[Note: I delivered this sermon at our recent Greyfriars Hall Preaching Retreat Spring 2019]
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:37-39)
This is one of the key passages that Christians turn to in order to defend the practice of baptizing infants and young children. And I want to briefly explain why.
The first thing to understand is how the Old Covenant functioned. If there has been a change in the New Covenant, we need to understand the nature of the change, but this means beginning with what the Old Covenant actually was. What did it change from? We see that God clearly and explicitly included children in the Old Covenant, “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee… This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised… He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:7, 10, 12-13). There are two things to note here: first, God explicitly calls this covenant an “everlasting” covenant. Second, the covenant included infants as well as servants – everyone under the care and responsibility of the head of the household.
This external sign of the covenant in the Old Testament was an outward sign and seal of what needed to happen inwardly, namely the circumcision of the heart: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deut. 10:16, cf. Jer. 4:4). And this command could only be obeyed ultimately if God Himself performed this: “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (Deut. 30:6). And Paul explicitly explains this: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:29). So the Old Covenant included everyone in the household of a believer. This covenant inclusion was a call to a renewal of the heart, a renewal that would enable an individual to love God with all their heart and soul and thereby live, a renewal that only God could perform, and God graciously promised to do this both for adults and for their children. And this covenant was an everlasting covenant.
When we get to the New covenant, this basic shape of the covenant remains the same. When Peter tells the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost that the promise is to them and to their children, no Jew would have heard that as anything other than covenantal language. The New Testament clearly and repeatedly flags the things that are passing away in the New Covenant (blood sacrifices, circumcision, clean and unclean, holy days), but Peter makes no clarifying comments here, nor does Luke later in Acts where we are told that whole households are being baptized (Acts 16:15, 16:33).
In other words, references to “household” baptisms really do prove the infant baptism case. The issue is not whether the word “household” logically requires the presence of infants or young children. Of course it doesn’t require it. But the question is whether anyone in the ancient world would have ever thought to exclude infants or young children from a head of household’s decision to follow Christ, especially given what we know about how God treated Jewish households in the Old Testament explicitly. Given the entire Old Testament and the explicit changes noted in the New Testament, the absence of any notification of a change for membership in the New Covenant is a gaping hole. The Old Covenant was an external call to receive a new heart and believe, just like the New Covenant. Therefore, I submit that we should simply admit that there is no essential change in the shape of covenantal membership from Old to New Covenant. The one obvious and explicit change in membership is that gentiles are now welcomed, and the sign of the covenant has changed, from circumcision to baptism, but the New Covenant still includes households, believers and their children and any other willing dependents.
How the Covenant Cuts Both Ways
Two more points need to be made briefly: First, to the common objection that the New Covenant is only for those who are truly saved and regenerated, we point to the numerous New Testament passages that indicate otherwise. In John 15, Jesus says that He is the vine and we are the branches, and those branches that do not abide in Christ will be cut out and thrown into the fire. What is that relationship that people can be cut out of? For Christians who believe in the perseverance of the saints, that those who have been truly regenerated can never fall from grace (Jn. 6), what are these people in danger of? What do we call that relationship to Christ that some can be removed from? The biblical word you’re looking for is “covenant.” Romans 11 likewise, describes God’s people Israel, many of whom are cut out of the olive vine, so that the Gentiles might be grafted in. The language of “cutting” was used commonly in the Old Testament for both making a covenant (the Hebrew is often literally “cut a covenant”) and for those who had broken covenant (e.g. Gen. 15:18, 17:14). What was Israel cut out of? What were the Gentiles grafted/cut into? Again, the biblical word you’re looking for is “covenant.”
Likewise, in 1 Cor. 10 Paul says that all of Israel was baptized in the cloud and the sea, they ate spiritual food and drink, and the Rock that followed them was Christ. And yet with many of them, God was not pleased and they fell in the wilderness. And these things were written for our sakes in the Church, in the New Covenant. First, notice that all of Israel was baptized – even the children (Ex. 10:9-10). Second, Paul explicitly says that they had what we have in the New Covenant. In terms of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we have exactly what they had. That’s what Paul says. It is simply not possible to claim that baptism must only be administered to those who are truly regenerated. Otherwise, Paul is wrong in 1 Cor. 10 because they were baptized and many of them fell. Paul’s entire point is to warn the Christians in Corinth that they must walk by faith or else they too will come under the curses of the covenant.
Hebrews 10:29 also describes the danger of trampling the blood of the covenant by which people have been sanctified. While no mention is made of baptism, the point stands that it’s possible to be in the New Covenant and be “sanctified” in some sense and yet trample Christ’s blood underfoot. This connection between being “sanctified” and the “blood of the covenant,” is no doubt what Paul was referring to when he said that the children of at least one believing parent are “holy” or “sanctified” (1 Cor. 7:14). They are included in the covenant.
Paedo-Baptism is Believers Baptism
Lastly, Peter teaches us here to understand paedo-baptism as a “believers” baptism. We do not insist that every child baptized is regenerated (neither do our Baptist brothers claim this for their baptisms), but we do insist that children are “professors” of the true faith with their parents and that they do make a “credible” profession of faith in and with their parents. Jesus has no trouble speaking of the faith of children: “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). Baptists (and even many paedo-baptists) functionally turn this around and insist that what Jesus meant was that children must be converted and become like adults in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus says that adults must learn to believe like children. Every single regenerate heart is an absolutely supernatural miracle and therefore we claim no ability whatsoever to effect regeneration by including our children in baptism and the covenant, and yet we also trust God’s word that clearly maintains that God ordinarily works through parents teaching their children so that they grow up believing.
So what is the newness of the New Covenant? The newness is in the efficacy, the clarity, and the expanse of the gospel. Remember, the gospel was preached in the Old Testament (Heb. 4:2). But in the New Testament, the gospel has been manifested in far greater clarity in the death and resurrection of Jesus. What was proclaimed in types and shadows has now appeared to us face to face in history. This clarity drives the efficacy and expanse of the New Covenant. What was limited mostly to Israel under shadows and types has now been revealed in Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. This is the everlasting covenant made with Abraham. It is the same covenant glorified. It is the same promise raised with power and glory. And the promise is to you and to your children and to all who are afar off.