A Presbyterian (Finally) Gets Acts 2:39 Right
In a previous post God’s Covenant Unfaithfulness? I demonstrated the error in the illogical claim that in the Covenant of Grace God promises the salvation of our children, concluding that “Physical heritage is irrelevant to God’s promise to save the elect.”
Advocates of the Federal Vision heresy have tried to take this false premise to its logical conclusion.
Steve Schlissel, pastor of the independent Messiah’s Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, wrote on a whiteboard during a colloquium on Federal Vision theology in August 2003 hosted by Knox Theological Seminary, “The children of believers are saved.”
(Evangelizing Our Children, 3)
Federal Visionist John Barach says
[T]here is an objective covenant made with believers and their children. Every baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union then with Christ and with the Triune God.
(Evangelizing Our Children, 2)
The obvious problem is that our experience and (more importantly) Scripture teaches us that not all of the children of believers are, in fact, saved. Federal Visionist Doug Wilson notes
In faith, we want to say that children of believers are saved. But we are not making a categorical statement of the “All P are Q” kind. We are saying that we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too. Now these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment. How are we to account for this?
(Evangelizing Our Children, 3)
E. Calvin Beisner (OPC, see 4 page bio) does an excellent job of refuting this error in an essay titled Evangelizing Our Children: A Reformed and Covenantal Practice. What sets Beisner apart in all of his writings is his understanding of and adherence to logic (see his Summary of Major Concepts, Principles, and Functions of Logic). In this paper, he demonstrates that Wilson’s attempted solution (“levels of discourse”) is illogical and therefore false. He pinpoints the Federal Vision’s error as their premise that God has promised the salvation of our children.
The Federal Visionists have not provided any promises of God of type (1), “All children of believers–or all baptized persons–are people who are saved.” Consequently it is of no use for Wilson to say, “we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too,”… Neither is it of use for Wilson to say, “these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment.” That in itself assumes what the Federal Visionists must prove–that God has promised the salvation of all children of believers (or all baptized persons).
Beisner demonstrates that the logically inescapable conclusion is that
He has not promised the salvation of any children of believers or baptized persons simply because they are children of believers or baptized persons… [Thus] it is possible for any or even all children of believers, or baptized persons, to be damned. [emphasis original]
This is exactly what we concluded previously. “Physical heritage is irrelevant to God’s promise to save the elect.”
Beisner recognizes this conclusion has serious consequences for various passages that paedobaptists frequently use as proof texts.
What then are we to make of those precious passages with which we began? What of Peter’s statement, “The promise is for you and your children”? What of Paul’s that the child of even just one believing parent is “holy”? What of his promise to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”? What of God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you”? Perhaps we need to look at them a little more carefully.
Commenting on Acts 2:39, Calvin says
Whereas he adjoineth their children unto them, it dependeth upon the words of the promise: I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed after thee, (Genesis 17:7,) where God doth reckon the children with the fathers in the grace of adoption. This place, therefore, doth abundantly refute the manifest error of the Anabaptists, which will not have infants, which are the children of the faithful, to be baptized, as if they were not members of the Church.
In his excellent two-part essay on Acts 2:39 in Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, Jamin Hubner notes
the phrase ‘everyone who the Lord our God calls to Himself’ is entirely absent from [Calvin’s] commentary. This is particularly troublesome since he normally does not exclude entire phrases like this… This is what pushes readers away from the fact that Peter is talking of God’s elect (“everyone the Lord God calls to Himself”) – whether they are Jews or Gentiles, children or adults.
Francis Turretin (1623-1687) says in the 15th Topic of his classic work The Institutes of Elenctic Theology:
XIV. The reasons [for seminal faith in infants] are: (1) the promise of the covenant pertains no less to infants than to adults, since God promises that he will be ‘the God of Abraham and of his seed’ (Gen. 17:7) and the promise is said to have been made ‘with the fathers and their children’ (Acts 2:39). Therefore also the blessings of the covenant (such as “remission of sins” and “sanctification”) ought to pertain to them (according to Jer. 31 and 32) and are communicated to them by God according to their state.
The Westminster Confession of Faith references Acts 2:39 in defense of infant baptism in 25.2 and 28.4. Hubner notes “Combined with what appears to be loyalty to Calvin, there is, then, a repetitious pattern of errors in interpreting Acts 2:39 throughout much of history.” Thankfully, because of his commitment to logic, Beisner is willing to abandon that loyalty.
Consider first Peter’s comment in Acts 2:39. Thus far we have quoted only part of it. The whole of it is, “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Are those who insist that here is a promise of the salvation of the children of believers as quick to say that here is a promise of salvation “for all who are far off”? Those are not simply the children of believers; those include all men everywhere in the world. But does God promise salvation to all men everywhere in the world. Certainly not. Neither, then, does He promise salvation to all the children of believers. What does He promise, then, to all the children of believers and to all people everywhere? Look at verse 38–and I’m going to use my own very literal translation here to make clear the grammatical cause-and-effect relationship that is clear in the Greek but ordinarily gets obscured in English translations: “Y’all repent for the remission of y’all’s sins, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and y’all will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”… The promise is conditional: If you repent and believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll be forgiven. That promise does indeed apply to each and every child of each and every believer; and it also applies to each and every other person who ever lived or ever will live.
That is precisely what baptists have been saying for quite a long time. The logically necessary conclusion, as Hubner notes, is that
“Those who received his word and their children were baptized” is not in the text, nor would it fit any concept asserted in Acts 2. Baptism in Acts 2, in Acts in general, and in all the New Testament is consistently associated with repentance and faith… So no matter how one puts it, Peter is not asserting in Acts 2 that one should be baptized apart from repentance. He is asserting quite the opposite! This is a fact of the text (and all of Scripture) that stands in contradiction to infant baptism and simply will not go away: repentance from sin is a precondition to baptism…
Alas, the historical interpretation of Acts 2:39 has been anything but sound in the Reformed faith. Therefore, let us turn the tide by letting the Word of God speak on its own terms, and be willing to test our traditions. Only then are we truly practicing sola Scriptura. Amen and semper reformanda.
God uses false teaching to drive us to His Word. Look at any great creed or confession and you will see that it was formed in the midst of rigorous dispute. Presbyterian critics of the Federal Vision are frequently accused of making baptist arguments. Perhaps the Lord will use the Federal Vision heresy to drive Presbyterians to greater consistency, as it has done to Beisner.
If Acts 2:39 is a conditional promise to everyone in the world and is not unique to the children of believers, how does Beisner interpret Genesis 17:7?
And finally consider God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you.” Does this imply that every physical descendant of Abraham–or even every one of his own direct, first-generation offspring–would be saved, that none of them would go to hell, all would go to heaven? Certainly not. As Paul explained in Romans 9:6-8… Likewise he wrote in Galatians 4:22-31… Notice that: “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise.”…
Haven’t we heard some similar phrases somewhere else? Yes! In John 1:10-13, John tells us that the incarnate Word, Jesus, “was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world”–those who had no special relationship to Abraham–did not know Him. He came to His own”–that is, to the Jews, the children of Abraham according to the flesh, “and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them”–whether those of the world, or those of Abraham according to the flesh–“as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Beisner is clear that he believes God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 was made only to his spiritual offspring, both Jew and Gentile. God’s promise “to be God to you and to your descendants after you” does not refer to Abraham’s physical offspring.
If that is the case, then the circumcision of Abraham’s physical offspring is entirely unrelated to this promise. But Scripture clearly says circumcision was directly tied to this covenant promise.
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:9-11 ESV)
How are we to resolve this dilemma in a logically consistent way? John Owen untied this Gordian Knot by recognizing the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant and his seed.
Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant: —
First, That according to the flesh he should be the father of the Messiah, the promised seed; who was the very life of the covenant, the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it. That this privilege was temporary, having a limited season, time, and end, appointed unto it, the very nature of the thing itself doth demonstrate; for upon this actual exhibition in the flesh, it was to cease. In pursuit hereof were his posterity separated from the rest of the world, and preserved a peculiar people, that through them the promised Seed might be brought forth in the fullness of time, and be of them according unto the flesh, Romans 9:5.
Secondly, Together with this, he had also another privilege granted unto him, namely, that his faith, whereby he was personally interested in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise, to be brought forth from him into the world. On the account of this privilege, he became the father of all them that do believe: for “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham,” Galatians 3:7, Romans 4:11: as also “heir of the world,” Romans 4:13, in that all that should believe throughout the world, being thereby implanted into the covenant made with him, should become his “spiritual children.”
4. Answerably unto this twofold end of the separation of Abraham, there was a double seed allotted unto him; — a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh; and a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God…
Long before Owen, Augustine made the same observation.
Now it is to be observed that two things are promised to Abraham, the one, that his seed should possess the land of Canaan, which is intimated when it is said, “Go into a land that I will show thee, and I will make of thee a great nation;” but the other far more excellent, not about the carnal but the spiritual seed, through which he is the father, not of the one Israelite nation, but of all nations who follow the footprints of his faith, which was first promised in these words, “And in thee shall all tribes of the earth be blessed.”…
Abraham, then, having departed out of Haran in the seventy-fifth year of his own age, and in the hundred and forty-fifth of his father’s, went with Lot, his brother’s son, and Sarah his wife, into the land of Canaan, and came even to Sichem, where again he received the divine oracle, of which it is thus written: “And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said unto him, Unto thy seed will I give this land.” (Gen 12:7) Nothing is promised here about that seed in which he is made the father of all nations, but only about that by which he is the father of the one Israelite nation; for by this seed that land was possessed…
[T]he people were settled in the land of promise, so that, in the meantime, the first promise made to Abraham began to be fulfilled about the one nation, that is, the Hebrew, and about the land of Canaan; but not as yet the promise about all nations, and the whole wide world, for that was to be fulfilled, not by the observances of the old law, but by the advent of Christ in the flesh, and by the faith of the gospel.
And as Jonathan Edwards observed, the covenant promise “to be God to you and your offspring after you” had a dichotomous meaning: typological and anti-typological.
That such appellations as God’s people, God’s Israel, and some other like phrases, are used and applied in Scripture with considerable diversity of intention…
with regard to the people of Israel, it is very manifest, that something diverse is oftentimes intended by that nation being God’s people, from their being visible saints, visibly holy, or having those qualifications which are requisite in order to a due admission to the ecclesiastical privileges of such. That nation, that family of Israel according to the flesh, and with regard to that external and carnal qualification, were in some sense adopted by God to be his peculiar people, and his covenant people…
It is to be noted, that the privileges here mentioned are spoken of as belonging to the Jews, not now as visible saints, not as professors of the true religion, not as members of the visible church of Christ; but only as people of such a nation, such a blood, such an external and carnal relation to the patriarchs their ancestors, Israelites according to the flesh…
To that nation he fixed his blessing by his covenant with the patriarchs. Indeed the main thing, the substance and marrow of that covenant which God made with Abraham and the other patriarchs, was the covenant of grace, which is continued in these days of the gospel, and extends to all his spiritual seed, of the Gentiles as well as Jews: but yet that covenant with the patriarchs contained other things that were appendages to that everlasting covenant of grace; promises of lesser matters, subservient to the grand promise of the future seed, and typical of things appertaining to him… And in this sense it was that the very family of Jacob were God’s people by covenant, and his chosen people; even when they were no visible saints, when they lived in idolatry, and made no profession of the true religion.
On the whole, it is evident that the very nation of Israel, not as visible saints, but as the progeny of Jacob according to the flesh, were in some respect a chosen people, a people of God, a covenant people, an holy nation; even as Jerusalem was a chosen city, the city of God, a holy city, and a city that God had engaged by covenant to dwell in…
That nation was a typical nation. There was then literally a land, which was a type of heaven, the true dwelling-place of God; and an external city, which was a type of the spiritual city of God; an external temple of God, which was a type of his spiritual temple. So there was an external people and family of God, by carnal generation, which was a type of his spiritual progeny…
they are not God’s Covenant people, in the sense that visible Christians are.
May we all follow Beisner’s example and strive to be logical consistent with God’s Word. And may Beisner continue to follow the logic and recognize that Genesis 17:7 is no basis for infant baptism.
(To see all of this worked out in a systematic manner, please see http://www.1689federalism.com)