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Why Do We Baptize?

A Provisional Attempt at Biblical Reformulation

by Mark Horne

copyright © 1998

In the Reformation Tradition we baptize both professing believers and their children. In the case of infants it is now commonly insisted that this is done because the children are already in covenant with God. Baptism is a sign and seal of a previously existing reality. Despite the popularity of this idea, I don’t think it can possibly be upheld as the Reformed position by any careful historical scrutiny. It certainly does not comport with the Westminster Standards which insist that grace is “conferred,” not confirmed, by baptism. However, instead of engaging in a historical investigation, however profitable that might be, I will use this brief paper to argue that the Biblical teaching on circumcision and it’s relationship to baptism demand a different understanding.

1. Any Gentile who wished to participate in Passover was required to first be circumcised (Exo 12.48). God then comments on this command, saying, “One law shall be to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you” (v. 49). This law is cited and essentially repeated in Numbers 9.14:

And if an alien sojourns among you and observes the Passover to the LORD, according to the statute of the Passover and according to its ordinance, so he shall do; you shall have one statute, both for the alien and for the native of the land.

This law sounds quite similar to other laws regarding the aliens at the other Feasts and the sacrifices. The alien is invited to the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths (Deu 16.11, 14). The alien is permitted to bring a sacrifice to the altar in the Tabernacle just like an Israelite. (Lev 17.18-19; 22.17-25; Num 15.14-16). In the case of such sacrifices, “There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you” (Num 15.16).

Despite the similarities, there is one difference between Passover, and the other festivals and sacrifices. Passover requires circumcision—that the alien become a fellow Israelite. When God tells Moses that a Gentile may observe Passover “according to the statute of the Passover and according to its ordinance,” He is referring back to what he told Moses in Exodus 12.48, that a Gentile and all the males in his house must be circumcised.

But if, unlike the other sacrifices and feasts, Passover requires circumcision, why does God claim that this requirement represents fundamental equality under the Law? In the case of Numbers 15.16, the reference to “one law” means that circumcised and uncircumcised alike have the same privileges. But what does it mean to say that there is “one law” for both stranger and native, if the stranger is required to do something first which is not required of the native? The only answer available to us, is that the stranger is not put under an additional requirement to partake of Passover, but he must meet the same requirement which a native-born Israelite must meet if he wishes to partake of Passover. The native Israelite’s participation in Passover is not a “birth right,” not a natural possession inherited by blood from his parents, not a gift given by natural generation. On the contrary, the native born is given access to Passover by virtue of the rite of circumcision which confers citizenship in the Holy Nation, the Kingdom of Priests. No one is born an Israelite; every male child is obviously a Gentile after the flesh until the flesh is mortified on the eighth day.

There is one law for the native and stranger regarding Passover because both gain access to it in exactly the same way. [1] The fact that the native was circumcised as an infant and the Gentile might have been converted by the Spirit as an adult so that he desired circumcision are simply accidents of circumstance as far as the rite is concerned. However one might come to be subject to the rite, it is the rite as God’s sign and seal which confers access to Passover.

This understanding is the only one which will do justice to the fact that not only infants, but any slave an Israelite purchased was to be circumcised (Gen 17.12). What previous relationship exists between God and, say, a Greek slave who doesn’t even speak Hebrew? [2] For that matter, what if Christian parents adopt a child who was originally born to non-Christians? Obviously, the rite is the initiation of the relationship between God and the subject, not a confirmation of some sort of relationship which already existed.

The law of the war bride (Deu 21.10-14) seems quite similar to circumcision in many ways. The woman is made a free citizen of Israel after she cuts her nails and hair, changes clothes, and waits a month (which for menstrual reasons seems like an appropriate corresponding rite to circumcision). Yet, again, there is no previous relationship which is confirmed by this rite. Indeed, the man is only permitted to marry the woman after she goes through the month-long mortification. She is not made an Israelite by marriage but is married because she has become an Israelite, a status she maintains even if her husband should divorce her.

Finally, 1 Corinthians 7.14 demands a view of the rite of baptism which corresponds to the view of circumcision set forth above. For, if the rite is simply a confirmation of membership in the covenant, then an unbelieving adult is a members of the Church by virtue of his relationship with his spouse, and ought to be baptized as unbelievers in order to confirm this pre-existing status which was given to them by the bare fact that the spouse is a believer. I see no way to make a distinction between the way in which the unbelieving spouse is “sanctified” and the child is “holy.” Unlike the English translation, the two Greek words are quite closely related at root. If the child is a member of the Church by birth then the unbelieving spouse is also a member by marriage. But such a position is obviously absurd. Known unbelievers belong outside the Church.

If what is in view in 1 Corinthians 7.14 is merely the right to be baptized, the tension disappears. Both parent and child have this right in the same way, but the parent disqualifies himself because of unbelief and impenitence. There is no reason to accuse an infant of such high-handed rebellion, though the child is a sinner in need of the grace of God. It is not a mere family relationship which makes one a member of the covenant, but the rite itself confers that membership. Mere flesh and blood cannot enter the Kingdom of God. No one is a member of the Church merely by virtue of natural generation. Rather, it is God’s act—done by Him, through his representative, in baptism—which transfers a person from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light. Whether one is a formerly unbelieving adult converted by hearing the Gospel, the infant child or a Christian, or the infant child of a nonchristian who has been adopted by at least one Christian parent, one enters the Church and the Kingdom in exactly the same way, through baptism.

It is interesting to note that what is true of infants is also even true of adult converts. Through baptism converts are said to be added to the Church (Act 2.41) or even “added to the Lord” (11.24). This becomes especially clear when Saul is “converted” on the Road to Damascus. There Saul confessed Jesus as Lord (22.10), yet three days later Annanias said to him, “And now, why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (v.16). Thus, even in the case of a believer, baptism is still seen as a rite in which God initiates a new relationship with the person being baptized.

For what it’s worth, the Westminster Confession declares that people are admitted into the institutional Church by baptism (28.1) which “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2). Because the Divines assumed believers would be baptized along with their children, they wrote that the Church consists of those “that profess the true religion; and of their children” (25.2). But that does not altar the fact that the Confession knows no way of entering the Church, except through baptism.

2. So far, I have argued that all the Biblical evidence suggests that baptism is a rite which initiates (or, better, by which God initiates) the person baptized into the covenant—confers citizenship in the Kingdom upon him. Is there any additional reason from Scripture to modify this conclusion or it’s implications? Perhaps.

According to the Psalms, infants in the Church have a saving relationship with God while yet in the womb (8.2; 22.9-10; 71.5-6, 17). This is significant because the Psalms are the songs of Israel’s public worship. Thus, they teach us not about what might possibly happen to someone in Israel, but rather what was the general expectation in Israel. In my own tradition, the popular hymns were “And Can It Be” or “Just As I Am,” because I was brought up in a tradition which expected a conscious and remembered conversion from unbelief to faith in Christ. In Israel, there was a different view of how and when one entered into a saving relationship with the Lord.

It would perhaps be possible (barely) to consign these songs to the “secret work of the Spirit” and maintain that they leave the rite of initiation unaffected. But there is more data to be considered: The fact that Samson is a nazirite even from his mother’s womb entails that his mother must not violate the dietary restrictions for a nazirite while Samson is in utero within her (Jud 13.4, 14). Here we have a principle which not only serves as yet another argument for paedocommunion, but which declares that all churches which don’t bar pregnant women from the Lord’s Supper also practice paedocommunion. This verse reveals not only that the Israelites knew that the fetus fed on the food of the mother, but that God considers the relationship to be sacramentally significant. Thus, unless one is prepared to argue that pregnant women were banned from Passover, it is inescapable that unborn Israelites were “communing members” of God’s people.

3. How do we synthesize the fact that circumcision initiated a person in the covenant, as baptism now does, but that an unborn and unbaptized child is a communicant member of the Church? Did circumcision and does baptism simply readmit the child into table fellowship with the Lord? If so, why would such a readmission be necessary?

Perhaps it is significant that, under the Mosaic economy, giving birth barred a mother from the Tabernacle and the sacramental feast until she had been properly cleansed (Lev 12.1-8). This is simply an application of the general principle that anything from the flesh rendered one unclean and unfit for God presence. For example, a blemish on the body was considered leprosy if it was “deeper than the skin” (Lev 13.3). A flow from the inward parts of a man or women rendered them unclean (Lev 15). Indeed, the woman’s uncleanness from childbirth is explicitly compared to this: “When a women gives birth and bears a male, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean” (Lev 12.2; c.f. v. 5). Since a person become unclean by contact with a woman “in the days of her menstruation,” the question naturally arises as to whether or not the newborn is unclean as well. This would seem an obvious consequence from the ceremonial law, and the prophet Ezekiel certainly suggests it as well:

As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing, you were not rubbed with salt or even wrapped in cloths. . . When I passed by you and saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you in your blood, “Live!” I said to you while you were in your blood, “Live!” (16.4, 6).

This, I think, gives us a clue as to the Old Testament (and therefore the Biblical) theology for the initiation of newborns into the covenant. While in the womb, an unborn child is “covered” by his mother. He may partake of the sacraments because he is considered “in” her. At birth, however, there is a revelation that this child of the covenant is “of the flesh” and therefore unclean. At that point, the child must be readmitted to the sacramental life of Israel. But this would not be a mere readmission because, for the first time, the child enters into the covenant as an individual. Circumcision and baptism do not so much have to do with family solidarity, for that is where the uncleanness originated. Rather, the rite of initiation is their adoption into God’s family.

Of course, this “fall” and transition “from wrath to grace,” should not be taken as actually indicating that the individual child has become an object of wrath, any more than a women’s menstrual period under the Mosaic economy would indicate that she was now personally under God’s wrath and curse. Nevertheless, there is a demonstration that “flesh and blood will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Furthermore, the child goes through an eschatological elevation from being simply counted in the mother as belonging to God’s people, to being directly made a member of the Church.

To provide a concrete example. If a Church is forced to excommunicate a pregnant woman without a Christian husband, then the child shares in her excommunication. He is born outside the Church. If, however, the child is born and baptized, then the child remains a member of the Church even if the mother is excommunicated. (Of course, the child will probably be raised to apostatize, so it would still be a tragedy.)

4. Some various and sundry observations can be made as the result of this brief analysis. First off, it seems likely that, in addition to males being circumcised, all babies were ceremonially cleansed at birth. Since the ceremonial cleansings are called “baptisms” in Hebrews 9.10, we have prima facie reason to claim that paedobaptism has been practiced by the Church since Sinai. Indeed, since we know children were admitted to the sacramental feasts (Deu 16.11, 14), all of which required ceremonial cleansing, we know for certain that, at the very least, weaned children were baptized many times. We do not need to argue from circumcision to baptism but can argue from baptism to baptism.

The previous relationship with God, which the Bible expects the children of believers to experience in the womb before baptism, is not itself the foundation for baptism. Just as nothing less than baptism was required for the circumcised God-fearing Jew, and nothing more than baptism for the formerly pagan Gentile, so it is in the case of infant baptism. Whatever the past, baptism starts anew the covenantal relation between God and the person baptized.

It would also seem that we baptize children not so much because of what has happened earlier, but because of what is to happen later. We baptize children because they are to be discipled by Christ. Just as a war bride would “circumcise” her hair and nails because of an Israelite’s desire to marry her, so male Israelite infants were circumcised because of God’s desire that they be raised as his worshippers. This gives us a prima facie reason to posit parity between the baptism of an adult convert and the child of a believer. The adult isn’t so much baptized because of his past conversion, but because of his declared desire to belong to the Lord and worship and serve Him from that day forward. The conversion may be necessary for an adult to have such a desire, but it is not the basis of the rite. [3]

If nothing else, I hope that the above considerations at least demonstrate the need for more careful study of the Old Testament sacraments if we are to understand our own. I offer this brief paper as merely suggestive of what might be dug up by such study. To simply make general references to Passover and circumcision isolated from the system of ceremonial law in the Mosaic economy, and/or to restrict a study of baptism to New Testament prooftexts [4] simply does not do justice to the professed principles of covenant theology.

copyright © 1998


ENDNOTES

1. This would indicate that trying to find precursors to Christian baptism, or even Johannine baptism, in the “proselyte baptism” practiced by some first-century Jews is extremely problematic. If my analysis is correct, such requirements of Gentile proselytes constitute “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mark 7.7) and “shutting off the kingdom of heaven from men” (Matt 23.13) by creating, without divine warrant, additional requirements for the alien who wishes to partake of Passover.

2. I do not, however, think this means that the Israelites were to circumcise unbelievers—those who would repudiate the God of Israel. In the ancient world, the idea of serving the god of the area seems taken for granted (Jon 1.4-16; 1 Sam 26.19). Atheism as we know it in the modern world was probably not an issue. From this immature form of covenant loyalty to the God of Israel, an adult slave could and ideally would be discipled to understand that the LORD is the only true God.

3. Compare John Murray’s statement in Christian Baptism: “If we think of the prospective reference in baptism, we must bear in mind that it has a prospective reference both to infants and adults. That which is sealed by baptism has many implications for the future. Baptism as the seal of union with Christ as the seal of God’s covenant faithfulness and the pledge of our fidelity to the God of covenant. Hence it looks forward to the ever-increasing realization of God’s favor and blessing. In a word, it is prospective of the full fruition of the covenant relation which it seals. But principally infants and adults are in the same position regarding such a prospect.” (p. 89n).

4. I am thinking here mainly of Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology where he actually claims that Passover was the only sacramental meal in Israel and circumcision the only other sacrament (p. 620). Furthermore, he states that “Alongside the sacraments Israel had many other symbolical rites, such as offerings and purifications, which in the main agree with their sacraments, while the New Testament sacraments stand absolutely alone” (p. 619). Not only is this impossible to believe of the Old Testament situation, but even if we were to convince ourselves that some of the other rites were for some reason not sacraments, we would then find we the same situation obtains in the New Covenant era. For what is ordination or the anointing of the sick, or even the Minister’s declaration of forgiveness in public worship as written in the liturgies of Bucer, Calvin, and virtually every other Reformer, if not “many other symbolical rites” which the Church has “alongside of the sacraments” (though they would still be relatively fewer, simpler, and of course unbloody)?



2 Comments »

  1. Very thought provoking essay. However, how do you respond to Gen. 17:14, which seems to indicate that the uncircumcised male can break the covenant by not being circumcised? How can someone break a covenant he was never a part of, if in fact, he did not belong to the covenant before he was circumcised?

    Comment by Troy — September 10, 2007 @ 10:12 am

  2. Perhaps because the promise is to “you and your children”? Avoiding circumcision breaks the covenant succession, which is equated with breaking the covenant itself, since the covenant succession is one of the terms of the covenant.

    Comment by Jay — September 10, 2007 @ 10:29 am

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