A Response to Tom Hicks on the Question of the Proper Subjects of Baptism, Part 1

Mr. Tom Hicks, over at the Founders Ministries, has done a great service in the debate on the proper subjects of baptism by encapsulating the Reformed Baptist objections to the paedo position in a succinct, yet cogent way. In the spirit of his irenic comments, I wish to interact with him in this series of posts, showing how a paedobaptist would respond to his objections. I will take one major section of his post in each one of mine. So, on to section 1, on the covenant of grace.

The Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the “covenant of grace” is the theological basis of their doctrine of infant baptism. They correctly teach that after Adam’s fall, the whole Bible is unified by one covenant of grace. But they also teach that the covenant of grace has the same substance (essence) with different, but similar, administrations (forms) throughout the Scriptures. This is where Reformed Baptists disagree with them. The language of substance and administration is critical to understanding their view. They believe that the elect are redeemed by the saving “substance” of the covenant of grace, while the external and legal “administration” of the covenant of grace is mixed with the elect and non-elect by way of infant baptism.

Mr. Hicks has put his finger on the central issue right at the outset: the nature of the covenant of grace. He agrees with paedos that the Bible is unified by one covenant of grace. Or does he? Later on, he says the following:

Third, the Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the covenant of grace ascribes saving power to the OT covenants of promise. But this is impossible since the OT covenants of promise, including the Abrahamic covenant, were established on the shed blood of animals and imperfect human mediators.

If read too quickly, this may seem to contradict what he said in the earlier quoted section. However, what he means by this becomes clear later in the article: the only way OT saints could be saved was by believing in the promise, and that Jesus’ work in the new covenant is what saves the OT believers. The thing is, this is what paedos believe, too. We also (with the Baptists) believe that passage in Hebrews that says the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin. Abraham, as Paul would say in Romans 4, was indeed justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ. This becomes especially clear in Romans 4:23-25, where Paul ascribes the same faith to us as Abraham had. The only difference is that Abraham believed in the promised Jesus Christ and we believe in the given Jesus Christ. Mr. Hicks does put his finger on a key difference when he speaks about the substance versus the administration of the covenant of grace, but when it comes to how OT saints were saved, he does not accurately portray the paedo position, which is actually the same as the credo.

Where I would critique the second block-quote is in how he describes the paedo position with regard to his description of the older administrations of the covenant of grace. He says they “were established on the shed blood of animals and imperfect human mediators.” I disagree. The OT administrations of the covenant of grace were founded on the promises of land and seed, ultimately promising The Seed (Jesus) and the “land” of the new heavens and the new earth. This, however, is a relatively minor point with regard to this particular debate.

The more important point has to do with the essence/administration distinction. So, going back to the first block-quote, and now adding his first objection to the essence/administration distinction:

First, the Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the covenant of grace undermines the efficacy of Christ’s mediation and cross-work. Paedobaptist theology teaches that Christ is the mediator of the covenant of grace. The book of Hebrews declares that Christ’s mediation means that He reconciles His covenant people to the Father, that He is a testator who gives His blessings freely and unconditionally, and a surety who pays all their debts. Paedobaptists must either explain how Christ can be the mediator of the covenant of grace for non-elect and unregenerate people (which will undermine His mediatorial efficacy), or they must explain how Christ can be the mediator of a covenant without being the mediator of everyone in that covenant (which will undermine His mediatorial efficacy). If they say that Christ mediates for those in the outward administration of the covenant of grace, they must explain how Christ’s blood, signified by baptism, covers unregenerate people in the covenant of grace without effecting their salvation. Any explanation they give will approximate Arminian definitions of the atonement.

The force of this objection can be easily seen in the way the FV’ers have responded to objections like this: the FV’ers will go whole hog Arminian with regard to the non-decretally-elect and what they receive in the covenant. In my opinion, this first objection of Mr. Hicks is the most substantive of the three. Paedos would answer the objection along the following lines: 1. Only the essence of the covenant has salvation attached to it. The administration of the covenant, which does involve non-elect people, has never had any promise of salvation attached to it, any more than there is a guarantee of people coming to faith in a Baptist church simply by attending. Nevertheless, it is a great benefit to the non-elect to hear the words of salvation preached to them. It can have a restraining effect on their sin. It can make them less likely to oppose the gospel, and other good things could happen, things that have nothing to do with salvation. Just as God promised to Abraham that he and his offspring would be a blessing to the nations (without ever promising that the said blessing would always be salvation!), we can see that the blessings given to the elect overflow in non-salvific ways to the non-elect. Wasn’t Joseph a blessing to Egypt? Some of the Egyptians came up with Israel in the Exodus, but most stayed in Egypt as part of the non-elect. Maybe an illustration will help here: when we look at a light source, there is an aura around that light that covers a larger area than the light itself. This is, approximately, how paedos see the essence/administration distinction. Paedos who are not FV categorically deny that any saving benefits whatsoever accrue to the administration of the covenant.

2. The substance/administration distinction has great explanatory power when it comes to the apostasy passages in Hebrews 6 and elsewhere. What did those who fall away have? They didn’t have salvation. On this, paedos and credos would certainly agree. But what the paedos would say they had was access to the means of grace by being part of the administration of the covenant of grace. They had more than someone completely unrelated to God’s people would have.

3. The objection posits a dichotomy that is false. Mr. Hicks says that our position either entails the mediatorship of Christ for non-elect people, or that Christ must be mediator of only part of the people in the covenant. This all-or-nothing approach, however, assumes the credo position on the subjects related to the covenant of grace. Christ is not mediator for non-elect people. Period. The essence of the covenant is salvation. But being connected to the covenant could happen in more than one way: one saving, one non-saving. I have used this illustration before in FV debates, and it will help here, I think. There are two main kinds of branches on apple trees: fruit-bearing, and what are called “suckers.” The former are straightforward fruit-bearing branches of the tree, participating in the life of the tree, and bearing fruit. The suckers are basically parasites, taking sap from the tree but not bearing any fruit. John 15 and the parable of the vine and the branches is talking about this kind of distinction. The suckers are not-elect and never have any kind of saving benefits. But there is some kind of attachment to the vine described in that passage, one that is well illustrated by the difference between fruit-bearing vines versus suckers. The suckers, or non-fruit-bearing will be cut off, eventually, and burned. Whatever kind of relationship they had to Christ, it was 1. non-saving, but still it was something, and not nothing. John 15 is extraordinarily hard to explain on Mr. Hicks’s construction of covenant membership. There are members of the church who claim to be members but are not saved, even in (shockingly!) Baptist churches! Even Baptists call them members of their church, unless the particular church doesn’t even have church membership. The substance/administration distinction is roughly the same distinction as the visible/invisible church distinction. Unless the Baptists are willing to say that every member of their churches actually is saved, they will have to come up with some way of explaining the slippage between those claiming to be saved, versus those who actually are saved. If Baptists are willing to say that the unsaved were at one point actually members of the church, then I can raise a gigantic tu quoque at this point: you Baptists have the exact same problem as we paedos have, only you have to explain how it is that Christ died for the church, and all the church’s members, but didn’t die for the non-elect who yet claim to be saved, and are on your membership roll! You have the exact same problem with regard to Christ’s mediatorship in relation to the church. The difference is that we also use the Bible’s covenantal categories to explain the situation, whereas the Baptists have to leave the covenantal language out when talking about the church.

Mr. Hicks’s second point is actually the same point as the first, only in different terms (federal headship) and applied to infants:

Second, the Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the covenant of grace confuses (joins together) the headships of Adam and Christ. Because paedobaptists include unregenerate infants within the covenant of grace, they diminish the headship of Christ in one of two ways. One, they may say that baptized infants are no longer in Adam and under the curse of the covenant of works, but are under Christ’s headship in a way that might condemn them to hell. On this view, it is very hard to see how Christ’s covenant is a “covenant of grace.” It is, rather, a covenant of grace/justification and wrath/condemnation, which is hardly a comfort or blessing to all who are in it.

Federal headship is tied to the essence of the covenant, not the administration. This is an easier objection to answer. Only those who have faith have passed from Adamic headship to Christic headship. This is possible for infants (John the Baptist, King David are biblical examples), but not automatic. The administration points to the essence just as preaching points to Christ, and the sacraments point to Christ. As said above, these benefits preach salvation in Christ, and even have a non-saving benefit for the non-elect.

Two, paedobaptists may say that unregenerate baptized infants in the administration of the covenant of grace are “in Adam” (the covenant of works) and “in Christ” (the covenant of grace) simultaneously. These infants would be in the inward “substance” of the covenant of works, but the outward “administration” of the covenant of grace. Such a view would undermine the efficacy of Christ’s atonement because it places unregenerate children of believers under Christ’s mediation, and under His blood, while affirming the child’s condemnation in Adam.

I don’t know of any paedos who would say that any person can be represented by both heads simultaneously. As said above, the administration of the covenant of grace does not bestow union with Christ. So, paedos (who are non-FV) would not use the term “in Christ” to describe those who belong only to the administration of the covenant of grace. Even the “in me” of John 15:2 does not imply union with Christ.

Third, the Reformed Paedobaptist doctrine of the covenant of grace ascribes saving power to the OT covenants of promise. But this is impossible since the OT covenants of promise, including the Abrahamic covenant, were established on the shed blood of animals and imperfect human mediators. The OT covenants of promise commanded their members to trust the Lord, to love the Lord, and obey the Lord. But the OT covenants did not provide their members with the power to obey their commands. The shed blood of animals and human mediators never gave grace needed for regeneration, justification, sanctification, and perseverance. That only comes from the shed blood of Christ and His mediation. The paedobaptist notion of a “saving substance” in the OT covenants is foreign to the Bible.

I have answered this partially above, but a few more thoughts on the rest of the paragraph are in order. Does he really believe that the Holy Spirit was not given to OT saints? This is dispensational teaching, not Reformed teaching. He seems to be laboring under the lack of distinction between the Holy Spirit being poured out at Pentecost, which had to do with giving offices/gifts to people, versus the regenerative power of the salvific presence of the Holy Spirit, which was most certainly present in OT saints. Furthermore, his position opens itself up to a highly ambiguous situation. Is the substance of the OT covenants Christ or not? If it is, then the substance of the OT covenants is the same as that of the new, which he did seem to imply when he said, “They correctly teach that after Adam’s fall, the whole Bible is unified by one covenant of grace.” But now he wants to say that the substance of the OT is not the saving covenant of grace at all. Obviously I agree (and paedos, too) that it wasn’t the shed blood of animals and human mediators itself that gives grace for justification. But that is quite different from saying that OT saints didn’t have those things. They did. And it was the blood of animals and human mediators that pointed to the blood of the Lamb and the One Mediator to end all mediators. The substance of the OT covenants was in promise form, yes. But that promise form still presents Christ Himself, and it is by the promised Christ that OT believers were saved. Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day. He saw it and was glad, Jesus tells us. Mr. Hicks’s position on this is confusing.

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8 Comments

  1. January 23, 2020 at 12:15 pm

    (Luk 24:27) And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

    (Joh 5:46) For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.
    (Joh 5:47) But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

    (Heb 4:2)
    For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
    (Heb 4:3)
    For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

  2. January 24, 2020 at 10:41 am

    […] part 1, I dealt with the first major section of Tom Hicks’s critique of paedobaptism. The second […]

  3. rfwhite said,

    January 24, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    Green Baggins: it looks to me that another set of terms that expresses your point about the substance/administration of the covenant is this: the special and common operations of the Spirit, the former applying to the elect specially, the latter applying in common to the nonelect and the elect.

  4. rfwhite said,

    January 29, 2020 at 5:22 pm

    Green Baggins,

    One other thought on the mediatorship of Christ and your statement that “Christ is not mediator for non-elect people. Period.”: it might be helpful to indicate that, in His administration of the covenant of grace, the saving blessings mediated by Christ to the elect include the curses He administers to the reprobate. That is, in texts like Gen 12.3 and Deut 28.1-14, the curses on the reprobate are actually among the blessings promised and given to the elect. So we can say that one blessing that Christ mediates to the elect is that He defeats and destroys the reprobate. In that sense, we could rephrase your statement quoted above to say, “Christ is not mediator for non-elect people. He is mediator for His elect people and against non-elect people.”

  5. February 1, 2020 at 11:27 pm

    […] la parte 1 , me ocupé de la primera sección importante de la crítica de Tom Hicks al paedobaptismo. La […]

  6. March 5, 2020 at 8:55 am

    […] Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. […]


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