Pastoral Perspectives

Covenant and Infant Baptism

In most parts of Asia, newborns are received into the family through celebratory rites. These mark the beginning of their life in their respective communities. The Chinese have the man yue (滿月) celebration which takes place on the thirtieth day after the child’s birth. As infant mortality rates were high before the advent of modern medicine, it was only when infants survived thirty days that they were officially welcomed into the family. There would be a feast for family and friends, while ancestors are thanked and asked to bless the child. Indian Hindus have the namakarana ceremony in which the child’s name is announced to much feasting with family and friends. The Japanese also have a similar naming ceremony called the oshichiya which takes place on the seventh day of the child’s birth.

These varied rites of passage receive newborns into the family and extended network of relations, thereby promoting familial and societal solidarity around them. The community takes on responsibility for the welfare of the new child because the child now belongs to it. Even though children may not be aware of what they have undergone as infants, the rites give them a sense of identity and rootedness when they are told about them at a later age or witness them performed on others in their community. It is with this background that we can begin to understand why the church baptises infants. For the Reformed, the question of baptizing infants is all about the issue of belonging.

B. Warfield, the venerable Presbyterian theologian, succinctly summarised his arguments for baptizing infants this way: “God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere to put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.” (Here the term “church” refers to God’s covenant people in general.) In other words, from the Reformed perspective, to not baptise children is to express that they have no part in God’s covenant and are outside of the family of God. According to the Reformed Belgic Confession of Faith,

By [baptism] we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to him, bearing his mark and sign. It also witnesses to us that he will be our God forever, since he is our gracious Father. Therefore he has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (BCF 34).

It is through the sacrament of baptism that one is given the covenant promises and admitted into the church. If children are born to parents who are in the church, then they are part of God’s family and are received through baptism. The church baptizes them because the sacrament is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace” (Westminster Confession of Faith 28.1) which presents and confirms the promise of Christ to the children of the covenant, thereby giving them an identity and rootedness in the covenant community.

One might notice that this makes baptism akin to circumcision of the old covenant. In Genesis 17.7, God promises Abraham that he will establish his everlasting covenant of grace with him and his descendants.  He promises to be God to Abraham and his descendants, and gave them the mark of circumcision as the physical sign and seal of the covenant (Gen. 17.11). When Christ came, the new covenant in his blood fulfilled the old covenant and the sacrament of baptism was instituted to replace circumcision as the sign and seal of the new covenant. St. Paul explicitly connects the two in his Letter to the Colossians:

In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2.11-12).

Therefore, circumcision was a shadow of the sacrament that is to come. Baptism now confers a greater circumcision, a “circumcision made without hands,” a spiritual circumcision (cf. Jer. 4.4 & Rom. 2.29) that brings about union with Christ and the double grace of justification and sanctification.

If children in the old covenant were circumcised and included in the old covenant of grace, then what more the children of the new covenant? When St. Peter proclaimed the need for repentance and baptism to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, he also declared, “For the promise is for you, for your children” (Acts 2.39). This language echoes Genesis 17 and affirms the continued inclusion of children in the new covenant. It would be most peculiar for this new dispensation in Christ to exclude children! History bears this out as the baptism of infants was not rejected by the patrimony of the church but widely practised and affirmed in the two millennia of the church’s existence.

Therefore, from a covenantal perspective, baptism is not essentially a public, outward declaration of a personal, inner faith because this would necessarily exclude infants from the covenant. While adults (and older children) do make their public profession of faith in the baptismal service, baptism does not revolve around it or depend on it because the sacrament is not constituted by a voluntary human act. It is not a human work. On the contrary, baptism expresses the priority of divine grace both in the calling of adults to the covenant and in the placing of infants in the covenant. In baptism, the church recognises the grace that God has already shown to the adult and infant candidates in bringing them to the limen of the church, the baptismal font, and seals upon them the gracious promises (and the corresponding demands) of the covenant in Christ. “When the question of the sacrament’s recipient arises, it arises in a specific way,” writes Reformed theologian Cornelius P. Venema. “The question is not, is this person truly regenerate? (which only God can answer in any case) but rather, is this person one to whom God wishes to address the promise and demand of the covenant?” In other words, the “only ground for administering the sacrament is that of covenant membership.

Essentially, baptism is the “means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit” (BCF 33) and not a human work of profession. It is the earthly channel of divine action through which God confers us grace. In baptism, God

gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the ‘new man’ and stripping off the ‘old,’ with all its works (BCF 34).

Whether believing adult or unaware infant, all are finally dependent on the Holy Spirit who mysteriously works through baptism “throughout our entire lives” (BCF 34) to bring about faith in the promise of Christ, and obedience to fulfil the demand of Christ. (Of course, this does not mean that all who are baptized will persevere in the faith. The exile of God’s people in the Old Testament demonstrates that not everyone included in God’s covenant remains faithful. Baptism admits sundry persons into the covenant community, but it is ultimately efficacious only for the elect.)

With this, we return to Warfield’s words: “God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it.” Baptism cannot be reduced to an individualistic declaration divorced from the church for it is the church that baptises; grace cannot be reduced to something abstract without any discernible reality. Baptism receives persons into the church and the church is the community of grace. For infants, it is through baptism that they become part of the covenant community in which they can grow in faith and maturity, and where they gain a sense of identity and rootedness. This means discipleship is crucial, and parents together with the church must commit to teach children faith and obedience. It is within this life of the community that our children may receive God’s covenantal blessings. To be baptized is, therefore, to belong.

Preacher Png Eng Keat

October 24, 2021