We end where we began – the subject of debate. While it may be the end of this short discussion, we know the debate surrounding baptism will continue. At the same time, we can be sure the conversation has moved forward. It is more refined. Its point is being sharpened. This is good.
There is a weariness that comes about with those involved in such a long-standing discussion. The languor many times begins to express itself in disinterest. Not the disinterest that arises when one finally realizes a topic is truly inconsequential. Rather, it is the type felt at the end of a drawn out discussion in which both sides feel they have said all they have to say on a matter. They just see no need to carry on the dialogue. Having no new angles or fresh insights, they move on to other topics or disengage altogether.
In all of this, we must not think their discussion was in vain or that no forward progress was achieved. Armed with unique perspective, added information and fresh fervor, onlookers or whole new generations altogether pick up the retired discourse. They take it through another cycle; each side hoping the deliberation will be finally resolved, due in part to their efforts. Sometimes this is the case. Most times it is not.
My impression is that this debate is in one of these new cycles. There seems to be a more self-conscious focus on baptism’s place within covenant theology as a whole. As quoted previously, Ligon Duncan makes the central issue clear.
The biggest point of issue between the Baptist position on baptism and the Presbyterian or the paedobaptist position on baptism is not in our doctrine of the sacraments. It is in our doctrine of the church.[i]
This was quoted in Denault’s book where he seeks not only to address baptism from within a context of covenant, but does so while taking us back to original 17th century conversations. There is no doubt the current discourse involves the fundamentals. Again, this is good.
The Fatal Flaw Revisited
As for the present discussion, one final look at the book of Hebrews is in order. It may help in obtaining some level of resolve regarding previous points and bring us to a conclusion. The tenth chapter is particularly helpful in addressing the internal and external economies of the covenant of grace. There is more of a common thread here among the Baptists and paedobaptists than most would admit. Both groups acknowledge that “already/not yet” is an apt label for the church in history. We can all agree here. But the accord breaks down as this applies to new covenant membership and covenant boundaries.
Listen again to Witsius.
Moreover, as we restrict this covenant to the Elect, it is evident we are speaking of the internal, mystical, and spiritual communion of the covenant. For salvation itself, and every thing belonging to it, or inseparably connected with it, are promised in this covenant, all which, none but the Elect can attain to. If, in other respects we consider the external economy of the covenant, in the communion of the word and sacraments, in the profession of the true faith, in the participation of many gifts, which though excellent and illustrious, are yet none of the effects of the sanctifying Spirit, nor any earnest of future happiness; it cannot be denied, that, in this respect, many are in covenant, whose names, notwithstanding, are not in the testament of God.[ii] [Emphasis mine]
This is the very “fatal flaw”, as discussed previously, that Jeffrey Johnson is pointing out. He is clear. “Placing covenant-breakers in the covenant of grace destroys the covenant.”[iii] In an earlier article we looked at this supposed flaw in light of Hebrews eight. Now lets do the same in light of chapter ten of the same book.
I am neither qualified, nor do I intend to exegete the entire chapter. I wish simply to affirm aspects of the text that apply to Christ’s finished work for his elect and point out other facets dealing in a more practical and pastoral posture with His church.
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” (Hebrews 10:1-7)
The chapter begins with a definitive contrast. Pictures and pointers give way to the “true form of these realities.” Christ has in fact done the will of the Father. It is a glorious picture of redemption accomplished, a portrait of redemption applied. Christ’s work is done. His earthly mission was carried out, His atonement efficacious and the pardon of His elect secured. These elect benefit from His work by faith. Faith is granted as a free gift of God’s grace. Through this instrument of faith, we enter into the true Holy of Holies. Christ’s work has enabled his elect to pass through the heavenly veil into the very presence of Almighty God.
This reality is detailed beautifully in the previous chapter of the book of Hebrews.
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:1-10)
These images were not unfamiliar to this Hebrew audience. They were the very things to which they were in danger of turning back! The writer is calling their attention to not only the temporary nature of such rituals, but the inability of sinful, mortal priests to make atonement. In all of their grandeur, these types and shadows were but a glorious preview to the ever more glorious and genuine reality; the true throne room where Christ enters on our behalf, a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12)
It is faith in Christ that qualifies us to enter into the holy places. This is a gift. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Without faith we remain separated from God. Faith moves us beyond the veil. It qualifies us to enter God’s presence. We can have confidence because he is the Great High Priest, the Son of God. His work secures the salvation of his people. “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Hebrews 10:18) Christ’s work is done, never to be undone.
Keeping the Faith
But something curious happens in verse 19. It moves to a familiar exhortation seen previously in the book. This exhortation is ultimately a plea to “keep the faith”. But how are we to understand this? Surely this does not mean that Christ’s atoning sacrifice and propitiation was applied to us, taking us beyond the veil into his presence – only for us to lose said faith and be cast out, divesting ourselves of a faith once possessed. This would imply a salvation not based on the work of Christ but upon our own merits. So why do we see the clear injunction to keep the faith?
Hebrews 10:19 is widely accepted as an inflection point in the book. The writer moves from a sustained theological argument for the superiority of Christ, to a practical message on how to live given this reality. Whereas such practical exhortations have been seen in a few places up to this point, this time they become a focal point throughout the next few chapters.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22 ESV)
The confidence spoken of is based upon the theological argument in the preceding chapters. It is a confidence in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice and work on our behalf.
But who can see this throne room of God? Who on earth can see the elect who have crossed through the heavenly veil into the presence of God? What mortal can see the substance of faith or divine ruling wherein the verdict is rendered and a man is declared justified?
In the book of Hebrews, the invisible church is the primary and most proper church in view amidst the theological discussion. But this doesn’t help us in how to relate to the people in front of us. The new covenant is ultimately eschatological. But our knowledge is limited at the moment. We are in the already/not-yet stage mentioned above.
Although the invisible church is in view, the author is not talking to the invisible church. He is exhorting the visible church. He seems to be addressing a baptized audience. This baptized audience is in danger of putting Christ aside and turning back to their old ways. The Jewish people were a protected class in Roman society. The Christians were not. This further increased their temptation to return to their past.
Chapter ten progresses beyond the doctrinal basis for our redemption, to a practical admonition and point of sober warning.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31)
We cannot separate these verses from their context. The particular sin in view here is that of apostasy. The warning here is against rejecting Christ and returning to the bondage of the old covenant. For any who would abandon Christ and chase after former, temporary shadows, there is only a fearful expectation of judgment.
Baptized confessors are the in view here. They have been sanctified covenantally. This is clear from the plural personal pronoun “we”, along with the adamant assertion that “the Lord will judge his people.” Those who would recant and regard Christ’s work as worthless; those who would go on sinning deliberately by living contrary to their confession, are trampling the person and work of Christ. For this they can expect impending judgment from the very one they trampled. Christ is partial in his judgment on the last day. He will begin his final judgment with them (1 Pet. 4:17).
All Christians “go on sinning”. It is repentance and faith that differentiates them from the apostate. This faith will enable them to persevere through temptation and persecution. The author of Hebrews is calling baptized confessors to “keep the faith” because true faith in Christ is their only hope. In verse 38, Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted, “the righteous shall live by his faith.” This is the same verse in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. What was the key to overcoming the temptation and clinging to Christ? Faith.
What we see midway through the tenth chapter of Hebrews is the primary conclusion of a theological argument detailing the superiority of Christ and his finished work. This work qualifies his elect to draw near to God through faith. Such a reality is the basis for confidence.
In the text, the theological conclusion gives way to an exhortation of a real, visible church on earth. It is a call to persevere. By persevering, one provides evidence of their standing in Christ. The flow of the chapter moves from the viewpoint of magnificent activity in heaven to the perspective of “doing church” on earth. It moves from the internal economy to the external economy of the covenant of grace.
In many ways, the paedobaptist community is responsible for the current Reformed Baptist predicament. We send out mixed messages and blur the lines between God’s eternal decrees and earthly corporate realities. The notion of an objective covenant in time and space is exactly what many a Baptist needs to clearly understand the case for infant baptism. Yet unfortunately, we too often shy away from it. In shying away we end up joining forces with the Baptist in a world where you can pick your flavor of baby dedication – wet or dry.
In Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis profoundly asserts, “you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are.”[iv] This seems to be much of the case with commotion surrounding covenant objectivity. Because it is confused at a distance with some variety of works-based faith, the mischaracterizations and false notions limit a rough appraisal of its true identity. Beyond the lampooning lies a Biblical and orthodox understanding of how God relates to his called-out assembly on earth.
The structure of a covenant has not changed. The coming of Christ does not require us to alter its definition or identity. All of the remarkable pomp and pageantry of the old covenant pales in comparison to the true realities in heaven. There, Christ sits enthroned as our advocate, continually making intercession for us. He sits pleading our case on the basis of his righteousness and his offering up of himself as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Yet we do not observe all of this directly. We confess our faith in time and in space. We enter through a covenant boundary on earth via our confession. In doing so, we openly submit ourselves to the authority of God and his established hierarchy on earth. We are vowing to keep the terms of his covenant – the Word of God. We are submitting ourselves to the discipline of the church. In addition, those under our lawful authority (most notably our children) are consigned to Christ and also under His authority through the church. This is God relating in covenant to his special people. It is the blessing of being guarded as one of Christ’s sheep.
In this series of articles I hope to have at least overturned the assertion that “Presbyterian federalism was an artificial construction developed to justify an end: paedobaptism”[v]. To think the sacrament was contrived out of tradition is quite a reach, and one that most assuredly results from Reformed Baptists being forced to wrestle with covenant theology in a whole new era.
Perhaps it would be helpful to conclude with a voice common to both Reformed Baptists and paedobaptists. Calvin shows his willingness to engage debate over infant baptism with God’s Word as the final standard. But while retaining a constructive openness, he also encourages extreme caution in overturning God’s ordained covenant structure and practice – present since the beginning of time.
If it appears to have been contrived by the mere rashness of men, let us bid it farewell and measure the true observance of baptism by God’s will alone. But if it be proved by no means lacking his sure authority, we must beware lest, in abolishing God’s holy ordinances, we also become insolent toward their Author himself.[vi]
[i] Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 5.
[ii] Ibid, 283.
[iii] Jeffrey D. Johnson, The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2010), 125.
[iv] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York, NY: Scribner Classics, 1996 edition), 43.
[v] Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 155.
[vi] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 1325.