Unto You and Your Children
Of all the passages which are brought to the table in favor of sacramental continuity, there is perhaps none more critical than Acts 2:37-39. The context of this passage was that great, foretold historical occurrence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which would bring about the supernatural rebirth and expansion of the Church – thereby confirming the finished work of Jesus Christ in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand.
This multifaceted event was to mark the critical transition point in covenant history in that the coming of the Holy Spirit had been prophetically tied to the last days of the Old Testament economy (Joel 2:28-32) and consequently to the inauguration of the New Covenant era. In this era, Gentiles would now be universally summoned by the promise of the gospel, and engrafted into the Church of Jesus Christ (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Isaiah 42:1-8).
As a result of the apostle Peter’s announcement of this redemptive-historical transition, along with his exposure of their murderous actions, the Jews were “pricked in their hearts,” asking themselves, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
Now, the critical thing to see here is that in verse 39 Peter, looking forward into the dawning New Covenant dispensation, fashioned his answer in the historic language of the Abrahamic Covenant, maintaining the very “genealogical principle” our Baptist brethren assume was to be removed.
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
Commenting on this passage, Dr. Frank Walker highlights the significance of Peter’s covenant phraseology,
After commanding the Jews to repent and be baptized, he added, For the promise is unto you, and to your children (Acts 2:38-39). No Jew would have missed the significance of these words. They come directly from Genesis 17:7, where God promised Abraham that he would establish his most gracious covenant both with him and his seed forever. Abraham applied the sign to all the males in his home, and the believing Jews of Peter’s day, following his example, would have applied the new sign of the covenant to their children as well.¹
In other words, the familial structure of the Abrahamic Promise, according to the language of Peter, was to be the abiding model for the new administration of the Covenant. Consider the parallels. Just as Abraham first believed and then received the sign of circumcision, so too must these men first repent and then receive the sign of baptism. And yet, because God required Abraham’s to seal his children with the promise by circumcision, so too must these men seal their children with the same promise by baptism.
According to the text, this Abrahamic pattern was not something only for the Jews to carry on, but that same pattern was to be practiced by “all whom the Lord our God would call,” even from among the Gentiles (“them that are afar off”). After all, Gid did promise that through Abraham, “All the families of the earth would be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).
But even more to Walker’s point, these sacramental parallels cannot be said to be the result of an ambitious reading of the text, when at once we remember the historical, covenantal, and theological connection Peter had with his audience. He was a Jewish man speaking to Jewish men; a child of Abraham speaking to children of Abraham. Not only did they share the same rich, covenantal history, but as a consequence they also shared the same biblical worldview, living in anticipation of the same eschatological expectations.
This being the case, moreover, the amazing part of Peter’s answer wouldn’t have been that their children were still included in the Covenant; that was to be expected. Nor would the inclusion of Gentile families be thought of as an amazing thing, for that too was expected (though perhaps a bit less understood). Rather, the most obvious and amazing change in Peter’s formulation, which surprisingly did not invoke the objection of the Jews, was that Peter attached baptism to the Abrahamic promise.² Now that’s amazing. Peter took the sacrament of baptism and put it in the very place that (for 2100 years) was occupied by circumcision. In Reformed Theology, this is what we call “sacramental continuity” because in the New administration the sign of circumcision continues on through the sacrament of baptism.
No Children Allowed?
Now, one of the ways our Baptist friends will respond to our interpretation is by going back into Jeremiah 31 where the New Covenant promises were originally made. From there, they often point out that even if there is some correspondence between circumcision and baptism, Peter could not have anticipated infant children as being being in the New Covenant, because Jeremiah specifically says that in the New Covenant all members will know God in a true and saving way.
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah… And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD.
At this point, the Reformed will usually respond by an appeal to the “already/not yet” paradigm of prophetic fulfillment. Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Covenant (and Kingdom) of Jesus Christ are presented in Scripture as having a two-stage fulfillment. So while their fulfillment was inaugurated with the coming of Jesus, it will only be fully realized when Jesus returns.
Dr. Richard Pratt explains,
When Christ returns he will separate the just and unjust, the sheep and the goats, true believers and unbelievers in the church. The promise that the new covenant will grant salvation to all who participate will be fulfilled by the removal of the unbelievers at the time of judgment. Only true believers will be left, and thus all who are in covenant will be saved. Yet, prior to the judgment that Christ will render at his return, the new covenant community is not restricted to believers only. If it were, there would be no separation of people at Christ’s return… As the parables of the Ten Virgins and Talents (Matt 25:1-30) illustrate, there are many in the new covenant community who will prove themselves not to be truly regenerate.
The point here is that those who deny the reality of unsaved members in the New Covenant have an over-realized eschatology. They seem to forget that Christ will not order the separation of the tares from the wheat until the “end of the age” (Matt. 13:30). This means that the possibility of our infant children ending up as unbelievers is no legitimate basis to deny their inclusion within the Covenant and Kingdom of Jesus Christ (Mat. 19:14).
In addition to the common Reformed response I just outlined (and fully agree with) I would also add another point that our Baptist brothers seem to overlook, which may be somewhat “revolutionary” in discussions about infant baptism. And that’s this: Jeremiah 31:31-34 is not the only place where the New Covenant is promised. Sure it may be the most familiar, but in this debate, it is certainly not the most significant. What do I mean?
The prophecy of Jeremiah 31 is actually part and parcel of what many scholars call, The Book of Consolation, which spans from chapters 31-33. And in these few chapters Jeremiah gives us not one but two prophecies concerning the coming New Covenant. The second prophecy is found in Jeremiah 32:37-40, and in this passage we find an explicit reference to the children of believers.
Behold, I will gather them out of all countries, whither I have driven them in mine anger, and in my fury, and in great wrath; and I will bring them again unto this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely: And they shall be my people, and I will be their God: And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them: And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.
Re-considering Peter’s statement on the day of Pentecost, we might begin to wonder if he didn’t also have this very passage in mind when he said, “The promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39). Or perhaps we might even discern the overtones of Isaiah 59:21, where we read,
As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth nor out of the mouth of thy children, nor out of the mouth of thy children’s children,saith the LORD, from henceforth and forever.
And Peter wasn’t the only one. Mary, the mother of Jesus also showed her understanding of covenant continuity by employing genealogy language as a future reality from her own standpoint. For example, in Luke 1:48-50 she says,
Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
It’s important to note that Mary’s statement there is a direct reference to Psalm 103:17-18 which reads,
But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.
No More Solidarity?
The reason our Baptist friends can’t see the significance of such passages is because unfortunately, they begin with the assumption that the principle of covenant solidarity is no longer in effect, even though the Bible nowhere says this. Instead, what we find is that from Genesis to Revelation, God has taught His people the truth of this great reality. Everything that a man does inevitably has an effect upon his descendants, whether for good or for bad. Further, the decisions that a man makes are legally binding upon the members of his own household, especially as that man (or woman) covenantally represents his (or her) family before God.
Reformed theologians often point to the pattern of solidarity as an important biblical principal that must not be overlooked. Indeed, this covenant solidarity is not only seen in Adam, whose transgression affected all of his posterity (Rom. 5:19) but also finds repeated emphasis throughout the pages of Scripture, from Noah (Gen. 7:1) to Abraham (Gen. 18:17-19) to Moses (Ex. 34:7) and into the New Testament as well. When Pontius Pilate washed his hands of Christ’s innocent blood, the Jews of our Lord’s day shouted in Matthew 27:25,
His blood be upon us, and upon our children!
But why did they speak this way? The answer is covenant solidarity. These men were deceived into thinking that their actions were pure and righteous in the sight of God, and so they confidently appealed to the sanctions of the Covenant (Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9-10), trusting that their faithfulness would preserve God’s blessings upon their generations. Unfortunately they were wrong. The blood of Christ was innocent blood, and they were shown to be murderers. But because of the principle of covenant solidarity that innocent blood did remain upon the Jews and upon their children. Jesus made this very clear in Luke 23:28 (see also Matthew 23:37-38).
But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.
Of course, the classic expression of the solidarity principle was recorded at the lips of faithful Joshua, who by his instructive words in Joshua 24:15, demonstrates that a man’s covenantal commitment toward the true God is consequently binding upon his entire household.
As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.
But covenant solidarity is more than just another argument, it’s a worldview. And because this was the worldview of those to whom the New Testament authors were writing, we should expect to find an explicit removal of this principle somewhere in the New Testament, if all of a sudden (as the Baptist imagines) it was to be discontinued. But we find no such thing.
Where in the New Testament does it say that God’s dealings with his people are now restricted to individuals only, and that their children are no longer comprehended under the Covenant? For the record, the Baptist is at a loss to demonstrate the validity of his claim to discontinuity, and therefore the Reformed maintain that the abiding, biblical principle of covenant solidarity becomes another mighty pillar for the paedobaptist position, especially when it comes time to examine the details of the household baptisms. Stay tuned.
¹ Frank H. Walker, Covenant Theology; Sovereign and Gracious; (2012) pg. 98
² It should also be noted that Jesus did the same thing in The Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commenced the fulfilling of the Abrahamic Promise, that through Abraham’s seed “all the nations of the earth will be blessed” – (see Gal. 3:8). It is interesting to note, however, that Jesus, as he commissioned his disciples, made no mention of circumcision, as would have been expected by the Jews. Instead, we find that Jesus attached baptism to the evangelistic fulfillment of the Abrahamic Promise, thereby effectively replacing the old sacrament with the new one, and showing that the New Covenant is in fact the continuation of the Abrahamic.