Does the Abrahamic Covenant Justify Infant Baptism?
Many religious groups practice infant baptism for the salvation of infants, and teach that the practice is scriptural. In fact, “Christian names” came into use as a result of the popularity of infant baptism (Arnold, 1997, p. 40). Others, however, refuse to baptize infants, and teach that infant baptism in unscriptural. Because of contradictory teachings on the issue, it is necessary to examine the arguments traditionally offered by those who defend infant baptism.
Genesis 17:7-8 reads: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.” Proponents of infant baptism often appeal to the implication of Genesis 17:7 that God intended to include children in religion. It follows, say the supporters of infant baptism, that God wants children to be involved in religion, and baptism should initiate their religious activity. Thus, they contend, infants should be baptized.
Baptism, however, is not under consideration in Genesis 17. The passage is an account of the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant—and baptism was not a part of that covenant. Children were to be included in the religion of the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 6:7), and were present in the assembly when the covenant was renewed (see Deuteronomy 29:10-13 and Joshua 8:35) and in other religious assemblies (Joel 2:16). But they had no need to submit to baptism, since baptism was not commanded by Mosaic law. The Abrahamic Covenant is contrasted with the New Testament Covenant in Hebrews 8:8-11:
Because finding fault with them, He says, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be My people” (cf. Jeremiah 31:31ff.).
The Abrahamic Covenant is no longer in effect. [NOTE: The word “everlasting” in Genesis 17:7 does not mean that the covenant would literally last forever, but that it would last for a long time, and that its principles would be foundational for all of God’s relationships with humanity; see Aalders, 1981, p. 308.] It did not include baptism, as the New Testament Covenant does. The Abrahamic Covenant was a fleshly covenant, in that it required all male children to be circumcised (Genesis 17:9-14; see Willis, 1984, pp. 247-48). The New Covenant, however, prescribes purification of the heart—the fulfillment of the spiritual redemption promised to Abraham and David (see Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:20)—instead of fleshly purification of circumcision (Acts 15:9; Galatians 5:2; 6:15). The New Testament emphatically teaches that the ordinance of circumcision has been taken away and is no longer commanded by God (Acts 15:1-24; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6; 6:15; Colossians 3:11), just as many other ordinances of Abrahamic and Mosaic law are no longer in effect (Hebrews 10:1-10; Galatians 3:24-25; see Coffman, 1985, pp. 226-227). Under the Abrahamic and Mosaic law, sins had to be atoned with the blood of bulls and goats, but Christ shed His blood, so now all bloody ordinances are abolished (Hebrews 9:22, 28; see Henry, 1706, 1:112).
Though circumcision did involve children, the similarities between circumcision and baptism are minor, while differences between the two ordinances are significant. J. Burton Coffman noted several such differences:
(1) Circumcision was for males only; Christian baptism is for all Christians. (2) Circumcision was performed on all infants eight days old; Christian baptism, in the scriptural sense, cannot be administered upon any persons whomsoever, except those of accountable age who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, have repented of their sins, and have confessed Christ before men. (3) Circumcision had absolutely no connection whatever with the forgiveness of sins; Christian baptism is for the purpose of receiving the remission of sins. (4) In circumcision, the initiative for the performance of the rite of necessity existed apart from the one circumcised; whereas, in Christian baptism, the Lord said, “Repent and have yourselves baptized” (Acts 2:38), showing that in Christianity, the initiative must derive from the person being baptized. (5) Circumcision had nothing at all to do with Abraham being justified, because that took place before the rite was ever given; however, baptism is a factor in the Christian’s justification, in the sense that he cannot be justified while refusing to submit to it (God had not commanded Abraham to be circumcised prior to his justification; but God has commanded all men of this dispensation to be baptized…) [1985, p. 230, parenthetical comment and emp. in orig.].
Circumcision was a small sign to show that those who followed God lived under a covenant that affected every area of life (see Keil and Delitzsch, 1996, p. 143; Sailhamer, 1990, p. 139), but baptism is more than a sign that Christians will obey God. Even slaves, whether born into the house of Abraham or purchased, were required to be circumcised, whether or not the slave had faith in God (Genesis 17:9-13). But faith is a prerequisite to baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36-37). Also, circumcision has a hygienic value (which motivates some to administer the procedure in modern times; see Armerding and Lewis, 1988, p. 700), while baptism is purely a religious ordinance with no medically beneficial qualities.
Finally, the words “seed” or “descendants,” as used in Genesis 17:7, do not specifically refer to infants, children, or even adults, but denote the generations that would follow Abraham. God never has shunned children (see Leupold, 1942, p. 518). On the contrary, God was merciful to children in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18; see A.P. Staff, 2002), and Christ Himself welcomed children in the New Testament (Mark 10:13-16). However, to allege that the Old Testament somehow sets a precedent for infant baptism in the New Testament is to err. Infant baptism is not authorized in Genesis 17:7, nor in any other Old Testament passage mentioning children or descendants.
Aalders, G.Ch. (1981), Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Armerding, C.E. and Thomas Lewis (1988 reprint), “Circumcision,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. G.W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:700-702.
Arnold, Eberhard (1997), The Early Christians in Their Own Words (Farmington, PA: Plough) fourth edition.
Coffman, James Burton (1985), Commentary on Genesis (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
Henry, Matthew (1706), Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (McLean, VA: MacDonald).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1996 reprint), “Genesis,” Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Leupold, H.C. (1942), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Sailhamer, John H. (1990), “Genesis,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
A.P. Staff (2002), “The Killings of Numbers 31,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/586.
Willis, John T. (1984), “Genesis,” The Living Word Commentary (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).