Baptism and Covenants

The Church of England recognises the visible Church to be in existence wherever ‘…the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same’ (Art. XIX).  As such, any exploration of the place of children in the life of the Church needs to explore their relationship with both these aspects.  We’ve spent a half a dozen articles exploring what it might look like for children in our midst to be taught the Scriptures (i.e. have the pure Word of God preached); but what about their involvement in the sacramental life of the Church?


The question of Baptism is a highly contentious issue and has the potential to be divisive…  ironic really, given that in the New Testament, baptism functions as a focal point for unity within the body of Christ (e.g. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace … there is … one baptism’, Eph.4:3-5).  There are few places in the contemporary Church landscape where division is more self-evident, and I must confess that I am anxious not to open those fault lines within the life of St. John’s.


That said, I did suggest (rather cheekily) in our last article that:  ‘my contention is that if you were to sit down and read the Bible without prejudice, it would never cross your mind that baptism should be denied to our children’.  One of the ideas behind such a claim is that throughout the Bible, active participation in covenants with God are always extended to the children of believers.  We’ll come back to this more specifically next time, but at a general level:


Adamic Covenant:  In Gen. 1:28-30, the LORD’s command doesn’t only result in children, but is to be passed on to those children.  Although the covenant is made with Adam and ‘Eve’ (though the purists in our midst will no doubt tell me that she isn’t given this name until 3:20!), their descendants are critically implicated, in either their obedience or more tragically, their disobedience (cf. Rom.5:20). 


Noahic Covenant: while we’re with Noah, there are a couple of interesting points to make.  First, although Noah is the only who one found favour in the sight of the Lord (Gen.6:8), his family is included in the visible church (i.e. the ark!)[1].  This is particularly relevant given that at least one of the family (Ham) never found favour – yet was ‘baptised’ (I Peter 3:21).  Secondly, in Genesis 9:1, God re-iterates the covenant he made with Adam (including descendants); and thirdly in Genesis 9:8-9, an additional covenant is established, which again explicitly incorporates Noah’s descendants.


Abrahamic Covenant:  This is the big one, and next week’s article will be dealing exclusively with this Covenant.  After all this is the covenant through which we are still saved even after Christ.  At this stage, all I am wanting us to see is that covenants are always made with an adult, but include their children.  This is the nature and structure of covenants.  So, Gen. 15:18, it is to Abram’s descendants the LORD gives the land; in Gen.17:7, the covenant is deliberately and explicitly framed in terms of ‘you and your descendants after you’.   This is crucial for our considerations, because there is a sign associated with this covenant, and it is shared with the children in Abraham’s family.  Though like I said, we’ll come back to this.


Mosaic Covenant:  In Deut.29:10-15 we again find the covenant being established in a way that implicates and incorporates ‘your children’.  They are seen to be involved in and included in the sacramental life of the Ancient Church (again I’ll come back to this point in a later article).


Obviously the list could be extended.  But I hope we can see even from these first four covenants in Scripture the unambiguous pattern developing.  When God makes His covenant with a representative ‘head’, all those who are represented are incorporated into that covenant, and where signs are given to testify to that covenant, all those represented participate in those signs, irrespective of age, or indeed their personal ‘commitment’ to either the covenant or the LORD who makes it.  We need only think of Cain, Ham, Ishmael, Esau, the vast multitudes who died in the wilderness (having, Paul reminds us, been baptised, I Cor.10:2), to realise that a covenant confers benefits and responsibilities even on those who are thus represented, but who personally have no love for Christ.  Where a sacrament is given as part of a covenant, that sacrament is also conferred.  This is because a sacrament testifies to what the Lord is doing in a covenant, rather than the integrity of any individual’s response to it.  A sacrament is about what God is saying in a covenant, not what I am saying in it.  It re-iterates and represents His commitment to His Church, not the Church’s – still less any individual’s - commitment to Him.


Throughout the Old Testament we see this developed consistently and without exception.  In the absence of any teaching to the contrary, why would anyone expect this dynamic of covenant to be changed when Christ cuts His covenant with His people … and their children (Acts 2:39)?


[1] This issue of the invisible / visible Church is one that we will have to bear in mind through these articles.  For now, let me say that the ‘Covenant people of God’ in this age has always been a mixed group.  In both Old and New Testament there was the recognition that in the Church as we see it (i.e. those who gather together in the name of Christ to hear the Word of God preached and to celebrate the sacraments together) there were people who were genuine believers and those who frankly aren’t.  In the Old Testament this is so self-evident that I won’t go into it here.  But it remains self-consciously still the case in the NT.  Jesus envisaged there being those who had claimed to be disciples being turned away on the Last Day (Matt.7:21f.); and indeed the disciples had amongst their number one who would eventually betray Jesus.  The Apostles also recognised they were writing to Churches that were a mixture of Christian and non-Christian. 

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