(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 28 paras 4-6)
God made a wonderful promise to Abraham the “father of the faithful.” The Apostle Paul in Galatians 3 speaks of the blessings attached to this great promise. For he says, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’” Galatians 3:8. Thus the heart of the Gospel message Abraham heard, i.e., the Good News preached to Abraham, was that in him all the nations shall be blessed. As Abraham believed the promise of the LORD and was justified (i.e., declared righteous, Gen. 15:6), so would all who have the faith of faithful Abraham be justified.
Thus the Gospel-promise of the Father is received through faith. This same Good News-promise of righteousness was sealed or confirmed to Abraham as recorded in Genesis 17. The Apostle Paul puts it like this, “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised…” Romans 4:11a.
Let’s note three things we have seen thus far: a) God made a promise to Abraham. b) Abraham believed the promise. And, c) God signified and sealed that promise to Abraham through Circumcision.
Circumcision then is the Older Testament sign and seal of the righteousness promised by God to believers and to their children. This promise of righteousness (i.e., rightness with God) is the Covenant of Grace. This sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace was to be applied to all males in Abraham’s household: “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant” Genesis 17:12.
Notice then the scope of the application of the covenant sign and seal of circumcision. Elderly males through to male infants alike were to receive the token or seal of God’s promise on the regenerative member of their body. This also included those who were not physically descended from Abraham – i.e., foreigners, even people from other nations; all these were included in the promise. Thus, we see that Abraham, those belonging to his household, and even foreigners and slaves entering his household, were essentially treated by God in the same way as New Testament or Covenant people: “The promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” Acts 2:39. Note then that Abraham, his children, and those who were once afar off, but subsequently had entered into his household, received Circumcision, i.e., the sign and seal of the promise of God.
Now, when we get to the Newer Testament we may search long and hard, but we will not find anywhere that this promise God made to Abraham has been revoked. Indeed we find that the promise God made to Abraham has begun to come to fruition, which is to say that the blessings of the Covenant of Grace are coming upon all the nations. We discover in the Newer Testament that these promised Gospel blessings are poured upon all the nations through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul, the preacher sent to the Gentiles, puts it like this, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse [offering] for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” Galatians 3:13&14.
So, we see then that the promise God made to Abraham, which was sealed or confirmed through circumcision, has been brought to pass by Jesus Christ. And that promise is that we, the Gentiles (ethnoi), indeed all the nations, Jew and Gentile, would receive the promise of the Spirit, i.e., the promised Spirit, through faith. For the Apostle has already said to the Galatians (who were beginning to turn away from the clear teaching of the Gospel): “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” Galatians 3:2.
So then, the promise of the Spirit still stands. The Covenant of Grace has not been revoked. The righteousness revealed in the Gospel is still promised to all who believe. The thing that has changed regarding the promise is that which signifies and seals it. Bloody Older Testament Circumcision, (as Colossians 2:11-13 teaches), has been replaced by bloodless Newer Testament Baptism. And since infants were included in Older Testament Circumcision, so infants, including female infants, are included in that which has replaced it, i.e., Baptism with water.
The Seal Applied
Baptism with water in the name of the Triune God is the Newer Testament continuation of Older Testament Circumcision. For the Apostle Paul says that Christians are circumcised in Christ through water baptism. For he says, “In Him you were 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 were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” Colossians 2:11&12. Thus Baptism, as did its predecessor Circumcision, speaks of the removal of the sins of the flesh.
And also, the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans teaches us that, as removal of the foreskin in Older Testament circumcision pointed to the removal of our sin through being united to Christ, so our water baptism speaks of our being united to Christ’s death, His funeralization, and His resurrection. For the Apostle says, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin” Romans 6:4-7.
Notice that Christ did not die in His burial, but rather in His crucifixion! “Our old man was crucified with Him.” Thus our body of sin (as before depicted in bloody foreskin-removal) dies with Christ in His death (by crucifixion), is buried with Him in His burial (i.e., in His being placed in a hollowed-out tomb, not lowered into a grave!), and is raised anew from the state of death.
Thus, as did bloody Circumcision before it, unbloody water baptism seals (or confirms) to us: a) The removal of our sin. b) Our having been cut off by being entombed with Christ. And, c) Our regeneration in His resurrection.
To be buried (i.e., entombed) with Christ is to be cut off from this world. Thus water baptism signifies and seals God’s covenant promise to believers and to their children that He will put off their old man whilst putting on the new, i.e., spiritually renew, e.g., Ezekiel 36:24-28. This is accomplished in time when the Holy Spirit applies Christ and His benefits to the believer, whether Jew or Gentile: “But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace” Psalm 37:11 with Matthew 5:4.
That this promise of the meek inheriting the earth was indeed a Gospel-promise which includes the inheriting the whole world or cosmos, is attested to by father Abraham’s inclusion in it: “For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” Romans 4:13. The “righteousness of faith,” or “the righteousness that comes by faith” (NIV) is the same as that which was promised to Abraham.
Christ’s “Great Commission” command of Matthew 28:19 to baptize “the nations” is the implementation of His promise to Abraham that, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” Genesis 12:3b. Thus water baptism signifies and seals to believers and to their children this same great Gospel-promise that God made to Abraham. Therefore the Newer Testament sign and seal replacing the Older Testament sign and seal of Circumcision is water Baptism. It’s the same Covenant of Grace (or Gospel) only with different administrations.
There is no command given in the Newer Testament to now withhold the sign and seal of the covenant-promise given to believers and to their children in the Older Testament. Therefore, Not only those who profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptised. Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The Promise of God has been given to believers and to their children. Therefore believers and their children qualify to receive the sign and seal of that promise. Again, as it says in Acts 2:38&39, “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off.’” Thus believers and their children qualify to receive the sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. This includes also all believers and their children of those who are “afar off,” i.e., the Gentile nations (the ethnoi) to whom the Gospel is being proclaimed. The Apostle Paul informs us in the Epistle to the Ephesians that the partition between the Hebrews and the Gentiles has been removed by the shed blood of Christ: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” Ephesians 2:13.
When the Lord’s Church, i.e., the covenant community, started becoming international after the Day of Pentecost, Gentile converts began to wonder about the status of their unbelieving spouses and their children. The Apostle Paul answers these questions thus, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy” 1 Corinthians 7:14.
A quote from John Calvin on this verse is worth considering at this point, “The passage, then, is a remarkable one, drawn from the depths of theology; for it teaches, that the children of the pious are set apart from others by a sort of exclusive privilege, so as to be reckoned holy in the church….
As to the Apostle’s assigning here a peculiar privilege to the children of believers, this flows from the blessing of the covenant, by the intervention of which the curse of nature is removed; and those who were by nature unholy are consecrated to God by grace. Hence Paul argues, in his Epistle to the Romans, (11:16,) that the whole of Abraham’s posterity are holy, because God has made a covenant of life with him – “If the root be holy,” says he, “then the branches are holy also.” And God calls all that were descended from Israel His sons: now that the partition is broken down, the same covenant that was entered into with the seed of Abraham is communicated to us. But if the children of believers are exempted from the common lot of mankind, so as to be set apart to the Lord, why should we keep them back from the sign? If the Lord admits them into the Church by His Word, why should we refuse them the sign? In what respects the offspring of the pious are holy, while many of them become degenerate, you will find explained in the tenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans; and I have handled this point there.”
So, under the Newer Testament holy children qualify to receive the baptismal seal of the Covenant of Grace just as holy children in Older Testament times received the circumcisional seal of the same covenant. So then, we see that the baptismal seal is to be applied to all believers and to their children. But how serious is it to despise or neglect this ordinance either by neglecting your own baptism as a believer or the baptism of your infant children? Well, in the Gospel according to Luke we read, “But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptised by him [i.e., by John]” Luke 7:30.
These men despised the counsel or will of God that they repent and be baptised by John in preparation to receive the Messiah. Thus we see that it is a very great sin to despise and neglect the baptismal sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace.
And, Moses neglected to place the sign and seal on one of his infants: “And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, ‘Surely you are a husband of blood to me.’ So He let him go. Then she said, ‘You are a husband of blood’ – because of the circumcision” Exodus 4:24-26.
To be sure this circumcision was done most irregularly, for Moses, not his wife, ought to have performed it. But we do see that the LORD accepted it, for He let Moses go when the child was sealed. Therefore let all believers then be ever so diligent not to delay their own or their little children’s baptism! For the Baptismal seal is to be applied to all who qualify.
The Seal Analysed
Grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed to Baptism, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated. Like Older Testament Circumcision before it, water baptism does not regenerate or save. Rather water baptism signifies and seals to the recipient and to the congregation God’s promise to regenerate and save. Thus, Christian Baptism is not, in the first instance, about the recipient making his/her profession of faith.
To be sure, adults are to make profession of their faith BEFORE they are baptised. We see this illustrated in the passage about Philip and the eunuch from the nation of Ethiopia. Philip explained the Gospel to the eunuch from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 53:7-8 in particular, which follow shortly after the verse which declares, “So shall He sprinkle many nations…” Isaiah 52:15a.
Be that as it may, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture [i.e., Isaiah 53:7-8], he preached Jesus to him. Now as he went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him” Acts 8:35-38.
So we see then that in the case of adults a clear profession of faith is to be made before baptism. And keep in mind that this is a Gentile, an Ethiopian, who was being brought into the covenant community of God through water baptism. And to be sure, being a eunuch he wouldn’t have had any children of his own! But what about those infants of believers, those who on account of immaturity, are unable to make a credible profession of faith? Should the water of baptism be withheld from them? Well, let’s have a right good think about this, because, as we’ve already seen, it’s a great sin to despise or neglect this ordinance.
God does not bar infants from His Son’s kingdom because they are too young to make a profession of faith – neither should we! Indeed God does not save anyone young or old because they exercise faith. Rather He saves them because of His grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” Ephesians 2:8&9. Thus, the grace of God is received through the instrument of faith in God. Which is another way of saying that the righteousness of Christ is imputed not earned.
That God imputes righteousness, i.e., that He gives saving grace, is signified and confirmed or sealed to the recipient by water Baptism. That the water of baptism does not regenerate and save is attested to by the repentant thief on the cross. He was regenerated and saved without water baptism. And neither was he condemned to Hell because he had not received water baptism.
On the cross he went from hurling abuse at the Lord, to seeking His forgiveness. Therefore we have no reason to believe he had been baptized beforehand, perhaps by John. For John the Baptizer had already pointed people to Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God – the One upon whom the Holy Spirit would descend and remain. No, the thief on the cross had not been baptised. Hence baptism doesn’t regenerate and save.
Also, we read these words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” Mark 16:15-16. Two things to note: a) Every creature means Jew, Gentile, young and elderly alike of every nation. And, b) Unbelievers are condemned because of their unbelief, not because they are unbaptized.
There are those believers who neglect to have their infants baptized, but if any of their infants die they do not doubt that they go to be with the Lord. Therefore even those believers who refuse to baptize their children (which children are holy) believe in regeneration and salvation before baptism! However, contradictorily they withhold the baptismal seal from their infants simply because an infant is unable to make a credible profession of faith! But this lack of a credible profession of faith is only because of immaturity, NOT unbelief! Thus by withholding the Baptismal seal they call “unclean” that which the Lord calls holy! (See again 1 Corinthians 7:14).
Yet the Lord says in Luke’s Gospel, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom as a little child will by no means enter it” Luke 18:16&17. Also, in Matthew 18 Jesus says, “Whoever receives one little child in My name receives Me. But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea” Matthew 18:4-6. Thus we see that the kingdom of heaven belongs to Newer Testament little ones every bit as much as to little ones in the Older Testament. Therefore the Newer Testament sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace also belongs to them.
Also, we see that little ones are able to believe in Jesus Christ, although not able to express and profess their faith before baptism (as did the eunuch). Again, water baptism must not be reduced to a mere profession of faith. For that would be to transform into a man-centred individual religious act that which signifies and seals Christ’s catholic or universal covenantal blessings. In other words, it would empty the Sacrament of God’s declaratory promise to bless all the nations. And instead would fill it with the declarations of men. Thus the ordinance of God would be changed from a God-centred to a man-centred ordinance.
In covenant baptism the focus is on God and His promise, and not on man and his faith. That the focus in water baptism ought to be on the blessings of God and not the professions of men is in the fact that Christ baptizes by pouring out His Spirit upon all flesh. Therefore those who insist on adult only baptism by immersion as a profession of faith would do well to humbly admit that they have magnified man’s profession of faith at the expense of the clear depiction of God’s Gospel/covenant promise to bless all the nations.
To be sure, adult profession of faith prior to water baptism is important. But since God promises to give His Spirit to believers and to their children (in all nations), and actually does, we would do well to baptize with water those whom Christ promises to baptise with His Spirit. Therefore even in water baptism we must ever be “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” Hebrews 12:2a.
Infants of at least one believing parent are holy. “For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy, and if the root is holy, so are the branches” Romans 11:16. “otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy” 1 Corinthians 7:14b. Abraham’s son Isaac was holy before he received the seal of God’s Covenant of Grace, so were Jacob and Esau. The effectiveness of baptism, like its Older Testament predecessor, is not tied to the moment when it is administered. Like Esau, some may never become regenerate and be saved by the grace of God.
A Newer Testament example of a person receiving the seal but not being, or becoming, regenerate is found in Acts 8: “Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done” Acts 8:13.
Simon offered money to the Apostles for the power of the Holy Spirit: “But Peter said to him, ‘Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right with God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity’” Acts 8:20-23.
So, again we see that water baptism does not regenerate. For Simon was still bound by iniquity even after having been baptized by the Apostles. Therefore there was nothing left for Simon to do but to improve on his baptism, by repenting of his sins and believing in everything his baptism points him to. Whether he eventually did or not, we’re not told.
So, the thief on the cross and covenant infants dying before and during birth demonstrate that regeneration and salvation can take place without baptism. And Simon the Sorcerer proves that baptism doesn’t regenerate. However, through 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 to, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time. In other words, like the wind, the Holy Spirit blows where and when He wills. He can apply that which water-baptism pictures at any point in a person’s life.
Isaac received God’s saving grace from the womb. Jacob was converted later in life. And the Holy Spirit chose to by-pass Esau. And Scripture says of John the Baptizer, “He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” Luke 1:15b. Therefore, water baptism as with circumcision before it, simply points us to Christ and His benefits. Our responsibility is to believe in Christ and His benefits, i.e., His Gospel of righteousness. And our responsibility is to bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. In other words, we keep on pointing our children to the Lord and His benefits. This is exactly what water baptism (which is received only once) is designed by the Lord to do.
To say that the child is too young to see the Lord and His benefits in baptism is as ludicrous as saying that young Isaac could not see the Lord and His benefits in circumcision. In fact it borders on the blasphemous!
God instituted the Older Testament seal of Circumcision. He replaced it with water Baptism in the Newer Testament, Colossians 2:11-13. He has never withdrawn His command to place the sign and seal on believers and on their children. And just as there can only ever be one Circumcision, so there can only ever be one Baptism. Therefore the Sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered to any person. And those who despise and neglect the baptism of the infants of believers and thereby reject their baptism, by rebaptizing them when older have the whole weight of both Testaments against them!
Think about it, God in the Lord Jesus Christ has only one bride. He is not a bigamist, having an Older Testament bride and a Newer Testament bride. There is only one Covenant of Grace. That covenant was revealed to Abraham and was signified and sealed to him and his offspring by circumcision. Now that the bride’s Husband has come, He has, poured out the blessings (like confetti!) promised in Older Testament times, hence the change in the administration to water Baptism. But the marriage to His bride, i.e., the covenantal union, remains unchanged.
There is one olive tree and we believing Gentiles and our children have been ingrafted into that one tree. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and in you all” Ephesians 4:4-6.
Water baptism points to Christ and His benefits. These benefits or blessings are summed up in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism points to the Holy Spirit, the Promise of the Father to all nations. Water baptism seals believers and their children with the poured-out blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit, as depicted in baptism, also seals us. “Now He who established us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who has also sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” 1 Corinthians 1:22.
Anointing is consistent with wetting the forehead in covenant baptism. For, as already mentioned, the sealing of the Holy Spirit is also depicted in covenant baptism. A guarantee is a promise, which promise is also signified and sealed in Covenant baptism.
Paul also speaks of the promise and seal of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians, “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of our purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” Ephesians 1:13&14. Also, this exhortation in Ephesians 4:30, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
The Book of Revelation speaks of the time of the sealing of the Holy Spirit. In Revelation 7:3 we read these words spoken by God to four angels, “Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees till we have sealed the servants of God on their foreheads” Revelation 7:3. Covenant Baptism therefore also is designed to depict this sealing of the Holy Spirit of God.
The passage in Revelation goes on to declare the sealing of twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. And then in Revelation 7:9-10 we see who else has been sealed, “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
That’s the fulfilment of God’s Gospel/covenant promise to Abraham. That’s the same promise God has made to believers and to their children. Water Baptism signifies and seals this promise.