to “greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus” (2 Timothy 4:19). Was Timothy expected to greet the babies too? Or are we supposed to infer that since that would be silly, therefore Onesiphorus certainly had no babies? Obviously neither—when one writes such things, one does not intend to include those who are obviously excluded by implication; neither does one expect one’s reader to be so incompetently wooden that he can’t conceive of implicit exceptions. Such “exegesis” is the kind of embarrassing bunglefest we expect from village atheists.
- By the same token, Paul notes that he “did baptize also the household of Stephanas” (1 Corinthians 1:16)—and he mentions that, “the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (1 Corinthians 16:15). Did the babies convert? Are the babies devoting themselves to the service of the saints? Alternatively, is it impossible that Stephanas had babies, since that would make Paul’s comments false? Again, obviously not; to make such inferences is simply embarrassingly incompetent. Even in our low-context culture, we recognize obvious implicit exceptions. In the high-context culture of Paul’s time, it would have been taken for granted that he wasn’t talking about every single member of the household without exception. But then there is no reason whatsoever to imagine the same is not true of Lydia’s household, supposing she had children.
2. The promise is “for you and your children”
Peter, addressing the Jews at Pentecost, told them:
38 “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.” Acts 2:38–39
Pedobaptists argue that since baptism is part of the promise made in verse 38, and Peter explicitly says that children are included in that promise in verse 39, therefore we should baptize children.
There are several points of confusion in this analysis:
- Firstly, the promise is not a promise of baptism; it is the promise of forgiveness for sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Secondly, this being the case, there is an obvious and elementary distinction between who the promise is for, and who the promise is to. The promise is for everyone (John 3:16 is an obvious example)—which is why God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), and why Peter uses a merism to emphasize that he isn’t just offering a particular solution to the particular problem of these particular Jews, which was that they had crucified Jesus. But the promise is not to everyone—it is only to those with faith (Hebrews 6:12).
- This is obvious when you consider that Peter draws no divide between the children and those far off. His point is not that we should baptize children and those far off—which pedobaptists notably do not do—but that we should preach the gospel to them!
3. “Your children are holy”
Paul explains to the Corinthians:
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. 1 Corinthians 7:14
This is, very puzzingly, perhaps the most commonly-cited passage by pedobaptists. To be “holy” is obviously not synonymous with being regenerate here, since the exact scenario Paul is speaking to is a case of an unregenerate spouse. The word “holy” simply means set apart; the Greek word is hagazio, which while obscured in English translations, Paul uses earlier in 1 Corinthians 1:2; 3:17; 6:1, 2, 11 to refer to the way the Corinthian believers are set apart from their pagan environment. Obviously an unbelieving spouse and the child of a believer are set apart in a notable sense by being in the believer’s family. But how would this suggest they are included in the covenant?
The real kicker for pedobaptists here is how comically inconsistent they are in applying this passage. On the one hand, they say we should baptize children, since the children are made holy. On the other hand, they don’t think we should baptize the unbelieving spouses of believers—even though the primary focus of this passage is that the spouses are made holy! But if being made holy is equivalent to covenant inclusion, and if household baptisms involved everyone in the family, shouldn’t pedobaptists at least try to baptize unbelieving spouses?
4. If it’s okay to baptize unregenerate adults, it’s okay to baptize unregenerate infants
This is a particularly odd argument. The basic objection is that since credobaptists sometimes baptize people who later fall away, credobaptism fails to meet its own standard, by applying the sign of the covenant to non-covenant members. Therefore, if it is okay to baptize those we have a reasonable expectation are regenerate as adults, we should also baptize those we have a reasonable expectation are regenerate as infants.
But this is an obvious category error. We have no such reasonable expectation of infants, since infants cannot evidence regeneration! Faith is the only outward mark of covenant membership—and infants cannot exercise faith. Even if the children of believers more commonly become believers, and even if we have much hope in the mercy of God and his honoring of familial lines, we have no expectation that our children are covenant members. We simply don’t know. Moreover, if covenant membership is by knowing God and being taught by him, how could infants be included?
We can only give the sign of the covenant to people who, so far as we can tell, qualify as covenant members, and can qualify as covenant members—namely, those who make credible professions of faith. What else could we do? Obviously we shouldn’t give the sign of the covenant to people who don’t appear to be covenant members (namely young children and unbelievers). And the fact that we sometimes misidentify people as covenant members, so they later turn out not to be (cf 1 John 2:19), hardly invalidates the principle of trying to identify them.
If we knew the heart as God did, we could avoid ever baptizing the unregenerate. But since we don’t have that ability, we rely on the outward signs as best we can. The fact that some people trample the Son of God underfoot and profane the blood of the covenant is hardly a reason for us not to baptize those who profess Jesus as lord and savior. If they profess falsely, that’s on them—not us. We can only do our best to faithfully identify those who are true believers, and obediently baptize them to the exclusion of all others.