Upon the post on Why I am a Reformed Baptist and not a Presbyterian, the question was raised, viz. “If we as Reformed Baptists, because of our understanding of the covenants and Covenant Theology, do not baptize infants, when then is the covenant sign of baptism rightly administered?” An excellent question, I might add, and I promise you that if you were to gather together a group of Baptists and ask them that same question, the result could be likened to that of UFC fight. Believe me, I have seen it before.
To appreciate the differences of opinion within Baptist circles on the proper time to administer the sign of baptism, you would have to understand the diversity within those who are labeled Baptists. To put it succinctly, imagine it this way: If you were to throw all of the Methodist denominations and all of the Presbyterian denominations into a single denomination and labeled it Paedobaptists and were to force them to work together and to throw money into a single pot, you would begin to see a bit of the diversity that exists among those who call themselves Baptists. Anyone who believes in believer’s baptism is a Baptist, be he a Calvinist or an Arminian, Reformed or Dispensational, an advocate of an elder-ruled church government or of congregation-ruled, alcohol connoisseur or teetotaler, etc., and it is for this reason that nobody cares to go to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention unless it is known beforehand that something like Calvinism or alcohol is going to be discussed, and then members flock to it by the droves. It is sort of like looking at a wreck; you know that you shouldn’t, but you just can’t help yourself.
I say this because I know beforehand that there is going to be some Baptists and perhaps some Reformed Baptists who disagree with me on this subject. And I obviously believe my view is biblical and therefore right, but so does Joe Blo Anabaptistlover down in Dallas. So then, I will attempt to draw my argument from what I said in the previous post, because that would be the most faithful and consistent way to deal with topic.
The Covenant Sign and Its Administration
It is important to understand what baptism is before we speak on its proper administration. Baptism by water, that which we simply call baptism, is a sign and a seal of the New Covenant after Christ’s ascension. We see this in the final command given by our Lord to the apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). And I contend that baptism is the sign of the Covenant after Christ’s ascension, because it was not until the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost that the sign was preached by the apostles and had its full significance fulfilled. Now we see the first-fruits of baptism’s significance at the baptism of Jesus Christ where the Spirit descended upon our Lord and rested on him, but baptism as a Christian practice and as a sign of the Covenant in Christ’s blood was not realized until the promised Holy Spirit had been poured out (cf. Ez. 36:25-27). The reason for this is that baptism as we practice it now, post-Pentecost, is a sign and a seal of baptism by the Holy Spirit by our risen and reigning Lord (cf. Mt. 3:11). Through the Spirit, we are buried with Christ into his death and are thereby “born again” to a “living hope” so that “we might walk in newness of life” (cf. 1Pt. 1:3; Rm. 6:4). Baptism by water therefore is a picture, a sign, and a seal of the real baptism by the Spirit of God, and thus it carries with it no merit, no salvific weight, and no grace (aside from the grace of that to which it points). It is also for this reason that Baptists call the practice of baptism by water an ordinance and not a sacrament, because we believe that the grace rests in the real baptism by Spirit, not in the sign, and that further grace is given upon the remembrance of the real baptism through the ordinance of baptism by water (For more on baptism, see Baptism Now Saves You).
Therefore, when we as Baptists consider the ordinance of baptism, we consider it as a seal administered to those who have been brought under the New Covenant by him who baptizes with Holy Spirit (cf. Mt. 3:11). We as Baptists view the administration of the Covenant consistently with every other instance of administration of covenant signs in that it is granted to those who are under the covenant. For this reason, Abraham was circumcised after he had been counted righteous by faith in the Promise of God as a “seal of [that] righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rm. 4:11). Likewise, every other sign of a covenant is administered to those who are under the covenant to which that sign points. For this reason, God gave to Noah the universal sign of the rainbow for it was to be a sign of the covenant between God and “all flesh” that he would not again destroy the earth by water (cf. Gen. 9:16, 17), and why every Jewish child was circumcised by requirement of the Mosaic Code in order to seal that child under the stipulations of the Mosaic Code. Furthermore, it is for this reason that Peter, at the Council at Jerusalem, denounced the circumcision of the Gentiles, because it would bring the Gentiles under the weight of the Old Covenant / Mosaic Code, thereby “placing a yoke on the neck of the [Gentile] disciples that neither [the Jewish] fathers nor [the Jewish disciples] had been able to bear” (Acts. 15:10). Therefore, covenant signs are given to those who are under the covenant to which it is a sign.
Therefore, when we consider the question, “When and to whom do we administer the sign of baptism by water,” we must ask, “Who falls under the New Covenant?” Many paedobaptists will answer that it is Christians and their children who fall under the New Covenant, for “the promise is for you and for your children” (Acts. 2:39). Now, I am not sure how many honest, biblical paedobaptists will answer with that reference from Acts 2, but to those who do, that answer is proof-texting of the worst sort. It is thus, first, because it truncates the declaration of the apostle Peter, for he says in full, “This promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off.” In other words this “promise” of which the apostle speaks is one that is for them, their children, and even to those who are far way, expressly the nations. It is for this reason that our Lord commands the apostles in the previous chapter, saying, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In other words, this promise is to be preached to Jews, to half-breed Jews, and to non-Jews, for it is a promise for them all. Secondly, this promise of which the apostle speaks is not the sign of baptism, but it is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The apostle declares, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the names of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38; cf. Acts 1:8). Thirdly, this promise that is for all is restricted by election. In other words, this promise of the Holy Spirit is for all nations, but it is not for every single person who inhabits the nations. For the apostle declares, “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 2:39). In other words, this promise is for all those who inhabit the earth whom the Lord our God chooses to bring to himself. Therefore the promise is not restricted to a particular nation, neither is restricted by whose child one is, but it solely “depends on him who calls” (cf. Rm. 9:11).
Therefore, when we ask the question, “Who is under the New Covenant,” we must answer, “It is those whom God has called to himself.” How then do we know that God has called one unto himself? We know this because they believe in Jesus Christ, they repent from their sins and worldliness, and they obey the commands of Jesus Christ. In other words, they become a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that our Lord gives his final command in this way:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mt. 28:19, 20).
In our Lord’s final command, he gives the evidence of those who are under the covenant, viz. they will be disciples, and he gives the sign of the covenant that is to be administered to them, viz. baptism. Now I say evidence rather than requirement, because we learn elsewhere that this discipleship, this obeying the commands of our Lord, is an evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (cf. Rm. 6-8:17). All those whom the Lord calls to himself and baptizes by the Holy Spirit walk in “newness of life” which is the fulfillment of the law of Christ (cf. Rm. 6:4, 8:1-4). So then, the New Covenant is as we said it is in our previous discourse, namely the Covenant of Grace, for God fulfills all of the requirements on our behalf, and we bear the fruit of his work (cf. Ph. 2:12; Rm. 7:4). And it to these, namely those who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit and made to walk in newness of life as Christ’s disciples, that our Lord commands the apostles to give the sign of the covenant, viz. baptism. It is for this reason that the call of the apostles is never merely, “Be baptized,” but it is, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:28), or, “Believe and be baptized” (cf. Mk. 16:16; Acts 8:12, 13; 34-38). No one in Scripture is given the sign of baptism apart from belief and repentance, for it those who believe and repent who are called by God under the New Covenant in Christ’s blood.
Considering the Age of Those Who are to be Baptized
Therefore, when we come to the question of age with regard to the giving of the New Covenant sign of baptism, it is almost an irrelevant question. For if the question is one of those whom the Lord baptizes by his Spirit and calls to be his disciples, then we must admit our Lord is free to do as he pleases. Where the question does find relevancy is in the ability of the soul to comprehend his state under the law and sin and is thus able to recognize his own condemnation by it and is therefore able (if the Spirit so wills) to believe and to repent from his lawlessness and throw himself upon Jesus Christ. Some call this state the age of accountability, however, I am not comfortable with calling it an age but a state. For not all men are the same, and the ability to comprehend the law and thereby die by its comprehension is an individual matter not a universal one (cf. Rm. 7:9-11, see also On the Scope of Adam’s Universal Condemnation and Its Implications on the So-Called Doctrine of “The Age of Accountability”). Thus, when a soul is presented or presents himself to be baptized, it is not his age that must be considered, but it is his own recognition of his destitute state and his repentance from it and his belief on Christ. Of course, this will take on far less sophisticated verbiage when expressed by a young child, however, if a child can rightly comprehend these things and believes upon his Lord, the waters of baptism should not be refused to him.
However, with that said, a child should only be put forth for baptism if he understands his salvation biblically. I am thinking particularly of the countless times I have heard a child (bless his heart) say before a church that he has “let Jesus Christ into his heart.” Now, it is his teachers who are to be blamed for such unbiblical language spilling forth from his mouth, however, despite this, the child must understand his lawlessness and the Remedy for his lawlessness, namely Jesus Christ. He must understand that his disobedience to his parents, his cheating in school, his pulling his sister’s hair, etc. are all sufficient enough to condemn him eternally, and he therefore needs Someone who has never disobeyed his parents, never cheated in school, and never pulled his sister’s hair to bear his guilt for him. The child must know that it is not because of his not praying a prayer that he is condemned to hell, but it is because of his willful breaking of the commands of God. If he cannot comprehend this (even in the most simple of language), we cannot say that he has repented and become a disciple of our Lord by the baptism of his Spirit, and therefore we should not administer the covenant sign to him. Now, this is not to say that that child might not be under the care of God’s Spirit, however, I think it safe and wise to withhold the sign of the Covenant from that child lest he unwittingly bear false witness by entering into the waters of baptism (cf. 1Cor. 11:27-31).
All this is to say that the Covenant sign of baptism belongs to those who have been baptized by the Spirit of God and have thereby believed on Christ, repented from their sins, and have covenanted to follow our Lord by denying themselves and taking up their crosses. The covenant sign should only be restricted upon those terms, and even if the youngest of children can comprehend this (their parents being the chief ones to observe such a comprehension), then the Covenant sign should be granted to them. It therefore falls upon the shoulders of a child’s parents to know their child, and it falls upon the shoulders of their pastors / elders to teach the child’s parents the evidences of the New Covenant. It is not something that should be taken lightly, neither is it something that should be denied to those upon whom the Lord is pleased to rest his Spirit.