The Gospel Truth host debate/dialogue on baptism. I represented the Reformed view. My opening statement is below.
The Covenantal Reformed View of Baptism
Rev. Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D. (paedobaptism.com)
Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church (CREC, Lancaster, PA)
Director of WordMp3.com – an online audio library of Christian scholarship
The view of baptism I am defending arises from “Reformed Theology.” “Reformed” means the reformation of the catholic Church. Original protestants, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, desired the reformation of the existing Church, but were ultimately excommunicated from the self-conscious Roman Catholic church. My view is expressed in the great Reformation catechisms and confessions (Genevan, Helvetic, Heidelberg, Belgic, Westminster, etc.). Many of the greatest minds of the Christian Church defended this view, men such as John Calvin, Francis Turretin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, and many others. The most recent books defending this are Randy Booth’s, Children of Promise (P&R), Douglas Wilson’s, To a Thousand Generations (Canon), Peter Leithart’s, The Baptized Body (Canon), as well as the book I edited, The Case for Covenant Communion (P&R). While other traditions hold to infant baptism, the Reformed “covenantal” view stands against the rationale for baptism of say, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Covenantal Reformed view holds that baptism is covenant sign and seal. It is both efficacious and means salvation by grace through faith, requiring the active loyalty of the baptized, but according to the capacity and maturity of the person.
What is the nature of baptism in the covenantal view? The language of “sign and seal” is drawn from Romans 4:11, speaking of Abraham, “and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised…” So the action of circumcision (Gen. 17) is an “effected” visible sign (meaning that it does something). It is also a seal (Greek: sphragis) a term used of wax seals for identification, as well as a mark like a tatoo (e.g., on a slave) or a brand on an animal. It is an identifying mark.
This passage provides support for several important foundations for a covenant theology of baptism.
There is a continuity between the covenantal actions of the OT with the NT signs (baptism and communion). This point is strengthened in Colossians 2:11–12 – “and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
Circumcision is called a “seal of the righteousness of faith” and yet it was properly applied to male children and adults. A sign of faith does require “credible profession” to be properly administered. A sign of faith could be applied to children as is plain in the case of circumcision, the baptism of the Red Sea (1Co 10:1-10), Passover, indeed the entire sacrificial system of Israel. As Calvin says, “For what will they bring forward to impugn infant baptism that may not be turned back against circumcision?”
The essence of the covenant sign of baptism is illustrated here. a) One the one hand, circumcision cannot be a bare symbol that does nothing, but only pictures some other deeper spiritual thingy. “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised … an uncircumcised male . . . that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Gen 17:10ff). b) On the other hand who could claim that the scalpel or knife is magic (over against Rome, EO)? Is there any person who believes that the essence of this covenant sign had anything to do with the cutting instrument or the foreskin having some kind of magical substance? Does anyone suppose that the Passover lamb meat was transformed into a completely different substance? Did the Red Sea which is the archetype of the baptism Israel run with holy water? Did the Jordan have some other substance than earthly water?
However, let us be clear that there is a complete continuity between the reception of covenant signs for households from the OT to the NT. There is no radical individualist change from the OT to the NT. Consider all of the biblical covenants and their signs and whether they specify the inclusion of households/descendants: Is Baptism is a Sign, Like Other Signs?
Biblical signs were given corporately to families in the Old Testament. Has that changed? This is a question of continuity. Baptism is similar to other faith rites in the Old Testament. Rituals which involve a symbolic act, such as baptism, are connected to Biblical covenants. Biblical covenants include signs to visibly represent the realities behind the covenant promises.
Reviewing the Biblical teaching, we find the covenant with Adam involved all the children of Adam. “As in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22, Rom. 5:12). The covenant with Noah included the “salvation of his household” (Heb. 11:7). The sacrifices of the patriarchs (including Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were for the whole family. Job offered “burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (Job 1:5). Similarly, “Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal” (Gen. 31:54). Circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of God’s covenant for “you and your descendants after you throughout their generations” (Gen. 17:9). Under Moses the blood of the Passover lamb preserved the firstborn in the household. Israel was to observe Passover “as an ordinance for you and your children forever” (Ex.12:24). In the promise to David, the Lord said, “I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever, and build up your throne to all generations” (Ps. 89:3-4).
Are Children Still Included? In obedience to Jesus’ command to baptize (Matt. 28:19-20), who did the apostles baptize? By their actions, how did they apply the command of Jesus? In looking at all the actual recorded cases of apostolic baptism, is the individual (Baptist) thesis affirmed, or is the covenant (Paedobaptist) thesis affirmed?
We will consider all the biblical examples of Christian baptism, beginning in Acts. (I will deal with John the Baptist and pre-pentecost baptism below.) Do these examples indicate only individual, professing believers are to be baptized or do they indicate both adult believers and their family members are to be baptized? The basic outline of Acts is indicated in the first chapter. The gospel of Christ goes forth: “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The pattern of baptisms follow this expansion: Jerusalem and Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the world.
In summary of the actual baptisms, we find the following: (1) The new covenant promise came “to you and your children” (Acts 2:39) at Pentecost. Only men (3000) are said to have been baptized (Acts 2:5, 14, 41). (2) In Samaria “men and women alike” (Acts 8:12) were baptized, including Simon (the apostate Sorcerer). (3) The Ethiopian eunuch (who had no familial household) was baptized (Acts 8:38). (4) Paul (who had no familial household) was baptized (Acts 9:18; cf 1 Cor. 7:7-8). (5) Cornelius’ household was baptized (Acts 10:48, 11:14). (6) Lydia’s household was baptized (Acts 16:15). (7) The Philippian Jailer’s household was baptized (Acts 16:33). (8) Many Corinthians were baptized, including Crispus, Stephanas’ household, and Gaius and it is likely that “allos” any “other” refers to his household (1Cor. 1:16), since he has a prominent person that was host to the whole Corinthian church (Rom. 16:23; Acts 18:8, 19:29; 1 Cor. 1:14, 16). (9) The disciples of John (adult men) were baptized (Acts 19:5).
These are the facts about who was baptized. From this we learn: of nine people singled-out in the baptism narratives—five clearly had their households baptized (Cornelius, the Jailer, Lydia, Crispus [inferred], Stephanas), two others had no familial households for obvious reasons (eunuch & Paul). That leaves Simon, who actually turned out to be an unbeliever, and Gaius listed with Crispus [household] and the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:14). In 1 Corinthians 1:14–16, the text says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other (allos).” The most grammatically obvious referent to the pronoun allos is “household” (oikos). This is not a “mixed list” grammatically since each of these nouns in masculine and singular. Given the grammatical evidence and the contextual fact that Gaius had a home that could host the church of Corinth, it seems plain that Gaius is a household case. This is strongly suggested by Romans 16:23, “Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you.” Given the nature of first century families, it is unlikely that the host of a group of dozens of people if not many more was single and had no household servants. For more on this see my paper on “The First Century Family.”
The outline of Acts is punctuated by the baptismal cases as the gospel goes from Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria, and then to the rest of the world. After the Judean and Samaritan baptisms, we have the baptism of Paul (the Apostle to the Gentiles), then the gospel crossed to Gentile territory. Beginning with Cornelius, every baptism is a household baptism passage—except where we are told those present were “twelve men,” who were apparently Jews (Acts 19:7). When Peter recalls the first case of Gentile conversion (Cornelius), it is framed with covenantal words: “And he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household”(Acts 11:14). Then, the Gentile households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Jailer, Stephanas, and Gaius were all baptized.
Acts is a selective history of thousands of examples of baptisms over the first few decades of the church. Surely Luke did not record the only household baptisms in the entire apostolic period. Rather, this was the normative practice of the apostolic church as the gospel went to Gentile families. The gospel and its outward sign went to families because families were to be saved (Acts 16:31b). The salvation of ethnic families was the goal of the covenant: “The covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:25). This is how Luke frames the first case of Gentile conversion (Cornelius): “And he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household”(Acts 11:14). Then there is an important pericope on the Philippian Jailer who seems to be the first pagan to be baptized. All the previous examples indicate they were “God fearers” (Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius, Lydia, etc.). This one is also framed with the same “you and your household” language: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household” (Act 16:31).
Do you believe infant baptism saves the child? Baptism “saves” a person in a similar sense as a wedding marries a person. It is the start of the union, it is the official declaration, but does not automatically provide all the blessings of a married life. Baptism is the official start of Christian identity, but it is in living out one’s baptismal identity, that all the blessings of salvation are received.
Shouldn’t baptism be done by immersion? If we compare baptism and communion, whether the Lord’s Supper is actually a “supper” (deipnon, an evening meal) is not essential to its purpose, meaning, or sacramental quality. In the same way, the mode of baptism, whether by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling, is less important than its meaning and recipients. The Reformed view does not require a particular mode as necessary for a valid baptism. However, a strong case can be made that most Biblical baptisms were like an “anointing” from above, e.g., in the Tabernacle sprinklings (baptismois in Heb. 9:11, see verses 9:13, 19, 22). The baptism of the Spirit is spoken of as the Holy Spirit “poured out upon the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45-47). Baptism is also a “crossing” into (e.g., Red Sea, Jordan river, John’s baptism). The baptismal washings in Scripture are many and varied, so don’t worry about how water is applied.
If you believe in infant baptism, do you have to believe in infant communion? I have written on this elsewhere. The earliest historical sources on infant baptism, like Cyprian (c. 200-258) and later Augustine (354-430), make clear infant baptism and infant communion were normative in their day. Still, this is a separate question and depends upon other principles such as: (a) whether infants or young children partook of Passover and other Old Testament sacrificial meals, (b) if there were any qualifications for participation, such as asking and understanding (Ex. 12:26), and (c) whether in the new covenant there are any additional qualifications. B. B. Warfield said, “The ordinances of the Church belong to the members of it; but each in its own appointed time. The initiatory ordinance belongs to the members on becoming members, other ordinances become their right as the appointed seasons for enjoying them roll around.
Here’s my interview on the Canon Press podcast, Canon Calls. This interview covers my background on the topic as well as the “new covenant” argument against paedobaptism.
I was able to present a case for Baptisms in the Bible, including baptismal efficacy and covenantal infant baptism at Trinity Reformed Church’s Men’s Theology Forum (4/23/2021). This presentation involved talk with slides and the a solid hour of question and answers. The talk represented every NT verse on baptism and many OT references to the developing baptismal themes. Most of those who attended were Baptists and so many related topics were covered in the discussion. The audio and the slides (in the PDF Outline) are available (01 Baptisms in the Bible Presentation) and (02 Baptisms in the Bible Discussion).
As we consider biblical revelation as it relates to marriage and family, all of the data matters. From Acts and the Epistles there are only nine individuals (explicitly named or described) who were baptized. It will be argued that six of these baptisms are “household baptisms.” This pattern has led to a century old discussion on the “oikos formula” and what it means or does not mean. That debate between the likes of Joachim Jeremias and Kurt Aland (circa 1960) set the stage for the current discussion about family solidarity and the ordinances of baptism and communion in the NT. What may we validly infer from this set of facts? I will work through the pattern and provide conclusions consistent with the implications.
Many objectors to Covenantal Infant Baptism seek to use the new covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34 to argue that “all the members of the new covenant are regenerate” (e.g., James White v Gregg Strawbridge debate on infant baptism, 2015 also available on YouTube).
In the White v Strawbridge debate, I made the point that nothing about baptism actually follows from the assertion that “every member of the new covenant is regenerate [in the Calvinistic sense.” Baptists nor paedobaptists can baptize only regenerate people. As Warfield teaches all baptism is based on a judgment of charity whether of the very young or the mature.
At any rate, one must first do exegesis before alleged theological conclusions can be used as a macro-theological point (i.e., “all members of the new covenant are regenerate”). I am providing my exegesis. The following link includes a general sermon and in the PDF Outline an exegetical paper with about 50 footnotes and dozens of scholarly sources. The New Covenant In Context.
Dr. Gavin Ortlund presented a very interesting paedobaptist challenge at the Evangelical Theological Society, San Diego (November 20 – 22, 2019). The title was: “Why Not Grandchildren? A Critique of Reformed Paedobaptism” – You can hear his talk here. Listen to our interaction in a WordMp3 iView podcast – I interacted with him directly.
Dr. Ortlund argues that circumcision was for the multi-generational “nation” Israel (eg., “all the seed of Abraham”), it is inter-generational (grandchildren/future generations); however Reformed infant baptism is claimed only for “you and your children” (eg., merely, “generational”). So he argues there is an actual discontinuity between recipients of circumcision and the recipients of baptism (for the Reformed paedobaptist). He points out that Calvin, Knox, Rutherford, et al (early Reformation) agreed that any child, grandchild, greatgrandchild of a believer had a right to the rite. His helpful example is John, sr. is a faithful believer; John, jr. is unfaithful; What do we do with John, III? Should he be baptized (as an infant)? Contemporary paedos do not baptize John III. There is discontinuity on circumcision’s recipients and baptism’s recipients.
I interact with this challenge. My view is that the first generation of circumcision is for the whole household, then it should be generation after generation. If a generation becomes unfaithful then there is a pastoral problem about kickstarting then next generation (eg., the Wilderness generation). I provide examples of grandfathers raising their “children” (actually grandchildren) who could properly bring their (grand)children to baptism, as well as the question of foster child baptism.
Listen to the podcast for the conversation. Here are few matters we did not address:
- Exegetically: Gen. 17 states that, “I will make nations of you” – but this starts with the household (oikos in Greek; bet in Hebrew). Genesis 17:23 – “Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him.” Genesis 17:27 – “All the men of his household, who were born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.” Therefore, it starts with the household as is explicitly stated (3x). It is not that “a nation” (singular) will come (Israel), “nations” plural will come, not only Isaac/Israel, but sons of Keturah (Midianites, Keturah may have been Hagar) and Ishmaelites. At any rate, we know Ishmael was circumcised. Contra brother Gavin, circumcision is not a “national sign” of Israel since Ishmael received the sign, yet was not in the nation of Israel (Gen 17:20-25). Rather, it is a sign of Abraham’s faith, a sign of the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4), a sign of inclusion into the covenant that Yahweh would be his God and his children’s God (over many generations). This inclusive rite and faith promises Gentile inclusion in Paul (Gal. 3-4; Rom. 4, 15): God intended all the families of the earth to be engrafted into Abraham’s promise of the restoration of fallen humanity (Eph. 2:15). It started with Abraham but is for “all the nations of the earth” (Mt. 28:19-20).
- Logistically: Why deny that circumcision was generational in practices (parents bring infants)? How would it possibly work to circumcise those born/adopted if not one generation bringing the next to circumcision? Would an eight day old child not need to be with his mother? Would the mom hand off the grand baby to the grand dad and send them off to this ritual procedure with nothing to do with it? Would a distant relative (yet “nationally” connected, as Gavin suggests, nieces and nephews) be abducted for this covenant rite? Does circumcision entail kidnapping the child for a time, for this minor medical procedure? Use your imagination, but the point is that it is plainly, logistically, and theologically intended to be one generation after the next generation, not generation contra generation, not generation despite generation. This seems to be the meaning of, Genesis 17:9 – “throughout their generations.” If Gen. 17 is not clear, Peter specifies, “you and your children” (Acts 2:39). See a longer article with dozens of “you and your children” references (“Covenantal Infant Baptism: An Outlined Defense” on this site).
- Theologically: The best this Gavin’s (interesting) argument could do against paedobaptism is show an inconsistency in current paedobaptist practice (if Gavin is right about intergenerational circumcision). Well, I grant that there may be many inconsistencies in current paedobaptist practice. This is not a refutation. Rather, paedo-inclusion is to be practiced consistently, as is evident in Gen. 17. This is a rather foundational redemptive passage on how we address the households and children of those in covenant.
- Pastorally: To anticipate an objection: the true “seed of Abraham” must believe: yes. But my Baptist brothers mean a self-conscious expression of someone over about 4 years of age. Before that they are not the “seed” or “descendants” or “children” – this is all despite the actual meanings of the words, “seed, descendants, and children” — but Isaac, Jacob, and many that followed believed and realized the covenant sign’s meaning in their lives as they become mature. The baptist view confuses entrance into the covenant relationship with the mature expression of this life of faith in relationship. We should not reject the least child in the household of faith for the covenant sign as a means identification in the very promise of God. It is a rite, an ordinance, a sacrament, a hope, a prayer, a wish, an ardent desire and everything else good we want for a new and beautiful person who just entered the world, perhaps a child or a grandchild. Like my newly minted delight, our first grandchild, Marlowe — how could I not want all the best for her? Blessings and salvation to her. Does she have a right to the rite because of her dad, mom, granddad, grandmoms, great grandmoms, great great grandmoms, great, great, great grand moms — or even her 8th great grandfather, Robert Allen Strawbridge, the first Methodist preacher/circuit rider in America? Well — all of the above. But it only takes one such believer to make her a covenantal “saint” (hagios), as Paul taught (1Co. 7:14). But would not any of these desire or “the desire” of baptism’s end for her? Like all believers we have the most sincere hope for this little one to grow up to know forgiveness in Jesus, express a mature faithfulness, know our Triune God deeply, accomplish mighty things in the kingdom, and live forever in the New Creation. Baptism (in our day) is the tangible expression of this wish-hope-longing-faith. Baptists and Paedobaptists desire the same thing: faithful children who grow to faithful adults. Baptism is (I think we agree) the sign of this faith. Circumcision was this sign in Abraham’s day. As Paul states: “he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them” (Rom. 4:11). It is precisely because of this pastoral, parental, multi-generational desire, that we should raise our children in the culture and counsel of Christ (Eph. 6:4). The sign and seal of this desire is baptism.
- Calvinistically: While Gavin marshals Calvin (on Gen. 17) to the effect of circumcision as an inter-generational (what he takes ia a “national”) sign, there is more to Calvin here. Gavin argues that circumcision was a national sign without the relevant spirituality captured in “believers and their children” (ie., Reformed paedobaptist view). I am not sure from reading Calvin on Gen. 17, this is an accurate summary. Gavin misses a major emphasis of Calvin on Gen. 17: “since circumcision is called by Moses, the covenant of God, we thence infer that the promise of grace was included in it. For had it been only a mark or token of external profession among men, the name of covenant would be by no means suitable, for a covenant is not otherwise confirmed, than as faith answers to it. And it is common to all sacraments to have the word of God annexed to them, by which he testifies that he is propitious to us, and calls us to the hope of salvation; yea, a sacrament is nothing else than a visible word, or sculpture and image of that grace of God, which the word more fully illustrates….We now consider how the covenant is rightly kept; namely, when the word precedes, and we embrace the sign as a testimony and pledge of grace; for as God binds himself to keep the promise given to us; so the consent of faith and of obedience is demanded from us….And Abraham is not only commanded to dedicate and to offer unto God those born in his house, but whomsoever he might afterwards obtain.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Complete), trans. John King; Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847), paragraph 1399ff. I rest my case with brother Calvin.
I interviewed Michael Bull on his defense of Believer’s Baptism from “all of the Bible.” This is not a “new testament only” defense of the Baptist view, but a reading of a Scripture with a rich conception of the typologies, patterns, and architectural content of the Old Testament. The Audio is Available Here.
A few years ago I got a call from a stranger to discuss a struggle. John Crawford was the son of a prominent Baptist pastor struggling with the doctrine of the covenant. Could he really embrace covenantal infant baptism as a Baptist pastor’s son? He struggled with the same thing I did: the nature and recipients of the new covenant. After a few years and a couple wonderful visits to Lancaster Co., John came to a firm conclusion. Not only did he resolve it in his own mind with his lovely family, he wrote it all up in, Baptism is Not Enough: How Understanding God’s Covenant Explains Everything, with a foreword by Douglas Wilson. This very useful book of less than 150 pages, published by American Vision, also includes a 30 minute video of a discussion with John. The video brings you into a very personal engagement with John. You get a sense of his personality and passion.
Baptism is Not Enough is a very readable introduction, not simply to the issues relating to baptism, but especially in understanding the biblical concept of covenant. In fact, that’s the main argument of the book: until you understand the biblical concept of the covenant, then don’t even try to understand baptism. I agree. Here is the chapter sequence:
- Covenant at Creation
- Three Covenant Institutions
- Covenant Structure and Children in the Old Testament
- Covenant Structure and Children in the New Testament
- New Covenant Texts Revisited
- Covenant Structure and the Whole Gospel
If you are looking for a good study of the covenant and a great introduction to the Reformed, covenantal understanding of baptism, this is it.