Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants

I have had discussion with a number of people concerning infant baptism (paedobaptists) vs. adult believer baptism, and I have never felt that my answers were sufficient.  I think I have found an excellent book that will be helpful in explaining believer’s baptism, especially as it relates to the covenants.

baptismBeliever’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright, is filled with chapters on various aspects of this debate. The chapter that I would like to comment on is written by Stephen Wellum on the topic of baptism and the relationship between the covenants.

Much that is addressed in this chapter is related to a few key questions:

  • How is the new covenant new?
  • Who are the parties to the covenant of grace?
  • What is the relationship between the covenant of grace and the Abrahamic covenant?

The answers to these questions, in the author’s opinion and mine as well, seem to necessitate the believer’s baptism view. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The nature and structure of the new covenant has changed, a point that is not often reckoned with by paedobaptists. There is not a one to one correspondence between old and new covenants, and in particular there is a discontinuity between circumcision and baptism.

To begin with, Israel and the church are not the same. Israel was by nature a mixed community.  There were people who were part of that old covenant who showed that they were not believers.  As Wellum states, “even though there is only one people of God throughout the ages, there is a redemptive-historical difference between OT Israel and the NT church” (p. 113). God’s people in the new covenant are not a mixed community but rather a regenerate community, as anticipated by passages such as Jer. 31:31-34.

Richard Pratt, himself a paedobaptist, recognizes this problem:

In effect, infant baptism introduces unregenerate, unbelieving people into the new covenant community.  But this practice appears to contradict Jeremiah’s prophecy that salvation will be fully distributed in the new covenant. How can it be right for infants to receive the covenant sign of baptism when they often do not and may never “know the Lord”? (139)

The promise of Jeremiah 31 anticipates a regenerate community, with the sign of entrance into the community being baptism of believers.

We can also say that baptism is not a replacement of circumcision.  Wellum makes the point that circumcision and baptism do not convey identical realities. Circumcision conveys realities that baptism does not, national and typological realities. Circumcision identifies people as part of a nation, and it is a type that points to something greater, much like the sacrificial system was a type that pointed to something greater.

What there seems to be, according to Wellum, is a misunderstanding of the progressive nature of God’s revelation and “the proper degree of discontinuity inaugurated by Christ’s coming and to which the OT points, namely, the arrival of the promised new covenant age” (125).

It is beyond question that the Abrahamic covenant is the basis for all God’s dealings with the human race as it unfolds the promise and leads us to Christ.  But in this overall summary of the covenants and their relationships there is soemthing crucial that we must not miss: as we move from Abraham to Christ, there is a significant progression and advance that takes place. The Abrahamic covenant sets the context and anticipates the coming of the new covenant, but promise and type are not the same as fulfillment and antitype.  No doubt continunity exists between the covenants, but there is also significant discontinuity.

In my next post I would like to highlight these differences and summarize Wellum’s argument that point to these differences and show that the new covenant sign is believer’s baptism.

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