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Friday, December 14, 2012

For those of you who have read my posts here regularly before and are wondering about the Romans and confessions of faith series, I do intend to continue both of them! New Romans sermon post later tonight, perhaps. :)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gaffin on the Millennium

Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary (where I would love to attend some day...but who knows), wrote an article about some of the problems he sees with a certain variety of postmillennialism (a variety which he sees as being a majority even today, and even among those who hold to a similar structure of timing to amillennarians—unlike the older, Puritan, futuristic postmillennial view of the millennium). The main point of his article is to highlight some tensions between some aspects of that view and the eschatological perspective of the New Testament. Many of his points there are valid. However, Gaffin also argues (both in footnotes and even many places in the body of the text) against preterism and against the general kind of optimism postmillennialists have in regard to pre-consummate visible gospel progress in the world. Acknowledging the strength of some of Gaffin's arguments against the notion of a pre-consummate future “golden age” that is categorically and prophetically distinct from this present millennial age, I want to give a few of my responses to some of the major points of his piece.

I will very briefly summarize each of his main points to which I am responding; I hope to represent him well. I will place a link to his paper at the end of my response here.

Point 1

Gaffin: Since the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 is part of the unified complex of events tied up with Christ's First Advent, it is inappropriate to read passages like the Olivet Discourse and Revelation as exclusively or even largely having reference to AD 70, rather than having reference to significant eschatological events in the future of today's Church. Also, If postmillennialists posit a still entirely future eschatological golden age that is the final 'fulfilment' of the millennium, that essentially forfeits the eschatological character of Christ's First Advent and the present age clearly taught in the NT.

My response: I would say that in just the same way that Gaffin says that a kind of postmillennialism that posits a distinct future stage or “fulfilment” of the millennium diminishes the eschatological character of the First Advent and the present age (with which I, as a postmillennialist, would agree), holding to a Great Tribulation still in our future diminishes the eschatological character of the First Advent and the events directly following it in Jerusalem's destruction. Of course, Gaffin rightly holds to a duality of eschatological stages in a basically inaugurated-kingdom structure (such that the “age to come” has been inaugurated by Christ already, but will consummated at—and only at—His bodily return). So Gaffin would simply want to justify the appropriateness of his Tribulational futurism in terms of it being closely related to the final eschatological event—the Second Advent and consummation—so that it doesn't compromise the truly inaugurated eschatological nature of the present age. At this point, I would need to argue in detail against the prophetic idealism and excessive recapitulation he (and others, like Kistemaker) would see in Revelation, and show that amillennial idealists have a really hard time explaining why (even in Revelation's dramatically schematized layout of history) the Beast and false prophet seem clearly to have already been thrown in the “lake of fire” at the beginning of Christ's millennial reign.

I think preterists have also pretty convincingly argued that the Olivet Discourse itself lays no grounds whatsoever for Tribulational futurism, but rather limits at least its description of the “Great Tribulation” to first century events soon to come to pass from the reference point of the original hearers. It takes either importing something from another passage, or the presupposition of prophetic idealism, to get a Tribulation still in our future from the Olivet Discourse passages.

Point 2

Gaffin: Against the charge of historical staticism, we should think of this present millennial age as being characterized by the “staticism of eschatological dynamism.” This means the kingly permanence of the exalted Christ is manifested in various unpredictable ways throughout this age. Christ's inaugurated reign is more basic and constitutive than any progress being made.

My response: The... “staticism of eschatological dynamism?” Really? What does that mean? So it means “unpredictable” manifestations of Christ's permanent Messianic reign? The manifestations would, indeed, possibly be “unpredictable” if we didn't have dozens of passages from the Prophets that state exactly what the Messianic kingdom entails: nothing less than the salvation of the nations as a whole (see the paradigmatic Isaiah 2). And why limit fulfillments of those prophecies to the eternal state? The nations of the eternal state don't need saving from anything. The consistent scriptural pattern of salvation, whether individual or corporate, is: definitive, progressive, and consummative. The Israelites were saved from Egypt, then progressively drove out the Canaanites, and then inhabited the promised land. Christians are born again of the Spirit, progressively sanctified, and will be glorified on the Last Day. The world has been claimed by Christ's ascension and session at God's right hand, is (and has been) being transformed by the gospel, and will eventually be totally overtaken and brought into the eternal state by Christ's return (despite intense, final, Satanic attempts to thwart the kingdom).

Point 3

Gaffin: To the question, Is the millennial victory only a future one, or a present one as well?, postmillennialists seem to have consistently answered by affirming the former. But they need to either 1) give up their hope of a categorically distinct future age of dominion before the Second Advent, or 2) effectively give up the past and present kingship of the exalted Christ as anything more than (largely unrealized) potential.

My response: I don't know about postmillennialists historically for sure, but I would personally want to say that the millennial victory is present in a sense as well as future. I would set it in terms of definitive, progressive, and consummate stages...the definitive aspect being brought with the First Advent, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ; the progressive stage being the present state of the Church in the world; and the consummate stage being the eternal state at the Second Advent of Christ (without a static “Golden Age” interim, as Gaffin argues against well). I would also say that, while I can't remember specific wording, I seem to remember reading Dr. Kenneth Gentry as also explicitly affirming at least some kind of present aspect of the millennial victory. Anyway, I agree with Gaffin that postmillennialists should give up 1) in his dilemma, however, I don't see why postmillennialists who would disagree would necessarily have to consider the present kingship of Christ as nothing but “largely unrealized” potential. Look at the progress of the gospel in the world since the first century! They would see that as important progress leading eventually to their “Golden Age,” even if it's not their ultimate or even pen-ultimate eschatological hope. In other words, the progress is prophetically significant.

Point 4

Gaffin: Differences between some postmillennialists and him might be small if it's just exegetical details about optimism about the progress of gospel; he may have different definitions of "optimism" and "success" than them. Also, the eschatological-conversion-of-the-Jews interpretation of Romans 11 is “unlikely.”

My response: There will be more to say about definitions of gospel progress and the victory of the kingdom later on; but what kind of optimism could we expect Gaffin, an idealist-amillennialist, to espouse, that wouldn't have a docetistic ring to it? Also, does the ironic nature of "victory" and "overcoming" in Revelation and its paradigm of martyrdom (which amillennialists rightly point out so well) totally preclude the ideas of generational cultural blessing and visible cultural progress in the world?

Also, I would say the usual postmillennial interpretation of Romans 11 is not “unlikely,” but more like, “very, very likely.” Let's take a look at the passage.

Excursus on Romans 11

First let's just look at a very rough outline of the main thrust of the relevant verses:

v. 1 Has God rejected His people? (ethnic Jews, clearly, based on end of ch.10)
-FOR Paul is an (ethnic, indiv.) Jew (remnant principle)

vv.4-5 remnant theme reinforced

vv. 5-6 election by grace, not works

v. 7 Israel failed (ethnic, corporate); elect obtained it, rest *hardened*

v. 11 Israel (ethnic, corporate) *stumble* in order to *fall*?
-RATHER, through Israel (ethn./corp.) trespass, Gent. saved
-Gentiles saved to make Israel (ethn.) Jealous

v. 12 if Israel (ethn/corp) trespass = riches for world (salv. to Gent.), then how much more their "full inclusion?" (ethn., corp.!)

v. 13 speaking to Gentiles, focus of Paul's ministry

v. 14 magnify ministry to Gent. to make Jews (ethn.) jealous and save *some* of them (remnant principle)

v. 15 FOR if their (ethn./corp.!) rejection means reconciliation of world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

v.16 if root holy, so are branches

vv.17-19 Jewish (ethn.) root negates Gent. pride

vv.20-22 warning to Gent.

vv.23-24 ease of re-inclusion of Jews (ethn.) because of natural connection

v.25 partial hardening on Israel (ethn./corp.) *until full # of Gent.*

vv.26-27 "in this way" all Israel (?) will be saved, as written (OT quot. for promise of restoration of Jews (ethn./corp.)
Deliverer will banish ungodliness from *Jacob*

v.28 enemies of God in regard to gospel, but electingly beloved for sake of forefathers (Jews, ethn./corp..)

v.29 FOR gifts and calling of God irrevocable

v.30 FOR you (Gent.) were disob., now received mercy

v.31 they (Jews, ethn./corp..) also have now been disob. so they may also receive mercy

v.32 God has consigned all to disob., to have mercy on all

Now for some explanation of why the usual postmillennial view makes the most sense out of this chapter.

The whole chapter is basically answering the question raised in v. 1: has God rejected His people, the Jews (obviously, ethnic Jews are being referred to in this verse), forever? Paul gives a negative answer, and explicates the details of why this is not the case.

His first answer focuses on the remnant theme, which is a principle that emerges very clearly and consistently from the Prophets. After all, Paul says, he himself is an Israelite, and has embraced Jesus as the Messiah. Paul talks about how election works according to God's gracious purposes, and says that Israel (obviously ethnic, corporate Israel) has been hardened, while the elect (from among the Gentiles, and of the remnant of Israel) obtained the blessings of the Messiah, through faith (v. 7).

Then he raises the question in v. 11: Did Israel (obviously corporate, ethnic) stumble (over the Messiah) in order to fall (be utterly cut off from God forever)? Paul gives a negative answer here as well, and says that the reason they stumbled, was rather that salvation would come to the Gentiles. In turn, the salvation of the Gentiles would make Israel (necessarily still corporate, ethnic Israel) jealous.

V. 12 is key now. If corporate, ethnic Israel's “trespass”/stumbling meant life for the world (of the Gentiles), how much more will their “full inclusion” be good for the world?

In vv.13-14 Paul says that he magnifies his ministry to the Gentiles, because he knows that salvation of Gentiles leads to Jewish jealousy which leads to Jewish inclusion in Christ. Paul says he does this that he might “save some of them” (the remnant).

Gaffin interprets these last few verses as Paul basically explaining that the Jews' “full inclusion” just points to the remnant of Jews throughout the rest of world history being included in God's covenant blessings when they are provoked to jealousy and then faith in Christ. He does not see the necessity for an eschatological salvation of corporate, ethnic Israel.

But the rest of the passage, as well as the preceding context, seems to require an eschatological hope for the salvation of the majority of Jews in the eschaton. Notice how the question Paul has been trying to answer is in regard to corporate, ethnic Israel, even in v. 11. Has God totally rejected them forever, and was the purpose of their stumbling that they (corporate ethnic Israel!) would “fall” and be lost forever? No; 1) there's a remnant even in Paul's day; 2) they were hardened for a time in order that salvation be brought to the Gentiles; and 3) when they (the same “they” we've been talking about!) are fully included one day, how much more blessing will that bring to the world!

In vv. 17-22, Paul talks about how the Jewish “root” of redemptive history should negate Gentile pride. He also warns Gentiles that just like the Israelites, they could also be broken off of the “tree” through unbelief.

Vv. 23-24 declare the ease by which the broken-off branches could be re-included, since they are of the same natural kind as the “roots.” It is natural that God's original covenant people would return one day.

In v. 25, Paul says that a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. The hardening is “partial” because of the elect remnant. The “Israel” here is, once again, clearly corporate, ethnic Israel. Also, the partial hardening of Israel is here described as temporary. Once the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, Jewish jealousy will be provoked to critical height, and will result in their eschatological salvation.

In vv. 26-27 Paul says that in this way, “all Israel will be saved.” And he quotes from the OT prophets about how ungodliness will one day be removed from “Jacob.” The interpretation of this verse depends entirely on the interpretation of the preceding context and the last couple of verses in the chapter.

V. 28 says that the Jews are “enemies of God in regard to the gospel” (clearly this must be corporate, ethnic Israel, once again), but “beloved” as regards election, for the sake of the forefathers. For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (v. 29).

Vv. 30-31 set up a parallel: just as the Gentiles (corporately) were once disobedient, and have now received mercy, so they (Israel, as a whole, except for the remnant!) have now been disobedient, so that they would one day again receive mercy.

V. 32 summarizes powerfully: God has consigned all to disobedience, in order to have mercy on all. If corporate, ethnic Israel has been consigned to disobedience, this verse teaches that the ultimate telos of that hard providence is mercy and salvation for corporate, ethnic Israel.

The only way to get Gaffin's interpretation of vv. 11-14 is to let the remnant theme and argument of vv. 1-7 overrun the entire rest of the passage, and totally ignore the consistent reference Paul gives to ethnic Israel corporately, as a whole. If the “they” of the actual text of v. 11 is corporate (as it must necessarily be, since corporate Israel stumbled over the Messiah), then Paul's negative answer to the question of whether their stumbling was for the ultimate purpose of “falling” precludes Gaffin's view. It will not do, either, to limit Paul's negation here to a kind of relative negation that says essentially, “No, they didn't so much stumble so as to fall (although they mostly will fall), but rather so that mercy would come to the Gentiles.” For Paul goes on, especially in vv. 25-26, to declare the temporary character of the hardening that has come upon corporate Israel. This is an essential second part of his answer to the question raised in v. 11. If Gaffin wants to say the “temporary” aspect of Israel's hardening just means that Israel will be hardened “until” the Last Day, but then they won't be corporately saved, vv. 25-26 would seem rather superfluous and irrelevant to the flow of his argument (the main point of which is supposed to be that “No” is the correct answer to v. 11).

The end of the chapter, especially v. 31, is just as clear to me, at least. In v. 30, the Gentiles (corporately) were disobedient in God's providence, and then received mercy. In v. 31, the same pattern is now to become true of (corporate) Israel! The elect remnant of Israel is not the disobedient group, but corporate Israel is. Israel has now been “disobedient” in rejecting the Messiah, but that's not so that they would fall; it's not only so that salvation would come to the Gentiles, but also that they would one day again receive mercy. Gentiles disobeyed, then received mercy. Israel has now disobeyed, and will again receive mercy! The right answer to v. 11 is an unqualified (if complicated) “No!”

To be clear, I no more than Gaffin am any kind of dispensationalist who believes Israel will come into covenant with God again in the future as a covenant entity distinct from the Church. Rather, in finally receiving Jesus as the Messiah, they will join His one people, His Bride, the Church. All who exercise the faith of Abraham are his children; the locus of the promises of God which must be received by such Abrahamic faith is Christ, and there is now no more theological dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (see Rom. 4, Gal. 3, Eph. 2, etc.). The land promise has been expanded to the whole world (Rom. 4:13), and ALL the promises of God are “yes and amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Nevertheless, there is no reason we can't affirm, within a Christ-centered and New Testament-controlled covenantal hermeneutic, the eschatological conversion of the majority of ethnic Jews. I believe Romans 11 actually demands affirming such a hope.

Point 5

Gaffin: If amillennialists can be called "defeatist" about the entire millennium (the interadvental period), then postmillennialists should be called "defeatist" with regard to what has turned out so far to be a substantial part of the millennium.

My response: Once again granting Gaffin's point about the problems with conceiving of a categorically distinct "golden age" in the Church's future as a kind of “subset” of the millennial age, postmillenialists do not conceive of the present state of gospel progress as characterized by defeat, but rather as simply being somewhere in the middle of a gradual process of gospel victory, on an overall upward trend (with many peaks and valleys on the way to consummation). The Church is working out progressively in the world what was definitively accomplished in Christ's exaltation.

Point 6

Gaffin: What will give the church optimism in its present calling is not a promise of future dominion pre-Second Advent but of the real victory it already possesses in the exalted Christ.

My response: I agree the Church needs to base its optimism on the victory it already possesses; however, it is bordering on a kind of gnostic docetism to try and work out that victory missiologically in totally “spiritual,” non-earthly, “invisible” terms. After all, Christ's declaration of His present eschatological authority includes “all authority in heaven and on earth!” (Matt. 28:18).

Point 7

Gaffin: According to the NT, suffering characterizes the Church's experience throughout the entire interadvental age; postmillennialists implicitly deny this by positing a golden age when the suffering of the Church will be largely ameliorated.

My response: Granting Gaffin's structural point about a “golden age” once again, it is necessary to reaffirm (with the most responsible postmillennial exegetes) the necessity of gospel victory through suffering. Gospel victory is cruciform; it's the Christus Victor theme that needs to be played up in a healthy postmillennial view. N. T. Wright actually does a great job of emphasizing this, whether or not he would want to call himself “postmillennial” in the modern sense.

I should also point out, though, that even if there is going to be a long “golden age” of gospel prosperity in the whole world, the Church's mission would not be over. After having finished pressing totally “outward” to the ends of the earth, it would need to continue pressing “downward,” discipling and establishing people more deeply in the faith in all areas of life. The Great Commission, after all, included teaching the nations to obey all that Jesus had commanded. With the task of “Evangelism” proper being done, will the Great Commission be finished? Not hardly. And it won't automatically make the Church's task easy or free of intense suffering.

Consider an analogy. Once a couple has been married for 40 years, and has largely come to understand, in at least a basic way, the biggest communication and various other relational issues that have come up over and over again in the marriage, does growing to love each other and grow even deeper as a couple become easier necessarily, in the sense of not involving as much suffering? The suffering might be of a different kind, but it certainly can be just as intense.

Another analogy could be the individual Christian life. Perhaps a man who has known the Lord for over 50 years has overcome a great many sins in his life to a great extent, through the process of sanctification, by the power of the Spirit. But how much more keenly aware is that man of his sin when it surfaces! How much more do the subtle stains of selfishness and idolatry remaining in his heart distress him, now that he has come to know so deeply the true light of the holiness of God! The suffering is of a different kind than that which he experienced early on in his Christian life, but it is no less real. So it would be with the Church in a prosperous “golden age” at the end of the millennium, even if such a view of New Testament eschatology has other legitimate problems we should consider carefully from Gaffin's pen.

Point 8

Gaffin: If we believe in a future demonstrable reduction of creation's cursed frustration and the Church's suffering before the Second Advent, that trivializes present suffering and our ultimate future hope. Also, the Church is always “one step behind” its Lord--His exaltation means the Church's (privileged) humiliation now, and His return will mean the Church's exaltation.

My response: By Gaffin's logic, turning again to the analogy of the Christian life, belief in a future state of great victory over sin in our lives before glorification “trivializes” both our present sinfulness and our ultimate hope of resurrection. Clearly something is wrong here. Again granting Gaffin's structural point against “golden age” postmillennialism, perhaps in the Christian life we also shouldn't conceive of there being a static future stage of great victory over sin before the Second Advent that is categorically distinct from our present Christian life (which would actually be akin to Charismatic “second-work-of-grace dogma), but why should that preclude our hope of gradual progress resulting in greater and greater victory before the Last Day? I hope, in 20 years, to be far more sanctified than I am today. Likewise, I hope that in 5,000 years (if it takes that long) the gospel will have much wider and deeper influence throughout the world than it does now. And I don't believe that trivializes the power of the exalted Christ and His gospel today; nor does it trivialize the Blessed Hope of the Last Day I still have. The wonderful has come; more and more of the wonderful will appear progressively; and the most wonderful will one day cataclysmically appear. I think postmillennialists can set their hope “fully on the grace that will be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13) without abandoning hope for visible gospel progress in the world before that last redemptive revelation.

I also want to point out that Gaffin would be wrong to make very much out of his idea that the Church will only be exalted at Christ's return. Just like every aspect of the age to come (even New Creation! See 2 Cor 5:17) has been inaugurated by Christ's First Advent/death/resurrection/exaltation, the exaltation of the Church has also been inaugurated. Ephesians 2 spells this out powerfully.

Point 9

Gaffin: The Church “wins” by “losing” in this age.

My response: If he means that the Church gains the victory of the visible spread of gospel influence by martyrdom, then ok. But if he means that the Church gains...some other kind of victory...? an invisible one? martyrdom...what does that even mean or look like? Is the victory reduced to Christians going to heaven until the Second Advent? Again, it sounds quasi-docetic.

Point 10

Gaffin: The way the New Testament interprets the Old Testament makes the postmillennial interpretation of passages like Isaiah 65 and Isaiah 2 implausible.

My response: The New Testament use of the Old is indeed Christ-centered and results in what some people would call “spiritualizing” approaches to some passages, but this kind of language is misleading, and tends, once again, toward docetic missiology and eschatology. Why think that the physical-blessings-charged Isaiah 65 has no fulfillment whatsoever until the Second Advent? Does the inauguration of Messianic blessing happen on a spiritual-and-only-then-physical “installment plan?” Also: how does an invisible kingdom bring terror to the Caesars of the world? Also: when we pray the Lord's prayer, are we only praying for the kingdom to come on earth at the Last Day? Or are we praying for things to come right now that are only “invisible,” “heavenly” things? Although I certainly pray the most intensely for people's conversion and sanctification, I also pray for visible, earthly, physical things, and I pray for them in Christ's name, and because of His reign. I will be voting in Christ's name. And I know people who are concerned with giving people throughout the world cleaner water, in Christ's name. Have these things nothing to do with the kingdom? Are they not, if only in small ways, beginning fulfillments of Isaiah 65?

Point 11

Gaffin: The New Testament presents the Second Advent as imminent; postmillennialists cannot affirm its imminence.

My response: The verses Gaffin points to in his writing could almost all easily be seen as having reference to the events leading up to and including the fall of Jerusalem in the first century, rather than the Second Advent. Also, 2 Pet 3 seems to indicate that it is very possible that Christ's bodily return could be a very long time in coming (compare parables of second half of Matt. 24 and then Matt. 25). Nevertheless, postmillennialists are not trapped into affirming that the Second Advent is definitely still a long way away, because they cannot say for sure how powerfully and quickly the Spirit will work to fulfill the postmillennial hope in the coming months and years, especially in view of increasing globalization and communication technology. Perhaps gospel progress will accelerate with massive, surprisingly powerful revival. Postmillennialism doesn't have to put Christ's return in any more of a box than any other orthodox view.

Point 12

Gaffin: Paul conceived of gospel already having gone to all nations in a prophetic sense in his day; therefore the Second Advent is imminent.

My response: Apart from the arguments I made above about how postmillennialists don't necessarily have to affirm the opposite of imminence, although they cannot hold definitely to an imminent Second Advent (which is fine if the NT can be interpreted consistently partial-preteristically), Gaffin sounds here almost like some hyperpreterists sound today! Let me be clear: Gaffin is NO hyperpreterist. As we have seen, he's no friend of even orthodox preterism. However, if he thinks that the definitive conversion of many Gentiles of the Roman empire in the first century exhausts the eschatological import of the relevant prophecies, he trivializes the Great Commission's applicability for today. Yes, there are passages where Paul says things like “the gospel has [already] been proclaimed in all the world.” However, how did Paul end most of his letters, including those which contain such statements? Consistently, it was by exhortations to faithful Christian living, and requests for financial support of missionary activity, that would only be commensurate with a continuing application of the Great Commission and a hope for continued gospel progress in the world on the basis of Jesus' exaltation and Messianic authority! Postmillennialists rightly conceive of the Church's mission today and its expected future result as prophetically significant, rather than as some kind of continuing “after-thought” to the fast progress the gospel made in the first century.

Point 13

Gaffin: [Here's a fascinating direct quote from his article]: “That mandate, then, is bound to have a robust, leavening impact—one that will redirect every area of life and will transform not only individuals but, through them corporately (as the church), their cultures; it already has done so and will continue to do so, until Jesus comes.”

My response: What a concession! Transformation of cultures until Jesus comes...what would Gaffin say about the extent to which we can expect such transformation, in light of verses like 1 Cor. 15:25?! He must reign until all His enemies are put under His feet, save the last enemy, death.

Point 14

Gaffin: Christians are strangers, aliens, and pilgrims on this earth, in the “wilderness” as it were (see Hebrews). They are looking for the “city to come,” and do “not yet see everything subject to” Christ.

My response: Even if we are pilgrims here, and look for an enduring city unlike this one, why can't we expect to begin seeing everything subject to Him, visibly (isn't this what happens in successful discipleship?) Shouldn't we seek to see (and doesn't Gaffin himself expect in some ways to see, based on the above) social justice according to biblical standards carried out on this earth?

Is the point of Hebrews' wilderness generation analogy to deny that the Church is also like the generation which drove out the Canaanites, in the sense that we are seeking gospel victory over evil and unbelief in every place?

Does the fact that suffering is a reality of the entire millennial interadvental age preclude the possibility that certain kinds of suffering will be dramatically alleviated through gospel prosperity throughout the world?

Does hope in visible gospel progress (so long as it acknowledges the great eschatological significance of the past and present reign of Christ) necessarily trivialize the greatness of the consummation, or the tragedy of present sin and suffering leftover from the “old age” of things passing away?

To these last several questions, I answer, “No.” But I appreciate the way in which Dr. Gaffin has enabled me to refine some of my thinking about the structure of my eschatology, especially with regard to the question of a future “golden age.”

(Although I need to continue thinking about that issue, since in the course of writing this response, I have realized that even “golden age” postmillennialists can answer the suffering objection fairly well from a number of angles).

Here's Gaffin's article: Gaffin Eschatology

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Than Was Then, Tomorrow's How?

[Note: many italicizations have been lost from the original text on my facebook page...I won't spend the time to go in and add them again. The main points of each paragraph should remain clear enough.]

To be transparent, Trey Scott and I, who became very interested in and inquisitive about the subject of Christian eschatology several years ago (and still are to this day), were converted to a preterist (that is, orthodox preterist) view of biblical prophecy by little further study than hearing a masterful presentation of some of Dr. Kenneth Gentry's understanding of the book of Revelation which he himself gave at a 1999 Ligonier Conference in Orlando, and which can be seen in its entirety on YouTube, the link for which is below. Disclaimer: we have no idea why the graphics and sounds are as cheesy as you would expect a sensationalist futurist's DVD program to be.

Anyway, we have since continued, at times with more or less intentional focus, to refine our understanding of this position as it relates to various biblical and theological issues.

Before I go further, I would point anyone who is an absolute newcomer with no exposure yet to this view to go read either Trey's recent absolute beginner's introduction to preterism, especially as it pertains to the Olivet Discourse:

A Note on Biblical Prophecy

AND/OR my older, slightly more involved but less well-organized primer:

Revelation Made Easier: Partial Preterism Primer

One issue that comes up when you adopt a partial or "orthodox" preterist position with regard to the judgment coming of Christ on Jerusalem in AD 70 is discerning which eschatological passages in the New Testament have primary or sole reference to that event, and which eschatological passages have primary or sole reference to the Second Advent of Christ--His literal, bodily coming at the end of history.

Some passages, for most orthodox preterists, are clear, like 1st Corinthians 15 and 1st Thessalonians 4. These passages, because the language in them about resurrection is manifestly about physical resurrection, are certainly referring to the yet-future Second Coming of Christ at the last day, not AD 70.

However, I am still working out some issues like determining precisely how Paul relates the two events in both of his letters to the Thessalonians, and whether his audience would have understood him clearly on the matter. I am also still working out whether I think for sure the apocalyptic de-creation language of 2nd Peter 3 is referring to the Second Advent, or is yet another way of referring to the events of the first century (I currently lean toward the former option).

I intend some day to finish making a fairly comprehensive study of the way the New Testament relates the two events, and attempt to come up with some consistent hermeneutical principles for the eschatological passages about Christ's coming that do demonstrable justice to both Christian orthodoxy and a partial preterist reading of the New Testament as a whole (if possible with the preterist reading).

One case, though, which I feel fairly confident about, despite the way commentators continue to rage in chaotic disagreement, is the question of whether there is a topical transition in the Olivet Discourse as recorded in Matthew from discussion of the first century "Great Tribulation" and destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24:4-34 to descriptions of the glorious Second Advent of Christ to judge all people in Matthew 24:37 through 25:46.

I take the view that there is such a topical transition in Jesus' discourse, and will seek to briefly defend that position here.

Let's briefly review the preterist understanding of vv.4-34, though.

Vv. 4-13

All of these things were in fact happening in the first century prior to Jerusalem's fall: false Messiahs, famines and earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars, growing persecution of Christians by the surrounding and occupying Roman empire, and many people apostatizing from true spirituality.


The gospel had, in a sense, been preached in the "whole world," in the sense of the "whole known world" of the Roman empire. Other passages in the New Testament confirm this as a legitimate way to speak, for they say that this had been accomplished. See Trey's note for four or five specific examples. This does not, for orthodox preterists, constitute any good reason whatsoever for the Church to neglect missions in our day. The "end" in this verse refers to the end of the Judaic aeon--the age of the Old Covenant order.

Vv. 15-20

The "abomination of desolation" is language from Daniel 9, which in turn is language that was originally applied to Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he desecrated the temple with sacrifices of pigs in the intertestamental period. Daniel prophetically, with fuzzy vision, and then here Jesus, with greater clarity, applies the language to the coming trampling of Jerusalem by the Gentile Roman armies. Compare with Luke 21:20-22. Jesus gives specific instructions here to those who are in Judea to take flight and "head for the hills" when they see the abomination of desolation "standing in the holy place" (Jerusalem and the near-surrounding area).

V. 21

How could the first century events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem have constituted the greatest tribulation to that day, and one such that no worse would ever be? In terms of covenantal significance, God's divorce and capital punishment of apostate national Israel was the biggest spiritual upheaval that has ever happened, even if the volume of physical slaughter has been outdone in the earth since then. Moreover, Jesus may be just employing a measure of prophetic hyperbole. It is not uncommon in the Old Testament. Interestingly, though, Josephus the historian uses very strikingly similar language when he describes the horror of the tribulation of those days as he watched these things happen.

Vv. 22-26

Again, there were many professing Messiahs in the first century. Also, though things were extraordinarily violent, they did take place rather quickly, once all the Christians had escaped Judea.

V. 27

Some commentators cannot understand how this could have a first century fulfilment, but it does sound like metaphorical apocalyptic language, and the main point seems to be that this judgment coming of Christ was a manifest and visible work, not some secret event the likes of which the false Messiahs and proto-Gnostic heretics were constantly claiming would happen. Everyone could see the ruin of Jerusalem take place as the Son of Man took vengeance on His apostate kinsmen.

V. 28

Jerusalem, and especially its corrupt leaders, was a spiritually dead city, as Jesus constantly points out in Matthew's gospel account. Therefore, it could be described as a corpse to which the "vultures" (the agents of God's judgment) gathered. There could be an overtone of the Deuteronomic covenant cursing imagery here, as well.

V. 29

This apocalyptic de-creation language was common in the Old Testament when the prophets were describing political upheaval in the land as judgments from God. There is no biblically constraining reason to be woodenly literalistic about these kinds of verses. See Trey's note, again.

V. 30

This verse should be translated as "And then will the sign of the Son of Man in heaven appear, and all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory." This is not an astrological disturbance or a Superman moment for the body of Jesus. Rather, this is pointing to the fact that the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of filthy Gentile pagan Romans is the sign that the Son of Man had been exalted in heaven as the Messianic King, presented before the Ancient of Days (see Daniel 7), and was now "coming" in judgment (compare Old Testament texts about Yahweh "coming" on a cloud for judgment...again, see Trey's note). "Earth" here can also be translated "land," and "tribes" here manifestly refers to the families of Israel, who will now mourn because of their pending doom if they have rejected Jesus.

V. 31

"Angels" here can simply mean "messengers," and this verse, in a way similar to v. 14, simply refers to the wide announcement of the gospel and the gathering of many Gentiles into the Church before the end of the Jewish age.

V. 32-33

Jesus compares the signs He has been discussing to a fig tree. When the fig tree puts forth leaves, summer is around the corner. So, Jesus argues, the disciples to whom He was speaking (unless He meant "you" generically...extraordinarily unlikely in this context), should know that when these signs appear to them, His coming (in judgment on Jerusalem by means of the Romans) is near.

V. 34

Jesus declares that "this generation" will not pass away until "all these things" take place. Futurist attempts to make this generation refer to the Jewish race or the eschatological generation still in our future are very weak, especially in light of parallel passages in the other Synoptic accounts. See my comments on Trey's note.

Now to defend my view that a topical transition occurs here in the text.

Some commentators who take the same position as I do with regard to the topical transition at verses 24:35, 36 base their view largely on the grammar of the transitional verses 24:35, 36. They make a big deal out of both the strong adversative particle "but" at the beginning of verse 36, suggesting that it is a clear indicator of a major topical change in the discourse, and the contrast between the near demonstrative "this" in the "this generation" of v. 34 and the far demonstrative "that" of the "that day and hour" of v. 36.

I think that from within my position those things sound good and make sense, but I am not surprised that they are not convincing arguments on their own to full preterists or most futurists. The grammatical shifts, when considering the grammar alone, could simply signal a shift from discussion of a general time period of the great tribulation of the last years of the 60's AD with its attendant warning signs Jesus spoke about, to the short, more specific period of the siege of Jerusalem ("that day and hour").

However, combined with a few other observations, I think that I can accept those arguments as welcome auxiliary.

First, v. 34 does seem like a strong concluding statement to everything that had come before. Why would Jesus say about half the things He wanted to say about the turmoil that would occur within a generation, then say that "all these things" would indeed take place within a generation, and then continue to talk about more "things" that would take place in the same time frame? Some have attempted to argue that after 24:34 Jesus shifts His attention away from the events and situation to instructions about what the disciples should do about it--how they should live. This is unconvincing because Jesus talks about the nature of the situation surrounding the event spoken of in 24:37ff as well as how the disciples should respond to it, and He talks about what the disciples should do about the events in 24:4-34 within vv.4-34 itself. He talks about both aspects in both sections, and as we will see, they are very different pictures indeed.

Second, there is a shift from language of imminence to language of temporal distance which is very striking. In 24:4-34 we have temporal indicators like "near," "this generation," and "right at the door." In the rest of the discourse, we have a character of the first parable supposing the master would be gone for a "long time" (where would he have gotten that idea had he been instructed about the signs of imminence of the AD 70 judgment?), the wise virgins in the next parable being the ones who take extra oil for their lamps, and the master of the next parable coming back after a "long time" to settle accounts.

Third, there is a shift from language of insight concerning timing and signs to language of suddenness and unexpectancy. This hardly requires explanation, but one example would be a quick comparison between 24:15-16 with 24:36-41. In the first instance, the "abomination of desolation" is a sign of imminent judgment, together with all the famines and earthquakes Jesus warned of. In the latter instance, the comparison is made to the days of Noah. Everything was going on just as normal until the judgment waters came. Hell broke loose all at once. Two men were in the field, as it were, and one was taken and one was left; two women grinding at a mill, one was taken and one was left (and the two were in the same place, Luke 17:35 and discussion of Luke 17 below). I have seen full preterists attempt to argue that this "Noahic" situation could apply to the first century Christians in Judea, too. After all, they assert, there can be lots of bad things going on in the wide world around you while you stay safe and only hear of the "rumors" of wars. I don't buy it for a minute. 24:4-34 presents a host of turbulent signs of warning for believers, teaching that they need to be ready to flee when they see this stuff starting to happen. 24:37ff presents utter normalcy interrupted by sudden, unexpected, divine catastrophe. It's clear.

Fourth, there is a shift in the emphasis of Jesus' instructions to the disciples for how they are to live in light of the two different situations. In 24:4-34, the main instruction is to literally head for the hills when they see the signs of imminent destruction. In the rest of the discourse, they are to be alert and faithful stewards of God's resources as they are apparently carrying out normal kingdom work (as in 24:42-51 and all of Ch. 25, but especially 25:14-30). The two are not necessarily absolutely mutually exclusive. But every day kingdom work just does not seem like a natural focus for Jesus to have when speaking to His disciples of the time close to and leading up to AD 70.

Fifth, 24:4-34 is radically focused on the doom of Jerusalem in the first century (see vv.1-3 and the previous chapter for further confirmation that this is assuredly the main theme of the section). Then, Matthew 25:31ff, which most commentators agree goes together with 24:37ff--25:30, has Christ judging all nations of people. We go from a particular to a universal judgment.

Sixth, the judgment in 24:4-34, if it has reference to the first century (and it does) is a temporal, judgment of a nation, and the judgment pictured in 25:41, 46 (which, again, fits closely with the whole of 24:37ff--25:40) sounds clearly like the eternal judgment of individuals in "eternal fire" (cf. Rev. 20:10, 15).

Two common objections gave me the greatest pause when considering this interpretation.

The first is that Jesus' disciples would likely not have had the "exegetical" wherewithal, that I have had the luxury of time to develop and present here, to understand that Jesus was speaking of two distinct events separated by a large amount of time. They asked mainly about the temple's destruction and the "end of the [Jewish] age." So the "coming" of Christ they also asked about had to have only been the one connected with the first century event...His "metaphorical" (as some people put it) judgment coming on Jerusalem.

My answer, though, is that that's not necessary at all. First of all, the disciples rarely understood all the nuances of Jesus' often cryptic sayings. Second, it is common in Old Testament prophecy for the prophets to lay near events and far-off events right next to each other without any grammatical warning. Jesus, the ultimate prophet, had plenty of precedent to do just such a thing. And if a futurist wants to say this principle should be applied within 24:4-34 so that both "comings" of Christ are mentioned even within that range of verses (and a great many commentators in fact say such a thing), I would say it's remotely possible, but I see no reason not to take v.34 literally in the plainest and most absolute sense. Third, as I have argued above, the very different tone, circumstances, and instructions related to the two distinct events I have no doubt made the disciples begin to wonder if a couple of different events related to the "coming" of Christ lay yet in their future.

The second, and strongest exegetical objection to this view, is that Luke 17:20-37 incorporates language from both Matthew 24:4-34 and 24:37ff in the very same section. Isn't this, especially in light of the nature of the Synoptic gospels' relationships with each other, a clear indication that Jesus is either teaching us some kind of "full" preterism with only one judgment coming in AD 70, or is doing some kind of idealistic mashing together of prophecies of near and far events?

I don't think so. I think Luke 17:20-37 is all about the Second Coming at the end of history, even though it uses some language similar to a couple parts of Matthew 24:4-34 (namely, the verse about the visibility of the coming of the Son of Man, the verse instructing disciples not to go down into their houses to get anything, and the verse about the vultures gathering where the corpse is).

First of all, the Second Coming will be just as visible--and indeed far more visible and universally obvious than the judgment coming of AD 70. AD 70 was extraordinarily visible for the relevant observers at the time. The Second Coming will be visible to literally every person in the world as we understand that phrase today, for it will be relevant to every person. Why shouldn't Jesus use similar apocalyptic language to describe the "universal" visibility of both events?

Second, the language about not going down into one's house to get anything just seems to be a loose metaphor for the necessity of continual preparedness--something applicable to the believers in the first century as well as to us, although the preparedness in actuality looks a little different for each situation (see above on regular kingdom work vs. readiness to flee in the distinct sections of Matthew's Olivet Discourse account).

Third, the imagery of the vultures gathering where the corpse is is also just as applicable to the Second Coming as to AD 70. The participants in the Millennial final rebellion will be spiritually equivalent to a "corpse," and the agents of God's final judgment when Christ returns will be like unto vultures that swallow them up. I will concede, however, that the specific imagery of scavenger birds does readily call to mind the Deuteronomic curses that would be more closely associated with Israel than with the judgment of the wider world.

Fourth, the whole section of Luke 17:20ff begins with Jesus telling the Pharisees that the kingdom of God would not be coming with signs! For behold, says Jesus, "the kingdom of God is in your midst." It makes one think simultaneously of the passage in Matthew where Jesus declares that His ability to cast out demons proves that in Him the kingdom of God had come upon His hearers, as well as the kingdom parables like the mustard seed and the leaven, which illustrate the "at times imperceptibly slow-growing" nature of the kingdom throughout the whole Church age (or the Millennium, if you'd like, if you're a good a- or post-millennialist), which is terminated by Christ's Second Coming, not His coming to judge Jerusalem in AD 70. In any case, there is no way we can closely link a passage where Jesus has just declared that the kingdom comes "without signs" with a passage that is rampant with signs.

Fifth, in Luke 17:22, Jesus tells His disciples that days will come when they will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but that they wouldn't see it! Are we to believe that Jesus, who in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 (!), makes a big deal out of the all the dramatic visible signs and the imminence of His coming to judge Jerusalem within a generation, would actually tell His disciples on another occasion that they would not see the judgment of AD 70, even as a statement of relative negation implying something like, "You won't see it when you want to?" Not likely, in my opinion.

Sixth, to re-use a point from the discussion above about Matthew 24, the comparison made with the days of Noah here seems to be the dominant paradigm. Again, despite the mention of Lot "fleeing" Sodom before its destruction in v. 29 as an extra illustration (which would sound more like the AD 70 situation were that verse on its own), here we have life going on as normal: marriage, feasting, farming, trading. Then sudden judgment resulting in one of two people who are in one bed being taken away, one of two women in the same place being taken away, and one of two men in the field being taken away.

Seventh, Luke has his own account of the Olivet Discourse in chapter 21, with many more direct parallels with Matthew 24:4-34. Luke 17 is a unique occasion, and definitely a distinct topic from the first part of the Olivet Discourse as Matthew records it, fitting much better with the latter part of the discourse and describing the Second Coming.

Regarding the proposition that Matthew 24:35-36 constitutes a pivot point of topical transition from Messianic prophecy about first century events involving the destruction of Jerusalem to Messianic prophecy about distant the distant future event of the Second Advent, our Blessed Hope,


Here's Dr. Gentry's great presentation:

The Beast of Revelation: IDENTIFIED

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Baptism of New Covenant Children

My Changed Mind and First Public Defense

Yes, my Southern Baptist (and otherwise credobaptist) friends, I have turned to the "dark side" of the baptism debate and become a covenantal paedobaptist. This isn't an extraordinarily recent event--it actually happened many months ago, if not over a year now. I haven't written publicly about it since, however, because sometimes when you change theological positions on such a major issue, you feel tentative about your view for a time. You keep looking at different arguments, and letting the different arguments you've already heard about simmer in your mind both consciously and unconsciously for a long time still, in case you should find that your change of position was premature.

However, now a potential opportunity has come up to debate the topic publicly, and the moderator and my potential opponent need to see some written material from me, I assume for the twofold purpose of 1) seeing if I'm a strong enough and otherwise suitable candidate for representing covenantal paedobaptism in the debate and 2) allowing my potential opponent to see where I'm coming from, what arguments I'll tend to use, how I will tend to handle objections, etc.

So, in this post, I plan to put forth a positive case for the Christian baptism of the infant children of believers in the New Covenant, consisting of seven arguments I consider to be some of the best for the paedobaptist position. Some of them could be placed in the objections section, instead, as many of the arguments will include aspects of response to common credobaptist objections, however, I feel that "seven" is a "perfect" and "complete" number of arguments for the positive case.

Following the positive case, I will respond briefly to about eight or nine common objections to the paedobaptist position.

This in no way can be a comprehensive study of New Testament baptism. The subject as a whole is vast, and a comprehensive study would have to include extensive word studies, discussions of the proper mode of baptism, extended study of the Old Testament context of prophecies of the "new covenant," and further investigation into the historical issues regarding the practice and justifications of the church at various stages in church history, as well as many other topics.

However, the purpose of this post is to briefly put forth some main arguments that reveal how I look at the Bible as a whole with regard to covenant signs, the transition of covenants from Old to New at Pentecost, and implications for the application of the covenant sign of baptism today. This, I hope, should prove useful to my potential debate opponent and the moderator in assessing whether I would be a good fit for the debate or not. In any case, I'm sure it will at least generate some interesting discussions and possibly new challenges from my very faithful Christian brothers who disagree with me and the tradition of the Westminster Confession of Faith in the interpretation of Scripture at this point. And for that alone, I would be very thankful.

First Argument: The Traditional Argument from Systematic Theology

The main thrust of the paedobaptist contention is explained in terms of the unity of God's redemptive purpose and the way of salvation throughout covenant history. For those of us who hold to Reformed confessions, whether credobaptist or paedobaptist, we tend to talk about this organic, unfolding unity of God's redemptive purpose in terms of a "covenant of grace." This is not an explicitly scriptural phrase, but it basically refers to the administration of the gospel promises of God throughout all of covenant history.

All evangelical Christians (well, the term "evangelical" is getting a little fluffy today...but historically speaking) would agree that the "gospel"...the "evangel"...or the only way people are saved and the only way they have ever been saved, from the ancient days of the patriarchs all the way to Christian believers today. The gospel, broadly speaking, is the set of promises made by God that He, through the Messiah, would bring about full redemption of sinners and all creation, the benefits of which are to be received through faith apart from works by all believers. In a strict New Testament sense, the "gospel" is the announcement that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, has already come and accomplished everything necessary for that full redemption in His death and resurrection on behalf of sinners, fulfilling God's promises.

The way God has always administered the blessings of His Messianic promise is in the context of covenant relationship with His people. There have been a number of covenants made between God and His chosen people throughout history, and there are varying degrees of continuity and discontinuity of the details of the covenant stipulations and sanctions between the various biblical covenants. However, one strand of continuity that runs throughout all of the major redemptive covenants is that they center around God's gracious blessings in Christ: union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, imputation of righteousness, Spirit-wrought transformation of the heart, fellowship with God, adoption as sons and daughters of God, the promise of resurrection to honor on the Last Day, and the promise of the inheritance of the final form of the "promised land" (which is revealed to be the whole "world" in Romans 4:13).

Of course, not all of this was revealed in full form right away. But from the seed form of the gospel promise in the "proto-evangelion" of Genesis 3:15 about the ultimate defeat of the serpent, to the promises made to Abraham about descendants, land, righteousness, and fellowship with God, to the promises to Israel under Moses that they would inherit the land and be God's special priestly nation of people in gracious covenant with the Lord, to the promise to David that one of his sons would rule on his throne forever in righteousness, to the promise of a new covenant (referring first to the post-exilic covenant with the house of Judah but ultimately to the new covenant in Christ according to Hebrews 8 and 10) in which there would be the objective fulfilment of the full and final forgiveness of sins by the death and resurrection of Christ, and the Spirit would be poured out in a special way such that the covenant people as a whole would be faithful forever; all of these promises center around and are fulfilled by Christ and His gospel.

As such, all of these biblical covenants (and arguably the Noahic covenant as well, in a sense) can be seen as having the same heart and substance, though with differences in various details and historical circumstances and outworkings. For this reason, most Reformed believers are comfortable calling the various redemptive covenants "administrations" of the one over-arching "covenant of grace."

Again, while the terminology might be controversial to those outside the Reformed tradition, and might lead some credobaptists into premature suspicion that paedobaptists are smuggling into the discussion an unwarranted category that tends to flatten out too much the developments of God's covenant relationships with His people throughout redemptive history, the point still remains that salvation, with its heart being faith-union with the Messiah on the basis of either promise or fulfilment, has always been the same for substance.

In Scripture we actually find such unity across covenants, that Paul can speak of the "gospel" itself having been preached to Abraham (Gal. 3:8)! Speaking of the wilderness generation under Moses, the author of Hebrews also says that "good news" was preached to us, just as to them (euaggeliz┼Ź). In the midst of an argument that our faith is the same as Abraham's (for the sake of demonstrating how salvation is always by faith apart from works), Paul in Romans 4 also connects our experience to David's experience of the forgiveness of sins and imputation of righteousness (Rom. 4:6-8). Then the book of Hebrews, in chapters 8 and 10, connects the fulfilment of the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31 with the finished work of Christ in the cross and resurrection (moreover, Luke 22:20 records Jesus explicitly connecting His blood about to be spilt with the "new covenant"). So we see the unity of God's redemptive purpose throughout the various biblical covenants, culminating in the gospel of the coming, death, and resurrection of the Messiah (also including the Ascension/enthronement and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost as a unified complex of Messianic events together with the cross and resurrection). This unity is the point of the terminology of "covenant of grace."

This covenant of grace, in its various covenant administrations, has always been attended by "sacraments" which are, in the language of the Reformed confessions, "signs" and "seals" of the redemptive benefits of the covenant to be received by faith. They are "seals" in that they confirm, to those who receive them by faith, the benefits of Christ and His gospel. They are like a stamp of certification and approval directly from God for extra assurance and strengthening of our faith in the certainty of His promises. In the language of the Westminster Confession, they "confirm our interest" in Christ. They are "signs" in that they signify, or resemble symbolically, various aspects of Christ and His redemptive work and benefits. They are like a visible and tangible presentation of the gospel to us, mediating the presence of Christ to us either for blessing through faith or for cursing through rejection and unbelief.

There is, according to Reformed theology, a spiritual relation between the sacramental sign and the thing signified, such that they are not conflated as though the sign were the reality represented or causes the salvific effects represented by the sacraments in an ex opere operato fashion (a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox error), but neither are they utterly separated as if one had nothing to do with the other beyond mere symbolism (the error of some Baptists and most mainstream evangelicals). The sign and thing signified are ordained by Christ to be in spiritual, sacramental union, in order to be a secondary means of grace to the Church, subordinate to and dependent on the spoken and written Word, mediating Christ to His people as much as the Word itself does.

This high view of the sacraments may sound strange at first to evangelicals outside the Reformed camp, but such believers may rest assured that we are not down-playing the necessity of faith for salvation. The realities signified and sealed in the sacraments are only made effectual for blessing through faith (and actually become signs and seals of judgment where there is unbelief and rejection of the gospel in those partaking unworthily; cf. 1 Cor. 11:27; 1 Cor. 10:1-5; 1 Pet. 3:20-21).

Nor are we down-playing the central importance of the written Word of God in the life of the Church. In fact, apart from the Word, the sacraments would have no efficacy from God. The efficacy of the sacraments depends entirely on their being joined together with a proper exposition of the gospel and its relationship to the signs and seals Christ has ordained to adorn the preached Word and further accommodate the weakness of our faith.

This is why I, as a convert to paedobaptism, reject my baptism as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church as a legitimate baptism. While my parents taught me the simple message of John 3:16 from an early age, and so I knew of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith in a cursory way appropriate for a child, the ordained "priest" who actually performed my baptism did not join the performance of the sacrament with what is a biblical understanding of the gospel, but rather joined it with an anti-Christian understanding of grace in an ecclesiastical institution which actually to this day in her documents anathematizes justification by faith alone, which is very close to the very heart of the biblical gospel, and is one essential aspect of it (though it is not to be absolutized as the whole of it). As James White, a profoundly effective Reformed Baptist apologist once pointed out, it doesn't get much worse than anathematizing the biblical gospel. (I'm not saying anything for certain about the spiritual state of the "priest" who baptized me, unless he wholeheartedly understood and embraced the necessary conclusions of the demonic Roman system concerning merit and which case Paul's anathemas in his letter to the Galatians would apply).

Therefore, I consider my baptism by immersion as a mature professing believer, by an ordained minister of the gospel, who joined my baptism together with a biblical understanding of salvation by faith in Christ, to be my true baptism. (So on occasion I jokingly say I'm covered no matter what we find out in heaven is the biblical practice for sure).

We must return to our already lengthy discussion about the covenant of grace and its sacraments, but all that is just to illustrate the central importance of the written and preached Word of God and the dependence on it of every other aspect of Reformed faith and practice, including the observance of the sacraments ordained by Christ for His precious Church.

Two of these sacraments will be the most important for our consideration in this discussion about paedobaptism: circumcision and, obviously, baptism.

Let's consider baptism first. What is it that baptism signifies and seals as true of those who receive Christ by faith? Clearly, in the New Testament, baptism is connected so closely with the following as to be presented as the sign and seal of such benefits: union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5; Col. 2:12), regeneration (Titus 3:5), the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16), and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38 again), if not other benefits also.

This fact may at first glance appear to be a problem for the paedobaptist position. After all, why should we apply the sign and seal of such benefits to someone--like an infant--who we cannot know for sure has experienced such things? (And some would say it is definitely impossible for infants to exercise saving faith--but I would say that that perspective goes against the entire tenor of Old Testament revelation about God's relationship to very young children in the covenant, as well as the case of John the Baptist). However, when we turn to examine the significance of the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision, we will see that this is not a substantial objection.

Now, what is it that circumcision signified and sealed under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants? (Incidentally, circumcision was technically the sign specifically of the Abrahamic covenant, and though it became associated closely with commitment to following all of Torah under Moses, the seventh-day Sabbath was actually the specific sign of the Mosaic covenant; see Ex. 31:13 and Ezek. 20:12). From Romans 4, we learn that circumcision was a sign and seal of "the righteousness that [Abraham] had by faith." From various passages in both the New Testament AND the Old Testament (!), we learn that circumcision was also a sign of regeneration/Spirit-wrought change of the heart (Deut. 10:16, 30; Deut. 30:6; Jer 4:4; Col. 2:11; Rom 2:29). Furthermore, the Colossians passage which has now been cited in both the significance of baptism section above as well as this paragraph on the significance of circumcision, connects both baptism and circumcision not only with regeneration--a subjective aspect of the experience of salvation, but also union with Christ in His death and resurrection--the objective ground of and context for the reception of all the redemptive benefits of Christ.

An alert credobaptist needs to understand that the argument from Colossians 2 for paedobaptism is not a simplistic one, as some have presented it in the past. A terrible argument for paedobaptism would be: according to Colossians 2:11-12, circumcision (as in the physical rite) has been explicitly fulfilled and thereby replaced by baptism (the water rite), in which we are raised through faith in Christ. A credobaptist would rightly respond that circumcision here has primary reference to the spiritual realities of regeneration and a new heart. After all, the circumcision is made "without hands." Thus, a credobaptist may argue, New Testament baptism is a picture and fulfilment not of the physical rite of circumcision, but has reference only to the circumcision of the heart as something already accomplished in the believer's life by the Spirit. But that doesn't really get at the heart of the argument from Colossians 2.

The fuller argument and real point is that Colossians 2 describes union with Christ in His death and resurrection, and the regeneration of the heart accomplished by faith-union with Him, in terms of the signs of both circumcision and baptism, showing how both physical rites point to the very same spiritual realities. Now to be sure, baptism is more closely connected with faith and with Christ's resurrection in this passage, and fittingly so, as a sign of the New Covenant which is all about fulfilment of older promises. The credobaptist shouldn't take this and try and run too far, though, because circumcision is still a sign of the spiritual resurrection of the believer in regeneration, which happens in union with the risen Christ under the New Covenant. Both signs point to Christ's work and its effect in the hearts of believers. Circumcision always has, and baptism now does.

What is the prima facie logical outcome of these considerations so far? Well, when we remember that the sign of circumcision given to Abraham for the covenant God made with him in Genesis 12, 15, 17, and 22 (mainly 17, though they are all really of a piece) was given for Abraham and all his descendants, we realize that it is not unfitting for God to ordain that infants receive signs and seals of things that we can not be totally sure are true of them yet (namely: regeneration, faith-union with Christ, etc.), at least not under the old covenants. Therefore, (and again, this is a prima facie conclusion for which there needs to be further argumentation from other New Testament texts), it seems appropriate that the infant children of adult members of the New Covenant should receive the sign and seal of formal entrance into the covenant community which embraces the promises of God concerning Messiah's fulfilled redemptive work.

More will be said about the Abrahamic promises and the genealogical principle as applied in the New Testament, but for now this should set the stage for further discussion by showing the systematic-theological foundation of Reformed covenantal paedobaptism, and should ward off surface attacks of credobaptists which point to the close relationship between New Testament baptism and the spiritual realities it signifies as some kind of "proof" that baptism should not be applied to infants who cannot yet give any kind of "credible profession of faith" or testify to their experience of these spiritual realities.

Second Argument: A Biblical Argument from Acts 2 (part 1)

Now we come to an exposition of what I believe is the New Testament passage that comes closest to being an overt, explicit sanctioning of covenantal paedobaptism out of all the passages on baptism in the whole New Testament.

I'm not going to go into the full details of the context all the way back to the beginning of Peter's speech or the speaking in tongues, much less the Ascension of Christ in chapter 1, other than to say that after the disciples were speaking in tongues and the multitudes heard each of the disciples speaking in their own language, Peter explained the gospel of Christ. He preached boldly that while his audience--mainly Jews--had, as a corporately apostate covenant body, wickedly put the Messiah to death by handing Him over to the Romans to crucify Him (by God's definite plan and foreknowledge), Jesus had now been raised from the dead and enthroned in heaven in fulfilment of the prophetic Psalms of David about the Messiah. And now through repentance, faith in Christ, and baptism, forgiveness of sins was available, as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit--the promise of the Father spoken of in v.33.

So Peter instructs the crowd in v.38, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." We see from this verse that the command to not only repent, but to undergo baptism, the sign of entrance into the New Covenant, was connected with the "promise" of the Spirit. (Hold on, you credobaptists, we'll get to discussing the "repentance" here a little later).

Then, in v.39, Peter says, "For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." Let's notice a couple of crucial things about this verse. Peter speaks of the "promise" here, and it is obviously a reference primarily to the promise of the Spirit which has dramatically been poured out on this day of Pentecost, in fulfilment of Joel's prophecy. It is connected, though, with the totality of the New Covenant promises which have been purchased by Christ and are now being fully poured out on the Church (save for the consummative events reserved for the eschaton, like physical resurrection, etc.). This covenant promise, Peter says, is for "you and your children." The Jews would have instantly recognized this covenant formula which God had repeated so often to the patriarchs in the Old Testament and to the people of Israel through the prophetic writings, and they would have instantly assumed that their children would not be left behind in the fading Old Covenant administration until they would come of age and be able to make a profession of faith, but would rather now be included in the New Covenant Church also as members who are just as much recipients of the covenant promises as the adults are.

Peter goes on from "you and your children..." to "...and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." While more will be said on this line later on, I just want to call attention here to the fact that the Jews would recognize with full understanding that they were witnessing the beginning of the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promises themselves in the establishment of the New Covenant Church. The promise of the Spirit, which is inextricably tied to all the other covenant promises of God, not the least of which was the forgiveness of sins, is what Abraham ultimately looked forward to when God promised to make of him a great nation, to grant him innumerable descendants, to grant him and his descendants righteous standing before Him on the basis of faith, to grant him and his descendants a promised land to live in forever, that God would be God to him and his children forever, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him (Gen. 12:3).

The point here for the establishment of the paedobaptist position is that the Jews would have heard Peter declaring that the covenant promises now fulfilled in Christ were as much for their children as they had ever been under older covenant administrations, and that therefore, since the children are still included in the covenant administration (the only possible context for the possession of divine promises), all the infant children of believers should receive the sacramental sign of entrance into the New Covenant Church, namely, baptism. You cannot separate the sacramental entrance sign of a covenant from participation in that covenant community.

There is much more to say about this passage soon, and more to say later. For now, let us turn to looking at this passage from a slightly different, though related, angle.

Third Argument: A Biblical Argument from Acts 2 (part 2)

While some of the substance of this third argument was really included in the second argument above, sometimes there are different ways of saying things and approaching things conceptually that help a person understand a similar main point more clearly. It's like turning a diamond a couple of different ways in the light, so one can see how its essence is one of great sparkle and effulgence (if I may be doubly-indulged for both being so vain as to compare my own arguments to a beautiful diamond and for using such old-school vocabulary as "effulgence").

First, according to our discussion of the covenant of grace category above, we must recognize that even the infant children of the Jewish believers on the day of Pentecost were members of the Old Covenant administration of the covenant of grace the day before Pentecost. Let this sink in with full force: not that the infant children of believers were definitely regenerate the day before Pentecost under the Old Covenant, but they were members of the one covenant of grace, citizens of the visible kingdom, and possessors of the divine covenant promises together with all of Israel. Now, with the day of Pentecost, we have the full effecting (putting into effect) of the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace as the Spirit is poured out in fullness on the people of God.

Now, we know that there is only one way, according to Scripture, to be excommunicated from the covenant community in gracious relationship with God (the community of the covenant of grace). That would be apostasy. Church discipline is a little hard to understand sometimes, because both the Old and New Testaments often speak of sin and continuing in righteousness in absolutist terms that may lead one to believe that the standard for the privilege of remaining in the covenant community is some kind of "perfection." This is not really so. But it's whenever the Old Testament is speaking in terms of "high-handed rebellion," or "faithlessness," or whenever the New Testament speaks of persistent heretical teaching or persistent and obstinate sin and immorality, that apostasy is being clearly described, with excommunication from the covenant people being the disciplinary injunction unanimously prescribed across the canon.

The upshot of this consideration of excommunication is that since apostasy is the only way to be removed from the covenant of grace, no covenant children unable to outwardly express blatant unbelief and apostasy could have been removed from the covenant at Pentecost. This is really huge, for on the credobaptist reading, at least the Reformed Baptist reading, thousands of Jewish infants went from being participants in a gracious covenant relationship with God to not being participants in such a relationship on the day of Pentecost, and rather being relegated by default to the same covenantal status as the children of Gentile heathen outside the covenant community (as much as the credobaptist tries to smooth this over by insisting on applying vague notions of privileges and advantages to the children short of covenant membership, simply because of their sociological association and proximity to the Church). I'm not trying to denigrate those real privileges and advantages--they're real! I'm simply saying the credobaptist doesn't go far enough, and ends up at a logical level having to say that children of New Covenant believers have no covenantal status better than heathen.

If it sounds here like I'm saying that the infant children of believers in the New Covenant who receive the sign of baptism are definitely regenerate and are definitely personally and spiritually in eternal saving union with Christ over against the heathen which stand condemned, the point is being missed. My point is one of covenantal status, as far as the administration of the covenant. Now, later we will see that Reformed Baptists try and define the requirements for New Covenant membership status differently than paedobaptists do. And that will be discussed.

But for now let us just consider that the Jews present on the day of Pentecost would have never conceived of their infant children being in the covenant of grace one day, and being out the next. If they had understood Peter as teaching such a thing, they would have surely protested. But we have no record that they did. Therefore we can assume that Peter was indeed teaching the continual inclusion of the infant children of believers onward into the New Covenant era. Therefore, as we said before, since you cannot separate membership in the covenant community from the receiving of the covenant entrance sign, the Jews would have--and certainly did--baptize their infant children on or soon after the day of Pentecost by the sanction of the apostles themselves.

Fourth Argument: An Argument from Church History

It is possible to look at the history of baptism in the church from a number of different angles, with a number of different questions and concerns in mind. Questions theologians and church historians like to ask as they examine primary sources include but are not limited to the following: When did infant baptism become the standard and universal practice of the church? What was the earliest theological justification for infant baptism after the New Testament period/in the post-apostolic church? What kind of controversies surrounded the topic of the theology and practice of baptism, and at what time did these discussions take place? What can we learn about baptismal practice from early liturgical and catechetical works?

It would be difficult in a presentation like this one to even scratch the surface of all the investigation into post-apostolic writings on the topic of baptism that would be possible in an exhaustive study. I just want to consider one question, though, for now. And it's a question about church history that I believe (and it seems most other contemporary paedobaptists believe) bears the most weight for the debate between Protestant credobaptists and paedobaptists.

Let me set the stage first, and then ask the question.

Let's say for a moment that the practice of the early church was the baptism of mature, professing, believing Christians only (credobaptism). Then, with the death of the apostle John the Evangelist, pretty much all the apostles had died out. Then their successors, Polycarp and Ignatius and most of their contemporaries in church leadership continued the practice they had received directly from John or the other apostles themselves, believer's baptism only.

Then we get to Origen, who, in a commentary on part of Romans 5, mentions infant baptism as if it's a generally widely accepted practice in the church. And we read in Tertullian's 'On Baptism' about how it was apparently customary by his time to baptize infants who had sponsors speaking for them, although Tertullian himself argued for a delay of baptism especially in the case of little children, because of his high (superstitiously and unbiblically high) view of baptismal efficacy. Later on we get to Augustine, who utilizes as one of his arguments against Pelagius concerning the reality of original sin the universal practice of the church in baptizing infants.

Now, clearly, some of the theological justification for baptism we find in the patristics, whether speaking of adults or of infants, is unbiblical. The Roman Catholic error of equating sign and thing signified has roots pretty early in church history. But our purpose here is to consider historical practice of the church regarding baptism. And on the picture we have painted so far, assuming credobaptism as the belief and practice of the apostles and presumably their immediate successors, we have an interesting situation.

What we see in this case is a universal belief in and practice of the baptism of mature professing Christian believers alone in the first century, perhaps into the early- or mid-second century AD. Then, without gun-bang, revolution, stars falling, or the moon turning blood-red, we have Christian theologians and apologists as intellecutally capable as Origen and Tertullian rising up, and later Augustine and others, who describe infant baptism as always having been the universally accepted norm and practice of the church! In comparison to the writings we have about so many other theological controversies which raged in the first few centuries, not only do we not have any surviving evidence of anti-paedobaptist writings from the first two or three centuries of church history (after all, one could argue such alleged writings were simply burned by the paedobaptist winners who happened to be the ones to write early church history for us), but we have no surviving evidence of polemical paedobaptist writings concerning the proper subjects of baptism, either!

So the grand question becomes: where was all the fuss that there had to have been on the credobaptist reading of history?

Yes, this is technically an argument from silence, but it is, as people say, a "screaming" silence that needs to be dealt with seriously by the credobaptist trying to come to terms with church history. If, as credobaptists allege, credobaptism was the belief and practice of the apostles according to the New Testament, we can assume that they passed this on to their immediate successors, and that the practice would go on indefinitely as the universal practice of the church barring only a large theological and ecclesiastical upheaval by paedobaptist innovators. And just such a large upheaval would have been necessary in order to cause paedobaptism to very quickly and very early on (certainly by the late 2nd century, on any fair reading of the patristics) become the standard, universal practice. Yet we have nothing from the early fathers suggesting any large controversy, polemical battles, councils, resolutions, or treatises that focused on proving who were, in fact, the proper subjects of Christian baptism. It was apparently never even a question, for centuries!

It seems inescapable that, despite some major problems with most of the fathers' theological justification of the practice, paedobaptism was known by the early church fathers to have been the universal practice of the church all the way back to the time of the apostles. The burden of proof is squarely on the one who would suggest that there was a large, quiet change early on from the alleged New Testament practice of believer's baptism only to the universal practice of paedobaptism in the early church.

Now, without getting into too much detail, many credobaptists would point out that in the earliest extra-biblical document we have which gives directions about baptism, the 'Didache,' instructions are given for the baptizand concerning fasting, which is something which can obviously only be required of adults being baptized. There may be other documents and liturgical manuals from early times that on a surface reading pose a problem for the paedobaptist. A simple response, though, is that the 'Didache' simply does not speak to the issue, and the instructions about fasting are implicitly only intended to be relevant for adult converts seeking baptism.

The same is true of Acts 2 when Peter commands the people to "repent"...obviously only those who were old and mature enough to understand this word of his and consciously enact it were the intended subjects of his command about repentance, and this had no relevance for determining whether or not the children of believers were still included in the covenant and could passively receive the sign of baptism. It makes one think of Genesis 17, when Abraham is commanded by God to "walk blameless" before Him, in the midst of a restatement of God's covenant with Abraham and his children. Obviously this would apply to Abraham's children, too, just with the implicit assumption that it will apply to them when they are old enough to consciously heed the command and walk blamelessly in covenant with God. It doesn't exclude them from inclusion in the covenant although it's a legitimate stipulation of the covenant.

Imagine if the establishment of circumcision as a covenant sign had happened in a context more like Acts 2. Would it not have been perfectly natural for Peter (or whoever it would be...Abraham?) still to have used the language of "repent, and be circumcised" when his command was directed at a group which included mature adults, although the sign was also for their children? It would have been perfectly natural.

To buttress the paedobaptist's historical case just a bit more, though, it is interesting to note that Irenaeus, writing mostly mid- to late- second century, speaks of children and even infants being "born to God" (in his 'Against Heresies'). Also, Polycarp, a supposed direct disciple of the apostle John according to Irenaeus, who was martyred probably between 155 and 160 AD (although possibly a decade or two later), is recorded as having mentioned at his martyrdom how he had been a "servant" of Christ "for eighty-six years." Eighty-six years was the approximate span of Polycarp's entire life, indicating that he may have regarded himself as having been a Christian in some sense from birth.

Fifth Argument: A Biblical-Practical Argument (part 1)

My next argument involves something of the practical implications of the two baptism views under examination here. The issue in simple terms, is: Does the New Testament treat the children of mature, believing members of the New Covenant the same way the Old Testament treated children of the covenant community under the older covenants with regard to discipleship, or does it treat them radically differently?

In the Old Testament, we see from Genesis 18:19 that Abraham was expected to bring his children up to "keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice" so that God may bring to Abraham what He had promised him (vital, grace-receiving faith demonstrated through works). We also see that under the Mosaic Law, the covenant people were to teach all of their children the commandments and statutes of the Lord (see Deut. 6:7; 11:19; Psalm 78:5; etc.) and the children were expected to obey along with the parents (Deut. 30:2). What we don't see in the Old Testament is anything resembling a command to parents to call on their young children to exercise some new kind of "level" of faith, or to seek a crisis experience of life change proving that they are "really" in right standing with God. Surely training children up in righteousness, and in the way of the Lord, keeping all His commandments, would involve teaching them to trust and love the Lord continually every day with heart, strength, and mind. The Pentateuch mentions the necessity of believing God many times (e.g. Gen. 15:6; Ex. 4:5; 4:31; 14:31; Num. 14:11; 20:12; Deut. 1:32; 9:23). So children would have been commanded to believe in and trust God, no doubt, but they were not called to a dramatic rebirth experience prior to any kind of confirmatory rite having to do with the covenant.

What about the New Testament? In the New Testament, children are commanded to obey their parents in the Lord (Eph. 6:1), and if John is being literal when he addresses "little" children in his first epistle, they are commanded to "abide in Him," " deed and truth," to keep themselves from idols, and that they have overcome antichristian spirits (although John maybe simply be referring to all the Christians he's addressing). Parents are instructed to bring up their children in the "discipline and instruction" or "fear and admonition" of the Lord (Eph. 6:4), and the children of candidates for church leadership must be submissive and believing (1 Tim. 3:4; Titus 1:6). Absent again in the New Testament is any notion of raising children in the covenant community and teaching them to obey the commandments of the Lord in some covenantal sphere outside of "in the Lord." There is still no picture we can find of calling children to a point of faith-crisis where they "become" part of the Christian community in a real sense for the first time and then have some kind of confirmatory rite for it. Rather, it seems, children are treated from the very beginning as disciples of Jesus Christ, under the authority of their parents, because they are "in [covenant with] the Lord" together with their parents and whole household by virtue of the continued covenant principle of corporate solidarity.

Credobaptists will be quick to point out that Ephesians 6 says nothing explicitly of the covenant status of infants, since, obviously, the children being addressed in that passage would have to have been old enough to read or hear Paul's word of command and consciously obey it, and therefore would have been old enough to profess faith and be baptized. Specific point granted. But, the point here is that throughout the whole New Testament, there is nothing to be found but the continuation of the Old Testament practice of the discipling of covenant children (not evangelizing).

Now, this must NOT be misunderstood as paedobaptists saying that children of believers must not be constantly pointed to the absolute necessity of exercising personal faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ! God forbid such a heretical notion! It is simply to say that, when children grow a little older but are still young enough to gladly go along with whatever their parents tell them about the gospel...when they are believing in a such a way that it cannot be known for sure yet by the parents whether they are regenerate and exercising vital, personal, saving faith, parents are to continue to teach their children to believe, not to doubt. That is, they are to teach their children to continue to believe in Christ with childlike (though growing and maturing) faith! They are not to teach their children to question their faith at every step to make sure it's "real" faith, or to question their spiritual status until they've had an outwardly dramatic experience of spiritual rebirth (though that may happen). There is place for introspection in the Christian life, to be sure, but both the Old and the New Testament pattern is the discipling of children as covenant members who know the Lord. Apparently God has ordained for the general reality of covenant succession to take place through the ordinary means of faithful parental discipleship, as the parents bring their children to receive the sacramental entrance sign of the covenant, and to raise them as Christians in the fear of the Lord.

The logical connection with the assertion of paedobaptism, then, is that according to the Great Commission in Matthew 28, all Christian disciples are to be baptized. Credobaptists love to make much of this passage in support of their position. But far too few realize that even their youngest children with whom they pray and sing "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," or even those infant children of theirs to whom they may sing a consoling Christian lullaby of some kind or read Scripture over at bed time are already disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sixth Argument: A Biblical-Practical Argument (part 2)

Along similar lines, the New Testament, if it teaches credobaptism, has implicitly introduced a strange new covenantal category of persons which was non-existent in the Old Testament and which has no explicit mention in the New Testament. The Old Testament had as its covenantal categories: those in covenant with God together with the whole commonwealth of Israel--both adults and their children (including occasional Gentiles), those outside the covenant who had never been in the covenant (unconverted heathen and pagans), and those who had been cut off from the covenant community because of serious offenses marked up to apostasy. In the New Testament, we seem to have the same situation: believers [and, I argue, their children], unbelievers outside the Church, and excommunicated heretics or impenitent sinners. Credobaptists, because they do not believe the very young children of believers to be members of the New Covenant Church, intuitively sense the unfitness of relegating the children to the same, unqualified class as the unbelieving heathen. So they talk a lot in their writings about the "privileged" position of the children of Christians because of their being born into a Christian home and being surrounded by the world of the Spirit and the Word and Christian prayer and fellowship which influence their spiritual lives positively and hopefully unto their actual conversion to Christ one day.

When asked to which of the three above-mentioned categories the children of Christian believers belong, credobaptists are often hesitant and quickly qualify their answer with mention of the privileges of having such volume of Christian influence around them, but inevitably have to say that they belong to the class with unbelieving heathen. The heart of the matter, despite "privileges" these children are said to have, is that the credobaptist cannot logically have young and infant children as full participants and members in the covenant community in their system. Understand carefully: paedobaptists agree that young children of believers may not be regenerate yet, but according to credobaptists, covenantally speaking, these children have no greater status than the children of heathen, which is an awkward thought to have go across a parent's mind when praying in Jesus' name with their young children, as they are (rightly) wont to do! And it's awkward because it's not a covenantally organic or biblical thought. Biblical thought on the matter of covenant children, according to the New Testament, is that God counts the child of at least one believing parent to be "holy" (this is manifestly language of the granting of the privilege and right of covenantal consecration, as much as credobaptists try to downplay it as some lesser kind of "privilege;" also, the unbelieving spouse does not enter the covenant because of unbelief--he or she was never set apart from the world into the covenant community despite the right and opportunity to do so he or she received by virtue of marital union with a believer).

Seventh Argument: A Creedal Argument

Often Reformed Baptists accuse their Reformed paedobaptist brethren of breaking the regulative principle of worship in their practice of baptizing infants, since, according to Reformed Baptists, there is no explicit example or sanctioning of the practice in Scripture (see the Westminster Confession of Faith or the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith section on religious worship and the Sabbath day).

It is true, of course, that whoever is on the wrong side of this debate about baptism breaks the regulative principle whenever he baptizes or, as the case may be, withholds baptism from an infant child of Christian parents. My initial response in defense of paedobaptists would be to point to our interpretation of Acts 2 in connection with the household baptisms found throughout the rest of Acts (I don't use the household texts alone to prove paedobaptism, for assumptions brought to those texts from other texts color each side's interpretations and emphases of the "household" texts). With those things brought together, one doesn't have to create a very long chain at all of inference by "good and necessary consequence" (see Westminster Confession, chapter I. section VI.) to establish the paedobaptist practice as scriptural.

By contrast, any Reformed Baptist church which makes a practice of "baby dedication," whereby infants and very young children of believing parents are formally dedicated in a ceremony to God and to the care of the church as members of their community (short of covenant membership), breaks the regulative principle of worship. For nowhere does Scripture sanction such a ceremony for public worship, either for some kind of formal "re-dedication" of a prodigal adult, nor for the formal presentation of a child to the church as one under Christian care apart from the sign of baptism.

If one who supports "baby dedication" points to the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Luke 2 as alleged support, it need only be pointed out that more than once in the passage is it mentioned that the things done to the Christ child were nothing but things which were what the "Law of the Lord" commanded.

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that the rise of the extra-scriptural practice of baby dedication among credobaptists is a clear indication of a biblical intuition gone haywire by faulty theologizing. As a paedobaptist, I honor the instinct, and only pray for the progression toward biblical and creedal consistency among my Reformed brethren especially, via the full inclusion of all the children in the covenant community, starting with admission to the Font and continuing with consistent, biblical discipleship in the home.


Objection 1: Faith, repentance, the Spirit, regeneration, etc., are directly connected with water baptism just about every time baptism comes up in the New Testament. Doesn't this prove baptism is for professing believers alone?

Answer: The simplest answer is that the New Testament also connects these spiritual realities with circumcision (Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11-12). The possible exception in one sense is the Spirit, since the fuller outpouring of the Spirit is a distinctive of the New Covenant age; nevertheless, Romans 2 insists that it has always been the case that a true Jew is one who is a Jew "inwardly," and that circumcision has always been more deeply a "matter of the heart, by the Spirit."

Objection 2: In Galatians and in Acts, couldn't the Judaizers have been silenced very swiftly and simply by an apostolic argument to the effect that circumcision had simply been replaced by baptism?

Answer: First of all, no. Second of all, that's not the paedobaptist position, even if you've heard it presented that way before. Third, said just a little differently, one can say that the apostles did argue in such a manner. Let me explain. First, it has to be recognized that the issue was much deeper than the outward rites and signs of circumcision and baptism. The issue for those who insisted on the continued circumcision of those Jews who were turning to Christ in faith was not merely that they still undergo the physical rite, but that they continue to embrace everything the physical rite stood for: observing Torah, hook, line, and sinker--food laws and all. But now they had freedom in Christ from the ceremonial laws and holiness code! The issue was a deep, theological one. Not merely one of physical rites. So Paul, for example, in Galatians, had to go to great lengths to explain and justify his theology of freedom in Christ from the Law for all believers, Jew or Gentile. Second, the paedobaptist position is not that baptism simply "replaces" circumcision, but rather that it fulfills it. Yes, circumcision of the heart in regeneration is what both circumcision and baptism point to and in that sense "fulfills" the rites. But baptism is a bloodless picture of cleansing and the outpouring of the Spirit which has been made possible by Christ's now-finished work of atonement, resurrection, and ascension; the bloody, waterless rite of circumcision (which, yes, also marked out a line of physical descendants through which Messiah would come to fulfill the promises) is no longer appropriate as a sign of the covenant--the New Covenant in Christ. Third, if you take into account the theological background and spiritual realities at stake in Paul's polemic against the Judaizers, you'll realize that he does in fact appeal to baptism in Gal. 3:27-28 as proof that there is no Jew or Gentile anymore in Christ! It is clearly a reference to "Spirit-baptism" into Christ there, and not some automatic/ex opere operato view of baptism being presented. But remember that the sign and thing signified are closely, spiritually, and "sacramentally" related, and not separated from a New Testament perspective.

Objection 3: Circumcision was primarily a sign and seal for Abraham and his descendants of the physical land promise and for marking out the Messianic line throughout the generations of Israel. Moreover, circumcision was given irrespective of faith; all Israelites, even servants in the households, were circumcised without exception.

Answer: First of all, while circumcision also pointed to the physical land promise as part of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the New Testament (the most reliable Old Testament commentary in existence) emphasizes the spiritual significance circumcision has always had, over and over again. Also, there's no evidence that circumcision was ever given as a sign to any adult who was manifestly rejecting the God of Israel in an outright fashion. Circumcision was implemented liberally and carried out on all the men of Israel, as God commanded, including household servants and the like, yes. But we individualistic Western Christians need to realize that ancient Israel's sociological reality was one of corporate solidarity and it would've been quite likely for the majority of household servants to go along with the head of the house's decisions about faith and religious practice. This doesn't necessarily render the servants' faith illegitimate or sub-salvific! We have to realize that God ordinarily works faith in people's hearts by the Spirit in the context of covenant community and family units who know the Lord. Genuine faith is often a product (in an instrumental sense) of one's being situated in a strong community of faith.

Also, while the spiritual purity of the covenant community was always the ideal, election itself could never have been the criteria for administering the covenant signs, because we fallible humans cannot know for sure in this age who is elect of God and who is not. Therefore the Israelites must have, as we must today, when dealing with adults in the covenant community, gone by careful pastoral assessment of credible professions of faith. Certainly Israel failed to do this perfectly, but "church discipline" was expected even of the ancients. Godless living was never supposed to be tolerated in Israel, any more than it is today in the New Covenant Church. The penalty for impenitent ungodliness is and always has been being cut off from the life of the covenant community. When credobaptists accuse paedobaptists of spiritualizing the Old Testament in areas like the significance of circumcision, they need to be reminded 1) that we agree that there were physical and temporal aspects involved, too (not an "either/or" situation) and 2) the New Testament and even the Old Testament itself interprets circumcision and its significance (and similar types and shadows) in heavily spiritual terms very often. As some paedobaptists like to repeat often: when it comes down to it, whatever theological argument one attempts to wield against paedobaptism would logically be equally applicable in the case of infant circumcision, and thus is absurd scripturally, given the Old Testament practice of infant circumcision. When seeking not to overly "Christianize" the Old Testament by reading spiritual things into the text which are not there, one must be equally careful not to "Judaize" (!) the Old Testament, either, by ignoring spiritual realities truly expressed there.

Objection 4: In Acts 2, "you and your children" is qualified immediately together with "all those who are far off" by by the phrase "as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." This proves that only those who are manifestly effectually called and regenerated by the Spirit, with the evidence of a credible profession of faith, are to be baptized as a sign of receiving the promise of which Peter speaks.

Answer: It seems absurd to think that Peter would proclaim the covenant promise as belonging to "you and your children" (so long as they are elect and eventually effectually called and make a credible profession of faith at some point) and "all who are far off" (so long as they are elect and eventually effectually called and make a credible profession of faith at some point) but not their children (unless they are elect and effectually called and make a credible profession of faith at some point). Is this really what the Jews would have heard Peter saying when he employed the covenant formula for familial solidarity from their very own heritage?

Some Reformed Baptists like to refer to the qualifying phrase here in Acts 2 as an instance of a "New Covenant crescendo" which ratchets up the efficacy of the Spirit's working in the New Covenant era (more on this below). So they see the qualifying phrase implicitly limiting the intended recipients of the promise proclaimed by Peter to those who are elect within the three categories of "you," "your children," and "all who are far off." Reformed Baptists need to understand that paedobaptists don't believe that language of "receiving a covenant promise" necessarily means embracing it with saving faith in every instance. We simply are saying that the Jews would have understood Peter clearly to have been saying that this promised Holy Spirit and all other attendant New Covenant blessings are promised to them and their children, as objective promises, the blessings of which could only be forfeited by conscious rejection and outright unbelief in the gospel (not by lack of mental or physical development in the case of infants and young children).

And the qualifying phrase, after the pattern of the Abrahamic covenant promise that Abraham and his descendants would be a blessing to all the families of the earth, is manifesly focused on the "all who are far off." The covenant promises are no longer ethnically or politically focused on the Jews, but proactively offered widely and freely among all the Gentiles. Thus Peter refers to the effectual calling of some of the Gentiles who would be offered the covenant promises of the gospel and be drawn to Christ by the Spirit and incorporated into the covenant community. They and their children as well would of course be joint recipients together with the ethnic Israelites of the objective covenant promises, in the one Church. What else would they have thought?! The New Covenant is simply the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promises, centered in Christ and His Messianic work.

Objection 5: Galatians and Romans teach that it's not the physical descendants of Abraham, but those who are of the faith of Abraham, who are the true descendants and heirs of the promises.

Answer: It has always been the case that the true descendants of Abraham who would be the ones to receive the promised spiritual blessings were those who had saving faith! (See John 3; Rom. 2, 4, and 9; Gal. 3; etc.). Yet the sign was still given to the children of believers. So New Testament revelation that "now" it's the spiritual descendants by faith who are the only real heirs is not a new idea at all! Even the Old Testament prophets recognized that there has always been a "remnant" of Israel, chosen by grace, who serve God with heart and soul and mind and strength out of genuine, living faith in His gracious promises. Yet, as a general rule, God worked through physical descendants and blood relations in families to bring about His spiritual redemptive purposes. And so He does today.

While we cannot equate the two, neither can we draw a sharp line between the immaterial working and reckoning of God's Spirit today and the physical administration of the signs and seals of God's covenant promises. He promised to be God to Old Testament believers and their children, and the "true" children of Abraham were those who exercised saving faith in His promises. There is nothing so radical in the New Testament as to suggest that things work any differently today. God still promises to be God to us and to our children. There is continuity of the covenant formula "you and your children;" there is continuity of perspective on the discipleship of children by parents "in the Lord;" and there is continuity of spiritual significance (despite some minor discontinuities mentioned above) between the signs of circumcision and baptism. It's the spiritual realities that count, as ever was the case. And the signs are administered in the context of physical, "blood-line" (and entire household) family units, as ever they were, corporate solidarity being one of God's chief means of bringing about spiritual renewal in little children. Spiritual and physical go together, not as a rigidly superstitious sacramentalism, but as ordinary means of grace. Let us not put asunder what God has joined.

Objection 6: Hebrews 8 and 10 apply Jeremiah 31's New Covenant prophecy to the Church. This entails that Jeremiah's prophecy that in the New Covenant "all will know the Lord," etc., has been fulfilled. It cannot be a merely eschatological reality (a la Dr. Pratt, Jr.), or else the apologetic the author of Hebrews presents for the present betterness of Jesus and the New Covenant would collapse. Doesn't this imply that all members of the New Covenant are necessarily regenerate, precluding the intentional induction of some unregenerate persons into the New Covenant via paedobaptism?

Answer: There is no way a Jew would have understood the betterness of the New Covenant according to Jeremiah 31 as consisting in the redefinition of membership requirements such that infants--those whose actual spiritual state we cannot be sure about until they grow old enough to profess faith--are excluded from formal membership in the covenant community. This is no way of describing a more powerful work or greater outpouring of the Spirit! It is rather akin to saying that in fulfilment of Moses' desire that all the people of Israel be prophets, God had somehow decided to redefine the bounds of the covenant membership of Israel as Moses and the seventy elders, and no one else. Problem solved! All of "Israel" are now prophets! Some miraculous work of the Spirit! No, but rather, the greater New Covenant work of the Spirit is very focused on inclusion, for instance, of many more Gentiles--all the Gentile nations as a whole one day! Now, both males and females receive the entrance sign of the covenant, not males only. And are we to believe the infant children of believers no longer receive the sign under this better covenant?

We still must deal with the text, though, for after all, it says that all in the covenant will know the Lord. And though we cannot be sure of any individual covenant child's spiritual state before being able to profess faith, we can be somewhat sure that consistent paedobaptist practice would naturally lead to including many unregenerate infants in the covenant community. So what, on a paedobaptist reading of Hebrews 8 and 10 and Jeremiah 31, does the prophet mean by "all of them will know the Lord, from the least to the greatest?" One suggestion that has been offered is that in the New Covenant, there is not a ceremonial hierarchy of those who are closer to God in the formal worship of God than others (namely, the priests and Levites, etc.). All of us are priests now, in Christ. We all have unmediated (in a sense) access to God, in a way Old Testament saints did not. This is a possible interpretation of "know the Lord," although it suffers the weakness of being less directly connected with the other blessings of the New Covenant mentioned in the prophets, like forgiveness of sins and having the Law written on the heart by the Spirit. These seem to be more concrete spiritual realities experienced by every member of the New Covenant. Another plausible interpretation would be that Jeremiah employs a measure of prophetic hyperbole, not intending to comment on the situation of unregenerate infants being inducted into the covenant community, but rather emphasizing the more powerful working of the Spirit in the corporate covenant body as a whole, to the end that the Church would never apostatize the way that corporate Israel ultimately did in rejecting the Messiah.

This brings us to the related topic of the breakability of the New Covenant. Reformed Baptists take the credobaptist interpretation of the Jeremiah passage mentioned above, and are forced to say that the New Covenant is an unbreakable covenant. After all, it's manifestly made with the elect alone, who alone truly "know the Lord" and have the Spirit, right? And in Jeremiah's prophecy he even records God contrasting the New Covenant and its permanence with the impermanent and breakable Mosaic Covenant which the people broke! How much clearer could it get, right? Well, the issue is that Hebrews presents warning passage after warning passage to New Covenant believers warning them against the real danger of falling away from Christ unto eternal damnation (compare with the warnings in Romans 11 about being broken off like the apostate Jews). This proves the breakability of the New Covenant at the individual level, but does this prove either that one can lose their genuine personal salvation, or that the New Covenant Church as a whole may ever fall away? No. We must distinguish the inward spiritual state of individuals from the covenantal preservation of the visible Church. The power of the Spirit in the New Covenant is not principally in guaranteeing that every single member inducted into the covenant community absolutely (even if pastoral care were ideal) is exercising saving faith unto eternal salvation (much less by means of excluding the infant children of believers from membership). The point is to guarantee that the Church as a whole never apostatizes like Israel did. Covenant members of the Church must persevere in faith and repentance to prove the vitality of their faith, as always. But true believers will never fall away, by God's gracious decree. And the Spirit sees to it that the Church as a whole will always know the Lord, despite those here and there who "go out from us" showing they were never truly "of us."

The bottom line with Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 and 10 is: whatever the proper specific interpretation of each word, it's simply unthinkable in covenant terms, and in Jewish terms, that the supreme covenant that God would make with His people on the basis of the Messiah's death and resurrection would have as part of its "greatness" the exclusion of children who had always previously been able to participate in the covenant community and be regarded as joint heirs of the promises. The superiority is not found in a restructured list of requirements for membership in the covenant, but rather in greater outpouring of the Spirit guaranteeing a faithful covenant body (as a whole) forever. The New Covenant community will be kept pure and richly filled with regenerate children not by means of delaying baptism and excluding children, but by full inclusion, application of the covenant sign, and faithful discipling of children in the Lord. This is all because of the greatness of the grace He has poured out on us by His Spirit on the basis of the cross and resurrection of Christ.

Objection 7: Paedobaptism leads logically to paedocommunion.

Answer: Maybe. But intramural debate about paedocommunion among Reformed paedobaptists is focused not on basic covenant theology which includes infant children of believers as covenant members, but is focused on the specific instructions given in the scriptures concerning the nature of observance of the sacrament of the Table. The issue of whether very young children were able to participate in various aspects of the original Passover and subsequent Passover celebrations is also hotly debated. I have not studied enough on the subject to be sure of an answer for myself, but I am confident in going wherever the covenant theology laid out above leads, so long as it squares with the whole of Scripture.

Objection 8: Paedobaptism encourages or logically entails the dangerous idea of "presumptive regeneration."

Answer: I would say that it doesn't lead to "presumptive regeneration" in the sense of assuming that every covenant child who is baptized will definitely be saved without exception; rather, it is an expression of a confidence that God has promised to be God to our children, in His taking initiative to give them the promises they must take hold of by faith, and by ordinarily working graciously through faithful parents who raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, to make them our true spiritual successors in the covenant.