Christians are united by the truth that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has borne our punishment on the cross, been raised from the dead, and now offers his saving righteousness to all those who repent and believe in him. In other words, Christians are united by the gospel. Regardless of our background, present location, gender, or social status, Christians are bound together by a common Savior and a common salvation (Gal 3:28; Jude 1).
Yet, despite this mutual union with Christ, Christians disagree with each other on a variety of issues. Some of these disagreements relate to how we conduct church and are significant enough to require separate denominations. While some decry the existence of denominations—arguing that their very existence is grievous because they serve as formal disruption of the church’s unity—I would like to offer another take.
While it is true that Christians should pursue unity and not allow petty, inconsequential differences to cause division among us, it is also true that Christians will never be fully united on every doctrinal issue this side of eternity. Yes, denominations indicate that we still live in the “not yet.” But denominations are also proof that Christians take truth seriously—seriously enough to form churches where believers can practice their faith without violating their conscience.
The issue of baptism is one that has caused ecclesiastical division among Christians for the last few centuries. Put simply, the disagreement is over the function of baptism and the question of who should be the recipients of it. Baptists hold that only believers should be baptized. Presbyterians argue that the infants of believing parents should be baptized.
While this is not an issue of “first importance”—I am still united to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters despite our disagreement at this point and have much more in common with them than I do differences—it is still worth taking a careful look at the question of infant baptism because this issue reveals deeper theological commitments held by both sides.
Getting to the Root of our Disagreement
One common strategy that Baptists use to undermine the Presbyterian argument for infant baptism (also called “paedobaptism”) is to note that the New Testament gives neither command for nor clear example of infant baptism. While this observation is true (and generally recognized by covenant theologians), it actually misses the deeper reason for our disagreement: the divergence occurs at the level of our understanding of the biblical covenants before we ever get to the question of whether or not infants should be baptized. Derek Thomas affirms this point when he writes,
It is precisely on the grounds of covenant theology that an argument is made for the baptism of the children of those who believe. At its core lies the argument of covenantal continuity in the administration of the covenant of grace. Put simply, if children were included in the administration of the old covenant, then they should be included in the new—and, after, “more excellent” and “better” covenant (Heb 8:6).
Now, Thomas’ use of the word “children” here is slightly unhelpful because the credobaptist position (the view that only those who profess faith in Christ should be baptized) doesn’t suggest that children are not included in the new covenant. Inasmuch as a child has the capacity to genuinely repent and believe, they are included in the new covenant, by definition. Nevertheless, we will take “children” here as a reference to “infants” and children that have yet to profess faith in Jesus Christ.
The Presbyterian argument for infant baptism isn’t based primarily on its explicit affirmation in the New Testament, but on a particular view of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants and their relation to the new covenant. It is for this reason that covenant theologians will usually concede that the New Testament doesn’t provide explicit commandment or clear precedent for infant baptism: their position doesn’t depend on such New Testament evidence. Their reading of “household” baptisms in the book of Acts (Acts 11:14; 16:15, 31, 34; 18:8) to include infants is based upon “a momentum of Old Testament expectation” that the “seed” is included in each covenantal administration.
According to paedobaptists, when you read in Acts about the households that received Christian baptism, it makes sense, in light of the Old Testament affirmation that “every administration of God’s covenant includes children,” to conclude that everyone in the household, including infants and young children who had yet to profess faith were included in these baptisms. For credobaptists to read “household” as only comprising those who repented and put their faith in Christ is to wrest such passages from their redemptive-historical context—a context that is laden with anticipation that children would be included in the new covenant administration.
So, the debate over baptism cannot remain only on the level of New Testament evidence of actual infant baptisms. We must first ask if covenant theology offers a viable interpretation of the old covenant’s relationship to the new covenant.
The Structure of the New Covenant
It is without dispute that infants were included in the Mosaic Covenant. Boys on day eight received circumcision, and girls, though they didn’t receive the sign of the covenant, where nevertheless under the covenant stipulations along with their parents. Indeed, everyone in Israel was a member of the Mosaic Covenant whether they possessed genuine faith in Yahweh or not. Israel was, in this way, a mixed covenant community: there were some who believed in God, and there were others who didn’t, but they were all members of the Mosaic covenant regardless of their spiritual status. While God preserved a remnant in Israel, unbelief prevailed, eventually leading to the nation’s exile.
The new covenant, however, would be different at this very point. Unlike the Mosaic covenant which Israel broke (time and again), the new covenant would remain unbroken (Jer 31:32). Most importantly, the integrity of the covenant would be based on the nature of its membership. The primary problem with the Mosaic Covenant was not the laws themselves—they were good and righteous and holy (cf. Rom 7:12). The problem was with the covenant members whose hearts were sinful, uncircumcised, and hard. God’s holy law only exasperated the problem because it didn’t provide the means to change the sinner’s heart and enable it to obey the commandments published in the Mosaic Covenant.
The new covenant, however, would change its members inwardly. Rather than remaining the outside of the worshipper on stone tablets, the law would be written on the heart of every covenant member (Jer 31:33; cf.Ezek 36:27). The relationship between God and the new covenant members would be permanent (Jer 31:34) because it would be rooted in complete forgiveness of sin (Jer 31:34). Evangelistic exhortations among the covenant members would no longer be necessary because every member of the covenant would be a true believer (Jer 31:34). Whereas the Mosaic Covenant included unbelievers within its membership, only regenerate believers are members of the new covenant.
Differences Between the Mosaic Covenant and New Covenant
These are fundamental differences with the Mosaic Covenant. While God’s aim was to create a permanent relationship with his people, such a state could never be achieved under the Mosaic administration due to the covenant member’s sin and the deficiency of the old covenant system. Under the Mosaic Covenant, the law remained external to the worshipper, but in the new covenant, it is now written on the heart. Complete forgiveness could never be achieved under the Mosaic system, because it had a built-in deficiency that required endless sacrificial repetition. Moreover, because it didn’t deal with the heart of the covenant member, the Mosaic community remained a mixed community. The new covenant community, however, only consists of regenerate members. Therefore, those who have not been regenerate and forgiven of their sin—including infants and unbelieving children—are not included within the realm of the new covenant membership, regardless of their parents’ spiritual status.
Now, a response might be that such exclusion doesn’t reckon with a point stated earlier; namely, that every covenant administration includes children. Thomas notes that the Adamic covenant included consequences for Adam’s progeny (all die in Adam). Same with the Noahic Covenant: “I will establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you” (Gen 9:9). Abraham was to be the “father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4). The Mosaic covenant included “little ones” (Deut 29:11). Offspring are also included in the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 22:51; cf. 23:5; Ps 89:3-4).
I have no argument with these observations. They are all correct. Every administration up to the point of the new covenant makes explicit reference to the inclusion of offspring. But the credobaptist position doesn’t deny that offspring are included in these previous covenants. The argument for believer’s baptism is rooted in the differences between these covenants and the new covenant. While covenant theologians argue from the expectation that the new covenant would include children based on prior covenant inclusion, credobaptists argue that the new covenant is different precisely at this point. It should not go unnoticed that neither Jeremiah 31:31-33 nor its parallel in Ezek 36:25-26 mention “offspring” but only the spiritual status of the covenant members.
The Question of “Offspring”
But the question is “Why?” Why do you not find an explicit reference to “offspring” in the new covenant texts? Because the “offspring” expectation (beginning in Gen 3:15) terminates in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16). Now that the Messiah has come, only those who are in Christ—the mediator of the new covenant (Heb 9:15)—are considered Abraham’s offspring (Gal 3:29). Now that the final offspring has arrived, even the centrality of the family in God’s plan of redemption has shifted. God is no longer building a nation through physical progeny which means that marriage and physical offspring don’t play the same role as they did in the Mosaic covenant.
Prior to the coming of Christ, redemptive blessings flowed primarily through family and one’s offspring. Singleness and childlessness in Israel, therefore, were grievous because they meant the single or childless person had no access to several of God’s temporal redemptive blessings. Now that Christ has come and we sit on the precipice of an eternal kingdom, singleness takes on a whole new significance (1 Cor 7:6ff). Marriage is a wonderful gift with profound spiritual implications (Eph 5:25-33), and children are still a blessing from the Lord (Eph 6:1-4), but infinitely more important than getting married and having children is being God’s spiritual offspring through Christ (Rom 8:5-17; 23). It is not surprising, then, that the New Testament uses language of begetting and even “offspring” to refer to our relationship with God through Christ’s new covenant (Gal 3:29). Paul is the father of spiritual children through Christ (1 Cor 4:15). We are “born again” into the kingdom (John 3:6-8). When the Spirit regenerates us, we bear God’s “seed” inside of us (1 John 3:9; cf. 1 Pet 1:23).
The point is this: the physical offspring of new covenant members are not included with their parent(s) in the new covenant because only God’s offspring—namely, regenerate believers in Jesus Christ—are included. But how does this relate to baptism?
Circumcision under the Mosaic administration was an external sign and seal that one belonged to the covenant. Baptism is the external sign that one belongs to the new covenant. Arguing for continuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant, paedobaptists view baptism functioning similarly to circumcision by marking out those who are under the covenant administration. Unlike the old covenant which only circumcised boys, the new covenant now expands to both boys and girls. When children are born to believing parents into the covenant community, they should receive the sign of their affiliation with that community.
The problem with this position, however, is that it doesn’t reckon with one of the most important differences between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant: the question of who constitutes the covenant membership. According to Jeremiah 31:31-33, only those who are regenerate and forgiven of their sins are members of the new covenant. Children, even if they are born to believing parents are not, by definition, members of the new covenant. They should not, therefore, receive the sign of that new covenant. Such a sign must only be reserved for those who’ve been born again and forgiven. Nor should we see baptism as a fulfillment or new covenant continuation of circumcision. Circumcision is not fulfilled in baptism, but in regeneration (see Col 2:11-13).
The question of infant baptism, therefore, doesn’t touch merely upon differing ecclesiastical practices; it exposes opposing views between Presbyterians and Baptists regarding the nature of the covenants. I’ve argued that the Presbyterian position fails to reckon with the structure of the new covenant as it pertains to covenant membership. By not fully reckoning with the differences between previous covenants and the new covenant, paedobaptists fail to see that infants and unbelieving children are not the proper recipients of the new covenant sign, i.e., baptism. And it explains why they must rely upon assumptions about who was included in New Testament household baptisms instead of supplying a single explicit example of infant baptism or a command for the same in Acts or the epistles.
So, why not infant baptism? Because according to the nature of the new covenant, only those who belong to the covenant should receive the covenant sign. For that reason, we should only baptize those who offer a credible profession of genuine faith in Christ as a physical symbol of a profound spiritual reality: salvation in Jesus Christ and entrance into new covenant membership.
Derek W. H. Thomas, “Covenant, Assurance, and the Sacraments,” in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 575.