On our first child’s baptism

Our first child was baptized last Sunday. This was a huge milestone for us, seeing our child come to accept for their own the faith that we had been raising them under. While part of them coming to faith was due to the talks with our child and what they have been hearing at church, I believe that a big factor in translating those teachings into personal belief was due to the Christian school they are going to and the youth group that takes place every other week. This is similar to my personal experience, having been raised in a Christian home but not really accepting the faith on my own until I went to youth camp. This is why I believe children need an opportunity to step away from their immediate family’s influence at times and think through what they have been taught and personalize it. 

The interesting part of the baptism was that it happened at a Presbyterian church. My wife and I have had Baptist influences regarding baptism, and we felt it most appropriate for our child to become fully wet (if not fully immersed) during baptism. Of course, this is contrary to how most Presbyterians baptize, which is by sprinkling. While we have our differences, the leadership at the church agreed to set up a pool outside (there was no baptismal), and the pastor proceeded with an immersion baptism for the first time ever in his career. We were very grateful for their accommodations, and it was refreshing to see such a desire to serve the members more than lord over them. 

I will not say, though, that we have not had our share of discussions around what it is that Presbyterians believe about baptism. I still get teased about how I should “repent” of my theology. However, I do not find credible evidence from the Bible around accepting the notion of “covenant baptism” as it is applied by the Presbyterians. 

As an example of how “covenant baptism” is explained, here is a video that I was given to watch. 

While the video has decent explanations from the Bible, I am still left with several questions.

Does the New Covenant apply to believers and non-believers?

Jeremiah 31:34 is used as evidence for this. “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” The argument goes that all covenants in the Bible include believers and non-believers, and the New Covenant is no exception. Although verses 31-33 mentions that “they shall know me… For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more”, verse 34 mentions that no one needs to teach their neighbor to “know the Lord,” which means that the prophecy has not yet been fulfilled because there are obviously teachers and preachers today. The New Covenant provided has not reached its “fullness,” when Jesus returns and separates the believers from the unbelievers. Thus, in the present age the New Covenant applies to believers and unbelievers, where there needs to be a continuous teaching to “know the Lord.”

While the argument appears to be credible, there are a few challenges. 

First, taking a passage that is a contiguous thought process and splitting it so that part of it applies to present age and another part to the future, can lead to incorrect interpretation and application. Verses 31-34 is one statement, so it would be more natural to try to understand its message in one context and setting. 

Second, the prophet Jeremiah is referring to a New Covenant that includes putting God’s law within the hearts of the people, the people belonging to God, the people knowing God, and God forgiving their sins. It is natural to see that the New Covenant is referring to a people who already know and belong to God and who do not need to be taught to “know” (yada) or acknowledge God. This prophecy is not something for the future pointing to Christ’s separating the believers and unbelievers when he returns. This is a New Covenant given to those who have already put their faith in Christ. 

Third, we now have the Holy Spirit within us who teaches us all things and brings to our remembrance all that Jesus has said to us (John 14:26). True, we still have pastors and teachers today, but ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who causes and enables us to follow Jesus (John 16:13-15; Gal. 5:16). 

Is baptism a sign of the covenant? 

Assuming that the New Covenant applies to both believers and non-believers, it is argued that this includes those who are believers in the church and their children. In order to signify that the children are part of the covenant, a sign is given to them in the form of baptism. This baptism becomes a commitment for the community to participate in influencing an inward change in the child as they are raised in the covenant community. 

This argument also appears to be credible and refers to how covenants were applied throughout the Old Testament. However, at the forefront of this argument is the assumption that the New Covenant applies to both believers and non-believers, and there are challenges to this. 

The video also rightly notes that baptism is an outward expression of an inward belief for believers. The caveat to this is that the video also mentions that the case is different for infants. The Bible has a lot to say about baptism being an expression of one’s belief. 

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous ,that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in spirit… Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 3:18-21

Baptism is not a sign of the covenant. It is pointing to Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. By being baptized we are identifying with what Jesus has done for us so that we can appeal (or respond) to God with a good conscience. In other words, the act of baptism does not save us, nor does it seal us within a covenant community, but it signifies what God has already done for us and how we have responded to this in faith. It is an outward expression of inward belief. 

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Colossians 2:11-12

We are not circumcised physically as the males in Israel were in the Old Testament. Our hearts are circumcised as Jeremiah prophesied. Circumcision is an act of the Holy Spirit bringing a person to faith in Christ. The heart circumcision is then demonstrated by baptism, which signifies externally what happened to our hearts. We were buried with him in baptism and raised with Christ “through faith.” 

How are New Covenant members defined? 

There are challenges in accepting that the New Covenant includes non-believers and believers. It is also challenging to accept that the sign of the covenant needs to be applied to the non-believing children of believers. How, then, can we define who is included in the New Covenant? 

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God, who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God.

John 1:12-13

First, we can see that the children of God are not born of flesh nor the will of man. They are not the physical descent of believers as they were in the Old Testament. Children of God are those who receive and believe in Jesus. They are enabled to receive and believe Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Being born into a believer’s family does not make them children of God. 

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.  

Romans 9:6-8

Second, even in the Old Testament covenants, not all descendants of Israel were considered to be part of Israel. Just because they were born into a household in Israel, they were not necessarily part of the people of God. Verse 11 says, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls”. It is the election of God that enabled individuals to be part of God’s family and receive the benefits of the New Covenant. 

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. 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

On the one hand this text seems to encourage believers to baptize their children because they are part of the promise (New Covenant), but a closer examination of the text is warranted. 

We see an exhortation to “repent and be baptized.” This is the standard order of events prescribed by this text. There needs to be a repentance and faith in Christ, and then baptism follows. Because baptism is an outward expression of an inward change, it does not make sense to baptize children before there is faith.

The promise for forgiveness of sins and receiving the Holy Spirit is for believers, for their children, and for anyone else. The caveat is “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Although as parents we want all of our children to be part of the New Covenant, this cannot happen unless God calls them. Physical descent does not guarantee their membership into God’s family. 

Yet we lean on God’s word and trust that all who receive and believe in Jesus become the children of God. That’s why we commit ourselves to raise our children to know the Lord and exhort them to follow him. That’s why we pray for them and address their questions when there are doubts. Just as our first child came to faith and was baptized, we continue to live out our faith and have conversations with our children so that they can truly be part of the New Covenant.

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