The following is part two of a series featuring OPC Licentiate Robert Mossotti’s August 31, 2014 Sunday School Lesson on Why Presbyterians Baptize Children of Believers, taught at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas. Read Part 1. Subscribe to Robert’s podcast at SermonAudio.
“And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him… Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him” (Genesis 17:18-19, 23).
In this passage, we see that Ishmael is commanded to be given the sign of the covenant, even though Abraham knows God’s covenant is actually with Isaac, and not with Ishmael. In other words, Ishmael is admitted into the visible church even though Abraham knows he’s not a member of the invisible church. He knows it—he’s told it by God. God’s covenant is really and truly with Isaac. But since Ishmael is in Abraham’s household, and under Abraham in God’s eyes, he, too is to receive the covenant sign. In other words, if the household principle that we see in Genesis 17 dictates that even definite reprobates like Ishmael are to receive the sign and be admitted into the visible church, then the household principle means that possible reprobates should be given the sign and admitted to the visible church. The greater includes the lesser, if you follow my meaning.
We don’t give children the sign of the covenant because we believe they are elect; we give them the sign of the covenant because that’s what we’re supposed to do, even when it is the case that, even by divine revelation God has told the parent, “My covenant is not with this boy. My covenant is with the boy that Sarah is actually going to have. Now give Ishmael the sign of the covenant.” Abraham knew that Ishmael would not be a member of the invisible church–he was not God’s chosen—Isaac was going to enjoy that position. God told him to circumcise Ishmael, and that’s because of this household principle: the believer is in charge of the household, the parent is a Christian, the parent is in the visible church, and the child is to be admitted into the visible church.
In Genesis 17, in verse 7, we see that the covenant of grace is established on these terms. It is between God and Abraham, and God and his seed after him for an everlasting covenant to be his God, and the God of his offspring. Now in verse 9 of Genesis 17, we can see that Abraham and his offspring are to keep this covenant. Think of Galatians 3:29 here: if we are in Christ, then we are Abraham’s offspring.
Now let’s look at verses 12 and 13 of this chapter.
He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.
These verses reveal that the sign and seal of the covenant of grace was not contemplated by God as being only based on the principle of fleshly descent from Abraham, but on a different principle. It was not only the physical descendants of Abraham who were to receive the sign, it was his whole household. Abraham’s household had slaves and servants numbering in the hundreds (I direct you to Genesis 14:14 to see that). Because Abraham, the head of the household, was a believer, every member of Abraham’s household was to come into the visible church. In the covenant of grace, then, those who are under the authority of the believing head of a household are likewise to receive the sign and seal of the one covenant of grace, and verse 14 of this chapter says that if you don’t, then that person is to be cut off. The uncircumcised child is to be cut off from my people. He is a covenant breaker.
This is all established by divine appointment, so we maintain that only by divine appointment it may be altered, according to Galatians 3:15-17, which we read at the beginning. Nothing has changed with respect to this principle in the New Testament church, which is why the whole household was granted the sign and seal of the one covenant of grace during the days of the apostles. We see this same principle of household admission to the visible church. It is still in effect in the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace. The New Testament, therefore, does not need to be careful to point out that children are being baptized in order for us to baptize children. We must only be careful to point out that households are being taken into the New Testament church, which, indeed, the New Testament is careful to do in many instances. So the household principle of Genesis 17 is carried over into the New Covenant, and because it is, we believe it is appropriate to baptize the children of believers.
Regarding whether the New Testament explicitly mentions the baptism of infants, I would direct you to sermon Pastor Troutman preached on Joshua chapter 5. The grown men of the children of Israel who invaded Canaan all had to be circumcised as adults. That’s because their parents in the 40 years in the wilderness never circumcised them like they were supposed to. If we just looked at Joshua 5 and we did not look at prior revelation—Genesis 17—one would mistakenly assume that only adult males were to be circumcised because there is no explicit mention of children being circumcised in Joshua chapter 5. But one must look at the Abrahamic administration of the one covenant of grace to understand that children are to receive the sign, too. That’s why, as a matter of literary inclusion, if you will, the writers of the New Testament didn’t go out of their way to say that infants are being baptized as well because the explicit household principle comes into play and the rest is assumed. Because people who are coming into the church as the apostles preached the gospel are all adults, that’s what gets explicit mention in the same way that the adults that went into Canaan got explicit mention that they were receiving the sign of the covenant, and you would have to go prior to that, into earlier revelation, like we’re trying to do now, to establish that it’s children as well as adult males.
We’ve covered a lot of territory about the distinction between the visible and invisible church. We know from John 15 that even branches that are fruitless are for a time united to Christ externally only to be broken off later and cast into the fire, Jesus says, like the thorny and rocky ground in the parable of the sower, or like the bad fish in the parable of the dragnet, many reprobates are, in fact, in the visible church by profession, and, as we know from the Scriptures, by birth as well, and we have the explicit example of Ishmael and Esau. That’s important to keep in mind: baptism is not an assertion that this person is elect, it’s a rite of admission into the visible church, not the invisible church.