As I said in an earlier post, one of the reasons why I used to object to infant baptism was that I believed there were major contrasts between the old and new covenants.
I used to believe one of the drawbacks of God’s covenants in the Old Testament was that Israel’s community was too inclusive. The covenant community allowed those who hadn’t yet professed genuine faith to be a part of it. This is one reason why the new covenant community is so much better today: its members are those who have all made a profession of faith—only they should be baptized, I thought.
In order to consider infant baptism an option I needed to have this premise overturned. I needed to be convinced that the inclusiveness of the old covenant—that is, including children of believers—was not something God sought to change in the new covenant. I needed to see their inclusion not as a weakness but as a blessing.
Baptists and Jeremiah 31
While there are several passages in the Old Testament prophesying the coming of the new covenant, Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the classic text. It is also a text often used to make a strong Baptist case. In 1997 two well-respected Reformed theologians, John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, debated the topic of who should receive baptism: only believers or believers and their children? MacArthur (for the Baptist position) said Jeremiah 31 is a “watershed issue” in this debate.
Jeremiah 31 :31-34 states,
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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.
This text describes the contrast between covenants. A new covenant would be ratified among the people of God, but it would not be like the covenant made through Moses. Something would be different.
Making his statement for the Baptist case, John MacArthur draws out what he thinks is the central difference of the new covenant: “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34). He said,
The essence of the new covenant is everybody knows God savingly. That, I think, is the significant distinction between belonging to the Abrahamic covenant ethnically and belonging to the new covenant savingly. And so a sign that suited an ethnic covenant is not parallel to a sign that suits a saving covenant, and therein baptism is to be made distinct from circumcision…
This was one of my central arguments against paedobaptism as well. If the central thing that is new about the new covenant is that all its members know and love God, how can we consider those who are newly born as members of the covenant?
But Jeremiah’s Prophecy Awaits Fulfillment
Upon further examination, however, I started noticing real problems with this line of reasoning.
1. The entire passage still awaits final fulfillment. Yes, Jesus’ blood has ratified the new covenant (Luke 22:20). In a very real sense, we participate in the new covenant now (2 Corinthians 3:6). But in this prophecy’s larger context (Jeremiah 31:27-40) God promises far more than just a new covenant. He promises to bring Israel back to their land and rebuild Jerusalem to stand forever. There are many similar “restoration” prophecies in the Bible that speak of these same themes: return from exile combined with the glorious renewal of God’s people.
But the kingdom of God did not come in full force when Jesus arrived. “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field,” Jesus taught. It starts out as a small seed, growing gradually over time, and one day it will be larger than all other garden plants and become a tree (Matthew 13:31-32). We have not yet arrived at the final fulfillment of Jeremiah’s vision.
The promises still awaits fulfillment. Richard Pratt explains,
In the New Testament perspective on restoration prophecies, accordingly, there are three states: the inauguration of fulfillment in the first coming of Christ, the continuation of fulfillment between the first and second comings of Christ, and the consummation of fulfillment at the return of Christ.1
2. One way the prophecy is consummated is members of the new covenant can still break the covenant. Only when Jesus returns will the prophecy of Jeremiah be fulfilled. Then and only then will the people of God have no mixture: all will know and love God, from the least to the greatest. Until that time, the church will be made up of true believers and mere professors.
The author of Hebrews often refers to this prophecy in Jeremiah (Hebrews 8:8-13; 9:15; 12:24), teaching that the new covenant is in effect. But it cannot be in full effect because, as the author of Hebrews also states, that some in the church can break the new covenant.
Hebrews says there are some who “go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (10:26). Someone who does this “has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29). For such people, they can expect nothing but fearful judgment, “a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (10:27).
There is no question that these people who fall away are real covenant members. The author of Hebrews applies the same warning to them that was given to Israel in Deuteronomy 32:36 to them: “The Lord will judge his people” (Hebrews 10:30). He even says these people are “sanctified” by the blood of the covenant (10:29). Even though they are not saved, they are still hagiazō,consecrated to God like Israel was at Sinai (Exodus 19:10,14 LXX).
Why does all of this matter? If it is true all who are a part of the new covenant today should be regenerate people, then it is a serious challenge to infant baptism (as John MacArthur states above). But if the new covenant has not been fully consummated, if Jeremiah 31 has not yet been fulfilled, and if someone can be a member of the covenant today and not be saved, then the church is much like the people of God in the Old Testament. There is a wider “visible” covenant community, and a smaller “invisible” group of God’s true children within the visible church. Therefore, one cannot object to infant baptism merely by appealing to Jeremiah 31.
The Generational Faithfulness of God
So what does the Bible say about the inclusion of children in the covenant?
As I read more on this subject, I was amazed at how much the Bible spoke on the subject of the “generational faithfulness” of God. “Both the Old and the New Testament unite in teaching that children are a blessing, that they are to be brought up within the covenant of God, and that God promises his kindness to them and to their children in turn,” writes Douglas Wilson.2
In Psalm 102, the author ends with a powerful promise of God’s unchanging nature. “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end” (v.25-27). God is forever, creation will perish. God is same, creation changes. God is eternal, creation is limited. Why is the author reminding his readers of this? The next verse tells us: “The children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you” (v.28). Because God is unchanging, the children of His people will stand secure in His presence.
This is the same message found in the next psalm: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Psalm 103:17-18).
The generational faithfulness of God is expressed in the Ten Commandments as well. God commanded His people to never make a graven image. If they showed contempt for God by doing this, He would not only punish the guilty, but visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation. But to those who loved God kept his commandments, He would show “steadfast love to thousands” (Deuteronomy 5:10), that is, “to a thousand generations” (7:9).
Prophecies of the New Covenant
Was this generational faithfulness of God only a thing for ancient Israel? Or was it something anticipated for the new covenant as well?
Isaiah prophesied another covenant would be made with Israel. In that day “a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression” (Isaiah 59:20). This is the same verse Paul quotes in Romans 11:25-26 to remind his readers that someday all Israel will be saved. But in the very next verse of Isaiah we read God’s promise of this consummated covenant: “’My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,’ says the Lord, ‘from this time forth and forevermore’” (Isaiah 59:21, italics added). In this prophecy, God promises to give His people—including their children and grandchildren—His heart-transforming Spirit.
Ezekiel saw the same glorious future. One day God would make a “covenant of peace” with His people, an “everlasting covenant” (Ezekiel 37:26). In that day, God’s people would walk in His rules and be careful to obey all his statutes (v.24). “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v.27). And would believers’ offspring be included? Yes. “They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever” (v.25).
Many other prophecies of the new covenant say the same thing. Moses promised that after Israel’s long exile, “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6, italics added).
Similarly, God promised through the prophet Zechariah that when he brings back the house of Judah, “their hearts shall be glad as with wine. Their children shall see it and be glad; their hearts shall rejoice in the Lord” (Zechariah 10:6-9, italics added).
Even the prophecy of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 is set against a larger context of God’s covenant faithfulness:
Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. (Jeremiah 32:37-41, italics added)
Gregg Strawbridge writes, “virtually every prophecy and exposition of the new covenant expressly includes children of believers in it.”3
Children in the New Covenant
When the new covenant began, what place did children have in the community of disciples? Did all these promises about God’s blessing on children and grandchildren remain, or were they merely “spiritualized” in some way?
When the Messiah came, some brought their children to Jesus for his blessing. The disciples tried to turn the people away, but Jesus would not hear of it. “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Jesus did this not just for the children, but even for infants (Luke 18:15-16). The coming of the Messiah did not mean God’s promises to His people were “narrowing” to become less inclusive. Rather, the grace of God was expanding.
To the church in Corinth, rife with a pagan past, Paul addressed his letter to those “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2). And who is included among these saints? Even the children. Paul instructs that even if there is only one believing parent in a home, even then the children are hagios, or holy (7:14). This is the same word translated in 1:2 meaning “saints.” The children of saints are saints, set apart to God.
Writing to the church in Ephesus, he called all its members “saints” (Ephesians 1:1), and addressed part of his letter to the children (6:1-4). Paul imparts to them—these Gentile children—the blessing found in the Ten Commandments “’Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (6:2-3). The coming of the new covenant had not “spiritualized” God’s generational faithfulness. Rather even Gentile believers could trust that God would bless them and their children to the thousandth generation.
The Blessing of Children
Does all of this mean that God promises that our children will all become believers? No. Like all members of the covenant, in the community of the church they can grow up being enlightened by the gospel, sharing in the Holy Spirit, tasting the heavenly gift, tasting the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (Hebrews 6:4-5). They are sanctified by the blood of the covenant (10:29). But just like their believing parents, they still must be united by faith with those who obediently listen to God (4:2). They must have personal faith, because without faith it is impossible to please God. In the face of these and other Scriptures I saw my opinions about the inclusiveness of the new covenant changing. I started to realize that including children in the old covenant was not a weakness but a strength—a strength that God affirmed even in the new covenant.
And this was one more important plank that paved the way to eventually embracing infant baptism.
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Read all the posts in this series:
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