This is the research paper that I had to write for my Theology 350: Fundamental Theological Issues class. If you would like the actual PDF, simply contact me and I’ll send it to you.
Baptism is perhaps the most misunderstood command by God that we find in Scripture. For at least the last four hundred years, baptism has often wrought disagreements and divisions among the Church, and still continues to do so even to this day. These divisions have manifested themselves in at least four ways pertaining to baptism which are; it’s purpose, its merits, to whom it is to be applied, and lastly, its mode. While it may appear at first glance that each of these are independent of one another, the views that one has regarding baptism’s merits, proper recipients, and mode actually all stem from the purpose of baptism as the sign of the new covenant. There are three main views about baptism in the “Christian” world, however, my primary focus will be in comparing and contrasting the paedo (Presbyterian infant baptism) and credo (Baptist adult only baptism) views on baptism. I will, however, briefly bring up the Roman Catholic view in order to show how the Reformed view of infant baptism differs from Rome’s view. Throughout this article, I will first discuss the credo-baptist position, followed by a discussion on the paedo-baptist position. After each paedo-baptism treatise, I will briefly show how this view is inherently different from Rome’s view, thus showing that the reformers did not simply carry over the practice of infant baptism when they forsook the teachings of Rome.
The Anabaptist View on the Purpose of Baptism
In the sixteenth century, a group arose who rejected the traditional, historical, and biblical practice of infant baptism according to the Magisterial Reformers. This group was “called Anabaptists because they believed in re-baptising on confession of faith (the prefix ana means ‘again’), when one was old enough to be able to make a personal statement.” Baptism was often said to be the public declaration of our faith in Jesus Christ. The 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith & Message says baptism is “an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.” Thomas J. Nettles defines baptism as “the immersion in water of a believer in Jesus Christ performed once as the initiation of such a believer into a community of believers, the church.” Hubmaier, who is one of the fathers of the Anabaptist movement as we know it today, believed baptism to be the outward sign of the “inner reality of faith.” Thus, it is safe and fair to conclude that according to the Anabaptist tradition, baptism is a sign that signifies the union between Christ and the baptismal recipient. It is a way for those receiving baptism to say to all, “I (currently) belong to the body of Christ!” Therefore, the purpose of baptism is rather limited in the Anabaptist understanding of baptism to simply union and communion with Christ. In contrast, Presbyterians believe that that baptism also carries with itself a sealing characteristic that is foreordained by God for His elect people to receive as a seal of the righteousness and spiritual blessings that He will give them through faith; faith being a gift that he will give them at His appointed time.
The Covenantal Reformed View on the Purpose of Baptism
One of the greatest differences between Covenantal Reformers and Anabaptists is how each side views the covenants. The reason this is important is because how one understands to whom baptism is to be applied, really comes down to how the covenant with Abraham in Genesis and Paul’s explanation of the children of promise in Romans are to be understood. As Covenantal Reformers believe that the promise made to Abraham in Genesis seventeen applies to us today in light of what Paul said in Romans nine. By Paul saying “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” is taken to mean that God made the promise to Abraham and since Christians are counted as the seed of Abraham, this promise is for Christian households, including the children. In addition to this, the views held regarding the covenants also impacts how the signs of the covenants are understood and what those signs signify.
With the discussion of the purposes for baptism according to the Anabaptist tradition, it was clear that this view generally recognizes two purposes in baptism, namely, union and communion with Christ. Covenantal Reformers, however, acknowledge seven purposes for baptism. Even though each of these seven use (for the most part) different texts of Scripture, they are not independent of one another. These purposes are most clearly spelled out in question 165 of The Westminster Larger Catechism, which says that baptism is “to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, (Gal. 3:27) of remission of sins by his blood, (Mark 1:4, Rev. 1:5) and regeneration by his Spirit; (Tit. 3:5, Eph. 5:26) of adoption, (Gal. 3:26–27) and resurrection unto everlasting life; (1 Cor. 15:29, Rom. 6:5) and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, (1 Cor. 12:13) and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s. (Rom. 6:4)” In order to demonstrate that these seven purposes are Scriptural understandings of baptism, each of these will be examined with their Scriptural proofs. Also, it is helpful to understand the “sign and seal” to be included in “purpose” as will be seen throughout this section.
The first purpose is the “ingrafting into himself”. When Paul penned this verse, he chose to use the aorist tense for the verb βαπτιζω and also for the verb ενδυω. By using the aorist tense for these verbs, we know that baptism preceded the putting on of Christ. A. Lukyn Williams commented on Paul’s use of εἰς χριστὸν ἐβαπτίσθητε saying, “Christ was the aim and purpose of your baptism, and through it you obtained union with even Him.” He also commented on Paul’s use of χριστὸν ἐνεδύσασθε likewise explaining that “you appropriated the relation to God in which Christ stands, you received all that Christ is. There is no thought here of putting off the old man of sinful desires (Col. 3:8–12), but only of leaving the previous state of pupillage by union with Christ.” In distinguishing between the sign and that which is signified, Francis Turretin said,
“Our opinion is that the sacraments do not work grace physically and ex opere operato as if they possessed a force implanted and inherent in them of conferring and effecting grace; but only morally and hyperphysically, inasmuch as they are signs and seals which in their lawful use hold forth and seal grace to believers (God by the power of the Holy Spirit truly performing and fulfilling in them whatever he promises and figures by the signs). Therefore a twofold efficacy is ascribed to the sacraments according to us: the one moral and objective by which the sacraments make present to our mind that object, to signify and seal which they are destined (by which means, faith is either excited or confirmed and, it mediating, hope and sanctification are increased);the other covenantal, by which God (sealing by the sacraments his promise or covenant) confers the very things promised upon the believing soul or even a greater sense and perception of these already conferred and produces by both greater operations. Hence the sacraments are rightly called exhibitive, provided a physical exhibition is not implanted in the elements; but a moral exhibition by which that grace is objectively exhibited to the mind and with it, at the same time, really to the believing soul.”
Turretin is essentially arguing that through baptism, the thing signified, the Christian’s union with Christ is sealed. Not meaning that union with Christ is immediately achieved, but simply that the union has been sealed and secured for the time appointed by God. This is important because it reveals that though baptism, the sign, itself does not possess the power nor grace to save Christians, it is through baptism, the thing signified, that they are united with Christ and thus partake in the benefits that come with such a union, at the time appointed by God.
The second purpose from the Larger Catechism question 165 is “remission of sins by his blood.” Thomas Brooks expounded on this most excellently when he said:
“Repentance is a promise of the covenant of grace: Ezek. 36:31, “Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and shall loath yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities, and for your abominations.” It is not only the duty of God’s elect, but their privilege, made over to them in Jesus Christ, purchased by his death, and bestowed on them by virtue of his exaltation, Acts 5:31. And hence, as one of the benefits of that covenant, it is sealed in baptism, Mark 1:4.”
It is because repentance is itself the promise of the covenant of grace that we must recognize it as a purpose of baptism.
Regarding the third purpose, namely, the regeneration by his Spirit, Thomas Boston explains, “The Spirit of Christ purifies the soul, removing filthy lusts that defile the soul, and so renewing and sanctifying it, Tit. 3:5. And unless we be thus washed, we have no part in Christ.”
Paul’s use of διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας καὶ ἀνακαινώσεως πνεύματος ἁγίου is recognized by Patrick Fairbairn to be a reference to regeneration by the Spirit through baptism when he said:
“There are therefore two things marked here—first baptism (as the laver of regeneration), and then the renewing of the Holy Ghost, which is but another name for progressive sanctification”
The connectivity between baptism and union with Christ ought to be carefully considered, for if one did indeed separate baptism from union with Christ, then they have so removed the necessity of it and are thus saying that Jesus Christ did not have the authority to institute any practices of the church. However, this is, again, not to say that they are saved by the sign, but that the sign signifies union with Christ and thus baptism, as both the sign and thing signified, cannot be separated from each other.
Although adoption is recognized and loved across Christians denominations, Covenantal Reformers are the primary ones who recognize its affiliation with baptism. Adoption as a purpose of baptism reinforces the idea of Abraham’s seed being spiritual seed and not simply physical seed, and thus the promise give to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 also applies to Christians. Before addressing where this is in Scripture, an examination of the Scripture used by the Larger Catechism on this point will be the first task, and that will lead the way into how Genesis 17:7 applies to Christians. Earlier Galatians 3:27 was looked at regarding our being ingrafted into Christ. Now by looking at the preceding verse more clarity may be granted to see that this is connected to baptism as well, and by looking at the verses that follow the implications of Christian parents being obligated to baptize their offspring are more clearly seen. Paul said, “ For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus…And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” This concept of being Abraham’s seed is not a new idea that Paul threw in at the end of this chapter. Indeed, it is rather a theme repeated all throughout this chapter and also in his letter to the church in Rome.
The fifth purpose is “resurrection unto everlasting life.” Thus, this purpose of baptism serves as a reminder the being sealed in Christ and therefore the bodily resurrection when Christ returns. Rev. Francis R. Beattie said:
“These passages do not mean merely death, burial, and resurrection with Christ, but they express facts which are involved in our union with Christ, which is effected by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Hence, when we are united with Christ we are identified with him in all the experiences through which he passed. Thus we die with him, we are crucified with him, we are buried with him, we are raised up together with him, we live with him, and we are finally raised with him to the heavenly places.”
Rev. Beattie made the most excellent connection of this to both the resurrection from death in sin, and the resurrection of believers at the return of Christ.
In the Old Testament, all males who were either born into or brought into the covenant community had to be circumcised. This was not an option for them, but rather it was something that God instituted in order to set the Israelites apart from the other nations. To not apply this sign of the covenant had grave consequences. In Genesis 17:9, God told Abraham, “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.” There is evidence in Exodus that God took breaking of this covenant so seriously that He would strike down those who broke it. Exodus 4:24-26 says, “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.” Thus we can see from the Old Testament that circumcision was the sign of the covenant and to bear that sign meant you were part of the visible covenant family. Since Galatians 3:29 teaches that Christians are Abraham’s seed, and since Genesis 17 shows that the covenant was made with Abraham and his offspring after him for all their generations, Christians ought to be fearful of the consequences for not applying the sign of baptism to their children, which seals them into the visible church.
Lastly, those who have been baptized have entered “into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’ s.” So by having baptism applied to us, we profess to be God’s. The apostle Paul said, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”
Distinctions Between the Catholic and Covenantal Reformers on Baptism
One ought not to think that just because Rome practices infant baptism that it is the same practice as the Covenantal Reformers. Likewise, it ought not to be thought that since the Reformers broke from Rome that they simply carried infant baptism with them. Indeed, important differences do exist in practice Covenantal Reformers and that of Rome. The Council of Trent highlighted a key difference. This council said regarding baptism, “If any one shall say, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation; let him be anathema.” Rome believes that you cannot be saved apart from baptism. Covenantal Reformers reject this idea for to accept it is to make Jesus a liar since he told the unbaptized thief on the cross next to Him, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The Westminster Confession spells out how Covenantal Reformers differ from Rome. “Although it be a great sin to condemn or neglect this ordinance, (Luke 7:30, Exod. 4:24–26) yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: (Rom. 4:11, Acts 10:2, 4, 22, 31, 45, 47) or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated. (Acts 8:13, 23)”
Baptism: For Professed Believers Only or For Infants Also
Although, this was touched on briefly, it will be helpful to go into a little more detail. Anabaptists often deny infant baptism as a practice in the New Testament because of the lack of an explicit account of an infant being baptized. However, given the nature of God’s covenant with Abraham and Paul stating in Galatians that our being in Christ makes us the seed of Abraham, the argument from silence is actually a much stronger argument for infant baptism than it is against it. The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, (Mark 16:15–16, Acts 8:37–38) but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized (Gen. 17:7–8, Gal. 3:9, 14, Col. 2:11–12, Acts 2:38–39, Rom. 4:11–12, 1 Cor. 7:14, Matt. 28:19, Mark 10:13–16, Luke 18:15). Perhaps the primary reason why Christians ought to baptize their children is found in Genesis 17 and Galatians 3. In Genesis 17, God tells Abraham that the covenant will be for him and his offspring for an everlasting covenant. Then Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians we are Abraham’s offspring. If we are Abraham’s offspring, and the covenant was for Abraham and his offspring, and baptism is the sign of the new covenant, Christians’ children ought to be baptized because God promised to be the God of the parents and the children! Therefore, both professor’s baptism and infant baptism seem to be the biblical application. Meaning, if there is someone not born into a Christian home who gets converted by God’s grace to Christianity, they should be baptized (professor’s baptism). However, after that person has been converted, it is their duty to baptize their children (infant baptism). So professor’s baptism ought to be the practice for those born outside of the covenant community who are converted, but for those born into or converted into the covenant community, the practice ought to be paedo-baptism. Also, those baptized as infants should not be re-baptized as adults. The Westminster Confession explains this by saying:
“The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; (John 3:5, 8) yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time (Gal. 3:27, Tit. 3:5, Eph. 5:25–26, Acts 2:38, 41).”
In his study on whether or not infants have the right to baptism, Thomas Boston concluded:
“Conclusion IV. All infants descended of parents whereof one only is a visible believer, hath right to baptism before the church; they ought to be baptized, whether it be the father or mother that makes a credible profession. Such are in covenant with God visibly; we are to look on them as probably within the covenant, as to the saving benefits thereof, so that none can forbid water. The apostle plainly tells us, they are not unclean I but holy,
1 Cor. 7:14. and therefore subjects lawfully capable of this ordinance.”
He went on to say:
“The seal of the covenant belongs to all those that are within the covenant; but the infants of all Christian parents are within the covenant; for so runs the covenant, “I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed.” Seeing the parents are sealed with the seal, they must needs be within the covenant, and consequently their seed also. The covenant is not made with the root, but also with the offspring; and if so, why may not the seal of the covenant be effectual, not only to the baptized parent if he believe, but also render his seed capable at least of the external sign.”
This is in full support of the comments made previously the seed the covenant being for Christians’ offspring as well.
What is The Proper Mode of Baptism?
Some have said that βαπτιζω means to immerse, and though it does at times have that meaning, it does not always carry that idea. One example of this is The context of any passage must be the primary source for determining how words are translated. Thus, they reject the notion that baptism always means to immerse in the Scriptures.
Covenantal Reformers believe the biblical position on this issue is as the Westminster Standards states. The Westminster Confession informs us that “[d]ipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person (Heb. 9:10, 19–22, Acts 2:41, Acts 16:33, Mark 7:4).” Since Baptism signifies washing, and given that that may be symbolized just as easily with dipping, pouring or sprinkling, and also we are not commanded and thus required to practice one mode over the others.
- David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 36.
- “Baptist Faith and Message.” Official Website of the Southern Baptist Convention. http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp (accessed September 24, 2012).
- Thomas J. Nettles, Richard L. Pratt Jr., and Robert Kolb, Understanding Four Views On Baptism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 25.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, and Shawn Wright, eds. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2007), 200.
- The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).
- A. Lukyn Williams, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914), 82.
- Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology: Volume Three: Eighteenth Through Twentieth Topics, trans. George Musgrave Giger. Ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1997), 363.
- Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston, Volume 6: Sermons and Discourses on Several Important Subjects in Divinity, ed. Samuel M‘Millan (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1849), 387.
- Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston, Volume 2: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 2, ed. Samuel M‘Millan (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 475.
- The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005, With Morphology. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006). Titus 3:5
- Patrick Fairbairn, The Pastoral Epistles: The Translation With Introduction, Expository Notes, and Dissertations (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1874), 297.
- Ga 3:29.
- Romans chapters 4 & 9 are two examples of Paul dealing with the Abrahamic covenant in relation to Christians.
- Rev. Francis R. Beattie, The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, (Richmond, Va.: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1896), 313-314.
- Ge 17:14.
- Ex 4:24–26.
- The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996). Question 165
- 1 Co 6:19–20.
- Theodore Alois Buckley, trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Literally Translated Into English With Supplement. (London: George Routledge And Co., Soho Square. 1851), 53.
- Lk 23:43.
- The Westminster Confession of Faith (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996). XXVIII.5
- Ibid., XXVIII.4
- Ibid., XXVIII.6
- Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston, Volume 6. 138-39.
- Ibid., 140-41.
- 1 Cor. 10:2
- The Westminster Confession of Faith. XXVIII.3