No Infant Baptism in the New Covenant
By Rick Owen
I would say there is no infant baptism in the New Covenant for at least the following reasons. Here are a few thoughts, first of all, by way of introduction.
If I recall correctly, the mention of 'household baptisms’ in the New Testament, often cited by advocates of infant baptism, makes reference to believers or disciples in three out of four instances, but never infants. (See Household Baptisms for details – not an endorsement of the Church of Christ.) While it is often assumed that all or most families included infants, we do not know for sure that the households that were baptized included infants. We do know there comes a time when families no longer include infants. Did Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, have other children? The New Testament does not mention other children. Furthermore, the mention of "households" being baptized need not lead us to think in terms of children. Slaves and servants were also counted as members of households in the first-century. Sometimes they came to faith along with the family of the household.
Of course, 'disciples,' in the most generic and nominal sense, can include unbelieving persons who follow Jesus for a time, often for ulterior reasons not rooted in faith and love, such as the multitude in John 6 who "turned back and no longer followed Him" (verse 66). 'Disciples,' in the most meaningful and truest sense of the word, however, are true believers. "So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'" (John 8:31; cf. 15:8; 2 John 1:9). Candidates for baptism in the New Testament always appear to be the latter – that is, persons who profess faith in Christ.
"The promise" of salvation through Christ and the gift of His Spirit in Acts 2:38-39 is not only "for you and for your children," as advocates of infant baptism like to underscore, but also "for all who are far off." So this is not limited to a 'household motif' or 'children of believing parents' formula. This language expresses the universal call of the gospel (Acts 17:30), but the actual recipients of "the promise" are qualified as "everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." In other words, the promise and the Holy Spirit are connected only with persons who actually come to God, as He calls them to himself, via repentance and faith. Likewise, in verse 41, baptism is connected with believers: "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls."
Some people reason this way: "If babies were circumcised under the Old Covenant, then why shouldn't infants be baptized under the New Covenant? Surely, the New Covenant is not less inclusive or gracious than the Old Covenant, is it?" (Please see Footnote on the Covenant of Grace below.)
First of all, not all infants were circumcised under the Old Covenant; only male infants were circumcised. Nor was 'infants of one or more believing parents' ever the formula for circumcision anymore than it is for baptism. More important, though, circumcision was a ceremonial sign and seal of God's promise: that through Abraham's seed (or offspring) a great nation would arise through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 17:11-13). Here's how this unfolds in the Bible.
- The descendants of Abraham made up the nation of Israel, which was a type and shadow of Jesus Christ. He was the ultimate "Seed" through whom the world would be blessed as salvation came to the Gentiles (the nations) of the earth (Gal. 3:16) through faith in Him (Gal. 3:8-9, 26-29).
- So the very sign and seal of the Old Covenant (hereafter, OC) has been fulfilled through Christ in the New Covenant (hereafter, NC). It is not carried over in any form or fashion as a physical ritual or practice in the NC.
- The only circumcision performed under the NC is done "without hands" by Christ himself. This is a spiritual operation, so to speak, "in the putting off of the sinful nature" – where every fleshly, worldly, demonic thing which stood between God and His people was stripped away at the Cross by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:11-15).
- The outcome of "the circumcision done by Christ" is new life, a profession of faith expressed in baptism and lifelong obedience, forgiveness of sins, and freedom from bondage to spiritual "rulers and authorities" and adherence to the shadows of the law (vv. 16-17).
Second, membership in the NC is different from membership in the OC. Scripture declares the NC is "not like" the OC (Heb. 8:9). How is the NC different from the OC?
The answer is summed up in Heb. 8:9: "For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord." That is a description of the OC. Israel did not keep or continue in the OC. Therefore, God says, "I showed no concern for them."
Why did they "not continue" in God's covenant? Because not all Israelites were true believers in God. It seems that most of them were not. The nation was created by physical birth, like being born an American. Not all Americans are Christians. Likewise, not all Israelites were regenerated (spiritually alive) believers in God. Paul talks about this in his letter to the Romans.
"For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring . . . This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring" (Rom. 9:6-8).
Not all Israelites accepted the good news God gave to them (Rom. 10:16). Concerning Israel, God said, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Rom. 10:21).
In contrast to the OC community, made up of a mixture of believers and unbelievers, which was a type and shadow of good and better things to come (Heb. 9:11) – "things that accompany salvation" (Heb. 6:9) – "at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace" (Rom. 11:5) who make up the NC community which consists of true believers only.
The NC is different from the OC in the following ways:
Heb. 8:10-13: "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord:
'I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.'
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away."
Notice three things from this passage:
- The OC is obsolete and has faded away; the NC has taken its place by fulfilling it. Christ is the Reality (Col. 2:17), the Fulfillment of the law (Rom. 10:4), which all OC types and shadows prefigured (Heb. 10:1).
- Unlike the mixture of unbelievers and believers in the OC community, every member of the NC community is a believer: "ALL know me," God declares, "from the least of them to the greatest." All believers in Christ, and only believers in Christ, make up God's "house" now (Heb. 3:6; cf. 10:21; 1 Cor. 3:16; Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 3:15).
- Every member of the NC receives mercy and forgiveness for their sins. This was not true under the OC. Simply put, each member of the NC has a new heart (involving regeneration, conversion, sanctification) by God's Spirit and a new record (of forgiveness and justification) by virtue of Christ's death on their behalf.
Since baptism is for members of the NC, and only those who "know the Lord" are members of the NC community, baptism is only for believers. This is not to say that infants (like John the Baptist) cannot be regenerated and later express faith in Christ as soon as they can express conscious, rational and intelligible allegiance. But regeneration in the New Testament is never presumed until a credible profession of faith appears. And baptism never precedes this; it always follows faith in Christ.
In conjunction with one's profession of faith in Christ, baptism represents "an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 3:21). Hence, it is not for infants who cannot express such an appeal. Christian baptism is for Christians.
Footnote on the Covenant of Grace
Rationale for baptizing infants is based primarily upon the Reformed concept called "the Covenant of Grace." This idea is that there is one overarching covenant from the beginning of the Bible to the end of the Bible which all other covenants (except for what is called "the Covenant of Works") progressively reveal. A discussion of this is too involved to include here. Please see Is There A Covenant of Grace? for an insightful look at this.