This is part two of an oft delayed response to my Christian brother James who has serious questions about the scriptural basis of infant baptism as practiced in the Reformed tradition.
In part one I attempted to respond to his questions concerning Col. 2:11-15 (whether there is an equation of baptism to circumcision).
In this post, I hope to at least outline an answer to his second and, more foundational, question.
The real question for me is, and always will be, "Who are the People of God?" Consider the familiar words of Jer. 31. (followed by a full quote) .... Here, the Lord is clearly ..(defining) who the recepients (sic) of that new covenant will be. he will create a People who will have the law written upon their hearts... Clearly this passage, ... is addressed to the elect. ...Any definition that separates His People from His Elect does a disservice to the plain meaning of these texts. (including 1 Pet. 2:9)... I say this as background to consider the case of a child born of believing parents into a church. Is that child, by virtue of his "brithright", a member of "God's people"? I have to respectfully say that he is not."
James, in his usual thoughtful manner, lays out his case quite clearly and it will require more than a simple restatement of Reformed doctrine to answer him. It will require a defense of that doctrine.
First the fundamental idea - "who are the people of God?"
The general answer to this question is that it is the totality of those who have the privilege and duty to join in the assembly of "God's people" which is called "the Church." In other words, the Church is the people of God gathered in assembly, and God's people is the totality of those who have the right to do so. (cf. Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church, ch. 1)
How is this definition defended? I will not go into the exhaustive detail of examining the word "Church" (Grk. ekklesia) in its Scriptural useage. I will only assert what is readily available for examination in any good, accessible reference such as Colin Brown (ed) Dict. of New Test. Theology. Paul is the New Testament author who is most concerned with the word "church" and how it is to be used to characterize the "people of God" in the New Testament dispensation. (Yes, Reformed people use the word also). But Paul did not coin the use of the word nor did he bring it into the New Testament as a new category drawn from Hellenistic influences. Paul was steeped in the Old Testament traditions and his use of the term grew out of the manner in which the same word (ekklesia) was used in the Septuagint (the OT in the common language of the day).
The correlation in use is fairly precise. The reason why the New Testament people of God are called the "church" and not the "synagogue" is because, though both words (ekklesia & synagoge) were used in the OT to describe "assemblies" of God's people, Ekklesia was used only for those times "where it is a question of the people as God's assembly, characterized by having answered Yahweh's call." (DNTT, ad loc)
My own quick survey, which others may update, indicates that the only time in the OT that the word "ekklesia" is used in conjunction with the phrase "people of God" is in Judges 20:2. What this use of the word demonstrates is that the gathering of the tribes of "all the children of Israel" (excepting Benjamin of course) characterized the community of the "people of God" from which was constituted the "ekklesia" or "the Church" of God. I believe this at least gives warrant to assert that it is this overall idea which provided the tone for which the New Testament authors, especially Paul, uses the words.
Based on this general approach, though it does not definitively establish the case, I will proceed using the definition: "the people of God" isthe totality of those who have the privilege and duty to join in the assembly of "God's people" which is called "the Church." (above)
Dispensationalists might balk at the definitions given above because one of their essential maxims is that ethnic Israel alone can be truly designated as "the people of God" and therefore they distinguish the Church from that phrase. (Robert Dean,Jr. in Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, Jan. 2001, p. 25: Dispensationalists see Israel as God’s permanent people, set aside temporarily in the Church Age, but restored to blessing and fruitfulness in the Millennial Kingdom) But, I believe sufficient warrant exists to use them as stated.
Second: "Who constitutes 'the people of God?" Or is it only the elect that makes up the population of the people of God?
This is the point of James' inquiry so the above point was only preliminary to the question. James' main point is that Jer. 31 and 1 Pet. 2:9 seem to indicate that the distinguishing character of the NT people of God is no longer based on some external distinctive, such as circumcision and a corresponding ethnic identity, but rather upon the work of the Holy Spirit, producing a changed heart in a person and thereby constituting that person as a citizen in His "holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9). James states that such a work constitutes regeneration and therefore the person is constituted as one of God's elect, ergo, the "people of God" is constituted only of and identified with, "the elect."
To examine this position we must inquire into the substance of Jer. 31 and ask the question: "Is this prophetic passage completely fulfilled in every particular or is it, like Joel 2, which Peter quotes in Acts 2, one which falls under the category of 'now but not yet' "?
It is clear from the quote in Acts 2 that Pentecost was a downpayment or an initiation of the time for fulfillment of the Joel 2 passage. The time had arrived in which great things would begin to happen "before the great and awesome day of the Lord" so that "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved." Thus the prophecy of Joel 2 is shown to have been started down the road toward full and final fulfillment, but it still falls in the category of "now but not yet."
Does Jeremiah 31 fall into the same or similar category?
On the face of it one would have to say that it does. First the prophecy is addressed to the house of Israel and Judah and speaks to a great day when the fullness of those two houses shall repudiate the "old covenant" trappings and be restored to God under the new covenant (the one which includes Gentiles). New Testament support for this understanding is readily available in the book of Hebrews where Jeremiah 31 is most quoted.
The context of the book of Hebrews is that the temple and its rituals are no longer necessary because of the perfect sacrifice and priestly ministry of Christ on behalf of his people. What the author is arguing for is that Jews leave those things behind and cleave to the Church in its new apostolically proclaimed robes. Note that in Heb. 8:13 that he says "what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." What the author is saying is that the fullness of this prophecy is not complete but is process. One could argue, on the basis of this alone, that spiritual regeneration as it is presently manifested, is not what is in view here, but rather that of final glorification, when the hearts of God's people are made perfect and they shall be completely governed by God's law so that everyone knows God without being taught.
If this is the case, then the Hebrews context is looking forward to the day when there will be a harvest from among the Jews though they are presently under God's edict of humiliation (Romans 11:11-12). This day of harvest will result in a dramatic turning of the Jewish ethnic groups to the Church and result in final fulfillment of Jer. 31:40 where the New Jerusalem "shall not be plucked up or thrown down anymore forever." The temporary condition of overlapping covenants (Heb. 8:13) certainly seems to indicate this is the correct intent.
Certainly the work of God in spiritual regeneration is foretold in Jeremiah 31 but the completed work of spiritual regeneration is accomplished in glorification. Ezek. 36:26 gives us this same sense of "now but not yet." There God speaks of our receiving a new heart of flesh to replace the heart of stone but then He goes further to say that He will "cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them" along with the promise the "you shall dwell in the land."
If this bare outlines of a hermeneutic are accepted, then Jer. 31 and its subsequent exposition in Heb. are seen as having been initiated, in the same manner as Joel 2, but still awaits its final consummation in the harvest of both Jew and Gentile unto their glorified state or perfection.
If such is the case then these passages do speak to the final or ultimate identification of the people of God as the elect. In the day of fulfillment only the elect will meet the criteria spoken of here. They will come from the races of Jew and Gentile and they shall all stream into the New Jerusalem in perfect harmony for the walls of enmity between themselves and between God have been fully and completely torn down.
That does not mean that only the elect are numbered among the "people of God" now. And that brings us to point number three.
No. Three: The Scriptures distinguish between the "people of God" who are distinguished from among others on the earth unto the end of being the instrument through whom redemption is announced and demonstrated, and the final "people of God" who are purified from among this temporal people to be with God forever.
"The people of God" have the temporal mission in history of both "being a witness" and "bearing witness" to the world in which they inhabit.
In the OT God pointed toward this temporal mission in many different ways. A single example is the well known passage Deut. 14:1 where we have God setting aside ancient Israel to be a special treasure among all the peoples of the earth. This passage is paralled in the 1 Pet. 2 passage referenced above. The nation was to be the sphere in whom the works of God were to be made known. They were to "be a witness" in that God's special covenant faithfulness to them would be fully recognizable and would cause the other nations to envy them (Deut. 4:5-10). Ezekiel and Isaiah further prophecy that the "New Israel" will also be such as to provoke the nations to envy by the manner in which God distinguishes His people from the rest of the world. (Ezek. 37:27-28, Isa. 19:19-24, Isa. 49:22-23).
It is exactly this "witness of being" which is now expected to provoke ethnic Israel and make them jealous (Rom. 11:11-12).
How is this "witness of being" to be accomplished? In both testaments it is being done the same way. The temporal "people of God" are so constituted as to be recognizable to the unsaved eyes of the world around them.
Now this temporal reality cannot be recognizable to the world if it is based entirely upon a hidden work of the Holy Spirit. No man, Christian or non-Christian, can say for certain that another person has been surely regenerated. There may be evidences which lead one to presume such but no certain distinction can be made. Therefore the manner in which the temporal people of God are distinguished from the world is through an external sign. In the OT this was circumcision and keeping of the law of Moses. In the NT this is baptism and the keeping of the Law of Christ.
If the OT witness was through the OT Covenant family then certainly the NT witness is to be through the NT Covenant family. Though some would say that the NT family is defined only as those who have been born again and therefore are bonded through the Holy Spirit with stronger ties than that of blood, yet only most severe seem willing to go this far. The NT family is still understood as being holy unto God (1 Cor. 7:14) even when there are unbelievers present in it and the children especially are no longer considered "unclean" but holy. How can the "witness of being" be presented to the eyes of the world apart from the testimony of Covenant families living as neighbors and friends, set aside unto the Lord through the Covenant headship of believing parents, and demonstrating to the world the manifest blessings of God which characterize their daily walk.
If children are to participate in this witness, to be characterized and recognized as being among the "people of God", then how can the sign of the covenant be denied them? Let them be baptized and so identified and let them gather with the rest of the saints in joyful assembly, as the Church is constituted, and let them prosper in accord with God's sovereign hand upon them to use as He sees fit, resting in the hope that the same God who has set them aside unto His good ends will finish that work by claiming them for Himself in subsequent regeneration and faith.
In conclusion, I have attempted to define the "people of God" and draw a theological distinction in precise usage between it and "the church." I have attempted to put Jer. 31 in perspective as to what it proclaims as being fulfilled during the present time and what is still in the category of "not-yet." And lastly, I have attempted to illustrate how the mission of the temporal "people of God", in both OT and NT ages, are understood as being constituted of those who are regenerate and those who are not, and yet are still used by God as a witness to the eyes of the world around them.
I know this is not nearly adequate to fully address the topic, I hope it answers a few questions even as it raises others.