To Thee and Thy Seed?: A Critical Review of Paedobaptism 

By Timothy J. Etherington


In this paper I will address the typical Westminster Presbyterian understanding of infant baptism. There are other types of paedobaptism such as sacramentalism, however, I will only interact with the Westminster Presbyterian understanding because it is based on Covenant Theology, a view I share.

Baptism and Circumcision

In paedobaptists’ desire to see harmony in God’s covenants, they recognize a continuity of the sacraments. That is to say, the Lord’s Table in the New replaces Passover in the Old Covenant. Likewise, circumcision in the Old Covenant is replaced by baptism in the New. When the differences between Old Covenant sacraments and New Covenant sacraments is pressed, paedobaptists’ will generally reply that there is continuity and discontinuity between the covenants.

It is my contention that discontinuity is assumed not because of biblical demands but for convenience of argument. For example, paedobaptists will point out that the children of covenant members were included in the Old Covenant and there is no explicit command to stop including them in the New Covenant, therefore, it is up to detractors of infant baptism to prove that the practice has ceased[1]. This is the strongest argument for infant baptism since they have nothing to prove; detractors must prove the cessation of infant covenantal inclusion.

The weakness of this all too convenient argument is that it assumes that circumcision is replaced by baptism. A fair question to ask if there is any biblical warrant for this. Typically, paedobaptists will answer emphatically “Yes!” and point to Colossians 2:11-12. And indeed, there does appear to be a connection between circumcision and baptism in these passages[2]. However, a second look at Colossians 2:11 will show that the circumcision spoken of there not Old Covenant circumcision. Paul, in that passage, speaks of a circumcision “made without hands” and one that is “the removal of the body of the flesh,” he ends by calling it “the circumcision of Christ.” This is certainly not the circumcision given to father Abraham and carried forward into the Mosaic covenant. Paul is emphatic about these very issues in Ephesians 2:11 when he says that that circumcision “is performed in the flesh by human hands.”  What a stark contrast! The circumcision spoken of in Colossians 2:11 is something new and different.

But Colossians 2 is not the only place in the New Testament that places baptism beside something from the Old Testament. In 1 Corinthians 10:2 Paul says that "all were baptized into Moses" not in circumcision but "in the cloud and in the sea." The paedobaptist might quickly point out that 'all' in this case would include their infants. That is true, but it would also include their livestock! This is the same problem if Noah is called in as an example (1Pt 3:20-21.) Noah brought his children into the ark with him, that is true, but his children were grown and had wives. Furthermore, the animals joined him in the ark as well. So if we are going to use these examples to justify paedobaptism then we must unfortunately include the, children regargless of age (and faith), their wives and husbands, and all the household pets in the baptism.

But back to the original point, here are two examples of Old Testament 'baptism' which do not draw a connection between circumcision and baptism. Indeed, Noah and his household were 'baptized' before there was circumcision as a covenant sign! But at this point the paedobaptist might simply be content to rely on 'continuity and discontinuity' as an explanation. It seems to me that there is much more discontinuity ithan continuity.

New Testament Circumcision

What we see from scripture is that circumcision in the New Covenant is not baptism, it is what was pictured, promised and continually called for in the Old Covenant: regeneration. It would be an odd leap to go from the removal of the foreskin of an eight-day old male child to a rite involving water and Trinitarian formula. The continuity there seems too fragmented unlike the smooth transition from the Passover meal to the Lord’s Supper. However, if external circumcision pictured an internal circumcision, a circumcision of the heart, then the continuity in this sacrament would be just as smooth as the transition from Passover to the Lord’s Table.  As we have seen in Colossians 2:11, the circumcision Paul spoke of there involved “the removal of the body of the flesh...done without hands.” In Romans 2:29 Paul clearly states that “circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit.”

But was this not a reality in the Old Covenant, this circumcision of the heart?  Apparently not a consistant one, for God repeatedly called for physically circumcised Israel to “circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer” (Deut. 10:16). He promised through Moses that “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deut 30:6). Through Jeremiah He called Israel to “circumcise yourselves to the LORD and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it” (Jer. 4:4). Jeremiah later prophesied “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised . . .for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart’” (Jer. 9:25-26). It was quite possible to be circumcised and yet uncircumcised. Under the Old Covenant, circumcision pictured a changed heart, a heart inclined towards God and His law. Yet, it was only a picture and not consistently the reality and it was applied to infants upon whom the reality might or might not dawn.

However, under the New Covenant, the reality has come and circumcision has not translated into a water rite but moved inward. As eight-day old infants were unable to do anything to include themselves in the covenant and had to depend upon the faithfulness of their father, so we are helpless to bring ourselves into covenant with God, we must wait upon our Father to wield the knife of the Holy Spirit upon us that we may be included in the covenant. “For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:3).

But what of the apparent connection in Colossians 2:11-12? Well, if the baptism spoken of there is the rite of water baptism, the clear connection is between regeneration and baptism. Also, note the state of those baptized in verse 12. They were “buried with Him” and “raised with Him through faith.” Those who are involved with Christ in this way are those who have been redeemed. Indeed, the next verse again brings up circumcision and regeneration so this discussion of baptism is boxed in with this concept.

A common question asked of Baptists at this point is if we baptize based on an infallible knowledge that the person is saved. Of course we don’t. We can only see the outside of a person; God knows their heart. What we believe we should do is baptize based upon a credible profession of faith, the very thing a regenerate or saved person would do.

Covenantal Seed

The next argument for paedobaptism is, in my opinion, by far the strongest. The great theologian John Murray states it quite succinctly, “In the absence of…evidence of repeal we conclude that the administering of the sign and seal of the covenant to the infant seed of believers is still in operation and has perpetual divine warrant.”[3] If we are to avoid the error of dispensationalism that draws a sharp contrast between the Old and New Covenants claiming that what is not repeated in the New is not binding from the Old, we must show a reason why automatic infant inclusion is not an aspect of the New Covenant. The burden is upon us if we are to be baptistic and covenantal and it is a burden we must not take lightly.

Having said that, I must begin by pointing out and correcting errors in Murray’s statement in order to peel it back to the substance of the position.  The misconception that circumcision has been replaced by baptism has been discussed above.  Next we see that Murray has assumed that the sign and seal of the New Covenant is baptism even though it is never called that in scripture. Actually, the Holy Spirit is our 'seal' and our 'pledge' in the New Covenant (see 2Co 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14; 4:30)[4]. Finally, to say that application of the covenant sign and seal “to the infant seed of believers is still in operation” assumes that the sign was applied “to the infant seed of believers” previously. This is not necessarily so. Under the Old Covenant, an unbelieving father could apply circumcision to his unbelieving son and unless either of them violated the Law in some fairly specific ways, they remained in covenant with God. The quote above from Jeremiah 9 shows that circumcised Israel who faithfully circumcised their infants remained uncircumcised in their hearts. Part of the newness of the New Covenant is that it cannot be broken like that (Jer 31:32-33).

Having stripped back the errors we may reword the statement “In the absence of evidence of repeal we conclude that automatic covenant inclusion of the infant seed of covenant members is still in operation and has perpetual divine warrant.”

It is important to remember that an explicit repeal (as Murray demands) need not be produced.  Were paedobaptists faced with the demand for an explicit biblical command to baptize female infants (following their erroneous continuity between circumcision and baptism), for example, none could be produced. Both sides in this discussion are working from inference. Besides, if there were an explicit repeal, this discussion would never have begun!

The End (Telos)[5] of Covenantal Seed

To begin to answer Murray's charge then, let me first ask if the concept of 'covenantal offspring' has ended in any of God’s covenants, in other words, is it in the realm of plausibility? This in and of itself will not prove the end of automatic infant inclusion in the New Covenant but will prepare the ground for the argument since it will show at least the possibility of the cessation of the concept. It may also point us to the reality these seed promises pictured.

When we look at the covenant God made with David, we find a promise of covenantal seed that is fulfilled in Christ. “The relation established between ‘son of David’ and ‘son of God’ at the inauguration of the Davidic covenant finds consummation at the coming of Messiah. Jesus Christ appears as the ultimate fulfillment of these two sonships.”[6] All of the promise of the Davidic Covenant was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, Paul says in Acts 13:23 (KJV) “Of this man's [David's] seed hath God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Savior, Jesus.” We don’t look for another king to sit on David’s throne; the reality that that covenant spoke of has come. Jesus fulfilled God's covenantal promise “I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (1 Sam 7:12b-13). In picture and form David’s offspring, especially Solomon, sat on their father’s throne but Christ is the reality promised. He is repeatedly referred to as the ‘son of David’ (Mat. 1:1, Luke 1:32, Acts 13:22-23, Rom. 1:3, 2 Tim. 2:8, Rev. 22:16) and rightly so!

So at least in the Davidic covenant, the concept of covenantal seed found fulfillment and it finds its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ. Does this apply to other covenants involving seed? It is generally agreed that the Seed of Eve promised in Genesis 3:15 was a promise of the coming Christ, so the ‘seed’ aspect of the Covenant of Grace finds it fulfillment in Jesus also, or do we continue to look for another?

Though these two covenants are ancillary to the issue we can see that there is biblical warrant for finding the concept of covenantal seed fulfilled in Christ. Further, this fulfillment need not be explicitly stated in scripture to be true[7]. However, the issue at hand remains the Abrahamic Covenant.

The paedobaptist line of reasoning may be summed up as something like this: the Abrahamic covenant included Abraham and his offspring[8], the Mosaic covenant assumed the offspring concept from the Abrahamic, therefore, the concept of covenantal inclusion for offspring continues into the New Covenant.

This begs the question, what about the period before Abraham? The truth of the matter is that there was no external covenantal sign before Abraham that was applied to individuals. Individuals were included in the Covenant of Grace solely by trusting in the promise of a coming Redeemer. This eliminates a significant portion of redemptive history from the practice of automatic covenantal inclusion of offspring!

However, if we found that the seed promised in the Covenant of Grace and the Davidic covenant culminated in Jesus Christ, we must ask whether the same is true of the Abrahamic covenant. Paul is explicit on this in Galatians 3:16, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” In at least one aspect, the seed of the Abrahamic is fulfilled in Christ. In the context of Galatians 3, Paul is comparing meriting reward based on law or promise and explains that the Law did not nullify the promise. Later he states “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (v 22b). So, when we consider who are Abraham’s offspring, we read that “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (v 29). Jesus is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic seed and we are children of Abraham only as we are in Christ, the True Seed.

If it is indeed true that we see Jesus sitting at the head of all the covenantal promise of seed as it’s ultimate fulfillment, then there are other issues implied by it. I presume this to mean the old covenantal bonds between father and son are completed in Jesus. This explains why the New Covenant promise that “everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:30) applies. Men represented their progeny in the Old Covenant so that when Eli’s sons sinned greatly before the LORD, He curses Eli’s house this way “I will cut off every man of yours from My altar” (1 Sam 2:33a). Indeed, God had said that He would visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and forth generations of those who hate Me.” However, consider the curses of the New Covenant. The two examples that come to mind are the one on Ananias and Sapphira and on Simon Magnus. In both cases, the curses are confined to the individuals involved. We don’t know that Ananias and Sapphira had children for the curse to be passed on to. The same might be said about Simon Magnus, but the point is that no curse was pronounced on their lines. The nature of the covenantal curse is no longer on the man and his descendants, but on the man himself. Again, this may not conclusively prove the end of “to thee and thy seed” but it does show yet another aspect of the concept terminated in the New Covenant.


I have shown that in every administration of the Covenant of Grace, the covenantal promise centered not on 'thy seed' in general, but specifically on the fact that it was through the seed of covenant members that the work of Satan would be undone (Gen 3:15) and that "all nations would be blessed" (Gen 22:18) and that an eternal kingdom and throne would be established (2Sa 7:12-13). And these are precisely the promises which are fulfilled in the New Covenant, since it was inaugurated by the 'Seed to come' Who had finally come. No longer would the people of God cherish the promise that it would be through their seed that salvation and worldwide blessing would come. Covenantal promises with respect to one's descendants are fulfilled in the arrival of Jesus Christ; to continue practice based upon that promise is a sad anachronism in the age of fulfillment[9].

Closing Thoughts

The concept of the Church is at stake in this discussion. I am not referring only to the idea of the purity of the Church. Both Baptists and paedobaptists will (or at least should) admit that there are hypocrites and false professors in the Church. I am referring to what the Church is. Paedobaptists would say the church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (WCF 25.2). The problem with this is that Paul said that Jesus purchased the church “with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). To add “and their children” must mean that Jesus purchased believer’s children by His blood in the same way that He purchased believers if those children are truly in the church.

This knife cuts both ways. If both credobaptists and paedobaptists acknowledge non-elect, unredeemed persons in the church, the Baptists must answer this charge too. I cannot answer for all covenantal Baptists, but I would answer the charge for myself this way. We know that Jesus did not shed His blood in a saving manner for all men. Through Him, God is reconciling all things to Himself (Col. 1:20, 2 Cor. 5:19) so there is a way in which Christ died to reconcile the entire world and a way in which He died only for His elect. That line of demarcation lies at the entrance to the Church. With the paedobaptist inclusion of believer’s children prior to any credible profession of faith, either a third category is invented or the line is erased. As a Baptist, I would say that the hypocrite has only a superficial association with the Body of Christ and is not in a real sense part of the Body. It is as if a virus invaded your body, it is in you but not truly part of you. John says this of those who either left the church or were excommunicated in 1 John 2:19. They went out because they were not really a part. A reason Christ gave His church procedures for church discipline that include opportunities for repentance is so that real believers will act like real believers and hypocrites will act like hypocrites. Since we are fallible, it won’t work properly every time but it will help us separate, as best as we can, the sheep from the goats until the Master Shepherd comes and does it perfectly. While for paedobaptists, the curses of the New Covenant apply to their children if they don’t come to faith, for a credobaptist the curses apply to false professors, those who have deceived themselves and the church, for whom not a drop of Jesus’ blood was shed as it was for the Church.


[1]See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, p556. where he says “The ‘onus probandi’ [burden of proof] rests on those who take the negative on this subject.”

[2] It is interesting to note that agreeing with this point does not necessarily lead to infant baptism. See David Kingdon's (a Reformed Baptist) book The Childern of Abraham (London: Carey, 1973) p. 28 and even Paul K. Jewett seems to concede the point in Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1980) p 96.

[3] Christian Baptism, p. 50

[4] My thanks to Joel Rishel for this insight.

[5] Telos is the Greek word meaning the end-goal, not necessarily just the termination.

[6] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of The Covenant (Phillipsburg:P&R, 1980), p. 233

[7] Romans 16:20 very clearly alludes to the promise of Eve's Seed but stops short of explicitly stating that the Seed is Christ. Paul appeals to the promise here in showing how the Seed will bruise the serpent's head, namely through the church.

[8] Once again, the biblical example cited is no friend to the paedobaptist argument. In Genesis 17 when the 'covenant of circumcision' (Acts 7:8) was enacted, thirteen year-old Ishmael is circumcised (Gen 17:25). Yet, God had already made it clear that Ishmael would not inherit the covenant promises (vv 18-19). If this is exemplary of New Covenant baptism realities, then even teenage children who are clearly have no interest in the covenant must receive the 'sign' because of their believing parent.

[9] This paragraph is a paraphrase of Greg Welty's comments on an early verion of this paper which I posted it to the Reformed Baptist Discussion List. Used here with permission.

© 2002 Timothy J. Etherington
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