In my first post seeking to answer the question of infant baptism, I addressed the covenant standing of the children of Christians showing that our children are in covenant relationship with God and should therefore receive the sign of the covenant. In this second installment, we will continue to deal with important background assumptions. The following will address specific characteristics of the nature of God’s covenants.
If we are going to think rightly about the sign of the covenant, it is important to know something about the nature of covenant relationship with God. The covenant isn’t only about the servants receiving responsibilities from God, nor is it merely about being promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. These are certainly important characteristics, but covenant relationship with God is undergirded by his binding commitment to those that he enters into covenant with. Of course, this relationship involves a requirement for God’s people to make commitments to him, but God’s covenant commitment to his covenant people undergirds whatever commitments we will make to him in response. One of the most vivid illustrations of this is the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15.
By Genesis 15 God had already made covenant promises to Abraham about descendants and land. Concerning descendants, God promised Abraham he would become a great nation, and even more, that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). That said, in Genesis 15 Abraham is not seeing how this is going to work… “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…?” (Gen 15:2). In response God doubles down on his promises… “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… so shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5). He doubles down similarly concerning the land (Gen 15:7-8) and then follows his promises with a covenant ceremony. In the ceremony animals were cut in half and laid on either side to make an aisle. We are not familiar with this sort of thing today, but it was very familiar in Abraham’s day. In that time, a sovereign, conquering king would have this ceremony with the servant king whose people he had just conquered. The animals would be cut in half and the servant king would pass through the pieces, as if to say, if I do not keep the terms of the covenant that you have established then let it be to me as it has been to these animals. But with Abraham, God flips it on its head. God (the sovereign, not the servant) passes through the pieces so as to say, Abraham, I have made these covenant promises to you, and if I do not keep my promises let it be to ME as it has been to these animals. In the cultural covenants of the day, the servant would pass through the pieces committing himself to the sovereign. In God’s covenants the sovereign commits himself to the servants. God commits himself to his people before his people ever make any commitments to him. This is true with all of God’s redemptive covenants, most notably in the New Covenant in Christ, where we find that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8), and God made us alive together with Christ even when we were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:5). Of course, in both Ephesians and Romans, we as God’s covenant people are called to make commitments to God (Ephesians 4-6, Romans 12-16). That said, it is clear that our commitments are undergirded by God’s commitment. And not only in Ephesians and Romans. This is simply the way God’s covenant works.
So remember, our children are in covenant relationship with God and God commits to his covenant people before his covenant people make any commitments to him. Now, what does this have to do with baptism?
We tend to think about baptism primarily as something that we do. It is our coming out party, so to speak. One local church in my area calls it “going public,” which fits with the order of operations… we come to faith in Christ, then we get baptized to publicly profess our faith in Christ. But baptism is not primarily about what we have done. It is the sign of the New Covenant, which is primarily about what God has done and has promised to do in Christ. Whatever commitments we make in faith to God are undergirded by God’s commitment that he makes to us. And God’s commitment comes first. We should keep this in the forefront of our mind when baptized as believers (as I was), but it also helps make sense of the order of operations in infant baptism… God commits to us, as illustrated and applied in the covenant sign, and he does so before we are able to do anything in response.