Thursday, March 5, 2020

Baptism and God's Covenant

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the covenant that God makes with his people (see here). Another aspect of this covenant is that it is confirmed by sacraments. The sacraments are like God’s handshake, a concrete act which seals the deal.

Even in the covenant of works, God gave Adam and Eve the tree of life to represent the promise of life. In the old administration of the covenant of grace, God immediately established sacrifices as a sign and seal of his promise of redemption. In particular, God established the Passover, a sacrificial meal, when he delivered his people from Egypt. Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as the sacramental meal of the new covenant. This is one type of sacrament, in which covenant members renew the covenant, doing it repeatedly throughout their life.

The other kind of sacrament brings people into the covenant community, confirming their entrance and distinguishing them from the outside. Noah’s ark can be thought of in this way, as a type of baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). In that case, God distinguished his people from others by eliminating all others. But it is with Abraham, as he was called out to serve God among idolatrous nations, that God gave a clear and regular sign of membership in the covenant: circumcision.

Circumcision was the sign of the covenant before Christ came (Gen. 17:10-12). It was a sign which served as a seal of the righteousness which was possessed by faith (Rom. 4:11). It represented conversion, cleansing, and repentance (Deut. 10:16, 30:6). It marked a person as an heir of the Abrahamic promise of blessing through the promised seed, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:8, 16). It was given to believers and their household, even to eight-day old infants (Gen. 17:12, Exod. 12:48) - being given only to male believers and male children due to the nature of the sign being used.

Baptism is the sign of the covenant now that Christ has come. Just as Jesus replaced the Passover (and other sacrificial meals) with the bloodless and more clear sign of the Lord’s Supper, so he replaced circumcision with bloodless Trinitarian baptism - distinguishing the new administration from the old (Matt. 28:18-20). In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul teaches that Christians have the substance of circumcision - death to the old nature and new life through union with Christ - and that the external sign of this internal work is now baptism.

And so who ought to be baptized? Since God makes his covenant with believers and their children, welcoming believers and their children into his church, so believers and their children ought to be baptized (see my earlier post on this point). Since in the Old Testament the sign of entrance into the covenant was given to believers and their children, so in the New Testament baptism ought to be given to believers and their children.

Just as circumcision was a sign of benefits which were received by faith and was nevertheless applied to the infants of believers before they could express their faith, so baptism is a sign of benefits which are received by faith and is nevertheless applied to the infants of believers before they can express their faith.

What does baptism mean for the infants of believers? It means the same thing as it does to adult believers. They bear the name of God, they have been called out of the world, they are disciples of Christ, his benefits are theirs, and they are his, provided they keep the covenant through faith in him. It means they are visible saints, having the identity of Christians rather than pagans, to be treated as such, with hope and charity, as brothers and sisters.

Baptism is not a guarantee of salvation if it is without true faith, as you can see with the circumcised and “baptized” Israelites in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-14) and Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-24). And so parents ought to be diligent in bringing up their children in the ways of the Lord, in the knowledge that God uses the instrumentality of parents to raise up another generation to serve him (Gen. 18:19, Eph. 6:4). And all the church, of whatever age, ought to be exhorted to repent and believe in Christ, living in accord with their baptism and embracing its promise.

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