Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2007, p. 253.
The Reformed Baptists say that infants were circumcised in the old dispensation because the old covenant included a promise of earthly blessings of common grace to all of them head for head. But this, we have pointed out, was not the case. There were no earthly blessings of common grace to anyone. There were only heavenly blessings of saving grace, and these came only to the elect children.
So why were they all circumcised, if they did not all receive a promise of saving grace? As we pick up where we left off, let us begin by considering the answer to this question.
Infants in Both Dispensations Included in God’s Covenant of Saving Grace
Infant circumcision took place back then for the same reason that infant baptism takes place today. It is because when God makes His covenant with a person, that person’s children are also included in the covenant. Since this means the covenant promise concerning salvation is to the children no less than to the adults, the children receive the sign of the covenant, which before was circumcision and now is baptism.
But this is precisely the point that Reformed Baptists deny. They, like all Baptists, deny that children of believers are in God’s covenant of saving grace. These Baptists may have some children as members in their churches, but these children will be members because they have made confession of faith, not because they are children of believers. God, according to them, deals individualistically when He saves people (saving an individual here and an individual there), rather than organically (saving not only an individual, but also the generations that come from that individual).
Reformed Baptists deny that God saves people in this organic way. In fact, they deny that He ever saved people in this way. Just as they deny that infants of believers are included in God’s covenant of grace today, so they also deny that Israelite infants in the old dispensation were included in this covenant of God’s saving grace. They do say that Israelite infants were included in the covenant in the days of the Old Testament. But—and this is the key—they deny that the covenant blessings that came to these children were spiritualblessings of saving grace.
The old covenant, according to them, was really twofold—a covenant of saving grace and a covenant of non-saving grace. The infants of believers were circumcised because they were in the covenant as a covenant of common, resistible, non-saving grace. But these infants were not, in their view, in the covenant as a covenant of irresistible saving grace. Thus by inventing this twofold view of the old covenant, they attempt to explain away the fact that infants were circumcised, while continuing to deny that God has ever saved His people in an organic way in the line of continued generations.
The fact is, however, that the covenant promise to the infants of believers has always been a promise of irresistible, saving grace. This was the promise that came to Israelite infants in the old dispensation, and it is the same promise that comes to infants of believers today. In both dispensations God has established His covenant with believers and their seed, as has already been proved from Scripture. Here we add that this covenant has always been a covenant of irresistible, saving grace. God has never established a covenant of resistible, inefficacious, common grace with anyone.
Why All Receive the Sign, If Not All Receive the Grace
When speaking of the relationship between baptism and grace there are two fundamental errors into which many fall. Some deny that grace comes to anyone by means of baptism. To them this ceremony is really an empty sign, and not a means of grace. There are others who say that grace comes to everyone who receives the sacrament. These people inseparably connect the sign and the thing signified and teach that all who receive the sign receive the grace pictured by it. In short, there are some who say that baptism is a means of grace to everyone, and there are others who say it is a means of grace to no one. And both groups are wrong.
The truth is that baptism is really a means of grace, but it is a means of grace only to the elect believers who receive it. Grace really is received by means of baptism, but it is only the believing recipient of baptism who receives this grace. Applying this to the infants that are baptized, it is only the elect infants whom God has regenerated and into whose hearts God has breathed faith (though that faith is not yet a conscious faith) who are blessed by means of the sacrament. God’s grace is always particular, whether referring to the grace that comes by means of the preaching or the grace that comes by means of the sacraments.
But then why were all the Israelite infants circumcised, if not all of them received grace? And why today are all infants of confessing believers to be baptized, if the grace of God pictured by the sacrament is given only to some of them?
To understand the answer to this question it is helpful to think of two pictures together—the picture of baptism and the picture of the church. The sacrament of baptism is a picture of the real baptism (the baptism with the Holy Spirit), and the instituted church is a picture of the real church (the body of Christ consisting of all the elect). The sacrament and the instituted church are both pictures, and it is helpful to consider these two pictures together.
Putting them together we can say that all the infant children of believers head for head are baptized and all of them head for head are members of the instituted church. They all receive the picture of baptism and they all are members of the picture of the church.
Now we switch over to consider the realities. Just as everyone head for head who receives the picture of baptism is a member of the picture of the church, so everyone head for head who receives the real baptism is a member of the real church. By considering the two pictures together and the two realities together, the truth on this matter is seen clearly.
The same thing could be said about the Israelite infants in the old dispensation. The sacrament of circumcision was a picture of the real circumcision, and the nation of Israel was a picture of the church. All the male infants head for head were to be circumcised, and they all head for head were members of the nation of Israel. This served to picture the truth that all those head for head who received thereal circumcision were members of the real Israel.Romans 2:28, 29 speaks of this very truth:
For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
All those who received the outward sacrament were Jews outwardly, and this pictured the fact that all those who received the inward circumcision (the circumcision of the heart) were Jews inwardly.
In summary, pictures go with pictures, and realities go with realities.
An Explanation of the Phrase “Repent, and Be Baptized”
Baptists frequently point out the fact that the Scriptures often speak of repenting and believing before being baptized. It is true that there are a number of passages that could be cited to support this:
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved…
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost,
But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women,
So why is it that we read in a number of places of conscious faith and repentance preceding baptism?
A key thing to remember here is that this was taking place during a time of transition from the old dispensation to the new. Now that Christ had come to fulfill all the ceremonies of the old covenant and to confirm the new covenant by His death and the shedding of His blood, the people were being called to receive a sign of this new covenant, namely baptism, which would replace the Old Testament sign of circumcision. Furthermore, this change was taking place at a time when the people were being called to engage in church reformation. Israel, who was the church in the old dispensation, had become apostate. Now the time had come for people to separate themselves from this apostate institute, and to reform into New Testament churches. So at the same time that there was this transition from the days of the old covenant to the days of the new, there was also a calling to separate from the old church institute and to reorganize into new instituted churches.
This transition would begin with adults leading the way. Adults had to confess their sins and their faith in Christ before they and their children could receive the sign of baptism and be added to the church. And when adult believers repented, believed, and were baptized, then their children also received this covenant sign. This was true not only among the Jews who believed, but also among the Gentiles. We see this clearly in the conversion of the Philippian jailor, who was a Gentile. The apostles told him that if he believed on Christ, then salvation would come not only to him, but also to his house. Then, believing this promise, not only the jailor was baptized, but also all of his children.
And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway,
This same practice still takes place today. When the preaching comes to those who are not members of a true instituted church, the people are called first to repent and believe, and then to be baptized. Repentance and conscious faith still precede baptism in such a case. But then once a person confesses his or her faith, the sign of baptism is joyously administered not only to the confessing adult, but also to his or her children.
Explaining to Our Children the Meaning of Their Baptism
It is important not only that we baptize our children, but also that we show them what their baptism means. Baptism is said to be a banner that our children bear—something that distinguishes them from the world. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of this in the answer to question 74:
…they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church, and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers…
This same truth is found in Article 34 of the Belgic Confession, which says that by baptism:
…we are received into the church of God and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to Him whose ensign and banner we bear, and which serves as a testimony to us that He will forever be our gracious God and Father.
It is true that we must tell our children that not all children of believers are children of God, and that one must not base his assurance that he is a child of God on the fact that he has one or two believing parents. But this does not mean that we can neglect this testimony of God that comes to our children through baptism.
Baptism serves as a testimony not only to us, but also to our children, that God will forever be our gracious God and Father. This is a testimony that really comes to our children, and it comes to them when they are baptized. Take note of the wording of our Baptism Form:
For when we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs….
And when we are baptized in the name of the Son, the Son sealeth unto us that He doth wash us in His blood from all our sins…. In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ….
Think of the wonderful testimony of God that comes to our children when they are baptized! What a comforting promise that is sealed unto them by baptism. This testimony is something we must tell them and explain to them. How can we keep it from them? They need to hear this. They need the comfort and assurance that it gives to their soul.
By bringing this testimony to our children, and applying it to their faith and life, we see the power of this comforting Word of God. We see them confess from the heart and with confidence that God is their Father, and we see them gradually show by their life that Christ really is their Lord. This promise of God is not weak and ineffectual. It is a powerful promise that causes us, and our children, to do our part in the covenant willingly and cheerfully. Powerful and efficacious is the promise of God. And it is this not only for us, but also for our children.