Lately I have been listening to the lectures of Dr. Kim Riddlebarger on Amillennialism, and I can say without qualification that I have thoroughly enjoyed his teachings on eschatology, the Kingdom of God, redemptive history, etc. However, Riddlebarger, being the good Reformed theologian that he is, is convinced from Reformed teaching and tradition that the ordinance of baptism (or sacrament in his understanding) is rightly administered to the infants of parents in the Reformed church. And while I take little issue with his stance on infant baptism (paedobaptism henceforth), other than the fact that I disagree with him, he has at points in his lectures made blanket statements concerning Baptists, expressly that all Baptists by necessity (because they do not practice paedobaptism) do not and cannot see continuity in the Covenants of God and therefore are all to some degree Dispensationalists.
While I must sympathize with Riddlebarger to an extent, because a great majority of Baptists are to some degree Dispensationalists (whether they are so by choice or by ignorance), his blanket statement that Baptists cannot hold to a Covenant view of Redemption is simply false. We who are Reformed Baptists do in fact hold fast to Covenant Theology, for we do believe, as do our Reformed paedobaptist brethren, that the covenantal understanding of Redemptive History is the proper way to understand the Scriptures and God’s plan to the bring the Nations to himself. And I will argue, contrary to Riddlebarger’s assertion, that Reformed Baptists are credobaptists and not paedobaptists precisely because of Covenant Theology.
However, before I begin, I would like to qualify the importance of the mode of baptism with regard to fellowship among the saints. Many if not most Reformed Baptists are not like most Baptists in that they do not view the mode of baptism as an issue of primary importance. To put it positively, many Reformed Baptists are happy to and often do fellowship with Reformed paedobaptists, because they both share the same Gospel, for both look upon the mode of baptism as a sign and seal of the Promise of God, and therefore both do not associate any salvific merit to the waters of baptism. Therefore, since Reformed Baptists and Reformed paedobaptists both believe wholeheartedly and unabashedly that salvation is by grace alone through a faith in Christ alone that is not meritorious but is a gift and the creation of the Spirit of God, we can commune together, preach and teach together, learn from one another, evangelize together, do missions together, and build churches together. Therefore, my treatment of Reformed Baptists and Covenant Theology here is not meant to create or further perpetuate dividing lines between two groups who preach the same Gospel, but it is to clarify some misunderstandings that seem to exist.
While for the sake of length I cannot go into full treatment of Covenant Theology, I do think that is necessary to create a working understanding of what Covenant Theology is. The Covenant theologian believes that the Scriptures attest to a God who makes covenants with his creatures, and it is through these covenants that God relates to his people and reveals himself to them.
Covenant Theology acknowledges that there a numerous covenants that God makes with his creatures (e.g. the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, etc.), but when he looks upon all these covenants he recognizes that there are essentially only two types of covenants that God makes with his creatures–Covenants of Work or Covenants of Grace. Those covenants that fall under what is the called the Covenant of Works are those where God makes a covenant with his creatures and the covenant blessing is given to the creature if he keeps the covenant, but the covenant curse is exacted upon the creature if he does not keep the covenant’s stipulations. One example of a Covenant of Works is what is commonly called the Covenant of Creation where God covenants with Adam that he will die if eats from the Tree of Knowledge, and positively, he will live if he does not. The covenant thus is contingent upon the recipient keeping his end of agreement, and in Adam’s case, that agreement being not eating from the Tree.
A Covenant of Grace however is a covenant where God, the Creator of the covenant, keeps all of the stipulations of the covenant. In other words, a Covenant of Grace is a Covenant affixed with a Promise, and God is both the one who initiates the covenant and fulfills its requirements. The most notable of this kind of covenant is the covenant that God made with Abram that he would be father of Nations and would inherit the world (cf. Rm. 4:14). At the initiation of this covenant, God appears to Abram in a dream and depicts himself as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch that passes alone through divided animal carcasses (cf. Gen. 15:17-21). The message to Abram is this: If I, the Lord God, do not fulfill my Covenant with you, may the curse that was brought upon these rent animal carcasses fall upon me. God, in other words, promises to fulfill all of the requirements to bring this Covenant about for Abram, and Abram merely believes upon God and his Promise.
Now, though there are several of these Covenants of Works and Covenants of Grace stated throughout the Scripture, each subsequent covenant is not a new covenant but is a recapitulation of the covenant that preceded it. In other words, the Covenant of Grace promised to Abraham is followed by other additions to the Covenant of Grace (e.g. the Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant), but these added Covenants of Grace are not new covenants that replace the Abrahamic Covenant, but they are a fleshing out and a recapitulation of it. For this reason, when Gentiles are by faith brought under Christ in the New Covenant that is in his blood (cf. Lk. 22:20), these Gentiles who have no physical ties with Abraham are called “sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would heir of the world was not a promise confined to national and physical Israel, but it is granted to all who believe in God’s Promise. Therefore, God’s covenant with Abraham is never rescinded, but it expounded upon, illuminated by, and consummated in Jesus Christ.
Now when we come to the Covenant of Works, the chief example in Scripture is the Mosaic Covenant, i.e. the laws given by God to Moses to govern Israel. In the Mosaic Covenant, God promises to national Israel that he will give them the land of Canaan as their possession provided they keep the covenant given to them by Moses, and if they did not keep the Covenant, they would be cast out of the land that was promised to them. Now, it is important to note, as John Sailhamer observed, that the laws of the Mosaic Covenant were not given to Israel in one lump, but they were given at different intervals.1 The first set given was the Decalogue (or the Ten Commandments), and these were the laws that Israel was to keep in order to inherit the land. However, soon after God gave these commandments, Israel fell into idolatry at the incident of the golden calf, and God in his mercy, instead of withdrawing the Covenant, reforged it with more commandments, i.e. the Priestly Code (cf. Ex. 35-Lev. 16). Even after this, Israel broke God’s Covenant again by sacrificing to goat idols (cf. Lev. 17:1-9), and God again, instead of annulling the Covenant, adding more laws in the Holiness Code (cf. Lev. 17-26).2 Thus Sailhamer concludes, “There is an ever-increasing cycle of disobedience and the addition of more laws.”3 Thus, the apostle Paul’s conclusion about the law is validated, viz. “Now the law came in to increase the trespass” (Rm. 5:21), and, “Did that which is good (i.e. the law) then bring death to me? By no means, it was sin producing death in me through what is good, in order than sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become commandment might become sinful beyond measure” (Rm. 7:13).
And as we all know, Israel failed to keep God’s Covenant again and again, and was thus cast out the land, and in God’s mercy, was brought back to the land, and finally, after rejecting God’s Son, was utterly cast out of the land and dispersed among the Nations. Israel could not keep the Covenant of Works given to them through Moses, and as a result, they did not inherit Canaan.
The Covenants and Baptism
How all these things relate to Christian baptism and the seal of the Covenant of Grace inaugurated in Christ through his blood and at his ascension and through the pouring out of the Spirit in the New Covenant is a rather complex issue. Paedobaptists rightly observe that there is continuity between God’s Covenant with Abraham and the New Covenant and also rightly recognize that when God had made his Covenant with Abraham that Abraham was circumcised as a “seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (Rm. 4:11). These also rightly recognize that in the Mosaic Covenant that it was required that all male children in national Israel be circumcised on the eighth day as a seal of their subjection under the Mosaic Covenant. These therefore conclude that since Abraham was circumcised as a seal under the Covenant that would in turn be consummated in the New Covenant that the children of Christians, i.e. those raised in the church, should likewise be baptized as those who were circumcized under the Mosaic Covenant.
The error in such a conclusion is that it fails to understand that once the sign of circumcision was incorporated into the Mosaic Covenant that it ceased to be the pure seal of righteousness secured by faith alone (as was in Abraham’s case), but it became to the circumcised one the full yoke of the Mosaic Covenant. In other words, when God commanded that every Jew be circumcised to mark them under God’s covenant with Moses, it ceased to be the covenant symbol under the Covenant of Grace. It is for these reason that the prophets foretold a new sign that would come with the New Covenant that would be the pouring out or the sprinkling of the cleansing water of the Spirit (cf. Ez. 36:24-28), and why Peter, in his address to the church council, opposed the Circumcision Party because their insistence that the Gentiles be circumcised brought upon them the entire weight of the Mosaic Covenant. There Peter says, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke [by circumcision] on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Likewise, Paul testifies against circumcision, “I say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (Gal. 5:2). Therefore, the sign of circumcision of infants under the Mosaic Covenant cannot be equated with the sign of circumcision given to Abraham after he had been counted righteous by faith (cf. Rm. 4:9-12).
Furthermore, to validate paedobaptism by Covenant Theology necessitates that the paedobaptist perform a sort of doublespeak with regard to the continuity of the covenants. Though I am not sure this is always the case with all paedobaptists, I can account for it in the lectures of Riddlebarger where he at one point in his lecture will divorce the Mosaic Covenant from the Abrahamic Covenant stating rightly that the covenant given to Moses was that of works and the covenant given to Abraham was that of grace, and then at another point in his lecture will say that there is continuity between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant for the sake of justifying paedobaptism. My question to him is, “Which is it?” Is the covenant with Moses that of works or is it that of grace? Is there continuity between them or is there not?” Now, it cannot be denied that the Mosaic Covenant is full of types and shadows of Christ and the New Covenant, but can we say that the Mosaic Covenant is a recapitulation of the New Covenant as the Abrahamic Covenant is–the Mosaic Covenant being to the apostle to the Hebrews the Old Covenant that is “becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away”? (Heb. 8:13). The Abrahamic Covenant certainly is not old and vanishing, but the Mosaic Covenant is, therefore how can we continue to perpetuate that which has been made obsolete by practicing paedobaptism?
The Reformed Baptist, on the other hand, sees (and I believe rightly) that there is continuity between the Covenants of Grace from the protoevangelion in Genesis 3:15, through the Abrahamic Covenant, expounded upon by the Davidic Covenant, and consummated in the New Covenant through Christ. Thus, when the Reformed Baptist looks upon the administration of the New Covenant seal of baptism, he does not look to the Mosaic Covenant, but he looks through the lens of the Abrahamic Covenant and the writings of the apostles. Thus, through both lens, we see testified in the life of Abraham that the seal of the Covenant of Grace is administered after he is counted righteous by faith (cf. Rm. 4:11), and it is the disciples (i.e. those who had believed and obeyed the commandments of Christ) who were to be baptized (cf. Mt. 28:19). The Reformed Baptist also sees clearly that there is no command or explicit instance of infants being baptized in the New Testament and therefore concludes that since the New Covenant is only established with those who have faith (cf. Gal. 3:7), then it is they alone who received the seal of the Covenant.
I know that in writing this I likely would not have persuaded a paedobaptist to turn to credobaptism, however, I hope that I have at least dispelled the ridiculous notion that all Baptists are by necessity Dispensationalists and opposed to Covenant Theology. I love you, my paedobaptist brothers, even though I believe that you are wrong in your administration of baptism.;) Grace and peace.
1John Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, p. 45.
2Ibid., p. 46.
3Ibid., p. 46.