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by Mark Horne

Copyright © 2004
Awhile back I wrote the following, first quoting from the author of the excellent book, A Baptism That Saves:

The sacramental view [of baptism] most accords with the idea of God’s initiating a covenant by his sovereign decree in election–effecting this through effectual calling. This is because, instead of God “watching/witnessing” the transaction represented by baptism, He is present as mediated through the sacrament to initiate and effect the covenant. He is God the covenant Actor, not merely God the covenant witness, and this is related to the whole order of salvation held by the Reformed tradition. Therefore, we don’t think of baptism as something we do, but rather as something God does–at least in the ultimate sense. While the recipient physically gets wet, God washes the elect to with the Holy Spirit unto regeneration in effectual calling. (But keep in mind the WCF qualifications according to the principle of God’s sovereign grace.)Consider then the following passages of Scripture that, by a plain reading, will clearly depict baptism effecting salvation rather than merely signifying salvation–although it certainly does this as well–and ask yourself, Why impose a meaning that is not most natural and obvious from the language itself?

Preston Graham, the author, then goes on to quote Matthew 28.19; Titus 3.5; First Peter 3.21; Galatians 3.27; First Corinthians 12.13; Mark 16.16; Acts 2.38; Acts 28.16; Romans 6.3-4; and Luke 7.20 (I think this last is especially astute). He then writes:

If you read these passages as if you have never even thought about the issue before, try telling yourself that each passage does not seem on the surface at least to treat baptism as somehow effecting something–namely salvation from sin in its various dynamics.

. . . . Graham wrote his book, available from the PCA bookstore, to explain the differences between Baptist and Presbyterian thinking. He points out how the London Baptist Confession of Faith strips out language about grace being “conferred” in the sacrament. His book is written to defend and explain Presbyterian theology over against Baptist theology. . . .

While I am in basic agreement with the author, he concentrates on aspects of baptismal efficacy that I don’t think are the most helpful. Graham concentrates most on the Berkhof perspective of sacraments as associated with special grace rather than common grace. This is great for the elect, but it makes it hard for me to see how sacraments can confirm our faith if we have to know if we’re elect in order to believe they are effective. I think John Murray’s essay on common grace would give us a better way to deal with this. This perspective would emphasize the nature of baptism as an admission into the institutional Church and the seal of a conditional promise. The condition would be that the baptized person perseveres in the covenant rather than departing from it in unbelief. Thus, the pastor can imitate the author of Hebrews and plead with his charges not to throw away their confidence with which there is great reward, but to add endurance to what they have received.

I think of this now and ask, would Preston Graham accept a description of his work as “a converting ordinance”? I highly doubt it. The term certainly leaves me cold.

Of course, if one views conversion as a daily Christian practice, then both sacraments could qualify as “converting ordinances” since both are “effectual means of salvation” for the elect (see question 91 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism). But the whole question of a “converting ordinance” (which as far as I can tell was only an issue among American Congregationalists in the colonial period and has not been considered a needed or helpful term either before or since or elsewhere) assumes that the all-important practical need is some grasp of that moment when an unbeliever becomes a believer–

But, actually that is not true either. Concerns about Muslims or Jews or pagans did not give rise to discussions about what is or is not a “converting ordinance.” The question was What do professing Christians need to do before we will recognize them as full-members of our churches? The answer was that they had to prove themselves to be really Christian. A lot could be said about this, but what strikes me at the moment is how much the language of “conversion” was used to either correcting the theology of Christians, or else seeing them make a definite commitment to Jesus. One wonders if the model of evangelism was derived from Luther’s “tower experience” or later John Wesley’s sudden warmness of heart (though I don’t think either of these men presumed to make their experience the model of “conversion”).

The truth is, taken in the narrow sense, I wonder if there can be any such thing as a “converting ordinance.” Think of the best scenario, an unbeliever goes to Church for some reason and hears the Gospel preached by a minister in public worship. He repents and believes. But ask him to give his testimony. What happens? Does he tell of what he heard in the sermon and end it there? No. He tells us of why he was drawn to be in Church that day. Perhaps a neighbor invited him and he was intrigued because this neighbor had displayed a functioning and harmonious family. And then when he heard the sermon, was its persuasive power simply in the statements made by themselves. Almost invariably converts have stories of many instances in which they become confronted with the claims of Christ. The sermon reminds one of how her grandmother use to take them to VBS where she learned that Jesus died to satisfy our debts.

What I am trying to say is that an unbeliever is often converted not by one ordinance, but by many instances of confrontation with the New Creation that is Jesus Christ made manifest in the Church. The preached word is one part of a package of things involved in encountering Christian society, including hospitality, an example of good works (Remember: Peter tells wives to win their husbands not by preaching at them but by their submissive behavior), and a harmonious community (May they all be one so that the world might know that you sent me). How often does the preached Word convert if stripped of that context?

There is an analogy here with language generally. We learn language by being forced to participate with interacting bodies. Facial expressions, hand motions, and various actions are the context in which sounds are heard and eventually understood as words. Without gestures, language loses coherence. God established a community of interacting people by the administration of the covenant of grace. First in Israel according to the flesh and now in the Spirit-filled Church, Jesus communicates within a tangible family in which his Word is preached and confessed and followed. Interacting with this family can be described as encountering the Word of God as opposed to the words embodied by other communities (Mormons, JWs, surfers), but it seems terribly reductionistic to only think of this as the result of one “ordinance.”

Again, this whole way of thinking seems more appropriate for battles among professing Christians. If the issue is that there are confessing Trinitarians who attend Church, support missions, and pray at meals, but who have not been “truly converted,” then it makes sense that one would ignore what is common among Church members and concentrate on one particular ritual (preaching the Word on Sunday morning or on other set occasions). But if we are increasingly going to find Hindus and non-practicing Buddhists are our neighbors, or simply people whose multiple fractured families have never bothered to let them see the inside of a church building, then none of this can be expected. The issue is not about “experimental religion” among practicing Christians, but about whole-life conversion about people who have little to no context for understanding much of what might be said from the pulpit. We’re not in the colonies anymore and there are no ruby slippers to take us back.

That is why the recovery of the full power of the Reformed Faith, as is being done by people like Preston Graham, Michael Horton (who has probably done more than anyone to widely acquaint Reformed believers with the Reformed and Biblical doctrine of baptism) and others is especially relevant for a time such as this. Churches are not service stations in Christendom, but embassies in foreign territory. A concept of conversion that hinges on summary messages and decisional prayers is simply not adequate. Our model for conversion needs to be based on words like “recruitment,” “induction,” or–dare I say it?–“discipleship.”

A lot more could be said here–a book or more at least. I notice I haven’t used the word “repentance” yet in what I have written so far, so I remind the reader that I can’t affirm and discuss everything at once. The basic point here is that evangelism now involves a true interaction between alien cultures. The question is how we get the gospel heard among the cacophony of many gods and many lords increasingly present today. People need to be confronted with an entirely new life and community. They need to be challenged to turn from their autonomous life and concretely entrust themselves to Jesus Christ the risen King.

Thus, baptism as the border and entryway of the Church, the replacement for circumcision under the previous administration of the covenant of grace, can bee seen as a clearly important rite. In the Bible the pattern we see is clear. Men and women are confronted with a summary challenge to repent and believe in Christ, if they agree they immediately submit to baptism, and then they are taught and trained in the Church. If they later reject the Faith, then they are dealt with. But they do not have to be catechized first or to prove themselves “true believers.” If they will confess that Jesus is Lord, with the understanding that Christ was exalted by God in his resurrection, then they are to be baptized as brothers and sisters in the family of God, with their children.

To promote baptism as the transitional rite that marks the difference between autonomy and discipleship to Christ does not in any way denigrate the need for the preaching of the Word or its role in converting and sanctifying sinners. It simply puts that ritual within the Christ-established context of baptism, the Lord’s Supper (something else I’ve not mentioned yet), the Lord’s prayer, and other markers of Christian community. This context can no longer be taken for granted.

Copyright © 2004

For Further Reading:Visible Saints and Notorious Sinners:
Puritan and Presbyterian Sacramental Doctrine and Practice
and the Vicissitudes of the Baptist Movement in New England and the Middle Colonies

by Peter Wallace

A Place at the Table
by Mark Horne

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