We left off last time suggesting that there is a correlation between circumcision (as an Old Testament ‘prophetic’ covenant sign, or sacrament) and baptism (as its New Testament equivalent). Whereas circumcision looked forward to the ‘cutting off’ of the Seed of Abraham (Christ enduring the curse of the covenant, and cut off on the cross), baptism looks forward to the enjoyment of all that Christ achieved through that death (Ezek.36:24-29), It is a celebration of the pouring out of the Spirit on the Church (Acts 2). Because these two signs and seals of the covenant correspond to each other, they function in the same way. Abraham was circumcised as a sign that his faith that was counted to him as righteousness (Gen.17:11), and was then to circumcise his household (Gen.17:11-13, irrespective of their faith in Christ or lack of it, remember e.g. Ishmael). So – in the absence of any Biblical command to the contrary - baptism is administered to us as a sign of our faith, as it is to our household. I think this is the most natural way to understand household baptism language in the book of Acts, especially in Acts 16:34. The Greek makes it clear that only the Philippian jailor actually believed, but that ‘he and all his whole household family were baptised’ (v.33). This is accurately reflected in the ESV translation: ‘…he rejoiced along with his entire household, that he had believed in God’ (v.34).
Paul makes exactly this point in Romans. In fact for many of us who believe the Bible teaches we should baptise our children, Rom.4:11 is a critical verse. In 4:9-10, Paul reminds us that before he was circumcised Abraham’s faith was ‘credited to him as righteousness’. This is crucial: he was justified by God through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone – same as every believer who has ever lived. In v.11 Paul then defines how circumcision functions: it is ‘a sign … a seal of the righteousness he had by faith’. Baptism means the same thing and functions the same way. It is a sign of the faith by which we are justified, and like Abraham if we are justified by faith as adults from outside the covenant, then we undergo baptism as adults. But like Abraham, the sign and seal is to be shared with our household, even though they don’t yet share that faith for themselves, and maybe never will. This is seemingly how sacraments function in the life of the covenant – corporately and collectively testifying to the promise of God in the covenant, rather than individualistically testifying to my ‘personal’ faith. That is why when even one parent is a believer, the partner and any children are rendered ‘set apart’ i.e. sanctified / holy (I Cor.7:12-16).
It is interesting to note in this context that ‘circumcision’ and ‘baptism’ are both terms used to refer to the death of Christ. In one of the most intriguing uses of the word, Jesus speaks of the cross as His baptism (Lk.12:50, though interestingly, John also declares that Jesus will Himself baptise with fire and the Spirit). Christ is ‘cut off’ under the curse of the covenant – an experience He refers to as baptism.
Likewise, our union with the death of Christ is spoken of as both circumcision and baptism – a move made in Colossians 2:10-12. Paul celebrates that through our union with Christ, Christians are (spiritually) circumcised (see also Rom.2:28-29; Phil.3:3 etc.). What the Mosaic Law was unable to enable (Dt.10:16), Christ has done through His life, death, resurrection, ascension and consequent outpouring of the Spirit (Dt.30:6). This is why Paul speaks of our undergoing a ‘circumcision without hands’. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is accomplished by the circumcision (cutting off) of Christ (v.11 cf. Gal.3:13-14). This uniting with Christ in His death and resurrection is testified to ‘in baptism’. Both ‘baptism’ and ‘circumcision’ are seen as signifying and sealing our incorporation into the same reality though from different historical points in God’s dealing with His people. Those who had been circumcised still required baptism as a sign that the Messiah had now poured out the Holy Spirit on the Church in the last days. Baptism is first and foremost God’s sign of covenant – some theologians speak of sacraments as God’s ‘visible words’, speaking of His work in Christ.
This is not to say that everyone who is baptised is saved. But when people who have received the sign of the covenant demonstrate that they don’t have faith in Christ, the Bible’s answer is not to lament the fact that a sign and seal of the covenant has been misapplied, or to stop circumcising (or baptising) children. It is rather to call people to live the reality that the sign points to: ‘Circumcise your hearts you men of Judah, you people of Jerusalem’ (e.g.Jer.4:3-4). Failure to heed this command leads to covenantal judgement: ‘cut off’ from the land, and sent into exile.
This is perhaps the most unfamiliar aspect of the Bible’s teaching on baptism. Peter refers to the flood as a baptism (I Pet.3:18-20). Likewise, Paul refers to the dividing of the Red Sea as a baptism (I Cor.10:1-4). Both encounters with water resonate theologically with the idea of New Creation, but significantly for us here is the realisation that the same water-baptism that saved some meant the destruction of others under the judgement of God. Without faith in Christ, baptism is as meaningless as circumcision was, indeed more poignantly it is a sign of judgement. But the glorious hope of the Gospel is that with faith in Christ, the sign of the covenant people of God is fulfilled through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
If what we have been thinking about over the last two or three weeks is indeed the teaching of the Bible on baptism, then we would expect to see the Church baptising households – including children – from the earliest days. We’ll take a quick look at this next time.