As we have been studying the issue of baptism together on Sunday mornings, we’ve read one passage each of the last two weeks that is sometimes used as a support for paedobaptism (infant baptism). It is Acts 2:37-39. Peter has just preached his Pentecost sermon and the people want to know how they should respond:
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"
38 And Peter said to them, "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.
39 For 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." (Act 2:37-39)
The critical words are in v39 – “for the promise is for you and for your children.” As I mentioned last week (and will explain in greater detail this week), paedobaptists lean heavily on the connection between the covenants to support the practice of baptizing infants. They hold that just as circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. Since infants were circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant, they should also be baptized under the New Covenant. Believers and their children were members of the Abrahamic covenant and the same should be true of the New Covenant. Acts 2:39 is seen as an indication that this is what God intends for us to understand. The New Covenant is for believers and their children.
John Murray, a systematic theology professor at Westminster Theological Seminary until 1966, wrote, “The argument, reduced to its simplest terms, is that the seals of the covenant pertain to those to whom the covenant itself pertains. But that the covenant pertains to infants is clear from…Acts 2:39. From God’s ordinance his grace extends from parents to children.” Thus, paedobaptists understand the text to indicate a special promise to the children of believers, which ensures that they are part of the covenant community and different from the children of unbelievers.
Whether or not it is legitimate to make such a tight connection between the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant is something we will address in the next couple of Sundays. For now, let’s concern ourselves with whether or not it is appropriate to use Acts 2:39 in this way. The main problem with this interpretation of Acts 2:39 is that it seems to remove one phrase from consideration. That is, it seems to interpret the verse as if the verse reads, “For the promise is for you and for your children, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” But the verse actually reads, “For 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.”
First of all, what is the promise? V38 tells us, “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The explicit promise is the reception of the Holy Spirit for those who repent. To whom is this promise made? The promise is made to “you”, “your children,” and “all who are far off.” “You” refers to the Jews listening to Peter’s sermon, and “your children” refers to the Jews’ offspring. “All who are far off” seems to be a reference to the Gentiles (cf. Eph 2:11-13). So the promise is made to all the Jews and the Gentiles. In other words, the promise is for everyone, which Peter then qualifies by saying, “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
The three phrases (“you,” “your children,” and “all who are far off”) are parallel and must be taken together. According to Acts 2:39, the promise is equally applied to the three. We cannot say that there is something special about the first and second group (“you” and “your children”) that is not true about the third group (“all who are far off”). So if this verse is a warrant for considering one group to be members of the covenant, it is a warrant for considering all three groups to be members of the covenant. If it is a warrant for baptizing one group, it is a warrant for baptizing all three.
The final phrase of the verse (“everyone to whom the Lord our God calls to himself”) must be considered in order to determine the implications for the argument for infant baptism. The word “calls” can be interpreted in two different ways, neither of which are a help to the paedobaptist. If “calls” refers to the outward, general call of the gospel, then the promise is for all who hear the gospel. In this case, paedobaptists must explain why they do not baptize all people who hear the gospel, regardless of their response to the gospel. In other words, this promise does nothing to distinguish the children of believers from anyone else who hears the gospel. If they baptize their children and not everyone else who hears the gospel, they are selectively applying the verse.
On the other hand, if “calls” refers to God’s irresistible grace, then the promise is for the elect only. In this case, in order for paedobaptists to use this verse to support the baptism of infants, they must be willing to presume the election of their children, a presumption without Biblical support. No, if the promise is for the elect only, then only those who give a credible profession of faith should be baptized, which is precisely what happened in the following verses, for it was only “those who received his word” who were baptized (Acts 2:41).
It is an inappropriate use of Acts 2:39 to employ it in defense of infant baptism. In order to be consistent, either paedobaptists need to support the baptism of all who hear the gospel or they need to admit that they presume the election of their children. But paedobaptists do neither of these things, which points to the inconsistency of the position.
What is the appropriate way to understand Acts 2:39? All who repent, whether Jew or Gentile, will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. But what about baptism? Only those who receive the gospel, who actually repent, should baptized (Acts 2:41).
Posted by Greg Birdwell