A Biblical Response to John MacArthur,
In his “A Scriptural Critique of Infant Baptism,” John MacArthur, Jr. presents five basic objections to infant baptism.
baptism is not in Scripture.”
I’ll try my best to respond to each of Mr. MacArthur’s five objections in the following order: 2, 4, 5, 3 and then 1. But before I do, let me say at the outset that I see both the biblical mode of baptism and its proper subjects as matters that are a weight of evidence rather than issues that can be conclusively settled the way, say, that the doctrine of the Trinity can be. The doctrine of the Trinity “may be deduced from Scripture,” “by good and necessary consequence” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, I, vi.). It is “necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture” (The London Confession of Baptist Faith, I, vi.). And that means that anybody who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity is theologically outside the pale of Christianity. Even though a true Christian may become confused over this doctrine and deny it for a season, we must not give Christian recognition to such a person anymore than we should a person who is committing adultery. Even though it may be proven as the logical conclusion of many texts, rather than a clear-cut statement in only one passage, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of those things that is so clearly taught in Scripture and taught as such a vital truth, that belief in it is necessary for admission to the Christian Church. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, VI.).
Now, as I say, the proper mode and subjects of baptism are not that way. These things are not taught so clearly that we may judge somebody who disagrees with us as being a rebel to the Truth. For that reason, we allow Baptists to become communing members of our congregation. We accept anyone who can affirm the Five Questions asked in most Presbyterian churches. Submitting to the government and discipline of the Church does not mean parking one’s conscience; it is not a vow to render implicit and blind obedience. A fundamental of fundamentals of the Reformed Faith is liberty of conscience: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, XX, ii.).
We welcome anyone who has a teachable spirit, Calvinist or Arminian, Reformed or Baptist, Charismatic or Cessationist. We get along quite well, even though my prayer and the aim of my teaching is, little by little, to convince my congregation of the truths of Scripture, applied to their hearts and lives. People know up front what we believe: I’ve written a pamphlet that is available to everyone who visits our church, we teach the Catechism to children on Wednesday nights and I’m teaching the contents of The Westminster Confession of Faith on Sunday nights.
Diverse groups get along very well in our congregation, because they know that we hold the Bible as “the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy” God (The Shorter Catechism, 2.). They know that they will be treated with respect and never forced to do something that they have not become convinced about from Scripture itself. However, as I said above, there is a line in the sand, more or less drawn with the Five Questions of Membership. People who rejected such things as the Trinity, denying that our Lord Jesus Christ is “the Son of God and Savior of sinners,” would not be allowed to take communion or be received into membership. That being said, let me start with Mr. MacArthur’s second assertion first.
John MacArthur, Jr.’s Assertion Number 2. “The second reason is really the other side of the issue. I don’t believe in infant baptism because infant baptism is not Christian baptism.”
Mr. MacArthur asserts that immersion is baptism and other modes of baptism are not baptism at all; he would not accept the baptism of someone who had not been immersed. This would mean that most true Christians would have to violate their own consciences in terms of their understanding of Scripture and have to be baptized again in order to become members of Mr. MacArthur’s congregation.
The issue of the mode of baptism takes us back to the nature of the Bible itself as well as some basic differences in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible didn’t come to us the way that Mohammed claims he received the Quran, out of the blue, without human involvement. As the Lord Jesus is both fully God and fully human in his one person, so the Bible is both fully God’s word and yet also a fully human document, too. This does not take away from the Bible’s being infallible, because just as Jesus is without sin, so the Bible is without error. Therefore, the Bible is a divine instruction book, but it is more than that: it is the Holy Spirit’s, infallibly guided, human interpretation of God’s mighty acts. As such, it unfolds in a specific historical context, and its revelation is progressive: we gain more and more insight into the nature of God and his dealings with us as the history of redemption unfolds.
Furthermore, while people are saved the same way in the New Testament as they were in the Old, God administered these two Testaments differently. That is especially true with regard to the different rituals that are laid out in the two Testaments. Things simply are not as spelled out in the New as they are in the Old.
Under the Law, everything that is to be done in worship is given in the most minute detail, and no variation was tolerated. Blood was to be sprinkled seven times, not six or eight, on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant on the Day of Atonement. The first time it must be blood from a bull, then blood from a goat. Even the kind of underwear that is to be worn in worship is explicitly commanded (Leviticus 16:4). The whole structure of Tabernacle, and later Temple worship is to impress people with the enormous barrier between them and God.
When the Lord Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, thereby removing the barrier between sinful humanity and a holy God. (Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 6:19, 20). The ancient and fearful rites, which if performed incorrectly brought death (Leviticus 10:1 ff.; 2 Samuel 6:6 ff.), now pass into a new form, one marked by life and freedom. So it is, when we come to descriptions of New Testament worship, we find the covenant community experiencing freedom and spontaneity under the leadership of the Holy Spirit within the structure of biblical revelation. The Bible gives the structure and is normative, but the details are not so delineated. Very different from the Old Testament’s rigid structure of worship is the picture one gets about New Testament worship from reading passages such as Acts 20:7 ff. or 1 Corinthians 14:26 ff. This is why the God’s standard for worship works out very differently in the two Testaments.
In the Holy Spirit guided evolution of doctrinal emphases, the prophets stress the importance of the heart, not external ceremonies: “rend your heart, and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). That emphasis is given full voice in the preaching of the Lord Jesus: “the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him” (John 4:23). It is echoed by his apostles: “We are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit and rejoice in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3).
This emphasis on the heart and freedom within biblical structure can be seen with regard to such things as the words that are used with the sealing ceremonies of the New Testament. For example, as we lift the cup, should we say, “This cup is the new testament in my blood,” as Paul and Luke have it? (1 Corinthians 11:25; Luke 22:20) Or, should we follow Matthew and Mark and say, “This is my blood of the new testament”? (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24) If we get the formulae wrong, will we turn the bread into mouse flesh or the wine into urine? Such ridiculous thoughts are more fitting for medieval folk, rather than for serious students of the New Testament message.
The important thing always is God’s act, not man’s. It is what God seals to us in baptism, not my superstitious conformity to a religious group’s view of ceremonial purity. It isn’t HOW I am baptized but THAT I am baptized that is important. And always it is a matter of the intention of the heart.
Since people sometimes dropped dead from a misuse of the Lord’s Supper, (1 Corinthians 11:30) and we never read about such a thing happening in baptism, surely God is not less concerned with the words and methods we use in the one ordinance than he is in the other. So, just as people didn’t use exactly the same language when they observed the Lord’s Supper, neither did they use exactly the same language when they baptized people.
It is for that reason when we come to the descriptions of New Testament baptism we do not find a clear and uniform picture of how it was done. When the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, told the gathered apostles to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he meant that exact thing, those actual words, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and not the words, “in the name of Jesus.” However, it is clear from the rest of the New Testament that people did not always follow our Lord’s explicit commandment. Sometimes they baptized people in the name of Christ, other times in Christ Jesus, or the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:38; 8:16; Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). What was the result? Were they consumed as were Nadab and Abihu when they offered strange fire before the Lord? (Leviticus 10:1)
The blunder that many immersionists make is to try to press an original, literal meaning of dyeing or dipping something, into an absolute and universal standard. Whatever its roots, BAPTIZO, in time evolves simply into the New Testament technical term for the initiatory rite of membership in the New Covenant Community. Evolution in the meaning of a word is not at all unusual: no orthodox theologian would press the literalistic meaning of the Greek word, KENOO, in Philippians 2:7, because we don’t believe that Jesus ceased to be God in any sense whatsoever when he became Man. He didn’t “empty himself” of his deity; he made himself to be of no account: he put the welfare of the Church ahead of his own divine prerogatives and human needs, something that fits the context. (Philippians 2:1-18). BAPTIZO may refer to immersion, but our Lord Jesus Christ literally baptized the Church with the Holy Spirit, and his mode was pouring:
“For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5; cf. Matthew 3:11; Mark 3:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:25-33).
“In the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people.’ . . . God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has POURED OUT what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:17, 32, 33).
In the waters of baptism, immersion can paint a beautiful picture of our union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:1-10; Colossians 2:9-12), but pouring more accurately depicts the means whereby we are united with Christ, the work of the out-poured the Holy Spirit; while sprinkling signifies how this is made legally possible, our hearts having been sprinkled by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ:
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance” (1 Peter 1:1, 2).
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:21, 22).
Undoubtedly, people were baptized in different ways, at different times and places, and in time these diverse practices evolved into something more uniform, but it is more in keeping with the spirit of the Pharisees than with the Spirit of Jesus to exclude the baptisms of others as no baptisms at all because they weren’t done the way we think that they ought to be done. And that can be true for sprinklers, pourers or immersionists. My difficulty is not with people who believe that BAPTIZO always means immersion; it is with those who fail to see that equally godly, sincere and sound students of Scripture disagree with this for reasons that are sound to them—and by “sound to them,” I don’t mean some odd, eccentric use of Scripture, but a careful examination of the biblical evidence using standard hermeneutical principles.
John MacArthur, Jr.’s Assertion Number 4. “Well, let me give you a fourth reason. I reject infant baptism because infant baptism is not consistent with the nature of the church.”
Ours is a church where all Evangelical Christians who are not living in open defiance of God could sit down at the Lord’s Table in complete unity. However, some of them might not be comfortable with our “easy in, easy out” standard of membership. We embrace the doctrine that the Church, as people see it, is a mixed multitude, not unlike Israel of old. We don’t wait until we are absolutely sure that somebody is truly saved before we admit her to the fellowship of the Church. We accept a relatively untaught person’s simple profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to be enough. We don’t require communicant or catechism classes. We believe that the means of grace are that, and we believe that they are a two-edged sword: they draw the elect to Christ; they drive away the reprobate. My preaching is both gentle and winsome and at the same time greatly offensive to some—I mean it to be that way.
As strange as it may seem, I have less trouble with the looser kinds of modern Baptists (I’ll use that word to describe Christians who object to infant baptism, even though John MacArthur is not actually a Baptist.) on this one issue than I do with the tighter, more old fashioned ones, either the Arminian, legalistic Baptists, on the one hand, or the more Calvinistic, self-consciously biblical Baptists, like John MacArthur, on the other.
To demand a regenerate membership, that is, only those about whom we are sure have been converted, is wicked and violates the Word of God. In the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, the tares are sown “among the wheat” (Matthew 13:25). To be sure, the field where all this takes place “is the world,” (Matthew 13:38) but the tares are actually in the Kingdom, as it is manifested “in the world:” the angels “will weed OUT of his KINGDOM everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (Matthew 13:41). In response to the fanatics who would exclude some true, but weak believers in their zeal for a “Pure Church”—“Do you want us to go and pull them up?”—our Lord Jesus Christ declares: “No . . . because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matthew 13:28-30).
We are explicitly commanded to “Receive one who is weak in the faith” (Romans 14:1). And a straightforward reading of the book of Acts points to the Church’s responding to a simple confession of faith in Christ by receiving the professor fully into the life and communion of the Church with no other requirement. There was no waiting period, no communicant’s class, no new member’s class, and no probing examination by the elders. People, as individuals and as families, simply professed that they were turning from their sin to the Lord Jesus, were baptized and received into the fellowship of the Church. It was and should be a simple matter. But it is not the end of the matter. To be baptized is to begin a life-long calling to take up the cross and follow Jesus.
We are often deceived about the people we admit. And, sadly, sometimes some lost people may even become officers. Saint Paul warned: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29, 30). Saint Paul’s solution is not a purging of the rolls, but prayerful vigilance (Acts 20:28). After all, people are often deceived about themselves, and we must give such people a judgment of charity. Paul used the judgment of charity when he wrote to the church at Corinth . He addressed all of them as saints and brethren (1 Corinthians 1:2, 10). He regarded every one of them as fellow believers whom God had called, including, we may add, Stephanas’ children (1 Corinthians 1:9, 16). But he did not mean that every person there was a true Christian. On the contrary, he warns them to take a close look at themselves: “Examine your selves to see whether you are in the faith; test your selves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:6) The Corinthian Church had a righteous remnant, but it also included the litigious, those with a party spirit, (1 Corinthians 3) some drunkards and adulterers, (1 Corinthians 11, 5) and not a few who could not affirm the truth about the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15).
This does not mean that the church should not exercise discipline over her members. If someone who professes faith in Christ is living in sin, he must be admonished. If he fails to repent, he must be excluded from the life and fellowship of the Church. That certainly is what Saint Paul commanded the Corinthian Church to do (1 Corinthians 5). It is only those who persevere to the end who have ever been born again. That is the teaching of the New Testament, e.g. 1 John 3:4 ff. and Hebrews 3:14 (“For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.”). You and I do not know who those people are. Those who deny the faith by rejecting clear-cut biblical truth or by a wicked and unrepentant way of life, and who rebelliously continue in such must be put out of the Church. But the Church may not exclude others; her doors must be open to all.
The question often arises as to how we can maintain the purity of the Church with such an easy policy of accepting people. My response is to affirm that the ordinances of the Church are means of grace to God’s elect and a purgative to reprobates. In the Eucharist true believers receive the Lord Jesus, really and truly, but those who rebel against God receive his curse, including sickness and death (1 Corinthians 11:39). The preaching of the gospel creates faith in Jesus Christ, but it also repels the hypocrite. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 2:15, 16: “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.”
Preaching is the faithful exposition of the Bible with pressing application under the blessing of the Holy Spirit, as if from the very lips of the Lord Jesus, in the presence of God. It is nothing less than the living word of God. And God’s Word is a two-edged sword: it draws humble sinners to Christ; it repulses the arrogant and self-willed. Formal church discipline is rarely necessary in a congregation where the whole council of God is preached, because sound preaching drives out the self-righteous who know nothing of the grace of God that is in Christ alone. For the reprobate, preaching and all the means of grace, whatever temporal blessings they may provide, ultimately function as a curse and a means of greater condemnation and hardening. John Calvin’s comments on 2 Corinthians 2:12-17, in loc., express this so well:
It is under preaching that people are truly won to Christ. When theological or biblical lectures, on the one hand, or shallow harangues, on the other, pass for preaching, the Church will be full of hypocrites. It has been the sad saga not only of the Reformed Churches, but of the Baptists and Methodists as well. It makes no difference whether a church requires a year long wait and practices only so-called “believer’s baptism,” the church will always be full of hypocrites without sound preaching and the blessed administration of the sealing ordinances.
John MacArthur, Jr.’s Assertion Number 5. “One last point and I’ll let you go. Infant baptism is not consistent with the gospel.”
Mr. MacArthur takes statements from some theologians in the Reformed camp as if they are indicative of all who believe in the practice of infant baptism. One of the greatest influences at the Westminster Assembly was Irish Archbishop James Usher (of 4004 B.C. fame). , who, while not attending, was nevertheless most influential and whose Body of Divinitie “apparently served the Assembly as a compendium of Reformed theology compiled by one of their most trusted theological guides” [Jack B. Rogers, Scripture in the Westminster Confession (Grand Rapids, 1967), pp. 261-262.].
In his Body of Divinitie, Usher wrote:
Faithful gospel preachers, whether Baptist or Reformed, preach with a passion to see people won to Christ. They proclaim the same gospel message: we are right with God by grace alone, received through faith alone, and the sole object of our faith is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, not the Church, the sacraments, who our Mama and Daddy are, whether we’re Sunday School teachers, pastors or deacons, or even our own faith—we cast ourselves on God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, without hope except for his sovereign mercy.
Furthermore, as I pointed out under my response to MacArthur’s fourth objection, faithful gospel preachers deal with the gathered people of God in charity as if they are all elect, but they preach so as to probe the consciences of all who are present, keenly aware that a man may even be a pastor and be unconverted. Nineteenth century, Presbyterian pastor, Gardner Spring is still a useful guide to people who would examine themselves regarding the genuineness of their faith in Christ. His Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character remains a classic and is available on line. Here is part of his conclusion:
‘If you possess nothing more than mere visible morality, nothing more than the naked form of religion, nothing more than a speculative knowledge of the system of revealed truth, nothing more than simple conviction for sin, nothing more than a vain confidence of your own good estate, connected with some apparent zeal for the cause of God, and a few transient and spurious affections, how can you be one of the children of the Everlasting Father? If you are a stranger to love to God, to repentance for sin, to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to evangelical humility, to genuine self-denial, how can you cherish the hope that you are a Christian? If you know nothing of the spirit of prayer, nothing of the love of the brotherhood, nothing of mortifying the spirit of the world, nothing of growth in grace, of cordial, habitual, persevering obedience to the Divine commands, how can it be that you have been “brought near by the blood of Christ”? If these things are so, “You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:21).’
Even though we should view our children essentially the same way we view others in the church—we are not to sit in judgment of them as unbelievers unless there is positive evidence against them—we must beware of inculcating into them the false notion that real Christians are simply people who have been baptized, intellectually accept the truths of Scripture and live outwardly moral lives while belonging to the visible Church. On the contrary, saving faith is marked by a love for the Lord Jesus and trust in him alone for salvation. Those who have been regenerated feel bad when they sin and regularly turn from their sins to God. They have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and find his name precious.
There is a very different approach in how we are to assess our own Spiritual condition from how we form our assessment of others. The most striking illustration of this comes from a comparison of what Jesus says in Matthew 12:30 with what he says in Mark 9:40. In Matthew 12:22-37 Jesus encounters strong opposition: the Pharisees accuse him of being in league with the devil. After answering their charges Jesus goes on to warn them of the great danger they are in: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:30, 31). After further warning Jesus tells them about the necessity of Spiritual fruit. Notice the focus on self judgment: “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). If I see no positive evidence that I am for Christ, I must conclude that I am against him.
How different is this standard of self-judgment from that by which we measure others. In Mark 9:38 we read, ‘”Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”’
What is Jesus’ response? Jesus said, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward” (Mark 9:39-41). When we look at others, a different standard is to be used: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). If a person professes to be a follower of Christ, either with his lips or by wearing the mark of Christ’s ownership, baptism, we must accept him as such, unless we see positive evidence to the contrary.
This is what we may call a judgment of charity. As I have pointed out above, Paul used the judgment of charity when he wrote to the church at Corinth. He addressed all of them as saints and brethren (1 Corinthians 1:2, 10). He regarded every one of them as fellow believers whom God had called, including, we may add, Stephanas’ children (1 Corinthians 1:9, 16). Did he mean that every person there was a true Christian? No, in fact he warns them to take a close look at themselves: “Examine your selves to see whether you are in the faith; test your selves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:6).
If we are to regard our baptized children as Christians, how can we keep them from a false hope? The only answer here is the same answer we must give regarding adults in the church: we must not base the assurance of our salvation on our baptism, our joining the church, our coming to the Lord’s Table, nor even on our religious experiences. Our assurance of salvation comes as the Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts and enables us to recognize the fruit of his indwelling in our lives (Cf. Romans 8:9-17, especially verse 16 and Galatians 5:22-24). I am assured that God will save all who believe; I am assured that I have truly believed as I see the evidence that the Holy Spirit is making me more like Jesus (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Romans 8:29).
There is no way that we can keep our children, nor ourselves for that matter, from a false hope of salvation apart from the careful examination which strong, soul-searching preaching should lead us to. We must encourage our children to look to the Lord Jesus, to turn to him daily from their sins with godly sorrow, and to believe that their sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Yet we must press them to self-examination and remind them that it is only those who have the positive fruit of faith and repentance who should regard themselves as Christians. Their baptism lays on them, as circumcision did in the Old Testament, and indeed as our baptism lays on us, the obligation to make our “calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).
Ultimately, we must not base the assurance of our salvation on our baptism, our joining the church, our coming to the Lord’s Table, nor even on our religious experiences. Our assurance of salvation comes as the Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts, not because we signed a “Decision Card” or because we were baptized on the basis of our parents’ faith (Cf. Romans 8:9-17, especially verse 16 and Galatians 5:22-24). I am assured that God will save all who believe; I am assured that I have truly believed as I see the evidence that the Holy Spirit is making me more like Jesus (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Romans 8:29).
I submit that there is no fundamental difference in the gospel that Mr. MacArthur preaches or how he preaches it and how and what I preach. I affirm that people, even people in the visible Church, must be pressed to come to Christ. Not everyone may know the time of his or her conversion, but if someone has known nothing of the experience of the Beatitudes, that person is on his way to hell. That being said, it still isn’t my place or the leaders of a congregation’s place to test people for clear evidence of a life marked by the Beatitudes before we admit them into the Church.
John MacArthur, Jr.’s Assertion Number 3. “Third point, why I reject infant baptism: it is not a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision.”
In many ways, this is the crux of the matter, because the practice of infant baptism—and many other New Testament doctrines, such as the Trinity and justification by faith—rests squarely on an Old Testament foundation. Remove that foundation, and infant baptism collapses.
How should we view the Old Testament? Should we reject it as having nothing to say to us today? Or should we obliterate all distinctions between the two Testaments? I believe that we should avoid both extremes. The Old Testament is related to the New in the way that a bud is related to a flower and an acorn is to an oak. The people of God in the Old Testament are compared to children; in the New they have come to adulthood (Cf. Galatians 4:1-7). Two extremes must be avoided as we deal with the Old and New Testaments: that of an extreme kind of Dispensationalism that sees little connection and continuity between the Old and New Testaments, on the one hand, and an approach that flattens Redemptive history, on the other, as if there were no true and radical significance to the Cross. A biblical approach to the two Testaments comprehends that there is virtually nothing “new” in the New Testament, because it is all rooted in the Old Testament, but it also understands that virtually nothing from the Old Testament comes into the New without being transformed in the work of Christ.
Our attitude toward the Old Testament should be like the Lord Jesus’. Think of the number of times our Lord established his teaching by quoting from the Old Testament. Many people seem to overlook what the Lord Jesus himself said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
But how is the Old Testament fulfilled in the New? Let us take as an example the Old Testament celebration of the Passover. After having given elaborate instructions about selecting the Passover lamb, God told his people, “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants” (Exodus 12:24). How are New Testament believers to carry out this commandment? Are we to slaughter lambs today, or are we simply to abandon the Passover ordinance completely? We are to celebrate it, says Paul, “For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival. . . “ (1 Corinthians 5:7, 8).
Christian people have continued to observe the Passover for almost two thousand years; they do it every time they break the bread and drink the wine in the Lord’s Supper. And just as Old Testament believers purged the leaven out of their houses, so we must purge out of our hearts “the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness” (1 Corinthians 5:8).
This idea of fulfillment is written large over the doctrines and practices of the Old Testament. The power of the Holy Spirit brings the inner meaning of Old Testament institutions to greater significance. This new, heightened Spirituality often involves some modifications in the outward form.
What is true of the Passover is true of other Old Testament institutions: the kingdom promised to David is fulfilled in his Son, Jesus Christ, who sits at the Father’s right hand in glory and subdues all nations unto himself by pouring out his Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Cf. Acts 2:29-36). The bloody death of Jesus on the cross fulfills the Tabernacle with its bloody animal sacrifices (Cf. Hebrews 9 and 10:1-22). The glorious Temple of the New Covenant is composed of the people of God, whom the Holy Spirit indwells (Cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17). However, God has made modifications: the heavy veil separating sinful man from a holy God is gone; it was ripped apart as the flesh of the Son of Man was ripped on the cross (Cf. Matthew 27:51 and Hebrews 20:19, 20).
The Old Testament emphasis on the family is not done away with under the New Testament. While there are dimensions to the family motif that are expanded in the New Testament, unlike such things as the Passover and the Temple, the earthly family connection is reaffirmed alongside the Church as the new family of God and not simply fulfilled in it, for example: “The promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39). “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31), and “I also baptized the household of Stephanas” (1 Corinthians 1:16).
As with other New Testament institutions, baptism does not exist simply as a New Testament phenomenon; it is the Spiritually enriched, outwardly modified continuation of an Old Testament ordinance, circumcision. What is the real meaning of circumcision, and how is it fulfilled in baptism? The most basic significance of circumcision lies in the historical fact that Jesus was circumcised for us. The real circumcision of Jesus did not occur when he was eight days old but in his thirty-third year. A rabbi’s knife did not carry it out, but iron spikes and a spear on a Roman cross.
The Bible had prophesied all of this centuries before. In the prophecy of the seventy weeks Daniel foretold, “Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off” (Hebrew: KARATH), referring, of course, to the crucifixion of Christ (Daniel 9:26). But this cutting off Christ on the cross pointed to his suffering the judgment due to those who had broken the divine covenant.
When God made his gracious contract with Abraham, he cut (KARATH), or established that covenant—not only with Abraham, but with his descendants as well (Genesis 15:18). In time God expounded on the meaning of that agreement in greater detail. His promises are sure to all who believe, but God warned that the one who does not respond to this contract “will be cut off (KARATH) from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:14).
God gave an outward reminder and seal of confirmation of this covenant: “Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:10). They cut off the foreskin to remind the people of the blessings and obligations of the contract. It was a symbolic way of saying, “May I be cut off in damnation, if I do not live up to this covenant.”
As Moses was about to enter Egypt, God sought to kill him because he had failed to perform this ordinance on his son (Exodus 4:24). How could he expect God’s blessings on his mission when he had flagrantly disregarded God’s ordinance? “But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off (KARATH) her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me’ she said. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said ‘bridegroom of blood,’ referring to circumcision)” (Exodus 4:25, 26).
As we know from reading the history of God’s people in the Old Testament, they broke God’s contract with them repeatedly. The wrathful judgment of God was stored up over nearly two millennia until it came crashing down in full brunt on him who took the place of the covenant breakers, Jesus Christ. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The crucifixion of Christ is not only the reality of circumcision. It is also the reality of baptism. Jesus, in looking ahead to his death on the cross, asked James and John, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38) On the cross Jesus drank to the last bitter dregs the cup of God’s wrath. As our Savior hung on the cross, he was baptized with the judgment of a holy God against human sin. He was circumcised by the fury of divine justice as his life was cut off.
The Apostle Paul unites circumcision and baptism (the Old and New Testament signs of membership among God’s people.). After reminding the Gentiles of the total sufficiency of Christ to save them, Paul tells them: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11, 12).
When Jesus died on the cross, all believers in all ages, both Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free, were circumcised with him. So, too, were we all baptized with him. That is the connection between circumcision and baptism, the death of Christ on the cross for our sins. Because of the substitutionary death of Christ as our curse-bearer, we may wear the sign of judgment as a token of God’s favor. The Old Testament believer received circumcision as a token of God’s grace; so today, our baptism is a seal of God’s kind intention toward us because his justice was satisfied on the cross.
Some people seem to think that circumcision was little more than a sign of national identification, a kind of glorified pledge of allegiance to the nation of Israel . Scripture, however, does give us a clear understanding of the significance of circumcision. Perhaps the fullest treatment on the subject is found in the Book of Romans. There Paul tells us: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28, 29). The meaning of circumcision, then, is not some outward thing; it points to the work of the Holy Spirit in giving a new heart. Circumcision reminds us of the individual’s need of being born a second time.
Paul tells us further that circumcision is a sign of being justified by faith. He reminds us that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11). In other words, Abraham believed, he was justified by faith, and then he received God’s sign and seal of this in circumcision. Sometimes people are married and cannot afford a wedding ring. Some years later they buy a good set of rings and begin to wear them. They are no more married now than when they were poor. But now they have an outward sign, a token of their true state. Abraham was right with God the moment he put his trust in him. He was no less saved before circumcision and no more saved after it. The important things about circumcision are the Spiritual realities to which it points: the new birth and justification by faith.
To be circumcised was to wear a sign that said, “I am a believer; I have been born again; God accepts me as holy and righteous; He has established his covenant promises with me.” It was to bear the seal of God’s ownership. To be circumcised was to say that Christ would die for your sins and to confess that you were united to him as he is offered in the gospel, the same gospel which was preached to Abraham (Galatians 3:3). Abraham was circumcised because he looked forward with rejoicing to the day of Christ (John 8:56).
What can be said about the real meaning of circumcision can be said about the real meaning of baptism, because baptism is New Testament circumcision. Under the New Covenant the gospel encompasses all nations and is not limited to one race as it was, for all practical purposes, under the Old Covenant. This is part of the reason why females also receive the seal of faith alongside males today. As with the other great symbol of the Old Testament, the Passover, so with circumcision: blood had to be shed. However, the death of Christ has fulfilled the shedding of blood, once for all time, on the cross. The outward form of circumcision is different from that of baptism, but the inward meaning is the same.
This presses us to the great objection to infant circumcision: how could the Lord command Abraham to dedicate his children to God by placing on them a mark which symbolized that they were believers, born anew by the Spirit, justified by faith? Yet that is exactly what God commanded him to do in Genesis 17:9-14. And it was Moses’ failure to carry out this commandment which so angered God that he sought to kill him before he entered Egypt (Exodus 4:24 ff.).
Whatever God’s reasons, we see that every objection which people have raised against infant baptism may also be raised against the practice of circumcision in the Old Testament. It is not our place to object to God’s commandments. It is our place to submit to his will in all things. Why did God command us to do this?
God told Abraham to place the mark of divine ownership on his household because it was God’s purpose for them to belong to him: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7). The Bible brings the same thought out hundreds of years later, on the plains of Moab, as God’s people were about to enter the promised land: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Deuteronomy 30:6 had both a present and a future meaning for Moses’ hearers.
Had we been among the adults standing there on the Plains of Moab, we would have understood Moses’ words as having a direct and present application to us, as well as to succeeding generations of our people. We would have understood the promise to us and our descendants in Deuteronomy 30:6 the same way we understood the admonition to us and our descendants in Deuteronomy 30:19, 20, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
We would have understood this promise about heart circumcision in light of what Moses had said to us earlier in Deuteronomy 10:15, 16, “Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.”
Do these blessing and curses point to a distant future? Yes. But they also point to an immediate future, long before the time after the return from the Babylonian Captivity. Would not Naomi have understood her journey into Moab with Elimelech and her return with Ruth to be a fulfillment of the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy?
Heart circumcision was very much the emphasis of the Old Covenant. Of the some six hundred cases where the Hebrew Bible uses the word, LEB, “heart,” a significant number of verses point to the need of a godly heart, one that could only exist after a heart was circumcised. For example, Solomon confessed that his father David was “upright in heart.” And Psalm 7:9, 10 implores, “O righteous God, who searches minds and HEARTS, bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure. My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in HEART.”
The Old Testament itself indicates that there was an inner reality to circumcision that no one possessed simply because his prepuce was clipped. That is why Jeremiah admonished some physically circumcised descendants of Abraham that they needed to experience the reality of circumcision by means of a sovereign work of grace: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it” (Jeremiah 4:4).
‘”The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh—Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart”’ (Jeremiah 9:25, 26).
Romans 9:6-8 describes the situation that existed under the Old Testament: ‘It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.’ As it was then, so it is now: there is always the true people of God within the visible people of God. Our prayers must be that both our children and ourselves are truly part of God’s people.
John MacArthur, Jr.’s Assertion Number 1. “Point number one, and this ought to end the argument: infant baptism is not in Scripture.”
If what I have written above is true—and before God, as a student of Scripture for over forty years, I believe that it is—then when one examines the cases of baptism in the New Testament, he comes with a different bias than does Mr. MacArthur and assumes that there were sometimes infants and small children present in those houses, infants who are part of the visible church, just as much as they were under the Old Testament, and in a judgment of charity like that Paul made of some of the notorious sinners at Corinth, these little ones are called believers.
It is important to remember that we all have biases that shape how we look at things. If Mr. MacArthur doesn’t acknowledge that about his views, he is simply naive. That doesn’t mean that he’s dishonest, but one should not forget that Mr. MacArthur is part of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, and those roots in Fundamentalism, with its unbalanced view of the discontinuity of the two Testaments, color his approach to biblical texts every bit as much as do mine.
God instituted the family, and it is God’s purpose to save not only individuals, but families as well. As we have seen above in dealing with Mr. MacArthur’s misunderstanding regarding baptism and circumcision, this was not only true in the Old Testament, it is also true in the New. Paul said to the Philippian jailer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31). That is why circumcision was placed not only on those who professed faith, but on their descendants as well. That is why we read in the New Testament—not only of individual, adult believers being baptized, but of their households being baptized, too. Thus we find that the Holy Spirit recorded the baptism not only of the Philippian jailer, but of his entire family as well (Acts 16:33). And concerning Lydia we read, “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home” (Acts 16:15). Paul, in mentioning the matter of baptism and its relative unimportance in comparison to the preaching of the gospel, remembers Stephanas’ family: “Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else” (1 Corinthians 1:16). Since we have seen that Scripture teaches that circumcision and baptism are essentially the same ordinances, how can anyone teach that there were no infants present in these households?
What does it mean to have the mark of God’s ownership placed on a child? Does it mean that he is automatically a believer? No, it means that God has promised to call his people from among our descendants. We express our faith in God’s promise by presenting our little ones for baptism. God commanded Abraham to circumcise both Ishmael and Isaac in Genesis 17, yet Ishmael remained a lost man; it was with Isaac alone that God established his covenant (Genesis 17:19). Isaac in turn had two sons, Jacob and Esau; both received the sign of God favor, and yet God’s favor was on Jacob alone.
Paul’s comment on this is striking: ‘Rebecca’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that Gods purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”’ (Romans 9:18).
In Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, we find him stressing that the glorious Old Testament truth remains in effect, that it is still God’s purpose to save not only individuals, but families as well. Yet Peter reminds his hearers that God’s sovereign purpose is always the deciding factor: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).
God makes his gospel covenant with Abraham and his descendants ultimately with only one descendant of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).
No one, therefore, is a child of Abraham and heir of the divine, covenant promises but the one who has been united with Christ by faith. If we know the Lord Jesus, we are Abraham’s descendants: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28, 29). “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (Romans 4:16).
So it is that we present all our children for baptism, because God himself has commanded it. Not all who are baptized are elect, not all will be believers—even as in the Old Testament, not all who were circumcised were believers. We place the mark of God’s ownership on them, because we are to dedicate ourselves and all that is ours to the Lord of the Covenant. We place no trust in the outward sign. Rather, we prayerfully look to our gracious Father that he may, in his own good time, save our little ones.For how we ought to view our children and how we ought to teach them to view themselves, you may want to read “Child Rearing, A View from over the Hill.”