There are Christians who interpret the Bible in light of a basic, covenantal continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Other believers make a dispensational discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments their main principle of interpretation. These different orientations result in conflicting systems of theology, as we have seen, but they also lead to very specific, practical differences in living out the Christian life.
In particular, the divergence between covenantal and non-covenantal approaches to Scripture comes to concrete expression in their differing views of the children of adult converts to the faith. Both schools of thought agree that the children of Christians are conceived and born in sin, that they need to be" born again" and exercise faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. But covenantal and non-covenantal theologies disagree over the status of these children while their believing parent(s) pray for their children, nurture them, and await a Spirit-given profession of faith by them as they grow up.
Should the children of believers (or even one believer) be looked upon in the same way as those who belong to the world - no different from any other unregenerate child, a common unbeliever? Or should the children of believers be looked upon as set apart from the world unto God - members of the visible community formed by God's saving covenant? In short, are the children of believers viewed by God as part of the defiled world or as part of the church on earth?
The answer to this question was obvious in the Old Testament. The children of believers were deemed part of the covenant community on earth. Nothing in the New Testament rescinds or cancels the perspective found in the Old Testament. Scripture duly warns us against taking anything away from what God has said ( Deut. 4:2) or altering it based on our own authority ( Matt. 5:19). Subtracting from God's revelation or adding unauthorized alterations will earn divine disapprobation (e.g., Rev. 22:18-19). So let us begin by examining what the Old Testament taught about the children of believers.
God made a covenant with Abraham to bless Abraham himself in faith, to bless Abraham's seed, and through Abraham to bless the Gentiles, "the families of the earth" ( Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-8). This same three-fold covenantal structure of intended blessing was reiterated at the very first, evangelistic proclamation by the New Testament church. On Pentecost Peter preached that "the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are far off [the Gentiles]" ( Acts 2:39) - and he did so in the context of a call to be baptized ( v. 38). The covenantal inclusion of the children of believers is a principle found in both Old and New Testaments, without abrogation.
The male children of the believer, Abraham, were to be given the token of the divine covenant, to be circumcised, even as Abraham was ( Gen. 17:10-12); indeed, all the males in the believer's household were set apart to God by the covenant sign of circumcision. What did circumcision signify? It was a token of "the righteousness of faith," wrote Paul ( Romans 4:11). Even those who had not personally come to faith as yet (eight-day old babies) and those who would never come to faith (e.g., Ishmael, Esau) were given the covenant sign of faith because they were in a believing household. The faith of their parents set them aside from the world as part of a "holy" (or consecrated) nation (cf. Ex. 19:6).
Likewise, in the earliest days of the New Testament church we see that the members of the entire household of a new convert were set apart with the covenant sign of baptism ( Acts 16:14-15) - in virtue of their being part of the household (with no mention of profession of faith; cf. 1 Cor. 1:16). By baptism they were set apart from the world and incorporated into the body of Christ, the church (1 Cor. 12:12-13); they became part of God's new "holy" nation (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). The Old Testament "baptisms" which are mentioned by New Testament writers - involving the ark ( 1 Peter 3:20-21) or being under the cloud and brought through the Red Sea ( 1 Cor. 10:1-2) - included whole households, just as did New Testament baptisms. So the principle of covenantal consecration for the household of a believer is one found in both Old and New Testaments, without abrogation.
The New Testament counterpart to circumcision as a sign of God's covenant is baptism. Paul makes this connection explicit in Colossians 2:11-12, where he writes that members of the church have been spiritually "circumcised" by Christ, "having been buried with Him in baptism." Circumcision was a mark that one belonged to God and was set apart from the defiled world (e.g., Ex. 12:48). In the same way, baptism sets one apart from the world and incorporates us into the body of Christ ( 1 Cor. 12:12-13). Circumcision symbolized the cleansing or cutting away of the sinful nature ("the flesh," cf. Col. 2:13), as indicated in the Old Testament call for circumcised lips and heart ( Ex. 6:12, 30; Jer. 4:4). Likewise, baptism symbolizes the cleansing of our sinful nature - the "washing away of your sins" (Acts 22:16).
Those who were circumcised were marked out as holy (consecrated to God) and cleansed (set apart from the defiled world of unbelief), although not every circumcised Jew lived up to what his circumcision symbolized. They were not all Israel who were of Israel ( Rom. 9:6); their outward circumcision profited them nothing ( Rom. 2:25-29). Likewise, those who are baptized are marked out as holy and cleansed, although not everyone who is baptized lives up to what that baptism symbolizes (e.g., Heb. 6:2-6; Acts 8:13, 20); the outward sign in itself will profit them nothing (1 Peter 3:21).
Neither in the Old Testament nor in the New is the covenant community on earth - those "called out" from the world (the ecclesia, the "church") - a community exclusively made up of genuine believers or those guaranteed to be regenerate. God had to judge the covenant nation of Israel for her sins (e.g., Amos 3:2), even as Christ must reject a church which will not repent (e.g. Rev.3:16). Not all who profess that He is Lord are truly known by Him (Matt. 7:21-23). Circumcision, just like baptism, is administered to those who profess faith and to their households, without guaranteeing eternal salvation to either.
Both circumcision and baptism point to saving (cleansing) blessing and set apart their recipients from the world, even when their recipients did (or do) not demonstrate the reality of what was signified. The Old Testament church, both believers and their children, was required to "keep covenant with God" by living up to what the covenant sign indicated. Likewise believers and their children in the New Testament church must keep covenant with God and live up to what the covenant sign symbolizes: their cleansing and consecration (holiness).
This may seem confusing to some readers. How can a person bear the token of being clean and holy - and bear it at God's direction - even though that person is not actually clean and holy? The answer is that such a person shares the designation of the wider religious community of which he or she is a part (i.e., the mixed church is viewed as "clean" and "holy" by her Redeemer), and that this designation is meant in a ritual or ceremonial sense. The church on earth as the community formed by God's saving covenant has been "cleansed and consecrated" in a ceremonial or religious fashion, being looked upon in a special and sacred way by God. The covenant community has been set apart as His own unique people and separated from the common world of spiritual defilement and unbelief.
There is at least three ways in which the Bible uses the terminology of holiness and cleansing. We may think of holiness and cleanness as concepts which can be applied in an external sense (e.g., a "clean" sheet or "pure" gold, e.g. Matt. 27:56; Ex. 30:3). They may also be applied to inward matters in a moral sense (e.g., a "clean" heart or "holy" living, e.g. Ps. 24:4; 1 Peter 1:15). But there is also a third kind of way in which the Bible speaks of holiness and cleanness, a way which can be designated ceremonial or ritual.
The meats which were called "unclean" in the Old Testament were not given that designation because they were outwardly dirty or inwardly immoral. They were rather unclean in some ritual sense. They were "common" meats that the unbelieving world might eat, but not God's special or holy (consecrated) people. (This distinction is maintained even today among Jews who observe dictates about "kosher" eating.) The words of Leviticus 11:44-47 are very insightful here. God commanded Israel: "Be holy... neither defile yourselves with any kind of [unclean meat]... make a distinction between the unclean and the clean." Israel was to be "holy" (set apart, consecrated) by maintaining a "clean" diet. This "ritual" or ceremonial sense of cleanness and uncleanness is utilized throughout the Old Testament: e.g., Lev. 11:32; 13:58; 14:4; 15:13; 17:15; 20:25; 24:6-7; Deut. 23:10, etc.
The holiness and cleanness of the Old Testament Jews as God's chosen people was not always in every case an internal, moral reality, and yet even with the unregenerate among them they were nonetheless the special people of God - "holy" and "clean" in the ceremonial or religious sense that He had entered into a saving covenant with them, setting them apart from the other nations or unbelieving groups of the world. That explains, for instance, why Ezra 6:21 speaks of the children of Israel who had come out of captivity and gone back to the holy city of Jerusalem as "all such as have separated themselves from the filthiness of the nations." Once again Israel would be a "holy nation" for God's own possession (cf. Ex. 19:5-6).
This concept of ceremonial or ritual "holiness" and "cleanness" is evident in the New Testament as well. When Jesus disputed with the Pharisees over making the outside of the cup "clean" ( Matt. 23:25-26) or about the "defilement" of eating with unwashed hands ( Matt. 15:2, 11, 20), neither party to the argument was concerned with physical filth or moral virtue. The controversy was over religious or ceremonial consecration (what was "kosher" or not, if you will). The New Testament often speaks of ceremonial cleansing or ritual purification (e.g., Luke 2:22; John 2:6; Luke 17:14, etc.). It is in this religious sense, quite obviously, that blood is said to be used for cleansing! (e.g., Heb. 9:14, 22-23; 1 John 1:7).
It is evident from Peter's response to the sheet of meats from heaven that what is "unclean" was identical to what is "common," not kosher ( Acts 10:14; 11:8). Whatever has been "cleansed" by God is no longer in the category of the "common" (Acts 10:15). Those who are within the covenant community, the church, are set apart from the common world and viewed by God, therefore, as "clean." As Paul wrote, in contrast to "those who are outside," God has not called the church to be "unclean" but rather "holy" and set apart (1 Thess. 4:7, 12).
Christ's redemptive work has "purified" (or "cleansed") unto Himself a special people for God's own possession ( Titus 2:14). They are to be "separate" from the world - to "touch no unclean thing" ( 2 Cor. 6:17). Paul says this right in the context of drawing a clear distinction between the church and the world, asserting that there is no "commonality" between them (2 Cor. 6:14-16). The New Testament places the church in a religiously unique category, being viewed as "clean" or "cleansed" from the ordinary world of spiritual defilement.
Likewise, "holiness" is repeatedly used in the New Testament to speak of what is religiously or ritually set apart from the ordinary. Things which are special - things which are set apart from common use - are called "holy" (e.g., the unmarried virgin's body, 1 Cor. 7:34). You do not mix the ordinary and extraordinary by giving what is "holy" to dogs, nor pearls to swine, said Jesus ( Matt. 7:6). The temple precincts were not ordinary ground, but consecrated - thus "holy" (e.g., Acts 6:13; 21:28; 1 Cor. 3:17; Heb. 8:2;9:1-3). The place of the burning bush was "holy" ground as well ( Acts 7:33). Every male that is born is said to be set apart ("holy") unto the Lord, even if they grow up to be spiritual rebels ( Luke 2:23). Despite the rebellion of Old Testament Israel, it was God's consecrated or "holy nation." And even though unbelief and murderous sin was found in her, the city of Jerusalem is called the "holy city" because chosen and set apart by God ( Matt. 4:5; Rev. 11:2; 21:2, 10; 22:19).
The Old Testament writings were in a special category from other human works, being the "holy scriptures" ( Rom. 1:2). The men who wrote them were set apart from others - were "holy" men or prophets ( 2 Peter 1:21;Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21). Our brothers within the church are a special kind of family relation --a "holy brotherhood" ( Heb. 3:1). Likewise, the kiss or greeting which is given between believers is not an ordinary or common kiss, but a "holy kiss" ( Rom.16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20, etc.). Examples could be multiplied where "holiness" takes the sense of set apart from common use (consecrated to a special purpose). But of special interest is the way in which the New Testament designates God's people as "the holy ones" or "saints" (Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10Rom. 1:7; 8:27;1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2; etc.). Regardless of their inward imperfection and daily sin, those who are joined to Christ as members of the church are called "set apart" or "holy" by God.
Our short examination of Scripture has made us aware, now, that the mixed spiritual community of Old Testament Israel was deemed by God as separated from the defiled world of unbelief, being "clean" and "holy" in a ceremonial or ritual sense. Similarly, the New Testament covenant community, despite its flaws, is looked upon by God as consecrated from the world of unbelief and spiritual defilement, being "clean" and "holy" in His sight.
Now then, what is the outward or ceremonial mark which is placed on those in the New Testament that are deemed "cleansed" (or "clean") and "holy" (set apart or consecrated to God)? As every student of Scripture knows, it is the mark of baptism. Baptism "incorporates" us into the body of Christ, setting us apart from the world ( 1 Cor. 12:12-13). In the New Testament baptism is likewise seen as a symbol of cleansing ( Acts 22:16). Thus the dispute over "cleansing" (purifying) in John 3:25 was connected to the practice of baptism (vv. 22-23, 26). Likewise, in Luke 11:38-39, the controversy over "cleansing" was occasioned by Jesus not "baptizing" (washing) Himself before the meal.
By His redemptive work Christ has cleansed the church and set it apart from the world as His bride. This is Paul's well known teaching in Ephesians 5. Notice in verse 26 how Paul uses both the concepts of "holiness" (to sanctify, set apart) and "cleansing." He writes that Christ gave Himself up for the church "in order that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water in the sphere of the word." The outward symbol that the church is holy and clean is baptism, "the washing of water." In Hebrews10:22-23 we read that those who are in the church - "the household of God" - are to show hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, "having our body washed ["cleansed"] with pure water," words which point to baptism as the outward sign of an inward grace.
The question which we set out to answer is whether the children of believers (or of one believing parent) should be given this ceremonial mark or token of the covenant. And the answer to that question comes down to how we should view the children of believers. Are they part of the common and defiled world, or are they part of the cleansed and consecrated covenant community, the church? The Apostle Paul gives us a brief, clear answer that goes right to the point in 1 Corinthians 7:14.
In the context of this verse Paul explains why a believing husband or wife should not depart from his/her unbelieving spouse ( 1 Cor.7:10-17), and he introduces the notion of covenantal consecration (the ceremonial sense of "holiness"). According to Paul's theology, there is a sense in which the unbelieving spouse is "sanctified" - made holy or set apart - through his or her affiliation with the believing husband or wife. This cannot mean that the unbeliever is inwardly clean and regenerate; that is obvious. Nevertheless, the unbelieving spouse is "holy" - in the sense of being consecrated unto God, standing in covenantal relation with Him in virtue of being part of a believing household. It may be in the gracious plan of God that the believing mate will "save" the unbelieving partner ( v. 16). But until that time - or until the unbeliever departs ( v. 15) - that non-Christian husband or wife, as part of the household, remains set apart from the world or "holy" in the sight of God.
Notice this further point. As a passing reinforcement of his explanation about covenantal consecration of the unbelieving spouse, Paul adds one more, short remark without elaboration (indicating that he expected his audience to understand the concept already). This is something which is just taken for granted in terms of New Testament theology. What he says at the end of verse 14 is this: "otherwise your children would be unclean, but now are they holy." That is, the children of even one believer are, in virtue of that family affiliation, viewed in a special way by God. They are not categorized with the world, even though they are as yet unbelievers. They are viewed - just as we have seen that the church as a whole is viewed - as "clean" and as "holy." Children of believers are not seen as part of the common world of unbelief and spiritual defilement, despite their need to come to conversion and confess faith in Christ the Savior. They are already "set apart" from the world and in a special, consecrated relationship to the Lord of the covenant because of their believing parent(s). They are deemed by God part of the covenant community on earth, the church - those whom Christ has made "holy, cleansing" them through the washing of water in the sphere of the word (cf. Eph. 5:26).
In fact, when Paul writes to "the saints" at Ephesus (Ephesians 1:1), and exhorts the various groups within the body of Christ (Eph. 4:4-5), he addresses wives ( 5:22ff.), husbands ( 5:25ff.), children ( 6:1ff.), and servants ( 6:5ff.) - which certainly looks like the traditional breakdown of a household. But the point is that children as a class were included within the church by Paul - as well as by John (e.g., 1 John 2:13). And why not? Jesus taught that they belonged to the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:14); He honored the praise of their mouths ( Matt.21:16) and blessed them in His arms ( Matt. 19:13, 15). The Lord was indignant with those who prevented children from being brought to Him (Mark 10:14). How dare we do so today?
Paul's words are decisive for the issue of infant baptism. The children of believers, although born in sin and in need of regeneration, have the religious or covenantal status of "clean" and "holy" - the status which is ritually typified or signified in the New Testament sacrament of baptism (as it was in the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision). It makes no theological sense to maintain on one hand, as Scripture testifies, that the children of believers are clean and holy, but then on the other hand to withhold from them the God-given, covenantal sign of that holy, clean status.
Question: But the New Testament calls for those who repent and believe in Christ for salvation to be baptized. Young children who cannot even speak as yet have not repented and believed in Christ.
Answer: Isn't that what makes it so amazing that God yet calls them "holy and clean"! Who are we to dispute with God? Our young children are not yet believers, but they are already covenantally consecrated unto God. Just as in the Old Testament eight-day old babies were circumcised, which was a sign of the righteousness "of faith" ( Rom. 4:11) - a faith they did not yet have or exercise - so also the New Testament would apply to the children of believers the symbol of salvation by faith, even before those children have come to faith in their own experience.
Nothing said here changes the fact that those who are converted as adults need to be baptized, exactly as the New Testament teaches. The reasoning of those who argue that we should baptize only those who profess faith distorts the actual text of Scripture (due to preconceptions brought to the text, rather than taken from it). They change the proposition "All who repent and believe must be baptized" into the logically different proposition that "All who are baptized must have repented and believed."
Question: But isn't it one of the differences between the Old and New Covenants that in the New Covenant only those who are spiritually reborn - only truly regenerated people - are members of the church?
Answer: If we are speaking of the "invisible church" (all the elect), then it is equally true of the Old Covenant that only those who were regenerated were members of the church. But if we are speaking of the "visible" church on earth, then it would be mistaken to say that only the truly regenerate are members. Simon Magus was baptized and a member of the church, but was not regenerate (Acts 8:13, 20-23). But was this simply a mistake on the part of the church in baptizing a hypocrite? No, Simon was truly in covenant with God; because of his unrepentant sin he came under the curse of the covenant (as did Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5).
But are unregenerate people ever members of the covenant community "in God's eyes"? Again, the answer would have to be yes. Luke's gospel informs us that Judas Iscariot was at the Lord's Table after the institution of the Lord's Supper (Lk. 22:20-21). Unless we are willing to say Luke was in error - and sadly even some conservative commentators are so bold as to suggest it - we must conclude that the Lord of the New Covenant served a token of covenant membership to one whom He knew to be a covenant-breaker, the very "son of perdition." Therefore, the "Baptistic" argument that the signs of the covenant are intended only for regenerated people goes beyond, and even against, the teaching of Scripture.
The initiating sign of the covenant is for all those who are in covenant with God, according to His own revealed criteria and direction. The pages of Scripture teach us that these are believers as well as their offspring (and indeed their whole households).