Monday, March 28, 2016

Circumcision and Baptism

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, the great Presbyterian theologian, in his polemics with the Reformed Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong on the subject of infant baptism, was uncharacteristically brief, even blunt:
The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.
This debate can be reduced to one principle question: Does the covenant of grace in its New Testament administration embrace the children of believing parents just as it did in its Old Testament administration? Is the new covenant administration more restricted and less encompassing in its reach than had been the case previously? If children of believing parents were no longer embraced by the covenant as they had been, then the Jews would have been even more hostile toward the gospel than they already were because the condition of their children would have been far worse under the new administration than it had been under the old administration. But Scripture repudiates this pungent doctrine everywhere, differentiating children of believers from unbelieving parents and their children. How does one explain 1 Corinthians 7:14 if children are excluded from the new covenant whereby they were included in the old covenant? "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified [made holy] through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified [made holy] through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy" Why the commands to children in Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:20 if they are not considered a part of the new covenant? Why does Paul say that we were circumcised by baptism ("in Him you were also circumcised . . . in baptism", Col. 2:11-12)?

In Acts 2, after Peter had preached his sermon, those gathered "were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'" (v. 37). Peter answered them, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (v. 38). But Peter did not stop there. In the context of baptism, Peter continued, "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself" (v. 39). The Belgic Confession argues that children in the new covenant, as in the old, should be baptized since "Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. . . . Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the 'circumcision of Christ' [Col. 2:11]."

Once a law is put in place, how binding is it? How long does its authority last? A law is binding from the time it is passed until its obligation is satisfied, until it is repealed, or until it is replaced by one that is of the same kind or for the same purpose. Nowhere in Scripture is there a command that makes the law requiring circumcision to be no longer binding. This command has never been fulfilled and it has never been repealed. There has, however, been a replacement, a substitution as to the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. Circumcision was replaced by baptism. The external practices are different, but the internal representation of them are exactly the same. Both are initiatory rites (Gen. 17:10-11; Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38-39; 8:12-13); both signify an inward reality (Rom. 2:28-29; Col. 2:2-12; Phil. 3:3); both picture the death of the old man of sin (Rom. 6:3-7; Col. 2:11-12); both represent repentance (Jer. 4:4; 9:25; Lev. 26:40-41; Acts 2:38); both represent regeneration (Rom. 2:28-29; Titus 3:5); both represent justification by faith (Rom. 4:11-12; Col. 2:11-14); both represent a cleansed heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Isa. 52:1; Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5-7); both represent union and communion with God (Gen. 17:7; Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:6; Heb. 8:10); both indicate citizenship in Israel (Gen. 17:4; Gal. 3:26-29; Eph. 2:12-13; 4:5); both indicate separation from the world (Ex. 12:48; 2 Cor. 6:14-18; Eph. 2:12); and both can lead to either blessings or curses (Rom. 2:25; 1 Cor. 10:1-12; 11:28-30).

God requires the seal of the covenant to be made to the children in Abraham's line, which is now anyone who is in Christ, the heirs of the promise (Gal. 3:17-18). The fact that baptism replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace can be seen in Colossians 2:11-12 where Paul refers to our  "circumcision" as "baptism": "In [Jesus] you were also circumcised . . . having been buried with Him in baptism..." In my blog entry Baptism's Meaning, I had stated, "Baptism, whether by sprinkling, pouring, or dunking, is merely an outward demonstration of one's being dedicated to God for His purposes and uses." In the same paragraph, I also stated, "Baptism is not a public declaration of one's faith." My understanding of the truth regarding baptism was still growing at the time. While the latter statement is completely true, the former statement is not. Circumcision and baptism point awaynot in. Baptism does not save, does not regenerate, and does not mean the individual truly belongs to, or will belong to, the Lord. Baptism is not a public declaration of one's faith. It has nothing to do with us, our faith, or our personal testimonies. Baptism has nothing to do with an outward demonstration of our dedication to God for His purposes and uses. It may be some part of it, but that is not what baptism symbolizes, commemorates, or is about. Baptism refers exclusively to the work of the Holy Spirit. It symbolizes the gift of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate the sacrament in order to commemorate this.

Matthew Henry, commenting on Romans 2:28-29, wrote: "He is not a Christian that is one outwardly, nor is that baptism which is outward in the flesh; but is one inwardly, and baptism is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men but of God." (Matthew Henry's Commentary, p. 307.) James M. Chaney, regarding Romans 6:2-4, wrote: "Or do you not know that all of us who have been circumcised into Christ Jesus have been circumcised into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through circumcision into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." (William the Baptist, p. 67) In both these passages, circumcision and baptism can be interchanged to teach the same truths. Both circumcision and baptism represent a cleansed heart. The sign and seal of the covenant of grace has been changed, but the law requiring it to be applied to the children of believers has never been fulfilled or repealed.

Here is an example that might help to put it in perspective: When you were born, were you born as a full citizen of your country with all the rights and responsibilities thereof? Yes, you were. However, because you were young, you did not know of these rights and responsibilities and could not appropriate them. You had to be taught them. When you were older, you then either embraced them as your own or rejected them, which is treason and demands you leave your country. The same is true concerning circumcision and baptism. The son circumcised on the 8th day had no faith of his own. He knew nothing of the covenant promises and had to be taught them. As he grew, he could then embrace what he was taught by faith and appropriate the blessings unto himself, or reject what he was taught and appropriate the curses unto himself. Either way, the sign and seal of the covenant of grace was a witness either for or against him. If he rejected the faith, he wore the sign and seal of the covenant hypocritically, which only served to increase his condemnation. "For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them" (2 Pet. 2:21).

David C. Jones poses the following questions: "Are [these little ones, by virtue of their parents' relationship to Christ,] also brought into a new relationship with Christ even though they are too young intellectually to apprehend the gospel and to appropriate it for themselves in the conscious exercise of repentance and faith? Does their psychological inability to fulfill the conditions required of adult converts render the idea of discipleship meaningless so far as infants and small children are concerned? Or, [is their covenant status to be granted and baptism to be administered to them, and] are they to be discipled along with their believing parents, given the solidarity of the family unit?" His question about psychological inability is something we need to consider deeply. What about mentally handicapped persons, who, even in adulthood, have the psychological inability to fulfill the conditions required of adult converts? Does this mean there is no hope for the mentally handicapped? "Go therefore and 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 I commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20).

Under the old covenant, the sign and seal of the covenant of grace was only administered to Jewish male children. Under the new covenant, the sign and seal of the covenant of grace expanded its reach to include women and Gentiles. Are we to assume that while it expanded to include women and Gentiles, it no longer encompassed children? The new covenant is said to be a "better" covenant. How is it better if children, who were once included in the covenant, are now excluded from it?