Engaging With 1689 (6): John Spilsbury Contra Infant Baptism

In part 5 we considered John Gill’s argument that infant initiation into the Abrahamic covenant is prima facie evidence that the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17:10 was not a covenant of grace but, in fact, a covenant of works. In this installment we consider one of the earliest works arising from the emerging Particular Baptist tradition, that of the cobbler (according to Chute, Finn, and Haykin, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement, 22), John Spilsbury (or Spilsbery; c. 1593–1668). He was perhaps among those in a London congregation which had been founded in 1616 (ibid., 21–22). The congregation of which he became pastor, is typically regarded as the first clearly Particular Baptist congregation (ibid., 22). According to Chute, Finn, and Haykin, his working-class congregation grew to around 300 souls by 1670.

In 1643 Spilsbury published the first edition of his little treatise against infant baptism. This survey relies upon the 2nd edition published in 1653 in London. On the title page he included a helpful subtitle which forms the outline of the work (spelling and punctuation modernized):

Wherein is handled these particulars:

  1. The baptizing of infants confuted.
  2. The covenant God made with Abraham and his seed handled and how the same agrees with the Gentiles and their seed.
  3. The baptism administered by an Antichristian power confused, as no ordinance of God.
  4. The covenant, and not baptism, forms the church, and the manner how.
  5. There is no succession under the New Testament, but what is spiritually by faith in the Word of God

His view of the nature of redemptive history, his hermeneutic, and his doctrine of the church emerges early on in the work, in the prefatory epistle to the reader, where he wrote,

The subject controverted in the following I realize, one part of it is about infants’ baptism, and whereas I oppose the same as an unwritten tradition, yet I would not be understood that I oppose infants in respect of either their persons or age, or salvation itself, between God and them invisibly, but honor them with all natural respects, desiring their safety and well being here, and glory hereafter; but what their estate is in respect of grace, that I do not know, but as the same appears by some effect of faith; until which time, as I condemn none, no more dare I justify any, but leave all to the good pleasure of God;’ that only knows who are his. And this I believe, that God of his mere grace, before the world was, did elect and choose a number in Christ to salvation. All which shall unavoidably come to glory, ad Ephes. 1, Rom. 8.30 But who those be, that I do not know, until God reveals the same by some effect of his grace appearing in them. And all that I intend by opposing infants’ baptism, is but only to forbear and wait upon God in the use of the means, until faith appears to meet with God in his holy ordinance, without the same is void and of no effect; but profaned, God provoked, and the party endangered (unnumbered p. ii).

Even from the outline and this précis one can see that the arguments between the Reformed and the Particular Baptists have not much changed in 375 years. Is infant baptism an “unwritten tradition”? Only if one assumes believers’ baptism and reads Matthew 28:19 or Acts 2:38–39 through that lens. From the Reformed understanding of the history of redemption, the command to circumcise believers and their infant sons is, in the New Covenant, a command to baptize believers and their children. Thus, implicit in this summary is a point that he will make explicit later, a particular reading of the role of Abraham in the history of redemption.

For Spilsbury, the New Covenant is so eschatological, i.e., it so partakes of the final state now, that even though infants had been included in the visible covenant people prior to the New Covenant, now, they must be excluded. Only those who give (sufficient) evidence of new life and true faith, only those who give evidence of being elect, are eligible to be admitted outwardly to the covenant community. He understood that he was withholding from infants “the means” until they gave evidence of redemption. His ground is the eschatological chapter of the New Covenant.

His prefatory letter continues by admonishing those who submitted to baptism administered in an “Antichristian Church.” Those so baptized are not actually baptized at all and thus, what the Baptists are doing is not, by their lights, re-baptizing at all, since infant baptism is not actually a proper baptism. For Spilsbury, infant baptism is a ritual of the Antichrist.

He rehearses the now familiar Baptist objections, that βαπτιζω signifies immersion, that the New Testament (he claims) records no infant baptisms (again note the reliance upon arguments from silence), that it is a violation of the rule of worship (i.e., without express command of God) and thus “will worship, after the doctrines and commandments of man” (pref., p. iii). He warns of the coming judgment on “the Gentiles” (those who are unbaptized and outside the true people of God).

As with the other Particular Baptist writers we have surveyed, for Spilsbury, the pre-temporal, eternal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) is his starting point. Redemptive history is an outworking of the covenant of redemption. He described redemptive history as the “outward profession” of the pactum salutis with a variety of administrations. He recognized (unlike other Baptists writers) that the “Old Covenant” proper describes that period of history from Moses to Christ, not from Abraham, to Moses (p. 1).

He sets aside that discussion quickly, however, to turn to a series of objections. The first is that children are apparently capable of being the subjects of the operation of Spirit and the “grace of the covenant.” He denied that is true of infants. To say that God brings infants to faith is to misunderstand the nature of the covenant. Here we see how important was his eschatological view of the New Covenant.

We shall find in the Scriptures of God, all the sweet promises of grace under the New Testament, holding forth their blessings and blessed privileges only to such as believe (pp. 2—3).

These are the elect, who demonstrate “some effect of grace,” namely “declaring their faith.” Only those who make such a profession of faith have “have a visible right to these privileges.” He did not deny that John the Baptist believed in the womb or that others may also but only that because we cannot know that to be true of any in particular,they may not be baptized (p. 3).

He continued this line of argumentation, that only believers may be said to be united to Christ and only those united to Christ are eligible for baptism (pp. 3–5). This is because baptism is not a sign of initiation into the visible covenant community but a divine ordinance that confirms what the church has observed (p. 6).

He then turned to the problem of Abraham. He states the Reformed view fairly, that what was true of Abraham and his children remains true of believers and their children in the New Covenant. He replied:

…more is required of men of years, for their receiving of baptism, than is of infants; and all the proof is from the example of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac….

He argued that there was a divine command to circumcise believing Abraham and his children but now, “the command of God only gives persons (now under the gospel)right to baptism which requires not more of one person than of another but faith and repentance in all alike (as proof of which he cites a number of passages). He argued that faith wa required of Abraham as a condition of circumcision. “Or that the same faith in the blessed seed Jesus Christ, was so required of all his household at the time of their circumcision, is more than yet appears to me” (p. 7).

The argument takes an interesting, indeed remarkable turn. Spilsbury seemed to have felt the force of the argument. Unlike those PBs whom we have mostly considered thus far, Spilsbury seems to have held something like the view that I described in part 1 as the Old Particular Baptist (OPB) view, i.e., the view that most predominated among modern Particular Baptists before the recovery of some of the more important 17th-century writers, whom I have been calling the PBs. This latter group clearly rejects the Reformed doctrine of continuity between the New Covenant and the covenant of grace and typically describes the Abrahamic covenant(s) as a species of the covenant of works or lumps the Abrahamic together the Mosaic and the Davidic. In any event, the goal is, more or less, to marginalize Abraham and eliminate the Reformed doctrine that the New Covenant is the Abrahamic covenant without the bloody types and shadows.

Spilsbury, however, argued (pp. 8–10) that the Reformed misunderstand the nature of the continuity with Abraham. What binds the New Covenant together with Abraham is not its promises and administration but the reception of the realities. Abraham had the benefits of Christ by faith. So it is in the New Covenant. The true seed was ever and only by electing grace, through faith. Only those who actually receive the benefits were ever actually in the covenant under Abraham and so it is now. In other words, for Spilsbury, the promises were always and only for believers.

The covenant of Genesis 17 was different from the New Covenant in at least one very important respect:

Let this be well considered, and and doubt not but the difference between the covenant God made with Abraham before Christ, and this under Christ, will appear very great, Both in respect of the persons and things. W’hereine our descent chiefly lies: that covenant addicted of a fleshly seed, but this only of a spiritual, Gen 17, with Rom. 9 That in the flesh, and this in the heart, Gen 17.13. With Jer. 31:33 Rom 2:28, 29 The seal and ordinances of that covenant confirmed faith in things to come, but the seal and ordinances of this covenant confirm faith in things already done (p. 11).

For Spilsbury, the Abrahamic covenant was national (and thus he did turn Abraham into Moses). By contrast, the New Covenant is “personal” (by which I take him to mean individual). Under Abraham it was possible to be admitted outwardly without a personal faith but that is impossible under the New Covenant. He attributed to the Abrahamic covenant “a civil state, and a worldly government with the like carnal subjects for the service of the same” (p. 11). The basis for this anachronism (the civil state was not established until Moses) appears to be that circumcision was instituted under Abraham and administered under Moses. This argument persists today.

The covenant itself, he argued,

is a covenant of grace and salvation, by which God of his grace takes a person or a people to himself for his own above all others, and to be their God [but not, apparently to their children, contra Genesis 17—rsc] and to manifest upon them the riches of his grace and glory and the manner of which is in effect but only thus much: God’s calling of a man to an agreement with himself in his Son, wherein he promises to be his God, and to give him life and happiness , and all things in Christ and that he shall believe and rest upon his faithfulness and truth, and so take him for his God etc (p. 12).

Notice what Spilsbury did. He very subtly changed the terms of the covenant. God’s Word actually says,

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7–8; ESV).

Spilsbury re-cast the Abrahamic covenant individualistic terms. Where, on its own terms, the Abrahamic covenant was a promise that entailed a corporate outward administration, for Spilsbury, it is a realization which the outward administration only recognizes.

Part 2 of the survey and analysis of Spilsbury.


  1. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16) … In Christ!

  2. So, this explains a lot. The Reformed view that God saves His elect through means and instruments under the covenant of grace, is rejected by most Baptists. That is why it is not a problem to them that there were saved people under the old covenant, where they claim there was no covenant of grace. To them God works directly, without means or instruments, based on election, from the covenant of redemption. Baptism is therefore not a means of grace to bring the elect to saving faith, but rather a demonstration of regeneration that gives the right to be a member God’s elect people, who are the visible Church.

    • What I find troubling about this is that quite often “proof of being born again” that qualifies one for baptism is some kind of subjective religious experience or something that One did, repeating the sinner’s prayer, or signing a card, sincerely of course, rather than relying on the objective promises of God’s Word and the sign of baptism which say, if you believe only in the righteousness and death of Christ for your salvation, you will be saved. So, for the Baptist, it would seem that, by virtue of something they did or experienced, they now have the right to membership in the church, which is assumed to be the fellowship of only God’s elect. Is there not a danger here, that it looks to subjective religious experience rather than to the means of grace provided by the objective Word and sacrament of baptism?

    • I see a similar problem in my PCA church. Younger and younger children are being confirmed to become communing members of the church. What that also means in the PCA is that they simultaneously become voting members in the church. I see the rush to admit children to the Lord’s Table linked more to the desire to report a growing communing membership for the sake of statistical growth and a crass desire to form a larger voting bloc representation of the younger families. Sinful man can corrupt the purest ecclesiology.

  3. I keep asking why would Baptists even want to use the name “Reformed Baptist” or “Calvinistic Baptist” when the thing that seems to be most distinctive about the Reformed understanding is covenant theology. There is no way Baptist theology can be harmonized with covenant theology as those who are Reformed understand it. Has “Reformed” become so watered down that it merely means a belief in the “5 points” or even further to where it just refers to a belief in election/predestination?

    • Although I would identify best with the continental Reformed tradition and I hold to the 6 forms of unity, I don’t have a problem with calling 1689 federalistic baptists “Reformed Baptists” since they are in practice very close to the Reformed confessions (and probably even more so than other paedobaptists like FV churches). We must ultimately admit that they do agree with us on both the covenant of works and the covenant of redemption. Their view of the covenant of grace is also still largely within the bounds of orthodoxy. I still like to use the term to distinguish between baptists who merely espouse a type of bare-bone TULIP soteriology and others who embrace many more elements of the Reformed Faith as in Barcellos’s new book “Going beyond the 5 points.”

    • JD,

      The nomenclature “Reformed Baptist” is quite late. The earliest date I’ve seen so far is 1823. The earliest Particular Baptists, although they identified with the Reformed in some important respects, realized that they did not hold to Reformed theology in the ways I’ve been sketching in this series. Thus, they did not call themselves Reformed.

      From historical, confessional, and theological perspectives, the title “Reformed Baptist” is oxymoronic. It’s modern use dates only to the post-WWII era. It has more to do with marketing than with history, confession, or theology.

      As the series shows, even those such as Spilsbury, who taught a formal continuity of the New Covenant with the Abrahamic, re-defined the nature of that continuity quite radically. Others, e.g., Gill, rejected the very idea of an Abrahamic covenant of grace.

      The differences between the Reformed and the Particular Baptists were (and remain) greater than often realized. We have not only significant differences in the reading of redemptive history and thus in eschatology and ecclesiology but also in hermeneutics, i.e., how to read Scripture.

      The expression “Reformed Baptist” entails a fairly radical re-definition of the adjective “Reformed.”

  4. J-D, after all that we have covered in this series, I am perplexed by your statement that the PBs are still largely within the bounds of orthodoxy on the covenant of grace. The Reformed view is that the covenant of grace unifies Scripture, and that it provides the means of grace that applied the same substance of the gospel, although through different administrations of means and instruments, to all of God’s people throughout redemptive history. That is the Reformed inderstanding of how God always brings his people to saving faith. The PBs teach that there are two people of God, one an earthly people under law covenants for earthly, temporal rewards, and the other a spiritual people under the covenant of grace that did not begin until the death and resurrection of Christ, who are the escatalogically pure church described in Jeremiah 31. I fail to see how you would consider the PBs view of the covenant of grace even remotely similar to that of the Reformed. They have a radically different understanding of redemptive history, of ecclesiology, of the sacraments, of how God uses means of grace, and of how individuals relate to the covenant of grace. All of this is due to their radical departure from the Reformed understanding of the covenant of grace, which is that it is continuously the same, but administered under different forms, throughout redemptive history. The PBs on the other hand, see a division in the Scripture, a division of God’s people, and two different ways that God treats those people. In spite of all these differences, the PBs confess, at least according to the new covenant, salvation is by trusting in Christ alone, but such a minimal agreement hardly qualifies them as Reformed.

    • Also, Baptists maintain that they believe in Christ alone for their salvation, but their practice is to baptize only those they believe are regenerated. To them baptism is not a means of grace, but rather a demonstration of what has happened, that the person is regenerated. So how do you decide that this is really true of the person to be baptized? From what I have seen, it often comes down to something the person has experienced or done. Maybe they had a strong emotional reaction to a moving message that made them come forward and sign the card, change their behaviour and start attending church. So now they are baptized as a witness that they are regenerate and saved. Maybe they really are, but maybe they just had an emotional experience. But this reliance on experience, rather than on simply trusting the objective promises of the Word and sacraments seems questionable to me. When you make subjective experience the criteria for judging your regenerate status, are you shifting your trust from Christ alone to what you experienced? Often such people will say, I was born again on——- when——happened to me, and I did—-, and then I decided to get baptized. As if that settled the matter and gives them confidence and assurance that they are right with God. Should they not rather be looking only to promises in God’s Word for their assurance?

    • Angela, I understand what you mean, but it is important not to over-react to the bad covenant theology of the baptists, their Zwinglian view of the sacraments, and their poorer ecclesiology. If you do some research, you will find that a lot of first-generation Christians (and the majority of new calvinists) join calvinistic baptist churches, partly because they have closer ties with mainstream evangelicals than continental reformed and presbyterians churches and also partly because they often do not feel welcome in strongly generational paedobaptist reformed churches. As R. Scott Clark was explaining regarding John Spilsbury’s views on Baptism (in part 2 of his treatment), it is largely due to an over-reaction to some abuse by the English State churches that so many people flocked into Baptist churches in the 1700s. The same abuse is still present today in North America. Just look at how many nominal Roman Catholics, Free Methodists, United Churches, and liberal post-reformed churches baptize the children of unbelieving homes. Moreover, the simplicity of the baptistic view of baptism makes it easy for new believers to understand, just like 1+1=2: (faith + full immersion in water = true baptism). Our reformed understanding of the sacraments is more difficult to grasp and also requires building a more thorough understanding of OT/NT Scripture overall. It is crucial that we still consider them as brothers/sisters in the faith and do not over-emphasize the differences. We must also recognize that many Reformed Christians within NAPARC churches do not truly understand the Reformed view of Covenant theology either and tend to baptize their children mostly out of tradition. Some of them have been influenced by the doctrine of presumptive regeneration (i.e. Abraham Kuyper) and suppose that God promises to save their children on the basis of baptizing them. (I will not name any names, but I have witnessed such misunderstandings in Reformed circles myself).

  5. J-D, Kuyper’s view was that the children of believers should be baptized because we do not know who is elect, and therefore will be regenerated, so they should all be baptized and presumed and treated as elect until they prove to be reprobate. He did not advocate baptism as a promise that God would save children because they are baptized. The FV teach that baptism provides temporary election that can be lost if the baptized do not do their part in covenant faithfulness, but that teaching has been condemned by Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. Are there individuals that have ideas that are inconsistent with Reformed doctrine, about baptism in PR churches? Probably, but I doubt that it is because of intentional teaching by their pastors. Aside from that, even if there are some who have false ideas in Reformed churches, does that mean that false doctrine should be overlooked, because it is everywhere, even among some Reformed individuals?

    There are many false teachings to be found out there, but does that mean we disregard them because they are so prevalent? Does convenience, expediency, consideration about where I am most comfortable, and what is easy for me to understand justify my choice of fellowship over considerations about doctrinal truth? Does it matter if you are putting your trust for your right standing with God in an emotional experience, or something you did, rather than in objective promises in the Word of God?

    What we believe about God and how we are right with him has eternal consequences. It is called doctrine, it is worth getting it right.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane, deny the gospel, advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.