Infant Baptism, part 3: The Commonwealth , The Church, and the Covenants

In the first two studies, we looked at how the apostles and disciples understood our Lord’s instruction in the Great Commission.  We looked at examples of who they baptized, even where there were “households” baptized.  In this latter case, the Biblical evidence is clear that those who were baptized heard the word and received it. In other words, they believed.  There is no evidence that the disciples ever baptized infants.

We examined the OT practices of circumcision and the Passover to see if they were replaced with the corresponding practices of infant baptism and Communion in the NT.  We learned that these OT symbols weren’t just replaced with other symbols, but were fulfilled in the realities they expressed.  Circumcision is fulfilled in regeneration, and the Passover was fulfilled in the death of Christ.  NT baptism is the profession of faith in that death, and communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is the memorial of that death.  Without faith, neither of those ordinances are of any benefit, and, in the case of the Lord’s Supper, may even bring judgment, 1 Corinthians 11:28-31.

In this final post, we want to look at any correlation there may be between Israel and the Church, as well as take a look at the three covenants which affect them directly:  the Abrahamic, the Mosaic and the New.

– The Commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:12) and the Church. 

We noted in our second post the view of R.B. Kuiper that “the church of the new dispensation is the continuation of the church of the old dispensation.”

However, there are enormous differences between the Israel of the Old Testament and the church of the New Testament.

The nation of Israel was just that – a nation.  As such, it was composed of people of all ages, from newborn infants to the elderly on their death beds, and included all of them.  As  such, the relationship was corporate.  Circumcision of 8-day old males was the sign that such infants were indeed part of the nation by virtue of their birth in a Jewish family.  Thus, genealogy played a huge role in determining the certainty of a person’s right to belong to the nation.  Hence, the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles, as well as other lengthy listings of father to son.  This “family” orientation obscured the original meaning of the sign, namely that of the faith of Abraham, through which he was declared righteous.

Further, Israel was the only nation so blessed as to have a relationship with God.  Beginning his remarks to the people before the giving of the Law, Moses told them, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all peoples on the face of the earth,” Deuteronomy 7:6.  The Psalmist rejoiced in this truth centuries later, For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure, Psalm 135:4.

As a nation, children were necessarily part of it.  They were the means of its continuation.  Circumcision simply demonstrated that the males were truly part of it .

The relationship of the Israelite to God was national, based only on his physical relationship to Abraham.  Hence, again, the importance of genealogies.  This does not automatically mean that there was a spiritual relationship with God.  If anything, as time wore on, this became obscured and people assumed they were right with God simply because they were part of the nation.  Yet it was to one who was fully vested in all the privileges of being Jewish that the Lord Jesus said, “You must be born again.”  Physical relationship is not enough.

Our Lord intimated this at other times during His ministry.  Early on, His mother and brothers came to try to talk to Him, perhaps because they didn’t understand what He was doing and thought He was acting strangely.  When told of their desire to see Him, He responded, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?”  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother,” Matthew 12:48-50.  See also Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21.  In other words, He was implying that physical relationship to Him meant nothing when it came to spiritual relationship.  In all three of the Gospels, His reply was, in the words of Luke, “My mother and My brother are these who hear the word of God and do it.”   On one occasion, when some lady rejoiced in how blessed His mother had been, …He said, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Luke 3:27, 28.  Once, He was asked, Then they said to Him, “What shall we do that we may work the works of God?”  Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent,” John 6:28, 29.

Mere physical relationship was no longer going to be enough.

In Matthew 16:18, our Lord said, “I will build My church (emphasis added) to distinguish His assembly (the meaning of the word, ekklesia) from any other assembly in the world, including Israel (see Acts 7:28).

The church, on the other hand, is not “national.”  Citizenship in a nation does not mean membership in the church.  Indeed, the Apostle Paul warned against giving heed…to endless genealogies, 1 Timothy 1:4.

In Acts 2:41, after Peter’s sermon, Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them, that is, to the young church.

People seldom, if ever, stop to think about the fact that, at Sinai and during most of the nation’s history, the majority of the people did not know the Lord and so were lost.  Even at Sinai, at the very founding of their nation, even then in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, “Make us calves to go before us”  …And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices, and rejoiced in the work of their own hands, Acts 7:39-40.  This is why it was so easy for the Israelites to fall into the ways of the Canaanites, why they were so obstinate and why they continually rebelled against the Lord, cf. Deuteronomy 31:24-29.

If we may use the term, the religion of the Old Testament is the religion of the natural man.  That is, all the ceremonies and rituals, the sacrifices and feasts, even the very giving of the Law itself with its attendant natural and supernatural  displays of thick clouds, thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, the blast of a trumpet growing louder and louder, etc., Exodus 19:16-24; 20:18, these were all designed to impress upon the people the reality and importance of what they were seeing and hearing,.Yet Moses wasn’t even down from the mountain where this tremendous display happened before the people were yearning to return to their old ways and persuaded Aaron into making them the calf of gold, which they then began to worship in a drunken orgy.

Israel was God’s people as a nation, but that didn’t guarantee any individual, to use the modern term, a “relationship” with God.  Indeed, they were shut out from God and had to go through a priest.  Further, in Deuteronomy 29:4, after he had spent a considerable time repeating all that God had done on their behalf, Moses said, “Yet the LORD has not given you a heart  to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day.”  Circumcision might have shown that there was a national relationship with God which no other nation enjoyed, but it didn’t guarantee anything to the individual.

This isn’t to say that it wasn’t a distinct advantage and blessing to be a Jew in the Old Testament, as Paul testifies in Romans 3:1, 2 and 9:4, 5.  Nevertheless, “the Old Testament church” doesn’t merge so seamlessly into the New Testament church as some would like, unless they are prepared to admit that their church, too, is made up for the most part of lost people.

For four hundred years after the close of the Old Testament, there was silence from God.  All of a sudden, like the crashing of thunder, came a voice of one crying in the wilderness…, Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23.  The news spread like wildfire through the quiet countryside:  “There is a prophet!”  But what a message!  He was requiring that they repent! …that they be baptized!  Why, that’s what Gentile dogs had to do if they were converted to the truth!  “We are the children of Abraham!  We’re already ‘members of the covenant community’!”  John had an answer for that, too:  “Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones,” Matthew 3:9.  He wasn’t done.  So far from having nothing to worry about because they had “the seal of the covenant” in their flesh, John went on to tell the Pharisees and Sadducees, “And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cast down and thrown into the fire, v. 10.  Jesus tangled with  this same attitude and spirit Himself, John 8:30-39.  This section starts out, many believed in Him and ends then they took up stones to throw at Him.

While there might be be some similarities between Israel and the church, there are also critical differences.  As we’ve seen, “membership” in Israel had nothing to do with spiritual condition.  It was only and simply a matter of proper descent from Abraham.  An inescapable and entirely natural  consequence of that was that children were considered part of “the nation.”  They were its next generation and the means of its continuation. On the other hand, membership in the church has nothing to do with who your parents are.  Undoubtedly, it’s a great advantage and blessing to have Christian parents and a great disadvantage to have ungodly parents, but the one is not ultimately a requirement for nor the other a hindrance to becoming a Christian oneself.  Remember, it was to one fully vested in the nation of Israel that our Lord said, “You must be born again,” going on to explain that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh,” John 3:3, 6.

Israel was favored above all the nations of the world, 2 Samuel 7:23, 24.  She had a national relationship with God, though it is also true that her prosperity or adversity depended on individual obedience or disobedience.  A “nation” can’t exist apart from individuals.  The church, considered as a whole, is “called out” of every nation, and most certainly is not to be considered as co-extensive with any nation or region and all the people in that area members, as in the Reformed view of a “state-church”.

Israel was highly organized, as befitting a nation.  The NT church is both an organization and an organism, something never said of Israel.  The “organism” is “the body of Christ,” to which every believer belongs, regardless of location.  It is expressed and functions through the “organization,” that is, the local church, separate and distinct from every other local church.  It is this local church, or assembly, which is in view in the great majority of NT appearances of the word.  These local assemblies may cooperate in various matters, but there is no NT authority for the huge denominations or monolithic religious structures that we see today.

Ideally, the local assembly is composed only of regenerate, that is, saved persons, but since we can’t see the heart of an individual, it’s true that there are lost church members.  This is certainly so in churches which baptize persons, e.g., infants, apart from a personal profession of faith, or which are careless in their adherence to the NT.  On the other hand, the church considered as an organism is composed only of regenerate persons.  Even the Reformed Study Bible agrees with this.  In a note on “The Local Church,” it says, “Each local church is the manifestation of the one universal church, and will embody the nature of that church as the Father’s regenerate family,” p. 1850.  Unless the Reformed consider their baptized infants to be regenerate, there seems to be a disconnect between this definition and the practice of infant baptism.  The church as an “organism,” i.e., “the body of Christ,” cannot have any “dead” members.

In the title to this section, we referenced Ephesians 2:12.  In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul reminds the Ephesian believers of their condition prior to being saved:  they were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world, v. 12, then goes on to show them what had happened to them when they came to Christ.  In v. 13, he says, But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.   He continues, For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation…so as to create in Himself one new man from the two…that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the Cross, vs. 14-16.

Notice what Paul said.  Christ made “one new man” from them both, that is, Jew and Gentile.  He doesn’t say anything about Gentiles being some sort of spiritual “continuation” of the Jew, but that together they will form a new body “through the cross.”  That is, as redeemed individuals they will enter into a new relationship with God and with each other that has nothing to do with their ethnicity.  Cf. Galatians 3:28.

Regardless of how Israel and the church may be linked in the future, Hebrews 11:39, 40; Revelation 21:12, 14, they will still have their separate and distinct identities.  One is not and never will become the other.

– The Commonwealth, The Church and The Covenants.  

The Reformed view is that there is only one covenant and that it’s simply administered in different ways.  Because of this, the Reformers did their very best to pattern the New Testament church after the Old Testament.  As a result, we have state-churches with nation-wide membership, a priesthood separate from the people, elaborate ritual and liturgy, civil power exercised by the church.  This latter led to the terrible excesses under Romanism, which had the same view, e.g., the Inquisition, and with the Reformers and their persecution and slaughter of tens of thousands of Anabaptists and other “nonconformists” for wishing to follow the Scripture itself and not what the church said.

These excesses form the basis for the so-called “separation of church and state” found in the US Constitution.  Many of our Founders had experienced these excesses first-hand, even in this country under British rule.  They wanted nothing to do with the iron fist of the church in their new country.  It has nothing to do, as currently claimed, with the idea that Christian beliefs have no place in government.  In passing, it’s a shame that the phrases in the Constitution designed to prevent the iron fist of the state from crushing its citizens are progressively being ignored in this country.  But I digress….

There are three covenants in the Bible which directly affect Israel.  In passing, note in Ephesians 2:12 and Romans 9:3  that Paul refers to “covenants” – plural.  He thought there was more than one.  These covenants are the Abrahamic, the Mosaic and the New Covenants.

The Abrahamic Covenant. 

 The basic terms of the covenant God made with Abraham are found in Genesis 12:1-3.  Without going into great detail, they included a given land, a great nation, a good reputation and a gracious blessing “to all the families of the earth.”  This covenant is repeated and somewhat enlarged in the rest of Genesis.  The “land” is specifically identified as the land of Canaan, and its borders and inhabitants are listed more than once.  This is the only land so identified in Scripture.

David rejoiced in this covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac, and confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, to Israel for an everlasting covenant, saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan as the allotment of your inheritance.” 1 Chronicles 16:16, 17. 

The provision for the blessing of “all the families of the earth” had to wait for the New Testament for the explanation as to how that would happen.  “The church” is part of it, but there is much more to it than that.  Paul wrote in Romans 4:13 that Abraham would be the heir of the world.  Space prevents us from entering into that thought.

This covenant is unconditional, that is, it isn’t dependent on Abraham for its fulfillment.  God said, “I will do this.”  The vision Abraham saw meant that God took it on Himself, under pain of dismemberment, to fulfill His promise to Abraham.

The Mosaic Covenant 

God is holy, righteous and just.  The expression of His character toward His creation is called the Moral Law.  The Mosaic Covenant is a specific embodiment of that Law to a specific people in a specific situation.  It was the constitution and by-laws, if you will, of the nation of Israel.

This covenant was conditional.  Obedience to it would result in Israel being greatly blessed and continuing to live in the land.  Disobedience would mean that Israel would be judged and ultimately would be kicked out of the land.

Furthermore, Israel was on its own with this law.  Moses told the people this in Deuteronomy 29:4 when he told them that they had experienced all the things God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt and sustaining them for forty years, yet He hadn’t given them eyes to see or hearts to understand what they experienced.  There were no provisions in it to enable the Israelite to keep it, no provisions in it to do anything about the innate sinfulness of the Israelite.

Jesus was born under that Law and fulfilled its righteous requirements.  The Book of Acts shows the transition period from a Jewish emphasis to a Gentile emphasis.  The early church had a hard time accepting this and it took a special vision from God to convince Peter of it.  The writings of Paul after Acts are embodiments of the Moral Law, not mere repetitions of the Mosaic Covenant, even though perhaps expressed in similar words.  This is why the 4th Commandment is never repeated after the death and resurrection of our Lord.  It is no longer in force.

This Covenant was given only to the nation of Israel.  In Exodus 20:2, God started with “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”  This historical reminder is only applicable to Israel, in spite of the “spiritual” applications that might be made about being delivered from the bondage of sin.  Contrary to a popular viewpoint, there was no “dispensation of the Law” for mankind.  The Law at Sinai was given only to Israel, to make her a nation.

In Deuteronomy 4:6-8, Moses exhorts the nation because of this singular blessing, “Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’  For what nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we call upon Him?  And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?”  See also Jeremiah 11:2-4; 34:13.

The New Covenant. 

We find this covenant given in Jeremiah 31:31-34, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judahnot according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD:  I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.  For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (emphasis added).

It’s interesting that this tremendous prophecy came to Jeremiah when he was in prison for disagreeing with the leaders of his day about the danger of the Babylonian invasion, Jeremiah 33:1.  Further, in v. 8, God repeats the promise to pardon Israel He gave in 31:34:  “I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they sinned and by which they have transgressed against Me.”

This covenant is also unconditional.  God again says, “I will….”  When one reads Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi, it’s difficult to see how all this was fulfilled at the return from Babylon, as commonly taught about all the prophecies about “the return” by those who deny any further blessing of Israel is possible.

Israel’s rejection and crucifixion of her Messiah did not and will not nullify the provisions of this covenant.  In fact, it’s through that very rejection and the death of Christ that God will forgive Israel of her sin and believers in the New Testament of their sin.  Paul speaks of a time when all Israel will be saved, Romans 11:26, and goes on to verify that with a quote from Isaiah 59:20, 21:  The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” This doesn’t mean, as some have suggested who differ from us, that every Jew who ever lived will be saved, but only those who are alive at the time when these prophecies will be fulfilled.

There were never any promises given directly to Gentiles in the Old Testament.  The only reason we have any hope at all is because the Lord Jesus came and revealed how it is that Abraham was to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”   It is through Him, and Him alone, that we Gentiles enter into the covenant blessings of Israel.

– The downside of infant baptism. 

1.  It deviates from Scripture.  As we’ve seen, even the Reformed admit the absence of clear NT instruction for the baptism of infants
2.  It derives from a faulty view of Scripture.  This is seem in the Reformed identification of Israel and the church, and the supposition that what was symbolic in the one (i.e., circumcision and the Passover) must find corresponding symbols in the other (i.e., infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
3.  It demand another baptism beside the one clearly commanded by our Lord in Scripture.  He commanded the baptism of believers upon their profession of faith; nothing is said about the baptism of infants on the profession of faith of others.  The Reformed make much of the fact that infant baptism isn’t forbidden in Scripture.  Why this makes its practice okay remains unclear.  There is a very simple, very good, reason why infant baptism is neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture.  Because of the clear command of our Lord, infant baptism is excluded from consideration.  Nothing else need be said about it. There is no room in Scripture for the baptism of any but professing believers.
4.  It distorts the Gospel.  In spite of Reformed disclaimers to the contrary, there is a natural tendency to look to what we have done for assurance of salvation.  If a child is told that, because he or she was sprinkled as an infant, his or her name was written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and as long as he or she doesn’t “erase” it, presumably by rejecting the Catechism, they’re all right, then what is their assurance of salvation?  Will they be led to trusting in the finished work and atoning blood of the Lord Jesus or in the actions of a minister and a drop or two or water?  As a corollary,
5.  It deceives its participants.  A few drops of water on their unaware and unknowing foreheads as infants, as well as their Confirmation a few years later (for which there is also no Scripture), is all the “salvation” many people have, but they expect to go to heaven.  I fear there will be multitudes who discover to their eternal dismay and loss that the entrance to Hell has been through the front door of a church by way of the baptismal font.
6.  It dilutes the church.  Instead of the ideal of the Reformed of a regenerated church membership, unless they do really believe in baptismal regeneration, the baptism of infants who are neither believers nor unbelievers adds those to the church who are not regenerated, and, as such, have no interest in or understanding of, spiritual matters.  This doesn’t mean they can’t be “religious.”  Israel had all kinds of “religion.”

Conclusion 

We believe the Reformation was the work of God, and we have the greatest respect for what the Reformers went through.  Even though we don’t agree with everything Calvin, Luther and the others taught or did, we believe that they were used of God to recover much of Europe out of the darkness of Romanism.  We only wish they had returned all the way to the New Testament.  Still, considering their starting point and the times in which they lived, it’s amazing they accomplished as much as they did.  At the same time, the retention of infant baptism sowed the seeds for the undoing of all their efforts.

The purpose of these posts isn’t to attack people, but what we believe to be an erroneous and unScriptural practice, widespread though it may be.  In the NT, baptism is commanded by our Lord to be administered only to believers, who make an informed profession of faith in the Lord Jesus.  None of the things said about baptism in the NT include the idea that infants who are baptized are “members of the covenant community.”

Hundreds of books and thousands of words have been written defending infant baptism.  The few words of these posts (though over 9,000) will not answer everything written in that defense.  Still, we hope you’ve been given something to think about and that, like the Bereans, Acts 17:11, you will search the Scriptures to see if these things are so.

Finally, what is your hope of eternal life?  Are you trusting in the finished work of the Lord Jesus?  Is His righteousness imputed to you by faith and His payment for sins on your behalf the basis of your hope, or is it a few drops of water sprinkled on your forehead when you were an infant?  If you are truly a believer in the Lord and haven’t been baptized on your profession of faith in him, even if you have infant baptism, then you need to be obedient to Him and follow Him into the waters of baptism.

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