Covenantal Baptism, Part I: Old Testament Origins

By Ian Hodge, 1990


In the year 871 A.D., a young king came to the throne in a land torn by warfare and strife. At the age of 21, this young man assumed an enormous responsibility. His country had been invaded and almost completely overrun by people who did not believe in the God that he believed in. They were pagans, intent on pillage, rape, and living off their conquered foes. They were barbaric parasites, living off the economic productivity of their captives who became their slaves. The invaders had sailed in from the north in their long ships, and their military might was such that none had been able to halt their quest for domination of foreign lands. Steadily they encroached on more and more of this young king’s territory, slowly establishing their rulers in the provinces — governors who would maintain allegiance to the invaders.

This young king, Alfred by name, who inherited only a fraction of what was once a large and prosperous land, had other ideas. He believed that this foreign invasion was the handiwork of the God of the Bible, who was inflicting punishment on the people of his nation for their disobedience to the moral requirements found in the Holy Scriptures. Thus, when he inherited the throne, he began a strange course of action. Once he had established that he was unable to beat the invaders militarily, he began a tactic which, to the modern world, appears to be bizarre for one under siege in his own land. Instead of planning a military strike against the invaders, he began a task of Christian reconstruction to rebuild the remains of his nation in terms of biblical law.

First, he searched abroad for biblical scholars who would come to what remained of his country and teach the people the Holy Scriptures. He built churches and monasteries, and insisted that the people be taught and educated in the ways of God Almighty.

Second, he urged that the Scriptures should be translated into the national language. Since this young king was apparently unable to read or write, he imposed upon himself the task of mastering the skills of literacy so that he too could participate in the translation work of the Scriptures. Before he died, he left a legacy of translated Psalms and a choice selection from the early church fathers for his people to read in their native tongue.

Third, he set about establishing justice and righteousness in the land in terms of biblical moral standards. The Ten Commandments became the basis for law and order in his realm. Portions of the Bible, Old and New Testament, such as Exodus chapters 20-23, were written verbatim into the laws of the land. So vigorous was he in applying standards of biblical justice and righteousness in his realm, that a biographer, who wrote while this king was still on the throne, could say:

Throughout the entire kingdom the poor had either very few supporters or else none at all, except for the king himself; not surprisingly, since nearly all the magnates and nobles of that land had devoted their attention more to worldly than to divine affairs; indeed, everyone was more concerned with his own particular well-being in worldly matters than with the common good.

King Alfred used also to sit at judicial hearings for the benefit of his nobles and the common people, since they frequently disagreed violently among themselves at assemblies of ealdormen or reeves, to the point where virtually none of them could agree that any judgement reached by the ealdormen or reeves in question was just. Under pressure of this intransigent and obdurate disagreement, the separate parties could undertake to submit to the king’s judgement, a procedure which both parties quickly hastened to implement. However, if anyone considered that some injustice (as he saw it) might arise in the case, he would not willingly submit to the decision of such a judge, although by force and stipulation of the law he would be constrained to be present, even against his will. For he knew that none of his malice could remain there unexposed for long — not surprisingly, since the king was an extremely astute investigator in judicial matters as in everything else.

He would carefully look into all the judgements which were passed in his absence anywhere in his realm, to see whether they were just or unjust; and if he could identify any corruption in those judgements, he would ask the judges concerned politely, as is his wont, either in person or through one of his other trusted men, why they had passed so unfair a sentence — whether through ignorance or because of some other malpractice (that is to say, either for love or fear of the one party or for the hatred of the other, or even for the sake of a bribe). Accordingly, if the judges in question were to confess after all that they had indeed passed judgement in such a way because they had not known better in the circumstances, then the king, admonishing their inexperience and foolishness with discretion and restraint, would reply as follows: ‘I am astonished at this arrogance of yours, since through God’s authority and my own you have enjoyed the office and status of wise men, yet you have neglected the study and application of wisdom. For that reason, I command you either to relinquish immediately the offices of worldly power that you possess, or else to apply yourselves much more attentively to the pursuit of wisdom.’

Having heard these words, the ealdormen and reeves were terrified and chastened as if by the greatest of punishments, and they strove with every effort to apply themselves to learning what is just. As a result nearly all the ealdormen and reeves and thegns (who were illiterate from childhood) applied themselves in an amazing way to learning how to read, preferring rather to learn this unfamiliar discipline (no matter how laboriously) than to relinquish their offices of power.

But if one of them — either because of his age or because of the unresponsive nature of his unpractised intelligence — was unable to make progress in learning to read, the king commanded the man’s son (if he had one) or some relative of his own, or even (if he had no one else) a man of his own — whether freeman or slave — whom he had cause to be taught to read long before, to read out books in English to him by day and night, or whenever he had the opportunity. Sighing greatly from the bottom of their hearts, these men regretted that they had not applied themselves to such pursuits in their youth, and considered the youth of the present day to be fortunate, who had the luck to be instructed in the liberal arts, but counted themselves unfortunate because they had not learned such things in their youth nor even in their old age. Even though they ardently wished that they had been able to do so. . . .[1]

The results of the efforts by this young king to recapture his beloved country were to be felt for generations. In fact, they would be felt for well over a thousand years. Even within his own lifetime — and he died at the age of around 50 — this king was able to secure the remaining territory he ruled against the foreign invaders, then slowly push them back, little by little (cf. Ex. 23:30). On one notable occasion in 877, he personally baptised one of the defeated kings who had promised to accept Christianity. This man, once the enemy, was then showered with gifts and returned as a crusader for the Christian faith to his own people. So remarkable were the achievements of this young ruler that within two generations the savage invaders were pushed out of the nation — from its southern to its northern border.

The story of this great and noble king is true, for the king’s name is Alfred, his realm was England, the invaders were the Vikings, and there is not one of us alive today in the English-speaking world who does not owe a debt of gratitude to Alfred the Great for his remarkable achievements. For example, our English Common Law system, so severely under attack today, originates from Alfred’s insistence that the Scriptures were the basis for all proper law and government. The freedoms we have come to cherish also can be traced to Alfred and his application of Biblical principles of government.

But this story of an ancient king bears testimony to the truthfulness of one of the great themes in the Bible — possibly the greatest theme of all, the covenant. Alfred the Great knew that the way to win a military war was not to have the biggest army, nor the strongest warriors, nor weapons more powerful than the enemy. Alfred knew that if the people of England would be faithful to the God of the Bible then this God would go into battle for them and they would be able to defeat their enemies with ease. In other words, he believed that the covenantal conditions of the Old Testament applied in the New Testament era.

Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.

Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him.

But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy to thy enemies, and an adversary to thy adversaries (Ex. 23:20-22).

Thus, the achievements that have surrounded the English speaking peoples are testimony of the continued faithfulness of the God of the Bible throughout the centuries toward those who maintain the covenant with Him.

Biblical Opposites

Covenant is a biblical term: we read about it in the Bible in several places, especially the Book of Hebrews. What is not realised, often, is that our Bible is made up of an Old Testament and a New Testament, and that the word testament is the same word in the original languages as the word covenant. There is, therefore, an Old Covenant and a New Covenant.

One problem we face when discussing the covenant is that our view is coloured by recent theological developments. By recent I mean over the past two hundred years or maybe a little less. With the rise of the Plymouth Brethren movement, and the eventual publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, a view known as dispensationalism provided us with a thoroughly incorrect view of the Old and New Testaments, and therefore an incorrect view of Old and New Covenants. Dispensationalism places law and grace into opposition with one other. It claims that the Old Testament teaches that salvation is obtained by keeping the law, whereas the New Testament teaches salvation by God’s grace.

In the Bible, however, law and grace are never opposed. What the Bible does put in opposition is not law and grace but law and sin. Sin is, according to I John 3:4, “lawlessness” (greek: anomia). “Whoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law.”

On the other hand, the Bible does contrast grace with the false notion that man can save himself, that somehow he can get himself into heaven by his own efforts (Eph. 2:8-9). Scripture makes it clear that a man can no more get himself into heaven by his own efforts than he can lift himself off the ground by pulling on his own bootstraps. Both are impossible achievements.

What is a Covenant?

A covenant is often falsely equated with a contract. A contract is where two parties come to an arrangement with each other by mutual consent. A simple example is a buying and selling contract, where the seller agrees to supply a certain kind and quantity of goods of a particular quality on the understanding that the buyer will hand over a certain amount of money. A house purchase is one illustration of a contract.

A covenant, on the other hand, is something that is imposed by a higher power upon a lesser power. It is not an amicable agreement which two parties arrive at through negotiation. It is something imposed upon another with or without his consent. The two alternatives involved for the lesser authority are either to obey or disobey the terms of the covenant. He does not have an option that would somehow permit him to avoid the covenant and its conditions, unless it is possible to totally escape the jurisdiction of the higher authority. Since we’re dealing with God’s covenant, and His jurisdiction is inescapable, there is no way to avoid this covenant. All people are inextricably bound up in the terms of the covenant — whether they like it or not.

Our concern here, however, is not with the various parts of the covenant. What we are interested in is understanding what a covenant is in its general sense, and the ramifications of such a covenant.

An obvious mark we can see in a covenant pattern is that of imposition.  We find it right at the start of the Bible, in the creation account. God did not sit down with His potential world and negotiate a deal whereby He agreed to do certain things agreed upon as a result of this negotiation with His future world. On the contrary, God created all things “out of nothing.” There was no pre-existent matter with which He could discuss anything. Rather, God created all things according to the counsel of His own will. Creation had no chance to have “input” into the design concept. Even in the case of man we find that God created him, male and female, not by a common consensus among the parties, but by His sovereign decree.

Equally important, God imposed upon mankind at that time certain moral requirements. Adam and Eve could eat anything in Eden except fruit from the forbidden tree. The consequence of disobedience would be the pain of death, not only upon Adam and Eve, but upon all their posterity. This fact is clear: when Adam acted he acted on behalf of himself and the whole of mankind. He was our representative, chosen not by us, but by God Himself.

The Covenant Sign — in the Old Testament

The covenant is again made clear with Abraham. Certain conditions were imposed upon Abraham and those whom he represented. Thus his children and his servants were to receive the covenant sign — circumcision — so that they would know that they too were included in the covenant as the recipients of God’s blessing. For to be outside the covenant was to receive the wrath of Him who instituted the covenant. To be uncircumcised was to be “cut off” from the people; such a person, said God, “has broken My covenant” (Gen. 17:9ff).

Now it might have occurred to some in Old Testament times to ask a very important question: “How do I know if I’m inside the covenant?” The answer to such a question is clear. For the male, he would have the sign of the covenant cut into his body. This was the evidence that he was “in” the covenant. For the female, she would know she was in the covenant because either her father if she were unmarried, or her husband if she were married, would bear the mark of the covenant; and either her father or husband would be her representative, thus placing her in the covenant as well.

While each generation born into the covenant was placed there by birth, it was up to each generation to confirm the covenant by keeping the covenant conditions. This would include placing the covenant sign on the next generation, as an act of declaration to say: we are maintaining the covenant. It is clear in Scripture that the covenant conditions were more than just the act of placing the covenant sign upon each male on the eighth day; there was an obligation to obey all the commandments of God as He revealed them to His people.

It is worth noting this point carefully, for it will have a great bearing on how we understand New Testament Christianity. Each generation was born into covenant Israel. They did not come into it by choice, although one born outside the covenant could be a recipient of the covenant sign, which would bring him, his household — that is, all those represented by him — into covenant-keeping relationship with God also. Once one generation was faithful to the covenant, all succeeding generations were immediately born into the covenant-keeping relationship, although at any time a generation could become unfaithful to the covenant and refuse to act accordingly.

Notice that the covenant was inescapable. Adam could not escape the covenant. He could either obey the terms of the covenant and receive the blessings that were promised for covenantal faithfulness, or he would disobey and receive the cursings of the covenant. We see the pattern in Deuteronomy 28, where blessings and cursings are offered to Israel. Israelites could not escape the covenant: they would either obey or disobey. Either they would be blessed or they would be cursed. They could not escape the covenant and its implications.

In short, there was no choice involved for the Old Testament Israelite. The covenant was there, and an Israelite was born into it so that he received the blessings of the covenant from birth. He could not escape the covenant. There was no neutral territory to which he might escape, another nation where he might simply remove himself from the jurisdiction of the covenant God and all that He demanded. In other words, an Old Testament Israelite could not escape the covenant and its obligations simply by crossing the nearest border into a foreign nation, which is what Jonah attempted to do. There was no escape. There were only obedience and disobedience, blessings and cursings.

One point made very clear in the Old Testament is the importance of the covenant sign. So important is it, the promise of God is that the uncircumcised “person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Gen. 17:14). The human mind has trouble comprehending the nature of signs, just as it has trouble comprehending the nature of the Trinity. This is why it is so easy for rebellious man to fall into unitarianism of some form and deny the Trinity. Since understanding one God and three Persons is so difficult for finite man, he often resolves the problem by denying the fact.

So it is with signs. Man attempts to make the sign everything (realism), or else he denies that the sign has any significance at all (nominalism). To accept either realism or nominalism is to deny the biblical evidence. The sign is real. It is truly more than an empty symbol. Yet the sign is not everything. Trinitarian Christianity holds a balance between the two, yet like the sovereignty/free will argument, or the Trinitarian argument, the truth is not on one side of the argument or the other. Mankind holds to apparent contradictions because the finite human mind does not know how to eliminate the contradictions.<$FMan either holds to apparent contradictions based on biblical revelation, or else he throws knowledge out the door and escapes to irrationality. See C. Gregg Singer, From Rationalism to Irrationality: The Decline of the Western Mind from the Renaissance to the Present (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979).> Only in the mind of God are there no contradictions, for He alone is omniscient. Thus, man accepts the biblical evidence despite the logical problems for the finite, human mind.

The Covenant and Salvation

The covenant should not be confused with salvation, which it often is. To be in the covenant was the external and visible evidence that a person is a covenant child. However, since it is possible for the child to provide evidence through rebellion that indeed he was not a true covenant child, we cannot equate the visible covenant with salvation. Since it is not given to man to be able to read the heart of his fellow man, we presume that those who are visibly in the covenant (i.e. those who have received the covenant sign), and that those who visibly keep the covenant conditions, are indeed the true people of the covenant. Only in heaven will we find out for certain who was, and who was not, a faithful keeper of the covenant.

As suggested earlier, too often salvation is viewed like a contract: if man does this or that, then God will save him. But to reduce salvation to a contract is to deny grace and the sovereignty of God. God does not save people because they do something. They cannot work their way into a position where God is obligated to do something for them. Too often faith is made something of this nature. If we’re not careful, faith can become a work which man does, and God must reciprocate accordingly.

Faith, however, has no redeeming qualities in and of itself, except that it is the vehicle whereby man receives his salvation as a free gift from a sovereign God. Faith does nothing positive in salvation; it is merely the channel by which our salvation, the free gift of God, is received. This is contrary to the fallacy of Arminianism, which attempts to hold open the door of free will in the mistaken belief that once man freely chooses to believe, God is somehow obligated to save him. But if salvation depends upon man choosing to have faith, then it is little wonder that Arminianism soon falls into the belief that man can lose his salvation. After all, if man can elect himself to be saved, if faith is the “work” which makes salvation effective, then by the same notion he can un-elect himself by refusing to maintain his faith. This is clearly salvation by works, salvation obtained by man doing something and God responding to man’s actions. Such is not biblical salvation.

We see this pattern in the creation account. Was Adam born in some mythical world of neutrality, where he must do something to obtain eternal life? The Bible says Adam was made perfect, without sin. He was created by an act of God’s free grace and placed in Paradise because God freely chose to place him there. What Adam could do, and what he did do, was lose what he had by eating the forbidden fruit, thus bringing upon himself and all his offspring the due punishment which God had promised: death.

What we see in the creation of Adam we see also in the children of covenant-keeping parents. They are born into the covenant, not by choice, but by the grace of God. Those of us who were born into Christian families were not placed there by our own choice, but by the hand of a sovereign God.

Similarly, however, those born outside Christian families were placed there by the sovereign hand of God. The children of believers are born with all the blessings and advantages of the covenant, just as the children of unbelievers are born outside the covenant with all the curses and disadvantages of an outsider. As they become mature adults, covenant children have to continually affirm their commitment to the covenant and its conditions. By the same token, those born outside the covenant must also make a commitment to keep the covenant-breaking conditions into which they were born — or else they find salvation in Jesus Christ and accept the terms of His covenant. This is the paradox of human choice, set over against the sovereignty of God. What we cannot say, however, is that somehow man’s actions are beyond the control of an omnipotent and all-controlling God. This is the mistake of Arminianism.

(To follow: Part 2: The New Covenant.)



Footnotes    (↵back returns to text)

  1. From “Asser’s Life of King Alfred,” reprinted in Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, translators, Alfred the Great (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1983), pp. 109-110, italics added. (Paragraphing has been altered to make the material more readable.) This inexpensive paperback is a fine introduction to one of the great Christian men of history.↵back

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