Yesterday I met with several student to discuss the topic of Baptism. Of course any time were two or more seminary students are present there will be hearty discussion. As usual, I was not disappointed! I shared with them the introduction and one chapter of a book I am working on in regard to the topic of baptizing infants and young children, Lord willing, I will have the project done and available soon.
1 A song of ascents. I lift up my eyes to the hills-- where does my help come from? 2 My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot slip-- he who watches over you will not slumber; 4 indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5 The LORD watches over you-- the LORD is your shade at your right hand; 6 the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. 7 The LORD will keep you from all harm-- he will watch over your life; 8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (Psalm 121)
I recently commented to a colleague that I was working on a resource on the topic of infant baptism or covenant baptism. Not surprisingly, his response was, “Why? Aren’t there enough materials already out there on that subject?” In fact, he is absolutely correct in his analysis of the amount that has been written down through the centuries on this subject. This subject has been thoroughly studied and argued from every imaginable perspective. What then would motivate me to write one more resource?
First, I am not motivated at this point to enter into a scholarly debate over the subject. Though I do have a desire to develop these thoughts further, my intent is to approach this as a pastor providing a tool for parents who want to better understand the subject and fellow pastors to enhance their administration of it. Therefore, I will operate with the presuppositions that many will fundamentally disagree with what I write and want to address many of the common areas of disagreement, however that is not my goal at this time. Lord willing, I will get back to that at a later time.
Second, this comes out of my story. I was not raised a paido Baptist and was fully immersed in the baptismal font at East White Oak Bible Church at the age of eleven. I eagerly sought that baptism as I desired to make a public profession of my faith and dedication to Christ. To this day I clearly recall the details of that day, and the earnestness of my desire to follow Jesus Christ with all I had.
Having grown up in East Africa, I recall the baptism of new converts along the shore of Lake Victoria. These men and women gave their lives to Christ and in this public declaration of their faith; shed the animistic names given to them at birth and took on new names they had selected from the Bible. I have fond memories of Daudi (David), MaMa Rhoda, Simeon and others who played a key role in my life.
In Africa we also faced scores of men and women who claimed to be Christian because at one point in their lives an itinerate priest had passed through their region baptizing them and leaving them with a cross to hang around there neck. Many of these men and women had been baptized as infants or children and told that this baptism had saved them. Needless to say this erroneous practice placed in me a powerful distrust of anything other than believer baptism. My embracing of infant baptism was no small undertaking, and in fact was a long arduous process.
Third, though there is a large quantity of material on this subject written from a western perspective to a western world, very little is available that communicates to our brothers and sisters in Christ scattered around the world. My hope is that much of what I present will be applicable to the world they live in. This is not only for those scattered around the globe, but also those God is bringing to North America!
Fourth, twelve years ago my wife Chris and I planted a church south west of Atlanta, Georgia. The church we planted was part of the Presbyterian Church in America and though it was an area of rapid growth, it was deep in Baptist territory. As with many church plants we drew young couples and young families. By year three, two thirds of our young church was younger than age seven!
Many of those families had never been part of a church before and most of the remainder did not embrace infant baptism. There I was, the pastor of a church full of children with more children being born on a regular basis, and very few who were interested in having their children baptized. I provided these parents with most of the common resources available, with very little success. These resources were either not convincing or simply did not connect with the young parents that studied them.
By this time I was thoroughly convinced of the importance of covenant baptism and the reluctance of my parishioners and friends was troubling to me. As a result, I committed to pray and study the topic even more. Out of this came a sermon that God used to bring clarity for many of the families and over the coming months we had a series of baptisms! That sermon is the foundation of this project.
Chapter Seven: Same Sign, New Seal
After the coming of Christ, God continued His work of building the people promised to Abraham. Peter referred to believers like this,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9,10).
Notice how Peter describes the believer in this passage. In fact, in both 1 and 2 Peter he does not use the word “church” but like this passage uses terms common to the Old Testament descriptions of the Israelites. The believer in Jesus Christ is part of the “a chosen race” (Deuteronomy 10:15; I Samuel 12:22), “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), “a people for his own possession” (Malachi 3:17). He is treating the mixed Jewish and Gentile believing recipients of his letters as he would a member of the Israelite community. Why does he do this? Because the believer in Jesus Christ is included within the true Israelite community, we are benefactors of the covenant promises given to Abraham.
Paul in his letter to the Galatians makes this very point as he argues that true righteousness does not come through obedience to the law, but through faith in Christ. As an example of faith in Christ he writes in Galatians chapter 3,
6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? “7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
In verse six Paul actually quotes Genesis 15:6 highlighting the necessity of faith. Paul then goes on to write an astounding truth as he reminds the Galatians that the true children of Abraham were not so through genetic means or physical lineage, but through faith. Believers from every race and tribe on planet earth have been included in Abraham’s family, and given the great blessing of salvation through Jesus Christ. Every person who believes in Christ is “blessed along with Abraham.” That means that every blessing of God’s covenant is available to the twenty first century believer in Christ.
So now that we see that admission into the Covenant is through faith, and that all those of faith from around the world are included, it is only logical then to ask what the benefits of the Covenant are for us today. What does it look like and how is it worked out?
After Christ completed His work on earth we see a new command for all those who put their faith in Christ. The call was to “believe and be baptized.” The belief was in the salvation given through Christ Jesus and the desire to be a part of His covenant community. Baptism was now the sign of citizenship into that community. At the same time circumcision was no longer commanded and was deemed as unnecessary (Acts 15). Nevertheless, as belief in Christ spread first in the Jewish communities, we find the same pattern as was common with circumcision in that it was not simply applied to adults, but children also. Time and time again we see that an entire household believed and were baptized.
Like circumcision, baptism was an act of obedience and not simply a way for the new convert to show their allegiance or commitment to God. Like circumcision, baptism was the sign and seal that mark God’s people as a prized possession. And like circumcision through baptism God separates His people from all others. Through baptism the mark of God is forever on us and like circumcision it acts as a witness that He will be our God for ever. And like circumcision it is a sign that through faith, regeneration, the promise of forgiveness of sin, and adoption to be children of God is all freely offered.
Baptism is a precious gift given by a loving Father. It is a sign of hope, reminding us that just as in the times of Abraham, God promises to be our constant provider, protector and deliverer as we travel through a world with many threats. It is a way to visibly see a reminder that the covenant promises of God are true, a promise that we too will enter the Promised Land, graciously purchased for us through Jesus Christ.
As a parent this reality should give us great hope. When a new child is born, they come into a world filled with danger. Upon their first breath, they inhale germs that their little bodies have not encountered before. The potential for sickness and physical harm is immense. Despite their best efforts there is very little that a parent can do to ensure the physical safety or protection of a child. And for those who have lost a child there is nothing more painful!
Beyond the physical dangers, they face a world that can destroy them spiritually, and scar them emotionally and psychologically. Despite a parent’s diligence, we cannot make every decision for them and we cannot control all the negative influences they will face. The threats are real, and all of us know of children whose lives have been utterly destroyed by bad decisions and harmful influences. To believe that there is any method whereby we can be certain of the outcome of our children is naïve and misconceived! If it were not for the grace of God there would be no hope for even one of our children!
|© 2013 by Robert H. Orner|
Therefore as we give our children in baptism, we are receiving a powerful gift of hope that He will be our child’s God to the fullest extent. That “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” and will care for the child He loves more then we possibly could. That “the Lord is faithful. He will establish them [you] and guard them [you] against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 - ESV). Though this is a time where as parents we dedicate or offer our children to the Lord, even more significant is the reality that this is the time when He pours out the blessing of His covenant promises on that child.
To better understand the full extent of God’s blessing, let’s go back to the earlier illustration of the three umbrellas that represent the specificity of God’s grace, the largest umbrella of God’s common grace is given to all people. Because of this grace the sin that is in all people is held back, or restrained and not allowed to reach its full potential. This allows order to be maintained and at least a level of civil justice. If God did not graciously restrain evil the entire world would fall into ruin. Through this common grace God blesses all of humanity in ways that He sees fit. The effects of common grace include the deferring of God’s just penalty for sin. Simply put, God doesn’t give anyone what they deserve during their time on earth. Through common grace people “still have sense of the true, the good, and the beautiful, appreciates in measure, and reveals a desire for truth, morality and certain forms of religion… (and) is still able to perform natural and good or civil righteousness” (Berkhof p.122). Interestingly, the Apostle Paul speaks of this common grace when he addresses the Areopagus in Athens. Notice what he says,
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. . .” (Acts 17:22-25 – ESV).
In summary, all people receive underserved blessings from God!
Like in the time of Noah, this is God honoring his promise to not destroy humanity despite prevalent sin. However beyond God not giving humanity what it deserves, He also actively curtails evil, making the world a safer place to live. The world is not as bad a place as it could be and God works through people who deny His existence to accomplish acts that benefit all of humanity, both the believer and the unbeliever.
The smaller umbrella that falls under the common grace umbrella is inaugurated at baptism. This umbrella of covenant grace is where all who are under it receive the unique blessings and privilege of God’s favor. This umbrella can be compared to the ark that Noah built. Because Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8) his whole family was commanded to go aboard and therefore received the Lord’s gracious protection and provision. Having the privilege of being on the ark saved Noah and his whole family from the present and physical threat of drowning in the flood. However, it is only Noah who we know for certain to be among those granted the faith to believe.
When we baptize our children, we are placing them on the ark or under this umbrella, trusting God for His provision, protection, and at one point deliver them from both the penalty and power of sin. Though they are not immediately placed under the umbrella of saving grace we are trusting that God will do what we could not do for ourselves and clearly cannot do for our children, that is change their hearts and give them faith in Jesus Christ. Just as water washes away external filth when we bath, we are resting in God’s covenant promises to call that child to Himself and wash their heart. Baptism reminds us that God can do what we cannot, and is a declaration of God’s power and faithfulness. The water that we place on them is a physical sign that this covenant is real and is an official seal certifying that God will honor his covenant promise.
Because recipients of the blessing are a people of faith rather than a physical nation, our threats are different than what Abraham or the nation of Israel faced. As we have seen, they faced the constant threat of those who sought to conquer them. And because of His covenant faithfulness, God was their protector. He fought the battles for them. When they went to battle in their own strength they were often utterly defeated.
Though many believers around the world face a constant threat of physical harm, our greatest threat is not from an army that can be seen. In fact, the enemies that believers face are far more dangerous than the people of old, and therefore we are in desperate need of God’s covenant protection. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6, put it this way,
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Notice that Paul is explicit when he writes that our fight is not “against flesh and blood” but is a spiritual war that must be fought with the correct armor and through finding our strength in the “might” or power of the Lord. Remember if we go back to the early battles of Israel, it was “with mighty hand and outstretched arm” that he brought his people out of Egypt (Ex. 15:6; Dt. 5:15). Throughout the Old Testament there is a constant theme of “the battle belongs to the Lord,” The battles were won with the aid of the mighty arm of God, and were lost when fought without His aid. Paul uses an Old Testament picture of an all-powerful God to bring comfort and hope to His people of faith.
Paul instructs us that our arch enemy is the devil and his scheme is to bring destruction to the people of God. Early in his book to the Ephesians he describes the devil as “the prince of the power of the air” (2:2) and reminds us that he is the prince to whom we at one time gave our allegiance and who is still actively at work. As the prince of darkness he has command over those with whom our battle is against: “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12).
Scripture tells us that we have been delivered out of the power or dominion of darkness and brought into the Kingdom of His Son (Colossians 1:13). We were once people of darkness but now are children of light (Ephesians 5:8). We are in the middle of a cosmic conflict between the forces of Darkness and the Kingdom of Light.
Just as Abraham was on his way to receive a promised kingdom, we too are “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). And in this pilgrimage we face many struggles. Yet because of His covenant with Abraham we are promised that He will be our protector, provider and deliverer for both ourselves and our children. For Abraham the sign that sealed the covenant was circumcision. It was the proof or visible way to be reminded of what God had done and what He will do. It was the way that God put His name upon his people.
Though the water evaporates and is no longer visible to the human eye, the sign and seal continue to be a reality. In those moments when we are overwhelmed with concern or worry for our children we can recall that baptism when in an actual and tangible way we experienced it with them and can find comfort that though we are burdened, our covenant keeping God who has put His mark on our child and will not forsake His promise. We can rest in the fact that God is guarding over our child. Our recollection of that moment is a means of God graciously giving hope to our anxious hearts!
An important part of this blessing is God’s discipline. Throughout the Old Testament we find God disciplining His people to draw them back to Himself. In the same manor we must be careful to not think that this covenant of grace will make our children’s lives easy or that they will not face hardships, however we can rest in the truth that regardless of the hardships they face God is working in and through those events to work out His plan for your child. Even when a child rebels against us and makes decisions that are destructive and causes us great heartache, the Lord is there! The seal is real and it cannot and will not be broken!
The ongoing reality of God’s name having been written on our child as an official seal that they are under God’s covenant of grace is significant in another way. Though the sign of circumcision was hidden by clothing, it still signified that whoever bore that sign had the mark of God on them and any who sought to bring harm on those who bore that sign would face the wrath of God. Simply put, you could not “mess with” God’s people without “messing” with God. In the same way, as our children step into a world of cosmic spiritual warfare, we can rest in knowing they have the sign of God clearly marking to whom they belong!
To most of those who live outside the western world, this is tremendously important. Through experience they know that this spiritual warfare is both real and a daunting threat. Many around the world come to faith from animistic religions steeped in witchcraft and sorcery. The demonic world is both real and terrifying. Some have had curses placed on them for their new faith and live in fear for their lives and that of their families. The sign of covenant stands out as a sign of defense and hope for these dear believers as they can see in a tangible way that God is watching over their families. Many in the West do not grasp the effect this spiritual war has on us and therefore often face setback. But God through his gracious covenant continues to protect us and our children even when we do not comprehend the threat we face.
© 2013 by Robert H. Orner
Introduction and Chapter Seven taken from The Blessings in Baptism for PIT March 21, 2013