The burning question, then, is the one which is also asked by the advocate of this view: do we have a reasonable justification – or an express warrant, if you want to be a hard-nose – to say that the way God hands down the covenant has changed from the old to the new?Good thing it wasn't Friday, because I am sure some people would have taken the easy way out rather than take their chances as to whether I would actually answer that question after the weekend – something I am well-known not to do either because I am busy doing other things on the weekend, or because I string my readers along in order to get them to come back and read my drivel.
So has it changed? Well, the real question is "has what changed? And if so, in what way? And is that relevant?"
In the comments, one of our wily readers has alleged that the covenants are like chapters in a book, and in order to understand them properly you must understand them all as progressive revelation. In that, the "New Covenant" is better because it is more-complete revelation than the old covenants. That's an interesting theory, but it is also not actually founded on Scripture, is it? For example, is the Law a better covenant than the Abrahamic covenant? Scripture doesn't say so. However, it does say the New Covenant is better that the old covenant (the Law in particular) – and not merely because all the plot complications have been fleshed out or all the characters have been introduced.
There is a reason that the New Covenant is called "new", and it is not merely because it is the next one – like the "New" International Version, and then "Today's" New International Version (and what's the next one going to be? The Today's "Revised" New International Version? Sheesh!). The Book of Hebrews says this:
- 8:6But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
8For he finds fault with them when he says:
"Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,
9not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
11And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
12For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more."
13In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (ESV)
So in what way is it different? The writer of Hebrews says it is different because it is faultless -- if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. It is also cannot be broken because of transgression -- I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. There are other characteristics of this new covenant, but the last I want to highlight here is that the executor of the new covenant is God Himself -- I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
So the New Covenant is better than the old; the difference is relevant to those who are inside the New Covenant. But is the New Covenant handed down or handed off in a different way than the old? For example, the old covenant was "handed off" to male children on the 8th day with their circumcision. Is the New Covenant handed off by a ceremony, particularly through baptism?
Ironically, I would say "yes" and "no". I would say "yes" in this respect: we can make a fair assumption that those who are rightly baptized are participating in the New Covenant externally, demonstrating the work of that new covenant in them.
Well, what does that mean exactly? Anyone who has read this blog for more than a couple of days knows I love definitions when we are talking about theology, so I'd like to propose that Scripture defines baptism specifically at least once – and if someone has another definition from Scripture, I'd be willing to look at it. The definition I'm going to propose here is this:
- 1Pet 3: 18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
In the second place, Peter demonstrates a type of this in the Ark: some are delivered to life as many are delivered to death. But then Baptism "now saves you". Who is "you"? It is the people Peter was writing to, which are " those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood". Very bracing stuff for us Calvinists, no doubt.
But in what way does Baptism "save"? This is the definition of baptism which I think we must abide by if we are to abide by any at all: "Baptism now saves you not by a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through Jesus Christ." Think on that: Peter is defining baptism not as the washing of the body per se, but instead as the appeal to God for a clean conscience through what Christ has done.
What Peter is not doing here is saying, "you don't have to use water in baptism." Clearly he is referencing the act of baptism – the washing of water – through the type of the Ark, and by explicitly speaking of the ordinance. But what Peter is also doing is explicitly saying, "if you go into the water and come out fresh as new laundry, you haven't been baptized – you go into the water to appeal for a clean conscience and forgiveness of sin through Christ's work."
And it is in that "yes" that I also answer "no, the New Covenant is not handed off in baptism". It seems to me that Peter here says that you go into the water because you are making a confession of faith in Jesus Christ. We can construct a hundred other theological Rube Goldberg machines to say, "well, the Jews let their kids into the old covenant," or "God makes a lot of promises to families in the Bible," or "we're making the doors of the visible church a lot more narrow than the doors of the universal church". When it comes down to the tale of the tape, there is an overt definition of baptism in the NT which we cannot ignore. And that definition is explicit in its criterion that baptism is an active petition for forgiveness. It's hard to justify infant baptism in that light.
There's not much else to say about that. If we can agree that this is a seminal definition of baptism, then we can agree what baptism ought to be. The rest of the argument – like the charge that we are somehow "excluding" our children from the covenant – is hyperbole at best. Man does not have the power to exclude or include anyone in the New Covenant – and anyone who says he does needs to think about what he is saying.