The New Covenant, Baptism, and Properly-Realized Eschatology
The question of whether or not to baptize infants has been a very divisive issue throughout the history of Protestantism, dividing Protestantism roughly in half between Lutheran/Reformed and Baptist/Non-Denominational traditions. But instead of writing a post on how Sola Scriptura has been unable to address this “church-dividing issue,” I will instead focus on another issue, specifically the Reformed understanding of infant baptism and why it’s very problematic.
I should start off by saying Thanks be to God that so many Protestants have retained the orthodox practice of infant baptism. In doing so, it’s no exaggeration to say tens of millions of infants have received sanctifying grace, and thus received a very blessed start to their earthly lives. Even though the Bible doesn’t speak directly upon the subject, Lutherans and Reformed have recognized the key reason for infant baptism, which is the simple fact that children of adult believers need a way to be brought into the New Covenant. It’s ridiculous to think that salvation is closed off for all those under the age of 8 simply because they weren’t mature enough to understand and embrace the Gospel. Baptism thus functions similarly to circumcision, in which a Jewish child didn’t have to wait until after childhood to become a member of God’s Old Testament family. That said, as I investigated this issue from the Reformed perspective, I noticed that the Reformed position runs into a serious dilemma, which is the main subject of this post that I’ll now get into.
As most are aware, the Reformed officially teach that only the elect are granted the gift of salvation. Even those who once appeared to be elect and living a Christian life but later fell away (and never returned) are understood by the Reformed as having “never been saved in the first place.” Though this might seem harsh, such conclusions do logically flow from their specific understanding of other doctrines, such as their unique view of on the Atonement. But the question then arises: If baptism inducts a child into the New Covenant, and yet not every child is elect, then doesn’t this mean it’s possible have someone who was never saved and yet who is also a legitimate member of the New Covenant? It certainly seems so, especially since the Reformed do not teach that baptism is a sure sign of election.
The dilemma that the Reformed are in, as I see it, is that they’re forced to conclude that being in the New Covenant isn’t directly tied to salvation. Such a conclusion should not sit well with anyone. The very essence of being in the New Covenant is salvation, especially in terms of having sins forgiven, being given a new heart, and an infusion of Love and the Holy Spirit (see Jeremiah 31:33-34 and Eze 36:25-27). Indeed, being in the New Covenant is being a member of Christ’s Mystical Body, and God forbid we say Christ’s Body doesn’t directly have anything to do with salvation. The Reformed are logically forced to either say that (a) the New Covenant is merely of a temporal nature and only bestows temporal blessings, or (b) that there is a division within the New Covenant, split between a saving half and non-saving half. And since both of these options are basically espousing the same error, the dilemma isn’t resolved with either of the two options.
Taking the second of the two options, the Reformed might say that baptism truly does induct one into the “Visible Church” (a distinction Scripture doesn’t really make), but this no guarantee of being in the “Invisible Church” (where only the elect are members of and only through it does grace flow). But again, this forces a sharp division within the Body of Christ, almost as if to say Christ’s humanity is not divinized by His Divinity. It means being a part of the “Visible Church” is only incidental to Salvation, not a core part of it, as if Christ’s humanity was trivial part of our salvation. It ultimately means the baptized infant is not truly a member of the New Covenant. And such a view also trivializes baptism, reducing it from a sign and seal of grace, with all the language of forgiveness and new life stripped away, resulting in something little more than a punch card.
A Reformed might appeal to the example of Romans 9:6, where Paul teaches that not all who were members of “fleshly” Israel were also members of “spiritual” Israel. In other words, just because someone was physically circumcised didn’t mean their heart was circumcised. While there is truth to the idea that being in the Old Covenant in a “visible” sense didn’t mean you had saving faith, the problem here is that this parallel does not carry over to the New Covenant. The Old Covenant never did save in and of itself, it did not provide for the forgiveness of sins. But the New Covenant does save in and of itself. Being a member of “spiritual Israel” by having a circumcised heart was synonymous with being in the New Covenant. So really, the New Covenant overlapped with the Old Covenant, with each having a different function (and thus the two weren’t in “competition” with each other). So the Reformed cannot push the Romans 9:6 distinction equally on the New Covenant as Paul did on the Old, and in doing so they really make Christian baptism not much different than physical circumcision (which is heresy, cf. Col 2:11-12).
In conclusion, while the Reformed are correct in teaching that infants should be baptized, this also shows that the Reformed understanding of salvation (specifically their claim that only the elect receive saving grace) cannot be correct. Thoughts?
(Please, no debate about whether or not infant baptism is Biblical, since that’s not the issue. In this discussion, infant baptism is a given, assumed to be true in order to evaluate the Reformed covenantal paradigm.)