If the church is going to get beyond the baptism wars, the whole issue must be reframed. The best minds have gone round and round about credo (believer’s) baptism versus paedo (infant) baptism to the point that we must remember that insanity is defined as doing the same and hoping for a different result. Thus, the following is an attempt to reframe the issue of baptism, which has something to do with covenants.
“Baptism” is used in Scripture in a variety of ways. Sometimes it refers to the ceremony of water applied to people who have confessed faith in Christ as a symbol of their personal commitment to Christ and their entry into the fellowship of the church. Most denominations require baptism as a requirement of membership. Other times “baptism” refers to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers that indicates covenantal identity (1 Cor. 10 — baptism into Moses’ covenant). And Peter notes that the result of Spirit baptism is a clear conscience, which is a product of regeneration and repentance. We must not deny or downplay these meanings and prefer to narrowly define “baptism” merely as a water ceremony. I am suggesting that the reality that the ceremony typifies the actual change of heart that the Spirit causes, and is the reality of “baptism,” where the ceremony is merely the sign/symbol. So, “baptism” in its fullest meaning is equivalent to conversion, the getting of the new heart that water baptism only symbolizes. Because water baptism symbolizes the conversion process, and it is a process, “baptism” in this fullest sense is also a process.
We believe in the Trinity, right? And the Trinity is a biblical construct. The word “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture. The full meaning of baptism is also constructed from the whole Bible and the arc of the covenant story, and is just as biblical — even more so — than a proof text because it is in harmony with the entire biblical narrative.
The problem that fuels the baptism wars is differing covenant definitions. Allow me to briefly explain what I believe to be the biblical understanding of God’s covenant.
The idea of the covenant begins with Adam and is applied to all humanity. That’s important. The basic idea is: This tree good, that tree bad. Don’t eat from bad tree. Oops, you eat from bad tree, get curse. That’s it. The original covenant was a proscription regarding behavior (obedience) with consequences for compliance and for noncompliance. This too is important. Remember also that all of the covenants build upon one another, stone upon stone. The newer covenants tweak the older ones. They do not replace one another.
The Mosaic covenant provided God’s law, the Ten Commandments. Notice the similarity to the Adamic Covenant, but now God has graciously spelled out in more detail what is required for compliance.
The basic elements of the Mosaic Covenant are clarified in the Deuteronomic Covenant found in Deuteronomy 28. The covenant at this point is: 1) obedience brings God’s blessings, 2) disobedience brings God’s curses. So simply being in or under the covenant is not a guarantee of one’s obedience or salvation. Rather, being under the covenant places an obligation of obedience upon the individual. Being under the covenant means that there are consequences (blessings or cursings) for our behavior.
Being under the covenant means that the reception of God’s blessings is dependent upon obedience. And the failure to obey results in the curse of damnation. Everyone is included because everyone will ether obey or not. This is the Old Covenant under construction, but it is eternal. It cannot be rescinded and is still in force. The Abrahamic covenant then introduced circumcision as the sign of the covenant, and put all Jewish males under the obligation to live in obedience to God.
The symbolism was that Israel belonged to God and was, therefore, under His covenant. One of the things they needed to do to be obedient was to circumcise all of their male children on the eight day, as infants, demonstrating that they were under God’s covenant. So, the Jews did not have a choice to make about believing in God. Rather, obedience was their concern. This is why the Jews did what they did and believe as they believe.
The Abrahamic covenant also introduced the idea of grace (Isaac’s salvation from being sacrificed because God provided a substitute). The covenant itself is always a gift of God’s grace, yet circumcision was based on blood (birth, genetics). Paul clarifies these issues in the New Testament. David’s covenant brought civil government into the mix. But still, the basic idea remained the same: obey and be blessed or disobey and be cursed. The grace was that God freely gave the law, which provided a way to avoid the curse.
This is the covenant that Jesus fulfilled by His obedience. He then used the merit of His successful obedience to purchase the forgiveness of who those would follow Him. He fulfilled the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant is really the same covenant idea (it’s eternal) that obedience merits blessing and disobedience merits cursing — except that Jesus did the obedience part on behalf of His people and received God’s curse of death in order that His people would be free from the curse and could “start clean,” so to speak. The New Covenant might be better described as the Renewed Covenant, and as with all covenant extensions there are some changes. The changes do not change the essential structure of the covenant, though the covenant fulfilled functions somewhat differently than the covenant unfulfilled.
Christ pressed the reset button and time began again with year zero, humanity had a second chance. But another thing happened, too. Christ made it clear that God’s covenant, from the time of Adam, had always been intended for the whole world (all humanity), not just Israel. Thus, it went out to the Gentiles (other nations) and into the whole world.
John The Baptist
The transitional figure linking the Old Testament and the New Testament was John the Baptist. John introduced the idea of covenant renewal to the Jews in Jerusalem and the symbol of that renewal was baptism. Jesus didn’t introduce baptism, John did, and it was for the Jews. John’s ministry was to and for the Jews because John was heralding the arrival of the Jewish Messiah. John also said that his water baptism was nothing compared to the Spirit baptism which the Messiah would bring (and fire baptism but that will take us far afield). Jesus, a Jew, agreed with the idea of covenant renewal, so He submitted to John’s baptism and its symbolism. Thus, the sign of covenant renewal in Christ also became baptism, which replaced the sign of the original covenant, which had been circumcision. The symbol was replaced because the covenant was replaced (renewed, tweaked). It is a much better covenant in many ways (See Hebrews.)
The idea of the New Covenant is that the merit of Jesus’ obedience and sacrifice, which satisfied God’s demands, was sufficient for the whole world and would ultimately be applied to the whole world, beginning with Jerusalem and extending to Judea, to Samaria and to the whole world. God’s new promise of covenant renewal in Christ still involves covenant stipulations because that’s what a covenant is by definition. The old stipulations (Old Testament) were still in place–obey and be blessed, disobey and be cursed. But the new stipulations involved faith in the efficacy of Christ’s obedience. If people would simply believe in Christ as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament they could come under the blessings that were secured by Christ.
Personal Faith or Belief
So, against the backdrop of the Old Covenant (blessings or curses) the stipulation of receiving blessings under Christ’s covenant is personal belief or faith. But what is that? Well, it involves a decision/confession, but is much more than that. It is a life of biblical faithfulness to Jesus Christ. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. John’s baptism does in fact symbolize entry into the blessings of covenant renewal, but when does one’s relationship with God’s covenant begin? Arminians say that it begins with our decision for Christ. Calvinists say that it begins with God before time, at least before our birth.
John’s baptism was for Jews who were anticipating covenant renewal. When Jesus was baptized that anticipation ended. Jesus ended the anticipation of Old Covenant renewal and Messianic hope by inaugurating the fulfillment of that covenant renewal. John’s baptism symbolized the conversion of Jews. It was for backsliding Jews who were coming back to the faith, but who were coming, not to the Old Covenant but to the New (the Renewed Covenant in Christ). The Jewish custom was to immerse converts/backsliders, which John did as a way of establishing some continuity with the Old Covenant. That was John’s baptism.
Apostolic baptism (if I may coin a phrase, is baptism by the apostles–Christian baptism) symbolizes the conversion of the Gentiles because it is for the whole world. And the symbolism of that baptism reaches back to the Adamic Covenant, to creation–and even before time (Ephesians 1:4). The symbolism of Apostolic baptism points to the helplessness of humanity in sin and the gracious gift of God’s covenant. In Christ God has imposed His Renewed Covenant upon the whole world as it was imposed upon Jewish males through circumcision.
Thus, the sign of the Renewed Covenant is Christian or Apostolic baptism (differentiated from John’s baptism, but not separate from it–signifying both continuity and discontinuity) because in Christ God is imposing His Renewed Covenant upon all the earth. This does not mean that God intends to save everyone. Obviously, all people are not saved. Some people go to hell. But why do they go to hell? This is important! They go to hell because of the disobedience stipulation of the original covenant, which is still in effect though it has been changed to disbelief (which always manifests in disobedience).
When Christ was given all authority on earth and in heaven, His covenant became in effect for all the earth and heaven. At that point every living soul came under the stipulations of the Renewed Covenant, and if someone failed to meet thee stipulations of the New Covenent, the stipulations of the original covenant are still in effect. In other words, God’s curse is in effect everywhere that the grace of Jesus Christ has not annulled it (Joy To The World!). So, the refusal or denial of Christ’s grace always means the personal embrace of God’s curse, whether such is acknowledged or not. Why? Because God’s covenant has actually applied to all the earth since Adam, and certainly to every living soul since Christ.
However, people (Gentiles) don’t realize that they are under it unless they are informed. So, Renewed Covenant Christians began baptizing their infants as a reminder and as an instrument of pedagogy (teaching) in order to demonstrate to their children (and the watching world) that they are obligated to Jesus Christ by God’s decree because they are alive. And whoever refuses that obligation is necessarily subject to God’s curse. Thus, baptizing infants does actually do something: it reminds people that God is sovereign and that we are all obligated to God–not that baptized people have a guarantee of salvation.
Baptizing (not infants in a generic way) but baptizing one’s own children is done as an act of faith in God’s promise of the ultimate extent of the gospel as it goes into all the earth. Baptism is (should be) used by the parents to instruct their children about God’s Renewed Covenant in Christ and the necessity of personal faith, and the advantages of Christ’s graceful sacrifice–and the consequences of personal faithlessness (curses).
Thus, infant baptism places the obligation of personal obedience squarely upon the child. If you have children when you come to faith, you are to baptize them, and every child born to you from that time forward, in obedience to the stipulations of the gospel in order to provide an object lesson about Jesus Christ and how He has fulfilled God’s covenant for the whole world.
This way people know that they have an obligation to live in faith by the grace of God in Christ, and they know the consequences of faithlessness. They know that they are under God’s covenant, not by any decision that they have made, but because they are human beings.