I’m reading through John Piper’s very fine Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, and have come to his chapter on baptism. The pastoral thrust of this chapter is very good: “I think we need to teach our people the meaning of baptism and obey the Lord’s command to baptize converts (Matt. 28:19), without elevating the doctrine to a primary one that would unduly cut us off from shared worship and ministry with others who share more important things with us.”
Amen. One way we do this at our church is through a cooperation agreement whereby we perform both credo and paedo baptisms, and no one is allowed to throw food when it takes place. On occasion both are even performed in the same service. While wanting to cooperate and fellowship as a church, we also want to strive for like-mindedness, which is different than agreeing to disagree. We agree to love one another while pursuing the truth. So not only does our doctrine of baptism not cut us off from fellowship with other churches, we embrace this secondary difference within our own ranks.
And it’s in that spirit I can take issue with Piper’s view of baptism. He notes that baptism has some continuity with circumcision in the Old Testament, but insists that we take both right amount of continuity and the right amount of discontinuity. Presbyterians, he maintains, undervalue discontinuity. “The continuity is expressed like this: Just as circumcision was administered to a the physical sons of Abraham who made up the physical Israel, so baptism should be administered to all the spiritual sons of Abraham who make up the spiritual Israel, the church.” Now it’s true that Abraham’s physical descendants received the sign of circumcision. But is that all? No, his whole house did: “those born in his house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him” (Gen. 17:27). Abraham had an army of trained men and likely well over 1000 people in his “house.” So circumcision wasn’t for just the physical descendants of Abraham, and Abraham is not the father of physical descent. He is the father of faith and those who bore the outward sign were always supposed to have the inner counterpart: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). Of course there were outward, physical “sons” of Abraham who lacked faith, just as there are outward baptized “sons” of Christ who lack faith. You can dress up like a policeman and still not be one, but the problem is with you and not the uniform.
Piper sees discontinuity where the New Testament sees continuity. Or, perhaps better, he sees “how much less” when the New Testament says “how much more.” Circumcision was a sign of the covenant, a badge of faith (repentance and belief) given to Abraham and all of his household. Are the promises to Christian parents in the New Testament greater or lesser than in the Old? Greater. The contrast is not between merely physical sons of Abraham and spiritual sons of Christ, but of spiritual sons of Abraham and more spiritual, and more in number, sons of Christ: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). The new heavens and new earth, this side of the second coming when men still die (Is. 65:20), is when “They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth children for trouble; for they shall be the descendants of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them” (Is. 65:23).
Circumcision was a sign of covenant faith in the Old Testament, given to infants. Baptism is a sign of faith in the New Testament, given in a fuller time of the Spirit.