Steve Wellum is professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY). Most recently he is the author of a chapter on Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants (available in PDF online for free) in the book Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Steve on the covenants and baptism. It’s long (by blog standards), but I’d encourage both paedobaptists and credobaptists to persevere to the end!

In your chapter you write that “at the heart of the advocacy and defense of the evangelical Reformed doctrine of infant baptism is the argument that it is an implication drawn from the comprehensive theological category of the ‘covenant of grace’ . . . In many ways, all other arguments for infant baptism are secondary to this overall line of reasoning.” To begin, how do Reformed paedobaptists define the “covenant of grace”?

The Reformed paedobaptist conception of “the covenant of grace” may be defined in a number of ways, but at its heart it is understood as God’s sovereign gracious choice by which he chooses to save a people for himself by providing sinners life and salvation through the last Adam, the covenantal head of his people, the Lord Jesus Christ, as well as all that is necessary to bring the elect to saving faith by the effectual work of the Holy Spirit. Historically within Reformed theology, “the covenant of grace” has been contrasted with the “covenant of works.” The covenant of works was made with Adam as the head of the entire human race. To Adam and his entire posterity, eternal life was promised upon the condition of perfect obedience to the law of God. However, due to his disobedience, he, along with entire human race, was plunged into a state of death and condemnation. But God, by his own free and sovereign grace, chose to save a people for himself, which Reformed theology identifies as “the covenant of grace.”

So why is infant baptism an entailment or implication of this understanding of the “covenant of grace?”

Simply because given that the “covenant of grace” is an organic unity across the ages, this entails—so the argument goes—that the people of God (Israel and the church) are essentially one (in nature and structure), and that the covenant signs (circumcision and baptism) are also essentially one, especially in regard to the spiritual significance of those signs. Furthermore, Reformed paedobaptists argue that since one cannot find any repeal in the NT of the OT command to place the sign of “the covenant of grace” upon covenant children, so the same practice should continue today in the church, given the underlying unity of the covenant across the ages. In a nutshell that is the Reformed covenantal argument for infant baptism.

Do you disagree that there is such a thing as the “covenant of grace,” or is your argument rather that infant baptism is not a proper implication from it?

What I argued in my chapter is that “the covenant of grace” is a misleading category. Let me explain it this way. It is beyond question that the theme of “covenant” is an important unifying theme in Scripture. However, if we are not careful the notion of the covenant of grace can flatten the biblical presentation of God’s plan of salvation in terms of biblical covenants. In truth, “the covenant of grace” is really a comprehensive theological category, not a biblical one. This does not mean it is illegitimate. After all, theological terms are often used in theology, which are not necessarily biblical terms—e.g., Trinity. However, the problem with the theological category—“the covenant of grace”—is that, if one is not careful, it tends to flatten the relationships between the biblical covenants across redemptive history without first allowing each covenant to be understood within its own redemptive-historical context, and then how each covenant relates to the other biblical covenants, and then how all the covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. I have no problem in using the category “the covenant of grace” to underscore the unity of God’s plan of salvation and the essential spiritual unity of the people of God in all ages. But if it is used, which I contend is the case in Reformed theology, to downplay the significant amount of progression and discontinuity between the biblical covenants, especially as fulfillment takes place in the coming of Christ, then it is an unhelpful term. In fact, I argued in my chapter that it would be best to place a moratorium on the category, especially if we want to make headway in the baptismal debate. In its place, we should speak of the one plan of God centered in Jesus Christ. And, furthermore, in speaking of the “covenant,” we must think in terms of the plurality of biblical covenants as we carefully unpack the relationships between the covenants across the canon. In short, it is imperative that we do a biblical theology of the covenants which, in truth, is an exercise in inter-textual relations between the covenants which, in the end, preserves a proper balance of continuity and discontinuity across the canon in regard to the biblical covenants. It is only when we do this that I am convinced we will make headway in our debate over the relationship between the biblical covenants without prejudicing the debate in one direction or the other.

Do Reformed paedobaptists equate the Abrahamic covenant with the covenant of grace?

In my chapter I contend that the potential danger of Reformed theology to flatten out the biblical covenants is precisely what happens in their defense of infant baptism. For the most part, I argue that the paedobaptist equates the Abrahamic covenant with “the covenant of grace” as though it was actually that covenant. This is the primary reason why they argue that the genealogical principle and the continuity of covenant signs is so easily carried over into the new covenant. But, from my view, the problem with this approach is twofold. First, Reformed theology does not first attempt to understand the Abrahamic covenant in its own redemptive-historical context, in all of its diverse features (e.g. national/physical, typological, spiritual). Secondly, Reformed theology does not then relate well the Abrahamic covenant to the overall plan of God vis-à-vis the biblical covenants by seeing the differences or discontinuities between the covenants, especially as they find their fulfillment in Christ. This is born out by the paedobaptist tendency to reduce the Abrahamic covenant merely to its spiritual realities while neglecting its national and typological elements, and then seeing how all of these elements find their consummation in Christ and the new covenant.

So, in the end, I do not agree that infant baptism is an entailment from a proper understanding of the biblical covenants, especially as viewed in light of the fulfillment that our Lord has inaugurated in the ushering in the new covenant sealed by his death.

What is your view on the proper relationship between the “covenant of grace” and the “Abrahamic covenant”?

I have hinted at this in my above answer, but let me state it more directly. If we think of “the covenant of grace” in terms of the one eternal salvation plan of God centered in Jesus Christ, then the Abrahamic covenant is a specific covenant in redemptive history, along with the Noahic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new covenant, which, as they unfold across history ultimately reveal to us how the God’s plan of salvation comes to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the Abrahamic covenant is part of the one plan of God, but it must first be understood in its own immediate context in all of its diverse dimensions, before we think of its relationship to that which comes after in terms of the progress of revelation as given in the various covenants spelled out in redemptive history.

How do you define the “new covenant”?

The new covenant is the covenant which our Lord Jesus Christ has inaugurated by his life, death, resurrection, and glorious exaltation to the right hand of God. It must be viewed as the culminating covenant in the sense that all of the previous covenants have been leading to it and anticipating it, in a variety of ways. Like the other covenants, it is part of the one plan of the Triune God to save a people for himself, but viewed vis-à-vis the previous covenants, it is the covenant which has now brought to fulfillment all that God promised and all that the OT anticipated and longed for, all the way back to the initial promise of Genesis 3:15.

You argue that both the “structure” and the “nature” of the “new covenant” have fundamentally changed from the “old covenant.” How so?

When I argue that the “structure” and “nature” of the new covenant is different than the old covenant, I am particularly thinking of the Mosaic covenant, but it would also have application to the other OT covenants as well.

Let’s start with the structural changes from the old covenant to the new covenant.

By “structure,” I mean that the old covenant, which was more “tribal” in orientation (to use Don Carson’s words for it), was a mediated covenant through various covenant mediators, particularly prophets, priests, and kings. When one wanted to know the will of the Lord, you went to the prophet. When one wanted to have forgiveness of one’s sins, you went through the priest, and so on. Hence the strong emphasis is on the Spirit of God being poured out, not on each individual believer, but distinctively on prophets, priests, and kings, and a few designated special leaders (e.g. Bezalel). Given this hierarchical structure of the covenant community, when these leaders did what was right, the entire nation benefited. However, when they did not, the entire nation suffered for their actions. But Jeremiah 31:29ff anticipates a day when the new covenant will not be mediated in this way. All of those who are part of the covenant community will have the Spirit (e.g. Joel 2; cf. Acts 2); all will know the Lord (Jer. 31:32ff); all will be priests, indeed prophets, priests, and kings. This is not to say that there is no mediator in the new covenant. Rather, it is to say that through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is both the fulfillment of the tribal leaders of the OT—our great prophet, priest, and king—and the previous covenant mediators, the entire new covenant community is now allowed to have direct access to the throne of grace, by virtue of his glorious work for us. Related to this anticipation is the OT promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit and his empowering work in the new covenant era. That is why Joel 2, Ezekiel 36, and other places anticipate a universal distribution of the Spirit in the new covenant community, which means that the very tribal “structure” of the covenant community has changed. In the NT, this point becomes the basis for the teaching of the “priesthood of all believers.”

And what about the change in the nature of the covenants?

This change of “structure” also means that there has been a change of “nature.” Under the old covenant, Israel was a “mixed entity,” namely a community of believers and unbelievers (not all Israel was Israel to use the language from Romans 9). But with the coming of the new covenant in Jesus Christ and the giving of the Spirit in eschatological fulfillment, the new covenant community is viewed as a regenerate people. Furthermore, this change of “nature” is also linked to the work of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant age. The NT is clear that it is the Spirit who has brought life and who enables God’s people to follow God’s decrees and to keep God’s laws, thus making us covenant-keepers and not covenant-breakers. It is the Spirit who unites us to Christ so that all Christians, by definition, are those “in Christ” who have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). In fact, I argue that this is precisely what Jeremiah 31 anticipates—which has now arrived in Christ. Thus we could say it this way: under the new covenant all will know the Lord in a direct fashion, and all will have the law written on their hearts and experience the full forgiveness of sin. Thus, in contrast to the old covenant community which was a “mixed entity,” the new covenant community will be a regenerate people. This is what I mean when I say that the “structure” and “nature” of the new covenant is different than the old.

What then does all of this have to do with baptism?

Everything. Under the old covenant, one could make a distinction between the physical and spiritual seed of Abraham (the locus of the covenant community is different from the locus of the elect). Under the old covenant, both “seeds” (physical and spiritual) received the covenant sign of circumcision and both were viewed as full covenant members in the national sense, even though it was only the remnant who were the true spiritual seed of Abraham. But this kind of distinction is not legitimate under the new covenant where the locus of the covenant community and the elect are the same. In other words, one cannot speak of a “remnant” in the new covenant community, like one could under the old covenant. All those who are “in Christ” are a regenerate people, and as such it is only they who may receive the sign of the covenant, namely baptism.

Is the “new covenant community” co-extensive with the “visible church”?

It all depends on what means by the “visible church.” In Reformed thought, the “visible church” is the church that becomes visible in the ministry of the Word and the practices of the sacraments. But it is also viewed as an entity of believers and unbelievers, what I call a “mixed entity.” If one defines “visible church” in this way, I would not say they are co-extensive. Why? Because the new covenant is comprised of all those who are joined to Christ by faith, hence believers and a regenerate people.

At this point, what is often questioned is this: On any given gathering of the people of God are there not unbelievers in the midst, or even false professions of faith which then are viewed as the visible church? No doubt, it is the case that in any gathering of God’s people there are unbelievers and false professions. The difference is that in the new covenant we do not view these individuals as joined to Christ, in faith union with him, and members of the new covenant community. They have not experienced the forgiveness of sins and the law written on the heart. Under the new covenant to be a member of it, one by definition is joined to Christ by faith, been born of the Spirit, and thus is a regenerate person. Just because there are false professions does not mean that they are part of the covenant community. However, under the old covenant, given its national/physical component, there were plenty of Israelites (covenant members who had received the sign of the covenant) who were not “true Israel” (those of faith in the covenantal promises of God). But this kind of distinction is foreign to the new covenant.

Why do you believe that all members of the “new covenant community” are regenerate and that the new covenant itself is unbreakable?

I believe this for a number of reasons:

  1. Jeremiah 31 and other OT texts anticipate this truth. Jeremiah 31 not only strongly contrasts the new covenant with the old in terms of the unbreakable nature of it (v. 32), but it also teaches that the new covenant community will be comprised of people who all know the Lord, who have the law written on their heart (which I take it to be very close to language of circumcision of the heart, i.e., regeneration), and whose sins have been forgiven. These realities can only be true of a regenerate people.
  2. The NT announces that the new covenant has been inaugurated and ratified by the sacrificial death of Christ and that it is now in force. Intimately tied to the arrival of the new covenant is the eschatological fulfillment of the giving of the Spirit to all those in the covenant community (see the OT expectation in Joel 2, Ezekiel 36; cf. Acts 2). In the new covenant, God has poured out his Spirit on all those in the community, and the Spirit of God is presented as the agent who not only gives us life but also enables us to follow God’s decrees and to keep God’s laws, thus making us covenant-keepers. The Spirit also unites us to Christ, thus to be “in Christ” is to have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9) and the Spirit’s work is viewed as a permanent, effective work, which I take it to mean that those who are born of the Spirit and united to Christ by grace through faith, who are part of God’s new covenant community, are those who will never fall away and who are preserved forever by God’s grace and power.
  3. The NT also proclaims the “better” nature of the new covenant that Christ has inaugurated. The “better” nature of the new covenant is seen in light of the perfection of Christ’s work which is qualitatively better than all that has preceded—better promises, better sacrifices, indeed a better covenant. But what is better about this new covenant? It is this: because of who our Redeemer is and what he offers as a sacrifice we now have a more effective sacrifice and thus a more effective covenant, which cannot be broken. To speak of the new covenant as a breakable covenant is to diminish the person and work of the new covenant Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some Reformed paedobaptists, like Richard Pratt, would argue that you are operating with an over-realized eschatology, emphasizing the “already” but neglecting the “not yet” aspect of the “new covenant.” How do you respond?

Obviously, I would strongly disagree with this kind of assessment. In fact, I would argue that this kind of objection not only is a misunderstanding of inaugurated eschatology, but it implicitly begs the question. For this kind of objection to stick, one has to first assume that the “already” aspect of the new covenant is that in this interim period between the comings of Christ, the new covenant community is still a “mixed” entity, while in the “not yet” it will then be a regenerate community. But this is not what the NT says. Hebrews, for example, establishes the reality of the new covenant in the church without any hint that the full establishment of a regenerate community is yet future. Pratt rightly notes that the promise that Jeremiah holds out is a salvific promise which anticipates a community of regenerate people. But the NT clearly states that the new covenant is now here (e.g., Hebrews 8, 10). The structural changes of the old have given way to the new. No doubt, we still await the “not yet” aspects of our redemption, but this does not entail that the community is not “already” a regenerate people. Instead, in Christ’s coming the new age is here, the Spirit has been poured out on the entire community, we now presently experience our adoption as sons including the full forgiveness of sins, even though we long for the end. That is why, in a parallel fashion, when the reality of a full forgiveness of sins is anticipated in Jeremiah 31, we do not argue that in the “already” a partial forgiveness takes place while we await the “not yet” forgiveness in the future. No, justification is now (Rom 8:1), even though we will still stand before the judgment seat of Christ and hear the end-time verdict rendered. The same must be said in terms of the new covenant community.

Reformed paedobaptists argue that baptism fulfills and replaces circumcision. What’s your view?

The crucial question that needs to be asked is this: Does circumcision signify the exact same spiritual realities as baptism? If so, then it is quite easy to argue that baptism fulfills and replaces circumcision, but this is precisely what the NT does not teach. No doubt these two covenant signs are parallel in a number of ways, but they ought to be viewed as covenantal signs tied to different covenants. Remember, we must first treat each covenant in its own redemptive historical context and then think through how they relate to each other. Circumcision is an OT sacrament established in a specific context, and the same is true of baptism in the NT. But, in my view, it is a mistake to equate the two in a one-to-one fashion.

What did circumcision signify in the OT?

In my chapter, I try to argue that circumcision in the OT signifies a number of things. First, in the context of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, its primary purpose was to mark out a physical seed in preparation for the coming of Messiah. In this regard it did its job well. But now that Christ has come its job is complete and the NT has abrogated it as a covenantal sign. Second, circumcision, as incorporated into the Mosaic covenant, continued to mark and delineate the nation, but by its very nature the nation was constituted as a mixed entity. Even in the darkest moments of Israel’s history, the prophets never questioned Israel’s right to circumcise their sons even though they reminded them that physical circumcision was not enough; what was ultimately needed was faith in the promises of God tied to a circumcised heart. Furthermore, under the Mosaic covenant, there was another purpose of circumcision that begins to point to spiritual and typological realities. In this regard, physical circumcision pointed to a need of a spiritually circumcised heart (see the promises in the new covenant), and in this sense, it is typological of regeneration.

So what changes in the NT?

When one comes to the NT, it is clear that circumcision is not only abrogated and as such it is no longer a covenantally significant sign for the people of God, whether they be Jewish or Gentile believers, but also that now that Christ has come the law-covenant has been fulfilled and the God-given divisions tied to that law-covenant have been removed (Eph. 2:11-22; Gal. 6:15). The new sign of the new covenant is that of baptism. But baptism does not anticipate a circumcision of heart, rather it testifies and announces that one has been joined to Christ and that one is a true spiritual seed of Abraham. Baptism is not a sign of physical descent, nor is it a sign that anticipates gospel realities, which is precisely how it must be viewed in infant baptism. Rather it is a sign that signifies a believer’s union with Christ and all the benefits that are entailed by that union.

So would you be comfortable saying that baptism is analogous to circumcision?

Yes, baptism is analogous to circumcision in that it is an initiatory rite, but it is not a mere replacement of it. Nowhere does the NT say that circumcision is now unnecessary because baptism has replaced it. The NT never gives this answer because baptism is a new rite, applied to everyone who has repented and believed; indeed, who have been born of the Spirit, united to Christ, and thus demonstrated that they have entered into the new covenant realities inaugurated by our Lord. Circumcision, in a whole variety of ways, anticipates the coming of Christ and the new covenant era; baptism is a sign that says that Christ has come, the new covenant is here, and that those to whom the sign is applied are those who have entered into faith union with Christ. Circumcision, at the end of the day, in a typological way, may anticipate and point to these new covenant realities, but it does not testify that all of these realities are true of us. Baptism, on the other hand, is a NT ordinance, commanded by our Lord, which communicates the grace of God to those who have faith, something which could never have been said of circumcision. Baptism is a new rite for the new covenant people of God; it is not a mere replacement of circumcision.

Would you agree, as reformed paedobaptists maintain, that the burden of proof is on the credobaptist? They argue that the church in the first century would have assumed the genealogical principle of children receiving the covenant sign unless being explicitly told otherwise, and that Acts 2:38-39 would have been understood to give children of believers the sign of baptism. How do you respond?

Burden of proofs are often slippery. If one assumes the Reformed view of “the covenant of grace,” their understanding of the continuity across the covenants, the mixed nature of the covenant community, the unchanging nature of the genealogical principle, and a certain reading of Jeremiah 31, then, obviously, the burden of proof is on the credobaptist. But this, in the end, begs the question. At point after point, one has to first prove these assumptions. At the end of the day, one must attempt to do justice to the OT in its context as well as how the NT understands the nature of fulfillment. One has to be a “whole-Bible” Christian, reading the OT in its redemptive-historical situation, seeing how the NT thinks through these issues, and then how we relate the whole to the parts.

Given my attempt to understand the relation of the covenants differently, which I believe does justice to the whole of Scripture better than the paedobaptist position (in this sense I want to argue that I am more covenantal than they!), I do not accept the burden of proof upon me since I do not accept their premise. So, for example, why should we think that the church in the first century would have assumed that the genealogical principle should be interpreted in physical terms? The NT does not teach this. In fact, where is there evidence in the NT that the genealogical principle is ever: “to believers and their children?” The only sons and daughters of the Lord Jesus Christ in the NT are those who are regenerated and exhibit saving faith in Christ. Paul’s burden in the NT is not to argue physical descent, but to show that both Jew and Gentile, whether it be men, women, boys, or girls, are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

No doubt, under the previous covenants the genealogical principle, that is, the relationship between the covenant mediator and his seed was physical. But now, in Christ, under his mediation, the relationship between Christ and his seed is no longer physical but spiritual, which entails that the covenant sign must only be applied to those who in fact are the spiritual seed of Abraham, sons and daughter of God in Christ, by faith. In many ways, since this is precisely what Jeremiah and the OT anticipate in terms of the coming of the new covenant era, and since this is precisely how the NT understands these relationships, the burden of proof is on the paedobaptist to show that the new covenant is something different than both the OT anticipates and the NT announces and proclaims.

What, in your view, does baptism signify?

Baptism signifies a believer’s union with Christ, by grace through faith, and all the benefits that result from that union. It testifies and announces that one has entered into the realities of the new covenant and as such, has experienced regeneration, the gift and down-payment of the Spirit, and the forgiveness of sin. It graphically signifies that a believer is now a member of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:22-25). It is our defining mark of belonging as well as a demarcation from the world. It signifies entry into the eschatological order of the new creation—that which our Lord Jesus Christ has ushered in. In all of these ways, baptism is a beautiful God-given rite which displays, proclaims, and testifies to the reality of the gospel.

Why is this debate important for the church?

The debate between Reformed paedobaptists and believer baptists is, thankfully, not a gospel debate. Between credo- and paedobaptists there is much that unites us, and we can be grateful for those agreements and our unity in Christ. However, given our different views of baptism, there are also profound differences that divide us, and it is not helpful to blur the differences merely for the sake of unity. Ultimately baptism is linked to the proclamation of the gospel itself as it proclaims the glories of our Lord Jesus Christ and the full realities of the gospel of sovereign grace. To get baptism wrong is not a benign issue. It not only misconstrues our Lord’s command and instruction to the church, it also leads to a misunderstanding of elements of the gospel, particularly to the beneficiaries of the new covenant and the nature of the church. It may even lead, if we are not careful, to a downplaying of the need to call our children to faith and repentance. Often Baptists are charged with not appreciating the place of their children in the covenant community. Not only does this charge miss the mark in fundamentally misunderstanding the structure and nature of the new covenant community, it also runs the danger of missing what is truly imperative—to call all people, including our children, to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only then that the promise of the new covenant age becomes ours—and not only to us, but to our children, and to all those who are far off. Baptism, as a new covenant sign, even though it does not bring us into a state of grace, has been ordained by our God as a proper means of grace that we ignore, distort, and downplay to the loss of our spiritual life and mission. Baptism is important. In many ways, how we view baptism is a test case of how one puts the entire Bible together. In that light, may both credo- and paedo Baptists continually go back to Scripture and examine which view is true to the whole Bible, for much is at stake in these debates and disagreements.

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18 thoughts on “Interview with Steve Wellum on Baptism and the Covenants”

  1. dan erickson says:

    Thanks Justin,
    I was just reading this chapter in the book last night. The interview helps make it even more clear. Presbyterian friends say that one can not fully embrace “covenant theology” and be a baptist. It seems Steve agrees, and sees flaws in strict covenant theology. Does everyone agree? Can a reformed Baptist truly hold to covenant theology?

  2. Moe Bergeron says:

    Dear Justin,

    A very timely conversation. Brother Wellum’s words should be given careful consideration. A right understanding of the old and new covenants must be enjoyed before we consider compromising on issues such a believer’s baptism.

    Pastor Moe Bergeron

  3. dec says:

    Well done, Justin.

    In addition to the baptism issue, Wellum clarified for me why Paul so strongly rebuked the Galatians for going backward to circumcision.
    …if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.

  4. Dean Olive says:

    Thanks for posting this interview. Can’t think of anything more relevant and needy. Wellum’s chapter in the book on baptism is excellent and your interview with him is better. I always get something good from your blog! Now, can you direct us to an mp3 download of Dr. Wellum teaching/preching on this subject?

  5. M. Jay Bennett says:

    Dan,

    I do not think a baptist can hold to covenant theology without redefining it. A defining characteristic of covenant theology is the eternality (i.e. continuity) of the one covenant of grace, which was first revealed explicitly through Abraham. “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:7).

    To allow for a change in the nature (a defining characteristic)of the covenant (i.e. parties, stipulations, promises) is to inject a fundamental discontinuity into the covenant that does not allow for everlastingness through progressive fulfillment, which covenant theology teaches. Therefore, it would be incorrect for a baptist to claim that the New Covenant is a fulfillment of the Old. How can something (i.e. New Covenant) be a fulfillment of that which is fundamentally different (different in nature, i.e. Old Covenant) from it? It would be more precise for the baptist to say that the New Covenant replaces the Old.

    In other words, covenant theology allows for discontiuity in fulfillment (i.e. the progressive unfolding of redemptive covenant administrations) while maintaining continuity in nature (i.e. defining characteristics of the covenant).

  6. Anonymous says:

    Dan Erickson said: “Presbyterian friends say that one can not fully embrace ‘covenant theology’ and be a baptist.”

    It depends on the flavor of covenant theology you have in mind. There are various schools of thought within covenant theology, and there are important differences between them.

    From a Westminster Confession covenant theology perspective, Presbyterians and Baptists essentially disagree over who is in covenant with God. For Presbyterians, it is the visible church; for Baptists, it is the invisible church. So, in this sense, a Baptist cannot “fully” embrace the covenant theology of the Westminster Standards.

    Continental Reformed theology (e.g., Three Forms of Unity) is closer in some ways to Baptist theology in that it does not have precisely the same distinction between the visible and invisible church. Rather, it considers the unregenerate within the visible church to be hypocrites who are not actually part of the church. Even so, it still baptizes children, presuming that the children of believers are regenerate. This would be a fairly consistent position for a Reformed Baptist to take.

    In many ways Baptist theology resembles the Presbyterian fencing of the table at the Lord’s Supper. Presbyterians typically do not admit the entire covenant community to the table, but only those who have made a credible profession of faith. In a similar way, Reformed Baptists do admit that some children are regenerate (i.e., the elect who die in infancy, as well as others who have faith appropriate for their age), but still not baptize them until they make a credible profession of faith.

    So, yes, there are some differences between the ways that Presbyterians and Baptists perceive covenant theology. But the distance between Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians need not be very great.

    It is unclear to me whether or not Wellum understands the distinctions between the various camps of Reformed covenant theology (Westminster, Continental, Kline/Horton, etc.). Also, he gives the paedobaptism view short shrift by not dealing with its more powerful arguments, or with its exegesis of critical passages such as Hebrews 8. For a non-combative counterpoint to Wellum, check out the argument that Richard Pratt actually made regarding this passage at http://thirdmill.org/seminary/catalog/sac/baptism/detail.asp/site/iiim/category/catalog.

  7. Michael says:

    I tend to agree with anonymous. As much as Baptists accuse Paedo-baptists of applying their “system” to the New Testament and not allowing for the contours of redemptive history to form that system–It is completely ironic that baptists tend to lack exegetical reasoning for their denial of the different passages relevent to the argument. No one, as far as I have read, deals substantially with the way in which Jer. 31 is being used in Hebrews and how that furthers the overall argument in Hebrews. No one has dealt substantially with the “profaning of the covenant” and “He will judge HIS people” passage in Hebrews 10. Both of those texts which seem to indicate that there are people in the covenant(that is covenant-breakers or apostate) that need to be judged! Those being just a couple texts that paedobaptist have done their exegesis on. Not to mention the household baptisms or Eph 5 or Colossians 2 or 1 Cor 7. We are still waiting.

  8. Joe says:

    Justin,

    Thanks for all of the posts on baptism. They’ve really made me think. The issue is more complicated than I’d previously realized.

    I’m a credo-baptist, but I have a question about some of the things in your interview with Wellum. As I understand it, baptism is the sign of entrance into the new covenant. But there is no guarantee that every professing believer is truly regenerate. So it is possible to baptize a false professing believer. So are all baptized professing Christians members of the new covenant community?

    If so, assuming that not all professing Christians will be saved on the last day, does this mean that the new covenant community is still a “mixed” community? We accept professions of faith, but we cannot guarantee that every professor will persevere in faith. Some may be false believers. In which case, what is the difference between the baptist and paedobaptist on this point? The Baptist cannot guarantee that every person he baptizes is in fact regenerate.

    Wellum seems to admit as much when he says in response to the question about the visible church:

    “At this point, what is often questioned is this: On any given gathering of the people of God are there not unbelievers in the midst, or even false professions of faith which then are viewed as the visible church? No doubt, it is the case that in any gathering of God’s people there are unbelievers and false professions. The difference is that in the new covenant we do not view these individuals as joined to Christ, in faith union with him, and members of the new covenant community.”

    So false members of the people of God are not truly members of the new covenant community, even if they are baptized. To me, this sounds like the new covenant community is another way of speaking of the invisible church (whereas paedobaptists want to connect the new covenant community to the visible church). Am I reading that correctly?

    Thanks for your help.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Dean,

    On sermonaudio.com you can find a 68 min message of Wellum laying out a condensed form of his material in that chapter on baptism.

    See here (free mp3 download):
    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=7606191227

    He obviously lectures quite a bit on this material in his seminary classes, but recordings of these aren’t publically available…sorry!

    Enjoy,

    Richard Lucas

  10. dec says:

    Try this
    Link
    on SermonAudio.

  11. Ann Addison says:

    Joe raises some valid questions. Until recently, I have been a life long credobaptist, even though I have been a member of a PCA for six years. I have studied paedobaptism for about eight years, remaining unconvinced until recently. I think what finally convinced me was what Wellum discusses concerning covenant theology. Covenant theology makes sense to me. I’m not sure why it has taken this long to convince me of paedobaptism, but I have had a paradigm shift. Wellum does not represent the paedobaptist position exactly as a reformed paedobaptist would, but I’m sure this is not intentional. It is hard to actually make the paradigm shift and represent the other side with precision. If credobaptists really want to understand the paedobaptist position, you must have this type interaction with a qualified paedobaptist. And, I would suggest interviewing a paedobaptist who was formerly a credobaptist.

    The ThirdMill resource listed in a comment above is a good audio from a paedobaptist. I did take issue with one point in that audio, but that is for another forum.

    I found this article by Dennis Johnson convincing.

    In the history of the world, I only know of two ways to be in fellowship with God.

    1. Under the Covenant of Works by being perfect
    2. By God’s grace by being forgiven

    All of God’s grace rests on the finished work of Christ on the cross. The regenerate remnant of Israel were forgiven on account of Christ’s future sacrifice.

  12. Anonymous says:

    The long post by anonymous is right on.

    Wellum himself points to the new covenant as made with those who are ‘regenerate'; but if that is what we are attempting to do our best to approximate with the visible sign of baptism for membership in the church, then why not to children who will be raised in the faith and who Wellum agree would at least hypothetically be regenerate even in infancy and therefore be given the benefit of the doubt (just like new adult confessors) until there is proof otherwise.

    Any Calvinist believes regeneration precedes faith. As a paedobaptist, I believe in the case of infants and mentally incompetent adults, such regeneration unites one to Christ and makes one a member of the new covenant community until the day (in this life or the next) when that new life in the heart sprouts forth into ‘faith’ which is the automatic response of the ‘new heart’ to the gospel once the gospel lands on that heart with the intellectual content and understanding our theological formulations require.

    Infant baptism is therefore PERMITTED (perhaps not de jure REQUIRED at all times in all cultures/denominations due to the openness God has sovereignly allowed in not being decisive about it in Scripture as he is with many other matters, a open-minded position that makes one a de facto paedobaptist) as the regeneration we have reason to believe either exists (or will exist at some hidden time for a child raised in a Christian home) as the visible sign of something credo and paedos both agree is only our imperfect attempt to show what we reasonably hope is a spiritual reality.

  13. Jim says:

    Wellum hit this one out of the park. Strike that. Make it: out of the stadium,

    Jim

  14. David says:

    I really appreciate the discussion and agree with many things Steve Wellum said. Reformed theology does tend to overstate the continuity of the covenants and hardly touches on the discontinuity. I also agreed with many of his comments regarding the changes in nature and structure between the covenants. So let me first say I appreciate his work and would urge him to keep discussing these things for I agree with him, they are very important! But I also had some strong disagreements and some observations. Steve stated: “First, Reformed theology does not first attempt to understand the Abrahamic covenant in its own redemptive-historical context, in all of its diverse features (e.g. national/physical, typological, spiritual).” This is simply not true. Richard Pratt has been teaching on the Covenants and how to understand them in their historical context for many years and his work is well known in reformed circles. Another thing I wanted to point out was how Steve tried to recast reformed terminology (visible/invisible church, covenant of grace) with other terminology that just so happens to fit well with the credo-baptist views. Let me try to demonstrate what I mean. Steve said: “Just because there are false professions does not mean that they are part of the covenant community.” Let’s analyze this a bit. Let’s say an unbelieving person shows up at First Baptist seeking church membership. He or she is told the requirements for membership: (1) profession of faith in Christ and (2) baptism by immersion. The person fulfills all of these requirements though the truth is this person really is unregenerate. What just happened? Did they become part of what Steve calls the “covenant community”? Well, their profession and subsequent baptism made them part of something! What was it? If it was not the true covenant community (traditionally called the invisible church or the elect) then what was it? The problem is Steve seems to leave the baptized, professing but pretend Christian in limbo. We don’t know what to do with him. However, at the same time this person managed to secure membership in a baptist church which only allows believers to be members! No we cannot know for sure who really belongs to Jesus. But if baptism has any bearing whatsoever on church membership for a baptist then at the very least a person who successfully pulls the wool over the eyes of everyone else (and they are legion!) is a member of some visible manifestation of the Church. This has been traditionally called the “visible church.” (This line of thinking also SERIOUSLY calls into question the credo-baptist requirements for membership. Can such demands be made if membership in a local church seems to mean very little in the grand scheme of things?) Finally, as some have already pointed out, at the end of the day you still end up with a mixed bag of regenerate/unregenerate people who are baptized members of the local church.

  15. Mike W says:

    Great post David. Somebody help me out here, didn’t Jesus teach that there would be wheat & tares in the field. If he was referring to the church, then what does that say about “regenerate only” church membership? This is an observation from the pew, so if I error, somebody please use this as a teaching moment and help a brother out. grace and peace

  16. RJS says:

    I found this interesting although it is just a standard credobaptist argument. The covental formula is found in Genesis 17:17 and Acts 2:39 and notice the continuity from “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations” to “the promise is unto you, and to your children”. I remain a paedobaptist!

  17. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed the interview. I was raised in the Lutheran Church, but am now a Baptist. I understand the perspective and argument of the paedobaptist, but have great difficulty clinging to that doctrine. Paul rebuked the Judaizers in Galatians because they were trying to cling to Old Testament protocol for righteousness. To what extent should we cease observing the Levitical Law if that is our standard to administer the ordinances of the Church?

    The mystery of Regeneration and then our conversion is somewhat of a paradox. We can understand to a point because we cannot see as well as we should. The rest we must accept by faith (1 Cor. 13:12). One thing I am sure of is that regeneration precedes conversion, and water baptism seems to be displayed in Scripture as a symbol of the Spirit Baptism one receives from God. God is great! Isaiah 55:8-9.

  18. PB says:

    The New Covenant is a revelation of the Old. Galatians 3 illustrates that the promises of God were given to Abraham concerning Christ before the Law was given to Israel. If we are to insert water baptism of infants into the equation it seems that Paul would have emphasized that essential ingredient. However, “the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Galatians 3:22. Scripture always describes baptism as an act followed after belief, not before. The regeneration of the soul is done by God, and is how He sees the work of salvation. Conversion is how man sees salvation. Regeneration awakens conversion, which is due to the believer seeing him or herself for what they really are according to God’s Holy Scriptures, and seeing the Door which is Christ, and knowing that Door is the only way to life (Matt. 11:4-6). Baptism covers the flesh and is a symbol of the process of regeneration, just like the Old Testament sacrifices were symbols of the true Lamb who was to be slain (Heb.9), and now has been and is risen!

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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