The New Testament teaches that Gentiles are now partakers in the covenants of promise (Ephesians 2:12-13) that were formerly exclusive to the nation of Israel. One of those promises is that God will be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee (Genesis 17:7); and this promise is explicitly repeated in the New Testament, the promise is unto you, and to your children (Acts 2:39). This forms the theological basis for infant baptism.
After the fall of man, which brought the curse and death into the world, God established a covenant of grace. This covenant of grace is not based upon man’s obedience, but solely upon God’s grace. In the promise of salvation, God told the serpent and the woman, And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15). There in Genesis 3:15 Christ is promised to come and crush the head of the serpent. This covenant of grace is administered throughout all of Scripture, under various administrations. The Westminster Larger Catechism expounds on this concept:
Q. 34. How was the covenant of grace administered under the Old Testament?
A. The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the passover, and other types and ordinances, which did all fore-signify Christ then to come, and were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation.
Q. 35. How is the covenant of grace administered under the New Testament?
A. Under the New Testament, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the same covenant of grace was and still is to be administered in the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper; in which grace and salvation are held forth in more fullness, evidence, and efficacy, to all nations. (WCF, 2003, p. 143-144)
The Old and New Covenants are administrations of the covenant of grace. Acts 15:11 says, But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. 1 Corinthians 10:4 says, and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. These and other passages show that the substance of both the Old and New Covenants was and always is Christ. Since the substance of both the Covenants is the same, there is also continuity in the external administrations of the Covenants. Salvation was granted to those who not only participated externally in the covenant administration, but also had faith in what that administration pointed to––Jesus Christ.
The New Covenant has an external administration and this is proven by the apostasy passages. Jesus said, Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit (John 15:2). This is not speaking of being saved and losing one’s salvation, which is impossible (cf. John 10:26-30, 1 John 2:18-19, etc.); it speaks of being in the external administration of the New Covenant, but being cut off due to lacking the internal substance. Romans 11:16-22 also proves that one can be cut off from the visible covenant people of God. Romans 11:22 says, Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. So the fact that these people are in Christ or part of the external church and getting cut off proves that the New Covenant has an external administration.
Children of believers were in the external administration of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament. Noah believed and God considered him righteous (cf. Genesis 7:1, Hebrews 11:7). After that God said, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you (Genesis 9:9). God not only makes a covenant with the individual believer, but with his children also. The same pattern is found with Abraham. Abraham believed in Christ and God declared him righteous (cf. Genesis 15:6, John 8:56). After that, God commanded him to circumcise himself (credocircumcision). However, God also told him to circumcise every male infant in his household (paedocircumcision). Even though the infants did not exercise faith, God still commanded infants to be circumcised and part of the covenant of grace, as was Esau. Genesis 17:7 says, And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. “The covenant choice on God’s part is extended to the Seed, Deuteronomy 4:37, And because he loved thy Fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them” (Rutherford, 2005, p. 128). Does God still include children of believers in his covenant? There is no indication whatsoever in the New Testament that the nature of a covenant to include believer’s children has changed.
In fact, the contrary is confirmed in the New Testament––children of believers are in the external administration of the New Covenant. Matthew 19:13-14 says, Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (cf. Isaiah 40:11). “If it is right that children should be brought to Christ, why should they not be admitted to baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ? If the kingdom of heaven is theirs, why should they be denied the sign by which access, as it were, is opened to the church, that being admitted into it they may be enrolled among the heirs of the heavenly kingdom?” (Calvin, 2008, p. 875-876). Peter did not exclude children of believers from the covenant of grace, and said to the adult Jews on the day of Pentecost, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call (Acts 2:38-39). The promise is for the Jews and their children. The audience Peter was speaking to was the dispersed Jews that had gathered for Shavuot—Pentecost. This promise is an allusion to Genesis 17:7. The promise is also to all that are afar off, the Gentiles, as Ephesians 2:12-13 says, That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. “The same covenant made with Abraham is made with the Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 6:16, I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Rutherford, 2005, p. 131). Gentiles are now partakers of the covenants of promise and their children are holy. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy (1 Corinthians 7:14). “In view of the context we cannot maintain that this ‘holiness’ is that of regeneration. But it can be nothing less than the ‘holiness’ of connection and privilege” (Murray, 1980, p. 65). The children of believers already have the reality of being set apart as members of the covenant people of God, therefore the sign of the covenant, baptism, is their right.
In the New Testament, every time there was a person who became a Christian and had a family, there was a household baptism. Lydia believed Paul’s message. She was baptized and her whole household (Acts 16:14-15). Also, the Philippian jailer in the same chapter believes and he is baptized along with his whole household. Paul baptized the household of Stephanas as well (1 Corinthians 1:16). In studying all the household passages, one finds that when the head of the household is brought into the covenant, so is the household.
The objection may be raised that there is no example in Scripture of an infant being baptized by the hands of the apostles. “If such kinds of argument were good, it would be necessary, in the like manner, to interdict women from the Lord’s Supper, since we do not read that they were ever admitted to it in the days of the apostles” (Calvin, 2008, p. 876). Here is an objection from Walter Chantry: “The promises [Acts 2:39] do not belong unto the children of believers apart from effectual calling” (Chantry, 2013, p. 126). “The promise is made to them absolutely, whether they believe or not. But the blessing of the promise and covenant of grace is given and bestowed only conditionally, if they believe” (Rutherford, 2005, p. 151). Another objection from Chantry: “If the word ‘holy’ [1 Corinthians 7:14] suggests a covenant relationship…. making the children the proper objects for baptism, then the unbelieving spouse is also a valid candidate for the sacrament” (Chantry, 2013, p. 127). We answer that federal holiness grounds their right to visible church membership and consequently baptism. However, a rejection of the faith or a refusal to publicly profess Christ when able would practically eject them from the visible church and thus nullify their right to baptism. In other words, a refusal to profess the faith is a forfeiting of their right to baptism. Infants are incapable of professing or refusing to profess the faith, and so are baptized on the basis of federal holiness alone. Another objection is that there were not any infants present in the households that were baptized. This is mere speculation. The point is that the household was baptized upon profession of the head, which is in continuity with the covenant of grace under the Old Covenant. Therefore, all members of the household are to be baptized including infants.
In conclusion, both the Old and New Covenants are administrations of the same covenant of grace. The New Covenant, just like the Old, has an external administration, which constitutes the visible church, and this was proven by the apostasy passages. Children of believers are in the external administration of the covenant of grace under both Covenants, because both Covenants are administrations of the covenant of grace. Just as infants in the Old Covenant were circumcised and in the covenant of grace under Abraham’s household, so infants in the New Covenant are to be baptized and are in the covenant of grace by virtue of being in a believer’s household, as the household baptisms in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians 1:16 prove. Therefore without any controversy, the infants of believers are to be baptized.
Blackburn, E.M. (2013). Covenant theology: A Baptist distinctive. Birmingham, Ala.: Solid Ground Christian Books.
Calvin, John. Translator: Beveridge, Henry (2008). Institutes of the Christian Religon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Murray, John (1980). Christian Baptism. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.
Rutherford, Samuel. Editor: McMahon, C. M. (2005). The Covenant of Life Opened. New Lenox, IL: Puritan Publications.
The Holy Bible: Old and New Testaments in the authorized King James version ; translated out of the original tongues and with previous translations diligently compared and revised. (2003). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
The Westminster Confession of Faith. (2003). Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications.