Church,  Theology

Paedobaptists and the Problem of New Covenant Regeneration

Reformed paedobaptists view the new covenant as an extension of the old covenant, not as its replacement,[1] although as I argued before, the new covenant is discussed in terms of replacing the Mosaic covenant. However, in Reformed paedobaptist thought the newness of the new covenant is usually thought to refer to external aspects only. For example, Jeffrey Niell notes, “The newness of the new covenant pertains to the external aspects, the outward administration, of the covenant of grace. The new covenant is not new in its nature of membership.”[2] In other words, “The transition from the old covenant to the new covenant is a smooth unfolding of God’s redemptive plan, because the two covenants are organically connected—they are essentially one covenant of grace.”[3]

Photo of paedobaptists performing infant baptism

However, an examination of the texts concerning the new covenant leads one to observe there are significant qualitative differences between the old and new covenants.[4] Although there could be a variety of these qualitative differences pointed out, I will focus on the regenerative capacity of the new covenant,

The Complete Regenerative Capacity of the New Covenant

In Jeremiah 31:31–34 we have the clearest Old Testament annunciation of the new covenant. This passage is all the more important due to the argument of Hebrews quoting it in 8:8–12 as evidence that the old covenant was inferior, and has been replaced by this new covenant. The text is as follows:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Jer 31:31-34

We should note, first of all, that the Lord says this new covenant will be “not like the covenant I made with their fathers.” The implication is that as interpreters we should be expecting dissimilarity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant.

As part of this new covenant, God promises that “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord” (Jer 31:34a). The phrase, “they shall all know me” has been interpreted in a variety of ways.  

The Baptism Debate

“They Shall All Know Me” as a New Priesthood

Niell describes the phrase, “they all know me” in Jeremiah 31:34 (cf. Heb 8:11) as referring to the cessation of the Levitical priesthood.[5] He writes, “The conclusion that the Levitical priesthood and its attendant duties are in view is based on the immediate context and an understanding of the place and function of the priests in the old covenant administration of the covenant of grace.”[6] He argues for this viewpoint on the basis that the priests typically had a special relationship before the Lord, which involved teaching and instructing others about the Lord. In the old covenant, those who were laypeople were unable to approach God in the same was as the priests, but the distinction of the new covenant, according to Niell, is that everyone (“from the least to the greatest of them”) will now know God in the same way the Levitical priests did.

Although not the majority position among Reformed paedobaptists, it is worth making some comments on the unlikelihood of Niell’s view.[7] First of all, the phraseology of knowing someone often has relational implications in both Old Testament (e.g., Gen 4:1; Ps 88:9 [8]; Amos 3:2, etc.) and New Testament (e.g., Matt 11:27; Luke 2:44; John 17:3; 1 Cor 1:21, etc.). Typically when a person is the object of a verb of knowledge, a relationship seems to be in view. Thus, for Niell to argue that a special Levitical knowledge is in view here is not the most natural interpretation of this phrase.

Second, the context of the new covenant passages forbids such an interpretation. Most scholars agree that Jeremiah 30–33 forms one unit in Jeremiah, a section which has named “The Book of Consolation,” due to the hope and encouragement found therein.[8] Within this section, while discussing the surety of Israel’s future, twice God promises that there will not be a lack of a Levitical priest (Jer 33:18, 22). In other words, it seems quite unnatural to see Jeremiah 33:34 as promising the Levitical priesthood would end, while having Jeremiah also promise that the priesthood will continue.

“They Shall All Know Me” as a Promise of Community-Wide Regeneration

A much more popular view among Reformed paedobaptists is represented by Richard Pratt. Pratt takes the much more natural view of what it means, “they shall all know me,” when he writes,

“In a word, to know God as Jeremiah spoke of it would be to receive eternal salvation. In the covenant of which Jeremiah spoke, salvation would come to each participant. There would be no exceptions.[9] However, this is potentially problematic for the Reformed paedobaptist. Pratt raises the pertinent issue, “How can we believe in infant baptism when God himself said that the new covenant would be inviolable, internalized, and include only those who know the Lord?”[10]

The crux of Pratt’s argument is that, although Jeremiah 31:34 refers to an entirely regenerate covenant community, that promise will only find complete fulfillment at the return of Christ. In Pratt’s words, “Once Christ returns, it will not be possible to break the new covenant and thereby to enter into another exile. Before that time, however, participants in the new covenant can break the new covenant.”[11] In other words, new covenant participants in today’s church can (and often do) break the covenant by apostatizing into unbelief. However, after Christ comes, the fullness of the new covenant will be present, and there will be no more covenant breakers.[12] Thus, the new covenant, like the old covenant will be a mixed community until the return of Christ.

The way that Pratt argues for this position is to point to a threefold fulfillment pattern of the new covenant. He argues that the new covenant includes three aspects:[13]

  • Future planting of God’s people in the land (vv. 27–30)
  • Future new covenant with God’s people (vv. 31–37)
  • Future rebuilding and permanence of the holy city (vv. 38–40)

Pratt explains,

Because the New Testament does not explicitly apply this threefold fulfillment pattern to Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant, the fulfillment of that particular prophecy is often misunderstood. Often interpreters approach this text as if the new covenant was realized in its fullness when Christ first came to earth, but this is a serious error. Christ has not yet completed the restoration, and thus we have not yet obtained the promised blessings in full. The new covenant was inaugurated in Christ’s first coming; it progresses in part during the continuation of Christ’s kingdom; but it will reach complete fulfillment only when Christ returns in the consummation of all things. We must approach Jeremiah 31:31–34 just as we approach all prophecies regarding the restoration after exile: with the understanding that the restoration of the kingdom and the renewal of the covenant will not be complete until Jesus returns.[14]

I agree with Pratt that the new covenant has not been completely fulfilled at this point in history.[15] Clearly the restoration of the land to Israel has not taken place yet (Jer 33:11b; cf. Ezek 36:24), and the nation of Israel has not been made into “one nation in the land” with “one king over them all” (Ezek 37:22). Paul also anticipated the restoration of Israel at a future time as per the promise of the new covenant (Rom 11:25–26).

However, the major problem with Pratt’s view is not in seeing a difference between the inauguration of the new covenant and its ultimate consummation; but rather that Pratt’s view of the new covenant sees no distinctly new elements in operation now—every new element of the new covenant awaits the consummation. As Waymeyer notes,

The underlying problem with this view is that although the New Testament does indeed teach that there are both present (inaugural) and future (consummate) aspects of the New Covenant, Pratt seems to want to reserve all of its distinctively new elements for the consummate state and deny them all to the inaugural state. The end result is that life under the New Covenant is just like life under the Old Covenant because nothing changes, at least not during the present age.[16]

Similarly, Waldron writes, “As with the Old Covenant, so with the New Covenant: some break the covenant, some don’t; some have their sins forgiven, some don’t. Pratt’s argument seems to strip the New Covenant of any newness whatsoever.”[17]

It seems justifiable to ask what the point of the new covenant is if it is essentially identical to the old covenant (a point that the author of Hebrews would hotly contest).[18]

[D]o paedobaptists really believe that, prior to the announcement of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–34, the Jews thought that God’s covenant people would continue to be a mixed community of believers and unbelievers even in the age to come? If not, what (if anything) new did this prophecy actually communicate to the nation of Israel when it was first delivered? There was always a spiritual Israel within physical Israel (Rom 9:6b), and there was always going to be a time when only true believers would be resurrected unto everlasting life (Dan 12:2). Where, then, is the newness of the New Covenant in Pratt’s paradigm, and what tangible impact does it have in the present age?[19]

Exegetically, we are obligated to distinguish the new covenant from the old. Jeremiah 31:32 describes this new covenant as one that is dissimilar to the old. Jeremiah 31:33–34 then describes the differences. First, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”[20] This statement speaks of the new heart God will give his people (cf. Ezek 36:26). No longer will the life be governed from laws written on stone tablets, but internal compulsion of a renewed heart will mark the covenant members (cf. 2 Cor 3:3; Gal 5:18).[21] Second, God promises that “they shall all know me,” speaking of the relationship formed with God through faith.[22] Third, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Within Jeremiah 31:31–34 these three descriptions form the backbone of the spiritual blessings of the new covenant. It is much more exegetically consistent to see the new covenant speaking of a different kind of covenant than what was experienced by Israel in the Old Testament. This new covenant promised a new covenant community which was marked by forgiveness of sins, every member being regenerate, and each member being guided by the inner compulsion of the Spirit of God.

[1] Booth, “Covenant Transition,” 175.

[2] Jeffrey D. Niell, “The Newness of the New Covenant,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 155.

[3] Booth, “Covenant Transition,” 199.

[4] It should be noted here that this is perhaps the primary argument by credobaptists who hold to a covenant of grace. They will argue that the qualitative change between old and new covenants is so drastic that the current manifestation of the covenant of grace does not include baptism of children.

[5] Niell, “The Newness of the New Covenant,” 147–53.

[6] Ibid., 148.

[7] For a full response to Niell’s discussion on the newness of the new covenant, see James R. White, “The Newness of the New Covenant (Part 2),” in Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, ed. Richard C. Barcellos (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2014), 360–74.

[8] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 336.

[9] Richard L. Pratt Jr., “Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 161. Emphasis added.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 169.

[12] Ibid., 173. “Until the consummation, the new covenant will continue to be a mixture of true believers and sanctified unbelievers.”

[13] Ibid., 164.

[14] Ibid., 168–69.

[15] Contra White, “The Newness of the New Covenant (Part 2),” 380. White argues, “We suggest that any concept of partiality stands in direct opposition to the apologetic thrust of the writer himself. If we take the inspired interpretation of the New Testament as our norm, we must reject the partial fulfillment theory based upon the usage of the text itself.”

[16] Matt Waymeyer, A Biblical Critique of Infant Baptism (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2008), 115–16.

[17] Samuel E. Waldron, “A Brief Response to Richard L. Pratt’s ‘Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,’” Reformed Baptist Theological Review 2 (2005): 110.

[18] It should be noted that some interpreters are completely fine saying the new covenant is essentially equal with the old covenant.

[19] Waymeyer, A Biblical Critique of Infant Baptism, 116.

[20] On this point Pratt holds to a partial fulfillment as well when he writes, “while the internalization of the law of God has begun within believers, it has not yet been completed.” Pratt Jr., “Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,” 171. In response to this point, Pratt seems quite inconsistent to say the writing of the law upon the heart of an individual is only partial, while forgiveness is fully realized. There is no exegetical warrant to make such distinctions. It certainly seems much more exegetically justified to read the entirety of the spiritual blessings of the new covenant as fully operational.  

[21] Leslie C. Allen, Jeremiah: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 356.

[22] F.B. Huey, Jr., Jeremiah, Lamentations, New American Commentary 16 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 285.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

One Comment

  • Alexander Krause

    Isn’t the Old Covenant defined as: “for the person who obeys them will live by them” (Lev. 18.5)? This is how Paul seems to identify it (Rom. 10.5, Gal. 3.12). Then Paul goes further in Gal. 3.19 stating that this promise actually referred to Christ. It seems in Paul’s thought that the two aspects of the O.C. (law keeping and sacrifice) were fulfilled in Christ. Who is going to argue against this view of Christ’s righteousness keeping the commandment and thus our sacrificial representative (Rom. 5.12-21)?
    Paedobaptizers seem to want something to do something for their children just as the Israelites were given this ritual for their offspring. I think they are confused since the rite was a sign of heart circumcision which, later, in the Prophets, they were called to perform (by repentance). No one will argue that all Israelites (who were circumcised) were regenerated. Therefore, to what did this sign refer? Again, Paul makes clear its fulfillment in Phil. 3.3. At circumcision, flesh is removed-signifying works of the flesh. The Spirit enables good deeds, not the flesh is what Phil. 3.3 seems to be saying. Hence, this sign pointed to regeneration (heart circumcision), and not baptism. Yes, baptism also refers to identity with Christ in death to self (the flesh), but this is an adult decision. Infant sprinkling doesn’t really picture anything and is not a Christian rite (in my opinion). Covenant Theology would be better losing infant sprinkling.

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