In the first part we quickly introduced the basic doctrine of covenant nomism, namely that God has established a system whereby sinners are admitted to the covenant by grace and they stay in or they retain that status or they retain the benefits given by faith and works or faithfulness or by grace and cooperation with grace. We saw that this is essentially the medieval and Roman view. There are those who otherwise identify with the Reformation who, nevertheless, construe “getting in” and “staying in” that create the conditions for similar problems.
Federal Visionists, Lutherans, and Baptists
Sometimes it is said that one is admitted to the covenant through baptism. This is the doctrine of the Federal Visionists. Lutheran orthodoxy also teaches that God confers salvation through baptism. Article 9 of the Augsburg Confession (1530) teaches of baptism “it is necessary to salvation,” and that the baptized “are received into God’s favor.” More pointedly, Martin Luther (1483–1546) argued at length in his Large Catechism (1529) that though it is true that we are justified by faith alone, the water of baptism, having been joined with the Word of the gospel, becomes a sacrament and so “faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life.” He reiterated that “without faith it [baptism] profits nothing.” For Luther, baptism, as a gospel sacrament, has the same power of the Gospel to effect new life. It God’s work, not ours. Whatever ambiguity there might have been in Luther’s doctrine of baptism, was largely removed by the orthodox Lutherans who interpreted Luther (and the Augsburg Confession) to teach that baptism is a “means of justification.”13 Further, it “works forgiveness of sins…washes away sin…sanctifies and cleanses…regenerates and saves.” Though orthodox Lutheranism confesses a doctrine of unconditional election, they also deny our doctrine of reprobation and perseverance of the saints. According to them, at the moment of the administration of baptism faith is kindled, and one is not only included visibly into the church, but one is made alive and shall remain so unless and until he resists the grace of the Spirit. Not surprisingly, as a consequence of this view, the orthodox Lutheran theologians were and remain highly critical of our Canons of Dort.
Though like the Anabaptists (See Belgic Confession Art. 34) in their rejection infant baptism (paedobaptism) as contrary to the New Covenant, Modern Baptists are actually descended from the congregational and Presbyterian churches. The Baptists reject paedobaptism on two principal grounds:
- It is not taught in the New Testament
- It is contrary to the Spiritual nature of the New Covenant.
In the confessional Baptist understanding, only those who actually believe are members of the New Covenant. Therefore the London Baptist Confession (1689) teaches that 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” (29.2). In the confessional Baptist view, baptism is not merely a sign and seal of what is true of those who believe, but of categorical statement of what is actually true of the person baptized at the time of baptism (21.1). In the Baptist confession, baptism is not about promises made by God, in baptism, and realized by faith, but only about present realities. If the realities symbolized by baptism are not present, one is not eligible for the ordinance. To Reformed folk, Baptists seem impatient. They expect too much of the heavenly reality in this life and they confuse the substance of the covenant (possession of new life, faith, and justification) with its outward administration.
Iin their own ways, the Federal Vision, Roman, Lutheran, and Baptist views of baptism all identify too closely the sign (baptism) with the thing signified (the benefits of Christ). Only the Reformed view of baptism confessed in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards (1647–48) avoids either confusing baptism with covenant and election or stripping from it the promises of God which make it a sacrament and a means of grace. [Much of this post is taken from the pamphlet, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace]
Next time: Why is nomism so attractive?