Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.
Notice that the whole of God’s people was that of Jacob’s Children (Children of Israel). At the end of chapter 2 we read, “…and God remembered his covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” We know that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. Thus, we conclude, according to the precedent set so far in Scripture, that God is dealing with the Hebrew people covenantally. It is interesting to note that God doesn’t make a distinction bewteen the righteous children of Jacob and the unrighteous children. Rather, he refers to all of Jacob’s descendants. This, no doubt would include both believers and unbelievers, and yet God calls them all his people.
This has been historically understood in different ways. We will look at 3 such ways, and I will offer a dissenting opinion concerning the first (Dispensational). The remaining two (Reformed Paedobaptist and Reformed Baptist) are very much alike, with some differing views concerning the inclusion of infants in the Covenant (amongst others). Because debates between these two tend to polarize I will avoid critiques of them, because I simply want this to be an informative post and not one of polemics. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for such debate, but not here and not now.
1) Dispensational Understanding-Just as there are multipe shades and stripes of Baptists, Presbyterians, etc., there are multiple types of dispensationalists. Some are referred to as classical, some as progressive, and at least one I know refers to himself as a leaky dispensationalist (the last not being an official class of dispensationalism, but I would describe it as dispensational only in the context of eschatology).
The Dispensationalist would tend to recognize this as merely a physical identification of God’s people, because, according to them, the covenant is merely that of a land promise, etc. The Dispensational hermeneutic would say that there is little to no continuity between how God worked with Israel and how He works with the Church, resulting in an erroneous “two peoples of God” theology. Though most would say that the Hebrews were saved through justification by faith alone just like any other Christian, this would cause them to downplay, in my humble opinion, the role of God’s covenantal dealings with the nation. God’s covenant made with Abraham is more than just a land promise, and is called an everlasting covenant.
2) Reformed Paedobaptist Understanding-There are multiple denominations which represent this view. Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Dutch Reformed, Anglican Reformed, etc. There may be varying distinction in degree of emphasis, but are all very similar in regard to covenant.
The Reformed Paedobaptist would say that God’s covenantal dealings with Israel, as based on the Abrahamic covenant, have both eternal and temporary aspects. They would recognize a more strict continuity between God’s dealings in the Old Covenant and His dealings in the New Covenant. In fact, the Reformed Paedobaptist would make the case that the New Covenant is much more expansive than the Old Covenant, in that not only are believers and their children in covenant with God from the Hebrew nation, but there is a more thorough inception of Gentile believers and their children equated into the mix as well.
This is where the Reformed Paedobaptist would distinguish between what has been called the “visible” church, and the “invisible” church (Along these same lines is the idea of the external/internal aspects of the covenant). From their perspective, those adults who repent and believe are baptized, they and their children, and then are all a part of the visible church. However, no man can know a person’s heart, thus they can’t know beyond a doubt that a man is or is not a part of the invisible church. That being said, this means that the invisible church are those who have been elected by God, before the foundation of the world, and who have been irresistibly drawn, effectually called, justified, and are being sanctified until glory. This is how, they say, God could call the whole of Israel his people, yet knowing that many of them ultimately broke covenant. They would say that, likewise, in the New Covenant, there will be those who profess Christ, but do not possess him. These are those to whom the warning passages are directed (Hebrews 6, 10, elsewhere), and many of whom are rooted out by means of church discipline, etc. (The warning passages are also directed to genuine Christians who are in need of repentance)
3) Reformed Baptist Understanding-There are also various shades of Baptists in this camp. Some would be Covenantal, some New Covenant Theologians, and still others may be a cross between, maybe more associated with the Continental Reformed concerning things such as the Sabbath, etc. I will be presenting the thoughts of the Covenantal Baptist camp.
The Reformed Baptist would say, along with the Reformed Paedobaptist, that God’s covenantal dealings with Israel, as based on His covenant made with Abraham, have both eternal and temporary aspects. They would, however, stop short of the strict continuity that Reformed Paedobaptists see between the Old and New Covenants. The contention of the Reformed Baptists is that the term “New” in the “New Covenant” means “brand new”. Alluding to passages such as Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8, the Reformed Baptist says in the New Covenant, all will know God, from the greatest to the least of them, whereas the Reformed Paedobaptist will see an “already/not yet” aspect to the aforementioned passages. Thus, to the Reformed Baptist, the status quo is no longer believers and their children being in covenant with God, but to the individual man, woman, boy, or girl who is confronted with the gospel to believe, repent, and be baptized. According to the Reformed Baptist, a man should only be baptized after having professed faith in Christ.
The Reformed Baptist, though not using terminology like “visible/invisible” church (although the 1689 does make mention of invisible church consisting of visible saints), has an underlying doctrine which basically states essentially the same idea as the Reformed Paedobaptist. In other words, Reformed Baptists understand a distinction between those who merely profess Christ and those who actually possess Christ. A baptism is performed on those who give a “credible profession of faith”, and in time this profession is shown to be true for a person who follows the Scripture and bears the fruit of the Spirit. For the man who does not live a godly life, yet professes Christ, he is subject to church discipline. The Reformed Baptist will follow the various stages of Discipline (Matt 18, etc) in hopes that the professing believer will repent and be restored to the fellowship of Christians. If such a professor fails to do so, then he will be considered and treated as an unbeliever, and according to 1 John 3, his actions are showing him as having never having been truly saved in the first place. Thus, the various warning passages in Scripture (Heb 6, 10, etc.) are directed to such a person for the purpose of having them “examine themselves to see whether [they] be in the faith.”
The preceding descriptions are not intended to be exhaustive, nor are they the only views out there. However, I think they are the most prominent views.