In a recent blog entry entitled, “Why I Am a Credobaptist,” Justin Taylor referenced Stephen Wellum’s essay in the book “Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ,” saying, “His essay “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants” (available in PDF online for free) is, in my mind, one of the most helpful pieces showing what the differences between the old and new covenants demonstrate the necessity of credobaptism over and against paeodobaptism.”
This is certainly a bold statement, but given the current credobaptist landscape, I don’t think it’s an overstatement. “Believer’s Baptism” is a serious theological work. And if Thomas Schreiner was the only name appended to the book, I would take it very seriously.
In all fairness, I’m not familiar with Stephen Wellum. But having looked the article over, I’m impressed. Dr. Wellum is a sharp thinker who clearly understands the paedobaptist position.
For myself, I once held to the credobaptist position. Infant baptism appeared odd at best; a Scriptural anomaly bereft of support. But slowly over time, and after a fair bit of inner turmoil, I made the jump. In the end, the issue that finally pushed me over was the nature of the New Covenant (NC). The concern here is whether all NC members are regenerate, or is there a mixture of regenerate and unregenerate members? Credobaptists affirm the former, paedobaptists the latter. And in Dr. Wellum’s essay, he touched upon this important issue, arguing, as one would expect, that only the regenerate comprise the roster of the NC. It is here where I would like to make a few comments.
Anticipating a paedobaptist objection, Dr. Wellum draws the reader’s attention to some of the oft quoted warning passages and responds as follows,
“Paedobaptist literature commonly asserts that our own experience sadly confirms what the NT says about the possibility of apostasy. This fact demonstrates to paedobaptists that the church must be viewed as a mixed community like Israel of old. Proof is offered from such texts as Matt 13:24–30 (the parable of the wheat and the tares—even though the parable portrays the kingdom of God in the world and not the constitution of the church), the vine imagery of John 15 and Romans 11, and the warning texts of Hebrews (e.g. 6:4–6). But the nature of the new covenant community makes this interpretation highly unlikely. We cannot deny Scripture’s description of how the new covenant people of God has incredibly changed. Furthermore, the fact of apostasy and the status of the one who commits it are not the same. No one disputes the fact of apostasy in the new covenant age, but the status of those apostates is disputed. Are they “covenant breakers” (assuming they were once full covenant members), or those who professed faith and identified with the church, but who demonstrate by rejecting the gospel that they were never one with us (see 1 John 2:19)? The NT teaches the latter. Apostasy leads us, sadly, to reevaluate a person’s former profession of faith and his covenant status. But this situation is unlike unbelievers in the old covenant who were still viewed as covenant members, even though they were unbelievers.” (Page 161, footnote 125)
So how should we understand NC apostates? Do those who fall away break covenant or not? While there is much that can be said, I want to answer this question by making a fairly straightforward point. And to get at this point, let’s back up slightly and find some common ground. Let’s ask this: What about those who fall away? Were they regenerate? No. Both Reformed Baptists and the Reformed agree. The issue here is this: What was the apostates’ relationship to the church, if any? What did they fall from?
Here the paedobaptist believes that when a person is baptized that individual is set apart and receives the sign of the covenant. God’s name is placed on them. There is an objective shift in status, even if their heart isn’t right. This is to say that they’re saints externally, even if unregenerate. They haven’t been born again, but they are members of the church. As such, they share a relationship with the NC. This allows us to say that the apostate really do fall from something. They really do break something.
But what might a credobaptist say about the unregenerate among them? If the unregenerate aren’t saints (truly and externally), then it would seem that their relationship to the church is merely one of proximity. In other words, do they just happen to stand in the same room as Christians on Sunday morning? Sing the same songs that Christians sing? Mimic the movements of real Christians? But if that is the case, then how can the warnings apply to them, if there isn’t some kind of covenantal relationship? Remember, Paul addresses the saints in his letters. If the baptized unregenerate aren’t saints, then what is the ground for warning them?
Here an example will prove helpful. Imagine warning a bachelor to remain faithful to his wife. Suppose someone walks up to him and says, “If you commit adultery, your wife will divorce you.” Now that warning may be true, so far as statements go, but since the bachelor isn’t married, he isn’t in a covenantal relationship with a woman. And since he isn’t in a covenantal relationship, it doesn’t make sense to warn him as though he were. A covenantal bond hasn’t been established. No vows were made. He’s a bachelor. [Here we might also point out that the heart has little to do with making marriage vows (in one sense). There have been plenty of people who have made marriage vows without taking those vows seriously. But this doesn’t mean that a covenant wasn’t established.]
Or take this example. Suppose an NBA player is warned by the athletic commission that if they get into a fight during a game, they will be kicked out the game and fined. It’s a warning rooted in a contractual reality. Now imagine going up to some guy that has no affiliation with the NBA and warning him that if he gets into a fight while playing with the Lakers, he’ll get a double-technical and kicked out of the game. Again, the warning is true and real, so far as the warning goes, but it only applies to those for whom it is designed.
Now apply this to the saints. Saints are warned in Scripture. Those falling outside the pale of the covenant cannot be properly warned (in terms of passages like Heb 10 or Colossians 1:22-23) because the grounds for doing so don’t exist. The legal conditions simply don’t obtain. Therefore, I ask my credobaptist brothers whether or not the warnings apply to the unregenerate? And if they do, and surely they must, there aren’t we constrained to say that they’re in a covenantal relationship? Shall we even say NC relationship?