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A Reformed Baptist Argument for Believers’ Baptism Based on Covenant Theology


By Richard C. Barcellos, Pastor



Christians within the Reformed tradition are painfully aware of doctrinal division over many issues. There are various positions on the law of God and its applicability to the Christian. The field of eschatology finds Reformed Christians in various camps. Church government is another area where those under the Reformed umbrella often differ with each other. One of the most heated issues of debate among those adhering to Reformed Theology, broadly speaking, concerns the subjects of baptism. Various arguments are marshaled to come to the defense of those on both sides. Some go as far as to say that if you do not believe in baptizing the children of believers you cannot be Reformed. Those who hold this position would say that it is impossible to hold to Covenant Theology and not adhere to infant baptism. In their understanding, the arguments for infant baptism follow necessarily from a biblical view of the covenants which automatically precludes any non-paedobaptist understanding of Covenant Theology. Brethren who hold to this view often categorize all non-paedobaptists as Dispensationalists or at least, incipient Dispensationalists. Is this characterization accurate, and is this view of Covenant Theology the only view on the theological market worth listening to? Sad to say, but many in our day and throughout history would say yes. It is time for this to end.

When I use the phrase Covenant Theology I mean that approach to the understanding of Scripture centering around the various major covenants which traces their unfolding within the History of Redemption. This approach to Scripture takes into consideration the historical covenants individually and seeks to bring them together into a systematic whole. Historically, Covenant Theology has been the parent of infant baptism. This essay assumes that a proper understanding of the progressive nature of the biblical covenants, and the replacement of the Old Covenant by the New Covenant, seriously challenges historic Covenant Theology, and yet does not demand Dispensationalism or Antinomianism.

This essay will seek to differ with the above assertion that it is impossible to hold to Covenant Theology and not adhere to infant baptism. On the contrary, it will be argued that a consistent adherence to Covenant Theology refutes infant baptism and upholds, even demands believers' baptism within the covenantal structure of the Bible.





So that we all understand what is meant when certain terminology is used, let us define our terms before the discussion begins. When the word paedo is used it refers to paedobaptism or paedobaptists. Paedobaptists believe that the proper subjects of baptism are believers and their children. When the word credo is used it refers to credobaptism or credobaptists. Broadly speaking, a credobaptist is one who believes in what many call believers' baptism. He is one who believes that a statement of belief (that’s what the word credo means) in Christ is necessary before one is baptized. In the broadest sense of the word, there are both Covenantal and Dispensational Credobaptists. To be more specific, a credobaptist, as primarily understood in this pamphlet, is one who holds to believers' baptism based on his understanding of Covenant Theology. This type of credobaptist is what many in our day call Reformed Baptist. When I use the phrase Reformed Baptist, I do not simply mean a Calvinistic Baptist. The two are not necessarily identical. A Reformed Baptist, as understood in this essay, is one who holds to The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 as his confessional standard. This means that a Reformed Baptist is one who holds to Calvinistic Soteriology as opposed to Arminian; Covenant Theology as opposed to Dispensational; the abiding validity of the Moral Law as summarized in the Decalogue, including the fourth commandment, as opposed to Antinomianism; and the regulative principle of worship, as opposed to the normative. With these definitions in place, let us begin.




Most if not all paedos agree that they attempt to base infant baptism on the Old Testament's doctrine of the covenant. They argue from parental representation based on the Abrahamic Covenant, the unity of the covenants, and theological continuity between the testaments. Many of them agree with the credos that paedoism is not an explicit New Testament doctrine-that is, the New Testament does not command infant baptism. Some over zealous credos, on the other hand, seem to forget that the Old Testament is still inspired and profitable. They have a tendency to deny covenantal continuity in the name of explicit New Testament credoistic distinctives. (In other words, Dispensational presuppositions.) Most of them have a built-in antinomian (against law) tendency. In either case, these credos really have no defense against the paedos and their argument from the covenant except that paedoism is based on the Old Testament doctrine of the covenant-as if all doctrines based on the Old Testament doctrine of the covenant are invalid. Many credos cry out, "If not repeated in the New, the Old we will not do." Thankfully, their creed and their conduct do not always agree. (Dispensational credos and those non-Dispensational credos who do not hold to the abiding validity of the Moral Law of God as summarized in the Decalogue, including the fourth commandment, are meant here.) The paedos say, "If the Old is not rescinded by the New, then still the Old we yet must do." According to the covenantal credobaptist, this must be the crux of the paedo/credo debate if we are to get any place with our paedobaptist brethren. Unlike Dispensational arguments for believers' baptism which are grounded in the New Testament alone, the Reformed credos can establish their understanding of baptism on the same turf as the paedos, at least in part. This brings rise to this vital question: Is the doctrine of automatic infant inclusion in the covenant community either rescinded by the Covenant Theology of the Old Testament or modified so as to invalidate paedoism under the New Covenant? Is this not the issue? Many credos will never be convinced by arguments from the Old Testament doctrine of the covenant because they are committed to the principle not repeated, then not binding. Likewise, paedos will never be convinced by specific texts from the New Testament concerning the subjects of baptism because they are committed to the principle not rescinded, then binding. As a matter of fact, paedos must, and many of them do, agree that the explicit evidence of the New Testament is on the credo side. And, the credos must agree that the explicit rescinding of automatic infant inclusion in the covenant community is at best assumed by the New Testament.

The issue comes down to this: If the paedo has no revelation from God to change the Old Testament doctrine of automatic infant inclusion in the covenant community for the children of believers, then he assumes it as obligatory. However, if the Reformed credo can show him from the Old Testament and even from the Old Testament doctrine of the covenant that, in fact, there is such revelation, then he must admit it as rescinded and non obligatory. What should be compelling for the paedo is an argument with its roots in the Covenant Theology of the Old Testament and its corresponding fruits in the New concerning the rescinding of automatic infant inclusion in the covenant community for the children of believers. This argument would have to take into consideration the doctrine of the covenant. It would have to prove from the Old Testament's doctrine of the covenant that infant inclusion was prophetically rescinded by the Old Testament. Then it must show that the New Testament assumes this rescinding and bears the fruit of it. Reformed Baptists, that is Covenantal Credobaptists, believe they have the argument that should silence the debate or at least cause paedos to seriously reconsider their position.




The Old Testament doctrine of the New Covenant prophetically rescinds automatic infant inclusion by stating in Jeremiah 31:34 that they (that is, those within the New Covenant community) shall all know Me. Understanding that this means all covenant citizens under the New Covenant shall know God savingly (which was not true of the Abrahamic or Mosaic), the Reformed Credos then argue that automatic infant inclusion within the covenant community is here prophetically rescinded by the Covenant Theology of the Old Testament. Then, what is expected by the teaching of the Old Testament is a New Covenant community wherein all know the Lord savingly, without exception. The Reformed Credos then say, "Now let us look at our New Testaments. What we should see is the inauguration of the same New Covenant promised in the Old Testament, one New Covenant community (not Israel and the Church but a transformed or New Israel, which consists of those only who know the Lord) and New Covenant privileges given to New Covenant citizens only." In others words, the Reformed Credos say that the Old Testament doctrine of the New Covenant prophetically rescinds automatic infant inclusion and the New Testament bears the fruit of that by reserving New Covenant ordinances to New Covenant citizens, that is, believers, those who are of faith, the seed of Abraham, all who know the Lord. The Reformed Credobaptists say that the New Covenant is New in at least two ways: first, unlike the Abrahamic and the Old/Mosaic Covenants, the New Covenant cannot be broken (Jeremiah 31:32; see Genesis 17:14 for the violability of the Abrahamic Covenant and Deuteronomy 29:22-28 for the violability of the Old/Mosaic Covenant); and second, unlike the Old/Mosaic Covenant, infant inclusion is not automatic because covenant citizenry demands the saving knowledge of God in the New Covenant. This is why the unbelieving Jews were cut off after the inauguration of the New Covenant. It is interesting to note that in Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, he makes a distinction between Israels (Romans 9:6). In other words, within Old Covenant Israel there were two groups: believers and unbelievers. All of the Israelites considered here by Paul were covenant members, however, the majority were cut off after Christ inaugurated the New Covenant. Why? Because of their unbelief. Why were others (Gentiles) grafted in? Because of their belief. Here we see both covenantal continuity and discontinuity. The believing Jews went from being Old Covenant citizens to New Covenant citizens-continuity; and the unbelieving Jews went from being Old Covenant citizens to those who were cut off-discontinuity. Under the New Covenant there is only one Israel comprised of believers only. Automatic paedobaptism and paedocommunion are then unthinkable. You must know the Lord to be in the New Covenant. You must be born again. New Covenant privileges are reserved for New Covenant citizens. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are therefore to be reserved for believers, Abraham's seed, those who know the Lord, New Covenant citizens. In actuality, this is only a small portion of the Reformed Baptist argument. The whole argument would include examining all of the promised blessings of the New Covenant, showing that they were blessings experienced by some of those in the Old Covenant, and then tracing it as revealed in the New Testament showing that the promised blessings are universally experienced within the New Covenant community as prophesied by Jeremiah. (See the excellent pamphlet by Greg Welty entitled, A Critical Evaluation of Infant Baptism available from Reformed Baptist Publications and Pastor Sam Waldron’s four part audio taped exposition of Jeremiah 31:31-34 entitled, The New Covenant Constitution of the Church: A Reformed Baptist Manifesto available from Truth for Eternity Ministries, 3181 Bradford NE; Grand Rapids, MI 49505. Both of these are musts for those interested in this issue.)




Many objections could be entering into the mind of convinced paedos or even doubting credos at this time. Let us look at a few of them. First, "Aren’t you making hard cold artificial distinctions between the biblical covenants so as to get your credoism out of the Bible? Essentially there’s only one covenant; the covenant of grace." Actually there are several distinct yet vitally related biblical covenants. What is often done by pedos is to diminish the differences between the covenants. For example, saying that the Abrahamic and New Covenants are one and the same covenant and saying that they are two distinct and yet vitally related covenants are two different things altogether. Is the Old Covenant the Abrahamic? Is the Abrahamic the New? One would be hard pressed to answer yes. Louis Berkhof provides for us a representative example of what pedos often say concerning this objection when he says, "This covenant [Abrahamic] is still in force and is essentially identical with the "new covenant" of the present dispensation." (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, [Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986 reprint], pp. 631ff..) Interestingly enough, O. Palmer Robertson, another paedobaptist scholar, seems not to equate them when he says, "...the prophet combines the Abrahamic with the new covenant." (O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, [Phillipsburg, NJ, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1985 reprint], p. 41.) To combine and equate are two different matters. Though the Abrahamic and New both function at the same time under the current "dispensation," they are not presented to us in the Bible as one and the same and neither are the other Biblical covenants.


Second, "Since it was God who ratified the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15 when He passed between the pieces, then the Abrahamic Covenant, like the New, cannot be broken lest God Himself be a covenant breaker." Jeremiah was speaking about the Old or Mosaic Covenant and not the Abrahamic. However, concerning the violability of the Abrahamic Covenant, God did say in Genesis 17:14, "But an uncircumcised male which is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant." Is this not convincing? Maybe the objection concerns the inviolability of the Abrahamic Covenant from the Divine side? God did not and cannot break any Covenant, but man can break covenant with God under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants as originally given but not under the New. By the way, the violability of the Mosaic Covenant as found in Jeremiah 31:32 and Deuteronomy 29:25 along with the violability of the Abrahamic Covenant as noted above is evidence that all in those covenants did not necessary know the Lord. The promises of the Abrahamic covenant are now being administered by Christ under the New Covenant, and since the New Covenant cannot be broken, then neither can the Abrahamic under its current New Covenant administration.


Third, "Doesn’t the they shall all know Me of Jeremiah 31:34 refer to a future expectation and not a present reality, even the eternal state?" Some have said this before. I will grant that this promise does reach out into the eternal state, but if we limit it to the eternal state, how would this promise of the New Covenant find application prior to that time? Considering the fact that Hebrews 8:8-13 indicates the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy concerning a universal saving knowledge of God within the covenant community as being realized, at least in part, during the present administration of the New Covenant, we are forced to the conclusion that the New Covenant finds its fulfillment both in this age and in the age to come. All shall know Me refers to all in the covenant without exception, not all in the world without exception, and this is presently being realized. Granted, all in the world will know the Lord in the eternal state, but at that time, all in the world will be all in the covenant.




This pamphlet has suggested that a proper understanding of Covenant Theology supports a Reformed Baptist position concerning the subjects of baptism and that to get anywhere in this debate with a paedobaptist, one must approach the issue from the stand point of Covenant Theology. Starting with the Old Testament’s doctrine of the New Covenant, it was shown that this covenant is not identical with all previous covenants in that this covenant would produce a covenant community in which all know the Lord savingly thus invalidating the traditional paedobaptist argument from the covenant for baptizing infants. This argument from Covenant Theology adheres to and seeks to consistently apply the Reformed hermeneutical principle-unless rescinded, then binding. The doctrine of infant inclusion is rescinded and therefore not binding and the New Testament is not silent but very vocal and supportive of this argument. It is hoped that those toying with paedobaptism would be kept from it and those convinced of it would go back to the Scriptures and see if these things be so.

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