Baptism and the New Covenant in Brief

The New Covenant is the mechanism of delivery for the Gospel, which God preached beforehand to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3b; Gal 3:8).

Salvation is accorded to New Covenant participants who believe (Gen 15:6), and those individuals are described as the “sons of Abraham,” and comprise the many nations to whom Abraham is father.

The common features of God’s covenant/words/promise(s) to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 are that God will bless, God will multiply, and God will give the land, also that this will all be done through Abraham and his offspring.

Circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and was the sign feature of Abraham and his descendants “keeping” their obligation in this covenant relationship. “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:10). The problem, of course, is that Abraham’s descendants don’t keep their side of the bargain; they neither walk blamelessly before God nor circumcise every male on the eighth day.

So long as this covenant depends on the actions of the human participants it is the Old Covenant (“All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Ex. 24:3 “All that the LORD has spoken we will do and we will hear/obey” Ex. 24:7 “circumcise your hearts” Dt 10:16) The key, however, is that God is going to keep the covenant, as is foretold in Deuteronomy, where before the book ends God has promised, “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Dt. 30:6).

As Jeremiah makes clear, the promise of the New Covenant is that God is going to circumcise their hearts, aka, “write [the law] on their hearts… for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:31-34). These are obvious descriptions of the details of the Gospel promise(s).

So, while circumcision is the sign of the Old Covenant (“which you shall keep”), baptism becomes the sign of the circumcision of the heart. That sign—as is fitting of a superior covenant (Heb. 7:19, 22)—is applied not just to the men, but to every participant in the family of those descended from Abraham by faith.

In the same way as circumcision was given to all who were a part of the Old Covenant family, but it did not impart salvation, so the New Covenant sign is applied to all born into the New Covenant family, though the sign does not impart salvation.

How, someone might ask, do we know that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant?

First, because it is a sign of a spiritual act: the circumcision of the heart, rather than a physical act executed upon the old man. Second, because Paul states that we have been “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death so that we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). Third, because Peter writes that “baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Finally, because Paul tells us that “the circumcision of Jesus Christ is having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith,” which takes us right back to Abraham, who was credited righteousness because of faith, and whose descendants are those who believe—those “of faith.”

The inescapable conclusion is that baptism is the sign of New Covenant identification, which like the Old Covenant sign, is given both to new converts and the offspring of covenant participants. Like the Old Covenant sign, the New Covenant sign does not itself save but signifies the saving work of God through Christ.

The Definition of Sin

I recently listened to the guys from CrossPolitic converse with Greg Johnson, the pastor of the PCA church hosting the Revoice conference. I appreciated how hard they worked to convey a different perspective to their guest. As I listened, however, it became apparent that the fundamental difference dividing their thinking from that of their guest was the definition of sin. I think the CrossPolitics guys recognized this as well, but I would like to suggest that our definition needs to take one more step.

Yes, sin is missing the mark. Yes, sin is lawlessness, but I think more important today is the realization that sin is anything less than the glory of God. That mark of complete impossibility is what we must repent of. The law is a detailed explication of what the glory of God looks like in action; a description of the character of God in all its glory.

Pastor Johnson is struggling with the idea of asking folks to repent of something non-volitional (and there is much more that should be said on that topic), but if sin is understood biblically, we must all be repenting of falling short of the glory of God, not just of willful sins, but of the state of being a corrupted image.

Only then can we fully embrace the need to turn our hearts (and our feet, our lips, our eyes, etc.) away from anything but the glory of God, that consuming light where some sweet day we will once again be able to discern nothing detailed about the other except their being robed in the glory of God (and therefore be unashamed). O to no longer regard each other according to the flesh!

I love the Anglican confession that contains these three descriptors, reminding us that we “have sinned…through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.”1 Too often these days, we recognize only “deliberate” sins as sin, and while it is easy to agree that we were “conceived and born in iniquity and corruption” (to quote Calvin’s liturgy2), I suspect it puts the proper point on it to recognize and acknowledge that sin is falling short of the glory of God. Which of us Pharisees has the hubris to think we’ve met that standard?

Though I would set myself up for constant disappointment, I would like to hope that I never again hear that tired question/challenge: “Are you saying that _______ is a sin?” Yes, yes, I am; we are literally wallowing in sinfulness, and the Lord loves a broken spirit and a contrite heart; a heart that spends so much time gazing upon Christ that it realizes ever more fully how far short it falls, and therefore glories in the chesed (חֶסֶד )in which we move without condemnation, a heart that clings to the Father who knows our frame and remembers that we are but inglorious dust.

Footnotes

  1. Common Worship: Holy Communion | Confession
  2. Jonathan Gibson. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present (Kindle Locations 5792-5802). New Growth Press. Kindle Edition.