UNTO YOU, AND TO YOUR CHILDREN


“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38–39).


Pedobaptist Interpretation

This verse has often been used by pedobaptists (those who believe in infant baptism) to show that the Abrahamic covenant is still in force for believers and their children, and that therefore both believers and their children should be baptised. Peter was preaching to the Jews who had gathered for Pentecost (Acts 2:5). The Jews no doubt understood that the promise of the covenant was not only for them but for their children as well. They were, after all, specifically instructed to circumcise their children:

And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.… This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised (Gen 17:7, 10).


In anticipating the inclusion of Gentiles,—“all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call,”—into the church, and the breaking down of the middle wall between Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:11–17), God instituted baptism as a replacement for circumcision as the symbol of covenant membership. Now, at Pentecost, the Jews understood that the covenant remains, but those who would receive Jesus Christ as their Messiah were required to be baptised. That day, about 3,000 “souls” (Greek: psuchê) were baptised and added into the church (Acts 2:41). It is very likely that these 3,000 souls included women and children, although in the second survey (Acts 4:4) only the men (Greek: anêr) were counted. This was a Jewish manner of reckoning based on the headship of the men.


Now, since all Gentile believers are also children of Abraham (Gal 3:29) and are grafted into the same olive tree as the Jews, their children are to be baptised.


Calvin’s comment on Acts 2:39 is typical of the Reformers and will be readily agreed by all pedobaptists, though some may suggest that Calvin could have misinterpreted the Anabaptist’s understanding of the verse:

We must note these three degrees, that the promise was first made to the Jews, and then to their children, and last of all, that it is also to be imparted to the Gentiles. We know the reason why the Jews are preferred before other people; for they are, as it were, the first begotten in God’s family, yea, they were then separated from other people by a singular privilege. Therefore Peter observeth a good order, when he giveth the Jews the pre-eminence. Whereas he adjoineth their children unto them, it dependeth upon the words of the promise: I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed after thee, (Genesis 17:7,) where God doth reckon the children with the fathers in the grace of adoption.


This place, therefore, doth abundantly refute the manifest error of the Anabaptists, which will not have infants, which are the children of the faithful, to be baptised, as if they were not members of the Church. They espy a starting hole in the allegorical sense, and they expound it thus, that by children are meant those which are spiritually begotten. But this gross impudency doth nothing help them. It is plain and evident that Peter spoke thus because God did adopt one nation peculiarly. And circumcision did declare that the right of adoption was common even unto infants. Therefore, even as God made his covenant with Isaac, being as yet unborn, because he was the seed of Abraham, so Peter teacheth, that all the children of the Jews are contained in the same covenant, because this promise is always in force, I will be the God of your seed.


Baptist or Anti-Pedobaptist Retort

In recent days, however, there has arisen anti-pedobaptist or Baptist theologians who have attempted to dispute this view of Acts 2:39, and have succeeded in changing the minds of some members in pedobaptist churches. Thus David Kingdon, one of the most respected Baptist polemists, argues against the pedobaptist position:

In the first place, the promise of the Spirit includes the pledge that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions” (Acts 2:17), which hardly applies to infants. In the second place, the promise of verse 39 turns upon the phrase “even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Paedobaptists commonly distinguish between the children mentioned, regarding them as covenant children, and those who are afar off, i.e., born “out of covenant.”


This latter group alone must, they claim, be called to repentance and faith in order to be baptised. But if one thing is clear it is this; the last phrase of the verse, concerning God’s call, governs all the preceding phrases. The promise is not only to those who respond on the day of Pentecost, but also to their descendants (children) and to those who are either outside the circle of Judaism or are beyond the confines of the land of Israel to as many of these groups as God will call. What that call involves is plain to see, the inward work of the Spirit (“they were pricked in their heart” v. 37), and the response to that call (“what shall we do?” v. 37) after which one is baptised into the name of him who is freely offered in the gospel. Plainly the mention of children in this context provides no warrant whatsoever for infant baptism (David Kingdon,Children of Abraham [Sussex: Carey Publications Ltd., n.d.], 88–89).


It is amazing how Kingdon could dismiss the pedobaptist interpretation of this important passage without any substantive exegesis. But it is no doubt persuasive for anyone who either has tried to understand the pedobaptist view and failed, or has already closed their minds to pedobaptism. Therefore in responding to such a passage, the pedobaptist takes a risk that his arguments will be dismissed even before it is considered. For it could be dismissed simply on account: “It is obvious and clear that this verse does not speak about infant baptism!” The fact that it is not so clear to one who either understands the pedobaptist position, or one who practices pedobaptism, but have not thoroughly studied the issue, does not matter. It has been presented clearly that it does not give any warrant whatsoever for infant baptism, and that is enough! “If the counter-arguments are so difficult to understand surely they must be wrong!” But, could it be difficult to understand because of preconceptions in the mind?


In general, Kingdon’s and other Baptists’ objection to the pedobaptist interpretation has two prongs. The first is that the phrase “as many as the Lord our God shall call” must apply to all three groups of people mentioned by Peter. Thus only the children who are effectually called (“as many as the Lord our God shall call”) are given the promise of the Spirit. And since children can only be effectually called when they have come to an age at which they can exercise faith, young children or infants should not be baptised. The second, which is related to the first, is that the promise that Peter speaks about is not the Abrahamic promise, but the promise of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:17), who is given only to those who are able to exercise faith.


Allow me to show that these two objections cannot be sustained. First, I would like to point out that when we look at the structure of the sentence, it is not so certain that the phrase “as many as the Lord our God shall call” applies to all three groups of people mentioned by Peter. In fact, if anything, the structure of the sentence suggests otherwise. Second, I would like to show that grammatically and semantically, the adjectival phrase cannot be applied to the first two groups. Third, I would like to show that it is an over-simplification to say that the promise is only a promise of the Holy Spirit and has nothing to do with the Abrahamic covenant.


Sentence Structure

The Greek of verse 39 with interlinear translation is as follows:

 

humin

gar

estin

ê

epangelia

to you

for

is

the

promise

 

kai

tois

teknois

humôn

and

to the

children

of yours

 

kai

pasin

tois

eis

makran,

and

to all

the [ones]

in

far away [places]

 

hosous

an

proskalesêtai

kurios

ho

theos

hêmôn.

as many as

may

call to

[the] Lord

the

God

of ours

 

The word kai is the equivalent of the English ‘and.’ Notice that there are only two kai’s. This means that there are three groups of people rather than four groups of people mentioned. Kingdon asserts that the adjectival phrase “even as many as the Lord our God shall call” qualify all three groups. This is, however, not so certain in the Greek.


You see, the Greek kai used in this way does often makes each of the conjunctive phrase separate and distinct, so that adjectives qualifying any of the phrases do not get distributed. Thus, the qualifying phrase “Jews and proselytes” in Acts 2:10 only applies to “the strangers in Rome” rather than all the 12 groups of people mentioned prior to Rome. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that Cretes and Arabians (v. 11) occur after the qualifying phrase.


Likewise, in Revelation 16:18 a similar structure occurs: “And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.” The Greek with interlinear word translation is:

 

kai

egenonto

astrapai

kai

phônai

and

there were

lightnings

and

voices

 

kai

brontai

kai

seismos

egeneto

megas,

and

thunders

and

an earthquake

happened

great,

 

hoios

ouk

egeneto

aph’

hou

anthrôpos

such as

not

happened

from

when

man

 

egeneto

epi

tês

gês,

came into being

upon

the

earth,

 

têlikoutos

seismos

houtô

megas.

so mighty

an earthquake

so

great

 

In this verse, there are three conjunctive kai (ignore the first as it is not used conjunctively), and four terms: lightnings, voices, thunders and earthquake. There is also an adjectival phrase: “such as was not since men were upon the earth….” We can hardly miss the fact that this adjectival phrase modifies the earthquake only.


Similarly, most of those who argue that “as many as the Lord our God shall call” in Acts 2:39 modifies all three terms, will not hesitate to point out that the adjective “spiritual” in Ephesians 5:19a refers only to songs, and not to psalms and hymns. This is because the three terms are separated by a kai:

 

lalountes

heautois

[en]

psalmois

speaking

to each other

in

psalms

 

kai

humois

kai

ôdais

pneumatikais,

and

hymns

and

songs

spiritual

 

This is despite the fact that a good case can be made to show that ‘psalms,’ ‘hymns’ and ‘songs’ were regarded as more or less synonymous to the Apostles, and so the adjective ‘spiritual’ (i.e., belonging to the Holy Spirit) can equally be applied to all three terms.


Strangely however, when it comes to Acts 2:39, these who insist that the adjective ‘spiritual’ applies only to ‘songs,’ will maintain that “as many as the Lord our God shall call” applies to all three groups of people mentioned.


Grammar and Semantics

The second reason why the adjectival qualifier “even as many as the Lord our God shall call” qualifies only “all that are afar off,” and not to “you” and “to your children” is because it does not make sense grammatically or semantically. Grammatically, the verb translated “shall call” (Greek: proskalesêtai) is in the Greek subjunctive mood. The Greek grammarians James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery define the subjunctive mood thus:

The subjunctive expresses action or a state of being which is objectively possible. It is a mood of moderate contingency. It is the mood of probability. It is used for doubtful assertions. By the nature of the case the subjunctive deals with the future. As a result it is closely related to the future indicative, and in some instances a future is used where we might expect a subjunctive. The future, however, indicates what will take place, the subjunctive may take place (Syntax of New Testament Greek [University Press of America, Inc, 1979], 118).


In other words, in the case of Acts 2:39, if the adjectival qualifier is applied to any of the three groups of persons, it makes the calling of the persons in the group, a future probability. Now, while it may sound right that the promise is only to the children that the Lord shall call, it will not be very meaningful for the Apostle Peter to tell the listeners whom he was going to baptise (v. 38) that the promise is to as many of them as the Lord shall call. If he did not have any reason to believe that the Lord had already called them, or at least to assume that they were already called, why was he ready to baptise them? Kingdon, himself, points out that those who were hearing Peter’s message were effectually called (see above), though in reality effectual calling can never be ascertained infallibly by human observation. In any case, from a grammatical standpoint, to have the adjectival qualifier applied to the first group (the immediate hearers of Peter) would contradict what Kingdon would assert, namely that they have already been effectually called.


To push the argument further, suppose “as many as the Lord our God shall call” qualifies “you” too; then, according to Kingdon’s reasoning, Peter would essentially be saying, “Repent and be baptised everyone of you who are already effectually called… the promise is for you if the Lord might effectually call you”! I believe, it is not difficult to see the improbability that this is what Peter meant. Kingdon may argue that the statement is not wrong since the substance of the promise will eventually only be received by those whom God does effectually call. This is indeed true, but a qualifier to the promise in such a manner would hardly be meaningful nor serve to persuade his hearers. Remember that Acts 2:39 is part of Peter’s sermon which was being heard. If Peter’s statement was made in a theological treatise, such as in Romans, we might have some reason to think that Kingdon could be right (despite it being unusual grammatically), but here the statement is sermonic and immediately directed to a listening audience.


Indeed, apart from all the grammatical and sentence consideration, a plain, unbiased reading of the text will show you that “your children” should be grouped together with “you” as the present recipient of the promise. “As many as the Lord our God shall call” qualifies the phrase “all that are afar off.” The promise could not possibly be to “all that are afar off,” and therefore it is right to qualify the phrase.


The Baptist reader may argue: “But what about the children? These are not already effectually called: How could the promise of the Holy Spirit be unto them? If the promise of the Holy Spirit could not be to all that are afar off, then equally, it cannot be to the children of all the hearers.” This question, I believe, will be answered in the next point.


The Promise

As mentioned earlier, the third anti-pedobaptist argument is founded on the fact that the promise that Peter referred to is really a new or standalone promise of the Holy Spirit, which can only be made to the elect or to anyone who is capable of understanding and believing the Gospel. We believe this is not the case. Rather, Peter was referring to the promise of the Abrahamic covenant: “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen 17:7). The fact is, the promise of the Holy Spirit is the promise of the Abrahamic covenant.


The first indication of this fact is found in Acts 3:25, where Peter explains that it was already predicted in the Abrahamic covenant that the “kindreds of the earth be blessed” through Christ:

Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities (Acts 3:25–26).


But the most conclusive evidence that the promise of the Holy Spirit referred by Peter was a promise in the context of the Abrahamic covenant is made by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:14—“That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”


It is no doubt, because the promise of the Holy Spirit is really the Abrahamic promise, that Peter included the children in the promise. Peter’s hearers would have no problem believing that the promise was to them and their children, since all of them were Jews and proselytes. These were the covenant people of the Lord in the Old Testament. Yes, those who did not believe had been cut off. But here Peter’s audience comprised believing Jews and proselytes. They would represent the remnant or the olive tree that remained after the unbelieving branches were broken off. But we know that ultimately only the elect will receive the promise of the Holy Spirit. Would Peter then be accurate in saying that the promise to all his hearers (without qualifying, “as many as the Lord shall call)? Certainly! Remember that they had the sign and seal of the covenant, namely circumcision. As long as they had the sign and seal of the covenant and they had not denied Christ, they were to be regarded as God’s children. Peter had the divine warrant to tell all of them that the promise was unto them. In the same way, today, though a minister of the Gospel may not tell everyone without exception that God loves them, he has the warrant to tell the baptised members of the church (adult and children) that God loves them. The fact that Peter or other ministers of the Gospel may ultimately be wrong concerning the individual does not really matter. They do not know the heart of the individual and cannot judge the heart of the individual, and so they are to regard the individual according to the seal of the righteousness of faith, namely circumcision or baptism that is applied to them. That is, as long as they have the seal of the covenant, it may be said to them that God’s favour is upon them and that the promise of the covenant belongs to them.


Does this not contradict the Apostle Paul’s assertion in Romans 9:8—“They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed”? No, Paul was referring to theactual application of the promise, for which only the elect will receive. Ultimately, only the elect are the children of the promise. However, as God has not revealed who is elect and who is not, all the children of believers ought to be treated as covenant children alike. Just as Peter told his hearers that the promise is for all of them, though there was no way for him to ascertain that all of them were elect, so in the same way, it was proper for Peter to say that the promise was unto their children too.


Conclusion

Based on the discussion above, we have little doubt that the pedobaptist interpretation of Acts 2:39 is correct. The verse does give a very strong case for infant baptism. Of course, Peter was speaking to the Jews, but he was speaking to them as the covenant people of God. Today, all Christians,—Gentiles and Jews,—constitute the covenant people of God (cf. Gal 3:16). The promise of salvation is still unto us and to our seed: we are not worst off than the Jews, so that we cannot think of the promise as being to our children more than to any one else in the world. No, we praise God that He has given us the warrant and hope that the promise will be applied to our children, and so we treat our children as covenant children, and we baptise our children in the same hope and confidence that the faithful believers in the Old Testament had when they circumcised their children.


JJ Lim