Dear Church Family,
In our Sunday morning sermon series (“The Church and the Means of Grace”), we are examining the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption – especially, the word, sacraments, and prayer (Westminster Shorter Catechism 88). The audio recordings of the sermons preached thus far in this series are available online here.
Last Sunday, we looked at the primacy of the preached word for the gathering and perfecting of the saints (Romans 10:8-17; 1 Peter 1:22-2:3). This coming Sunday, we will be considering the sacrament of baptism as a means of grace (1 Peter 3:17-4:6). We will be considering how the rite of baptism functions as a reminder of the promises of God which are received by faith, our union with Christ, and a goad to obedience and righteousness – reminding us to “live in the spirit according to the will of God” (1 Peter 4:6).
We, of course, will not be able to consider every aspect of baptism and what the Bible teaches about this sacrament. We will simply try to consider how baptism functions as a means of grace for the people of God – as a community and as individuals. One of the things that we will not have time to explore is the biblical basis for the baptism of the infant children of believers, sometimes referred to as the doctrine of paedobaptism. So, at this point, I thought it might be helpful to simply offer a very brief exegetical explanation of the doctrine of infant baptism by looking at just two passages in the New Testament – and then pointing you to a helpful essay and a video link for further reflection on this topic.
Two Passages Concerning the Doctrine of Infant Baptism
Colossians 2:9-12. Speaking of the deity of Christ and the work of regeneration and spiritual rebirth, the Apostle Paul writes:
9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
Before we think about the teaching and implications of this passage, it is helpful to take note of the fact that in the Old Covenant, God commanded the physical rite of circumcision as a sign for His people Israel (e.g., Genesis 17; Joshua 5). However, the physical sign was always intended to point to the necessary spiritual reality of the circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6; Romans 2:29). With that background of how the physical sign of circumcision was always intended to point to the inward reality of the circumcision of the heart, let us consider two points that Paul makes in these verses from Colossians.
First, in keeping with that teaching of the Old Testament about the necessary spiritual reality of heart-circumcision, notice how Paul describes being “made complete” (v 10) and being “raised up with Him [Christ] through faith in the working of God” (v 12) as being “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (v 11). Regeneration (or being made complete) is described here as having one’s heart circumcised by Christ.
Second, notice how Paul describes this heart-circumcision as now being accomplished through being “buried with Christ in baptism” (v 12). Of course, Paul does not mean that the physical rite of water baptism automatically accomplishes the inward reality of rebirth. If that were so, he would be contradicting the Old Testament and his own teaching in the immediate context. Rather, Paul is teaching us here that the spiritual reality of heart circumcision is now, in the New Covenant, signified in baptism.
Just as the outward sign of circumcision in the Old Covenant was always intended to point to the inward reality of the spiritual circumcision of the heart; so, too, the outward sign of baptism in the New Covenant points to the inward reality of the spiritual circumcision of the heart. In his commentary on these verses, John Calvin writes:
Christ, says he, accomplishes in us spiritual circumcision, not through means of that ancient sign, which was in force under Moses, but by baptism. Baptism, therefore, is a sign of the thing that is presented to us, which while absent was prefigured by circumcision.
To put it as simply as possible: In Colossians 2:9-12, Paul draws a connection between the physical sign of circumcision in the Old Covenant and the physical sign of baptism in the New Covenant. And, both point to, and signify, the spiritual reality of the circumcision of the heart by Christ through faith in God who raises the dead.
Romans 4:9-12. Now, consider what the Scriptures say with regard to the faith of Abraham as it is related to circumcision:
9 Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, "FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.
In verse 9 or Romans 4, Paul points out how Abraham was justified by faith – Abraham “believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). And then, Paul goes on to make the point that according to the Genesis account, Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised (v 10). Thus, Abraham received the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17) as a seal of righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised (v 11). In the remainder of verse and 11 and on into verse 12, Paul then goes on to make application by pointing out that Abraham believed and then was later circumcised – in that order – so that he would be the father of all those who believe and are justified by faith, whether they are circumcised (Jews) or uncircumcised (Gentiles).
Now, here’s where it really gets interesting. Those who wish to contend that the baptism of the infant children of believers is unbiblical, will sometimes point to these verses and say, “Aha! You see the order don’t you? Abraham believed and then he was circumcised. Just so, in the New Covenant, faith must precede baptism.” And, with regard to adult converts who newly come to faith (as the book of Acts shows), we would agree.
However, what those who make this argument fail to recognize is that even though Abraham first believed the promises of God and then was circumcised, he was then also commanded by God to apply that same sign of circumcision to his infant sons (Genesis 17:12).
Putting These Texts Together
From Colossians 2, we see the connection between circumcision and baptism: both point to, and signify, the spiritual reality of the circumcision of the heart by Christ through faith. And, from Romans 4, we see that while Abraham was circumcised after he believed, he was commanded to apply that same sign to his infant sons before they could give an expression of faith.
Putting these two texts together then, we see that God commands that the sign of baptism be applied to those who come to faith in Christ as adult converts as a sign of the inward reality of rebirth (the circumcision of the heart by Christ). Likewise, God commands that the sign of baptism be applied to the children of those who trust in Christ as a sign of the inward reality of rebirth (the circumcision of the heart by Christ) which is promised to them if they put their personal faith in Christ, as well. This also, is in keeping with the command of Jesus Himself in the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that He has commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20).
Two Helpful Resources
There are many more passages in the Scriptures to which we could turn to examine what the Bible teaches about the doctrine of paedobaptism; however, I hope that our brief look at these two is of some help. As promised, I would also recommend two resources by way of introduction to the biblical basis for the baptism of infant children of believers.
First, I recommend an excellent essay by Dr. Dennis E. Johnson called Infant Baptism: How My Mind Has Changed. Dr. Johnson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. This essay was written by Dr. Johnson by way of explanation to one of his daughters as to how and why he came to embrace the doctrine of paedobaptism. As such, it is relatively brief and simple, but also pretty thorough. He concludes that essay with some fatherly encouragement to his daughter: “Study the Scriptures. Pray. Think. Ask.”
Second, I would also recommend a video lesson by Dr. Richard Pratt called Why Do We Baptize Our Children? Dr. Pratt is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and President of Third Millennium Ministries. In the video, Dr. Pratt explores what the Bible teaches with regard to three main topics: the people of the covenant, the covenant sign of baptism, and the significance of baptism.
We praise God that we who were formerly far off – separated from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise – have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-13). We are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints, made members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19-20). And, as members of God’s household, we have His precious promise: “Repent, and each of you be baptized 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 your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch