Volume 40 - Issue 1

The Abrahamic Covenant in Reformed Baptist Perspective

By Martin Salter


Within the intra-Reformed debate over baptism, covenant theology is a crucial aspect in determining one's position. This paper argues that a proper understanding of the trajectory of the Abrahamic covenant necessitates credobaptism. In particular it explores the idea of covenant fidelity, noting the requirement and failure under the old administration, and the fulfilment in Christ as he exhausts covenant curses, and fulfils the righteous requirements. As a consequence, New Covenant children of Abraham are born of the Spirit, and trace their Abrahamic sonship through faith-union with Christ. The result is that their covenant status is sure and unbreakable.

The debate between the classically Reformed and the Reformed Baptists regarding the proper subjects of baptism has raged for the last 400 years. While it shows little sign of being resolved this side of the Parousia headway can be made by a careful consideration of God’s covenant with Abraham. B. B. Warfield once famously stated, ‘God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.’1 This, of course, raises questions over terminology. What does it mean to be in the ‘church’; or for that matter in the covenant community? It is the contention of this paper that a proper understanding of the fulfilment trajectory of the Abrahamic covenant leads to a Reformed credobaptist theology.

1. The Covenant, The Signs, and The Things Signified

Biblical covenants consist of parties, promises, stipulations, and signs. In that respect the Abrahamic covenant is no different. The parties are God and Abraham along with his seed and their households (Gen 17:7). The promise is that God will bless Abraham with land and a dynasty (Gen 17:4-7). More specifically Abraham is promised, in vv. 4-7 that he will be the father of many nations (והיית לאב המון גוים). The stipulation is that Abraham and successive generations ought to walk before God and be blameless (Gen 17:1, 9-13), and the sign of the covenant is circumcision-a seal of the promise God made to Abraham (Gen 17:10-13). Creation themes occur at a number of points in the passage. First, Abraham, like Adam, is given a name by God (Gen 1:26; 17:5). Second, Abraham, like Adam, is to be fruitful (פרה – Gen 1:28; 17:6). Third, circumcision is to be administered on the eighth day, the beginning of a new week-indeed, the beginning of a new creation.

Three elements of this covenant are particularly noteworthy here: the scope of the promise, the stipulations, and the sign. First, the scope of the promise to Abraham appears to contain a wide and a narrow focus. In Gen 17:1-8 the promise contains both a universal and more localized national perspective. Abraham will be the father of ‘many nations’ (המון גוים), as his name change signifies.2 Both nations and kings will come from Abraham, and successive generations will become a people possessing the land of Canaan. Williamson argues for three distinct identifiable groups within the promises of Gen 17:4-8. These are the multitudinous nations (vv. 4-6b), Abraham’s royal progeny (v. 6c), and Abraham’s physical seed (vv. 7-8).3 Williamson argues that it is with the ‘royal line’ of Abraham’s seed that God will perpetuate and fulfill the everlasting covenant.4 Sarna, commenting on the phrase ‘multitude of nations,’ notes that it may refer to the Edomites, Midianites, Ishmaelites, and other peoples descended from Abraham, but ‘the phrase has a more universal application in that a larger segment of humanity looks upon Abraham as its spiritual father.’5 DeRouchie notes that ‘throughout the OT, the plural form “nations” [גוים] most commonly refers to political entities larger than tribes and usually not including Israel.’6 The detail is significant as we have here an early indication that Abraham’s fatherhood will be more than merely biological. Through Abraham’s offspring all the nations would one day come to know God’s blessing (cf. Gen 12:3), and have Abraham as their adoptive father. Indeed the switch from the second person singular (v. 9) to the second person plural (v. 10) suggests a distinction between God’s universal plan for the nations (and spiritual descendants for Abraham), and the particular administration with Abraham’s physical descendants.7 While circumcision is given for an era of this covenant’s administration, there are already signals within the Abrahamic covenant that a new sort of creation is the trajectory of the narrative.

Second, the stipulations and conditions are important to note here. In v. 1 Abraham is instructed to ‘walk before me and be blameless’ (התהלך לפני והיה תמים) In vv. 9-13 Abraham and his descendants are instructed to keep the covenant (ואתה את־בריתי תשׁמר אתה וזרעך אחריך לדרתם), and any uncircumcised male will be cut off as a covenant breaker (ונכרתה הנפשׁ ההוא מעמיה את־בריתי הפר , v. 14). Bruce Waltke is alert to this important narrative tension as he notes, ‘the implicit question of this scene-“Will Abraham respond with righteousness and covenant fidelity?”-forms the underlying tension.’8 The covenant with Adam ended in curse due to disobedience. The covenant with Noah ended with the curse of Babel for the same reason. With Gen 1-11 in the background of God’s covenant with Abraham a huge question mark looms over the outcome of this relationship if it is in any sense dependent upon human obedience. Notable here is the real threat and possibility of covenantal infidelity. The everlasting covenant (vv. 7, 13, 19), while guaranteed by the faithfulness of God, also requires the faithfulness of the human parties. The various administrations of the covenant of grace heighten the tension between God’s faithfulness of the unfaithfulness of the people, as successive generations prove themselves unfaithful. This tension is only resolved by God himself as both the covenant requirements and covenant curses are exhausted in Christ.

Third, the sign, circumcision, serves to signify a number of things. First, the sign testified to God’s promise of land, blessing, and a dynasty.9 Second, the sign reminds the people of the stipulation to walk blamelessly before God. Third, in the progression of salvation history it served to mark out a physical seed, a nation, and a male line to the Christ.10 In addition, the prophetic application of the rite, as well as Paul’s words in Romans 4:11, suggest a spiritual meaning to the rite-that righteousness comes by faith.11 Thus, the sign of the covenant contains national, typological, and spiritual realities.12 As a sign it was given to all male members of a Jewish household, including slaves. Genesis 17:12 reads: “For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring.” It is not just biological children who bear the sign, but any male within the household. We are told in Gen 14:14 that Abraham had 318 trained men in his household-this was, quite literally, a major operation. Ethnicity is non-determinative. Slaves bought from foreigners are part of the household, partakers in the covenant God made with Abraham, and are therefore, to be circumcised. The genealogical principle encompasses ‘those who are not your offspring’ (Gen 17:12). It may be better to view the Abrahamic covenant as containing a ‘household principle’ rather than a strict ‘genealogical principle.’13

In summary, within the Abrahamic covenant, in Gen 17, we can observe three important things. First, a trajectory toward Abraham’s adoptive fatherhood of many nations; second, the stipulation to walk blamelessly and keep covenant faithfully, which raises an implicit tension for the unfolding narrative; and third a covenant sign which signifies national, typological, and spiritual realities. Whilst the covenant entails a temporal administration it points beyond itself toward a typological and spiritual fulfillment, at which point the old wineskins may not be useful any longer.

2. Trajectories and Fulfilments

What becomes of the seed of Abraham? How does Abraham’s grand narrative fit into God’s grand narrative? The covenant of grace, as a theological concept, is useful, so long as it is remembered that God’s covenant with Abraham is a narrative with a trajectory.14 The tragedy of Israel’s history is that, despite the repeated prophetic call to circumcise hearts (Deut 10:16), the call went unheeded in large-scale fashion. In the eighth-century BC Isaiah declares God’s testimony that “Israel does not know, my people do not understand . . . a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!” (Isa 1:3-4). Subsequently Jeremiah delivers God’s verdict: “even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (Jer 9:26). In Deut 30:6 God promised that post-exile he would be the one to circumcise Israel’s heart.15 The only hope for the children of Abraham is a new heart and new Spirit (Ezek 36:26)-nothing short of a new creation.

The prophecies of Deuteronomy 30:6, Isaiah 52, Ezekiel 36, and Jeremiah 31 reveal the problem and the solution. In short, the problem is the people. While some were regenerate it seems many were not. Their hearts were hard, and their necks stiff. They broke the covenant. The tension intrinsic to Gen 17, that of covenant infidelity, is amplified in successive generations, culminating in the crisis of exile. The solution, according to the prophets, is a New Covenant, which will be unbreakable unlike the old administration.

Moon, in his analysis of Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy, notes that in Jeremiah the ‘new covenant’ is never contrasted with the ‘old’ or ‘first’ covenant.16 The contrast presented is not between ‘old’ and ‘new’, but between ‘broken’ and, by implication, unbreakable. Moon states ‘the way in which that contrary covenant is presented is as a broken covenant . . . the contrast to the new covenant is infidelity.’17 In Jeremiah 7:21-28 and 11:1-13 covenant breaking is expressed in terms of failing to give ear, and it has been a universal problem since the beginning.18 The book of consolation (Jer 30-31) promises to overturn the state of affairs created by the people’s infidelity. As Moon states, ‘universal infidelity is overturned into universal fidelity.’19 YHWH will make the people into what they always ought to have been.20

This leads to the positive description of this new covenant (vv. 33-34). The emphasis is on what YHWH will do to transform his people from covenant breakers to faithful covenant people. YHWH promises to do a number of things to make the vision a reality. He will put his law (תורה) in their inner parts (בקרבם) and write it upon their hearts (ועל־לבם אכתבנה). The former, בקרבם (the inner parts) could mean ‘in the midst’ but given the parallel in the second half of the promise, ‘inner parts’ seems the more likely sense. Given the imagery of a written torah it is perhaps most likely that the Decalogue is in view, though this is not specified.21 This action overwrites the sin engraved on the people’s hearts referred to in Jer 17:1.22 The internalization of torah makes covenant membership more personal and individual, and is the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 6:6: ‘these words which I command you today shall be upon your hearts.’ YHWH will be their God and they will be his people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour saying ‘know YHWH’ for they will all know YHWH, from the smallest to the greatest. Lundbom suggests that the phrase ‘know YHWH’ is an echo of Jeremiah’s own mission to the people outlined in Jeremiah 5:4: כי לא ידעו דרך יהוה משׁפט אלהיהם. This would further suggest that to ‘know YHWH’ was akin to the calls to listen, remember, and obey in Deuteronomy 5:1, 32; 6:3, 25, et passim.23 Jeremiah envisions a day when his role, calling people back to covenant fidelity, will no longer be necessary. The fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham will require a law written on minds and hearts, not tablets of stone. Each person will know the Lord, from the least to the greatest. Sin will be forgiven and remembered no more.24 That is the promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34.25

This raises a question regarding the continuity and discontinuity within administrations across the covenant of grace. Almost all of the elements mentioned in Jeremiah’s prophecy are already attested within the OT. For example, the righteous OT believer had the law in his heart (Ps 37:31). People knew the Lord (Ps 9:10), and forgiveness of sins (Ps 32:1-2). For this reason Booth views the New Covenant as the expansion and renewal of the old covenant-they are essentially one covenant.26 Whilst agreeing with Booth’s point on the essential unity of the covenant of grace there is also significant discontinuity in Jeremiah’s New Covenant. Jeremiah 31:34 states “they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest.”27 It could be argued that what is meant here is all without distinction-that is, all types of people, not just kings, prophets, or priests. The phrase ‘least to the greatest’ may echo Jeremiah 5:4-5 where Jeremiah speaks of the poor and foolish, and the great (הגדלים). The phrase, least to the greatest (מקטנם ועד־גדולם) also appears in 6:13 and 8:10 where the whole community is characterized as greedy for gain. This is contrasted with the new covenant ‘where the whole community will be characterized by the knowledge of God.’28 However, there were members of the Old Covenant who did not hold office, yet were, apparently, regenerate. Hannah would be a good example of someone who did not hold office or special appointment, yet, on the face of things, knew her Lord (1 Sam 1:10-16). Interestingly Samuel, her son, and a covenant member who ministered before the Lord in the Tabernacle, apparently did not know the Lord until he was probably an adolescent (1 Sam 3:7). The new thing about the New Covenant is not regeneration; it is that every member of the New Covenant without exception will experience regeneration.29 Each and every member of the New Covenant will personally know the Lord.30 As Bozak states, ‘every person will be changed; the merismus lmqṭnm w’d-gdwlm [‘from the least of them to the greatest’] expresses totality by two extremes as well as by polysemy.’31

The כי at the end of v. 34 is causal, giving the actuating principle for the all of the aforementioned.32 Shead concludes, ‘the true power of new covenant forgiveness is exerted inwardly, universally, and individually,’33 and Moon states, ‘Forgiveness is a prerequisite to the new relationship.’34 As Brueggemann puts it ‘this line states the basis for all the foregoing.’35 In other words YHWH’s decisive act of forgiveness makes the new covenant possible, and all the associated blessings follow (i.e. law written on heart, knowing the Lord etc.). It is this decisive act of forgiveness which also serves to make the new covenant unbreakable. To anticipate the direction of argument, it is because Christ (the seed of Abraham) exhausts the covenant requirements and curses, that those in union with him are viewed as perfect and perpetual covenant keepers. To put the force of Jeremiah 31:31-34 most bluntly, without forgiveness new covenant membership is not possible. Definitive forgiveness opens the way to inner transformation. It cannot be maintained that an individual may be viewed as partaking of the new covenant in an external sense only, without any experience of its transformative blessings.

In summary of this section, the promise of the New Covenant is that it will be, in contrast with the ‘broken’ covenant, unbreakable. It is secured by the definitive forgiveness of God, and brings with it inner transformation and personal knowledge of God for all within the New Covenant community. At this point let us examine one NT passage, Gal 3, to see if this thesis fits with Paul’s argument regarding the seed of Abraham.

3. Types and Seeds

Typology is the study of OT realities (persons, events, institutions, etc.-types) which God has designed to correspond to, and prefigure, their antitypical fulfilments in the NT.36 Abraham’s ‘seed’ is the type which finds fulfilment in Isaac, the nation, the Davidic King, and ultimately the Lord Jesus. He is Abraham’s seed-the antitypical fulfilment of the type. This is the argument employed by Paul in Gal 3:6-29. Paul affirms that God gave promises to Abraham’s seed and immediately clarifies that the referent of the promise was an individual-Christ.37 Yet Paul must surely know that the promise included the physical descendants of Israel. It is clear from Gen 12:7 that the land is promised to the seed (זרע/σπέρμα) of Abraham. In Gen 13:16 and 15:5 Abraham is promised that his seed will be as the dust of the earth and the stars of the heaven. That naturally refers to more than one man. In Gen 15:13 the seed will be oppressed for 400 years-a clear reference to the nation in Egypt. In Gen 17 the covenant is to be between God and Abraham and his seed through the generations (דור). Circumcision is a sign for each male in subsequent generations, not one individual who is the seed. Paul is aware of this but his explanation in Gal 3 makes clear that, if we may put it like this, there is seed and then there is seed. Wellum identifies four ways in which ‘seed’ language is used with regard to the Abrahamic covenant. Seed may be natural (including people like Ishmael and foreign slaves in the household), special (the elect line running through Isaac, Jacob, and the nation of Israel), Messianic (as in Gal 3:16), and spiritual (used to refer to believing Jews and Gentiles).38 Alexander argues that Paul is developing Genesis’s interest in the royal line of seed (Gen 17:6; 49:8-12), which comes to a climax in the Davidic Messiah.39 There are multiple referents in fulfilment of the promise with the ultimate antitypical fulfilment being Christ himself. Infant baptism is often appealed to on the grounds of the continuity of the genealogical principle espoused in Gen 17. That principle, it is argued, is nowhere annulled and is therefore in perpetuity. However, if Christ is the fulfilment of the seed type, then it is legitimate to ask whether a change in the genealogical principle has in fact occurred across covenants. If, historically speaking, all of the promises of Abraham come to a climax in Christ then we need to consider how those promises flow out the other side. Perhaps, the question is not so much whether the genealogical principle is still in force, but how it is applied if Christ is the seed.

Paul’s argument in Gal 3 is illuminating at this point. In Gal 3:14 we learn that the blessing given to Abraham (presumably justification in context)40 came to those not in Jewish households through Christ, by faith, and with the Holy Spirit.41 Romans 8:9 reminds us that ‘if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ’ (NIV). As Fung notes, there is ‘an intimate relationship between these three ideas: justification by faith, sonship to Abraham by faith, and reception of the Spirit by faith.’42 The forensic and experiential come together in this relationship of sonship to Abraham through Christ.43 We see in the Abrahamic (and subsequently the Mosaic) covenant the possibility and threat of covenant breaking through infidelity. In Jeremiah 31 we noted the solution was to be a covenant which could not be broken by the infidelity of the people. The question remains as to how this can come to pass; that question is answered by Paul here in Gal 3:6-29. Paul begins by restating the promise to Abraham (cf. Gen 12:1-3) that all nations would be blessed through Abraham (vv. 8-9). Verses 10-14 demonstrate how covenant breakers can find themselves under covenant blessings instead of covenant curses. In v. 10 Paul affirms that those who rely on observing the law are under a curse, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26, the locus classicus on covenant curses. Significantly, the Hebrew word, ארר (curse), appears twelve times in Deuteronomy 27. The LXX equivalent is ἐπικατάρατος. In the NT it only appears here in Gal 3:10, 13. In v. 13 Paul explicitly connects the covenant curses with Christ’s atoning death. The conclusion in v. 14 is that the blessing given to Abraham comes to the Gentiles precisely because Christ has exhausted both the covenant requirements and the covenant curses, and therefore the Spirit is given to those who have faith.44 The crucial observation here is that Paul, in Gal 3, has connected the promises to Abraham, the Mosaic administration, the promise of the prophets, and the work of Christ into a coherent narrative, centered on the question of covenant fidelity. The consequence is that Gentiles now find themselves members of the covenant community through the work of Christ. With the covenant requirements and curses exhausted in Christ covenant infidelity is an impossibility for those in the covenant community. As we shall see below, this covenant membership is inextricably connected to union with Christ and all that entails. At this point it may be objected that Old Covenant members, in the same way, by faith, were partakers of Christ and the Spirit. Yet, under the old administration it was the real threat and possibility that a person could be a member of the covenant community and yet break covenant. This is the situation addressed by the prophets. Now Christ has come and fulfilled the covenant requirements and exhausted the covenant curses the promise to Abraham is fulfilled. As a consequence new covenant members find themselves connected to Abraham through Christ. The spiritual adoption into Abraham’s family is by virtue of faith in Christ. There is no connection to Abraham other than via Christ, by faith. Christ’s covenantal mediatorship means covenantal infidelity is now impossible because in him the requirements are met and the curses exhausted. This is no mere legal fiction, but an experienced reality based upon the faith-union and incorporation into Christ as Paul develops in vv. 26-29. In vv. 15-23 Paul is defending himself against the charge of antinomianism and merely asserting the purpose of the old administration. The Law was a good thing, and in no way opposed to the Abrahamic promise, but its purpose was temporary, to act as a guardian and guide toward the fulfillment in Christ.45 The promise is everlasting but the administration temporary.

In vv. 26-29 we see that believers are sons of God through faith in Christ.46 Paul’s polemic has been building to this point. If any person is in any sense a son (or daughter) of God it is because they have faith in Christ Jesus-sonship comes through faith (Πάντες γὰρ υἱοὶ θεοῦ ἐστε διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ·). The διά here functions instrumentally and most likely describes the faith (τῆς πίστεως) of the Galatians, not the faithfulness of Christ.47 That faith is the means by which our union with Christ (ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ) is secured and maintained.48 The γάρ (for) in v. 27 serves to introduce further clarification as to the nature of this new relationship. They have clothed themselves with Christ in baptism (ὅσοι γὰρ εἰς Χριστὸν ἐβαπτίσθητε, Χριστὸν ἐνεδύσασθε.).49 As Beasley-Murray notes: ‘the concept implied in Χριστὸν ἐνεδύσασθε (“to put on Christ”) can hardly be represented by such renderings as “to think oneself into the role of another and act accordingly” for ethical conditions are not in view in this passage.’ 50 The force of Paul’s argument is to assure the Galatian Christians (and refute the opponents) that those who have faith have genuine spiritual union with Christ. ‘Putting on Christ’ speaks of the Spirit-wrought union with Christ.51 Baptism signifies that incorporation of the subject into union with Christ.52 Similar language and imagery is also found in Rom 6:3-4, 1 Cor 12:13, and Col 2:11-12. In Rom 6:3-4 baptism is a death and resurrection. Colossians 2:11 has a ‘putting off of the sinful nature’ and the death/resurrection motif of Rom 6:3-4. 1 Cor 12:13 says we were baptised into one body and given one Spirit to drink.53 Putting these texts together gives us a picture of what it means to be baptised into Christ; it means a putting off (Col 2:11) and putting on (Gal 3:27); it means a death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:11-12); and it means drinking of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). These things bring us into that living faith-union with Christ, by baptism, which also unites us to Abraham as his children.54 These things are nothing less than the full privileges of the new birth in salvation.55 Moo notes that union with Christ is a central building block in Paul’s theology: ‘it is by believing in Christ that one is joined with him and thus receives all the benefits of that union.’56 Wellum states, ‘The New Testament knows nothing of one who is ‘in Christ’ who is not regenerate, effectually called of the Father, born of the Spirit, justified, holy, and awaiting glorification.’57 According to v. 29, those who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed, and, as such, heirs according to the promise. The seed of the seed of Abraham will not fail to inherit the full eternal riches of salvation.58

Therefore anyone who is now in Christ is, like Christ, one of Abraham’s seed. This is the conclusion of Paul’s argument in this section-it is relationship with Christ which ‘relates Gentile Christians directly to Abraham and God’s covenantal promise.’59 The seed is born of Christ, but by the Spirit and water, not by physical conception and birth.60 Paul’s point in context is that Abrahamic sonship is by virtue of Christ sonship. Fung summarises nicely:

[Believers] are collectively the true seed of Abraham since, by virtue of their faith-union with Christ, they are one person in him who is the true ‘issue’ of Abraham (cf. v. 16) . . . justification by faith, reception of the Spirit by faith, and becoming sons of God by faith are intimately linked together as different expressions for the fulfilment of the promise.61

The sum of the argument of Gal 3 can be outlined as follows: Who are the children of Abraham? Those who are in Christ. What does it mean to be ‘in Christ’? Union with Christ consists of saving faith, justification, and Spirit-reception, signed and sealed in baptism.62 Such a relationship is a work of the Spirit and that work effects justification. There are no non-justified, unregenerate children of Abraham in the New Covenant era. The fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant removes the dual-aspect of the covenant present in the pre-Pentecost era.63 Wilson summarises the difference between credobaptist and paedobaptist accounts:

The baptistic assumption is that the covenants are unlike in this respect. Some Old Covenant members were regenerate, some were not. All New Covenant members are regenerate. The paedobaptist assumption is that the covenants are alike in this respect. Some Old Covenant members were regenerate, some were not. Some New Covenant members are regenerate, some are not.64

This captures a crucial distinctive between the credobaptist and paedobaptist positions. The trajectory of the New Covenant points to a wholly regenerate covenant community. The sign of the old covenant anticipates, inter alia, the need for a circumcised heart, the promise that righteousness comes to those who have faith, and the seed who would open up blessing to the nations. The sign of the New Covenant celebrates all of those things as fulfilled realities. What circumcision anticipates, baptism celebrates.

The paedobaptist appeal to the dual-aspect of the covenant, while clearly present in the Old Covenant, is alien to the New Covenant. The pact is between God and Christ (Abraham’s true seed) and Christ’s seed (who are also Abraham’s seed). The difference between Reformed paedobaptists and Reformed credobaptists lies here. Where the Reformed paedobaptist would affirm the dual-aspect of the covenant across covenants, the Reformed credobaptist would argue that in the New Covenant, there is no dual-aspect any longer. The covenant signs belong to the children of Abraham. For the paedobaptist that will necessarily include household members regenerate, as yet, or otherwise. For the credobaptist the sign is only for the household of faith.65

4. The Difference Between ‘Merely’, ‘Primarily’, and ‘Partially’

As with many theological discussions, semantics play a key part. In discussion with my paedobaptist friends there is often little between us, and that difference is frequently around the varying emphasis laid on the physical and spiritual aspects of the Abrahamic covenant. Caricatures abound, and both sides of the debate can misrepresent the opposing viewpoint. Some Baptists, it is claimed, characterise the Abrahamic covenant as merely physical, while its fulfilment in the New Covenant is entirely spiritual. Some paedobaptists on the other hand wish to view the Abrahamic covenant as being primarily spiritual, as it is in the New Covenant. Booth’s Children of the Promise is a good example of the need to use words carefully. He quotes with approval Hodge who states “circumcision was not the sign exclusively of the national covenant with the Hebrews” and “circumcision was not merely a civil or national institution.”66 No dissent from this dissenter. This leads Booth to his conclusion, oft repeated, that, therefore, circumcision’s main or primary purpose was to “signify and seal the promise of deliverance from sin.”67 Booth’s claim is a non sequitur. The claim that circumcision does not exclusively signify physical privileges, does not lead to the conclusion the circumcision primarily signifies spiritual privileges. More nuance and care would move the discussion forward to recognise that the difference between Reformed paedobaptists and Reformed Baptists revolve around the relative emphases of words like ‘partial’. Words like ‘merely’ and ‘primarily’ flatten out the nuances and complexities present in the story of the Abrahamic covenant. Within the Abrahamic covenant there are both physical and spiritual elements present.68 The precise nature and relationship of those elements, however, needs careful investigation if we are to understand the New Covenant developments in terms of the covenant signs and things signified. While circumcision and baptism signify spiritual realities, circumcision signifies more under the Old Covenant; namely physical descent, and a male line to Christ. Baptism is ‘not a sign of physical descent, nor is it a sign that anticipates gospel realities. Rather it is a sign that signifies a believer’s union with Christ.’69 The sign of the New Covenant marks out the spiritual seed of Abraham, and the spiritual seed only, identified in union with Christ.70 Another accusation often leveled at Baptists is that we deny grace to our children and treat them as little pagans (or at least we should if we are being consistent).71 In Gibson’s paper he asks, ‘can the bond between my children and me be only a bond of nature, or can it be a bond of grace as well?’72 The real question here is ‘what sort of grace?’ No protestant paedobaptist I know believes that their children receive special grace simply by virtue of being born to believing parents. If they did, experience would teach them to deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Baptists recognize the enormous amounts of common grace enjoyed by those within the visible church, our children included. While we are ever thankful for such common grace, we simply do not presume upon God’s special grace. In Gibson’s paper he accuses Baptists of possessing an inadequate anthropology, one of ‘the autonomous individual who relates to God outside of the normal web and complex of family relationships, societal location and covenantal structures.’73 Again, Baptists, along with paedobaptists, hold in high regard the importance of family relationships, societal location, and the power of the ordinary means of grace.74 Yet, we do not thereby minimize the importance of personal faith and the need for individual conversion. These, along with many others, are areas where charitable dialogue, the genuine desire to understand one another, and the careful use of language, would bring paedobaptists and Baptists much closer together.

5. Conclusion

A popular and helpful way to think about covenant trajectories is to ask the questions ‘who are God’s people?’, ‘where is God’s place?’, and ‘how is God’s rule and blessing manifest?’ God’s covenant with Abraham would answer those questions as follows. God’s people are Abraham and his seed. God’s place will be the Promised Land. God will rule and bless by means of his law. As the trajectory of fulfilment is traced we can see that the answers change with the inauguration of the New Covenant. God’s people are the spiritual seed of the seed of Abraham, Christ. God’s place is in Christ and in the church by his Holy Spirit. God rules by his law written on human hearts. For the same reason Reformed theology rejects the dispensational view of the land promises, Reformed Baptists reject the classically Reformed view of the genealogical principle. The promise is fulfilled in Christ, and then spiritually in Christ’s body, the church.

As Richard Hays has noted,

The ‘Israel’ into which Paul’s Corinthian converts were embraced was an Israel whose story had been hermeneutically reconfigured by the cross and resurrection. The result was that Jew and Gentile alike found themselves summoned by the gospel story to a sweeping re-evaluation of their identities, an imaginative paradigm shift so comprehensive that it can only be described as a ‘conversion of the imagination.’75

Such a conversion requires new symbols and new praxis for a new community-new wine requires new wineskins. The narrative trajectory of the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant leads toward a Reformed Baptist theology.

[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” in Studies in Theology, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10 vols., repr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1981), 9:408.

[2] T. Desmond Alexander, “Abraham Re-Assessed Theologically: The Abraham Narrative and the New Testament Understanding of Justification by Faith,” in He Swore on Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50, ed. R.S. Hess, P.E. Satterthwaite, and G.J.Wenham (Cambridge: Tyndale, 1993), 17-18.

[3] Paul R. Williamson, Abraham, Israel, and the Nations: The Patriarchal Promise and its Covenantal Development in Genesis, JSOTSup 315 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 151-74.

[4] Ibid., 173-74.

[5] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989), 124.

[6] Jason S. DeRouchie, “Father of a Multitude: New Covenant Ecclesiology in Old Testament Perspective,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Mediating Position Between Dispensational & Covenant Theologies, ed. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, forthcoming).

[7] Hamilton highlights the switch between second person singular and plural in the section. Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 468.

[8] Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 257.

[9] Hamilton describes circumcision as a ‘confirmation sign’ testifying to belief in the promises to Abraham. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 472. It is simply worth noting at this stage that of the many references to the Abrahamic covenant in the OT almost all refer to land as the primary promise of the Abrahamic covenant. See Gen 28:4, 13; 35:12; Ex 6:8; 32:13; 33:1; Lev 26:42; Num 31:11; Deut 1:8; 6:10; 9:5; 30:20; 34:4; Josh 24:2-4.

[10] Stephen J. Wellum, “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 155.

[11] Rom 4:11 is made to some heavy lifting by paedobaptists. While I am not entirely persuaded of the argument, I will concede the point, since it does not detract from my argument.

[12] This explains why Ishmael receives the sign of the covenant, yet the writer is explicit that the covenant is not with him, but with Isaac (Gen 17:20-27). Ishmael is, as Jewett puts it, the fox which spoils the paedobaptist vineyard. ‘If circumcision “embraces one in the covenant exactly as Christian baptism,” . . . then how is it possible that both the son born of the flesh and the son born of the promise were circumcised?’ Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism & The Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 100. It is precisely because of the multiple signification of circumcision that Ishmael can be circumcised. The interest of this paper is in the covenant trajectory and fulfillment, and the implications of that covenant’s telos.

[13] This is an area where much modern paedobaptist practise is inconsistent. For example, how would such a principle be worked out with regard to foster children, or live-in nannies, or even multiple generations. Would an aged father who came to live with the family be expected to be baptised, or if a grandfather was considered the head of the family would grandchildren be baptised if their parents were not professing Christians? It is in such areas where the genealogical principle is appealed to but not applied in the fashion stipulated in the Abrahamic covenant. Booth’s chapter on ‘Household’s and Redemption’ in Children of the Promise is illustrative of the point. He consistently fails to draw out the implications of his assertion that covenant privileges come to entire households. He moves from the OT household, to NT children of believers, but never addresses the issues raised above. See Robert R. Booth, Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995), 120-38.

[14] Wellum, “Relationship Between the Covenants,” 12627.

[15] DeRouchie observes that circumcision was used metaphorically to signify covenant fidelity or infidelity. See Jason S. DeRouchie, “Circumcision in the Hebrew Bible and Targums: Theology, Rhetoric, and the Handling of Metaphor.” BBR 14.2 (2004): 196-200.

[16] Joshua N. Moon, Jeremiah’s New Covenant: An Augustinian Reading, JTISup 3 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 185.

[17] Ibid., 185-86. It should be noted that Moon’s analysis of Jer 31:31-34 is not arguing for a covenant that is chronologically or qualitatively new, but rather for a future idyllic state of faithfulness in contrast to infidelity. It is thus possible to be part of such a covenant with YHWH at any moment in Israel’s salvation history. Moon’s thesis does not adequately deal with the temporal language in Jer 31 (vv. 1, 6, 17, 22, 27, 29, 31, 34) and his exegesis better supports the argument being made in this paper.

[18] Ibid., 186202. Both passages speak of covenant breaking. The term שׁמע is used five times in Jer 7:21-28 and nine times in Jer 11:1-14, the last two of these speaking of YHWH’s refusal to listen to the people. The phrase ולא־הטו את־אזנם is also used eight times (Jer 7:24, 26; 11:8; 17:23; 25:4; 34:14; 35:15; 44:5).

[19] Ibid., 226.1

[20] Ibid., 234.

[21] Lundbom, Jeremiah 21-36, 468.

[22] In Jer 17:1 the sin is engraved on the ‘tablets’ (לוח) of their hearts. The same word, לוח, is used to described the tablets of stone in Exod. 24:12; 31:18; 32:15-16, 19; 34:1, 4, 28-29.

[23] Lundbom, Jeremiah 21-36, 469.

[24] Horton states that ‘it is possible to be in the covenant externally but not actually be united to Christ through faith.’ See Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 185. It is difficult to square such a statement with the description of Jeremiah 31. Nehemiah Coxe states ‘I conceive the limiting of a new covenant interest to the grant of an external and temporary privilege only, to be utterly inconsistent with the promises of the covenant itself (such as these: Isaiah 54:13; 59:21; Jeremiah 31:33, 34; Ezekiel 36:26, 27 with Hebrews 8 and many others of like import).’ Nehemiah Coxe, Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, repr. (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic, 2005), 81.

[25] Reformed Baptists often point to the promises as including children in Jer 32. This is true and much of the language also speaks about the restoration of Jerusalem and the land. The agrarian principle, like the genealogical principle is typological. Dispensational and Covenantal paedobaptist schemes both fail to grasp the typological fulfillment-in one case with respect to ‘the land’, in the other with respect to ‘the seed.’ Another common argument is the appeal to the promise to ‘you and your children’ at the end of Acts 2. In response it is worth noting that the promise is ‘repent and be baptised and you will receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ This obviously poses no problem to a Baptist theology. Further, Peterson points out the last clause includes ‘those who are far off’ and notes the descriptor, πᾶσιν τοῖς εἰς μακράν, refers to those far off geographically. See Ps 64:6; Isa 57:19; Acts 22:21; Eph 2:13, 17. David G. Peterson, The Acts of The Apostles, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009), 156.

[26] Booth, Children of the Promise, 45.

[27] Cf. also Isa 54:13: ‘All your sons will be taught by the Lord.’

[28] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Jeremiah, The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2014), 330.

[29] See also Eph 1:13-14 which views the gift of the Spirit as universal, in the sense of all God’s New Covenant people without exception.

[30] Samuel E. Waldron and Richard C. Barcellos, A Reformed Baptist Manifesto: The New Covenant Constitution of the Church (Palmdale, CA.: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2004), 71-77. Contra Neill who argues that the New Covenant’s ‘newness’ lies in its form since Jesus fulfils the ceremonial law. While Neill’s interpretation attempts to situate itself within the context of Hebrews, to do so it must tear Jer 31 from its own context since any mention of ceremonial law is entirely absent from Jer 31. See Jeffrey D. Neill, “The Newness of the New Covenant,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), 127-55. And contra Richard Pratt who, in essence, sees the promises of the New Covenant as only being fulfilled at the consummation, which would seem to completely undermine the purpose of citation by the author of Hebrews. See Richard L. Pratt Jr., “Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, 15674.

[31] Barbara A. Bozak, Life “Anew”: A Literary-Theological Study of Jer 30-31, Analecta Biblica 122 (Rome: Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico, 1991), 122.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Andrew G. Shead, A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, New Studies in Biblical Theology 29 (Downers Grove, IL.: Apollos, 2012), 203.

[34] Moon, Jeremiah’s New Covenant, 242, emphasis mine.

[35] Brueggemann, Jeremiah, 294.

[36] Definition take from the discussion in Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 103.

[37] Jason S. DeRouchie and Jason C. Meyer, “Christ or Family as the “Seed” of Promise? An Evaluation of N.T. Wright on Galatians 3:16,” SBJT 14.3 (2010): 36-40.

[38] Wellum, “Relationship Between the Covenants,” 133-35.

[39] Alexander, “Abraham Re-Assessed,” 25.

[40] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 150.

[41] The genitive τοῦ πνεύματος at the end of v. 14 is epexegetical-i.e. the promise, that is the Holy Spirit.

[42] Fung, Galatians, 152.

[43] A. Oepke, “βαπτίζω,” TDNT 1:541.

[44] Jeffrey R. Wisdom, Blessing for the Nations and the Curse of the Law: Paul’s Citation of Genesis and Deuteronomy in Gal 3:8-10, WUNT 2/133 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 183-200.

[45] Moo, Galatians, 225. Here I disagree with those who see the Abrahamic covenant as a covenant of promise and the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works. Grace and obligation are present across all the covenants and the subtle tension between them is often unnoticed. A good example of carefully observing both promise and obligation can be seen in J. Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, New Studies in Biblical Theology 6 (Nottingham: Apollos, 1998), 41-66. For more on this discussion, opposing viewpoints can be seen in O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), 54-57; and Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology, 35-50.

[46] The phrase Πάντες γὰρ υἱοὶ θεοῦ ἐστε διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ could be translated in one of two ways. Either ‘in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith’ or ‘you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Whichever way it is translated the point remains the same, namely that sonship comes by faith.

[47] Moo, Galatians, 250

[48] Ibid., 251.

[49] While ‘spiritual baptism’ is possible the first readers would have surely thought the rite of water baptism is in view. See Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, WBC 41 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 155.

[50] G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Exeter: Paternoster, 1972), 147.

[51] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (London: T&T Clark, 1998), 453-54; Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 225. Further see Isa 61:10 and Zech 3:3 for new clothing as a metaphor of salvation, cleansing, and renewal.

[52] Cf. Rom 6:3; 1 Cor 12:13. That is not to say that baptism functions ex opere operato, but rather that, for Paul, faith, justification, Spirit-reception, and baptism all belong together, such that he can say baptism unites the believer to Christ. Without faith, of course, the subject of baptism is simply getting wet, nothing more. Like the Lord’s Supper, the efficacy of the sacrament depends upon it being anchored to faith, Christ, and the Spirit.

[53] Schreiner notes, ‘Paul does not argue against circumcision in Galatians by saying that baptism replaces circumcision as an initiation rite. Therefore, even though baptism and circumcision are both initiation rites they are not analogous in every respect. If Paul believed that baptism merely replaced circumcision, he almost surely would have made such an argument in Galatians, for it seems that such a declaration would have settled the debate over circumcision in Galatia decisively.’ Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 257.

[54] Contra Douglas Wilson, who states ‘neither circumcision nor baptism primarily testifies concerning the inward state of the individual who bears the sign’ (To A Thousand Generations [Moscow, ID: Canon, 1996], 49). Such a statement can only be maintained by ignoring texts like Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 2:11-12.

[55] Brannon Ellis rightly notes the way in which ‘union with Christ’ covers the whole of the application of redemption. As a Reformed paedobaptist he then ends up in a position where he denies the traditional Reformed paedobaptist distinction between external visible covenant participation and internal invisible covenant participation. Instead he offers covenant participation as always external and internal, visible and invisible, which means such a participation is either genuine or false. Brannon Ellis, “Covenantal Union and Communion,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 79-102. Practically this means there is a deliberate admittance to new covenant blessings of those who do not show, nor may ever show, any signs of genuine covenant participation. Of course Baptists also admit people to new covenant participation knowing that they may prove false, but it is done so on a credible profession of faith. Thus Baptists attempt to preserve the purity of new covenant community at entry where paedobaptists make no such attempt.

[56] Moo, Galatians, 194.

[57] Wellum and Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant, 6-92. Of course John 15 and 1 Cor 7 do suggest a way in which it is possible to have relationship with Christ and yet fall away. Yet, whatever those passages refer to, it is less than the Pauline motif of ‘ἐν Χριστῷ‘ here in Gal 3, otherwise a denial of the perseverance of the saints would be required. The question is whether, in the NT, you can apply the term ‘covenant’ to describe the relationship between Christ and the elect only or Christ and the visible church. Given Jeremiah’s description of the New Covenant, the term ‘covenant’ only applies to the elect in the New Covenant administration.

[58] Moo, Galatians, 256.

[59] Longenecker, Galatians, 158.

[60] Cf. John 3:1-20.

[61] Fung, Galatians, 177.

[62] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols., Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: SPCK, 2013), 2:863-76.

[63] Cornelius Venema outlines the argument for the ‘dual-aspect’ of the covenant: Cornelius P. Venema, “Covenant Theology and Infant Baptism,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, 212-15. Of course this raises the question of how to understand apparent apostasy in the NT letters. While space prohibits a full defence of the position I find the work done on speech-act theory in regard to warning passages, and phenomenological faith in addressing apostates as generally persuasive. See Thomas R Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001). R. Fowler White writes, ‘Peter does ascribe to apostates blessings that literally belong uniquely to the elect, and he does so on the basis of their confessed faith’ (“Covenant and Apostasy” in Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, ed. E. Calvin Beisner [Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004], 212).

[64] Wilson, To A Thousand Generations, 34-35.

[65] Of course this raises the question of the ‘credible profession’ which, I believe, can come from very young children and those with learning difficulties. I do not think that a credible profession requires some kind of ‘testing’ as is sometimes suggested. In practise, an often overlooked point is that both sides of the debate require a credible profession of faith-the paedobaptist simply removes it one generation. This is a further inconsistency in the covenant household position. In all paedobaptist churches I know my grandfather’s faith is insufficient to admit me to the font-only my father’s (or in fact mother’s) faith counts, which raises further questions about the consistency of the theology applied. These are exactly the sort of problems Solomon Stoddard faced in New England when he proposed the ‘half-way covenant’ as a solution.

[66] Quoted in Booth, Children of the Promise, 100, emphasis mine.

[67] Booth, Children of the Promise, 99, 100, 104.

[68] A question I posed to Gibson in a previous exchange is, I think, still pertinent: ‘Does the faith of the Israelite’s parent have any bearing on his entitlement to the sign? In other words, should an unregenerate Israelite have his son circumcised? If so, why? That question, for the Baptist, reveals the difference between the old and new covenant and, therefore, between the signs of the old and new covenant.’ Martin Salter, ‘Response to David Gibson,’ Them 37.2 (2012): 209-10. As Coxe says ‘The right of the remotest generation was as much derived from Abraham and the covenant made with him, as was that of his immediate seed, and did not at all depend on the faithfulness of their immediate parents’ (Covenant Theology, 97).

[69] Wellum, “Relationship Between the Covenants,” 157.

[70] The reason for the change in the federal position is revealed in the practise of baptising females. In the OT era the federal representation of the covenant head (the seed of Abraham-her husband or father) did the job. In the new covenant she still requires union with the covenant/federal representative-in this case the seed of Abraham, Christ.

[71] The Bible tells us to train our children in the fear and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4) and that God listens to the prayers of the, as yet, unregenerate (Acts 10:4). Further we recognize that conversion often happens at a young age (maybe even in utero-Luke 1:41?). In reality we believe many of the things about our children that paedobaptists believe, we simply do not presume upon their regeneration, and therefore, do not apply the sign of New Covenant membership without a credible profession of faith.

[72] David Gibson, “‘Fathers of faith, my fathers now!’ On Abraham, covenant, and the theology of paedobaptism,” in Themelios 40.1 (2015): 29.

[73] Ibid., 21.

[74] Scripture is clear on this. Unbelieving spouses and children enjoy a special blessings of their familial relationship to believers (1 Cor 7:14). Unbelieving spouses may even be won over without words (1 Pet 3:1). But no protestant, so far as I know, thinks that the status of the spouse (ἡγίασται) or children (ἅγιά ) in 1 Cor 7:14 is a state of regeneration. It is something, and something significant, but it is less than regeneration, and therefore less than (in the view of this author) New Covenant membership, given all that we have observed about the nature of New Covenant membership.

[75] Richard Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 5-6.

Martin Salter

Martin Salter is Associate Pastor at Grace Community Church, Bedford, and part-time PhD candidate at Highlands Theological College, Scotland.

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