Responses to common Baptist arguments
There is no clear command / Baptism is a sign of faith
There is not an explicit verse in Scripture which states that God is One in three persons, but God’s Word teaches the existence of the Trinity throughout. When thinking about the sacraments, we likewise need to have a broader approach to Scripture than simply looking for proof-texts. We need to think about how the old and new covenants relate to one another.
There is no explicit command “baptize infants”, however, in light of the place that children have in the old covenant, this should not surprise us. Under the old covenant, children were considered part of the covenant community and they received the sign of belonging to God’s people (circumcision) (Genesis 17:7). The New Testament makes it clear that the children of believers are likewise to be seen as belonging to God’s people, almost as if they are ‘little Christians’ (Mark 10:13-16; 1 Corinthians 7:14; Acts 2:39; Ephesians 6:1). Nowhere in Scripture is there a declaration that children of believers are no longer considered part of the covenant community. The pattern established in the covenant of grace is not revoked. In fact, covenant privileges are widened since the sign of belonging is now also given to female infants. As a result, we are confident in giving our children the new covenant sign of Baptism since the children of believers belong to the covenant community of God.
If one needs an explicit command to baptize children then by the same logic we should stop admitting women to the Lord’s table, since there is no direct command to allow women to come to the table (New Testament letters are written to ‘brothers’). Similarly, there is no command that children must not be baptised nor is there a command that children must first be raised in the Christian faith before they are baptised.
It is certainly true that infants could not embrace the words of Peter for themselves. Peter was speaking to a crowd of adult Jews. They were being called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Peter then goes on to say that the promise of the Gospel (salvation through faith in Jesus Christ) is also a promise which God makes to the children of believers.
Peter’s words appear to deliberately echo the Abrahamic-covenant promise made in Genesis 17:7. From Galatians 3 we know that the Abrahamic covenant has not been annulled, it is still operational. Therefore, just as the children of believers were considered part of the covenant community in the past, they are also to be considered part of the covenant community in the new covenant. Promises are also for them. Adult believers have a responsibility of baptising their children (giving them the sign of belonging to the covenant community) and then teaching them what their baptism means (a call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ).
It’s true that the clear examples of baptism in the New Testament always follow conversion. This should not be a surprise to us.
In the first place, the New Testament (especially the book of Acts) tells the story of the growth of the church in a non-Christian (missionary) environment. Those who came to faith are adults (Jews or Gentiles) and they were baptised (Acts 2:38), together with their families (Acts 16:33-34). This household would have included children if they were present.*
Secondly, the New Testament records a time of transition from the old to the new covenant. Circumcised Jews who came to believe in Jesus Christ had to be baptised. They had to receive the new covenant sign of Baptism.
We have no example in the New Testament of individuals who were reared and raised in Christian homes being baptised as adults. We have no example in the New Testament of the children of believers being excluded from baptism.
*See also 1 Samuel 22:16,19; Genesis 17:12,23, 18:19, 45:17-19, 46:6,7 for clear examples of the Biblical idea of ‘household.' Whilst the argument for infant baptism is not based on Acts 16 or 1 Corinthians 1:16, these passages certainly suggest that infants would have been baptised if they were part of the household. In such cases infants would have received the sign of belonging before or at the time of conversion.
For adult converts, baptism is a means by which they identify themselves with the promises of God as they receive the mark of belonging to God’s people. This mark is only given to adult converts following a profession of faith (Romans 10:9) and in that sense Baptism is tied to repentance.
As a sacrament however, baptism is not a sign of repentance, but a sign and seal of the promises of God (Romans 4:11; Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 25).
If Baptism is primarily a sign of my faith/repentance, then it becomes man-centered. We would have to doubt our baptism as soon as we doubt our faith/repentance and be baptised whenever we felt assured once again. Baptism would then not be a sign of initiation into the covenant community, but a sign of renewal.
God ordinarily uses means to work true faith in the hearts of believers (Heidelberg Catechism Question 65, Canons of Dort 3/4 Article 11 and Article 17). He does so at the time of his choosing, he may even do so whilst a child is in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15).
It is not proper to separate circumcision of the heart from circumcision of the flesh. Circumcision of the flesh was always meant to correspond with circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:25-29). It pointed to humility, new birth and a new way of life (Leviticus 26:40-42; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10; 9:25). Consider also Psalm 78:1-8. Children of believers (they would have been circumcised) are encouraged in the psalm to learn from the example of the previous generations so that they would put their trust in God (Psalm 78:7) and not be like those whose hearts were not loyal to God (Psalm 78:8). They are encouraged to live in the light of God’s promise (signified by their circumcision).
Abraham believed in the LORD (Genesis 15:6) before he was circumcised (Genesis 17; Romans 4:11). He was given the sign of circumcision not as a testimony to his faith, but a sign and seal of the righteousness he had by faith (Romans 4:11). That is, circumcision was a sign and seal of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be his God and the God of his descendants, a promise that through faith in God Abraham would be made righteous in God’s sight (Genesis 15:6).
The spiritual sign of circumcision was not only given to adults who embraced the same faith as Abraham, he was commanded to circumcise his whole household. Uncomprehending children were given the same sign as believing adults. Children were circumcised not because it was assumed that they had faith, but because God commanded them to be circumcised. They belonged to the covenant community and the promise (righteousness through faith in God) was a promise also for them.
The authors of the New Testament regard the children of believers as recipients of God’s promises (Acts 2:39). They are “holy” (1 Cor. 7:14), “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1), and “little ones who believe in [Jesus]” (Mt. 18:5-6). The operating assumption of the New Testament is that the children of believers, like other members of the visible church, are Christians. Since children of believers belong to the covenant community, they must be given the sign of belonging (baptism).
Peter compares God’s judgement-flood to baptism (1 Peter 3:20,21, see also 2 Peter 3;6, 7). Noah and his family were saved (kept dry in the ark) whilst the inhabitants of the land were destroyed (wet with water).
In these verses, when Peter talks about Baptism, his focus is on the topic of ‘washing’. The filth of the earth was cleansed by the flood waters. This water destroyed the ungodly but God preserved Noah. In the future, fire will come to purify and cleanse the earth (2 Peter 3; fire is often used in the Bible in the context of cleansing/purification - Numbers 31:23; 1 Peter 1:7).
Baptism doesn’t save by washing water from the body (as if the sign itself is the thing signified). Baptism saves by what it signifies - as surely as water washes dirt from the body, those who have faith in Jesus Christ are assured of a good conscience toward God on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection.
These verses from Peter certainly help us to understand what Baptism signifies (washing) but they don’t really relate to the proper subjects of Baptism (believers only or believers and their children).
We agree that a child is not saved by baptism. We believe, however, that at baptism, God makes certain promises to the child - promises which the child should later accept in faith. Think of Jesus’ act of blessing the little children, after their parents had brought them to him (Mark 10:13-16). Jesus said that the kingdom belongs to them. But as these children grew up, they would have to accept the promise of the kingdom in faith.
The majority of old covenant believers were physical descendants of Abraham, but the covenant community also included Gentiles. It included Egyptians (Exodus 12:38), Canaanites (Joshua 6:22-23; Joshua 9) and Moabites (Ruth). The list of names in places like Ezra 2 also includes people who are of foreign origin. These foreigners would be expected to be circumcised (the males) when they joined the covenant community. Thus, though the old covenant community was made up primarily of physical descendants of Abraham, it also included Gentiles who came to faith (Hebrews 11:31 mentions Rahab’s faith).
The old covenant community was also a mixed community. It included those who were truly converted as well as those who rejected the promises of the Gospel (Romans 2:28-29; Romans 9:6). Have you ever noticed how often the psalms talk about those who do evil (ignoring God) and seem to get away with it (e.g. Psalm 73)? These songs were written by members of the old covenant community and they affirm that it was a mixed community.
In the New Testament, we notice that the new covenant community is also mixed:
- Some people are baptised but they do not truly belong to God (e.g. Acts 5:1-11).
- There are several people who were part of the new covenant community (the church) but they were not true believers.
- Some of Paul’s fellow Gospel workers fell away (1 Timothy 1:18-20 and 2 Timothy 4:10, 16).
- The writer to the Hebrews suggests that there are some who have probably even participated in the administration of the sacraments (“been enlightened” and “tasted of the powers of the age to come”) who nevertheless fall away (Hebrews 6:4-6). Similarly, he also warns those who belong to the church community that there is no salvation for those who deliberately keep on sinning and thereby show themselves to be unconverted (Hebrews 10:26-27).
- 1 John 2:18-19 also talks about individuals who were part of the church community but then left.
- Jesus’ instructions regarding church discipline also assume that there will be true believers and unbelievers in the new covenant church community (Matthew 18:15-20; see also Matthew 13:25-30).
- Jesus’ parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) shows that the church in this world will always be a “mixed” church. Only on the Day of Judgment will the wheat (true believers) be separated from the weeds (false believers).
The new covenant community (church) is therefore not a community that only includes those who are truly converted.
The Old Testament Scriptures also talk about the need for a circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16). This refers to a true faith which only God the Holy Spirit can work in the heart of his people (Romans 2:29). The people of Israel were thus taught from Old Testament times that the sign of circumcision (in the flesh) does not make a person right with God. The sign itself called for repentance and faith (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4), a faith which only the LORD can truly work in our hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6). Thus a true Jew, according to Paul, is not someone who is circumcised outwardly but inwardly (Romans 2:28-29).
Those who truly belong to God, whether in the old covenant or the new covenant, are those who have God’s law written on their hearts and who have been called to him in repentance and faith. Both covenant communities (old and new) include those who are truly converted and those who are not. Both covenant communities (old and new) included Gentiles.
The children of God are those who are born again by the Holy Spirit (John 3) and have a true faith in Jesus Christ.
This argument does not speak to the topic of whether or not the children of believers should be given the sign of belonging to the covenant community. Children of believing parents are not baptised on the assumption that they are regenerate (have faith) but because we believe that they belong to the covenant community and therefore they must receive the sign of belonging.
Paul certainly refers to baptism as burial with Christ into death (symbolised by immersion into water) and the rising with Christ to a new life (symbolised by the rising out of the water - cf. Romans 6:1ff). Through faith, the death of Christ is considered as our death (payment for sin, as confessed also in Heidelberg Catechism Question 43).
Though Baptism can be seen as an emblem of the believer’s dying and rising again (as in Romans 6:1-4), elsewhere in the New Testament it is primarily connected with the idea of washing/cleansing/forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:2).
Baptism must be by full immersion
Reformed churches do not confess that immersion is unwarranted or unbiblical though we do have a preference for effusion (sprinkling). Historically, orthodox Christians have accepted any mode of Baptism, with immersion certainly being most popular.
In the Didache (written around 100 AD), we have the earliest extra-Biblical information regarding the practices of the early Christian church. This document teaches that believers were to be plunged in flowing water after a period of instruction and fasting. Those who were unable to be baptised in this manner could however be baptised by having water poured over their head (Didache 7:1).
Throughout church history including the time before and after the Reformation, immersion was a common baptismal practice. This is seen in the writings of Thomas Aquinas (pre-Reformation: Summa theologica, p. 3; q. 66; art. 7) as well as the Book of Common Prayer (post-Reformation: the instructions for baptism mention immersion even (it appears) for children).
Within the RCSA there is no opposition to immersion except where immersion is held forth as the only valid form of baptism. Since we believe that the essence of Baptism is purification and that water is a sign of the blood of Christ, not the quantity of water but the use of water is of importance. There is thus room within the RCSA for children to be baptised by immersion if that is the preference of their parents.
We understand that the fundamental idea being conveyed by baptism is that of purification. In question and answer #69 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess the following:
Q. How does holy baptism signify and seal to you that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross benefits you?
A. In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it gave the promise that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly His blood and Spirit wash away the impurity of my soul, that is, all my sins.
Our confession regarding the fundamental symbolism of baptism is based upon what we read about Baptism in the New Testament where it symbolises spiritual cleansing or purification (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:21). The emphasis in the symbolism of Baptism is thus not on the going down and coming up but washing/cleansing.
In general, it is true that the Greek word for Baptism does imply immersion or submersion. However, there are occasions where it is used for other sorts of washing with water. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10:2, Paul describes Israel’s journey through the waters during the Exodus, stating that they were ‘baptised into Moses’ even though they did not even get wet! The Israelities were not immersed in the waters of the Red Sea. In Hebrews 9:10 the word is used to refer to ritual washings whilst the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 2:4,17,33) was a pouring out of the Spirit. All this is to say that the Greek word does not only and always mean immersion.
These verses are not conclusive. We don’t know for sure if John’s Baptism was by immersion only or the pouring of water over a person’s head. John 3:23 suggests that immersion is most likely, though even then it does not tell us if it was a full body immersion or just partial. We have to make assumptions based on inferences from the Bible as well as extra-Biblical resources.
Even if we accept that the baptism of John and Jesus’ disciples (John 4:1-2) was by complete immersion (a logical assumption), this does not mean that immersion is essential to the meaning of baptism. It does however confirm that immersion is a legitimate form of baptism.
There certainly is a lot of evidence to show that baptism by immersion took place in Israel prior to John the Baptist, especially from Rabbinical writings and Jewish tradition.
It should be emphasised however that even though the Jews had many ceremonial rituals and washings (some of them commanded in Leviticus), the Old Testament does not connect these rituals with signs or seals of the covenant of grace. Jewish rabbis might do so, but the Scriptures do not. Thus even if Jewish tradition held that Gentiles had to be immersed in water in addition to circumcision if they were to become part of God’s people, this is not a Biblical command.
There is also evidence in the Jewish Talmud that the Jews baptised the children of Gentiles during their proselyte baptism if those children were below a certain age (13 for boys and 12 for girls). If a family converted to Judaism, the Talmud allowed that the entire household, including babies, could be baptized into their new faith—although when the child came of age, he could reject the faith and the baptism. Babies and children of Jews or proselytes who had converted earlier were not baptized, as they were considered to be born into the faith. This practice is consistent with the Biblical teaching regarding the covenant of grace. Children are part of the covenant of grace as a matter of principle. Thus the Jews circumcised their children and they therefore also baptised the children of Gentile converts. An individualistic way of thinking is foreign to the Bible. A family is a unit thus if the father converted, the entire household was assumed to follow.
If we accept that the Jews at the time of the New Testament understood Baptism to involve immersion (as confirmed by Jewish sources), we should also accept that they were willing to baptise children of believing parents (also confirmed by Jewish sources). The practice of immersion did not exclude children from Baptism in Israel.
The same extra-Biblical resources which support Baptism by immersion also support the Baptism of infants. Jews (as testified by the Talmud) as well as Christians (as testified by the history of the early church, e.g. Tertullian (155-240 AD), Origen (184-253 AD) and the Council of Carthage (253 AD)) baptised children. According to Origen (184-253 AD) the baptism of children was a tradition inherited from the apostles.
We can accept that Baptism by immersion was practiced in Israel, that it was the practice in the New Testament and the preference for large periods of church history. However, the New Testament writers do not insist upon Baptism by immersion. The New Testament does not explicitly tell us that Baptism must involve a person being submerged completely in water. Immersion is a proper mode of Baptism, but so is effusion since they both symbolise the essence of baptism, purification.
When Israel passed through the Red Sea, they were not immersed in any water. The Egyptians were immersed and destroyed, the Israelities did not get wet as they crossed over on dry land. The Book of Exodus repeatedly reminds us that Moses and the Israelites went through “on dry ground” (see Exodus 14:16, 22; 15:19; Psalm 66:6; Hebrews 11:29).
Peter compares God’s judgment-flood to baptism (1 Peter 3:20,21, see also 2 Peter 3;6, 7). Notice however who was dry and who was wet. Noah and his family were saved (kept dry in the ark) whilst the inhabitants of the land were destroyed (wet with water). Flood waters certainly imply total immersion, but Noah and his family were not immersed.
In these verses, when Peter talks about Baptism, his focus is on the topic of ‘washing’. The filth of the earth was cleansed by the flood waters. This water destroyed the ungodly but God preserved Noah. In the future, fire will come to purify and cleanse the earth (2 Peter 3; fire is often used in the Bible in the context of cleansing/purification Numbers 31:23; 1 Peter 1:7). Baptism doesn’t save by washing water from the body (as if the sign itself is the thing signified). Baptism saves by what it signifies - as surely as water washes dirt from the body, those who have faith in Jesus Christ are assured of a good conscience toward God on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Peter compares God’s judgement flood to baptism, but his comparison does not focus on the symbolism going down and coming up (immersion) but the symbolism of washing (dirt from the body).
The fact that Jesus came up out of the water could refer to him having been immersed or simply walking back to the river bank after having had water poured on his head. Most likely he was baptised by immersion, but this does not imply that he immersed himself (he did come to John after all).
In Matthew 28:19, the apostles are commanded to baptise (they must perform the action) and Paul talks about how he baptised (1 Corinthians 1:14-16). The active person in baptism is not the recipient.
Finally, if Jews baptised the children of proselytes (as stated in the Babylonian Talmud), then these children would certainly not immerse themselves, especially if they were infants.
We are not told much about the baptism of the disciples, in fact, this is the only place in all of the Gospels where we read of them baptising individuals. Given the fact that John most likely baptised by some kind of immersion (John 3:23), it makes sense to understand that this is also the way in which the disciples would have baptised, especially since their baptism is compared with that of John (John 4:1). Indeed, the fact that Paul refers to baptism as the burial with Christ into death (symbolised by immersion into water) and the rising with Christ to a new life (symbolised by the rising out of the water - cf. Romans 6:1ff) certainly indicates that immersion was the primary mode of baptism in the New Testament.
Though Baptism can be seen as an emblem of the believer’s dying and rising again (as in Romans 6:1-4), elsewhere in the New Testament it is primarily connected with the idea of washing/cleansing/forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:2).
From the history of the early Christian church, we know that they were willing to baptise by means of effusion (sprinkling or pouring water upon someone). Perhaps this was done for the sake of little children, or for the sake of convenience when sufficient water for immersion baptism was not available (e.g. Didache). The early church history thus affirms the Biblical testimony that the primary symbolism was not the going down and coming up, but washing/purification.
The Baptism of John was a baptism meant to prepare people for the coming of Jesus Christ. He stressed the necessity of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He most probably immersed people and his baptism may have included the symbolism of dying to sin (down) and rising to new life (up). However, immersion (down, up) is not the primary symbolism of baptism in the New Testament, washing/purification is.
The Reformed practice of sprinkling draws from the rich history of the Biblical practice of sprinkling for sanctification and salvation.
In Scripture, purification is effected by sprinkling in Numbers 8:7; 19:13, 18-20 and Ezekiel 36:35. Though other passages from Leviticus might suggest immersion, immersion was not the only way of effecting purification. It could also be done by sprinkling.
Salvation from sin is also symbolised in the sprinkling of blood. In Exodus 12:22, the hyssop branch is dipped (immersed) but the blood is touched/painted on the doorposts. In Exodus 24:1-8, blood is sprinkled upon the people. With the old testament sacrifices, blood was sprinkled upon the sides of the altar (Leviticus 8:19) as well as those who were ceremonially unclean (Hebrews 9:13-14). The idea of cleansing from sin through sprinkled blood is picked up in the New Testament (Hebrews 10:22 and 1 Peter 1:2).
The water sprinkled upon a child (or adult) is thus a sign of cleansing from sin just as the sprinkled blood of bulls and goats was in the old covenant.
The relationship between circumcision and baptism
As Reformed Christians, we confess that Baptism replaces circumcision. Belgic Confession Article 34:
“We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled, has by his shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood, which anyone might do or wish to do in order to atone or satisfy for sins.”
Jews who were circumcised had the sign of belonging to the covenant people, the sign that looked forward to the coming of Christ. Now that Christ has come, they receive the sign that looks back to what Christ has done (Baptism). They are still part of the covenant of grace, but no longer under the old administration of Moses. They are now in the new administration of the covenant of grace, the new covenant (see Hebrews 8). Thus, Paul tells the Jews who come to faith that they must be baptised (Acts 2:38).
“We believe and confess that Jesus Christ…is the end of the law.” So begins Article 34 of the Belgic Confession citing Paul’s words to the church in Rome (Romans 10:4). Because our Lord is the goal (Greek, telos) of all the Old Testament laws and ceremonies, he “has made an end, by the shedding of His blood, of all other sheddings of blood which men could or would make as a propitiation or satisfaction for sin.” Since all the sacrificial rites of the Old Testament were subsumed by our Lord and fulfilled in His work on our behalf, the New Testament writers teach that the sacrifices are ended (e.g., Hebrews 9:23-28). Among the many bloody rituals of the Old Testament was circumcision. Although itself not a sacrifice, the fact that it involved blood showed that it belonged to that epoch of redemptive history in which everything looked forward to a final shedding of blood by the seed whose heel would be bruised by crushing the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).
We see this applied in the New Testament when circumcision was being demanded of Gentile converts to Israel’s Messiah (Acts 15:1, 5). The Church rejected this “yoke…that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” in its pastoral letter to the Gentiles (Acts 15:23–29). The Confession follows the apostle Paul in saying that circumcision has been “abolished,” for as Paul says, circumcision no longer “counts for anything” (Galatians 5:6; cf. Romans 2:25–29).
In the place of circumcision, Jesus “has instituted the sacrament of baptism” for the New Covenant. What this teaches us is that both circumcision and baptism’s place is that of an initiatory sign of membership in the covenant. There is one covenant of grace and this covenant always has a sign, yet, the administration of the one covenant of grace is multifaceted. Under the Old administration, circumcision was the rite of initiation, while under the New, baptism is the sign of initiation.
The covenant of grace is an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:7) of which circumcision was a sign during the old administration (Genesis 17:11) and baptism is a sign in the new administration (Colossians 2:11). The sign initiates one “into the Church of God,” that is, into the visible, covenant community. As an initiatory rite, baptism separates us “from all other people and strange religions” as the sign “that we may wholly belong to Him whose mark and ensign we bear.” Under the Old administration of the covenant, slaves bought with money as well as foreigners who desired to join Israel were marked out with the sign and shown to belong to the LORD (Genesis 17:12–13; Exodus 12:43–48). We, too, have been marked out in baptism, in which “the honorable name” was placed upon our foreheads (James 2:7; Revelation 22:4).
These truths, that circumcision has been abolished, along with all other sacrificial rites of the Old Testament, and that baptism takes the place of circumcision, were vital for the ancient church fathers in their apologetics against Judaism. The most famous usage of these themes is found in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. In it he said, “Wash therefore, and be now clean, and put away iniquity from your souls, as God bids you be washed in this laver, and be circumcised with the true circumcision” (18 cf. 19). He then described that we have not received “carnal circumcision” but “spiritual circumcision” through baptism because the blood of Christ has made the blood of circumcision obsolete (43 cf. 24). Cyprian also used these truths to counter the argument that infant baptism had to be done legalistically on the eighth day just like circumcision in his Letter 58:4.
(Answer adapted from Daniel Hyde's comments on Belgic Confession Article 34)
In some ways, we could affirm that Baptism is an expression of faith, certainly for those who come to faith as adults. The same was true for circumcision, especially for those who were circumcised as adults (e.g. Abraham in Genesis 17 and the second generation of Israelites in Joshua 5).
Abraham believed in the LORD (Genesis 15:6) before he was circumcised (Genesis 17; Romans 4:11). However, he was given the sign of circumcision not as a testimony to his faith, but a sign and seal of the righteousness he had by faith (Romans 4:11). That is, circumcision was a sign and seal of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be his God and the God of his descendants, a promise that through faith in God, Abraham would be made righteous in God’s sight (Genesis 15:6).
See below for further reflection on Colossians 2.
Colossians 2:11-12 is a tricky passage but the analogy suggests that baptism and circumcision have the same spiritual meaning. For Paul, in the new covenant, our union with Christ is our circumcision. In baptism, we are identified with Christ’s baptism (his death) and Christ’s circumcision (Isaiah 53:8) as it were, on the cross. Baptism and circumcision both signify Christ’s death. Circumcision pointed forward to Christ’s death (a bloody ritual), Baptism looks back on Christ’s death.
By faith, we are united to Christ’s circumcision and by union with Christ we become participants in his circumcision/baptism. That is, through faith, the death of Christ is considered as our death (payment for sin) (See also Romans 6:1-11 and Heidelberg Catechism Question 43). Paul’s point here is to teach us about our union with Christ, but along the way we see how he thinks about baptism and circumcision and his thinking should inform ours.
Our fundamental understanding from this passage is that baptism has replaced circumcision as the mark of belonging to God’s people (Heidelberg Catechism Question #74; Belgic Confession Article 34).
John Piper, a prominent Baptist, actually affirms that he also understands baptism to have replaced circumcision: “It’s probably right, therefore, to say that baptism has replaced circumcision as the mark of being part of the people of God. In the Old Testament, men were circumcised to signify membership in the old-covenant people of God, and in the New Testament men and women are baptized to signify membership in the new-covenant people of God.”*
Strictly speaking, ‘circumcision of the heart’ is invisible and not a covenant sign. It refers to true faith which only God the Holy Spirit can work in the heart of his people (Romans 2:29). The people of Israel were taught from Old Testament times that the sign of circumcision (in the flesh) does not make a person right with God. The sign itself called for repentance and faith (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4), a faith which only the LORD can truly work in our hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Reformed Christians do not consider Baptism to primarily be a sign of our faith in Jesus Christ, rather, we understand Baptism (as a sacrament) to be a sign and seal of the promises of God. The focus is on what God has promised (eternal life for those who believe in Jesus Christ) and Baptism is a sign and seal of that promise. According to the sacramental nature of baptism, God is the actor and the recipient is the passive beneficiary.
Acts 21:17-24 does not narrate the words of the apostles but the instructions of the Jerusalem church council to Paul. James was not an apostle.
Before we consider Paul’s actions, it is interesting to note that it seems as if he was busy disobeying the LORD in his plan to go to Jerusalem:
- Paul strongly desired to go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22 is often translated with a capital ‘Spirit’ however it is not clear that it was the Holy Spirit sending Paul to Jerusalem. The NKJV translates the Greek uncapitalised)
- Led by the Holy Spirit, the church pleaded with Paul not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4)
- The Holy Spirit did not want Paul to be teaching and ministering in Jerusalem (Acts 22:17, 20)
- The Holy Spirit warned Paul that he would be captured if he did go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:23; 21:11). If he goes he will be captured.
Having arrived in Jerusalem, Paul is told about Jewish Christians who are ‘zealous for the law’. Being zealous for the law is seen negatively in Acts 22:3-4 and Galatians 1:14. It has the meaning of a desire to maintain old covenant (Mosaic) laws.
Rather than giving Paul a chance to preach, the Jerusalem council instructs him to act in a way that shows that he still has respect for old covenant purification rituals. Perhaps they were familiar with his teaching from 1 Corinthians 9:20. Regarding Baptism, the council explicitly mention that Paul has been teaching Jews not to circumcise their children (Acts 20:21). Clearly it was common knowledge in Jerusalem that Paul had been teaching Jewish Christians that the sign of circumcision had come to an end (cf. Galatians).
The instruction by the council regarding purification should not be seen in a positive light. It is descriptive of what they said to Paul, this does not mean what they said was correct. In fact, later events would show their instructions to have been contrary to the teaching of the Gospel.
When Paul joins the group of believers in their purification rites (a practice based on Numbers 6), he is once again identifying himself with old covenant practices. Maybe he did so because he thought that this was a means of winning those under the law (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-20). However, he was cross with Peter when Peter did not act in line with the truth of the Gospel (Galatians 2:11-14), and now he is actually about to do something much worse. He makes plans to bring an offering for purification (Acts 21:26). According to Numbers 6:11-12, 16-17 this would have required a sin offering and a burnt offering. Paul is thus about to bring a animal offering to the temple, an offering that symbolised atonement for sin under the old covenant. He is about to act in a way that contradicts what Christ has accomplished by his death and resurrection and what he has been teaching to the churches.
By God’s grace however, the LORD intervenes to stop Paul from committing this sin (Acts 21:27-36).
To conclude. In Acts 21:17-24, the only apostle in Jerusalem was Paul. The church council asked Paul to keep the Jewish purification rites in order to save face with Jewish Christians who were zealous for the law (the circumcision party (Galatians 2:12). Paul, perhaps motivated by his love for national Israel (seen in his desire to bring a collection to Jerusalem: 2 Corinthians 8 & 9), acts in a manner that is inconsistent with the truths that he has been proclaiming. Acts 21:17-24 is not Paul’s finest hour.
Abraham and the place of children in the covenant community
One of the reasons that Paul so strongly opposed the imposition of circumcision upon Christians by the Judaizers is that, by faith, we have already been circumcised in Christ, of which baptism is the sign and seal. Through Baptism we have already been identified as belonging to God and we have undergone the curse in Christ. Therefore, in the new covenant, actual physical circumcision is unnecessary. In his frustration with those who claim that Christian Gentiles need to be circumcised, Paul tells those Jewish believers to go the whole way and emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12).
In the New Testament church, we know there was a big debate about whether or not Jewish converts had to be circumcised and it is because the Jews understood circumcision to be the sign of belonging to God’s people. Now that all these Greeks had come to faith, they expected the Greeks to undergo circumcision since they were now part of God’s covenant community. But this was not necessary because circumcision was replaced by Baptism.
Galatians 3:13-14, 28-29 testifies to the fact that believers in Christ (whether from Jewish or Gentile background) are the inheritors of the promises made to Abraham. Jews who do not have faith in Christ might bear the old covenant mark of belonging to God’s people (circumcision) but they are not truly part of God’s people (cf. John 8:31-47; Romans 9:6-8).
Since believing Gentiles, who are inheritors of the Abrahamic promises, are not to be circumcised (Acts 15:1-21), what sign must they receive to show that they belong to the covenant community? They receive the sign of Baptism and not circumcision. If baptism has not replaced circumcision as the sign of belonging to the covenant people of God, what has?
Jewish believers would also be expected to Baptise their children (not circumcise them).
The Abrahamic covenant is everlasting (Genesis 17:7, 13), but the sign of circumcision is not. We do not think that the Abrahamic covenant has come to an end or been replaced!
If the sign of the Abrahamic covenant was everlasting, then we would expect Gentiles to be circumcised since they are also inheritors of the promises made to Abraham (Galatians 3:13-14, 28-29) and they have been grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11:17-24). However, this is not what we read in the New Testament. Despite attempts from some Jewish Christians (Acts 15:1, 5), the decision is made that circumcision is not required (Acts 15:28-29). The Jerusalem church council also makes it clear that Paul has been teaching Jews not to circumcise their children (Acts 21:21), a teaching that resonates with Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:18-19.
Gentiles who came to faith under the old covenant certainly were expected to be circumcised (Genesis 17:12-14), but under the new covenant they are not (Acts 15). Very clearly a change has taken place in terms of the administration of the sign of belonging to the covenant community. The sign of circumcision has fallen away, it is no longer appropriate since the death and resurrection of Christ has put an end to all shedding of blood (Belgic Confession Article 34).
It has always been the case that those who are inheritors of the promises made to Abraham are those who have faith in God. Paul confirms this also in Romans 2:28-29. The promises made to Abraham were always promises that had to be believed (e.g. Psalm 78).
Galatians 3:13-14, 28-29 testifies to the fact that believers in Christ (whether from Jewish or Gentile background) are the inheritors of the promises made to Abraham. Jews who do not have faith in Christ might bear the old covenant mark of belonging to God’s people (circumcision; Romans 2:28) but they are not truly part of God’s people (cf. John 8:31-47; Romans 2:29; Romans 9:6-8).
Later in Romans 9, Paul compares Jacob and Esau (Romans 9:10-13). Both Jacob and Esau were descendants of Abraham and thus received the sign of the covenant, but Esau rejected his birthright (rejection of God’s promises) whereas Jacob eagerly sought to receive Isaac’s blessing (he embraced God’s promises).
This argument does not speak to the matter of whether or not children of believing parents should be baptised.
The promise of the Gospel is not a promise that the children of believers will all come to faith. The promise is righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:11). Peter is telling the Jerusalem crowd that the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ is for all those who believe, whether they be Jews, children or Gentiles.
As Christian parents, we raise our children in the faith (fear of the LORD). We give them the sign of belonging to the covenant community, we teach them what God has promised (forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ) and we call them to believe in God’s promises for themselves. In doing this we are following the example of the covenant of grace.
One day, when our children are able to discern the body and blood of Jesus Christ and profess their own faith in him, they are invited to join us at the Lord’s Table, a table where we all confess our faith together.
The promise of regeneration (Deuteronomy 30:6) is also a command (Deuteronomy 10:17) based upon the promises of God visibly signified and sealed in circumcision of the flesh (Genesis 17:7). If circumcision was a sign and seal of God’s promise that righteousness comes through faith, this promise is not relevant only when someone is old enough to exercise faith. Children of believers are marked with the sign and seal of this promise and they are encouraged throughout their lives to exercise the faith which the sign calls for (e.g. Psalm 78:1-8). They are encouraged to live in the light of God’s promises (Deuteronomy 10:17) even as we trust and pray that God will work a true faith in their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6).
In the covenant of grace, children of believers are not given the sign of belonging only after they show evidence of true faith. They are given the sign of belonging even when they are uncomprehending infants. This is the pattern which God commanded and established for his people (Genesis 17:7, Acts 2:38-39; also the exmaple of household baptisms in Acts 16:31-34 and 1 Corinthians 1:16).
God’s call is certainly not bound to any physical family though he delights to work in and through families (Exodus 20:6).
This argument does not speak to the matter of whether or not children of believing parents should be baptised.
In the covenant of grace, refusing to have the covenant sign was a mark of unbelief (Genesis 17:14). Such individuals were to be cut off from the covenant community, they were not considered to be part of God’s people. Parents (who have the covenant sign) refusing to give the same sign to their children were considered disobedient (e.g. Exodus 4:24-26).
Theoretically, children are part of the covenant community even if their parents refuse to give them the covenant sign (e.g. Joshua 5:2-12). But their parents are then being disobedient and acting in unbelief.
The Baptism of John was a baptism meant to prepare people for the coming of Jesus Christ (Malchi 4:4-6; Mark 1). He stressed the necessity of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Circumcision was never a sign pointing to physical descent from Abraham. Abraham believed in the LORD (Genesis 15:6) before he was circumcised (Genesis 17; Romans 4:11). He was given the sign of circumcision not as a testimony to his faith, but a sign and seal of the righteousness he had by faith (Romans 4:11). Circumcision was a sign and seal of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be his God and the God of his descendants (Genesis 17:7), a promise that through faith in God Abraham (and any of his descendants who believed) would be made righteous in God’s sight (Genesis 15:6).
Circumcision itself was also a spiritual sign. Circumcision of the flesh was always meant to correspond with circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:25-29). It pointed to humility, new birth and a new way of life (Leviticus 26:40-42; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10; 9:25). Consider also Psalm 78:1-8. Children of believers (they would have been circumcised) are encouraged in the psalm to learn from the example of the previous generations so that they would put their trust in God (Psalm 78:7) and not be like those whose hearts were not loyal to God (Psalm 78:8). They are encouraged to live in the light of God’s promise (signified by their circumcision).
Some questions for Baptists
There is evidence in the Jewish Talmud that the Jews baptised the children of Gentiles during their proselyte baptism if those children were below a certain age (13 for boys and 12 for girls). If a family converted to Judaism, the Talmud allowed that the entire household, including babies, could be baptized into their new faith—although when the child came of age, he could reject the faith and the baptism. Babies and children of Jews or proselytes who had converted earlier were not baptized, as they were considered to be born into the faith.
This Jewish practice of Baptism is consistent with the Biblical teaching regarding the covenant of grace. Children are part of the covenant of grace as a matter of principle. Thus the Jews circumcised their children and they also baptised the children of Gentile converts. An individualistic way of thinking is foreign to the Bible. A family is a unit and if the father converted, the entire household was assumed to follow.
From the writings of Tertullian (155-240 AD), Origen (184-253 AD) and the Council of Carthage (253 AD), we know that the early church had a practice of baptising children. According to Origen (184-253 AD) the baptism of children was a tradition inherited from the apostles. Would this practice have been prevalent if it was unwarranted?
As modern people, we’ve all been influenced by Western individualism. We think that our identity is something we must personally discover, choose, form, and authentically express. This is a unique approach to identity formation differing from almost every other culture in the history of the world. Everywhere else, identity is largely determined by those that come before you (family, community, and culture). It is assigned, received, and embraced as a calling to embody.
The Bible shares this perspective of identity formation. It assumes that children receive and live into the identity of their parents.
With regard to baptism, the evangelical church has largely embraced an unbiblical understanding of identity formation by insisting that a person raised by a Christian family does not share in that Christian identity and must have a conversion experience in order to be credibly considered a Christian. Nominalism is certainly a danger, but this must not lead us to overturn the Biblical pattern that God works redemption through families. Salvation comes to households (Acts 16:31).
Western Individualism has blinded us to the reality that identity formation has a huge corporate component. Salvation comes to households because the identity of every member of the household will be linked to the head of the community. Not absolutely in every case with every individual always. But the reigning assumption of Scripture is that when Jesus comes to a household, he transforms everyone there.
The practice of naming children gives us some insight here. A father (and mother) names his son or daughter, giving the family name and assigning the identity. Then he nurtures and admonishes the child to grow up into that identity. The father doesn’t wait until the child grows up and chooses to belong to the family before giving the family name. So it is with baptism. The children of believers are washed in the Triune name, assigning the child a Christian identity into which they grow as they are nurtured and admonished along the way.