GRACE NOTES – PASTORAL LETTER 5.8.24

memory verse: “Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is My law; fear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings” (Isaiah 51:7).

Dearly beloved saints of Covenant of Grace,

I was blessed to worship and share our fellowship meal with you this past Lord’s Day.  It is always a gift and source of refreshment to be together with the saints – building one another up in truth and love, offering our praise with thanks, growing in our understanding of the Word, and participate in the sacraments, through which the Lord communicates Christ and His benefits to His people.  Lord willing, we will have the joy of witnessing the baptism of one of our little ones this coming Sunday, so it seemed an appropriate time to reflect upon why we baptize our infants, and just what a terrific blessing this is.

It begins with recognizing that God gave His Old Covenant people circumcision as a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith.  The first to receive the sign was Abraham.  In Genesis 15:6, we’re told that Abraham, “believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness,” which is to say that Abraham, like us, was justified by faith in Christ.  This is further confirmed in Galatians 3:8, which says that the Scripture, “preached before the gospel unto Abraham.”  Abraham heard the promise of a coming Savior, he believed, and he was saved.  And, having been thus justified by faith, Romans 4:11 says, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”  Therefore, to use modern language, we could say that Abraham received “believer’s circumcision.”  It was a terrific gift from the Lord – a sign and seal impressed upon his own flesh to declare that he was the Lord’s, and to reminder him that it was through his line that the Christ would come, saving His people and cutting away the old man through bloodshed.  And, this gift wasn’t just for Abraham.

Indeed, God commanded His Old Covenant people to give the sign to all the males in their households, including infant sons.  This is plain in Genesis 17:10-13a: “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised.”  This wasn’t just a gracious gift, but a serious commandment, the breaking of which would bring severe consequences.  Even so, the Lord went on to say, in Genesis 17:14, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”  It was for this reason that either Moses or his son was nearly put to death by the Lord in Exodus 4:24.  The passing on of circumcision, the Old Covenant sign and seal of faith, wasn’t to be neglected, but dutifully observed.

Of course, the outward administration of the Lord’s Covenant has changed today, but the giving of a sign and seal of faith has not, as is evident in that God has instructed His New Covenant people to administer and receive baptism.  You know well the command of the Lord Jesus to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (Matt 28:19a).  As a result, when those who had never been baptized before came to faith, they were baptized and added to the church.  As Peter preached at Pentecost, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).  Praise the Lord, He hasn’t left us without a sign of His covenant today, but given us baptism.  Of course, no Christian disagrees on this point.

What many fail to recognize, however, is that baptism signifies the same thing as circumcision.  What was circumcision meant to signify and seal?  We’ve already seen that it was the righteousness of faith.  It declared, in his very flesh, that the believer already had this gift.  And, to the as yet unbelieving, it served as a constant reminder, placed upon his very person, of the Lord’s call to repent and believe, and of His willingness to be merciful.  To this latter end, Deuteronomy 10:16 commands those who had been outwardly circumcised to, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”  Likewise, Jeremiah 4:4 calls the same people to, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts” – that is, cut away your sins and turn to the Lord in true faith, as Abraham did, becoming the father of the faithful in every age (cf. Rom 4:11-12).  As it happens, Colossians 2:11-12 says that this is the same inner circumcision that New Covenant believers receive when we come to Christ, which is now signified and sealed in baptism.  The sign has changed, but the central promise of salvation by faith in Christ hasn’t.  The sign has changed, but what it signifies has remained constant, since there has only ever been one way of salvation.  Circumcision looked forward to its accomplishment, baptism looks back to it, but they both look to the same point – to the cross of Christ, because of which our old sinful nature is put to death, our sins our washed, and the Spirit of God is poured out upon us, giving us new life in our union with the Son of God.  Therefore, unless we were explicitly told otherwise, we would anticipate that the New Covenant sign would continue to be given to the same people as the Old Covenant sign – to those professing the true faith and their households.

And, this is just what we find in the New Testament, as the Lord calls His New Covenant people that His promise and sign are for those who have believed and their households.  So, when the Lord had opened Lydia’s heart to believe, “she was baptized, and her household as well” (Acts 16:15).  Similarly, when the Philippian jailer believed, “he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”  And, Paul later writes that he baptized the household of Stephanas (cf. Col 1:16).  Some object, “But, it doesn’t say there were definitely infants in those households.”  True enough, but it doesn’t say there weren’t, and the consistent definition of household throughout Scripture includes the entire household, including infants.  And regardless, the point remains – when one believed the entire household was baptized.  Moreover, serving as a nail in the coffin of sorts, when Peter preached at Pentecost, he called for repentance and baptism, adding, “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).  What is so significant about this?  It is that it is an evident allusion to Genesis 17:9-14, where the Lord called for the circumcision not only of believing Abraham, but his infant sons, and every person in his household, whether born there or a foreigner.  Why does Peter make this allusion?  Because the New Covenant signifies the same promises as the Old and is for the same people, namely, professing believers and their households.  There is a change in the sign – blood is no longer shed, as the last bloodshed required took place at the cross.  There is an expansion of the proper recipients – females as well as males now receiving the sign, as God shows Himself not less but even more gracious under the era of the New Covenant.  But, the substance remains the same – the Lord’s covenant promise centered upon Christ and His benefits, signified to us and sealed upon us by the mercy of our God.

It is therefore a terrific blessing to receive and witness the sacrament of baptism.  So then, as we ready for and witness the baptism of one of our little ones this coming Lord’s Day, let us give thanks to our God for His faithfulness in every age, and for His expansive grace under the New Covenant.  Let us rejoice in His kindness, even to those who are too little to yet grasp all that is happening, who have been blessed to be born into a believing household.  Let us each remember our own baptism with humility and gratitude in our hearts, delighting in all that our loving heavenly Father has done for us in Christ.  And, let us willingly devote ourselves to His worship and service, striving always, as the Lord commanded believing Abraham to do so long ago, to walk before Him and be blameless” (cf. Gen 17:1).

In Christ,

Pastor Eric

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