The goal of this paper is to use biblical theology to demonstrate the merits of credobaptism. The form of the paper will be as a response to the paedobaptistic reading of the covenants defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith. The specific paedobaptist claim, based on the covenant of grace, is that it is biblical to baptize unbelieving infants as a sign of their inclusion in the covenant people of God. The specific credobaptist claim, based on a promise-fulfillment reading of the covenants, is that baptism is reserved only for new covenant believers. In order to defend the credobaptist position this paper will first define both positions, then highlight a danger of addressing covenant theology without a biblical theology. Next, biblical theology will be used to explore the aspects of the debate: the covenant of grace, the newness of the new covenant, and the signs of the covenant.
The definition of baptism in the Westminster Confession and Second London Confession are remarkably similar. The Westminster Confession, 28.1, defines baptism as:
A sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting [sp] into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.”
From the credobaptist perspective, the Second London Baptist Confession, 29.1, defines baptism as “an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.”
The debate is not the meaning of baptism; the two confessions agree substantially on the meaning of Baptist. The debate centers on who may receive baptism. The paedobaptists position is that unbelieving infants of Christians may receive baptism. The credobaptist position, defended in this paper, is that only believers may receive baptism. Historically, it is common for paedobaptists and credobaptists to argue mainly about the inclusion of unbelieving children in the household baptisms of Acts 10, 16, and 18. The paedobaptist points to those chapters as a defense. In response, the credobaptist notes the description of those baptized as exhibiting fear, reception of the Holy Spirit, repentance, or rejoicing (Acts 10:2, 44; 16:34; 18:8; with the exception of 16:15). It is a weak argument to try to settle the matter of who should be baptized solely on the descriptive accounts of who may or may not have been present. Instead of relying mainly on descriptive accounts, it is better to rely on biblical theology because the issue of baptism is not settled simply with how one reads the book of Acts, but how one reads the entire bible.
The Covenant of Grace
God’s means of salvation is often summarized by the phrase “covenant of grace.” The position advocated in this paper is that the biblical story line follows a promise-fulfilment pattern to establish the covenant of grace. The initial promise of redemption found in Genesis 3:15 is worked out progressively through the covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and Christ. Credobaptists understand the covenants made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David to include a promise of the covenant of grace but those Old Testament covenants are not the covenant of grace. Pascal Denault explains the credobaptist understanding of the covenant of grace, “The Baptists believed that before the arrival of the New Covenant, the Covenant of Grace was not formally given, but only announced and promised (revealed).” Hebrews 9:15 states, “he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (ESV). The historical death of Christ secures redemption for sins committed under the old covenant in a retroactive sense. That grace was promised but not already established in the old covenant. The old and new covenants, therefore, possess fundamental discontinuities to be addressed later.
The paedobaptist position is that the covenant of grace unifies all the biblical covenants after the covenant of works. Pascal Denault summarizes the paedobaptist position, “The Abrahamic, Sinaitic and Davidic Covenants were seen only as different administrations of the Covenant of Grace revealed to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.15. The reformed considered that these covenants and the New Covenant were of the same substance, that is, grace, and that the disparate elements among these various covenants were only external factors.” The classic paedobaptist position is that after the covenant of works, all the covenants are expressions of the one covenant of grace. While recognizing the slight differences in the covenants, the paedobaptists reduce those differences to the level of administration or circumstance. The paedobaptists terminology to describe the covenant of grace is “one substance with two administrations.” The old and new covenants, therefore, share fundamental continuity.
At this point, the differences between the two positions are due to hermeneutics. Paedobaptists and credobaptists start reading the story of redemption from different perspectives. Credobaptists start interpreting the Bible from the lens of promise worked out through covenants ultimately fulfilled in the new covenant. This hermeneutic should allow the covenants to be understood in their context without a preconceived interpretation. The paedobaptists start interpreting the Bible from the lens of the covenant of grace understood as one covenant with two administrations. The problem is, this paedobaptist presupposition forces undue interpretations and erroneous applications of the covenants. New Testament theologian Stephen Wellum cautions against this flattening out of the covenants. He writes, “in the end, [covenant theology] fails to do justice to the biblical distinctions between the covenants which lead us to affirm some crucial covenantal discontinuities—all of which have massive implications for the baptismal discussion.” Arguing for mixed communities under the old and new Covenants is the main erroneous conclusion caused by the faulty paedobaptist hermeneutic.
Up to this point, the discussion has been at the level of hermeneutics; reading all of Scripture according to a preconceived notion of an overarching covenant of grace, or following the narrative of promise-fulfillment. Admittingly, outside of a reference to Hebrews 9-10, little Scripture has been used to establish either position. The next segment will utilize Scripture to demonstrate the newness of the new covenant. The newness of the new covenant will prove the weakness of the paedobaptist understanding of the covenant of grace and prove the strength of the credobaptist understanding of the promise-fulfillment approach to the covenants.
The Newness of the New Covenant
The position advocated in this paper is that the new covenant is fundamentally new compared to the old covenant. The covenants are different at the level of their substance; what they accomplish. The use of Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Hebrews 8:8-12 will highlight what is new in the new covenant thereby strengthening the credobaptist position.
Initially, it must be noted that the Jeremiah passage, promising the new covenant, was given after the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants had been established. God is pointing his people ahead to something that will happen in the future. God is not pointing backward to something already in existence. The paedobaptists err by understanding the substance of the covenant of grace to exist prior to the new covenant. As referenced above, Hebrews 9:15 makes the inheritance of the promise dependent upon the historical death of Christ. The first century AD substitutionary sacrifice of Christ is effective for the forgiveness of sins under the old covenant. From the Old Testament perspective, the inheritance depends on a future event, not the preexisting substance of the covenant of grace.
To support the credobaptist position, it is necessary to note the nature of Christ, the high priest of the new covenant, and then quickly overview the Hebrews 8 passage. Hebrews 7 distinguishes between Christ, the high priest of the new covenant, and the various high priests of the old covenant. Old covenant priests forfeited their office because of death, but Christ continues forever with an indestructible life (Heb 7:23-24). Additionally, Christ’s continuing priesthood and intercession enable him to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him (Heb 7:25). This Christ offered himself as an unrepeatable perfect atoning sacrifice for sins (Heb 7:26-28). It is this Christ who mediates the new covenant (Heb 8:6). These priests differ in substance; they are not simply giving the same things in varying ways.
Regarding newness, first, God promises the future establishment of a new covenant with the house of Israel (Heb 8:8). Second, this new covenant will be different. It will not be like the Mosaic covenant (Heb 8:9a). The reason for this change is the people did not continue in the old covenant (Heb 8:9b). This new covenant will be characterized by God putting his laws in their minds and writing them on their hearts. He will be their God and they will be his people (Heb 8:10). When this new covenant is established there will be no need to teach the members of the covenant to know the Lord because every member, from the least to the greatest, will know the Lord (Heb 8:11). This knowledge of God will be dependent upon the forgiveness of their sins (Heb 8:12). Every member of the New Covenant will personally know the Lord.
The major difference between the old and new Covenants is the unmixed nature of the new covenant people. Hebrews 8:11 states that all the members of this new covenant will know the Lord. Consider the nature of the old covenant people. Not every member knew the Lord (Heb 8:11). The transition from a mixed community to an unmixed community is a fundamental characteristic of the new covenant. Stephen Wellum writes, “in the coming of Christ the nature and structure of the new covenant has changed, which, at least, entails that all those within the ‘new covenant community’ are people, by definition, who presently have experienced regeneration of heart and the full forgiveness of sin. The transition from the old covenant to the new covenant is not a transition of circumstance while the substance remains the same. The substance of the new covenant is that all the baptized members of the community have their sins finally forgiven by Christ and they all know the Lord. According to Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8, the new covenant is an unmixed community. Paedobaptists deny this truth saying under the overarching covenant of grace the Old and New Testament communities are the same; they are mixed communities. The only change in the covenants is the sign. The paedobaptist claim of continuity loses strength against a straightforward reading of Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8. The paedobaptists defense of one covenant with two administrations appears to be unsustainable. The credobaptist position remains firm. The new covenant is an unmixed community.
Now, with a proper hermeneutic in place and a proper understanding of the newness of the new covenant, it is possible to consider the change in signs from old covenant circumcision to new covenant baptism.
The Sign of the Covenant
The various covenants are established with differing signs. The sign of the Noahic covenant is the rainbow (Gen 9:12-17). The rainbow points to the promise that God will not again destroy the earth and symbolizes the retiring of God’s war bow. Circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:10). Circumcision stands as a reminder of God’s promise to give Abraham physical offspring and give those offspring land and a relationship with God. Interestingly, the sign of the Mosaic covenant is the Sabbath (Gen 31:16-17). The Sabbath is a reminder of God’s rest after creation. Possibly, the Sabbath is a reminder of God’s work of recreation bringing his people back to the land. The sign of the Davidic covenant is a son ruling on David’s throne (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
The new covenant signs are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The paedobaptist argument for infant baptism rests on the continuity of the covenant of grace and the idea of the future efficacy of baptism. Drawing on Deuteronomy 30:6, that physical circumcision must be accompanied at some time with spiritual circumcision during the old covenant, paedobaptists claim that physical baptism of infants may be accompanied at a later time by personal faith. The newness of the new covenant, however, raises serious doubts as to the paedobaptist application of the covenant of grace. The new covenant does not make allowance for a separation between baptism and personal faith. In addition, the common paedobaptist idea that baptism does in the new covenant what circumcision did in the old covenant cannot be sustained from the text. The only way to defend the argument about the identical roles of baptism and circumcision is to downplay the differences and flatten out the covenants to only the covenant of grace. Baptism and circumcision are both signs that make statements. The question is if baptism and circumcision point to the covenant of grace in the same way.
As noted above, circumcision is the sign given to the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17:1-14. This covenant is an everlasting covenant between God, Abraham, and Abraham’s offspring (17:7). Included in the Abrahamic covenant is the promise that God will be their God and they will receive the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession (17:9). Throughout their generations, the males are to be circumcised, whether born or bought. The significance of circumcision is that it marks out a specific people as the inheritors of the blessing promised to Abraham; the blessing of relationship with God and land throughout their generations. Bear in mind, as the Abrahamic covenant moves into the Mosaic covenant, the sign of circumcision continues, reminding the people of the promise to Abraham. Throughout the Old Testament covenants, signs are added but none are removed. The sign of the rainbow is not nullified by the sign of circumcision and the sign of circumcision is not nullified by the sign of Sabbath. The covenant with David does not nullify any covenants but arguably brings all the covenants together under the promised son. The reason the new covenant sign of baptism replaces circumcision, instead of supplementing as with previous covenants, is because the new covenant sign marks the fulfillment of the other covenants in Christ. In Christ, the new covenant is an unmixed community, therefore, the sign of the mixed community is no longer necessary.
It is now appropriate to consider baptism as a sign of the new covenant. Colossians 2 is a helpful passage because it connects circumcision and baptism. Colossians 2:11 states that the recipients of the letter were circumcised in Christ by putting off the body of flesh. Here, circumcision is not a physical act but a spiritual act. This spiritual circumcision happened by being buried and raised with Christ in baptism through faith (2:12). The result is that those who were dead in trespasses and uncircumcision are forgiven and made alive in Christ (2:13). Circumcision is used to image the cutting off of sins by union with Christ. Circumcision and baptism obviously bear continuity here but not in the paedobaptistic sense. For paedobaptists, baptism is a sign to be received by unbelieving children; like physical circumcision in the Old Testament. In Colossians 2, however, baptism is a sign of spiritual circumcision; the one baptized experiences forgiveness of sins through union with Christ. Baptism mirrors spiritual circumcision not physical circumcision. Colossians 2 has no category for a physically baptized but not spiritually circumcised person. It is difficult to understand how an unbelieving infant can be in any real sense forgiven of sins and united to Christ by baptism without faith.
A complimentary baptism passage is Romans 6:1-4. In Romans 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul is making an argument for why Christians cannot continue in sin. The explicit reason a person should live a holy life is that person has been united to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection through baptism. Baptism, therefore, is the display of union with Christ by faith such that the person is empowered to live a new life of godliness. Thomas Schreiner makes a bold claim, “union with Christ in his death and burial and his resurrection become a reality for believers through baptism.” It is believers who are united to Christ through baptism. Similarly, every New Testament baptism passage connects baptism with either repentance, faith, or fear. The one exception is the baptism of Lydia’s household. In the case of Lydia, there is no mention of infants; it must be assumed or read into the passage by paedobaptists. To summarize, every New Testament description of baptism includes a reference to personal faith; all except the account of Lydia which does not mention infants. Additionally, the theological descriptions of baptism include explicit references to personal faith on the part of the one being baptized. It is the paedobaptist’s understanding of the covenant of grace which supports infant baptism. New Testament descriptions and explanations of baptisms support the baptism of believers only.
Galatians 3 is another New Testament passage addressing baptism. The covenant progression of promise and fulfillment is also seen in Galatians 3 where the promise of Abraham’s offspring finds its fulfillment in Christ. Christ is Abraham’s seed, his offspring, the promise of the Abrahamic covenant (Gal 3:16). Additionally, all the nations will be blessed in Christ as the disciples go out and baptize disciples from all nations (Matt 28:18-20). The blessing is had in baptism. Galatians 3:26-27 explain the connection between the blessing and baptism, “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.” Baptism is union with Christ through faith for the fulfillment of the covenants and personal faith is necessary. Personal faith is necessary to put on Christ in baptism. Personal faith and baptism are inseparable.
Now it is possible to summarize the credobaptist argument for the baptism of believers only. Baptism is a sign demonstrating the person being baptized is united to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection through faith. Union with Christ through repentance and faith is required for membership in the New Covenant community. The unmixed community of believers, where all members are forgiven in Christ and personally know the Lord, is what makes the new covenant different from the old covenant. Additionally, an overview of the New Testament descriptions of baptisms and explanations of baptisms overwhelming support the baptism of believers only. The only remaining argument to support the baptism of infants is a presuppositional argument based on an unsustainable idea of a covenant of grace possessing one substance and two administrations. Having demonstrated the weakness of that paedobaptist hermeneutic and the strengths of the credobaptist hermeneutic it is this author’s firm conviction to baptize believers only.
Carson, D. A., Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
Denault, Pascal. The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobpatist Federalism. Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013.
Duncan, Ligon. “Introduction to Covenant Theology.” Accessed December 14, 2016. http://ligonduncan.com/introduction-to-covenant-theology-1198/.
Lawrence, Michael. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1998.
The Second London Confession, 1689. Accessed January 7, 2017, http://www.1689.com/confession.html.
The Westminster Confession. Accessed January 9, 2017, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.
Welllum, Stephen J. “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants.” In Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, 97-162. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006.
Williamson, Paul. Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
Wright, Shawn D. “Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists.” In Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, 207-256. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006.
Ligon Duncan defines biblical theology as, “the study of the history of redemption from the perspective of a particular theme traced through the eras of that history of redemption.” Ligon Duncan, “Introduction to Covenant Theology,” accessed December 14, 2016, http://ligonduncan.com/introduction-to-covenant-theology-1198/.
The Westminster Confession, 28.6, states, “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.”
The Westminster Confession, accessed January 9, 2017, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.
The Second London Confession, 1689, accessed 1/7/2017, http://www.1689.com/confession.html.
Carson, D. A., Exegetical Fallacies, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 117. This appears to be an error of reading between the lines.
Second London Confession, 7.2, “Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved.” Westminster Confession, 7.3, “the Lord was pleased to make a second [covenant], commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved.”
Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobpatist Federalism, (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 62.
A clear expression of this principle is the type-antitype relationship between Old Covenant repeated animal sacrifices and the unrepeatable New Covenant sacrifice of Christ. See Hebrews 9:11-10:18.
See Paul Williamson’s book, Sealed with an Oath, pages 52-58 for an exegetical argument against a covenant with Adam.
 Denault, Distinctiveness, 37.
Michael Lawrence writes, “[The new covenant] is not fulfilled and established until Christ comes, who picks up and fulfills the various strands of the previous covenants. He is the perfect image (Colossians 1), the promised seed (Galatians 3), the true Son (Matthew 3), and the messianic King (Matthew 21).” Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 60.
Stephen J. Welllum, “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 110.
Stephen J. Welllum, “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants,” 105.
See Westminster Confession, 28.6 in footnote 2.
Paul Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 122-129.
Shawn D. Wright, “Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 239.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1998), 306
See Matt 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 13, 16, 35-38; 9:18; 10:47; 16:31-33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16; Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 1:13-17; 12:13; Gal 3:27; Eph 4:5; Col 2:12; and 1 Pet 3:21. This is a reference to water baptism as a New Covenant initiation rite, not a reference to John’s baptism or Jesus’ baptism of suffering. Though John’s requirement of personal repentance before baptism does strengthen the credobaptist position. Additionally, Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire (Mark 1:8) points to the Luke-Acts association of receiving the Holy Spirit in connection with repentance, faith, the forgiveness of sins, and baptism.