Acts 2:39 and Infant Baptism – by Chris Gautreau

photo 5The following is an exposition written by Chris Gautreau.

CLICK HERE to download article in PDF format.

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“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 baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:37-42).

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Verse 39, oddly, is a favorite among Paedobaptists. I say oddly, because this passage actually presents an incredibly strong case against infant baptism. Even a cursory reading of Acts 2 would demonstrate this.

The reason Paedobaptists cling to this passage is because of the single phrase, “and your children.” This is the only portion of the entirety of Acts 2 that supposedly teaches infant baptism, while the rest of the chapter is completely ignored.

Paedobaptists claim this phrase, “and your children” echoes back to Genesis 17:7,

“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you…”

As J. R. Beeke and R. B. Lanning state in The Case for Covenantal Baptism,

“Peter’s words in Acts 2:39 are therefore a covenantal formula. ‘unto you, and to your children’ simply restates ‘between me and thee and thy seed after thee’ (Gen. 17:7).”

Before we look at this passage in greater detail to see whether or not such an interpretation is valid, I would like to address a consistent problem I find within the Paedobaptist hermeneutic.

It is my belief that Paedobaptists are guilty of reading the Old Testament into the New Testament. Or, to put it another way, they are interpreting the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. The Old Testament context is what drives the New Testament understanding. I believe this approach to be in violation of basic hermeneutical principles.

We have all heard the catchy little saying,

“The new is in the old concealed, and the old is in the new revealed.”

Or,

“The old is but the bud, while the new is the blossom.”

What this means is simply this. The New Testament is the fuller and final revelation of God. What was hidden or concealed in the Old Testament has now been revealed in the New Testament. This would indicate that the New Testament should interpret the Old Testament, and not the other way around. This seems to be precisely the point of Hebrews 1:1,

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things…”

Allow me to quote John Reisinger from his book Abraham’s Four Seeds to better explain the point I made above.

“It seems quite clear to me that both Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism approach the NT Scriptures with a system already fixed in their minds that they derived entirely from the Old Testament Scriptures. Both of those systems of theology insist on interpreting the new in light of the old instead of the other way around. Unfortunately, both systems are fully developed before they even get out of the book of Genesis. Instead of allowing the Apostles to tell us what the Old Testament prophets meant, both Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism make the Old Testament prophets establish what the Apostles have to say. They merely do it in different areas in order to prove different doctrines.”

Anyone who has ever read the New Testament could easily spot the error of attempting to read the Old Testament into the New Testament. Why do I say this? How often do we read a New Testament author quoting from, or alluding to, an Old Testament passage, yet the New Testament author gives an inspired interpretation of the Old Testament passage, one that was concealed in the Old Testament?

Take for instance Romans 9. The Arminian loves to point out how Paul quotes from the Old Testament. In these Old Testament passages, from which Paul quotes, the context is clearly speaking about nations. The Arminian then ignores the context of Romans 9 and imports the context of Genesis and Malachi, all to suit his theological presuppositions. The Paedobaptist does the same thing in Acts 2.

It is extremely common for a New Testament author to quote from, or allude to, the Old Testament but give an inspired interpretation from that text. This means, the Old Testament quotation now has a New Testament context. It is this New Testament context which is to drive the interpretation or usage of the Old Testament citation.

Allow me to provide another example, as this point cannot be missed, so I must drive it home. Let’s look at Romans 10:18,

“But I say, surely they have never heard, have they? Indeed they have; ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’”

Here, Paul is quoting from Psalm 19:4. In the context of Psalm 19 it is the “voice” of creation that has gone out into the world. However, this is not what Paul is arguing in Romans 10. In Romans 10 Paul is speaking about the “voice” of the preacher going out into the entire world to spread the gospel. Paul borrows the Old Testament language but gives it a New Testament context to suit his purposes. Let’s check a few commentaries to substantiate my point (and more could be provided).

“A better solution is to say that Paul uses Ps. 19:4, which in its original context refers to natural revelation, to portray the dissemination of the gospel message to the ends of the earth (so Murray 1965: 61; Aageson 1987: 60; cf. Fitzmyer 1993c: 599). He does not restrict himself to the historical meaning of the text. One should observe, however, that Ps. 19 refers to both general revelation (vv. 1–6) and special revelation (vv. 7–14). Paul perceives that the progress and the course of the gospel is such that it now extends over the whole earth, so that the proclamation of the gospel is now comparable to the all-encompassing reach of general revelation.” – Thomas Schreiner

“Paul says, they have heard, for Psalm 19:4 asserts that ‘their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words unto the ends of the inhabited world.’ Paul’s use of this text raises two questions. First, what is Paul’s purpose in using a passage that extols God’s revelation in nature in this context? The implied object of the verb ‘heard’ in Paul’s question must be ‘the word of Christ’; ‘their voice’ and ‘their words’ in the Psalm verse must then refer to the voices and words of the Christian preachers (see verses 14-16). Paul is not, then, simply using the text according to its original meaning. His application probably rest on a general analogy: as God’s word of special revelation, in the gospel, has been spread all over the earth. His intention is not to interpret the verse of the Psalm, but to use its language, with the echoes of God’s revelation that it awakes, to assert the universal preaching of the gospel.” – Douglas Moo

“This passage found in Ps. 19:4 is here quoted literally according to the LXX text (there Ps. 18:5). We should not misinterpret what Paul is saying. He is not trying to tell us that the Old Testament Psalm was describing the universal spread of the gospel. What he means is that what in Ps. 19 applies to the language of the heavenly bodies is also applicable to the spread of the gospel.” – William Hendriksen

The context of Acts 2, as well as the rest of the New Testament, is what supplies us with the interpretation of “your children.” Paedobaptists should know this as they apply such hermeneutical principles frequently, but fail to remain consistent because they’re short on passages supporting their doctrine. This is why James White, when debating Paedobaptists, always presents the audience with the question, “who is consistent in their hermeneutic?”

~~~

Four questions need to be asked regarding this passage.

  • What is the promise?
  • How is this promise received?
  • Who is this promise made to?
  • Who was baptized?

~

  • What is the “promise?”

Luke 24:29,

“And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Acts 1:4, 5,

“Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”

Acts 2:33,

“Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.”

Acts 2:38, 39

“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…’”

Galatians 3:14,

“…in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

The “promise” is not that Abraham’s descendants would have covenantal status through physical descent and receive covenantal blessing, but rather, the “promise” is the Holy Spirit. This is what Pentecost was all about; the giving of the promised Spirit!

  • How is this promise received?

Acts 2:38,

“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.’”

Galatians 3:14,

“…in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

Ephesians 1:13,

“In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise…”

This promised Holy Spirit is received through faith and repentance. There’s nothing here about receiving the promised Spirit because one is a physical descendant of Abraham or because your parents are Christian.

  • Who is this promise made to?

Acts 2:39,

“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.”

The “you” are the Jews; they were the ones Peter was addressing throughout the chapter. “Your children” are the offspring of the Jews. “All who are far off” is speaking about the Gentiles.

Paedobaptists have a nasty habit of giving only a partial quote of this verse. They almost always leave off the last phrase. This isn’t an accident. The last phrase is what qualifies the “you and your children and for all who are far off.” This qualification isn’t friendly to the Paedobaptist interpretation, which is why, in my estimation, they never quote it.

“…as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” is the qualification to “you and your children and for all who are far off.” This qualification limits the recipients of the promise to only those whom the Lord calls.

In other words, the promise is not made to every Jew, every child, or every person who is far off; but rather, to the elect of the Jew, the elect of the children (offspring), and the elect of those who are far off; “…as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” This is the effectual call of God in drawing His elect to Himself.

Funny how the phrase “you and your children and for all who are far off” sounds very much like “world,” and “all men” found elsewhere in the NT.

Moreover, it would seem obvious that the “you and your children and for all who are far off” are the elect, given the nature of the promise. I find it hard to swallow that God would promise the Holy Spirit to the reprobate.

On a side note, the Greek word for “children” here in this verse simply means “offspring” or “descendant.” Paedobaptists tend to get a bit too excited when they see the word “children,” as they always seem to interpret it as “infant,” probably due to Gods command to circumcise the male infants on the eighth day.

The word “children” (offspring; descendant) in this verse simply means that the promise is given to succeeding generations and has nothing to do with the age of the children. It is the children, or offspring, of any age, throughout history, that this promise is given to, through faith.

  • Who was baptized?

Acts 2:41,

“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.”

Not too much to say here as the text is quite specific and clear. Only those who received Peter’s words were baptized. I would like to ask another question, though. 3,000 souls were “added.” Added to what?

I would suggest they were added to the fold; that is, they were added to the church, the covenant community. Why is this important? The text tells us that 3,000 people were baptized after receiving Peter’s words. It also tells us these 3,000 people “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Clearly, these aren’t infants.

Next question: Who was added to the church? The covenant community? Certainly these 3,000 who received Peter’s word were added, but what about their children? I would image that many of them were there as their parents were baptized. If the Paedobaptist is correct in his understanding of covenantal baptism, then it would seem to follow that these children would have been baptized along with their parents, wouldn’t it? If this be the case, wouldn’t these children be included in the “numbers added?” That is Paedobaptist theology, is it not? Why aren’t all these baptized “covenant children” included in those added to the church? Do they not count? Maybe these Jews just left their kids in the car, out in the parking lot while they attended Pentecost.

The last verse says this,

“And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

According to Acts 2:47, only those who are saved are added to the covenant community. This does not bode well for the Paedobaptist. Nothing here about “believers and their children” being added. No, only those who are saved are “added.”

Another interesting point needs to be made regarding the baptism of these Jews. Paedobaptists love to tell us that circumcision and baptism are virtually the same. That is, the spiritual meaning between these two signs remains the same while only the external sign changes. Robert Booth in his book Children of the Promise gives a lovely chart on page 181 where he compares these two signs and “demonstrates” how they are the same in meaning. Calvin himself stated in his Institutes that the “difference is in externals only.”

If this be true, why on earth would a Jew who already had the sign of circumcision need to be baptized if the signs mean the same thing? It would appear there was a bit of Anabaptism going on in Acts 2.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, Acts 2 in no way supports infant baptism. As a matter of fact, it’s almost ironic that Paedobaptists employ this passage considering it actually teaches the opposite of what they claim. The Paedobaptist hangup on the word “children” reminds me of the Arminian hangup on the words “choose” or “willing.” Reading an Old Testament idea into the New Testament disregarding the New Testament context is exegetical neglect at best and deception or willful ignorance at worse.

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