Why Don’t Reformed Churches Rebaptize People?

Westminster Confession of Faith Confessional Reformed/Presbyterian churches don’t rebaptize a person who comes from another church to join theirs.  The Westminster Confession of Faith (28:7) says “the sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered to any person.”  For example, if a person was baptized in a Roman Catholic, Methodist, Brethren, or Baptist church, he or she would not have to be baptized again to join a Reformed/Presbyterian church.

Why not?

Well, there are quite a few historical and biblical answers to the question.   I don’t have the space here to discuss how the Reformers spoke against the Anabaptists who began rebaptizing Christians during and after the Reformation.  You can read Luther’s 1528 treatise, “Concerning Rebaptism” for more information on this.  The (short) historical answer to the above question (why not?) is simply this: because we’re not Anabaptists!

At the heart of the biblical answer is the fact that baptism is primarily God’s sign and seal of his covenant of grace rather than an action we perform when we believe.  If a person is baptized in the name of the Triune God, according to the command of Christ, it’s an objective sign that doesn’t need to be repeated – just like circumcision in the Old Covenant didn’t need to be repeated.  Speaking in covenant terms, John Calvin said,  “however the covenant might be violated by them [wayward Jews in the OT], the symbol of the covenant remained ever firm and inviolable by virtue of the Lord’s institution” (Institutes, IV.XV.17).

Robert Shaw, a 19th Century Presbyterian pastor, explained it like this:

“Baptism is not to be administered to any person oftener than once.  This is plain from the nature of the ordinance.  It is a solemn admission of the person baptized as a member of the visible Church; and though those that ‘walk disorderly’ are to be cast out, yet there is no hint in Scripture, that, when re-admitted, they are to be baptized again.  The thing signified by baptism cannot be repeated, and the engagements come under can never be disannulled” (Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 370).

Of course, we should always be prepared to profess our faith before God’s people (Ps. 22:22) and we should continually repent of our sins (Ps 51), but we don’t need to be baptized more than once because it is God’s sign and seal of the covenant of grace.  Because his covenant promises never change and because he is faithful, baptism is something Christians only need to undergo once.  (If baptism depended on my faith, I’d have to be baptized several times a year since my faith waxes and wanes!)

Baptism is a “one time” sacrament that benefits us our whole life.   When we stumble, baptism reminds us of God’s promises and Christ’s shed blood.  We flee to the Lord with repentant faith, plead his promises, and rejoice that his blood covers all sins.  As Luther puts it in the above mentioned treatise, there is always something lacking in our faith.  But there is never anything lacking in our baptism because it is God’s covenant sign and seal.  That’s a short answer to the question of why Reformed and Presbyterian churches don’t practice rebaptism.

(This is a repost from June, 2013.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Why Do Reformed Churches Baptize Infants? (Horton)

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by [Horton, Michael] There are several different biblical reasons why Reformed churches baptize both infants and adults.  Louis Berkhof, Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, John Calvin, and others have pointed out the various biblical reasons why Reformed churches baptize infants as well as adults.  There’s obviously more to the discussion, but I appreciate how Michael Horton put it:

From a covenantal perspective, it is impossible to separate the claim that the children of believers are holy (1 Cor 7:14) from the sign and seal of the covenant.  According to the traditional Anabaptist/Baptist view, the children are not regarded as holy until they personally repent and believe.  However, the New Testament preserves the clean/unclean distinction, only now it pertains not to Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, but to believing and unbelieving families, with baptism as the covenant’s ratification.  In fact, Paul especially labors the point that all, Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, are Abraham’s children and heirs of the Abrahamic covenant through faith alone, just like Abraham (Rom 4:3 with Gen. 15:6, Gal. 3-4).  The church, in its unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ, is understood as the fulfillment of Israel’s existence (Mt 21:43; Rom 9:25-26, 2 Cor 6:16, Titus 2:14; 1 Pet 2:9, Gal 6:16; Rev. 5:9).  Everything turns on whether we assume continuity or discontinuity as most fundamental to interpreting the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Given the way that the New Testament itself interprets the Old, we should privilege continuity.

If this is the case, then the burden of proof shifts from the paedobaptists (i.e., infant baptizers) to Baptists.  Given the Jewish background of the first Christians, it would not be the command to administer the sign and seal of the covenant to their children that would have been surprising, but the command to cease administering it to them.  However, we are not left to an argument from silence.  This promise for believers and their children is exhibited in the conversion and baptism of Lydia.  After she believed the gospel, ‘she was baptized, and her household as well’ (Acts 16:15).  Later in the same chapter, we read of the conversion of the Philippian jailer.  He too is told, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household…and he was baptized at once, he and all his family’ (vv 31, 33).  Paul recalls having baptized the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16).  If children are included in the covenant of grace under its Old Testament administration, surely they are not excluded in the new covenant administration, which the writer to the Hebrews calls ‘better’ than the old (Heb. 7:22).

Again, there’s more to the discussion, but I appreciate Horton’s words on the continuity between the Old and New Covenants.  It’s also helpful to realize that infants had been included in the covenant for around twenty centuries before the apostles’ lived.  If infants are no longer part of the covenant community in the New Testament era, one would expect a very clear command to now exclude children of believers.  Instead, in the New Testament we’re told that children of believers are “holy” (set apart) and that the promise belongs to them as well as their parents (1 Cor 7:14; Acts 2:39).  Paul tells children to obey their parents in the Lord (Eph. 6:1).  Jesus himself welcomed little children, blessed them, prayed over them, and said, the kingdom of God belongs to such as these (Lk. 18:16 NASB).  Therefore, “why should the church refuse to welcome into her arms those whom Christ received into his?” (Francis Turretin).

The above quotes are found in Michael Horton, Christian Theology, p. 795-6.  Emphasis his.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Baptism: Immersion Only? (Hodge)

Outlines of Theology, rewritten and enlarged ed. One question that Christians sometimes ask is this: What is the proper mode of baptism?  In other words, when we baptize someone, should it be by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling?  Reformed Christians will answer: Yes!  The main question about the mode of baptism is not how much water, but only the fact that water is used.  For example, the Westminster Confession notes that dipping is acceptable, but so is pouring or sprinkling (28:3). This Reformed view – that dipping, pouring, or sprinkling are all valid modes of baptism – is found in Scripture.

A. A. Hodge did a nice job of explaining this in chapter 42 of his “Outlines of Theology.”  In the following paragraphs, Hodge notes that the baptisms in the NT are not necessarily and always done by immersion.  In fact, Hodge notes that immersion is sometimes not even probable in these examples:

(1) The baptism of the eunuch by Philip, Acts 8:26–39, is the only instance which even by appearance favors immersion. But observe (a) the language used by Luke… applies just as naturally to baptism performed by affusion [pouring – spl] as by immersion. (b.) The Greek prepositions, εἰς, here translated into, and ἐκ, here translated out of, are in innumerable instances used to express motion, toward, unto, and from.—Acts 26:14; 27:34, 40. They probably descended from the chariot to the brink of the water. Philip is also said to have “descended to” and to have “ascended from the water,” but surely he was not also immersed. (c.) The very passage of Isaiah, which the eunuch was reading, Is. 52:15, declared that the Messiah, in whom he believed, should “sprinkle many nations.” (d.) Luke says the place was “a desert,” and no body of water sufficient for immersion can be discovered on that road.

(2.) Every other instance of Christian baptism recorded in the Scriptures bears evidence positively against immersion. (a.) The baptism of three thousand in Jerusalem on one occasion on the day of Pentecost.—Acts 2:38–41. (b.) The baptism of Paul.—Acts 9:17, 18; 22:12–16. Ananias said to him “standing up, be baptized,” ἀναστὰς βάπτισαι, and, “standing up, he was baptized.” (c.) The baptism of Cornelius.—Acts 10:44–48. (d.) The baptism of the jailor, at Philippi.—Acts 16:32–34. In all these instances baptism was administered on the spot, wherever the convert received the gospel. Nothing is said of rivers, or much water, but vast multitudes at a time, and individuals and families were baptized in their houses, or in prisons, wherever they happened to be at the moment.

 Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), 614–615.

Shane Lems,
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Why Don’t Reformed Churches Rebaptize People?

Westminster Confession of Faith (This is a re-post from June, 2013.)

Confessional Reformed/Presbyterian churches don’t rebaptize a Christian who comes from another church to join theirs.  The Westminster Confession of Faith (28:7) says “the sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered to any person.”  For example, if a person was baptized in a Roman Catholic, Methodist, Brethren, or Baptist church, he or she would not have to be baptized again to join a Reformed/Presbyterian church.

Why not?

Well, there are quite a few historical and biblical answers to the question.   I don’t have the space here to discuss how the Reformers spoke against the Anabaptists who began rebaptizing Christians during and after the Reformation.  You can read Luther’s 1528 treatise, “Concerning Rebaptism” for more information on this.  The (short) historical answer to the above question (Why not?) is simply this: because we’re not Anabaptists!

At the heart of the biblical answer is the fact that baptism is primarily God’s sign and seal of his covenant of grace rather than an action we perform when we believe.   If a person is baptized in the name of the Triune God, according to the command of Christ, it’s an objective sign that doesn’t need to be repeated – just like circumcision in the Old Covenant didn’t need to be repeated.  Speaking covenantally, John Calvin said,  “however the covenant might be violated by them [wayward Jews in the OT], the symbol of the covenant remained ever firm and inviolable by virtue of the Lord’s institution” (Institutes, IV.XV.17).

Robert Shaw, a 19th Century Presbyterian pastor, explained it like this:

“Baptism is not to be administered to any person oftener than once.  This is plain from the nature of the ordinance.  It is a solemn admission of the person baptized as a member of the visible Church; and though those that ‘walk disorderly’ are to be cast out, yet there is no hint in Scripture, that, when re-admitted, they are to be baptized again.  The thing signified by baptism cannot be repeated, and the engagements come under can never be disannulled” (Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 370).

Of course, we should always be prepared to profess our faith before God’s people (Ps. 22:22) and we should continually repent of our sins (Ps 51), but we don’t need to be baptized more than once because it is God’s covenant sign and seal of the covenant of grace.  Because his covenant promises never change and because he is faithful, baptism is something Christians only need to undergo once.  (If baptism depended on my faith, I’d have to be baptized several times a year since my faith waxes and wanes!)

Baptism is a “one time” sacrament that benefits us our whole life.   When we stumble, baptism reminds us of God’s promises and Christ’s shed blood.  We flee to the Lord with repentant faith, plead his promises, and rejoice that his blood covers all sins.  As Luther put it in the above mentioned treatise, there is always something lacking in our faith.  But there is never anything lacking in our baptism because it is God’s covenant sign and seal.  That’s a short answer to the question of why Reformed and Presbyterian churches don’t practice rebaptism.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

How To Baptize: The Mode

Biblically speaking, what is the proper mode of baptism? In other words, is the only option immersion, or are pouring and sprinkling also OK? In Reformed churches, all three are acceptable (dipping, pouring, and sprinkling; see WCF 28.3). Here’s how J. G. Vos explains it:

“The mode of baptism is a matter of indifference. That is, the quantity of water to be used and the manner in which it is to be applied are not matters which have been appointed in Scripture. In the history of the church there have been three modes of baptism, namely, effusion (pouring), sprinkling, and immersion. Any one of these constitutes a valid administration of baptism. The Confession of Faith states: ‘Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person’ (28.3). It should be noted that the Confession does not say that immersion is wrong, but only that it is not necessary; nor does it say that sprinkling is the only right mode of baptism, but only that by sprinkling or pouring baptism is ‘rightly administered,’ that is, that either of these modes, equally with immersion, constitutes a valid administration of the sacrament.”

A good question arises: “Is it true that the Greek word translated ‘baptize’ in the New Testament literally means ‘to immerse’?”

“Certainly not. In its New Testament usage, the Greek verb baptizo literally means ‘to wash,’ as will be seen by looking up Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38, in both of which texts this verb is used, and where the idea of ‘immersion’ would obviously be out of place. The Greek noun baptismos literally means ‘washing,’ as is evident from mark 7:4, 8 and Hebrews 9:10. To suppose that tables were cleansed by immersion is absurd. Yet the Greek text of Mark 7:4 speaks of the ‘baptism’ of tables. The confident claim of Baptists that baptizo and baptismos in their New Testament usage mean ‘to immerse’ and ‘immersion’ will not stand the test of a careful scrutiny of the passages in the New Testament where these words occur.”

J. G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, p. 471-2.

Shane Lems

Owen on Covenant Baptism and the Argument of Silence

The Works of John Owen, Volume 16: The Church and the Bible Some years ago when I was studying the doctrine of baptism I came to the conclusion that the Reformed position is biblical: both infants and adults should be baptized based on the truths of the covenant of grace (Gen. 15-17).  I see the argument from silence as proving the Reformed view of baptism rather than disproving it.  That is, since God never tells his people to exclude children from the covenant sign or promise, we should continue to include them.  Jesus blessed little children; children of one or two believing parents are “holy;” Paul writes ethical admonitions to households as Christian households, and the promise in the NT is not just for believers, but their children too, as it was in the days of Abraham.

John Owen discusses this quite well in his essay, “Of Infant Baptism and Dipping” found in volume 16 of his Works.  Here is Owen’s (slightly edited) third point supporting infant baptism based on the argument of/from silence:

…A spiritual privilege once granted by God unto any cannot be changed, disannulled, or abrogated, without a special divine revocation of it, or the substitution of a greater privilege and mercy in the place of it; for:

1. Who shall disannul what God has granted? What he has put together who shall put asunder? To abolish or take away any grant of privilege made by him to the church, without his own express revocation of it, is to deny his sovereign authority.

2. To say a privilege so granted may be revoked, even by God himself, without the substitution of a greater privilege and mercy in the place of it, is contrary to the goodness of God, his love and care unto his church, [and] contrary to his constant course of proceeding with it from the foundation of the world, wherein he went on in the enlargement and increase of its privileges until the coming of Christ. And to suppose it under the gospel is contrary to all his promises, the honor of Christ, and a multitude of express testimonies of Scripture.

Thus was it with the privileges of the temple and the worship of it granted to the Jews; they were not, they could not be, taken away without an express revocation, and the substitution of a more glorious spiritual temple and worship in their place.

But now the spiritual privilege of a right unto and a participation of the initial seal of the covenant was granted by God unto the infant seed of Abraham, Gen. 17:10, 12. This grant, therefore, must stand firm for ever, unless men can prove or produce:

1. An express revocation of it by God himself; which none can do either directly or indirectly, in terms or any pretense of consequence.

2. An instance of a greater privilege or mercy granted unto them in the place of it; which they do not once pretend unto, but leave the seed of believers, while in their infant state, in the same condition with those of pagans and infidels; expressly contrary to God’s covenant.

All this contest, therefore, is to deprive the children of believers of a privilege once granted to them by God, never revoked, as to the substance of it, assigning nothing in its place; which is contrary to the goodness, love, and covenant of God, especially derogatory to the honor of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

John Owen. The Works of John Owen. Ed. William H. Goold. Vol. 16. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. Print.

shane lems

Baptism is Not Faith

This is a repost from February 2010.

One of the major ways in which the Federal Vision departs from the historic Reformed/Presbyterian confessions is in their view of baptism.  They view baptism as effective instrument which unites a person to Christ.  Here are a few FV quotes to show this significant departure.

“By baptism one is joined to Christ’s body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of his work” (Summary Statement of AAPC’s Position on Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation).

“In baptism, we are transferred by the power of the Spirit, from the old Adam, and the wrath and curse of God which rested upon the old man, into the new man, which is Jesus Christ.”  “By baptism the Spirit joins us to Christ since he is the elect one and the Church is the elect people” (Steve Wilkins, “Covenant and Baptism” & “The Legacy of the Halfway Covenant”).

“All baptized persons receive, objectively, the same promised inheritance and privileges” (Rich Lusk, “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?”).

“Baptism is covenantally efficacious.  It brings every person baptized into an objective and living covenant relationship with Christ, whether the baptized person is elect or reprobate” (Douglas Wilson, “Credos: On Baptism,” #8).

Unlike the Federal Vision, the Reformed position doesn’t attribute this type of efficacy or instrumentality to baptism.  Instead, the Reformed talk about faith alone (sola fide) as an instrument:  the Heidelberg Catechism says we are grafted into Christ and receive all his benefits and our inheritance by faith alone (Q/A 20, 21, 60, 61; cf. Calvin’s Institutes, IV.15.6).  The catechism is unambiguous: the only way we can make Christ’s benefits ours is by faith alone (Q/A 61).  Baptism signifies the truth that Jesus’ blood washes away sins, but baptism’s water does not do that (Q/A 65-66, 72).

In other words, faith alone unites us to Christ and through that faith we receive all the blessings of salvation.  Baptism is an arrow (sign) that points us to Christ’s cleansing blood, and a mark/seal of the promises of salvation.  The Belgic Confession says that cleansing and regeneration are “not…effected by the external water” but by the Spirit applying Christ’s blood to the sinner’s soul through the instrument of faith, which “keeps us in communion with” Christ and all his benefits (BCF 22, 34).

Here’s the historic Reformed position articulated by Herman Bavinck.

“Faith alone apart from any sacrament communicates, and causes believers to enjoy, all the benefits of salvation…Baptism can only signify and seal the benefits that are received by faith and thereby strengthen that faith”  (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.515).

Though this is a brief intro, from the outset it is clear that these two positions are at irreconcilable odds.

shane lems

sunnyside wa