“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you 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 for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Ac 2:37–39).
This is a classic text used by our infant baptizing brethren as scriptural warrant for the baptism of infants to believing parents. After all our children do not get baptized to become members in the covenant, for they are already members according to paedobaptists, but as a sign and seal of external membership in the Church and of the spiritual realities of baptism- so they say. To assume that baptism itself makes our children members of the Covenant of Grace is to attribute to water baptism powers that it does not possess. They believe that our children have a Divine right to baptism because they are members and not members becuase they are baptized (a point which I do not think many young paedobaptists themselves understand). This is what makes many a paedobaptist aggressive towards Baptists. They see us as excommunicating our children from the external membership in the Covenant of Grace by not giving the sign and seal of covenant membership.
The attempt is to draw a line from the Abrahamic Covenant from circumcision to baptism with the difference being the outward form of inclusion into the Covenant of Grace. Hence, they find NT support in Acts 2:38-39 (among other numerous places in the NT). Let’s see if this line from circumcision to baptism is indeed straight. One of the major problems in the baptismal discussion is that many paedobaptists argue from their assumptions forward without substantiating. Another way to state it is that they tell us their conclusions without showing us how they came to those conclusions. This effects their exegesis of passages. For example Acts 2:38-39 is often mentioned and because they believe that children should be baptized on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant. They then read that understanding back into a passage like Acts 2:38-39 that mentions children. First, they have not drawn the line from circumcision to baptism. The two are analogous but differ on many points. It is where they differ that paedobaptists refuse to venture.
Secondly, Acts 2:38-39 has an immediate context that needs to be addressed. Simply zeroing in on the words “you” and “children” and reading circumcision to baptism, back into the authors point is not only improper it is insufficient on the grounds of all the biblical information.
Very well then, let us now examine the passage. For this I defer to Paul Jewett:
It should be noted that the specific content of the promise Peter had in mind is the anointing of the Holy Spirit (v. 38), a promise found in Joel 2:28-32. This anointing of the Spirit bestows the gifts of visions and prophecy (Acts 2:17), which are quite beyond the ken of infants and little children. It hardly seems plausible, therefore, that Peter spoke these words with infants in mind, as do Paedobaptists when they quote him at the administration of infant baptism. Jeremias seeks to minimize this point by appealing to the eschatological context of the Pentecostal message: “Save yourselves from this perverse generation” (v. 40). But this form of address still clearly presupposes an audience capable of decision and action.
Probably more important for our inquiry than the eschatological milieu of this passage is the part of the verse to which Paedobaptists have paid the least attention. We refer to the conclusion, where the promise is said to be “to all who are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” It is possible to construe the phrase “to all who are afar off” temporally, as a reference to generations yet unborn.- The verse would then mean: the promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit is to you who hear me now and to your children and to those in turn who shall be born in years to come. But it seems much more plausible, in view of the manner in which the book of Acts traces the witness of the apostles from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8), to understand the “afar off” reference spatially, after the analogy of Ephesians 2:17. Thus Peter’s words become the harbinger of the preaching of the gospel to remote Gentile nations, a venture in which he himself became the cautious innovator when he went to the house of Cornelius (Acts 10).
In any case, whether this text be construed as limited to Peter’s Jewish hearers and their children – those living and those yet to be born – or whether it be understood as applying both to Jews with their children and to Gentiles as well, no adequate interpretation of the text can ignore the final phrase, “even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” This phrase is equally related to all the members of the preceding triad. We pause to note this self-evident fact because Paedobaptists, with their theology of Old Testament externalism, according to which believers’ children are “born in covenant,” are prone to read this verse as securing the benefits of salvation (including baptism) to believers and their children in distinction to those who are afar off. The last group are born “out of covenant” and must be called to repentance and faith in order to be baptized. This approach, without the explicit statement of “covenant theology,” is reflected in Jeremias’ plea that the first two terms (“you and your children”) should not be “torn apart” – as though associating the three together (“you, your children, all who are afar off”) as equal members of the sentence might threaten the hermetic seal between parents and children that he is so zealous to preserve in support of infant baptism.
Such a Paedobaptist interpretation violates the elemental structure of the text. Whether we think of Peter’s listeners or of their children or of those far removed from the immediate scene of this first Christian kerygma, the point is that the promise is to all whom God shall call. This fact puts the whole matter on a rather different theological axis from that which is traditionally assumed in the interest of infant baptism. It becomes no more a question of one’s natural birth, as Paedobaptists have often implied; there is nothing in this Scripture passage of “visible church membership” and “external covenant privilege.” Rather, the passage is concerned with the call of God, that inner work of the Spirit who enlightens the mind and renews the heart (“they were pricked in the heart,” v. 37), and with the response to that call (“what shall we do?’ v. 37) on the part of those who receive it. Those who are thus called are baptized into the name of Jesus, who is freely offered in the gospel as the Savior of all who in turn shall call on him. The whole account of the Pentecostal witness is couched in terms of summons and response. But no one can respond to this summons by proxy – as does the infant when presented by his parents for baptism; for when God calls a person, he calls him not by his family name but by his first name.
In Acts 2:39, therefore, we have a form of statement appropriate to the occasion on which it was uttered, namely the founding of the Christian church, an occasion that marked the end of the old economy and the birth of the new. Standing on the threshold of the New Testament age, Peter’s words echo the Old Testament: “To you is the promise and to your children”; but they seize the future with a forward face: “and to all who are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” The Paedobaptist ear is so attuned to the Old Testament echo in this text that it is deaf to its New Testament crescendo. It fails to perceive that the promise is no longer circumscribed by birth but by the call of God, by the anointing of his Spirit which secures the new birth, according to the covenant as newly administered in Christ. The children of this new covenant are those who, having received a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 36:26), become children of God (and of Abraham) by faith (emphasis mine).*
Soli Deo Gloria!
For His Glory,
* Mr. Paul K. Jewett. Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (pp. 120-122). Kindle Edition.