Christian baptism is in urgent need of being revisited by the evangelical church. This essay explores a covenantal view of baptism and its relationship to evangelism. The doctrine of baptism as put forward by the teaching found in the Westminster Standards is upheld. It is contended that there is a connection between God’s covenant and God’s signs of the covenant, which in the New Testament are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The shadow of baptism in the Old Testament was circumcision: whereas circumcision involved the shedding of blood and therefore it pointed forwards to the future shed blood of Christ, baptism points backwards to the shed blood of Christ and Christ’s completed atonement. Baptism in the new covenant is to be administered using water and the new covenant name of God, “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19); and it is to be applied to Christian converts, and the children of believing parents.
On Sunday morning of 21 April 1861, the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon expounded from Matt 28:18-19. His title was “The Missionaries’ Charge and Charter”. He declared that: “We think that our brethren do serious damage to the Gospel by baptizing children. We do not think their error a little one. We know it does not touch a vital point; but we do believe that infant baptism is the prop and pillar of Popery.” Strong words. Such understanding may well shape the thinking of many professing Christians, but was Spurgeon correct in his bold assertions? Is the baptism of the children of believers essentially Popery, instead of fundamental Protestantism? Should not Spurgeon’s opinions and the doctrine of believer’s baptism come under fresh scrutiny? My aim is to put forward a different viewpoint, one that is a covenantal view of baptism.
John Calvin, Martin Luther and the Magisterial Reformers would all dissent loudly at Baptists accusing them of error. They all practised the baptism of infants within the Christian church and they similarly faced opposition from the Continental Anabaptists on this point. The position commonly labelled paedobaptism is much maligned, especially among many professing Christians in England and Wales. Why is this the case? What has happened to cause such a change in the doctrine of the church since the sixteenth century work of reformation first broke upon the shores of Great Britain?
The Magisterial Reformers were similarly in harmony concerning the primary marks of a true church: the preaching of pure doctrine and the right administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Calvin, in his hugely influential Institutes of the Christian Religion, stated that: “wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” Therefore, a correct doctrine of the sacraments is essential for the life, purity and health of the church. A right understanding of the sacraments, including baptism, cannot be supposed to be a secondary and non-essential topic for the church of Jesus Christ.
In this paper, I intend to explore a range of issues concerning covenantal baptism; sometimes this view is broadly assumed to be that of paedobaptism. However, in recent times some credobaptists have sought to freshly articulate their own perceived connection between the new covenant and baptism. Nonetheless, my intention is to uphold that the covenantal baptism as taught in the Westminster Standards is one which is faithful to Scripture and the Presbyterian reformation which emanated from Geneva. In order to build a biblical foundation, one that is hopefully pastoral, I intend to explore a range of exegetical and common fallacies that are brought against the Westminster Assembly’s conclusion on baptism.
The issue of baptism as it relates to evangelism is a crucial and pivotal matter that needs to be examined. The question that deserves our attention can be put in this way: in which direction should the sign of baptism point? At this juncture we will introduce the first English Baptist John Smyth, and his legacy that remains in the church to this day; a legacy which, in essence, changes the sign nature of baptism. While I seek to propose a covenantal baptism, one that is to be applied to adults outside of the covenant of grace, as well as the children of believing parents, my approach is hopefully persuasive and peaceful. A key goal is to connect this theology of baptism to evangelism, most especially to the covenant responsibilities that we must uphold to instruct our children. Indeed, we must explore these matters together in a humble and teachable spirit with a constant appeal to “all Scripture” (2 Tim 3:16), not only to selections from the New Testament, while remembering the call for reformation in our generation.