Doctrine of the Church (Part 4)

May 18, 2014     Time: 00:40:10

We are talking about the Doctrine of the Church and particularly the question of the sacraments or ordinances of the church. We focused our attention so far on baptism. We looked at the case for a sacramental view of baptism and then last time at a view of baptism as an ordinance.


Question: Just a comment about baptism – I wonder about your reaction. You just covered before this topic the warnings against apostasy. In the first century you had Christianity which was one of a chaotic number of competing ideologies and religions. To make sure that people who followed Christianity didn’t turn out to be just temporary believers like chasing the flavor of the day do you think that one reason for baptism was to have a public ceremony so that the believer would identify with Christ and be less likely to apostatize? It seems like all the baptisms that we see in the New Testament were public events. An analogy might be that if somebody becomes a citizen of this country, typically they go through a ceremony and they have an oath and that creates some sort of a public expression of loyalty. It makes it less likely that they are going to become disloyal.

Answer: It is hard to speculate about the motivations psychologically. I think what you are saying makes sense in that baptism is the culmination of one’s conversion-initiation process to Christianity. So it would be a public proclamation of one’s identification with Christ. That would certainly tend to seal that initiation process. But in terms of the motivation, it seems to me that the motivation would lie more in the ministry of Jesus and a continuation of the activity of baptism that Jesus himself exercised. His command to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations teaching them whatever he has commanded and baptizing them.[1] So I would see the primary motivations behind the early church’s practice of baptism to be a continuation of Jesus’ own ministry of baptism now in the Spirit age. But it would have the effect one would expect of sealing and solidifying one’s commitment in virtue of its public nature.

Question: Do you see any connections between this and, say, the washing with water in the old covenant. For example, a woman who has her menstrual period afterward has to purify herself through washing with water. This is done in modern Judaism to this day. Anytime you are separating one part of your life from another. Do you think that’s related?

Answer: In his book that I referred to – Baptism in the New Testament, by George Beasley-Murray – he has quite a long discussion of Jewish lustrations, or washings, for, as you say, ritual cleanness. Then also very significant (and I didn’t mention this) would be Jewish proselyte baptism where they would, again, have a Gentile convert to Judaism go through a kind of washing ceremony. The reason I didn’t mention those is because, even though those are interesting analogies, at the end of the day I don’t think they are as intimately connected with the early church practice of baptism as the baptism of John the Baptist and then Jesus’ ministry of baptism during his public life. It seems to me that those are the roots of Christian baptism. These Jewish lustrations and ritual washings are an interesting analogy but I don’t think they are genealogically connected to Christian baptism in the way that John’s baptism and Jesus’ practice of baptism was.[2] For that reason I left them out. But if you are interested in this, certainly you could look at Beasley-Murray’s book. He has a good discussion of those.

Question: In this section on sacraments and ordinances – I guess it must be my background – I don’t think there are any sacraments. I don’t think there is something we do to apprehend the grace from God. I look at baptism and the others – there’s lots of others that are around that are called sacraments – and I wonder as we study these individual things if we can generalize and say, “Is there something we do where we can command God to give us grace?”

Answer: Well, now, of course, let’s be fair. That is not what the sacramentalist says. What the sacramentalist says is that God has instituted in the church certain, shall we say, pipelines to God through which God’s grace flows. The sacramentalist will approach those with great humility and thankfulness and gratitude to God. He won’t be commanding God to send him grace in any way. They would be received with thanks and humility. But I don’t want to answer your question because it would prejudice what we want to talk about when we get to the Lord’s Supper. Is the Lord’s Supper a means of grace as certain Catholic and Protestant groups believe, or is it just an ordinance again, a kind of remembrance or memorial meal? I don’t want to prejudge that question until we get to it. But I have argued that at least with respect to baptism, I don’t think that baptism is a means of grace in the way that the sacramentalist intends it. Of course, as you say, if you think of God’s grace as dispensed through various means, why sitting under the preaching of the Word is a means of grace. Bible reading and prayer and meditation could be means of grace. In that general sense there is just an indefinite number of these means of grace. But those aren’t sacraments in the sense that we are talking about here. We will hang on to your question until we talk about the Lord’s Supper.

Infant or Believer’s Baptism?

Now we want to turn to the subject of infant baptism. Here, again, I want to contrast two competing views. I will present each view as fairly and convincingly as I can, and then at the end of the day you need to make up your mind as to which view you find more persuasive.

The first view that we want to look at is called pedobaptism, or infant baptism – baptism of children. “Pedo-” (for child or infant) “-baptism.” What arguments might be offered on behalf of pedobaptism?

1. The advocate of infant baptism will appeal to the Jewish notion of the solidarity of the family and then in the New Testament church of household baptism where every member of the household was baptized because of the solidarity of the family unit. The family was seen as a unit and therefore was treated together. So if a father, in particular, turned to Christ, his entire household would be baptized and would be considered to be Christian. Look for example of Acts 16:30-33. This is the well-known story of the Philippian jailer who turns to Christ in verse 30 and says to Paul and Silas,

“Men, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family.

Undoubtedly in that day and age a man like this would have children – small members of his family – and they were all baptized presumably, too.[3] When the head of the family made a decision for Christ, he acted on behalf of the entire family. He was the head of the household, and the household followed him in his decision. So when a man, like this jailer, turns to Christ and is baptized, all of his family members it says were baptized along with him. That would include any children that might have been in the family.

2. The advocate of pedobaptism will appeal to Jesus’ own attitude toward children. In Mark 10:13-16 we read the story of how people were bringing little children to Jesus to bless them, and how the disciples would turn them away. The disciples didn’t want Jesus to be bothered with these little children that people were bringing to him. In Mark 10:13-16 we read,

And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.

Here we see that Jesus’ attitude toward these little children who were being brought to him for his blessing was one of welcoming them, not saying they are not old enough or don’t bother me with these little ones. Instead, he received them and blessed them and laid hands upon them. So the encouragement here is: bring the little children to Christ! One might therefore do that in baptism.

3. The third argument is one that is offered particularly by our Reformed brethren. That is the parallelism between circumcision in the old covenant and baptism in the new covenant. A sort of parallel exists between circumcision as a sign of the old covenant, and baptism as a sign of the new covenant. Look at Colossians 2:11-12 – verses that we’ve already read but we will now read again,

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

Here Paul draws a kind of parallel between circumcision and baptism. He says that in Christ you were circumcised with a sort of spiritual circumcision being buried with Christ in baptism. Just as circumcision was a sign in the old covenant – of those who were members of the covenant – so in the New Testament baptism is a sign of the covenant for those who were part of it. Circumcision was obviously practiced upon infants. Circumcision was done within a week or so after the birth of the male child, and so just as circumcision was done to infants so baptism can also be done to infants. Circumcision was a sign that this infant was part of the covenant family, part of God’s elect people. In the same way, infant baptism serves to mark that child off as a member of the covenant family in virtue of being raised in a Christian home by believing parents and brought to have this sign of the new covenant performed on him.

So circumcision and baptism are signs of being in the covenant. Just as circumcision was practiced on infants of believing families so baptism should be practiced upon the infants who are members of believing families.[4]

4. Finally, what about number four: baptism and faith? What is the relationship between baptism and faith? On the Reformed view, in particular as we've seen, faith is a gift of God without our knowledge or will. If you'll remember our discussion of regeneration on the Reformed view, regeneration actually precedes, logically at least, the act of faith. Remember a spiritually unregenerate, spiritually dead person cannot exercise faith in God on the Reformed view. Faith can only be exercised once the work of regeneration has been wrought in a person's heart. So that regenerating work of the Holy Spirit takes place apart from our knowledge and will. Therefore, if baptism of infants takes place apart from the knowledge and the will of the infant, that is simply an extension of what happens in every case when every believer is regenerated by God and placed into the family of God. It takes place apart from our knowledge and will and so the infant is really no different than the rest of us on the Reformed view of salvation.

Moreover, at least Luther and Calvin believed that the infant does, in fact, have faith. They would deny the assumption that an infant brought to baptism has no faith. They would say that little infants do in some way exercise faith in God, and therefore it is quite appropriate for these infants to be baptized.

Some time ago Jan and I attended an Anglican baptismal service, and it was very interesting to note that in the Anglican service the parents act as surrogates for the infant so that they answer the questions posed by the priest on behalf of the infant. It is a sort of surrogate faith. Prior to the baptism the parents and godparents stand and the priest says to them these words: “Those who bring children to be baptized must affirm their allegiance to Christ and their rejection of all that is evil. It is your duty to bring up these children to fight against evil and to follow Christ. Therefore, I ask you these questions which you must answer for yourselves and for these children.” So the parents are answering not only for themselves, they are answering for the children. Then the priest asks them, “Do you turn to Christ?” And the parents respond, “I turn to Christ.” The priest asks, “Do you repent of your sins?” And the parents answer, “I repent of my sins.” The priest says, “Do you renounce evil?” And the parents answer, “I renounce evil.” Then the priest performs the sign of the cross on the forehead of the infant and then the infant is baptized. So in a case like this you can see that, although the infant may not himself be able to answer the questions and repent and exercise faith, this is done for him by the parents.

So on the basis of these arguments Catholics, Reformed churches, and Lutheran churches practice infant baptism as part of their regular practice of baptism.


Question: Is infant baptism considered the same thing or synonymous with confirmation?

Answer: Ah. Good question. No, and particularly in the Catholic Church confirmation is a separate sacrament, a separate means of grace, from infant baptism. So the infant receives God's justifying grace at the moment of water baptism, but then as he grows older and reaches an age of understanding he needs to confirm that decision that was made as an infant, and he will receive additional grace from God.[5] Even in other churches that practice pedobaptism who may not view it sacramentally – like Reformed churches – they will still often have catechism classes that will result in confirmation where that decision is confirmed; the decision either made by the parents or the decision that is imputed to the infant is confirmed when the infant grows up and comes of age to be able to do so. So confirmation would be extremely important for these churches that practice infant baptism.

Question: I went to a Lutheran school through eighth grade and, of course got baptized as a child. The minister in eighth grade – we practically learned the catechism and had it memorized. But confirmation after eighth grade was considered a re-affirmation of your childhood baptism. In that light, I always thought that I was baptized as a child but then I reaffirmed it when I was in eighth grade.

Answer: Right. So you would say that, in a sense, validated the baptism that you had undergone as a child. That would be a good illustration of what confirmation ideally is supposed to do. Sadly, as some of us know, very often it becomes a kind of routine thing that children go through that isn't really meaningful. But in a case like this it sounds as though that it was what it was supposed to be in your life.

Followup: OK. Let's take Johnson Ferry [Baptist Church] for an example. You have children – you'll see them on the screen sometime – they are six or seven years old. They got baptized because they believe in Jesus. Well, that was what confirmation was. You learned all about Jesus. By the time you got finished you really had your faith in Jesus.

Answer: Yes. Now, the difference, of course, with some place like a Southern Baptist church is that they would not practice baptism upon children who were incapable of making a conscious, voluntary decision to believe in Christ. It would not be a sort of confirmation for the children in a Baptist church. This would be their initiation, their first entry, into identification with Christ.

Question: Is this baptism a sacrament or an ordinance? And how does it relate to the Catholic view of this baptism removes you from original sin?

Answer: I will say something about that later on when I give some assessment. But pedobaptism is practiced both by groups that see it as the moment at which one becomes a Christian. This is when you receive justifying grace and become regenerate. But then also views like in the Reformed church where it may not be the moment at which one is saved but it is a seal or a sign, as I say, of being part of the covenant – that the children are children of elect parents for part of the covenant even if it isn't the moment at which baptism of the Holy Spirit takes place. So there can be a range of views on what baptism is as practiced by pedobaptists. It can be seen as salvific where you actually are regenerated, that Holy Spirit baptism takes place co-incident with it. Or it could be seen more as simply a sign or a seal that shows this infant as the child of elect parents as part of the covenant.

Question: Something that I kind of thought of when we were talking about this is: is there any kind of historical reason possibly why infant baptism kind of became popular? Because, of course, the life expectancy wasn't as great as it is now in, say, the Middle Ages or something like that. Of course a lot of children died very early on because they were more susceptible to diseases. I was just curious that maybe they wanted to make sure they got saved or they got baptized before any of that could have possibly happened.[6]

Answer: Of course the question presupposes that infant baptism wasn't part of the New Testament church – right? – that this was a later practice. Pedobaptists would deny that. They would say this was practiced right from the beginning. But I think the doctrine of original sin would certainly be an incentive for this practice because this way the infant's stain of original sin is remitted by the grace that is received when this child is baptized. Therefore, it would be very important for the child to be baptized before he dies. So that would be an extra incentive.

Let me go on then to contrast a quite different view, and this is believer's baptism. Notice I did not say “adult” baptism. The contrast to pedobaptism is not adult baptism. It is believer's baptism. That is to say that only someone who has consciously exercised faith in Christ is a legitimate candidate for baptism. Again, several arguments can be offered for this view.

1. First and foremost is that confession and faith are essential to salvation and baptism. They are essential components of salvation and hence baptism.

1 Peter 3:21, again a verse that we have read before, says, “Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Here baptism is seen as an appeal of the person to God for a clear conscience. Therefore, this is something that requires a conscious decision in order to undergo to make such an appeal to God.

Similarly in Acts 2:38 we have the pattern for Christian baptism described in Peter's Pentecostal sermon. “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’” So the pattern there is: repent and be baptized. That act of repentance is an act of confession and of course then faith in Christ. So this is something that an infant simply cannot do. An infant cannot exercise confession and faith and therefore isn't a legitimate candidate for baptism.

2. What about the argument based on household salvation? Certainly in the Jewish context and in the Old Testament you have the idea of the solidarity of the family as a unit. But notice that even in the Old Testament, the law of individual retribution still stands. As both Jeremiah and Ezekiel emphasize, each person is responsible for his own sin. Ezekiel will say, “Why do you quote this proverb that the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge? The soul that sins shall die.”[7] Each person is individually responsible before God, and therefore it isn't true that once being a member of a household or of a solid unit, this sort of solidarity, overrides your individual responsibility. Each person is responsible before God to respond in faith and repentance.

When you look at the New Testament, it is clear that Christ's message did divide families – they were not always unified. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul gives instructions for Christians who are married to unbelievers and how they should handle this situation, whether the unbelieving partner wants to live with the Christian or whether that unbeliever wants to separate, and how to deal with this. He says in verse 14 that the unbelieving spouse is “consecrated” through the believing spouse, “otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.” So the Christian message was one that did divide families. It is not true that simply because of the decision of the head of the household everyone was treated as a Christian.[8]

The bottom line is that there is no baptism of infants anywhere to be found in the New Testament. The defense of household salvation and baptism is all based upon an argument from silence. There is no suggestion anywhere that little infants were taken out of their cradles and brought to be baptized.

So the argument from household salvation really doesn't go through, the defender of believer's baptism would say. Indeed, it doesn't meet the prerequisites for legitimate baptism.

3. What about Jesus and the children and his blessing them? In the first place, it is not clear that these are infants. Rather, these seem to be little children who are exhibiting love and faith in Jesus and who believe in him. The lesson that Jesus wants to teach here about the children is that this is the same way that we need to come to Christ. We need to come to him in love and faith and with the sort of childlike trust that a little child has in his or her parents. We should also be childlike in our faith and trust in Jesus. In any case, even if they were bringing little infants for Jesus to lay hands on and to bless or pray for, prayer and blessing is just not the same as baptism. This isn't in any way to suggest that these little children should be baptized. On the contrary, as I've said, faith and repentance are prerequisites for Christian baptism.

4. The argument based upon circumcision. It is important here to understand that the way in which one enters the covenant, as we've seen, is by faith. It is not through some sort of act like circumcision or baptism. You enter the covenant by faith and, as we saw when we looked at the New Perspective on Paul, the way you stay in the covenant is by faith. There isn't some sort of means by which you enter and stay in the covenant apart from faith. The fact that circumcision and baptism were not seen as parallel or baptism replacing circumcision is the fact that in Palestine they were both practiced. Both continued to be practiced. Jewish children who were children of believing families and who were part of the Jesus movement – part of the church – were still circumcised. It is not as though baptism replaced circumcision in the New Testament church. For Jewish believers in Jesus, both circumcision and baptism were practiced. So there is no reason to think that infant baptism began to take the place of circumcision among Jewish believers.

Indeed when you look at Colossians 2:11, what corresponds to circumcision there is not baptism. What corresponds to circumcision is Christ's death on the cross. When it talks about putting away the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ, it is talking about Christ's death. It is his atoning death on the cross that is this spiritual circumcision that puts away the body of death. Then we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection in baptism. There is no suggestion in Colossians 2:11-12 that infant baptism should somehow replace the circumcision of infants as a sign of the new covenant.

So it would seem on the basis of these arguments that the practice in the New Testament is believer's baptism. As was alluded to a moment ago, this might be children. There might be youngsters who have come to consciously place their faith in Christ and believe and so would be legitimate candidates for baptism. But what would not be acceptable would be the baptism of little infants who have no conscious volition or faith in Christ to exercise.[9]

Sacramentalism and Infant Baptism: A Dangerous Combination?

Let me just say one thing in conclusion that relates to a question that was posed a moment ago. I have argued against a sacramental view of baptism, and also I think that the case for pedobaptism is very weak. It is based basically upon silence. The argument for confession and faith as essential to baptism seems to me to be powerful. Nevertheless I could see where one could have one or the other without great injury to the church. If you had a sacramental view of baptism like G. R. Beasley-Murray but you reject pedobaptism, well, that might be mistaken but nevertheless it wouldn't be injurious to the church because once people exercised faith in Christ and submitted themselves as candidates for baptism then they could be baptized and they might believe that at the moment of their water baptism they were baptized into the Holy Spirit and became regenerate believers. That might not be right, but it wouldn't do any great harm.

Similarly, if you have a non-sacramental view of baptism and you just view baptism as a sort of sign or external seal of the covenant then even if you were to be baptizing little children you wouldn't be regarding that as the moment of which they were saved and received justifying grace. It would just be an external sign. So even if this were incorrect there would still be seen the need for these little children (when they grow up) to exercise repentance and faith and receive justifying grace and become regenerate Christians. So even if pedobaptism were practiced, on a non-sacramental view it wouldn't be a terrible injury to the church.

But it does seem to me that what is truly disastrous for the church is to combine sacramentalism with pedobaptism because then what you have is people falsely thinking that in virtue of being baptized as an infant apart from their knowledge or will that they are therefore regenerate Christians who are recipients of God's justifying and saving grace. This leads to a church that is filled with non-Christians who have never themselves actually exercised saving faith in Christ but are simply trusting in a ritual which was done to them unwittingly as tiny infants. So while sacramentalism or pedobaptism might be practiced independently of each other without great harm to the church, it seems to me that when these are combined then the results really are disastrous for the health of the church because it will basically lead to a church that is filled with unregenerate people falsely thinking that they are in fact regenerate and justified Christians.


Question: I thought I would add another comment about people thinking that there is a connection between circumcision and baptism, which I think maybe has some merit to it but what we need to remember is that when you become a Christian you are born again. Baptism happens when you are born again as a Christian. It doesn't seem to me that it makes sense to associate that with physical birth, rather than spiritual birth which Jesus talks about in great length with Nicodemus.

Answer: The idea there is that being circumcised really marked a Jew off as a Jew in the ancient world, right? This was a sign of your Jewish identity; that you were part of this people, part of this covenant. This was from infancy on. So the argument is that baptism is similarly a sign or seal of members of the new covenant. But, as I've already argued, it seems to me to try to draw that close parallel between them is really pushing Colossians beyond the bounds of what that text contemplates.[10]


[1] cf. Matthew 28:18-20

[2] 5:07

[3] 10:03

[4] 15:09

[5] 20:03

[6] 25:02

[7] cf. Ezekiel 18:2-4. See also Jeremiah 31:29-30.

[8] 30:15

[9] 35:04

[10] Total Running Time: 40:09 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)