Baptism, Continuity and Individualism
From the beginning of creation the Lord has had his people and He has related to them along family lines. This is both striking and instructive. An amazing picture of this is seen in God’s ordering of the family line from Adam to Abraham. Consider this brief summary:
- Adam talked with his son Seth for 800 years;
- from Seth’s line Methusaleh was born when Adam was still alive and Methusaleh talked with Adam for 243 years;
- Noah was born from the line of Methusaleh and Noah talked with Methusaleh for some 600 years;
- Noah’s son, Shem talked with Methusaleh for about 100 years;
- the flood then came that same year that Methusaleh died;
- the human race began again after the flood through the three sons of Noah and their wives;
- it is from Shem’s line that Abraham came and Shem’s life overlapped Abram’s life for some 150 years, which means Shem also overlapped Isaac’s life by 50 years.
We see very clear, solid family ties reaching all the way from Abraham back to Adam.
With Abraham God introduced a change—He pronounced covenantal promises and then introduced the covenantal sign of circumcision (Gen.17). The context where this is done in Genesis doesn’t allow us to regard the sign as something to mark ethnic identity. The sign’s purpose was not merely a racial or cultural marker, but first and foremost a sign of God’s covenant—it was supremely religious and relational. The sign was inseparable from God’s relationship with His visible people.
Why a sign now?
It is appropriate to ask why God only introduced this covenantal sign at this stage, seeing that He had had His called out people since Adam. Many people argue that the sign is a marker of ethnic distinctiveness because it hadn’t been established with Adam and the families leading up to Abraham. However, there is a reason that circumcision was introduced by God when He did and it makes perfect sense. We learn the reason from what God said to Abraham. He said, “My covenant is with you and you shall be a father of many nations” (Gen.17:3). The term “many nations” is important, clearly showing that worldwide expansion was in God’s sights. The Lord then went on and explained what the sign of this covenant would be: “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Gen.17:10-11).
The sign, therefore, became necessary due to the broadening of God’s work. It was expanded from a direct and easily traceable or identifiable family line, to nations throughout the whole world. The visible body of God’s people, up until Abraham, was easily distinguished by direct family lineage. There were only a few steps in the family line from Adam to Abraham, but the Lord was making it known that His people were going to cover the whole earth—as the stars of heaven and as the sand on the sea shore. God’s people would be from every tribe and nation. The Lord in His wisdom and sovereign ordering said that His visible people would be marked and so He separated and distinguished them from those who were not part of His visible covenant community. Ethnicity was never the determining factor in God’s dealings, as the line of Christ so clearly reveals, with Gentiles named in His direct lineage. It was always through the covenant and in accordance with the covenant distinctives that God moved and worked His Kingdom work.
So in the Older Testament days God established a covenant community. This was a visible people whom He preserved and instructed in His ways and who were the recipients of His special revelation. He marked this visible body as His own and He held them accountable to all that He had revealed to them. They were to be His special people and serve Him and be a light to the world, testifying to the salvation, wisdom and glory of the only true God. The beginning emphasis remained however, namely, that integral to God’s working and covenant was the family and thus the Lord applied the covenant sign to the whole household through the representative head of the household. The covenant sign wasn’t just meant for those who believed in God. While we know Abraham believed prior to receiving the sign of circumcision, the criteria for his household to receive the sign arose from his standing in the covenant. God revealed that the covenant sign was rightly applied to those who were legally connected to Abraham’s household and thus under his jurisdiction. People might not like how God ordained His covenant to function in this visible realm, but what people cannot do, is deny that this is how it functioned. If you are amongst those who find fault with how the covenant works, then you issue is with God.
Households, not atomistic individuals
What Scripture shows is that the visible community of God, according to His ordering, is marked and set apart unto Him. It is God who wants to mark His visible body and so He puts a sign upon them and the way He instituted this reveals how He regards households. The primary component in God’s visible body on the earth has to do with representation, which means the heart of God’s visible community has to do with households not atomistic individuals. This is how God ordained to work in this world—He made family central to His Kingdom purposes. We should regard it as significant and weighty that from the beginning up to Abraham (and beyond), the emphasis of Scripture is upon the centrality and significance of the family. When we look at God’s dealing with mankind from Adam to Abraham it inescapably clear that God’s emphasis is upon working through and with families. God’s covenant is deliberately tied to the structure of the family unit whereby covenantal blessings and responsibilities fall upon the household members because of the head of the household.
If people fail to recognize that God deals with His people in terms of the covenant, which means the family unit is a fundamental aspect of His working, then they will identify the Kingdom with atomistic individuals and adopt an unbiblical view of spirituality. It is the covenant, as God has revealed it, that keeps our feet on the ground, that is, in the dusty reality of this life. Individuality and false spirituality are closer to the monastic idea of spirituality which adopts irrelevant vows and withdraws from meaningful life. The monastery embraced a dualistic view of life and divided it into two realms: a so-called spiritual realm and an earthly unimportant realm and their focus was upon the “spiritual” realm. The real danger with such thinking is that people confine the Kingdom of God to the spiritual or eternal realm and despise the dusty, mundane, earthy aspects of our existence. They exalt the spiritual, eternal, invisible aspects of the Kingdom at the expense of the earthy, temporal, visible aspects.
It is the covenant that keeps both aspects before our eyes and shows that both the invisible and visible aspects of God’s Kingdom are included in the outworking of His eternal plan. It is a misunderstanding to think external signs testify to an individual’s eternal standing in the Kingdom. God’s Kingdom plan is bigger, more complex and more encompassing than just the eternal aspect. What is clear from Scripture is that not all of those numbered amongst the visible people of God were eternally saved or numbered in the invisible community of believers. Yet, what is inescapable is that the whole visible community was governed by the same covenantal terms and they received the same blessings, promises, sign, threats, etc. The whole visible body was subjected to the same covenantal terms under God and He expected them to be conformed to His will and do it all.
This picture is consistently seen throughout Scripture, for example, consider the visible body that was delivered out of Egyptian bondage. Was God carrying out His Kingdom purposes through that visible body? Absolutely! Why were they delivered from Egypt? Because they were God’s visible people who were in covenant relationship with Him. They all ate of the manna (the bread from heaven); they all drank from the Rock that followed them and that Rock was Christ; they all received God’s protection from Pharaoh’s army and passed through the sea (Paul says that by this they were baptized into Moses, that is, became disciples of his teaching); and they were all comforted and led by the cloud and the pillar of fire and yet despite all these many special blessings, not all obtained eternal life (1 Cor.10:1-5).
We have to understand the covenant and God’s dealing with His people in the light of such testimony. We must realize that it was through that visible body which was delivered from Egypt that God’s eternal plans were being worked out. They were a mixed multitude in the eternal sense (consisting of eternally lost and saved people). Yet, God makes it clear that His Kingdom purposes are worked out in this realm through a visible body who are all bound by the terms of His covenant and marked or set apart by Him for this purpose. There was a real and detailed covenantal relationship between God and that visible body. When we think about God’s Kingdom work, Scripture will not allow us to restrict that work to only the invisible aspect. God is not merely working with saved souls. The Kingdom work moves along according to the covenant, not atomistic individuals. The Kingdom is not just about the invisible realm, it has much to do with this earthy, visible realm and God relates to this visible aspect of His Kingdom in terms of the covenant. Throughout the whole Older Testament era the Lord delivered, preserved, blessed, judged and restored His visible covenant body. He related to them in a unique way compared to the surrounding nations; He called them His special people and He expected them to act according to His stipulations.
God’s covenant with His visible people did not merely rest upon invisible criteria. That is, upon criteria that is beyond man’s ability to observe. True faith falls into the invisible realm. Only God knows who has true faith in the ultimate sense. We have some indicators in this visible realm that show us that true faith probably exists in someone else, namely because they have a true profession and an obedient life, but ultimately, only God knows who is truly saved. But the fact that we do not have absolute assurance about the standing of others, does not remove them from being part of the real working of God’s Kingdom in the visible realm. The way God works in the visible realm is according to the covenant: visible criteria and structures of authority along with relationships of representation. God doesn’t allow us to define His Kingdom work in terms of invisible criteria; He doesn’t allow us to define His visible church or body by invisible criteria—or insist upon invisible criteria. The covenant is revealed to us in the context of very visible things, thus, we must bring out thinking about God’s visible body into line with God’s revelation on the matter. The covenant calls us to have true faith and it speaks about eternal things that we cannot yet fully partake of, nevertheless, it does not call us to function in God’s visible body according to invisible criteria. Rather, it calls us to function in terms of very visible, covenantal principles, jurisdictions, representations, boundaries, relationships and obligations. And one of the most basic covenantal principles in the visible realm of God’s Kingdom is the covenantal nature of the family unit. The family unit is the most important integer or component in God’s visible covenant community, the church and it is the most basic and important component in society. Thus, when we think about the family unit, we must think God’s thoughts after Him and understand it in terms of His covenant.
Family and covenant
When children were born into, or a slave was brought into the household of a covenant member, that child or slave became a covenant member and was identified with that covenant. That infant or slave then came under the blessings, promises, expectations and judgments of the covenant—they became full members in and accountable to that covenant, though might have been without true saving faith. God made this very clear when He explained the covenant details to Abraham and said, “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” (Gen.17:7). This applied to both children and slaves, for God continued, “He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Gen.17:13-14).
What we have looked at is enough to establish the existence of God’s covenant people or community in the Older Testament era. We have seen that God related to them in terms of covenantal blessings, curses, obligations and signs? His visible community was marked out as His and the terms of the covenant determined all of His dealings with them throughout this era.
The Newer Testament and covenant
When we come to the Newer Testament we see that it was according to the same covenantal terms that Christ was promised and it was in conformity to the covenant that Christ came. He submitted Himself to all the details and demands that were specified in that covenant, including receiving the Older Testament sign of covenant membership—He was circumcised on the eighth day. Christ accomplished all His work of redemption in accordance with God’s demands. Then on the day when the official Newer Testament church came into being (on the day of Pentecost), Peter, preaching to the crowd said, “For 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’” (Acts 2:39).
Here, right at the beginning, we are struck with an already well known Older Covenant theme, namely, that the covenant included households. We are reminded of this already long established fact that God’s Kingdom work is carried out through a visible, set apart body, whose most basic component was not the atomistic individual, but the household. Peter confirmed the Biblical picture of God’s covenantal body, whereas the modern idea is to think about the Kingdom in atomistic, individualistic terms. Modern man wants to restrict the extent of God’s Kingdom work and thus, restrict the covenant members, to only saved individuals who have come to personal saving faith. This view refuses to think about the work of the Kingdom other than in this restricted sense. It equates the visible body with the invisible and thus forces the Scriptures into this configuration claiming that God’s work only flows through those who are part of the invisible body of Christ. God’s covenant, however, has never been restricted to the notion of individualism in this modern sense, nor to merely the invisible aspect of His body.
To challenge the modern emphasis upon individualism is regarded as an assault upon the very foundations of civilized existence—it is seen as an assault upon freedom itself. Modern man has on a pair of glasses that are colored by the dogma of individualism and he tries to conform all things to this absolute ideal. Such thinking has impacted the thinking of believers too and thus when they read the Newer Testament they interpret it through the lens of atomistic individualism, namely, that God’s Kingdom work is confined to those individual’s who have saving faith. Which means a person’s significance and purpose in God’s Kingdom is defined independently of the family unit and visible community: the individual is made the most basic component of God’s covenantal working in this world. Due to this distorted perception of God’s Kingdom and work, they tend to exalt only one dimension of that work, namely, the eternal aspect. This perspective blinds them to something that is shown to be vitally important throughout Scripture, namely, the crucial aspect of God’s visible covenant people. The only covenant that is thought to exist, is that which has to do with the eternal state of men, whereas God’s covenant includes Him working with both the visible and invisible realms. God’s covenant is as real and relevant in the visible realm as it is in the invisible realm. But while we look for that eternal city, we are to live in this visible realm according to God’s covenant principles for this visible realm.
Thus, continuity is presumed between the Testaments, which means that unless God clearly shows that the way He now deals with His visible body has changed from Older Testament times, then the presumption is to be that it has not changed. Moreover, it is utterly impossible to understand the meaning of covenant other than in the light of the Older Testament revelation on this subject. So, unless we presume continuity with respect to God’s covenantal dealings with His people, then we can make the term “covenant” in the Newer Testament mean anything we choose, but this would be wrong. It is from the Older Testament that we ought to understand the covenant that God has with His visible body. Thus, when we come to Acts 2 where Peter is speaking to people seeped in God’s Older Testament revelation, and he talks about households sharing in these wonderful promises, how were they to understand him? I assure you they did not view the covenant in atomistic, individualistic terms. On the other hand, Paul had to explain to the Corithians something that didn’t come naturally to the Gentile mind, namely, that if one parent in the household was a believer, then the children were holy (1 Cor.7:14). Did Paul mean saved. No, he meant that they were in the visible covenant of God—separated unto the Lord by virtue of the fact that one of their parents was in the covenant.
Both circumcision and baptism talk about the need to be cleansed from the filthiness of the flesh and Paul uses circumcision and baptism like this in the same sentence (Col.2:11-12). There can be no doubt as to the religious meaning behind circumcision or baptism, both talk about our need to be cleansed and washed because our natural state is one of being dirty. They present the same picture and proclaim the same solution for man’s problem and they are both are types or pictures teaching that the only way to be cleansed is through faith in Christ’s work completed on our behalf (Deut.30:6; Phil.3:3; Titus 3:5).
Circumcision is clearly brought to an end in the Newer Testament, fundamentally because all the blood that needs to be shed for our redemption has been shed by Christ and thus there is to be no more religious shedding of blood. Also, in the Older Testament, the male had the role of being a priestly representative for the women and thus his blood, shed through circumcision, covered for the women, thus women did not need to be circumcised or marked. This priestly function from the atonement side has been completely fulfilled in Christ, our Great High Priest and thus the ceremonial or cultic distinctions between men and women are no longer in force (1 Pet.2;5,9; Rev.1:6; 5:10). Therefore, Paul taught there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female for we are all made one in our Great High Priest (more could be said about this ceremonial distinction between men and women in the Older Testament). Thus, the sign of the Newer Covenant, which is baptism, is applied to both males and females, confirming the fact that the ceremonial distinctions have been fulfilled by Christ. As a caution though, when Paul says that there is no longer male or female (Gal.3:28), he is not implying that God’s covenantal authority structures have changed, since he clearly enforces these elsewhere (1 Timothy 2:8-15 and Titus 2:5).
Baptism and the visible realm
As the NT church was born they were told about the need to believe in Christ and be baptized. It is a misunderstanding to connect the act of baptism in this context to the invisible realm. It is the influence of atomistic individualism that causes people to do this. God’s covenant dealings are inseparable from His working with His visible covenant community. Thus, how are we to understand what this covenant community looks like and how it functions? We can only know in the light of the whole of God’s revelation on this matter. To merely start with the Newer Testament in order to understand God’s covenant community makes it impossible to arrive at a Biblical understanding of God’s visible body and Kingdom work through them. God has not changed the fact that He works through a visible body in this earth and that that visible body is connected by His covenant terms and defined by His covenant stipulations. Thus, when we read about the apostles baptizing people and their households (Lydia and here household were baptized and the Philippian jailer and his family were baptized, Acts 16:15,33), the way we honor Scripture is to presume that there is continuity with the bulk of revelation in the Older Testament about God’s visible people and their families. Why should we presume otherwise? On what Scriptural authority can people claim change? When this change is claimed, what is presumed, without proof, is an automatic discontinuity between the Testaments. However, to presume that God changed direction in the way He defined His visible church and how the covenant relates to the family unit, without clear Biblical explanation of this change, destroys the authority of Scripture. Those who do this are actually allowing man to radically redefine the visible body of Christ and His relationship to the covenantal family unit, without any basis in Scripture for doing so.
When the NT tells people to believe and be baptized, it is emphasizing God’s dealings on two different levels, namely, the visible and the invisible. While baptism talks about the need to be washed from our sins by believing in Christ’s completed work, it is also clearly marking Christ’s visible body. A body that His Kingdom work is carried out through and the most basic components in that visible body are family units. It is God who puts His mark upon His people who stand related to Him through His covenant. We do not believe that the mark equals salvation, it does not. It talks to the need of salvation, but primarily it is the mark of God’s covenant. That is what we teach our children and whenever a child is baptized everyone witnessing the baptism is once again challenged by the fact that they too were baptized.
Baptism marks people as being in God’s covenant community. They have been set apart unto His service and are accountable to live in terms of His covenant. There is no other Biblical basis for holding our children accountable to the moral requirements of the Lord, unless they are numbered of God’s covenant community and marked out by the Lord. That is why we teach them not to lie; why they should obey their parents; why they should be respectful to their elders; why they should attend worship and listen to the preached word; it is why we encourage them to read the Bibles and pray. It is because they are in the covenant by virtue of the fact we, their parents, are in the covenant and through our faith, the Lord includes them in His visible community. It is God who made a visible sign for His visible community. The family forever remains the most basic integer in God’s covenantal Kingdom. We are not baptized into an atomistic existence but into God’s visible community, of which the family unit is the bedrock. This is a glorious message and has wonderful promises for both us and our children.
Each time there is a baptism we ought to remind our own children about who they are in God’s covenant community. They are marked out by God for His service and thus they are to be reminded what it means to be a child of the covenant. It is through this visible, covenant community that the Lord has ordained to carry out His Kingdom purposes and He has called us as families to work together in this high calling. What glorious promises and what an amazing plan! I challenge you to understand the Kingdom, the covenant and baptism in the light of the whole of Scripture, where the emphasis is clearly that God works through His visible covenant community, where the most basic unit in this community is the covenantal family, not the atomistic individual.