Breaking the New Covenant


I am a Reformed Baptist. One of my objections to infant baptism is that the new covenant cannot be broken (Jer 31:31-34), and thus that the sign should only be applied to believers. Why do Presbyterians argue that the new covenant can be broken, especially in light of Jeremiah 31:31-34?


That's a very good question. In order to understand how Presbyterians interpret this passage, you must understand how they understand the nature of the new covenant. Specifically, I am referring to the fact that the kingdom of God which was inaugurated by Jesus has not yet reached its full consummation, so that the new covenant has not yet come to its complete fulfillment. To see this more clearly, we really have to look at the Old Testament.

Throughout the Old Testament prophets, there is much said about the future restoration of Israel, the time after their exile, when God would bring them back into the land and restore the nation. They were looking for a Messiah, the anointed one of God, who would lead them into this time. Whenever you read phrases in the Old Testament like "in later days" or "in the last days," they usually refer to the time when Israel would be restored after her exile. In fact, the first time that phrase appears is not in the prophets but in Deuteronomy 4, spoken by Moses. In verses 1-24 he exhorts Israel to obedience. He then warns them that if they become corrupt and turn from the Lord, they will perish from the land they had possessed and will be scattered among the peoples - they will be exiled (vv. 25-28). But after all these things have happened (in exile), if they seek God again with all their heart, then "in later days" they will return to the Lord for the Lord will not abandon them or his covenant promise to them (vv. 29-31; see also 30:1-5).

Sometimes when you come across this term, it seems simply to be speaking of some indefinite future time (e.g. Jer. 48:47; 49:39; Ezekiel 38:16; Dan. 2:28; 10:14). But other times, it is specifically referring to the days of restoration after exile, as spoken of by Moses (Isa. 2:2; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1).

The New Testament looks to the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of this restoration that Moses foretold. Jesus came preaching the message, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near" (Matt. 4:17). He was announcing the time of when the kingdom of God's people would be restored.

Now here's the real kicker - it didn't happen all at once. The Jews were expecting to be freed from Roman rule, and for national restoration to happen all at once. But Jesus came and inaugurated the Kingdom of God in a completely unexpected way. Jesus demonstrated spiritual power, and began to establish a spiritual kingdom, but there was no earthly, national restoration. Even John the Baptist had to ask if Jesus really was the one they had been waiting for. Jesus assured him that he was (Matt. 11:2-6).

The Kingdom that Jesus inaugurated also continues in the church age. Even though we are still on this earth, suffering under the damaging effects of sin in the world, at the same time we are already in the kingdom as the people of God, united to Christ. Some theologians call this paradoxical age we live in the "already/not yet." That explains the fact that the New Testament promises both suffering and joy for the believer.

Finally, when Jesus returns again, the kingdom of God will be consummated. Only then will everything be completely restored, sin and evil banished, and we will be made perfectly holy.

The important thing to note here is that the phrase "last days" in the New Testament is used of the inauguration, continuation, and consummation of our age (see Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2; Jam. 5:3; 1 Pet. 1:5,20; 2 Pet. 3:3; 1 John 2:18).

Now, back to Jeremiah: Jeremiah refers to the last days in your passage (31:31-34) - "The days are coming," declares the Lord in verse 31 (see also 31:27,38; 30:3). Look carefully at his words. Do they describe the age we live in today? I would say no. Verse 34: "No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying 'know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest." Question: Do we still need teachers and preachers? Do we still need to teach our neighbors and brothers to "know the Lord?" Of course we do. But Jeremiah says that the days are coming when we will no longer need to do this. I conclude that those days have not yet arrived - we still need teachers because not all of us in the house of Israel (v. 33) know the Lord. Not yet. That will be true after Jesus returns, when the days of restoration are made complete. Only then will Jeremiah's prophecy be completely fulfilled. But we're not all the way there yet. We won't need teachers then, because everyone in the house of Israel will know the Lord, and when that happens the covenant will never be broken again. But we're not there yet.

This is how the Presbyterians see things: Jeremiah's prophecy does not describe the age we live in today - this strange, unexpected, already/not yet continuation stage. Rather, it describes the consummation stage. The final fulfillment of his prophecy won't take place until the consummation, when Jesus returns. In the mean time, we need teachers because not everyone does know the Lord, and therefore covenant can be - and is - broken.

Let me pose a question: Just because someone professes faith before getting baptized, does that guarantee that he's really saved? No. We all know that adults make false professions of faith and get baptized anyway. Every Baptist preacher knows there are unbelievers sitting in his congregation. But since those people are in the church, they are considered covenant breakers in God's eyes. We're not talking about people losing their salvation; we're talking about unregenerate people who are nonetheless considered to be in covenant. My point is that one cannot, on the basis of Jeremiah 31:31-34, argue that every baptized church member is in fact a believer. There's simply no way to ensure that baptism is given only to believers, even in a Baptist church. Now, most Baptists believe that the intent should be to baptize only professing believers, but that's different.

This idea that the new covenant during the time of continuation, it seems to me, makes the most sense of passages like Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-29. Those are clear warnings against falling away, and they clearly use covenant language. For example, in Hebrews 10:29 we learn that God will severely punish those who treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them. If salvation cannot be lost, whom can this verse possibly describe? It must be someone who, though not a true saint, was yet considered in covenant with God, someone who was "sanctified" or "made holy" by "the blood of the covenant" - it must be an unbeliever in the visible church (regardless whether he was baptized as an infant or as an adult).

Answer by Kent Muhling

Kent Muhling is a missionary currently serving in Japan with Asian Access.