Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
There are the Reformed and there are the Baptists, and then there are those who call themselves Reformed Baptists. This latter group professes to hold to the truths of the Reformed faith, with the exception of the teaching that infant children of believers are to be baptized. They argue that they can reject the practice of infant baptism and still be Reformed.
This, however, is not true. Since baptism is a sign of the covenant, a wrong view on baptism will be rooted in a wrong view of God’s covenant. In other words, one who rejects the Reformed practice of infant baptism necessarily rejects the Reformed doctrine of the covenant. But one may not reject the Reformed doctrine of the covenant and still rightly call himself Reformed. One can be Reformed or he can be a Baptist, but he cannot really be both, since the two differ radically on God’s covenant of grace—a fundamental truth of the Reformed faith. Nevertheless, I will refer to them as Reformed Baptists, seeing as they are commonly referred to as such.
Although the truth concerning infant baptism over against the error of the Baptists has already been considered, it is worthwhile to spend more time looking specifically at the position of the Reformed Baptists. This will lead us to consider the truth concerning baptism and the covenant in more detail, that we may also be better prepared to defend the truth on this subject, and to witness to those who are either leaning toward this error or who have already fallen into it.
How the Reformed Baptist appears to come close to the Reformed view of baptism
For centuries the Reformed have put the following question to the Baptists: If Israelite male infants were circumcised, why should not infants of believers be baptized? Baptists have often answered this by making a wrong distinction between the old covenant and the new covenant, and between Israel and the church. In their view, Israel and the church are two peoples of God, who are in two fundamentally different covenants. These two covenants are then said to have different covenant signs that seal different covenant promises. Over against them the Reformed have maintained that there is only one people of God gathered throughout history, that the same covenant promise came to the saints in the old dispensation as comes today to the saints in the new, and that the two covenant signs—circumcision and baptism—seal the same covenant promise and thus have essentially the same meaning. Thus the views of the Reformed and of the Baptists have been clearly distinguished.
But then comes the position of the Reformed Baptist—a position that at first may appear to be somewhere in between that of the Reformed and that of most Baptists. They will grant some of what we say about the truth that there is one people of God who have received the same covenant promise throughout history. They will even go so far as to acknowledge that baptism and circumcision have the same spiritual meaning.
A well-written and thorough work on baptism and the covenant written by a Reformed Baptist is entitled Infant Baptism & the Covenant of Grace. The author is Paul K. Jewett, who served as Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this work he acknowledges a certain oneness of circumcision and baptism. For example, he admits that they both are seals of the righteousness of faith:
As circumcision was the seal of the righteousness of the faith which Abraham had, being uncircumcised, so our baptism is the seal of the righteousness of the faith which we have, being unbaptized. This conclusion appears inescapable, and it establishes the claim of the Paedobaptists that there is a fundamental affinity of meaning between circumcision in the old covenant and baptism in the new.¹
With regard to Colossians 2:11-13 —perhaps the passage most commonly quoted to prove that baptism replaced circumcision—Prof. Jewett acknowledges that it does indeed teach what the Reformed have long said that it does. He writes that according to this text:
… to experience the circumcision of Christ, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, is the same thing as being buried and raised with him in baptism through faith. If this be true, the only conclusion we can reach is that the two signs, as outward rites, symbolize the same inner reality in Paul’s thinking. Thus circumcision may fairly be said to be the Old Testament counterpart of Christian baptism. So far the Reformed argument, in our judgment, is biblical. In this sense “baptism,” to quote the Heidelberg Catechism, “occupies the place of circumcision in the New Testament.”²
“So far,” but no further, he is willing to acknowledge that the Reformed are correct. After admitting a certain similarity between these two covenant signs, he proceeds to set forth the difference between them. It is at this point that the error of the Reformed Baptist manifests itself. When a Reformed Baptist speaks about the similarity of circumcision and baptism, he may appear to be one with us who are Reformed. It is when he talks about how these two covenant signs differ from one another that the true nature of his position comes out.
The “Earthly Blessings” of the Old Covenant
One of the main arguments for the Reformed position on infant baptism has been the fact that circumcision and baptism are fundamentally the same. The Reformed Baptists appear to disarm us by taking the passages that prove this and then acknowledging that these passages teach that there is a certain similarity between these two covenant signs. But then they go on to teach that, even though there is a similarity between these two signs, they remain fundamentally different.
To understand their position on this we must consider baptism and circumcision as seals of God’s covenant promise. If the covenant promise in the days of the old covenant is the same as that in the new, then these two signs would be the same. Then these signs would both be seals of the same promise. But if the promise in the Old Testament days is different from the covenant promise today, then these two signs would be different. One sign would seal one covenant promise, and the other sign would seal a different covenant promise. Different promises would be sealed by different seals.
Now we apply this to the teaching of the Reformed Baptists. They maintain that there is a sense in which the promise in the days of the old covenant is the same as the promise today. The promise of salvation in Christ, they will admit, is the same in both dispensations. So circumcision and baptism seal the same covenant promise, and are thus the same in this respect. But then—and this is the key—they go on to say that there was another covenant promise that was only for the people under the old covenant, and is not for us today under the new. This makes for a difference between circumcision and baptism. Unlike baptism, circumcision was a seal also of this other covenant promise.
What was this other covenant promise? This, they say, was a promise of “earthly and temporal blessings.” The land of Canaan, a large number of physical descendants, earthly health and prosperity, for example, were all part of the so-called “earthly and temporal blessings” that they say were promised under the old covenant, but not under the new.
To this we Reformed might respond by pointing out the many passages that indicate that the promise in the old covenant was actually a promise of a heavenly land, of many spiritual children, and ofheavenly life, and heavenlyprosperity. We might point out that the book of Hebrews indicates that Abraham looked for a heavenly city, whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:9, 10). And we might be quick to show that the believers are “the seed” spoken of in the covenant promise to Abraham (Gal. 3:16, 29). Passage after passage we might show the Reformed Baptist, only to find that he nods his head in agreement. “Yes,” he would say, “the promise in the old covenant was indeed a promise of things that are spiritual, heavenly, and everlasting.” “But,” he would then go on to say, “included in this old covenant was also a promise of things material, earthly, and temporal.”
This, he would say, is a central difference between the old covenant and the new. They had a promise of both spiritual things and material things, whereas we have a promise of only spiritual things. They had a promise of both earthly things and heavenly things, while we have a promise of only heavenly things. The same everlasting things were promised both to them and to us, but they also had a promise of temporal things. This, they would say, is the difference.
All the Natural Children—Recipients of the “Earthly Blessings”
Then they take this position and apply it to circumcision and baptism. An Israelite infant, they say, could be and was a partaker of the covenant promise of earthly blessings, such as earthly food in the land flowing with milk and honey. These blessings could be received without faith, and were promised to all the naturalchildren of Israel. Therefore, seeing that this covenant promise was also for the Israelite infants, they could and did receive the sign of the old covenant.
But the new covenant, they say, is different. The new covenant does not include a promise of these earthly and temporal things. It includes only the spiritual and heavenly things, which are received by faith. Therefore one must first show himself to have conscious faith, before he can be viewed as a recipient of God’s covenant promise and receive the sign and seal of the new covenant, namely, holy baptism.
So now we must consider these questions. Did the old covenant really include a promise of earthly blessings to all the natural children of Israel? And is it the case that now under the new covenant one must first manifest conscious faith before he can be said to be in God’s covenant and to have a right to receive the sign of that covenant? Lord willing, we will turn to these questions next.
¹ Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism & the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1980), p. 87.
² Ibid, p. 89.