Random Thoughts on Covenant, Baptism, and Acts 2:38f

We come this morning to speak about a subject which many erudite Theologians have insisted is the Theme of Scripture. One prominent theologian once said that covenant theology was the architectonic principle of Reformed theology. As such the time we are able to give to it is totally inadequate to the immensity of its subject matter. Our subject matter this morning is the Biblical motif of covenant, specifically as to it’s sign and seal of initiation — Baptism. Narrowing it down even further we will spend some time considering the place of God’s children’s children in the covenant.

It is not to much to say that until we start thinking rightly again on this matter of covenant the Church will remain hopelessly compromised in its identity and mission, just as it currently is.

We will start with our cursory examination today by looking at Acts 2, though in doing so we will be coming in at a point in the story of covenant that has already long been told for centuries. However, working from Acts two we will work backwards in a kind of retrospective movement to consider the long roots of covenant.

As we come to Acts 2 we have the fairly familiar story of God’s gathering of His Church on the day of Pentecost. The Disciples receive the Promised Holy Spirit and the immediate consequence is that Peter Preaches a Sermon. At the end of his sermon the hearers cry out, “Men and Brethren, what shall we do?”

In vs. 38 Peter, speaking as the mouthpiece of God, and calls on them to Repent, (that is to turn to God out of sorrow for sin) and be Baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Peter then tells them the consequent of this action will be the receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit. in vs. 39 Peter tells them that the “promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

We want to examine these words of vs. 39 a bit more closely. Peter speaks of “the promise,” and we are suggesting this morning that “the promise” that Peter speaks of is another way of speaking of “the covenant.”

Before we go any further then we should try to get in our minds first what this promise is and then what a covenant is and then the relation between the two.

Now as to the promise that Peter speaks of I believe we must identify as God’s age old promise to the Israel of Israel that He would be their God and they would be His people. Peter speaks of this Promise to these Jews who were cut to the heart in conviction as a warrant for why repentance and baptism is extended unto them. So, when Peter references “the Promise” the repentant Jews present would have known this is what he was speak referencing. This Promise of God to the Church in the Old Covenant is littered throughout the pages of the Old Testament.

Genesis 17:7-8 “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Exodus 6:7 “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”

Exodus 19:5-6 (with 20:2) “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Theses are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel…. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Exodus 29:45-46 “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.”

Leviticus 26:11-12 “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”

Deuteronomy 4:20 “But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.”

Deuteronomy 7:6 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”

Deuteronomy 14:2 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”

Deuteronomy 26:18 “And the LORD has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments,”

Deuteronomy 29:13 “That he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

2 Samuel 7:24 “And you established for yourself your people Israel to be your people forever. And you, O LORD, became their God.”

1 Chron. 17:22 “And you made your people Israel to be your people forever, and you, O LORD, became their God.”

Jeremiah 7:23 But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’”

Jeremiah 11:4 “That I commanded your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God,”

Jeremiah 24:7 “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.”

Jeremiah 30:22 “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

Jeremiah 31:1 “At that time, declares the LORD, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.”

Jeremiah 31:33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Jeremiah 32:38 “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”

Ezekiel 11:20 “That they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”

Ezekiel 14:11 “That the house of Israel may no more go astray from me, nor defile themselves anymore with all their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God, declares the Lord GOD.”

Ezekiel 34:24 “And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.”

Ezekiel 34:30 “And they shall know that I am the LORD their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord GOD.”

Ezekiel 36:27-28 “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

Ezekiel 37:23 “They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”

Ezekiel 37:27 “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Hosea 2:23 “And I will sow her for myself in the land. And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people‘; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’”

Zechariah 8:8 “And I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.”

Zechariah 13:9 “And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people‘; and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.’”

2 Corinthians 6:16-17 “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you,’”

1 Peter 2:9-10 “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Revelation 21:3 “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

Revelation 21:7 “The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”

So, when Peter speaks of the Promise that was to them and their children he is giving them God’s warrant that repentance and Baptism is for them.

Now, this, in turn, allows us to speak a little more concretely about the idea of covenant. We have said that when Peter speaks about “the Promise” it is a short-hand way of speaking of God’s covenant. The idea of covenant then means a coming together to form an alliance of a people who will remain distinct from those who are not part of the alliance. It presupposes two or more parties who come together to make a contract, agreeing on promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities.

We still enter into covenants though we seldom use that language. The covenant most widely known yet today is the covenant of marriage. A Bride and a Groom come together to form an alliance. The two of them who have formed the alliance will remain distinct from those who are not part of the alliance. In the Marriage covenant promises are made, privileges set forth and responsibilities are owned. In this Marriage covenant there is a relational reality between husband and wife but that relational reality has a legal foundation. That legal foundation is covenant.

So, when Peter speaks of “the Promise” he is speaking of God’s covenant Promise that He would be their God and they would be His people. This promise was the foundation of the covenant where people were gathered as a people who were distinct from those people who had not been gathered into this covenant. In this covenant between God and His people there is a relational reality between the People of God and the Lord Christ but that relational reality has a legal foundation.

Thus far we have established that “the Promise” that Peter speaks of is the God’s Promise that forms the Covenant. We noted what that Promise had always been through Scripture. When Peter calls on them to repent and be Baptized what is being formed then is a covenant community. The community of the people of God. Sometimes called “the Church.”

We have said that the covenant means a coming together to form an alliance of a people who will remain distinct from those who are not part of the alliance. It presupposes two or more parties who come together to make a contract, agreeing on promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities.

Here in Acts 2 Peter calls on convicted men to be confident that they can enter into this covenant as God’s distinct people based upon the fact that the Lord Christ’s death and resurrection forms the legal writ whereby they can escape the rebellion against God that was manifested in their crucifixion of Christ. Most simply put that legal writ whereby we can come into the covenant where God’s favor exist is the truth that Christ died as our substitute.

Two things to note before we move on

Notice the continuity we find between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament God had made Promises and those Promises are being referenced in the collection of the post Pentecost Church. Whatever is going on in Acts is not a going on that is unrelated to the goings on we find in the Old Testament. To understand Acts 2 you must understand the Old Testament.

Second, notice the legal quality of covenant. The modern church forever has on their lips the idea of “their relationship with Jesus,” but whatever personal relationship exists between the believer and the Lord Christ is a personal relationship that is defined by legal categories such as substitution, reconciliation, redemption, ransom, propitiation, expiation, atonement, justification, imputation and covenant. And the fact that you may not be familiar with those terms indicates that we the Clergy — that I as clergy — have failed you. The modern church today is all about the relationship as seen by their constant sappy “God is my girlfriend” choruses but there remains among us precious few who understand that the relationship with Jesus, which is so incessantly spoken of, is only as legitimate as the legal foundation upon which it sits.

So, thus far we’ve identified the “Promise” that Peter refers to and we’ve attached that to the idea of covenant. Subsequently we have spoken a bit about the idea of covenant.

Let us briefly consider Baptism at this point.

Following Jesus’ words in Mt. 28 to Baptize the Nations Peter calls for the Hebrews to be Baptized.

Baptism then becomes what is known as the “sign of the covenant.” It is the means by which God marks out those that are uniquely His as distinguished from those that are not His. I have, in the past, likened this sign of the covenant as akin to ranchers branding their cattle. When they see their brand on a Steer they know it is theirs.

Previous to Baptism the sign of the covenant was circumcision but that sign in changed to Baptism in the new covenant. This change of sign is consistent with what Jesus said when He taught that one does not put new wine into old wineskins. Circumcision was part and parcel of the old wineskin that had to be replaced. It was replaced with Baptism. In the replacement we see that the bloody rite was set aside for a bloodless rite. This is because that with the work of Christ all bloody rites had been fulfilled. Circumcision had been a picture of Christ’s work but now that Christ had been cut off there was no longer a need for a rite that reminded of blood.

And so enters the waters of Baptism. Scripture puts the highest regard on Baptism calling it in Titus the washing of regeneration. St. Peter can even say that “Baptism saves us.” St. Paul can remind the formally pagan Corinthians of their Baptism saying, “but ye were washed, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God,” thus providing linkage between baptism, sanctification and justification.

Something else we should note here. The fact that all of Israel’s rites were changed or set aside reminds us again that God is done with Israel as a Nation. National Israel is no more God’s people then I am a Rothschild. In point of fact Scripture can refer to National Israel as a “synagogue of Satan.” National Israel as been as thoroughly set aside by God as circumcision has been set aside by Baptism, though we anticipate great numbers of individual Hebrews being in the Kingdom of God.

Now we are ready to look at more of vs. 39. When Peter speaks of this “Promise” and, by way of implication, this covenant, Peter also says in terms of the Promise that it is for not only to those hearing Peter’s sermon but it is also for their children.

Now we have to try to hear Peter’s words through the ears of a covenant people who had been shaped by centuries of living in terms of covenant categories. A faithful Hebrew could only have heard these words “and to your children” as meaning the Promise of the Covenant long established was a promise that included all who were underneath the authority of the head of the household. It is the way it had always been in Scripture.

Indeed, it is the witness of Scripture to believe that since we are not our own and since we belong to God then our children belong to God as well since the Scriptures teach that children are a heritage FROM the Lord, the fruit of HIS reward. We believe that when Peter announces that ‘the promise is to you and to your Children and to as many who are afar off’ that a Believing mindset (Hebrew at that time) would have heard those words in light of how God had ALWAYS historically dealt with families, and we find nothing in Scripture that suggests that in the New Covenant God deals any differently with His people on this issue. Nowhere do the Scriptures teach that children are not to be given all the privileges of what it means to belong to God. Nowhere in the Scriptures are we taught that children must wait for covenant privileges and covenant signs. We believe that all men are either in the Kingdom of Darkness or the Kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13) and we do not believe that God has given His Kingdom people children who do not normatively partake of both covenantal and Kingdom blessings.

We believe with Scripture that whenever God made covenant with man He always included the children of whom He made covenant with in that covenantal arrangement. This is true in the covenant of Works with Adam as seen in the curse upon Adam’s posterity that followed Adam’s fall. It wasn’t just Adam and Eve who fell but all their posterity. We see this family solidarity in the Covenant with Noah, in the Covenant with Abraham, and in the Covenant with David. The general principle of children going with the parents is seen in the delivery of Lot with his daughters, in the curse on Sodom, in the destruction of the Canaanites and Amalkites, and in the destruction of Achan and his family for Achan’s sin. In all of these the infant children go with the parents. It seems that it be requisite that if in the New and Better covenant this common thread were to be reversed there would have been a clear demarcation that the contrary was now expected. There is not a hint in the New Testament that the children no longer are the recipients of the covenant Promise which Peter speaks of here.

Now, we might ask, why might this idea be so unnatural to us that children are included in the covenant?

I can’t answer that with certainty but I can hazard a guess or two.

Guess #1

America was formed on the social theories of John Locke. Locke’s social contract theory is posited on the idea of the sovereign individual and teaches that human beings are isolated and abstracted egos. Before we are anything else we are sovereign individual integers. These sovereign individual integers may make alliances so that “us” and “we” are uttered but those alliances and the corporate structures that result (i.e. – general will) are all based upon the notion of the sovereign self.

According to the Lockean social contract myth human beings are isolated Egos. Each of us have a will of our own, and each is free to make choices on our own. We are sovereign “I’s” first and foremost, though we may, for various selfish reasons, combine with other I’s into a political society

If this is really what is going on, then the most effective argument for infant baptism may be the creation account which teaches that man in isolation is not fully man. It is not until the creation of Eve, and so the inauguration of the community whole, that man is fully self. In short, man only finds the meaning of the individual self in the context of community. The vast majority of the contemporary Church denies this insisting that man as the individual must give assent to the community whole – The Church with Christ as King – before the community whole can recognize the individual as a member of the whole community.

The reality that people develop as members of community before they choose the community to which they will belong is part of the warp and woof of life. We don’t wait for a baby to accede to being part of a family before it is part of the family. What we concede to family life the contemporary Church denies to God and His family-Church. Lee didn’t embrace being a McAtee before he was a member of the McAtee family. In point of fact Lee’s self-understanding will only develop in the context of his understanding and place in the community whole. With that reality being true for all people it strikes me as past curious that the the great majority of the Church today requires their children to embrace being a member of the covenant before they can be acknowledged as a member of the covenant. The only thing that can explain such a mindset is a basic presupposition that insist that the sovereign self is prior to the community. This notion we do not find to be a truth drawn from Scripture.

So, epistemologically self conscious Reformed people bring their children to the Baptismal font because we don’t buy into the deeply embedded American notion of social contract theory. We are not Lockeans. We are Christians.

Guess #2

My second guess as to why we find it so difficult to think of children as being in the covenant receiving God’s covenant promise to be their God is because we forget that our response to the Gospel Promise is not the Gospel. The very dubious argument goes that since children can’t respond to the Gospel by repenting and believing (a very questionable assertion) therefore the Gospel can’t reach them. But the Gospel Promise of God that He shall be our God and we His people is not dependent upon our response. Rather our response is dependent upon His Promise.

It is true … Babies can’t respond in ways we can catalog, to the covenant Promise.

And let us all thank God that is true because what better imagery could you possibly have that God does a solo act when it comes to determining who is and who isn’t in the covenant and so a recipient of the Promise then a helpless child who is only capable of receiving the promise?

Don’t get me wrong. I look for the proper response in the people I am charged to keep. Proper responses to the Gospel promise, in terms of ever increasing walking in obedience to God’s law, is to be expected along the way of ever increasing maturity in the faith. But as necessary as our proper responses are to the Gospel they are not the Gospel. The Gospel is that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself not imputing their trespasses unto them. God does all the saving. We are all just passive recipients in our reception of the covenant Promise and helpless babies being baptized is the best picture we could have of that.

Perhaps this is why Christ said that “one must become as a little child in order to enter into the Kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps it is the case that when we require a response to the Gospel from our babies in order to give them the liquid Gospel of Baptism we have at that moment turned God into the one who waits on our initiation before He responds as opposed to our confession that God always initiates before man responds.

I must say a word here about the purpose of this covenant community.

The covenant community has been formed as the Church militant. We will have plenty of time to rest when we are on the other side gathered as “the Church at rest.” Christ has told us that we are a army when He told Peter that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against us.

The Church, as God’s covenant community, is God’s activist community. We are commissioned to make our own long marches through the institutions. In Christ we are already have the guarantee of victory. But we still must fight.

Our orders are to fight
Then if I win
or bravely fail
What matters it?
God only doth prevail

The servant craveth naught
Except to serve with might
I was not told
to win or lose
Our orders are to fight

We’ve been placed into the covenant community with the Promise of God to be our God with the purpose to be His shock troops. Yes, it is true that we have internal enemies to contend with (pride, selfishness, envy) but let us not so concentrate on those enemies that we forget that we have external enemies to contend with as well.

If the covenant community prays “Thine Kingdom come” then they should work to that end as well. The covenant community must repent of its retreatism, its quietism, and its pietism, and become once again a people who in taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ, seek to extend the present Crown Rights of the Lord Christ into every area of life.

On this score O. Palmer Robertson could say,

“The total life involvement of the covenant relationship provides the framework for considering the connection between the ‘great commission’ and the ‘cultural mandate.’ Entrance into God’s kingdom may occur only by repentance and faith, which requires the preaching of the Gospel. This ‘gospel,’ however, must not be conceived in the narrowest possible sense. It is the gospel of the ‘Kingdom.’ It involves discipling men to Jesus Christ. Integral to that discipling process is the awakening of an awareness of the obligations of man to the totality of God’s creation. Redeemed man, remade in God’s image, must fulfill – even surpass – the role originally determined for the first man. In such a manner, the mandate to preach the gospel and the mandate to form a culture glorifying to God merge with one another.”

O. Palmer Robertson
The Christ Of The Covenants – pg. 83

I told you at the outset that the time we give to the idea of covenant this morning will be totally inadequate to the subject matter at hand. And now I’ve proven it. I’ve possibly left you with more questions then I have answered. I am ever ready to receive questions if people should have them. If some of this sounded confusing I can only ask you to join with me in my constant prayer that God would open our eyes to even more of His covenant truth.

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

3 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on Covenant, Baptism, and Acts 2:38f”

  1. Wonderfully stated! I am so glad that I’m not a baptist any longer. We are talking about worldview differences here.

  2. 1. Wonderful post. Very well written and reasoned however I take exception on a few points.
    2. Children of believers are clearly set apart
    “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” 1Cor7:14
    3. No where in scripture are unbelieving children sanctified by parents however are “set apart” and blessed
    3. The act of baptism is an act of obediance as well understood from the verse you reference Act 2:28
    4. This act of obedience as demonstrated by Jesus was the perfect example for us.
    5. Peter tells us that the promise is for “all who are called” and he implores us to “repent and be baptized” (repeated Mark 16:16, Acts 8:12, Act 18:8)
    6. Repentance and belief is tied to baptism in the perfect symbol of water emersion
    As a father of 3 that is focused on bringing up my children in the fear and instuction of the Lord, I will shepherd to become obediant in baptism (even if it means waiting until they are same age as Jesus when he was baptized)
    7. Baptism did not replace circumcision although they are complimentary.
    God Bless,

    1. Scot,

      1.) If the children are set apart as Holy (and they are) then they ought to receive the sign that indicates and announces that they are set apart. Set apart children without the sacrament that sets them apart is like saying that Clark Kent is set apart to be Superman but denying him X-ray vision and his super strength.

      2.) Sanctified means “set apart.”

      3.) I’m not denying that Baptism is an act of obedience. But remember this act of obedience of adults is what we would expect to find in the collection of a 1st generation church. We would also expect the children would go with the parents as had always been the case in the history of the Church. Unless we can find a clear articulation in the NT whereby God announces that children are no longer in the covenant then the assumption should be that children are in the covenant.

      4.) Jesus received the sign of circumcision at the tenderest of age. His Baptism was the beginning of the New Covenant with the new covenant sign. Jesus also died on a cross. That doesn’t translate into we must die on a literal cross as well. Jesus did lots of things that we can’t and don’t emulate.

      5.) Scripture nowhere teaches water immersion. That is a Baptist fallacy.

      6.) Baptism did replace circumcision. If it did not then we would still be required to circumcise our male children.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *