A Brief Analysis of the Presbyterian / Reformed View of Baptism
Fred G. Zaspel
Presbyterians in effect espouse two doctrines of baptism. On the one hand they acknowledge that baptism is a "missionary sacrament" to be administered to new converts in testimony of their entrance into union with Christ. So far, they are in agreement with Baptists (except of course that some of these new converts will have been baptized as infants and so, according to Presbyterians, will not need baptism now). But on the other hand Presbyterians insist that baptism is a covenant sign to be administered also to the children of believers. The believers are themselves part of the covenant community, and Presbyterians reason that just as the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants included children so also this new covenant community includes believers and their children. Therefore, just as circumcision (a covenant sign) was given to the children of the covenant community before Christ, so now baptism (a new covenant sign) is given to children of believers. They will not argue that baptism actually confers saving grace; they insist only that it is a "sign and seal" of covenant status that rightfully belongs both to believers and to their children.
1. It is first of all curious that the scriptures nowhere hint of this practice of infant baptism. Nowhere do we find any such statement, instruction, or example. There is simply no explicit exegetical warrant for the practice. At least this much must be admitted — explicit NT warrant for the practice is completely lacking.
2. But the problem is more serious than that. Not only does this practice lack explicit NT warrant, it is plainly contrary to the NT teaching about baptism. That is, Jesus and the NT writers speak of baptism exclusively in reference to believers. Jesus' command to baptize was a command to baptize disciples (Matt.28:19). At Pentecost the apostles followed suit — "Repent, and be baptized" (Acts 2:38) was the inspired order, and this order continues throughout the book of Acts. Everywhere baptism is spoken of in the NT, it is in reference to believers. We have a right to ask on what inspired authority this rite is extended to unbelieving children. Who mandated the change? And by what authority?
3. This practice is plainly contradictory to the Biblical description of the New Covenant also. The scriptures very explicitly define the New Covenant community exclusively in terms of believers (Jer.31:29ff; Heb.8; cf. Matt.26:28). Those who are under this covenant are, by very definition, people whose hearts have been cleansed, whose sins have been forgiven, who know God, who love the law of God and willingly walk in it, and so on. Again, we have a right to ask on what inspired authority this covenant, so explicitly redemptive, is extended to unbelievers. The inspired definition specifically excludes unbelievers. On what authority may unbelievers be included and receive its sign?
More specifically, the prophecy of the New Covenant explicitly denies any such family structure or involvement (Jer. 31:29f) — no one gets in on his father's coat tails.
4. Further, this practice (and its attached significance) is contradictory to the meaning of baptism as defined by the NT. For example, in Col.2:12 we read, "having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead." Here baptism is explicitly defined in terms of an expression of faith — "in baptism . . . through faith." There it is — baptism is an expression of faith.
Similarly, in 1 Pet. 3:21 we read, "Baptism. . . saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." This verse is troublesome to many in that it could be understood in terms of baptismal regeneration. But whatever else the verse implies, it plainly defines baptism in terms of faith — it is "an appeal to God," a call of faith to God.
5. Again, circumcision was indeed a covenant sign. And this covenant sign was given to the (male) children. And baptism is likely a sign of the New Covenant, even if it is not described in just these terms. But the connection is not as clear as Presbyterians would like. Yes, circumcision was administered to all the physical sons of Abraham (ethnic Israel), but baptism is given only to the spiritual sons of Abraham (the church). God does not constitute this covenant community as he did the old — "Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham" (Gal.3:7). This New Covenant community is not in any sense an ethnic people but a believing people in Christ. For this reason, as Paul argues in Col.2:11-12, the prophetic / anticipatory nature of circumcision finds its answer, ultimately, not in baptism but in regeneration — the circumcision of the heart, the "cutting away of the body of flesh." Circumcision was the sign or seal of the Old Covenant, whose members entered by right of physical descent. Entrance into the New Covenant community, rather, is by means of a new birth. And for this reason Jews also were called to be baptized — circumcised though they were, they had not received the sign of the covenant. In short, circumcision signified a physical relationship that is no more, but baptism signifies a spiritual relationship. This is precisely why it is ordered only to be given to believers — it is intended to declare that the covenant people of God are not established by physical descent but by faith.
It is curious in this regard that in Acts 15 when the apostolic church debated the place of circumcision in the life of the church — determining finally that it was irrelevant — no one in the entire debate ever argued that circumcision is no longer necessary because it has been replaced by baptism. Such a golden opportunity for a Presbyterian argument was overlooked. Surely, if this had been their theology, this was the moment to say so. But they did not, and for this apostolic oversight Presbyterians have no explanation.
6. Finally, the whole significance of baptism is found in a picture of union with Christ in redemption, cleansing, repentance from sin, and newness of life (e.g., Rom.6). This symbolism is completely destroyed when the rite is extended to those who are lost.
How do Presbyterians establish their doctrine? On a more popular level Presbyterians have found some comfort in the Gospel passages in which Jesus blessed the little children and in those passages in Acts in which new believers are baptized "with their house." The weakness of these arguments is so obvious that it scarcely deserves comment — there is no water anywhere near the former passages no hint of infants near the latter. It is pure speculation, and the more serious Presbyterian theologians, such as B. B. Warfield, are embarrassed by it.
More seriously and most fundamentally, Presbyterians insist on the inclusion of the children of believers in the New Covenant. We have already pointed out that this is hermeneutically forced and exegetically impossible. It is contrary to all the relevant Biblical material and must simply be presupposed.
Many have also appealed to the long history and pervasiveness of the practice. We have heard respected theologians make this argument on several occasions. "So many Christians have done it for so long, the presumptive evidence is in our favor!" But for our Presbyterian brothers this argument fails on three counts. First, the most ancient evidence is of believers baptism, and so the historical evidence does not favor the Presbyterian. Second, and more importantly, it is not history or majority vote but scripture alone that establishes truth. I am sure our good Presbyterian brothers would not want to use the "so many professing Christians for so long" argument when it comes to the doctrine of justification by faith! This doctrine he is content to establish on scriptural grounds alone. And third, the appeal to ancient history, for a Presbyterian at least, proves too much — the ancient church did indeed begin early to baptize infants, but not at all for Presbyterian reasons. They began the practice out of an heretical (early Roman Catholic) understanding of the saving efficacy of baptism. Very early on in the professing Church many began to view baptism as a means of saving grace. Well certainly, if baptism saves, then bring the babies and everyone else for that matter! But Presbyterians do not believe that baptism saves. But if they do not believe this, then why the appeal to those who do? His argument proves too much and is of no use to him whatever. His evidence suggests instead that this is an area of Presbyterian theology that is tainted with the remains of Roman Catholic superstition and that their own doctrine of baptism is newer than they may like to admit.
An Embarrassing Presbyterian Problem
Indeed! The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), the foundational theological document of Presbyterianism, explicitly extends a saving efficacy to baptism that is at best inconsistent and at worst heretical. Notice how it reads (chapter 28 of the Confession, sections 1, 5, and 6).
1. Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.
That is, baptism is a "sign and seal" of salvation. The language is not of symbol but of "sign and seal." What did the Westminster divines intend by this language? They admit very frankly in section 5 that baptism does not necessarily save —
5. Although it be a great sin to condemn or neglect his ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
That is to say, baptism is not infallibly efficacious. Roman Catholic theology teaches that baptism conveys saving grace infallibly (ex opere operato), and here the Westminster divines distance themselves from such a notion — baptism is not infallibly efficacious. But does this disclaimer go far enough? Indeed, it does not. Notice the language of section 6.
6. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; 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.
Notice, the Confession teaches that the "efficacy" of baptism is not necessarily attached to the time of its administration — it may become effective later. But that raises a deeper question: How and why would they speak in terms of "efficacy" at all? This is nothing short of baptismal regeneration. Notice again, "by the right use of this ordinance" saving grace is "promised" and "not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost." Now clearly, these were men who insisted on justification by faith alone, and I have no doubt whatever that they held this (sola fide) very sincerely. But how can we explain this language of the "efficacy" of baptism except in terms of baptismal regeneration? The plain statement is that saving grace is actually conveyed in the waters of baptism. At the very least we must say that these men, great though they were, were inconsistent. And we see in their inconsistency again the ugly remains of Romanist superstition.
It is difficult for me to understand how an evangelical Presbyterian could profess allegiance to, rather than utterly reject, such a statement as this. I love my Presbyterian brothers deeply and enjoy fellowship with them in the gospel, because I am sure they believe better than this.
Clearly, the Presbyterian view of baptism is contrived. It is founded on assumptions which are flatly contradictory to every last shred of explicit NT teaching on the subject and implies notions which are contradictory to it and even self-defeating. The NT knows of only one baptism, and that baptism is for believers. To extend baptism beyond these scriptural bounds is plainly an abuse of the ordinance as instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ, and in loyalty to Him this tradition ought to be abandoned outright.