RPM, Volume 16, Number 29, July 13 to July 19, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Doctrine of the Church
The Sacraments
Part 2

Sermon Number Twenty-nine

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.


This sermon is a continuation of our study of the Sacraments of the Church. Previously, I presented an introductory theology of the sacraments. I said that sacraments involve the use of visible material to communicate invisible, or spiritual, truths. I also noted that the meaning of the sacraments is to be gleaned from the Old, as well as the New, Testament. Therefore, I surveyed several passages and then offered a number of observations concerning what the sacraments accomplish and how we should view them.

02. The Sacrament of Baptism

The first matter that I want to address is the meaning of the sacrament of baptism. Before embarking on this study, however, I want to say that when I speak of baptism, I am referring to the application of water, by sprinkling or pouring, to a subject in the name of the Trinity. Since I don't plan to spend time in this sermon on the mode of this sacrament, I wanted to mention this before explaining the meaning of baptism so that there would be no confusion about just what I have in mind.

How should we approach the question of the meaning of baptism? Most would probably suggest that we look at various passages in the New Testament that explain the significance of baptism; some would say that we simply need to examine those verses that tell us under what circumstances baptism was administered and from that we can learn about the meaning of this sacrament.

This sounds like a reasonable method. However, in Covenant Theology, we do not view the New Testament in isolation from the Old Testament; we see the New Testament as a continuation of the revelation of the one plan of God for the redemption of His people and this plan is, of course, first introduced in the Old Testament.

Moreover, we see baptism, fundamentally speaking, as a parallel of the sacrament of circumcision. According to Covenant Theology, circumcision in the Old Testament had the same basic meaning as baptism in the New Testament. These are two sacraments, appointed by God at different times, which were designed to signify the same primary spiritual truths. Therefore, to study baptism alone would be to miss the background of this sacrament, which is recorded in the Old Testament.

An even more serious problem arises if we study baptism in isolation from circumcision. Not only will we fail to appreciate the rich, historical, and redemptive significance of this sacrament, but we also might err in our understanding of its application. What I mean is that without the background of circumcision in the Old Testament, the one who studies baptism in the New Testament might very well come to a wrong conclusion about the subjects of baptism. This is, of course, precisely what happens in non-Reformed theology.

Baptism is studied as though it has no connection with circumcision in meaning or application; therefore, the groundwork for rightly understanding and applying baptism, which is found in the Old Testament, is absent in non-Reformed systems. So, for example, we have the doctrine known as "believer's baptism," the definition of which excludes some who are entitled to the sacrament and thus destroys the wonderful covenantal nature of this sacrament.

My plan is to survey several passages and demonstrate that circumcision and baptism have the same fundamental meaning in the unfolding covenant of grace. Once I have established this fact, I then will move to the matter of who is supposed to receive the sacrament of baptism.

The first passage to consider is found in Gen. 12:

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, to the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. " 4 So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him; and Lot went with him. Now Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

These verses record God's call of Abraham as the father of a new nation. What is important to notice is v. 2: "And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing." Here is the first hint that God intends to do something spectacular through Abraham. Circumcision, which is introduced later in the Biblical record, becomes a sign of faith in this magnificent promise.

At this point, however, all that God reveals to Abraham is His intention to make him great and to multiply his descendants exceedingly and to make him the source of blessing for others. For the time being, no details are given regarding exactly how God's promise will be manifested.

Later, in Gen. 15, we find this record:

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great." 2 And Abram said, "O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 And Abram said, "Since Thou hast given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir." 4 Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir." 5 And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." 6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

In this encounter, Abraham learns a bit more about the nature of the promise made to him by God. Aware that his becoming "a great nation" depended, of course, on his having descendants, Abraham naturally asks God about the fact that he has no male heir. Abraham could only surmise that a male born in his house, that is, the son of one of his servants, would be the one through whom God's promise would be manifested.

However, God assures Abraham that "one who shall come forth from [his] own body" would be his heir; the scope of God's promise, first spoken in Gen. 12, is expanded now when God further promises that childless Abraham would produce a son from his own body. God then restates the original promise to multiply the descendants of Abraham abundantly. Verse six says that Abraham's belief in this word of God was reckoned to him as righteousness. The writer means that Abraham trusted God completely; he believed that God would be God to him and to his descendants. By believing God, Abraham showed faith and his faith was based on what God said, not what he could offer or do himself.

There are two New Testament passages that interpret these encounters between God and Abraham and what they tell us is crucial to a proper understanding of circumcision and, consequently, baptism. The first passage is Rom. 4 where the apostle Paul says that Abraham's belief of God amounted to justifying faith:

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness...

The second passage is found in Gal. 3:

6 Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the nations shall be blessed in you."

What was the substance of those promises made by God to Abraham? What was God talking about? Paul's comments indicate that the covenant established between God and Abraham was concerned with redemption; he says plainly that Abraham heard the gospel and it consisted of God's promise to bless the nations as they responded in faith to God's announcement that He would have them for His people.

This fact, of course, is highly significant when it comes to the matter of the meaning of circumcision. Circumcision, as we are about to learn, was a sign of inclusion in these gospel promises made to Abraham. If these promises in the book of Genesis concerned redemption, as Paul teaches in Rom. 4 and Gal. 3, that means that circumcision is a visible indicator of a spiritual reality, which, in this case, is the saving relationship between God and Abraham and Abraham's seed. And, as we are going to see, baptism now is the outward sign that points to the same spiritual realities.

Before I prove this latter point, however, let me confirm what I've said about circumcision by looking at some verses in Gen. 17. The first part of this chapter contains a restatement of God's intention to bless Abraham and the nations of the earth in him: "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly... behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations... I will make you the father of a multitude of nations... And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you." (cf. vv. 2-6) I've cited the most pertinent statements from the first six verses to show that this is, as I've said, a repetition of what we find in Gen. 12 and 15.

This passage is especially noteworthy for two reasons. First, it includes a specific promise to the seed of Abraham: "I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you." (v. 7) "To be God to you and to your descendants after you" is what God promised Abraham; this is a statement that establishes the covenantal, multi-generational aspect of God's promise of blessing. God specifies a particular line of human beings as those who will walk in fellowship with Him; He obligates Himself to this line of human beings and all that is implied in the statement, "To be God to you and to your descendants after you," belongs to them.

Lest we misunderstand, these descendants are identified by the apostle Paul in Gal. 3: "[I]t is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham" (v. 7); and, "[T]hose who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer" (v. 9). And, at the end of the chapter, he says to his readers: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." (vv. 26-29)

The promises of God to Abraham culminated in the Person and work of the Messiah; Abraham, I think, learned that this would be the manner of fulfillment in the incident involving Isaac on Mount Moriah. It is those who exercise Abraham-like faith in Christ who can claim the promise: "I will be God to you and to your descendants after you." They are the sons of Abraham and, therefore, they are in line to inherit the wonderful covenant promises.

The second reason that the passage in Gen. 17 is noteworthy is because it specifies an outward sign of this wonderful relationship that God established between Himself and Abraham and Abraham's descendants:

9 God said further to Abraham, "Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. 13 A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant."

The restatement of and elaboration upon the covenant promises are followed by an obligation. As a sign of the covenant relationship that God established with Abraham and his descendants, the males under Abraham's authority were to be circumcised. Immediately, therefore, we take note of the representational aspect of this obligation; Abraham represented all the males in his household when he believed God; they, consequently, received this sign of covenant membership.

Notice, too, that this practice was not optional, nor was it limited to Abraham's biological offspring. The Lord said, "Every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised." (v. 12) This, of course, included sons and servants and the sons of servants. This fact certainly stresses the representational, or covenantal, aspect of Abraham's relationship with God. The seriousness of this sacrament is indicated when God says that failure to circumcise amounted to breaking the covenant. One who did not obey the command to circumcise, could not participate in the covenant community.

If we keep in mind Paul's commentary on these events, we have to say that a failure to circumcise constituted a rejection of the gospel. I want to be absolutely clear on this point: God's promise to Abraham was the gospel; what Abraham responded to by faith in Gen. 15:6 was the gospel. The gospel is the declaration that God accepts and blesses sinners in His Son, Jesus Christ. This is, in essence, what God promised to Abraham, according to Paul's inspired commentary; this is the promise we inherit when we exercise Abraham-like faith.

This explains why the failure to circumcise was such a serious matter. Due to what circumcision symbolized, due to the spiritual truths to which it testified, the significance of that sacrament is emphasized by God and impressed upon Abraham in this passage.

In summary, let me say that these passages from Gen. 12, 15 and 17, and the New Testament commentary on them from the apostle Paul, teach that God promised redemption to Abraham and all his descendants who exhibited his faith. For their part, Abraham and his descendants were required to acknowledge what God had promised and their acceptance of what God had promised through the practice of circumcision.

Circumcision was a sacrament that served as an outward, visible sign of invisible, spiritual realities. I would stress that circumcision did not require the consent of the child; it did not require faith on the part of the child. Faith was required by the heads of households and, in that manner, all under the head came within the context of the covenant. Moreover, I want to emphasize that circumcision did not justify, it merely served as a sign. Whether applied to men, boys or infants, circumcision testified to belief in the trustworthiness of God's word; specifically, circumcision testified to a belief in the gospel.

Now we are ready to move to the New Testament and consider the meaning of baptism. I'll begin with the portion of Scripture in Matt. 28 known as the Great Commission:

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

Jesus spoke these words to His disciples prior to His ascension into heaven; they outline the task of His Church. Simply put, the Church is charged with making disciples of Jesus Christ. Disciples are made when the Church preaches the gospel of salvation to sinners and those sinners, by God's marvelous grace, are born again and commence a lifetime of love and service to the Savior. This Great Commission specifies two things that are to be done to and for disciples. They are to be baptized in the name of the Trinity, and they are to be taught the Christian religion. It is the command to baptize that is of interest in our present study.

Please take note of the fact that baptism is an obligation for which the Church is responsible; it is related, as we see in these verses, to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. In this passage, therefore, we have an indication of the meaning of water baptism: it has reference to union (or identification) with Christ. Baptism marks the recipient as belonging to Christ; it signals his relationship with the Savior; its application testifies to the fact that the subject has heard and accepted the gospel.

In his Pentecost Day sermon, Peter declared: "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38) Peter urges those who were listening to repent of their sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. We have to ask the question: What is it that such a baptism would symbolize? The apostle answers that question when he says: "for the forgiveness of your sins."

Baptism, once again, is a sign of union with Jesus Christ in salvation; it is a sign that the subject has heard and accepted the gospel promises. And, just a few verses later, we find: "So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls." (v. 41) This verse shows that water baptism indicated one's acceptance of the gospel and the teachings of the Church. The subject of baptism was admitted into the covenant community of believers and, from that time forward, had claim to the promise of God: "I will be God to you and to your descendants after you."

In regard to baptism, we have seen that water baptism has the same meaning as circumcision. The sacrament of baptism testifies to the same relationship between God and the sinner as circumcision. Isn't it obvious that the promises to which circumcision had reference and those to which baptism has reference are the same? A study of Scripture brings us to the inescapable conclusion that baptism now signifies what circumcision signified in the Old Testament.

In Col. 2:11, 12, Paul writes: "In Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." The apostle teaches that union with Christ, accomplished by regeneration, makes what is symbolized by circumcision a reality. And what is it that, in the New Testament, serves as an indicator of union with Christ? The sign of union with Christ is, of course, water baptism, as we have seen. Water baptism is now the sign of Abraham-like faith in God's gospel promises.

In light of what we've learned about the meaning of baptism, we now can reach a conclusion regarding the subjects of this sacrament. We need not spend too much time on the obvious, which is this: In the passages we considered, the sacrament of baptism was administered to all those who professed acceptance of the gospel promises. Professions of faith were routinely followed by the administration of baptism whereupon the subject was numbered among the covenant community.

About this fact, there is no disagreement. However, Reformed theology teaches a doctrine known as Infant Baptism. This doctrine says that, not only are all who profess faith in Christ to be baptized, but also the infants of those who profess faith in Christ are to be baptized. Where did we get such an idea?

As I begin answering this question, let me remind you that we have seen only one covenant in operation in the Bible, Old and New Testaments. What Abraham heard and expressed belief in was the gospel, according to Paul. The sign of acceptance of God's gospel promises was circumcision in the Old Testament and now is baptism in the New Testament.

We must conclude that, while the signs have changed, the thing signified has not changed. That is, baptism has replaced circumcision, but baptism testifies to the same spiritual realities. And, if we make this conclusion, then what are we going to say about the subjects of baptism? Isn't it true that God commanded Abraham to apply the sign of the covenant to all the males in his household? Isn't it true that this command stood regardless of age or maturity? Isn't it true that there is no New Testament command that abrogates the covenant standing of the children of believers? In fact, didn't Peter declare that the promises announced in the gospel are for us and our children in Acts 2:39? And doesn't the apostle Paul tell us that the children of at least one believing parent are holy before the Lord? (1 Cor. 7:14)

When all this information is considered, when we see one covenant of grace spanning time, and when we see the inclusion of our little ones in this covenant and never find a single verse that indicates that God has revoked their standing, we have to say that the burden of proof is upon the one who wishes to exclude our children from the covenant.

God promised: "I will be God to you and to your descendants after you." Remember the representational aspect of the covenant. Abraham believed and those under his authority were marked with the sign that he believed. His household followed his lead because that is the way God has designed the family. Regardless of age or maturity, Abraham's males received circumcision. They did not have to make a profession of faith. This is how a covenant works!


For our application, I want to offer a few quick comments related to the practical side of the sacrament of baptism. First, let me stress the importance of baptism in the identification of Christians. Baptism serves to mark us, to single us out, so to speak, from the rest of the world. Baptism signifies our entrance into that covenant community, that household of faith, which God began building with our first parents, Adam and Eve.

Down through the centuries, as this community grew and became more obvious in the world and as God's plan of redemption continued to unfold, signs were appointed to distinguish the members of this household from the rest of the world. First, there was circumcision and now there is water baptism. Your baptism is a precious thing; it marks you as belonging to God and it certifies your standing among His people. At appropriate times, you would do well to think about the meaning of your baptism; such a meditation can do nothing but enhance your spiritual life.

Second, I would note that rightly practicing the sacrament of baptism is evidence of certain things. For example, it is evidence of belief in the veracity of God's word. If we are baptized and if we see to it that those under our care are baptized as Scripture teaches, then we are giving testimony to the world that we believe God can be trusted, that we believe God will keep His word and honor all that is signified in this sacrament. The practice of baptism is an act of faith; we express faith in those spiritual realities which are symbolized in the sacrament.

Specifically, we are saying that we believe God did appoint His Son as our Savior and has accepted the payment for sin supplied by His Son and has imputed to us the righteousness of His Son. These are the truths of the gospel and they all are bound up in the sacrament of baptism.

And, of course, the evidence provided by baptism would include our belief in God's promise relative to our little ones. When we baptize our children, it is because we believe God's word: "I will be God to you and to your descendants after you." The baptism of an infant is an act of faith; it is an act that manifests trust in the One who has obligated Himself to parents and their offspring. The baptism of an infant is a statement that we believe God is a covenant-keeping God, that we believe He will bring that child to faith in His time.

You can see easily, of course, how the practice of baptism is evidence of hope for the future. I mean not just hope for ourselves, but hope for our children and their children and their children. What is needed is parents who will acknowledge God's claim on their children and put God's sign of ownership upon their children, parents who then will pray for and teach those children as they grow up in the covenant community. This is what will bring salvation to the nations.

Third, and related to what I've just said, is the observation that baptism is not something that we "give" to our children, it is something that is theirs by right of birth. God is the One who said that the children of the faithful are included in the covenant of grace; He is the one who commanded that the children of the faithful receive the sign of covenant inclusion. Baptism, I say again, is not something we "give" to our children, it is something that God has appointed for them because, in His providence, they have been born to believing parents.




The Table of the Lord belongs to those who have been baptized. It is meant to encourage and sustain you as you walk the way of faith on the earth. Jesus appointed this sacrament during His final meal with His disciples:

Matthew 26: And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" and then Jesus added those closing words that call our attention to the future, to that day of consummation on which we will be united with Him forever: "But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."
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