Jeremiah 31: Contra Infant Baptism in the New Covenant?

Someone recently asked me how we are to argue against our Baptist brethren’s contention that Jeremiah 31 contradicts infant baptism. Dr. Richard Pratt’s article in the Reformed Perspectives 4:1  (1/7-13/2002), “Jeremiah 31: Infant Baptism in the New Covenant” is very helpful. Our Baptist brethren will greatly benefit in looking at the paedobaptist argument from this scholarly paper. Dr. Pratt is Professor of Systematic Old Testament at the Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida.

baptismal_font_medievalThe outline of his paper is as follows: “1) how Jeremiah’s prophecy is often used to argue against infant baptism; 2) the original meaning of Jeremiah’s prophecy; and 3) the New Testament’s outlook on Jeremiah’s prophecy.” In the first heading, he lists three ways in which Jeremiah 31 is used by Baptists in arguing against paedobaptism:

First, they point out that infant baptism contradicts Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant that couldn’t be broken, “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers … my covenant that they broke” (Jer 31:32). Second, the new covenant, they argue, is fully internalized, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). Third, Baptists contend that all participants in the new covenant are eternally redeemed; no one in the new covenant is unsaved, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer 31:34).

Dr. Pratt summarizes the structure of Jeremiah 31:31-34:

To begin with, Jeremiah says that the Lord will make a new covenant that cannot be broken; it cannot fail to bring wondrous blessings from God. When Jeremiah spoke these words, God had already begun to punish his people with foreign oppression and exile. Soon, Jerusalem itself would fall to the Babylonians. What was so remarkable about having another covenant in the future when the great covenant with Moses had failed to bring eternal salvation? The remarkable thing was that new covenant would not end in failure.

Then, Dr. Pratt establishes the context of the passage, and it is within the larger segment of Jeremiah 31:27-40. This larger passage is divided into three topics, introduced by “The days are coming…” and such other similar words:

• Future Planting of God’s People in the Land (31:27-30)
• Future New Covenant with God’s People (31:31-37)
• Future Rebuilding and Permanence of the Holy City (31:38-40)

He then summarizes this passage:

From this overview of the immediate context, we see that Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant fit within a threefold scenario for the restoration of Israel after the exile. Israel would return to the Promised Land, a new unfailing covenant would be established, and a glorious, holy Jerusalem would be permanently erected.

While Jeremiah 31:31-34 is situated within the larger segment of verses 27-40, it also falls within the context of the whole Old Testament prophecies of Israel’s restoration after its judgment, “Time and again OT prophets reiterated this ancient promise. Even as they threatened exile, they also assured God’s people of a wondrous restoration.”

How then should Christians look at Jeremiah’s new covenant, within its fulfillment in the New Testament? “[T]he fulfillment of the new covenant must be understood as part of a much larger set of hopes for the way things will be when the exile is completed.”

Jesus, Paul and the writer of Hebrews spoke about the fulfillment of these hopes, but not all at once, “Instead of happening completely and all at once, the restoration expectations were fulfilled and are being fulfilled over a long stretch of time… [Jesus] explained that the grand kingdom would begin very small, slowly grow, and finally reach full maturity.” All three saw the fulfillment of the promise of restoration in three stages: “the inauguration of fulfillment in the first coming of Christ; the continuation of fulfillment between the first and second comings of Christ; and the consummation of fulfillment at the return of Christ.” When this gradual threefold fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:31-34 is overlooked, the result is error:

Often interpreters approach this text as if the new covenant had come in its fullness when Christ first came to earth, but this is a significant error. Christ has not yet completed the restoration, and thus we have not yet obtained the promised blessings in full. The new covenant was inaugurated in Christ’s first coming; it progresses in part during the continuation of Christ’s Kingdom; but it will reach complete fulfillment only when Christ returns in the consummation of all things.

This threefold fulfillment serves as the backbone of the Baptists’ three arguments against infant baptism arising from this text. First, when Jeremiah says that the new covenant cannot be broken, he is speaking about the age to come when sin is completely overcome and righteousness reigns. True believers already participate in the new covenant, but they are still sinners till Christ returns.

Second, although new covenant believers have regenerated hearts and to a certain degree have the law within their hearts, “we are also commanded by NT writers to observe guidance from the Scriptures and to watch for corruption in our thinking.”

Third, although all new covenant believers receive the promises of salvation, there is no guarantee that all those who are baptized members of the new covenant community have received regenerated souls. Why would the NT contain all kinds of warnings about “brethren” falling away from the faith? Dr. Pratt concludes:

there are many in the new covenant community who will prove themselves not to be truly regenerate. Consequently, there is no need to withhold baptism from infants on the basis of Jeremiah’s new covenant expectations. Until the consummation the new covenant will continue to be mixed with true believers and sanctified unbelievers.

Finally, Dr. Pratt summarizes his paper:

[W]e have noted how the NT understands the fulfillment of restoration prophecies in three stages. All followers of Christ look forward to the day when this age of sin and death will be entirely replaced by the new world of blessing. At that time, there will be no bearing of children and the question of infant baptism will be moot. Yet, until that day we live in a time when the new covenant still includes people who become covenant breakers, who benefit only from the external dimensions of the new covenant, and who have never been regenerated. Until that time, we continue to have children to multiply and to fill the earth. As a result, we baptize our children as believers circumcised their sons in the OT. We baptize them as the expected heirs of the new covenant, those blessed with a heritage of faith and special privileges and responsibilities before God.

Over-realized eschatology has no place in the argument against infant baptism using the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

You can download Dr. Pratt’s whole paper here.

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