Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012
The long historic division between paedobaptists and credobaptists results from significantly differing biblical theologies. This article will suggest that classic paedobaptist arguments are based on a misreading of the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant and its fulfilment in the new covenant inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. A thoroughgoing salvation-historical approach to the unfolding fulfilment of the covenant leads to the inevitable conclusion that baptism is not the replacement of circumcision as a sign of the promises of the covenant of grace, but a dramatisation of the receipt of salvation and the forgiveness of sins effected by baptism in the Spirit, which is the primary blessing of the new covenant. The children of believers are not included in this new covenant by birth, but only by spiritual rebirth. The implications of this understanding for baptismal practice are considered. Baptism should follow as closely as possible upon conversion, and is primarily intended to assure the convert of their new status and new life in Christ. Convinced paedobaptists should not be required to be rebaptised as a condition for church membership or participation in the Lord's Supper. Both paedobaptists and credobaptists are urged to practice charity, accepting each other because they have been accepted by Christ and baptised by his Spirit.
For more than four hundred years Protestant Christians, who are united in their rejection of the Roman Catholic sacramental understanding of baptism as conferring regeneration, have been divided as to the appropriate administration of baptism. One reason why this division has proved so difficult to resolve is the frustrating lack of conclusive biblical evidence, whether didactic or narrative, as to the proper subjects of baptism. The New Testament contains no explicit account of the baptism of infants, nor instructions to evangelists, elders or parents to baptise children. It contains no explicit instructions for the baptism of the children of believing parents when they profess personal faith. Paedobaptists and credobaptists can thus argue until they are blue in the face about the likely implications of the “household” baptisms recorded in Acts without either achieving the exegetical equivalent of a knock-out punch. 
In reality both paedobaptists and credobaptists are agreed about a great deal regarding the biblical teaching on baptism. They agree that individuals who come to faith in Christ, and who have not been baptised previously (which is the increasingly normative reality in post-Christian western society), ought to be baptised. They are agreed that the act of baptism symbolises a complex nexus of spiritual realities, including cleansing from sin, regeneration to new life, union with Christ in his death and resurrection, and the receipt of the Holy Spirit. They are also generally agreed that there is little evidence of the practice of infant baptism in the early church before the end of the second century.
In the end the differences between paedobaptists and credobaptists come down not so much to the exegesis of particular passages referring to baptism, but to different understandings of biblical theology and the relationship between the covenant God made with Abraham and the new covenant that was inaugurated by the Lord Jesus. The strongest theological arguments in favour of infant baptism emphasise the unity of the covenant of grace established between God and Abraham, so that the children of Christians are regarded as being in exactly the same position in relation to the new covenant in Christ as were the children of Abraham in relation to the covenant God made with him. Since circumcision has been replaced by baptism as the sign of the new covenant, it is argued that the new covenant sign should be applied to the children of believers in obedience to the command to Abraham to circumcise his children in Gen 17.
It is the purpose of this article to question this classic paedobaptist understanding of the relationship between the covenant with Abraham and the new covenant inaugurated through Christ, and hence to argue against the equation of circumcision with baptism and the legitimacy of using the command in Gen 17:1-14 in support of infant baptism.  It will be argued that the classic Reformed view has failed to give sufficient attention to the progressive nature of revelation and covenant development through the history of salvation, and that it has sought to back-project a full new covenant understanding into the types and shadows which God established in order to point ahead to the coming reality.
It will be asserted that the basic relationship of the covenants in the history of salvation is that of promise and fulfilment (2 Cor 1:20; Luke 24:44). The foundational covenant promise made to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:15, 21) is progressively fulfilled through the covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Israel and David, and reaches its climax in Jesus who inaugurates the promised new covenant through his death and resurrection. Whilst Dispensationalism  fails to read the unfolding biblical story of salvation as a single unified programme for the salvation of God’s elect people, Jew and Gentile alike, through a series of interlinked covenants, and hence denies the unity of the covenant of grace, classic Reformed theology fails to recognise the progression of the fulfilment of the covenant of grace, from typological physical fulfilment to antitypic spiritual reality in Christ.  In the light of this promise-and-fulfilment dynamic it will be argued that circumcision and baptism serve essentially different functions. Circumcision is given as a sign of the promise God made to Abraham, which is ultimately a promise of the coming of Christ and the blessings he will bring. Baptism is a symbol of the fulfilment of the promise God made to Abraham and the enjoyment of the blessing. As such baptism does not function as a sign of God’s promise of future salvation, but as a sign of the inaugurated experience of salvation, including the forgiveness of sins, new birth to eternal life, union with Christ and the receipt of the Spirit. It is only appropriate for those who have received the blessings of the new covenant by faith in Christ.
It is necessary to start by considering the relationship between the biblical covenants and the signs which God commanded to accompany them, since paedobaptists argue that circumcision is an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality, and hence that circumcision is parallel to baptism. They argue that circumcision was a sign of regeneration, the mortification of the flesh, and justification by faith.  This is thought to be the case because of the way in which the Old Testament speaks of the need for the Israelites to circumcise their hearts, and how in Rom 4:11 Abraham’s circumcision is said to have been a seal of his righteousness by faith.
Whilst circumcision certainly came to be regarded in the Scriptures as a metaphor for the need for complete dedication and wholehearted loyalty to God, in Gen 17:9-14 circumcision is not presented as if it were an outward sign of spiritual reality, but rather as a physical enactment of the promise that God made to Abraham in the covenant, which was to serve to remind him and his descendants of the promise that he had made to them. The purpose of the sign was not to reveal outwardly the inward spiritual character of Abraham, nor to initiate him into membership of God’s people, as this had already occurred, still less to effect any inward change in him, but rather to reassure him and his descendants of the trustworthiness of God’s word of promise to him and of the need to keep the conditions of the covenant.
This is, in fact, the common characteristic of the signs that accompany the biblical covenants. There are three main Old Testament covenants which have accompanying signs: the covenant with Noah, for which the accompanying sign is the rainbow (Gen 9:12-17); the covenant with Abraham, for which the accompanying sign is circumcision; and the covenant with Israel for which the accompanying sign is the Sabbath (Exod 31:12-18). It is perhaps possible to regard God’s promise to Adam and Eve in the garden as a covenant, in which case the covenant sign could be the animal skins that he provided for them to wear, which would be a physical enactment of his promise to remove their sin by sacrifice and covering (Gen 3:21).
However, taking just the three covenants that unequivocally have accompanying signs, it seems that the relevant sign is a physical enactment of the substance of what is promised in the covenant. Thus in the case of the Noahic covenant, the rainbow is a physical manifestation of the triumph of the sun over the rain, which reminds of God’s promise never to flood the earth again with water. Similarly in the case of the Sinai covenant the sign of the Sabbath physically enacts God’s promise of rest and holiness to his people, reminding them of the purpose of their redemption from slavery in Egypt (Exod 32:17; Deut 5:12-15). The signs are not outward manifestations of inward spiritual realities, but physical reminders of the substance of the promises that God has made. High Presbyterian theology seems to me to be shaped by an incipient sacramentalism,  which rejects a bare memorialist understanding of the covenant signs, yet there is no indication in the biblical texts themselves that the signs are anything other than reminders of the promises that God has made to his people.
We should expect, therefore, that circumcision should function as a physical embodiment and reminder of the promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants. When viewed in this way the ritual of circumcision makes eminent sense as the covenant sign. God’s command to Abraham to circumcise himself and his descendants is given after Abraham questions whether he can truly trust God’s word of promise that his descendants will inherit the Promised Land. God had already entered into his covenant with Abraham to this effect in Gen 15, where the covenant-making ceremony involved the cutting of various animals. The fundamental promise made in the covenant is the promise of offspring from Abraham’s own body, since this is a pre-requisite of the fulfilment of God’s promise that he will become a great nation and that his descendants will inherit the land. Circumcision thus enacts the promise God made to Abraham in the covenant and brings assurance that it will be fulfilled. It physically marks Abraham and his descendants with a reminder of the covenant-making ceremony of Gen 15, and thereby of the accompanying promise, and also warns of the consequences of breaking the covenant by abandoning covenant loyalty to the sovereign who made the promise. It is entirely appropriate that the covenant sign is borne in the penis of Abraham and his descendants, since the covenant promise concerns his fertility. It reminds the bearer of the promise to Abraham that his literal “seed” will produce his metaphorical “seed” of physical descendants. The sign was also especially apposite to the Israelites as a reminder of the God’s promise of fertility in contradistinction to the fertility gods of the Canaanites.
Circumcision therefore, like the prescribed signs of the other Old Testament covenants, serves as a physical enactment of the chief promise of the covenant. It was not a sign of personal salvation or regeneration, nor even of covenant membership. It was a physical reminder of the promise to Abraham that he would have descendants who would take possession of the Promised Land. It was a means by which the covenant promise would be remembered and trusted in subsequent generations, especially whilst the descendants of Abraham endured four hundred years of slavery in Egypt.  It was a reminder that, despite appearances, God was working out his plan for his people in the salvation history they were experiencing.
This function of circumcision is supported by the fact that it was applied to physical descendants of Abraham who were outside of the elect line through which the covenant promises would be fulfilled. Thus in Gen 17:23 Ishmael was circumcised, even though he would never personally be the heir of the promises. Ishmael’s circumcision was surely not a sign of any inward spiritual reality in his life. Similarly Esau was circumcised alongside Jacob, despite the fact that in his case God had revealed that he was not the elect bearer of the promise (Gen 26:23; Rom 9:10-13).  His circumcision was not a sign of an inward spiritual reality, and certainly provides no support to the concept of presumptive regeneration as the basis for circumcision and baptism. 
This understanding of the significance of circumcision is also borne out by Paul’s exposition of the substance of the covenant promise in the New Testament. In Gal 3:15-19 he explains that the covenant promise made to Abraham was not a promise of personal salvation as such, but the promise of a “seed”. This promise initially referred to Isaac (Gal 4:21-31), but supremely referred to the promise of Christ, who is the true “offspring” to whom the promise referred.  The covenant entered between God and Abraham in Gen 17 was a step along the way towards the fulfilment of the covenant of grace God entered between himself and Adam and Eve in Eden, the substance of which was the coming of a snake-destroying offspring (Gen 3:15). The covenant ceremony and the mark of circumcision are added to bring assurance and confidence in the promise.
Examination of the original purpose of circumcision is relevant to the interpretation of Rom 4:11where Paul says that Abraham “received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” Credobaptists reject the view that this verse establishes the generic purpose of circumcision as an outward sign of regeneration and justification. One possibility is to take Paul as referring exclusively to Abraham, such that his circumcision was a sign of his personal righteousness, since he had in effect received credocircumcision. However an alternative is to regard circumcision as a sign and seal of the promise that Abraham believed in order to obtain justification, namely the promise that God would bring life from his dead body (Rom 4:19-20). This would fit with the context, since Paul is arguing that Abraham’s faith in the promise of God is the pattern for justifying faith for those who are not circumcised. Justification is not a consequence of faith in the abstract, but of specific faith in the resurrecting power of God. Abraham’s justifying faith was faith that God could bring life from his dead body, whereas the justifying faith of the Christian is faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Rom 4:19-20).  Old Testament justifying faith is faith that looks forward to the coming of the offspring and trusts God’s promise that he will come, whereas New Testament justifying faith looks back and trusts that the resurrected Lord Jesus is the offspring who has come.
Finally it might be noted that this analysis of the nature and function of the covenant signs commanded by God in the Old Testament raises the possibility that baptism ought not to be regarded as the formal covenant sign of the new covenant at all. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus command baptism to be practiced as a specific new covenant sign, nor do he, or the apostolic authors of the epistles, equate it with circumcision directly.  The only specific mention of a sign in connection with the new covenant is to be found in Jesus’ teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper. In Luke 22:20 Jesus declared of the cup of wine he offered after supper “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”. Paul adds in 1 Cor 11:25 that he commanded: “do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” This would suggest that it is the Lord’s Supper which functions as the sign of the new covenant, not baptism. As in the case of the Old Testament covenants the cup enacts the promise that God has made, namely the forgiveness of sins through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus. In just the same way that the rainbow, circumcision and Sabbath were given to enable God’s people to remember the covenant promises, so too is the Lord’s Supper. It is therefore perhaps somewhat ironic that the vast majority of paedobaptists practice only credo-communion, and deny the instituted covenant sign to those who they believe to be members of the church. The controversial Federal Vision theology has highlighted this apparent inconsistency. 
Although circumcision was not given to Abraham as an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality, it subsequently came to be utilised as a metaphor speaking of the need for the Israelites to undergo an inward spiritual transformation that they evidently lacked. The physical sign of the Abrahamic covenant thus became a prophetic picture of the need for a new covenant. The call for the Israelites to circumcise their hearts is found in both Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, books which emphasise the need for real inner heart devotion to God in place of mere external legalistic obedience and which make clear that the Israelites cannot bring about this inner transformation themselves. It requires a new work of God, equivalent to a new creation or a resurrection. In Deut 10:15-16 Moses calls upon the Israelites to circumcise their hearts, yet in Deut 30:6 it is clear that their hearts will only be circumcised when God himself delivers them from the exile they will endure because of the uncircumcised hardness of their hearts. Similarly Jer 4:4 calls the people of Judah and Jerusalem to circumcise their hearts, and 9:26describes the house of Israel as uncircumcised in heart and spiritually identical to the pagan nations despite the fact that they bear the physical sign. Resolution of the problem will only come when God makes a new covenant with his people, as a result of which he will put his law in their minds and write it on their hearts, which is in effect to circumcise their hearts (Jer 31:31-34).
The fact that the physical sign of circumcision comes to be developed as a metaphor for a different kind of inward circumcision undermines the argument that circumcision was, from the outset, an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality. It was not a sign of Abraham’s mortification but of God’s promise of an offspring. As the endemic sin and unfaithfulness of God’s people became evident the call to be circumcised in heart made clear that something more than external circumcision was necessary, and that it had not taken place. If circumcision was originally given as an outward sign of an internal reality then it was an empty sign, since God had not in fact worked the inward reality. The inward reality would only be realised when Christ inaugurated the new covenant.
This understanding of circumcision as a sign that came to point prophetically ahead to the need for a new inward reality, rather than as a sign of that inward reality, is also supported by Paul’s use of the language of baptism in relation to the Old Testament events in 1 Cor 10:1-5. Paul does not equate the imagery of baptism with circumcision, but with the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt through the Red Sea. Baptismal language is not used to describe the covenant promise, but the fulfilment of that promise in the salvation of the Israelites. The passage of the people of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea is a picture of their passage through death and the wrath of God into new life. The Israelites were “baptised” because they experienced salvation and entered new life. It is not surprising that baptism in the New Testament pictures the experience of salvation rather than the mere promise of salvation. Baptism is associated not with circumcision, but with experiencing the redemptive liberation of the Exodus, passing through death into the freedom to serve and worship God. Baptism is thus the sign of having experienced the new and true Exodus in Jesus, which involves passing through the wrath of God and into the freedom of resurrection life (Rom 6:1-14).
It is clear from the New Testament that the physical sign of circumcision is no longer a prerequisite for membership of the people of God and admission to the assembly of his people. However this was by no means evident to many Jewish Christians during the apostolic era. The matter was in principle resolved by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, but Paul’s letters show that he had to fight a constant rearguard action against those who taught that circumcision was required of those who put their faith in Jesus, whether as a prerequisite for justification or as a crucial step of sanctification by submission to the yoke of the Torah.
In the mass of New Testament material regarding the place of circumcision in the Christian life there is nothing that would suggest that baptism was the replacement of circumcision as the covenant sign, and therefore that it ought to be practiced in obedience to Gen 17.  If this were the case then it would surely have been the most obvious and convincing riposte to the arguments of the circumcision party that Gentile believers had been baptised, and that they had thus complied with the new requirement for covenant admission. The fact that they had undergone the replacement sign would render it unnecessary to undergo the precursor sign. It might also be thought that, if circumcision had been replaced by baptism, then Jewish Christians would have ceased circumcising their children and started baptising them instead. However Acts 21:20-25 makes clear that Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were continuing to circumcise their children, and Paul takes steps to rebut false rumours that he is teaching them not to do so.
The New Testament material therefore provides no support for a simplistic replacement of circumcision by baptism as a covenant sign, with a static covenant of grace stretching from Abraham to the church, encompassing the children of believers but with a different sign once Jesus has come. Rather the reason why circumcision is no longer necessary is because it has been fulfilled and rendered obsolete. Its typological significance has been exhausted by fulfilment in Jesus and the final revelation of the mystery of salvation in him. This goes not just for circumcision, but for all the shadows of the Law, including the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the Sabbath, and the ritual purity laws that symbolise cleanliness and purity. The theological shape of the New Testament is thus not that circumcision has been replaced by baptism, but rather that circumcision has been fulfilled by the inauguration of the new covenant and rendered unnecessary. 
Jesus, by his coming and his sacrificial death, has fulfilled the original typological significance of circumcision. He is the long-awaited offspring of Abraham who will gather his descendants and bring them safely into the true promised land of the new creation. In his death on the cross he bears the covenant curse deserved by Israel because of their unfaithfulness to God. Just as the penalty for covenant breaking was death, symbolised in the covenant made with Abraham by the cutting of the animals and enacted and remembered in circumcision by the cutting of the foreskin, so Jesus took that judgment on himself as a substitute and representative of his people. Paul explains the significance of Jesus’ death in such terms in Col 3:11, where he speaks of the death of Jesus as his circumcision. On the cross Jesus was cut off from his people, and from his Father, fulfilling the warning of Gen 17:14. As a result there is no need for those who come after him to be circumcised. The promise enacted in circumcision has been fully fulfilled. It no longer needs to be remembered in the same way because the reality to which it pointed has now come. Baptism is instead the enactment of the new Exodus experienced by those who join themselves with Jesus by faith. 
In reality paedobaptist practice is inconsistent with the theology it advocates. Reformed paedobaptists argue for the baptism of children with a believing parent, but the biblical texts regarding circumcision admit of no such limitation. Gen 17 refers to the command to circumcise “your descendants after you for the generations to come”. Exod 20:6 and Deut 7:9 speak of the Lord’s love to a thousand generations. If baptism is to be taken seriously as the replacement for circumcision then there is no good exegetical basis for restricting baptism to the children of a believer. Why not apply the replacement covenant sign to the physical descendant of a believer many generations back, for example a grandparent or a great-grandparent?  Unless there is some reason why the scale of God’s promise has been curtailed with the coming of Christ, paedobaptists ought to be altogether more expansive in their willingness to baptise, a position which is reflected in the obligation of the Church of England to baptise the children of those who live within their parish boundaries.
The coming of the new covenant also fundamentally changes the nature of the administration of the covenant. In the Old Testament the covenant promises are pictured in corporate categories. The promise of the offspring is given to Abraham and his descendants,  and so it is appropriate that the covenant sign is marked on the male offspring of Abraham. It is common for paedobaptists to charge credobaptists with unbiblical individualism  in their understanding of God’s dealing with his people, thus undermining the pattern of God’s covenant promise to parents and their children. This critique seems especially pointed and counter-cultural in the context of a western culture which has become highly individualistic. However the biblical evidence would suggest that one of the features of the new covenant is its radically individualistic nature, which is distinct from the covenant structure that preceded it. This follows from the very nature of the new covenant as addressing the hardness of the heart, which can only ever be individual. In the new covenant personal faith, personal regeneration and the personal indwelling of God by the Spirit are the fulfilment of the Old Testament types of covenantal headship, corporate regeneration of Israel as a nation, and the corporate dwelling of God in the centre of the camp of his people, whether in the tabernacle or the temple.
The culmination of the history of Israel in the exile, which was a judgment that fell on the whole people because of the sin and unfaithfulness of the Davidic king who was their federal head, is followed by the promise of a new era in which every person will be treated as an individual rather than as part of a corporate entity. This radical new individualism is especially clear in Ezek 18 and is stated to be a characteristic of the new covenant in Jer 31:27-34. The individual nature of the new covenant is dramatically symbolised by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is now given to each and every believer personally (Acts 2:3-4), and not just to the representative prophets and kings of the Old Testament. Justification is clearly the result of personal faith in Christ and the gospel promise, not inclusion in the faith of a corporate representative. Faith in Christ brings about inclusion in a corporate entity, the church which is his body, and enjoyment of the corporate blessings that are there enjoyed, but entrance is on a purely individual basis. One feature of this radical individualism is that women who come to faith in Christ are required to be baptised in their own right. They are no longer treated as included along with their covenant head, whether father or husband.
The full revelation that has now come in Christ makes clear that salvation was always radically individual, and merely pictured in corporate terms. As has already been seen, the fundamental promise of the covenant God made with Abraham was that of an offspring, which was fulfilled not in the people of Israel as a whole but in a unique single individual, the Lord Jesus Christ. Eschatological salvation in the Abrahamic covenant was also clearly individual in reality, since only those who had faith were truly God’s elect covenant people. As Paul explains in Rom 9-11, “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” The new covenant reveals what had been the case all along. We need to remember that the Old Testament is typology rather than spiritual reality, and its significance and meaning must be interpreted by the new covenant reality.
The radically individual nature of the new covenant also changes the status of children in relation to the covenant. Whereas the promises made to Abraham were made to him and his descendants, the fact that these promises have now been fulfilled in Christ means that they are no longer offered in the same way. Paedobaptists are keen to stress the inclusion of children within the covenant on the basis of the promise made to Abraham, and point to how Jesus welcomed the children to come to him (Matt 19:13-15). However in context Jesus’ welcome of the children seems much more satisfactorily explained as a prophetic action illustrating the kind of child-like faith and trust which is essential to entering the kingdom of God. Jesus himself regularly refers to his disciples as “little ones” (Matt 18:6-9; 25:40), and in contrast to the self-righteous Pharisees and teachers of the law they have come to him with no claim to any status by right.  Paedobaptists make little reference in their arguments to the teaching of Jesus which suggests that the inaugurated new covenant will have the effect of dividing families, and of causing generational division between parents and children (Matt 10:32-39). The new covenant community will be a community of personal faith in Jesus, not of family background. It is not just a case of grace rather than race, but of personal faith rather than parental faith.
The fulfilment of the covenant in Jesus further has the consequence that the physical descendants of Abraham are no longer in a privileged spiritual position regarding their relationship with God. As a result of their rejection of Jesus they have been cut out from the olive tree which represents the people of God through history (Rom 11:17-21). Whilst they can be grafted back in by faith in Christ, they are in the same lost condition as pagan Gentiles because of their unbelief, and are currently foreigners to the covenant blessings of God, including the forgiveness of sins and the presence of the Holy Spirit. As a result of the coming of the new covenant, the gospel promises are now made to all people alike, Jew or Gentile, irrespective of their race or their parentage. In Acts 2:38-39 Peter calls the Jews at the Pentecost festival to repentance and faith in Christ in order that they might enter into the new covenant blessings of forgiveness and the Spirit. He declared that “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts starts with the programmatic statement of Jesus’ plan for world evangelisation (Acts 1:18), which is then unfolded through the narrative. Given this broader context of the book as whole,Acts 2:38-39, far from echoing the promise of Genesis 17 to Abraham and supporting covenant continuity, suggests a radical broadening of the promise and a fundamental alteration in the covenantal administration. The promise is now made to absolutely everyone in the world: to the Jews and also to the Gentiles who are far off.  This is then demonstrated in practice in Acts 10:45, when Cornelius receives the very blessings promised here simply by believing the gospel. The new covenant does not make special promises to the children of believers, but makes a promise to every member of the human race, namely that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21; Joel 2:28-32). The reference to “you and your children” is not a republication of the Genesis covenant but an assurance to a people who have rejected their Messiah and put him to death that they will not be cut off and abandoned as a people entirely. Just as Jesus promised, in a few short years Jerusalem was besieged and the temple destroyed. However the gospel promises of mercy and forgiveness in Christ continue to be offered to the Jewish people for all coming generations (Rom 1:16-17; Chps 9-11).
If paedobaptist practice is justified by the argument that baptism is a sign and a seal of God’s promise, then logically the sign ought to be offered to all, irrespective of the belief or otherwise of their parents, since the promise of the gospel is made to all, and not specifically to people of a particular race or of believing families. If it signifies the gospel promises then there is no reason why it should be confined to the children of Christian parents.
It is worth noting the difficult verses in 1 Cor 7:12-14 in which Paul states that the children of a mixed marriage between a Christian and an unbeliever are made holy by the sanctifying presence of the believing spouse. Whatever these verses might mean,  and we cannot be sure of the exact background except that it seems to be that some in Corinth are arguing that converted spouses have the right (or perhaps even the obligation) to leave their unbelieving pagan spouse, they have no direct relevance to baptism. There is no suggestion that the child concerned has been, or is required to be, baptised. The most likely referent is a converted wife married to a pagan husband who is raising their children in his religion. In such a case there is no likelihood that the child has been, or will be, baptised.
With the death and resurrection of Jesus the sign of circumcision has been exhausted of significance. It has been completely fulfilled in him and remains merely a human marker of cultural identity with no further spiritual significance.  The New Testament does not treat baptism as the replacement for circumcision under a continuing covenantal administration, but rather emphasises that a new era of salvation history has been entered, in which circumcision plays no necessary part. The new covenant also brings about the true inner spiritual transformation that physical circumcision had never achieved, and the lack of which it came to prophetically picture. Baptism pictures the coming of this spiritual reality, the absence of which was evidenced by the practice of mere physical circumcision. Baptism in the New Testament is a symbol not of God’s promise of salvation, but of the receipt of the blessings of the inaugurated new covenant. It follows that the proper objects of baptism are those who have entered into the possession of these blessings on the basis of their faith in Christ.
Baptism does not originate in the New Testament as a covenant sign replacing circumcision. Baptism first began as a ritual conducted under the old covenant in addition to circumcision in the ministry of John the Baptist. That John’s baptism is not identical to Christian baptism is evident from Acts 19:1-7,  when those who have received only the baptism of John are required to be re-baptised into the name of Jesus. The baptism of John was a washing in water which symbolised repentance and cleansing from sin. It was probably preparatory for the coming of the new covenant since the Old Testament indicated that the new covenant would come only when the people returned to God in true heart repentance (Deut 30:1-3). John’s baptism was also a prophetic symbol of the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, which was the fundamental blessing promised in the new covenant. John’s baptism pointed ahead to the time when Jesus would baptise his people with the Spirit. John’s ministry was also a fulfilment of the promise of Mal 4:5-6 in which Elijah would seek to bring about spiritual renewal amongst God’s people before the judgment of the day of the Lord. John’s ministry was a failure in regard to the people of Israel, but a success in regard to Jesus. The people of Israel did not truly repent and prepare for the coming of the new covenant, but rejected Jesus. In consequence the judgment of the Lord was poured out on their land in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. However Jesus, by his baptism, identified himself as the representative of repentant Israel, and as a result was able to inaugurate the new covenant blessings through his life and ministry, whilst at the same time bearing the judgment on behalf of his people through his death on the cross. He alone fulfilled the conditions of Deut 30:2 and was able to bring about the return from exile and the accompanying blessings. It follows from this that John’s baptism is not exactly the same as the baptism Jesus commanded his disciples to practice after his resurrection as they preached the good news of the gospel, which is the good news of the kingdom and the new covenant, to the world.
The New Testament teaching strongly suggests that post-Pentecost baptism is not a sign of the promise of God, but is a sign that a person has received the blessings of the inaugurated new covenant. As was noted at the start, all are agreed that baptism symbolises an integrated package of spiritual realities. It is a ritual washing, which pictures cleansing from the stain of sin. It dramatises death and burial, which pictures identification with Christ in his wrath-bearing death on the cross. It dramatises resurrection to new life, which pictures the regeneration and new birth of conversion. It dramatises the receipt of the Holy Spirit, picturing how those who share in the new covenant have been baptised by the Spirit. The language of the New Testament letters maintains the closest possible connection between baptism, regeneration and personal salvation (1 Pet 3:21; Titus 3:5), and bases its exhortation to faithful living on the ground that those who have been baptised have received the realities of which baptism is a picture and ought to live in confident assurance and faithful conformity to them.
Perhaps the most significant element of baptismal symbolism is that of receiving the Holy Spirit. In Acts, baptism is closely connected with either the promise, or the receipt, of the Holy Spirit. The prime reason why those who have only received the baptism of John need to be re-baptised in Acts 19:5 is because they have not received the Holy Spirit. Cornelius is baptised because his baptism by the Holy Spirit demonstrates that he has been accepted by God and shares in the blessing of the new covenant (Acts 10:47-48). This close connection between baptism and the receipt of the Holy Spirit is unsurprising. If, as has been argued, Jesus is the fulfilment of the promise of offspring for Abraham, then the gift of the Holy Spirit is the promised blessing of the covenant, and the deposit guaranteeing enjoyment of the new creation to come (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13-14). As Paul explains in Gal 3:14, Gentile believers have received the blessing given to Abraham, which is the Spirit, by faith without circumcision. It is the gift of the Spirit which means that new covenant believers have the status of full adult sons in God’s household, in contrast to Old Testament believers who were the equivalent of infant sons living under the guardianship of the law.
The relationship between baptism and the receipt of the Spirit is further evidence that baptism is not to be regarded as the replacement of circumcision as a sign of a covenant identical in its administration. A person becomes a member of the new covenant community, incorporated into and united with Jesus, by God’s work of baptism by the Holy Spirit. As Paul writes in 1 Cor 12:12-13, what makes a person a member of the body, a participant in Christ, is that they have been baptised by God into the one body by the one Spirit. This refers not to some second blessing experience, but simply to receipt of the Spirit at conversion. This Spirit baptism, which effects union with Christ and regeneration, is the work of God. It accomplishes the inner transformation that the Old Testament demanded and pictured by the metaphor of “circumcision of the heart”. In Col 2:10-15 this regenerating, uniting and forgiving action of Christ, which is elsewhere clearly the work of the Spirit (Rom 2:29), is spoken of as being circumcised by Christ (Col 2:11). As was noted above, there is no language in the New Testament which speaks of baptism as a direct replacement for circumcision, and the only language specifically referring to a memorial sign of the new covenant refers to the Lord’s Supper. However the New Testament does speak of the receipt of the spirit as a “seal” of the new covenant, and a guarantee of the full enjoyment of the new creation to come.  Once again this suggests that baptism is not the functional equivalent of circumcision. It is not a sign confirming God’s promise, but an enactment of the receipt of the fulfilment of God’s promise, and as such only appropriate for those who have already been “sealed” by God. Baptism does not point ahead to what God will do, but instead points back to what he has done for the person being baptised.
The close nexus between baptism and regeneration in the New Testament has led some paedobaptists to argue for the baptism of infants on the basis of presumptive regeneration.  In many ways this would be a more understandable justification for infant baptism, in that it does justice to what the New Testament teaches that baptism signifies. It is not a sign of a promise but an enactment of salvation received. However presumptive regeneration as a basis for baptism is exegetically unsustainable, is not supported by the practice of circumcision in the Old Testament where those who are declared not to be elect are circumcised, and is demonstrably falsified by the fact that a large number of those baptised on the basis of “presumed” regeneration turn out not to be regenerate. 
As the foregoing discussion demonstrates, the relationship between God’s covenant with Abraham, and between the sign of circumcision and New Testament ritual of baptism, is highly complex. This is not surprising since the whole nature of the relationship between the Old Testament covenants and their fulfilment in the new covenant, and between biblical types and their fulfilments, is also highly complex. Signs and rituals commanded by God take on rich metaphorical meanings. Baptism is multivalent, connected in different ways to cleansing, regeneration and forgiveness and baptism in the Spirit.
The following main points have been made:
It follows from all of these arguments, taken as a mutually reinforcing complex whole, that New Testament baptism should not follow the pattern of administration of circumcision, because the new covenant has ushered in a new and different era of salvation history, fulfilling the promises of the old and establishing a new shape for covenant administration which reflects the inward spiritual reality that has now come. This analysis provides a solid theological basis for the historical evidence suggesting that infant baptism was not part of the practice of the church during the first century of its existence, whilst taking seriously the covenantal nature of God’s dealing with his people and the fundamental unity of his one plan of salvation which was accomplished through the life, death resurrection, ascension and Spirit-sending of Jesus.
The Protestant practice of padeobaptism was forged in the context of the Reformation, in reaction to both sacramental Roman Catholicism and emerging Anabaptist extremism. Ever since these theological battle lines were drawn paedobaptists and credobaptists have made their case not just from biblical argument, but by drawing attention to the perceived or actual consequences of their rival’s praxis. It is easy to find bad baptismal practice in both camps. In this final section I will seek to draw some practical implications for baptismal practice which are driven by my theological understanding of baptism as a sign of the receipt of salvation and its benefits under the inaugurated new covenant. Credobaptists are not agreed amongst themselves on these issues and many would take a different view to my own. 
1. The Timing of Baptism
It follows from the nature of baptism that it ought to be administered as closely as possible to conversion, which is the moment that the blessings of the new covenant are received. The primary purpose of baptism is to enact, for the benefit of the person being baptised, the fact that they have experienced salvation, and to bring them assurance that they have entered into a new life and that their sins have been forgiven. Baptism is not commanded as a means by which an individual can make public testimony of their new faith to as many people as can be gathered. This pattern of immediate baptism on credible profession of faith in Christ is what we find in the New Testament. The crowds at Pentecost, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and the disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus were all baptised immediately they believed the good news of the gospel.
Paedobaptists are right to criticise credobaptists who, in effect, practice baptism on the basis of sanctification because they delay baptism until converts have undertaken considerable instruction in the Christian life and demonstrated the authenticity of their conversion. The practice of many credobaptists is far removed from that of the New Testament, where baptism is the immediate response to evangelistic preaching. Failure to practice baptism biblically has led to the invention a whole series of other rituals to mark conversion (raising your hand, coming forward in an altar call, filling in a form, speaking to friend, confirmation, formal church membership) which have taken the place of the biblically mandated response, namely baptism.
Baptism is not to be administered on the basis of certainty that the person is elect and a true believer, but rather on the basis of credible profession of faith in Jesus as Lord. The New Testament does not suggest that the apostles were especially introspective about whether people were truly elect or not, since this is a matter for God alone (Acts 8:13). The church does not claim that it knows who is truly elect, but baptism is on the basis of giving the human evidence of being elect, i.e. faith.
Of course the faith that is required for baptism must have an irreducibly minimal content. It must be a faith that confesses that Jesus is “Lord” and that believes that he has risen from the dead (Rom 10:9-10). These are complex truths, requiring some grasp of what we would today call Trinitarian theology, and an understanding of the cross (which is presupposed by believing Jesus to be risen from the dead). Baptism also follows on from repentance, so an experiential understanding of sin, guilt and the just deserving of God’s judgment are also essential.
Rather than militating against baptism on conversion, awareness of the complexity of the irreducible content of faith for baptism should force us to reflect on the content of our evangelism. We need to proclaim these truths rather than make simplistic appeals to receive forgiveness of sin. It is noticeable that in Acts many of the first converts were those who were from a Jewish or “god-fearing” background, and hence who would have been familiar with the theological categories of the gospel. Amongst pagans it was often necessary to undertake much more detailed explanation of the gospel message. We should not imagine that many, if any, pagans were converted and baptised after a twenty-minute short talk. A biblical understanding of baptism will encourage us to baptise people as soon as possible after they have professed faith, but also deepen the content of our evangelistic work.
One of the advantages of adopting proper baptismal practice on conversion, following suitably deep evangelism, is that it would minimise the danger of false professions of faith. Many of the rituals we have devised to take the place of baptism are simply too easy, and do not require people to take a step which symbolises their death to their former life and marks their new life in Christ. They are easy to undertake without symbolically burning boats with unbelieving family, friends and culture. Professions of faith are treated rather more like opportunities to try Jesus out, as if we were dating him or living with him, whereas true conversion is the equivalent of a marriage. The seriousness of baptism is very evident when working with those from non-Christian cultures, such as Chinese international students or Muslims. They realise that baptism is a definitive step and will only undertake if when they are truly converted. No person professing faith in Christ who was not baptised as a child, should be regarded as a true convert unless and until they are willing to undergo baptism. Those who were baptised as infants ought to be encouraged to be baptised, and only accepted as a true believer if they hold genuine paedobaptist convictions as a matter of conscience.
The close proximity of baptism and conversion in the New Testament also suggests that baptism loses it potency and significance the longer the delay that occurs. Baptism a considerable period after conversion fails to dramatise the fundamental change that has taken place in the life of the believer, and they will almost certainly have derived their assurance from elsewhere, most probably the evidence of their changed life and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that there comes a point at which baptism ceases to serve any useful purpose because the appropriate time for baptism has long passed. From God’s perspective there is no such thing as an unbaptised Christian, because the baptism that effects salvation is baptism by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ and the blessings of the new covenant. Whilst a person who is newly converted ought to be baptised as soon as possible, it is questionable whether there is any real need to baptise a long-professing believer who was baptised as an infant. It makes little sense to press for the rebaptism of a person who came to personal faith years ago. Such a person has been baptised by the Holy Spirit into membership of the Body of Christ and has been functioning as a member of Christ’s Body, serving and using the gifts that they have been given. Water baptism to symbolise something that took place years previously will make no difference to their standing with God, their inclusion in Christ, the forgiveness of their sins, their spiritual gifting or their personal assurance. Of course if such a person feels that in conscience they wish to be baptised then there is no reason to refuse to do so, but to insist that they need to be baptised as an act of obedience to Christ is to demand something anachronistic.
2. The Age of Baptism 
Paedobaptists commonly argue against credobaptism on the grounds that it introduces the artificial concept of an “age of responsibility” below which churches are unwilling to baptise young people, with the result that believing children are denied membership and participation in the church. This criticism needs to be taken seriously by credobaptists. If baptism is to be administered to adults on the basis of their credible profession of faith, then those who profess faith in this way ought to be baptised irrespective of their age. In most cases very young children will not in fact profess such faith, but a small number may do so, in which case the church should be willing to baptise them. However the corollary of this is that Christian parents must beware of the danger of seeking to push their children into professions of faith and baptism. It is better to teach the gospel to children and to leave them to make their response to it, rather than to push them to incant the response that we long to hear. I would be more likely to respond to the request of a child for baptism who has come to ask to be baptised of their own initiative rather than because they have been pushed to do so parents or others.
We should not, however, think that the problem of age is confined to credobaptists. Paedobaptists have to make the same judgment but at a different place. As was noted above, paedobaptists almost invariably practice credo-communion, which requires exactly the same judgment to be made in relation to the professions of faith by children. Arguably since baptism is a one-off ritual to mark conversion, whereas the Lord’s Supper is a regular ritual to sustain and develop gospel faith, the Lord’s Supper is the more important of the two. It is inconsistent for paedobaptists to admit children to baptism but not to the faith-sustaining meal that Jesus commanded his disciples to observe.
Paedobaptists also have to determine the age at which they will treat their unbelieving children as apostates from the covenant and subject them to church discipline. In effect they also operate an age of responsibility, so young children who deny Christ will not be treated as apostates.  They also face the same issue in regard to church government. Paedobaptism holds that baptised children are members of the church. However both congregational and Presbyterian models of church government involve some measure of congregational decision making, for example in regard to the election of church officers and the exercise of church discipline. Infants and children are generally excluded from the decision making process and disenfranchised compared with those who have achieved the requisite “age of responsibility”.
Most significantly, paedobaptists face the same problem if an adult is converted who already has children. Since the parent has been converted then the children ought also to be baptised along with them. Whilst this is unproblematic if the children are infants, at what age does a child have the right to refuse to be baptised along with his or her parent? What should be done about a child refuses to believe that Jesus is Lord? This is especially relevant in our contemporary culture where parents do not enjoy, either legally or socially, the power over their children of the paterfamilias in ancient society. Inevitably paedobaptists have to determine an age of responsibility.
3. The Status of Children in the Church 
Perhaps the most powerful and emotive arguments used by paedobaptists to justify infant baptism concerns the status of children within the church. They present a stark alternative in which credobaptists are characterised as regarding their children as mere pagans, with detrimental effects to their spiritual education. They regard it as impossible for credobaptists to fulfil the biblical instructions to parents to bring up their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord.”  They point to the logical inability of credobaptist parents to teach their children to pray the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Father.”
Before addressing this issue directly it is worth noting that in reality both paedobaptist and credobaptist parents act very similarly in relation to their children. Paedobaptist parents teach their children the gospel and encourage them to put personal faith in Jesus as Lord and to live for him. They pray that their children will come to personal faith. Very few seem to exercise church discipline against their children when they fail to profess faith and act as apostates. Credobaptist parents teach their children the bible and instruct them in the demands that God makes of his people. If there is a difference it is in the degree to which they expect with confidence that their children will come to personal saving faith, and to which they allow their children to live on the assumption that they are Christians already.
Paedobaptists and credobaptists alike have to address questions of the fate of children who die without conscious faith in Christ.  This is not a matter on which there is agreement. Most paedobaptists and credobaptists consider it possible that God can bring genuine regeneration to children without this being expressed by conscious professed faith. Most paedobaptists do not take the view that all unbaptised children, whether of believing or unbelieving parents, are inevitably eternally lost, nor do they believe that all baptised children are eternally elect. Thus in practice infant baptism brings no more certainty of infant salvation, and the eternal destiny of the baptised children of paedobaptists is no different to that of the unbaptised children of credobaptists. In both cases it is a matter of trusting to the grace and mercy of God, and the presence or absence of baptism is an irrelevance.
In regard to the status of the children of believers within the church, credobaptists do not have to accept the false antithesis presented by paedobaptist theology. They do not have to regard their children as the equivalent of mere pagans. They have been placed by God’s sovereign choice (Acts 17:26-27) in families where they have the opportunity to hear the good news of the gospel and experience the witness of the life of the covenant community. They are in a privileged position, perhaps not unlike that of unconverted Jews and God-fearers in the New Testament period. In Rom 3:1Paul addresses the question “what advantage then is there is being a Jew?” and begins to answer “much in every way!” The only concrete advantage that he sets out before moving on in his argument defending his gospel is that they “have been entrusted with the very words of God.” To be an unconverted Jew is to live within the sphere of the revelation of God, to possess the Scriptures which speak of Jesus and all that he will do for his people (Luke 24:44-49; 2 Tim 3:15). In a similar way the children of Christian parents have been placed in a sphere in which they have the opportunity to come under the sustained sound of the gospel. Those who are not born to Christian parents have a much-diminished opportunity in this regard. For credobaptist parents the command to bring children up “in the training and instruction of the Lord” is primarily a command to explain, apply and model the gospel to the lives of our children. In practice this is what paedobaptist parents do, irrespective of their baptismal theology of covenant inclusion.
Paedobaptists are entirely correct that credobaptists, to be consistent with their own theology, should not teach their children to parrot the Lord’s Prayer and assume that God is their Father in a saving and covenantal way. All people, irrespective of the faith or otherwise of their parents, are entitled to cry out to God in prayer, and it is right for parents to teach and model this to them, but the right to call upon God as Father belongs to those with whom he has established a relationship of sonship. The prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray was given in an old covenant context, to Jewish disciples, against the background of God’s relationship to Israel as Father. In the new covenant it is again the inner and individualistic work of the Spirit which enables those who are regenerated to cry out to God as “Father” (Rom 8:14-16). Once again paedobaptist parents face the opposite dilemma, namely when they are to start forbidding their children to pray to God as “Our Father” because it is evident that they do not have personal saving faith and are apostate?
4. Baptism and Church Unity
One of the tragedies of the division between paedobaptists and credobaptists is that baptism, which was meant to be an expression of the unity of believers in the Lord Jesus (Eph 4:1-16), has become a cause of division between those who profess to love and serve the same Lord.  It is generally credobaptists who are most guilty in this regard. Those who hold that believers’ baptism is an essential act of obedience to the Lord Jesus thereby deny the validity of the baptism of paedobaptists, who may have been professing and serving disciples of the Lord Jesus for many years. As a consequence they often refuse to permit them to become members of their churches, and even refuse to allow them to share the Lord’s Supper. Somewhat inconsistently, whilst they refuse to share fellowship with them in this way they are more than happy to work alongside them in mission and in para-church organisations.
Whilst it is natural for those who hold to a credobaptist position not to wish to undertake infant baptisms, since this would be counter to their conscience, there is no reason why disagreement over baptism should necessitate exclusion from church membership, sharing the Lord’s Supper together, and even service in church leadership. The baptism which matters to God, and is spiritually effective, is baptism by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. Our fundamental obligation as Christians is to accept and welcome those who have been accepted and welcomed by the Lord Jesus (Rom 15:7).  To refuse to welcome a person into the membership of the church, still worse to refuse to welcome them to share the Lord’s Supper, is in effect an act of church discipline which calls into question the fact of their salvation.
To refuse to share the Lord’s Supper with other believers on the grounds that they have not been baptised in a particular manner comes dangerously close to Peter’s withdrawal from eating with the Gentile believers in Antioch, which led to a public rebuke by Paul (Gal 2:11-21). Peter did not believe that circumcision was required for salvation, so he was not himself committing the Galatian heresy, but his behaviour in breaking fellowship had the effect of excluding Gentile believers from the church unless they chose to be circumcised. The issue of eating together was no trivial matter, since the main meeting of the early church was clearly a gathering to share the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-35; Acts 2:46; 20:7), which was an act of fellowship and mutual acceptance. The insistence of a particular mode of baptism for church membership, and especially for participation in the Lord’s Supper, falls into the same category. It forces justified and regenerate believers to form schismatic separate fellowships, or to comply with a requirement that goes against their conscience. The unity established by the Spirit, in whom all believers have been baptised, ought to be expressed in willingness to share the Lord’s Supper with all those who have been accepted by Christ and baptised into his body. It is tragically sad if we refuse to share the Lord’s Supper on earth with those with whom we will be sharing the messianic banquet prefigured by it in glory.
It is of course natural that individual churches wish to protect and maintain their convictions regarding baptism, but there are effective ways of achieving this without excluding paedobaptists from membership or the Lord’s Supper. In many communities in the UK it is no longer viable to maintain multiple conservative evangelical churches divided only by reason of their baptismal convictions. If credobaptists are to share a gospel vision for the nation as a whole they need to recognise, and face up to the reality that, whilst it is possible for those of credobaptist convictions to join paedobaptist fellowships, it is generally impossible for paedobaptists to join credobaptist fellowships. It is no surprise, therefore, to find large numbers of those who are convictionally credobaptist worshipping happily as part of conservative evangelical Anglican churches, but to find considerably fewer paedobaptists worshipping as part of credobaptist churches.
It is hardly realistic to suggest that this article will resolve the centuries’ long difference between paedobaptists and credobaptists. Although baptismal practice is the presenting issue, the different approaches of paedobaptists and credobaptists conceal much deeper issues of biblical and systematic theology concerning the way in which God has dealt with his people through salvation history. It is hoped that it will bring some helpful clarity to the debate, perhaps moving the discussion beyond the boundaries of classic Reformed and Dispensational approaches, thus aiding mutual understanding, gracious dialogue and loving acceptance of each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, baptised by his Spirit into his one Body.