Our children are not pagans – “aliens and strangers to the covenants of promise” – but are truly “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:12, 19).
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. 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” (Acts 2:38-39).
The guys at Sinners and Saints Radio have posted the latest audio episode of their critique of John MacArthur’s accusation that infant baptism is “devilish.” You can listen to Episode 8 here, which focuses on Peter’s words in Acts 2:38-39.
MacArhturs’s HEX-egesis leads him to believe that “your children” refers only to generations of Jew and Gentile believers, “The reference is to… the promise is for you and your children, that is generation after generation of Jews and to the Gentiles, the ones who are far off.” But who was Peter’s audience? They were devout Jews who have been circumcising their children for thousands of years, and who knew what God said when he cut his covenant with Abraham, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7). What was the sign of this covenant? Circumcision. Who received this sign? Future generations of Abraham’s descendants? Yes, but they included his own sons: 13-year-old Ishmael and newborn Isaac (Gen 17:11-13).
Peter intends to be understood and so appeals to Joel’s prophecy about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit “on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), which all devout Jews must have been longing for. His commands at the end are about covenant solidarity, “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off”
(Acts 2:39). MacArthur ignores the covenant expansion in Genesis 12:3 of which all devout Jews knew, wherein God promised Abraham, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
When they asked Pilate to crucify Jesus, the Jews accepted this covenant solidarity even in their crime, “Let his blood be upon us and our children!” (Matt 27:24-25) This covenant solidarity is also Peter’s basis for condemning his Jewish audience of their crime against Jesus, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
Devout Jews were very knowledgeable of Scriptures that confirm covenant solidarity from their fathers to their children from generation to generation:
Psalm 103:17-18: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.”
Psalm 105:8-9: “[The Lord] remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham.”
Mary: “And [the Lord’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation… as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:50, 55).
Zechariah: “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:72-73).
When Jesus was born and the magi inquired where “the king of the Jews” would be born, the chief priests and scribes knew his birthplace was in Bethlehem from their knowledge of the prophets (Mic 5:2). Even Jesus recognized their knowledge, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life” (John 5:39).
After they heard Peter’s condemnation of their crime against Jesus, the Jews were “cut to the heart” and asked, “What shall we do?” to which Peter replied, “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”
(Acts 2:38). Peter exhorted them to repent of their self-righteousness and rejection of Christ, and be baptized with water in the name of the Trinity as a sign of the forgiveness of their sin, the gift of Holy Spirit. This forgiveness is the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-29 and also of Ezekiel 36:25-27,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
As in many other places, water symbolizes the cleansing power of the Spirit, which is the forgiveness of sins (Isa 44:3; John 4:13-14; 7:37-39; I Cor 12:13; Heb 10:22). God’s covenant promise is forgiveness of their sins, and of their own children, and of the rest of their household, because the blood of Jesus is on their own hands down to their own children. Even unbelieving Jews knew about the covenant headship of Adam with regards to original sin!
And God’s promise of blessing to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 is not only to his children—those who are “near”—but to “all the families of the earth.” This is confirmed in Isaiah 57:19, “Peace, peace, to the far and to the near.” So it is no surprise that Peter also knows what Isaiah prophesied centuries before him when he told the Jews, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off.” Thus, Paul also alludes to Isaiah’s prophecy when he assures Gentile believers in Ephesus,
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near (Eph 2:13-18).
This is covenantal inclusion and expansion in the new covenant under Christ, in opposition to MacArthur’s teaching of covenantal exclusion of infants in the new covenant. Picture this: You are a Jew with infant children who have been circumcised as members of God’s covenant people. You heard Peter’s witness and then believed and repented of your sins. You asked to be baptized, and your children too. But to your anguish, the apostles told you that only adults are to be baptized. “What? In the old covenant, my children were included, but in the new covenant, they’re excluded? Are they now in effect to be considered as pagans?!” And yet, from the thousands of Jewish converts who were schooled in covenant solidarity principle for 2,000 years, there is not a single hint of protest that can be found in the early church.
Notice also that in Acts 2:38-39, repentance, baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit are all mentioned. Where is faith? Nowhere.
So then, are all infants of believers who are baptized saved? Again, another misconception—water baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise of salvation to infants who later believe. This is what Q&A 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism says,
Question 74. Are infants also to be baptized?
Answer. Yes, for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and through the blood of Christ both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed.
Infant baptism is not administered to children of believers so they will be automatically regenerated, but in order that they may be “distinguished from the children of unbelievers” because the whole household of the believing covenant head belongs to God. Old Testament Israel circumcised their infants to distinguish them from all others who are not members of God’s covenant people. This means that unlike MacArthur and other credobaptists, we may rightly teach our children to sing,
Jesus loves me this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong,
They are weak, but He is strong.
Our children are not pagans—“aliens and strangers to the covenants of promise”—but are truly “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:12, 19).
Thus, MacArthur’s claim that infant baptism is not present in Acts 2:38-39 or any other place in Scripture is a result of his “goofy” method of interpretation: put your hand on the text, and cover everything that you don’t want yourself and others to see, and pretend that they don’t exist.[ref]A few years ago, I heard a similar statement. A Bible study leader told his group that he was instructed by their pastor to stay in the text at hand, and not to go to any other texts, to make the study simple. What conclusion would result if one read Acts 2:38 apart from all other Scripture? MacArthur’s.[/ref]