Baptism is an important part of the Christian faith. And yet it remains a controversial subject among Christians. Who should get baptized?
What's the purpose? Are we somehow saved through baptism? Alistair Begg explores the baptism debate today on Truth for Life. As those of you who were present know, we managed the Lord's Supper, but we did not manage baptism.
In the teaching on the Lord's Supper, we sought not simply to say positively what we understood the Bible to say but also to identify in a negative way the issues that we felt fell outside the orb of the instruction of Scripture. In the same way, as I listen to people talk about baptism, and particularly infant baptism, I think it's important for me to do this for you, at least in part. And I'm going to have to ask you to be patient, because what I want to do is I want to quote for you from a Presbyterian perspective, then from an Anglican perspective, then from a Roman Catholic perspective, and then we'll go to the New Testament. So if you would listen carefully, then I'll speak as quickly as I can so that we can get to the Bible as fast as we might. We need to recognize, in saying all of this, that baptism remains a controversial subject, that tragically and unnecessarily so, Christians are often divided over the issue.
I also recognize that there is little hope on my part of convincing those who disagree with me. My friends who are committed pedobaptists—that is, infant baptizers—are able to marshal their facts with great clarity. They understand the Bible. They are sincerely devoted to Jesus. And although we play theological ping-pong with it from time to time, they remain convinced of where they are, and I remain convinced of where I am too. That doesn't unsettle us in any way, because we are united on the fundamentals, we are committed to all of the issues of the gospel together, and this matter of the meaning and the mode of baptism we would not want to put in a primary position but in a secondary position. I say that in relationship to those who are within the framework of believing Christianity, the disagreement that exists there. Out with that, where the notion would be that baptism possesses saving efficacy, then we would not regard that discussion as a secondary discussion. We would regard it as a primary discussion. But I want to distinguish, as I hope to show you now.
I decided what I would do is I would quote to you from people that I admire living or dead. First of all, living, so that we would allow, if you like, a good evangelical proponent of the view to speak concerning the view in order that we would not be setting up in any way a straw man and then being able to tear it down. It's relatively easy to do that in argument and in debate. Many of you are familiar with that.
And it's a very unhelpful way to go, because it creates all kinds of impressions, most of which are absolutely wrong. Now, what I want then to do is to quote to you from a book called A Faith to Live By—Christian Teaching That Makes a Difference. It is authored by a man by the name of Donald MacLeod, a man with a great name, I suggest to you. He is the professor of theology at the Free Church College in Edinburgh, Scotland, which sits up there on the mound, for those of you who have been there, in behind the statue of John Knox. And in speaking concerning this to a congregation and then providing it for us in its written form, he points out that at its most fundamental, baptism signifies union with Christ. It is baptism in the name of Christ, identifying us with him and incorporating us into him. It signifies our being one with him and seals our participation in his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. It attests and consolidates both our covenant union and our spiritual union with the risen Lord. We live with Christ. We are built on Christ. We are rooted in Christ. We share his status and privileges. We enjoy his inheritance.
We have his rights. Baptism, he says, represents to us all the blessings that flow from our union with Christ. In identifying these, he also makes the point that baptism is a sign and pledge of our being in covenant with God. It is, he says, our public acceptance of Christ as our Lord and our public affirmation of ourselves as his servants. It is our confession that we are his, his property, his slaves, and his pupils.
Again, no problem, at least not from me, and I hope not from you. So where does it begin to get sticky, if at all? Well, when it comes to the question of who are the realistic recipients of baptism—namely, who should get baptized? And the question is this, he says. Do believing parents have the right to have their faith in Christ registered in an act of baptism which includes not only themselves but their families? Should baptism, in other words, be organic, embracing not only the individual parent who believes but his whole family? Then he goes on to say, yes, and unequivocally so, explaining that the argument revolves around the fact that when God established his covenant with Abraham, he stipulated that the sign of the spiritual covenant should be administered to the physical seed. So he establishes a spiritual covenant with Abraham, and then he says, now, I want you to mark your children with this physical sign which includes them within the framework of the covenant that I am making with you.
Therefore, he argues, that baptism ought to apply to the children of believers. Writing further, although it was so clearly a spiritual covenant, the sign was to be administered to the physical seed. The mere fact of descent from covenant parents is itself no guarantee. So the people say, well, if somebody says that you ought to baptize your children and that to put a physical sign upon them in baptism is to include them within the orb of the covenant relationship which exists as a result of the faith of the parents, then ipso facto that person is arguing that somehow or another these children, by dint of the physical sign that marks them, are included in the spiritual dimension to which the sign points. But is that what Presbyterians teach?
No, he says. The mere fact of descent from covenant parents is itself no guarantee. After all, it was to one such Nicodemus that Jesus himself said, You must be born again. In other words, Nicodemus was a child of the covenant. And to the child of the covenant, he said, You must be born again.
He didn't say, You're okay, Nicodemus. The sovereignty of God and the imperative necessity of the new birth overshadow the sacrament of baptism just as they did circumcision. God knew that Esau was not elect. Yet he said, Put the sign on him, because the sign, by divine appointment, belonged to the physical seed.
This is a solemn business. Even within Israel, God dispenses salvation sovereignly. Both the circumcised and the baptized need to be born again.
Now, I want you to understand that very, very carefully. Because I listen to a number of you talk, and you talk about Presbyterian people, and you say, you know, these Presbyterian people, they baptize infants. And because they baptize infants, they believe this. Loved ones, you may be speaking of a certain group of people who believe all manner of things, but if you want to know what evangelical Presbyterian really teaches, then it doesn't teach that.
This is one of the great proponents of Reformed covenant theology, and he says, the circumcised and the baptized need to be born again. So they are not attaching saving significance to the baptism of children. I'm speaking to you concerning this Presbyterian view. Well, we might ask him, why do you baptize children?
And that's what he addresses. Why do I baptize children? Is it because I believe that the infants of all believing parents are elect? No. Is it because I believe that the infants of believing parents will one day be born again?
All of them. No. Is it because I believe that one day they will all accept God for themselves?
No. It is because God gave me an ordinance—namely, put the sign of the spiritual covenant on the physical seed. At the very beginning of this arrangement, God put Ishmael and Esau there to remind us that we were not to do this on the ground, that we knew theologically how the thing worked. We were to do it because God said it. In the cases of Ishmael and Esau, it seemed not to work.
It wasn't related to any rationale of its effectiveness. It was done, and it is still to be done, on the ground that God said, Put the sign of my promise not only on yourselves but also on your children. Now, Bannerman's two volumes on the church contain extensive material arguing for this position, and I cannot even begin to quote it to you now. But what he argues—and this is the orthodox Presbyterian position—what he argues is this, that infant baptism gives to the baptized child an interest in the church of Christ as its members. And at the heart of the discussion over baptism is the question of the visible and the invisible church. Does the church comprise those who are identified with the covenant family of God, believers and unbelievers alike, or does the church, as we would teach, comprise a gathered community who, on the basis of their profession of faith in Christ and subsequent baptism, are distinguished from the unbelieving community?
If you argue the former, then you can understand the logic whereby Bannerman and the others say what they're saying. Not that this child is regenerate, but that this child has—and this is the phrase they use—a share in the property of the church, in order that one day it may come to have a possession of that to which its property purports. Now, I don't want to get all tied up on this, but I want to say this to you, that—and this is Bannerman, let me give you just a slight quote of it—he says, infants are not capable of faith and repentance. And baptism can be to infants—this is Presbyterianism—no seal of the blessings which these stand connected with at the time of its administration. But it may become a seal of such blessings afterwards, when the child has grown to years of intelligence and has superinduced upon his baptism a personal act of faith and thereby become possessed of the salvation which he had not before. He never had salvation in baptism.
He was included, says Presbyterianism, within the framework and orb and benefit of the visible church and all that attaches to that. When that individual then professes faith in Jesus Christ, then that, if you like, validates the believing articulation of the parents on behalf of their children in his infancy. In such a case, he can look back upon his baptism with water administered in the days of his unconscious infancy, and through the faith that he has subsequently received, that baptism, which his own memory cannot recall and to which his own consciousness at the time was a stranger, becomes to him a seal of his now-found salvation. That's why Presbyterians, in baptizing adults as they do, would say that in baptism it is a seal of their relationship with Christ. In baptizing infants, they would say it is not a seal, but it is a sign. And when faith follows, then the sign which points to Christ and his keeping is validated in the life of the professing individual. Now, you see, that is a far cry from what most of us deduce when we hear people talking about it. And I don't want to argue for a moment that the average Presbyterian is able to articulate it with this kind of clarity. Many of our friends are in all kinds of churches, and they don't know really a great deal about what they're supposed to believe at all or what anything is. And the fact is that in that confusion they may have embraced many things.
But loved ones, in the middle of confusion here, people can embrace all kinds of things too. The real question is this. Does, as they teach, baptism replace the Old Testament rite of circumcision in the same way that communion replaces the Old Testament celebration of the Passover? That's the argument. In the Old Testament, you have circumcision and the Passover.
In the New Testament, you have baptism taking the place of circumcision, and you have communion taking the place of the Passover. Now, when you keep your head square on your shoulders and begin to think it out, you say, you know, there's an inherent logic in this kind of position. There is no doubt about that. I don't doubt for an iota the logicality of it. I doubt the biblicality of it, if you like. I'm not unconvinced by the logic. I just, as I'll show you as we draw to a close sometime in the next year, that when you take all of that and you lay it down before the template of Scripture, you've got to do some pretty interesting theological and biblical gymnastics in order to make sure that everything coheres. And I say that as humbly as I can, recognizing that my friends, and many of them, I'm not worthy to untie their sandals. I think it'll become clearer when I go to the Anglican position, Episcopalian position.
Let me quote somebody that we would respect in large measure, Jim Packer. Speaking of baptism, he says, the outward sign does not automatically or magically convey the inward blessings that it signifies. We would agree with that, wouldn't we? And he says the candidates' professions of faith are not always genuine.
We would have to believe that as well. We don't baptize people here upon assurance of salvation. We baptize people here upon profession of faith. They said, I believe in Christ, and I trust in Christ. And they said, I want to follow in baptism. And we said, fine, let's baptize you.
But time will tell whether their profession was genuine. Simon Magus, in Acts chapter 8, got baptized, and he was a total fraud. Did it invalidate baptism?
Interestingly, Packer says no. Listen to this. As a sign of a once-for-all event, baptism should be administered to a person only once. Baptism is real and valid if water and the triune name are used, even if it is of an adult whose profession turns out to have been hypocritical. Simon Magus received baptism once, and if he came to real faith later, it would have been incorrect to baptize him again.
Now, again, there is a logic in this position. The question is, does the logic emerge from a clear and straightforward understanding of the unfolding instruction of the Bible? It gets more complicated when you move from Dr. Packer's ability to articulate to the prayer book itself. Because he argues largely in a fairly Presbyterian kind of way. I'm not sure that he's a bona fide Anglican.
I think he might be a sort of English version of a Presbyterian, because listen to the Anglican prayer book. The minister prays in the context of the baptism of the infant. Almighty, ever-living God, whose most dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins, did shed out of his most precious sight both water and blood, and gave commandment to his disciples that they should go to teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Regard, we beseech thee, the supplications of thy congregation. Sanctify this water to the mystical washing away of sin, and grant that this child now to be baptized therein may receive the fullness of thy grace, and ever remain in the number of thy faithful and elect children through Jesus Christ our Lord. He then goes on to say, We receive this child into the congregation of Christ's flock, and do sign him with a sign of the cross. And then he prays, We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this infant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy church.
And so humbly we beseech thee that he might become what you have made him in this act of baptism. So I hope, skating through that as quickly as I can, that you will be paying attention enough to recognize that that Anglican position is different from the Presbyterian position I've just indicated. Because at least the Anglican position is tying with the notion that somehow or another, in baptism, what is signified is actually sealed to the infant. Whereas, as I pointed out to you, the Presbyterian view would be that there is no seal to the individual because it is simply a sign of the fact that this child is included within the covenant family.
I should just mention something that crosses my mind as well. One of the things that I always say to my Presbyterian friends is, okay, given that that is true of infant baptism and that baptism as a sign brings these children of a Christian home within the framework and orb of the church, I always say to them, how does that differ from my kids? Because they have been born into a Christian family, and as a result of them being born into a Christian family, they have been nurtured in the training and instruction of the Lord Jesus.
They have been brought up within the framework of the church. Does baptism put children in a more secure relationship with God potentially than unbaptized children? Because the answer to that question is crucial. If you answer yes to that question, then clearly baptism is more than a sign. There is significance to it.
If you answer no to that question, then I want to say, so what's the big deal? Because after all, when we dedicate children here, if you listen carefully, my language comes pretty close to this. These children of a Christian home have a claim upon their parents.
Why? Because their parents, having a spiritual union with God in Christ and having been entrusted with the physical fruit of their loins, to use Old Testament language, they now have a responsibility to operate out of the spiritual relationship with God upon the physical frame of their children so as to see them grow up and, in God's providence and goodness, one day come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But does it mean that since many of our children are running around here this morning, the thousand-plus of them that are all over the building in the hours of this day is somehow or another in some tenuous position? That is an important question, and this is Truth for Life with Alistair Begg. With an important reminder that baptism is not the means of salvation, it's an outward sign of an inward change.
We'll hear a conclusion from Alistair tomorrow. Our current series is titled What is the Church? And if you're a pastor or you lead a Bible study group at your local church, we have a number of resources at Truth for Life that are available for free or at cost that may be of a help to you. One of them is a new study that we've just released on the fruit of the Spirit. It includes a nine-part study guide. It corresponds with Alistair's nine messages in a series on the fruit of the Spirit from the book of Galatians.
The study guide is available for purchase at our cost of two dollars or you can download it for free. Look for it online at truthforlife.org or you can find it in the mobile app. I'll also mention that tomorrow is the last day we'll be offering the book Corporate Worship, How the Church Gathers as God's People. This is a book that emphasizes the importance of being a member of God's family within a local church. It does talk about the importance of baptism and the Lord's Supper. If you have not yet requested your copy of the book, be sure to do so today when you give a donation to support the teaching ministry you hear on Truth for Life. You can give online at truthforlife.org slash donate or call us at 888-588-7884. I'm Bob Lapine. Thanks for listening. Are there different ways to be born again and is baptism somehow a part of that process? Hear the answers tomorrow when you join us. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life where the Learning is for Living.
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