Hebrews 8 and the Credobaptist Objection: A Reply

Paedobaptist: So let me get this straight, one your biggest objections to infant baptism rests on the understanding that the New Covenant is comprised of only the elect/regenerate?

Credo: That’s right. Hebrews 8 (citing Jeremiah 31) makes this plain. Everyone in the New Covenant knows the Lord. That’s what makes it unlike the Mosaic Covenant. The old covenant was more ethnic in nature. It included the children of Jews. As such, it was a covenant that included both the regenerate and unregenerate. This is contrasted with that of the New Covenant. Only genuine believers (the regenerate) make up the New Covenant. This fact is a crucial part of its newness!

Paedobaptist: But surely you grant that not everyone in the church is regenerate, right?

Credo: Of course. There are false believers and apostates. But they aren’t part of the New Covenant.

Paedobaptist: But many of these false believers are baptized, right?

Credo: Yes.

Paedobaptist: So they receive the sign of the covenant but are not part of the covenant community?

Credo: That’s right. Only the elect comprise the New Covenant.

Paedobaptist: But isn’t there an external administration of the covenant? In other words, don’t you believe that they are connected to the New Covenant in some sense?

Credo: They are baptized and partake of the Lord’s Supper, but they cannot be part of the New Covenant. To stress again, they’re unregenerate. They don’t believe. That disqualifies them.

Paedobaptist: So let me understand something. In the Mosaic Covenant, the regenerate and the unregenerate were both part of the covenant. Both received the sign of the covenant and were set apart. They comprised the people of God. But now, in the church, the people of God, there are both regenerate and unregenerate. However, in order to maintain a purely regenerate roster, the unregenerate associated with the church are redefined. You view them, even though they receive the sign of the covenant and partake of the covenant meal, as not really part of the covenant? It seems like it’s functionally parallel to the Mosaic Covenant (there is an unregenerate presence), but the problem of the unregenerate is defined out of the equation. You don’t allow the sign of the covenant to set the unregenerate apart. Thus, they aren’t part of the church in any formal or objective sense.

Credo: Well, look, under the Mosaic Covenant infants were part and parcel with the covenant. Infants aren’t believers. The sign of the covenant was necessarily placed on unbelievers. That isn’t the case now. It is meant to be placed only on the regenerate.

Paedobaptist: Let’s assume that is the case. I will grant that the inclusion of infants injects into the covenant a mixed presence. Babies don’t believe. But does this then become a matter of degrees of unregenerate inclusion- you have adults that aren’t regenerate and we have adults and infants who aren’t regenerate? Of course not. That isn’t your position. It’s all or nothing in your view. But as I was saying earlier, you cannot escape the fact that the visible church is comprised of both the regenerate and the unregenerate.

Credo: True. But the unregenerate aren’t part of the New Covenant.

Paedobaptist: Ok. So think about it. Your view of the New Covenant deals with the problem of the unregenerate by defining the problem away. You acknowledge that the unregenerate mirror the regenerate, so far as the covenant signs are concerned, but you then assert that these covenant signs make no difference, in terms of membership. The signs don’t confer any kind of covenantal status. Doesn’t that seem odd?

Credo: I see your point, but I’m just keeping my finger on the Scriptural evidence. The newness of the New Covenant is stated plainly. Everyone in the New Covenant knows the Lord. Babies don’t know the Lord. Therefore, it is wrong-headed to baptize them. We might get it wrong with adults, because we can’t see the heart, but we aren’t called to see the heart. We baptize on the basis of a solid profession. We’re aiming for New Covenant fidelity.

Paedobaptist: Granting your position, I agree. You baptize because someone claims to be a believer. But my point goes beyond the role of baptizing apparent believes. From my vantage point, you are failing to see how the sign of the covenant is objective, and I’m trying to press that point home by highlighting the oddity of merely defining the unregenerate out of the equation of covenant membership.

Credo: Ok. So how am I failing to see the objectivity of the sign?

Paedobaptist: Here is where the warnings of Scripture come into play.

Credo: Explain.

Paedobaptist: Throughout the New Testament, the people of God are warned to continue in the faith time and again. We know, as good Calvinists, that those who ultimately fall away were never really saved. They weren’t born again. That being said, apostates really do fall away from something. They fall from an objective standing. In this respect, think of the holy branches in Romans 11. They are in the church, and they can be cut off.

Credo: Look. I acknowledge the reality of the warnings. But they just expose false believers. Those who don’t continue aren’t the real deal.

Paedobaptist: I agree! But you aren’t going far enough. The biblical evidence demands that we say more. There are warnings to continue in the New Covenant! Those in the New Covenant community are warned to persevere, lest they be damned. This tells us something crucial about the nature of the New Covenant. So unless you are willing to say that everyone who falls away shouldn’t be interpreted as falling prey to the New Covenant warnings, then you are forced to acknowledge a covenantal structure that resembles, in some measure, that of the old. There is an external administration of the covenant that really does set people apart. Baptism is objective in this sense. Even the unregenerate have the name of God placed on them. And when they show their true colors, failing to trust in Christ, or live a life that is at odds with being a new creation, they incur the curse. They are judged by the Lord, for the Lord judges His people (Hebrews 10:30). Hence, the warnings.

Credo: Well, I’m just not sure I share your view of such things.

Paedobaptist: If you don’t think baptism sets people apart in any kind of covenantal sense, and if you don’t see a correlation between the warnings and the covenant community, and if you don’t think apostates fall from anything objective, then yeah, we are on quite different pages. I think the biblical evidence is decisive here.

Credo: I am a Baptist and you are a Presbyterian, after all.

[Both chuckle]

Paedobaptist: Hey, let me return to a point I was making earlier.

Credo: Ok. What do you have in mind?

Paedobaptist: I’d like to return to the functional similarity between the Mosaic Covenant and New Covenant.

Credo: Alright.

Paedobaptist: One of your big concerns is maintaining a pure church, in the sense of baptizing only believers. I pointed out how the people of God in the old included both the regenerate and the unregenerate. Similarly, the people of God in the new include both the regenerate and the unregenerate. But in order to keep the covenantal lines cleanly divided now (between the regenerate and unregenerate) the baptist maintains two key principles: (1) Don’t include infants (because they don’t believe), and (2) understand the sign of the covenant in terms different than that of the old (don’t attach covenantal objectivity to them).

Credo: I might want to say more than that, or perhaps nuance the statement, but for the sake of argument, sure.

Paedobaptist: If the intention behind the New Covenant is to mark out those who are exclusively born again, it doesn’t seem like the practical outworking in real life causes it to look all that different than the old.

Credo: How so? If someone provides a credible profession of faith, they are baptized. As I said before, not all professions are real and so there are instances of false believers hanging out with the church. But to stress again, baptizing infants necessarily contravenes the intentions of the New Covenant. The aim is regenerate people.

Paedobaptist: Well, the funny thing about the children of Christians, or even young outsiders who attend, say, your VBS, is that they usually make a profession of faith at a very young age. My four year old son made a straightforward profession of faith. It was solidly clear by five. Wouldn’t you agree that young children make clear professions?

Credo: I do. I have several grown kids now. We taught them the gospel from a very young age. From infancy, one might say. And we called them to believe. We even encouraged them to pray to receive Christ.

Paedobaptist: And did they?

Credo: They did.

Paedobaptist: How old?

Credo: Quite young.

Paedobaptist: Ok. Did you have them baptized?

Credo: Well, not until later.

Paedobaptist: How much later?

Credo: It differed. But with one we waited until she was twelve. Another was sixteen.

Paedobaptist: Here’s the thing. When we look at the NT evidence surrounding the speed at which people were baptized, the evidence clearly weighs on the side of a relatively fast application. A profession of faith and baptism usually occurred on the same day. This means that the apostles accepted professions of faith at face value. Surprisingly so. In this vein, think of the household baptisms. Now I know that you will want to maintain that these household baptisms don’t mirror the OT principle, but you will surely acknowledge that some pretty young believers were part of the families that were baptized, right?

Credo: Almost certainly. Children would have believed and been baptized.

Paedobaptist: But isn’t it interesting that the apostles would so quickly baptize, not only the adults, but the children?

Credo: I suppose so. What’s your point?

Paedobaptist: If the aim of the New Covenant is to be comprised of only the elect, and in this way is meant to disassociate itself from that of the old, one can’t help but notice how similar both realities play out in normal life.

Credo: What do you mean?

Paedobaptist: In the Old Covenant, everyone bearing the sign of the covenant was supposed to live up to what it signified (the removal of the fleshly nature and the righteousness of faith, for example); or more accurately, everyone in the household (as women obviously weren’t circumcised). The people’s hearts were to be circumcised; and they were to love the Lord above all. Infants who received this sign were likewise called to live up to this reality. And their parents were to diligently instruct them to know no other way. This was the intention for all the people. Similarly, the New Covenant envisions a people who all know the Lord. Now you are telling me that the way the New Covenant actually preserves this reality is by (1) skipping the infants, and (2) viewing unregenerate sign bearers differently than that of the old.

Credo: Your point?

Paedobaptist: The sign of baptism is quickly placed on professing adults and ought to be quickly placed upon young, professing children. But when we do that, we are running a high risk of placing the sign on people for whom the reality behind the sign doesn’t match the condition of their heart. This means, practically speaking, that the people of God in the church will closely resemble the people of God in the old. There were a lot of unregenerate people in the old (who should have believed). And there will be a lot of unregenerate people in the new (who should believe). Now you might want to stress again that the inclusion of infants compounds this problem, but I will reply: (1) This isn’t a matter of degrees. It’s all or nothing on your view, and (2) is there really a big difference, practically speaking, between a four year old getting baptized and an infant?

Credo: Well, should the four year old even be baptized? Shouldn’t we wait? And yes, there is a difference. The four year old at least made a gesture of faith.

Paedobaptist: As for waiting, that isn’t the NT example. And I was talking about the practical difference. If the vast majority of the children of believers make a profession of faith at a young age and are baptized, the difference between faithful parent’s raising a baptized infant and a faithful parent raising a baptized child is going to be essentially equal, in terms of their continuing or not. Moreover, and more to my main point, the practical composition of the New Covenant community is going to closely resemble the mixed congregation of old. And so while we might define the baptized unregenerate out of the New Covenant equation, and thus preserve a kind of definitional purity, the day to day reality will significantly mirror the way the people of God have always looked. There will be a mix of unregenerate and regenerate running around together who possess the exact same stamps of identification.

Credo: I’m not sure I follow.

Paedobaptist: Look. There are a lot of questions surrounding the validity of a young child’s profession of faith, as you know. It takes time to see if the profession was genuine. Quite a bit of time, actually.  Sometimes not until their twenties. So if we baptize young children (which if we are consistent we will), the church is going to be mixed.

Credo: Mixed, yes. But that’s just our perception. The New Covenant church is made up of only the elect.

Paedobaptist: Which is a very strange thing to say. Why? Because once again you are separating the church from the ordinances, as if the ordinances don’t mark people off into the visible church, the covenant community. So again, if the strategy here for keeping the church pure is a matter of defining the problem away by emptying the covenantal signs of their meaning, with respect to the non-elect, then the newness of our age doesn’t feel overly grand. After all, one might wonder if the Mosaic covenant could have been dealt with along similar lines. Just make the covenant sign not objective in the case of those whose hearts aren’t circumcised.  Just define the issue away.

Credo: Let’s say you are right. You still have to deal with Hebrews 8.

Paedobaptist: True. And while it is admittedly tricky, it’s tricky for everyone. My point about the warnings and the inevitable mixture of the people of God pose serious problems for the credobaptist. As for paedobaptists, we think there is a way to understand Hebrews 8/Jeremiah 31 that upholds both the mixed nature of the covenant as well as its lofty vision.

Credo: Well, I’m certainly open to hearing your explanation.

Paedobaptist: You want the long version or the short version?

Credo: Uh, yeah, let’s go with the short version.

Paedobaptist: Ok. Here goes. Do forgive, perhaps, some oversimplifications at points.

  • The first thing to notice is that the author is talking about the Mosaic covenant, not the Abrahamic. It is the covenant that he made “with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” That is the Mosaic.
  • Notice what the author does in verse 7 and 8. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them…” Throughout Hebrews, the author cites various reasons for the Mosaic Covenant’s weaknesses. Some would include the impotence of animal sacrifice, the imperfections of the priesthood, and the fact that it was but a shadow and copy of heavenly realities. Note, however, where the author locates the fault of the covenant in verse 8. God finds fault with the people.  This is important. Why?
  • The Mosaic Covenant was built on the principle of “Do this and live.” In response, the people said, “We will do all this” (Exodus 19:8; Deut 4-5). It was a Law covenant that called upon the people to love the Lord their God with all their heart and to love their neighbor as themselves, as expressed in over 600 laws. In order to truly fulfill the covenant, they needed to obey it. But as history would show, sinful men cannot obey it perfectly. They keep breaking it and failing over and over again.
  • Thus, the Mosaic covenant is called, in comparison to the NC, a “ministry of death,” a letter that “kills,” and a “ministry of condemnation.” (2 Cor 3). While the Law was holy and good, the Law could not impart life. It could only impart life if the people obeyed it. But none were righteous, no not one.
  • So one of the key faults of the Mosaic covenant was how it brought death upon the people. “Do all this and you will live.” But who among us can do it? No one!
  • But there was One. Christ came and fulfilled the Law perfectly, loving God and neighbor perfectly. He was sinless. He came to do what sinful man could not do in the Mosaic Covenant.
  • Therefore, when the author of Hebrews says “NOT like the covenant that I made… the one they broke…” He has in mind Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice that thereby enables a person, by faith in Him, to be counted as one who has kept the Law. The NC isn’t going to be like that other covenant that required us to be blameless through Law- the one they broke repeatedly. In the NC, we are called to trust in Christ and remain in Him, the One who didn’t break the Mosaic Covenant. He took the curse on Himself, so that we, in Him, would not have to bear that curse. This is one key difference in how the NC is not like the Mosaic.
  • But notice that this doesn’t then mean that the NC can’t have blessings and curses. Indeed, it will have its own terms and conditions. Now granted, these terms and conditions will not be “Do this and live,” like the Mosaic covenant, but it does say: Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and remain in Him by faith.
  • Thus, when the Jewish Christians, when faced with persecution for being Christians, were tempted to go back to the old way of doing things (The Mosaic Covenant), the author of Hebrews warns them that they dare not do that. For not only is the new better (for the reasons he enumerates), but going back to the Mosaic is tantamount to apostasy. They would be trampling the Son of God under foot (Hebrews 10). By going back, they would be turning away from Christ, the only hope they have. Thus, these Christians are seriously warned to continue.
  • So to stress again, the Abrahamic isn’t obsolete. It is the Mosaic. Here is what Paul says in Galatians:

So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:9-29)

  • Thus, the Abrahamic Covenant is not annulled. The Mosaic is the guardian that remains operative until the faith comes. After that, as the author of Hebrews says, “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Heb 8:13). The guardian steps aside since it has been fulfilled in Christ, the perfect sacrifice.

Credo: So what’s the long version look like? Just kidding.

Paedobaptist: Ha! I will spare you. But let me just say this. When Hebrews 8:11 talks about a man no longer teaching his neighbor or brother to know the Lord, I have to ask if you still teach your neighbors and brothers to know the Lord?

Credo: Well, again, everyone in the NC knows the Lord. So no. They don’t need taught in that way.

Paedobaptist: But is that merely what it envisions? It envisions a day when you will look around and say, “Look! Everyone knows the Lord!” Right now we can’t say that. Thus, this falls in line with those other prophetic pictures that harbor an already-not-yet reality. It is like Zechariah’s vision in chapter 14 of even the bells on the horses having the inscription “Holy to the LORD.” Or Isaiah’s vision in chapter 11 of the wolf lying down with the lamb. Or Habakkuk’s vision in chapter 2 of the glory of the LORD covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.  These realities are inaugurated with Christ, but await a blossoming consummation.  See also similar passages in Jeremiah (3:17; 23:5-6; 33:14-22). It might also be good to think about Romans 11:25-27 in this regard.

Credo: Interesting points. I’m not sure I agree, but they are worth considering.

Paedobaptist: Fair enough.  I’ll take it.

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