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By Rich Lusk

Copyright © 2002

(aaron— First, I am presenting this critique of this Rich Lusk article with the hope of achieving a more complete proof for the efficacious practice of Infant  Baptism /or Pedo-baptism.

Second, this difficult critique is intended to generate additional dialogue on this important issue of Infant Baptism within the context of an institutional understanding of Abraham’s Covenants with God. Gen.17:1-27, Gal.4:21-31)


When a Reformed Christian hears "baptismal regeneration," what comes to mind? "Heresy," most likely.

(aaron— Could I suggest that in this instance, the Reformed Christian response is not completely wrong with their heresy conclusion? As we try to establish the efficacy of infant baptism, I do not believe that "baptismal regeneration" is actually necessary for achieving some immediate efficacy within that ordinance. I might then suggest that this problem basically comes from the confusion that surrounds the common Christian understanding of regeneration. The efficacy of Christian baptism can actually be derived from the God established Old Testament visible initiatory rite of circumcision that we find first established in the Abrahamic Covenant. [Genesis 17:1—27] There, the efficacy was based on the simple principle of obedience. That is, the obedient participation of the individual in the God established visible initiatory rites, immediately established that individual as a member of God's family and one of His institutional corporate peoples.)

Unfortunately, many in the Reformed community today have lost touch with some important aspects of their own heritage. If Reformed theology is going to continue reforming according to Scripture, we must recover the forgotten richness of the classic Reformed understanding of baptism. Today, baptism is often treated as a sign of personal commitment to the Lord, or a mere picture of spiritual blessings that are received apart from tangible means of grace. Infant baptism, on this view, accomplishes nothing of real significance and is merely a "wet dedication" service. But this is not the way Reformed Christians have always understood baptism.

(aaron— The Reformed resistance to the efficacy of Pedo—baptism has historically come from the influential Baptist camp. The Baptist followers have always rejected the practice of infant baptism on the basis that infants cannot understand the significance or repent of their sins. Yet they themselves promote Credo—baptism that is generally supposed to produce a spontaneous regeneration in the individual. Which is, in all actuality, adult "baptismal regeneration".)

The earliest Reformers held a robust view of baptismal efficacy. A whirlwind tour of sixteenth and seventeenth century writings reveals how far we have moved away from the faith of our fathers [1].

1. All emphasis in the following quotations is mine.1.

In Calvin's Strasbourg catechism, he asks the student "How do you know yourself to be a son of God in fact as well as in name?" The answer is "Because I am baptized in the name of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

(aaron—The presumption here in Calvin's Strasbourg catechism that by being baptized "in the name of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost", that everyone automatically becomes "a son of God" may not be precisely accurate. Taking our intimation from God's first peoples Israel, we should understand from the Apostle Paul that they are not all Israel who are of Israel. I would suggest that the second "Israel" Paul mentions here is in fact representative of the visible Israel—God's institutional corporate peoples. Then the first "Israel" that Paul mentioned is in fact representative of invisible Israel—the hidden Israel of God. These would be representative of "the sons of God" who would make—up the Covenant of Promise. This same distinguishing principle is again explained by Paul when he wrote—He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh. Here, Paul is defining just the visible dispositions of God, and then explains that just because you are a part of God's visible peoples does not mean that you automatically become a part of God's invisible peoples. Paul then goes on to confirm God's invisible dispositions—But he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit. These are the Spiritual attributes that God Himself instills within all those whom He chooses out from among His institutional corporate peoples.)

In his Geneva catechism, he asks, "Is baptism nothing more than a mere symbol [i.e., picture] of cleansing?" The answer: "I think it to be such a symbol that the reality is attached to it. For God does not disappoint us when he promises us his gifts. Hence, both pardon of sins and newness of life are certainly offered and received by us in baptism."

(This question and answer from Calvin's Geneva catechism does express a similar efficacy that one might find attached to the Old Testament practice of infant circumcision. That is to say, only their obedient participation in God's established visible initiatory rites [circumcision and baptism] was necessary for them to become a member of God's institutional corporate peoples. Besides their subsequent participation in the Passover celebration /the Lord’s table, there are no other evident requirements to be met in this membership process.)

Early on in his discussion of baptism in the Institutes, Calvin claims, "We must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life. Therefore, as often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins."

(aaron— If, as the Council of Trent states—"The fifth canon asserts that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, and everything is removed which has the true and proper nature of sin... It is admitted that concupiscence remains in the baptized, against which believers are to contend..." is correct, then Calvin's statement would seem to be echoing these same principles of efficacy.)

Essentially, Calvin could say, "You know you are renewed and forgiven because you have been baptized."

(aaron— Yes, there must be a sense of renewal involved in the physical act of water baptism: It is "through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ conferred in baptism". Then remembering that the old man and the new man coexist! There is an additional process involved here that we understand as the sanctification process—the battle between the flesh and the spirit that must be earnestly fought with all vigor.

Understand that renewal and regeneration are one and the same.

As we observe our Old Testament example relationship through God’s first peoples Israel, we discover that their visible initiation [physical circumcision] into God's visible institution did not automatically give them the invisible circumcision of the heart. As Israel's uncircumcised [heart] state is born out in Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, and Jeremiah 4:4. Then the two circumcisions, the visible circumcision and the invisible circumcision, are especially evident in Jeremiah 9:26, and Ezekiel 44:7—9. So for us to summarily associate the invisible spiritual things that belong totally to God, with the visible initiatory rites that God has given us for our consolation is not good theology.

Even though Calvin could have said— "You know you are renewed and forgiven because you have been baptized", that does not necessarily make it theologically correct. To be theological correct here, John Calvin would have needed some understanding into the complex definitions of both circumcision and baptism.)

Elsewhere, Calvin wrote, "It is a thing out of all controversy true, that we put on Christ in baptism, and were baptized on this very ground, that we should be one with him" [2].

(aaron— The things that Calvin sights here are absolutely true with respect to the Christian Church—when considering both its visible component and its invisible component. It is "true, that we put on Christ in baptism, and were baptized on this very ground, that we should be one with him". But now should we so quickly depart from our visible example Israel, to infer by this inference that the whole of the Christian Church is necessarily regenerated/ or circumcised in heart? The answer to this question is absolutely no!)

2. Critics will no doubt point to passages in Calvin that seem to contradict the clear statements I have quoted above. Most scholars recognize a deep tension in Calvin's baptismal theology.

(aaron— The very same tension that is evident within the Christian Church even today. I would suggest that this tension is the result of some bad theology. That is, by trying to give common definition to Scriptures that are written with a specific theological meaning, creates much confusion and inconsistency.)

For an excellent discussion, see Edmund Schlink's The Doctrine of Baptism, especially 99ff. However, Schlink wrongly labels Calvin's view of baptismal efficacy as "parallel" rather than "instrumental" (e.g., God works alongside of rather than through the ordained means). I also have to disagree with Schlink's (Lutheran) assessment that the cognitive/assuring pole (baptism as sign or pledge) and the efficacious/salvific pole (baptism as means or instrument) of Calvin's thought should be played off against each other. Rather I think they should be combined, so that baptism is considered as both a means of redemption and a sign of assurance.

(aaron— I would agree with this authors last assessment—"I think they should be combined, so that baptism is considered as both a means of redemption and a sign of assurance." But then at the very same time, we must resist the need for promoting presumptive regeneration.)

Schlink exaggerates the extent to which Calvin loosened the connection between baptism and God's saving action. Even Schlink is forced to admit, "[I]n spite of Calvin's one sided emphasis on the cognitive reference, not only the sign but also the signified grace, regeneration, dying, and rising with Christ are present...In any case, the church of the Lutheran Confessions did not regard Calvin's teaching on baptism [as] divisive as it did...his teaching on the Eucharist...The most profound difference [in baptismal theology] runs its course not between the Eastern Church and Augustine, nor between Thomas and Luther, not even between Luther and Calvin, but between all these on one side and Zwingli and the Baptists on the other. The most profound difference is...the understanding of baptism either as God's deed or as the deed of human obedience" (168—9). Calvin, with virtually the whole church catholic up to the Reformation, believed God was powerfully and savingly at work in the sacrament of baptism.2.

(aaron— Please read this again— "Calvin, with virtually the whole church catholic up to the Reformation, believed God was powerfully and savingly at work in the sacrament of baptism." Then to understand baptism even better, the Christian community needs to spend considerable time evaluating the efficacy that was present within the visible circumcision of Genesis 17:1—27. I would suggest that the efficacy of visible baptism for the New Testament dispensation is precisely the same as the efficacy of visible circumcision for the Old Testament dispensation.)

(aaron— The problem in understanding the efficacy of baptism and the subsequent confusion that presently exists between the various Pedo and Credo Christian groups, is in their basic failure to recognize the complex character of baptism itself. That is, in understanding that baptism has both an active visible characteristic that is effective in the fulfillment of the visible Abrahamic Covenant, and an active invisible characteristic that is effective in the fulfillment of the invisible Covenant of Promise. This pattern is just like the separate allocation assigned to the visible and invisible circumcisions in the Old Testament dispensation. All who receive the God established New Testament initiatory rite of visible water baptism do not automatically receive God's invisible Spirit baptism at the same time.

I would offer some excerpts from my thesis on Covenant Theology. Now for us to move around this present confusion, we must try to determine exactly where the denominations have gone beyond the bounds of sound interpretation.


1. The Roman Catholic Church has crossed this line in their doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

REASON: Baptismal regeneration supposes that through their obedience in performing God’s visible initiatory rite of water baptism, each and every individual would simultaneously receive that regeneration.

First, regeneration must be defined as the special operation that only God uses for selectively choosing those who belong to His invisible priestly line; the invisible Messianic Covenant line; His invisible Covenant of Promise.

The specific condition of "regeneration"; the born again experience; born of the Spirit; born from above; or having received a circumcised heart, originates and proceeds only from God and cannot indiscriminately flow from the willful act of man.

And then under the Covenant of Grace we find that water baptism would validate God’s institutional grace, as it is associated with His universal call for His corporate peoples.

But the basic confusion that we have here concerns the distinctively different characteristics of God’s grace and of God’s regeneration. Though "grace" and "regeneration" both come forth from God, they are not of the exact same office.

So then by saying that grace effects the calling of God, and regeneration effects the election of God would essentially summarize this proposition.

Second, the Roman Catholic’s error here in baptismal regeneration, is similar to, if not exactly the same as, the error that exists within the Protestant Catholic’s understanding of adult baptism. These Protestant Catholics also suppose that regeneration always accompanies their willful act of adult water baptism. Again, the confusion here continues to be the result of the amalgamation of 1—justification, 2—sanctification, and regeneration. These dispositions of God are not intended to be the same, and the distinctiveness of each must always be considered. Though justification, sanctification, and regeneration are all God’s graces and are certainly interconnected, yet they must always be seen as functionally independent.

(Hodge’s Systematic Theology vol.ii, p.176

Doctrine of the Church of Rome.

4. The Synod condemns all who teach that newborn children should not be baptized; or, that although baptized for the remission of sins, they derive nothing of original sin from Adam, which needs to be expiated in the laver of regeneration in order to attain eternal life, so that baptism, in their case, would not be true but false...

From this it appears that according to the Council of Trent there is sin in newborn infants, which needs to be remitted and washed away by regeneration.

(aaron— Their sins are absolutely washed away by the visible water baptism of repentance unto the remission of their sins. Lu.1:76—79; Mk.1:4)

Then once again—

5. The fifth canon asserts that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, and everything is removed which has the true and proper nature of sin... It is admitted that concupiscence remains in the baptized, against which believers are to contend...

(aaron— We must be mindful that the first part of this fifth canon is talking about just the soul, and the second part is talking about only the flesh. But now can we say with any certainty that "through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ conferred in baptism" that our sins are remitted? The answer to that question would be positively yes! Ref.Gal.3:27; Col.2:12)

In the sixth session when treating justification (i. e., regeneration and sanctification), the Council decides several points, which go to determine the view its members took of the nature of original sin. In the canons adopted in that session, it is among other things, declared:

(1) That men cannot, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, by their own works, i.e., works performed in their own strength, be justified before God.

(aaron— This article would be identical to St. Augustine.

This article also wholly precludes any sort of works doctrine in the Church of Rome.

But then for them to lump justification, sanctification, and regeneration all together is not Scripturally viable, as well as one of the primary causes for much of the confusion within the whole of today’s Church. It is extremely important that we understand this stated fact: that each of these important terms has its own specific function and definition within God’s reconciliation.)

(2) That grace is not given simply to render good works more easy.

(aaron— But it certainly does help.)


(3) That men cannot believe, hope, love, or repent so as to secure regenerating grace without the preventing grace of God.

(aaron— Here we are correctly given a dual definition for grace: First—preventing grace. Second—regenerating grace.

One might suggest that preventing grace [or justifying grace] is the initial work of God in the heart of the believer, and would be validated in the fount of water baptism.

[Sanctifying grace helps the believer to grow in their faith.]

And then regenerating grace [or to be born of the Spirit] must be understood as a second work of God’s Spirit, and would be received as the validation of God’s elective process. This understanding of a "second work of God’s Spirit" is difficult for the Reformed Church as well as other denominations to receive. This is partly due to the Pentecostal’s use and interpretation of this vernacular and its association with their speaking in tongues. But the intent of the stated principle above is directed more to the conformation process of God’s elective activities. An example of this fact is found in John chapter three’s description of Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus was very much a part of the corporate peoples of God and a believer in Jehovah, yet he was still not regenerated; not born again; not born of the Spirit; not born from above. Then in Jn.3:5, Jesus plainly tells Nicodemus that he must be born of (1) water and (2) the Spirit to come unto the kingdom. But chiefly here in this conversation, Jesus is introducing and explaining God’s invisible dispositions. And then Jesus also goes on to explains the evident difficulty that visible Israel has with these invisible heavenly things.)

2. The Protestant Catholic Church has also crossed this line in the very restricted way in which they improperly defined faith.

REASON: They have mistakenly amalgamated the saving faith of 1—justifying grace with the abiding faith of 2—sanctifying grace. This confusion has essentially caused them to slip into a form of works doctrine, where some level of performance is required before the individual can be counted as a believer or be certain of their salvation. Yes, faith is an absolute necessity in the salvation process. But exactly whose faith are we defining here? Are we defining the monergistic 1—justifying faith that is wholly a gift from God? Or are we defining the synergistic 2—sanctifying faith, through which God aids all believers as they grow in His grace? The confusing difficulties here are self—evident.

3. The Protestant Catholic Church has also crossed this line again in their failure to properly identify the peoples of God.

REASON: They, because they have now come to understand the existence of God’s invisible dispositions, have attempted to force the whole of God’s peoples into this very select group. This is that very select group that represents only the invisible elect priests of God who collectively make up the body of Christ. The very same body, which is also the Kingdom of God.) Amen


Martin Bucer, Calvin's mentor, wrote the following in his 1537 liturgy for infant baptism: "Almighty God, heavenly Father, we give you eternal praise and thanks, that you have granted and bestowed upon this child your fellowship, that you have born him again to yourself through holy baptism, that he has been incorporated into your beloved son, our only savior, and is now your child and heir..." This prayer was to be offered immediately following the child's baptism and clearly expresses the conviction that God has acted powerfully and savingly in the watery rite.

(aaron— Once again, can we assume that the entire Christian Church is regenerated? Since God's first peoples Israel is the only real example relationship that God has given us, and considering the Jesus—Nicodemus conversation, I would have to conclude that that is not the case at all. I would suggest that this conclusion is also born out in First Peter 1:"10Concerning which salvation the prophets sought and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: 11searching what time or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did point unto, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glories that should follow them.

[ac These passages are talking about God’s first peoples Israel, and about their arm’s length position with respect to this new thing that God was about to do here in this dispensation of grace.]

12To whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto you, did they minister these things, which now have been announced unto you through them that preached the gospel unto you by the Holy Spirit sent forth from heaven; which things angel desire to look into.")

In a similar vein, the French Reformed liturgy included the pastor speaking these words to the newly baptized infant: "Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you he uttered the cry 'it is finished.' For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you he intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, 'We love him because he first loved us.'"

(aaron— This is certainly a wonderful liturgy! Every word expresses the precious gospel of God. This is true because of what Nicodemus has proved for us— you do not have to be "regenerated" to know God and to be a participant within God's family—God's institutional corporate peoples.)

Moving to the British Isles, Nicholas Ridley, an English reformer martyred by Roman Catholics for his Protestant faith, concluded, "Water in baptism is sacramentally changed into the fountain of regeneration."

(aaron— This conclusion of "baptismal regeneration" is the reason for much of the continued confusion and debate within the whole of the Christian Church.)

Consider also Thomas Cranmer's prayers in the Book of Common Prayer to accompany the baptism of an infant: "Grant that this child now to be baptized, may receive the fullness of thy grace and ever remain in the number of thy faithful and elect children through Jesus Christ our Lord [3]

3. Ray Sutton (in Signed, Sealed, and Delivered) explains Cranmer's language, especially its Augustinian roots: "[This] is an important statement about the way election was understood. It implies a covenantal or sacramental view of election. Baptism is interpreted to mean an acknowledgement of a person as among the elect. In a visible sense, baptism and election are one; in an eternal sense they may not be the same.

(aaron— This statement concerning "baptism and election are one" could be true only if we are considering "election" in the broader sense as it is being used in Romans 11:28. But then I fail to see the reasoning for the uncertainty found in the balance of this statement— "in an eternal sense they may not be the same"? The confusion evident here is due to the general failure to understand that circumcision, baptism, and election all have a complex definition. Visible baptism like visible circumcision is either efficacious or it is not efficacious. I believe that the visible initiatory rites of circumcision and baptism are efficacious for the calling together of God’s institutional corporate peoples.)  

However, the prayer is for the person to remain among the elect. This is a prayer in the words of Augustine for 'predestination unto perseverance,' (as distinguished from 'predestination unto grace'). It also reflects that as long as one faithfully lives under the sign and seal of the covenant, baptism, he should be treated and counted as one of God's elect...

(aaron— The combining of the terms “sign and seal” into a single modifier concerning Abraham’s Covenants, confusion naturally creeps in. As it was established early on that “Baptism” has a complex definition, water baptism is the visible “sign” for the invisible “seal”—the baptism of the Holy Spirit.)

Augustine distinguished between predestination to grace and predestination to perseverance. Based on the language of the NT, Augustine spoke of all who are baptized as having predestination unto grace but not necessarily predestination unto perseverance. For Augustine, everyone receives grace at baptism. It is grace in an incipient, organic sense, but not in a final completed sense. Augustine based his view of grace on the very language of the NT.

(aaron— One must be very careful when one attempts to establish doctrinal principles using only a verse here and a verse there. Because by using this approach, we are then able to sit back and piously judge our neighbors as being either worthy or unworthy in our own eyes. This whole approach is somewhat in conflict with our current understanding of God's free and unmerited grace. The Apostle Paul, in writing most of his epistles, is exhorting active Christians to resist their natural inclinations. But before you chisel these perceived doctrinal principles in stone, you must consider them long and hard in the shining light of the gospel of God's grace.)

Grace could be received in vain (2 Cor. 6:1), and one could fall from grace (Gal. 5:4).

(aaron— What is so difficult about comparing God’s free and unmerited grace and the Law? This passage in Galatians 5:4 is simply saying that if you are seeking your justification through the works of the Law, you have fallen from God’s grace that is freely given because of Christ’s atoning work upon the cross. These passages are describing the gracious liberty of the Christian Church compared to the yoke of bondage that was Israel’s station.)

Grace is not static, it is dynamic...The church is only given to know election in terms of the sacraments, faith, and obedience...The Bible speaks about the possibility of falling from grace (Gal. 5:4), which means grace is to be understood in the context of an organic, living relationship with Christ. Grace is a relation, not a substance. It is the gift of Christ himself. It is not [static or impersonal]. Because grace is the formation of a relation, it is defectable.

(aaron— I emphatically disagree with this authors assessment! For this reason, if we are to receive Ephesians 2:8—9 at face value, this assessment on grace is impossible. Especially in the light of the Reformed understanding of our total depravity. That is, if our relationship with God was "defectable", we would all be defectors for sure.)

Just as a relation can be nurtured or negated by lack of attention, so a relation with God comes under the same possibilities. A relation with God can be cultivated and expanded, or it can be rejected and killed. [This is why] Scripture calls for persevering faith, the kind that builds upon a previously existing relation begun at baptism...The covenantal and organic position [described here] is different from the Arminian understanding of falling from grace...[In Arminianism], the sacraments were not understood as the sovereign, objective work of God, but as a witness to personal faith [i.e., to man's action rather than God's]."3.

(aaron— To go through this whole relation exercise, that has concluded that the recipient of these gifts from God holds the key to their future success or failure: "A relation with God can be cultivated and expanded, or it can be rejected and killed", seems to be completely rejecting God's sovereignty and His free and unmerited gift of grace as was previously mentioned in our Ephesians 2:8—9 example. One might find that the basic problem here involves the careless amalgamation of the principles of JUSTIFICATION with the principles of SANCTIFICATION. Ephesians 2:8—9 is defining God's monergistic JUSTIFICATION process, then Second Corinthians 6:1 is discussing God's synergistic SANCTIFICATION.)....)

[Then, following the baptism:] Seeing now, dearly beloved, that this child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ's church, let us give thanks unto God Almighty for these benefits, and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning...We yield hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it has pleased thee to regenerate this infant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him as thine own child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy church..."

(aaron— Regeneration with the Holy Spirit, grafted into the body of Christ's church, and to be an adopted child of God, are all certain realities within the Christian Church. These particular actions are essentially describing God's conveyed invisible dispositions that one might receive from God during the sanctification process. But there is no assurance that every individual that undergoes the institutional rite of visible water baptism also receives the invisible baptism of the Holy Spirit. Then just because they do not immediately receive the invisible baptism of the Holy Spirit, does not mean that the Holy Spirit is not actively present in the waters of visible baptism. The two, the visible and the invisible in this case, are not intended to be the same. The function of visible water baptism [John's baptism], like the function of visible circumcision, is to effectively gather in all those whom God has called into His institutional corporate peoples. Then the function of the invisible baptism of the Holy Spirit [Jesus' baptism], like one’s receiving the invisible circumcision of the heart, is to effectively gather in all those whom God has chosen into His invisible priestly line—the Messianic Covenant line. As desirable as it might be for us to assume that every individual within the Christian Church is an elect priest of God, observable historic reality through our observation of God’s first peoples Israel would clearly prove the inaccuracy of that conclusion.)

Finally, the Reformed Anglican genius, Richard Hooker: "Baptism both declares and makes us Christians." "In baptism, besides the hand seen that casts the water, is the virtue of the Holy Ghost there, working, without hands, what here was wrought." In other words, God is not a fellow spectator at the baptismal ceremony, but the chief actor [4].

4. The means of grace, Word and sacrament, should be understood as divine works, not merely human works. Take a marriage ceremony as an analogy: Jesus said that when a minister/officiant pronounces the couple to be husband and wife, it is really God who has joined them together (Mt. 19:6). If God acts effectually through a marriage ceremony, which is not a sacrament, (aaron— in the Protestant Church, but is a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church) how much more must he work through those ritual acts which are sacramental? Thus, when the "sacramental" Word is preached, it is really Christ himself who does the preaching (Eph. 2:17; cf. Rom. 10:14, which should read, "How shall they believe the one whom they have not heard?"). The words of John the Baptist about the baptism Jesus would give to his people (Mt. 3:11) were not true only for those who were gathered in the upper room at Pentecost in Acts 2. Every time baptism is administered in his name, he baptizes not merely with water as John did, but with the Spirit and fire. Baptism makes us sharers in what Jesus did to and for the church at Pentecost. See also 1 Cor. 12:13. Paul must have water baptism in view here since he says it is a baptism all the Corinthians received and he immediately links it with the other sacrament, the Lord's Supper. In water baptism, the Spirit incorporates the one baptized into the body of Christ.4.

(aaron— This last section highlights the very crux of this problem. The analogies used above seem to make perfect sense, but the historic reality of Christianity should also give us great pause in this matter. So if we totally bypass God's first peoples Israel as our visible example relationship, and then formulate an identification for God's peoples from only a Christian perspective, I do not believe that we will ever arrive at a correct conclusion. Once again, these confusing difficulties continue to be the result of our not distinguishing God's visible dispositions from God's invisible dispositions. Even though the two are functionally separate, they are always coexistent within God’s whole reconciliation.)

Reformed Confessional documents echo and crystallize the sentiments of the liturgical and private writings of Reformed theologians.

The Second Helvetic Confession teaches that God promises to give us Christ in the sacraments: "But the principal thing that God promises in all the sacraments and to which all the godly in all ages direct their attention (some call it the substance and matter of the sacraments) is Christ the whom all the elect are circumcised without hands through the Holy Spirit, and are washed from all their sins."

(aaron— It is a fact, that, as a part of God's elective process, only "the elect are circumcised without hands through the Holy Spirit". Yes, God's desires has not changed from His original desire for His first peoples Israel—that all would come to receive this blessed invisible circumcision of the heart. But historic reality reveals something much different. Then, as a part of the justification process, by water baptism all of the institutionally called "are washed from all their sins". Then this amalgamation of God’s justification principles together with God’s sanctification principles is an added root cause of much of today's confusion.) 

Concerning baptism, the Confession teaches, "Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God, be cleansed also from the filthiness of sins, and to be granted the manifold grace of God, in order to lead a new and innocent life...All these things are insured by baptism.

(aaron— The majority of this confessional teaching is very well stated. But the potential problem begins with the introduction of the term "sons of God". The "sons of God" is a very special group that are separate from creation and separate as well from the institutional corporate peoples of God. [Romans 8:19—23] The revelation of the "sons of God" is something that all of creation is anxiously anticipating. Similarly, the "sons of God" anxiously anticipate the forthcoming redemption of their bodies. We also find in Romans 8:14—23, that "the sons of God" and "the Children of God" are in fact synonymous terms. This is the same special group who possess "the firstfruits of the Spirit". We find that the "sons of God", as they is found in both the Old and New Testaments, always has a Spiritual connotation. [John 1:12—13] All of the corporate peoples of God are not necessarily identified as the "sons of God"— as this is born out in the special remnant of Isaiah 10 and Romans 9. Then Romans 11:5 and 7 describe Israel in terms of the "remnant" and the "rest". And since the "rest" is a very important part of God's covenant with Abraham, I believe that the book of Romans also confirms that they will play a continuing role in God's whole reconciliation. The sure promises that God has for them are substantially set forth in the New Testament.)

Continuing—For inwardly we are regenerated, purified, and renewed by God through the Holy Spirit; and outwardly we receive the assurance of the greatest gifts in the water, by which also those great benefits are represented, and, as it were, set before our eyes to be beheld." The point is clear: to be baptized is to be cleansed and regenerated.

(aaron— This last statement once again expresses the very crux of our present problem— "The point is clear: to be baptized is to be cleansed and regenerated." This is the result of the present manifestation of how God's regenerating activities might function within His Church. Then to conclude that every professing Christian is supposedly regenerated at the time of their baptism, factually results in our acceptance of "baptismal regeneration".)

(aaron— Now for us to properly understand our own position within the Abrahamic Covenant and within the covenant family, we must first take our relationship lessons from closely observing of God's first peoples Israel. So as we examine Israel’s relationship through the Genesis 17:1—27 account, with our added New Testament understanding of God's free and unmerited grace in mind, we quickly discover that that same measure of God's matchless grace was fully functional for that period when God was establishing His covenant with father Abraham. Consequently, there is really very little difference between the Christian Church and Israel in this case of being gathered into God's visible institutional corporate peoples. Like the Christian Church, everything that Israel received from God was a free and unmerited gift of grace as well. We then understand that every gift that is received in both the Old and New Testaments was totally based on Christ's propitiatory work. Ref. Romans 3:21—26

We must understand that the Genesis 17:1—27 description of the Abrahamic Covenant has a complex character and definition as well. That is, Genesis 17:1—14, 18, 20, and 23—27 defines the visible /or physical character of the Abrahamic Covenant. These would represent all those who have entered God's visible corporate peoples through God's established visible institutions—having received God's commanded visible initiatory rite of circumcision/ or baptism. And Galatians 4:21—25 would specifically define this visible portion of the Abrahamic Covenant as the Covenant of Bondage.  

Then Genesis 17:15—17, 19, and 22 defines the invisible/ or spiritual character of the Abrahamic Covenant—known to us as the Covenant of Promise. Even though all of these participants within the Covenant of Promise must also come through God's visible institutions and God’s visible peoples—having also received God's established visible initiatory rites and remaining as an integral part of those same visible institutions, yet these elect ones would represent all those who have been selectively chosen into the invisible priesthood of God and are representative of God's invisible dispositions. To participate in the invisible elect priesthood of God, the individual must possess all of God's invisible dispositions—They must be regenerated, born from above, born anew /or again, have a circumcised heart, and then be identified as a Jew, a part of the Circumcision, and as a part of Israel. These are in fact the ones who will ultimately make—up the body of Christ /which, when finally gathered together in their pre—Armageddon resurrection that is described in 1Cor.15:23-24, will then constitute the completed Kingdom of God.

This is best understood from the designations that God has assigned to the various elements of the covenant: Elements that we have defined here as God's visible and invisible dispositions. For example, God's visible dispositions are Israel, the Circumcision, the Jew, the elect, baptism /and from only a Christian perspective, the Church and the Christian. Then God's invisible dispositions are Israel, the Circumcision, the Jew, the elect, and baptism. It is evident that the Old Testament visible dispositions of God are designed as visible examples and types. Designed in such a way, that they would enable us to more easily understand the invisible dispositions that are always hidden in God. That is, without God's prior establishment of visible Israel, the visible Circumcision, and the visible Jew, we would surely be at a loss to comprehend the Creator God or the complex identification that He has given to His peoples.

Then by our observation of visible Israel, we must always keep this very important fact in mind—just because you are a part of the visible corporate peoples of God through your participation in God's established visible institutions and visible rites, does not automatically make you a part of God's invisible priestly line. Understanding that this same principle would apply to the Christian Church as well—A visible Christian is not necessarily a part of God's invisible priestly line. It is especially here, with the popular Christian understanding of election and regeneration that much of today's confusion rests.

A statement of fact: Visible Israel was established as God's Old Testament visible institution, through which, by the use of God's established visible initiatory rite of visible circumcision, the visible creation had access to their invisible Creator. All that was necessary for their initiation into the corporate peoples of God, was that all of the male family members who desired entrance into the covenant, had to undergo the God established initiatory rite of physical circumcision before they could partake of the Passover. Nothing more was required of them! Because, through this one act of obedience, they, along with their entire family, gained full membership into God's institutional corporate peoples. Even a participating stranger, once they had received God's established visible initiatory rite of circumcision and participated in the Passover, would be counted as though they had been born in the land. Exodus 12:48

A second statement of fact: The visible Christian Church was established as God's New Testament visible institution, through which, by the use of God's established visible initiatory rite of water baptism, the visible creation has access to their invisible Creator.

So as we witness that their simple obedient performance of God's established initiatory rite of circumcision was all that was necessary for their being incorporated into God's institutional peoples and their subsequent participation in God’s Passover, we should, at the same time, see how difficult the New Testament Christian Church has made this institutional right of passage. As this New Testament initiatory rite is now loaded down with a great deal of unnecessary Sanctification baggage.

When considering the complex identification of God's peoples, we can observe from its very conception that all were not considered identically equal within the Abrahamic Covenant. That is, even though Ishmael was a part of the visible component of the Abrahamic Covenant and a part of the visible institutional corporate peoples of God, we are plainly told that he was not to be included within the invisible component of the Abrahamic Covenant—the invisible Covenant of Promise. It is very unfortunate that the majority of the Christian Church has devalued God's visible dispositions to the point where the visible rites are essentially worthless when it comes to God's eternal promises.)

The 1560 Scots Confession of John Knox is equally forthright: "And so we utterly condemn the vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else than naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by baptism we are engrafted into Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted." The meaning is plain: In baptism, God unites us to Christ so that what is true of him is now true of us.

The French Confession makes the same point: "We acknowledge only two sacraments, common to the whole church, the former whereof is baptism, given unto us to witness to our adoption, for by it we are grafted into the body of Christ, that being washed with his blood we might be renewed by his Spirit unto holiness of life...[I]n baptism, God gives us really and in fact that which he there sets before us; and that consequently with these signs is given true possession and enjoyment of that which they present to us."

Turning to the Westminster Standards, we find this train of thought continued. The Standards teach that the sacraments "confer" grace (WCF 27.3, 28.6), that they are "effectual means of salvation" (WSC 91), and that they are required if we are to (ordinarily) escape God's wrath and curse due to us for sin (WSC 85) [5].

5. Putting together WCF 25.2 and 28.1 yields the conclusion that there is (ordinarily) no salvation apart from baptism.5.

Puritan expert David F. Wright [6]

6. Wright is Senior Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University of Edinburgh.6.

summarizes: "What then about the efficacy of baptism according to the Westminster Confession? Its central affirmation seems clear: 'the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost' (28.6). It is true that a variety of qualifications to this assertion are entered...But these qualifications serve in fact only to highlight the clarity of the core declaration, which is set forth as follows in the preceding chapter on sacraments in general...The Westminster divines viewed baptism as the instrument and occasion of regeneration by the Spirit, of the remission of sins, of ingrafting into Christ (cf. 28.1). The Confession teaches baptismal regeneration" [7].

7. "Baptism at the Westminster Assembly" in Calvin Studies 80. Emphasis mine.7.

Most Presbyterians today focus on the qualifiers on baptismal efficacy in the Confession, rather than its central affirmation. Indeed, the qualifiers are often treated as negating its plain statements. While it would be going too far to say the Confession necessitates belief in baptismal regeneration, there can be no question such a view of baptismal efficacy is included in its parameters, if determined by original authorial intent [8].

8. Two more things about WCF 28 should be noted. First, section 5 indicates, "that not all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated."

This leaves us with the freedom to regard all who are baptized as regenerate until and unless they prove otherwise.

(aaron— This is what is commonly known as "presumptive regeneration". Regeneration is assumed unless shown to be otherwise. This is, I believe, a wrong minded approach that requires we take a fresh look at God's visible initiatory rites, beginning in the Old Testament. There, belonging to God’s institutional corporate peoples was facilitated by their simple obedient use of the God established elements. There was no debate going on there as to whether or not the individual was regenerated, simply because "regeneration" as we understand it through the New Testament Church was not an essential part in their initiation into a covenant relationship with God. Matter of fact, their failure to circumcise their eight—day—old infant son would result in that individual being cut off from God's peoples because God's covenant would have been broken through their disobedience. Now since God is a God of the family, I believe our initiation into covenant with God is just as simple now as it was back then. Our belonging Covenantally is still a simple matter of obedience.

I believe that the above statement fully demonstrates the high level of confusion that surrounds much of today's Protestantism: 

"Most Presbyterians today focus on the qualifiers on baptismal efficacy in the Confession, rather than its central affirmation. Indeed, the qualifiers are often treated as negating its plain statements. While it would be going too far to say the Confession necessitates belief in baptismal regeneration, there can be no question such a view of baptismal efficacy is included in its parameters, if determined by original authorial intent” [8].

8. Two more things about WCF 28 should be noted. First, section 5 indicates, "that not all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated."

This leaves us with the freedom to regard all who are baptized as regenerate until and unless they prove otherwise."

These folk are not entirely wrong in all of their conclusions here, but their attempt at micro—managing God's complex institutional covenant has gotten them into a state of some uncertainty.)

Isolated examples of apostasy should not be used to undercut the efficacy of baptism more generally.

Second, section 6 states, "The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered." As Joel Garver has pointed out, it seems entirely legitimate to interpret this in light of earlier Reformed confessional documents. The point, then, would not be that one's baptism may not take effect until long after the time of administration; rather, the sense would be that baptism's efficacy, beginning at the moment of administration, extends through the whole of one's life.

As the Belgic Confession states, "Neither does this Baptism only avail us at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life."

Likewise, the Scots Confession says, "For baptism once received continues for all of life, and is a perpetual sealing of our adoption."

The French Confession teaches the same: "[A]lthough we are baptized only once, yet the gain that it symbolizes to us reaches over our whole lives and to our death, so that we have a lasting witness that Jesus Christ will always be our justification and sanctification."

Finally, Cornelius Burges, in his fine seventeenth century work The Baptismal Regeneration of Elect Infants, opens with these words: "There is no ordinance set up by Christ in his church, more useful and comfortable unto a Christian, throughout the whole course of his militant condition, than sacred baptism, the laver of regeneration and of the renewing of the Holy Ghost." Later, he wrote, "I deny not future actual efficacy of baptism after the act of administration, but I only plead for some efficacy when it is administered" (112) and claimed Calvin for support of this view (cf. 159, 169).8.

(aaron— This last statement is evidence for this quandary surrounding baptism— "I deny not future actual efficacy of baptism after the act of administration, but I only plead for some efficacy when it is administered". It would appear that there were always some individuals who denied the efficacy of the initial act of infant baptism. Then the discussed evidence of this baptismal efficacy that appears subsequent to its administration is really some evidence for recognizing a possible second work of God's Holy Spirit. But this plea— "but I only plead for some efficacy when it is administered" describes the very heart of this important discussion. The plea of seventeenth century Cornelius Burges is identical to my own—That we might recognize some eternal efficacy at the time that God's initiatory rites are being administered to our infant offspring.)

Further evidence the Westminster divines did not intend to rule all form(s) of baptismal regeneration and justification out of court is found when we consult the writings of the men themselves.  

Brooks Hollifield's fine work The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England, 1570—1720 shows there was quite a bit of diversity among seventeenth century England and New England Puritans on sacramental issues.

But among the various positions of baptismal efficacy floating around, at least two noteworthy theologians held to forms of baptismal regeneration/justification. Both were chosen to participate in the Westminster Assembly and both had excellent Reformed pedigrees, though they arrived at their views independently of one another.

Cornelius Burges' 1629 work, The Baptismal Regeneration of Elect Infants, argues forcefully that elect infants receive, at baptism, initial regeneration and remission of sin. This "first principle" of spiritual life then matures and develops as the child does [9].

(aaron— This is a excellent statement because it could help us to further identify some of the parts to this Protestant baptismal dilemma. The author writes— "But among the various positions of baptismal efficacy floating around, at least two noteworthy theologians held to forms of baptismal regeneration/justification." And it is the latter part that has caught my attention— "forms of baptismal regeneration/justification". In that, I am not sure that regeneration and justification as it is taught in the New Testament are synonymous in the strictest sense. I am not saying that some measured effect of God regenerative activity is not present in our baptismal justification and its associated benefits, but I am saying that regeneration [the promised work of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of the hidden elect] cannot be defined as justification [God’s gracious gift through Christ’s atoning work upon the cross that belongs to all of the visible institutional corporate peoples of God].

Is God's secret "election" something that can be presumptively assigned to the offspring of those who believe that they themselves are part and partial of the elect? It is not Scripturally viable for any individual among us to assume the regeneration of the Holy Spirit that we might possess is transferable to our offspring. Keeping this passage in mind, that many are visibly called into God's institutional corporate peoples, but then from that very large body only a few are chosen into His hidden royal priesthood. But these too, like Nicodemus, thought not regenerated/ or born from above, do also receive a measure of faith that enables them to believe in the God of Creation.) 

9. Burges (with spelling modernized) writes, "Elect infants do ordinarily receive the Spirit in baptism, as the first efficient principle of future actual regeneration...It is most agreeable to the institution of Christ, that all elect infants that are, ordinarily receive, from Christ, the Spirit in baptism, for their first solemn initiation into Christ, and for their future actual renovation, in God's good time, if they live to years of discretion, and enjoy the other ordinary means of grace appointed of God to this end." The initial/actual distinction is explained on pages 14ff in Burges' work. Burges argues his whole case thoroughly from Scripture, but perhaps the most interesting part of his work is chapters 5—8, in which he demonstrates that his position on baptismal regeneration is found in the church fathers, the Reformed Confessions, the writings of the Continental divines, such as Calvin, Bucer, Musculus, and Zanchius, and the writings of several British theologians. He distinguishes his position from the "physical/metaphysical efficacy" view of Rome on 330ff.9.

Samuel Ward "proposed that baptism regenerated infants" and argued "all infants were, without doubt, justified through baptism" [10].

(aaron— The question to be addressed here is this, can the congregation's infant children be justified through baptism without being regenerated? My answer to that difficult question is absolutely yes! The reason for my certain response to that question is because of the clear example that God has set down for us in His first peoples Israel. We can understand the efficacy of God's covenantal initiatory rites only through our careful observation of God's original establishment of His covenant with Abraham—and then through Israel's subsequent obedience in circumcising their eight—day—old infant sons. The only prerequisite for their joining to and belonging to God's institutional corporate peoples, was their obedience in performing His commanded visible initiatory rite pursuant to their participation in the Passover celebration. (Ex.12:48) The efficacy of that visible circumcision there in the Old Testament, simply came from God’s promise and their obedience in performing what God had commanded for them.

As we look at God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, was regeneration an inclusive part of this visible initiatory act of circumcision? The answer to that important question is absolutely no! This is true from the Scriptures themselves, as well as from the record of those who were circumcised there that very day.

First, the Scriptures—Genesis 17:1—14, 18, 20, and 22—27 defines the visible characteristic of the Abrahamic Covenant of Grace. Then the same visible characteristic is also defined for us in Galatians 4:21—25 as the Covenant of Bondage. What we understand from these important passages, is that there was only one prerequisite established there by God for their belonging to this newly formed Abrahamic Covenant. That single requirement was that all of the males had to undergo the surgical procedure of being circumcised. By that single obedient act of being circumcised, they, as well as their families, became an integral part of God's institutional corporate peoples and a participant of the Abrahamic Covenant of Grace. Once again, regeneration, as it is defined in the John 3, Titus 3, and First Peter 1, is not an essential part of the visible component of God's covenant with Abraham.

Second, the Scriptures—Genesis 17:15—17, 19, and 21, along with Galatians 4:26—28, define the invisible characteristic of the Abrahamic Covenant—the Covenant of Promise. From these passages, we begin to understand that there is an additional invisible element at work within this Abrahamic Covenant that is independent from the visible component. Now even though there is an evident Scriptural separateness between the visible and the invisible, nevertheless, they are always seen as being coexistent within the one Abrahamic Covenant of Grace. For example, those who make—up the invisible Covenant of Promise are chosen out from among all those who have been called into God's visible institutional corporate peoples. Even though these “few” are being chosen out from the corporate peoples of God for this leadership role, they must remain an integral part of these same institutional peoples of God. [Matthew 22:14] It is my opinion that these elect priests are the only ones who are fully regenerated—born from above. [First Peter 2:9]

This is one of the more difficult understandings for us to sort through, as is evidenced by the confusion and controversy that continues within the whole Christian Church.

Once again, we must look to God's first peoples Israel as we search for our answer to this difficult understanding. I would suggest we start by looking at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that is recorded in John 3:

"Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: 2the same came unto him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, except God be with him."

The principle point that I would make here, is the fact that Nicodemus was a believer and loyal follower of the God of Abraham. Apparently God had given Nicodemus a very small glimpse of the reality of Jesus: which caused him to secretly seek out this Prophet from God.

"3Jesus answered and said unto him, Truly, truly, I say unto you, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Then here in verse 3, Jesus begins to explain the invisible Spirituality of this Kingdom that He was beginning to bringing to our attention. The manifested construct of the Kingdom of God was about to commence and Jesus was revealing some basic ground rules for this hidden Kingdom.

"4Nicodemus said unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?"

Nicodemus' response to what Jesus had said was certainly a natural one. His response here reveals that his comprehension of this invisible riddle that Jesus had presented, was, as many of our own responses might be even today, totally natural and earthly.

"5Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say unto you, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God!"

Now from verse 5, we should understand the complexities that are involved in what Jesus is explaining. He told Nicodemus, that in order for him to enter into the Kingdom of God, he must first "be born of water", and then secondly, he must be born of "the Spirit". So now can we understand this second part as regeneration /or to be born from above, as a second work of God's Spirit in the lives of His elect peoples /or priests? I believe the answer to this question is an affirmative one.

"6That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Marvel not that I said unto you, You must be born anew. 8The wind blows where it will, and you hear the voice thereof, but know not from where it comes, or where it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."

Now here we receive insight into the visible /the water /or the fleshly, and then the invisible /the spiritual. Since the spiritual ream is in fact an entirely separate dimension and completely outside of our range of possibility, our access is then limited to only that which God graciously grants to us. Jesus then compares those who are "born of the Spirit" /"born anew" to the allusiveness of the invisible wind. In that, you might have a sense of their individual presence within the Congregation but have no absolute certainty of their reality.

"9Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? 10Jesus answered and said unto him, Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? 11Truly, truly, I say unto you, We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. 12If I told you earthly things and you did not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"

At this particular point in time, and according to what Jesus said here in verses 9—12, I believe that one can safely say that Nicodemus was not "born anew" /"born of the Spirit" /"Born again"— and only God really knows if he ever was actually regenerated. We learned from verse 1—that Nicodemus "was a man of the Pharisees" and "a ruler of the Jews", and according to Jesus in verse 10, Nicodemus was "a teacher of Israel". My main point here is that Nicodemus was definitely a part of God's institutional corporate peoples and a believer and follower of Jehovah before he ever came to this meeting with our Lord. But anyone who has studied the Scriptures should fully understand the predicted blindness that was prophesied for God's first peoples Israel during this dispensation of God's favor. They should understand Israel's present circumstances:

Psalms 69:22—23

Isaiah 6:9—10

Romans 11:8—10; 9:33

Acts 28:26—27

Matthew 13:13—15

Mark 4:12

Luke 8:10

John 12:40

First Peter 1:10—12

Matthew 13:16—17

Luke 10:23—24)


10. Hollifield, 82, 79.10.

However, Ward went on to say the grace received in baptism was only provisional and did not guarantee eternal salvation. Those baptized in infancy who fail to persevere in faith lose these benefits and never enter into a full state of regeneration and justification. For Ward, these cases of apostasy were usually due to the child lacking "either careful, faithful parents or a proper minister, or both" [11].

(aaron— The view held by Ward would be very similar to the majority of today’s Reformed community. They generally see little or no real benefit in baptizing the infants of their Congregations. Insisting that they must do more—They must eventually make a true profession of their faith in order to seal their eternal fate.)

11. Hollifield, 85. Besides Hollifield's work (sadly out of print), see Joel Garver's essay at for an excellent study of the Westminster Standards and summaries of the views of Burges and Ward.11.

This survey is by no means comprehensive. Indeed, we have just scratched the surface. It is true that many of the quotations given above are qualified or nuanced in various ways. These qualifiers are necessary to prevent misunderstanding [12].

12. For example, none of the statements quoted above teach that someone is automatically saved at baptism or that each and every person baptized is eternally saved. Indeed, I know of no theologian in the history of the church who has held such extreme views. Baptism is a true means of grace, but that grace is conditioned both by God's decree and our response of faithfulness. There is no superstitious attribution of magical power to the waters of baptism.12.

(aaron— Once again I would challenge this last statement. The efficacy of God’s commanded Old Testament initiatory rite of visible circumcision is the evidence because all those circumcised male infants immediately became an inclusive part of God’s institutional corporate peoples. Through the parent’s obedience in presenting their helpless eight—day—old infant sons for circumcision, the infant son became a member of God’s covenant and God’s institutional peoples—and as we understand, their family offspring with them.)  

But the core affirmations remain unchallengeable. The Reformed tradition, in its pristine form, linked baptism instrumentally to regeneration and justification, and thus, to the beginnings of salvation.

(aaron— Since the salvation event is wholly a product of God’s justification—Eph.2:8-9, it is not advisable for us to associate salvation’s Justification with Regeneration—which is a part of the Sanctification process.)

As Protestant scholasticism arose, especially in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, there was increasing pressure to play off sovereign grace against sacramentally mediated grace [13].

(aaron— Is it not conceivable that God’s sovereign grace is active and functional in the sacramental areas that He Himself established?)

13. This is not to say the rise of Protestant scholasticism was bad, only that it was not an unmixed blessing.13.

Reformed theology had to be "systematized," and sacramental theology found an increasingly awkward place among the theological loci. Indeed, B. B. Warfield, a nineteenth century Reformed giant, claimed the Reformation was a battle between Augustine's high ecclesiology (territory claimed by Rome) and his predestinarian soteriology (ground held by Protestants). But a close [xx] reading of Calvin and other magisterial Reformers shows they wanted to be faithful to the whole Augustinian project [14].

14. Augustine, perhaps better than anyone in the history of the church, held together the sovereign nature of grace and the mediated nature of grace.14.

In fact, Calvin mines Augustine heavily on the topics of election and sacraments. So, to the classic Reformed mind, the question, "Does God save or does baptism save?" poses a false dilemma. God saves through baptism; it is one of his instruments of salvation, along with the Word and the Eucharist [15].

(aaron— This last statement, as it is one that we could almost all agree on, would be a good place to stop. Simple and to the point— "So, to the classic Reformed mind, the question, "Does God save or does baptism save?" poses a false dilemma. God saves through baptism; it is one of his instruments of salvation, along with the Word and the Eucharist. "You cannot sever the one from the other”. So to say that the act of visible water baptism does not save the participating individual is doing precisely that. The important thing here is the fact that God saves, not the contrived thoughts of man.)

15. Again, all this indicates that baptism is chiefly a work of God, not man. Consider Calvin: "But as baptism is a solemn recognition by which God introduces his children into the possession of life [e.g., regeneration], a true and effectual sealing of the promise, a pledge of sacred union with Christ, it is justly said to be the entrance and reception into the church. And as the instruments of the Holy Spirit are not dead, God truly performs and effects by baptism what he figures." Elsewhere, Calvin wrote, "There is a union complementary with the thing figured, lest the sign be empty, because that which the Lord represents in sign he effects at the same time, and executes in us by the power of the Spirit...What indeed do we abrogate or take away from God when we teach that he acts through his instruments, indeed, he alone...God works...through the sacraments as instruments...The Spirit is the author, the sacrament is truly the instrument used." All these quotations (and much more of value) can be found in The Lord's Service by Jeff Meyers (133). Writing against Anabaptists, Calvin wrote, "We hold both the washing of regeneration and the spiritual nourishment of the body and blood of Christ are conferred through his hand just as if he were an angel come down from heaven" (quoted in Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals by Willem Balke, 247). The means of grace are like the scalpel in a surgeon's hand. When the surgery is done, we praise the surgeon, not the tool he wields. Efficacious sacraments do not mean credit for salvation is divided between God and creaturely means.15.

(aaron— "Efficacious sacraments do not mean credit for salvation is divided between God and creaturely means" is a good statement for understanding the possible position of the promoters of "baptismal regeneration". The statement demonstrates the difficulty that surrounds even the possibility that "credit for salvation is divided between God and creaturely means". This thought, I believe, comes principally from their inappropriate depreciation of the God established visible initiatory rites. This depreciation is most evident by their categorizing of God's visible initiatory rites of circumcision and baptism as nothing more than "creaturely means". I wonder how something so very important as these, as God's established visible initiatory rites of circumcision and baptism, can be casts off to the side as efficaciously meaningless. Without these God established visible means for our accessing His free and unmerited grace, the Abrahamic Covenant as well as its New Covenant fulfillment would be totally inaccessible.

Then taking these saying in their most rudimentary way, we might say that the problem that we now face here, involves how and to what extent the Holy Spirit works within these visible elements. It would appear that for the general application of the Holy Spirit, the Reformed, as well as most of the other Denominations, seem to see the activities of the Holy Spirit in almost a singular way. For salvation, you are either regenerated by the Holy Spirit /born again, or you have nothing. But we all know that that would not be a correct analysis. Any reasonable study of the Scriptures will show that there are many facets to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer at all levels. So from our beginning faith to believe in God through our complete sanctification, it is all the work of the Holy Spirit.)

Why are we so afraid of saying that God uses means to save us? And why is there such prejudice against the sacraments as means of (saving) grace? Sure, baptism is a sign. But preaching is just words —— verbal signs. If God can effect salvation through verbal signs, why not sacramental signs as well? Or why not both together, as the Bible appears to teach? [16]

(aaron— The struggle here, where they are trying to get some efficacy for the sacrament of visible water baptism, is the consequence of their deficient understanding of the efficacy of the sacrament of visible circumcision in the Old Testament. God’s saving grace, way back then as well as now, operates through our obedient use of His visible signs! Yes, the visible and the invisible dispositions of God are separate, yet they always function "together"!)

16. Sinclair Ferguson, in his excellent book The Holy Spirit, falls into just this trap (125). He has no problem taking biblical passages that speak of God's work of regeneration through the Word at face value (e.g., 1 Pt. 1:23, Jas. 1:18). But when he comes to similar passages that refer to baptism (e.g., Titus 3:5), he suddenly shifts ground and spiritualizes away the baptismal referent (195). When dealing with the preached Word, Ferguson preserves the efficacy of the means by distinguishing between the efficient cause of regeneration (the Holy Spirit) and the instrumental cause (the Word). But why not do the same with baptism? Ferguson's refreshing biblical theological approach to Scripture leads him to the edge of affirming an efficacious baptism, but then, inexplicably (apart from tradition—bound prejudices), he backs away, and remains entrenched in immediacy. For example, he continually refers to Ezek. 36 to prove the sovereignty of God's work of redemption in granting the Spirit and a new heart to his people, but continually overlooks how "wet" this chapter is (e.g., 36:25, 33; see pages 116, 122, etc.).16.

It seems a Gnostic tendency has become deeply embedded in American Calvinism [17].

17. The roots of this shift are too complex for us to delve into here. However, there is no doubt the Great Awakenings radically changed the face of Protestantism in America. Revivalism eclipsed the Reformation as the fundamental paradigm for understanding how God works in the world. Today, even many Presbyterians and other paedobaptists are largely 'baptistic' in their presuppositions about the nature of New Covenant religion. See Against the Protestant Gnostics by Philip Lee and The Failure of American Baptist Culture edited by James Jordan.17.

We want God's real saving work to be immediate, that is, apart from means or signs. But this is just another attempt to dephysicalize Christianity and we must fight it [18].

18. See James Jordan, Creation in Six Days, ch. 4.18.

God works salvation through humble, material means: a paper and ink book, sound vibrations emanating from a preacher's voice, and simple water, bread, and wine. This is the scandal of the Christian faith! But we should revel in it, not deny it.



Obviously, for Reformed Christians, the ultimate test of any doctrine is its fidelity to the whole counsel of God, revealed in the pages of Scripture. What does the Bible actually teach about the efficacy of baptism? While we cannot take the time and space here to do a thorough exegesis of all the references to baptism in the New Testament (much less the Old Testament), we can point to the face value meaning of several key passages. (Please read the passages listed below carefully!) In baptism,  

We are united (or married) to the crucified, buried, and risen Christ (Rom. 6:1ff), though we can be cut off (or divorced) from him if we are unfaithful (Rom. 11:17ff; cf. Jn. 15:1ff)    

(aaron— I am a bit curious where this author got the term "divorced" from what is commonly translated as "cut off"? I am not saying that our unbelief cannot cause us to be cut off from our consummate relationship with God. But at the very same time, a change in our attitude can reverse the action and cause us to be grafted in again. This transitional passage is not as simple as some would have it.)    

We are forgiven (Acts 2:38, 22:16; cf. the Nicene Creed)

We receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)  

(aaron— Is receiving the "gift of the Holy Spirit" and "regeneration" the same thing? I think not! Many tend to oversimplify Scripture that has a more complex meaning.)  

We are cleansed (Eph. 5:26)

We are regenerated and renewed (Titus 3:5)  

(aaron— Some have concluded that Titus, like Peter, was written more for the elect’s sake than for the general consumption of God’s institutional corporate peoples.)

(aaron— It should be noted that Titus 3:5 is the only New Testament passage that specifically discusses individual regeneration. Though there are other passages that discuss the same experience—To be born from above, to be born anew, to be born again, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit, and so on. Though "regeneration" is necessary for one’s entering into God’s kingdom and holy priesthood, should we understand that "regeneration" is necessary for our justification? I think not!)  

We are buried and resurrected with Christ (Col. 2:11—12)

We are circumcised in heart (Col. 2:11—12)  

(aaron— Once again, we must take our lead from God’s first peoples Israel. Even though God’s desire was that all of His peoples would attain to this spiritual level of having a circumcised heart, it is obvious from Scripture that they all did not. For example, Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews religion, yet was not born again—from our best understanding, he did not possess a circumcised heart. We can conclude this because the New Testament equates a circumcised heart with being born from above, born anew, or to be regenerated. Yes, all of these necessary attributes are true with respect to God’s elect priesthood. But the question to be answered is this, is every individual within God’s institutional corporate peoples required to become a part of God’s elect priesthood? According to our Old Testament example Israel, the answer to that question would be a resounding NO!)  

We are joined to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13)

We are clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27)

We are justified and sanctified (1 Cor. 6:11) [19]  

19. Many commentators read 1 Cor. 6:11 in this way: "But you received a justifying and sanctifying washing in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." "In the name of Jesus" echoes Luke's shorthand baptismal formula used in Acts and the grammar of the text suggests the Spirit instrumentally confers justification and sanctification through the washing.19.

(aaron— I would partially agree that "the Spirit instrumentally confers justification and sanctification through the washing." But I also think that we need to better define what was said here. To say that "sanctification" was conferred in baptism, we must mean just our being set apart. Where the monergistic justification is the initial work of God’s Holy Spirit in facilitating the individual’s salvation, the synergistic sanctification process must be seen as progressing on throughout the entire Christian experience of that same individual.  

Although I am a bit uncertain about the practice of taking what is clearly an exhortation from the Apostle Paul for all of us to walk in a more upright way, and then to make that exhortation into a doctrine for the Christian Church.

Now this is not a denial of the many gracious benefits that God has freely given to the Christian Church, because these promises are as sure as God's Word itself. This argument is against those who would amalgamate God's visible dispositions together with God's invisible dispositions, thus blurring a necessary distinguishing line between the two and increasing the difficulty in our understanding of the complex identification of God’s peoples.)   

We are saved (1 Pt. 3:20—21) [20]  

20. Peter tells us baptism is not a mere outward washing ("not the removal of the filth of the flesh") but a cleansing before God ("the answer of a good [e.g., forgiven] conscience"). Interestingly, Peter also tells us "eight souls were saved through water" in Noah's ark. But this "salvation" was not necessarily permanent since it is evident from the Genesis narrative that at least one of the eight (Ham) apostatized (Gen. 9:18ff; cf. Jude 5). Thus, Peter's encouragement rooted in baptism need not lead to presumption; rather, it is calculated to drive his hearers to persevere in faithfulness.20.

(aaron— First Peter expressly defines God's invisible dispositions, and how we might best understand the construct and identity of the invisible Messianic priesthood.

I fail to see how it was determined from Genesis 9:18 and Jude 5 that "Ham apostatized"? This is simply observing salvation from a Christian perspective: Individual rather than institutional. By observing our Covenant relationship with God through God’s first peoples Israel, we must recognize the all-important principal of institution. That God has instituted the Abrahamic Covenant as a family covenant and that God is a God of the family.)

We are ordained as priests with access to the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 10:19—22) [21]  

(aaron— Here again, assumptions are being made without even looking to our Old Testament example Israel. The Christian perspective is just that—it is that all "true believers", to the exclusion of the rest, are priests of God. I would suggest that by following our Old Testament example Israel, we would arrive at a very different conclusion. It is true that all of the invisible elect, those that the Church identifies as "true believers", would be participants in the hidden Messianic priestly line—the royal priesthood that Peter describes. But now what about the rest of God’s institutional corporate peoples? Is there any place to be found for them within God’s reconciliation? Romans chapters 9 and 11, together with considerable Old Testament support, describe a complex character for God’s Old Testament peoples Israel. First, they are described as the elect "remnant" that would be participants that formed God’s royal priesthood. Second, the "rest", describe who are the elect for the fathers sake that would be numbered with the sheep. We might conclude that the "remnant" would be representative of God’s invisible dispositions, and that the "rest" would be representative of God’s visible dispositions. The important thing to remember is that all of God’s royal priesthood must possess all of God’s invisible dispositions. Yet even though they possess all of God’s invisible dispositions, they still must come through God’s visible institutions—having received God’s visible initiatory rites and participated in the use of the visible sacraments.)

21. For a complete argument that the washing in Heb. 10:22 is a reference to baptism, and fulfills Old Covenant priestly anointings, see The Priesthood of the Plebs by Peter Leithart.21.

Of course, the ultimate proof of baptism's efficacy rests in the baptism of Jesus himself. Here, we have the ultimate paradigm for understanding God's work in baptism [22].

22. Calvin argued that the "one baptism" of Eph. 4:5 referred ultimately to Jesus' own baptism and our participation in it. See Institutes 4.15.6: "Lastly, our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ that we become sharers in all his blessings. For he dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body [Mt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form in us. Hence, Paul proves that we are children of God from the fact that we put on Christ in baptism [Gal. 3:26—27]. Thus we see that the proper fulfillment of baptism is in Christ, whom also for this reason we call the proper object of baptism." This is why we are called Christians: We share in the christening (baptismal anointing) Jesus received in the Jordan.22.

(aaron— I would wholeheartedly agree with the above statement— "Of course, the ultimate proof of baptism's efficacy rests in the baptism of Jesus himself. Here, we have the ultimate paradigm for understanding God's work in baptism". But my problem with this common interpretative approach, is that I believe that they tend overlooked the most obvious—the visible. That is, these folk, because they have now glimpsed the wonders of God's invisible dispositions, have decided to completely ignored the original efficacy of visible circumcision that God established for the original formation of the Abrahamic Covenant. Now no one is arguing against the efficacy of God's invisible dispositions: Those invisible dispositions that God has set in place so as to fully accomplish His universal reconciliation are as firm as His Word itself. These are same invisible dispositions that are all born within us through His Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, we should not completely disregard God's visible dispositions simply because of the revealed presence of God's invisible dispositions, as they are always coexistent within God’s whole reconciliation.

Then as we follow their reasoning for "baptismal regeneration"—whether it be based on the baptism of Christ by John and His subsequently receiving the Holy Spirit as a dove, they are still ignoring the institutional value of the obvious—the visible.

The most obvious proof that their theory is flawed, is the historic Church itself. That is, after they supposedly prove their theory for the efficacy of baptism/ or "baptismal regeneration", they are then forced to spend considerable time and effort explaining why there might be many baptized members who do not quite measure up—who are ultimately judged as apostates who were probably never saved anyway. This theory makes Christian salvation sound very tenuous at best.)

Jesus received the Spirit in fullness at his baptism, and was declared to be the beloved Son of the Father. With appropriate qualifications, this is what God does in our baptisms as well: He pours out his Spirit upon us and declares us to be his dearly loved children [23].

(aaron— I really do like this last assessment, and I wish it were true for every one of God’s peoples. But historic reality tells us something quite different: That all are not necessarily shepherds /or priests. But if I had to venture a guess, I would say that the vast majority of baptized Christians are simple sheep who are looking for someone to guide them along the way.)

23. Standing in the background of Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan are all the baptisms of the Old Covenant. For example, the book of Hebrews calls the various Levitical washings (e.g., cleansing after defilement from touching a corpse; cleansing from leprosy; priestly ordination; etc.) "baptisms" (9:10). Various events, such as the flood (1 Pt. 3:21), Red Sea crossing (1 Cor. 10:1—12; cf. Rom. 6:2ff), kingly anointing (1 Sam. 10:1ff), and return from exile (Ezek. 36:24ff; Isa. 44:3—4) should be interpreted in baptismal categories. If we took the time to trace these connections out, in each case we would find that the baptismal ceremonies/events had an efficacy appropriate to their place in redemptive history. For example, the flood really did cleanse the world (cf. 2 Pt. 3:5—7), and Noah is presented as a new Adam when he leaves the ark (Gen. 9:1, 7, 20).

(aaron— I do not want to be technical here, but if Noah was "presented as a new Adam" in Genesis 9, then Jesus would be called the third Adam rather than the “second”.)

The Red Sea crossing really did free Israel from the tyranny of Pharaoh. A Levitical baptism really did restore a former leper to participation in the cultic system of Israel. Aaron's ordination really granted him new standing and privileges before God and the people. Saul's anointing granted him the Spirit and kingly office, as well as making him a "new man" with a "new heart." In Ezekiel's prophecy of the new exodus, sprinkling with water is coordinated with being given a new heart. And so on. A complete biblical—theological account of baptismal efficacy would incorporate a full study of these Old Covenant rituals and occurrences and their typological significance. Unfortunately, such a study goes far beyond the scope of this paper.23.

In context, none of these passages teach baptism automatically guarantees salvation. But they do teach that God does a great work in baptism, a work that may be considered the beginnings of salvation for those God has elected to persevere to the end [24].

(aaron— I would like to be more specific with this above statement: "In context, none of these passages teach baptism automatically guarantees salvation. But they do teach that God does a great work in baptism, a work that may be considered the beginnings of salvation for those God has elected to persevere to the end".

It might read—(According to our Christian understanding), "none of these passages teach baptism automatically guarantees salvation. But they do teach that God does a great work in baptism, a work that may be considered the beginnings of salvation for those God has elected to persevere to the end".)

(aaron— The problem here as I see it, is that this Christian understanding is looking at salvation through the narrow lens that would include only God's invisible dispositions. They have mistakenly taken the special New Testament revelation and explanation of God's invisible dispositions—that culminate in this new work of God, and inappropriately tried to apply their understandings to the whole make-up of God's peoples. Their error begins with their failure to interpret these revealed truths concerning God's invisible dispositions through a close observation of God's first peoples Israel. Any achievable understanding of the complex identification of God's peoples must come first from our observation of His first peoples Israel.)  

24. If we may be permitted to return to our earlier discussion of the Westminster Confession on baptism, we should note that the divines stated not all receive the same degree of grace from baptism: Baptismal grace is conditioned "according to the counsel of God's own will" (WCF 28.6). However, we must never let our course of action be governed by guesses about God's secret election; the revealed will of God in Scripture must chart our course, including how we regard our fellow baptized covenant members. Unless we have good reason to doubt the regeneration of a baptized person, we should not do so. Covenant members are "innocent until proven guilty," so to speak.24.

(aaron— This is once again referring to Baptismal Regeneration plain and simple. They assume that all Covenant members are regenerated. Or better yet, in order to be counted as a Covenant member one must be regenerated. This error is the result of not properly identifying the complex characteristics of God’s peoples.)

Some Reformed theologians will argue that the passages we have looked at are not references to water baptism at all, but to an unmediated 'spiritual' baptism that takes place apart from any outward rite or ceremony. But, in my opinion, this is special pleading. The Bible says there is one baptism (Eph. 4:5), so splitting baptism up into a physical baptism and a spiritual baptism is illegitimate [25].

(aaron— Yet John the Baptist openly discussed the two characteristics of baptism. First, his visible water baptism unto repentance for the remission of sins. Second, Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. Baptism, like all of the other dispositions of God, has a complex character— having both a visible characteristic and an invisible characteristic. Additionally, Hebrews 6:2 refers to baptism in the plural—“Of the doctrine of baptisms”.)

25. Of course, I am not claiming this polemical point is the main thrust of Eph. 4:5, but it is one implication. Unfortunately, Sinclair Ferguson falls into this inner/outer (or spiritual/physical) baptism dichotomy in his book The Holy Spirit (195). The cases of Acts (e.g., 10:47) are not counter examples since they belong to a special, transitional period in redemptive history.25.

Moreover, virtually all the texts we have cited above show up in the prooftexts for the Westminster Standards as references to water baptism. While the prooftexts do not have authority, they do give us an idea of how the divines were reading these baptismal passages.

Another escape route some Reformed theologians seek to take, in their flight from sacramental efficacy, is to claim these rituals are mere pictures [26].

26. The following few pages are heavily indebted to Peter Leithart's work. One important piece can be found at


In his commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, G. I. Williamson writes, "The sacraments, then, are signs and seals. To understand this is to understand the sacraments' essential nature. But what is a sign? It is, in simplest terms, a picture, or symbol" [27].

27. Commentary on the Shorter Catechism 97.27.  

It is standard fare in Reformed systematic and confessional theology to describe baptism as a sign. While the Scriptures nowhere explicitly call baptism a sign, circumcision is called a sign, and by covenantal transfer, this language is appropriately applied to baptism (Gen. 17:11, Col. 2:11ff).

But what is meant when baptism is called a sign? Williamson claims that baptism is a sign in the sense that it "pictures" something. In popular Reformed sacramental theology, this model is used to evacuate the sacraments of their efficacy. Nothing actually happens when someone is baptized because, after all, it is "just a picture." Presumably, God does his real work of grace apart from the sacrament of baptism. Thus, whenever the Scriptures read, "Baptism does x", we conveniently read it as, "Baptism pictures/symbolizes x." But this notion of "sign" = "picture" needs to be challenged, along with the denigration of baptismal efficacy that it entails. Baptism does not merely picture something, it accomplishes something. If God intended for baptism to be a picture, he seemed to make a poor choice of rituals. The outward rite simply does not picture what baptism is said to do [28].

(aaron— It washes!

The picture that visible water baptism demonstrates is clearly stated by John the Baptist. It was a baptism unto repentance for the remission of sins. [Mark 1:1—8] Then it is a clear representation of what Jesus propitiatory work accomplished for us all. I would also agree that it would be representative of Jesus’ own baptism: in that, we are connected to Christ through our baptismal emulation. But then this complex baptism is so much more as we try to comprehend the incomprehensibleness of the invisible baptism of the Holy Spirit. The visible circumcision of the Old Testament was the identifying Covenant mark of God’s Old Testament institutional corporate peoples. Then after Christ’s example, the visible water baptism of the New Testament is the identifying Covenant mark of God’s New Testament institutional corporate peoples. Finally, the invisible baptism with the Holy Spirit /to be born of the Holy Spirit /born from above /Born anew /born again /or being regenerated, is the only identifying characteristic for God’s royal priesthood /His holy nation /the hidden Israel of God. This visible and invisible scenario holds true throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament dispensations.)

28. For the sake of argument, I am assuming pouring/sprinkling is the preferred mode of baptism.28.

Consider some test cases, drawn from the NT's declarations about baptism that we have already made reference to above:  

In Gal. 3:27, Paul claims, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Baptism is an investiture ceremony. This imagery for baptism is probably drawn from the OT priestly ordination ceremony, which involved a washing with water and a clothing rite (Lev. 8). Paul sees this Old Covenant ritual transformed into New Covenant baptism [29].

29. The writer of Hebrews makes the same connection in 10:19ff.29.  

But it is hard to see how putting water on someone's head "pictures" clothing with the priestly garment of Christ.

In Titus 3:5, Paul calls baptism "the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit." Baptism is the sacrament of the new birth. But it will not do to say that baptism "pictures" this new birth. I have had the joy of watching my wife give birth three times now, but never in the delivery room did I witness anything that looked remotely like a baptism. In no obvious way does baptism picture regeneration.  

(aaron— I agree— "In no obvious way does baptism picture regeneration"! But it does picture regeneration /baptized in the Holy Spirit, to the extent that John the Baptist explained it by identifying the one with the other. Mat.3:11, Mk.1:8, Lu.3:16)  

In Romans 6:1ff, Paul says we were united to Christ when we were baptized. Baptism is a kind of wedding ceremony, joining the one baptized to Christ in a covenantal relationship. But, again, the rite itself looks nothing like the covenant—making ceremony that it is said to be.  

(aaron— We are united with Christ in the sense that we, through baptism, have participated in Christ’s own baptismal example. We follow Christ through our emulation. Then like visible Circumcision in the Old Testament, water Baptism has become the New Testament institutional initiatory rite into the Abrahamic Covenant of Grace.)  

In 1 Cor. 12:13, Paul says, "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body," namely, the body of Christ. But once again the rite itself fails to picture incorporation into Christ's body. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how any ritual could picture such incorporation.  

(aaron— The incorporation here is much more. In addition to being incorporated into Christ’s body, we need first to be incorporated into God’s covenant peoples. Today’s Christian Church desperately needs an Institutional and a Covenantal understanding of God’s corporate peoples.)  

In 1 Peter 3, Peter declares that God saves us through baptism. Baptism is "not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God." In other words baptism is precisely not what it looks like! It may look like the outward washing of the body, but Peter says in reality, it is the washing of the conscience before God (cf. Acts 2:38, 22:16). In fact, if God intended baptism to simply picture this cleansing of conscience, it seems drinking water, rather than having it poured on the body, might have been a better choice of rites, since it is internal cleansing that is effected.  

(aaron— Visible water baptism is a visible representation of what God is doing on the inside of His peoples. We must understand that the total efficacy of all of God’s commanded rites and ceremonies is derived from the atoning work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Circumcision does not save anyone, nor does Baptism save anyone, but God saves all those He pleases through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our obedience to God’s commands positions us to receive the blessings that come only from God.)

I conclude from this evidence that if it is indeed legitimate to call baptism a sign, we should not think that "sign" = "picture" as Williamson claims. There may be a grain of truth in this view (i.e., the pouring of water could picture the pouring out of the Holy Spirit or the washing of forgiveness), but at most, the pictorial/symbolic function of baptism is very minimal. Indeed, this is why it is so important to keep baptism and the Word together: someone could never figure out what God is doing in baptism just by looking at the rite. The Word must accompany the sacramental action to explain what is happening.

(aaron— Once again, we are forgetting our starting point. If you truly want to understand the efficacy of visible water baptism, you must begin by trying to understand the efficacy that God established in Gen.17 for visible circumcision. Then the instructions on how we must understand the term “sign” are explained for us in Rom.4:” 9Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the Uncircumcision also? For we say, To Abraham his faith was counted for righteousness.


10How then was it counted? When he was in circumcision, or in Uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in Uncircumcision:


11and he received the [sign of Circumcision], [a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision]; that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be counted unto them; 12and the father of Circumcision to them who not only are of the Circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had in uncircumcision.” The visible initiatory rite—the Covenant sign of physical circumcision is the necessary visible example of something that was previously hidden in God—the invisible seal—the circumcision of the heart. Then for the New Testament Covenant sign, Baptism must be seen as the visible initiatory rite for the New Testament institutional Covenant peoples of God. Then Baptism, like Circumcision, must also be seen as a visible sign of an invisible seal—the invisible Baptism of the Holy Spirit. The bottom line is this—Abraham was given the Covenant “[sign of Circumcision]” as a visible example of the invisible “[seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision]”. Without the visible example—God’s “sigh” in Abraham’s flesh, it would be impossible to comprehend the invisible—God’s “seal” that was previously set upon Abraham’s heart.)

What then do we mean when we call baptism a sign? The Bible nowhere defines the term sign, though the gospel of John comes close. In John, Jesus' miracles are called signs. These are not mere pictures of God's saving grace, but powerful, transforming actions of God. Through these signs, the new creation is brought into being. We could possibly develop a biblical theology of signs from John's gospel that would then feed into our sacramental theology. Such an exercise might prove quite fruitful.

But, following Richard Flinn, Peter Leithart, and several other scholars, I propose looking at the meaning of "sign" in a different light. The study of signs (called semiotics) has shown that humans use verbal signs not merely to describe the world, but to change the world. Words are used not only passively, but actively. These "performative speech acts" include a judge's "Guilty!," a minister's "I now declare you husband and wife," and so forth. When language of this sort is used, a person's status is transformed. One minute a man is still considered innocent before the court of law. But then the judge bangs down his gavel and pronounces the sentence. From that time on, his standing has changed. One minute a man is still a bachelor. But then the minister utters a sentence and suddenly he finds himself covenantally bound to a woman in marriage, with all the attendant duties and privileges [30].

30. Of course, the ultimate speech act is the creation of the heavens and earth (Gen. 1). Our performative/creative speech acts are one way in which we image our Creator.30.

I suggest sacramental signs can be helpfully understood in the light of this semiotic understanding of speech acts. In fact, this analogy between the sacramental acts of God and speech acts has a long history, going back at least to Augustine, who called the sacraments, "God's visible words." Speech acts and ritual acts are not radically different. Rather, they are on a continuum.

(aaron— This particular line of reasoning is a bit far fetched in my opinion, and simply adds to our present religious conundrum.)

To illustrate, consider what happens when a baptized person apostatizes (what we might call the "negative" efficacy of baptism). John Murray helpfully distinguished between the intended effect and the actual effect of a sacrament. God's intention in baptism is always blessing. But an unfaithful response on the part of the recipient will make the actual effect intensified curse. J. L. Austin, a linguistic philosopher, suggested that in analyzing speech acts, we must distinguish between illocution and perlocution.  Flinn explains: "In any meaningful communication or action there is an effect intended by the actor; there is also an actual effect which may be different. For example, if I ask, 'Do you think the banks will collapse tomorrow?' the illocution may well be to acquire otherwise innocent information. But it may have the effect of creating panic in my hearers' ears" [31].

(aaron— The unfortunate thing from the above statement, is that of picturing baptism as a variable sacrament: That a recipient’s actions could affect the efficacy of their baptism. I see no such variation mentioned for the efficacy of the sacrament of visible Circumcision. Even though all did not have a Circumcised Heart, their physical Circumcision justified them as member of God’s institutional corporate peoples. I would content that this faulted view is the result of the amalgamation of Justification and Sanctification.)

31. "Baptism, Redemptive History, and Eschatology," 129, in The Failure of American Baptist Culture.31.

The illocution of baptism is blessing, but for covenant breakers, the perlocution is magnified judgment [32].

32. Of course, ultimately, both the illocution and perlocution of the means of grace are under the sovereign rule of God. God foreordains covenant breaking, even though he is not the author of it. But we must insist that God's intention in baptism is always to bless, even as he sincerely offers salvation to all who hear the gospel preached. Those who reject the means of grace will only have increased their punishment and have no one to blame but themselves.32.

(aaron— All of this reasoning is where the Church is deciding to play God by telling us how God reacts to differing circumstances. It would seem that they know precisely where God's grace and mercy begins and ends. "Negative efficacy"? "Intended effect and actual effect"? These same folk probably would have concluded that the prodigal son was lost forever. At least they finally recognized that God was ultimately in charge of everything—maybe even surrendering their all-knowing wisdom.

Visible baptism is the commanded Covenant initiatory rite that God established for the promulgation of His New Testament institutional Church [Congregation]. Then visible baptism is also a visible example of something that is always invisible—the baptism of the Holy Spirit as it was so clearly predicted by John the Baptist.)

So, Williamson is correct: baptism is a sign. But this doesn't empty baptism of its efficacy. Indeed, just the opposite. Baptism, along with other sign actions of God, is an effectual means of grace to believers. As we sing of the church, "she is his new creation by water and the Word." None of the NT baptismal texts we have surveyed even hint that the rite is simply an ineffectual picture or symbol, nor do they give the impression that the efficacy attributed to baptism may take [s] place before or after the administration of the rite itself. These would have to be presuppositions read into, not out of, the texts themselves. We are driven to conclude, therefore, that God gives what he promises in baptism, that, as Calvin says, "he effects and performs what he figures."

(aaron— The efficacy for the initiatory rite of visible water baptism is present there in spite of these many confusing words that these folk interject. Their real problem comes from their attempt to amalgamate the visible water baptism with the invisible regenerative process /or being born anew that is a function commonly known as God's Spiritual baptism. Calvin is correct in what he says about God— "he effects and performs what he figures." But it is not reasonable to conclude that visible baptism and invisible regeneration are necessarily always a combined function. That is, the visible water baptism is only the first step in a very long pilgrimage within God’s visible institution. Then all who receive the visible water baptism do not necessarily receive the invisible baptism of the Holy Spirit, nor is invisible baptism of the Holy Spirit Covenantally required for salvation. This is exactly the same scenario as the Old Testament’s visible and invisible Circumcisions.)



At this point, some of my readers are probably ready to throw this paper down: "You can't be Reformed and believe in baptismal regeneration! That's Lutheran, or even Romish!" But patience is needed if we are to attain mutual understanding and like—mindedness.

(aaron— The first thing that needs to be done towards advancing this discussion in the proper direction, is to precisely define the origin and function of both visible baptism and invisible baptism /or invisible regeneration. Might I suggest that we start with a precise understanding of the origin and function of both visible circumcision and invisible circumcision /or invisible regeneration.)

Part of the problem is the meaning of the term "regeneration," which has been anything but stable in the development of Reformed theology. The term has acquired a fixed and narrow meaning in modern Reformed scholasticism and its popularized twentieth century spin—offs, but it was not always so. In the Bible, the term "regeneration" is used only twice: In Mt. 19:28, to refer to the renewal of the whole cosmos, and in Titus 3:5, in reference to baptism(!) [33].

33. Note that the Westminster divines used Titus 3:5 as a prooftext for their teaching on the benefits God signs, seals, and confers in water baptism. See also Saved By Grace by Anthony Hoekema (93ff) and The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson (116ff) on the fluidity of "regeneration" as a theological term.33.  

For Calvin and the early Reformers, "regeneration" usually referred to our total renewal in God's image, including conversion and growth in Christ—likeness [34].

(aaron— It would appear that the early Reformers were looking at "regeneration" in a more realistic way. "Growth in Christ—likeness" would necessitate some individual developmental movement down the long road of sanctification. But to suggest that we experienced "our total renewal in God’s image" at one moment in time would be somewhat of an over simplification. But if we understand Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, our regeneration must be seen as separate from the reception of our monergistic justifying faith—or believing faith.)

34. See Institutes, 3.3, and Belgic Confession 24. For first generation Reformers, therefore, it was appropriate to refer to "regeneration by faith." This was not anything like Arminian "decisional regeneration," since they firmly believed faith itself was a gift of sovereign grace.34.

(aaron— The Belgic Confession makes a clear distinction between God’s initial gift of monergistic justification and then God’s subsequent gift of His synergistic sanctifying grace that enables us, with the help of His Holy Spirit, to grow in His grace and to do the works.

You can surely see the potential for blurring this necessary line between God's monergistic justification and God's synergistic sanctification. I would suggest that the visible water baptism and the invisible Spirit baptism are in fact independent actions within God’s redemptive plan and should be seen as functionally diverse.)

In Institutes 3.3.1, Calvin wrote, "I interpret repentance as regeneration whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God....[T]his restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances." In the early seventeenth century, the Synod of Dordt whittled the meaning of the term down to conversion alone [35].

35. Canons of Dordt, III—IV, 11 and 12.35.

(aaron— The Reformers always recognized some evident differences within the Church. As an example from John Calvin, he said that the sanctification process is "sometimes even slow advances" that happens over a long period of time.)

Soon after that, Reformed scholastics developed a full blown ordo salutis, distinguishing between the implantation of new life and the first manifestations of that life in faith and repentance, nominating only the former "regeneration." In this scheme, regeneration is often a secret, unmediated work of God, under—girding and producing conversion.

Finally, some contemporary theologians have called for a return to something similar to the earlier, Calvinian meaning, though with a biblical—theological twist. Richard Gaffin argues that "in Paul, the notion of having been raised with Christ [which is usually treated as synonymous with regeneration] does not correspond more or less exactly to the dogmatic conception of regeneration... Paul writes expressly that believers have been raised up with Christ 'through faith'...Unlike the traditional ordo salutis Paul explicates the inception of the application of redemption without recourse to the terminology of regeneration...understood as 'a communication of a new principle of life'" [36].

(aaron— Much care must be taken when we read the Apostle Paul’s New Testament exhortations for the Christian Church. That is, I would resist the temptation for making Paul’s exhortations into Christian doctrinal standards. In many cases, such as the afore mentioned case of "being raised together with Christ", the Apostle Paul, as in many other cases, is reminding the brethren to persevere in who they are in Christ—to resist slipping back into their old sinful habits. I am still having some difficulty with establishing these exhortations from the Apostle Paul as universal doctrinal standards for the Church, though I could be wrong.

So then for our Reformed friends, we need to refine our definition of "regeneration". By following Calvin’s proposition— ‘In Institutes 3.3.1, Calvin wrote, "I interpret repentance as regeneration whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God....[T]his restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances."’

Calvin’s statement here was giving "regeneration" a much broader functional definition than that of Jesus. Could I suggest that what Jesus seemed to define as an event in John 3, Calvin has essentially expanded the definition into more of a process? This simply demonstrates the complexities that are involved in our defining this important term.

Since Nicodemus was an active believer in Jehovah before he came to this secluded meeting with Jesus, common sense should tell us that the "regeneration" /or to be born from above experience that Jesus was referring to in John 3, was something that followed, or built upon, God’s monergistic justification.)

36. Resurrection and Redemption, 128, 140. On 141, Gaffin says the scholastic conception of regeneration, while guarding Paul's notion of the absolute graciousness of salvation, actually "works as something foreign and extraneous in comparison with Paul's ordo." Sinclair Ferguson has provided a very helpful summary of Gaffin's reworked Christocentric ordo in chapter 5 of The Holy Spirit.36.

The problems, then, should be obvious. Not only is there a bifurcation between the way "regeneration" is used in the Bible and dogmatic theology, but dogmaticians themselves have not agreed on the proper theological definition of this key term. So whether or not a given version of "baptismal regeneration" is valid depends largely on which theological vocabulary one has chosen to work with.

(aaron— To use the word "bifurcation" in explaining the way that theologians are trying to explain "regeneration" is really quite appropriate. They attempt to incorporate the invisible baptism of the Holy Spirit with /or along side of the visible water baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Which is most commonly known in Christian circles as "baptismal regeneration". That is, they desire that the two, the visible water baptism and the invisible Spirit baptism, function together as one in the salvation process.

It is necessary for us to understand that even though visible water baptism has God’s life changing Spirit (God’s monergistic gift of justifying faith) functionally present there in the ordnance, this Spiritual presence that conveys our believing faith to us is not the same as regeneration.

But if you desire to incorporate regeneration in with visible water baptism, interpreted as "baptismal regeneration", we should then give additional definition to this term "regeneration". The initial regeneration of the Spirit, the monergistic justification that comes as a gift from God, instills within us a basic understanding of the Creator God. This is that essential spiritual renewal that is necessary for the individual to progress on in God’s synergistic sanctification process. Finally, the baptism of the Holy Spirit must be seen as a second work of God’s Spirit. This baptism of the Holy Spirit moves the individual onto a higher spiritual plain that establishes all those who belong to God’s royal priesthood and His hidden kingdom.)

If regeneration is taken in the Protestant scholastic sense, "baptismal regeneration" is absurd, since it would mean that each and every person baptized was eternally elect and eternally saved.

(aaron— Please notice the specific detail that is being attached to this term "regeneration"? "Regeneration", in my opinion, correctly identifies the chosen of God and means that every "regenerated" individual is "elect and saved". These would represent God’s royal priesthood—the holy sons of God /the children of God /the saints of God—the 10% of the Congregation. But the problem that confronts many within today’s Christian Church, is with the salvation status of all those called out non-elect ones who are the baptized institutional members of the many denominations—the 90% of the Congregation.)

Obviously, the earlier Reformed theologians who spoke freely of "baptismal regeneration" did not have this kind of monstrosity in mind. Instead, their understanding of regeneration was something less specific, more open ended.

(aaron— This last statement essentially explains the quandary in which the Church in general and Reformed theologians in particular now find themselves. In order for them to use the "baptismal regeneration" terminology, requires them to say that "their understanding of regeneration was something less specific, more open ended." "Regeneration in this broader, generic (shall we say "covenantal"?) sense". Any time we attempt to generalize the meaning of these important dispositions of God, we are in danger of theologically setting ourselves adrift. We usually end up spiritualizing the Scriptures in order to explain our numerous concocted ideas on theology.)

Regeneration in this broader, generic (shall we say "covenantal"?) sense can be found in passages like Matthew 13:21—22 and Hebrews 6:7—8. In the Parable of the Sower, the stony ground hearer receives the seed and new life springs forth. Something living is there that was not before. But when crises come, that new life withers away. Similarly, Hebrews 6:7—8, in the context of issuing a warning against apostasy, speaks of the earth (a natural allusion to humans, in light of Gen. 2:7) drinking in rain (an obvious allusion to baptism) and producing a living plant. But the blessing of baptismal rain is in itself no guarantee of a good crop. The new life may bear great fruit, unto blessing, or thorns and thistles, unto cursing [37].

37. For more on this passage, see my paper "Hebrews 6:4—8: New Life and Apostasy," available at . On the relationship between election, regeneration, and the sacraments, consider also the words of Leithart (from Daddy, Why Was I Excommunicated?): "In order to understand what baptism actually brings into effect, our thinking must be continually guided, as Cornelius Van Til insisted, by the Creator/creature distinction. Translated into sacramental theology, the Creator/creature distinction means that we must distinguish between membership in the covenant and eternal election to salvation. Election is the Creator's business; the covenant is the creature's business.

(aaron— This is a very interesting statement— "Translated into sacramental theology, the Creator/creature distinction means that we must distinguish between membership in the covenant and eternal election to salvation. Election is the Creator's business; the covenant is the creature's business." Interesting, because it would seem to suggest that there is no efficacy in the creature belonging to the covenant. For some unknown reason, they have concluded that the God established Abrahamic Covenant, that is presently being fulfilled in the Blessed Seed—Jesus, is somehow wholly the business of the creatures. Or, the creature has the complete control/responsibility over the visible covenant, with no apparent eternal benefits available. For these folk, it would seem that salvation /or eternal life is to be found only in the elect— "Creator/creature distinction means that we must distinguish between membership in the covenant and eternal election to salvation". This quote essentially points out my main points that I believe to be a discrepancy.

This is as good a time as any to establish the fact that only the invisible elect are in fact regenerated /or baptized by the Holy Spirit, and only the regenerate are in fact the invisible elect—as the invisible elect priests of God.

While it is true that election/regeneration carries with it the assurance of eternal life that is reflected in and understood by the Christian Church as the perseverance of the saints, we must be careful when we suggest some sort of falling away of the regenerate. Even though some Christian perspectives might arrive at this conclusion, they are woefully lacking in any substance or detail.

It is very dangerous for us to summarily expand the definition of regeneration, as was suggested we do through their examples of Matthew 13:21—22 and Hebrews 6:7—8. "Regeneration in this broader, generic (shall we say "covenantal"?) sense can be found in passages like Matthew 13:21—22 and Hebrews 6:7—8." "But the blessing of baptismal rain is in itself no guarantee of a good crop. The new life may bear great fruit, unto blessing, or thorns and thistles, unto cursing." As far as these folk are concerned, this interpretation would explain the obvious people differences that we see in nearly every Congregation.

But there is a much better answer to these evident people differences that we presently see in the Congregations. It was once explained early on in Church history as The Little Church Within The Church—Ekklesola en ekklesia. What that actually meant, was that there is the possibility of two distinct people groups within every Congregation. The small 10% group [The Little Church/ or ekklesola] would be representative of only the chosen invisible elect priests of God. Then the larger 90% group [The institutional Church—collective /or ekklesia] would be representative of the called visible elect peoples of God /or God's institutional corporate peoples. We must also keep in mind, that all of the invisible elect must come through, and remain an integral part of, the visible elect institutional corporate peoples of God.  

So the key to understanding the complex identification of God's Covenant peoples is to understand that all of God's peoples are elect, but that all of the elect are not necessarily the same people-group. This principle is best explained in Romans 11: "28As touching the gospel, they [the visible peoples of Israel] are enemies for your [you Gentiles] sake: but as touching the election, they [the visible peoples of Israel] are beloved for the fathers’ sake." From this, we understand that God's election has a complex definition. First, God's election has general application to the institutional corporate peoples of God—"as touching the election, they [the visible peoples of Israel] are beloved for the fathers’ sake.". Consequently, we can begin to understanding this broader principle only through our observation of God's first peoples Israel. We can then extrapolate the balance of this complex definition from the additional information in Romans 11: "1I say then, Did God cast off his people [visible Israel]? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God did not cast off his people [visible Israel] which he foreknew. Or know you not what the scripture said of Elijah? how he pleaded with God against Israel: 3Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have pulled down your altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. 4But what says the answer of God unto him? I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal. 5Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6But if it is by grace, it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise works is no longer works. 7What then? that which Israel seeks for, that he obtained not; but the election obtained it, and the rest were hardened: 8according as it is written, God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, unto this very day. 9And David said, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, And a stumblingblock, and a recompense unto them: 10Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, And bow you down their back always."

Only by our observation of God's first peoples Israel, can we hope to discover that God has intentionally divided Israel into two distinctively different people groups. One people group is described as somewhat small, that the Scriptures identify here as the "remnant".

Then the second people group is described as somewhat larger, that the Scriptures then identify as the "rest". Matter of fact, this is the only possible solution to properly understanding this complex definition for God's peoples. So then by observing our predecessors—God's first peoples Israel, I would suggest that we interpret the "rest" as representative of God's visible elect—the visible institutional corporate peoples of God—the many called—out—one’s. Then I would also suggest that we interpret the "remnant" as representative of God's invisible elect—the invisible elect priesthood of God—the few chosen one’s. Mat.22:14, Rom.9:6-8

Now in my humble opinion, the theological confusion that presently exists within the Christian Church, especially within the areas of baptism and eschatology, is the clear evidence of some deficiency in understanding. In many instances, Christian theologians tend to over simplify some things while they over interpret others.)

God orders all things after the counsel of his own unconditioned will; we are to order our lives and the church in conformity with the demands, signs, and sanctions of the covenant. The Creator saves sinner; the covenant signs and seals that the church administers are means of blessing.

The Creator's plans and works cannot be resisted;

the church's administration of the covenant can be resisted.

One cannot be eternally elect and fall from grace; but one can enter into the covenant and apostatize.

(aaron— This reasoning, in my opinion, is not realistic when we consider all of the Scriptures. It suggests that there is a segment of the Christian Church that is being controlled by the creature. We all know, especially within the Reformed tradition, that, outside of God’s grace through Christ’s propitiatory work upon the cross, we are all totally depraved and without any hope in this world.)

The distinction between covenant and election is basic to the Reformed theology of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Baptism is a covenant administration. It is not a guarantee of eternal salvation; instead it is a sign of the covenant.

(aaron— This assumption is the result of their restricted understanding of election, regeneration, and salvation. Abrahamic Covenant theology says that you are saved by belonging to the institutional peoples of God—having obediently participated in God’s commanded visible initiatory rites. Gen.17:1-27)

What baptism actually brings into effect is immediate entrance into the covenant and the institutional covenant community of the church. Because the baptized person becomes a member of Christ's Church, he is identified with Christ.

The baptized person is, covenantally speaking, a Christian.)

True, the baptized person may not persevere in the faith. He may taste of the heavenly gift and fall away (Heb. 6). The backslidden Christian had real life, a real participation in Christ, and the powers of the age to come. Yet his was not an eternal participation in Christ. Ultimately (in terms of election), he goes out from Christ because he is not really of Christ (1 Jn. 2:19).

(aaron— Though these passages are sure warnings for every Christian to heed, one must be very careful when one decides to make any judgments upon the others concerning these potential pitfalls. What they are stating is this—I am in good stead with God and am assured of my place, but sadly they are not. It would seem that the pious uses these passages is to judgmentally stand on the backs of others.)

Though covenant and election must be distinguished, however, they ought not to be separated. By persevering in faithfulness to the covenant (which is possible only in the power of the Spirit), one works out his election with fear and trembling. By the power of the Spirit, the covenant signs and seals and the Word lead men and women into saving fellowship with God. Engrafted into Christ and his church, by baptism, a child may grow quickly, only to wither and die. Or, the elect child may grow to produce fruit 30—, 60—, or 100—fold (Mt. 13). In the meantime, even the reprobate receives non—salvific blessing from baptism and membership in the church." Note that Scripture's warnings against apostasy (almost) never call into question whether or not grace was actually received by those who are the subject of the warnings (e.g., Mt. 13:22, 18:32; Jn. 15:1ff; Rom. 11:17ff; 1 Cor. 10:1ff; 2 Cor. 6:1; Gal. 5:4; Col. 1:21—23; 1 Tim. 1:19—20; Hebrews 2—4, 6:4—8, 10:26ff, 12:25ff; 2 Pt. 2:1; Jude 5; Rev. 2—3, 22:19). Rather, the warnings call into question whether or not the readers will continue in that grace by persevering faith. Those who do fall away are not portrayed as having never possessed any blessings at all, but as having spurned and forsaken those blessings (cf. Mt. 21:43).37.

(aaron— The mistake that I see here, is with the conclusions that these folk have reached when reading these selected passages. They are trying to interpret all of these passages as having eternal consequences for those within the Church— "Rather, the warnings call into question whether or not the readers will continue in that grace by persevering faith. Those who do fall away are not portrayed as having never possessed any blessings at all, but as having spurned and forsaken those blessings (cf. Mt. 21:43)." When in many cases, these passages are intended as warnings of some pending consequences for God's peoples, not necessarily an eternal judgment that we might properly comprehend as fitting for others.)

This, then, is the point: God blesses us in baptism with new life, though baptism itself does not guarantee perseverance. Thus, we must combine the waters of baptism with enduring faith (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1—12). If not, the heavenly waters God has poured out upon us will drown us in a flood of judgment [38].

(aaron— The uncertainty that this reasoning genders is almost overwhelming! This is especially true, since we are all totally depraved and unable of ourselves to do anything good. If any of the eternal responsibility is placed upon even one of us, our efforts are certain to always fail. Their reasoning is forcing the reader into a form of works doctrine.)

38. On covenant conditionality, see Norman Shepherd's book Call of Grace, Cornelius van der Waal's book The Covenantal Gospel, Joel Garver's paper on apostasy at, Mark Hornes's study on baptism at , and Dennis Bratcher's work on the covenant at . In short, the essence of covenant keeping is promise believing. To speak of conditions is not to lapse into Arminianism because the covenant is completely undergirded by God's sovereign plan of election unto life and reprobation unto death.

(aaron— This idea of Double—predestination comes from a presumptive conclusion that was originally promulgated very early on by St. Augustine. Double—predestination presumes to know the mind of God. They assume that they fully understand "God's sovereign plan of election unto life and reprobation unto death". I would suggest that this speculative theology lacks sufficient Scriptural support to achieve any sort of doctrinal standard within the Church.)

Arminians act as if there were only conditions, and no divine plan or irresistible grace. Extreme Calvinists act as if there were only a divine plan, but no covenant conditions. Both are distortions of the structure of the covenant as revealed in Scripture and taught by the classical Reformers. The covenant is conditional, but the demands of the covenant are only met by grace through faith.

(aaron— I would agree with this last statement—"the demands of the covenant are only met by grace through faith", as it is best revealed in Ephesians 2:8—9.

Suggesting that the covenant is "conditional" is a product of their confusion that surrounds their understanding of baptism and regeneration. We have failed to step back and thoughtfully observe our Old Testament example Israel. I would suggest that the covenant that God established with father Abraham in Genesis 17:1—27 was certainly not conditional. There, their institutional initiation into the covenant was all that was required for them and their families to be saved into the institutional peoples of God.)

In the case of baptism, we may say that receiving blessing is not conditional, but continuing in that blessing is. Hence, the continual exhortations in Scripture for the people of God to persevere and live out their baptisms (or, in the language of WLC, to "improve" their baptisms; cf. Rom. 6:1ff).38.

(aaron— Now since Reformed tradition tells us that we are totally depraved and incapable of doing anything good in the sight of God, how do you expect them to "improve" their baptisms?)

All this is to show that the debate over "baptismal regeneration" is not what it appears to be at first glance. Indeed, careful definition of terms is needed, lest we simply talk past each other. However, we must remember that our classical Protestant forebears were very much at home in the strong, efficacious biblical language. If red flags go up for us when we hear things like "God saved you in baptism" (cf. 1 Peter 3:20—21) or "God clothed you with Christ in baptism" (cf. Gal. 3:27), we need to rethink our baptismal theology and bring it more in line with the teaching of God's Word. At stake is our whole understanding of how God works salvation in the world.

(aaron— This is an excellent statement, as it identifies much of the difficulty that surrounds these complex issues. But it is the last sentence that caught my eye— "At stake is our whole understanding of how God works salvation in the world". After some recent experience within an interfaith forum that included Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I have a new appreciation for God's universal reconciliation. One of the first things that I noticed was the similarities of the attitudes between these three world religions and the attitudes between Christian denominations. That is, each believes that they are theologically correct while they see the others as being wrong minded in one thing or another. While my studies had apprised me of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, I did have some difficulty understanding the Islamic role in God's reconciliation. At one point, I made this declaration for the group— Judaism is Judaism, Christianity is Christianity, and Islam is Islam, and that these three religions were never intended to be the same. Judaism will always see things from the Jewish perspective. Christians will always see things from the Christian perspective. And Islam will always see things from the Islamic perspective. Since the Muslims are famous for telling the Christians what is true and what is false in Christianity, many times I was compelled to inform them that what the Christian Church believed was really none of their concern. That as a matter of Scriptural fact, they were not given the capacity to even comprehend the Spiritual truths of Christianity. If I understand John 16:2b correctly, from a Christian perspective, the Muslims could be the group that Jesus was referring to— "yes, the hour will come, that whosoever kills you shall think that he offers service unto God." I am not completely sure how the Muslims justify what they are doing, but it would more than seem that they are trying to destroy the Jewish and Christian religions. I get a sinking feeling it is simply for their-own legitimization.)



While "baptismal regeneration" has largely been eclipsed in the Reformed world, there are signs that biblical and traditional formulations are being revived. For several decades Norman Shepherd, former seminary professor at Westminster in Philadelphia and CRC pastor, has argued for a covenantal form of baptismal regeneration. In his recent book, he writes, "Baptism is the moment when we see the transition from death to life and a person is saved...This covenant sign and seal marks his conversion and his entrance into the church as the body of Christ.

From the perspective of the covenant, he is united to Christ when he is baptized...Baptism [also] marks the entrance into the kingdom of God and the beginning of life—long training as kingdom subjects. According to the Great Commission, conversion without baptism is an anomaly. A sinner is not really 'converted' until he is baptized...[Covenantally], Christians are those who have been baptized. Unbelievers are those who have not been baptized" [39].

(aaron— Even though I do not believe that a full understanding of the complex identification of God's peoples has been achieved within New Testament theology, they are, nevertheless, much closer with their understand than they realize. That is, establishing efficacy for visible water baptism is a good starting point. By following the clear example of the covenantal efficacy of visible circumcision in the Old Testament [Gen.17:1-27], we can say with absolutely certainty that "[Covenantally], Christians are those who have been baptized." This is not suggesting that they are also regenerated /or born from above. This is not suggesting that these Christians are a part of the elect priesthood of God. They are just one of the Christian sheep of Mat.25 that will inherit the Kingdom upon the New Earth.)

39. Call of Grace.39.

Shepherd acknowledges that we do not have access to God's eternal decree and cannot read hearts, so we can never tell in an absolute sense who is elect and regenerate. These are secret things that belong to the Lord alone (cf. Dt. 29:29, 2 Tim. 2:19). Therefore, we must always evaluate people in terms [of] what has been revealed, namely their covenant status [40].

(aaron— Once again, I would generally agree with this last statement, but we must pay particular attention to what they mean when they say—"Therefore, we must always evaluate people in terms [of] what has been revealed, namely their covenant status".

There is also a problem concerning their conclusion that only the regenerated elect are to be counted as members within Christ’s Church. Our consideration of "the remnant" and "the rest" as covenant parts should give us pause in any such conclusion.)

40. Again, Shepherd: "In Eph. 1, Paul writes from the perspective of observable covenant reality, and concludes from the visible faith and sanctity of the Ephesians that they are the elect of God. He addresses them and encourages them to think of themselves as elect.

(aaron— I would suggest that there is a high probability that Paul is defining two separate groups in this epistle to the Ephesians— "to the saints that are at Ephesus,” as one group and “the faithful in Christ Jesus:” as the second. That is, all of "the faithful in Christ Jesus" are not necessarily "the elect" priesthood, but all of the "the elect" priesthood are a part of "the faithful in Christ Jesus".

One must be very careful not to read more into something than is intended. I would also suggest that the majority of Paul's epistles are written in the form of exhortations concerning the battle between the flesh and the spirit that every Christian must be actively engaged in, not defining who is elect and who is a reprobate. It is a huge mistake to travel down that uncertain judgmental path. The biggest challenge that confronts the readers of Paul’s epistles, is to correctly discriminate between which group Paul is addressing in his writings: Is he addressing the invisible elect priesthood or is he addressing the visible institutional corporate body?

Since this special election that they are describing originates only from the hand of God, the act of just telling yourself that you are elect does not automatically make you a member of God's invisible elect priesthood. The Scriptures plainly tell us that it is only the Holy Spirit that gives us witness to this positional fact. Rom.8:16)

A Reformed pastor can and must do the same today....It is true that some in the congregation may fall away and leave the church. Paul issues warnings in view of that possibility. Were some to fall away, he would no longer speak of them as elect of God. However, he would not confess that 'unfortunately' his initial judgment had been wrong. There is nothing unfortunate about the fact that we do not have insight into the eternal decree of God and therefore cannot make infallible judgments about the elect or reprobate state of people...Paul is right to address the saints and faithful in Ephesus as elect, and at the same time, he is right to warn them against apostasy."

(aaron— First, Paul never made such a statement— "Paul is right to address the saints and faithful in Ephesus as elect". The only place that Paul exhorts the "elect" in this way is Colossians 3:12. Then if the elect are eternally secure as Reformed tradition teaches, I would ask this question—what is the point of warning them against apostasy?)

As Shepherd points out, in the Reformed church, the election perspective often swallows up the covenant perspective, such that election nullifies covenant.

(aaron— This last statement is absolutely true. But comparing election and covenant is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. In all cases, the elect make—up a very small portion of the institutional covenant peoples of God—a critical point that the Church needs to understand.)

Actually, the Bible speaks of election from the perspective of the covenant more often than the reverse. Thus, we should follow Paul's example in referring to fellow covenant members as elect in Christ, regenerated, etc., even as we warn one another of the dangers of falling away (cf. Eph. 1:3ff and Acts 20:17—31; Rom. 8:31ff and 11:17ff).

(aaron— Once again I am constrained to point out the needless uncertainty that this last statement promotes. So if we are to "warn one another of the dangers of falling away", then God's certain promises would become very tenuous at best. And because of this, I would totally disagree with their assessment of what these Scriptures might mean.)  

Shepherd is certainly in good company in formulating the relationship between covenant and election as he does. See, e.g., Burges' Baptismal Regeneration of Elect Infants, 25 and J. van Genderen's Covenant and Election.40.

But for Shepherd, this is not a matter of presuming or pretending. It is not an unfounded "judgment of charity." The covenant is not to be understood as a merely formal, external relation. Rather, it is a living bond of fellowship, in which God and his people are united together in ties of mutual love and faithfulness. The covenant, in short, is a saving (albeit conditional) relationship.

(aaron— As well intended as these comments are supposed to be, I still shudder every time that I see them refer to the Covenant in terms of "conditional". Even though I might describe the Covenant a bit differently, their description had some very good points until the last sentence—"The covenant, in short, is a saving (albeit conditional) relationship." Their supposed "conditional" part of this Covenant relationship is an impossible dilemma for the creature to resolve. Are you to go through life wondering if you belong to the family of God or if you are saved? I think not! This statement is rather short sighted at best because the word "conditional" would surly make God's free and unmerited grace somewhat suspect.)

"Joining the church," therefore, is not like joining some club or voluntary organization. The church is God's new creation, the new humanity formed in Christ. The covenant community is the sphere of Christ's presence and the Spirit's work, such that, to be "in the church" is to be "in Christ" and "in the Spirit" [41].

(aaron— I would caution those who would attempt to neatly package God's Covenant Congregation in any simplistic way— 'The covenant community is the sphere of Christ's presence and the Spirit's work, such that, to be "in the church" is to be "in Christ" and "in the Spirit".' The simplicity I am referring to is in the suggestion that God's Covenant Congregation can be properly defined within this singularity that we know as the Christian Church. I would call this attempt to define God's Covenant peoples as an oversimplification. This is an attempt to define God's Covenant peoples from only the Christian perspective. All of these things are certainly true within the Christian Church, but at the same time it fails to recognize the larger picture within the Abrahamic Covenant and the complex character of God's institutional Covenant peoples.)

41. Shepherd's close linkage of covenant, church, and salvation has unquestionable biblical and confessional support. In WSC 85, three things are required of us for salvation: faith, repentance, and diligent use of the outward means of grace. Note how the catechism's answer squares with Acts 2:14—47: The people believed what Peter preached to them, repented of their sin, and were baptized. This package of blessings is coordinated with entrance into the church and is called salvation (2:47). The catechism, following Acts 2, affirms the means of grace and church membership are ordinarily necessary to receive eternal life, not because these means are efficacious in themselves to produce salvation, but because Christ communicates, or bestows, his redemptive mercy through them. Indeed, it [xinx] is the ordained practices of the church (Word, sacrament, prayer) that Christ's promise to be with his people is most directly manifest (cf. Mt. 18:20).41. God's eternal decree of salvation comes to manifestation and fruition in the context of the church and her ordinances.

(aaron— This is certainly a good text for understanding adult baptism "The people believed what Peter preached to them, repented of their sin, and were baptized." But with some Christian groups, Baptist for example, it has become the only standard that is required for entering the Church.

But for our benefit and understanding the efficacy of infant baptism, we should find great solace in the fact that "The catechism, following Acts 2, affirms the means of grace and church membership are ordinarily necessary to receive eternal life, not because these means are efficacious in themselves to produce salvation, but because Christ communicates, or bestows, his redemptive mercy through them." I especially like the part where "Christ communicates, or bestows, his redemptive mercy through them". Now if "Christ communicates, or bestows, his redemptive mercy through them"— "the means of grace and church membership", how can one even suggest that there is no efficacy in "the [sacramental] means of grace and church membership"? This is the exact careless presumption that I am presently calling into question.)

In the PCA, Preston Graham has published a small work entitled A Baptism That Saves, in which he puts forth a baptismal regeneration position very similar to that of Westminster divine Cornelius Burges. Graham argues baptism is efficacious unto salvation for the elect.

(aaron— First, the present day Protestant Church has determined that only the elect are to inherit eternal life. Then the present day Protestant Church determines that only the elect babies are actually regenerated through their baptism. Which is a clear form of "baptismal regeneration". But it is not really "baptismal regeneration" in the strictest sense, because this efficacy applies only to the elect—who are apparently already regenerated by God. It does get a bit confusing, especially when you try to dot all of the theological I’s and cross all of the theological T’s. Needless to day, all of the elect priests are regenerated.)

Following the Westminster Confession, he claims redeeming grace is conferred through the instrumentality of baptism. He writes, "The seal of baptism both 'marks out' a person in the outward sense of entering him or her into the covenant community, while conferring upon the elect saving grace effected by the Holy Spirit unto regeneration...

(aaron— The problems begin here when the Church attempts to explain God's precise actions in the salvation process. They believe that they have it all figured out— "He writes, "The seal of baptism both 'marks out' a person in the outward sense of entering him or her into the covenant community, while conferring upon the elect saving grace effected by the Holy Spirit unto regeneration..." The first part is obvious. The sign of visible water baptism "'marks out' a person in the outward sense of entering him or her into the covenant community". But the second part is a bit more difficult. Considering God's sealing action of "conferring upon the elect saving grace effected by the Holy Spirit unto regeneration". So do we have that capacity to precisely predict what God will always do in the life of an individual? I believe that this second part is only a hopeful prediction of what God might do for all of us. But more important to our understanding, is the fact that this second part tends to undermine or depreciate the necessary efficacy of the first part. These difficulties come from our careless amalgamation of God's visible dispositions with God's invisible dispositions—the clear result of our not understanding these differences. That is, part one is describing the sign of God's visible disposition—the initiatory rite of water baptism, while part two is describing the seal of God's invisible disposition—His Spiritual baptism.)

To put it plainly, it seems very difficult to construe Scripture to say anything less about baptism than that God is, in a very real sense, 'present' in baptism. He is present not merely to watch it, witness it, or even to receive praise from it, but also — and most especially — to transact his covenant...

In short, God is, in a very special and real sense, effecting salvation through baptism to the elect, according to the Reformed sacramental framework.

(aaron— This last statement was quite good until they interjected the term "elect". It is difficult for me to say this, but to believe that the entire Christian Church is made—up of only the "elect" priesthood may not be completely accurate. The Scriptures teach that the "elect" are in fact the hidden royal priesthood of God. All of which are royally identified as Jews and the Circumcision, and do in fact make—up the hidden Israel of God. But we must understand that this special "elect" group, God's royal priesthood, does not represent the whole of God's institutional corporate peoples!) 

And as this will be applied to the proper recipients of baptism, we see no reason to believe that children are excluded from this promise of election, as they are entrusted by God into the covenant family." Graham carefully distinguishes his view of baptismal regeneration from Reformed Baptist sacramental theology, as well as the Roman Catholic position: "Therefore, where the Baptist doctrine denies the means of grace in baptism, the Roman Catholic doctrine denies the personal agent of grace in baptism. Where the Baptist sees nothing being effected by means of the elements in baptism properly administered, the Roman Catholics see the elements themselves effecting grace in baptism. The Reformed position carefully navigates between either extreme, affirming [that through baptism salvation is] conferred by the personal agent of grace, the Holy Spirit" [42].

42. A Baptism That Saves, 11, 13—14.42.

(aaron— This last statement is a prime example of the mass confusion over Baptism that has long existed within today’s Church. The question to be asked about these stated differences between "Reformed Baptist", "Roman Catholic", and "Reformed", is exactly what real difference do these identified differences make. Are you saying that the Reformed Baptist and Roman Catholic’s efforts are ineffectual and that they are without any real value whatsoever? If your answer is no, what is the purpose of this whole critical exercise? Could I suggest that the entire Christian Church is deficient in understanding these complex Covenant matters.)

More sophisticated accounts of baptismal regeneration are now being developed by the likes of Joel Garver [43]

43. See Garver's helpful catechism at and his forthcoming article, "Regeneration: Problems and Prospects."43.


and Peter Leithart [44]

44. See especially Leithart's magisterial dissertation, The Priesthood of the Plebs.44. both within the PCA. Utilizing insights from narrative theology, semiotics, ritual theory, and theological sociology [45],

45. For a useful introduction to some of these issues, consult Fergus Kerr's Theology After Wittgenstein.45.

these scholars have begun the massive project of overhauling our biblical theology of baptism and its relationship to salvation.

It is impossible to summarize in brief form the richness of Leithart's approach, but we shall let him sketch the trajectory on which he is moving in his own words:

"Questions concerning the efficacy of baptism have long divided Christians.

(aaron— True!)

Many Protestants fear that talk of 'baptismal regeneration' imputes an almost magical power to water, while Catholics and Orthodox accuse Protestants of robbing baptism of any efficacy at all.

(aaron— True!)

In seeking to move beyond this impasse, social scientific categories are both helpful and harmful." Leithart shows these categories are harmful when the "social" is considered prior to and apart from the "religious" or "theological." When this is done, one's membership in the church may be conceived of in a merely "social" way, without touching one's deepest and most fundamental identity. Baptism might only skim the surface of one's personality, since it is an external, socially performed rite. But, Leithart, following John Millbank, suggests "sociology" in its modern form is really an alternative, idolatrous theology that privatizes religion and thus is complicit in the anti—Christian secularizing of socio—cultural life [46].

46. See Millbank's Theology and Social Theory. Millbank argues, persuasively and stunningly, that theology is the true sociology. Thus, Leithart: "a theological account is sociological, and vice versa. If the social sciences are already theologically committed, then theology cannot supplement them but must revise [or even radically overthrow them]. The apostle Paul did not believe that pagan feasts were 'secular.' Rather, they take place at the 'table of demons.'" Leithart's sacramental theology means that the Spirit's work is public and communal. Non—sacramental theologies (that is, theologies in which the sacraments are sub—soteriological and salvation is conceived of in individualistic, non—ecclesial terms) comply all too easily with modernity's privatizing distortion of biblical religion. To say that the Spirit works primarily through public, social means such as preaching, baptism, and Eucharist, rather than privately and immediately, is to lay the groundwork for a "public church," a church that is culturally and socially visible and transformative. See also Jeff Meyers, The Lord's Service, 135—6 on the public, communal, and mediated nature of the Spirit's work in the world and church. Contrast this with Sinclair Ferguson's individualistic account in The Holy Spirit, 124. Ferguson is correct to suggest that the Spirit works on the whole person since "the individual is a thinking—willing—affective creature." But he ignores the fact that we are also social and ritual beings, and therefore completely misses the public, communal dimension of the Spirit's work.46.

(aaron— It is always difficult for us to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I believe that that analogy would be a fair comparison to the proceeding argument /statement. Even though they are surely plowing some necessary theological ground, speaking about the Spirit's work in "the public, communal dimension"— or the corporate institution. We are fast loosing sight of the fact that our Creator God is a God of the family. [Exodus 12:48] So with this fact in view, we must recognize "that we are also social and ritual beings", and "the public, communal dimension of the Spirit's work." We presently know this entity as the visible institutions called Israel and the Christian Church. Then the effectual institutional reality here goes far beyond the limitations that most theologians have placed upon her. We could summarize this issue with the following proposition—The Abrahamic Covenant is an institutionally social network that incorporates the whole of God’s institutional corporate peoples—Israel and the Christian Church, as well as the residence of the hidden priesthood of God—the Jews, the Circumcision, and the Israel of God.)

Theology is the true sociology, and theology and sociology are always deeply interwoven. Again, Leithart: "Despite its surface plausibility, [the] distinction between the 'sociological' and 'theological' is erroneous...[because it is mistaken to assume language acts] and other social and cultural processes are secular realities, not permeated with religious significance...[A]n a—theological sociology cannot give an adequate account of any social process." When attempts to divorce sociology and theology are made, our concept of personhood —— the deepest religious core of our being —— is radically individualized and interiorized. As Leithart explains, the Cartesian notion that the "interior self" is "ontologically fundamental," and therefore, "untouchable by social roles and rituals" needs to be challenged with a "'narrative' conception of personal identity." In this setting, it is baptism that defines the "real you": "Baptism immerses a person in [the story of the church]. Identities are formed at the intersection of various narratives of which one is a part (of family, community, nation, and so on), so that when baptism embeds one's story in that of the church, his identity is objectively modified. To 'I am an American, or Scot, or Chinese' is added 'I am a member of the Christian church;' one's 'forefathers' now include not only Washington, Robert the Bruce, or Mao, but Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the story that once began, 'my father sailed to the Cape from Amsterdam,' now begins, 'my father was wandering a Aramaen.' At an individual level, identity is bound up with the events of one's life...Roles acquired and significant actions done become part of my 'record,' a story that marks my difference from others and traces the continuity of my life through time.

Objectively, baptism makes me a member of Christ's body, and this becomes an episode in the story of who I am.

Subjectively, the baptismal narrative into which I am submerged may break violently against the story that, before baptism, identified me, forcing what may be a painful revaluation of my past and producing a revised self—image."

In terms of this communally— and narrativally—formed view of personhood, it becomes possible to "rehabilitate the notion that baptism imprints an 'indelible character.' Baptism irreversibly plants my story in the story of the church, for even if I renounce her, my renunciation is part of her history.

(aaron— "Baptism irreversibly plants my story in the story of the church, for even if I renounce her, my renunciation is part of her history."

Though I do not totally disagree with some of the principal, I was wondering precisely where in the Holy Bible are these stated principles found?)

As a facet of individual identity, baptism is equally permanent, for one is never unbaptized. A baptized man can renounce Christ, turn persecutor of the church, reject everything he once confessed, forget his baptism. Having once passed through the waters, however, his every action thereafter, including those that are wholly inconsistent with his baptismal identity, are actions of a baptized man. Forgetfulness of baptism is the culpable forgetfulness of the baptized. Even those who leave the Father's house are sons, however prodigally they may squander their inheritance in riotous living...A dissembling [church] member is not [merely] a 'social' Christian but a 'false son' or 'unfruitful branch,' and this is a theological fact with eternal consequences."

(aaron— There is such a thing as over—theorizing something. I would suggest that this statement— "A dissembling [church] member is not [merely] a 'social' Christian but a 'false son' or 'unfruitful branch,' and this is a theological fact with eternal consequences" is one of those instances of some over zealous exegetics. I am suggesting that much care must be taken whenever we are tempted to play God with a wayward brother or sister. If you recall from the story of the prodigal, in the midst of his suffering of want he was brought to his senses so as to understand his terrible state. Then how the ever-watchful father welcomed him home with open arms. Just where are the eternal consequences in this story?)

While Paul would not have carried all this philosophical baggage, Leithart has provided the tools to make sense of the Apostle's baptism—based exhortations, such as Rom. 6:1ff. Paul is calling on the Romans to "be who they are," to live in accordance with the new identity, status, and relationships they have received in baptism [47].

47. See William Willimon's excellent Remember Who You Are.47.

Pierre Marcel once commented, "It is extremely distressing to see that in the Reformed church the great majority of Christians never refer back to their baptism." If Marcel is right, we are [in] danger of forgetting the very essence of who we are [48].

48. Philip Henry, father of great commentator Matthew Henry, is a refreshing exception to Marcel's lament. He said that when his children would disobey, he would "grab them by their baptisms!" What a great way to help a covenant child internalize his new identity! We must train our children in such a way that their whole lives will be a grand "Amen!" to their baptisms. See also Burges, Baptismal Regeneration of Elect Infants, 47.48.

This must be considered a tragic crisis of identity. Baptism defines who we are and how we are to live as nothing else can. Its message is clear: "God has saved you; now be loyal to him. God has united you to Christ; now be who you are."

(aaron— This view places a great deal of responsibility upon this totally depraved individual. Fortunately, God is there to bear us up in our hour of need. I believe that in the end, God, according to His sure promises, will bring all of His institutional corporate peoples to their eternal home.)

Next, Leithart gives us a glimpse of what this re—packaging of baptismal efficacy means for the individual Christian and the church community:

"'Baptismal regeneration' may thus be defined in terms of the new identity, tasks, relationships, and privileges that are conferred through the baptismal rite. To Catholics and Orthodox, this may at first blush seem an inadequate account of 'regeneration.' In addition to all these 'merely social' or 'merely psychological' transitions, they will want to insist, baptism also effects a 'spiritual' rebirth. Though I am using 'regeneration' in a different way than theology has historically employed the term, my argument is that to raise the objection of reductionism is to remain entrenched in questionable categories. (Protestant denials that baptism is efficacious, of course, assume the same framework; for Protestants, baptism cannot 'regenerate' precisely because its efficacy is limited to an external cultural dimension)...Thus this formulation of baptismal regeneration is not a thin soup of sociology but thick theological stew. Let me unpack that assertion.

First, this formulation assumes a theological account of 'identity.' Baptism effects a transition, as Rowan Williams puts it, not only in the regard of men but 'in the gaze of God,' and this makes us 'new creations' in the deepest possible sense. Identity, Williams suggests, is enmeshed with relations in community, but our most fundamental belonging is to the community of Adam or of Christ, and therefore our basic identity is not constituted by social or cultural factors, but by the transcendent 'regard of God upon us.' The baptized is no longer regarded as 'stranger' but born again as a 'son of the house'...[P]rying apart social and theological 'levels' is simply impossible...

(aaron— Once again, these theologians are guilty of trying to oversimplify a very complex issue. By not properly recognizing the visible and invisible complexities that presently exists within the Abrahamic Covenant of Grace as an institution, we are unable to correctly decipher these critical differences.)

[Second], socio—theological consideration of the nature of the church leads to a similar conclusion. No group's existence is either temporally or logically prior to its common practices...

The church as a recognizable human community exists only in the common confession of Christ by her members, obedience to the Word, liturgical practices, fellowship and mutual aid, and formal and informal procedures of correction and forgiveness.

  If the Spirit dwells in the church as church, he dwells in the people organized and constituted by these practices. Baptism is one of the practices without which the church does not exist. Initiation is thus not so much a doorway through which one passes into the house as the act by which one becomes part of the house; it is not a passage toward membership so much as the first act of membership, and therefore the first contact with the Spirit who circulates through the body (cf. Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:12—13).

Baptism into membership in the community of Christ therefore also confers the (baptism) of the Spirit, and in this sense too is a 'regenerating' ordinance.

(aaron— This statement— "Baptism into membership in the community of Christ therefore also confers the (baptism) of the Spirit, and in this sense too is a 'regenerating' ordinance" reflects the primary cause of much of the confusion within the whole of today's Church. This is because this statement is a simple attempt to explain something from the perspective of two separate dimensions. The "baptism into membership in the community of Christ" is the visible sign of water baptism: which is also one of the established visible disposition of God. Then they suggest that this visible water baptism "also confers the (baptism) of the Spirit, and in this sense too is a 'regenerating' ordinance". Now this second part is specifically referring to the seal—the invisible baptism of the Holy Spirit: which is one of the established invisible dispositions of God.

By loosing sight of our institutional membership within the Abrahamic Covenant, we Christians tend to wonder in search of where we belong in the larger scheme of things. So when we transfer the Covenant from Abraham to Christ, or loose sight of our institutional membership within the Abraham Covenant, the Covenant, as we know it, takes on a whole new meaning and direction.

The root of this present problem comes from our attempt to combine the visible dispositions of God with the invisible dispositions of God. I would suggest that this amalgamation has come-about because of our failure to recognize the Spiritual efficacy of God’s visible dispositions in distinction to the Spiritual efficacy of God’s invisible dispositions.)

There can be no 'merely social' membership in this family." Leithart's reconstruction of baptism carries weighty ecclesiological implications.

If Leithart is right, the American Protestant tendency to drive a wedge between the church and salvation, between ecclesiology and soteriology, is badly mistaken. Baptism is constitutive of personal and corporate Christian identity [49].

(aaron— If we follow the example relationship that God gave us with His visible institutional people Israel of the Old Testament, then all of these issues with our belonging would disappear. Gen.17:1-27)

49. See Peter Leithart's essay "'Framing Sacramental Theology: Trinity and Symbol" in WTJ Vol. 62, No. 1, for more on the relation of salvation, sacraments, and church.49. Finally, Leithart explains how his re—reformed view of baptism does not lead to presumption, but rather calls us to perseverance: "How is baptism connected to the eschatological 'not yet'?

Baptism does not guarantee an eternal standing among the people of God, for the baptized may be removed from the house and cut off from the Table.

(aaron— Where is the assurance in this last statement?

I would argue against this last conclusion. Second Timothy 2:20—21 describes God’s house in much more detail— "20Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some unto honor, and some unto dishonor. 21If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, meet for the master’s use, prepared unto every good work.")

Yet, baptism is not irrelevant to eternal salvation; though baptism 'by itself' does not guarantee a standing, baptism never is 'by itself' but always a step on a pathway.

(aaron— Where is the assurance? Where is the Scriptural support for this statement?)

Perseverance to the end of the pathway, the mark of eschatologically saving faith, is, as Augustine insisted, a gift of grace, which, being grace, is gratuitously distributed as God pleases.

(aaron— The assurance is only at the end of the pathway? The assurance we Christians have is a constant reminder from God concerning His gracious promises.) 

Yet, this grace is distributed through means, so that what we bring under the heading of 'the grace of perseverance' are the concrete ways God holds close and brings nearer, baptism among them. Baptism holds us close by admitting us to the Table, where we feed on Christ in the Spirit; by putting us within hearing of his life—giving word; by joining us to people who encourage, exhort, and comfort. Through continual baptismal anamnesis [rememberance], we stir ourselves to faithfulness in edifying the body and gratitude for the gift of Christ. In baptism, we are inducted into ministry in God's house, and continuing in that ministry is the way of salvation. Clothed in the crucified Christ, the baptized enters the path of suffering service and living sacrifice whose destination is a weighty and glorious house, the brightness of endless day" [50].

50. All quotations from Peter Leithart, "Modernity and the 'Merely Social': Towards a Socio—Theological Account of Baptismal Regeneration" in Pro Ecclesia Vol. IX, No. 3, p. 325—329. Leithart's conclusion on 330 is worth quoting also, as a tight summary:

"[This view of baptismal efficacy] is not quite Protestant and not quite Catholic. Using concepts of ritual theory, we have come to formulate the 'regeneration' effected in baptism in 'sociological' terms:

Baptism inducts us into the community of Christ, confers a new identity, and imposes new responsibilities. But this 'sociological' account is, I have argued, equally a theological account. For the task of the baptized is service to the Lord in his house, his identity is 'child of God,' his privileges include fellowship at his Table. This is the 'new life' effected by the 'waters of regeneration.' These are 'merely social' facts only if one assumes that this house is not really God's house and this Table is not really his Table. But that, of course, is simple unbelief." See also The Priesthood of the Plebs, 136—155.50.

We have quoted extensively from Leithart because his work is so important and not (yet) easily accessible. Leithart is pointing out the direction Reformed theology needs to move in the future. His reuniting of sacrament, salvation, church, and a life of service—oriented obedience is thoroughly traditional and biblical, but also integrates the best in cutting edge scholarship. His account of baptismal efficacy is eminently satisfying, because it makes good sense of the biblical data and human experience. It assures us that God has made us new persons in baptism, and challenges us to live accordingly.

(aaron— These recommended understandings would be fine if they were derived from a utilization of right thinking—beginning first with a proper interpretation of the complex identification of God’s peoples. No matter what this author says about Leithert’s ideas, this is nothing more than painting the same old horse a different color. This is the same old pot with the same old stew. The same problems remain since there is still no real efficacy to be found in the fount of water baptism, unless you accept "baptismal regeneration" /or "This is the 'new life' effected by the 'waters of regeneration": which is not a possibility nor is it necessary.)



It is not surprising to find a wide variety of positions on baptismal efficacy in the Reformed church today. This is how it is always been, from the earliest days of the Protestant movement. What is different, it seems, is that the higher views of baptism are now more out of favor than ever. If we categorically reject "baptismal regeneration," it must be acknowledged that we have moved significantly away from some traditional Reformed formulations.

(aaron— This author writes: “it must be acknowledged that we have moved significantly away from some traditional Reformed formulations.” This perception is derived only because of our faulted understanding of Covenant. We have carelessly combined some New Covenant Theology principals with our traditional Abrahamic Covenant Theology. What a mess!!!)

This would be fine, provided we replaced them with equivalent ones. But we have failed to do this. We have drifted substantially away from the strong baptismal theology of the best theologians in our heritage, and have paid a dear price for it. Baptism has been watered down (pun intended) from a means of sovereign, saving grace, to a means of granting external privilege.

(aaron— All of these comments concerning the Reformed Church are absolutely accurate. They have drifted so far away that they no longer understand the reasons why they are covenant. Following Israel’s example, the early Reformers have always baptized their infants because they are counted as covenant members of God’s institutional corporate peoples. So now concerning their present practice of infant baptism, they need to give a detailed explanation to the rest of the today’s Church as to WHY they continue on with this sacramental practice. They need to better explain precisely what it means to be covenant.)

We are fearful of making people presumptuous, so we shy away from comforting them with the certainty that God "saved them through the washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5). We spend more time talking about what God does not do in baptism than what he actually does. But we have failed to realize the dangers that lurk on the other end of the baptismal efficacy spectrum. We have stolen away a vital means of assurance [51] from God's people and turned this precious means of grace into a means of doubt.

(aaron— Their realization of what they might be negating towards the individual’s assurance is worthless— "turned this precious means of grace into a means of doubt". But the question to answered here, is precisely what level do we enter into covenant with God? Does it happen on the visible level? Or does it happen on the invisible level? I would suggest that it happens on both levels simultaneously. See Council of Trent—

"The fifth canon asserts that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, and everything is removed which has the true and proper nature of sin... It is admitted that concupiscence remains in the baptized, against which believers are to contend..."

"In the sixth session when treating justification (i. e., regeneration and sanctification), the Council decides several points, which go to determine the view its members took of the nature of original sin. In the canons adopted in that session, it is among other things, declared:

(1) That men cannot, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, by their own works, i.e., works performed in their own strength, be justified before God.

(2) That grace is not given simply to render good works more easy.

(3) That men cannot believe, hope, love, or repent so as to secure regenerating grace without the preventing grace of God."

The important teaching includes their presentation of the complex character of grace. They established ”the preventing grace of God” as prerequisite for them “to secure regenerating grace”. Now if this was not their intended meaning from the Sixth Canon, by observing Israel’s Covenant relationship with God, it surly should have been.)

51. Baptismal assurance is a core dimension of the sacramental theologies developed by several of the Reformed scholars we have examined above, especially Calvin and Burges. Consider Burges' warm words to believers and their children (again, with spelling modernized): "Is it nothing unto a Christian, in time of violent temptation, when he has lost all sight of his Savior, to be assured that even in his baptism he received the Holy Ghost as an anointing that shall abide with him forever? Is the consolation of God a small matter unto a Christian parent, that in obedience to Christ, and in faith in his promises, he has presented his child to the sacred laver, where the Holy Ghost has seized upon him for Christ, so as, whether he lives or dies, he may conceive good hope that Christ has taken charge of his child and will provide all things needful for it, and give it both grace and glory? What comfort (says a learned writer upon Titus 3:5) is it for a father—

(aaron— Covenantally speaking, God’s promised grace stood firm for the obedient parents who circumcised their eight—day—old infant sons as his initiatory rite for membership within God’s institutional peoples. Thus, God’s promised grace also stands just as firm with our obedience in baptizing our infant children as their initiatory rite into God’s Covenant family. We must see Covenant as an institutional corporate matter.)

—to see his child washed with the blood of Christ?

—Cleansed from sin?

—Set into the visible church,

yea, into the Body of Christ,

in the right use of this sacrament?

Wherein a parent ought more to rejoice, than if he could make [his child] heir of the world" (9).51.

But there is no reason to doubt. "One of the most harmful notions ever foisted upon Reformed Christianity is this idea that God normally communicates his presence immediately to the soul of man, by—passing all outward, physical means. Yes,...the Lord is free to work outside of his constituted means in extraordinary cases. But this only means that the Lord ordinarily works just as he has promised through his appointed instruments to communicate his grace...

(aaron— Covenantally speaking:

In the Old Testament, God’s grace was institutionally communicated through their obedient participation in His commanded initiatory rite of visible circumcision. Israel was the God established visible institution, through which, by the use of God’s established visible initiatory rite of circumcision, His visible creation had access to their invisible Creator. Their Covenant relationship with God was a family relationship within the institution. The entire family was included in the Covenant through their obedient use of God’s commanded initiatory rites.

Likewise, in the New Testament dispensation, God’s grace is institutionally communicated through our obedient participation in His commanded initiatory rite of visible water baptism. The Christian Church is the God established visible institution, through which, by the use of the God established visible initiatory rite of baptism, His visible creation has access to their invisible Creator. Once again here in the New Testament dispensation, we see that our Covenant God is a God of the family. 1Cor.7:14)


[T]he Lord's ordinary, normal means of delivering his gifts is indeed through his constituted means and not beside them or around them or without them. This is God's normal modus operandi. The Lord's Spirit normally works through the human and physical instrumentalities that he has ordained! Otherwise, the promises that are attached to the means are misleading and deceptive...To understand the Holy Spirit's promise to use the Lord's appointed means as instruments to deliver the gifts of the kingdom is the hallmark of Calvin's Reformed sacramental ecclesiology. Why do we not believe what God has promised? Why are we offended to think that God actually delivers on his promise in baptism?" [52]

52. Jeff Meyers, The Lord's Service 132—4. Emphasis in last three sentences is mine.52.

The pastoral payoff of recovering a biblical, traditional view of baptismal efficacy for counseling, parenting, assuring, and so on, is tremendous.

(aaron— Yes!

Then this next commentary is generally referring only to God’s elect priestly line:)

The importance of baptism to one's identity as a child of God can never be overestimated. In baptism, we are enfolded into the family of God and begin our enculturation in the life of the eschatological kingdom.

In baptism, God unites us to his Son and pours out his Spirit upon us.

He weds us to Christ and ordains us to his royal priesthood.

He forgives our sin and grants us new life.

As the WSC teaches, baptism is not a mere picture, but an effectual means of redemption.

This is not to say baptism in isolation guarantees salvation, but God never intended baptism to stand on its own.

Rather, as we mix the waters of baptism with the obedience of faith and life in the church among the covenant people, we find that God has already given us and our children every blessing in Christ. Whitehead once said the whole history of philosophy was simply a footnote to Plato; I doubt that is right, but I do not doubt the whole Christian life may be considered a footnote to one's baptism.

True, baptized persons can renounce their Father and become prodigals;

(aaron— The prodigal never renounced the Father, he just rebelled against his father’s authority in going his own way.)

they can reject Jesus as their husband and become adulterers.

Baptism is an act with eternal consequences for the faithful and the unfaithful, and covenant members who renounce their baptismal identity and fall from grace can only expect God's harshest judgment (cf. Gal. 5:4; Heb. 10:26ff).

But apostasy is never our expectation for the baptized. Baptism itself is blessing through and through; indeed, it is the gospel in liquid form.

(aaron— The prodigal son that Jesus told us about did not renounce his father! He, like so many prodigals since him, was guilty of wanting to do things his own way. The prodigal, by following his own fleshly desires, simply strayed away from his father’s household. Then in his absence, while giving in to his fleshly worldly desires, he squandered all of his resources—which could be representative of his character as a person as well. Finally, finding himself in a hopeless and helpless state, God graciously lifted the shade of darkness that had enveloped him throughout this time. This heavenly intervention from God allowed him to "come to his senses". Once again his conscience was alive, and he was able to break through his own fleshly deception. He was now able to clearly recall his former estate and even the former joy that was there in his father’s house. Clear headed and able to see the error of his ways, he would go home and offer to be a servant in his father’s house. But because of the father’s great love and mercy for this son who had gone astray, the father did not allow an hour to pass that he did not watch for his son’s return. Then seeing him coming from a long way off, the father ran to meet him with a great hug and kisses. Then the father ordered a robe, a ring, and a great feast— where the son was received back to his former estate. With this great story fresh in our minds, I wonder how some are so quick to judge a back-slider as one fallen from grace?)

So how should we then talk about baptism? This paper is not advocating use of terminology such as "baptismal regeneration" or "baptismal justification" (even though I have used it here and there, following our Reformed forefathers). Such language carries quite a bit of baggage due to its usage in other traditions, and without proper qualification and explanation, is bound to cause confusion [53].

(aaron— If we consider the institutional benefits that are evident in the Abrahamic Covenant, I would tend to agree with the term "baptismal justification". Acts.2:38-39 Nevertheless, "baptismal regeneration" is precisely what this paper is advocating as it is so clearly suggested in footnote 53.. The phrase "baptismal regeneration" is being used simply because it is what best describes the resultant condition of the individual. I would suggest that by our looking back to Israel’s Old Testament experience, we will find that there is another way to achieve the same assurance without "regeneration". Acrs.2:38-39)

53. The flip side of this point is that the language of "baptismal regeneration" is so widely employed in Christendom that our use of it could make us more "catholic" in the best sense of that term. Pre—Reformational predestinarians, such as Augustine and the fathers at the Council of Orange, used "baptismal regeneration" language, so it is deeply embedded even in those parts of the patristic and medieval church with which we would most readily identify ourselves.53.

But we do need to communicate that God works powerfully and savingly through his means of grace, including baptism.

(aaron— Yes!)

We do need to emphasize that baptism is a merciful work of God, and not so much a human act of devotion.

(aaron— This is partially true. But do we really need to devalue the "human act of devotion"? Following our example Israel as they performed God’s commanded visible initiatory rite of circumcision, the "human act of devotion" there, would be seen as their obedience to God that brought them great reward. Why should the element loose its efficacy simply because we participate in its commanded use or application? It should not!!!)

We do need to reiterate, again and again, that through baptism, the Spirit incorporates us into the elect community, the church, which is the bride and body of Christ.

(aaron— The key words that we need to examine from this statement are "that through baptism the Spirit incorporates us into the elect community". This is because that absolute statement more than implies "baptismal regeneration" or "presumptive regeneration". Which is unnecessary for our institutional corporate salvation!)

We do need to teach that baptism is our initiation into the covenant of grace, and therefore grants privileges and imposes obligations.

(aaron— OK with the “privileges”, but thumbs down on the “imposed obligations”. That would imply the absolute need for a works doctrine.)

Most importantly, we need to confess our faith "in one baptism for the remission of sins" and in the gloriously gracious God who acts through the waters of baptism to bring us to himself.

(aaron— This is a very good statement as long as we keep it in a proper perspective. When we confess our faith "in one baptism for the remission of sins": we are first declaring the benefits that are received from John’s visible water "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins". [Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3] Secondly, we are declaring that the efficacy conveyed for this promise from God is based solely upon the finished work of Christ. [Luke 24:46—47 and Romans 3:24—26]

Once again, I am simply agreeing here with the Council of Trent—

The fifth canon asserts that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, and everything is removed which has the true and proper nature of sin... It is admitted that concupiscence remains in the baptized, against which believers are to contend...

Then we must be mindful that the first part of this canon is talking about just the soul, and the second part is talking about only the flesh. But now can we say with any degree of certainty that "through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ conferred in baptism" that our sins are remitted? The answer to that question would be positively yes! Gal.3:27

Now I would not consider this conveyance of Christ’s grace that occurs in our visible water baptism as the same as the regeneration process /the baptism of the Holy Spirit /or our born from above experience. I believe that what we and our children receive through the visible initiatory rite of water baptism would be equivalent to what the peoples of Israel received from participating in their commanded visible initiatory rite of circumcision. By obediently circumcising their eight—day—old infant sons, all of their offspring were made a part of God’s institutional peoples. Conversely, their failure to circumcise their infant sons would cause that individual to be cutoff from God’s peoples because he would have broken God’s covenant. [Genesis 17:13—14] The regeneration of the Holy Spirit /or the baptism of the Holy Spirit, was not common to the institutional collective of Israel. Nevertheless, regeneration is a possession that is available to all of God’s peoples, and was designed to constitute all those who make—up His hidden royal priesthood. But since it comes only from the hand of God Himself, it would seem that we have little or no control over its application. Amen.)



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  All text copyright © 2005 aaron. All rights reserved.  Photos, unless otherwise credited, are the property of the auth, all rights reserved.  Originally posted February 24, 2004.  Revised: February 24, 2009.