The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith is a solid, though not infallible, guide for the Christian life. It is truth in summary form for the Christian to reference much in their pilgrimage here on Earth. I liken it to bowling with the rails up. It helps you hit the pins.
One of the chapters in this confession addresses a very important aspect of the Christian life – worship in the church. Chapter 22 is probably the most famous chapter in the confession regarding the regulative principle of the church. Here is a short sample of what this chapter says about the corporate worship of God’s people.
…The acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures (Deut. 12:32; Ex. 20:4-6).
For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology “regulative principle” here is a brief summary of what it means. The regulative principle of the church seeks to answer the question of how God’s people, gathered on God’s day, are to worship God in an acceptable manner that is pleasing to Him. How is worship “regulated” or “ruled” or “controlled” by God in His gathered assembly? After all, He is the Lord of the church so He sets the rules. At the core of this is the fact that we are not free to worship God how we want. This is the essence of idolatry. We are to worship in Spirit and in truth. God wants worship to be from the heart by faith, but how we worship Him is determined by Him alone. To simplify it even more, we can ask the question of the gathered church on Sunday morning, “What are the direct commands in the Word of God instructing you to practice what you do?” “To the teaching and to the testimony” (Isa. 8:2) should be our answer. But regarding baby dedication, is it so? Can we find anything to justify this practice from the pages of scripture?
For those who are unfamiliar with “baby dedications” they go a little something like this (with variations). On a given Sunday morning parents first bring their newly born children in front of the church (this is first arranged beforehand with the pastor). Next the pastor reads some scripture or possibly a vow statement to which the parents are charged to keep this vow. The vows are normally charges to bring their children up in the ways of the Lord, and they vow to do so in front of the congregation as their witness. Next, the church is charged to support and pray for the parents as they raise their new little one. Finally, a dedicatory prayer is offered up to God on behalf of the parents and the child by the pastor. Simple. Straight-forward. Biblical?
The Two Pillars
As you are reading this very possibly there are two familiar accounts in scripture where baby dedication is mentioned that are coming to your mind. The first comes from the Old Testament and is from the account of Hannah giving Samuel to the LORD in 1 Sam. 1:27-28. The second is from the New Testament at the dedication of Jesus at the temple in Lk. 2:22-24. These are the two pillars that many rest their argument upon regarding this act of dedication. But these two pillars rest on faulty ground. Let’s take a look.
1 Sam. 1:27-28 says, “For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.” Here Hannah brings Samuel to the temple and dedicates him to the LORD according to the command of God in Exo. 13:12. This law was given in Exo. 13:12 because God was claiming the right of the firstborn of Israel due to the slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt during the ten plagues. God spared Israel’s firstborn, and now He was claiming right to their firstborn for His special, holy use.
The ceremony of dedication of the firstborn was for the remembrance of God’s deliverance. It was a shadow, a type of something greater to come. That shadow and type found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) so that “in everything he might have preeminence” (Col. 1:18). It is no wonder that Paul says just one chapter later in Colossians 2 that we should let no man pass judgment on us with regard to a festival (Col. 2:16) because all of those things were a shadow, “but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). This means that the required, God given law of baby dedication given to Israel has found its end goal in Jesus Christ. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20). Just as Jesus is the promised Seed to come that will crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15), just as He is the Seed of Abraham to whom the promises were given (Gal. 3:19), so Jesus is the last baby in the scriptures to be dedicated. Why? Because He is the sum and substance of what every dedication pointed to; every dedication was pointing to the presenting to God of the true first-born son, to redeem those who are lost by fulfilling the law for righteousness for all who believe in Him (Lk. 2:29-32).
More specifically Exo. 13:11-16 dealt specifically and only with the firstborn male. Females are excluded. Yet for many who dedicate their children and base their actions on 1 Sam. 1 there are in the mix female children. Many here would simply say that they use this scripture as an example to justify the practice, not as a specific guideline. Ironically, Baptists criticize paedobaptists for (at least in some part) baptizing their infants based on inferences in scripture, yet Baptists must admit that the very same thing that gives credence to baby dedication is the very same thing that gives credence to infant baptism in some parent’s minds, namely inference. Paedobaptists admit there is no explicit scripture to baptize infants, just as a Baptist would have to admit that there is no explicit scripture to dedicate their babies, yet both practices continue. Truly J.I. Packer has referred to the practice of baby dedication as “dry baptism” for it seems to be formulated on the same arguments as paedobaptism.
The second pillar for the argument for baby dedication is simply a reference in the New Testament of what had been practiced by the Jews in anticipation of the Messiah for hundreds of years. Jesus Christ’s dedication in Lk. 2:22-24 is the end of the line with regard to baby dedication. It is the very same dedicatory practice that Hannah went through for Samuel. Simeon’s words of blessing on God in Lk. 2 make no sense if he did not see in Jesus Christ the consummation and consolation of all things in Him (v.25; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20), which include among many, many other things baby dedication. Simeon saw Jesus as the end of the line with regard to this practice because in Christ the shadow was gone, and the true substance was there, right there in Simeon’s arms. Would that the Lord allow many others to see what Simeon saw with his mind’s eye.
Precedent to Practice
Some might be saying at this point that since the practice is mentioned in scripture there is no harm in practicing it in the church. It is folly, in this writer’s mind, to simply assume that since a thing is mentioned in scripture that we are free to practice it in the assembled congregation. It may be an elementary point but the scripture also mentions the sacrificial slaughtering of a lamb. Does the New Covenant church of Christ want to start practicing that? It is mentioned and surely it has precedent in the Old Testament. Or is that too obvious of an example of things done away with? No doubt when one begins to think this way they are standing on a “slippery slope” that can get real ugly, real fast. Could inconsistency be the sign of a failed argument here?
The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith does mention things like circumstantial parts to worship. It specifically says in the first chapter, sixth paragraph that,
…there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.
The reader must understand that there are essential parts to the worship of God in the congregation mentioned in scripture, and there are circumstantial parts in the worship of God in the congregation. The essential parts which God has commanded are things such as the public reading of scripture (1 Tim. 4:13; Acts 15:21), the preaching of God’s Word (2 Tim. 4:2), singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19), the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-32), and giving (1 Cor. 9:3-12). Circumstantial parts of worship can include a whole host of things. Here are a few. Circumstances of the church can include how long the worship service lasts, what time it starts, whether or not you use a deer skin drum or a guitar to give rhythm to the singing, whether or not a projector is used, whether or not you use a pulpit, whether or not you have electricity, etc., etc. All of the things mentioned here are adiaphora, or indifferent things. They can come or go. Essential parts cannot.
The helpful distinction is this: essential parts are commanded by God, circumstances are not, though guided by the general rules of God’s word. Circumstantial parts can neither add to nor take away from the worship of God’s people as they employ the prescribed essential parts. Essential parts are non-negotiable. Without them there is no worship in the church. Circumstances are negotiable. Again, circumstances can come and go, essentials cannot. The ARBCA position paper on the regulative principle states, “Worship is always disciplined by theology, never determined by personal taste. It is not a matter of applied sociology.” To that this writer agrees wholeheartedly!
With that said, we must recognize that the Old Covenant alone commanded baby dedication as an essential part. Nowhere in the New Covenant constitution of the church is this commanded. It is not an essential part of the prescribed worship of God by God’s people on God’s day. Sadly, many have taken a precedent set under the Old Covenant and made it a practice in the New Covenant church. They have blurred the lines (more on this in a moment), just like paedobaptists do with their paedobaptism.
There seems to be no consistent logical difference between the argument to dedicate a baby based on precedent, and sacrificing a lamb on Sunday morning based on precedent. If one is willing to argue that baby dedication is indifferent and symbolic, would the same argument have any validity in the case of wanting to sacrifice a lamb on an altar during the worship of God in the New Covenant church? Talk about precedent! Talk about symbolic!
Why It Is Not A Circumstance
“Well, this is just all circumstantial then” many may be saying. And many congregations may surely act this way. They take a “no pressure” attitude. It’s just fine if you do, and equally as fine if you don’t. But can God’s people take it or leave it? Is the practice of baby dedication indifferent in the worship of God? Or may this be a curious case of Uzzah and the ark of the Covenant?
Again, the circumstantial parts of worship in the church function in a way that neither adds to nor takes away from the worship of God by the essential parts. They certainly can help, but are not essential. Heating and air is nice, but not essential. Pulpits are nice, but not essential. Electricity is nice, but not essential. Starting worship later in the morning (for some might be essential), but it is not. These are things indifferent. They help, but are not essential.
This writer is afraid that the use of baby dedication blurs the lines regarding an essential part of what it means to be a New Covenant church. It blurs the lines regarding the newness of the New Covenant and that makes it a thing that is in no way indifferent. When it comes to what the church is in the New Covenant, making the distinction between the Old Covenant practices of the nation of Israel and the New Covenant church can be no more fundamental and foundational than the blood that inaugurated the New Covenant (Lk. 22:20). Dragging something that was practiced in the Old Covenant into the New, without explicit revelation to do so, is not a good thing.
If one understands the progressive nature of God’s revelation and how all of the ceremonies, festivals, and feasts were shadows of the true substance, which is Christ, then the answer is simple. To be real simple here, Jesus Christ was the last baby to be dedicated in the Old Covenant, never to be repeated again. Surely babies were dedicated in history between the Messiah’s dedication and death, but they could only function as a shadow. Light was dawning. Christ’s dedication served as the last dedication in the sense of the fulfillment of the sign, not as the last in history. Jews have historically continued Old Covenant rituals to this day (2 Cor. 3:15), though Christ has come and fulfilled the sign of the ritual. If Christ’s life and death weren’t enough to put and end to baby dedications, 70 A.D. should have been. No temple, no dedication.
To offer up any other besides Christ in dedication (or to re-brand it as “parental vows”) is to blur the lines of the uniqueness of the Son of God. It is to take an Old Covenant commanded practice which was meant to point to Jesus alone, and make it a New Covenant church practice and now say it is somehow indifferent. The reason baby dedication is not indifferent to the New Covenant worship of God’s people is the same reason temple sacrifices aren’t – they have found their ultimate end in Jesus Christ!
Even more so, this seems to be the entire point of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews says many things, but one this is clear from this book, that is, Christ is better! He is a better hope, the guarantor of a better covenant, enacted on better promises, by a better sacrifice, giving us a better possession, by a better word, His very own! Oh, reader, if you miss the significance of this you miss the point of points, the history of histories, and the central theme of the Bible! Jesus isn’t just “blue on black” when it comes to His person and work. His work is not indifferent as it relates to the Old Testament. The Old Testament served as the stem and bud of God’s revelation. But now that Christ has come, He serves as the flower, full and unfurled in all His glory! How can we read such things and come away trying to mix the shadow with the substance? Oh, this is backwards indeed!
Indeed, parents, pastors, and churches mean well employing this time of dedication, but well meaning intentions can be misguided. We cannot assume that what we think is good, God does as well. For example, as the ark of the Covenant was being carried back to Jerusalem on an ox cart (which was strictly forbidden by God according to Num. 4:15), Uzzah, following along side the ark, reached out his hand and touched the ark of God to steady it because the ox stumbled (2 Sam. 6:5-7). Uzzah’s intentions seemed good. Who wouldn’t want the very representation of the presence of God with Israel to fall on the ground and its contents to spill out? He surely didn’t want this to happen. His intentions seemed well meaning. God killed him for that. There was specific revelation from God on who was to touch the ark, who was to carry the ark, and how it was to be carried (Num. 4:15;7:9). No exceptions. No grey area. The point is this: even the best intentions in the worship of God when done outside the revealed will of God are unacceptable to God. Uzzah made this fact as plain as his dead body.
Let’s Wrap It Up
Things like this hit right at the heart of what it means to be a New Covenant church. Am I saying that those who practice baby dedications aren’t New Covenant churches? By no means! What I am saying is that this practice blurs the lines. The work of Christ can be made much more clear by adhering to what God has clearly commanded to be done in corporate worship.
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
So states the 1689 BCF, chapter 1, paragraph 6a. And so the reader is left with a decision. It is a decision that is not (or should not be) unfamiliar to anyone wanting to be faithful to God’s Word. The decision is this: tradition or scripture. Choose carefully. May the Lord be honored.
Many thanks to Dr. Richard Barcellos for his pamphlet on this topic that gave guidance and spurred on much thought. His pamphlet can be found here: http://www.arbca.com/booklets