Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012

A Covenantal View of Baptism and Its Relationship to Evangelism

Kevin J. Bidwell [1]

Christian baptism is in urgent need of being revisited by the evangelical church. This essay explores a covenantal view of baptism and its relationship to evangelism. The doctrine of baptism as put forward by the teaching found in the Westminster Standards is upheld. It is contended that there is a connection between God’s covenant and God’s signs of the covenant, which in the New Testament are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The shadow of baptism in the Old Testament was circumcision: whereas circumcision involved the shedding of blood and therefore it pointed forwards to the future shed blood of Christ, baptism points backwards to the shed blood of Christ and Christ’s completed atonement. Baptism in the new covenant is to be administered using water and the new covenant name of God, “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19); and it is to be applied to Christian converts, and the children of believing parents.

Introduction

On Sunday morning of 21 April 1861, the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon expounded from Matt 28:18-19. His title was “The Missionaries’ Charge and Charter”. He declared that: “We think that our brethren do serious damage to the Gospel by baptizing children. We do not think their error a little one. We know it does not touch a vital point; but we do believe that infant baptism is the prop and pillar of Popery.” [2] Strong words. Such understanding may well shape the thinking of many professing Christians, but was Spurgeon correct in his bold assertions? Is the baptism of the children of believers essentially Popery, instead of fundamental Protestantism? Should not Spurgeon’s opinions and the doctrine of believer’s baptism come under fresh scrutiny? My aim is to put forward a different viewpoint, one that is a covenantal view of baptism.

John Calvin, Martin Luther and the Magisterial Reformers would all dissent loudly at Baptists accusing them of error. They all practised the baptism of infants within the Christian church and they similarly faced opposition from the Continental Anabaptists on this point. The position commonly labelled paedobaptism is much maligned, especially among many professing Christians in England and Wales. Why is this the case? What has happened to cause such a change in the doctrine of the church since the sixteenth century work of reformation first broke upon the shores of Great Britain?

The Magisterial Reformers were similarly in harmony concerning the primary marks of a true church: the preaching of pure doctrine and the right administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Calvin, in his hugely influential Institutes of the Christian Religion, stated that: “wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” [3] Therefore, a correct doctrine of the sacraments is essential for the life, purity and health of the church. A right understanding of the sacraments, including baptism, cannot be supposed to be a secondary and non-essential topic for the church of Jesus Christ.

In this paper, I intend to explore a range of issues concerning covenantal baptism; sometimes this view is broadly assumed to be that of paedobaptism. However, in recent times some credobaptists have sought to freshly articulate their own perceived connection between the new covenant and baptism. [4] Nonetheless, my intention is to uphold that the covenantal baptism as taught in the Westminster Standards is one which is faithful to Scripture and the Presbyterian reformation which emanated from Geneva. In order to build a biblical foundation, one that is hopefully pastoral, I intend to explore a range of exegetical and common fallacies that are brought against the Westminster Assembly’s conclusion on baptism.

The issue of baptism as it relates to evangelism is a crucial and pivotal matter that needs to be examined. The question that deserves our attention can be put in this way: in which direction should the sign of baptism point? At this juncture we will introduce the first English Baptist John Smyth, and his legacy that remains in the church to this day; a legacy which, in essence, changes the sign nature of baptism. While I seek to propose a covenantal baptism, one that is to be applied to adults outside of the covenant of grace, as well as the children of believing parents, my approach is hopefully persuasive and peaceful. A key goal is to connect this theology of baptism to evangelism, most especially to the covenant responsibilities that we must uphold to instruct our children. Indeed, we must explore these matters together in a humble and teachable spirit with a constant appeal to “all Scripture” (2 Tim 3:16), not only to selections from the New Testament, while remembering the call for reformation in our generation.

Covenantal baptism as taught in the Westminster Standards

The Westminster Standards comprise the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. [5] All three documents contain clear systematic teaching on the Reformed understanding of the faith, ecclesiology and the sacraments. John Murray held these Standards in high regard as he wrote on “The Importance and Relevance of the Westminster Confession”. He believed that “the Westminster Confession is the last of the great Reformation creeds... No creed of the Christian Church is comparable to that of Westminster in respect of the skill with which the fruits of fifteen centuries of Christian thought have been preserved... In the category to which the Confession belongs, it has no peer.” [6]

Many are unaware that these doctrinal standards were the product of a seventeenth century English assembly, one which sat in London during the years of the English Civil War, at the request of Parliament. [7] Its 120 ministerial members were chosen as men deemed to be experts in divinity. They discussed, debated and wrote until their precise theological statements were to the satisfaction of the majority of the whole assembly. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, along with a host of other historical factors, these summaries of the Christian faith have spread around the world, but are perhaps least known in England, from where they emerged. Even a brief historical panorama demonstrates the acceptance of Westminster theology, including its teaching on baptism, by such men as B. B. Warfield, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Archibald Alexander, Matthew Henry and Thomas Watson, to name a few. It would be challenging to argue a case that these distinguished ministers all held a theological blind-spot concerning their understanding of baptism. So what is this theology of baptism?

Three chapters in the Westminster Confession (1646) are particularly pertinent to our subject. The first is Chapter 7, “Of God’s covenant with Man”, which sets out the unifying principle of the books of Scripture: God’s covenants. The covenant pre-Fall is referred to as a “covenant of works” where a promise was given upon the condition of obedience (Gen 2:17). Following Adam’s fall, the language used to describe the successive unfolding of God’s covenants is that of the “covenant of grace”. The theological term “covenant of grace” is deliberate in order to stress the priority of the Triune God’s grace in his dealings with mankind. This fits with Paul’s teaching (Eph 2:8-10) that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith” and that even the faith we may have, is itself a gracious gift of God. 

A continuity of God’s dealings with mankind is upheld between the Old and New Testaments while carefully preserving the differences. The administration of the “covenant of grace” was in the OT in “shadow”, pointing forwards until the death of the testator, the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb 9:15-17). The “substance” belongs to Christ himself (Col 2:17) which is manifested in the gospel; therefore the new covenant is the fulfilment of this covenant succession, but it is the same “covenant of grace”. It is now to be administered differently, and indeed with greater simplicity, but also with greater spiritual efficacy, clarity and power, with the promised Holy Spirit (Heb 8:6-12). The new covenant promises more for the church, and not less, than the old dispensation. The ordinary means of grace are the preaching of the Word of God, the sacraments and prayer (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 11:23-25).

It is at this point of theology concerning God’s covenants and the extent of continuity and discontinuity that exists between the two testaments, that different understandings of baptism mainly arise. Covenant theology could be understood as a kind of theological crossroads for different branches of the church.

Chapter 27, “Of the Sacraments”, is a second one of significance in the Confession and it precedes the chapter on baptism. The sacraments are signs and seals of the “covenant of grace” and they are to be applied to make visible the difference between the church and the world. Both sacraments have their roots in the previous dispensations: the Passover being the precursor to the Lord’s Supper and circumcision being the foreshadow of baptism. Paul teaches in his Letter to the Romans that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (4:11). Sacraments are signs to all people observing their administration, but they are only “seals of righteousness” to those to whom they do belong. This rich comprehension of the sacraments found in the Confession does not permit a notion that they are naked or hollow signs, but rather that they declare the “priority of grace over faith”. Furthermore, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, rightly used, do not only exhibit the grace of God, but upon the words of institution given by Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, this grace is anticipated to be conferred, according to the promises of God (WCF, 27:3).

It is unnecessary to emphasise the relevance of Chapter 28 “Of Baptism” to our subject. However, it has been important to give this background prior to discussing baptism. A doctrine of Christian baptism should encompass fruitful connections for a biblical theology and this is where a covenantal view excels. Baptism in the NT applies the new covenant name of God, “the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19), to the recipient, as a sign pointing to their adoption into God’s family. An ordained minister of the gospel must only use water, which must be administered by pouring, sprinkling or immersion, of the person being baptised. All three modes of baptism convey biblical imagery of what is being exhibited through Christ and his benefits of redemption. The Confession states that “not only those who profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptised” (WCF 28:4).

The Westminster position excludes the notion that baptism is the means of regeneration (WCF, 28:5), and is therefore contrary to what is taught by the Roman Catholic Church. [8] It denies a doctrine of presumptive regeneration, whereby the church is led to assume that regeneration will always automatically follow baptism, with respect to infants. It likewise does not encourage what is sometimes practised among Anglicans today: the baptism of infants when neither parent professes faith but lives within a Church of England parish. (This reflects a dereliction of duty on the part of an Anglican minister rather than the official position of the Anglican church, one which supports a covenantal theology of baptism. [9] ) Spurgeon’s enthusiastic hyperbole that “infant baptism is the prop and pillar of Popery” is therefore demonstrated to be untrue with respect to the covenantal theology of this sacrament, as supported by Reformed Presbyterians.

The historic position on baptism of the Westminster divines, similarly does not affirm the contemporary ideas of hyper-covenantalism that are promoted by some within the Federal Vision movement. [10] Some of their proponents collapse the two sacraments together and wrongly teach that baptised infants should also be served the Lord’s Supper, sometimes known as paedocommunion. Such a suggestion is surprising considering that Paul clearly forbids this practice in 1 Cor 11:28, because the recipient has to be capable of examining themselves.

The Baptist scholar Shawn D. Wright asserts that it is “no simple task” to grasp the “logic of the Reformed paedobaptist position” and he cites a Presbyterian to support his own view on this matter. [11] I would hope that Wright is familiar with the reformed logic of the Westminster Standards, but he chooses to focus on Calvin, Pierre Marcel and John Murray in his paper to argue against paedobaptism. The three representatives he enters into discussion with, would most likely respond that the perspicuity, logic, consistency and theological depth of these documents on baptism is unmistakable.

In sum, a covenantal view of baptism as taught in the Westminster Standards constantly appeals to the whole of Scripture for its support. We agree with the Apostle Peter who preached on the Day of Pentecost that baptism signifies the “forgiveness of sins” and the “gift of the Holy Spirit”. Furthermore the promise in the gospel is “for you and your children” (Acts 2:38-39). The waters of baptism replace the rite of circumcision for visible membership of the new covenant community. Herman Bavinck rightly instructs that “circumcision pointed forward to the death of Christ, baptism points back to it. The former ends, the latter begins with that death.” [12] The NT’s “instruction about washings” (Heb 6:2, “washings” is baptismōn) is a rich teaching. The waters of baptism are waters of promise, that being covenant promise. We look to the Triune God expectantly for the fulfilment of these promises, while also seeking to carry out our covenant responsibilities as disciples of Christ.

Answering three common exegetical fallacies concerning a Westminster Standards’ view of baptism

This section is mainly directed at handling objections to paedobaptism that arise from the credobaptist church community in England and Wales. Their primary arguments also provide a suitable platform to exegetically defend the Westminster Standards’ doctrine of baptism. Simultaneously, engaging in this pursuit also exposes large gaps within a Baptistic hermeneutic, not only for baptism, but for the gospel, and the credobaptist approach to the unity of Scripture. Within the scope of this essay, I intend to respond to the three most common arguments that I have personally encountered. These form the basis of what I would deem to be three common exegetical fallacies concerning a Westminster Standards’ view of baptism.

The New Testament is silent concerning the baptism of infants/children

The Baptist theologian, Stephen J. Wellum, contends that “it does not seem to bother them [Reformed Presbyterians] that in the NT there is no express command to baptise infants and no record of any clear case of infant baptism” [13] (Spurgeon makes the same charge). Considering that the Book of Acts was a missionary situation, the practice of baptism was not restricted to newborn infants but also to the children of believers. It would be unlikely for the gospel to come to a Gentile city and for baptism only to be applied to infants, and not to include the children of those converts because they were beyond infancy.

We run into reverse logic in the arguments of those who deny baptism to the children of Christians. It would be just as easy to reply that “it does not seem to bother them [Baptists] that there is no express command to exclude believers’ children from receiving the sign of baptism”. One common fallacy is that those who practice a covenantal position, only baptise infants; it often comes as a revelation to some, when they discover that we baptise adults following conversion also, but only if they have never been baptised before. However, we do not want simply to appeal to theological logic, but to the Scriptures.

There is majestic harmony to the opening line and closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus Christ is introduced as “the son of Abraham” and the new covenant commission is to “make disciples of all nations”, “to baptise them” in (into) the name of the Trinity, and to teach them in an ongoing sense, to “observe all” that Christ commanded (Matt 1:1, 28:18-20). The links with the ongoing fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant to “all nations” are undeniable. The newness of the new covenant is stunning, but this can only be fully appreciated if we understand Christ as “the son of Abraham”. To think of this title is to be reminded of God’s covenants and indeed Malachi prophesied that Christ will be “the messenger of the covenant” (Mal 3:1).

According to Paul, God preached the gospel to Abraham (Gal 3:7-9) and promised him that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). This spoke specifically of the Gentiles, but also of the inclusion of families. When God “made a covenant” with Abraham (literally, made is “cut” kāraṯ and a “covenant” is bǝrīṯ), the Lord said “To your offspring I give this land” (Gen 15:18). Thus the covenant of God was not to Abraham alone, but also to future posterity.

Almighty God promised Abraham: “I will establish [literally, is hăqimōṯī] my covenant between me and you and your offspring... to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7). The Hebrew verb construct used here for “I will establish” is the active verb form Hiphil, which means God will actively fulfil his side of the covenant. J. V. Fesko explains that God first “cut” a covenant with Abraham which he then “establishes”, not only with Abraham, but with his “seed”. [14] The promise also required that Abraham had to keep the covenant, and circumcision was to be “a sign of the covenant” (Gen 17:9-14). Abraham applied the “covenant sign” to all the males in his household; failure to do so would mean a breaking of the covenant and any uncircumcised would be “cut off from his people” (Gen 17:14).

The Abrahamic covenant clarifies the classic biblical structure of God’s covenant dealings with his people. This can be understood to be likened to a chain, one which has four links: “Command–sign–promises–responsibilities”. Abraham applied the sign of circumcision by God’s command, but he was also required to “command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord... so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18:19). This does not exclude the doctrine of election but God has ordained that his election operates along the lines of this covenant framework, though not exclusively. God can sovereignly call people outside of these covenant dealings to himself, if he chooses.

Now the “penny should drop” metaphorically speaking. Those who were circumcised were “Abraham and his son Ishmael... all the men in his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner” (Gen 17:26-27). Later the sign of circumcision was applied to “Isaac when he was eight days old” (Gen 21:4). Abraham had already “believed the Lord” (Gen 15:6) and he was counted as righteous (Gen 15:6), as the NT abundantly testifies (Rom 4:9-25; Gal 3:14, 29). But, what about 13-year-old Ishmael, the men in the household, and later baby Isaac? If some contest that circumcision is not the foreshadow of baptism, then what is? This sign was not applied as an “adult believer’s only circumcision”. To the contrary, God reveals in the OT that the communication of his grace is generous and inclusive, not exclusive and narrow.

Every covenant in the Bible includes children (Gen 1:28; 2:9, 17; 9:9; 17:10; Deut 5:6-21; 6:4-7; 2 Sam 7:12-16; Acts 2:38-39; Eph 6:1-4). Every biblical covenant requires the believing parent(s) to uphold God’s covenant through an obedient life to the Lord and to teach their children to do the same. This understanding enhances a doctrine of the family, which the Scriptures simply assume. From Adam to Noah, from Moses to David, from Pentecost until the Second Coming of Christ, an individualistic faith is precluded. The idea of God administering his covenant of grace in a way that is bereft of a covenant sign to be applied with promises to children, is alien to the whole of the Bible. God’s covenants embrace the future posterity of faithful and obedient believers.

This is what Peter preached in Jerusalem: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39). The new covenant follows the same identical structure of: “Command–sign–promises–responsibilities”. A believer is to receive the covenant sign, with their children, and sometimes the whole household, and the promises are the “forgiveness of sins” and the poured out “Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4; 2:33, 39); and this must include the responsibility of discipleship through the church (Matt 28:18-20). When those “afar off”, those “whom the Lord our God calls to himself”, are grafted in, as the Gentile household of Cornelius was, then the same covenant pattern applies, as Peter modelled in Acts 10:23-48. This narrative ends with the baptism of Cornelius, his relatives and friends, following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Why did I suggest that “the penny should drop”? A covenantal view of baptism is congruous with, and underlies in my view, the reason why the apostle Paul baptised the whole households of Lydia, the Philippian jailer and Stephanas (Acts 16:15; 16:33; 1 Cor 1:16) in the NT, as a “sign” of their commitment to Christian discipleship. The new covenant initiation sign instituted by Christ was baptism, and it was commonly applied to whole households when someone believed, including their children, and it was no longer restricted to the physical seed of Abraham. After Pentecost, once someone believed, Christian baptism was applied to Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, and boys and girls of parents in the faith (Gal 3:27-29). The Abrahamic covenant of command, sign, promises, and responsibilities, flow harmoniously via the gospel for all nations, on the basis of the command of Jesus Christ, “the son of Abraham” (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8).

Anthony N. S. Lane has a decisive article to demonstrate “fairly conclusively that by the last quarter of the second century infant baptism was well established across the Roman Empire”. [15] Lane concludes that:

There is no hint anywhere in the surviving Christian literature from the first five centuries that anyone objected in principle to infant baptism, that anyone considered it improper, irregular or invalid. If it was a post-apostolic innovation, this silence is remarkable. [16]

What is most likely is that there was some diversity with respect to the practice of infant baptism. However, to argue against the initiation of children into the church through baptism, finds no support from the post-apostolic church. “The evidence from the NT that babies were baptised is impressive, though not conclusive” asserts Lane. [17] The evidence from the post-apostolic church is unambiguous that the baptism of infants took place unopposed.

Baptism must be by immersion or dipping

The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 significantly alters and reduces its sections on “God’s Covenant”, “Sacraments” (renamed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and “Baptism” (Chapters 7, 28 and 29). [18] Despite being based upon the WCF, the theological fabric is amended at the very points which are central to comprehending a covenantal view of theology, the sacraments and baptism. In short, the Baptist theological DNA on baptism has been changed. These changes are necessary to their Reformed confession in order to uphold believer’s baptism. The DNA of its theological system has to be amended to accommodate this revised sacrament.

This same Confession insists that there is only one mode which is valid for baptism. It is asserted that: “Immersion, that is to say, the dipping of the believer in water, is essential for the due administration of this ordinance.” [19] There are two proof texts given which are Matt 3:16 and John 3:23. However, do these texts substantiate that immersion is essential for the due administration of this ordinance? The stakes are high. If the subscribers of this Confession are correct, then millions of professing Christians, both now, and over two millennia, have been misled, and the validity of their baptism may well be questioned.

Both proof texts refer to the baptism of Jesus which was John’s baptism of repentance and not Christian baptism instituted by the Saviour. A common fallacy is an appeal to infer “immersion” when Scripture records “he went up from the water” (Matt 3:16). This is reading into the text what is not there. Similarly, “immersion” is not taught in John 3:23 where the Bible records that “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there”. Water must be used in baptism, but the whole of the NT is silent concerning the specific mode of baptism to be used, either as immersion, pouring or sprinkling. To insist on baptism by immersion only is an ecclesial aberration and it potentially wounds the conscience of Christians without biblical warrant.

However, being aware of this insufficient exegetical footing, the plea is made by some, from the meaning of the Greek word “baptise” (baptizō). Proponents of this view insist that it is to be understood exclusively as “to immerse, plunge or dip”. Greek scholars concur that this meaning is included, but the context of each usage of this word in the NT does not fit such a constrained straight-jacket of meaning (Mark 7:4; Col 2:12; Heb 6:2; 9:10). Frederick Danker responsibly includes the idea of “ritual or ceremonial washing”. [20] John Owen refuses to yield to this singular insistence of dipping. He writes: “I must say, and will make it good, that no honest man who understands the Greek tongue can deny the word to signify ‘to wash’, as well as ‘to dip’.” [21] Owen prefers the rendering “to wash” and this has implications of cleansing which is spiritually significant. The waters of baptism speak of the shed blood of Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; Eph 1:7; Titus 3:5-6; Heb 12:24).

Additionally, it is necessary to demonstrate that Rom 6:4 is insufficient proof that immersion should be the only mode of baptism. Paul writes “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” (Rom 6:4). John Murray expounds this passage: “Paul in Romans 6 speaks of being baptised into Jesus’ death (v 3), of being planted together with him in the likeness of his death (v 5), and of being crucified with him (v 6; cf. Gal 2:20). It is apparent that immersion and emergence do not resemble these.” [22] Therefore, the WCF is affirmed: “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary: but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person” (28:3). Dipping is not excluded, but it is not exclusively necessary for Christian baptism.

Believers must be rebaptised, if necessary

Rebaptism is presented as a dogmatic belief, often undergirding a Baptist doctrine of the church. [23] It is founded upon two premises. First, baptism is to be administered only to believers upon profession of their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, and secondly it must be applied by immersion in water. Hopefully, the second premise has already been dealt with. However, this now leaves the first assumption to be considered.

Let me paint a potential scenario for us to contemplate. A woman called Miriam was baptised as an infant in the Anglican Church, where the Triune name of God was given to her at that time. As a young lady, she is converted in her late teens and the church she then attends, while studying at university, exhort her to be baptised again as an expression of her new-found faith. She is persuaded and she testifies before the church of her “coming to Christ” and the minister baptises her by pouring water upon her head. Everything goes well, she graduates and then moves to a new city. There she joins a lively evangelical church. She applies for church membership, but she is politely advised that she cannot be received into membership unless she is baptised by immersion. What should she do? What is the biblical basis for her second and third baptisms? Was her first baptism irrelevant?

One Bible text that is regularly heard as a “rallying cry” when an adult makes a clear profession of faith is Mark 16:15-16: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel... whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Some people understand that an individual’s profession of faith must always precede baptism, therefore any baptism that reverses this order renders any previous baptism as baseless. For some, this appears to be an “open and shut case”. But is it? The basis for salvation is clearly not baptism, but faith in Jesus Christ, his shed blood (Rom 3:22-25) and the confession of Jesus’ lordship and resurrection (Rom 10:9).

The issue again revolves around the inclusion of the seed of believers, or not, into the visible church through baptism. Some well-intentioned Christians accuse well-instructed paedobaptists of baptising non-Christians because of their inclusion of the offspring of baptised believers into the visible church. In the heat of theological debate, we can all become combative. Those holding to a baptistic view need to be cautious because a good number of believer’s baptisms have been performed upon people who later proved to have not been converted. How many non-Christians have Baptists baptised? Indeed, saving efficacy is upon faith in Christ Jesus, not baptism. Simon, who practised magic in Samaria is proof-positive that baptism was not infallibly applied by the early church (Acts 8:9-24).

From my vantage point, it would seem that a Baptist line of argument leads to a highly individual event, where the person’s faith is seen to be the primary factor requisite for baptism. The practice of rebaptism declares that this is a sacrament bereft of efficacy. It is merely a memorial to seal what has already happened. [24] This gives the impression that it is a time-bound practice, one that only looks back after the event of the new birth, thus acting as a badge to proclaim an individual’s faith and promised obedience. It becomes an ordinance that then places emphasis upon faith over grace; my understanding of church history leads me to be cautious, because this was the fundamental error of Arminianism.

Calvin is perceptive when he commented that Mark 16:15-16 teaches that the Lord Jesus “connects baptism with doctrine”. He expounds further that faith is here placed before baptism: “Since the Gentiles were altogether alienated from God, and had nothing in common with the chosen people; for otherwise it would have been a false figure, which offered forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit to unbelievers, who were not yet members of Christ.” [25] The right administration of paedobaptism is that the faith of the father and/or the mother is to be professed at the baptism of the child, along with their commitment to the fulfilment of covenant responsibilities by the parent. Faith is present at baptism by the witnessing congregation also.

There are four weaknesses in the argument for rebaptism. First, the initiation sacrament is never to be twice applied: in the OT it was impossible to do because it was circumcision. The NT does not mention a single instance of Christian rebaptism, nor does it even infer reenacting baptism once the Triune name has been placed upon someone. In Acts 19:1-7 Paul insists that some disciples are baptised again, but that was because they had only received John’s baptism, which we have established was not Christian baptism.

Secondly, rebaptism fails to understand God’s promises and the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). Robert Letham explains that “there is an efficacy attached to them [the sacraments] that goes far beyond a mere visual aid”. [26] Many professing Christians would fail to “join the dots” and connect God’s faithfulness in Miriam’s later conversion to her previous baptism as an infant. Baptism does not have power to regenerate but Letham further clarifies: “That this happens is due to the gracious work of the Holy Spirit alone. However, it does not occur independently of baptism but rather in and through it... [God] keeps his appointments.” [27] Christ Jesus, the head of the church, mediates a better covenant with better promises, he is the “the guarantor of a better covenant” (Heb 7:22; 8:6). Therefore we should expect, in faith, for God’s efficacious grace to be tied to the new covenant sacraments that he personally instituted before his ascension, including baptism.

A third weakness in the argument for rebaptism, often unknowingly, is a subliminal denial of God’s faithfulness and therefore it potentially misrepresents this NT ordinance. The theological term to explain God’s grace in baptism is prolepsis; meaning something that is represented as existing before it does so. I would not want to hurtfully undermine the practice of child dedication but it was probably introduced to replace the covenant baptism of children with a “dry baptism” not taught in Scripture. Why should the church exchange God’s institution for the baptism of children with a dedication that does not convey or teach Christ’s authority, purpose or promised grace? The WCF is correct to affirm that: “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 Spirit, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will in His appointed time” (28:6).

Fourthly, rebaptism fails to properly display the attribute that God is eternal (Deut 33:27; Rom 16:26). There can be much joy associated with the baptism of adults and infants, and as we return to our daily lives following a service including baptism, we often forget what happened or our memory of the sacrament grows dim. This is not the case with the “eternal Spirit” (Heb 9:14) and his remembrance of baptism. Ultimately the covenant signs are for the Triune God, as we learn from God’s covenant with Noah. The Lord instructed him that when the bow is in the clouds “I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant” (Gen 9:8, 11, 14-17). 

The Westminster Larger Catechism magnifies the eternity of the Triune God because it affirms that baptism is a “sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life” (Q. 165). Resurrection of the body is future for all and this teaches everyone that some blessings are to follow baptism: for infants we look forward in faith to regeneration, but all baptised Christians look forward to the sealed promises represented in this sacrament, ones that are only realised fully in heaven.

What should Miriam have done? When she was converted in her teens she could have gracefully responded to the elders that her first baptism at infancy was valid, and that rebaptism is unnecessary, indeed unbiblical. Miriam could use such an opportunity to testify to the faithfulness of the Triune God to her, to point to the grace of God which has now been revealed to her as a needy sinner and to remind people that “God keeps his appointments”.

In which direction should the sign of baptism point?

Baptism is an important event in the life of any church. A church’s understanding of baptism is a mirror of the theology that a particular church holds, even though it may not be apparent to the undiscerning eye. Our doctrine of this subject raises a crucial question as to the direction that the baptismal sign is directed. I would like us to take a brief step back into history to know something of the first English Baptist, John Smyth. As we briefly peer into the life of this pivotal character upon the stage of the development of believer’s baptism, we will understand the roots from where this doctrine sprang, and some of the consequences for our theology.

John Smyth, the first English Baptist

John Smyth (?1570-1612) belonged to what is historically referred to as the “English Separatist Tradition”. B. R. White asserts that this movement “reached its climax” [28] through Smyth’s theological developments. A summary of his rapid trajectory is supplied by Jason K. Lee who writes:

John Smyth is one of the most intriguing figures in Baptist history. Though most renowned as a pioneer of the General Baptists, Smyth was actually a Baptist for less than two years. His pilgrimage of faith included stages as a Puritan, a Separatist, a Baptist, and a Mennonite. These changes took place in a period of about a decade. [29]

In 1606, as an ordained Anglican preacher, Smyth seceded to pastor the Gainsborough Separate Church which was twinned with a congregation in nearby Scrooby, where he became acquainted with the famed leaders John Robinson, William Bradford (who later became the Governor of the Plymouth Plantation) and William Brewster. The year 1608 was probably when Smyth and his congregation emigrated to Amsterdam, 1609 the time when believer’s baptism was introduced and 1612 marks his death and the forming of the first Baptist church in Spitalfields, London by his former associate Thomas Helwys, who incidentally had previously seceded from the disbanded congregation led by Smyth in Amsterdam. [30]

The doctrine of the church had been subject to constant debate for decades, prior to Smyth’s innovations. The crux of the issue revolved around where the locus of congregational authority should rest, to replace the assumed Anglican Episcopal system. Matthew 18:15-17 was the heartbeat of much of the discussion. The phrase “tell it to the church” in Matt 18:17 was understood by the Reformed church to mean “tell the elders”, however for Smyth, he strongly advocated that the “final seat of church authority was the congregation”. [31] Ecclesiology was “in the mix” but Smyth moved away from his contemporaries, such as Robinson, Richard Clifton and Governor Bradford.

Smyth demonstrated discontinuity from the Separatist tradition on a number of interconnected fronts. He adopted his own ideas for baptism, church government, liturgy and theology. Smyth arrived in Amsterdam during a “time of theological ferment concerning the theology of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609)” and this was prior to the Synod of Dort’s (1618-19) theological settlement. Walter H. Burgess observed that he abandoned the Calvinistic scheme of particular redemption, unconditional election and predestination, in favour of the Arminian framework of a universal atonement and partial depravity. [32] His democratic church polity led him to bring the ministry of pastors and elders “under full subjection to the mind and will of the congregation”. [33] This opened the way for a weakness in church order because the authority of elders became one that was conferred by the congregation, instead of being derived from the Lord, as confirmed by other elders. However, he is most remembered for forging new paths in radically changing his doctrine, practice and constitution of baptism, and this we now address.

A two-pronged influence probably accounted for his reorganised baptism: a rejection of Church of England practices, including the baptism of infants; and the influence of the Arminian Anabaptists in Amsterdam. Smyth rejected paedobaptism and he provocatively preached that the baptism of infants was anti-Christian and that it led to a false constitution of the church. Therefore we now understand that Spurgeon’s comments which open this article have had a long and unfortunate polemic history. The fountainhead of English Baptists arose from the theology, pen and preaching of Smyth, and few Baptists and Christians know this. For the Separatist tradition, according to Stephen Brachlow, there was laid “considerable stress on the conditional covenant relationship of visible obedience” [34] for the constitution of a local church. It is unanimously testified by historians, that for Smyth “baptism now replaced the church covenant”. [35] Here lies the problem.

The sign of baptism was changed. Children of believing parents were now excluded from church membership through the rite of baptism. Any notion of covenant promises on the basis of Gen 17:10-12 and Acts 2:39 as holding validity, were effectually rendered null and void. It was a new understanding of the new covenant. Instead of baptism pointing to God’s gracious and future provision in the case of infants, it now pointed in a 180-degree different direction. Baptism pointed to an individual’s visible gospel obedience and faith. The ideas for this new baptism were derived from an Arminian stable and it understandably led to disruption with the historic Reformed community, both then and now.

To be frank, it would not be without warrant if someone suggested that believer’s baptism is “a prop and pillar” of Arminian thought. This conclusion does not mean that there cannot be Calvinistic Baptists or Baptists who hold to covenant theology, [36] Spurgeon being a prime example; he was a preacher of Calvinistic soteriology par excellence. In my view covenant baptism is fully consistent with and mutually reinforces Reformed theology and adult believer’s baptism is fully consistent with and mutually reinforces Arminian theology. For a Reformed Baptist, God’s sovereignty and grace in the salvation of sinners in their Calvinistic scheme is being held in tension with a believer’s sacrament of baptism. For an Arminian Baptist, both their theology and baptism are congruous, so it does not matter in this case. Many may disagree with this notion, but the doctrine of baptism does shape our understanding of the church and also evangelism. Additionally, believer’s baptism, as Smyth teaches us, points to individual faith and obedience and this has significant implications for evangelism.

The sign of baptism impacts our approach to evangelism

All would agree that baptism is the entrance point into the visible church of the Triune God. But, we must ask what is written, metaphorically, over the entrance door into the church? In which direction does the sign of baptism point? Baptists would argue that it points to our faith in Jesus and our obedience to him. However, the signs of the covenant do not point to man, but instead to God. This is why the inclusion of children in baptism is such a stumbling block to Baptists, because they argue “how can a child have faith?”. It is my contention that the practice of believer’s baptism focuses wrongly on what “man is doing” rather than on what “God is doing”. It portrays salvation by faith instead of being by grace through faith. It leaves a potential vacuum for the doctrine of the family and it inserts doubts as to the place of children in the church.

Similarly, it would be wrong if I gave the impression that all churches that practice a covenantal view on baptism have all things right. Wellum raises an important concern that paedobaptism may lead to a “downplaying of the need to call our children to repentance and faith” [37] . However, I believe that Wellum misses the mark to claim that believer’s baptism is the “new covenant sign... ordained by our Triune God as a proper means of grace that we ignore, distort, or downplay to the detriment of our spiritual life and mission”. [38] Our final section, discusses a healthy approach to evangelism that a covenantal framework for baptism should hopefully encourage.

Baptism and its relationship to evangelism

It is almost unnecessary to explain that it is beyond the scope of this paper to outline a complete theology of biblical evangelism, though such an essay on this subject is exigent. William Still’s assessment of British evangelicalism in his day, probably still holds true today. He lamented that “we are suffering from an evangelistic complex, an obsession with evangelism, which at best is too fruitless”. [39] There must be a biblical balance in the church to focus on the “you and your children” as well as reaching out to those who are “afar off”. A return to this all-important subject of baptism may well provide meaningful answers to help the church redress imbalances that may exist. R. B. Kuiper helps us all because he reminds us that there is a “double responsibility of the church”: this is to “build up its members in the faith” while equally and simultaneously bringing the “gospel to those who are outside the church”. [40]

Within these constraints, I will make a general proposition applicable to all sections of evangelicalism, irrespective of their baptismal stance. This will be followed up with five particular implications that stem from a covenantal view of baptism and its relationship to evangelism. This section will handle its suggestions within the proposed covenantal framework of “command–sign–promises–responsibilities” to address some familiar evangelical practices that probably need to be re-examined and amended. There is an inevitable overlap between the doctrine of the church, worship and evangelism, because the preaching of the gospel in and through the church is the Triune God’s primary means of extending grace to a fallen world.

A general proposition to be addressed first is the necessity to recapture what is placed at the very heart of baptism, as ordained by the Lord Jesus Christ. The proposition is that the new covenant name of God – the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – be placed upon people at baptism as a new step for the NT people of God (Matt 28:19). Letham presents the view that the Triune God unfolds revelation of himself progressively and that this name, linked with the new covenant sacrament of baptism, is “God’s crowning revelation of himself – all that went before points to this”. [41]

However, the Triune name should not be restricted to a baptismal liturgy only. Baptism into that name may be an entrance point to the new covenant community but not an end point. It should be a thread woven throughout the fabric of the church’s theology, worship, preaching, sacraments and mission. This name should continue as a focal point throughout the whole process of new covenant discipleship according to Matt 28:18-20. The new covenant commission recorded by Matthew marks a new plan for the gospel, where the geography is extended and the knowledge of God is expanded.

This Trinitarian motif for discipleship is found throughout Paul’s epistles and most notably in his Letter to the Ephesians. A recovery of this motif for the twenty first century church in the West, could potentially answer the post-modern challenge regarding the church’s evangelistic battle with religious pluralism. The Triune God of the church is unique. This could embolden the church’s evangelism in a multicultural world that is filled with the claims of many religions for the uniqueness of their god. Velli-Matti Kärkkäinen concisely sums up the Western world as “an individualistic, post-modern cacophony of differing voices and pluralism”. [42] Perhaps if church members were equipped with the doctrine of the Trinity and if the new covenant name of God were to be interwoven into public worship more extensively, a range of apologetic issues could be handled at the same time to equip the saints in their day-to-day evangelism.

The first particular proposition is for the recovery of a covenantal approach to baptism, which includes baptising the children of Christian parents. It has been demonstrated that the explication of baptism found in the Westminster Standards embraces a covenantal framework that is faithful to Scripture but that it also has a doctrine of the family inextricably interwoven in it. It is hard to contemplate how any other version of baptism can adequately balance the inter-connected scheme of “command–sign–promises–responsibilities”. To refuse children baptism in the visible church is to amend our ecclesiology to a reductionist approach to include only adults. Children from Christian homes are treated as “afar off” when God has given their parents covenant promises. The potential efficacy tied to baptism by the working of the Holy Spirit is denied to the next generation in the church.

The second proposal is for the whole family to worship God together during public worship on the Lord’s Day. The common rejection of a covenantal approach to baptism which includes infants, probably explains why in some church services children are ushered out at some stage prior to the preaching. This has never been the Reformed tradition. It is unthinkable to withhold children from the ordinary means of grace in the public worship, or for them to not regularly hear preaching, nor to observe the administration of the sacraments. Escorting children out during public worship is to wrongly divide up the family. A correct view of covenant baptism should naturally lead to a congruous view of public worship in the church by whole families together. This is how we should now understand how the doctrine of baptism shapes our doctrine of the church and evangelism. The WCF rightly teaches that the visible church consists of those who profess the true religion and their children (25:2).

The third proposition is that our evangelism must not neglect the church’s children and that they are to be treated differently to those children from non-Christian homes. For example, should we expect the same narrative of conversion from a child brought up under the gospel to those converted from paganism? Letham, in writing on baptism, outlines that in the evangelism of our children in the church, we should not seek a similar crisis conversion narrative from them, as is often testified by those outside the covenant of grace altogether. [43] Like Timothy, most of the church’s children have been acquainted with the Scriptures from childhood and we should seek to nurture them to a genuine profession of faith, with accompanying good fruits (2 Tim 3:10-17).

The fourth proposal is that Christian parents need to be instructed in the covenant promises and obligations that belong to them. This principle deserves far more extensive treatment than we can now give it. Some of these responsibilities include the head of the house leading his household in “family worship”. My wife is Dutch and I learned this practice from my family in The Netherlands. The giving of thanks for the evening meal is followed, after we have eaten, with the reading of the Scriptures, or a catechism question, along with discussion as a family of what has been read, sometimes the singing of a psalm or hymn and family prayer. It is one of our spiritual highlights as a family and it nourishes the children in the Christian faith daily.

The fifth proposition is the necessity for the catechising of adults and children in the church. In my experience as a Christian, over more than two decades, the best form of evangelism is when Christians are rightly excited by the gospel and the church where they worship. This can never happen by the quest for constant outreach activities at the expense of feeding, caring, instructing and nurturing the whole church. The church’s dual responsibility must be pursued. In my opinion the recovery of the content of the Reformed faith requires attention and it was for this precise reason that the Westminster divines did not only produce a Confession of Faith; it was foreseen that the church’s elders needed the right tools for effective discipleship and catechism’s were produced. It is my contention that the use of the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms in the church can help to solve this discipleship problem.

The growth and general acceptance of believer’s baptism probably explains the common neglect of Reformed catechisms. J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett write on “The Waxing and Waning of Catechesis”. The authors comment that “within evangelical circles, conservative Presbyterians and other Reformed believers probably represent the only major groups that have regular acquaintance with the notion of catechesis”. [44] They pinpoint part of the waning of doctrinal instruction in the church to the rise of the Sunday school model for the teaching of children. They highlight that Baptists and other denominations would commonly reject Reformed catechisms because they taught a different view on baptism (WSC, Q. 95). They propose that catechetical instruction was unfortunately replaced with a form of biblical moralism, one that lacks doctrinal content. [45] This analysis is searching and it is a much-needed exposé of a contemporary weakness, one that needs to be addressed within evangelicalism.

Conclusion

Christian baptism is in urgent need of being re-visited by the evangelical church. The biblical teaching of the sacraments is that they are “signs and seals” of God’s covenant grace (Rom 4:11). The forerunner of baptism in the OT was circumcision, which God instituted in Genesis 17. God commanded Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you... and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen 17:9-11). We have noted the clear connection that existed between covenant and circumcision.

There is a connection between God’s covenant and God’s signs of the covenant, which in the NT are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The shadow of baptism in the OT was circumcision: whereas circumcision involved the shedding of blood and therefore it pointed forwards to the future shed blood of Christ, baptism points backwards to the shed blood of Christ and Christ’s completed atonement. Baptism in the new covenant is to be administered using water and the new covenant name of God, “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”; and it is to be applied to adults and the children of believing parents.

As with the sign of the covenant – circumcision in the OT – in the NT this sign is to be applied not only to believers, but also to the children of believing parents. The exclusion of children in baptism by evangelicals is a mistake. A sincere question has been considered: In which direction does the sign of baptism point? Baptists would argue that it points to our faith in Jesus and our obedience to him. However, the signs of the covenant do not point to man but instead to God.

Baptism is not connected to the timing of its ordinance for its efficacy. The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. The waters of baptism speak of the shed blood of Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit – Titus 3:5-6 says: “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, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

Baptism must always declare the “priority of grace over faith”. We are not saved by faith. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9). It is important that we recover the biblical doctrine of baptism to ensure that God is most glorified, to strengthen the view that evangelism must be God-centred, with Christ declared in the gospel, freely offered for the salvation of sinners. This is something which is by God’s grace alone. A covenantal approach to baptism best represents this vision so that the church’s evangelism is in harmony with biblical theology.