In what sense, if at all, is there a Baptismal Covenant, that is, a covenant offered or made in Baptism between God and the person baptized? In contemporary Anglicanism, especially in The Episcopal Church of the U.S.A., much is made of “the Baptismal Covenant” and this expression as a major heading occurs in the Service of Baptism in the Prayer Book of 1979.
We recall that Jesus himself established what the both he and his apostles called the new covenant by his atoning sacrifice of himself on the Cross. The new covenant (the contrast is with the Mosaic or old covenant which was fulfilled at the same Cross) is made between God the Father and his Incarnate Son, with the latter acting as Representative Man, the new Adam and the new Israel. God the Father made this covenant of grace with Christ Jesus, his Incarnate Son, and therefore with all from Jews and Gentiles would be (through the preaching of the Gospel) united to Christ, that is “in Christ” as members of his Body (as St Paul states) for everlasting salvation and eternal life.
This new covenant, the covenant of grace, is the essential background for the legitimacy and efficacy of the preaching of the Gospel, the Administration of the Gospel Sacraments, and the response of repentant, believing sinners to the Gospel message. In Baptism, God the Father acts in the Name of Christ and by the Holy Spirit to regenerate sinners, that is to place them within the covenant of grace and thus name them as his children, as they begin life in and with Christ. As with the initial response to the preaching of the Gospel, so in the Sacrament that follows, God the Father graciously and freely gives his salvation, but he only gives where there is readiness to receive and a heart to be filled. And such readiness is only possible and present where, through the activity of the Holy Spirit as illuminator, inspirer and energizer, there is personal repentance for sin and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Savior.
So it may—indeed must— be said that there are conditions for entry into the covenant, the covenant which is already established and complete in itself through, in and with Christ its mediator and guarantor. And these conditions are faith in the Lord Jesus and repentance for sin. Almighty God, the heavenly Father, opens the gate of his kingdom and proceeds with adoption into his family when a person turns from sin and embraces the promises of salvation through and in Christ Jesus. However—and this is very important—divinely-required conditions for entry are not conditions which actually constitute the human side of a making or ratifying a contract or covenant between the human person and the Lord God, the Holy Trinity. The covenant is between the Father and the Incarnate Son, and we human beings, are only covenant partners in that we are made members of Christ, grafted into the True Vine, and walk with the Lord.
Further, we may and must say that the kingdom of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, exists with all its covenant blessings and that only the repentant and believing sinner is allowed to enter and, in entering, is most warmly welcomed. So by repenting and believing (or, in fact, by doing anything else to or for God) none of us is entering into, making, or closing a personal covenant with God; but rather, we are being made a member of Christ and thus in, through, and with him, we are placed in an eternal relation within the covenant of grace with the Father, through the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the invisible ministration of the Holy Spirit, working as the Spirit of Christ.
A personal covenant?
If all this is true, then why has there been talk of a “Baptismal Covenant” within Anglicanism for several centuries and why has this talk become very loud and confrontational in the last few decades?
Let us begin an answer by noticing comments based upon the Services of Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer (1662). And first of all we note that within the text of “The Publick Baptism of Infants” and the Service for Adults, there is no specific reference to a Covenant being on offer or being made.
However, some commentators have seen a Baptismal Covenant implicit in the text.
In The Prayer Book…., Evan Daniel writes:
It will be observed that as soon as the introductory collects are ended, the Church sets forth the Baptismal Covenant into which the child is to enter. God’s part in the Covenant is declared in the Gospel and the Address; the child’s part in the promises made by the sponsors. (page 419)Then he makes a similar comment (page 437) with respect to the Services for adults.
2. Alfred Barry in The Teacher’s Prayer Book also sees a Covenant implicit in the Gospel and Exhortation as God’s part and then the human response in The Renunciation, the Profession of Faith, & The Vow of Obedience.
3. The Prayer Book Dictionary makes a clear statement of a covenant in its article on Baptism:
“Baptism involves a covenant between God and man. Man promises faith and obedience—a belief in the Christian religion, and a life in accordance with God’s commandments. God on his part covenants that, if man keeps his promises, he shall obtain everlasting life. The promises are made in response to the priest’s Questions…”4. And very recently, Ray R. Sutton, in Signed, Sealed and Delivered. A Study of Holy Baptism (2001) states the following with respect to the Service for Infants in the 1662 edition:
The baptismal covenant is a personal but not an individualistic covenant. Rather, it is acceptance of the covenant made with Christ at the Cross…The covenant is not individualistic; it is corporate with personal application. The distinction between individualistic and personal is critical. (page 256)5. Even more recently a female theologian of The Episcopal Church, Frederica H. Thompsett, gave great emphasis to a baptismal covenant in an essay entitled, “Baptismal Living: Steadfast Covenant of Hope.” In the first sentence she writes:
Baptism is deeply grounded in the generosity of God. Like all other biblical covenants, whether the Hebrew covenants of Abraham and Sarah, Moses Jeremiah, or the new covenant proclaimed by Paul and others, baptism is a response to God’s initiating love. (Anglican Theological Review, 2004)Here we seem to have three different views. The most radical is that of Thompsett who sees a covenant as an agreement between God and man where God takes the initiative. (This is essentially what is taught in “An Outline of Faith” in the Prayer Book of 1979. Then there is the old, middle of the way, English approach, which is affected by Pelagianism and Arminianism, and believes that human free will and response must be present and articulated. So it posits a personal covenant made between God the Father through Christ with each baptized person and this agreement with conditions is inside the primary covenant of grace, the “new covenant.” At the opposite end to Thomsett is Sutton who does not really see any covenant inside a covenant but rather calls the acceptance of the conditions—repentance and faith—of entry into the new covenant by the term covenant insisting that it is not individualistic (not a one on One agreement!). Sutton would have done better to avoid all reference to any covenant other than the One Covenant of Grace.
There are great spiritual dangers in thinking and teaching that there is a Baptismal Covenant between God and “the individual [person]” as the front end, as it were, of the covenantal themes of the Service of Baptism. And nowhere is this more evident than in the life of The Episcopal Church since the 1960s! We need to shout from the housetops, as it were, that God does not make a covenant with me and I do not make a covenant with God in holy Baptism. So what occurs in covenant terms in Baptism? By grace and by grace alone, I enter through Christ the Mediator into the New Covenant, which is corporate in nature and therein I am, again by grace alone, made one of the elect of God, and a child of God. In Baptism I make promises and vows to God but I do not thereby seal a covenant with God for only Christ, the God-Man, can (and has done) that! I may recall from time to time these promises and vows but in so doing I am not renewing any covenant. I am simply remembering effectually the promises and vows I made as God in Christ by the Holy Spirit regenerated me in Holy Baptism!
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)