Category Archives: baptism

Luther Dipped

I almost became a Presbyterian, it was years ago, and I still feel the swoosh of the cars under my feet as I hung off a ragged precipice ready to jump. Those were scary times. Now I’m quite a convinced, dyed-in-the-wool Baptist, and in my better days I think of baptizing babies with only minor horror. But with that all to say, when I consider the Presbyterian view of baptism, I can at least catch a glimmer of a rationale behind it, I can see a haze of a biblical argument. But when it comes to the Lutheran view, ach wo!

Westminster Confession 28.1 speaks of baptism as the admission into the church, and while it goes on to say that it is regeneration, remission of sins, etc., WCF 28.6 says that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the time when it is administered–therefore baptismal regeneration is avoided, notwithstanding the head-scratching of many Baptists like myself.

However, when you read major Lutheran statements on baptism, one goes from head scratching to head pounding…on a brick wall. The denomination whose founder was so strong on justification by faith alone leaves all that negated; or at the very least, faith alone is “preserved” through a series of back-spasm-provoking exegetical back-flips that leaves you heaving in a whirl of pain waiting for the demerol to kick in.

The pain of course comes from baptismal regeneration. In his “Sermon on Baptism” from 1534, Luther says that baptism brings the new believer “out of sin into righteousness, out of guilt and condemnation to innocence and grace, out of death into eternal life” (WA, 37:645.17-18). Later he says that the Christian is drawn by Christ “out of unrighteousness, condemnation, wickedness, death. He draws us through baptism into righteousness, life, and goodness. Where does baptism get that kind of power? It has God as the one who is at work in it” (“Sermon on Baptism,” 1538, WA, 46.175.37). He believed that the power of Christ’s suffering was brought into baptism, and that the waters of baptism “make atonement.” In effect, Luther believed that baptism washes away original sin.

Now, if you are a Baptist with a high sacramentology, and you argue for a deep relationship, though a distinction, between the “sign” and the “thing signified,” you may not be a baptismal regenerationist, because faith can still be a predicate. But when you are Luther, or a Lutheran, you believe this happens to a child, and faith cannot be a predicate. Well, unless you think that a newborn child can have faith that is, but who would believe that? Oh…Luther does: “Baptism is true. If it is possible that children do not have faith–and that they cannot demonstrate it–nevertheless, we should piously believe that God himself baptizes children and gives them faith and the Holy Spirit. That follows from the text” (“Sermons on Baptism,” 1539, WA, 47.655.1). I love that last line, it’s as if he says it to reassure us in light of our incredulity that it is in the text at all.

What is more incredulity-rendering is this: “But as our would-be wise, new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any avail but faith, as we shall hear still further. But these blind guides are unwilling to see this, namely, that faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it” (Larger Catechism XIII.4). So, faith alone saves–check. That faith must have an object–check. This faith must cling to…the waters of baptism. Sure, it is not mere water, but a water that is “embodied in the Word,” but please tell me how this does not heave works or merit into the mix. I love Luther, I want to read Luther as charitably as possible, I don’t think he was a heretic…but this just doesn’t make sense!

While Luther says that baptism is a work of God, and not of us, he cannot get away from the fact that baptism is a command that must be submitted to, and is therefore rightly understood as a work. As D. Patrick Ramsey says, “Since justification does not occur apart from the reception of the sacrament of baptism, the doctrine of justification is compromised because we are not justified by faith alone but by faith and baptism. One must believe and be baptized. Luther’s qualifications notwithstanding, his view inevitably turns baptism into a work” (“Sola Fide Compromised? Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Baptism” in Themelios 34.2). Luther also stumbles on the rock of Christian perseverance, because in his theology a baptized (note: regenerated) person can fall away from faith. This explains why later Lutherans do not espouse a theology of perseverance of the saints.

There is an object lesson in all of this: we must be wary of uncritical adulation of heroes. Luther was a great man, and his contribution to the defense of the gospel should be respected. But Luther, as an early Reformer, had significant problems. Sadly, his problems have flowed into later Lutheranism that has picked up the inconsistencies that he sought (though failed) to avoid, and run with them. Luther was the man for the hour in the Magisterial Reformation, he was a good Reformer, but he was not an exegete. There is a reason why commentaries on Galatians, or Romans today quote Luther sparingly, but Calvin figures large–the latter was skilled with the text of Scripture, the former was not. Luther should be read, but he must be read with a critical eye, and the areas where he failed must be admitted, and the theology must be rejected.

I am, of course, much more comfortable with these words about baptism: “Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance,” and “Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance” (Second London Confession of Faith, 29.1 and 4). Ah, home sweet home.

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Pelikan on the Pedigree of Baptism

At a time when Baptists were contending for immersion as the only authentic form of baptism which “has its origin from God,” Eastern theologians also insisted on it, in opposition to the Latins, who were obliged to admit that immersion had been standard practice throughout most of the history of the church.

Jaroslav Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 5 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 46.

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Baptists, Signs and Rationalism

I have a further thought regarding R. Scott Clark’s recent series on baptism that he posted on his Heidelblog. In the fifth part, near the end, he says, “Baptists know that they, like Reformed congregations, have unregenerate members but by administering baptism only to those who make a profession of faith they are doing what they can to ensure a regenerate membership. From a Reformed view of covenant theology it is quite difficult to see how this is not, at bottom, a form of rationalism. If it is rationalism that would not be surprising since an over-realized eschatology, which Luther called a theology of glory (theologia gloriae (sic) is just another form of rationalism.”

Knowing that Dr. Clark would disagree with paedocommunion, is he not open to the same charge? If the church only administers this sacrament to those who have been confirmed (or whatever the URC does in light of confirmation), is that also not a form of rationalism? Only in this instance the minister is making a decision to withhold the cup from someone who has actually been baptised and for all intents and purposes is “received into God’s church” (Belgic Confession, Article 34). If the minister can withhold this sacrament from a church member and not the other sacrament, this would appear, on Dr. Clark’s part, to be an even more insipid form of rationalism.

During the Halfway Covenant controversy it is well-known that Jonathan Edwards was removed from his charge in Northampton, Mass. This removal was instanced by Edwards’ refusal to allow members of a “halfway covenant” to the table. In his Distinguishing Marks of the Spirit of God he developed what he called “negative” and “positive signs” that demonstrated, for the sake of the church, whether or not the Spirit had converted someone. While Edwards recognised that the signs in and of themselves proved nothing in terms of whether a person was truly converted (i.e. it was not a sure sign for assurance), it did serve an ecclesiological function: namely, whether a person has given a credible profession of faith that would admit him or her to the privileges of the church. He delineates this in An Humble Inquiry where he says, “The question is not, whether Christ has made converting grace or piety itself the condition or rule of his people’s admitting any to the privileges of members in full communion with them: there is no one qualification of mind, whatsoever, that Christ has properly made the term of this; not so much as a common belief that Jesus is the Messiah, or a belief of the being of a God. ‘Tis the credible profession and visibility of these things, that is the church’s rule in this case. Christian piety or godliness may be a qualification requisite to communion in the Christian sacraments, just in the same manner as a belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Scriptures the Word of God, are requisite qualifications, and in the same manner as some kind of repentance is a qualification” (Works 12:176, emphasis mine).

Is Edwards here guilty of rationalism by seeking to “inquire” (pardon the pun) into the condition of a person’s heart in order to admit them to the privileges of the church? Worse, is Edwards not guilty of falling prey to the theology of glory as Luther would understand it in the Heidelberg Disputation? There Luther said, “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” Is Edwards a “theologian” or not? Are Baptists theologians or not? Is R. Scott Clark a theologian or not? If we peer into the “invisible things” such as whether a child is converted and can take the eucharist, are we not undeserving of the title “theologian”? In regard to Edwards, Stephen Holmes would argue the opposite, that rather Edwards actually pushed Reformed orthodoxy further away from the theology of glory into a more (but not totally) consistent theologia crucis–Edwards’ overall theological enterprise views God’s glory through the cross, which is the burden of Holme’s work to demonstrate (Holmes, God of Grace, 76, 122-123).

It would be a stretch to accuse Baptists of rationalism when baptising only those who have given a credible profession of faith. I bring this up not to single out Dr. Clark, but as a sincere request to have this matter cleared for my own convictions. The last thing I want, as a Baptist, is to be guilty of rationalism or theologia gloriae. At this point, admittedly, I’m not convinced that I am.

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Alexander Carson on Baptism

The recent issue of The Gospel Witness has kindly published an article of mine entitled “‘Defending Truth at Every Expense’: Alexander Carson (1776-1844) on Baptism.” I’ve uploaded a PDF of it: Alexander Carson on Baptism.

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Review: The Baptism of Disciples Alone (Malone)

Here is a review that I wrote of the first edition of Fred Malone’s book The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism (Founders Press).

On a related note, I recently listened to an awesome debate between Thom Schreiner of Southern Seminary and David Van Drunen of Westminster West on the subject of baptism. Schreiner was very good – and though I’m a biased Baptist – I believe he won the debate.

Schreiner on Credobaptism
VanDrunen on Paedobaptism
Interactive Forum

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24 Baptisms

New City Baptist is one of two church plants from Grace Fellowship Church. The second plant is Grace Chapel in Markham, pastored by Habib Sakr. This past Lord’s Day New City Baptist and Grace Fellowship canceled services in order to witness twenty-four baptisms at Grace Chapel! Julian, an elder at Grace Fellowship, posted video footage of the baptisms. It’s quite moving to watch.

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