I began seminary as a Calvinistic Baptist who had begun flirting with so-called “New Covenant Theology.” Within a few months, however, I had become a confirmed Presbyterian. The change was due largely to the dawning of a central insight; and it occurred to me recently that once that early penny dropped, the shape and direction of my subsequent work in covenant theology were largely determined.
The insight was quite simple: I objected, as a Calvinistic Baptist, to the idea that infants should be baptized, because we cannot know whether an infant actually believes in Christ, and faith in Christ is a sine qua non of salvation. But then one day the light went on: this problem doesn’t go away when one baptizes an adult; precisely the same problem arises in connection with everyone who is baptized. Someone comes professing to have been converted, and professes faith in Christ – how do we know this person is “the real thing” (elect and really converted)? The short answer is, we don’t. Or to put it more accurately (using a more biblical definition of “the real thing”): we know all we need to know in order to baptize the person and regard him or her thenceforth as a Christian, a member of God’s covenant people, a child in His family. The warrant for baptizing a person is never some kind of infallible knowledge that he or she is elect, or even truly converted. If a person professes faith, in he or she comes to the number of God’s people – and according to scripture, all his or her seed come in as well. Period. No further inquiry is possible or necessary.
Now, what I didn’t realize at the time is that there exists an odd creature in the Reformed world called a “Bapterian.” Bapterians have a Presbyterian sign on their place of worship; they accept adults who profess faith in Christ as members of the covenant without qualification, and baptize their children; but they place the children of professing believers in a probationary category until they manifest fruits of a genuine conversion – and to this extent they are . . . well, Baptists.
What ends up happening in a Bapterian system is that children, rather than being taught to fulfill their covenantal responsibilities to the Lord like any other Christian (believing, obeying, serving, worshipping, professing), are taught that until they meet particular conditions they really have no right to regard themselves as Christians, as children of God, as objects of divine grace. I would argue there is something Arminian-sounding here, but I digress.
Once I understood that the biblical practice of baptism (and of ecclesiology in general) doesn’t require a hotline to God’s hidden decrees, or any revelation of His secret workings in the hearts of men, it was inevitable that I should reject not only the Baptist system but also the Bapterian. This side of the eschaton, we regard the church as God sets her before us, and leave the hidden things to Him. Where is His church? Look for the professing believers and their seed, baptized into His Triune name. These – all of them – are the saints, the Christians, God’s covenant people, His family. There are no qualifications. There are no probationary categories. You’re either in or you’re out. Some may be removed from the house by discipline (or God’s final judgment), but no one is left standing on the porch.