Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
That circumcision is the Old Testament counterpart of Christian baptism some Reformed Baptists will acknowledge. The two signs, they will admit, seal the same covenant promise concerning salvation from sin through the blood of Jesus Christ. But they then say that there was another covenant promise that came only to Israel, and that does not come also to the church today. This, they say, was a promise of blessings that were “earthly, material and temporal.” In other words, they teach that Israel had a promise of both material blessings and spiritual blessings, while the church today has a promise of only spiritual blessings. This, they say, is the fundamental difference.
Then they proceed to apply this distinction to the two covenant signs—circumcision and baptism. The earthly, material blessings, they say, could be received without faith, and were promised to all the naturalchildren of Jacob, whether they had faith or not. And since all the natural children received this promise, they all received also the sign of that promise. But baptism, they say, is different. The promise of the new covenant is only of spiritual things. And these things must be received by faith. Therefore this covenant promise is only to the spiritual children of the church—the children who have faith. This, they say, is the reason why today one must first give evidence of having conscious faith before he may receive the covenant sign of baptism.
There are a number of important questions to consider in evaluating this argument of a Reformed Baptist. Let us begin by considering the following: Did the old covenant really include a promise of earthly blessings to all the natural children of Israel? In other words, did all those who were circumcised actually receive God’s grace? Did the sign of the old covenant seal a gracious promise to every single child that received it? To these subjects we now turn.
No earthly, material blessings
It is not uncommon to hear Reformed Baptists—or other Baptists for that matter—accuse Reformed believers of “reading the Old Testament as though it were the New.”
All Christians, of course, read the Old Testament in the light of the New; but it is another matter to read the Old Testament as though it were the New, as though the terms “old” and “new” had no theological significance. Yet this is what the Paedobaptists¹ do when they argue that circumcision, like baptism, signified and sealed spiritual blessings exclusively.²
We are accused of reading the Old Testament as though it were the New simply because we disagree with the Reformed Baptists as to how to distinguish the two. We do not say that “old” and “new” have no significance. We recognize and teach that the old dispensation, unlike the new, was a dispensation of many types and shadows that pointed to the coming Christ, and that now have gone away since Christ has come and has accomplished all that was necessary for our salvation. We do indeed confess that Scripture distinguishes the two, but we reject what the Reformed Baptists say the distinction is.
Similarly, we would admit that there is a distinction between circumcision and baptism. Circumcision involved a shedding of blood, but baptism does not. This is because Christ put an end to all symbolic blood shedding when He shed His blood for us. So we do indeed confess that there is a distinction between the sign of the old covenant and the sign of the new. But we deny that the distinction is this: circumcision sealed material blessings and spiritual blessings, whereas baptism seals spiritual blessings exclusively.
The Reformed Baptists fall into error when they speak of “material blessings” in the days of the old dispensation. It is true that in the old dispensation God gave His people many earthly things that pictured heavenly realities. But these earthly things were not blessings in themselves. There were many who received only the earthly things, and not the blessing of God to which those things pointed. For an unbeliever, the earthly things they received were certainly good gifts, but notblessings.
Also in the days of the old dispensation, God taught His covenant people to distinguish between these good earthly things and His blessings. In Psalm 106, for example, we read about the occasion when God gave quails to His people in the wilderness, after they complained and were not satisfied with the manna He had given them. Verse 16 of this Psalm says:
And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.
God gave them a gift in the quails, but without the Word of His blessing. Those who walk in unbelief do not receive God’s blessing. It was not God’s blessing, but leanness that entered their souls. And this was not something that God merely allowed. Rather, He Himself sent this leanness into them.
God’s gifts and God’s blessings: distinguished in both dispensations
The situation concerning earthly things was the same in the old dispensation as it is now in the new. The earthly things themselves did not profit them, nor do they profit us. They profited them, and they profit us, only when received with the Word of God’s blessing.
We confess this truth in Lord’s Day 50 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which explains what is meant by the petition “Give us this day our daily bread.” There we confess that this petition means:
… be pleased to provide us with all things necessary for the body, that we may thereby acknowledge Thee to be the only fountain of all good, and that neither our care nor industry, nor even Thy gifts, can profit us without Thy blessing….
Take note how our Reformed confessions clearly distinguish between God’s gifts and God’s blessings. To speak of “material blessings” is to blur this distinction. The gifts by themselves do not profit. God’s blessing is what profits us. The gifts by themselves are not blessings, and must not be referred to as such.
Now someone may respond, “Even though God’s gifts and God’s blessings are to be distinguished, God always gives the two together.” But such is not the case. It is not the case now; nor was it the case in the old dispensation. And God’s people have been aware of this. This is why, both then and now, God’s people have called upon God to bless their food before partaking of it. It is important that we understand that this prayer is actually a confession of the truth stated above in Lord’s Day 50. The food by itself is not a material blessing. It is just material. It cannot profit us without the Word of God’s blessing. This is what we confess, or at least what we ought to be confessing, when we ask God to bless our food.
Old Testament pictures of famine and prosperity
Someone may respond to this and say, “But did not God promise in the Old Testament that He would bless His people with earthly prosperity if they obeyed Him, and would give them famine if they did not? And does not this indicate that in the old dispensation God’s blessing went with earthly prosperity?” Perhaps one would cite a verse such as Deuteronomy 7:12, 13:
Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee.
Does not this speak of earthly prosperity as a covenant blessing in the old dispensation?
Understanding the answer to this question is very important. On the one hand, it is true that earthly prosperity indicated that God’s blessing was upon the people, and famine indicated that it was not. Nevertheless, this earthly prosperity was still but a picture of the blessing of God. There were certainly many Israelites who received only the picture of God’s blessing, without receiving the blessing itself. Nabal, for example, was extremely rich. Yet it was God’s curse, and not God’s blessing, that was upon him.
We must never confuse a sign with the reality to which it points. Baptism, for example, is a sign of God’s blessing. Yet many receive only the sign, and not the reality to which it points. The same was true in the days of the old dispensation. Even though they had many more signs than we do today, those signs were still only signs. They were not in themselves blessings from God.
But did not these signs benefit the people of God? Indeed they did, but only those who received them by faith, clinging in their heart to the promise to which these signs pointed. The believers profited from them; but the unbelievers did not.
Particular grace also in the old dispensation
The Reformed Baptists are actually teaching that the promise of the old covenant included a promise of common grace. This is clearly what they are saying. They say that God promised “earthly blessings” to all the natural children of Israel, whether they were believers or unbelievers. But this is another way of saying that the old covenant included a promise of common, non-saving grace to all the Israelites. That, to them, is the difference between the old covenant and the new. In their view, the new covenant included a promise of saving grace to the believers, but the old covenant included two promises—a promise of common, non-saving grace to all Israelites, and a promise of saving grace to the believers.
The truth, however, is that God’s grace has always been particular. In the old dispensation there were pictures that indicated whether God’s blessing was resting upon the people as a whole. But even when this was the case, that blessing was not upon each individual within the nation.
It is today as it was then. When a congregation today bears the marks of a true church—the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the proper administration of Christian discipline—these marks indicate that God’s blessing is upon the congregation. But this does not mean that God’s blessing is upon every individual within the congregation. Scripture clearly testifies that when a hypocrite in such a congregation (i.e., a confessing believer who unbeknown to the congregation is actually an unbeliever) partakes of the Lord’s Supper, he eats and drinks God’s judgment to himself (I Cor. 11:29). It was the same in the days of the old dispensation. When God sent prosperity to His people, the unbelievers who partook of it were not blessed. Rather, by partaking of it in unbelief, without giving thanks to God, their judgment was made the heavier.
God’s grace is always particular. It was particular then, and it is particular now.
Next we must apply this truth to circumcision and baptism. The Reformed Baptists say that infants were circumcised because the old covenant included a promise of common grace to them all. But this, we have pointed out, was not the case. So why were they all circumcised, if they did not all receive a promise of grace? And why then are all the children of the church baptized today, if they do not all receive a promise of grace? Lord willing, we will turn to this subject nex