This is the area where I post further thoughts about a particular subject covered on the main page.
The following should be read in conjunction with the post entitled, “Paedobatism vs. Credobaptism.”
Warnings, Baptism and the Nature of the New Covenant
A key point in the credo/paedo baptism debate is the question of the New Covenant. The issue is whether all covenant members are regenerate. Or might there be a mixture of regenerate and unregenerate? Credobaptists affirm the former, paedobaptists the latter. While this may not seem at first glance terribly pertinent to the discussion, much hinges upon it. For if the credobaptists are right, then infants shouldn’t receive the sign of the covenant. Why? Because they’re not regenerate. So if the nature of the New Covenant is such that it is a registry of regeneration, then the paedobaptist position is effectively ruled out from the start.
In order to address this question, two issues take center stage. First, the Credobaptist will turn to the eighth chapter of Hebrews and argue that the text explicitly teaches that the New Covenant is an unbreakable covenant comprised solely of regenerate people.
To quote Greg Welty, he states, “First, the New Covenant is an unbreakable covenant… Second, the New Covenant is made with believers only. This of course is the exact reason why the New Covenant is unbreakable, for only believers will persevere to the end without breaking God’s covenant.”
The other issue, by way of response, is the warning passages found throughout the New Testament. Paedobaptists will cite texts demonstrating that the New Covenant is not only conditional, but that unregenerate individuals comprise it.
My purpose here is to address the warnings as they relate to the New Covenant. I will make a few observations.
We must recognize the group Paul has in mind when he, or any other apostle for that matter, warns his readers that they must continue in the faith or else be damned. Take a passage like Colossians 1:21-23.
It reads, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
When he writes, he writes to the saints of a certain locality. So to state it simply, Paul warns a local church, or a cluster of churches. That is his target audience. This means that saints are the subjects of the warnings. They fall within the purview. They must persevere or else.
This alone should make one rub their chin when they hear Baptists assert that the New Covenant is unconditional. For clearly, if these warnings are taken at face value, believers must continue in the faith. And if they must continue, then that is a condition.
For many this will raise all kinds of questions, but this isn’t the place to defend and unpack the concept. Suffice it to say that Thomas Schreiner, quite possibly the leading defender of believer’s baptism today, agrees with what I have outlined. He agrees that Christians, real Christians, must continue or else (See his excellent book, “The Race Set Before Us.”).
He argues that the warnings are means. God uses them to spur His sheep on. Christ’s sheep listen to His voice, and when they are warned, they heed His warnings (by grace, no doubt). So in sum, he grants that the warnings possess full Arminian force, in the sense that they really do warn us that we must continue in order to be finally saved.
Something important to point out is that Dr. Schreiner is a firm Calvinist. So he doesn’t believe that any sheep will be lost. I totally agree. Just because you warn someone about the dangers of a certain action, it doesn’t follow that they will commit the error. I can tell my son that if he doesn’t clean his room he’ll be grounded. But pronouncing the warning doesn’t mean that he will fail to clean his room. It’s just telling him what will happen if he doesn’t. The same is true with the biblical warnings.
Now I think this is all right and good. Dr. Schreiner and I couldn’t agree more on this point. Where we diverge, however, will be the plain when we talk about the status of the unregenerate.
So what about those who fall away? Were they regenerate? No. We agree that they weren’t regenerate. Well then what was their relationship to the church, if any?
Here the paedobaptist believes that when a person is baptized, they are set apart and receive the sign of the covenant. God’s name is placed on them. There is an objective shift in status, even if their heart isn’t right. This is to say that they’re saints externally, even while unregenerate. They haven’t been born again. But they are members of the church. As such, they share a relationship with the New Covenant.
But what might a Credobaptist say about the unregenerate among them? If the unregenerate aren’t saints, then it would seem that their relationship to the church is merely one of proximity. In other words, do they just happen to stand in the same room as Christians on Sunday morning? Sing the same songs that Christians sing? Mimic the movements of real Christians?
But if that is the case, then how can the warnings apply to them, if there isn’t some kind of covenantal relationship? Remember, Paul addresses the saints in his letters. If the baptized unregenerate aren’t saints, then what is the ground for warning them?
Here an example will prove helpful. Imagine warning a bachelor to remain faithful to his wife. Suppose someone walks up to him and says, “If you commit adultery, your wife will divorce you.” Now that warning may be true, but since the bachelor isn’t married, he isn’t in a covenantal relationship. And since he’s not in a covenantal relationship, it doesn’t make sense to warn him as though he were. A covenantal bond hasn’t been established. No vows were made. He’s a bachelor. [Here we might also point out that the heart has little to do with making marriage vows. There have been plenty of losers marry someone without taking seriously their vows, even while they’re making them. But this doesn’t mean that a covenant hasn’t been established.]
Or take this example. Suppose the Los Angelis Lakers are warned by the athletic commission that if they get into a fight they’ll be kicked out of the game and fined. Now imagine going up to some guy that has no affiliation with the NBA and warning him that if he gets into a fight while playing with the Lakers, he’ll get a double-technical and kicked out of the game. Again, the warning is true and real, so far as the warning goes, but it only applies to those for whom it is designed.
At the end of the day, saints are warned. Those outside the pale of the covenant cannot be properly warned because the grounds for doing so don’t exist. The legal conditions simply don’t obtain.
Now someone may want to argue that we don’t have infallible knowledge of who is really a saint and who isn’t. Therefore we warn all those hanging out in the church who need warned.
There is an element of truth to this. But consider this: Wouldn’t it be strange for Paul to warn saints that they must continue, but then, when someone in the church does falls away, he doesn’t interpret the falling away in accordance with the warnings not to fall away? That’s a mouthful, I know. But think about it. Basically there appears to be a disconnect between the warnings and those who fall prey to the warnings.
Now granted someone could turn around and say, “So why don’t you interpret those falling away as losing their salvation?” The answer, of course, is because the Scriptures are very clear on two fronts. One, it clearly teaches that God will keep all His sheep. And two, it consistently views those who fall away as not having been born again.
So this leaves us with a third category: Those who fall away are saints, externally speaking, but they have not been born again. As such, they are covenant breakers. This allows us to not only take seriously the warnings, like Dr. Schreiner, but it allows us to genuinely warn all the members of a local church, regardless of whether they are regenerate or not. Moreover, this allows us to say that something has been really lost. Something has been broken. They have fallen away. Just think about that language. They fell away. Fell from what? From hanging out with Christians? Well, no, more than that. They fell from their position as members of the church. They rejected what their baptism symbolized (and they partook of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, which likewise carries with it covenant blessings and curses. See 1 Cor 11:30-31).
Several passages of Scripture, according to their most natural reading, appear to support this conclusion. We will examine two of the clearest.
The first passage is Hebrews 10:28-31. It reads,
“Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Richard L Pratt comments as follows,
“The passage makes it plain that until Christ returns, it is possible for the new covenant to be broken. The writer of Hebrews acknowledges that covenant breakers under Moses were executed for capital offenses (Hebrews 10:28) and then argues, from the lesser to the greater (‘how much more’ in v.29), that even more severe punishment is deserved by people who have ‘trampled the Son of God under foot… treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified [them]… and… insulted the Spirit of grace” (v.29). The three objects in focus- the son of God, the blood of the covenant, and the Spirit of grace- are features of the new covenant. Flagrant violation of these new covenant realities is quite possible and leads to severe punishment.
In fact, the writer to the Hebrews applies the warning that ‘the Lord will judge his people’ from Deuteronomy 32:36- a warning to the covenant people under the Mosaic covenant- to this new covenant situation, thus equating the circumstances of the new covenant prior to the return of Christ to the situation that Israel faced under the old covenant. Judgment was and is possible for both the old and the new covenant communities, and judgment flows from covenant breaking, not from covenant keeping. If judgment is a possibility under the new covenant, then so is the covenant breaking that leads to that judgment.” (Cited from, “Infant Baptism in the New Covenant.”
Dr. Schreiner may want to argue that this is still a projected warning, telling us what will happen if you commit apostasy, but the parallels drawn between the old covenant and the new, in the sense of breakability, are striking and convincing.
The second passage of Scripture is Romans 11:17-24. It reads,
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.”
This is a striking passage of Scripture. Here Gentile Christians can see what will happen if they do not fear and turn to unbelief. They can look down and see the broken branches scattered about their feet. So this is no mere hypothetical warning! The evidence is all around them.
But what about the natural branches that had been broken off? Did they fall from election? No. God keeps all His elect. So this isn’t an election tree. Then what is it? It’s a covenantal tree, if you will. The natural branches were snapped out of the covenant community, the Israel of God. And believing Gentiles have been grafted in. But again, note that these Gentiles are warned to keep faith, lest they be broken off as well. (Think about John 15 in this regard. And think about Judas in light of Jesus’ words).
It would appear, given all that has been said about the warnings, that the paedobaptist conception of the new covenant is more faithful to the biblical data regarding sainthood and apostasy. The new covenant appears to have an external administration that includes both regenerate and unregenerate members, for the time being. And this, it must be stressed, provides a vital link in the chain of arguments supporting the doctrine of paedobaptism.
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