With regard to New covenant baptism, Colossians chapter 2:11-13 makes it clear that baptism is the sacrament which corresponds to the new covenant, as circumcision corresponds to the Old covenant. There is a connection between the old covenant sacrament and the new covenant sacrament. Col. 2:11, “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, 12 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.”
It can be clearly seen, through an excursus of the old covenant that God viewed the children of his covenant children, differently than he viewed the non covenant children. If you look at the prototype of Abraham this can be clearly seen. He was commanded to administer the covenant seal (circumcision) to himself after he came to faith as a first generation believer. He was then commanded to administer this same seal to children who belonged to his household even before they were able to articulate “their faith.” (If faith is a trusting and receiving, then infants have faith in their parents; David even says that God “made him to Trust God at his mother’s breast,” Ps. 22:9) Protestants have wrongly exclusivised faith as an intellectual endeavor, when biblically, that is just not the case.)
This solidarity of households (as seen in Abraham’s family) can be seen throughout the old covenant. It establishes the way in which God set his expectations of his covenant people. The children of covenant children were themselves covenant children. They were to be raised as covenant children. They were not given the option of whether they would grow up to become covenant children, they were declared (by God), to be covenant children from the start. Outsiders are called to convert, covenant children are called to work out their salvation in faithfulness to God. This declaration was based, not on their ethnicity, or their bloodline, but on God’s will. His will was to include the children in the covenant to which he called their corresponding parents, as a reflection of who He is, of his nature and character.
Christ, the messiah of Israel, came in to fulfill this Abrahamic covenant. Abraham was to be the father of many nations, not just one nation. In Christ, this covenant was realized, as Gentiles were engrafted into this covenant, and so the single family of God was thus created (which is why when Paul speaks of Justification, he always speaks of Abraham). God, in Christ, was faithful to the original promises that he made to Abraham. Through Christ, God’s promise to Abraham was thus fulfilled.
We see here a significant continuity with the covenant God made with Abraham, and the covenant that now exists in Christ. We are even called the true offspring of Abraham. We are the true Israel. We are the single family which embodies God’s promise to Abraham.
If this is so, then, we have to see a break (a significant break!) in the way God deals with the children of covenant children, if we are to ascribe to the new covenant a different way of rearing and viewing covenant children. Up until the coming of the Messiah of Israel, God included the children of covenant believers in the covenant, and viewed them as covenant members. On what basis can we conclude that in the new covenant God has excluded them?
A look through church history shows that the church, historically, certainly from at least 250A.D., up until the mid 1500s AD, included children of covenant believers and considered them to be “in the covenant.” All of the churches greatest theologians, from Tertullian and Irenaues, to Augustine, and Athanasius, to Anselm, and Martin Luther, from Calvin to Zwingli, to Beza and Melancthon, from Owen to Edwards, all of these theologians spanning over a thousand years, dating back to the earliest part of the church (for which we have records) viewed the children of covenant believers in ways that were established by the Old covenant. This is due to the fact that in the New Testament, there are several texts that demonstrate a continuity of the children’s status in the new covenant, and even an intensification. In reality, we can actually go back to Abraham, and increase this timeline, and say that God has, through his people, established a particular orthodoxy in regards to covenant children and their status that ranges over three thousand five hundred years of covenant history.
What really determines the case, however, is the scriptures. First, let us set his discussion in the historical context:
What follows is the decisive example that should prove the propriety of infant baptism beyond all doubt.
A very strong case that can be made for covenantal reality of the new covenant from Acts 15 where the church deals with the dilemma of the status of Gentiles who are not keeping the Torah. The primary issue is with regard to the Gentiles, and whether or not they should circumcise their children. In Contrast to the Gentiles and circumcision, in Acts 21:17-26 however, Paul was accused falsely, of teaching the Jewish Christians to cease circumcising their infant sons. This is obviously a false accusation that Paul denies. Paul never told Jewish Christians not to circumcise their children; rather, he affirmed the practice. James therefore delivered a plan for Paul to demonstrate that he had not said this, and that he was “walking orderly,” by undertaking a Nazarite vow and doing sacrifices; to which Paul agreed and undertook. Many protestants are unaware of this event and its significance. This event in Acts 21 demonstrates that the Jewish practice of circumcising their infant sons continued as a regular practice of the Jewish Christian church. This is unquestionable. Jewish parents DID NOT begin waiting until their children made a profession of faith before circumcising them. However, circumcision, as a practice mandated for Gentile Christians was fiercely opposed according to Acts chapter 15. The Jews had to be persuaded to accept these Gentile Christians as members of the Abrahamic covenant, even though they were not circumcised. These Christians were accepted into this covenant on the grounds of their baptism, which signified their faith in the Messiah of Israel, in whom Abraham’s family had now been brought to fulfillment. Due to the acceptance of Gentiles and on this basis, there was no longer a distinction between ethnic Jews who trusted Christ and were circumcised, and believing Gentiles who were baptized.
In James chapter 2 James mentions giving out partial treatment within the synagogues. Later in 5:14 James identifies these synagogues as churches. This raises a poignant question. What was the relationship between circumcision and membership in the synagogue. Remember that a Jewish Christian synagogue, and a Gentile ekklesia were the same thing; namely, a local gathering of saints. Which brings us to a question, was the New Testament Jewish synagogues including the Jewish children as members of their ‘church?’ If we say “no,” then we are implying that the apostles should not have permitted the continuation of the circumcision of Jewish infants, seeing as this included them as members. Were the apostles correct in not only permitting, but endorsing such a practice within the new covenant? If we say “yes” then that leaves us with only one conclusion:
“If there was Christian circumcision in the church (and there was), and if there were Christian synagogues (and there were), and if the Christian who went to these synagogues were the same believers who circumcised their sons (and they were), then the necessary conclusion is that we know with certainty that some first century Christian churches had infant members.” (Wilson, 71, 1000 generations).
So believing Jews continued to practice circumcision, which placed their sons into membership in a visible assembly of Christian saints— the Christian synagogue. BUT the Jews were also to be baptized (eph. 4:5; Acts 2:38); and one could argue strongly that the Jews would need to be given explicit instructions to NOT ADMINISTER the new covenant seal to their children (seeing as salvation is of the Jews, and God has been working out his covenant with Abraham which was fulfilled in Christ, God would have to give a clear instruction for the Jews to stop treating their infants like covenant children). So the believing Gentiles had baptism, and the believing Jews had circumcision and baptism. We can therefore see clearly that baptism was intended for both Jew and Gentile. And, we can with certainty say that the first century church included at least some infant members— the circumcised sons of believing Jews. So the Gentiles were being included into fellowship with believing Jews, and we know that Jewish infants were not being excluded.
If we know that the Christian Jews were circumcising their children, and that baptism has the same theological import as circumcision had under the old covenant, we have to answer two questions “were the Jews also baptizing their children?”, and “if the Jews were including their children as members of the church (and they were), were the Gentiles also including their children?” Even if we let the first question lay untouched for a while, and assume the Jews were not baptizing their children there is still a serious dilemma that arises. We know that Gentiles were prohibited from administering circumcision to their children, not because they were children, but precisely because they were Gentiles. So, in the first century church, were the Jews permitted, and even expected to include their infants as members of the church, and the Gentiles expected to exclude their infants as members of the church (creating a dichotomy)? If the Gentiles were expected to wait to baptize their children until after they articulated their faith, then a situation would have immediately arisen where children of Jews would grow up as members of the church (because they had been circumcised), while the children of Gentiles were excluded (because they had not been baptized.) This would have had the opposite effect on the Gentiles and would have pressured them to circumcise their children to include them in the covenant, just as Paul expressly forbade them. Paul, rather emphasized the sign of their unity (baptism), and if Jewish children were included by circumcision (even without baptizing their children), then their children would have still been members of the covenant body, while Gentiles, who could not circumcise their children, would have had to, on that basis exclude their children. This view is untenable. It creates a dichotomy where the Jewish Christian Children are members of the new covenant body, while the Gentile Christian Children are not members of the new covenant body.
The Obvious issue and question in the first century church was NOT “do you mean to tell me that Gentiles were supposed to baptize their infants….where do you find that?” But the question was actually, “do you mean to tell me that the Gentile Christians ARE NOT to circumcise their children and thus include them in the covenant….where do you get that?” That is, it was assumed that something must be done with the infants; because in God’s covenant, something has always had to be done with infants. God’s covenant people have always understood this even from Abraham. This is why it is convincing to say that the Jews would have baptized their children. They would have to have been told not to baptize them; Paul and Peter would have had to explicitly tell them “hey guys, I know God used to include our children in the covenant, but that is not how this covenant works.” Seeing as the Jewish people were God’s chosen people, God established a way of relating to them that if this is to change, it must be instructed. The Jewish Christians, to give an example, continued to pray to the same God, even though they prayed in Jesus’s name to him. I say that to make it obvious, that they were INSTRUCTED BY GOD to treat their children in a particular way. This was not a matter of culture, or personal preference. When Christ comes and inaugurates the new covenant, which brings the Abrahamic covenant to its climax and fulfillment, the Jews would not have instinctively stopped including their children in the covenant. They would have continued to include them! And Paul and Peter would have had to correct them. Alas, Paul and Peter did not. And due to the historical context surrounding Acts 15 and 21, it is most reasonable to suppose that the Jewish people included their children in the covenant like they always have, and that they assumed the new covenant included their children just as the old covenant did (but marking the girls now too), and that they were to baptize their children. Gentile Christians, on the other hand, would not have been permitted to circumcise their children, and in order for there to be a unity in the early church with regard to the status of children born to covenant parents, they would have baptized their children.
We know that Jews included their children in the covenant, if at least by circumcision. The Gentiles would have also included their children; but they could not circumcise them.
Now we can move to more singular examples:
If we say that the new covenant children are not in the covenant, they are not covenant members, then we are saying that they share the same status as non-covenant children. For example, a Muslim parent who has a muslim child, has a child that shares the same covenant status as the new covenant parent’s child, whose parent is in union with Christ. According to Ephesians 2, this means that the new covenant child is a “child of wrath.” They are following the prince of the power of the air. They belong to Satan, and are born in bondage to him.
As a matter of consistency, someone who excludes their children from covenant membership, and declares that their children are not in the covenant, are therefore declaring them to be “under wrath,” and under the dominion of Satan. They are children of their father the devil (John 7).
This is received as repugnant to many new covenant members (and rightly so). However, the moment that they exclude their children from the covenant until a time of intellectual capacity where they become capable of articulating their faith, they are necessarily including their children in a corresponding status. [Calvin’s view of God’s Sovereignty was not at odds with viewing covenant children as covenant members, but was part and parcel of it. For Calvin, it was by God’s will alone that people become covenant members. And, it was by God’s will alone that he chose to include the children of covenant members in the covenant. Baptism, and covenant membership, is not something controlled or created by the church, but by God. If God determines to include the children of the covenant in the covenant, it is a Sovereign determination, that is based on sheer grace, and not anything inherent in the parent’s themselves, but inherent in the graciousness of God and his covenant. The same can be said of Luther. The Reformed heritage passed down to us through Calvin, is a heritage that includes a robust and biblical view of covenant children.]
On the other hand, if one views the solidarity of the covenant God made with Abraham, and the covenant God made in Christ, and that the children of the covenant believers share in covenant benefits with their parents, then the children are not seen as Satan’s children, and children of wrath. They are seen as children of promise, as graciously included int he covenant, and beneficiaries of God’s grace, as followers of Christ, as Spirit filled believers who have been taught by God to trust in Christ even at their mother’s breast (Psalm 22).
Being in the covenant is being in a relationship. As children, we do not say that our children are not yet in a relationship with their parents when they are born because they are not able to articulate that relationship. Parents do not wait for their children to reach a certain age before taking a responsibility for them. Infants have faith in their mother from day one, albeit not a ‘articulated’ faith, but a implicit faith that transcends intelligibility.
As a parent, in terms of child rearing, I teach my child to speak a language in a fascinating way. I talk to him. I talk to him as though he/she understands everything that I am saying. I do not say to my child, “Hayden, you cannot understand anything that I am saying to you, therefore I will not speak with you until you learn how to speak, and at that time I will begin talking to you.” I do not hesitate with the mentality that I will convey to my child that he or she knows how to speak when they in fact do not know how, because as children, treating them like they are capable of speaking is precisely the way in which they learn how.
In a covenant theology, parents are to rear their children by telling what is true about them in light of the new covenant blessings and promises. We are to tell them what Christ has done for them, and and who they are in light of that. We are teach them that their sins are forgiven, that they are in covenant with God, and are therefore responsible to live out their responsibility in faithfulness to this God. The difference being that they are God’s children, God’s covenant children, and they are to be reared in that light. They are not to be taught that they are children of wrath like the rest of mankind, or followers of Satan. They are not to receive God’s favor from the outside as unbelievers, but to continue in the very favor that has saved their parents. This is part and parcel of God’s dealings with his people from the very beginning. God has always given the covenant parents a mandate to train up their children in light of their children’s covenant status.
So do we find an affirmation and intensification of this in the new covenant, or a radical break and withdrawal on the part of God in this regard? There are significant old testament texts which hope for a time where God will renew his covenant with Abraham with a new covenant, in which the prophets said would include promises to the new covenant members and their children. For people who were reared under the old covenant, whose children often strayed and broke their covenant with God, this promise did not imply that God would remove his covenantal favor from the children of his covenant parents, but that he would intensify its reward, and bring gladness from it.
In the new covenant, what sort of attitude do the apostles hold out for the children of the covenant? In Acts 2, Peter preaches a sermon that alludes to the “last days” dawning upon the world. The last days obviously an allusion to the new covenant, and its corollary blessings. Peter then says, 38 And Peter said to them, “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.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”
The question that arises is, “what promise is to the children?” The text from Jeremiah 32 comes to mind: 38 And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them.”
If we bear in mind that Jews are hearing this, we can hear the allusions to the new covenant and its corresponding status given to the new covenant children.
We can go further than this however. Pay close attention to what is said and not said in this passage from Acts 16: 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.
Let me point out several key details: 1. The only one who is said to believe in this passage is the Jailer. 2. He and his household were baptized. 3. The Jailer brought them into his house, and the jailer rejoiced, along with his house that he had believed in God. 4. To repeat point number one, The only person that is said to have believed is the Jailer.
If we take into account that the jailer is the only person who is said to have believed in this passage, and the fact that his whole household was baptized, we have here a case which demonstrates a strong connection to the way in which households operated under the old covenant, and the fact that this household solidarity is not only present in the new covenant, but extended and intensified (including females in addition to the males).
Given the context of the covenant of Abraham, the covenant that christ came to fulfill, it is not hard to see the contextual evidence which supports the covenantal status which extends over the family to which the husband and father is head. See for example Acts 3:25 which says, 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’
It would be difficult, but Can we find even stronger allusions than this? Maybe we can. Consider 1 Corinthians 7: 14 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.
What this text implies, is that the status of the child is affected by the fact that a spouse is a believer, a new covenant believer. And, that this status affects the standing of the child. The child is said to be “holy,” or “set apart,” due to the effect of the believing parent’s status.
What we should see from this is that the children of the covenant parent(s), is affected positively by the faith of the parent. This is not meritorious, or works based. It is sheer grace for God to extend this favor, and it is a reality established by his will alone.
These are the reasons why if we search the salvation history of God’s covenant people, there is virtually no debate as to the propriety of including infants as infants as members of the covenant family of God before 1522 a.d. (and all of the reformers answered with an affirmative “yes, baptism them.) If we set the question in its historical context, then we can see that this was simply the way God had always dealt with his people and their children. It is strange to consider how this rich and glorious aspect of God’s gracious provision has been lost in many of the protestant circles.