We’ve come to the second of the two-part sermons on baptism. I trust that most everyone who heard last Sunday’s message on the meaning of baptism would not have had difficulty with what they heard. Baptism is a sign and seal of the gospel. The four primary elements of the gospel signified are the washing away of sin by Christ’s blood, the union we have with Christ, being identified under God’s covenant, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. I had affirmed that baptism does not save an individual but only signifies the inner baptism of the Holy Spirit that actually saves. One other point I made was that baptism served as the opportunity for the individual to publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ. You may recall the image I gave of Jesus drawing a line in the sand and calling his followers to cross over.
All the more reason then, I should have left many of you baffled particularly given the individuals baptized this morning. We did not baptize anyone capable of professing faith, and most of them couldn’t crawl across a line. How can we square the meaning of baptism with the practice of baptizing the very individuals incapable of professing faith nor of demonstrating that the inner baptism of the Holy Spirit has taken place? To answer that question, we need to explore more fully as I promised the concept of being identified under God’s covenant.
It all goes back to Abraham and the story in Genesis 17. Follow along with me:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
God made with Abraham a covenant. A covenant is a binding agreement that establishes a relationship between two or more persons or parties. God made a binding agreement with Abram that he would be the God of Abram and his descendants and they in turn his people. Abram would have many descendants, indeed, so many that Abram’s name would be changed from Abram (which means “exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”).
Note who all he is to be a father to; this is very important. Both verses 4 and 5 say that he is to be the father of a multitude of nations. In verse 6 God says that he will make Abraham into nations. Again, this is very important because God is making clear that the covenant he is making with Abraham will be extended to other peoples, and not just to the one nation that will come from his bloodline.
Besides lots of people, Abraham gets land as well. It is the land of Canaan that God originally called Abraham to leave his home around the Euphrates to come live in. Even so, what God intends eventually to happen is for the whole earth to be Abraham’s inheritance. The multitude of nations are not going to squeeze into the little land of Canaan. The covenant blessing begins there and then spreads throughout the earth.
What we are speaking of here is the kingdom of God. God is establishing his kingdom with Abraham. It will extend through him to his blood descendants. They will eventually be made into a nation through Moses, and as such are to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). The Law is given to them for that very purpose, to distinguish them as a people belonging to God. What then? Eventually, from that bloodline of Abraham the Redeemer will come who raises the covenant to a new level. He fulfills all the conditions of the covenant, even taking the punishment due the people for their failure to keep it, and then extends it beyond Abraham’s bloodline to his spiritual-line.
What do I mean by that? I mean that we who believe in Jesus Christ to be our Redeemer are also considered the descendants of Abraham, and that covenant made with him now applies to all those – Jew and Gentile alike – who believe in Jesus. The covenant made with Abraham, and thus to the Jews his descendants, is the same covenant that now includes us. Let’s go on with our text.
9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
God gives something for Abraham and his offspring to do. They are to keep the covenant by taking upon themselves its sign. They are to display the covenant on their bodies through circumcision. God has promised blessing; Abraham and his household are to bear testimony to the promise. They are to bear testimony that they believe the promise made.
Again, this is very important. Circumcision bears testimony, first, to the promise made, and, second, to the faith that believes. It is a sign that God has promised to bless Abraham and through him to bless the nations. It is also a sign that Abraham believed the promise and a call for his offspring to also believe. So, generation after generation every Jewish male born is circumcised as a sign of the covenant. Each pair of parents bringing their child forward was being faithful to this command: Remember the covenant. I am your God and you are my people. Teach your children these things and raise them as my people belonging to me.
Who is to be circumcised? Read on.
12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Who? Every male. When? When they are but eight days old. Why? To bear witness to the covenant and that it is everlasting. How important is this? If he is not circumcised he is to be cut off from his people. Did the Jews understand circumcision’s importance? Consider this: Only once is it noted that they went a generation without circumcision. That was during the forty year period of wandering in the desert. After that, they have a clean record. They are accused of breaking every commandment of the covenant except this one. They are accused of being hypocrites – being circumcised outwardly but not inwardly – but though they are guilty of forgetting the Sabbath, committing idolatry, and neglecting the Passover feast, they do not neglect this one.
Let’s move to the New Testament. Jesus Christ has come, the promised Redeemer. The Bible refers to his work as mediating a new covenant. Does that mean God scrapped the covenant with Abraham and wrote a new one with Jesus? No, just the opposite. After the covenant with Abraham, comes the covenant with the Israelites that was made through Moses. That second covenant was simply a way to apply Abraham’s covenant to the nation of Israel. God says to them, “I am your God because of the covenant I made with Abraham. Here is how you are to live as my people.” Then he gives the commandments. With Jesus he does the same thing. He rewrites not the covenant with Abraham, but the one made through Moses. In that sense, Jesus mediates a new covenant. He provides a new way for the covenant with Abraham to be fulfilled.
Jesus is the promise of the covenant with Abraham. He is the one who takes the covenant to that new level I was speaking of, that new level which includes Gentiles who believe on his name. Did God, then, leave us with a sign to bear testimony to the covenant? Yes. Is it circumcision? No. Why? Because Jesus fulfilled that sign by becoming our circumcision. Verse 14 indicates what circumcision means. The one bearing the sign takes upon himself the judgment if he fails to keep the covenant. Just as the foreskin is cut off from the flesh, so shall he be cut off from God’s kingdom. What happened? Everybody, every single member of God’s covenant broke it. Jesus came and on the cross became our circumcision. He took the judgment and was cut off. Colossians refers to Jesus’ atoning work as the circumcision of Christ (cf Colossians 2:11-14). Just as we no longer sacrifice animals because he was our sacrifice, so we do not circumcise (for religious reasons) because he was our circumcision.
What then is the sign of the new covenant? It is baptism. All who are baptized are now bearing witness to the promise fulfilled in Christ and to the faith in Christ of God’s covenant people. Remember, we said this about circumcision, that it bears testimony, first, to the promise made, and, second, to the faith that believes.
Do you see where we are going with this? Baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of the covenant between God and his people. And just as circumcision was applied to the offspring of Jewish parents, so baptism is applied to the offspring of Christian parents.
Did I just make an extra long leap? Remember the objections I raised at the beginning. If baptism is to have the meaning I presented, which can be summed up as the saving work of Christ expressed in the gospel, how then can we apply baptism to infants who can neither profess faith or display evidence of belonging to God’s covenant?
These are fair questions. I think a helpful way to address them is to visualize your asking them to the first Christians who were Jews. In what context would they have understood Jesus and his work? In the context of the covenant. What would they have presumed about baptism? Would it not be to pass the sign of the covenant on to their children? What? Don’t give this sign to our children? Why not?
What would you tell them? Would you tell them that baptism does not save? They knew that, just as they knew that circumcision did not save. They knew the warnings of Jeremiah:
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord;
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,
because of the evil of your deeds” (Jeremiah 4:4).
They understood that being under the sign of the covenant meant cursing rather than blessing for those who bore it and yet did not believe and follow God.
But that’s just it, you might say. Baptism is a sign of faith and babies are incapable of having faith. Remember, though, that circumcision also was a sign of faith. That is what assures us that we are children of Abraham. Listen to Romans 4:9-12:
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Let’s consider this matter of faith using Abraham as our case study. We have already seen that Abraham was circumcised because he exercised faith. If he had not, he never would have been circumcised. That certainly applies to anyone of age to believe. If one is capable of believing but does not believe, it would be a mockery of the sign to baptize him. But then, what instruction is Abraham given? To then circumcise all those in his household, i.e. those for whom he is responsible. The circumcision, then, was not a sign of Isaac’s faith when he was born, but of the faith he was expected to embrace as a member of God’s covenant people.
Let’s return Peter at his famous Pentecost sermon. The people are convicted and ask what they must do. Peter tells them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then he adds: For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:38, 39).
Now don’t you think that when the Jews heard Peter, his words sounded like those that God said to Abraham? And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. What else would they think except that they are now responsible to include their children in the new covenant sign?
If the covenant of Abraham is the same covenant that we have in Christ; if circumcision was the sign of the covenant before Christ and baptism now the sign after Christ; if circumcision was the sign of faith in the covenant and baptism is the sign of faith in the covenant of Christ; if infants were circumcised because they were children of the covenant, then it seems natural to include our children in baptism.
To think further about this, what would those in the ancient world naturally assume about baptism such as Lydia and the jailer, both in Philippi, whose households were baptized? We have to ask ourselves if the difficulty we have equating households baptized with including young children and infants might have something to do with living in a modern Western culture. Would a first-century Jew or Gentile be struggling with this concept? Would their perspective be closer to ours centuries later whose head of a family says, “As for me, I will serve the Lord; my children will have to speak for themselves”; or would their perspective be closer to Joshua’s centuries earlier, who said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15)? With whom would they identify more closely?
I have laid out as best I can in a short period of time why Presbyterians baptize their infants. I hope you have taken this for what it is – an explanation for our beliefs and not a debate. I think the members of Tenth can attest that however important and convicted both those who believe in infant baptism and those who hold only to believers’ baptism are about this subject, there is a far greater concern that we all share. It is expressed well by the psalmist in Psalm 78:5-7:
He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
6 that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments…
Whether we include our children or not in the sign of the covenant; whether we regard our children as regenerated or not (a question debated among infant baptists); what we all understand is that our children must set their hope in God. We who believe (parents and all believers in the church) must teach our children not to forget the work of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but to keep the commandment to believe in him and to live for him. They must make their own profession of Jesus Christ, whether you believe that they do so as fulfilling the sign of baptism or that they do so in order to receive the sign. They cannot put their trust in a sign regardless of when they received it if they do not embrace the gospel of Christ. And whether you think failure to embrace the gospel makes them covenant breakers or keeps them outside the covenant, such failure invites the judgment of God.
We should all be able to say with the parents who brought their children for baptism this morning that we unreservedly dedicate the children of this church to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that we will endeavor to set before them a godly example, that we will pray with and for them, that we will teach them the doctrines of our holy religion, and that we will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that they should set their hope as we do in Jesus Christ.
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