If you want to understand what the Bible teaches about baptism or any other subject, you should begin the process in the Old Testament. This represents a major difference between Baptists and paedobaptists. Reformed people read the Bible as one book from the perspective of promise and fulfillment. In regards to baptism, if you begin the exegetical process in the Old Testament from the perspective of promise and fulfillment, then you will likely end up a paedobaptist. In contrast, if you stress the newness of the new covenant to the point that the new covenant is cut off from the Abrahamic covenant, then you will likely end up a Baptist.
Is the new covenant the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant? Another way of asking this question: Is there continuity within the covenant of grace between the Old and the New Testaments? If all the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled through Jesus Christ, then it stands to reason that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Although this thesis is reasonable and logical we must ask ourselves if it is Biblical. I will demonstrate from the Scriptures that the Abrahamic covenant is eternal, and that there is continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant.
The first time that we read about the promise that God will redeem his people is in Genesis 3:15. And I will put enmity between you and the women, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. This verse teaches that there are essentially two seeds. First, there is the seed of Satan, and second, there is the seed of the woman. The seed of the woman is in reference to Christ. He will come from the woman (Mary), and through Jesus Christ, Satan will receive a mortal wound to his head. Christ will overcome Satan, but in the process of inflicting this fatal wound upon Satan, Christ will also receive a wound, but He will overcome this wound as if it was only a wound to His heel. This verse serves as a lens for understanding the unfolding of redemptive history. In this verse God has promised to bring salvation through the seed of the woman. As we read our Bibles we look for the fulfillment of this promise.
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you (Genesis 17:7). You should notice that the Abrahamic covenant is eternal; this means that the covenant is still in place. If the Abrahamic covenant is eternal, then how does it continue apart from the new covenant? Our understanding of God’s redemptive plan must seriously take into consideration the eternal nature of the covenant of grace with Abraham. This covenant continues to shape the spiritual reality that we experience in Christ.
This promise was made in conjunction with the giving of circumcision as a sign and seal of this promise. We know that circumcision no longer has a place in the New Testament, but what about the Abrahamic covenant? Is God a liar? Has God broken His promise to maintain the Abrahamic covenant for eternity, or is it possible that with the forward movement of redemptive history, namely the establishment of the new covenant in Christ’s blood, that Jesus has fulfilled the Abrahamic Covenant? If the new covenant established in Christ’s blood is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, then what has happened in regard to the external sign and seal of the covenant? Has the external sign and seal completely disappeared?
If it is true that the Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled through Jesus Christ and the establishment of the new covenant, then it only stands to reason that the sign and seal associated with the new covenant replaces the former sign and seal of covenant membership. The change in the sign and seal of covenant membership serves as a witness regarding the forward movement of redemptive history.
From the Scriptures it can be demonstrated that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. The most basic promise associated with the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled through the new covenant, namely that I will be your God and you will be My people.
I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you (Genesis 17:7). This statement is the heart of the covenant of grace in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. I will be your God and you will be my people. Beginning with the Abrahamic covenant we can trace God’s promise through the Old Testament and into the new covenant. This promise is fulfilled in the new covenant.
Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
Ezekiel 37:26, 27 Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
The author of Hebrews links the work of Christ originally established with Abraham and his descendants to a better covenant fulfilled in Christ. Hebrews 8:10, For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
Revelation 21:3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.”
In regards to God’s purpose these verses demonstrate the continuity within the covenant of grace. In the Old Testament the promise “I will be their God, and they shall be My people” was never fully realized except in a provisional way. The people of God looked forward to the fulfillment of this promise. This promise was realized through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, whereby Jesus established the new covenant in His blood. As the result of Christ’s redemptive work, Jesus has given His Spirit in fulfillment of this promise.
2 Corinthians 6:16, And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God As God has said: “I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.” The apostle Paul applies the Old Testament language of the temple to the people of God.
Paul applies the Old Testament language associated with the covenant of grace to the new covenant. There should be no doubt that Paul understands the new covenant as the fulfillment of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament.
In Galatians 3:15, 16 the apostle Paul appeals to the promises spoken to Abraham and to his seed.
Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The point that Paul is making has to do with the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant.
Paul clarifies this in verse 17 The law, introduced four hundred thirty years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God, and thereby do away with the promise. The law is in reference to Sinai and the Mosaic economy. The law is in reference to the whole system associated with the meeting between God and Moses on Mount Sinai.
In verse 18, Paul makes the explicit claim that the promise, the inheritance, was not realized through the law; but God gave it to Abraham through a promise. If the inheritance does not depend on the law, then what was the purpose of the law?
Four hundred thirty years after Abraham, the law was added, until the time that the Seed would come. Paul is clear that the law was incapable of imparting life, because the law was incapable of producing righteousness. The law revealed our transgressions and served as a means of driving us to Christ. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24).
Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. Now that faith has come is in conjunction with the coming of the Seed, Christ. With the coming of the Seed, Christ, the promise that God made to Abraham, is realized. This is in view in verses 26-29.
With the coming of Christ and the realization of the promise, Paul employs the new covenant language of baptism. With the movement from promise to fulfillment, the sign and seal of circumcision has been replaced with the sign and seal of baptism.
Baptism is the sign and seal of the new covenant established through the blood of Christ. This covenant is the fulfillment of what has come before. In the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15, and then with the restatement of this covenant and the giving of circumcision in chapter 17 as the sign and seal of the covenant membership, God established the pattern whereby the sign and seal would be applied. Every male under the authority of the covenant head, the Father, was circumcised.
With the forward movement of redemptive history, the sign and seal is no longer gender specific. In the new covenant, the sign and seal of covenant membership is applied to both males and females, because it speaks of better promises (Hebrews 8:6). In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God dwelt above the mercy seat, which rested on top of the ark of the covenant. As a result, God dwelt among His people, but there was distance between the special presence of God and the people. Now that Christ has come and atoned for the sins of His people, the special presence of God dwells in his people. “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
This is what the author of Hebrews is speaking of when he says that the new covenant is made up of better promises. Through the new covenant, the promises contained in the Old Testament are realized and fulfilled in Christ and God dwells in His people by His Spirit. The replacement of circumcision by baptism as the sign and seal, and the application of the sign and seal to include both males and females speaks of that which Christ has already accomplished, the better fulfillment. The change in the sign and seal of covenant membership marks the forward movement of redemptive history.
This is a covenantal, or Reformed, way of reading the Bible. The question that you have to wrestle with is, which way is really Biblical? Is the new covenant the fulfillment of what has already been promised in the Abrahamic covenant, or is the new covenant completely new? This is an issue that will impact one’s view of baptism.
The Baptist approach emphasizes the discontinuity between the Old and the New Testaments. Dispensational Baptists draw an even sharper line between the Old Testament and the New Testament; they draw a sharp line between Israel as God’s people in the Old Testament and the Church as God’s people in the New Testament. Dispensationalists do not understand the church in the New Testament to be spiritual Israel; as a result they deny that the new covenant is the fulfillment of all that has come before. In conclusion, the debate behind the debate is over the appropriate reading of the Scriptures.
The paedobaptist approach emphasizes continuity in purpose between the Old and the New Testaments (I will be your God and you will be my people).
Critics will likely accuse me of imposing my system of doctrine on the Scriptures, but in my defense I will argue that I am interpreting the Bible according to the way that the New Testament interprets the Old.
This is why New Testament authors continually refer to and quote Old Testament texts. For example, in the book of Hebrews almost half of the verses are in reference to Old Testament texts or quotations of Old Testament texts. It is helpful to think of the New Testament as a commentary on the Old Testament. For this reason the Biblical interpreter should proceed from the basis of promise and fulfillment, and not automatically proceed from the basis of discontinuity between the Old and the New Testaments.
Rev. Mark J. Stromberg is the pastor of the United Reformed Church of Belgrade, Montana.