Is Acts 2:39 a valid prooftext for paedobaptism?

Almost all of the cases for reformed paedobaptism I have read have referenced Peter’s statement in Acts 2:39 that “the promise” is “for you and your children.” This has always surprised me, for it seems to me that this reading of Acts 2:39 fails to ask some very basic exegetical questions:

1) What is the promise?
In context, the promise is not covenant membership, but the Holy Spirit (2:38, Luke 24:49).

2) Whom is the promise for?
Peter states that the promise of the Holy Spirit is for “you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (2:39). In other words: anyone can receive the Spirit.

3) How does Peter suggest the promise is received?
This is another way of asking, what are the conditions of the promise? The text is clear: repentance (v. 38) and calling (v. 39).

All Peter’s statement means is that anyone (whether children or those far off) who repents (v. 38) and is called (v. 39) can receive the Spirit (v. 38). To get to the desired paedobaptist destination – the covenant membership (rather than the Holy Spirit) of the children of hearers (but not those who are far off) apart from repentance (v. 38) and calling (v. 39) – you have to take three wrong turns, exegetically speaking. I respect my paedobaptist brothers and sisters, but I submit that the frequent usage of this text communicates the difficulty of their case more than anything else.

Its often said that the first century Jewish men hearing Peter’s sermon would have expected their children (from birth) to be included in church, since allegedly this was the pattern set up in the Old Testament with circumcision. This overlooks the fact, which was the pivotal point in my own rejection of paedobaptism, that the sacrament of circumcision was given to all the offspring of Abraham, inter-generationally (Genesis 17:9), not to the “children of believers.” More immediately, in the context of Acts 2, it loses sight of the connotations that baptism already had prior to the birth of the church because of John the Baptist’s baptism, which is explicitly said to be a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 19:4). I therefore think first century Jewish listeners would not have had any difficulty understanding Peter’s words in their most natural sense.

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  1. Thanks for your thoughts. What about communion? I am in E&E and Peterson is about to share his thougts on his disagreeing with paedocommunion. Interestingly though, I have felt that his arguments for paedobaptism could likewise be used for paedocommunion. I think we need more discussion on how God uses baptism and commmunion to shape and form us both as a community and as individuals. Thanks for sharing, I always enjoy your thoughts.

    1. Perhaps I’m reaching, but it seems pertinent to realize that in the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper (Communion) was a Christian fulfillment of the Passover meal, just as it was for the Twelve right before the Passion narrative. Even in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul’s teachings on the Lord’s Supper are clearly referring to a meal being eaten that included the portion we practice: the bread and the wine being said to represent the body and blood of Jesus. Paedocommunion can hardly even be considered a worthwhile debate, because even Credocommunion subscribers have long since lost the original practice in its entirety.

      Trust me, I’m no Frank Viola and I haven’t read his book, but concerning Communion, we in the modern Church have certainly innovated in the interest of convenience.

  2. Jason, I remember those discussions in E+E well. I also think the Lord’s Supper is very important for these discussions, and I totally understand how some paedobaptist arguments can seem to —> paedocommunion. My fear is that the inherent inconsistency of giving certain people the sacrament of covenant initiation but not covenant sustenance will make it difficult for traditional paedobaptists to push back against paedocommunion. Thanks for commenting.

  3. What about the Lutheran position that this is in fact about the reception of the Holy Spirt and repentance/remission of sins? This seems to line up more with your exegetical approach and “Catholic” history. In regard to the argument about it being for Abraham’s offspring and not believers, it is not difficult to see the connection. If we agree with Paul, that those with faith are the true offspring/family of Abraham then those two thoughts are connected. Believers are the offspring of the promise and baptism replaces circumcision in the new covenant.

  4. Hi Gavin
    I would agree that the promise is only realized through faith and Baptism does not save but in Galatians 3 we read that we receive the same promise as Abraham the father of faith.
    So we don’t receive the same promise as Abraham and his offspring.

  5. It’s a blessing that the Spirit comes from God and that Holiness is a sign of Gods work. What a blessing that Baptism is a sign of Gods work and repentance is our response.
    Ezekiel 36:25
    [25] I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. (ESV)
    [26] And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
    [27] And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)