Tom J. Nettles
©1997, 1998 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Sometimes discussions on ecclesiology are difficult and tense. History instructs us that the line between compromise and irascibility is a fine one. Maintaining both truth and brotherly kindness calls for "wisdom from above which is first of all pure and then peaceable" (Jam. 3:17). In the early days of denominational definition, polemics struggled like Jacob and Esau in a common womb. As Puritanism ebbed and flowed toward a view of the church composed of visible saints only, the relation of Baptism to church membership naturally became a vital topic. This subject engendered literally hundreds of pamphlets and debates. Quakers rejected water Baptism, considering it an ordinance given strictly to John the Baptist prefiguring Christ's Baptism with fire and the Spirit. In the United Kingdom, Presbyterians, in the 1648 Blasphemy Ordinance, threatened with imprisonment any who denied the legitimacy of infant Baptism or who affirmed that only believers should be baptized. Baptists argued against both Quakers and Presbyterians. These debates, and even the Blasphemy Ordinance itself, were important steps in establishing toleration and eventually religious liberty in the modern era.1
The debates were often acrimonious. When Gyles Shute wrote more scurrilously against the Baptists than even Richard Baxter did (and "few men who have had to do with us in this Controversie shewed a more sour Spirit than Mr. Baxter"), Benjamin Keach felt compelled to answer. The lengthy title of his rejoinder speaks: A Counter-Antidote, to purge out the Malignant Effects of a Late Counterfeit prepared by Mr. Gyles Shute, an Unskillful Person in Polemical Cures: Being An Answer to his Vindication of his pretended Antidote, to prevent the Prevalency of Anabaptism. Shewing that Mr. Hercules Collins's Reply to the said Author remains unanswered. Wherein the Baptism of Believers is evinced to be God's Ordinance, and the Baptized Congregations proved true Churches of Jesus Christ. With a further Detection of the Error of Pedo-Baptism. While Keach professed much of "the same faith" with Shute, he felt no patience toward "Scoffing, Reproaching, Railing and opprobious [sic] Language" cast on the Baptists and his friend Mr. Hercules Collins.
A Resolute Struggle for
With equally strong conviction, on the other hand, Keach poured enormous spiritual energy into protecting the doctrine of justification by faith from all the subtle attacks on it in his day. He saw a central Protestant distinctive endangered when infused grace and human progress in sanctification were trumpeted as inherent in the doctrine of justification. Keach warned against removing the ancient landmark. "Why," he asked, "should that glorious Doctrine of Justification, that shone forth in the days of Martin Luther, and has been the ground of so many godly Christian's Hope; nay Martyrs, now be struck at?"2
Keach shared the conviction of many dissenters after the Interregnum (1642-1660) that they must rally on their common faith and present a united front against oppression. For this reason both Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists and General (Arminian) Baptists in the last half of the seventeenth century adopted baptized versions (and in the latter case, slightly Arminianized) of the Westminster Confession. While giving an account of the distinctive of Baptism, they also wanted to concur in "those articles (which are very many) wherein our faith and doctrine is the same with theirs." Having no "itch to clog religion with new words," they decided to proceed for the most part "without any variation of the terms" and to use "the very same words with them."3
Hercules Collins, in adopting the Heidelberg Catechism as a starting point for the development of a Baptist catechism, was eager to show unity in the common places of evangelical theology. Explaining that he did "concenter with the most Orthodox Divines in the Fundamental Principles and Articles of the Christian Faith," he hoped his readers did not have an "Athenian Spirit" and that they agreed that "an old Gospel (to you that have tasted the sweetness of it) will be more acceptable than a new." Even when indicating the importance of the articles on Baptism, Collins maintained that though "some differences between many Godly Divines" and the Baptists existed in issues of church constitution, "those things are not the essence of Christianity." Surely, because of agreement "in the fundamental Doctrine thereof," sufficient likemindedness exists to "lay aside all bitterness and prejudice, and labour to maintain a spirit of Love each to other, knowing we shall never see all alike here."4
In 1817, at the tercentenary year of the Reformation, English Protestants remained silent throughout the year demonstrating no public approval of the events three centuries before. When editors of the Baptist Magazine met at the beginning of December, they issued an urgent call to "every religious denomination, who cherish the principles of the Reformation...to express publicly the judgment they have formed, and the sentiments they feel."5 They affirmed that "the Reformation...deserves to be had in everlasting remembrance." The resulting meeting of more than 1000 "Protestant Christians, of all denominations" listened with the "liveliest demonstrations of delight" to speeches on the Reformation and passed unanimously seventeen resolutions. They deplored the systemic repression of the Holy Scripture from the third to the sixteenth centuries which had created darkness and corruption. The resolutions stated:
[T]heir sacred truths were displaced by corrupt traditions; and simple, true, and spiritual worship by superstitious forms:—that crusades were substituted for the peace-announcing gospel, ignorance for knowledge, and persecution for good-will to men:—that priests, operating by their dogmas on the fears and on the hopes of the deluded and untaught, exclusively amassed both wealth and power:—that absolutions and indulgencies [sic], purchasable from them, encouraged crimes:—that admission even into heaven was made dependent on their dear-bought masses, and their prayers:—that the people groaned in wretchedness, and that monarchs trembled on their thrones;—and that a domination, interested, arbitrary, and injurious, extended over the fortunes, the intellect, and consciences of men.
The Reformation, they rejoiced, "exchanged knowledge for ignorance, freedom for oppression, and a purer Christianity for corruptions, anti-christian and absurd." Its leaders must be regarded as "great among the greatest of mankind" whose talent, industry, and zeal should be recommended to our children and children's children as examples of dauntless courage and steady perseverance. They realized this was particularly important in light of the recent restoration of repressive measures and enforced ignorance of Scripture in many parts of Europe. The promulgation of Reformation truths should be sought "only by the energy of argument, and through the force of truth." Toward the Roman Catholics "whose errors they regret, and whose principles they disapprove," the resolutions disclaimed all sentiments "which Christian charity could censure, or religious freedom would condemn."
Western intellectual history in the twentieth century has had the effect of forcing believers to close ranks in order to confess a common doctrinal core believed by evangelical Christians worldwide. Not only is it strategically advantageous, Christian witness and joy come from a display of unity in affirming the reality of divine revelation, the glory and wonder of the triune God, the startling humiliation of the Lord Jesus Christ for the sake of sinners, and the manner in which God's great grace operates to redeem guilty and depraved creatures. Evangelicals of different persuasions concerning Baptism have nevertheless worked together on such strategic theological issues as the inerrancy of Scripture, the doctrine of justification by faith, and, at another level, the doctrines of grace. Agreement in a common cause is much more enjoyable than the search for reasons to separate.
The Integrity of
The importance of the doctrine of the Church, however, simply will not allow Christ's people to pass over the subject as unimportant. Since the Lord nourishes and cherishes the Church (Eph. 5:29), we must do the same; each person must "take heed how he buildeth thereon" (1 Cor. 3:10). We have absolute confidence that the Church is more important to Christ than it is to anyone else, and he will not allow any of our errors to defeat his sovereign purpose. For sure, nothing can reverse the victory Christ already has accomplished over all foes for the sake of the Church, "which is his body" (Eph. 1:19-23). The Lord knows those who are his. He will present the Church to himself insuring that its spotless and blameless character will finally prevail (Eph. 5:26-27) by the power of him who subdues all things to himself (Phil. 3:21). Nevertheless, since the church is the "pillar and ground of the truth," we must take care how we behave ourselves in the house of God (1 Tim. 3:15). This involves careful attention to ordinances as well as officers. How does the Church handle rightly the visible signs of the believer's union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection? Both Baptism and the Lord's Supper picture this.
The Lord's Supper
Baptists practice the Lord's Supper in conformity with the Zwinglian view of its essence. John Gill states very simply that it is "to Shew forth the death of Christ till he come again; to commemorate his sufferings and sacrifice, to represent his body broken, and his blood shed for the sins of his people." Any who desires to take it should examine himself to discern if he "has true faith in Christ, and is capable of discerning the Lord's body."6
The emphasis on commemoration and representation reflect Zwingli's interpretation of Scripture and his understanding of the distinctive idioms of human nature in conformity with the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon concerning the undivided person of the two-natured Christ. In his Exposition of the Faith sent to King Francis of France, Zwingli argued that "in the Lord's Supper the natural and essential body of Christ in which he suffered and is now seated in heaven at the right hand of God is not eaten naturally and literally but only spiritually." The Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation he contended was not only "presumptuous and foolish" but, more importantly, "impious and blasphemous."7
Though this view has been described as "bare symbolism," for Zwingli it was no more bare than powerful spiritual meditation on the truths of the gospel. "To eat the body of Christ spiritually," he explained, "is equivalent to trusting with heart and soul upon the mercy and goodness of God." This meditation may become a spiritual feast and a means of renewed assurance and sanctification. Zwingli sought to make this clear to the Roman Catholic King Francis:
So then, when you come to the Lord's Supper to feed spiritually upon Christ, and when you thank the Lord for his great favour, for the redemption whereby you are delivered from despair, and for the pledge whereby you are assured of eternal salvation, when you join with your brethren in partaking of the bread and wine which are the tokens of the body of Christ, then in the true sense of the word you eat him sacramentally. You do inwardly that which you represent outwardly, your soul being strengthened by the faith which you attest in the tokens.8
The Supper may only be taken by those who are baptized. The major Protestant confessions agree on this. A very important question then arises concerning the other ordinance, Baptism: Who may properly be baptized and thus be eligible for the Supper?
Virtually all historic Christian groups view Baptism as organically related to Church membership. Although Baptists share the conviction that Baptism is the door to Church membership and thus prerequisite to it, they reject infant Baptism in pursuit of a principle of regenerate Church membership.
The dominant argument for this has been the prima facie evidence of the New Testament. First, there is a clear command to baptize believers but no command to baptize infants. Second, every Baptism recorded is a Baptism of a professed believer (e.g. Acts 8:12; 35-38). There are no instances of infant Baptism, including the household passages. One should compare the following Scriptures: Acts 10:2, 47, 48; Acts 16:14, 15, 40; Acts 16:31-34; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 16:15 (cf. with 2 Thess. 2:13 where "first-fruits" may be read according to several reliable witnesses instead of "from the beginning"). When all household passages have been taken into view, two significant conclusions can be drawn. One, the descriptions given of households never mention an infant and show that a household does not necessarily include infants. Two, every description of baptized households gives compelling evidence that all the baptized people exhibited personal faith before they were baptized. They were instructed, they feared God, they rejoiced, they served. Third, the cognitive and experiential traits of those baptized and the spiritual description of the church calls for believers' Baptism. Those who repent and believe, whose good consciences make inquiry unto God (1 Pet. 3:21) are those whose Baptism pictures saving identification with Christ, the only New Testament picture of Baptism (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3-6; Gal. 3:24-27; 1 Pet. 3:21). As Gill summarizes the point, "Upon the whole we must be allowed to say...that Infant Baptism is an unscriptural practice; and that there is neither precept nor precedent for it in all the Word of God."9
Baptists also point to the reality that everyone accepts believers' Baptism no matter what else they may add. In 449, Leo I, Bishop of Rome, speaks of the creed as "the words which everywhere in the world are exacted from those about to be baptized." Alcuin, the educational tutor of Charlemagne, protested his harshness with the pagans in not allowing them sufficient time to understand the Christian faith and believe it before they were baptized. Augustine, though his mother Monica was a Christian, was not baptized until after his conversion under the preaching of Ambrose. Those who accept infant Baptism, therefore, must say that it is the same as believers' Baptism or it is different. If different, then there are two theologies of Baptism, one plain in the Scripture and one hidden. If the same, then paedobaptists (I use this word only for etymological convenience, not as a pejorative or condescending term) must consider infants as believers capable of giving evidence of their belief, or that the belief of a substitute is in no way inferior to their own. That is a difficult case to prove.
Beyond prima facie evidence, however, Protestant Christians who practice infant Baptism point to a broad coherent biblical theology which provides the interpretive framework within which infant Baptism is deemed acceptable, and even required.
Baptists and Reformed Christians share historical, confessional, and theological roots. Particularly from within the Puritan stream of ecclesiology, they share the ideal of a pure Church. In spite of common roots, however, some would argue that a Baptist identity prevents embracing ideas that are Calvinistic, Reformed, or Covenantal. One cannot plunge into the brilliant stream of historic Reformed thought unless he carries his infants with him into the water. In addition, it is argued the traditional covenantal approach to Scripture differs so fundamentally from Baptist hermeneutics that one cannot be a Baptist theologian and a Covenant theologian at the same time.
Several historical theological ideas should help amend that impression. First, Baptists do recognize a relationship between Circumcision and Baptism. Colossians 2:11-13 establishes this relationship. But to insist that a direct analogy exists in which Baptism fulfills Circumcision (or replaces it) has no warrant from the New Testament. Circumcision typifies, not Baptism, but regeneration (v. 11). As Paul emphatically states in Galatians, "For in Christ Jesus neither Circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature" (Gal. 6:15). Circumcision foreshadowed by type the specific work of Christ, by his Spirit, in the "removal of the body of flesh" (Col. 2:11).
Baptism includes a picture of fulfilled Circumcision, the quickening of the sinner while he is dead in trespasses and sins, but it includes much more. While the removal of death by the power of life makes Baptism an apt image for this fulfilled Circumcision, Baptism opens one's view to the much fuller intent of Christ's historical work. Baptism expands the focus, not only on the inner life of the sinner, but on Christ's historical work by which life, forgiveness, and righteousness come. The "faith according to the operation of God" (v. 12 translated by Conybeare "faith wrought in you by God") refers to the quickening work of the Spirit raising sinners from death to life by which we are granted the faith which unites us to Christ. Baptism assumes spiritual Circumcision as one aspect of the complete salvation purchased by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
Second, Baptist principles of interpretation function on an assumption of discontinuity as well as continuity. The spirituality of the New Covenant introduces a new order of things, a reality built upon, but different, discontinuous, from the past. "More are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife" (Is. 54:1).
The principle of continuity/discontinuity may be demonstrated in the Pauline treatment of Circumcision. Circumcision in the Old Covenant signified three things. It was given to mark physically God's people, as separate from the Gentiles. Next, it spiritually pointed back to the righteousness of faith which was imputed to Abraham (Rom. 4:11-25). Finally, it pointed forward to the true Circumcision of heart which would identify the true spiritual children of Abraham (Rom. 2:25-29). Now that Christ has come, these three elements of Circumcision have been fulfilled in the gifts he brought. One, God's people have distinctive characteristics described in terms of holiness, conformity to Christ, and emulation of the cross-bearing of Christ. Two, the righteousness which Abraham had before Circumcision and of which Circumcision was the seal was fully realized in the satisfactory work of Christ. The faith Abraham demonstrated by actions of belief on his part must be manifest just as clearly in his spiritual descendants. Scripture identifies those "who are of the faith of Abraham," as those "to whom it will be reckoned...who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (Rom. 4:11, 12, 16, 24). Three, instead of Circumcision of the flesh, those evidences which inevitably accompany the new birth will now be the identifying characteristics of the people of God. They are to "walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4).
Precisely those three elements constitute the apostle's refutation of the Judaizers in his letter to the Philippians. Paul calls believers the true Circumcision: "For it is we who are the Circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3 NIV). Thus, the three elements of Circumcision are fulfilled: 1) worshipping by the Spirit of God signifies the new birth (Circumcision of the heart); 2) glorying in Christ Jesus points to justification by an imputed righteousness (fulfilling Abraham's righteousness of faith clearly pictured in Phil. 3:9); and 3) "no confidence in the flesh" clearly excludes biological pedigree as gaining any standing before God (Phil. 13:4-7). To regard infant Baptism as properly picturing a fulfilled Circumcision builds upon an unwarranted and massive confidence in flesh relationships, precedes any evidence of the work of the Spirit in the new birth, and reduces to nothing the need for manifest faith, that is, "glorying" in Christ Jesus.
Contrary to the bold claim of the Reformed scholar Bannerman in his The Scripture Doctrine of the Church, Baptism does not have a one-to-one correspondence with Circumcision as if Circumcision could picture all the provisions and promises of the New Covenant and its Mediator as well as Baptism. Baptism goes beyond a mere continuation of the old and shows the points in which the new is superior to the old. Baptism includes both continuity and discontinuity. Circumcision is fulfilled; Baptism looks back at its fulfillment in regeneration, forward to the fruition of the reign of grace in resurrection (Rom. 5:21), and the present safety of union with Christ in justification and in the fullness of his redemptive work. "For if we have been united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection" (Rom. 6:5).
It is precisely at this point that the paedobaptist call for proof of the exclusion of infants is answered. When the covenant which included them passed away to be replaced by a better covenant with better promises more apposite to the spirituality of the people of God, the inclusion of members without spiritual evidences ceased. Reformed paedobaptists agree that no one inherits the kingdom of God on the basis of a flesh relationship. It is this, however, that makes their willingness, even insistence, that the sign be given on the basis of the flesh relationship incongruous with their soteriology.
Baptism, therefore, in replacing Circumcision as a physical sign, more powerfully displays Circumcision's antitypical reality. Those who are baptized presently testify, volitionally and symbolically, that they experience the substance of that which it symbolizes (Gal. 3:26, 27; Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:1-11). Believers' Baptism does not shrink and circumscribe God's grace or deprive anyone of a legitimate blessing. Instead, it signifies the deliverance of God's people from a yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:3) by another who has already shed his blood to fulfill the Law's demands: It signifies the putting on, or union with, Christ by faith (Gal. 3:25-29); his doing and dying has become my doing and dying. His life is my life.
Third, in recognizing the analogy between Baptism and Circumcision, we must affirm and not deny the explicit characteristics of the New Covenant. As stated in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and recalled in Hebrews 8:8-12 the covenant says:
"The time is coming," declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the Lord. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the Lord. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
Several elements of this covenant contradict the supposed application of the covenant of grace in infant Baptism. The partakers of this covenant have the law of God already in their minds and hearts. This cannot be affirmed of new-born infants. If any doubt this, the next provision should clarify the case, for those in the new covenant do not need to be taught, "Know the Lord," for they already know him. They have already been regenerated. This is sure, because the final provision mentioned is justification, that is, forgiveness of sins. Again, those who ask for an explicit and revolutionary prohibition of infant Baptism should find it here. Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus illustrates the nature of the change and the blindness of some to it. The positive qualifications manifest in this announcement of God's covenant admit the application of its sign only to those who are qualified.
Perhaps the reason Baptists find it difficult to understand the subtlety of the paedobaptist argument is that the immediate words of Scripture have given a simplicity to the issue that resists confusion. Pierre Marcel's argument forsakes the purity and sovereign power displayed in the covenant.
The children of believing parents are baptized by reason of the fact that they are the children of the covenant and, as such heirs of all the promises made by God at the institution of this covenant, included in which are the promises of the remission of sins and of the Holy Spirit for their regeneration and sanctification. In the covenant God endows children with certain gifts in a definite and objective manner; He requires that in due course they should accept these gifts by faith, and He promises that through the operation of the Holy Spirit these gifts will become a living reality in their life.10
Sadly, this treatment makes the New no better than the Old, for its promises are made provisional. God said, "They shall all know me." Marcel requires that they be taught to know the Lord and even speaks of a minister seeking to reclaim "the rebellious and unregenerate children of the covenant" in direct contradiction to the nature of the New Covenant.11 It is exactly the characteristics of rebellion and an uncircumcised heart (being unregenerate) that are eliminated by entrance into this covenantal relationship, for it is God's sovereign and effectual provision for those he calls his holy nation, his peculiar people.
So What About Our
The paedobaptist may object, "You have a deficient view of the standing of your children. You treat them virtually as pagans." John Owen, the great Puritan theologian of the seventeenth century, when he said that those who reject infant Baptism (as taught within the Reformed tradition) "leave the seed of believers, whilst in their infant state, in the same condition with those of pagans and infidels; expressly contrary to God's covenant."12 This is an unfair, but emotionally understandable, response from people whose theology has taught them to view their children as participants in the covenant of grace (even believers, according to Thomas Shepard) by virtue of their flesh relationship with their parents.
The meaning of the objection, however, is not quite clear. Does it mean that Baptists act as pagans and teach their children to worship idols? Does it contemplate Baptist parents having altars on which they offer sacrifices to appease or please various pagan deities? Do Baptist parents hide the Law and the Gospel from their children and await the coming of an apostle into the home like Paul into Lystra or Athens to preach to their pagan children? Do we account our children as practicing participants in a superstitious system which worships and serves the creature instead of the Creator?
These fabricated scenarios are absurd, and it is obvious that Baptists do not treat their children like pagans. But if the question means that we acknowledge that they are children of wrath even as the children of pagans are children of wrath, we must say, "How else can they be regarded?" Titus 3:3-4, Ephesians 2:1-3, and Romans 3:9 affirm the unity of all people, Jew and Gentile, those living under special revelation and those not under special revelation, as "all under sin," "by nature children of wrath," and "foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures." Since the children of believers are not exempt from that verdict, we withhold from them the sign which says "I am resurrected to walk in newness of life." This in itself should be considered a great advantage, for we do not give children any false hope from a supposed covenantal relationship. We call them to repentance, not to a facade of Christian deportment plastered over a wrath-deserving heart.
Baptists do recognize, however, that by God's grace, these children are born into homes in which the light of the gospel has dispelled the darkness of this present evil age and the knowledge of Christ informs the actions and attitudes of each day. They thus have great privilege and great responsibility. But everyone should see, with all candor, that none of these benefits is either commenced or augmented by infant Baptism.
They are surrounded with Christian friends and a loving, prayerful environment. They come to know some of the choicest people on earth as mature Christians in the Church befriend them and encourage them. Regular and fervent prayers are offered to God for their physical and spiritual protection and their conversion. They are instructed daily in the home in gospel truth and week by week in the church through the preached Word. This is perhaps the greatest blessing since God is pleased through the foolishness of what is preached to save those who believe; faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.
Dr. Tom J. Nettles is Professor at Trinity
Evangelical Divinity School.
He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Church.
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