This is a sermon Rev. Phelps preached, to explain the biblical, theological, and Gospel basis for covenant infant baptism.

Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 27 (Q/A’s 72-74):

“Baptism’s Promise: For You and for Your Children”

Rev. Tony Phelps

Preached at Covenant URC, December 10th, 2017

Primary Text: Acts 2:29-41


How do you think about baptism?  Who is speaking and acting in baptism?  What is the “direction” of this sacrament?  For many Christians, baptism is my public declaration of my commitment to Christ.  Baptism is my testimony that I have believed the Gospel.  I have to decided to follow Jesus, and I’m declaring it before God, and to the world.  So in this thinking, the direction is from me to God.  I am speaking and I am acting, because I am submitting to this ordinance, in obedience to Jesus’ command.  In the Reformed churches, from Scripture, we believe that’s the wrong direction.  The sacraments are God’s signs and seals to us – of His saving promises in Christ.  The direction is first from God to us.  Yes, we are called to believe these promises.  But this is the direction of the Gospel, after all – first, from God to us.  Christ is speaking and acting.  “I have shed My blood and I give My Spirit – to all who believe My promises.  I have claimed you as My own, by My sovereign grace.  You did not decide to choose Me.  I decided to choose you. I have made you a member of My covenant people.  Believe these promises.”  And further, we believe from Scripture that these Gospel promises are not only for us – but for our children, as well.  This is what we’ll consider from Scripture as summarized in Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 27. 


Christ gives His two-fold promise in baptism – for you and for your children.

  1. What baptism points to and how it assures us.

  2. Why we should baptize our children.


So first, what does baptism point to, and how does it assure us?  This two-part question is addressed in Heidelberg 72 and 73.  First, as we confessed in Heidelberg 72:  “Does this outward washing with water itself wash away sins?  No, only Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin.” 


  • So notice what the question is addressing – the false teaching of baptismal regeneration. That is, the idea that the water of baptism conveys cleansing from sin, at the moment it’s administered. This is what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Baptism infuses grace – but you can kill that grace by your sin. And so you must apply yourself to another sacrament they invented for themselves, called “penance.” To restore that grace. This is also connected to their unbiblical view of justification. You must cooperate with God’s infused grace, by your works, to be justified in the end. And unless you’re a super-saint, you won’t get there in this life. So they also invented the doctrine of  purgatory, where you can be cleansed from your sins by temporal punishments after death – until you are pure enough for heaven.


  • So on this false view, why did Jesus shed His blood on the Cross?  To paraphrase Paul in Galatians 2:21, if righteousness comes through our penance and works and purgatory, then Christ died in vain. The Roman Catholic view of baptism turns you away from Christ, to look at your penance, your works.  Are you doing enough, to cooperate God’s grace?  Worse, have you sinned away His grace?


  • The biblical view of baptism points us to Christ and what He has done to forgive us our sins – forever – and to renew us by His Spirit. Remember the two main Gospel promises of baptism. First, the forgiveness of our sins, by the blood of Christ. And second, our spiritual renewal by the Holy Spirit. As Heidelberg says, “…only Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins.” Christ's blood and Spirit – not our works of penance, thanks be to God.


  • We often hear in Scripture a close connection between the sign – baptism – and what it signifies. In our passage from Acts 2, Peter is preaching the crucified and risen Christ on the Day of Pentecost. He shows how Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures and God’s eternal plan, for the salvation of all who repent and believe this good news.


  • The Jews who hear this sermon are cut the heart, and say, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We hear that two-fold promise of baptism in these words – forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to renew us. We see how closely these Gospel benefits are connected with baptism. But does this mean that baptism effects these things automatically? Is Rome right after all, about baptismal regeneration?


  • That’s what Heidelberg 73 addresses: “Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism the water of rebirth and the washing away of sins? God has good reason for these words. To begin with, he wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ take away our sins just as water removes dirt from the body. But more importantly, he wants to assure us, by this divine pledge and sign, that we are as truly washed of our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water physically.”


  • This is what we could call the “sacramental language” of the Bible. The sign and what it signifies are spoken of interchangeably. Titus 3:5 alludes to baptism when it speaks of the “washing of regeneration.” Acts 22:16 recounts Ananias’ words to Paul: “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” Why does God speak like this in His Word – to so closely connect the blessings of His Gospel with His sacraments? He does so in merciful condescension to our weakness. He does so to assure us of the certainty of His Gospel promises to us in Christ - with the visible and sensible signs of water, bread, and wine.


  • It’s as if God would say, “You’ve heard My Gospel promise: Believe in My Son, and I will wash away all your sins by His blood, forever. And I will give you My Spirit, to renew you – to regenerate and sanctify you, until I completely renew you on the Last Day, body and soul. Here, let me show you and pledge to you these promises – as you are baptized in Our Triune Name. Water removes dirt from the body, and washes you physically. So My Son’s blood and Spirit truly take away your sins. So believe these promises – and they are yours. Baptism assures you that My Gospel promise in Christ is for you.”


  • Who delivers the promises? The water? No, God does, in Christ, by His Word and Spirit. And baptism assures us that He keeps His promises, to all who believe them. That’s why you can speak as Martin Luther did – as we pointed out last week. When you struggle with doubt or temptation, you can confess, “I am baptized! Christ has shed His blood for the forgiveness of my sins! Just as water washes my body from dirt and stink, so His blood and Spirit have cleansed my soul forever! God has kept His Word to me!" When you struggle with doubt and temptation, don’t look inside yourself. What will you find there in these dark moments? Only the ugliness of your sin. Instead, look by faith to Christ. Look to His promises. Be assured that they are for you. Remember your baptism, and how God has shown you His promises of forgiveness and renewal there. Say, “Thanks be to God – I am baptized!”


And so Christ gives His two-fold promise in baptism – and these promises are for you and for your children.  As we confessed in Heidelberg 74:  “Should infants also be baptized?  Yes.  Infants as well as adults are included in God’s covenant and people, and they, no less than adults, are promised deliverance from sin through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit who works faith. Therefore, by baptism, the sign of the covenant, they too should be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, which was replaced in the New Testament by baptism.” 

  • First, As Heidelberg 74 says, “Infants as well as adults are included in God’s covenant and people.” So what do we mean by the covenant of grace? Basically, we mean the Gospel of Jesus Christ – as promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament. The Bible is not divided into different ways of salvation, for example, saved by works under the Law of Moses, but saved by faith under the Gospel. No. But God’s Word does speak with two voices – the Law and the Gospel – to bring us to His one way of salvation – by faith in Christ alone.


  • Adam and Eve received with delight God’s covenant Law-Word in the Garden of Eden. We call this the covenant of works, or the covenant of life. God made them in His image – in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. And He called them to reflect His image, by obeying His commandment of life. This was not burdensome to them, but was their delight. Here’s how the Westminster Confession explains the covenant of works – which is what God’s Law still requires of all people: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”


  • However, our first parents rebelled against God, at the instigation of Satan. This plunged us all into misery and death. And that corruption of sin and God’s curse is passed on from parents to children, from generation to generation. But immediately, in His great mercy, God revealed His Gospel promise, which we also call the covenant of grace. Once again, the Westminster Confession:


  • “Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.”


  • When was this first revealed? When God spoke His Word of promise in Genesis 3:15 – to us and to our children. The Seed of the woman would come, and through His own suffering and death, He would crush the serpent’s head. This is God’s first promise of the covenant of grace, the Gospel, to us and to our seed, to our children. God’s covenant of grace is administered from the beginning by this Word of promise – and it’s for us and for our children. It’s then administered in history along a line of promise – sinners chosen by grace, believers and their children.


  • Later in Genesis, God saves Noah and his family, his household.He saves them through the waters of judgment – which Peter tells us is a type of baptism. But the covenant of grace takes its shape as Gospel promise especially in God’s covenant with Abraham.


  • In Genesis 12, God declares His Gospel-covenant promise to Abraham. That through Abraham’s Seed, all the families of the earth would be blessed. Galatians 3 and 4 make clear that this blessing is not some kind of material prosperity. But salvation – from sin and death. Justification by faith alone, and life eternal. The ultimate Seed of Abraham who brings this blessing is Jesus Christ – the Son of God made flesh. Jesus, according to His human nature, is a descendent from Abraham.


  • In Genesis 15, Abraham confesses His faith in this Gospel-covenant promise, and is justified by faith alone .God ratifies the promise, and even takes the oath unto death to guarantee He would keep it. And in Genesis 17, God then gives Abraham a sign and seal of this Gospel covenant-promise. And that sign and seal is – circumcision. Paul tells us in Romans 4 that circumcision is a sign and seal of justification by faith alone. God commands Abraham to apply this sign and seal to all the males in his household – including infants. And God promises that He will be a God to Abraham to his offspring after him. To his children. So this is the administration of the covenant of grace – and it has always included our children. They are called to believe and confess these promises – which God says are for them. The external administration of the covenant of grace is found in the visible church – made up of believers and the children. The internal or spiritual administration is found in the “invisible church” – that is, those who are chosen in Christ, from eternity. Those regenerated by God's grace and believe God's Gospel promise.


  • Fast forward to the Day of Pentecost and Acts 2, and our passage once again. The incarnate Christ, the Son of Abraham and Son of God, was crucified for our sins, buried, and rose from the dead the third day. He is now exalted to the right hand of God in heaven. He has poured out His Holy Spirit on His Church – in fulfillment of the prophetic promise God gave through Joel. And the apostle Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, is preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of all the covenant and prophetic promises of the Old Testament. Jesus is not only the promised Seed of Abraham, He is the promised Son of David. And this is confirmed from the prophetic Psalms, by His death, burial, resurrection, and His enthronement in heaven as King. And one Day, God will make all His enemies His footstool.


  • So Peter concludes his Pentecost sermon with that two-fold promise, as signified in baptism – which we already heard. He calls them to repent and be baptized, believing these promises. And then he declares, "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."


  • This clearly echoes the language of the covenant with Abraham – Genesis 12, 15, and 17. The promise is for all who are far off – to all the families of the earth, God’s elect in every tribe, tongue, and nation. And the promise is for you and for your children. The children are not now put out of this covenant of grace. The promises are still for them. Frankly, the burden of proof is on the Baptist, to show us where children are no longer included in God’s covenant of grace, and are now excluded from God’s covenant community.


  • In fact, we see just the opposite. Children are directly addressed as responsible members of God’s covenant community. We see this in Ephesians and Colossians. The apostle commands them to obey their parents in the Lord. Remember how Jesus’ disciples try to shoo the children away, “Get outta here, kids, you’re bothering the Master! This kingdom of God stuff is for grown-ups, not you!” But of course, Jesus rebukes them: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And He lays His hands on these covenant children, to bless them with God’s Word.


We’ve spent a lot of time on the first point, to demonstrate that infants and children of believers have always been part of God’s external administration of the covenant of grace - and its promise is always and still for them. On to our second point:  Covenant children receive the same Gospel promise of Christ’s forgiving blood and renewing Spirit. 

  • We’ve seen this already in Acts 2 – “for you and for your children.” Later in Acts 16, verse 31, Paul and Silas preach to the Philippian jailer. He was about to kill himself – because God sent an earthquake to free Paul and Silas from prison. But Paul stopped him. So the jailer, saved from suicide, now asks them: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” "And they said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." That sounds pretty covenantal. The promise of salvation is extended to the jailer and his family. It doesn’t say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus – you and your household – and you who believe will be saved.” No, Paul calls this man to believe – with the promise that he and his household would be saved.


  • Paul is speaking covenantally. This is how God conveys His promise. This is how He has always administered the covenant of grace. Not only with individuals, but with families. When this man believes, his family becomes a Christian family. In fact, the family is baptized that same hour. They all receive the sign and seal of the forgiveness of sins and renewal by the Holy Spirit. And then they would worship together – in this newly planted Philippian congregation. This man will teach the faith he is learning to his children – just as God had directed parents to do with their covenant children in Deuteronomy 6. And they will believe, by God’s grace. And then they will teach the faith to their children. And so on. As God promises to be a God to believers and their children, and to show His mercy to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments. And so Paul speaks in the language of covenant promise. The way God has dealt with fallen humanity, ever since Genesis 3. Not just individuals, but families, from generation to generation.


And so, third, covenant children should receive the sign of baptism – to admit them to the church, and to distinguish them from the children of unbelievers. 

  • 1 Corinthians 7, verse 14, says the child of one believer is holy in God’s sight. Does that mean they are without sin? Of course not. It means they are covenantally holy – set apart by God, as distinct from the children of the world. They have covenant promises, privileges, and obligations. And so they should receive covenant baptism, and be received as members of the covenant community, the church.


  • But here’s something that may surprise you. Jesus directly COMMANDS us to baptize children. Really? No way! Way. But isn’t that one of the biggest objections we hear from our Baptist friends: “You don’t have a direct command to baptize children anywhere in the New Testament.Your entire argument is by inference.” And we usually take that bait. We respond: “Yes, the argument is by inference. But the doctrine of the Trinity is argued by inference from Scripture. The two natures of Christ in one person – that He is fully human and fully divine – is argued by inference. And yet to deny those doctrines is to reject the one true faith revealed in Scripture. So, yes, infant baptism is by inference – and is as biblically binding on you as the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ.” This is all still true – and sufficiently proves the necessity of infant baptism. But we actually have a direct command to baptize babies in the New Testament. Still don’t believe me, right?


  • Zacharias Ursinus, primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, makes this argument in his commentary on the catechism. He answers the objection that the Scriptures have no direct command for infant baptism. He responds, “We deny [this objection] for we have the express command, 'Baptize all NATIONS, which includes the children of the church.” Of course, Ursinus is referring to the Great Commission. Matthew 28, verse 19: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  And the grammar of this verse has one imperative: “make disciples.” And there are two participles that modify that imperative, which tell us HOW we make them: by baptizing them in the Triune Name, and by teaching them to observe what Jesus has commanded us to believe and to do. This is how we are to “make disciples” of all nations. In fact, the Great Commission is how God brings to fulfillment His covenant promise that in Abraham’s Seed – Christ – all nations will be blessed with salvation. And don’t forget, children are included within the scope of that covenant promise from the beginning.


  • But when you hear the word “nations,” what do you think of today? You may think of the USA, Canada, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc. You think of nation-states. And so you might assume that Jesus is speaking of the citizens of these geo-political nations – citizens responsible under the law, otherwise known as “adults.” And so you might think, “Of course Jesus doesn’t include children in the Great Commission!”


  • That’s not what the word “nations” means in the Bible. The word for geo-political entities is usually one that is translated “kingdoms.” But “nations” comes from the Greek word ETHNOS. And in the Bible, it means people groups – often, specifically, everyone “other than the Jews.” We get the word “ethnicity” from it. And what are people groups made up of? People. Fundamentally, families, which include young and old, parents and children, even little babies. Jesus commands us to make disciples by baptizing people. Some of those people are adults who believe the Gospel, and some of these people are their little ones. This is who the church is made up of – the covenant community of baptized disciples – young and old, big and small.They are all to be baptized, and taught to observe everything Jesus commanded. We do that with ALL disciples – adults and children – by way of catechesis. So next time someone says, “Give me chapter and verse on infant baptism,” don’t be afraid to say Matthew chapter 28, verse 19!


And so, fourth, baptism replaces circumcision, which promised and did the same things baptism does. 

  • Baptism is the new covenant sign and seal, but it’s not without a precedent in the Old Testament. Circumcision distinguished covenant children from the world, and received them as covenant members. It was the covenant sign of initiation in the Old Testament. As we’ve noted, it too was a sign of Gospel promise. It also pointed to forgiveness of sins and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Now, in the New Testament, baptism is that covenant initiation sign. The Lord’s Supper fulfills and supersedes the Passover as the covenant meal – and Baptism fulfills and supersedes circumcision, as the covenant sign of membership.


  • We hear this close connection between baptism and circumcision in Colossians 2. Both point us to Christ and the two-fold Gospel benefit of forgiveness and renewal.


11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

  • What does the Abrahamic covenant sign and seal of circumcision point to? Christ and His Gospel promise, the removal of the flesh, that is, the forgiveness of sins and regeneration, through the shedding of blood. What does the New Covenant sign and seal of baptism point to? Union with Christ, in His death, burial, and resurrection – to forgive us our sins and give us new life with Him: by washing us with His blood and Spirit. In other words, both are Gospel signs which point us to Christ – but under the new covenant, baptism is commanded to add people to the church, and circumcision is now forbidden as a covenant requirement.In other words, baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace.


And so as we conclude, consider this:  baptism is now even more inclusive than circumcision – as is fitting for the all-nations Gospel now fulfilled in Christ, the Savior of the world. Circumcision was only for believing men and their baby boys. But baptism is for believing men, women, and their baby boys and baby girls. Because the promise is for you and for your children. The Gospel promises of the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Infant baptism is not a matter of tradition – although it is clearly the practice of the universal church, since the days of the apostles. It is not a matter of sentiment – though babies are cute, and we might say, “Awww!” when they’re baptized.  This is a Gospel matter, a covenant matter. And yes, it is even a matter of an express commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ. In nothing less than the Great Commission. Our children are sinners! They need Jesus!  And He has promised us and them – that the kingdom of God is theirs. So we bring them to the font, with faith in the Gospel-covenant promises of God!  And as we do so, we remember our baptism, and God’s two-fold promise to us – that just as surely as water removes dirt from our bodies, so Christ takes away our sins by His blood and Spirit. And so as covenant families, and as a covenant community, we can all confess together: “WE are baptized!” 

© 2017 by COVENANT URC

  • c-facebook
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • Twitter Classic