The deepest, most impactful, and assured fellowship with God through His Son has always occurred in the context of His Word. Reading it, meditating on it, and teaching/preaching it has always brought me into intimate fellowship with God (through the Person of His Holy Spirit) and other believers. This is perfectly reasonable since the Author of the Word indwells the believers who read that Word.
I’ve wondered about Acts 2:39 several times over the years. What did it mean that “the promise” (the Holy Spirit) was not just for the elect from the Jewish people, but their children, as well? I had always suspected it to be connected to Paul’s “Jew first” statements in Romans (1:16; 2:9,10). There was a sort of “priority of opportunity” for the Jewish people in relation to the Gospel because of their history with the covenant God all the way back to Adam, Seth, and so forth. However, the other day I was listening to some fellow believers (I was running, they were podcasting), and one of them alluded to this passage as a defense for pedobaptism. It was a good podcast – I appreciated their emphasis on the similarities between Reformed credobaptism and pedobaptism. But hearing this passage read aloud by someone else helped it “click” for me.
The inclusion of the “children” in this passage isn’t because they were to receive the “promise” through their parents, but because of who they were: old covenant Jews. Peter is teaching them that, under the new covenant, their children’s old covenant sign (circumcision) wasn’t going to be valid. They needed the new covenant sign and seal, baptism.
“Now there were Jews living in
devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the
crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing
them speak in his own language...Peter, taking his stand with the eleven,
raised his voice and declared to them: ‘Men of Judea and all you who live in
Jerusalem...men of Israel, listen to these words...let all the house of Israel
know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ - this Jesus Whom
you crucified.’ Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and
said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ Peter
said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ
for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy
Spirit. For 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.’ And with many other
words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from
this perverse generation!’ So then, those who had received his word were
Basics. Who’s speaking? Peter (2:14). To whom is the apostle speaking? Old covenant Jews. He is not speaking to the Church – it is the Church which is speaking (not just Peter, but all those who had received the Spirit, 2:4,7,11,15). He is speaking to those still living under the old covenant. Under the old covenant, those male “children” had received the sign of that covenant at eight days old (Genesis 17:12; Leviticus 12:1-3). Peter, in his Pentecost message, teaches discontinuity between the old and new covenants in regard to the sign.
While under the old covenant the “children” would have been included in the covenant by a sign administered to them on the eighth day of life, the new covenant required repentance prior to the administration of the covenant (Acts 2:38; the repentance is the result of the effectual call of God, 2:39, which manifests in a believing reception of the Word, 2:41). Baptism follows effectual calling, believing reception of the Word, and repentance. This is a discontinuity between the old and new covenant, and so Peter tells those who had an old covenant understanding that their “children” would receive the “promise” not in virtue of their being “children” (“circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel,” Philippians 3:5), but as a result of effectual calling resulting in reception of the Word, repentance, and baptism.
Children are included in Peter’s exhortation because they had received the seal of the old covenant (circumcision), but now needed to receive the new covenant seal (baptism), which came through a reception of the Word resulting in repentance.
So, the Jews and their children (under the old covenant) and Gentiles (“all who are far off,” 2:39) all come into the new covenant the same way, and that way is not as they came into it under the old covenant. Peter is teaching discontinuity.
Hear the Word of Christ. Believe. Repent. Be baptized, and enter the new covenant community of the Holy Spirit.
Peter, when he addresses “you and your children” in Acts 2:39, is not speaking to Presbyterians. He is speaking to old covenant Jews who need to understand the differences between the old and new covenant signs and how/when they are received. He’s telling them they need to become Baptists (I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek, but only partially) – hear, believe, be baptized.
Another thought came to me on this run. Presbyterians pose the question to Baptists about our children. If they aren’t “covenant children,” are they no different than the children of unbelievers? How horrible is that? Under the old covenant, children had covenantal status, but under the new they’re just run-of-the-mill pagans? How is the new covenant an improvement if this is true? Under the old covenant, of course, the circumcised were still required to hear, believe, and obey the Law when they reached the “age of accountability” (the existence of which I have no trouble affirming, cf. Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 7:15,16). We Baptists assert that the “children” of the new covenant are spiritual children, since the covenant is not bound to one ethnicity (extended family), but all peoples.
What about the biological children of Baptists? Yes, they are unregenerate until they hear, believe, and are baptized. Do they have an advantage over children of unbelievers? Yes, and there’s a New Testament category of person who is comparable: the old covenant Jew.
“Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1,2). Does this “advantage” make them part of the new covenant? No. “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28,29).
The children of Baptists have an advantage in that they are made familiar from an early age with the Word of God (an advantage the children of unbelievers do not have). “...from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
The status of Jews in the New Testament informs us about the status of unregenerate children of believers. They know of God and the Word, but are not yet reborn.
Now, I’m not trying to enter into debate about this with my pedobaptist brothers and sisters. We haven’t resolved this between our “tribes” in four centuries, and I don’t expect an anonymous and insignificant blogpost to change the status quo. But, last week, a Presbyterian quoted a passage, a Baptist heard it, and a light came on for the Baptist concerning that very passage. And the Baptist finished his run pretty excited about his confession. God is good, and His Church is beautiful (even in her differences).