A weighty argument for believers baptism as the sign of faith in the New Covenant!


A weighty argument for believers baptism as the sign of faith for the New Covenant! The following are points number 4, 5 & 6 under the heading, “The Newness of the New Covenant and the Nature of the Church” in the chapter by Stephen Wellum, “Relationship between the Covenants” found in the book “Believers Baptism” edited and compiled by Tom Schreiner (New American Commentary Studies in Bible and Theology)

4. When does this “new covenant” begin? The NT is clear: it was inaugurated and ratified by the sacrificial death of Christ (Luke 22:20; cp. 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:7–18). Hebrews unambiguously applies Jeremiah to the church (Heb 8–10). As D. A. Carson notes, this means that whatever complex relationships obtain between Israel and the church, at least, in this context, it is a typological connection since the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah is made to “the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (v. 31) Hebrews establishes the reality of the new covenant in the church without any hint that the full establishment of a regenerate community is yet future. No doubt, we still await the “not yet” aspects of our redemption, but this does not entail that the community is not “already” a regenerate people. The perfect passive use of the verb in Hebrews 8:6—he “has enacted”—emphasizes the completed action even though the full ramifications may be future. As White rightly comments, “There is nothing in the text that would lead us to believe that the full establishment of this covenant is yet future, for such would destroy the present apologetic concern of the author; likewise, he will complete his citation of Jer. 31 by asserting the obsolete nature of the first covenant, which leaves one to have to theorize, without textual basis, about some kind of intermediate covenantal state if one does not accept the full establishment of the New Covenant as seen in the term.” In fact, one cannot understand the argument of Hebrews without seeing that what Jeremiah anticipated has now come to pass in the church. In Christ's coming, the new age is here, the Spirit has been poured out on the entire community, and we now experience our adoption as sons including the full forgiveness of sin (see Rom 8), even though we long for the end.

5. Everything that has been stated regarding the new covenant is also supported in the NT's instruction regarding the nature of the church. Once again, I do not dispute that Scripture teaches that there is only one people of God throughout the ages. However, what is at debate is whether the nature of the covenant community changes in Christ, specifically whether the church is a “mixed” community like Israel of old. As with the previous discussion, whole books have been written on this subject, so the discussion here is necessarily abbreviated. But the crucial point to note in regard to baptism is that the NT church everywhere is viewed as a regenerate, believing community. As Jeremiah anticipated and the NT proclaims, the people of the new covenant are all those who have the law written on their hearts, all of whom know the Lord salvifically, for all of them have experienced the forgiveness of sin. Unlike Israel of old, the locus of the covenant community and the locus of the redeemed is one in the new covenant. What has brought about this change? Ultimately the answer is rooted in Christology. The person and work of Jesus, the new covenant head, requires a change. As we progress across the canon, we move from type to antitype, from covenant heads such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David to Christ; and with Christ, we have change. This is the reason why it is not correct to view the church, as paedobaptists do, as simply the replacement of Israel, a kind of “renewed” instantiation of it. Rather the church is new. Because of her identification with Christ, the head of the new creation, she is a “new man” (Eph 2:11–22). This is why the church is identified with the “age to come” and not the structures of the old era, or what have been called “this present age.” This is why the church is viewed as the community empowered by the Spirit in which all have been born of the Spirit. In fact, this is why the church is described as an eschatological and “gathered” (ekklsia) community. In this regard, the church as identified with the “age to come” is an illustration of the running tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” It is the “gathered” people of God in a singular sense—“the church” (Col 1:18; cp. Heb 12:22–24)—because even now Christians participate in the heavenly, eschatological church of Christ as the beginnings of the new creation. As Carson reminds us, what this entails for our understanding of the church is that, “each local church is not seen primarily as one member parallel to a lot of other member churches, together constituting one body, one church; nor is each local church seen as the body of Christ parallel to other earthly churches that are also the body of Christ—as if Christ had many bodies. Rather, each church is the full manifestation in space and time of the one, true, heavenly, eschatological, new covenant church. Local churches should see themselves as outcroppings of heaven, analogies of “the Jerusalem that is above,” indeed colonies of the new Jerusalem, providing on earth a corporate and visible expression of “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” But if this is so, then what is crucial to note is that this understanding of the church presupposes that it is a regenerate community—a community in faith union with Christ, born of his Spirit, those who have been raised and seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Eph. 2:5–6; Col 2:12–13; 3: 3). It is unpersuasive to think of the church as a mixed entity. As Carson rightly notes, if this biblical and theological understanding of the church is basically right, “then the ancient contrast between the church visible and the church invisible, a contrast that has nurtured not a little ecclesiology, is either fundamentally mistaken, or at best of marginal importance.” Why? Because the NT views the church as a heavenly (i.e., tied to the “age to come” and the new creation, not “in Adam” but “in Christ”) and spiritual community (i.e., born of and empowered by the Spirit in faith union with Christ), living her life out now while she awaits the consummation, literally “the outcropping of the heavenly assembly gathered in the Jerusalem that is above.” All this understanding of the church is basic NT ecclesiology. And all of it is true because Christ Jesus has come and through his cross work has inaugurated the new covenant age. He, as the fulfillment of Adam, Abraham, Israel, and David, has brought covenantal and epochal change. And we, as the new covenant people of God, receive the benefits of his work in only one way—through individual repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. By God's grace and power we are then transferred from being “in Adam” to being “in Christ” with all the benefits of that union. And the NT is clear: to be “in Christ” and thus in the new covenant, a member of his gathered people (church), means that one is a regenerate believer. The NT knows nothing of one who is “in Christ” who is not regenerate, effectually called of the Father, born of the Spirit, justified, holy, and awaiting glorification.

6. Given what has been stated, Baptists insist that the covenant sign of the new covenant age, namely baptism, must only be applied to those who have repented of their sins and believed in Christ. This is precisely the pattern we find in the NT. In fact, as other chapters in this book have argued, the most fundamental meaning of baptism is that it signifies a believer's union with Christ, by grace through faith, and all the benefits that are entailed by that union. It is for this reason that, throughout the NT, baptism is regarded as an outward sign that a believer has entered into the realities of the new covenant that Jesus sealed with his own blood on the cross. J. I. Packer captures this point well when he writes, “Christian baptism … is a sign from God that signifies inward cleansing and remission of sins (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 5:25–27), Spirit-wrought regeneration and new life (Titus 3:5), and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as God's seal testifying and guaranteeing that one will be kept safe in Christ forever (1 Cor 12:13; Eph 1:13–14). Baptism carries these meanings because first and fundamentally it signifies union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:3–7; Col 2:11–12); and this union with Christ is the source of every element in our salvation (1 John 5:11–12). Receiving the sign in faith assures the persons baptized that God's gift of new life in Christ is freely given to them.” In fact, so close is the association between baptism and new covenant blessings in Christ that in the NT baptism “functions as shorthand for the conversion experience as a whole.” Evidence for this is quite apparent. For example, in Gal 3:26–27, Paul can say, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ.” The language of being “clothed” with Christ refers to our union with him. But what is interesting about Paul's statement is how Paul can ascribe union with Christ both to faith (v. 26) and to baptism (v. 27). How can Paul do this? Does he have in mind an ex opere operato view of baptism? No, he is not referring to those who have been baptized but have not believed; that would go against the clear statement of v. 26. Rather, he is referring to those who have been converted: all such have clothed themselves with Christ and have been united with him through faith. Thus, baptism, by metonymy, can stand for conversion and signify, as an outward sign, that a believer has entered into the realities of the new covenant as a result of his union with Christ through faith. We find something similar in Rom 6:1–4, where Paul sees the initiation rite of baptism as uniting the believer to Jesus Christ in the redemptive acts of his death, burial, and resurrection. In this text Paul is not primarily giving a theological explanation of the nature of baptism, but rather unpacking the significance of baptism for the Christian life. Paul is deeply concerned to rebut the charge that the believer may “remain in sin” in order to underscore grace. Accordingly he uses the language of “realm transfer” to show how inconceivable this suggestion really is. Christians, Paul affirms, have “died to sin” (v. 2b). We have been transferred from the realm of Adam (sin) to the realm of Christ (life, resurrection, grace), and as such, it is quite impossible for us to still live in sin; its power in us has been decisively broken due to our union with Christ in his death. When did this realm transfer, this “death to sin,” take place? Significantly in vv. 3–4 Paul connects “death to sin” with our baptism, meaning that when we were “baptized into Christ Jesus” we were “baptized into his death” (v. 3). We have died to sin because we have become one with the Lord who died and rose for the conquest of sin and death. Furthermore, “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … we too may live a new life” (v. 4). In this sense, then, baptism serves as the instrument by which we are united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Once again, Paul's point is not to say that the practice of baptism itself unites us to Christ. Rather, as in Galatians 3:26–27, baptism functions as shorthand for the whole conversion experience. Thus, Douglas Moo is right in concluding that “just as faith is always assumed to lead to baptism, so baptism always assumes faith for its validity. In vv. 3–4, then, we can assume that baptism stands for the whole conversion-initiation experience, presupposing faith and the gift of the Spirit.” In truth, if we understand Paul's argument, it is not baptism which is the primary focus at all; rather, the redemptive events themselves are what Paul is stressing. Baptism is only introduced to demonstrate that we were united with Christ in his redemptive work, and now all the new covenant blessings that our Lord has secured for us are ours by virtue of our relationship with him. As Beasley-Murray states, “Through the faith expressed in baptism, what was done outside of us (extra nos) becomes effective faith within us. In Christ we are the reconciled children of God.” Other texts could be multiplied to make this same point, but suffice it to say that in the NT baptism is so closely linked with the gospel itself that it is not enough to say that baptism is merely a symbol. Instead, in the words of Beasley-Murray, it is also a “divine-human event.” One must not think of this either as ex opere operato or as implying the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. The NT is clear: the benefits that come to us in baptism are tied to faith and faith alone. That is why faith and baptism do not enjoy the same logical status of necessity. But with that said, it is significant that Scripture links all the gracious benefits of the believer's being united to Christ with water baptism. But if this is so, we cannot conceive how the new covenant sign of baptism may be applied to anyone who does not have faith.


© 2014 by CORAM DEO MISSIONS

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