The Sign of the Covenant in the Old Testament
One commentator suggested that circumcision was instituted for sanitary, health reasons. If there was anything at all of that in it, it was incidental. It was the purpose and commandment of God that lay behind its institution, nothing else (Genesis 17:9-27). It was, strictly, his sign, of his covenant. That is his covenant of grace, one covenant. From beginning to end, Genesis always to the close of the age, there is one covenant, two dispensations, but one covenant. The sign of the covenant was primarily a sign for the individual himself, and of course for the parents. It signified that the child was a member of the covenant community, apart from the heathen nations around Israel. It served also as a confirmation to the parents of their faithfulness and obedience in having the sign applied. As it is in any matter that the Lord commands us when we obey we get that inner affirmation in having obeyed. It expressed, on the parents part, or the adult individual being circumcised, a commitment to God’s will. And on the part of parents a commitment to training the said child in the covenant ways of the Lord. On behalf of the parents, it also confirmed their trust in God to bless the fruit of their marital union. For the individual himself, it was a token, a daily testimony of his consecration to the Lord. It reminded him that he belonged to the elect company of God’s people, not to a heathen, but to a holy nation. “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1Peter 2:9).
The Covenant Sign
In the passage of institution, an emphasis is placed upon Sarah herself, specifically who will bear the covenant child (Genesis 17:16). For both Abraham and Sarah had to be brought to the place of understanding that it was God and God alone who could bring this thing about. The realisation of his covenant of grace, the fulfilling of the promised seed, that is. It would not be accomplished by them, by their manipulations or substitutions. Sarah herself will give birth to the child. So they have to be brought to the place of utter hopelessness, of seeing this as being an absolute impossibility (Genesis 17:17). Not a hope in all the earth of them having a child of their own. God alone could bring this to pass.
The Significant Obligation: (Genesis 17:9-10)
All signs point to something, that is the point of a sign. The SIGNificance of the covenant sign here points to the obligations of the parents and the circumcised male. To keep covenant with God (Genesis 17:1). The covenant, though it is a covenant of grace imposes obligations upon the covenant community, i.e., to “walk before God” (v1). But here a new feature is added to God’s requirements of his people, a sign, for all males within the community. What is the significance then? 1) It is a symbol (and that alone) of the evil of man’s nature being cut away, of purification. Wonderful, and needful, though forgiveness is, more is needed, the surgeon’s knife is required. The circumcision is only the sign, the reality only God himself can do. The sign points to the need for purification of life at its very source, the male reproductive organ. So the sign points to the obligations imposed upon God’s people, of putting away the old nature, even circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 4:4). The sign would be a constant reminder of this. 2) The sign pointed to their ultimate Messianic hope, the one through whom purity of life would be realised. In him is what the rite signifies. It reminds the covenant community, the Old Testament church, of her covenant obligations. And it foreshadows baptism.
The Sign’s Administration: (Genesis 17:11-13)
A sign and a seal of the covenant of grace. The believers and their children are marked as belonging to God. Their children are given an identity, they are covenant children, not heathen, and that applies, as we shall see, in both dispensations. It establishes, from a young age, the antithesis. That separation that God himself has established between the seed of the woman and seed of the serpent. That antithesis is to be maintained by God’s people in all the generations (2Corinthians 6:17-18). This is reiterated throughout the book of Deuteronomy as it is in the Psalter: “We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments: And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God” (Psalm 78:4-8). The children of the covenant are to be raised in the knowledge of the Lord, in the atmosphere of the covenant. And that is an atmosphere of grace, the very heart of the covenant, the declaration of God’s promises to his believing people. His undeserved favour to us and our children.
The sign also pictures the misery, the pain and the shame attached to sin. It points to the fact that redemption was only by bloodshed (circumcision being a bloody business). As Moses would later teach, and the New Testament would affirm “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22). It pointed to a looking forward to putting of the sinful flesh in Christ. Finally, the dedicatory act of circumcision was an expression of the believer’s gratitude, thankfulness to God for he had and would yet do for his covenant people.
The Sign Rejector Excluded: (Genesis 17:14)
There are times, for we all know, sadly, when the children of believing parents fall away. I use the term to ‘fall away’ with deliberation. For a fall it is a great fall. “For those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away” (Hebrews 6:4-5). To walk away not just from the covenant family, but the Lord himself. We have examples in holy scripture. There was Essau, “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Hebrews 12:15-17). Such make it manifest, that by a deliberate decision against the covenant of grace and its Author, their rejection. So does that mean that Essau should never have been circumcised, had the covenant sign applied to him? Or in similar circumstances in the new dispensation, that the child ought never to have been baptised? Not at all. It was simply a matter of obedience to God. “The distinction between those who are a part of the administration of the covenant, who receive the symbol, circumcision, and those who actually receive salvation, is election” (John Calvin). Neither Ishmael nor Esau were included in the election of God. But, answer, if you will if the covenant children in the old dispensation receive the sign of the covenant why not in the new dispensation. I admit the nature of the sign changes but the covenant remains the same. Where in holy writ does God say he has changed his mind. On the contrary, we have scriptures that affirm no change of mind: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). And, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (1Corinthians 7:14). Confessionally, “Q. 74. Are infants also to be baptized? A. Yes; for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church, and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant” (Heidelberg Catechism).
The Covenant Son (Genesis 17:15-22)
Here we see that Sarah is promised motherhood. She undergoes a name-change also. Now she will no longer be called Sarai, but Sarah. She goes from being quarrelsome (Sarai) to being a princess (Sarah) (v15). She will be a princess to all female believers to the end of the age. They will be her daughters, even, “Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement” (1Peter 3:6).
Her Promised Parenthood: (Genesis 17:16-17)
She will be the mother of kings, and nations (v16). Note will you how Abraham reacts (v17). But his laughter is the laughter of faith. It is like the Virgin’s reaction to being told that she shall conceive of the Holy Ghost. But, laying aside even the longevity of those early years experienced by the Patriarchs, this is staggering. I mean, for any believer, the strongest of saints yet suffer weakness of faith. Beneath the perfect robes of Christ’s righteousness lies the tatters of unbelief. Hence the cry, “I believe, help my unbelief.” But our unbelief differs from that of atheism, this is not that. “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed,even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Romans 4:16-21). Abraham believed this stupendous declaration. Later we discover in offering the covenant child on an altar to God, he even believed in the resurrection of the last day. It is not just that he believed ‘in’ this mighty covenant God, but believed his every word, and that he was able to bring forth a child from his own dead loins, and his wife’s dead womb. This is the God that raised the dead! This man Abraham’s faith will not lie down, the more impossible a thing God puts before him, the more he believes. His laughter is the laughter of faith, of joy even.
The Promise Reiterated: (Genesis 17:18-19)
This is a rightful plea from a believing father. That his other son, Ishmael should know the covenant favour of the Lord. Though he were an illegitimate son. Abraham still has a spiritual obligation to the boy. So he expressed his desire that Ishmael should love in the fullest sense, eternally, that he should live before the Lord, in the presence of God. He desires the boy’s salvation. Abraham believed ‘in’ God, but he also believed every word God spoke to him. This took precedence over all else, his feelings, his fears, his own preferences. That is true saving faith. He is assured that it will be Sarah who shall have a child and that he shall be the covenant seed. His name shall be Isaac (v19). And he, and he alone will be the covenant child. No more arguing.
The Provision for Ishmael: (Genesis 17:20-22)
Gently, firmly and graciously God reassures Abraham regarding his son Ishmael. He has been heard. Ishmael is a type of Israel after the flesh, of which there were many. He was of Israel but not Israel. Both children, Isaac and Ishmael, were children of Abraham’s, both had the covenant sign administered to them, but one is of grace the other the flesh, carnal. Again as many were in Israel. They were circumcised, they had the word of God, the prophets, but within the nation, just like in Abraham’s household, there was a promised seed. Those who through the sovereign operations of grace were saved, circumcised in heart (reborn), had a God-given faith and were the true spiritual Israel. But here, for now, the two children Isaac and Ishmael coexist, in the one house, under the same yoke, the same law. In the church today in the new dispensation you have the same mix, the carnal and the spiritual. Again the distinction is, “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh” (Romans 2:28). Not family descent, not title, not symbol, not circumcision or baptism, but, “circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25), makes one a Jew, i.e., a true believer. So God explicitly rules out Ishmael and the interview is terminated (v22). By God himself. Abraham does not persist. Here and later on in the episode regarding Sodom, we find that Abraham knows when to stop praying. Abraham believed, his faith was a reality. What God said took precedence over all else. What was good for God, was good for Abraham. It is the hidden divine election which ultimately controls the covenant.
The Covenant Sign Applied (Genesis 17:23-27)
This is not unnecessary repetition. The earlier part of the passage dealt with the institution, the giving of the sign of the covenant. Now we have the appropriation, the application, the administration of the covenant sign, the Old Testament sacrament.
You are Never too Old: (Genesis 17:23-24)
We read that Abraham did what the Lord commanded, the very same day. He didn’t spend unnecessary time praying over it, which would have been sinful. Neither are we simply afforded here the unattractive medical detail, the emphasis is not on the physical. It is upon the practical obedience of faith. Abraham is doing what God commanded him to do, and get this, he is ninety-nine years old. You are never too old to obey God, never. The appearance of God is over, it’s a past experience (v1). But now comes the test of authenticity, of all and any experience that anyone claims to have had of God, obedience. If the claimed experience does not lead to a life of obedience it is meaningless. That is our covenant calling, walk. “Q. 2. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily? A. Three: the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance” (Heidelberg Catechism). Note the last phrase, “I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.” How is that expressed? Obedience, that’s how. Abraham’s faith was more than just mere assent, he wasn’t just a hearer of God’s word. How often we excuse ourselves, maybe we hear the word of God but we dismiss it as being for the younger generation. Maybe you say I’m too old now. Abraham was ninety-nine years of age. And all he has is one thing in mind, to do what God commanded him to do. There is no demob from God’s army, the word retirement is not in the divine vocabulary. The age of sixty-five maybe the state’s law regarding retirement, but it is not biblical law. You are never too old to obey God, only when you’re dead.
You are Never too Old: (Genesis 17:25-26)
Too late for the children to be baptised you say? Ishmael was thirteen (v25). Your children may have lost some time but it can be corrected, now. No, not rebaptised. There is only one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Other baptisms don’t count. Those of the cults, Roman Catholicism, the Watchtower Society (which is not in the name of the Trinity). It is only the children of believing parents or parent who are to have the sign of the covenant applied. This is not the business of having the kid done, i.e., Church of England, sadly today. And paying the Vicar handsomely for doing the kid. Such is an abomination to God and to his true believing community. The abuse of the covenant sign does not negate the command of God. People abuse the Bible but we don’t get rid of the Bible, we learn to use it properly. When I say believing parent(s), I mean those with a credible profession of faith. Who are aware that they are making a solemn commitment and putting themselves under a serious obligation to teach their children to walk in the covenant of the Lord. Neither circumcision nor baptism saves anyone. Neither will teaching them, but it’s a certainty if we don’t teach them they will not be saved. They are not too young nor too old, God commands that the children of the covenant receive the instituted sign of the covenant.
None of Abraham’s Household Escaped: (Genesis 17:27)
All the males were circumcised, marked for God, with the sign of the covenant. You must remember that back then Abraham’s house was the church. They are claimed for God’s service. As belonging together, as God’s people. We and our children. This is the privilege of God’s people. But it brings responsibility too. We and our children are to live as those worthy to bear God’s name before the world. The application of the covenant sign did eliminate the need for faith, nor automatically create faith. There is no saving power in the sign, the sacrament, in either dispensation. In spite of the privileges, benefits of belonging to God’s covenant community people can and do ‘fall away’ in unbelief. But then so too do many who are baptised as adults by immersion. Such of course deny the Lord and his grace (Hebrews 6:5-6). Again, the administration of the covenant sign is an act of obedience on the basis of faith, whether by the parent(s) or that of a full-grown adult. The action here by Abraham and his entire male household expressed faith further in that they were all on that day incapacitated for quite some time. They were left with no human protection. They looked to the Lord whom they obeyed for protection. There may have been many questions in Abraham’s household that day, protests even, from male and female. But Abraham was a man who ruled his house. And now he has a princess for a wife, there is no quarrelling from that quarter. God says do and Abraham does.
This is the outworking of Abrahams encounter with God (v1). We baulk at the things God commands, it is not possible, I can’t do that, my family won’t allow that, etc., etc. What God enjoins God makes possible. God commands the gospel to be preached, is that too impossible? The obstinacy of men the resistance of Satan? Yet it behoves us to do as he commands and not to yield to the impediments. We labour not in vain.
The Covenant Sign in the New Testament(Genesis 17:9-14)
It must be remembered that the covenant is continuous through both dispensations. It is an everlasting covenant. So the sign of the covenant quite naturally continues on into the new dispensation. Take note that the sacrament of circumcision was instituted before the birth of Isaac. The sign SIGNified that the child circumcised was a child of promise and in obedience to God taught that he was such. Not as others, but a member of God’s church. It also taught that the child like his parents was born infected, with the impurity of sin. This impurity needs to be removed in order to have fellowship with God. In the old dispensation, we saw that children were included in the church: “Ye stand this day all of you before the LORD your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, Your little ones, your wives, and thy stranger that is in thy camp, from the hewer of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water” (Deuteronomy 29:10-11). They were also included in the hearing of the law: “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them” (Joshua 8:35). That included infants: “And all Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children” (2Chronicles 20:13); “Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet” (Joel 2:16). Little ones between distinguished from the children, thus infants had a standing in the Old Testament church. They were not, and not to be treated, as heathen, outsiders from the church. They were classed by God himself as heirs of the covenant. I heard it said, believe it or not, by profession Christians, “I shall just let my children grow and make up their own minds.” There is only one way that they will go from there, hell. Read through the book of Deuteronomy and note all God has to say about the children of the covenant and it will, or should dispel any such notions from a true believers mind. They are to be taught to walk in the way of the covenant. The Reformer, John Calvin says, “Childhood is something a young person ought to traverse with the guidance of parents, teachers, and masters. Without authority and discipline, the childish ways that distort their character is a perversion that will not be remedied in later life.” The prophet Isaiah says, “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee. And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children” (Isaiah 54:10, 13). So it is very clear, the inclusion of infants and children in the covenant of grace, in the old dispensation. The question now begs itself, where, in the New Testament are we told that that has changed? On the contrary, I suggest, no I prove, the New Testament demands continuance. “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39); “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (1Corinthians 7:14). Two dispensations, one covenant of grace throughout both. In the new dispensation, we have the fullness of the covenant of grace, so is there less grace to be expected now? Do you not see the unity of God’s covenant (lest, of course, you be a dispensationalist), the unity of the church, one body, one people, from Adam to the last child brought in. “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). One seed!
The Significance of the Sign of the Covenant (Genesis 17:6-8)
In the New Testament as in the Old, it is a sign, a token, it is not the reality (Genesis 17:11). A sign only points to the real thing. You are driving along the road, you are looking for a church building. You a sign indicating the way you must go to get to the building, the sign is extremely helpful, but it is not the building. The sign of the covenant points to the reality which is, the entire contents of the gospel. It SIGNifies:
The sacrament of circumcision points to the pain, the shame, the guilt of our sin. It is a symbol of the corrupt, vicious nature in which we are conceived and born, with its consequent desperate wickedness. It cannot be cured, it cannot be renewed. It is no good sticking a plaster on it, it must be cut away, surgery is required. The painful cutting of the bodily part signified what man deserves, to be cut off from God, with eternal torment the result. The apostle Paul speaks in this very way, “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). A work of Divine surgery is needed. More than just forgiveness, the cutting away of the old Adamic sin nature.
From the loins of Abraham comes Isaac, the promised seed, from whom comes the Christ, the promised seed of the woman. The sign points ultimately to him who would come and who would shed his blood sealing the covenant. Right from the beginning of his earthly life, would commence his sufferings. He would partake with us of flesh and blood, “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). That he would be cut off from the land of the living that we not be cut off, “for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken” (Isaiah 53:8). Pictured too is the new birth and the holiness that is ours in and through Christ.
This is typified in the consecrating act. Teaching us to put off the darling lusts that war against our souls. That we live lives of gratitude to God for all he has done and will do for us. As his covenant people, we no longer live unto our selves but unto God. No matter how difficult, painful, and grievous life may be for us in this world. The lives of the Patriarchs portray this for us. Think of Jacob, all the deception of he and his mother, his separation from his brother, his trials with his employer, Laban. Think of Joseph, sold by his own siblings into slavery, false charges and imprisonment of for attempted rape. But through all their trials and afflictions they endured. Why? They were marked out as belonging, consecrated to God. So to the children of God in the world today. The mother cares for, cleans and keeps the covenant home, changes diapers, teaches her children, why? The Christian man toils at his earthly labours, down the mine, in the shipyard, works long, arduous hours to provide for the covenant family, why? Because they are consecrated to God and therefore because of all God has done for them and given them in Christ, they endure on in gratitude, in thankfulness to God. It matters not to them how ridiculous it all may seem to the world, their reputations and lives are nothing, they are God’s.
The Sign of the Covenant in the New Testament (Genesis 17:6-8)
In the new dispensation, the form is different but the meaning is the same. The covenant of grace is an everlasting covenant so the sign of it continues into the new dispensation. It had to change with the death of Christ. For his death sounded the end of all sacrifices. The end of all blood-shedding (and circumcision was a bloody rite). So the form has to change, enter baptism.
The Sign and Seal Remain:
It is plain from God’s revelation in holy scripture that the sign is to be administered to the children of the covenant. For they are the same seed of Abraham, in all generations, right to the end. As a sign that God is with our children now as he was with the children of believers in the old dispensation. This is not based on tradition (of the church or otherwise), or the philosophies of men. What saith the scripture? That, and nothing else matters, that is where we start and where we finish. At the time when the church moved into the new dispensation, the seed of Abraham burst forth from the shell of national Israel and spread through all the nations. The seed of Abraham is found in all the generations, in the children of believers. Their children have always been regarded by God as belonging to his church. And that, is our first line of the church’s missionary endeavours, the covenant children of the congregation. This is before all the church planting, street work, prison work etc. To teach, to catechise, and to ground our children in the truth of holy writ and our Christian Confessions. Neglect of this will incur wrath. This is why there is no singular commandment in the New Testament to baptise infants. Some Baptists ask this question, “show me a verse where the Bible says to baptise infants?” And because you can’t give them one, you are summarily dismissed. This is akin to the Muslims I encounter from time to time. They say, “show me a verse in the Bible where Jesus says that he is God?” There isn’t one, and they know it. So likewise I am summarily dismissed. It matters not that I can indeed show them from scripture that Jesus Christ is God. Likewise, it matters not to these Baptists (not all of them), that I can show them from scripture that God does indeed demand that infants be baptised.
The church did not need such a commandment. They just continued on as it had done throughout the old dispensation, applying the sign of the covenant. They would not have conceived it any other way. In fact, such a command would have been a strange phenomenon to them. What do you mean we are to apply the covenant sign to our children? Of course, we do, the people of God always have since the days of Abraham. The burden of proof lies with the Baptist here. They must prove from scripture where God says he has retracted the promise to Abraham and his seed throughout the generations. Or show us where God has clearly discontinued the practice of administering the sign and seal of the covenant to our children. This, they cannot do.
The Scriptural Basis:
The basis for administering the covenant sign does not lie in presupposing that our children are regenerated. There may be people who hold to that teaching, as does the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible does not teach baptismal regeneration. Neither is it based on the faith of the parent(s). Although the parent(s) must make a credible confession of faith in presenting their child for covenant baptism. It is on the basis that God in the holy scriptures makes it clear that he causes the covenant to run in the line of the generations. The children of believers, generally, make up the bulk of the congregations. We do not presuppose but we do in faith expect our children to be saved. Baptism is the sign and the seal of God’s covenant in the new dispensation. It is the New Testament token (Genesis 17:11), that the child is included in Christ. It is the token that they are of God’s party in the world, not outsiders. I have in all my experience as a Christian only ever met one Baptist couple who actually taught their children that they were outsiders, heathen. The majority are not so consistent with what they believe. God has promised to establish his covenant with believers and their seed through the generations. Thus it follows that they also must receive the sign of the covenant. To refuse them this privilege violates the covenant (Genesis 17:14). When Christ comes, he the head of his one people in both dispensations bears both forms of the covenant sign. Both the old, circumcised after the eighth day, and the new, baptised. This is because both dispensations are one through him, through him the old passed into the new. And so circumcision gives way to baptism.
The Style or Method:
Some would argue that the style or method of administering the sign of the covenant is of no matter. The Reformer, John Calvin holds to this view. He says he cares not whether a person is baptised by sprinkling, by immersion or by effusion. I disagree. We naturally tend to like water and lots of it. Not just to paddle in, wade in, but to swim in. It is like the apostle Peter who wants Jesus not just to wash his feet but his whole body. If he wanted that he should have had a bath before he came out. The evidence for sprinkling is in scripture replete. All the ceremonial baptisms in the Old Testament were either by sprinkling or effusion. And they were real baptisms. “Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:10). The word washings in that verse ought to read baptisms. In the original New Testament Greek, the word is βαπτισμοισ i.e., baptisms, why it was translated washings in our King James Bible I know not. In the same chapter you have references to sprinkling, “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13). And, “For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people” (Hebrew 9:19). And, “Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry” (Hebrews 9:21).
The Holy Spirit baptism is also symbolised in water baptism. As pouring, “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring” (Isaiah 44:3). And, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28). Then as sprinkling too, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25). And, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). And, “And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 10:45).
Likewise also, the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. “So shall he sprinkle many nations” (Isaiah 52:15). And, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). And, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:2). The hymn writer who waxes eloquently about being plunged beneath the crimson tide is being far from biblical. I say with the greatest reverence if the blood of Christ could be and was all of it gathered up it would be insufficient to immerse one single sinner, let alone his entire church of all ages. The picture is given to us by the Psalmist, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). The branch of hyssop would be taken by the priest and dipped in the sacrificial blood and then applied to object or persons needing to be cleansed. Of all of the baptisms from the Old Testament recorded in the New Testament, none are by immersion. “And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1Corinthians 10:2). And, “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 3:20-21). The only people to be immersed in the Old Testament were Pharaoh and his army, and the ungodly world in Noah’s day. In the New Testament at the end of the age, the wicked shall be immersed in the lake of fire. I more than suggest to you that immersion is a picture of judgment, not salvation.
The Sign of the Covenant Applied in the New Testament: (Genesis 17:6-8)
The New Testament examples of baptisms are generally taken as read to be by immersion, but that is an unwarranted assumption. Then we must conclude by saying something about the children of believers dying in infancy. But first.
The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch: (Acts 8:38)
The problem here is the down into and the up out of the water. The New Testament Greek word ‘εισ’ translated out of and the word ‘εκ’ out of, do not necessarily imply immersion. The first one ‘εισ’ could be translated at, in, into, to, or unto. The second-word ‘εκ’ could be translated from, up from, or out of. So what if you read the text this way, “they went down towards the water and then came up from the water? It puts a bit of different angle on it. But the point is this, these two words do not describe the baptism. They only describe what took place before and after the baptism. Otherwise what you are saying is they both went down into the water, so were they both baptised? We hardly think so, it was only the Eunuch who was being baptised. Philip, the evangelist, was the one doing the baptising. So it doesn’t prove nor even suggest immersion in any way at all. Then of course with all the outdoor baptisms you have the problem of wet clothes. Did they all just happen to have a set of spare clothes with them that day? Did leave home thinking I need a change of clothes, perhaps I’ll be baptised today? We don’t think so. Plus Palestine can be a pretty cold place at times, I mean, to walking around all day in wet clothes?
The Baptism of Jesus: (Matthew 3:15)
I attended a church a couple of years back, just a one-off. There were two elders at the door waiting to greet people going in. They were celebrating the Lord’s Supper that morning. It was made clear to me as I entered that unless I had been baptised by immersion I could not participate in the Lord’s Supper. It didn’t phase me. But I have thought about it often since. Not even the Lord Jesus Christ himself could have participated in their celebration. Why not? Because he was most definitely not baptised by immersion. If he was, he would not have been without sin. In this case of baptism, the same words as in Acts εισ and εκ are used by Mark. Matthew differs a little (Matthew 3:16). He uses ‘απο’ from or out of. Further to this Jesus was baptised at the age of thirty we are told ((Luke 3:23). Why on earth are we told that? But everything, every detail is recorded because it is of importance, so too his age. Also, he had to be baptised by a priest, hence John Baptist. John was a priest in the line of his father before him, “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias” and “But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” (Luke 1:5, 13). And he must be baptised with what? Water. So what is the reason for all this?
This, “and Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him” (Matthew 3:15). The Lord is saying in effect, “John, we, you and I, us, we together must do this right, according to the divine law, we must get it right. The righteous demands of the law must be fulfilled. What part of the law you ask? The consecration of a priest by a priest. Jesus was being consecrated into his holy gospel ministry which included his priestly office whereby he would offer up himself for our sins. But, he could not be so until he was thirty years of age, “From thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all that enter into the host, to do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation” (Numbers 4:3). And, “From thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old, everyone that came to do the service of the ministry, and the service of the burden in the tabernacle of the congregation” (Numbers 4:47). How was a priest to be consecrated? By another priest, “And thou shalt gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and put the bonnets on them: and the priest’s office shall be theirs for a perpetual statute: and thou shalt consecrate Aaron and his sons” (Exodus 29:9). And how is he to be baptised? Sprinkled with water, “Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them. And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purifying upon them, and let them shave all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean” (Numbers 8:6-7). The Lord had to be thirty years old at least, he had to be baptised by another priest and it had to be by the sprinkling of water. In order to fulfil the law, to fulfil all righteousness. Else he would be with sin, and could not then be our sin-bearer. So the baptism of Jesus is no proof for immersion, the very contrary. John the Baptist doubtless knows the law and this argument silences him, the law cannot be ignored, set aside, it must be fulfilled.
As a Reformed Christian, I hold to the regulative principle of worship. That is to say that God does not approve of worship that does not have the approval of his holy and divine word. Does not the Lord’s attention to detail here affirm this principle of worship? I mean if anyone can set it aside surely it would be himself. But no, in his life, and ministry he is absolutely flawless. “And in him is no sin” (1John 3:5). But to persuade others, even regenerate people of this essential principle of worship is an almost impossible task. For the very opposite is seated in their bones, the very DNA. If it is done with sincerity and with zeal, it does not matter what is sung, done or how it is done, it must have divine approval. No, it does not.
The Death of Baptised Infants:
The well-known Baptist preachers, Charles Spurgeon and John MacArthur both advocate that all dying in infancy goes to heaven. I sympathise, but I disagree. I find no basis for such a claim in scripture. This is a question that has perplexed the church for centuries. The Reformer Ulrich Zwingli held the same position as Spurgeon and MacArthur. All infants were saved, regardless. This position was rejected by Luther, Calvin and Knox and the rest of the Reformers. The Canons of Dordt limits its answer to the children of believers: “Since we are to judge of the will of God from his word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace in which they, together with their parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy” (Canons 1:17). I believe that that is the biblical position. In simple faith, the same faith in which the believing parents submitted their child to have the sign of the covenant applied, having done, obeyed God in the matter, they commit their child into the Lord’s hands. And that without fretting, without anxiety concerning the child’s election, or salvation. They can in faith rest the issue with God.