No one should make the decision to change church allegiances without taking time to consider the biblical evidence: theological trajectories, pastoral impact (on people we love and serve), and cultural implications (every tradition has its "hem" traditions!) of the shift. Yet I suspect no one should take as long as I did to make the actual move! For me the change was not a sudden shaft of light so much as an unsought capitulation to the accumulated weight of evidence garnered over many years of regular biblical ministry.
Born into a Christian family I cannot remember a time when I did not love the Lord Jesus or love His church. Sunday was, as it remains, the high point of our week. As a child I loved the psalms and hymns we sang, the minister’s gravity (accentuated by his wearing the clerical collar), and the solemn order of our participation in the Lord’s Supper. My Baptist church looked and felt more like the Presbyterian church down the street.
Sensing a call to preach when I was eleven, I immediately developed a passionate interest in reading theology and doing evangelism. When I discovered the doctrines of grace at age 14 and began to talk about them to everyone who would listen, it caused dismay to my parents, peers, and church leaders who urged me to get over it and stick to the simple gospel. I was baptized as a believer by immersion at the age of 15; it was the thing to do in obedience to Christ. When the minister and church officers recognized my call to the ministry, they naturally directed me into the Baptist ministry, and I went to Ireland to study in a college that identified itself as "Reformed and evangelical." There I first heard the arguments that went beyond the usual proof texts used to support the credobaptist position, arguments that rooted believer’s baptism in the covenant of grace. These discussions and my love for the church sparked a serious study of ecclesiology that I would pursue over several years. By the time I became a pastor of my own church at age 22, I was already beginning to think that Presbyterian church government most closely resembled that which I saw in the New Testament, and I was prepared to say that to anyone who asked throughout the rest of my ministry. Three of the churches I served instituted an eldership as a result of my teaching on the nature and function of church office.
But a sense that Presbyterian polity was biblical was one thing; "getting" infant baptism was something else. Looking back over the first ten years of my ministry, I think I was becoming increasingly unconvinced that I had the baptism issue resolved, and I began to dismiss the issue of baptism as a divisive one and sought to rise above it! What reflection was possible with three (or four as in my very first church) sermons a week to prepare, no sabbatical (in 40 years of pastoral ministry), and a series of busy churches and a growing family to deal with were inconclusive? In Canada I had the opportunity to study Reformation Thought at the University of Waterloo in Ontario where there are strong Anabaptist influences. Reading the primary documents of the Reformation, especially the spiritual and Anabaptist writers, I found myself increasingly in sympathy with the magisterial reformers. I found myself increasingly uncomfortable in an exclusively Baptist setting and eventually moved to churches with an "open" membership where I was not bound to persuade people to be rebaptized and where I had the opportunity to explain to people from the Baptist tradition who applied for membership the paedo-baptist position. I felt deeply committed to serving the congregations where we were led; I appreciated the fact they welcomed paedobaptists into full membership and I respectfully implemented their church order and baptized believers by immersion. I could not accept invitations to pastor "closed" membership churches to the perplexity of many friends who simply never asked me why! As a couple our approach to rearing our five children became driven by covenant theology we followed the advice of William Still of Aberdeen who encouraged us privately to bring our children up in faith that they would become Christians rather than in fear they would not. And in my practice of child dedication I urged parents to see their children as children of promise. My wife and I are grateful to God for that godly and helpful advice.
What were my problems? I wanted to understand where baptism stood in the context of biblical theology, how did it fit into the flow of the bible’s story line? I could not understand why, given the Old Testament emphasis of God's working through families, the New Testament did not signal a change in that policy; it seemed passing strange to me that the new covenant sacrament included women and Gentiles but excluded the children of believers; it seemed that in that respect the new covenant was less generous than the old. There were too many questions surrounding the family baptisms in Acts and Corinthians, Paul's "holy" children, the warning passages of Hebrews, and the nature of the church that I could not resolve from a Baptist perspective.
The Nature of the Church
Was the church exclusively composed only of the elect? The Anabaptists and Baptists (like many such movements in the history of the church) aimed at forming a "pure" church of "believers only" and often contrasted themselves with the mixed nature of churches in the "magisterial" stream of the Reformation. Scripture seemed to contradict this assumption. My early dispensationalism dissolved during expositions of the prophet Daniel that led me to understand that the true Israel was the believing remnant within the larger body of circumcised and professing Israelites. God's covenant community in the times before Christ was a community of believers and their children; in that community some did and many did not fulfill the spiritual expectation of their circumcision. Our Lord Himself claimed to be the true Israel when He said, "I am the true vine" He went on to describe the branches "in him"—all of which were externally united to him and some of which were organically united and brought forth fruit as a result of his word. The writer to the Hebrews specifically links his Christian readers with the Hebrews of the old covenant and warns them that some in their community that have been "washed" (baptized) and who have eaten the heavenly food (the Lord's Supper) and have felt the powers of the age to come (the Word of God) may fall away. These were obviously church members, part of the Israel of God, but they were not savingly united to Christ or numbered among the elect. When our Lord addresses the congregations in Revelation, he recognizes that many within the churches will not have "ears to hear." This suggests New Testament churches were not pure though they strove to be, and it explains why the language of Israel is so indiscriminately applied to the churches (God’s people, holy nation etc. 1 Peter 2:10).
The Continuity of the Covenant of Grace
At seminary it became apparent that the fundamental issue separating credo and paedobaptists is that of the relationship between the old and new covenants. Here theologians make a helpful distinction between ordo salutis (order of salvation) and historia salutis (history of salvation).1 The ordo salutis relates to the way salvation is applied to believers; the historia salutis refers to the once and for all event of our Lord’s coming into the world and all that he accomplished for our salvation by his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. It is this distinction that helps us answer the question: “What is new about the new covenant?
Older dispensationalism spoke of several "administrations" of salvation in different dispensations or ages. I clung to a revised form of dispensationalism through seminary and even preached it in the first months of my ministry but it soon evaporated when I set myself to teach through the book of Daniel. Instead I was persuaded that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in every age. This covenant of grace was announced to Adam, established with Abraham, administered provisionally under Moses, and realized in Christ. Genesis shows that Adam believed in the promise of the Messiah who would crush the serpent's head! That unilateral and unconditional promise of a Savior is called the covenant of grace. It is established in God's covenant with Abraham who was "justified by faith." Paul can say that Abraham was justified (ordo) even though when Abraham believed, Christ had not yet been raised for ourjustification (historia) (Galatians 3:6). In Hebrews 11 Abraham is shown to have had a new covenant faith as he looked for a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem; while Moses"considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward," even though Christ had not yet come into the world to be "reproached" when Moses believed these things (Hebrews 11:26). When the later prophets predicted a new covenant it was not in contrast with the covenant of grace announced to Adam and Abraham.
In Luke’s two volume work (Luke-Acts) I noticed that each book begins by anchoring the gospel in the covenant with Abraham—in Mary’s song where she places the events surrounding her son in the mercy of God "to Abraham and his offspring forever" (Luke 1:55); and in Peter’s sermon where his punch line after pointing to Christ is the "promise" (of the gospel—forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit) which is for us and our offspring. Later he says that Abraham "rejoiced" to see his day; and that Isaiah had seen him in the Temple "high and lifted up."
It follows that, if pre-Christian believers were saved that they had to be saved by Christ alone through Hhis work on the cross. This has implications for the sacraments.
The Signs and Seals of the Covenant of Grace
In the Old Testament salvation is conditioned on faith and is attended by covenant signs and seals—circumcision and the Passover. Both are "bloody" signs. And both point forward to their fulfillment in Christ.
Circumcision, which involved cutting off the foreskin, signifies the "cutting off" of Abraham and his children from the rest of the world and their belonging to the Lord. It was an outward sign and seal of inner spiritual circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6) which references the new birth and the transformation of the heart. In Ezekial 36:24 the Lord refers to this spiritual circumcision when he promises the new covenant. It is probably to this teaching Jesus refers when he expresses surprise that Nicodemus as a teacher in Israel doesn’t know about the new birth. Circumcision was also, according to Paul, the seal of "the righteousness that is through faith" (Romamns 4:11-12). These two blessings flow to the believer because of their union with Christ. Ultimately it pointed to the "cutting off" of the male "seed" the Messiah "the circumcision of Christ" (Collossians 2:11-12). "In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead." Christ was cut off for us, and his death for our sins is counted by God as our own death. Circumcision symbolizes this reality of Christ suffering as our substitute. In the new covenant, the sign and seal of the covenant is a bloodless sign; it uses water to demonstrate that the sacrifice has been made and the promise has been fulfilled and the sign signifies the forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Later under Moses GOd gave the people another sign, the Passover; that was also a "bloody" sign that reminded his people how he mercifully and graciously redeemed his people from bondage in Egypt. Passover was different from circumcision in the same way that baptism and the Lord's Supper differ: circumcision, the first covenant sign was applied to infants and adults alike, and was a mark of entrance into God's covenant people. When a Gentile like Abraham is converted and "believes God" he is circumcised as a believer and his family are circumcised as a sign and seal of the promise of God. The Passover meal was restricted to those who were able to understand God's redemptive acts because it was meant to nurture and lead to growth. It was not a sign of entrance into the visible covenant assembly of God's people, but served as a means of renewing the covenant of grace. The new covenant equivalent of Passover is the Lord’s Supper, which is reserved for those who profess the gospel to which they were pledged as children and who follow up their baptism by believing the gospel for themselves.
Only this biblical theological trajectory explains why the New Testament gives no detailed apologetic for baptism leading some to dismiss baptism (as I once did) as secondary or inconsequential. The Bible does not need to enlarge on that which it has already taught. So, a Jewish audience would know exactly what Peter meant on the day of Pentecost when he quoted the Abrahamic covenant language concerning the gospel promise, "this promise is for you and your children and all who are afar off" (Acts 2). What is clearly new in that announcement is that Gentiles are to receive the promise. It is then no surprise to find a Gentile with a family imitating the experience of Abraham (when he was a Gentile technically) believing God and being baptized along with all his family. Far from being an argument from silence, the household baptisms fit perfectly the trajectory of biblical theological teaching.
It is also no surprise to find the warning passages addressed to people who have been washed and have tasted the powers of the age to come. These are baptized Christians who are within the orbit of the church but who despite that may act like many Israelites in the desert and depart from the God they profess to serve.
This explains why the children of even one believer in a couple are described as "holy" by the apostle Paul in Corinthians. They are covenant children separated from the world and exposed to the things of God. And what is it that separates them from the world? It is their baptism. When the later prophets predicted a new covenant it was not in contrast with the covenant of grace announced to Adam and Abraham. The whole point of Hebrews 11 is that Abraham had a new covenant faith and looked for a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, and Romans 4 and Galatians 3 use Abraham as an example of New Covenant faith. Moses "considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward," even though Christ had not yet been "reproached" in history when Moses believed these things (Hebrews 11:26).
The new covenant is new in contrast to the covenant with Israel through Moses. Galatians 3:1-29, 4:21-31, and 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 stress that the covenant with Moses was preparatory, and Paul says that the glory of the Old Covenant was fading but the glory of the New Covenant is permanent. The message of Hebrews chapters 3-10 is that the Old Covenant (under Moses) was preparatory to the New Covenant. This means that the newness of the new covenant is not that there is a new way of salvation, but that a new day has dawned. In theological terms it is not about the "ordo salutis" but the "historia salutis"—all that was foreshadowed found fulfillment in the new covenant.
We are grateful to God for every church where we have served and at this point of our lives we feel enormously privileged to serve in a church that holds to my beloved "Westminster Confession of Faith." It is my joy to baptize the children of believers and to see those children treated, not as little strangers until they make their profession of faith, but as members of the family of God. As such they are instructed in the full width of Bible truth and in the catechism of the church. It is the most wonderful privilege to see those children come to the point where they want to express their faith publicly and be admitted to the Lord’s Table. Of course it is still disappointing that baptism remains the "water that divides," but I have learned to appreciate the joy in knowing that there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. And it gives me more joy than I can express to belong to a church that takes seriously the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Reformation.
1 The historia/ordo distinction is simply another way of speaking about redemption accomplished and applied. The historia salutis refers to the actual events, in space and time, by which God brings salvation to his people. Creation, the fall, the flood, the call of Abraham, the exodus, the captivity, the life and death of Christ, His resurrection and Pentecost. They actually happened in space and time but they bear theological significance, because they come in order to fulfill or accomplish the eternal decrees of God. The ordo salutis (or order of salvation) refers, in the wider sense, to the fact that Christ’s work is applied to believers, and in the narrower sense, to how this is applied in the life of the believer (eg. being and continuing to be united with Christ by faith, faith that, through the power of the Spirit, embraces Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel). I am grateful to my friend Carl Trueman for highlighting the need for definition here.