Tag Archives: Baptism

Why I Changed My Mind About Infant Baptism

Editor’s Note: What doctrine or issue have you changed your mind about? The Gospel Coalition posed that question to several pastors, theologians, and other thinkers in order to gain a better understanding of what leads to shifts along the theological spectrum.

Previously in this series:

* * * * * * * * * *

Born into a Christian family, I cannot remember a time when I did not love the Lord Jesus or love his church. Sunday was, as it remains, the high point of our week. As a child I loved the psalms and hymns we sang, the minister’s gravity (accentuated by his wearing the clerical collar), and the solemn order of our participation in the Lord’s Supper. My Baptist church looked and felt like the Presbyterian church down the street.

Sensing a call to preach when I was 11, I immediately developed passionate interest in reading theology and doing evangelism. When I discovered the doctrines of grace at age 14 and began to talk about them to everyone who would listen, it caused dismay to my parents, peers, and church leaders who urged me to get over it and stick to the simple gospel. I was baptized as a believer by immersion at the age of 15; it was the thing to do in obedience to Christ.

When the minister and church officers recognized my call to the ministry they naturally directed me into the Baptist ministry, and I went to Ireland to study in a college that identified itself as “reformed and evangelical.” There I first heard the arguments that went beyond the usual proof texts used to support the credobaptist position, arguments that rooted believer’s baptism in the covenant of grace. These discussions and my love for the church sparked a serious study of ecclesiology that I would pursue over several years.

By the time I became a pastor of my own church at age 22 I was already beginning to think that Presbyterian government most closely resembled that which I saw in the New Testament, and I was prepared to say that to anyone who asked throughout the rest of my ministry. Three of the churches I served instituted eldership as a result of my teaching on the nature and function of church office.

‘Getting’ Infant Baptism

But a sense that Presbyterian polity was biblical was one thing; “getting” infant baptism was something else. Looking back over the first ten years of my ministry I was becoming increasingly unconvinced that I had resolved my views on baptism, and I began to dismiss the issue as divisive and sought to rise above it. What reflection was possible with three (or four as in my first church) sermons a week to prepare; no sabbatical (in 40 years of pastoral ministry), and a series of busy churches and a growing family?

In Canada I had the opportunity to study Reformation thought at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, where there are strong Anabaptist influences. Reading the primary documents of the Reformation, especially the spiritual and Anabaptist writers, I increasingly sympathized with the magisterial reformers. I eventually moved to churches with an “open” membership where I was not bound to persuade people to be re-baptized and where I had the opportunity to explain the paedobaptist position to people from the Baptist tradition who applied for membership.

I felt deeply committed to serving the congregations where we were led; I appreciated the fact they welcomed paedobaptists into full membership, and I respectfully implemented their church order and baptized believers by immersion. I could not accept invitations to pastor “closed” membership churches—to the perplexity of many friends who simply never asked me why.

As a couple our approach to rearing our five children became driven by covenant theology—we followed the advice of William Still of Aberdeen who encouraged us privately to bring our children up in faith that they would become Christians rather than in fear they would not. And in my practice of child dedication I urged parents to see their children as children of promise. My wife and I are grateful to God for that godly and helpful advice.

Where Does Baptism Fit in Biblical Theology?

What were my problems? I wanted to understand where baptism stood in the context of biblical theology, how it fit into the flow of the Bible’s storyline. I could not understand why, given the Old Testament emphasis of God’s working through families, the New Testament did not signal a change in that policy. It seemed passing strange to me that the new covenant sacrament included women and Gentiles but excluded the children of believers. It seemed in that respect the new covenant was less generous than the old. There were too many questions surrounding the family baptisms in Acts and Corinthians; Paul’s “holy” children; the warning passages of Hebrews; and the nature of the church that I could not resolve from a Baptist perspective.

Was the church exclusively composed only of the elect? The Anabaptists and Baptists (like many such movements in the history of the church) aimed at forming a “pure” church of “believers only” and often contrasted themselves with the mixed nature of churches in the magisterial stream of the Reformation. Scripture seemed to contradict this assumption. My early dispensationalism dissolved during expositions of the prophet Daniel that led me to understand that the true Israel was the believing remnant within the larger body of circumcised and professing Israelites. God’s covenant community in the times before Christ was a community of believers and their children; in that community some did and many did not fulfill the spiritual expectation of their circumcision.

Our Lord himself claimed to be the true Israel when he said, “I am the true vine.” He went on to describe the branches “in him”—all of which were externally united to him and some of which were organically united and brought forth fruit as a result of his word. The writer to the Hebrews specifically links his Christian readers with the Hebrews of the old covenant and warns them that some in their community that have been “washed” (baptized) and who have eaten the heavenly food (the Lord’s Supper) and have felt the powers of the age to come (the Word of God) may fall away.

These were obviously church members, part of the Israel of God, but they were not savingly united to Christ or numbered among the elect. When our Lord addresses the congregations in Revelation he recognizes that many within the churches will not have “ears to hear.” This address suggests New Testament churches were not pure though they strove to be, and it explains why the language of Israel is so indiscriminately applied to the churches (God’s people; holy nation, 1 Pet.2:10).

Continuity of the Covenant of Grace

At seminary it became apparent that the fundamental issue separating credo- and paedo-baptists is that of the relationship between the old and new covenants. Here theologians make a helpful distinction between ordo salutis (order of salvation) and historia salutis (history of salvation). The ordo salutis relates to the way salvation is applied to believers; the historia salutis refers to the once-for-all event of our Lord’s coming into the world and all that he accomplished for our salvation by his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. This distinction helps us answer the question, “What is new about the new covenant?”

Older dispensationalism spoke of several administrations of salvation in different dispensations or ages. I clung to a revised form of dispensationalism through seminary and even preached it in the first months of my ministry, but it soon evaporated when I set myself to teach through the book of Daniel. Instead I was persuaded that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in every age.

This covenant of grace was announced to Adam, established with Abraham, administered provisionally under Moses, and realized in Christ. Genesis 3 shows that Adam believed in the promise of the Messiah who would crush the serpent’s head. That unilateral and unconditional promise of a Savior is called the covenant of grace. It is established in God’s covenant with Abraham who was “justified by faith.” Paul can say that Abraham was justified (ordo) even though when Abraham believed, Christ had not yet been raised for our justification (historia) (Galatians 3:6). In Hebrews 11 Abraham is shown to have new covenant faith as he looked for a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. Moses “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward,” even though Christ had not yet come into the world to be “reproached” when Moses believed these things (Hebrews 11:26). When the later prophets predicted a new covenant it was not in contrast with the covenant of grace announced to Adam and Abraham.

In Luke’s two-volume work (Luke-Acts) I noticed that each book begins by anchoring the gospel in the covenant with Abraham—in Mary’s song where she places the events surrounding her son in the mercy of God “to Abraham and his offspring forever” (Lk.1:55); and in Peter’s sermon where his punchline after pointing to Christ is the “promise” (of the gospel—forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit), which is for us and our offspring. Later he says that Abraham “rejoiced” to see his day; and that Isaiah had seen him in the temple “high and lifted up.”

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

We are grateful to God for every church where we have served, and now we feel enormously privileged to serve in a church that holds to my beloved Westminster Confession of Faith. It is my joy to baptize the children of believers and to see those children treated not as little strangers until they make their profession of faith, but as members of the family of God. As such they are instructed in the full width of Bible truth and in the catechism of the church. It is the most wonderful privilege to see those children come to the point where they want to express their faith publicly and be admitted to the Lord’s Table.

Of course it is still disappointing that baptism remains the “water that divides,” but I have learned to appreciate the joy in knowing there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. And it gives me more joy than I can express to belong to a church that takes seriously the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Reformation.

Editors’ note: This is an abbreviated version of Goligher’s essay. You can read the full article here.

Why I Changed My Mind About Baptism

Editor’s Note: What doctrine or issue have you changed your mind about? The Gospel Coalition posed that question to several pastors, theologians, and other thinkers in order to gain a better understanding of what leads to shifts along the theological spectrum.

Previously in this series:

* * * * * * * * * *

When I was 10 or so, my parents came to Christ. Up to that time, we were unchurched. Although I had been baptized in the Lutheran Church in which my mother had grown up, we had gone to church only three or four times until my parents were converted. However, with their conversion, we suddenly began going to church and found ourselves at a Plymouth Brethren assembly in Fanwood, New Jersey. There, during a evangelistic crusade, I first professed faith in Christ, was baptized by immersion, and had my first spiritual formation.

Prior to high school, we moved to northern Virginia where we went to a Bible church, and I eventually ended up in an independent Baptist school. During a chapel service I felt called to preach, a calling that eventually led me to attend Liberty University for a year before transferring to Bob Jones University.

Baptized, Again

As part of my undergraduate training as a pastoral studies major, I had to do an internship, which I did at my independent Baptist church back in northern Virginia. During my internship, our pastor convinced me that I had not been scripturally baptized. He certainly wouldn’t have counted my Lutheran baptism, but even my Plymouth Brethren baptism was suspect. Because I had not been baptized by a Baptist, I was not part of the unbroken spiritual baptism chain going back to John the Baptist (for those who recognize this, it is the Landmark Baptist view). So I was baptized again.

But during that internship year I read Lorraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. And that book scattered seeds in my mind that came to fruition when I was working on my Master of Arts degree at Bob Jones University. I was taking a class in Colonial American Church History and reading a lot of Jonathan Edwards. After reading Edwards’s sermon “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” I realized that I was a five-point Calvinist. Or better, I realized that the doctrines of grace that emphasized the divine priority in all our spiritual good—from election to redemption to calling to perseverance—were biblical and had to be embraced.

Not Pagan Babies

In 1994, my wife and I moved to Philadelphia so that I could attend Westminster Seminary and pursue a doctoral program where I could continue studying Jonathan Edwards. Though I had come to Philadelphia hoping that we might join a Presbyterian church, that transition was too much for my GARBC (General Association of Regular Baptist Churches) wife. So we ended up at a little Baptist church that was going through the process of reformation. The pastor was a Bob Jones graduate, which made it acceptable to her; the doctrine was staunchly Calvinistic, which made it acceptable to me. And in our four years there, together we came to embrace confessionalism, catechesis, covenant theology, and the importance of Presbyterian polity.

In fact, we were Presbyterian in everything—except baptism. But God brought something into our lives that caused us to wrestle with the whole issue of baptism: babies. As our children were born every other year from 1997 to 2003, we began to wonder about their spiritual status. They weren’t really pagan children. Because they were born to us as believing parents, they would be raised in the context of the church and the Christian faith. Yet there wasn’t a biblical basis for “baby dedication” (where is that in the New Testament?) so that wasn’t an option.

As a result, with our first child’s birth in 1997, we began to wrestle with how the Westminster Confession of Faith could say both that “baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament” (28.1) and that “not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized” (28.4). If baptism is a New Testament sacrament and if babies are to baptized, then I needed to have some reason to believe from the New Testament. Arguments from the Old Testament that relied or admitted the silence of the New Testament on the issue weren’t persuasive to me. I needed to see it in the New Testament.

Significance of Households

Fast forward four years. Our third child was born, and I was writing my dissertation, not on Jonathan Edwards as I had planned, but on Robert Lewis Dabney, the 19th-century southern Presbyterian theologian. I was focusing on Dabney’s public theology and was struck by the significance of households. Whether dealing with slavery and race, gender relations, education, church and state, Dabney repeatedly fell back to the significance of households in God’s purpose and plans.

I began to notice a pattern. In Genesis 17, God made promises to Abraham, the believing household head, and then signed and sealed those promises through household circumcision. And in Acts 16, God dealt with Lydia and the Philippian jailer (believing household heads), and then signed and sealed those promises through household baptism. The pattern was not babies per se; I was looking for the wrong thing. God’s pattern was to deal with households and to grant those households the sign of circumcision or baptism.

Other texts came into play at that point. According to 1 Corinthians 7:14 God views our children as “holy”—separated to his work and his purposes, “clean” and not “unclean” or pagan—as a result of their relationship with us as believing household heads. Acts 2:38-39 says that the promise of the Holy Spirit was not to discrete individuals who believed, but to households who believed: “the promise is to you and your children.” This language echoed through the Old Testament indicating God’s promise to households, but here it was in the New Testament. And Colossians 2:11-12 seemed to equate circumcision and baptism in such a way that the succession of the New Testament sign was established.

Here was a fairly strong New Testament rationale. It changed my mind and led us into the Presbyterian Church in America. And it is an argument that I have taught now repeatedly over ten years and through my book, On Being Presbyterian. But it is all of a piece of the grace of God at work in my life, showing me his grace in every part of my life, even to my children after me. It is, after all, all of grace.

Why I Changed My Mind About Baptism

Editors’ Note: What doctrine or issue have you changed your mind about? The Gospel Coalition posed that question to several pastors, theologians, and other thinkers in order to gain a better understanding of what leads to shifts along the theological spectrum [see Sam Storms’s “Why I Changed My Mind About the Millennium“]. Gavin Ortlund continues this new series with an explanation of how he changed his view on baptism.

I was baptized as an infant in the Church of Scotland. After my family moved back to the United States, I was raised in various Presbyterian churches, eventually working at two Presbyterian churches during college and then attending a Presbyterian seminary. As I look back, I have nothing but gratitude for my time among Presbyterians; in fact, I often miss that world!

The issue that propelled me out of Presbyterianism was the doctrine of paedobaptism (infant baptism). Once I sensed God’s call to ministry, I conducted an intensive study of this issue since I knew it would affect where I could be ordained. During my final semester of college, I read everything I could get my hands on that addressed the question. Throughout my first year of seminary, I continued reading and also dialoguing with my paedobaptist friends. I remember conversations that lasted well into the night. I remember long office hours with professors and a few spirited discussions in class. I remember entire afternoons struggling with books like Pierre-Charles Marcel’s The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, Paul Jewett’s Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, and countless others on both sides of the issue. By April of that year, my convictions had solidified against paedobaptism, and I (somewhat reluctantly) changed my church affiliation and was baptized (dunked in a river, to be precise).

It was helpful to formulate my convictions about baptism in a setting where almost everyone saw it differently than I did. In seminary I heard countless defenses of the Reformed paedobaptist argument from godly people whom I trusted and respected. I think I was able to see the paedobaptist view sympathetically, as an insider sees it. Though the issue is complex and many factors were involved, in the end it was a relatively simple insight that proved decisive for me. In conversations with friends, I learned to state my primary dissatisfaction with the Reformed (sometimes called “covenantal”) argument for paedobaptism in the form of a question.

Why Not Grandchildren?

B. B. Warfield offered a helpfully succinct statement of the case for Reformed paedobaptism: “The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until he puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of his church and as such entitled to its ordinances. Among these ordinances is baptism.” [1]

This appeal to continuity with circumcision is at the core of the Reformed paedobaptist argument. Question 74 of the Heidelburg Catechism refers to baptism as the New Testament replacement of circumcision. John Calvin claimed that “whatever belongs to circumcision pertains likewise to baptism.” [2] John Murray spoke of an “essential identity of meaning” between circumcision and baptism. [3] And so with Berkhof, Marcel, Owen, Edwards, and countless other theologians and confessions.

But this appeal to continuity raises a question. Who exactly were the proper recipients of circumcision? To whom is Warfield referring with the word children? Circumcision is given in Genesis 17:9 to “you and your seed [offspring, descendants; Hebrew zerah] after you, for the generations to come.” The individuals in view here are the intergenerational descendants of Abraham. The faith of an Israelite child’s parents was not what determined the child’s right to circumcision; it was the child’s association with the nation of Israel. In other words, the lines of covenant throughout the Old Testament weren’t drawn around individual believing families, but around the national family of Abraham. It wasn’t the “children of believers” who had the right to the sacrament of initiation, but the “children of Abraham.” So, given paedobaptist presuppositions, why not baptize the grandchildren of believers, too? If we’re really building off continuity with the Old Testament precedent, why stop at one generation?

Consider the following scenario: John Sr. is a devout believer, John Jr. has never professed faith in Christ, and John III is one week old. Should John III be considered a member of the church and a proper candidate for Christian baptism? With a few exceptions, such as the Half-Way Covenant, this is not the historic practice of Reformed paedobaptist churches. But why not? Those who espouse infant baptism bear responsibility to define the word infant. No one believes all infants in the world are worthy recipients of baptism. Certain infants are included; others are not. Considering John Jr. eligible for baptism in his infancy, and John III ineligible, is certainly one option on the table. But it’s difficult to see how that would be consistent with Genesis 17 or the practice of God’s people throughout the Old Testament. In no biblical covenant or redemptive-historical era has the sacrament of initiation been for “those who believe and their children.”

Continuing Discontinuities

The best cases for credobaptism (like those of Jewett or Kingdon or Wellum) usually argue that paedobaptism stresses unity across the biblical covenants at the expense of discontinuity and development. Without disagreeing, I suggest it’s also permissible to ask whether paedobaptism has stressed a discontinuity at the expense of continuity and fulfillment (the kind of continuity one sees generally in the movement from OT to the NT). To get from “every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money” (Gen. 17:12) to “those who believe and their children” is, it seems to me, an error of failing to appreciate the newness of baptism only after it’s an error of failing to identify the meaning of circumcision in the first place.

Better, and more continuous with circumcision and the OT precedent, I think, to define the church simply as the children of Abraham: defined by physical descent throughout the OT (Gen. 17:9), and defined by spiritual descent throughout the NT (Gal. 3:7).

Credobaptists and Their Children

This recognition of discontinuity within the paedobaptist system suggests paedobaptists themselves may need to provide answers to some of their own queries regarding credobaptist childrearing. A few examples:

  • If credobaptists are inconsistent to lovingly nurture their children with the gospel apart from covenant membership, is John Sr. inconsistent to lovingly nurture John III with the gospel apart from covenant membership?
  • If credobaptists are unloving not to teach their children to pray as soon as they can speak, are paedobaptists unloving for not doing the same with their grandchildren whose parents don’t believe?
  • If credobaptism is charged with making the new covenant less generous than the Abrahamic covenant with respect to the children of believers, can paedobaptism be charged with making the new covenant less generous than the Abrahamic covenant with respect to the grandchildren of believers?
  • Should John Sr. assume the regeneration of John III until contrary evidence emerges?

This question about grandchildren is obviously not the only argument against Reformed paedobaptism. But I do think it raises an important and often overlooked issue in the debate. And for me, it was the crucial domino in my journey away from paedobaptism.

1 Quoted in Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010), 522.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Westminster John Knox, 2006) 4.16.4, 1,327.

John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1952), 75.

Should We Baptize Infants?

If you serve as pastor in a Baptist church, or even if you’ve only sought membership, you know that awkward moment. Someone expresses excitement about joining the church formally. But she was raised Methodist. Or Episcopalian. Or Presbyterian. Or Roman Catholic. She was born again later in life but never sought baptism by immersion. No one suggested she do so, and she didn’t see the point. And she doesn’t see it now, either, when you’ve informed her that she’ll need to baptized according to your definition before you’ll welcome her into membership.

As Ligon Duncan, a Presbyterian, points out in this video, Baptists can look narrow-minded in a tolerant age. But as Thabiti Anyabwile explains in response, Baptists seek to follow a logical progression revealed in Scripture from preaching the gospel to regeneration by the Holy Spirit to baptism to membership and finally communion. 

As the video continues, you’ll see Duncan and Anyabwile discuss the analogy between circumcision and baptism along with the discontinuities between the old and new covenants. And in case you’re not familiar, Duncan offers a quick overview of the often-misunderstood Presbyterian position on baptism. He has plenty of practice, considering he grew up in a South Carolina county with 385 Baptist churches and only about 14 Presbyterian congregations. He’ll show you Presbyterians don’t just baptize babies because they’re liberal, haven’t thought it through, worship tradition, or still can’t escape Roman Catholicism. 

You Asked: Should I Get ‘Re-Baptized’? (Credobaptist Answer)

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Lynda M. from Northern Ireland asks,

I was baptized at the age of 13 before I was really walking with the Lord. It came as a result of covering the topic in a youth Bible class after which we were asked if we would like to be baptized, and considering the majority of the class were doing it, I decided to as well. I recall at the time being too embarrassed to even tell my school friends about it, never mind ask them to come.

The Lord really worked in my life at the age of 20, and that’s when I would say he really opened my eyes to what following Jesus was all about. Ideally that’s when I would have been baptized, but obviously I already had been. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on getting baptized for a second time, and if you feel that would be necessary.

We posed the question to Bobby Jamieson, editor at 9Marks and author of the forthcoming book Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway). You can also read the paedobaptist answer from Jared Oliphint.


In a nutshell, I’d say yes, you do need to be baptized—for the first time! That’s because baptism is for believers, and you seem to be telling me that you were definitely not a Christian when you were “baptized” at 13.

First, know you’re not alone. Many Christians have wrestled with this very issue, including a number of members of my own church. And I want to encourage you for taking both baptism and also conversion seriously. That’s wonderful evidence of God’s grace at work in your life.

Next, here’s a super quick sketch of the Bible’s teaching on baptism. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus commands his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” So followers of Jesus make disciples, and we baptize those disciples.

This is just what the early Christians did. At the end of his sermon at Pentecost, Peter told the convicted crowd, “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” (Acts 2:38). Then we read that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Note that only those who received the message of the gospel were baptized and added to the church.

What does baptism mean? We read in Romans 6 that we are baptized into Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3). We are buried with him in order that we might share in his resurrection life (Rom. 6:4). In other words, baptism is a picture of a believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Obey Jesus

In view of all this, I believe, and it sounds like you do too, that baptism is for those—and only those—who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ for salvation. (Of course, not all Christians agree. For a substantial defense of the believers’ baptism position, see here.) Therefore, any “baptism” performed on someone who was not a Christian is simply not baptism by definition.

In other words, you’ve not been baptized, and you need to be. So I’d strongly encourage you to get baptized—for the first time.

Of course, there’s a situation similar to yours in which I wouldn’t necessarily encourage someone to be baptized. Let’s say you sincerely professed faith in Christ at a young age, and were baptized at 13. But your track record as a Christian was spotty throughout your teenage years, and it’s tough to tell in hindsight whether you were genuinely converted at the time you were baptized. If that was your situation, I might encourage you to, as it were, trust the sincerity of your 13-year-old faith. It’s easy to mistake childlike faith for no faith at all, and to impose an adult standard of spiritual fruit on a child or even a teenager. In such cases, I’d encourage someone to get baptized only if she came to be absolutely convinced that she was not converted at the time of baptism.

However, I think your situation is much simpler. You didn’t get “baptized” as an expression of faith in Christ, but simply to follow the crowd. Your “baptism” was not a public profession of faith in Christ and a public picture of your union with him by faith. Which means it wasn’t baptism.

So now you’ve got the joyful privilege, and responsibility, to obey Jesus’ command to be baptized. Don’t be ashamed or view this as a do-over. Instead, embrace it as an opportunity to obey God’s Word, to give public testimony to the gospel, and to celebrate God’s redeeming work in your life.

You Asked: Should I Get ‘Re-Baptized’? (Paedobaptist Answer)

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Lynda M. from Northern Ireland asks,

I was baptized at the age of 13 before I was really walking with the Lord. It came as a result of covering the topic in a youth Bible class after which we were asked if we would like to be baptized, and considering the majority of the class were doing it, I decided to as well. I recall at the time being too embarrassed to even tell my school friends about it, never mind ask them to come.

The Lord really worked in my life at the age of 20, and that’s when I would say he really opened my eyes to what following Jesus was all about. Ideally that’s when I would have been baptized, but obviously I already had been. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on getting baptized for a second time, and if you feel that would be necessary.

We posed the question to Jared Oliphint, regional coordinator and a ThM student at Westminster Theological Seminary. He studied philosophy at Gordon College and earned his MAR at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 2005. You can follow him on Twitter. And you can also read the credobaptist answer from Bobby Jamieson.


I would humbly encourage anyone thinking through these issues first to talk to his or her local pastor. These kinds of questions are rarely disconnected from broader ministerial needs in one’s Christian walk, but maybe we can get pointed in the right direction here.

How one addresses the question of re-baptism depends on how one understands baptism as a whole. So let’s start where the apostles start—in the Old Testament. We might first ask whether there was meaning behind and precedent to using water as the sign of the new covenant in the New Testament. The first time Scripture uses water as a covenantal sign occurred long before the New Testament era. Recall 1 Peter 3:20-21:

. . . when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .

God chose water judgment in the form of a flood as the means for separating the covenant mediator (Noah) and his covenant people (his family) from rebellious, non-covenant people.

Years later, God used water judgment again as the means for separating the covenant mediator (Moses) and his covenant people (Israel) from rebellious, non-covenant people. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 10:1-2, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”

In both cases above, these Old Testament baptismal events included not only covenant children but also unbelieving covenant members. God brought Noah’s son Ham through the baptismal flood, but Ham’s family line was eventually cursed (Gen. 9:18-27). Likewise, some Israelites who escaped the Egyptians turned out to be unfaithful covenant members (Ex. 32:25f; see also Joshua 3, the second exodus of Israel passing again through waters, this time in the Jordan River under the mediator Joshua. Later the true Joshua, Jesus, would be baptized in the same waters).

Fast forward a few centuries and we see another judgment warning from none other than John the Baptist, the Elijah prophet figure, accompanied by water baptism. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Something new, yet precedented, had happened (Christ’s coming) that demanded a new, yet precedented, covenantal sign of judgment (water baptism). Jesus himself, the fulfillment of Israel, would also pass through the baptismal waters (Matt. 3:13-17) just as Noah, Moses, and Joshua did as typological mediators before him.

Natural Reading

During the beginning of this new covenant era, it would have been expected that anyone—Jews, Gentiles, and, yes, their covenant children—who had faith in the new covenant mediator, Christ, would receive the new covenant sign of baptism. While we’re short on biblical evidence in the form of a verse that says “You shall baptize covenant children” or “You shall only baptize converted adults,” Scripture as a whole may read more naturally if we assume one view over another.

Because it would have been expected for adults of every kind to be given the new covenant sign of baptism as they become new covenant members, that is indeed what we see in Acts as the apostles are sent out with the Spirit. But there are also clues in Scripture indicating that new covenant members are not limited to adults who claim a conversion experience.

First, the New Testament recorded a unique period in redemptive history. We should not expect or assume every pattern of behavior during that period (for example, adult conversions) to be the exclusive and permanently normative pattern of behavior, unless Scripture indicates that is the case.

Second, passages that indicate the baptism of entire households (Acts 16:15, 1 Cor 1:16) do not carry enough evidence on their own to be decisive on this matter. Still, it would be unusual for the biblical authors (1) to assume there were no young children in the households, and (2) if children were assumed to be present, for the biblical authors to be silent on whether children were excluded from the new covenantal sign. There was such an overwhelming precedent from the Old Testament to include children as covenant members of God’s people that a shift on this matter would warrant an extensive and documented explanation.

Third, while the parallels between circumcision and baptism may not be enough to bear the full weight of the argument, Colossians 2:11-12 makes a clear connection between the covenant signs:

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.

Similar to the judgment element in baptism, circumcision involves a “putting off” and a judgment sign not by water but by knife, typologically demonstrated in Christ “putting off” his own body under judgment through his death on the cross.

Fourth, there is explicit evidence in 1 Cor. 7:14 of a biological/physical element in new covenant membership: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.”

Scripture does not speak of the children of covenant members as unbelievers, nor as outside the new covenant (Acts 2:36-39). The question is not whether the baptism of unbelievers can be prevented, or how accurately we can guess the elect. Both paedobaptists and also credobaptists baptize unbelievers. Paedobaptists baptize infants who may not eventually profess faith and adults whose profession may not be genuine. Credobaptists also baptize those who profess faith but whose profession may not be genuine. We can safely assume that Jesus’ disciple Judas was baptized into the new covenant, with Jesus knowing full well he was an unbeliever.

Not Based on Experience

Coming back to the original question on re-baptism, if we understand the sign of water baptism as a sign of judgment that begins with Noah and his children, continues with Moses, Joshua, and Israel; picks up with John the Baptist and new covenant members; and continues through the church for new covenant members, it is not difficult to see why a second baptism would be as unnecessary as enduring another great flood, re-crossing the Red Sea and Jordan River, or re-signifying yourself as a new covenant member.

Confusion on this matter sets in when we identify baptism only as a sign of a believer’s experience of conversion from being outside the covenant to being a new covenant member. (There is also no indication in Scripture that all believers will be able to register a tangible, manifested feeling that temporally corresponds to their conversion from being under wrath to being under grace.) The Westminster Confession of Faith (28.6) is helpful here:

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.

For those considering a second baptism because of a later, more tangible conversion experience, rest assured that your original baptism, which signifies coming into new covenant membership, is efficacious based not on the strength of your conversion experience, but on the power of God in conferring grace to new covenant members in his own time.

You Asked: Does the Bible Separate Salvation from Baptism?

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Jon A. from North Carolina asks:

Mark 16:16 teaches that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” In Acts 8 the eunuch had no “crowd” for whom to make a demonstration; after hearing the gospel, he commanded the chariot to stop so he could be baptized. Where does the Bible ever separate salvation from baptism? And where do we find that baptism is simply an “ordinance” or symbolization, when verses like Acts 2:38, Galatians 3:27, John 1:11-12, and 1 Peter 3:21 seem to say otherwise?

We posed the question to Josh Stahley, a church planter commissioned by The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He serves at All Souls Church in New York City.


This is an important question that needs a clear answer. There are two primary errors that we can fall into when it comes to our view of baptism. The first is to treat baptism as if it saves ex opere operato, as if something in the water or the ritual itself confers regenerating grace to the recipient.

The second, and more common error in evangelical circles, is to treat baptism as an optional add-on to the Christian life. This error usually arises from right motives: we want to keep the gospel free from any intrusion of works-righteousness, and baptism might seem like a work. However, this view misunderstands the biblical connection between baptism and saving faith.

While the Bible never separates baptism from saving faith, it does distinguish baptism from saving faith. This tension we must hold if we are to faithfully “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Faith and Repentance

We see the connection between baptism and saving faith all throughout the New Testament. Although more evidence could be adduced, in the interest of time, we will look at just two examples that demonstrate this connection.

First, when we read the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts, we notice that baptism is closely linked to faith and repentance. The apostle Peter’s “gospel invitation” on the day of Pentecost was, “Repent and be baptized. . . . So those who received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:38, 41). This is the normal pattern that recurs time and time again throughout the Book of Acts: repentance and faith immediately lead to baptism (see also Acts 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:5). Commenting on Acts 2:37-38, F. F. Bruce rightly states, “The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in NT.”

Second, because baptism commonly followed so closely on the heels of repentance and faith, the New Testament simply assumes that all believers have been baptized (Gal. 3:27). Tom Schreiner points out the remarkable lack of discussion on the topic in the epistles: “It is striking that there is no sustained discussion of baptism in any of the epistles, presumably because the NT authors were writing to those who were already believers and to whom the significance of baptism had been explained upon conversion.”

This only makes sense if the earliest disciples were obeying Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

Baptism and Saving Faith

The flip side of this discussion is that the Bible distinguishes between baptism and saving faith. While the reception of the apostolic word and baptism go together, the text does differentiate between them (Acts 2:41). When Cornelius and those in his house heard and believed, they immediately received the Holy Spirit, which in turn provided evidence that they ought to be baptized (Acts 10:44-47).

Throughout his epistles, Paul stresses that it is faith in Christ that saves. Paul doesn’t denigrate baptism. Rather, baptism is a sign that points to the power of the gospel (Rom. 6:3ff.). Baptism is meant to function as a visible sign, not only to the person being baptized, but to the entire Christian community who witness the initiation, that Christ has conquered sin and death, and that we conquer in him.

That’s also the point of Peter’s reference to baptism in 1 Peter 3:21. Peter compares baptism to the flood of Genesis 6, and then says that God has brought us through the waters, just as he brought Noah and his family through the waters. The waters Peter refers to here are the waters of judgment. As Christians, we have come through the waters of God’s judgment because Jesus first went through the waters of judgment for us (Mk. 10:38). Our baptism points to his baptism on Golgotha. Christian baptism is the New Testament’s way of identifying with that judgment and Jesus’ victory over it. In baptism, we are reminded of God’s pledge to bring us through the waters of judgment and raise us up with Christ.

The saving element is not the waters themselves (the removal of dirt from the body), but an appeal to God for a good conscience (confession, repentance, and faith). So baptism functions as a sign pointing to the objective work of Christ and to its subjective effects in the believer. Some prefer to call this an ordinance, because it was “ordained” by our Lord. Others prefer to call it a “sacrament,” because baptism is a means of grace by which Christ displays the gospel to us. While neither term comes from the Bible, both concepts are biblical. Baptism is a visible representation of the gospel and its effects in the life of God’s people.

In this small space, I can’t begin to say everything necessary. For further study, I would recommend checking out Thabiti Anyabwile and Ligon Duncan’s booklet on baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the sermons on baptism here on The Gospel Coalition site.

Kingdom through Covenant: A Review by Michael Horton

Editors’ Note: As noted in our recent interview with authors Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2012) is a groundbreaking contribution to any discussion about the intersection of exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology. In 848 pages, Gentry and Wellum have made a substantial case for an independent middle path between dispensational and covenant theology—a case that demands a response.

We’ve invited three noted scholars to evaluate Gentry and Wellum’s proposal: Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary; Douglas Moo, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College outside Chicago; and Michael Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (California). Today we hear from Horton.


For the seriousness with which it handles the issues, its depth of research and analysis, its approach on many issues, and the respectful description of alternative positions, Kingdom through Covenant strikes me as a model for the deeper and richer conversations that we need in our circles. However, since I’m offering a review from a traditional “covenant theology” perspective, I will skip over a host of edifying discoveries and get right to the point.

If I understand it correctly, the main argument of the authors is that dispensationalism and covenant theology both fail to read the Bible in a sufficiently typological way (pointing to Christ), though at different points: an unconditional and inviolable promise of either an ethnic people and geo-political land or of a “genealogical principle” that underwrites the baptism of covenant children and a “mixed body” ecclesiology. Consequently, covenant theology results in a one-to-one correspondence between circumcision and baptism, Israel and the church.

Abrahamic and New Covenants, Israel and the Church: Too Much Continuity?

I’ll grant that especially in anti-Anabaptist polemics, Calvin and his heirs have sometimes so stressed continuity within the one Abrahamic covenant of grace that the newness of the new covenant is insufficiently appreciated. Long ago, Voetius and Cocceius represented the wideness of the spectrum in covenant theology on that question, and more recent Reformed scholars (e.g., Vos, Ridderbos, Murray, Kline, Gaffin, et al.) have explored the qualitatively new blessings in the new covenant. So while I definitely think this criticism keeps us on our toes, there’s enough out there to qualify the charge that we see the Spirit’s work as “basically the same across redemptive history.”

What does hold across the various administrations of the covenant of grace, however, is God’s unilateral promise to provide a Savior in whom the families of the earth will be blessed. That’s just the rub, though, according to the authors. The classification of “unconditional” and “conditional” covenants isn’t helpful, they argue, because there are elements of each in every biblical covenant.

However, their argument assumes that the mere presence of commands indicates a mixture of unconditional-conditional aspects in the basis of the covenant itself. At this point, Reformed theology has traditionally appealed to a distinction between basis and administration. The mere presence of commands says nothing about the basis of a covenant itself. Circumcision (like baptism) identifies the members of the covenant, so if one is not circumcised, he is “cut off.” Nevertheless, one is not justified because he is circumcised, as Paul indicates in Romans 4:11. That would turn conditions into the basis rather than the administration of the covenant. Commands function in a law-covenant as the basis for blessing or curse: the swearer’s perfect, personal, perpetual obedience is the ground, ratified by a public assumption of the covenant obligations on one’s own head. In the covenant of grace, however, commands function as the “reasonable service” that we offer “in view of God’s mercies.”

The Abrahamic promise was a unilateral gift. In Genesis 15, God alone swears the oath and then walks through the pieces assuming its solemn threats. The gracious promise includes an earthly land and seed as well as a heavenly land and seed. This grace is the basis for Israel’s inheritance of the land in the first place, as Deuteronomy 8 and 9 point out so clearly, along with the prologue to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2. The earthly promise of a “holy nation” generates within history a temporary kingdom that is typological of the heavenly promise of an everlasting kingdom with global scope: Christ with his worldwide body.

Although the Mosaic covenant is certainly in service to the covenant of grace in various ways, in both form and content it is quite different from the one-sided promise to Adam and Eve after the Fall, Abraham and Sarah, David, and the new covenant. At Sinai (as in Eden), the servant-people swear the oath and Moses is the mediator, splashing blood on them “in accordance with all the words you have spoken, saying, ‘All this we will do'” (Exod. 24:8). As the Last Adam and True Israel, Jesus fulfills this law-covenant, confirming his oath with his own “blood of the covenant.” So now we inherit in a covenant of grace what our mediator has merited for us by fulfilling the covenant of works. Gentry and Wellum offer a tremendous defense of Christ’s active obedience, but this requires the sharp distinction between unconditional and conditional covenants that the original context of each covenant supports. So Israel inherits the earthly land by (Abrahamic) promise, but remains in the land by (Sinai-treaty) obedience. With respect to this covenant, E. P. Sanders is exactly right with his formula: “Get in by grace, stay in by obedience.” However, confusing these two covenants is precisely what provoked Paul’s argument in Galatians.

In the meantime, the promise of the Seed in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed continued—as it does today (Gen. 3:15; 28:14; Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:16). Paul doesn’t treat the Abrahamic covenant merely as typological of Christ, but sees the new covenant as the only possible fulfillment of the worldwide promise to Abraham. The Mosaic covenant was essential in the historical unfolding of the covenant of grace leading to Christ, but it was strictly temporary, typological, conditional, and limited to one geo-political nation.

The new covenant is indeed new—not like the Sinai covenant, which had “planned obsolescence” built into it (Jer. 31:32; cf. Heb. 8:9). However, it is the realization of the Abrahamic covenant (Acts 3:25). So despite repeated discontinuity between old and new covenants (Sinai and Zion, “two covenants”: law and promise, etc.), it is striking that the apostolic message explicitly treats the new covenant as the consummation of the Abrahamic covenant rather than its abrogation (for example, Acts 10:9-43, 15:7-17; Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4). Therefore, in spite of the obvious differences between the redemptive-historical quality of blessings enjoyed by Old and New Testament saints, respectively, believers and their children are “heirs according to the promise” just as Abraham and his heirs were. In both cases, there are those who embrace the promise and those who don’t. That’s why Romans 9 hits its mark: God’s promise hasn’t failed; even in the OT, God has always reserved his freedom in election even among those who are outwardly identified with the covenant. The apostles address their Jewish-Gentile congregations just as the prophets addressed Israel, only with respect to the everlasting-spiritual promises (which are not abrogated) rather than the geo-political theocracy (which is).

Gentry and Wellum seem to agree that the “geneological principle operative in the Abrahamic covenant” is indicated by the phrase, “you and your seed” from Genesis 17:7 (633). I agree, but if that’s true, then what do we say of Peter’s repetition of this formula in Acts 2:39, specifically in connection with baptism? When we add to this the instances of household baptisms (with only one believing parent mentioned) in Acts (16:15, 32-33; 18:18) and 1 Corinthians 1:16, and the mention of children being sanctified by one believing parent in 1 Corinthians 7:14, the cumulative case seems to place the burden of proof on the Baptist position. The new covenant is certainly greater. For one thing, it’s more inclusive (not less!): not only Jews, but Gentiles; not only males, but females also receive the seal of the covenant and are indwelled by the Spirit. Where are the explicit passages to indicate that with such a profound expansion of blessings to “all the families of the earth”—indeed, to believers and their seed (Acts 2:39)—children are excluded in an ostensibly better covenant?

The authors contend, however, that the new covenant is distinguished from the Abrahamic by defining the church (or covenant community) as identical with its elect and regenerate members. I’m not at all persuaded that the often-cited source for this position—Jeremiah 31:34—entails (much less requires) that conclusion. Does “all will know me” in Jeremiah 31:34 mean each and every member without exception, or is it, like “all the families of the earth,” an expression of the pervasiveness of blessing in the new covenant? It will reach from the greatest to the least, women as well as men, children as well as elders, Gentiles as well as Jews, and so forth. Isn’t it an argument for the priesthood of all believers, not that each and every professing member will believe?

Covenant Membership: How New Is the New Covenant?

I disagree with the authors when they suggest ambiguity in Reformed thinking regarding the members of the covenant of grace. True, the Westminster Confession says that the elect are the proper subjects, but the Confession goes on to say that “the visible church . . . consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children, and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2). This is the standard Reformed view, drawing on the invisible-visible church distinction, which the authors seem to reject.

I wonder how the authors can affirm “the running tension between the ‘already-not yet'” (690) if the visible church is already identical with the invisible church. This has enormous consequences for pastoral ministry. In traditional Reformed treatments it is frequently warned that pastors and elders have authority only to determine credible professions of faith, not to actually determine whether people are elect or regenerated. While correcting or excluding members exhibiting open unbelief and non-repentance, a long-standing Reformed criticism of Anabaptist ecclesiologies is that they assume a separation of sheep and goats prior to Christ’s final judgment. I think this is dangerous on a number of practical levels in dealing with people under our charge.

Especially given the robust exegesis and theological argumentation elsewhere, I was expecting to find more rigorous engagement with the “apostasy” passages. It almost seemed like these passages (especially in Hebrews) were irrelevant because of the a priori commitment to discontinuity between Israel and the church (692).

Hebrews 6 assumes a category of covenant members (Jewish Christians) who are in some sense beneficiaries of the Spirit’s common work in the church through the means of grace, but revert to Judaism. Hardly an empty set, they are covenant members “who have once been enlightened” (ancient church documents use “baptized” and “enlightened” interchangeably), “who have tasted the heavenly gift [the Supper], and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God [preaching] and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away” (vv. 4-6a). Specifically, they have fallen away from the new covenant, reverting to the old. However, there is no forgiveness anymore if they go back to the sacrificial system of the temple (v. 6b). “For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (vv. 7-8). Through their covenant membership they have shared in God’s blessings, and now, if they respond in unbelief, they will bear the covenant curses.

Concerning covenant theologians, the authors suggest, “Ironically, however, they agree with the Arminian exegesis and conclusion as applied to full covenant members who are not elect” (75). This isn’t quite accurate. We hasten to add the qualification in verse 9: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation” (v. 9). The writer does not know for certain that each and every reader is regenerate, but exercises charity since they are not among the open apostates.

A Baptist interpretation cannot account for this category of covenant beneficiaries who spurn the objective blessings delivered to them and fall away, while an Arminian interpretation cannot account for the distinction of this group from those who were in fact united to Christ. If our theological system cannot account for this group—neither non-members nor regenerate—then we need a different theological paradigm. It’s covenant theology that accounts for this tertium quid between “foreigners to the covenant” and “regenerate members.” In fact, the warning is emphatic in chapter 10 against “the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace” (v. 29). The writer warns his readers not to follow the example of Esau “who sold his birthright for a single meal” (12:16).

All of this fits well with Jesus’s distinction in his parables between a seed that at first begins to grow but is choked by weeds, or weeds sown among the wheat, or fish caught in the net and sorted out (Matt. 13). It isn’t just a distinction between the world and the church, since the fish are in fact caught in the covenantal net of the kingdom and then sorted on the last day.

Similarly, what about the warning that Paul gives in Romans 11 against Gentile bragging? He argues that “if the root is holy, so are the branches.” It’s one tree. Jewish branches that didn’t yield faith were broken off to make room for living Gentile branches that share the faith of Abraham in Christ. And yet he adds, “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you” (vv. 16b-21). The whole tree is holy, but dead branches will be pruned.

The whole church of Corinth is addressed as “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2). And yet, among that very number are members he will later upbraid them for not excommunicating! The unrepentant member is “leaven” that will corrupt the whole lump, implying that such a person is in fact part of the lump in some sense (1 Cor. 5:6-7). In fact, Paul clearly says that this is a judgment exercised within the church, toward professing members who live in open rebellion. He says explicitly that we have no business “judging outsiders.” “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you” (5:9-13). Nor is there a call to determine who is truly regenerate, but only who is living in flagrant and unrepentant contradiction to his or her public profession. Those who are excommunicated are “cast out” of the covenant community, “removed from among you” (Gal. 4:30; 1 Cor. 5:2).

What accounts for this category: holy by public identification, but not united to Christ through faith? To be claimed as part of God’s holy field comes with threats as well as blessings. Covenant members who do not believe are under the covenant curse. How can they fall under the curses of a covenant to which they didn’t belong? If faith is the only way into membership (693), then why all the warnings to members of the covenant community to exercise faith and persevere in faith to the end?

Which Comes First: God’s Promise or Ours?

Reformation confessions teach that the church is present “wherever the word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.” Reformed confessions add church discipline. The accent falls on defining the church as the place where God is at work creating and confirming faith in the hearts of its visible members through preaching, sacrament, and spiritual oversight. By contrast, the Anabaptist-Baptist ecclesiology lodges the church’s visibility in the members. Their response to the covenant, not God’s promise, creates the church. The church comes into being not whenever God speaks, washes, and feeds his flock, but when the hearers trust and obey. Thus, baptism and the Supper become chiefly our means of response rather than God’s means of grace. In my view, this reversal of the priority in the covenantal relationship tends to work against the best monergistic impulses of Calvinistic Baptists.

When the authors summarize the meaning of baptism as signifying the believer’s faith, marking one as God’s child, and add that “baptism always assumes faith for its validity” (700, emphasis added), it’s clear that our differences concern the nature of baptism itself and the relative priority of God’s promise and our faith. Covenant theology doesn’t teach that the covenant of grace itself is “breakable” (67). God promises his saving grace in Christ to each person in baptism, whether they embrace this promise or not. Yet they must embrace the promise in faith. Otherwise, they fall under the covenant curse without Christ as their mediator. The word proclaimed and sealed in the sacraments is valid, regardless of our response, but we don’t enjoy the blessings apart from receiving Christ with all of his benefits. Is baptism the believer’s act of testifying to a personal response, or God’s act of testifying to his everlasting pledge, which itself is the means through which the Spirit creates persevering faith in his elect? How we answer that question has a lot to do with whether the inclusion of children is even conceivable.

Gentry and Wellum do not interpret Colossians 2:11-13 as treating baptism as a replacement for circumcision: “[This] raises an obvious question: If the covenant signs are so similar in meaning then why did circumcision disappear as a covenant sign, especially for the Jewish Christian?” (80) However, the disappearance of ritual circumcision is entirely understandable if baptism replaced it. According to Paul circumcision was—at least for believers like Abraham—the seal of the righteousness Abraham had by faith (Rom. 4:11). Adult converts like Abraham receive the sign and seal of the covenant upon professing faith, while their children receive it unto that profession.

There are many other important issues I wish I could engage and many fruitful insights to explore in Kingdom through Covenant. In short, I look forward to the continuing conversation provoked by this thoughtful work.

Should Baptism Be Spontaneous?

You see the precedent in Scripture: when the Ethiopian eunuch responds enthusiastically to teaching from Scripture about the good news of Jesus, Philip baptizes him on the spot (Acts 8:36-38). And in Acts 16:32, after the Philippian jailer believes in Jesus in response to Paul and Silas, that same hour they baptize him and his whole household. So there appears to be biblical precedent if not warrant for spontaneous baptisms when someone first professes faith.

Yet complications quickly become apparent in practice. In this video, pastors Darrin Patrick, Mark Dever, and Matt Chandler discuss some of those complications faced by church leaders in obeying the Great Commission. Church context is key, Patrick observes. In an area like St. Louis with heavy Roman Catholic influence, believer’s baptism by immersion is a bold public step of faith. But in much of Dallas, where Chandler pastors, baptism testifies to a history with the church but not necessarily genuine, saving faith. In such areas, Dever warns, we must beware giving false assurance and generating false testimonies to a watching public.

When you’ve watched the video, join the discussion about how church leaders can be mindful of the problems while “aggressively obedient” to Scripture, to borrow Chandler’s phrase. How would you respond to the argument that we’ll see false converts no matter what, so why withhold baptism from someone who’s willing?


Membership Requires Affirmation of Infant Baptism: A Paedobaptist Response

Editors’ Note: How do baptism and church membership relate? What are the biblical bounds? Baptists debate, “Must one be baptized as a believer in order to join a church?” Meanwhile, Presbyterians and other paedobaptists consider, “Should one who’d refuse to let his children be baptized be permitted to join?”

Our hope is that this three-day forum will, by God’s grace, drive us all to consider Scripture’s teaching anew and disagree charitably when necessary.


The renaissance of evangelical Calvinism today is a marvelous gift of God. Yet as many across widely varying denominations embrace the doctrines of grace, the tendency is often to downplay their distinctives as relatively unimportant. Especially as people move back and forth not only between local churches but denominations, often simply looking for a church that preaches the Word faithfully, there can be an impatience with honest scruples.  It’s often said that baptism is a “secondary issue.” Traditionally, both sides in the debate have wrestled over whether they can even accept each other’s profession of faith as valid for membership. That’s hardly secondary.

Baptism itself has become so secondary in evangelical circles that the most outrageous view in many minds is one that makes this issue decisive in church membership. However, Baptists and paedobaptists are stuck. If our conscience is bound by Scripture, then we can hardly consider as indifferent something Christ’ ordained as essential in the Great Commission. So I respect Baptist brothers who would not admit me into membership or to the Lord’s Table. They are following what they believe Scripture to teach in this matter and for that submissiveness I respect them.

Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have required professing members and their children to be baptized. In the former, arising from Continental Reformed sources, all church members confess the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) as the faithful summary of Scripture. What this means is that in Reformed churches historically, only those who affirmed the inclusion of children in covenant baptism could be members. Especially in the U.S., Presbyterian churches came to require only officers to subscribe the Westminster Standards. In Presbyterian churches, it has meant that all of the children of members should be baptized. What to do if they’re not is a matter of some debate and variation.

I affirm, on the basis of Scripture, the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian view that it is “a great sin to condemn or neglect” baptism (Westminster Confession, Ch. 28.5) and that “also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized” (Ch. 28.4; cf. Shorter Catechism, Q. 95). The Belgic Confession adds,

Therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, who we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made unto our children (Belgic Conf., Art. 34; cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q. 74).

I’m a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America. Our Church Order requires, “The consistory shall see to it that baptism is requested and administered as soon as feasible” (Art. 56).

All of this entails, of course, that those who wish to become members must at least be willing and ready to present unbaptized children for baptism. Any who refuse to do so are in violation of what we are convinced is the express command of our Lord. Church discipline always begins with gentle admonition and instruction, usually in private, leading hopefully to repentance. However, it would be unwise to admit into full communion believers who are already in principle unwilling to change their mind on the matter.

Some in our circles have suggested that this disciplinary action pertains only to those who are actually violating Christ’s will. In this view, someone who remains convinced of adult-only baptism (but is not withholding the sacrament from his or her own children) may be a member (though not an officer). I have heard good arguments on both side of that difficult pastoral issue and remain open on the point. The crucial concern is to ensure that members recognize their children as the Lord’s heritage and not withhold the sign and seal of his covenant blessings. Baptism is not just an interesting doctrine we discuss, but a practice that shapes our life—personally and corporately.

To some brothers and sisters (Reformed/Presbyterian as well as Baptist), all of this may sound somewhat jarring—and exclusionary. However, there are a few things to bear in mind:

  1. Baptism either is or is not to be administered to the children of the covenant; if it is, then it is a sin not to do something God has commanded. The Baptist position at least historically is to consider it a sin to baptize infants (and to practice an alternative to immersion). Presbyterian and Reformed churches confess that baptism is a means of grace and that it is a sin to withhold the sign and seal of the covenant of grace from our children. Of course, it is not a sin of intentional rebellion. Nevertheless, both sides have regarded the rival decision as a transgression of God’s will. That follows inexorably from the conviction that God does clearly reveal what we are to do on this question. My Baptist friends believe that I am not only doctrinally in error but am doing something against God’s will when I baptize covenant children. Although I disagree, I applaud their consistency. It’s beyond the scope of your question to defend covenantal baptism here (though I do in various places, especially The Christian Faith). However, if there is truly a parallel between circumcision and baptism as the signs and seals of the same covenant of grace, then it is a serious sin to withhold it from our children (Gen 17:9-14).
  2. The consistent Baptist view is actually more exclusionary. We accept as valid all baptisms performed with the Word and the water (whatever the mode) in the Triune Name. Those from a Reformed or Presbyterian church who wish to change membership to a Baptist church are required ordinarily to renounce their baptism as invalid. To reject the validity of one’s baptism—and, by extension, the validity of baptisms administered in another communion—strikes at the heart of the church’s unity.
  3. Of course, many Baptists as well as Reformed and Presbyterians today downplay the significance of these arguments on both sides. Doing so allows for more flexibility in the movement back and forth between different communions. However, it cannot fail to impress upon the actual members themselves that their baptism (whether as adults or as infants) is of little consequence. At least from my reading of the New Testament, that would be the most tragic position of all.

Recommended Resources: G. W. Bromiley, Children of Promise (Eerdmans); Danny Hyde, Jesus Loves the Little Children (Reformed Fellowship); Bryan Chapell, Why Do We Baptize Infants? (P&R); John Murray, Christian Baptism (P&R); Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (IVP); Michael Brown and Danny Hyde, Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons (Reformed Fellowship).


Also in the series on baptism and church membership: