What is New about the New Covenant?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. His creative activity climaxed in the creation of man and woman—creatures made in his own image and given dominion over everything that God had made. Nevertheless humanity was beguiled by the serpent and rebelled against its maker. Death was the inevitable result. Yet, God continued to reveal himself to men and women. Rather than immediate and total destruction, human beings found themselves the recipients of grace and peace. As the centuries passed, God chose specific individuals and their offspring to be a blessing to the entire world. Though this chosen people were little more than a band of slaves, God rescued them from their oppressors in a massive exodus from the land of Egypt. They were given a land that had been promised centuries before to their forefathers—the promised land, Canaan. Though they were to be God’s messengers to the world, bringing news of mercy and forgiveness and a coming messiah, these chosen people were largely as rebellious as the original humans. For their continual adultery with other gods, the people were judged and punished by exile to a foreign land. Yet God’s grace was not entirely obscured by his judgments and they were promised a return to the promised land and a faithful, righteous king. In the fullness of time, this king came. He was the Son of God: Jesus, the Christ. Having accomplished all that was necessary for the redemption of his people, this Jesus reconstituted God’s people and sent them into the world to be a witness until he would return to judge the living and the dead.

 

The great, over-arching plan of redemption stretches across all the centuries of human existence and takes in an amazing array of characters and events. How can it be understood as a cohesive whole? What themes wind their way through its entire plot? What organizing principles help us understand God’s purpose in his interactions with this world? There are many answers that could be given. Themes and motifs abound throughout the Holy Scriptures. One such theme that is widely recognized as central through this history is covenant. Indeed, it is more than just a literary theme. It is the means by which God has chosen to administer nearly all of the epochs of his redemption. It is the unifying principle of God’s revelation and relations to and with mankind.

The exact nature of these covenants has been a matter of intense debate since the post-Reformation period when theologians began to really grapple with the significance of the covenant concept in Scripture. Is there a covenant of works? Is there a covenant of grace? Were the covenants bilateral or unilateral? Were they conditional or unconditional? These are some of the questions that continue to generate much study. In this particular paper, we wish to focus on one of the biblical covenants, the New Covenant. The exact nature of this particular covenant has far-reaching implications for the Church because it is this covenant under which the Church is constituted. It is the covenant that was instituted by Christ and the consummation of all previous covenants.

More specifically, we wish to inquire into what it is that makes this covenant “New.” What is new about the New Covenant? There are several angles from which this discussion can be approached. We are primarily interested in its implications for baptismal practice, however, and that concern will guide our approach to the newness of the New Covenant.

So what does the New Covenant have to do with baptismal practice? Debates over believer’s baptism and paedobaptism center largely on the constitution of the Church. Are the children of believers members of the Church or are they not? If they are not members, they are then disqualified for baptism. If they are, then baptism is appropriately administered to them. The prophecy of the New Covenant sets out the constitution of God’s covenant people, as it will be in the coming days (Jer. 31:31). The Christian Church, established by Jesus Christ, is the fulfillment of this prophecy. In light of this, the newness of the New Covenant lies at the heart of the baptism debate. All are agreed that the children of Abraham were included in the Abrahamic covenant. All are agreed that children were included in the Mosaic covenant, and in the Davidic covenant. But were they included in the New Covenant? Does what is new about the New Covenant preclude the children of covenant members from the covenant? Better stated, are children New Covenant members by virtue of their parents’ covenant membership?

Exegesis of the relevant passages of Scripture does in fact reveal that covenant membership in the New Covenant is not granted merely by virtue of descent from other covenant members. Thus, children cannot be considered members of the Church of Christ on the basis of their descent from believing parents, but only on the basis of their union with Christ. It follows that baptism is not legitimately administered to the children of believers before they themselves profess union with Christ. The New Covenant people are a regenerate people. There is no room for the unregenerate within the redeemed community of God. Whereas the Old covenant community was defined in terms of the physical seed of Abraham, the New Covenant community is defined in terms of the spiritual seed of Abraham; those who are born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

The term “New Covenant” appears only once in the entire Old Testament. We should not conclude from this, however, that the prophecy of the New Covenant is a merely incidental matter. There are numerous prophetic allusions to it and the New Testament makes clear the theological weight of the New Covenant.

We will begin by examining the passage in which the phrase does occur: Jeremiah 31:31-34. This is the clearest and most extensive explanation of what the New Covenant will entail. It reads:

 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

 

Before undertaking a close examination of each of these clauses, we will survey the context in which they are found.

Within Jeremiah itself, this prophecy is found in the section of the book commonly known as the, “Book of Consolation” (chapters 30-33). As its name suggests, this part Jeremiah’s prophecy largely contrasts with chapters 1-25, which were focused on judgment. In these chapters, Jeremiah prophesies about return from exile and the restoration of the Davidic kingship. It is in this context that the prophecy of the New Covenant occurs.

The prophecy begins with the statement that God will make a new covenant that is not like covenant made at the time of the exodus. That this covenant will be made with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” points toward the restoration of a people who will not be divided and splintered as the result of God’s judgments (31). The sentence as a whole emphasizes the dissimilarity of the covenant established at Sinai and the new covenant that will be established. It will not be like the previous covenant (32). How then will it be different?

Our first clue appears in the same sentence: “my covenant that they broke” (32). This implies that at least one of the characteristics of the New Covenant will be its indestructibility. Whereas Israel’s history subsequent to Sinai was a sad one of rebellion, disloyalty and covenant breaking, the coming covenant will not be like the one established under Moses. The following sentences of the passage explain more specifically the three major ways in which it will be different.

First, God declares that he will put his law within them, and write it on their hearts (33). In contrast to the Mosaic covenant wherein the law was written on tablets of stone, in the New Covenant, the law will be internalized. The people will have it within them, written on their hearts.

Second, there will no longer be a need for covenant members to urge other members to know the LORD, because they will all know him, from the least to the greatest (34). It is clear that this is not simply referring to a simple head-knowledge of who YHWH is. Rather, in line with nuance of the Hebrew verb, this knowledge is deep and intimate. It is saving knowledge.

Third, the members of this covenant will all be forgiven and God will remember their sin no more (34). Israel’s history reveals the presence of many within the covenant community whose sins were not forgiven. But in the New Covenant, this will not be the case.

It must be noted from the start that what is new about the New Covenant is not the existence of these things, but their scope. It is quite obvious that there were some within the Mosaic covenant community who had God’s law written on their hearts, not simply on tablets of stone; there were some within that community who knew the LORD intimately; and there were some whose sins were forgiven. The problem addressed by the New Covenant is that these things were not characteristic of all the members of the covenant community under the Mosaic administration. Indeed, the promise, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” is not a novelty of the New Covenant. The same promise was given previously. But the sense in which we understand this to be true of the New Covenant community must be modified by the new situation indicated in the surrounding sentences.

In these promises, the scope of God’s salvific work in his covenant community is greatly expanded. In fact, the New Covenant allows no place for a remnant of the truly faithful, because all its members are faithful. Whereas in previous times, the circle of the regenerate was always smaller, and contained within the larger circle of the covenant community, now the circle of the regenerate and the covenant community will be coextensive. As previously noted, the existence of these phenomena; that is, the substance of these promises, is nothing new. What is revolutionary about the New Covenant (which is not like the one made after the exodus) is its scope. This covenant is made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah and these promises are made to those houses corporately (not just select individuals within those houses). Furthermore, though the phrase, “from the greatest to the least,” is appended to only one clause, it is clear that it applies conceptually to the entire prophecy. Everyone within this covenant has the law written on their hearts, knows the LORD intimately and has their sins forgiven. Simply put, everyone within this covenant is regenerate. This is not like the covenant made on the day when the LORD brought Israel out of Egypt. It is new, and it is better.

This brings us to a New Testament passage which greatly aids our understanding of this prophecy and our confidence in applying it to the New Testament Church: Hebrews 8.

The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians facing the temptation to return to Jewish rituals and practices. The burden of the letter is to demonstrate that Jesus and his salvific work are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, far better than anything that has come before. He is better than angels (1:4). He gives his people a better hope (7:19). He is the guarantee of a better covenant (7:22). His ministry is better, being enacted on better promises (8:6). His sacrifice was better (9:23). His redemption offers a better country (11:16). His blood speaks better things than the blood of Abel (12:24).

Why all this emphasis on what is better? The writer of Hebrews wants to ensure that his readers know the difference between Christ’s ministry and the Old Covenant priestly ministry. Christ’s is eminently better and there is no reason to desire a return to the old ways that have now passed away. What the Hebrew Christians now have is far better than what their fathers had before them.

It is in the context of this line of argumentation that the writer introduces the longest Old Testament quotation in the New Testament. In Hebrews 8:8-12, he quotes Jeremiah’s entire prophecy of the New Covenant. Surrounding this quotation is the writer’s (inspired) commentary on the text. This commentary will greatly aid us in understanding the meaning of Jeremiah’s words.

The first thing to note is that the writer of Hebrews does us great service by unapologetically applying this prophecy to the Christian Church. Within Old Testament studies there has been debate regarding the intended timeframe of this prophecy and its fulfillment. Whatever the details of its partial fulfillment in the Jewish return from exile, the author of Hebrews makes it clear that the prophecy was not exhausted by that fulfillment. The prophecy is a prophecy of the Church as Jesus’ new covenant community.

In 8:6, the writer of Hebrews states that Jesus’ ministry is more excellent than the old (priestly) ministry because the covenant he mediates is better, being enacted on better promises. We have already seen that this covenant is New, but here the writer of Hebrews insists that it is better as well. How is it better? It contains better promises. Earlier, we noted that all of the phenomena promised in the Jeremiah’s prophecy were not themselves new. Previous to the inauguration of the New Covenant, God had promised to “be their God,” which, whatever else it might have included, certainly included spiritual promises. Though the Old covenant law was written on stone tablets, it was also written on the hearts of many Israelites. Old Covenant religion was never intended simply to be external cultic ritual (though it often descended into that). Though there was a necessity to urge other covenant members to “know the LORD,” there were many Israelites who did know the LORD intimately. And though not all Jews experienced the forgiveness of sins, there were certainly some who did. We noted that it was not the substance of these phenomena that was new, but the scope. Likewise, what is better about the New Covenant is not its substance, but its scope.

The writer of Hebrews even asserts that the first covenant was faulty. Thus a second covenant was necessitated (8:7). How could a covenant established by God himself be faulty? The context of the whole book reveals the answer. In every case where Christ is portrayed as “better,” it is implied that what preceded him was “lesser.” Christ is a better high priest, and thus the preceding high priest were less than him in that their priestly actions were only anticipatory and pictorial with regard to Christ’s work as high priest. James White says: “that which the New Covenant provides in perfection the OLD only provided in part or in picture…where something is found in both covenants, it will be seen to be partial and incomplete in the Old, finished, total, and perfect in the New.”

Hebrews 8:8a presents us with a difficult textual variation. The two alternative readings, as given in the ESV are: “For he finds with them when he says:” and “For finding fault with it he says to them:”. The former reading appears in the main text (following UBS4), while the latter appears as a marginal reading. The issue cannot be decided on the basis of textual criticism alone, for both are equally and well attested. The former reading, in which God finds fault with the people, is supported exegetically by 8:9 in which the unfaithfulness of Israel is mentioned. The latter reading is supported exegetically by 8:7 in which the same Greek root is used in discussing the faultiness of the first covenant. The proximity of the phrase in 8:7 and the employment of the same Greek root are convincing evidence that the latter reading is to be preferred. If it is accepted, it reinforces the argument that the New Covenant is better than the Old.

Having introduced the New Covenant as better and without fault, the writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34. Having done so, he concludes by noting that the first covenant is obsolete and ready to vanish away (8:10).

The Jeremiah quotation in the context of Hebrew’s overall argument is highly significant for another reason. Paedobaptist apologists will often admit that Jeremiah 31 envisions a covenant community that is entirely redeemed. They object, however, to the Baptist use of the passage to argue for regenerate Church membership. A more nuanced understanding of the passage is needed, they argue. Its fulfillment must be conceived of in terms of the “already-not yet” dynamic of biblical prophecy fulfillment. Though Jeremiah 31 prophesies of a new, regenerate covenant community, that total fulfillment will only be realized at the consummation of Christ’s Kingdom. Until then, the New Covenant community will still be a mixed community containing both regenerate and unregenerate, just as the Old covenant community did.

This is a powerful argument. It does not attempt to soften the force of the New Covenant promises, and thus agrees with traditional Baptist exegesis of the text. In addition, it employs a legitimate and undeniable hermeneutic of prophecy-fulfillment. The resulting vision of the New Covenant Church is that of a mixed body, and therefore, paedobaptism is legitimated.

There is one difficulty with this interpretation, however: Hebrews. The way that it uses Jeremiah 31 in the context of its overall argument poses a problem for the paedobaptist argument. Convincing the Hebrew Christians not to return to obsolete cultic practices depends on convincing them that they possess so much more in Christ. More than that, it depends on convincing them that they have more in Christ right now, at this moment in history. It does no good to convince them that they will have a better High Priest some day, for that is exactly what the Old Covenant Jews had: the prophecy of a better High Priest. No, the writer of Hebrews want to show his readers that they currently have so much more than their ancestors did. He does not tell them to look forward to a better sacrifice some day. No! The better sacrifice has already been given by Christ, and the resulting forgiveness is theirs, right now.

If the New Covenant is only in some sort of already-not yet state in which the law in not written on everyone’s hearts, in which not everyone knows the LORD, in which not everyone’s sins are forgiven, how can the writer of Hebrews employ it in his argument? If this is the case, this new and supposedly better covenant is no different than that enjoyed by the Jews’ forefathers. What has changed? Unless the New Covenant is actually fulfilled in the sense that its promises have become reality for the covenant community, it is entirely out of place in the argument of Hebrews. Thus, Hebrews serves to demonstrate that whatever already-not yet dimensions the New Covenant prophecy of Jeremiah 31 has, they cannot dictate an interpretation that does not allow for real fulfillment in the life of the New Testament Church. In other words, Hebrews’ use of Jeremiah 31 offers substantial support to the argument that all members of the New Testament Church have the law written on their hearts, know the LORD, and have their sins forgiven. This being that case, the admission of infants into the Church through the sacrament of baptism is illegitimate unless one argues that all children of believers are to be presumed regenerate by virtue of their descent, a presumption that has very little Biblical or practical support.

It is this point that flies in the face of much Paedobaptist rhetoric. Faced with the clear promises of the New Covenant, many retreat to the bastion of already-not yet. But if their hermeneutic is employed, the New Covenant community is simply left with more of the same. If the New Covenant is new only in the sense of a ‘renewed’ Mosaic Covenant, then it is really not new at all! It bears repetition that the substance of the promises of the New Covenant is not new. It is the scope that is new. If that scope is excised with the scalpel of already-not yet, the New Covenant prophecy becomes pointless. If the New Covenant promises nothing more than the law written on some hearts, the knowledge of God among some and the forgiveness of some, the legitimate response of any thinking Jew would be: “How is that new? That’s exactly what my grandfather was promised, and his father before him.” What’s new about the New Covenant? On that argument, quite simply nothing.

Special pleading with regard to the inclusion of females being new is flawed on two counts. First, females were always covenant children even if they didn’t receive the covenant sign. Second, there is no mention of this dynamic anywhere in the relevant prophecy. “Greatest to the least,” can hardly be construed as signifying: “both male and female.” The baptism of females as well as males has no weight at all in this discussion, even as an ancillary point.

The inclusion of Gentiles in the New Covenant community as Gentiles certainly represents a massive shift in redemptive history. But again, it cannot be legitimately proposed as the heart of what is new about the New Covenant. There is no mention at all of Gentiles in Jeremiah’s prophecy. In light of other prophecies and the New Testament, provision for their inclusion can be seen in Jeremiah 31, but only as a result of the fulfillment of what is new about the New Covenant, not as the substance of what is new itself.

But how, Paedobaptists object, can the New Covenant be called better if it excludes the children who were previously included in the covenant community? Surely a new and better covenant would expand its circumference rather than contract it. Are we to believe that Jewish children were suddenly evicted from God’s covenant community? And was salt then poured into the wounds of the distressed parents by the callous announcement that this covenant was actually better now that their little ones were kicked out? Despite its tremendous emotional appeal, this argument is fundamentally flawed in that it “urges a quantitative solution to a qualitative problem.” The issue is not that these children lost any of the privileges they had previously enjoyed, but that the promises of the New Covenant were so much greater and more glorious than those of the Old, that not all of those who constituted the Old Covenant community could be counted as part of the New. Only the faithful remnant of the Old Covenant possessed those qualities characteristic of all members of the New. If the paedobaptist argument is to be accepted, the inclusion of the entire world would have made the New Covenant even greater. But greatness is not a function of inclusivity. Quite the contrary, the New Covenant’s greatness comes from its purity and therefore its exclusivity.

 

Up to this point, we have emphasized what is new about the New Covenant; that is, we have emphasized discontinuity. The time has now come to examine the New Covenant in terms of continuity. For, as our preceding discussion has hinted, there is a great deal of continuity to be found in the New Covenant as well.

Perhaps the most striking phrase that links Jeremiah’s prophesied New Covenant with the covenants that preceded it is the formula: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Though this precise formula is found most often in the prophets, its substance is clearly present already in the Torah. In Genesis 17, God says of Abraham’s descendants: “I will be their God” (7-8). Though not explicitly stated, the complementary “they will be my people” is clearly implied by the following verses (9-11). God’s promise of deliverance from Egyptian slavery is couched in these terms: “I will bring you out…I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:6-7). The formula appears again in Deuteronomy 26:16-19 and 29:10-13, where the people commit themselves to the LORD and he commits himself to them. Thus the Abrahamic, Mosaic and New Covenants all share this fundamental relationship between God and his people. We have already noted several times that the specific promises of the New Covenant are not novelties. This too demonstrates the continuity between God’s previous covenants and the New Covenant.

The New Covenant, for all its discontinuity, is not an essentially disconnected new program of God. Rather, it is the fulfillment of the redemptive program God has been orchestrating from the beginning. On this, all would agree. But it is precisely this aspect of fulfillment that argues for its being conceived of as radically new and indeed different from all that had preceded it. Without this newness and difference, it could hardly be conceived of as a fulfillment.

When God entered covenant with Abraham, he promised him several things. He promised him a land to dwell in (Genesis 12:1; 13:14-15; 15:7). He promised him a great name and many descendants who would be a nation (12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:4-5). He promised that he would deliver Abraham’s descendants from their oppressors and raise up kings among them (15:13-14; 17:6). Overarching all of this is God’s promise to bless Abraham greatly (12:2) and to be God to him and his descendants (17:7-8). While the relationship between Abraham and God clearly has spiritual dimensions (12:8; 15:6) and any general blessing from God would entail spiritual blessing as well, we must not overlook the fact that the main thrust of the Genesis narratives with respect to the Abrahamic covenant emphasizes the physical and temporal rather than the spiritual. Abraham is promised a physical seed who will dwell on a physical piece of geography. They will be delivered from physical oppressors and governed by physical kings. The blessings perceived and enjoyed by the nations will be physical.

Now from the vantage point of the New Testament, we can see the immense spiritual blessings contained within these promises that will manifest themselves in a multitude of ways. Within the promise of a physical seed, we can see the provision for a special people who will preserve God’s truth and serve God’s ultimate redemptive purposes. Also contained within the promise of a physical seed, we can see the promise of the seed par excellence, Christ (Galatians 3:16), and the promise of a spiritual seed of Abraham; that is, all who share Abraham’s faith (3:9). And so it is, mutatis mutandis, with all the other promises. Nevertheless, the fact remains that from the standpoint of Genesis, this covenant with Abraham is overwhelmingly temporal and physical in its thrust. Thus it is no surprise to find that the covenant sign is administered on the basis of physical descent rather than spiritual.

Moving ahead, we find God rescuing his covenant people from bondage in Egypt and establishing another covenant with them at Sinai, the Mosaic Covenant. At this juncture in redemptive history, the spiritual dimensions of God’s covenant purposes become much clearer. Though the nation is promised many physical and temporal blessings, the massive emphasis on morality and cult practice demonstrates a heightened sensitivity to the spiritual aspects of covenantal relations with God. Covenant membership is still determined by physical descent and the nation is still journeying toward a physical promised land, yet there is a new explicit discussion of the spiritual dimensions of being God’s people. With the covenant law, provision is now made for determining covenant membership, not on physical descent alone, but also on covenant faithfulness, individual (Leviticus, passim) and corporate (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Additionally, new language emerges concerning circumcision and its significance. For the first time in the Biblical record, the covenant people are warned that physical circumcision is not everything in relating to God as his children. Indeed, they are told that they must be circumcised in the heart as well as the foreskin (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6).

The Davidic covenant differs from the others in that it deals with a specific line rather than the entire people of God. Nevertheless it is intimately connected with the preceding and following covenants. Its language invokes the promises made to Abraham at nearly every turn (2 Samuel 7), and offers fulfillment of the kings promised in Genesis 17. The Davidic king is specially obligated to be righteous (2 Samuel 7:14 and various Psalms) to such an extent that, in view of the moral failures of David and his descendants, the obligations can only be filled by the coming Messiah (Psalm 72). Indeed, this seed of David is a fulfillment of the seed promised long before to Abraham. Though not dealing specifically with the entire covenant community, this covenant with David has clear spiritual dimensions and spiritual requirements so stringent that the Son of God alone can fulfill them.

By this point, the trajectory of covenantal history should be clear. Though God’s covenantal relations with men were never exclusively temporal in their focus, we can see a clear movement toward internalization and the spiritual dimensions of covenant membership. This movement reaches its climax in the New Covenant, where God reveals a covenant people who are delineated, not in terms of physical descent, but in terms of spiritual descent. The law is written on their hearts, not simply on tablets of stone. They know the LORD intimately. Their sins are forgiven. In the very fullest sense, God is their God and they are his people.

The twenty-seven New Covenant documents that comprise the latter half of the Christian Scriptures make the culmination of this movement abundantly clear. In preparation for the public ministry of the Messiah who would establish the New Covenant with his blood, John the Baptist, the last of the Old Covenant prophets, demands heart repentance from the people and anticipates their objection based on physical descent. “Do not presume to say to yourselves,” he warns, “’We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham!” (Matthew 3:9). The implication: physical descent alone is worthless in the site of God. In fact, God is in the process of purifying his covenant people, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:10) What field you are planted in counts for nothing if you are not bearing fruit. The movement toward internalization that we have been observing through the successive covenants is nearing its climax.

Jesus continues along the same lines in his earthy ministry. To the Pharisee who comes to him by night, Jesus says that being a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is no longer enough for entrance into the kingdom (John 3:3). Those who would enter the New Covenant community must be born again. On another occasion, to those Jews who rested in their physical descent from Abraham, Jesus had this to say: “I know that you are offspring of Abraham…[but] you are of your father the devil” (John 8:37, 44). In this same context, Jesus makes a distinction between the physical and spiritual offspring of Abraham, when he says: “If you were Abraham’s children [implied: his spiritual children], you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me…this is not what Abraham did” (8:39-40).

Paul picks up this distinction in his letter to the Galatians, stating that it is “those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7) and in Romans, where he writes: “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart,” (Romans 2:28-29).

Having begun with Abraham, to whom physical circumcision was given with nothing said its spiritual counterpart, and having moved through the Mosaic Covenant where physical circumcision retained its significance, but was complimented by a call for circumcision of the heart, we have now arrived at that point in redemptive history where physical circumcision is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “nothing,” (1 Corinthians 7:19).

Paedobaptist polemics would have us reverse course at this point and return to our starting point. But there can be no going back. Are we really to believe that this movement toward the climax of covenantal history was intended to bring us a New Covenant in which we unaccountably return the beginning? Did John rebuke the Pharisees for their reliance of inherited covenantal blessings only to announce the arrival another King who would establish a kingdom in which the same principle would operate? Having come to an era in which men and women of all nations regardless of their physical descent can become spiritual children of Abraham through faith, are we really to believe that the physical descent of their children has any spiritual significance? With Jesus having told Nicodemus that only those who are born again may enter the kingdom, are we really to believe that the children of those born again enter that same kingdom by another way, the way of physical birth?

To be sure, most paedobaptist would answer these questions in the negative. But this simply exposes the inconsistency of their arguments. We have seen that the New Covenant promises leave no room for New Covenant members who are not themselves regenerate. One cannot have the law written on their heart, intimate knowledge of God and forgiveness of sins without regeneration. From a covenantal perspective, one cannot lack these things and be a member of the New Covenant. The regenerate and the New Covenant Community are one and the same. It then follows that the Church of Christ has a regenerate membership. It is not a mixed body. Therefore, the unregenerate are not to be knowingly admitted into the Church. As we have previously stated, unless one assumes the regeneration of all those born to believers, paedobaptism an illegitimate administration of baptism. The newness of the New Covenant precludes it.

Debates about the legitimacy of paedobaptism often focus on a number of dynamics within the canon of Scripture. Many passages within the New Testament are subjected to close exegesis in an effort to reveal what light they have to shed on the issue at hand. Jesus’ blessing of the children, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, household baptisms in Acts, Paul’s references to circumcision and baptism; all of these and more are scrutinized and their significance and meaning are endlessly debated. But unless we posit a radical (and totally indefensible) break between the Old and New Testaments such that Old Testament testimony is not admitted into our court of inquiry, the debate concerning baptism must begin and end with covenant theology. It is our understanding of the covenants that must in the final analysis determine our baptismal theology. The crucial difference in this arena concerns the nature of the New Covenant. What is new about the New Covenant? How we answer this question will determine our understanding of the Church and our understanding of who is to be admitted into that body. Our understanding of the New Covenant will determine our baptismal practice.

Our exegesis of relevant passages has shown that the newness of the New Covenant demands an understanding of the Church as a body of regenerate members and thus does not admit the practice of infant baptism. This conclusion has been reached in the rarified air of theoretical inquiry. The reality on the ground is far messier. The quickest glance at the body that purports to be Christ’s Church will immediately reveal an entity that is anything but a pure body of regenerate covenant members, even where baptismal practice theoretically excludes the unregenerate. Paedobaptist apologists are quick to point this out. Church leaders have no access to infallible data regarding a person’s confession of repentance and faith. As long as their lives appear to bear fruits of righteousness, their profession must be taken at face value. This ignorance, combined with laziness and sinful blindness, often leads to the admission of the unregenerate into churches. Yet this sad reality does not mean that such people are actually admitted in to the true Church. They are not. In any case, it is the duty of the leaders of the Church (fallible as they are) to strive to maintain the purity of their churches. They will not be perfectly successful in maintaining a correspondence between the Church and their churches, but they are to try. Wolves may slip into the fold dressed as sheep, but they are not to be welcomed in as wolves! Nor are goats to be admitted as goats. Only sheep may enter the fold, and if the under-shepherds through weakness and ignorance admit some particularly sheep-looking goats, those goats will not be able to fool the Master Shepherd in the end. There is a vast and significant difference between the Baptist position, which admits that goats may sneak into the fold (small ‘f’) while only sheep actually belong in the Fold (big ‘F’), and the paedobaptist position, which freely welcomes goats into the fold (the ‘f’ in this case is usually said to be somewhere between lower and upper-case, but the limitations of my word processor being what they are…). The local Baptist church is probably not pure. But Christ’s Church is, and in as far as we should strive to have our local churches faithfully picture Christ’s universal Church, we should strive to keep our local churches as pure as is possible in view of our human limitations and the charity with which we are to judge others.

This view from the trenches should not cause us to doubt the results of our exegesis. Pointing out the difficulties of properly administering Baptist church membership is no argument against Baptist exegesis, anymore than pointing out New England’s Half-Way Covenant is a legitimate argument against paedobaptist exegesis. Our principles should not be governed by practicalities, and the principles we have found in our study of the New Covenant cannot be summarized in words more succinct, beautiful or awe-inspiring than those of God himself:

 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”


It is on this point that Jeffery D. Niell’s article goes hopelessly astray, “The Newness of the New Covenant,” in Gregg Strawbridge, Ed. The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003), 127-155.

See Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 157.

James R. White, “The Newness of the New Covenant (Part 1),” in Reformed Baptist Theological Review, Vol. 1 No. 2 (July 2004): 158.

cf. White, 147-150.

Richard L. Pratt, “Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,” in Gregg Strawbridge, Ed., The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003), 156-174.

It should be noted that even without the argument just proposed from Hebrews, the “already-not yet” understanding of the New Covenant does not accomplish for the paedobaptist case what it is often purported to. The rationale is this: the New Covenant will not be completely fulfilled until the consummation. At that time, the New Covenant community will be comprise entirely of regenerate members, but until then it remains a mixed body. Assuming for the moment that this is correct, how does it provide any justification for the conscious admission of the unregenerate? God’s purpose is to create a regenerate New Covenant community, but because of sin and the brokenness of this world, that will not be perfectly accomplished until Christ returns. How does this fact afford the Church with the license to purposefully and consciously perpetuate a mixed body of regenerate and unregenerate? They should mourn the mixed, “not-yet” state of the Church until Christ returns, not aggravate it!

Paul Jewett, Infant Baptism & The Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 228.

Williamson, 120-145.

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