[By: Matt Foreman]
In the prior post on this subject, I sought to explain Paul’s use of ‘clothing’ as a metaphor explaining the meaning of baptism – principally, that Paul understood Baptism as a sign of spiritual maturity, a rite of passage signifying entrance into spiritual adulthood and priestly service. In this post, I would like to argue that this insight from Galatians 3:27 has some implications for the practice of infant baptism. [True and sincere Christians have disagreed on the proper recipients of baptism for centuries. So I make this argument in full respect and love for paedobaptist brothers and sisters.]
The practice of infant baptism contradicts and undermines the teaching of Galatians 3:27. How so?
Many of those who practice infant baptism justify the practice by an appeal to Old Testament circumcision – arguing that baptism is the New Covenant sign that fulfills the Old Covenant sign of circumcision. They argue that, since male Jewish children in the Old Covenant received the covenant sign, children of believers in the New Covenant should as well – because God is a respecter of families and invites families to be part of the covenant. Since circumcision was a covenant sign of promise, baptism is also a covenant sign of promise. But this is problematic for several reasons:
First, consider the the situation in Galatia. What was Paul addressing? Paul was talking about Judaizers who were demanding that believers be circumcised. If the Apostles and New Testament writers had conceived, understood, and taught a type-antitype, one-to-one correspondence between circumcision and baptism, why would the circumcision controversy have arisen in the first place? If the covenant sign has simply been replaced, why not just say so? The Apostles could have said, “Don’t worry, my friends! The Gentiles have been circumcized by being baptized! The covenant sign has been replaced. Why all the fuss?”
Now paedobaptists will answer – correctly – that those questions are too simple by far, that the situation is more complicated than that. And they’re absolutely right. The Judaizers were turning circumcision into a required work, teaching that you had to be circumcised in order to be a Christian. If Paul had simply appealed to baptism as the answer to circumcision, he would have turned baptism into a required work. Obviously, Paul wouldn’t do that. (Ironically, that’s what some people do with Baptism. They say, you have to be baptized in order to be a Christian. Paul’s teaching denies that.) The Judaizer problem was in their whole approach. They failed to see that circumcision was ‘temporary, anticipatory, and no longer necessary because we have a better covenant reality’. The important thing, according to Paul, is the reality – “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (5:6); “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (6:15). That’s what counts. Are you a new creation? The Judaizers needed to understand the ‘already’ aspect of being sons of God, new creations by faith working through love.
That’s the answer Paul gives in Galatians. But this answer proves too much for the paedobaptist argument! Circumcision was an external sign pointing to the need for an inward reality – which Paul says Christians now have! In contrast, Paul says here that Baptism is an external sign corresponding to an inward reality!1
By comparison, see Romans 2:28-29, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit.” Also Romans 9:6-18, “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring”.
Paul makes the the same argument in Gal.4:27-31: Just because you are a natural-born son does not make you supernaturally a child of the promise. Similarly, just because you are a child of a believer does not make you a child of the Spirit.
Paul’s argument in Galatians depends on the ‘already’ aspect of the New Covenant – that believers (whether Jewish or Gentile) are full sons of God through faith in Christ, having ‘grown up’, having clothed themselves with Christ in their baptism, having received full adoption as sons, and the accompanying experience of sonship through the Spirit. Baptism as clothing is the pivotal sign of the spiritual reality of the Christian experience!
Meanwhile, the practice of infant baptism, justifying it with a connection to circumcision, makes baptism simply an external sign without the internal reality, which makes it a worthless external sign and a step backwards in redemptive history. It actually undermines Paul’s argument in Galatians. Paul would then say at that point, ‘Neither baptism counts for anything nor unbaptism, but only new creation.’
In the New Testament conception, baptism is a robust New Covenant sign. In the New Testament, it symbolizes four key ideas:
1) It’s a symbol for the beginning of the Christian life. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus said, “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” In Acts 2:37-42, when Peter preached at Pentecost, the crowds were convicted and said, ‘What must we do?’ And Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism was meant to be a rite beginning your Christian life.
2). It’s a symbol for new creation and new birth. In Romans 6:1-4, Paul says, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” That baptism was a symbol of dying and rising to newness of life. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, he says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (cf. John 3:3-8, Ezekiel 36:25-27).
3) It’s a symbol for the present reality of repentance, faith, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:1-17, John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Yet he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In Acts 10, when the first Gentiles trusted in Jesus and the Holy Spirit fell upon them, Peter asked, “‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
4) It’s a symbol for death and resurrection. Normally, Baptism is done by immersing a person (or putting them totally under water) and then bringing them back up out of the water. This symbolizes – not only being washed from your sins – but putting to death an old way of life, and being raised from the dead to walk in a new life. Colossians 2:12 says, “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. And you God made alive…” (cf. Romans 6:1-4).
So when a person is baptized, it’s a way of saying – I believe God has already changed me; I believe in Jesus that he has forgiven me and washed me of my sins through his death on the Cross, and now I am following him with my life and want to be known as a Christian and follower of Jesus.
[In the next and last post, I will seek to show how Paul’s clothing metaphor for baptism helps us understand baptism as a means of grace…]
1. Numerous paedobaptist commentators will admit that Paul’s focus in 3:27 is on the inward reality of baptism. Phil Ryken writes, “Here Paul is referring to the inward reality of spiritual cleansing by faith, and not simply to the outward sign of water baptism” (Galatians – p.145). But this arbitrarily disconnects the inward reality from the outward sign in a way contrary to Paul’s argument.