A Preface On Paradigms
As Baptists and Reformed folk engage each other’s theological traditions two things need to happen to make that engagement productive: 1) They need to realize that each tradition is theologically distinct. Some Baptists have historical and institutional relations to paedobaptist (infant-baptizing) churches and traditions. E.g., some of the Particular Baptists emerged from the Anglican Church but part of their departure from the Anglicans involved accepting theological and hermeneutical premises and convictions that led them away from the Reformed theology, piety, and practice in important places. Those who left to become Baptist did so, in part, because they had undeniably embraced the Anabaptist view of baptism and some version of the underlying Anabaptist view of redemptive history (e.g., the relations between the Old and New Testaments and the highly realized eschatology of the Anabaptists) shared by some of the more extreme Congregationalists.
Please note that I am not arguing that Baptists are Anabaptists in every respect. That claim cannot be sustained. They were and are influenced by the Anabaptists in certain respects. It is beyond argument that all Baptists agree with the Anabaptists about who is eligible for baptism and under what conditions. That agreement did not just happen accidentally. Still, the Particular Baptists rejected, e.g., the Anabaptist “celestial flesh” Christology and their view of Christian involvement in civil life. Further, in distinction from the Anabaptists, the Particular Baptists accepted the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). By contrast, to the degree the General Baptists agreed with the Remonstrants (which they tended to do), like the Remonstrants, they also rejected the Reformation.
2) Both Reformed and Baptists should realize that each tradition has its own paradigm (from Greek, παράδειγμα), a pattern or a model. A paradigm is a grid, an inter-related set of assumption, through which data (e.g., biblical passages) are interpreted. There is a Baptist paradigm and a Reformed paradigm. In the Baptist paradigm the covenant can only be administered outwardly to those who profess to have received inwardly what it offers, Christ and his benefit (to use the language of the London Baptist Confession of 1689). In the Reformed paradigm, however, the covenant is to be outwardly administered to all those whom the Lord has declared to be eligible to receive the outward administration. Both traditions look at Scripture quite differently and they read it quite differently. Each tradition has its own assumptions and its own way of doing theology. Failure to recognize this reality has hindered mutual understanding.
A Baptist Complaint
This paradigmatic confusion is evident in Chris Whisonant’s analysis of the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession on baptism. He writes,
At one point (around 27 minutes in – see the transcript below for the full context), Dr. Renihan asked Pastor Brown if he thought that the following statement from the Westminster Confession went too far and asked “Do you think that the standards say too much when they talk about baptism as a symbol of union with Christ?”
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world. (emphasis mine)
Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.1
As you can see, Dr. Renihan raises a valid question. Baptism is “not only for” the “admission…into the visible Church”, but it is also a “sign and seal” of the party being baptized having been “ingrafted” and “regenerated”. This is what Dr. Renihan means when he asks if the standards say too much when speaking of Baptism as a symbol of one’s union with Christ. To be more clear, union with Christ is what refers to the invisible Church. When we Reformed people talk about ingrafting/union/regeneration, this is not something merely external. Though, as Dr. Renihan also pointed out wonderfully in this episode, “we [Reformed Baptists] absolutely affirm a visible, invisible distinction that baptism is, as our confession talks about for professing believers, for those who who profess.”
Whisonant continues by claiming that not only the Belgic Confession but also the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort teach baptismal union with Christ. He writes,
However, I would argue that the Three Forms of Unity in The Belgic Confession from 1561, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort are indeed united and actually may go further than the WCF on the point of baptism and union with Christ.
Where does the Belgic go too far? He is unhappy with Article 34:
Article on Baptism, we read that “Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults.” It is because of this, “therefore” that the children of believers should be baptized. It is due to the fact that Christ shed his blood for the little children of believers that the sacrament of baptism should be given to them (emphasis original).
As Dr. Renihan asked about the Westminster Standards, “is it just the administration for them?” I too would ask how the efficacious blood of Christ said to redeem only his elect can be said to be administered in a special way to the “little children of believers”? Yes, the Belgic Confession has gone too far in this statement on infant baptism. If the blood of Christ shed to forgive the sins of an elect, true Christian and place them into union with Him was also shed for children of believers, this has some far-reaching consequences which are neither good nor necessary. To say, Confessionally, that children of believers especially have Christ blood “shed for them”, is to say that children of believers are numbered among the “true Christian believers” of the invisible church – this goes well beyond just placing them generally among a visible church. Those who confess the Three Forms of Unity are urged to see the logical consequences of this doctrine which they confess.
This is worth addressing because it reflects a confusion about Reformed theology that seems, in my experience, to be shared widely among Baptists. It is not that Baptists are incapable of understanding the differences between the Reformed and their own tradition but it does seem to be that they sometimes fail to do so for the reasons I have listed.
A Reformed Reply
As noted above, the Baptist and Reformed traditions think very differently about the outward (external) administration of the covenant of grace. In the Baptist paradigm only those who are able to profess that they have received Christ and his benefit are eligible to be initiated into the visible church. In effect, in the Baptist paradigm, baptism has a dual function: both as sign of initiation and the sign of renewal or personal appropriation of what the covenant of grace offers.
the double mode of communion
Another way to say this is to observe that in the Baptist paradigm, though there is a distinction between the the visible and invisible church, they do not share the Reformed distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: externally and internally. To be sure, I was not clear about this myself until around 2004. I learned this distinction first in Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants. I reported what I learned first in a journal article (see resources) and then, in more popular form, in a booklet. I wrote those things in response to the Federal Vision but before long I found that I was receiving as much resistance to this idea from Baptist friends as from the Federal Visionists.
Briefly, in the Reformed understanding of redemptive history, there have always been two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. Scripture says:
The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright (Gen 25:25–34; ESV).
Jacob and Esau were both members of the covenant people. Both participated in the external administration of the covenant of grace yet they had radically different relations to the substance of the covenant of grace. Jacob participated in the external administration of the covenant of grace and, sola gratia, sola fide he received Christ and his benefits (justification and sanctification). Esau participated in the external administration—indeed Hebrews says of people like Esau that they have “tasted of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:4)— of the covenant of grace but all he received was lentil soup. It was impossible to restore Esau again to repentance because, as Hebrews says, he and all like him are “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb 6:6; ESV). They have, “trampled underfoot the Son of God” and they have “profaned the blood of the covenant” and “outraged the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29; ESV).
signs, seals, and administration
This is only possible because Esau actually participated in the external administration of the covenant of grace and that administration means something. Contra the Romanists and the Federal Visionists, the external administration (e.g., Baptism) is not magic. The sacraments do not work, as the Romanists say, “ex opere” (from the working). According to the sacerdotalists such as Romanists and Federal Visionists, the sacraments become the thing they signify. They cease to be sacraments, signs and seals.
For the Baptists, however, a sign and a seal can only be so retrospectively. In that sense, the Baptist has too little appreciation of the external administration of the covenant of grace or at least they have a radically different understanding of it. For the Reformed, when Paul asks rhetorically, “What advantage has the Jew?” and answers, “Much in every way!” (Rom 3:1, 2) he is reflecting on the value of the external administration of the covenant of grace. There is value because it is through participation in the external administration that God executes his decree in history. We see this relation in Romans 10:14 when Paul asks, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (ESV). God has ordained to use what the Reformed call the means of grace not merely to confirm what he has already done (as in the Baptist view of baptism) but to bring his elect to new life (regeneration), true faith, and through faith to union with Christ by the mysterious work of the Spirit.
Against the Judaizers, who, like the Romanists and the FV, identified the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision with the thing signified and sealed. Circumcision became justification not merely figuratively or sacramentally but really. The Judaizers had an ex opere view of circumcision. Against such a confusion Paul warned the Galatians (5:2-3) against the danger of entering into the covenant of works offered by the Judaizers. If the Galatian Christians took the sign of circumcision as a religious act, they were obligating themselves to present themselves to God on the basis of law-keeping. Such an act would not be a circumcision but a severing from Christ (Gal 5:4). “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6; ESV). We may certainly substitute the word baptism for circumcision. Baptism neither regenerates nor justifies. It is a sign of what Christ does for those to whom he has given new life and true faith. It is a seal, a promise of what is actually true, to those who believe. Paul denies preaching “circumcision,” effectively denying baptismal regeneration and baptismal union with Christ and baptismal justification. He is so furious with the Judaizers that he wishes that, if they love circumcision so much, that they would go the whole way and cut themselves off (Gal 5:12). This expression is a pun with a double meaning. In Old Testament terms, they would be cut off from the covenant community and from God as well as emasculated.
The Reformed confess that the external administration is important (Rom 9:4,5) but we do not confuse the external administration for the thing itself, Christ and his benefits. The external administration works for the the decree, as it were. Paul says this too in Romans 9. Circumcision did not regenerate Esau. It did not make him elect. It did not unite him to Christ. Before either Jacob or Esau had done anything, good or bad, “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand” (Rom 9:11), “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom 9:13).
In his allegation that the Reformed Churches confess baptismal union with Christ he has misunderstood the Reformed confession and ignored these crucial distinctions that I have sketched here.
What The Belgic Confession Actually Says
The language of Belgic art. 34 has to be read against the rest of the Confession. In art. 22 we have confess that faith is the “sole instrument” of our justification, that Christ is our righteousness and salvation and that we only have him by faith. We do not have him by baptism. We confess explicitly:
But Jesus Christ is our righteousness crediting to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him
and with all his benefits. When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.
Whisonant’s explanation of the Belgic is at stark variance with the Belgic’s own understanding. The principal author of the Belgic Guido de Bres (1522–67) had written extensively against the Romanists and the Anabaptists before he preached the sermons that became the Belgic Confession (1561), which was received by Synods of the Dutch Reformed Churches in 1566 et seq and definitively by the great Synod of Dort (1619). Whisonant would have us believe that the same Synod who renounced the Remonstrants as Pelagians unknowingly (or knowingly) embraced a doctrine of baptismal union with Christ? To put it mildly, this seems unlikely since none of the Reformed theologians who participated and none of the Churches who received the Canons or the Belgic thereafter understood either document to teach what Whisonant alleges.
Neither does Heidelberg Catechism (1563) teach baptismal union with Christ. Again, the catechism is clear that we are united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith:
Q. What is true faith?
A.True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These gifts are purely of grace, only because of Christ’s merit.
The Holy Spirit works faith in “by the gospel” not by baptism. Heidelberg 65 makes clear what “by the gospel means.”
It is by faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits: where then does that faith come from?
A. The Holy Spirit works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it
by the use of the holy sacraments.
The Holy Spirit grants new life and true faith “by the preaching of the holy gospel.” This is Romans 10:14. What do the sacraments do? They “confirm” what has already been created by the Holy Spirit.
This gets us back to Belgic art. 34. It is a long article but since the Reformed Churches have been charged with teaching baptismal union with Christ it seems necessary to read the whole article in its context. I will break up the article into sections and explain it a bit at a time.
We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled, has by his shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood, which anyone might do or wish to do in order to atone or satisfy for sins. Having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, he established in its place the sacrament of baptism. By it we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to him, bearing his mark and sign.
The first thing that we confess is that Jesus is the end (i.e., the telos, finis, the purpose) of the Mosaic laws. Their purpose was of the bloody types and shadows was to point the Jews and us to Christ. Circumcision was among those bloody types and shadows. Circumcision witnesses to a forthcoming “cutting off” of Christ on the cross. This is just what Paul says in Colossians 2:11–12 (see resources below). When Paul thinks of circumcision he thinks of Christ’s death and then, in the next breath, he mentions baptism. One is prospective (circumcision) and the other retrospective (baptism). They are not, in the first instance about what has happened in me but rather what Christ does for his elect. It has implications for my Christian life, since Paul’s argument here is about progressive sanctification, which he has illustrated by appealing to circumcision and baptism.
We do not say that baptism regenerates nor do we say that baptism unites us to Christ. By baptism we are received, outwardly, into the visible church and outwardly set apart from the world.
It also witnesses to us that he will be our God forever, since he is our gracious Father. Therefore he has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In this way he signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the body of the baptized when it is sprinkled on him, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit. It washes and cleanses it from its sins and transforms us from being the children of wrath into the children of God. This does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan. So ministers, as far as their work is concerned, give us the sacrament and what is visible, but our Lord gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the “new man” and stripping off the “old,” with all its works.
Calvin called Baptism is the gospel made visible. It is a witness of what is true of those who believe. We do not infer from that fact that only those who profess belief may receive it any more than only those who professed belief received circumcision. Baptism is a witness to God’s grace. It is not the thing signified. It is a visible promise of what is true of believers.
Notice too that in this section, we explicitly distinguish between the external application of the water and the internal work of the Spirit. Whisnonant has missed this vital distinction. Baptism testifies to us that Christ is our Red Sea (see the essay linked below, “One Important Difference…”), and that it is only by faith in Christ that we are delivered from the tyranny of sin. In the very article that Whisonant alleges to teach baptismal union with Christ, we re-affirm what we confessed in art. 22.
Ministers do not have the power to give new life. God does and he does so not through baptism (a view with which the Reformed were well familiar among the Lutherans and the Romanists) but through the announcement of the gospel. Ministers are just that. They are not magic-working priests.
For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it—for we cannot be born twice. Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives. For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children. And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”79
We confess that baptism does for New Covenant children what circumcision did for the children of believers who lived under the types and shadows, i.e., Abraham before the Old Covenant and Moses under the Old Covenant. Circumcision did not save or regenerate or unite one to Christ. The Old Testament saints were, as were, participating in the external administration of the covenant of grace. Through that administration God was bringing his elect to new life and true faith by the gospel, preached under types and shadows. The covenant of grace was in, with, and under those types and shadows.
We follow the Abrahamic pattern and we believe the divine promise, that God gave to Abraham and that Peter repeated at Pentecost: “for the promise to you and to your children and to all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). Thus we detest the error of the Anabaptists (which the Baptists share), who deny the sign and seal of the covenant to their covenant children.
Christ has shed his blood for the elect among the visible covenant community. That includes children. They receive Christ and his benefits sola gratia, sola fide but we do not wait until they profess to put the sign upon them. We put the sign and seal on them in hope that they will receive all that is promised to believers in baptism. It is a sign to all and a guarantee to those who believe.
In Heidelberg 69 we confess:
Q.How does holy baptism remind and assure you that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross benefits you personally?
A.In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it promised that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, that is, all my sins.
It is believers who embrace this promise. The Heidelberg Catechism is the confession of believers. This is so from Question 1. “What your only comfort in life and in death?” through the end of the catechism in 129.
We reject explicitly that Baptism grants new life or saves:
Q. Does this outward washing with water itself wash away sins?
A.No, only Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins.
Because of the paradigmatic differences between the Particular Baptists and the Reformed, Whisonant and Renihan both seem to have quite misunderstood the Reformed confession on this point.
All we say in the Belgic is that we believe that there are elect among our children. We are not authorized to guess whom among our children is elect. Thus, we humbly submit to God’s Word by applying the sign of initiation (not renewal, i.e., communion) to our covenant infants. When, in the providence of God, after our children come to new life and true faith, they have made profession of faith, we admit them to holy communion as the sacrament of nourishment.
Union with Christ is the work of the Spirit, through faith, which gift is given only to the elect. By the Supper, the union and communion of believers with Christ is strengthened (Heidelberg 76) but it is not created in the sacraments.
I hope this exercise in clarification is helpful for Reformed Christians, who confess the Reformed Standards and for Baptists, who are genuinely puzzled about why we say and do what we do, who are trying to understand the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- Untangling Webs Of Assumptions About Baptism
- What Do We Mean By Sacrament, Sign, And Seal?
- Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion
- Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 2007).
- Three Ways of Relating to the One Covenant of Grace
- What Advantage Has The Jew? Much In Every Way.
- Covenant Theology & Infant Baptism
- Engaging With 1689
- One Important Difference Between The Reformed And Some Particular Baptists: God The Son Was In, With, And Under The Types And Shadows
- Tracing The Paradigm Shift: Two Ways Of Being In The Covenant Of Grace
- “A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Cribben, and Caughey,” in Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over a Theological Identity (London: Palgrave-Pivot, 2018), 69–89.
- Jude On The Continuity Of The Covenant Of Grace
- Does The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed Require Baptismal Regeneration?
- Geneva Catechism (1545) Contra Baptismal Regeneration
- William Perkins on Baptismal Regeneration
- John Owen on Constantinianism, Baptismal Regeneration, and Apostasy
- What Do We Mean By Sacrament, Sign, And Seal?
- Does Baptism Save?
- Baptism and Circumcision According to Colossians 2:11–12
- Circumcision and Baptism
- Redeemed From Every People, Tribe, Tongue, And Nation: A Commentary On The Canons Of Dort
- Resources On The Federal Vision Theology