Saturday, May 01, 2010

Baptism and the Great Commission

The topic of Baptism and especially Infant Baptism is not an easy one to tackle, and thus I have not previously really mentioned much of it. Certainly, it is not one that can be addressed after reading one or two books on the topic, and I have always been extremely wary of those who after a few weeks have dogmatically made up their minds on the issue and attack the other side as being at best heterodox and at worst heretical (an action which shows the extreme naivete and profound ignorance of the person involved on this topic). The background for discussion of this topic requires a rather in-depth knowledge of Covenant Theology, and especially the relation between Salvation and entrance into the Covenant. This is especially so since Baptism is at least a sign of the Covenant, a position held to by both [Covenantal] Credobaptists and Paedobaptists.

That said, I think I have read and heard enough to make some informed critique regarding the topic, instead of merely previously saying that the points raised by others do not actually prove their position. I am aware though that it will be some time before I am able to formulate my viewpoint in a way that is satisfactory to me and which will sufficiently address the topic.

In this post therefore , I would address two passages which are used to prop up Credobaptism: Mt. 28:18-20 and Acts 2:39-39.

In Fred Malone's book The Baptism of Disciples Alone (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2nd. Ed. 2007), Malone in Appendix E on pages 242-243 refers to the Great Commission text (which he has done so previously in the main body of his book i.e. p. 41). In his view as articulated previously in page 41, the Great Commission states that we are first to make disciples, and then to baptize these disciples, and therefore the Great Commission teaches Believers' Baptism.

In pages 242-243, Malone returns to this passage in this review of the book The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism compiled and edited by Gregg Strawbridge. In chapter 3 of that book, Joe Beeke and Ray Lanning were stated to have said that ""repent and be baptized" are coordinate commands, not indicating temporal order (p. 60)" (cited in p. 242). Malone countered that "the coordinate conjunction does not negate the temporal argument that repentance should precede baptism". (p. 243) To prove his case, Malone cites passages such as Jn. 4:1-2 where repentance is stated to have clearly preceded baptism.

The problem however with Malone's attempted rebuttal is that he has unwittingly committed eisegesis at this point. Beeke and Lanning's contention that the twin commands of repentance and baptism are coordinate commands not indicating temporal order fits the immediate context very well. Malone in appealing to passages such as Jn. 4:1-2 cites passages outside the immediate context of Mt. 28:18-20. The immediate context says nothing about temporal order within the twin commands of repentance and baptism. It just states that we are to call all men to both (1) repent, and (2) to be baptized. Mt. 28:18-20 therefore has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of Infant Baptism, and Malone in this instance is reading into the text here.

The other passage is the famous text in Peter's sermon in Acts 2:38-39, which is as follows:

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)

Malone interprets the passage as saying that the phrase "everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself" is the condition circumscribing the entire promise; the "ultimate condition of the reception of the promise; the effectual calling of God, not parental connection" (p. 129). Therefore, while the promise is "for you and to your children and for all who are far off", all these groups are limited by the condition of election in the later part of verse 39. Therefore, the promise is not an "indiscriminate assurance" of promise, but rather this ""promise" is given only to those "of faith" "(p. 128), citing Gal. 3:22 to this effect.

This argument seems to be a staple in Covenantal Credobaptist argumentation, seeing as it is used by Dr. James White in his baptism debate with Dr. Bob Shishko (a debate which can be bought from the Aomin website) and also by Alan Conner in his book Covenant Children Today: Physical or Spiritual? (Owensboro, KY: RBAP), p. 75. It sounds rather reasonable, until you examine it in detail.

The first problem with this interpretation is the use of Gal. 3:22 to interpret Acts 2:38-39. The book of Galatians was written for a particular reason for the proclamation of the Gospel of Justification by Faith Alone apart from any form of works and sacraments. The Law/Gospel antithesis is at the forefront of Pauline thought in the entire epistle to the Galatians, and it is this that the book is focused on. To use any part of this book therefore to interpret other parts like Acts 2 where the context is different is to commit eisegesis. The fallacy that Malone makes is to assume that the concept of "promise" in Gal. 3:22 is the same as the concept of "promise" in Acts 2:39. In order to do that, he must depend on a certain Baptistic view of relation between salvation and covenant, a view which he does not so much defend as assume. (Which is why as I have said the topic requires one to really understand Covenant Theology!)

The second problem with the Credobaptist position can be illustrated by the diagram as follows:

The Credobaptist position it seems seek to make the phrase "Everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself" a condition circumscribing who the promise is made to, even bringing the concept of election into the picture. The first problem however for such an interpretation is that the very concept of election is not found in the text. The Apostle Peter was giving a Gospel message and a Gospel call; an offer of the Gospel, and no mention of election was even mentioned at all apart from this contested verse, so why would we think that Peter was talking about election in the middle of this Gospel call?

If we were to read the verse in context however, we can see that Peter's Gospel message was portrayed as a fulfilment of the prophecies to Israel. Citing Joel 2 and stating that these prophecies were being fulfilled in these last days, the idea of fulfilment of the promises made to Israel is prevalent throughout the message. Such fulfilment of Messianic prophecies would bring to mind passages such as Is. 54 especially verses 1-3, Mal. 1:11, Is. 19:16-24 among others, where the promise that all peoples would come to know God is made.

It is in such a context that the promise of Acts 2:38-39 is given. The promise seems to be moving outwards, from (1) you, to (2) your children, and to (3) all who are far off. The logical flow therefore is to see that the phrase "all whom the Lord our God calls to Himself" is the fourth sphere of promise, covering all and everyone on this earth as an expression of the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies. Instead of being a [limiting] phrase about election, the phrase is an expansion phrase, bringing about the promise of the Gospel message as a universal offer of salvation to all men without distinction.

The question that may arise from this interpretation then concerns the struggle Peter, the Apostolic and the early church had with the problem of Gentile converts. Why did Peter struggle with the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to Christianity? Why was the Jerusalem council needed, and the Epistle to the Galatians also, not to mention the epistle to the Hebrews? The problems and struggles as one sees through the lens of Messianic prophecies came about not because Gentiles were not included in the Messianic prophecies, but rather because the Gospel message moves beyond the sphere of Judaism in demolishing ethno-religo boundaries. Peter and the Apostolic Church probably have the concept in mind that Gentiles in order to become Christians (who were after all the true Jews in their minds and in fact) must become Jews first through proselyte baptism. The shock Peter had in the case of Cornelius was that God accepted Cornelius and his household as Gentile converts and not that they were to become [Messianic] Jews. In moving beyond the ethno-religious boundaries of Judaism, the Holy Spirit led them to see that the Gospel message was not about making Jews of all nations [albeit "Messianic Jews"], but of making Christians of all nations. The New Covenant rightly speaking is new with respects to the time-bound Mosaic Covenant, and thus not limited to the people of physical Israel. Rather, it is a fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenant with its blessing to all peoples (Gen. 12:1-3), a fact mentioned in Gal. 3:16-18.

In conclusion, we have looked and see that these two passages, Mt. 28:18-20 and Acts 2:38-39, do not in fact promote the Credobaptist position. Rather, when properly interpreted, they are either neutral to it (the former), or decidedly against it (the latter). Acts 2:38-39 continues to be a strong proof-text for the paedobaptist position, and also in fact a good text for the universal offer of the Gospel.


Tammy said...

Questions about baptism. Why did John baptize? Why did Jesus get baptize? Why do we believe baptism is a sign of the covenant?

PuritanReformed said...


John baptized for repentance in preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ (cf Mt. 3:11). His baptism therefore is to refocus the people on the Law and their need to make right with God, as were the baptisms done during that time. Jesus get batized as he needs to be identified with sinners who break the Law and need to repent.

John's baptism is not Christian baptism. Christian baptism, as Col. 2:11-12 states, is a sign of the New Covenant in the same way as circumcision is a sign of the Old Covenant.

Tammy said...

From your article it seems to me that you believe in infant baptism. But from what Col 2:11-12 says that would contradict infant baptism. What about what Romans 2:25-29 says about the circumcision of the heart? Would that not be a sign of the covenant? Jesus said that what comes out of the heart is what matters.

PuritanReformed said...


Col. 2:11-12 identifies circumcision with baptism. Even Paul King Jewett affirms that although he denies infant baptism. So perhaps you can elucidate what exactly do you have in mind.

I have no problem with Rom. 2:25-29. The problem here is that Baptists in general do not realize that there is both an internal and an external aspect to both circumcision and baptism. Circumcision in the OT is both of the flesh and of the heart. Similarly, baptism in the OT is both of the external washing, and the internal regeneration.

Which is incidentally why most Pentecostals/Charismatics are baptistic. They do not know what to make of the baptism in the Spirit and therefore they make it into a work subsequent to regeneration and salvation. Whereas we identify baptism of the Spirit as the NT analogue to heart circumcision, and normal water baptism as the NT analogue to flesh circumcision.

Tammy said...

Does the circumcision made without hands come at the moment of salvation or at the moment of baptism? If it comes at the moment of salvation then infant baptism is null and void. If you believe it comes at the moment of baptism then I would have to disagree with you.

Being a Baptist I would disagree with you that we don't realize the internal and external aspect to circumcision and baptism. We might disagree with you on what that means, though.

PuritanReformed said...


>Does the circumcision made without hands come at the moment of salvation or at the moment of baptism?

That is one of the problems I have with Baptists. You guys do not understand that sacraments are signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace. Abraham circumcised Ishmael even when he wasn't a believer and in fact will never be one.

Which is why consistent Baptists practice this thing called "Regenerate Church Membership", because it is wrong to baptize people who are not believers. Of course, this could and would in time degenerate into extreme introspection and legalism in examining fruit to prove that said member is in fact regenerate.

PuritanReformed said...

Flesh circumcision -> Water Baptism
Heart circumcision -> Spirit Baptism

Just as circumcision of the flesh was done on unregenerate Ishmael by virtue of his inclusion in the household of faith, so therefore water baptism is to be applied to all children of believers.

Just as all who are circumcised in the flesh are not necessarily circumcised in the heart, so therefore water baptism is not done because of salvation but as a sign and seal of being partakers of the Covenant of Grace.