A Privileged Baptism

June 27, 2017

by John Murray

Enjoy the following excerpt from For You and Your Children, a free ebook on infant baptism.

 

It is a fact beyond dispute that the covenant made with Abraham included the infant offspring of Abraham. This is just saying that the church under the Old Testament included not only all who were of sufficient age and intelligence to confess the true religion but also their infant seed. Infants received the sign of circumcision. It was administered to them by divine command (Gen. 17:10–12). And circumcision was the sign and seal of the covenant administered to Abraham.

With reference to circumcision it must be fully appreciated that it was not essentially or primarily the sign of family, racial, or national identity. Any significance which circumcision possessed along the line of national identity or privilege was secondary and derived. Its primary and essential significance was that it was the sign and seal of the highest and richest spiritual blessing which God bestows upon men. This is apparent from the following considerations.

Abrahamic Covenant Privilege

In Genesis 17:1–14 we have what is probably the fullest account of the covenant made with Abraham. It is, in any case, basic and it clearly establishes the most relevant principles. The covenant made with Abraham is that in terms of which he received the promise that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. It is in terms of this covenant that he is the father of all the faithful. It is this covenant that is unfolded in the New Testament and it is in terms of this covenant that the blessing of Abraham comes upon the Gentiles.

Circumcision is the sign and seal of the covenant itself in its deepest and richest significance.

And we have no authority whatsoever to say that circumcision was simply the sign of an external relationship or of merely racial and national identity. Circumcision is the sign and seal of the covenant itself in its deepest and richest significance, and it is the sign of external privileges only as these are the fruits of the spiritual blessing which it signifies. It is then the sign of external blessing no more than is the covenant a covenant of external blessing. The covenant embraces external blessing but it does so only insofar as the internal blessing results in external manifestation. The covenant itself may not be identified with such manifestations. Neither may circumcision.What was the Abrahamic covenant in the highest reaches of its meaning? Undeniably and simply: “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (cf. Gen. 17:7; Exod. 19:5, 6; Deut. 7:6; 14:2; Jer. 31:33). In a word it is union and communion with Jehovah, the God of Israel. It was this blessing circumcision signified and sealed.

A Sign of Cleansing

The foregoing conclusions drawn from the study of Genesis 17:1–14 may also be elicited from the meaning attached to circumcision in other passages and contexts. Such passages as Exodus 6:12, 30; Leviticus 19:23; 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10; 9:25 will show that circumcision carries the import of the removal of defilement. It means therefore the removal of that defilement with which even infants are afflicted and with which they enter this world. As symbolic of such defilement and its removal we readily see how it could have become the fitting sign of the covenant that secured union and communion with Jehovah. It signified and sealed that cleansing which fitted for the presence of Jehovah and so was the seal of union and communion.

A Seal of Righteousness

Paul distinctly says that circumcision was the seal of the righteousness of the faith Abraham had while he was uncircumcised (Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11, 12; Rom. 2:25–29; Phil. 3:3). It is therefore the seal of the righteousness of faith. And this is just saying that it is the seal of justification by faith. How closely related this is to the more comprehensive notion of union and communion with God need not be argued.

Circumcision, signifying what in principle is identical with that signified by baptism, was administered to infants who were born within the covenant relation and privilege.

These three notions—union and communion with God, the removal of defilement, and the righteousness of faith—are, obviously, not antithetical. They are mutually complementary, and, taken together, they indicate the deep, soteric richness of the blessing that circumcision signifies and seals. It is no peripheral or external blessing that circumcision portrays any more than it is a peripheral blessing that the covenant imparts.

We cannot but recognize the close similarity that there is between these three elements of the import of circumcision and the three elements of the import of baptism which we discovered earlier in our discussion. Of particular note is the fact that the leading notion in the meaning of circumcision is identical in principle with the leading notion in the meaning of baptism, namely, union and communion with the Lord. And it is of paramount importance to take due account of the fact that it was by divine institution and command that the sign and seal of such blessing was administered to infants in the old economy. Circumcision, signifying what in principle is identical with that signified by baptism, was administered to infants who were born within the covenant relation and privilege.

A Revoking of Privilege?

The gospel dispensation is the unfolding of the covenant made with Abraham, the extension and enlargement of the blessing conveyed by this covenant to the people of the Old Testament period. Abraham is the father of all the faithful. They who are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. We come now to the question which cannot be suppressed or evaded and which cannot be pressed with too much emphasis. If children born of the faithful were given the sign and seal of the covenant and therefore of the richest blessing which the covenant disclosed, if the New Testament economy is the elaboration and extension of this covenant of which circumcision was the sign, are we to believe that infants in this age are excluded from that which was provided by the Abrahamic covenant? In other words, are we to believe that infants now may not properly be given the sign of that blessing which is enshrined in the new covenant? Is the new covenant in this respect less generous than was the Abrahamic? Is there less efficacy, as far as infants are concerned, in the new covenant than there was in the old? Are infants in the new dispensation more inhabile to the grace of God? These are questions that cannot be lightly dismissed. And they are particularly pertinent and cogent when we remember that baptism, which is the sign of the covenant under the new economy as circumcision was under the old, bears essentially the same import as did circumcision. Baptism does not signify any higher kind of divine blessing than did circumcision. It may indicate more fully what the blessing is and how it is to be attained. But it does not signify any greater blessing. Shall we then say that baptism may not be administered to infants?

If infants are excluded now, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that this change implies a complete reversal of the earlier divinely instituted practice.

If infants are excluded now, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that this change implies a complete reversal of the earlier divinely instituted practice. So we must ask: do we find any hint or intimation of such reversal in either the Old or the New Testament? More pointedly, does the New Testament revoke or does it provide any intimation of revoking so expressly authorized a principle as that of the inclusion of infants in the covenant and their participation in the covenant sign and seal? This practice had been followed, by divine authority, in the administration of the covenant of grace for some two thousand years. Has it been discontinued? Our answer to these questions must be that we find no evidence of revocation. In view of the fact that the new covenant is based upon and is the unfolding of the Abrahamic covenant, in view of the basic identity of meaning attaching to circumcision and baptism, in view of the unity and continuity of the covenant grace administered in both dispensations, we can affirm with confidence that evidence of revocation or repeal is mandatory if the practice or principle has been discontinued under the New Testament.

In the absence of such evidence of repeal we conclude that the administering of the sign and seal of the covenant to the infant seed of believers is still in operation and has perpetual divine warrant. In other words, the command to administer the sign to infants has not been revoked: therefore it is still in force. The situation is that instead of requiring an express statute authorizing the administration of baptism to infants we find, rather, that an express statute of this nature would be superfluous and therefore not necessary to the propriety and authority of this ordinance.

Finally, we cannot believe that the New Testament economy is less beneficent than was the Old. It is rather the case that the New Testament gives more abundant scope to the blessing of God’s covenant. We are not therefore led to expect retraction; we are led to expect expansion and extension. It would not accord with the genius of the new economy to suppose that there is the abrogation of so cardinal a method of disclosing and applying the grace which lies at the heart of God’s covenant administration.

John Murray

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