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A Short Test For Those Concerned About An Alleged “Baptismal Regeneration” Teaching

By Mark Horne

Copyright © 2004

There has been a great deal of controversy in the various conservative Reformed microdenominations in North America. Since I am a pastor in one of these and have been advocating a return to the historic Protestant and Confessional view over again the baptistic mutation that is now prevalent in our circles, this is of some interest to me. Additionally, I get emails and visits from seminary students and pastors who want to talk to me about these things. Supposedly, erroneous things are being taught about baptism which are not in accord with “the historic faith.”

I am not going to spend space here trying to answer charges that have been quite ably dealt with. Rather, I am going to simply ask some questions about what is being positively proposed or practiced on the other side of this issue. My purpose is to remind us all of what the doctrinal baseline is supposed to be for my own denomination and others subject to the same standards. I am hoping that, in considering my challenge, you will gain a more accurate picture of the situation we are dealing with. Having done that, I invite you to read Rich Lusk or Joel Garver or listen to the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference with new eyes and/or ears. My hope here is to make pastors and elders think twice before they accuse others of being “unconfessional.”

I would like to ask you if you would be willing to simply read the following statement, without any “explanatory” gloss. The next time you baptize an infant, please read the following clearly but without any special emphasis:

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. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.

Do you have any qualms about doing this? How about also reading some of the listed prooftexts for this first paragraph of chapter 28 of the Westminster Confession?

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

So what do you think would happen if you were to read this paragraph along with these texts? What sort of questions would you get from your members? Or from your session?

Perhaps somewhere else in the Confession would be preferable. Maybe ignorance over the meaning of the word “seal” calls for a different paragraph to be read in front of the congregation at the time of a baptism. How about the sixth paragraph of the same chapter since it uses other words beside “sign” and “seal” that might explain what is going on?

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.

Well, this would seem to be preferable since it does seem to allow for someone to not benefit from baptism at the time it is administered (albeit they still are admitted into the Church). But I doubt this paragraph would cause fewer problems. According to this statement, whether at baptism or before or after, the elect are given grace by the Holy Spirit in the right use of the ordinance. Is this all that more easy to consider reading, without convenient commentary, before your congregation? Is it no problem to say that “by the right use of” baptism “grace” is “not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost” to those elected to eternal life?

Perhaps it might be easier to include the previous paragraph and read them together so that the fact that baptism is not absolutely necessary nor always ultimately salvific can be stressed:

Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this 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.

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.

Imagine reading this solemnly before administering baptism. This would cause, if anything, more problems than before. For now it becomes obvious that “grace” in paragraph six means “salvation” and being “regenerated or saved.” Nevertheless, the qualifications are there, so you should have nothing to worry about (and, for the record, I think they are necessary qualifications). So go ahead. Read paragraphs five and six together.

Maybe it is all too complicated. After all, the Confession is a summary of systematic theology as required of pastors. Perhaps it would be better to read something from the Shorter Catechism that was originally intended for children. How about questions 91 and 92:

The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.

A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.

It would be interesting especially to see how this went over at the baptism of an adult convert as everyone hears that he is to believingly expect the working of the Spirit so that he receives the application of Christ and his benefits. Let me know how it goes.

Or, if one wishes to use a text that is directly applicable to every baptized believer in the congregation who is witnessing the baptism, why not use question 167 of the Larger Catechism which directly exhorts them for that very situation?

The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body. [emphasis added]

I used emphasis above simply to point out to you how appropriate this text would be for a congregation witnessing a baptism. But, to repeat: I don’t ask that any of these statements from our doctrinal standards be read with special emphasis. Simply read them clearly and loudly with evident feeling of sincere belief–that this is your confession of faith as an orthodox Presbyterian minister of the Gospel.

Of course, I’m not sure even I would do this. I don’t want to drive away or offend any Baptist visitors any more than you do. But then again, if we have all basically come to share in Baptistic sensibilities then I suggest some honest self-evaluation is in order. Are you scared of what these statements say? Do you want to refer me to others? That is fine, but are you claiming that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms are so unclear that we must find the “clear” texts to nullify the “unclear” (i.e. discomforting) texts?

This is our Reformed Faith. It is in direct continuity with the baptismal theology and liturgical practices of the sixteenth-century Reformation, with the sacramental thinking and worship forms of John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and John Knox. Whether it comports with those of Charles Hodge or Robert Dabney or J. H. Thornwell is an interesting question, but irrelevant from the standpoint of confessional orthodoxy. We subscribe to seventeenth-century Reformed and Protestant doctrinal standards which are part of a developing history to that point, not to published thoughts of these later luminaries.

Anyone would think, from reading the above, that I have some sort of ax to grind in pushing a certain view of the sacraments to the point of condemning any Presbyterian Minister who disagrees with me. Nothing could be further from the truth. I simply expect to be able to preach and teach the doctrine of the standards of this denomination. I am well aware that the sacramental consensus of most pastors is quite different from what is embodied in those documents. As in the case of six-day creation my philosophy is to live and let live and promote the peace and purity of the Church. While I will teach and preach in agreement with the standards I am not interested in purging the denomination of the majority concensus. I’m happy in the big tent because I believe that God is working here to build his kingdom.

But when presbyters in good standing have their reputations attacked in the media, in the radio, in conferences, and on websites, something is wrong. It certainly seems as if people really know their opponents are actually confessional and want to work on the potential jury pool so the day can finally arrive when someone can be deposed for agreeing with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. In that sort of environment it is unwise to be silent. I just want to be able to serve in peace. It should not be scandalous to believe, confess, teach, and preach Reformed doctrine in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

So, for the sake of showing integrity as you think about the controvery, ask yourself about the formulations above: “Are these my doctrinal standards, my own personal statement of faith?” Read one of these the next time you baptize. Read them with zeal and pride.

And, considering these things, take a second look.

Copyright © 2004

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