Often in explanations of covenant baptism, the correlation is established between the promises God made to Abraham that were sealed with circumcision and the fulfillment in Christ of those promises that are now sealed with baptism. Yet clearly many struggle to make this connection, seeing it as too far a jump across the divide between the Old and New Testaments. We need to help them further by pointing out the stepping stones God has given us that are embedded throughout the Bible. What are these stepping stones?
Last night we watched from western Pennsylvania via Skype as our grandson, Max Mann, was baptized way out in Manhattan, Kansas. Though we wish we could have actually been there to be with and hug our daughter, her family, and the congregation, we are grateful we could witness it, see a congregation surrounding them with prayer and love, and know that other family was there with them. For instance, his namesake, his great-grandfather Max whose birthday it happened to be, was present, adding a special touch to the night. The minister of the church plant our daughter and her husband attend, Pastor Jonathan Haney, did a tremendous job of explaining the powerful promises the Lord gives us regarding baptism and preaching the gospel to all attending, including the children. Afterward, we enjoyed close-ups of Max and visiting with Will, Lindsay, and others gathered there.
Miriam and I found tears rolling down our cheeks during the service, but not only because of the separating distance. We heard God’s covenantal promises read and proclaimed, and were experiencing them in real time! From the simple promise of Psalm 128 to “see our children’s children” to the profound ones of the Lord promising to establish an everlasting covenant to be our God and the God of our children (Genesis 17:7), we marveled at how these promises have become “Yes and Amen” in Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 1:19-20). The waters of baptism were setting Max apart to be a marked-out recipient of those promises. As he continues to be raised in God’s fear, have the gospel preached to him regularly, and is prayed for faithfully, based on God’s promises we have great reason to hope in him embracing the gospel fully as he grows in that environment.
As I was reminded again in listening to Pastor Haney, there are important, but often neglected, stepping stones that need to be made in the case for infant baptism. Often in explanations of covenant baptism, the correlation is established between the promises God made to Abraham that were sealed with circumcision and the fulfillment in Christ of those promises that are now sealed with baptism. Yet clearly many struggle to make this connection, seeing it as too far a jump across the divide between the Old and New Testaments. We need to help them further by pointing out the stepping stones God has given us that are embedded throughout the Bible. What are these stepping stones? In the visions that the Old Testament prophets had of the New Covenant, they saw the children of Christians receiving the promises given to Abraham through Christ. Then in the New Testament, the apostles highlight these promises.
Where are a few of these stepping stone promises? Clearly in the latter portion of Isaiah, the prophet is seeing the great blessings God is promising through the Suffering Servant who is to come. One of those blessings is recorded in this way:
And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 59:21).
This promise of the Spirit is sealed by baptism, as Peter makes clear in Acts 2:38. “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.” Since the promise is for both us and our children, then the sign of it is to be given to both as well. Peter emphasizes this when he goes on to say, “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 2:39).
Other prophets saw the same thing. In the great chapter that contains the picture of the resurrection from the dead in the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel makes new covenant promises such as this one:
My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them” (Ezekiel 37:24-26).
This covenant of peace has clearly come to us in Christ (see Hebrews 8:7-13; 13:20-21). Again, if it is made to us and our children, then we are to identify them as heirs of those covenant promises by including them visibly through baptism.
Of the dozens of these stepping stones from the old to new covenant, let me share one more from Jeremiah.
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jeremiah 32:38-40).
The Lord through Jeremiah is clearly echoing here the promises to Abraham. Yet as Israel’s history shows, and the New Testament reveals, these full-orbed promises can only truly be fulfilled in Christ. For it is in Jesus that we become heirs of the Abrahamic promises. “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29). As every true heir has a signed and sealed promise, so it is that God intended that each one of our children has the sign and seal of baptism.
Having not known of these promises in my own youth, this grandfather is so thankful for the mercies of the Lord shown to me and my wife, my children, and now their children. “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Psalm 103:17-18).
Barry York is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. This article is used with permission.