Tabletalk, June 1998, Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938

A Journey Home

By Pastor Randy Booth



How natural and easy it is to assume the beliefs we have grown up with to be correct.  Yet, we are often unable to give solid biblical reasons to support many of the things we believe.  Failing to clearly understand our own views, we may be tempted to attribute wrong motives and reasons to those who hold contrary positions.  Among Protestant Christians the doctrine of baptism seems especially vulnerable to such sloppiness.


Our symbols are important to us because they represent who we are.  When someone messes with our symbols, then they are messing with us.  As a result, passions often run deep, and calm examination and discussion are made difficult.  We may then avoid studying these topics and, in our insecurity, resist all challenges with hostility rather than a well-reasoned and biblical answer.


As a Baptist pastor of ten years I found myself in the unhappy position of having my views of baptism challenged.  I realized that it would be necessary, if I was to legitimately resist the arguments of those who favored infant baptism, for me to accurately understand and articulate my opponents’ positions.  It would no longer be sufficient to make caricatures of those with whom I disagreed.  It was simply a matter of being honest with and about by brothers in Christ.


As I read and studied to understand those who believed in infant baptism, my views were challenged more and more.  In fact, I felt my heart sink.  Day by day I sensed myself moving further and further in a direction I did not want to go.  Finally, there I stood, teetering on the precipice, looking for someone to rescue me.  What I once imagined to be a ridiculous position, suddenly presented itself with incredible biblical force.


It would be a gross understatement to say that changing my views on baptism was difficult.  While I was theologically convinced of the truth of covenant baptism,[1] emotionally the transformation came slowly.  In addition, there were the fears of an uncertain future that threatened every aspect of my life as a result of such a theological shift.  Nevertheless, faithfulness to God’s word never disappoints.  Though there were many dark days during the struggle, the light finally broke forth and the blessings have been innumerable.


There were many biblical reasons that pressed me to adopt the covenant baptism position.  At the heart of this covenantal view is the understanding that we are whole-Bible Christians and not simply New Testament Christians.  That is to say that all of the Bible is God’s word—it is authoritative—and therefore it determines what we are to believe on any matter, including baptism.  God has had one plan to redeem sinful men, not multiple plans.  God’s single plan has been unfolded throughout redemptive history, from Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David and finally in the New Covenant.  Christ has always been the object of God’s redemptive plan and the only way of salvation.


God has but one people—His covenant people—in both the Old and New Testaments.  While the outward forms and ceremonies change over time, the essence of God’s covenant remains constant.  In the Old Testament, God graciously included believers and their households (including their children), and in the New Testament He continues to graciously include the same people.  In the Old Testament circumcision was the initiatory sign for those entering this covenant relationship.  In the New Testament baptism is the initiatory sign.  Both signs carry essentially the same meaning.


Circumcision is, unfortunately, often misrepresented as having a purely natural or physical reference.  Yet the Bible teaches us that it carried primarily a spiritual significance (i.e., justification by faith; cf. Rom. 4:11).  It represented cleanliness (Deut. 30:6; Isa. 52:1).  It was an outward sign that God required a “circumcised” or cleansed heart.  The Old Testament speaks of the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4; Ezek. 44:7); of uncircumcised lips that are impure lips, and of uncircumcised hearts that are unclean hearts (Ex. 6:12; Lev. 26:41; Act 26:41).


Paul says that true circumcision is not that which is outward in the flesh, but that which is inward, of the heart, by the Spirit (Rom. 2:28-29).  When he speaks of himself and other believers he says, “We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3).  The inspired text of Romans 4:11 settles the question of the meaning of circumcision, “And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised. . .”  Circumcision was a sign of justification by faith—a sign applied to the believer Abraham and to his household.  Since circumcision carried such spiritual significance, its reference to the national covenant with Israel was a very subordinate matter.  Its main purpose was to signify and seal the promise of deliverance from sin.


Circumcision, apart from faith, never secured salvation for any individual.  It was a sign and seal of God’s promise to be their God if they would but put their faith in Him.  It was a sign of privilege, yet the privilege was not automatic.  It was a sign and seal that the believer belonged to God and that all that belonged to the believer, including his children, belonged to God.  Central to the covenant obligation of the believer was the godly training of his children and his household (Gen. 18:19).


Baptism, like circumcision, is essentially a spiritual sign and seal that sets us apart as God’s people.  It too signifies the need for, and God’s gracious provision of, a renewed and cleansed heart.  It points to the necessity of spiritual regeneration.  Baptism unites believers and their children with God’s promised Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and places them in the visible community of God’s people—a place of privilege.  Baptism must also be responded to by faith before covenant blessings may be fully appropriated.  Failure to faithfully respond to one’s baptism brings covenant curses rather than covenant blessings.


While space will not allow a full development of this argument of the parallels between circumcision and baptism, let us consider the teaching of Paul from Colossians 2:11-12: 


In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”


In this passage, Paul clearly identifies the signs of circumcision and baptism with each other.  As he writes to the church of the new covenant, he explains that believers are circumcised in the spiritual sense of that word, and that this spiritual circumcision takes place as they are buried with Christ in baptism.  This equating of the essential meaning of circumcision and baptism could not be clearer.  Just as physical circumcision indicated circumcision of the heart, so now physical baptism indicates a circumcision of the heart.


This obvious connection between the two covenant signs of circumcision and baptism creates a difficult problem for the opponents of covenant baptism, for any argument against infant baptism is necessarily an argument against infant circumcision.  Any objection raised against the inclusion of the infants of beleivers in the covenant can be answered with, “Because it pleased the Lord to do so.”


Because they are initiatory signs and seals of the same covenant of grace, circumcision and baptism carry essentially the same meaning in Scripture.  They are both outward signs of the inward, spiritual need of the grace of God in the heart of the covenant member.  Both signs unite the recipient with God’s promised Redeemer, Jesus Christ.  Like circumcision in the Old Testament, baptism in the New Testament is to be administered to beleivers and their children to mark them out and set them apart as the people of God.  To oppose infant baptism is to oppose infant circumcision in the Old Testament.  As Calvin warned, “If it enters anyone’s mind to jest at infant baptism on this pretext, he is mocking the command of circumcision given by the Lord.  For what will they bring forward to impugn infant baptism that may not be turned back against circumcision?”[2]


God delights believers and blesses them by blessing those closest to them—their household—their children.  Circumcision and baptism bring comfort and delight to beleivers’ hearts as they consider their covenant-keeping God.  These signs seal God’s promise to the hearts of believers and their children.


All truth, even when we resist it at first, sets us free in the end.  What at first we cannot see at all, we come to embrace and love.  Suddenly, the beauty of its instruction is seen on every page of Scripture, and we wonder how we ever missed seeing it in the first place.  Rather than being the monster I imagined, the doctrine of the covenant, including covenant baptism, is now a comfort and a friend.

[1] I came to see that “infant baptism” was but a small part of the baptism debate. At issue was the nature of the covenant Christ has with His people and their households.  The term “covenant baptism” embraces the wider concerns, including infant baptism.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1960), 2:1331-32.