Title: Choosing Sides
This chapter focused on how baptism and the Lord’s Supper are framed by the divine council worldview.
Bibliography included in the book
Bo Reicke, The Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism: A Study of 1 Peter 3:19 and Its Context (Acta Seminarii neotestamentici Upsaliensis 13; Copenhagen: E. Munksgaard, 1946; reprinted by Wipf and Stock, 2005)
Ansgar Kelly, The Devil at Baptism: Ritual, Theology, and Drama (Cornell, 1985)
L. W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Continuum, 2003)
Michael S. Heiser, “Does Deuteronomy 32:17 Assume or Deny the Reality of Other Gods?” Bible Translator 59:3 (July 2008): 137-145
Guy Prentiss Waters, The End of Deuteronomy in the Epistles of Paul (WUNT 221; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006)
Sharon Pace Jeansonne, “Jeshurun,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992)
Douglas Neil Campbell and Fika J. Van Rensburg, “A History of the Interpretation of 1 Peter 3: 18-22,” Acta Patristica et Byzantina 19 (2008): 73-96
W. J. Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:6 (AnBib 23; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute Press, 1965)
Chad T. Pierce, “Reexamining Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits in Prison: Punishment Traditions in the Book of Watchers and Their Influence on 1 Peter 3: 18–22,” Henoch 28 (2006): 27-42
Chad T. Pierce, Spirits and the Proclamation of Christ: 1 Peter 3: 18-22 in Light of Sin and Punishment Traditions in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (WUNT 305; Reihe 2; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011)
Douglas E. Brown, “The Use of the Old Testament in 2 Peter 2:4-10a,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Trinity International University, 2003
Erik Waaler, The Shema and the First Commandment in First Corinthians: An Intertextual Approach to Paul’s Re-reading of Deuteronomy (WUNT 253; Reihe 2; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008)
Brian S. Rosner, “ ‘Stronger than He?’ The Strength of 1 Corinthians 10: 22b,” Tyndale Bulletin 43 (1992): 171-179
B. J. Oropeza, “Laying to Rest the Midrash: Paul’s Message on Meat Sacrificed to Idols in Light of the Deuteronomic Tradition,” Biblica (1998): 57-68
The focus of this chapter was baptism (as it relates to 1 Peter 3:14-22) and the Lord’s Supper (as it relates primarily to 1 Cor. 10:20-21). The chapter proposed that baptism was a spiritual warfare event—essentially, a loyalty oath. Choosing Christ was to break free from the spiritual forces of darkness. Baptism is, in that context, a ritual re-enactment of our union to (choice of) Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection—in the midst of which he descended to the realm of the dead and announced his victory over the imprisoned spirits, the offending sons of God of Genesis 6 infamy.
This is easy to see with respect to believer’s baptism, but it also applies to infant baptism—providing that doctrine is rightly understood as playing no role in the salvation of the infant. This “right understanding” is dependent on a consistent hermeneutic with respect to the correlative relationship between baptism and circumcision (Col. 2:10-12).
During my own Christian life, I have been a member in two reformed churches. I’m quite familiar with the way infant baptism (and, really, baptism in general) is articulated. I’ve had many experiences where people in such congregations think they understand the doctrine (it doesn’t result in salvation) but who are then confused and troubled by the language of the creeds, talk about baptism in salvific terms in cases of infant or child death, and wonder why the baptism “didn’t take” when people turn from the faith. All of these points of confusion are real and are the fault of poor wording in the creeds—which in turn is the result of an inconsistent understanding of baptism and circumcision, which in turn again is driven by a flawed view of circumcision and election. These problems are not difficult to demonstrate as indicated in the following discussion. They are also not difficult to resolve if one resists filtering biblical theology through the creeds.
In shortest terms, if one wants to observe a relationship between baptism and circumcision, then whatever you say about baptism you must also be able to say about circumcision. When that consistency is observed, the problems fade. But that isn’t what creeds often do, nor theologians who defend them. Thought I think adult believer’s baptism is more transparent from the New Testament, I also believe one can articulate a biblical defensible doctrine of infant baptism—but the above consistency is crucial (and biblical).
What follows is a lengthy discussion of three items:
1. Why the traditional creedal articulations of infant baptism are theologically problematic.
2. How simple adjustments in how the subject is approached resolves the problems.
3. How baptism as a loyalty oath and “holy war” in The Unseen Realm is applicable to infant baptism rightly articulated.
1. Introducing the Problem
In Protestant Reformed churches, the meaning of infant baptism varies. The baptized infant does not have the sin nature removed, but the infant is made a member of the church. But while Protestants don’t want to sound Catholic, a Protestant minister is likely to presume and teach that the baptism of an infant would have something to do with the infant’s secure place in heaven should the baby die.
More broadly, though, in Protestantism the relationship of infant baptism and salvation is muddled, even within some very famous creeds. (I’ll show you some clear examples below.) A fair generalization might be that infant baptism supposedly starts the child on the road to God, so to speak. The baptized infant is said to have been accepted into a “covenant relationship” with God/Christ, which has some connection to salvation in that Protestants of all stripes believe that the child will eventually “confirm their baptism,” since baptism was a sign of election, just as circumcision in the Old Testament. In other words, Protestants link infant baptism to being placed into a covenant relationship with God.
The problem of course is that many baptized infants grow up and do not believe, even though children of believing parents. This conscious or unconscious linking of baptism and election to covenant relationship therefore presents a dilemma in the case of those who don’t confirm their baptism. Did the baptism not work (whatever that might mean)? Did election fail? Maybe there is no connection between baptism and election—in which case, what exactly is baptism good for and why is it necessary? Or maybe the Calvinist idea of perseverance (the idea that the elect will, in the end, believe) should be scrapped. But if that is the case, that also raises the question of the necessity of baptism. If an elect person will believe in the end, baptizing them as infants doesn’t matter. It is usually at this point that reformed parents or pastors will say something about baptism being needed for getting the baby into the covenant in case it dies before profession of faith. I really don’t know how that reflects the reformed idea of faith alone. In my experience in reformed churches, sola fide is simply affirmed and this specific question is either avoided or never clearly answered.
Before going any further, readers should know I am not opposed to infant baptism per se, providing it is clearly and completely severed from salvation. I think there is a biblical way to articulate the idea, and will share that. But you won’t appreciate that articulation until you see the problems with traditional articulations that need resolution. Personally, I know how to articulate either view well, avoiding caricatures and bad arguments, and would be fine worshipping in a believing church that practiced either (or both) so long as the clarity of the gospel isn’t lost or muddled.
The Starting Point for Infant Baptism
The fundamental basis for infant baptism is the correlation between baptism and circumcision in Colossians 2:11-12 –
“In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
All positions on baptism rightly note this passage and presume there is *some* connection between baptism and circumcision. Paul doesn’t really tell us what it is, but he tells us enough that should keep us from bad theology – but hasn’t. What I mean is that, if there is a connection between baptism and circumcision, then it seems reasonable to think that what we say about the meaning of one ought to be consistent with the meaning of the other. But this consistency of hermeneutic is rarely followed. I’ll try to explain.
Insisting on this consistency between the two items Paul links eliminates common ideas like baptism erasing the sin nature, forgiveness of sin, or guaranteeing anyone’s eventual faith since circumcision did none of those things according to the Old Testament. The Old Testament is filled with episodes – even on a national scale – of Jews who were circumcised falling into apostasy. Their circumcision had no necessary connection to being believers. And when circumcision was first commanded of Abraham back in Gen 17, all his servants had to be circumcised—whether they believe in Abraham’s God or not. They were never even asked. And if circumcision – and, therefore, baptism – has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sin, it cannot be used as a basis for things like teaching that infants who die are in heaven because of their baptism.
It’s not hard to press the presumed meaning of the connection between baptism and circumcision even farther—what about women? That question needs answering since women were not circumcised in Israel (that isn’t a silly thing to say, either, since Middle Eastern cultures even today practice female circumcision). Since Israelite women were not circumcised, they either weren’t members of the covenant community, or membership in the covenant community wasn’t exclusively linked to the act of circumcision – and that issue certainly affects how we’d look at the meaning of baptism.
The Confusing Language of the Creeds
Reformed congregations are known for following creeds—not in the sense of (outwardly) substituting them for Scripture, but as distillations of biblical doctrine. Unfortunately, I’ve had many instances (in contexts like small groups) of asking people to explain the way the creeds articulate the doctrines of baptism and salvation—putting them side-by-side to see if the lack of clarity I was seeing was just my problem. It wasn’t. Some examples will help illustrate.
THE BELGIC CONFESSION
ARTICLE XXII – “Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ”
We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him.
The important phrasing here is that believers “possess” Jesus Christ “through faith”. It’s a clear statement of the gospel. Continuing with the Article …
Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.
So, salvation is through Christ alone. That’s also clear. How does one get that salvation? “Possessing” Christ through faith. Also clear. Back to the creed…
Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.
Faith is the conduit through which the benefits of Christ’s work come to the believer. We are saved by his merit, not our work – no merit of our own. The creed is clear here about the gospel and salvation. But watch how muddled things become when we hit baptism.
ARTICLE XXXIV – Holy Baptism
We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law, has made an end, by the shedding of His blood, of all other sheddings of blood which men could or would make as a propitiation or satisfaction for sin; and that He, having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, has instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof; by which we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to Him whose mark and ensign we bear; and which serves as a testimony to us that He will forever be our gracious God and Father.
This part of the creed says plainly that those who are baptized belong to Christ. And anyone who knows even a little bit about the reformed tradition knows it practices infant baptism. One problem is now obvious: Every reformed church member or pastor knows someone who was baptized but who later forsook the faith. How is it, then, that this part of the Belgic Confession can be considered coherent?
But there’s another problem. Just how does baptism make us belong to Christ? Is the intended meaning that baptism accomplishes this status (puts us in Christ – which the New Testament equates with salvation)? That would contradict what we just read in the Confession about salvation by grace through faith. Is the intended meaning that baptism only marks out those who belong to Christ? This idea would make baptism a sort of identifier of those who are elect and will believe – and so baptism has some connection to those who are in Christ anyway. But then how is it that people who are baptized can drift away from the faith? Were they “mis-marked” by baptism? If that is the case, then baptism as a rite has no efficacy for sure, but it also isn’t a completely accurate indicator of the elect, either – so what good is it, ultimately?
Continuing with the creed’s Article on baptism …
Therefore He has commanded all those who are His to be baptized with pure water … We believe, therefore, that every man who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal ought to be baptized but once with this only baptism, without ever repeating the same, since we cannot be born twice. Neither does this baptism avail us only at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.
Why do we need “pure” water for baptism? Does this water do something to the recipient that normal water wouldn’t? The language raises questions when it ought to be settling them.
And why is the creed suggesting that if we get baptized more than once we’re born again more than once? That would suggest that baptism = being born again (and should only happen once).
Lastly, how is it that the water of baptism does not “avail” us only when we get wet as babies, but through the whole course of our life? This again suggests that something connected (ultimately) to salvation is accomplished by the water or by the rite. But thinking back to circumcision—how so many circumcised Israelites became apostate idolaters—can we argue that circumcision “availed” those Israelites? Again, there is a transparent lack of theological consistency.
Question 60 – How are thou righteous before God?
Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.
This was a succinct articulation of the biblical gospel. No confusion here. We move on to …
Question 61 – Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only?
Not that I am acceptable to God, on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.
Question 65 – Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?
From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.
You have to wonder here what it means that the Holy Ghost confirms the faith he gives by the sacraments? Do infants exercise faith? It is hard for me to believe the catechism would presume that. Reformed theology will of course seek to honor the connection between circumcision and baptism, but there is no scriptural affirmation that Abraham’s children believed when they were circumcised (or anyone’s children believed when circumcised at 8 days old). If one retreats to the idea that parents can believe for the, this fails in two respects: That isn’t affirmed in the Catechism’s statements about salvation by faith, nor is it affirmed anywhere in the Bible.
The confusion mounts when we look at what the catechism says about the sacrament of baptism.
Question 66 – What are the sacraments?
The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, viz., that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.
This is interesting wording, and very common in a sacramental theology. Sacraments are “signs” and “seals”. The seal aspect is easy enough to understand: a sacrament is like a picture or analogy of some greater spiritual reality or point. But problems surface for sealing. What does it mean that the sacrament declares and “seals to us the promise of the gospel . . . the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of the sacrifice of Christ”? Is this wording saying that all who are baptized (especially as infants) have the remission of sins “sealed to them”? That’s the most straightforward reading. This seems quite at odds with the clear articulation of the gospel that preceded this section of the catechism—and many folks I knew in reformed congregations thought so as well after reading the creeds.
On to Question 67 …
Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation?
Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.
This wording is a little better, but still raises questions. The sacraments “direct our faith” to Christ. What does that mean? Is it a “pointer” (as in, oh, I see, that is what I am supposed to believe to have eternal life”), or is it some sort of spiritual kickstart to move us toward the gospel? If baptism does that, why does it fail when people don’t believe or apostasize?
On to Question 71 …
Where has Christ promised us, that he will as certainly wash us by his blood and Spirit, as we are washed with the water of baptism?
In the institution of baptism, which is thus expressed: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”, Matt. 28:19. And “he that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not, shall be damned.” Mark 16:16. This promise is also repeated, where the scripture calls baptism “the washing of regenerations” and the washing away of sins. Tit. 3:5, Acts 22:16.
Now we have a problem. The Titus 3:5 reference is not only taken completely out of context, it is even misquoted. Here’s the full verse and surrounding text:
4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
What saves is the “washing of the Holy Spirit” not water. There’s actually no water in these verses!
The Acts 22:16 is also only partially quoted. Here’s the full verse and surrounding context:
12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
Who is being baptized here? Paul. When Paul gives his testimony in Scripture, does he refer to his baptism at the hand of Ananias, or his confrontation with the risen Christ that preceded it? It’s always the latter. When God speaks to Ananias to tell him to go baptize Paul, God makes it clear that he has already chosen Paul. Ananias himself says in Acts 9:17 these words: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Ananias refers to Saul as “brother” before his baptism.
Using Acts 22:16 to somehow suggest water baptism triggers forgiveness is theologically irresponsible and ignores a great deal of context and content in the New Testament.
Question 74 …
Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult;
If you are a 5-point Calvinist you must take this wording as only true of the elect. And that raises another problem: Why, then, do baptized people in Bible-believing reformed Calvinistic churches go astray? How can the elect apostasize? For Calvinists who practice infant baptism, either their doctrine of baptism needs rethinking or their ideas about the perseverance of the elect need to be scrapped. You can’t have it both ways.
At this point I should share some responses I’ve actually read or heard from reformed pastors and writers: “Well, if the infant’s parents were believers, the baptized infant doesn’t need to believe – the infant is part of the covenant relationship passed on by believing parents.”
Think about that. So, if the faith of the parents is what really matters, then what’s the point of describing baptism this way? More significantly, it doesn’t answer the question. Sure, they get baptized and are in the covenant – so why did they apostasize again? It also doesn’t address the situation where adults’ are baptized who didn’t have believing parents, and the baptized adult ends up forsaking the faith. This is a response that avoids the issue, unless you want to say that people who reject the faith still go to heaven because of what someone else believes.
I’ve also heard: “Baptism isn’t supposed to work for the non-elect.”
Consequently, then, baptism does “work” for the elect. The language here quite plainly links salvation with baptism, but not in the manner of Catholicism to be sure. What about people who never get baptized? Was circumcision a ticket to salvation? The answer is it didn’t work at all and wasn’t intended to be a ticket to salvation. Israel as a nation was elect, and all Jewish males were to be circumcised. No one was “more Jewish than other Jewish people” — and yet most of the nation apostasized.
CHAP. XI – Of Justification
1.Those whom God effectually calleth, He also freely justifieth: (Rom. 8:30, Rom. 3:24) not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
This is a very clear statement on the exclusive nature of justification, apart from any human act. The next paragraph of the Confession begins by reinforcing the first, but then manages to snatch confusion from the jaws of clarity .
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love. (James 2:17,22,26, Gal. 5:6)
This is curious wording. One wonders what is meant by “other saving graces”– especially since baptism is viewed as a “sacrament” later in the confession. Let’s move to the sixth point in this section of the Confession…
6.The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the new testament.
So, justification worked the same way under the OT as the NT. This is very important. I’ll come back to it in my criticisms of the baptism language in the confession. Let’s go there now…
CHAP. XXVII. – Of the Sacraments
1.Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word. (Rom. 6:3–4, 1 Cor. 10:16,21)
2.There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other. (Gen. 17:10, Matt. 26:27–28, Tit. 3:5)
Think about what we just read: “the names and effects” of the one are attributed to another.” So, in some way, the grace that is signified by the sign is present in the sign — the thing signified (grace) is “attributed” to the sign.
Why do we need language like this? In my judgment, it seems there is some felt need or mystical superstition that something spiritual and unseen is happening when the sacrament is given or performed. This is poor logic that violates the continuity of salvation across the testaments the creed earlier affirmed. There is no Old Testament verse that says something mystical was happening with circumcision. Was grace somehow imparted or “triggered” at circumcision? What about Israelite girls and women who never got the sign?
Let’s move to point number 4 in this section of the Confession…
There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained. (Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:20,23, 1 Cor. 4:1, Heb. 5:4)
I wonder why it would matter who performs baptism? This sounds very “mediatorial” to me, as though grace is being dispensed through a priestly figure. But let’s keep going …. To Chapter XXVIII on Baptism.
1.Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, (Matt. 28:19) not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; (1 Cor. 12:13) but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, (Rom. 4:11, Col. 2:11–12) of his ingrafting into Christ, (Gal. 3:27, Rom. 6:5) of regeneration, (Tit. 3:5) of remission of sins, (Mark 1:4) and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3–4) Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world. (Matt. 28:19–20)
Here we learn that baptism is “a sign and seal” of certain things to the recipient: the covenant of grace, regeneration, remission of sins, and “giving up to God to walk in newness of life.” This language begs an obvious question: Where is the verse in the Bible that has circumcision being a sign of regeneration and remission of sins? Without this biblical evidence, what the confession says is in error. Circumcision was of course the sign of a covenant (the Abrahamic covenant) … but as Paul points out in Romans 4, discussing precisely the issue of circumcision, Abraham believed (i.e., accepted God’s grace) before he was circumcised. We cannot say Abraham’s salvation (his faith decision) was transferred to his family and his servants for many reasons, but most obviously (again) that many of his descendants turned away from Yahweh.
4.Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.
This language is very interesting, since it distinguishes those who profess faith from infants who receive baptism. I’d agree. Infants are not believing anything when they get baptized. We’re all grateful that an infant is able to recognize where mommy’s milk comes from, much less put the burden of understanding the gospel on them. But the language of this point links infant baptism to election, and so we’re back to the problem of non-perseverance for many who are baptized (even of believing parents). If there is this link between the elect and the baptized, how does one account for baptized people who turn away from the faith?
If listeners know their Calvinism or reformed theology well they see a conundrum clearly now: either the reformed doctrine of infant baptism is incorrect, or the doctrine of perseverance of the elect is incorrect. But now the Confession throws us a monkey wrench – or, perhaps, turns back on its own wording…
5.Although it be a great sin to condemn or neglect his ordinance, (Luke 7:30, Exod. 4:24–26) yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: (Rom. 4:11, Acts 10:2,4,22,31,45,47) or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated. (Acts 8:13,23)
Interestingly, the Confession appears to notice the problem I have been focusing on, and it denies that all who are baptized will be believers. But why then use the earlier language about baptism that suggests a link to belief and salvation? Why say anything like that at all? Why not separate the two more clearly, and say something to the effect that circumcision also failed to accomplish anything regarding salvation? Why not be clear?
Unfortunately, the Confession at this point doubles back on itself by linking baptism to the dispensing of grace.
6.The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; (John 3:5,8) 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 belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.
This is quite clear – grace is conferred at baptism to the recipient. Where does this grace come from? Where do we see the Bible affirm this about circumcision? And how, with this grace dispensed and received, is a baptized person ever able to forsake the faith? One can’t defend the Confession here by saying it’s not saving grace that is involved, since the point ends by confirming the recipient’s election.
Having shown you the confusion, it’s time for some solutions. The difficulties evaporate with some simple, straightforward adjustments in thinking – adjustments that, frankly, are no more magical than being consistent with what is said and not said on both sides of the baptism and circumcision tandem.
Resolving the Difficulties
Old Testament Circumcision
The fundamental question to ask is: What did circumcision actually do and what didn’t it do? Let’s start with the latter – what circumcision did not do for its recipient.
First, circumcision neither provided nor ensured salvation, nor did it lessen anyone’s sinful impulse. The Old Testament story is dramatically clear that most circumcised Israelites apostasized, turning to idolatry, prompting the curse of Yahweh in the form of the Exile. The fact that Israelite men were circumcised meant nothing with respect to their spiritual inclination or destiny. In fact, Paul specifically denies such an equation in Romans 4, where he labors to make the point that Abraham was justified prior to circumcision.
Second, circumcision was not practiced on women. This may seem obvious, but female genital circumcision was and is still practiced among some cultures and religions in the Middle East. The fact that circumcision was only practiced on men in Israel should inform us that the cutting rite itself did nothing with respect to one’s ultimate spiritual destiny. If so, then women were excluded. As noted below, circumcision did mean something to Israelite women—the same thing that it meant for the men.
Third, circumcision for men was practiced in other cultures besides Israel. Other ancient peoples, such as the Egyptians, practiced male circumcision. This tells us again that the rite itself had no efficacy in regard to salvation. Rather, its importance was in what the rite signified in conjunction with the promises God gave to Abraham and his descendants.
The actual ritual of circumcision therefore had nothing to do with salvation or one’s propensity to seek the God of Israel. It also did not guarantee that the recipient was elect with respect to eventually expressing a steadfast faith in the God of Israel. If these presumed connections were valid, there is no explanation for Israel’s national apostasy. Likewise, we would have no explanation for how women were drawn to God or made part of the covenant, and we would expect Gentiles to become worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
The Meaning of Circumcision
So what did circumcision accomplish? What was its meaning?
First, for both male and female Israelites, the sign of circumcision was a physical, visible reminder that their race — their very lives and the lives of their children — began as a supernatural act of God on behalf of Abraham and Sarah. Circumcision was a constant reminder of God’s grace to that original couple and their posterity. Undergoing circumcision did not bestow salvation; it was a reminder of the supernatural grace of God, in this case directed at a people whom God had chosen in love to give them the revelation of who He was and how to be rightly-related to Him.
Second, for males, circumcision granted the recipient admission into the community of Israel—the community that had the exclusive truth of the true God. This truth included Yahweh’s covenant relationship with Israel and their need to have “circumcised hearts” (i.e., to believe in Yahweh’s promises and worship Him alone). In ancient patriarchal Israel, women were members of the community through marriage to a circumcised man or by being born to Israelite parents. Intermarriage with foreign men (i.e., those not circumcised and thus not part of Yahweh’s covenant community) was forbidden, a prohibition that maintained the purity of the membership. This purity was directly related to the spiritual significance of circumcision.
To summarize, membership in the community was important for a specific reason: only this community had the truth—the “the oracles of God” as Paul called God’s revelation to Israel (Rom 3:2). Only Israel had the truth in regard to the nature of the true God among all gods and how one could be rightly related to him (i.e., the way of salvation). Yahweh had created this human community with the goal of giving Israel truth, the way of salvation. This exclusivity is what it meant in Old Testament theology to be “elect” or “chosen” (Deut 7:7). Election was not equated with salvation since, again, vast multitudes of elect Israelites were not saved from God’s curse in response to their unfaithfulness. Every Israelite member of the exclusive community had to believe in the covenant promises and worship only Yahweh, trusting that relationship to result in an afterlife with their God. Election and circumcision simply meant access to this truth.
Now let’s apply this to baptism.
Circumcision as an Analogy to Baptism
It is easy to see how the meaning and significance of circumcision connects to baptism, whether one’s position includes baptism of infants or not. Baptism of an infant makes that infant a member in the believing community, a local church. Hopefully, that church will teach the oracles of God, the way of salvation, so that the child will hear the gospel and believe. The hope would be the same for an adult recipient. When Abraham and his entire household (even servants) were circumcised, the account does not tell us who believed in Abraham’s God and who did not. The assumption was that, as the members of his household observed God’s blessing and Abraham’s faithfulness, they too would (eventually) believe. Membership in the family of God would both foster and sustain faith. These were God’s goals for Old Testament Israel as the people of God, and the same is true of the people of God known as the Church. The sign and rite have changed, but the theological point is the same.
Taking the meaning of both circumcision and baptism as basically doing one thing for recipients—putting them in the community of faith to hear the truth—divorces both circumcision and baptism from salvation, immediately solving the problems we noted in the creeds in earlier podcasts. This perspective simply looks at the text for what circumcision meant in the lives of Israelites regardless of gender. It isn’t terribly complicated once we tear ourselves away from the creedal confusion and insist on the consistency of saying only about baptism what we can say about circumcision. That is how a biblical theology of baptism ought to be framed and articulated.
Infant Baptism as a Loyalty Oath and Holy War
In The Unseen Realm I wrote of baptism (via 1 Peter 3:14-22):
Baptism, then, is not what produces salvation. It “saves” in that it reflects a heart decision: a pledge of loyalty to the risen Savior. In effect, baptism in New Testament theology is a loyalty oath, a public avowal of who is on the Lord’s side in the cosmic war between good and evil. But in addition to that, it is also a visceral reminder to the defeated fallen angels. Every baptism is a reiteration of their doom in the wake of the gospel and the kingdom of God. Early Christians understood the typology of this passage and its link back to the fallen angels of Genesis 6. Early baptismal formulas included a renunciation of Satan and his angels for this very reason. Baptism was—and still is—spiritual warfare.
How does this apply to infant baptism? Two ways present themselves most transparently.
First, when parents have their infant baptized it is a pledge of loyalty to the gospel—but doesn’t replace the gospel. Parents desire to have their child placed into the believing community, where their children will be taught the truth about salvation—the “oracles of God” which, in view of the work of Christ, are equated with the gospel.
Second, that act on the part of the parents is also a vow against the powers of darkness. The parents ritually participate in the events of 1 Peter 3. They remind the powers of darkness that they are defeated and will do everything in their power to present the truth of Jesus to the child so that the powers of darkness will lose yet another soul to Yahweh’s kingdom.
 For example, see Tertullian: On the Crown, 3; On the Shows, 4; On the Soul, 35.3. See Ansgar Kelly, The Devil at Baptism: Ritual, Theology, and Drama (Cornell, 1985), 94–105.