The Sacrament of Covenant Baptism

by Stanley D. Gale

What is baptism?

Baptism is sign and seal of belonging to God’s covenant community, His visible church.  It involves the application of water in the name of the triune God, marking the recipient out as special in God’s sight.

What is the covenant?

The covenant is the name of the relationship God has entered into with a people.  “Covenant” is used to describe this relationship in both the Old Testament period and the New Testament period.

What does baptism have to do with the covenant?

There were two sacraments established by God related specifically to the covenant:  a sacrament of initiation and a sacrament of continuation.  The sacrament of initiation under the old covenant was circumcision and under the new covenant is water baptism.  The sacrament of continuation was the Passover under the old and the Lord’s Supper under the new.  These covenant signs and seals have always been part of the expression of God’s covenant relationship.

To what does baptism point?

Baptism is a sign of God’s promises of eternal life and blessing found in Jesus Christ that are to be received by faith.  Often it is misunderstood that what is pointed to in a person’s baptism is his or her personal faith in Christ.  It is said to be “an outward sign of an inward change.”  In this view the person’s (subjective) faith is at issue.  But, in the context of God’s covenant, the issue is something objective—God’s promise.   So, baptism, as was circumcision, is actually an outward sign expressing the reality of God’s promise.

Who is to receive the sign of covenant initiation?

Those who aligned themselves with the people of God and the children of those who were part of God’s covenant family were to receive the sign.  Or, to put it differently, the sign is for believers and their children.

Why are children set apart for the sign of covenant initiation?

God has always dealt with families and so the children of at least one believing parent are regarded differently from the children of unbelieving households.  This sign was a pointed reminder of the need for the same cleansing from sin for the child that the parent had already received by virtue of faith in God’s Savior.  In Acts 2, Peter applies the same promises to new covenant believers as were given to old covenant believers in Genesis, both regarding families.

Does the sign save the child or indicate the baby is saved?

No, the sign points to  the promises of God that are to be received by faith.  If, by God’s grace, the child grows up to believe, baptism becomes a sign of blessing of the promises of salvation found in Jesus Christ.  Unbelief is a rejection of those promises. While it is the teaching of some that water baptism saves from sin, actually working a new nature in the recipient, this is a grave error.  Many people have a false confidence in the fact that they were baptized, when in fact they are called to trust in Christ alone for salvation.

Did the covenant signs change with the new covenant?

Yes, they became fuller.  The covenant sign was broadened from circumcision to water baptism to encompass females as well as males. Now the signs are unbloody rather than bloody in the case of both sacraments.  But certainly God has not left His church without a sign of covenant initiation for children under the new covenant. That would be totally contrary God’s design of His covenant.

Why should I baptize my baby?

Certainly not because of superstition or tradition or some idea that it in any way saves your child, but only out of concern for God’s design and submission to God’s command to give your children the sign of covenant initiation.  Water baptism is not necessary for salvation, but it is necessary for obedience to our covenant Lord.

Is dedication of babies acceptable instead of baptizing them?

Dedication is not found in the Bible. It is the invention of man to fill the void created by neglect of God’s sacrament of covenant initiation of children born into Christian homes.  

Why sprinkle water instead of immerse in it?

The key factor is the water, as a symbol of the need of God’s cleansing grace realized in Jesus Christ.  Sprinkling was the method of ceremonial cleansing and the sign of the coming of the Spirit in the new covenant.

Selected Bible passages for study:

Genesis 17:9-12; Exodus 12:47-48; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38-39; Acts 16:31-34; Romans 2:28-29; Romans 4:9-13; Galatians 3:17; Colossians 2:11-12; ModeNumbers 8:7; Hebrews 9:10-14; 1 Peter 1:2; Ezekiel 36:25; Acts 2:1-3.