Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Sign of the Covenant (Part Three: The Sign)

In previous posts I have sought to establish that the people of God is a single community that stretches from one end of redemptive history to the other, and that this community has always been an invisible community (exclusively regenerate) expressed visibly as a community of both regenerate and unregenerate.

In this post we finally come to the sign of membership in this covenant people. God has graciously given a sign to his people that they are members of this redemptive community. I want to take a look at Genesis 17 and see what principles we find there with regard to the sign.

My assertion is that the sign is to be given to the members of the visible community forever.

Instead of quoting the passage here in its entirety, take a few moments to read Genesis 17. A recent reading of this will be a considerable help to you in following along. Based on this passage I want to make the following observations/assertions.

1) The covenant signified is an eternal covenant. (vs 7-9, 13, 19)
2) This covenant is with Abraham and his offspring, forever. (vs 7-10, 12)
3) The sign given is circumcision, and the sign (circumcision) and the thing signified (the covenant) are so inseparable as to be called the same thing (vs 10).
4) The sign is given to 8 day old boys, prior to their confession of faith. (vs 12)
5) Therefore, all children born to the community (not just Abraham, but to his household) are covenant members (vs 12).
6) All members receive the sign regardless of apparent regenerate status. (vs 10, 12, 13, 23, 27)
7) The sign is commanded forever with repercussions for disobedience. (vs 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)

We can add two more insights from the instructions given for Passover in Exodus 12:43-49...

7) Any foreigner wishing to convert to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob must first receive the sign of membership in the community (circumcision). (vs 48)
8) Having done this, he ceases to be a foreigner. (vs 48-49)

So the one covenant people of God is given a sign of their membership (circumcision). This sign is to be administered to all members of the visible community, both those born into it and those coming by confession. And this is to be done forever.

We should note, however, that already in the history of redemption salvation is by grace through faith. Paul reminds us of this in Galatians 3:1-6. So the above observations are true of a community in which salvation is by grace through faith, just as is true for us now.

Once again, I'm not aware of any particular disagreement between credobaptists (those that only baptize confessors) and paedobaptists (those that also baptize covenant children) on these points with regard to what was true in the OT. And in fact, baptists teach and practice in perfect accordance with these points with regard to foreigners converting. And this brings us to a crucial point. Baptists teach that now there is only one way to join the community: Adult conversion.

Put another way, our children are no longer members of the covenant community according to baptist doctrine. And it is on this basis that they refuse the sign to their children who have not made a confession.

On what basis do they teach that children are no longer members of the covenant? On the basis that the covenant community, which they admit in the OT was visible and mixed, is now only made up of regenerate people. I want to be careful here. You see, baptists admit that the church is a mixed group, and that they give the sign to unregenerate people (unknowingly). I must admit to being confused about this. I don't see how they can refuse the sign to their children on the basis of their not being regenerate, then give the sign to people of whom a percentage will prove not to be regenerate. I don't see how they can give the sign only to the invisible community. And that's the crux. They claim the sign is only for the invisible community, then administer it to a visible community. And if they are willing to concede that they administered it to a visible community, why not recognize the biblical pattern of including children in the visible, covenant, community?

I have sought to establish that the sign is to be given to the members of the visible community forever. This certainly seems to be true on the basis of Genesis 17. It was certainly true in the OT period, and if we take "forever" seriously, I think we must at least contend with the possibility that this means until the weeds are finally pulled from the wheat and Christ's bride is glorified.

So let me summarize my argument up to this point. There is only one people of God in redemptive history. This one people is an invisible community (made up only of regenerate people) that manifests itself visibly as a community composed of both regenerate and unregenerate people. Despite this mix, God has commanded that the sign of membership in this community be given to this people forever, including their children.

So the next question is, "Are our children still members of the covenant community? Has something happened to exclude them?" I will attempt to answer that in my next installment.

A preview of my argument:
If my argument up to this point is true, and we find that children are still members of the visible covenant community, then we must give them the sign of membership. This sign is baptism (which I will seek to establish as well in a future post in this series).

If you're reading along and seeking to understand, I hope you will please comment or send me an email! Have a great weekend everyone! I'll be back late Saturday.


Patrick Lafferty said...

Rev Bradley, thank you for your labors here. I have been and shall continue to make use of these distillations of the case for extending the rite to our children. That very issue has been raised again by some within the Body around here recently.

And, also, thank you for your thoughtful comments and recommendations pertaining to recent events, and their implications for a particular program of merit around here. They are appreciated and remembered often.
peace of Christ to you and yours, sir


Jared Nelson said...

Interesting point. The theme of an "eternal covenant" is made a lot at DTS, leaving one open to think through the fact that children are eternally a part.

Matthew Bradley said...

Thanks Patrick. I hope your reference to the issue being raised in your context is a case of some to whom you are ministering as lay members and not to some who are in leadership.

Thanks for the kind words. I hope you and RW are having a great time with this year's "crop".

Thom said...

Really enjoying your posts, Matt. Your taking credobaptists to task comparing the baptism of adults and children is a fun way to do it. Allow me to bring up the argument, currently popular, about religion being a catalyst for violence. This is one of the big arguments being leveled at all religious people, and not just at the church--though primarily at the church. Miroslav Volf has addressed it quite a bit, for example. Anyway, my point is this: the way one treats the weakest members of one's community is the beginning of a defense against this charge. And here credobaptists are quite vulnerable. For requiring a certain standard and confusing the elect status and standard of the visible and invisible church, the church begins to spend a large amount of its energy on determining who is in and who is out. And the scalpel of that decision is the embryo of violence. The quite correct distinction between the invisible and visible church, this distinction is the beginning of a refutation of the charge. One more point, please. There is a close connection between the theological categories a community uses for its children and the theological categories it has available for the handicapped. I find the question of how certain practices might be applied to individuals with various handicapped an interest liturgical litmus test. Anyway, again, I'm enjoying your posts. Thanks for putting them together.

Matthew Bradley said...

Thanks for the thoughts Thom. I think that's a great example of why this is so important. I found out this weekend about a PCA that does both infant baptism and baby dedications, as though the issue isn't important. I also had several lay people in my church say the same thing to me in different conversations throughout the weekend. I have tried to respond in each case that we should be gracious and keep the discussion open and respectful, but this does not mean we must act as though the issue isn't important. If we believe the Word has taught us that the baptism of our covenant children is commanded by God as a sign of his covenant love and grace, then based upon what can we say it is of no importance to teach and hold to this view? Again, I think the point you've raised adds another dimension to the importance of thinking clearly and biblically and then teaching these things without compromise. There is far more at stake here then simply winning an argument.

Anyway...crazy weekend and crazy Monday, so I'm hoping to get back to responding to Blake below and posting a new article in the series sometime later today or no later than tomorrow, God willing. Thanks again for your comment.