Questions & Answers

Infant Baptism or the New Covenant?

Dr. Gentry:

By conviction I am a paedobaptist. But I have been studying the arguments that support a Reformed Baptist perspective. Much of their case seems to rest upon a particular interpretation of Jer. 31:31-34. They conclude that since this prophecy indicates that all members of the new covenant will know the Lord there is therefore no basis for baptizing infants (who are incapable of faith) and including them within the new covenant community. The point seems to be that a primary distinction between the new and old covenants is that under the new covenant there would be no members bearing the covenant sign unaccompanied by faith as there were under the old covenant. How would you respond to this objection to infant baptism? E.G., Pennsylvania

Dr. Gentry's response:

This is an excellent question. Let us consider it.

Just briefly I would point out that the focus in Jer 31 is on the nation's disobedience to God despite God's goodness to them (Jer 31:31-32). In contrast to their previous disobedience, God declares that the coming new covenant will have a spiritual power that the old covenant did not have. That is, through the new covenant God will write the law on the heart's of men (Jer 31:33).

This is his point: the promise of spiritual strength for insuring covenantal obedience. His point is not to define (or redefine) covenantal membership, but to promise strength for covenantal obedience through the internalizing of his law (by the Spirit, cf. Rom 8:1-4).

When he states that "they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them" (Jer 31:34), this must be understood as over against their former disobedience. God reminds them of their past when he speaks of "the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke" (Jer 31:32). Thus, we must stick to his point: Israel of old disobeyed God, therefore God will correct the problem by internalizing his law.

Consequently, we must understand that in this new prophetic scenario he is setting future (mature) obedience over against the past (mature) disobedience. I doubt if v 32 would imply that the infants broke the covenant when they came out of Egypt, any more than 1 Cor 10:7 implies that infants "sat down to eat and drink and stood up to play" which involved acting "immorally" (1 Cor 10:8), testing the Lord (1 Cor 10:9), and grumbling (1 Cor 10:10). Likewise, here in Jer 31 God does not have in mind the infants when he speaks of the spiritual internalization of the law in the future new covenant. To bring in infants in this context is to mix apples and oranges against the express context of comparison of adult actions.

The reference "from the least of them to the greatest of them" (Jer 31:34), then, does not mean that the entire covenant membership in the new covenant era will have faith and knowledge of God (in an mature sense), so that we may surmise that by definition God no longer includes those incapable of mature faith. Rather, it means that all of the people in consideration who are involved in the particular problem in view (that problem being overt covenantal disobedience, such as not capable by an infant), will have the spiritual power for obedience under the new covenant. This is his point, and nothing more.

That he is speaking of adult problems (and therefore does not even consider the question of covenantal membership) is also indicated in the context: it also focuses on faithlessness and intentional behavior such as is incapable for infants to commit: "Set up for yourself roadmarks, / Place for yourself guideposts; / Direct your mind to the highway, / The way by which you went. / Return, O virgin of Israel, / Return to these your cities" (Jer 31:21). This is not a call to eight day old members of the covenant, but their representatives. Likewise the new covenant promise does not deal with the question of membership but of conduct.