Robert Mossotti, our summer intern at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas taught a Sunday School series on Ecclesiology. All of the lessons are available online here. They’re also available on Robert’s SermonAudio page here. My favorite lesson in the series was the following on the biblical case for infant baptism and the Reformed inclusion of the infant and unbelieving children of believers into church membership. The following is a transcript of his remarks, lightly edited at some points. I hope you find it as helpful and enlightening as we have. You can listen to this particular lesson online here. We begin with his introductory remarks regarding principles that govern our interpretation on this issue, and an exposition of Paul’s words regarding covenants from Galatians 3. The rest will follow in the coming days and weeks.
Why do Presbyterians baptize babies and count them as members of the visible church?
Let’s restate some principles first, before we get into some passages.
The visible covenant community is the visible church—Old Testament and New Testament—and what makes it visible are the sacraments. These place a mark on the church to identify it as belonging to the Lord. The sacraments mark God’s people off from the world. Another principle we have to keep in mind is that there is only one covenant of grace in Scripture. The covenant by which Abraham and the Old Testament church were saved is our covenant, too. By God’s grace, in the Scriptures we are all called children of Abraham through faith. There is no essential difference between the Old Covenant church and the New Covenant church. There are differences, but no essential differences. No differences as to substance, just form. The church is one across all the ages, because the covenant of grace is one. To embrace the one idea is to embrace the other. If you accept that there is one covenant of grace throughout Scripture by which we are all saved, then you have to accept that the church is one across both Old and New Testaments. We affirm this over against dispensationalism, which maintains an essential difference between Israel and the church. So the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant (the one at Mount Sinai mediated through Moses), and the New Covenant are all different administrations of the one covenant of grace. In section 5 of chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Mosaic Covenant is called an administration of the covenant of grace. Alright, now that those principles have been stated, let’s go to Galatians 3.
The apostle Paul is going to give us in this passage a principle of covenant theology. A principle of Interpretation of Covenants, of Application of Covenants, the Nature of Covenants. Paul says not only biblical covenants, but all covenants. Let’s go to Galatians 3:15.
“To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void” (Galatians 3:15-17 ESV).
In verse 15, this idea of “ratified” in the ESV comes from the Greek word kuro’o, and Bauer-Danker, the premier Greek lexicon or dictionary defines it as “to confirm, to ratify, to validate or to make legally binding.” Although the covenant of grace goes all the way back to Eden, note that Paul is saying here that it was not ratified until Abraham. Now note that in verse 15, Paul begins with a general principle of covenants. Then, as he moves down through verses 16 and 17 he applies that general principle of covenants to the particular case of the Mosaic administration of the one covenant of grace—that’s what he means by the Law coming in. Paul says that once the covenant of grace was ratified at the time of Abraham, no modifications may be introduced even by later administrations of the covenant of grace, including the Mosaic administration.
So, it is because there is only one covenant of grace throughout Scripture that we Presbyterians apply the sign of admission into the visible church to the children of believers, for we are not free to change the way the covenant is administered. It is not because the Reformers didn’t sufficiently push off from Rome that we baptize babies, it is because of our covenant theology which we receive, we believe, from the Scriptures. It is also because the covenant of grace is one across the various administrations that we need not seek for proof of continuity between the Abrahamic administration and the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace. In fact, because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace across the ages, which cannot be altered once ratified, says Paul, that we actually would need to find evidence in the New Testament that God intends to change who it is who receives the rite of admission to the covenant community. Because of the underlying continuity of the one covenant of grace, it is discontinuities, and not continuities, between the Old Covenant and New Testament administrations, that need positive proofs from the New Testament. We don’t have to go to the New Testament and ask if there are specific cases where it says in explicit terms that babies were baptized. Because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace, you have to look for a command to no longer give the sign of the covenant of grace to the children of believers. The underlying unity drives the belief that we assume continuity unless there is evidence in the New Testament of discontinuity.
So the absence of explicit revelation in the New Testament on whether children are to be included in the visible church actually works in favor, not against, the inclusion of children in the visible church. Because of this principle of covenant administration, the default setting, says Paul, is covenantal continuity. But, in fact, we can find more evidence than just these principles of covenant theology that the children of believers are to be included in the visible church as members.