Examining “the sign of the covenant” (Genesis 17:11)

SUMMARY. Today’s article takes a look at the phrase “the sign of the covenant” that appears in Genesis 17:11, but that also factors prominently in the Presbyterian practice of Paedobaptism. We will examine the phrase in its context of Genesis 17:11 and compare that with the use of the same phrase when Presbyterians (and probably others) sprinkle water on the head of infants.

The most common use of “the sign of the covenant” is not in the exegesis of Genesis 17:11 but is instead in the words used by Presbyterians as the pastor of the church sprinkles water on the head of an infant (or small child, and so throughout the article). In this ritual, called Paedobaptism or infant baptism, the infant child of a professing believer is said to receive “the sign of the covenant” when they are sprinkled with water.

Now, while this practice has gone on for many centuries, first in the Roman Catholic church and then in most of the Protestant churches of the Reformation and beyond, there are difficulties in explaining or justifying this practice from the Bible. There are also difficulties in showing that “the sign of the covenant” commanded in Genesis 17:11 is analogous to “the sign of the covenant” given in the sprinkling of infants with water. This article is going to examine some of those difficulties.


The first difficulty is that there is no example anywhere in the Bible, in Old Testament or New, of any infant ever being sprinkled with water. Thus, the Presbyterians have no biblical basis whatsoever for assigning any significance to sprinkling water on the head of an infant. Whatever meaning is assigned to the sprinkling is entirely arbitrary. In fact, the ritual of sprinkling an infant and the assigned meaning of that ritual are simply invented with no reference to the Bible. (As an aside, the question should be asked, “How can you maintain ‘sola Scriptura’ and, at the same time, prominently practice a ritual that is absent from the Scriptures?”) In summary of this point, then, the ritual of sprinkling water on the head of an infant is extrabiblical and the meaning of this ritual is arbitrarily invented.


Next, we know that the phrase “sign of the covenant” appears four times in Scripture. Three of those appearances are in Genesis 9 with the covenant with Noah. The fourth, and most important, appearance of this phrase is in Genesis 17:11, and this is the one that gets the most attention, because this use of the phrase is alleged to hold the key to the Presbyterian practice of Paedobaptism. Let’s try to follow this.

In Genesis 17:2-8, God declares to Abraham what He is going to do for Abraham under this covenant. Since God is the one who declares these things, we know that they will certainly come to pass.

In Genesis 17:9-14, the pronouns change from I (God) to you (Abraham). In these verses, God tells Abraham what his responsibilities are under this covenant. Every male among Abraham’s descendants (seed) must be circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin (17:10-11). Further, males are to be circumcised when they are eight days old (17:12). This is “the sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham, and it is obligatory. Any male who is not circumcised has broken God’s covenant and shall be cut off from his people (17:14).

Thus, the terms of the Abrahamic covenant are clearly established. All male descendants of Abraham are obligated to be circumcised in the flesh of their foreskin as “the sign of the covenant” (17:11).

So far, so good. But now the real work begins, because the Presbyterian needs to show that, as circumcision is “the sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham in Genesis 17, so sprinkling water on the head of an infant is the sign of the new covenant which Christ established by His death on the cross (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20).

There are difficulties presented by the task of showing this analogy. Here are a few.

  • Already mentioned is the fact that sprinkling infants with water is absent from all of Scripture. It is therefore difficult to draw an analogy between circumcision, which does exist in Scripture, and the sprinkling of infants, which does not.
  • The phrase “the sign of the covenant” does not appear in any verse of Scripture after Genesis 17:11, where male circumcision is explicitly stated to be the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. It is therefore difficult to connect circumcision with anything in the New Testament, since nowhere in the New Testament can we find a corresponding sign of the covenant.
  • If, despite the fact that there is no sprinkling of infants anywhere in the Bible and despite the fact that there is no identified “sign of the covenant” in the New Testament, we nevertheless made the arbitrary assumption that male circumcision in the flesh of the foreskin on the eighth day was analogous to sprinkling water on the head of an infant, we would need to address the fact that these two signs of the covenant are vastly different in their forms. As seen below, this presents a difficulty, namely, if these are, in fact, analogous, why are they so dissimilar?
circumcisionsprinkling on head
males onlymale and female
on the eighth dayno specific time
cutting with a knifesprinkling with water
“sign of covenant” explicit“sign of covenant” assigned
permanent sign in the fleshtransient sign leaves no trace
biblically commandednot in the Bible
Comparing circumcision and sprinkling
  • The final difficulty in showing that these two rituals are analogous to one another consists in looking at their purposes. We would assume that, if these practices are analogous to one another, then their purposes would provide clues of this analogy. In Genesis 17, the purpose of circumcision is clearly given: to mark the seed of Abraham by a permanent physical sign. But where do we go to find the purpose of sprinkling water on the head of an infant? Since this ritual does not appear in Scripture, we have no way of knowing its God-ordained purpose. In fact, since this sprinkling of infants with water does not appear in the word of God, we conclude there is no God-ordained purpose to this practice. Whatever purpose there is to this ritual must be arbitrarily assigned by man.

So far in this article we have examined the concept of “the sign of the covenant” and have encountered significant difficulties in trying to see how the phrase as used in Genesis 17:11 has any resemblance or connection to the words used by Presbyterians as they sprinkle infants. The magnitude of the difficulties leads us to conclude that there is, in fact, no connection between these two uses of the phrase “sign of the covenant” and that Presbyterians use the phrase when sprinkling infants for reasons that are based on other than exegetical concerns.

SDG                 rmb                 3/2/2022                     #494

“Household baptisms” are baptisms of believers

INTRODUCTION. One of the arguments used to justify the practice of Paedobaptism (Paedobaptism is the practice of sprinkling water on the head of an infant or a small child and calling that New Testament baptism) is based on the so-called “household baptisms” in the New Testament. Household baptisms appear in Acts 16:15 with Lydia’s household, in Acts 16:33 with the household of the Philippian jailer, and in 1 Corinthians 1:16 with the household of Stephanas in Corinth. This post will take a critical look at these passages and assess whether “household baptisms” provide any justification for the practice of Paedobaptism. The material used here will (hopefully) be part of a more complete work critiquing all the arguments attempting to justify Paedobaptism.


In my own words, the justification for Paedobaptism from household baptisms states that, in the New Testament there are clearly cases where whole households were baptized. These households are assumed to have contained infants or small children who could not repent or believe, but who were nevertheless baptized. From this, the Paedobaptists infer that it is biblically justified to sprinkle all infants and small children of believers.


To critique this Paedobaptist argument, we will question its major assumption, namely that there were unbelieving small children or infants in these households who were “baptized” (actually, sprinkled). It will be shown that, not only were there no unbelieving infants and small children (thus eliminating the need to sprinkle rather than properly immerse them), but in fact all those baptized were believers. The reason the members of these household were baptized was because the members were believers.

LYDIA’S HOUSEHOLD, ACTS 16:14-15. We begin by examining the verses about Lydia in Acts 16. In Acts 16:15, the Scriptures read, “And when she (Lydia) and her household had been baptized.” So, it is obvious that Lydia’s household was baptized. But now, for the Paedobaptist argument for infant baptism to hold, it must be shown that Lydia’s household included an unbelieving infant or small child. What is the evidence for this case?

  • The most obvious clue against there being infants or small children in the household is that no children are mentioned in Acts 16:14-15. None. At all. So, for there to be any children, they must be inferred and inserted into the household. Is there any good reason to infer that there were small children?
  • If there were children in Lydia’s household, there would need to be a father. This would necessitate Lydia having a husband, but there is no mention of a husband for Lydia. Ever. In the whole text, there is no suggestion that Lydia has a husband. In his typical detailed fashion, Luke tells us (16:14) Lydia’s name, where she is from (Thyatira), what she does for a living (seller of purple fabrics), that she was a worshiper of God, and that she was listening to Paul. Then, after “the Lord opened her heart” (16:14), we find out that Lydia has been judged to be faithful to the Lord (16:15), that she has a house that can accommodate a few travelers, and that she can invite male strangers into her home. In those days, it would have been scandalous for a woman to invite men into her home without her husband’s consent, unless, of course, there was no husband to ask.
  • All of this evidence suggests not that Lydia was a mother of infants or small children, but rather that she was a single woman, a merchant of some means, whose heart had been opened by the Lord as Paul proclaimed the gospel to her by the river. There is no evidence for any unbelieving infants or small children.
  • But it must be remembered that the central figure in this gospel scene is not an imaginary infant or small child, but is Lydia, the new believer. “The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (16:14). This certainly means that Lydia believed in the Lord Jesus Christ unto salvation. Then, following her coming to faith, she was baptized (16:15). According to the pattern given throughout the book of Acts, Lydia believed and was baptized (confirm Acts 2, twice in Acts 8, Acts 9 (Saul), Acts 10, twice in Acts 16, Acts 18, and Acts 19). And the only reason that Lydia was baptized was because she had believed in the Lord Jesus.
  • Now, since the only reason the apostle Paul ever baptized anyone was because they had believed in the Lord Jesus, we can conclude that all in Lydia’s “household” were baptized because they had believed in the Lord Jesus, just as Lydia had.

CONCLUSION ABOUT LYDIA’S HOUSEHOLD, ACTS 16:14-15. After examining this occurrence of a “household baptism,” we have seen, first, that there is no valid reason to infer that there are unbelieving infants or small children in Lydia’s household in this scene, and second, that the reason that Lydia’s household was baptized was because Lydia’s household believed. Thus, the household baptism in Acts 16:15 provides no justification whatsoever for Paedobaptism and, in fact, is correctly understood as portraying household faith.

THE PHILIPPIAN JAILER’S HOUSEHOLD, ACTS 16:31-34. Once again, we see the occurrence of a household baptism in Acts 16:33. (As a technical note, the word for “household” does not appear in the Greek in 16:33, but it is certainly allowed and implied. The Greek actually reads “he was baptized and all his.”) An examination of this passage will reveal that it provides no support for Paedobaptism.

Paul answers the jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” with a clear call to faith in Jesus: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (16:31). Any salvation for this jailer or his household is clearly dependent on believing in the Lord Jesus. If the jailer (or his household) is to be saved, he must believe in Jesus.

Having given the jailer the key to being saved, Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house (Acts 16:32).” In the same way that Peter had preached to Cornelius and all those who had gathered in his house in Acts 10, now Paul preaches the word of the gospel to the jailer and all those in his house. Paul told the jailer to believe in Jesus (16:31), and now Paul is giving him the details of the gospel. He is explaining to him about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and calling him (and his whole household) to faith in Jesus, the risen Savior. And because of what happens in 16:33 and what we read in 16:34, we know that the jailer and his household believed in God.

What happens next? In 16:33, the jailer washes Paul’s and Silas’ wounds (Maybe they go to the same place of prayer in the river where Paul first spoke the word to Lydia.) and then, since they have believed the message that Paul proclaimed, the jailer and his whole household are immediately baptized.

Their coming to faith is then celebrated with a meal as they “rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household” (16:34). Again, the reason that the whole household was baptized was because the whole household had believed, as is explicitly stated here.

CONCLUSION, ACTS 16:31-34. This passage about the Philippian jailer provides no justification for Paedobaptism. In fact, the only way to see Paedobaptism in this passage would be to forcibly introduce it into the text. Instead, what we see here is the power of the gospel to convert a hard and cruel man, and his household, to faith in Jesus Christ.

THE HOUSEHOLD OF STEPHANAS, 1 CORINTHIANS 1:16; 16:15. The final occurrence of household baptism is the household of Stephanas in 1 Corinthians 1:16. Paul writes, “Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas.” Who is Stephanas, and does this baptism offer the Paedobaptist a justification for the practice of baptizing babies?

We find out who Stephanas and his household are by simply reading 1 Cor. 16:15-16: “Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors.” It becomes immediately obvious from this glowing commendation from Paul and his testimony to their usefulness in his ministry, that “the household of Stephanas” was a household of believers, and that the reason Paul baptized them (1 Cor. 1:16) was because they had believed the gospel. No further comment needs to be made.

CONCLUSION, THE HOUSEHOLD OF STEPHANAS, 1 COR. 1:16; 16:15. Once again, there is no hint of Paedobaptism here in this text. Instead, we see that Paul baptized the household of Stephanas because the household of Stephanas believed the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. As is true of all baptism in the New Testament, the reason whole households are baptized is because whole households believed. There is no baptism in the New Testament apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ


Upon examination of the “household baptisms” in the New Testament, it has been shown that there is no basis for the Paedobaptist claim that these passages can be understood as justifying Paedobaptism. There are no hidden infants or small children in these household baptisms that were somehow given a faithless sprinkling. In these occurrences, the reason whole households were baptized because whole households believed. As is true of all baptisms in the New Testament, there is no baptism apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

SDG                 rmb                 1/21/2022                   #487