An Analysis of Reformed Infant Baptism

An Analysis of Reformed Infant Baptism

I dearly love Reformed Paedobaptists. These brothers and sisters in Christ are co-laborers in the cause of the gospel. We owe them and their tribe very much for their vital contributions to Christian thought and life. Some of my heroes in the faith are paedobaptists. I have good paedobaptist friends, and I value their friendships. I mean no offense to them in this post, but I do mean to outline what I regard to be the fatal errors in their doctrine of infant baptism (or paedobaptism) and respond to them.

1. The Covenant of Grace

The Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the “covenant of grace” is the theological basis of their doctrine of infant baptism. They correctly teach that after Adam’s fall, the whole Bible is unified by one covenant of grace. But they also teach that the covenant of grace has the same substance (essence) with different, but similar, administrations (forms) throughout the Scriptures. This is where Reformed Baptists disagree with them. The language of substance and administration is critical to understanding their view. They believe that the elect are redeemed by the saving “substance” of the covenant of grace, while the external and legal “administration” of the covenant of grace is mixed with the elect and non-elect by way of infant baptism. Here are what I believe to be some fatal errors of this teaching.

First, the Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the covenant of grace undermines the efficacy of Christ’s mediation and cross-work. Paedobaptist theology teaches that Christ is the mediator of the covenant of grace. The book of Hebrews declares that Christ’s mediation means that He reconciles His covenant people to the Father, that He is a testator who gives His blessings freely and unconditionally, and a surety who pays all their debts. Paedobaptists must either explain how Christ can be the mediator of the covenant of grace for non-elect and unregenerate people (which will undermine His mediatorial efficacy), or they must explain how Christ can be the mediator of a covenant without being the mediator of everyone in that covenant (which will undermine His mediatorial efficacy). If they say that Christ mediates for those in the outward administration of the covenant of grace, they must explain how Christ’s blood, signified by baptism, covers unregenerate people in the covenant of grace without effecting their salvation.  Any explanation they give will approximate Arminian definitions of the atonement.

Second, the Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the covenant of grace confuses (joins together) the headships of Adam and Christ. Because paedobaptists include unregenerate infants within the covenant of grace, they diminish the headship of Christ in one of two ways. One, they may say that baptized infants are no longer in Adam and under the curse of the covenant of works, but are under Christ’s headship in a way that might condemn them to hell. On this view, it is very hard to see how Christ’s covenant is a “covenant of grace.” It is, rather, a covenant of grace/justification and wrath/condemnation, which is hardly a comfort or blessing to all who are in it. Two, paedobaptists may say that unregenerate baptized infants in the administration of the covenant of grace are “in Adam” (the covenant of works) and “in Christ” (the covenant of grace) simultaneously. These infants would be in the inward “substance” of the covenant of works, but the outward “administration” of the covenant of grace. Such a view would undermine the efficacy of Christ’s atonement because it places unregenerate children of believers under Christ’s mediation, and under His blood, while affirming the child’s condemnation in Adam.

Third, the Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the covenant of grace ascribes saving power to the OT covenants of promise. But this is impossible since the OT covenants of promise, including the Abrahamic covenant, were established on the shed blood of animals and imperfect human mediators. The OT covenants of promise commanded their members to trust the Lord, to love the Lord, and obey the Lord.  But the OT covenants did not provide their members with the power to obey their commands.  The shed blood of animals and human mediators never gave grace needed for regeneration, justification, sanctification, and perseverance.  That only comes from the shed blood of Christ and His mediation.  The paedobaptist notion of a “saving substance” in the OT covenants is foreign to the Bible.

Historic Reformed Baptists Had a Better Way

They believed there is only one covenant of grace, the same in its saving substance, running through the whole Bible, but they believed that this saving covenant is distinct from the OT covenants.

Hebrews 9:15 says, “Therefore, He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” Notice several things about this text.

First, Christ’s mediation of the new covenant is what redeemed sinners under the old covenant. Historic Baptists taught that the covenant of grace is identical to the new covenant. The covenant of grace, however, was “promised” under the old covenant, but it is now fulfilled in the death of Christ. It was progressively revealed under the old covenant, but it is now formally concluded and enacted through the death of Christ. The OT saints were saved by virtue of the new covenant promise “breaking in” to the old covenant (Rom 9:8; Gal 3:29; 4:23, 28). Old Testament saints were not saved by virtue of the old covenant, but by virtue of the promise of the new. Thus, there is only one covenant of grace, the same in substance from Genesis to Revelation.

Second, Christ’s mediation in the covenant of grace saves all its members. Hebrews 9:15 says, “a death has occurred that redeems them.” Just a few verses earlier in Hebrews 9:12, we’re told that Christ entered the holy places as the Mediator of the new covenant, “by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” Earlier in Hebrews 7:22, it says, “This makes Jesus the guarantor [or surety] of a better covenant.” A surety is someone who fulfills the legal obligations of someone who cannot fulfill them. Christ’s death effectuates the salvation of all those in this covenant. Who is in the covenant? Verse 15 says “those who are called” are in the new covenant.

Third, unbelievers were never in the covenant of grace (because of numbers 1 and 2). The covenant of grace was only made with the elect in Christ. It effectually saves all its members because they are under Christ’s effectual mediation. Therefore, since unbelieving infants (and unbelievers of any kind) were not part of the covenant of grace under the old covenant, then neither are they part of the covenant of grace under the new covenant.

In conclusion, the Reformed Baptist doctrine of the covenant of grace avoids the problems of the paedobaptist while preserving the unity of the gospel throughout the Scriptures.

2. Hermeneutics

Reformed Paeodbaptists claim to hold the Reformed hermeneutic of New Testament priority. It’s the same hermeneutic articulated by Augustine in the phrase, “The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.” Reformed exegetes agree that the New Testament has final authority over the interpretation of Old Testament passages. However, Reformed Baptists do not believe that paedobaptists apply our common Reformed hermeneutic consistently. Consider the following examples of our respective hermeneutical applications.

First, Reformed Paedobaptists and Reformed Baptists agree in consistently applying NT priority with respect to some categories of promise and fulfillment.

  • The promise of a rebuilt temple to Israel (Ez 40-48) is fulfilled in Christ (Jn 2:19-21) and in the church (1 Pet 2:4-5).
  • The promise of physical land to the descendants of Abraham (Gen 15:18-20) is fulfilled to Abraham’s believing seed in the better country of the new heavens and the new earth on the basis of Christ’s work (Heb 11:10, 13, 16).

Second, Reformed Paedobaptists disagree with one another, while Reformed Baptists hold to NT priority in other categories of promise and fulfillment.

  • Reformed Baptists believe that the case laws of Israel with their penalties (for example: Ex 22) are fulfilled with the coming of Christ because they have already served their purpose to protect the physical line of promise (Eph 2:14-15). Paedobaptists are conflicted about whether the case laws of Israel should apply to the United States as theonomic reconstructionism teaches.
  • Reformed Baptists believe that the OT Passover is fulfilled in Christ (1 Cor 5:7), and that NT revelation alone determines the participants of the new covenant ordinance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:27-29). Paedobaptists are conflicted about whether the infants of believers should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper because they were admitted at Passover (Ex 12:24).

Third, Reformed Paedobaptists reject NT priority in certain categories of promise and fulfillment, while Reformed Baptists consistently affirm it.

  • Reformed Baptists believe that the promise to Abraham and his physical seed (Gen 17:7) is fulfilled in Christ. Galatians 3:16 says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring, who is Christ.” Reformed Baptists also believe that this promise is fulfilled in believers. Galatians 3:7 says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Paedobaptists, like Dispensationalists, believe that the promise of a physical seed in the OT ought to govern our exegesis of the NT, rather than the other way around.
  • Reformed Baptists believe that the sign of circumcision (Gen 17:11) is fulfilled at the cross of Christ and in “heart circumcision.” Colossians 2:11-12 says, “In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Paedobaptists, on the other hand, hold that the meaning of the sign of circumcision is determinative of the meaning of the sign of baptism, rather than allowing the NT to determine the meaning of baptism and the fulfillment of circumcision.

Therefore, the Reformed Paedobaptist model inconsistently applies its own Reformed hermeneutic. In some cases, it allows the NT to determine the progressive unfolding of redemptive history. In other cases, it allows the OT to take priority over the NT. This model displays no governing hermeneutical basis for its divergent choices.

3. The Regulative Principle of Worship

The confessions of both Reformed Paedobaptists and Reformed Baptists affirm the Regulative Principle of Worship, which teaches that public Christian worship should only include commanded elements under the new covenant. Any elements of new covenant worship not instituted by the new covenant revelation are forbidden.

Baptists note that there is neither a command nor clear example of an infant baptism in the Bible. Paedobaptists agree. Some paedobaptists appeal to household baptisms as an example, but they admit that the Bible is silent about whether these households included any infants. Therefore, Baptists conclude that infant baptism is forbidden as an element of public worship on the basis of the regulative principle of worship.

How do the paedobaptists attempt to reconcile the regulative principle with infant baptism? They take two approaches. One approach is to argue from the command of OT circumcision, but this violates the regulative principle, which teaches that only NC revelation can institute NC worship practices. Another approach is to argue that while baptism is an element of worship, the baptism of infants is a circumstance of worship, rather than an element. Circumstances as defined by the the Regulative Principle are things like “lighting,” “pews,” “language,” “air conditioning,” etc. It would seem to minimize paedobaptism (to the point of absurdity) to say that the “paedo” of “paedobaptism” is a mere “circumstance” of worship and not an element.

Paedobaptists also often say that both sides are arguing from “silence” on this point. But these are two very different kinds of arguments from silence. It is one thing to argue against believing a doctrine on the basis of silence. It is quite another thing to argue in favor of believing a doctrine on the basis of silence.

Reformed Baptists, however, do not have this problem. They note that Scripture only requires the baptism of disciples (Matt 28:19; Acts 8:12; etc.). Therefore, Baptists baptize disciples alone.

4. Serious Internal Inconsistencies in the Practice of Reformed Paedobaptism

Reformed Paedobaptism has a number of serious internal inconsistencies. One of the tests of the truthfulness of any system is to examine it for its internal consistency. Consistency is a mark of truth, while inconsistency is a mark of error.

Reformed Paedobaptists claim that infant baptism is based on the OT “you and your seed” principle and on the OT practice of circumcision. The serious problem with this, however, is that they do not follow their principles, which undermines their argument from those principles. Reformed infant baptism does not resemble the inclusion of physical seed or circumcision in the OT. Consider the following examples.

  • Paedobaptists exclude unbelieving adult spouses from the covenant of grace, but under the old covenant, all those in the Israelite household, including both husbands and wives, were in the covenant, whether they believed or not.
  • Paedobaptists exclude household servants from the waters of baptism. But, in the old covenant, every male among you was to be circumcised, including servants, whether the servants believed or not.
  • Paedobaptists look for a profession of faith from parents before baptizing their children. That is, they will only baptize the children of professing believers. But, that requirement is not revealed in either the OT or NT. Paedobaptists will not baptize the children of baptized church members, if those baptized church members are non-communicant members (as sometimes happens when those who have not come to assurance of their own salvation bear children). There is no revealed reason to do this.
  • Paedobaptists require adults to make a profession of faith prior to baptizing them, but no such profession was required in the old covenant. In the old covenant, the Israelites did not require a profession of faith from adults prior to their circumcision. Rather, every male among you was to be circumcised, regardless of age or profession.

All of this undermines the very basis on which Reformed Paedobaptists argue for the baptism of infants. Paedobaptists argue that infants should be incorporated into the covenant of grace on the basis of old covenant membership. Yet, if the old covenant had members that paedobaptists exclude from the covenant of grace, then their own argument is undermined. The old covenant included spouses, servants, adult children, and continued to include “you and your children,” regardless of belief. Paedobaptists generally refuse membership to all of these. Therefore, the foundation of their argument is undermined.

In conclusion, Reformed Paedobaptism undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s work in its doctrine of the covenant of grace, inconsistently applies its own hermeneutic, violates the regulative principle of worship, and undermines its own argument for infant inclusion by various inconsistencies.

Tom serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Clinton, LA. He’s married to Joy, and they have four children: Sophie, Karlie, Rebekah, and David. He received his MDiv and PhD degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a major in Church History, emphasis on Baptists, and with a minor in Systematic Theology. Tom is the author of The Doctrine of Justification in the Theologies of Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach (PhD diss, SBTS). He serves on the board of directors for Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and is an adjunct professor of historical theology for the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies.
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