The Abrahamic Covenant – Covenant Signs
Covenant Sign Implications
If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Genesis chapter 17, Genesis chapter 17. In Genesis chapter 17, in verse 1, we read,
Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly.” And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
Thus ends this reading of God’s Holy and inspired Word. May He add His blessings to it. Let’s pray.
“Our Lord and our God, we bless You that we again have the privilege of coming aside from the world for these hours to devote ourselves to the study of Scripture. We thank You for the faithful men and women who have gone before us living the truths of this passage and indeed of all the truths of your Word. We thank you, O God, for the faithful teachers who have gone before us who have labored many hours and years in order to explain with great clarity and precision the meaning of these words. We recognize that we are very dependent upon their faithful labors and as we attempt to grapple with these truths and set them forth in a logical order that we might comprehend them and meditate upon them and eventually communicate them. We ask you, O God, for Your grace. Give us the grace of understanding as we attempt to absorb many things in a brief period of time. But help us most of all, O Lord, not to fail to wonder and to praise and to worship at the truth we learn. Cause our breath to be taken away. Move us to worship and to obedience through all that all we learn. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Today, I want to look at this aspect of the Covenant of Grace in the life of Abraham which teaches us a good deal, not only about the Abrahamic covenant, but teaches us about covenant signs. We have already begun our study of Abraham. We have seen God’s dealings in little vignettes with Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15. In Genesis 17, God comes again to confirm His promises to Abraham. He is not initiating a new relationship with Abram. He has already had that relationship with Abram. Now He is going to confirm them by giving him a sign in his flesh and by renaming him. You notice how God, as Abraham’s patience is continually tested over the years, is kind to give continuing encouragement to Abram so that he will believe. You know early on, God comes to him in Genesis 15 to reassure Abram of His promises. And now He comes again in Genesis 17, and He not only gives an external sign to assure him of that covenant promise, by He gives him a mark in his own flesh to assure him of that covenant promise.
Now, in the process of looking at Genesis 17, I want you to key in on two things in particular. Very often our Dispensational friends like to categorize Old Testament covenants, in particular, into two categories: One, they will call conditional, and the other they will call unconditional. In other words, they will say there are basically two types of covenants in the Old Testament. Some are conditional. And some are unconditional. And naturally they will pick for instance the covenant with Moses as a conditional covenant because of the stress of the law there, and then they will pick the covenant of Abraham and they will call it an unconditional covenant. But I want you to see that in this aspect of the Covenant of Abraham, and you catch it even in your English Bible just reading through Genesis 17, there is a lot of stress on Abram’s responsibility.
I am not attempting to take away from the grace of this at all, you understand. This does not distract from God’s grace one iota. But there is a tremendous stress on the mutual obligations of Abraham in embracing the gracious promises of God given to him in this covenant, because God reminds Abraham that he needs to walk before Him in integrity.
Now understand again that God is not saying Abraham, the stipulation for My blessing you is that you are perfect. Okay, your translations may confuse you there. “Walk before Me, and be blameless.” God is not asking Abraham to be perfect there. But He is asking Abraham to walk before Him with a whole heart; that is, to be wholly devoted to following Him and to believing the promises that He has given him in Genesis 12 and reiterated in Genesis 15. He is asking Abraham to be a wholehearted man. A man who loves Him from the inside out. A man of integrity.
And you are used to that language from the book of Job. You know, over and over, Job protests, “I am a man of integrity, Lord. I have never lost my integrity in this whole process.” Now is Job claiming to be sinless? No. But what he is saying is, “I have never lost trust in this whole process.” Now, of course towards the end of the book, Job loses it. And he has to eat his crow by the time you get to the final encounter with the Lord at the end of the book. But through much of Job’s suffering, he could say, with legitimacy, “I have kept my integrity.” You remember his wife early on encourages him to abandon his integrity, curse God and die. But Job hangs on to that. In other words, what he is saying is, “I have remained wholeheartedly committed to You, O Lord; in faith I have believed You, I have trusted You even though everything in my world was falling around my ears. I have continued to trust in You.” And so God opens the reiteration of the covenant here with the words, “Walk before Me and be whole, be blameless, have integrity.”
And that is the language of perfection there. Don’t mix that up. Don’t think that God is calling on Abram to be sinless. That is not what is going on. But even that having been said, isn’t it interesting that in this gracious covenant, the opening parlay of a chapter which is designed to assure Abraham of God’s grace, there is a command to Abraham: “Walk before Me and be blameless. Walk before Me and have integrity.”
Are you following what I am saying here? We immediately see a stress on Abram’s responsibility in the covenant. So is it a gracious covenant? Yes. Is it an unconditional covenant? Well, that depends on what you mean by that. Is God’s grace, is His love towards Abraham conditioned upon Abraham’s love towards Him? No. Otherwise, we are all undone.
But is there responsibility in this relationship? Are there mutual obligations in the relationship? Absolutely. You can’t get away from it in this chapter. In fact, even the sign which God gives for the purpose of assuring Abraham of the promise that He has made to him has another side to it, and you saw that in the last few verses that we read: “Abram, if you fail to apply this sign, to yourself and to your descendants, you are cut off from My covenant. It is such an act of deliberate rebellion and disobedience that you are cut off from My covenant by the very fact that you have refused to apply this sign.”
So this whole chapter reeks of mutual obligations. Is it a gracious covenant that God has established with Abraham? Absolutely. Does that mean then that there are no obligations on Abraham’s part? Absolutely not.
Now that is a wonderful paradigm to remember because it will help you keep from misunderstanding Paul. You see, there are scads of people who think that if they embrace Paul’s doctrine of grace, that it means that there are really no obligations in the Christian life. It goes something like this. “God saves you by grace and so you don’t have to obey Him, it is just that you want to obey Him.” You will hear that distinction. You don’t have to obey God, but you will want to obey God. That is not the Pauline ethic. The Pauline ethic does not say you have no obligation to obey Him, you just do it because you want to. You just do it because you love Him, etc. No. There is still obligation in the Pauline ethic. Because the Pauline ethic is the Old Testament ethic. The Pauline ethic is the Abrahamic ethic. Grace and obligation are not opposites. That is what I am pressing at here. Grace and obligation are not opposites. In fact, Paul makes it very clear in Romans chapter 5 that one of the most important functions of Spiritual grace, capital “S” Spiritual grace, grace that is worked in us by the Holy Spirit, that one of the most important functions of Spiritual grace in us is to do what? To enable us to perform our obligations. And that is why he says that grace reigns through righteousness. That is, by the way, his response to the Judaizers’ attack against him that says, “Paul, your doctrine of justification by faith leads to disobedience. It leads to passivity on the part of people who believe it, because then they say, ‘Well, if I am justified by faith, it doesn’t matter what I do. It doesn’t matter how I live.’” And the apostle Paul doesn’t argue, “No you have misunderstood my doctrine of justification.” He pulls back and he basically says, “No, your misunderstanding at that point is at a deeper level than my doctrine of justification. You don’t understand what grace is for.”
Grace is for, among other things, the enabling of the believer to do what God has called the believer to do. So it is not that there are obligations for believers under the New Covenant, but in Christ there are no more obligations. That is not the contrast of Old Covenant to New Covenant. It is that those who are under the law, that is, those who are under the Covenant of Works, outside of Christ, whether they are in the Old Covenant or the New Covenant, are condemned by the law. The law is their judgment. The law is their condemnation. But when they are brought under Christ as their federal head, whether they be under the Old Covenant, or under the New Covenant, the grace which reigns in them, enables them to say with David, “how I love Thy law, O Lord.” So the law no longer is their condemnation. Okay.
Now, that having said, I want to zero in on a couple of things in this passage. I want to zero in first of all on the nature of this covenant sign, how it functions in the covenant with Abraham. And I want to zero in on covenant signs themselves. We didn’t say much about Genesis 9 and the covenant sign of the bow in the clouds when we were studying Noah. And that is because I want to look at covenant signs here in a sort of semi-consolidated state, so that you can see how covenant signs function in the Old Testament. It will help you tremendously with your sacramental theology in the New Testament if you understand how covenant signs function in the Old Testament. It will get you out of all sorts of problems that various theological groups have gotten into.
And let me just mention a few of those problems ahead of time so that you can see a little bit of where we are going. Obviously, the most distinctive difference from a Protestant view of sacraments is a Roman Catholic view of sacraments. They have seven sacraments as opposed to our two sacraments. How does the Catholic church get to its number of sacraments? How does it define its sacraments? And how does it get to its view of how sacraments work? My contention is that they get there because the Roman Catholics doctrine of sacraments have absolutely no point of contact with a biblical view of covenant signs. It grew up in a context in which that theology was ignored for the sake of other things. And I can tell you a little bit about what those other things are later on.
But there are even differences within Protestant churches on signs. Many of you will have come into contact and maybe some of you have come out of a background like the Church of Christ which argues that repentance, belief and water baptism by a Church of Christ minister (by immersion of course, because that is the only baptism that the Church of Christ recognizes), is necessary for salvation. Particularly if you have come from a Baptist background, my guess is that you have really butted heads at some point in your life with that Church of Christ teaching, because one of the distinctive things about Baptists is that Baptists do not believe that water baptism is necessary for salvation. The Church of Christ, the Campbellites, various groups like that that appeared in the 1830’s and 40’s and have existed ever since here in America, they really butt heads on that. They both believe in immersion. They both believe in adult believer baptism only, but Baptists don’t believe that water baptism is necessary for salvation; Church of Christ folk do.
Now how does the Church of Christ get to that point? Again, I would argue it is because they do not understand the nature of covenant signs. What about our Seventh Day Baptist friends? Or our some of our Adventist friends, or some of our Mennonite friends? Folks who are into the “sacrament of foot-washing”? Now why is it that we don’t foot-wash in our particular circles in general? Let’s all pretend like we are together on this. Why is that we don’t practice foot washing? Didn’t Jesus institute that in John 13? Why don’t we do that?
The answer is that it is related to your doctrine of covenant signs. And I think I can explain all of the issues related to those questions simply by giving you a grounded understanding of what a covenant sign is. So those are my goals today: to show you a little bit about the nature of the Covenant of Grace with Abraham and also to talk about Covenant signs.
A sacrament is an action designed by God to sign and seal a covenantal reality communicated by the Word of God. The weakness or the frailty of human faith welcomes an act of reassurance. Understand again that the signs of the covenant all function to reassure believers of the promises that God has made to them in the covenant. Nowhere in the Bible will you find a covenant sign which effects a relationship. A covenant sign always reflects a relationship. Covenant signs do not effect a relationship, they reflect a relationship.
Now, what do I mean by that? I mean that God, by giving Abraham this covenant sign of circumcision, did not enter into covenant with Abraham by virtue of that covenant sign. No, it is the other way around. God was in relationship with Abraham and in order to reassure Abraham of the promises that He had made to him, He gave him the covenant sign to confirm that promise. Now, right there you automatically see a polemic against a Catholic view of sacraments. The idea that the mere application of the covenant sign actually saved somebody would have boggled the mind of any self-respecting Hebrew, because that is never how a covenant sign ever functioned. That is a concept utterly alien to the thought-world of the Old or the New Testament. Now, our Roman Catholic friends are really defenseless in this particular area. The covenant signs do not effect a relationship, they reflect a relationship. Their function is to reassure us in the weakness of our faith.
Now, let me just mention in passing, there is a wonderful passage in Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 7:14. You remember that glorious passage—it is the passage about Immanuel. It is the promise of Immanuel, that Isaiah gives to the King, despite the fact that the King refuses to ask for a sign. Turn with me briefly to Isaiah chapter 7. Ahaz had been preparing to go to war against the Assyrians and everyone in Judah was fearful that Judah was going to get wiped out. God sends Isaiah to Ahaz to assure this wicked King that the Assyrians were not going to wipe out Judah. And as an added bonus, God says to Isaiah, “Tell him to ask Me for a sign, I will give him a sign to assure him.” So Isaiah goes in and he says, “Ask a sign.” Look at verse 11 –
“‘Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!’”
Now, Calvin on this passage gives a beautiful discussion of why what Ahaz did was not in fact pious, but rebellious. It might initially sound to you like Ahaz is saying, “I won’t test the Lord. I mean I am not going to ask for a sign from the Lord.” As if that is pious when the prophet has come to him and says, “You ask for a sign.” And the King says I am not going to ask for a sign. And Calvin comments that God had determined that Ahaz and Judah needed a sign, and by golly, when God tells you, “You need a sign,” you need a sign. So there is nothing pious about saying, “Well, Lord, I am not going to ask for a sign,” when the Lord says you need a sign. And Calvin applies that to baptism. Many people say, “Why do we need to do baptism or why do we need to observe the Lord’s Supper? Why can’t we just dispense with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and just do the preaching of the Word?” And Calvin says, because when God tells you, you need a sign, you need a sign. Because that sign is there to buttress the weakness of faith. Okay. So again, read that passage, it is a good treatment by Calvin. Pick up his commentary on Isaiah, look at the area right around Isaiah 7 say roughly from verse 10 on down past verse 14. It is a good treatment.
Now, let’s pick up in Genesis 15 to give a little context. Let me begin by talking with you a little bit about the context of the institution of the sign of circumcision. As you remember, God has covenanted with Abram in Genesis 12 and 15. And in Genesis 16, what has happened? What happened in Genesis 16? Abraham grew weak in faith. And what did he do? I mean Abraham basically attempted to bring about the promises of God through human designs. He said, “Well, you know Lord, I have been waiting for a long time, and I don’t see any children. My wife came to me and suggested that I sleep with her maid, Hagar, and that we have children through her.” It was a common custom of the day, and perfectly socially acceptable. This is Abram’s strategy. He had attempted to bring about the realization of God’s promises through sinful human designs and it, of course, resulted in disaster in his family life, and would continue to be a disaster in his family life for many years to come.
And so in the context of that failure of Abraham, that deed reflecting a lack of faith, God institutes an abiding mark for Abraham and his descendants: Circumcision. He gives it to remind Abram of His covenantal promises and to remind Abram that He Himself will bring them about. God renews the previous promises that He has made to Abram and He reiterates them.
Let’s look at those promises. There are at least five of them, and we will look at them as they appear in the passage. In Genesis 17:2, (1) He tells him again that He will establish or He will make firm His covenant. In Genesis 17:7,He says that He will include Abram’s descendants in the covenant. So He has reaffirmed His covenant commitment. (2) He as reconfirmed that Abraham’s descendants will be entailed in this covenant. (3) He reiterates the Immanuel principle in Genesis 17:7-8, when He says, “I will be a God to you, and to your seed, and to your descendants.” So He reiterates, I will be your God, you will be My people. (4) In Genesis 17:8, He says that He will give that land to Abraham and his descendants. So the land promise is renewed. And (5) then He reiterates this: that Abram’s seed will be multiplied so that he is the father of many nations and kings. And He does that several times. He does it in verse 2, verse 4, verse 5, verse 6.
Now in that context the sign is instituted. The promises have been reiterated. Now as I have said before, notice also that along with these promises, there is an emphasis on Abraham’s obligation. And that is seen in at least two ways. First of all, it is seen in God’s Word to him in verse 1. “I am God Almighty, walk before Me and be blameless.” Now think again, how significant that statement is in light of his failure in Genesis 16. Again, that is not a call to perfection. It is not that He is saying, “Okay, Abraham, you sinned in chapter 16, don’t do that again,” although that might be implied. The point is not that you sinned then, be sinless from now on. The point is, “Abram, what you have just done, is showing Me that your heart is struggling, so be wholehearted, be a man of integrity. Continue to walk with Me. Continue to trust Me. Continue to believe in Me.” This is a command, it is an exhortation. It is an imperative for Abraham to respond to God’s covenant promises in faith. So that is the first part of the responsibility you see here.
But the second part is that Abram is to be faithful in having the covenant sign applied to himself and to his descendants. So Abram is to show his responsibility in the covenant, both by believing God’s promises and by obeying Him about applying the sign that God gives, and we see this in verse 9. Look with me there. “And God said to Abraham, ‘My covenant you shall keep, you and your seed after you and their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and between you and your seed after you to be circumcised every male among you.’”
Now that is interesting language. The covenant is the relationship which exists between Abraham and the Lord and it has existed since Genesis 12. And yet now, in Genesis 17, God is saying, look at the words again, you can look in your Hebrew text there, especially in verse 10, this is the covenant. “This is My covenant, which you shall keep between Me and between you and your seed after you. To be circumcised every male among you.” Isn’t that an interesting way to define the covenant. God says first in verse 9, you must keep My covenant. And then He defines the covenant, not in terms of the relationship that He has with Abram, but in terms of the sign of circumcision. Isn’t that an interesting way of speaking? In this context, the closest possible identification is made between the sign of the covenant and the covenant itself. The closest possible identification is made between the covenant sign, which is circumcision, and the covenant relationship. In fact, they are so closely related that the sign is said to be the covenant and the covenant is said to be the sign. This is My covenant that every male among you shall be circumcised.
Well, I don’t think that it would be improper at all to translate it by the way of dynamic equivalents, “This is My covenant sign, that every male among you be circumcised.” But the literal language is, “This is My covenant, that you be circumcised.” So what we have here is a relationship between a covenant and the covenant sign in which God is stressing the closeness between those two things. To be in the covenant is to be in the covenant sign. To reject the covenant sign is to reject the covenant.
The closeness of the identification of the covenant and the covenant sign is evidenced in the strange story of Moses in Exodus 4:24-26, when the Lord comes and meets Moses on the way and seeks to kill him. Okay, here is Moses, the herald of the covenant, the lawgiver of Israel, he is on his way to meet and challenge Pharaoh as the representative of God, but Moses himself has disobeyed the injunctions of Genesis chapter 17. And the Lord meets him on the way and seeks to kill him. And we are told that the moment that his wife throws the foreskin of their son at his feet, the Lord relents. Now Moses is giving you a hint as to what the nature of that altercation was about in that passage. And apparently the Midanite wife didn’t want her little boy being circumcised. But immediately when the Lord seeks out Moses, she knows what is going on and the circumcision is performed hastily, the foreskin thrown at his feet and the covenant herald is spared. So the seriousness of this injunction is seen there.
The Function of Covenant Signs
The sign provides an outward sign of entrance into the external covenant community. To receive circumcision, God makes clear in Genesis 17, is to be considered part of the covenant community. Now again, notice, receiving the sign of circumcision does not in and of itself make you even part of the visible covenant community. It confirms the fact that you are already part of the covenant community, whether you are an adult or child.
So, when someone converts to Israel as they did in Esther chapter 8, it is not the receiving of the sign of circumcision that affects their entrance into the covenant community. No. That seals their entrance into the covenant community. You make your entrance into the covenant community as an adult by faith in the Old Testament just like in the New Testament. And, of course, under the Old Covenant, not only adults were seen as part of the covenant community, but their children were seen as part of the covenant community.
But again, it is not the applying of the sign to the child that makes that child part of the covenant community. No, the sign seals that child as part of the covenant community. In other words, it confirms; its purpose is to assure. Now, that having been said, the reverse is also true: that to refuse to receive the sign of the covenant, was what? It was a repudiation of the covenant community. Not because the sign is a magical thing, but because repudiation of the sign represents rejection of the Lordship of the Lord. If the Lord says, “Circumcise,” and you say, “Well, I don’t want to be circumcised,” you have just repudiated His Lordship. And so the idea of being part of His community and repudiating His Lordship are mutually exclusive. By the way, there you have a wonderful argument against anti-lordship salvationists. There are people who say you can have God as Savior, but not as Lord. Well, try that on somebody in Genesis 17. I want to be part of Israel, but none of this circumcision stuff. No. The Lord is Lord, and when He says “Be circumcised,” repudiation of the sign gets you cut off from the covenant, not because there is something magical about the sign, but because in repudiating the sign, you are repudiating the rule of God. Is that clear as mud?
Secondly, what does the sign do? It signifies the need for cleansing from sin and the availability of that cleansing. Blood is obviously used throughout the Pentateuch in the process of atonement rituals, propitiation rituals, expiation rituals, and the bloody nature of the sacrifice reminds of the necessity of cleansing in the covenant relationship and the provision of that by the Lord as you enter into relationship with Him.
What else does the sign do? The sign also has the significance of sealing the elect for the possession of eternal life. The elect are sealed into the certainty of ultimate possession of the promises. Now immediately, by introducing the word elect, I have raised a question that will really only become apparent as the story of Isaac and Ishmael plays out, and as the story of Jacob and Esau plays out later in Genesis. There is a sense in which I am speaking anachronistically here about Genesis 17, but let me point that the family line has already been introduced in Genesis, in Genesis 3 and 4 particularly. Eve is the mother of Cain and Abel and Seth and they are two different types of boys amongst those three boys. Cain is one type of boy. Abel and Seth are another type of boy. And they are of entirely different lines. And Moses makes that crystal clear, not only in Genesis 4, but in Genesis 5 and then again in Genesis 10 and 11. So the idea of having a godly line and an ungodly line out of the same family is not unheard of in the book of Genesis. And that theme is going to be developed in the life of Esau and Jacob. It is going to be developed in the lives of Ishmael and Isaac to a lesser extent. So though this may not be being highlighted in this specific passage here in Genesis 17, Ishmael is circumcised. Isaac will only later be circumcised. Okay. Though this theme is not highlighted here, it is very important.
What is the function of a covenant sign? It is to confirm, right? It is to assure. It is, in short, to seal (if I can jump ahead), because the language of sealing in the Reformed tradition comes from Ephesians chapter 1, and what is said by Paul about the sealing of the Holy Spirit.
What is a seal, according to Paul? It is a deposit guaranteeing the full payment of that which is promised. It is a mark, a stamp, an official seal guaranteeing God’s fulfillment of His promises. That language there in Ephesians apparently very much reflects what was done in Paul’s time with regard to commercial seals and guarantees. It is like the seal that would have been on a document stamping and confirming that the person who had made the pledge in the document was going to carry out his obligation like we would do with a notary public today. I just got a thing in the mail, we just refinanced the house because the house rates are so low. But, the people who are refinancing the house want to make sure that termites don’t eat my house up. And so we had to have a termite inspection and after the termite inspection came in, they said fine, there are no termite problems here but there are conditions which could allow for termites to eat up your house. And so, you must sign a sheet with a notary public acknowledging that, so that you take the rap if you don’t do something about that. We own more of this house than you do, and so we want you to take care of this. I mean they are putting us over the barrel here. They are saying we want you to take care of those conditions that might lead to termites. And so we want a notary to sign that thing so that you are obligated to do your side.
Well, this is a little bit of the other way around. This is like a sign where someone says, “I have promised you a million dollars, here is your down payment of $1,000, and here is my seal, saying you can take me to court if I don’t give you the rest of that million dollars.” Or it might be, the seal may actually refer to the deposit itself. It was used both of those ways in Paul’s day. So a covenant sign functions to seal the promises of the covenant. Are you with me so far?
Now, the minute you say that, you have the question, “What about those in the covenant community who turn out to be rotten eggs? What about the Esaus, what about the Ishmaels?” Actually, what you are asking about is, “What about the reprobate? What about those who do not believe? What about those who do not embrace the covenant?”
Well, by saying what we have just said about what the covenant sign does, when we say that the covenant sign has the significance of sealing the elect for possession of eternal life, we are emphasizing that because the covenant sign does not work just because you applied it to somebody; the covenant sign works in those who by grace believe. The covenant sign only brings with it condemnation for those who repudiate the covenant. But for those who believe, it is a means of grace whereby the elect are assured of their possession of eternal life.
By the way, at this point, we still haven’t gotten to an issue that separates Reformed Baptists and Reformed paedobaptists—that is people in the Reformed community who don’t believe that you baptize children and people in the Reformed community who do believe that you baptize children. In the visible covenant community, there are always going to be some who are elect and some who are non-elect. Or to put it in a less Calvinistic way, there are going to be some who believe and there are going to be some who merely profess to believe and yet do not in fact believe. There are going to be false professions, in other words. The people who appear to be part of God’s people on the outside, but who are not, in fact, part of that covenant community.
Now, the sealing function of the covenant, in its beneficial aspect, only benefits the elect, only benefits those who believe. The Westminster Confession gets this so right. Isn’t it interesting that the Confession talks about justification and sanctification and adoption and perseverance before it talks about assurance, because you can’t be assured of what you don’t have. So since covenant signs function in this area of confirmation, their beneficial effect is totally contingent upon the reality of faith in the one who has received it. Because you can’t assure somebody of something that they don’t have.
Fourth, because the sign signifies and seals inclusion into the external community of God’s Covenant of Grace, circumcision does not lead to presumption but to personal responsibility. In other words, the sign does not make you passive, it leads to responsibility based on the principle of grace. The sign and the seal itself does not bring covenantal blessing. The sign evidences covenantal blessing and assures covenantal blessing. But the fact of a covenantal relationship always entails responsibility to the one who has covenanted. The covenantal relationship may be fulfilled in either blessing or curse. If the person who has received the sign of the covenant rejects the covenant, by not being a person who believes and repents, by refusing to truly embrace the covenant in the heart, then that person, by the sign of the covenant, by the sign of circumcision, is sealed to a double curse. Not only is that person cursed unto the Covenant of Works, they’re cursed for a false application of the Covenant of Grace. And hence, Paul’s words in I Corinthians, don’t eat or drink of the table of the Lord if you do not discern the Lord’s body, lest you eat and drink unto yourself condemnation.
We have talked for a few moments about what the covenant sign does. We have talked about the context of the institution of the sign of circumcision. We have talked about the giving of the sign of circumcision. We have talked about what the sign does. Now, the reason that I raised this question of what the sign does is so that when you are talking with those who do believe that covenantal signs actually convey saving grace elementally, if you are talking to a Roman Catholic who believes that the application of water to a child actually washes away original sin and initiates them into a sacramental system whereby grace is conveyed, then you need to be aware that that bears no relation to how the Scripture views covenant signs.
But I am also talking about it because all of us in the Protestant tradition who are in polemic against a view that says that giving of a covenant sign or the taking of a covenant sign in the Lord’s Supper actually elementally conveys grace, all of us who are in polemic against that particular point of view have the question posed to us by our congregation members: “Well then, why do you do it? What does it do?” I mean, if say it doesn’t do this, expect for someone to say, “Well, what does it do and why do we do it?” That is why I am taking so much time on this, because you will have the question asked to you if you haven’t already, now I am just trying to get you ready for it.
Now, we have talked about what the sign itself does. But let me talk about what this sign of circumcision is not first. The sign of circumcision is not a sign of entrance into manhood. I mean it is true that, for instance, Ishmael was circumcised at 13. And it is also true that other cultures around Israel practiced circumcision, but that they tended to do it to their male children at the time that they would have been considered to have become men. But the covenant sign of circumcision instituted here in Genesis 17 is to be applied to those who are eight days old. So it is very clear that this sign, though it may be similar to some of the practices of other nations around Israel, was very different in the content of its meaning.
Now, an interesting aside—and I have no idea of its theological significance whatsoever—many of you may have seen a book by S.I. McMullen and the book is called None of These Diseases. It has gone through several editions. I think it is out in a second or third edition now. But he points out something very interesting. There is an element in our bloodstream, in the male bloodstream, and it is a part of the blood-clotting mechanism. On the eighth day of a male child’s life, he has 100 more times of this element in his system than on any other day. And McMullen shows on these charts how this all works out. Now whether that was God’s reason for choosing the eighth day or not, I don’t know. It is interesting, isn’t it, that the Lord would have commanded eighth-day circumcision and this blood-clotting agent is especially present on that day. I mean the Lord did make the body, He did know what He was doing.
Secondly, let me go on to say, that the sign of circumcision was not merely a sign of Jewish ethnicity. This is made clear from Genesis 17. Who is to be circumcised? Everyone who is a male in the household is to be circumcised. And does that include even those who have been bought with money by the head of the household and who dwell within the tents? Oh, yes it does. If they’re Midianites, yes. If they are Moabites, yes. No matter who they are. If they are under the headship of the covenant head of the household, they are to receive the sign of circumcision if they are male. That is very clear in Genesis 17. The sign is to be applied to Abraham, to his seed, to his descendants, and to those who dwell within his tent.
So the sign is not merely a sign of ethnicity and I want to remind you that this was understood even at the very end of Israel’s national experience. When you go to the book of Esther, and you remember after Haman’s plot has been exploded, and Mordecai wins in the end and even though the king cannot repeal the law that he had made allowing people to go plunder the Jews, he did make another law that said the Jews would be allowed to defend themselves against anyone who attacked them. And furthermore, if the Jews were attacked by somebody and the Jews defeated those people, the Jews would have the right to plunder them of every thing in their family. They would be allowed to take it legally for themselves. And in Esther chapter 8, what are told? That because of that decree, there was a fear of the Jews in the hearts of the people and many of them became Jews. So, here you are under the rule of the Ahasuerus. Here you are under the rule of non-Jewish, blatantly idolatrous Gentiles. In the book of Esther, Israel is scattered amongst the nations. And yet, here are people becoming Jews. So the idea of circumcision only being applied to a pure bloodline was not the case in Genesis 17, and it wasn’t the case at the end of Israel’s national history in the book of Esther. So very clearly, this is neither a sign of entrance into manhood, nor is it a sign of ethnicity.
And finally, let’s make it clear that the sign itself does not bring about salvation. The sign confirms the covenant promises. How are those covenant promises received? By faith. And so if you will flip quickly in your Bibles to Romans chapter 4, you will see this. Paul is talking about Abram’s being reckoned as righteous by God. Romans 4, verse 10. And he says, “How then was Abram reckoned righteous? While he was circumcised or uncircumcised?” And his answer: “Not while he was circumcised, but while he was uncircumcised.” Why is Paul saying that? Because Genesis 15:6 happened before Genesis 17. Abram was declared righteous in Genesis 15:6 by the Lord before circumcision was ever instituted. So this is part of Paul’s polemic. So he goes on to say, he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness of faith. So the sign of circumcision was for the purpose of confirming the promises which had been conveyed to Abraham and received by how? By faith.
It is important to see that that element of faith is a significant aspect of the Old Covenant too. Because oftentimes, when we get into an argument about whether you baptize babies, or whether you baptize covenant children or not, the argument is in the Old Testament, you know, faith wasn’t the issue, it was just being part of the external covenant community. In the New Testament, faith is the big issue. Well, here is Paul in Romans 4 saying that the whole function of covenant signs is to seal the promises of God made to us in the covenant. Signs which are received by faith alone. Paul argues this adamantly in Romans 3 and 4 and elsewhere.
But Isaac when he was eight days old could not exercise saving faith. So, does that make null and void the command of Genesis 17? No, it doesn’t. We will come back to that in a minute.
Now, what are the implications. My point for mentioning the Romans 4 passage is to make it clear that the sign itself having been applied does not bring salvation, because faith is the instrument used by the Spirit to convey saving benefits to God’s people. And therefore, Ishmael can receive the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17, but that doesn’t mean that Ishmael is truly a member of God’s elect. Esau can receive the sign of the covenant and yet Esau, by his failure to exercise faith, can repudiate the covenant. So just merely having the covenant sign applied doesn’t save you—this idea that some people have that by giving people covenant signs, they are saved. And you know this is abroad in a lot of churches. It is not just the Roman church, but also the Mormon church. Not only do they think that the sign has a saving effect on you, they think that you can go back and be baptized for your dead ancestors and get them into heaven too. Baptism for the dead. This idea is alien, however to the context of Genesis 17.
Now, early on, in the Christian church, there was a similar issue with the Lord’s Supper. There were people who began to think that by the very taking of the Lord’s Supper, grace was conferred, universally, to all who took it. In fact, it was argued relatively early on by some, for instance, that in the Lord’s Supper, Christ was actually physically, tangibly present in the elements of the Supper. And that because of that, everyone who fed upon the host, was in fact, feeding upon Christ by definition, and therefore, grace was conferred to everyone who fed upon that host. This was a view that said by the actual partaking of the Supper, one is ipso facto partaking of grace.
Now, why did view come about? Let suggest three reasons why that view came about. Again, why am I giving you all this? Because we do live in a day where Protestant kids grow up in Protestant churches and they don’t know what justification by faith means. They go off to college, they meet with a charismatic Catholic guy who is just bubbly and enthusiastic and such, and he tells them that the Protestants have always misunderstood the Catholic position on justification and boom, the next thing you know, the kid comes home, and he has joined a Catholic church.
So we have lots of kids who don’t know anything about doctrine. I was talking to a RUF minister yesterday who had worked with a PCA young person, one who had grown up in a PCA church, and converted to the Catholic church last year. Why? Because he didn’t know up from down doctrinally. If that isn’t an argument for youth directors teaching the Bible, doing expository ministry, and teaching Christian doctrine, then I don’t know what is.
We live in a day and age where nobody knows any doctrine, and they don’t think it really matters. And we do live in a day and age where people fluctuate denominationally, and they make huge jumps. They go from Protestant to Catholic or Protestant to Orthodox or this or that. And we need to be ready to answer questions to that regard.
Source of erroneous views.
Now, we need to take time here, because I think it will help you to understand where the Catholics got their ideas. First of all, I think it is very clear that there was not a covenantal understanding of the doctrine of the sacraments in the early Christian church. Especially the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. There was not a covenantal understanding of the whole of Scripture. When you are immersed in the thought-world of the Old Testament, and you know about the Passover meal, and you know that covenant meals are the way that you visibly demonstrate that you are in fellowship with a person with whom you have made a covenant, and then you read the Last Supper and the Passover narratives, and you see Jesus’ heavy allusions to Exodus 12 and Exodus 24 and Isaiah 53 and Jeremiah 31 and you hear and feel the covenant language and you remember that the only place where Jesus uses explicitly covenantal language in all of the Gospels is where? In the Lord’s Supper narratives. Those are when the words, diatheke come out of His mouth in our Gospels.
Now does that mean that He never spoke about it anywhere else? No. It doesn’t mean that. But it is interesting that God, the Holy Spirit, determined that that would be the place where He would highlight the covenantal link between His dying work and the Old Covenant. And right there in the narratives you see this incredible connection with the Old Testament theology of covenant. But the early church did not pick up on that. And I could walk you through the fathers and show you how so many of them missed that particular element of the Lord’s Supper. So problem number one is that very few of the church fathers knew Hebrew. You need to know this. Origen knew Hebrew. Clement of Alexandria knew a little Hebrew. Jerome knew Hebrew. Augustine, the greatest theologian of the early church, especially in the west, knew neither Hebrew nor Greek. And you can watch him. You can watch Augustine get into trouble and every time it will be related to the places where he doesn’t know his Hebrew and Greek. Now there is a good argument for knowing the original languages. Learn your languages. So we have got a problem. We don’t have a covenantal background for the Lord’s Supper here.
Secondly, the early church, in both the east and the west, was teaching its theology and doctrine in a context, especially for the first four centuries, where the most widespread and dominant philosophical school was the Platonic School. Now, you know that there were many different kinds of Platonism. There was early Platonism. There was middle Platonism. There was Neo-Platonism. And it was Neo-Platonism that was dominant in the time that the early church was doing its work. And Platonism, of course, advocates an epistemology that is called realism. Now there is a sense in which all Christian epistemology is some form of realism. All Christian theology advocates some form of realism. But one of the weird things that Neo-Platonism did as early sacramental theology was being developed, is that it took the idea that in every particular there is an actual manifestation of the form. Does this conjure up anything from college philosophy or high school ancient literature? Do you remember the forms and the particulars? Why is it, Plato says, that when you see an object like a chair and know that it is a chair? Because the chair possesses chairness. And the form of the chair is reflected and manifested in a real way in the particular expression of that in our reality. Now the form is more real than that reality, but it is reflected and manifested in some part in that particular reality of the chair. And that is why you just instinctively know chairness. You instinctively know cowness and horseness and treeness and all those things.
Well, you can see how easily that might be applied to sacramental theology. The host, the form of Jesus Christ, is present in the particular. So a little Platonizing philosophy comes along and pushes us in a direction of seeing the elements of the Lord’s Supper in that kind of category, in that kind of philosophical category that believes that the reality is present in the particular.
And then add one last thing on top of that. Do you remember that one of the first Christological heresies in the early churches was the Docetic heresy. Remember, docetic comes from the Greek and means to seem or to appear, and the docetic heretics argued that Christ was not truly man, He only appeared to be human. And over and over from the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian on, in response to the docetic heretics, the early church fathers would argue that if Christ only appeared to be flesh and blood, then what are we partaking of when we eat the Lord’s Supper? And I believe that later Catholic writers have gone back and they have read more into that argument than is in fact there. I think that the early church fathers, especially like Irenaeus and Tertullian, may have been a little bit uncareful in the way that they spoke. However, I think theologically they were absolutely hands down correct in choosing them.
I mean you can see the argument if taken in its proper way, is a powerful argument. If Christ says, “do this in remembrance of Me, represent the meaning of My atonement, the meaning of My giving My body and My blood, represent that through this covenantal meal, this body, this bread represents My body, this wine, it represents My blood, do this in remembrance of Me.” If He did that, why did He do that if He really wasn’t flesh and blood? That is a good argument. That is a sound argument. If you know that Christ wasn’t flesh and blood, why did He institute the Lord’s Supper which emphasizes His human nature in its function in the total atonement which His person offered?
Now, there is no question that the humanity of Christ is emphasized by the nature of the signs, but later, Catholic writers go back and say, “Ah hah, you see what they are arguing there is that the elements themselves are actually the body and blood of Christ.” However, I am not sure if you couldn’t have set Irenaeus down and said, “Now is that what you are saying?”, I am not sure he wouldn’t have said, “What? What are you talking about? I am arguing against docetic heretics.” And he couldn’t have anticipated a doctrine of transubstantiation being developed 900 years later. So he is a little bit unguarded in the language that he uses and perhaps he overreacts a little bit in his language because of the docetic heretics, but you see already with the lack of Hebrew, and the lack of understanding of the covenantal background of the sacrament, and with Platonic philosophy, and with this unguarded language against the docetic heretics, how you can suddenly have Christ being physically elementally present in the sacrament and the sacrament actually conveying saving union with Christ by the very taking of it.
So, where does sacramental realism come from? I suspect there. I suspect that that is where it came from. And if you are dialoguing with a Roman Catholic and you want to sit down and talk with me further about that, I would be happy to sit down with you and let’s expand on that particular thing. Because I think that one thing that helps us when we talk with Roman Catholics is to respect their history; the more intelligent the Catholic, the more respectful they are of their own history, and if you show that you know their history and that you respect it, but that you respectfully disagree, you will get a lot of mileage in discussion.
A second implication – God deals
A second implication of the covenant sign of circumcision: Certainly we have to say that one of the implications of this covenantal sign of circumcision is that God deals with families. God deals with families in His covenant signs. The created order of families is not ignored in God’s redemptive provision. The family was part of the creation ordinances and it is part of the redemptive promises in the covenant with Noah and, surprise, surprise, here it is again in the covenant with Abraham. God has committed Himself to the restoration of family units in His plan of redemption. That doesn’t mean that we trust natural sense as the basis for our hope of redemption, but it does mean that this has something radical to say about how we do youth ministry in the church and without. You do not evangelize a family through the children. You evangelize a family through the parents. And the Christian community has been doing that backwards for about fifty years for lots of good reasons.
I understand. I am sympathetic, I feel your pain, okay. But let’s say a child is converted, and then you send the child back into the home. Now, what does everybody, Christian and non-Christian psychologists, and non-psychologists, say is the most formative factor in the rearing of child? It is not just the instruction of the parent, it is the model of the parent. And you know, when you send a redeemed child into an unredeemed unit, you are inviting spiritual and developmental schizophrenia. And there have been a lot of well-meaning folks that say, okay the way we can get to these parents is through the kids. Uh uh. Upside down. Upside down. And by the way, this is the new wave in youth ministry. I mean this is hitting everybody. If you haven’t read Mark Devries’ book, Family Based Youth Ministry, you need to go out and pick it up now. Printed by Intervarsity Press. Lots of people are recognizing this. What do you do? Do you get to the parents through the kids? No. You minister to families. You minister to parents simultaneously as you minister to the children and you look at this as a covenantal unit. This is almost the view of counseling that Jim Hurley has been pushing for many years in the wilderness. It is seeing that for the life of the body in terms of evangelism and discipleship, whether we want to believe it or not, we are not isolated individuals, we are part of a connected covenantal unit. And the rest of that unit cannot be ignored without there being a problem somewhere down the line. We must evangelize the whole family. So youth ministers, you just got another job helping parents parent, calling parents to what is their responsibility in the covenantal rearing of their children. And suddenly, instead of you being the surrogate, you know the one who steps in to do the job that is really their job, suddenly, you are a helper, you are an assistant, you are a resource to help parents to be equipped to do their responsibilities in rearing children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It is radical. Especially if you view church structures and parachurch structures for the last fifty years as how we have gone about it. But it is the biblical way. So food for thought.
has become baptism in the new covenant.
First of all, remember the phraseology of Genesis 17—look back again at Genesis 17 and look at the three levels of inclusion in the covenant. Genesis 17:7, “I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your descendants.” And then that phrase is repeated numerous times. And then we get down to verse 10: “This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you. Every male shall be circumcised. It shall be a sign of covenant between Me and you and every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner who is not of your descendants.” So who are the recipients of the covenant sign? Abraham. Covenant head of the house. This is adult circumcision here folks. For his descendants, normally infant circumcision is entailed, but in this chapter it is going to be young men who are circumcised, as in the case of Ishmael. So it is covenant circumcision and it covers all the males who are under the authority of Abraham in his household; but it extends not only to his flesh and blood, it even extends to the servants who are within his tents even if they are of foreign blood. They have been bought from foreigners, it says, so you, your descendants and even foreigners who are within your tents.
Now in light of that, take a look at Acts chapter 2. We have been stressing all along how missiological the formulation of the Abrahamic covenant is. Abram is blessed to be a blessing. And he is not only blessed to be a blessing, he is to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Listen to Peter repeat the language and phraseology of Genesis 17 and Acts 2:38-39.
“Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, for the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off.” The promise is to you, to your descendants and even to the foreigner that dwells within your tent. “As many as the Lord, our God shall call to Himself.”
So in the very opening proclamation of the New Covenant era, the language of the covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17 is reemployed in the Gospel proclamation of Peter and is linked directly to baptism.
Now, another evidence of the linkage between circumcision and baptism is found in Colossians chapter 2, verses 11 and 12. Remember that in Colossians chapter 2, especially in the first fifteen verses or so, the apostle Paul is wanting the Colossian Christians to understand the implications of their union with Christ. And in verses 11 and 12, he is talking with them about the implications of their union with Christ with regard to their fellowship in the death of Christ. In verses 11 and 12, Paul reminds Christians that they need to remember the specific benefits which flow from being in Christ with regard to the fellowship that they have in Christ’s death. That is the argument of 11, and 12 is connected to that. In 13 and 14, he wants them to consider that forgiveness flows from their being in Christ. And then in verse 15, he wants them to see that freedom flows from their being in Christ. So, we see at least three benefits highlighted here: fellowship in the saving benefits of His death, forgiveness and freedom. All these things are part, Paul argues, of being in Christ. And in verses 11 and 12 he argues,
"In Him, you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God who raised Him from the dead."
And notice the logic there: “In Him, you were circumcised, having been buried with Him in baptism.” If you take out the subordinate clauses, that is the flow of logic. In Him, you were circumcised having buried with Him in baptism. And so here we have an explicit Pauline linkage of the language of circumcision and the language of baptism.
Now, I understand, when I discuss baptism, I try and zero in generally on Reformed Baptist arguments rather than non-reformed Baptist arguments, because Reformed Baptist arguments are texturally and exegetically stronger. I would rather answer a stronger argument than a weaker argument. Most of the time, Reformed Baptists will argue at this point, “But look, Paul is not talking about physical circumcision here. He is talking about spiritual circumcision. He is comparing spiritual circumcision to water baptism, not physical circumcision to physical baptism.” And Reformed Baptists often think “Well, by saying that, you see, I have gotten myself out of this idea that Baptism and circumcision are the same thing. Paul is not really talking about fleshly circumcision here, he is talking about spiritual circumcision here.”
Well, David Kingdon, a good Reformed Baptist, in his book, Children of Abraham, admits the futility of that argument. Because the minute you have linked circumcision and baptism, whether you are talking about spiritual circumcision or physical circumcision, and whether you are talking about spiritual baptism or physical baptism, you have just linked the concepts of baptism and circumcision and what does physical circumcision set forth, but the reality of spiritual circumcision. Moses knew that and he talks about it in Deuteronomy 10. Don’t circumcise your flesh, he says, he says, circumcise your hearts. So it wasn’t that Moses introduced the idea of fleshly circumcision and the prophets thought up spiritual circumcision. Moses knew about those things from the beginning. So there is this linkage between the concepts. What Paul is saying is these things convey the same meaning. They reflect the same realities. That is his argument, and that means with regard to the issue of covenant baptism in the New Testament, it is really a pretty simple argument as to whether you do or do not practice covenant baptism.
The first question that you have to ask is this: Is baptism a covenant sign? Some Baptists want to argue that baptism should not be understood as a covenant sign. And they attempt to blunt the force of a covenantal argument by arguing that way. But again, David Kingdon, and a goodly number of Reformed Baptists will argue and accept that Baptism is indeed a covenant sign, and there is reason for accepting it so. The language of the New Testament indicates that baptism is understood by the writers of the New Testament to be a covenant sign. One example of that is right here in Colossians chapter 2, verses 11 and 12. Paul parallels baptism with a covenant sign of the Old Testament and he says in effect, these are the same things. These represent the same things. These set forth the same things. But he makes a similar kind of argument in Romans chapter 6 and he uses the language of covenental realism in Romans chapter 6.
But perhaps, the best example of that kind of covenantal realistic language is found in I Peter chapter 3, if you would turn with me there. I Peter chapter 3. This is a much discussed and controverted passage. Beginning in verse 18.
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison…”
You never preach that text without stopping to explain what in the world is he talking about there. That is a tough passage.
“…who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.”
Now, he has just introduced the idea of the flood and then boom, here it comes, verse 21.
“And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you–…”
This is a favorite passage of our Catholic friends and our Church of Christ friends. How do you respond to that? “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you.” Now don’t read ahead. Peter is going to explain himself but before he does that, let’s stop for just one second and remember the language of Genesis 17: “This is My covenant in that you are circumcised.” Now let’s think about Peter’s language so far. This is salvation that you are baptized. You are seeing Peter, the Jew, using covenantal realistic language about baptism, just like Moses used about circumcision, and Moses would never have dreamt that circumcision saves you. In fact, in Romans 4 and in the book of Galatians, Paul has already engaged in an extended polemic against the idea that circumcision saves you. So Paul has already done your theological footwork for you. Then what is Peter doing? He is doing the same thing that the Lord does in Genesis 17. He is showing that closeness of connection between the covenant sign and the covenant itself. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you. Now look at what he goes on to say.
“…not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ….”
So Peter, immediately says, “Look folks, I am not talking about water removing dirt from the flesh. I am talking about that inner baptism of the Holy Spirit of which external physical water baptism is simply a sign, corresponding to that, real baptism and by that I mean holy spiritual baptism, in regeneration and justification and sanctification, that saves you, water baptism is only a sign of it.” Why? Because it is a covenant sign.
Now you see, if you don’t understand the sacraments in the New Testament, as covenant signs, you are really in a fix, when you come to passages like Romans 6 and I Peter 3, because whatever Peter and Paul are talking about in those two passages, it does save you. Whatever it is, it does save you. Peter makes that clear. Whatever he is talking about here is something absolutely essential for salvation. And if he is talking about water baptism, abstractly from Holy Spirit baptism, then he is talking about water baptism saving people.
But if you understand the language of covenant signs, you see how ludicrous a construction that is. And then when you look at what Peter himself tells you in verse 21, he is doing everything he can to point you away from the physical act of water baptism to look at what it symbolizes. The deeper reality. That is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. So that is the first question that you have to ask. Is baptism a covenant sign? And we argue from various principles, from Colossians 2 from I Peter 3, from Romans 6 that baptism is a covenant sign. And in each of those passages, we have an example of the language of covenantal realism, where the sign is called the covenant and the covenant is called the sign, okay. Just like we saw in Genesis 17. So there is the first question that you have to ask. Is baptism a covenant sign?
The second question that you have to ask is, “Are the children of believing parents in the covenant under the New Covenant like we know that they were under the Old Covenant?” Are the children of believing parents in the covenant, speaking of the Covenant of Grace here, under the New Covenant, like we know that they were under the old? And again, we can point to several lines of evidence. The apostolic preaching of Peter in Acts 2:39, “The promise is to you and to your children.” The same language as in Genesis 17. We can point to the pattern of water baptism in the book of Acts and in Corinthians. There are at least four or five examples of household baptism given us in the book of Acts, and in I Corinthians; out of seven baptisms described, perhaps five of them are household baptisms.
Now what am I arguing is this: it doesn’t matter whether there were infants in those households, although it would be exceedingly unlikely that there would not be young children. What matters is, is that the Old Covenant pattern of family solidarity in this great time of evangelistic revival is still obtained. Cornelius believes, and his whole household is baptized. The Philippian jailer believes, and his whole household is baptized. And Luke goes out of his way in Acts 16 to make it clear that it is the Philippian jailer who believes and the household is baptized. And then again, Lydia believes and her household is baptized. So we see this pattern of household baptisms.
What does this pattern of household baptisms mean? It simply means that God is using the same pattern of dealing in families in the New Covenant as He did under the Old. Does it mean that everybody in every family where the head made a profession of faith is ultimately going to be saved? No. It never meant that in the Old Covenant. Think of Esau and Ishmael.
But does it mean that God’s same plan obtains under the New Covenant as it does under the old? That is exactly what it is pointing to. I think Geoffrey Thomas, the great Reformed Baptist preacher, wrote an article for the Banner of Truth a few years ago, and he said, “We can all wish that there was a verse in the New Testament that said either ‘go ye therefore and baptize babies’ or ‘go ye therefore and don’t baptize babies.’” But he says, “there is not one of those.” So, we have to figure this out some other way.
Well, what I am suggesting is, yes, there may not be a verse that says, “go ye therefore and baptize babies,” but when you ask the question, “Is baptism a covenant sign?” and you give the answer, “Yes,” when you ask the question, “Are children of believing parents under the covenant in the New Covenant like we know they were in the Old Covenant?” And there is no debate as to whether they were part of the covenant community in the Old Covenant. Are they still part of the covenant community in the New Covenant?
When you give the answer of “Yes” and “Yes” to those two questions, and then you ask the question, “Should then, covenant children be denied the sign of covenant initiation? The sign of covenant inclusion?” Then the answer is simple. Two yeses to the first two questions, gives you your answer to the third. Should children be denied that covenant sign or to put it positively, “Should children receive the covenant sign of initiation?” Well, the answer is simple, “Yes.”
Isn’t it interesting to you that nowhere on the pages of the New Testament is there a controversy over children receiving the covenant sign of baptism? You see, if in the New Testament, the apostolic teaching had been that children were to no longer receive the covenant sign, wouldn’t you have expected there to have been pages of argument and discussion as to why that was? Let me put it this way. If on the morning of Pentecost, children were part of the covenant, and on the evening of Pentecost they were out of the covenant, wouldn’t you have expected there to be somebody to raise an objection? So there is a thunderous silence. You know if we grant the idea that children were not to receive baptism as a covenant sign in the New Testament, is there not a thunderous silence as to a transition of that magnitude?
You see we know that Proselyte Baptism had been practiced in Jewish circles for at least five centuries. So the idea of baptizing converts to Judaism was not a new thought. And we also know that in proselyte baptism household baptism occurred. So the idea of telling Jews, “Okay, no longer are we going to practice household baptism,” surely that controversy would have showed up somewhere on the pages of the New Testament. There is a thunderous silence there in the New Testament.
And the practical implication of this is really at the level of understanding whether children are a part of a covenant or not. Do you teach your children to pray, I mean if they are not part of the covenant, why would you do that? Do you teach them to pray to their heavenly Father? Well, if they are not part of the Covenant of Grace, why would you do that? On what basis may a child pray to God the Father, if she is not a daughter of the covenant? So there are practical issues.