Immersed in a New Covenant
WHY WE BAPTIZE BELIEVERS
June 13, 2019
Article by David Mathis
Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Human hearts are prone to grow dull to the wonders of God’s world, and the glories of his salvation — and baptism is no exception.
In the ordinariness of the waters, we may come to overlook what baptism dramatizes: that God himself has rescued us from omnipotent wrath, that he has transferred us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son, that he has plucked us from the course of this world and seated us, by faith, with his own Son in the heavenly places. If we only had eyes to see, baptism broadcasts the most stunning mercies and graces a fallen creature could ever receive, and does so with a striking individual focus.
While we partake together at the Table, one baptizee stands alone (with the baptizer) in the water, as God himself, through his church, communicates his particular acceptance, love, and commitment to the professing believer.
Immersed in the Covenants
Godly laymen, ministers, churches, and seminaries stand on both sides of the believer-baptist and infant-baptist divide. The issues can be diverse and complex. They can be as big as how we put the whole Bible together (how the Old and New Testaments relate) or how Christians have (and have not) practiced baptism for two thousand years.
As a believer-baptist, however, I’m slow to let the discussion get away from particular biblical texts too quickly. I find infant-baptists often eager to talk theological systems and constructs, which we must. But in the end, we must take care to continually return to the specific texts from which those systems and constructs arise. We dare not overlook or minimize the plain, stubborn, obvious reading of particular biblical texts, even if we indeed must proceed, in due course, to the theological and covenantal dynamics relevant to baptism.
I’ve already highlighted six massively important texts, among others, that any faithful vision of Christian baptism should not ignore or treat lightly. Now we turn to the relationship of the old covenant to the new, often the wheelhouse of the infant-baptist. I am persuaded that — when we think carefully through the continuities and discontinuities of the covenants and the fittingness of circumcision and baptism as covenantal signs — the discussion firmly favors the believer-baptist.
Mystery and Prophecy
The great doxology at the end of Romans captures, in sum, that the relationship of the old covenant to the new is one of both continuity and discontinuity:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27)
The Christian gospel is both prophecy fulfilled and mystery revealed. With Christian eyes, we look back at the old covenant and discover “the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” but “has now been disclosed.” World-shattering truths remained hidden until Jesus came (discontinuity). And yet, how is the mystery now made known? Through the prophetic writings (continuity).
It is along these lines of continuity that we commend many infant-baptists for their “God-honoring effort to see unity between the old and new covenant people of God” (John Piper, Brothers, 156). The issue, then, at least among Reformed believer- and infant-baptists, is discontinuity. And in particular the political and ethnic essence of the first covenant related to the new.
Discontinuity Between Covenants
Ephesians and Colossians tell us that at the heart of this mystery, long hidden, now revealed in Christ, is a former ethnic focus on Jews now expanded to include Gentiles (non-Jews, as in “now . . . made known to all nations” in Romans 16:25–27). “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). Here two millennia later, the earth-shattering nature of this shift may be lost on many of us Gentile Christians.
In Ephesians 2:11–13, Paul writes to Gentiles, who are now Christians, reminding them of their status during the era of the old covenant:
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision (Jews), which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For Gentile Christians, this is marked discontinuity: we were far off; now we have been brought near. We were separated from Christ; now we are in him, united with him by faith. We were strangers to the covenants of promise; now we are included as beneficiaries. We were without God, and without hope; but now in Christ we have him, and in him true hope. And we were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.”
Alienated from the Commonwealth
That the people of God, under the terms of the first covenant, were a “commonwealth” (Greek politeia), a political nation-state, is a striking difference from the global, transnational essence of the new covenant that now formally includes every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.
The first covenant established God’s people, the Jews, as a nation-state alongside, and in distinction from, the Edomites, Egyptians, Philistines, and eventually Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. God chose to raise up his own physical, ethnic nation to receive his first-covenant oracles (“the elementary doctrine of Christ,” Hebrews 6:1), preparing the way for his own coming in the person of his Son. God then transcended physical, ethnic, and political bounds through the cross-work of Christ, the giving of his Spirit, and the commissioning of his new-covenant people to take the message to the ends of the earth.
This is not to say that, under the terms of the first covenant, no Gentile could have been grafted into the people of God, but such was exceptional, not normative. God made provision for proselytes (Exodus 12:48; Numbers 9:14; Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 21:10–13). However, the fundamental dividing line between Jew and Gentile stood, and proselyte Gentiles were required, in essence, to become Jews to join the first-covenant people and tie themselves to the geographic center of the Jerusalem temple. A Gentile could not remain true to his original ethnicity and become a Jew. These were mutually exclusive ethno-political identities. To become a Hebrew would have meant to leave behind one’s people and nation.
The old covenant was irreducibly an ethnically centered covenant, which made circumcision (which is less fitting and more difficult with adults) an appropriate rite of initiation for those born into the covenant. The normal pattern of initiation into the old covenant was by physical birth, which is expressly not the way one comes to join in the new covenant. Rather, one is born again spiritually into the new covenant (John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; James 1:18), which makes baptism (less fitting and more difficult with infants) an appropriate rite of initiation. John Piper summarizes the point:
Entry into the old covenant people of God was by physical birth, and entry into the new covenant people of God is by spiritual birth. It would seem to follow, then, that the sign of the covenant would reflect this change and would be administered to those who give evidence of spiritual birth. . . . The new thing, since Jesus has come, is that the covenant people of God are no longer a political, ethnic nation but a body of believers. . . . The visible people of God are no longer formed through natural birth but through new birth and its expression through faith in Christ. (Brothers, 160)
God’s People Grown Up
The discussion of relevant lines of discontinuity could go on at great length, but one additional note to include in this limited space is the paradigm of Galatians 3–4.
Having introduced Abraham in Galatians 3:14, and that in Christ “the blessing of Abraham” has “come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith,” Paul addresses the relationship between the law (of Moses) and the promise (to Abraham). The law — that is, the old covenant, which God gave through Moses — came 430 years after the promise to Abraham and does not nullify the promise (Galatians 3:17). Rather, God gave his law (the old covenant) to serve the fulfillment of the promise that he would bless the nations (the Gentiles) through Abraham’s offspring. Paul then asks, Why the law? Why did God give the law-covenant, the old covenant, through Moses? His answer, in part, comes in Galatians 3:24–29:
The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
The law-covenant (the old covenant) served as a guardian, or tutor, for the people of God in their youth. From Moses until the coming of Christ, we find the people of God in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The old covenant guarded God’s people in an era of redemptive-history immaturity and incompletion — until maturity and completion came with the coming of Christ, and God’s people matured beyond the guardians and managers of the old covenant (Galatians 4:1–5).
By Belief, Not Birth
Such a framework of old-covenant childhood to new-covenant adulthood corresponds with a shift from infant-circumcision to believer-baptism. The circumcision of male infants fits with the nature of the old covenant and its ethnic focus and geopolitical center. But the nature of the new covenant, with its trans-ethnic focus on “those who believe” (Galatians 3:22), fits with the baptism of professing believers. Entrance into the new covenant is not by birth but by belief. Not first birth but new birth.
The sign of the covenant, then, is properly applied to spiritual newborns, not physical newborns. Old-covenant circumcision, which Paul says was “made in the flesh by hands” (Ephesians 2:11), now has been fulfilled in new birth, the circumcision of the heart, “a circumcision made without hands” (Colossians 2:11), such that he would say, in contrast to unbelieving Jews, that Christian Gentiles, “who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,” are the true circumcision (Philippians 3:3).
As the old covenant guarded God’s people in their redemptive-historical immaturity, and circumcised their infants, so the new covenant binds together God’s people in their maturity, and baptizes those who have been born again and give credible expression to saving faith in Jesus.
Reformed Faith in Full Flower
For believer-baptists, such covenantal dynamics are not typically the first move in our argument, nor are they the end. I will turn, in another article, to how believer-baptism actually makes more of the (often overlooked) Reformed concepts of covenant signs and seals, the so-called “means of grace,” and the Westminster Confession’s commendation of lifelong baptismal “improvement” through faith.
An article like this can only scratch the surface of the biblical data, from beginning to end, relating to the continuities and discontinuities between the old and new covenants. However, my hope is that this brief sketch of the frameworks of Ephesians 2:11–13 and Galatians 3–4 will be helpful in establishing some of the key differences between the old and new covenants, and the corresponding appropriateness of infant-circumcision in the first and believer-baptism in the new.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.