An Intramural Baptist Debate That Illumines The Profound Differences Between Baptist And Reformed Theology, Piety, And Practice

Several Baptist writers are discussing the propriety of baptizing younger children. Justin Taylor provides of roundup of the debate.

This discussion is of interest to Reformed folk because it illumines (i.e., shines light upon) and illustrates some profound differences between the Reformed and Baptists theology, piety, and practice. The two traditions are not as is often assumed, essentially identical in method and conclusions but only diverging on some minor issues. No, the two traditions read Scripture very differently, i.e., they have a different hermeneutic, a different reading of the story of redemption, a different approach to reading Scripture, a different understanding of the nature of the covenant of grace through redemptive history, and a different understanding of what was promised to Abraham and how Christians relate to those promises. As a consequence of those differences the two traditions reach very different conclusions about the nature of the church today, the nature of the promises to believers and to their children, and the nature of the administration of the covenant of grace. Those differences affect the way the two traditions look at the children of believers and their place in the church.

Read the intramural Baptist discussion and then read the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort (1.17), or the Westminster Standards. There you will see a hermeneutic that begins with the essential continuity of the covenant of grace that was revealed after the fall to our “first parents” (Adam and Eve), to Noah, and especially to Abraham. In Genesis 17:7 the Lord promised: ”
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your children after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your children after you.”  For the Reformed churches this verse has always been programmatic, paradigmatic. It reveals the way God has chosen to relate to believers and to their children. As we understand the unfolding history of salvation, this promise has never been abrogated. We see it repeated throughout the Old Testament and again in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 2:39). It is still in force and we relate to our children in light of it.

Thus, Reformed churches and Christians are not having this debate. With the ancient Christian church and the church after, we understand that God has made a promise to believers and to their children and thus both believers and their children are to receive the sign of initiation into the visible covenant community. There is and never has been a debate in the Reformed churches about when the children of believers are to be recognized as belonging to the visible church. The debate the Baptists are having just now is a product of the influence of the Anabaptist movement, which arose in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. Please understand that all the Protestants, including the Reformed churches, repudiated the Anabaptists for many reasons and among them was the Anabaptist rejection of the continuity of the covenant of grace between the New Covenant and the covenant with Abraham. As the Reformed understand the Scriptures there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations. As most Baptists understand the Scriptures, when they speak of a covenant of grace, it is said to exist only in the New Testament. That is a profound difference between Baptist and Reformed theology. As the Reformed understand Scripture, there has always been a distinction between the substance of the covenant of grace and its external administration. According to the Baptists, one may only receive the sign of the covenant after one has its substance. In effect, in Baptist theology, piety, and practice, there is no external administration of the covenant of grace at least not as the Reformed understand administration.

Like Abraham, we admit our children to the visible covenant people. We place the sign on believers and their children. In the case of believers it recognizes their new life. In the case of their children it recognizes the divine command to include children in the external administration of the covenant of grace. It also recognizes the promise of God to redeem the elect children of believers. In every case baptism is not a testimony of what we have done but of what God has done and promised. It signifies and seals what is true of believers, that they are recipients of the promise of the covenant of grace (“I will be a God to you and to your children”). It signifies and seals to believers their union with Christ in his death (Rom 6:3–4; Col 2:11–12) Believing parents instruct, pray for, and pray with their baptized children just as Abraham instructed, prayed for, and prayed with his circumcised children. In the gracious providence of God all the elect are brought to new life and true faith. Believers look back to their baptism as a tangible reminder of the promises of God and of his faithfulness to those promises.

The paradigmatic difference between the Reformed and Baptist confessions is illustrated in Heidelberg Catechism 74. Notice how the catechism assumes a substantial continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant:

74. Are infants also to be baptized?

Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents, and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit  who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as the sign of the Covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is instituted.

We see the very same paradigm in Belgic Confession art. 34:

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.”

In contrast to the Anabaptist and Baptist traditions, at the Synod of Dort the Reformed churches confessed that we trust the promise God made to Abraham, that promise remains a source of comfort for believing parents who lose children in infancy:

Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy (Canons of Dort, 1.17; emphasis added).

It is good to see Baptists discussing the baptism of children. Perhaps their internal debate will cause some of them to reconsider the reasons they exclude children from the visible covenant community and from the New Covenant sign of initiation into that visible covenant community? Perhaps the discussion will cause some Baptists to re-think the relationship between holy baptism and holy communion and their assumption that the two signs essentially do the same thing, i.e., testify to the existence of faith in believers? Perhaps some of them will come to see that the two signs have two distinct functions: to initiate and to confirm (see Westminster Larger Catechism 177)? Perhaps their internal debate will cause some of them to question the deeply held Baptist assumption that Abraham and Moses have essentially the same roles in the history of redemption (Gal ch. 4 [all])? Perhaps, as a result of their discussion, some Baptists will come to see the essential unity of the covenant of grace, that Abraham is still the father of all believers (Rom 4:11–12, 16–17; Gal ch. 3 [all]) and that the promises God made to believers and their children are still in force? Perhaps it will give opportunity for some Baptists to re-think their assumptions about Jeremiah 31:31–33 and to see that the contrast is between Moses and the New Covenant and not between Abraham and the New Covenant?

Those of us who hold the Reformed confession are hopeful that this internal Baptist debate will bear good fruit and that out of it Baptists will embrace a Reformed covenant theology, piety, and practice.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Some of the Abrahamic Covenant also covers Jacob grown up, not just one generation of children not grown up, I would think.

  2. I’ve never understood the Baptist argument for baptizing young children who most Reformed churches would not allow to make profession of faith, apart from very unusual circumstances.

    Very few eight or ten year olds have enough spiritual maturity to make profession of faith and assume the responsibilities of communicant membership. Exceptions exist and I understand that, but those exceptions are rare. A few centuries ago it might have made sense to admit younger teenagers — 13, 14, 15, etc. — to the Lord’s Table because they were assuming adult responsibilities in many areas of life, but in our modern world of de-facto extended childhood we call adolescence, we’d never consider allowing a 14-year-old to marry or have other adult responsibilities in life. Do we consider communion to be less serious than marriage? Or if that seems extreme, do we consider communion to be less serious than a driver’s license? Maturity counts and very few young teenagers are spiritually mature enough for the Lord’s Table. Those few exceptions will be obvious to elders who know the young men or women involved, and they’ll be obvious because of how radically different their faith is from that of most others of their age.

    If Baptists believe what they claim to believe about baptism to follow profession of faith, that profession ought to be based on a willingness to die for Christ, and a spiritual maturity sufficient to come to the Lord’s Table.

    To baptize children who shouldn’t be coming to the Lord’s Table in a church that takes the qualifications for communion seriously not only undercuts the Baptist position, but also downgrades communion.

    Some Baptists are fine with that, but it shows more of the downgrade of modern evangelicalism than anything else. Most historic Baptists, and certainly those of the “Strict Baptist” or “Particular Baptist” traditions, would be horrified.

  3. The Baptists claim to be more “sola Scriptura” than the rest of us, but, where, in all of Scripture, is there warrant for dedicating babies?

    • 1 Samuel 1:21-28
      Luke 2:21-40
      But I believe it is an adiaphora practice, one not commanded by the NT.

  4. I question how seriously both Baptists and reformed Christians take these differences. The seeming love affair between the two indicates to me that doctrine is no longer a prerequisite for admission to communion for instance. If Baptists were serious about the views, they would not want to participate in communion in a reformed church, and if reformed churches were serious about their position, they would not admit Baptists. This of course works the other way as well. Our forefathers are rolling in their graves at what has happened to the faith and to discipline.

    • As someone who is more or less a Baptist and a member of a Reformed church, I find your remark objectionable. In the present time we can little afford to spite each other over matters of second importance, as interpretations of the covenant, and the suggestion that my church should withhold a means of grace from Baptists because of a matter of interpretation does not seem either prudent or gracious. Baptists and Reformed are distinct, and it is in the best interests of everyone if we maintain separate formal organizations; but it is not obvious why we should go about acting as if our counterparts in the opposite camp ought to be treated as being outside the house of faith and refused communion, or else more generally eschewed.

    • Marshall, I fail to understand why toy would find my comments objectionable. Doctrine does matter and it is not a secondary matter. It is a primary matter, and it is that which defines us. I, in good conscience , cannot participate in communion with someone who denies my baptism. Participation in the sacraments neither denies or confirms salvation. Communion’s purpose is to strengthen faith. How is my faith strengthened by someone who denies my baptism? In glory we will all dine together at the table of the Lord, but on this side, we must discern

    • I am a Baptist who would not participate in communion in a Reformed church, nor would I knowingly allow an unbaptized person to take communion at a Baptist church. I think, as you say, faith and discipline matters. They think I am in sin. I think they are in sin. I am fine with that. Let’s have the debate on the basis of Scripture.

  5. A criticism I have encountered comes to mind. If one follows the logic of this hermeneutic, how is it that P&R churches exclude children from the table of the Lord? Did not the children of Israel eat the passover meal? I am not sure how to answer.

    • The criticism is itself inconsistent. It asks for the “logic,” which appears impenetrable to the inquirer, instead of recognizing that the decision on who and when to admit to one and the other sacrament is first and foremost determined by Precept. That is, what saith the Lord? This is not to say that there is no logic, but only that what the Reformed do is not decided by a “coherence” appeal.

      Who is to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper is clearly determined by precept at the very least in 1Cor.11:27-29. It’s clear, unambiguous, and the Reformed confessions all appeal to that text for plain determination of who should come to the Table. That *baptized* persons alone possess such sine qua non sign of “discipleship” is clear from this passage, as well as the corresponding institution=passages in the Synoptic gospels where none other were at the table (and Christ himself excused Judas prior). Paul then makes the precept plain that self-examination is required, for it serves as protection from a more severe judgment (even to ultimate exclusion), v31.

      This would be enough to establish the Reformed practice. But, to answer the specific charge about comparison–the supposed “logic” being that baptism parallels circumcision as the LS parallels Passover. In the first place, the parallels are improper. Baptism is a fair parallel to circumcision; however the LS parallels the entire feast-and-festival panoply of the Old Covenant. Thus, even if one were correct to say that “children ate the passover meal,” it would very much remain to be proved that they had a general and unfettered access to all the altar-related foods.

      Second, it is debatable whether children did eat of the Passover. One interpretation of the data of the Inaugural Passover includes children, even everyone under one roof; however, that is not purely obvious; nor is it compelling when one takes further into consideration the *law* of the memorial Passover that is rehearsed Ex.12:43ff. For example, the rule that “no uncircumcised person shall eat it,” v48 is not necessarily a simple verbal-variation on the “no foreigner shall eat it,” v43. There is a valid doubt that *women* may have been permitted to eat it, since they could not be circumcised, and would by a strict interpretation have been literally excluded (unlike any other festal meal, where no such specific restriction is set). Furthermore, there is not one unambiguous case of Passover celebration including women, either in the OT or the NT; and at the Last (Passover) Supper, where their presence could have been established decisively, there were none.

      So, if one wished to rely on “logic” alone, one could argue: that if only the circumcised were the “proper” (let’s say nothing of whether women were *free* to eat) participants in Passover, then in the New Covenant, as baptized persons women are “proper” participants in the LS. However, this “logic” (based on an incomplete data set) is also used to “prove” paedocommunion, as the sacrament of initiation is used as the ticket to access the sacrament of profession. There is a reason why most paedocommunionists are former Baptists. They have simply flipped their own logical terms of communion.

      What is ignored in the process is Paul’s command to self-examination. This is NOT a New Testament novelty! The self-examination process was part-and-parcel of the feast-and-festival system of the Old Covenant administration. It had to do with being sufficiently “clean” to participate in anything to do with the altar, see Lev.7:20 et passim. Compare the demand of cleanliness to the situation in Num.9:6ff. It was not enough to be circumcised, though that fact was absolutely necessary. One had also to be ceremonially clean, and to be unclean one did not have to KNOW he was such, see Lev.5:2-3. When he became aware of it, he was GUILTY.

      This is why it is nonsense for people to claim that children were typical participants in the ceremonial life of Israel. Perhaps older children were, if they met any other criteria. But it is patently false to say that parents, for example, were the determiners of whether their children were “clean enough” to participate. A parent cannot ride herd with sufficient care to prevent GUILTY eating by their ignorant child. Therefore, the children did not eat, until they were old enough to examine themselves.

      The Law demanded that the adult males were required to come to the feasts 3X a year. The same Law made non-pregnant women of childbearing years formally unclean for 10-15 days a month (on average) for the better part of their lives. Therefore, women were not placed under the same compulsion to fulfill the legal ceremonies of the Old Covenant. But supposing she was clean, taking into account on any other limitations, she and any *clean* children (sons and daughters) who accompanied the father/ menfolk might partake of the sacrificial celebration, see Dt.12:13. And there is still the question of whether the memorial Passover (specifically) did not permit women to take a bite. But even if this point is judged moot, it changes nothing with regard to the OT cleanliness requirement. Self-examination was required under the Old Covenant.

  6. Baptists love to argue that by baptizing infants unbelievers are being admitted into the church. The problem is, as is the case with my lesbian sister-in-law (my in-laws are SBC), you cannot take someone’s profession of faith as lasting. My sister-in-law, from what my mother-in-law told me, gave an outstanding profession of faith before she was baptized. Years later, when she became an adult and left her parents home, she announced that she was gay and renounced biblical Christianity. I sojourned amongst the SBC for 12 years and was shocked at the number of folks who renounced their baptism.

      • John,

        God admitted Esau into the church. In fact, if you read your Bible, the first child admitted to the external administration of the covenant of grace was Ishmael:

        Ishmael and Infant Baptism

        This is because the Abrahamic paradigm is not the Baptist paradigm.

        Video: The Abraham Paradigm

        This is because God has always distinguished between the sign of admission and the sign of renewal:

        If We Baptize Infants Why Do We Not Also Commune Them?

        What the Baptist must show and what he cannot show is that God overturned the pattern he instituted under Abraham of admitting professing believers and their children into the visible covenant community. Where exactly did that happen explicitly? It didn’t. The entire Baptist case rests on an inference.

        “But,” you say, “Abraham belonged to the Old Covenant and that was fulfilled at Calvary.” Abraham was an Old Testament figure, i.e., he belonged to the period of types and shadows but he wasn’t an Old Covenant figure. You’re thinking of Moses.

        Abraham Was Not Moses

        The Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace was temporary in a way that the Abrahamic was not. That’s Paul’s argument in Galatians 3 and 4. The Judaizers thought Moses was permanent and Paul rebuked them for confusing Abraham and Moses.

        No one intentionally admits unbelievers to the church but we do obey God’s command to baptize believers and their children just as under and after Abraham the church circumcised believers and their children. We leave it to the mystery of election, which belongs to God and not to us, to sort out who will and will not come to faith. Our business is to be faithful in the external administration of the covenant of grace not to guess who is and is not elect.

        We no more intentionally baptize or admit to the visible church unbelievers than the Baptists. The Baptist no more knows who is actually a believer or who will become a believer than we do.

    • Hi Dr. Clark,

      Interesting. I certainly agree with the underlying assumption that the church existed in the OT. (And that’s an important point to make these days with an ascendant dispensationalism.) But your statement seems to assume that circumcision = baptism. See my statement below about that.

      The church in the OT (kahal yamim) was the true Israel made up of believers in the Lord. See my article on “Genesis Definition of Israel and the Presuppositional Errors of Supersessionsism” (which is purposely framed as a critique of supersessionism as a way to draw in dispensationalists) in the current edition of Trinity Journal (on our church web-site here):

      Since the church = Israel and Israel was, quite literally Israel’s (the man) brother, I’m not sure how we can say that Esau is part of the church (i.e. Israel). Respectfully.

      • John,

        Reformed covenant theology is not superscessionist. I.e., we do not confess or teach “Replacement Theology.” We teach “addition theology.” God has added Gentiles to his elect along with all the elect Jews.

        Covenant Theology Is Not Replacement Theology

        The visible church under the types and shadows was mixed and so is the New Covenant church. Ananias and Sapphira were both baptized members of the church and God put them to death, in the New Covenant. There are, in fact, a number of instances in the NT where we see that the church was mixed. The Apostle Paul ordered the excommunication of a man for gross sexual immorality in Corinth. Jude calls out reprobates in the visible church. Paul named several. 1 Tim 3:1-7; 4;1-5 warn about reprobates in the visible church. Hebrews 4 warns about the real (not hypothetical) reality that there are reprobates in the visible church and goes on to say in 10:29 that some, in the visible church, had trampled under foot the Son of God and profaned the blood of the covenant. How so? They had come to holy communion even though they were unbelievers.

        Jesus warned us that the visible church would always be mixed (Matt 13:29).

  7. First, the title is wrong as it implies that Reformed Baptists aren’t Reformed. They are. The 1689 London Baptist Confession is essentially the Westminster Confession revised by Baptists and it didn’t need much revision.

    While it may be true today that ” As most Baptists understand the Scriptures, when they speak of a covenant of grace, it is said to exist only in the New Testament.” But that is the impact of dispensationalism. I don’t believe that that is the historic Baptist view (which was originally, mostly Reformed.) As for this Reformed Baptist, the covenant of grace is the one promise of salvation first proclaimed immediately after the Fall to the serpent, that the son of the woman will crush his head and further illumined in the covenants to Abraham and David.

    As is traditional with the attempts to use “covenant theology” to bolster infant baptism — a practice first developed on the basis of baptismal regeneration — the assumption that baptism is the “sign of the covenant,” replacing circumcision is false. The Bible never makes that claim. Colossians 2:11f says that the Christian has now received “a circumcision made without hands … by the circumcision of Christ.” That is, the circumcision of the heart, promised in Deuteronomy, is the sign of the new covenant, not baptism. The Colossians passage merely says that all those who have received this “circumcision of the heart” have also been baptized but it never states that baptism is the sign of the covenant or in any way is the instrument of entering the covenant. The new heart is the sign of being in the new covenant. Once one demonstrated that they have that new heart, in part by requesting baptism, they can then be baptized. Baptism, then, is not the sign of the new covenant but the sign of the sign of having entered the new covenant.

    So, Reformed Baptists are consistently Reformed, not introducing into the church a practice no where taught in scripture, thus abiding by Sola Scriptura and the regulative principle of worship.

  8. People often self-identify as things they are not in reality. Would it be accurate to say that one cannot *accurately* self-identify as Reformed unless one believes Covenant Theology?

      • John,

        First against the Anabaptists in the 1520s and following and then, again, against the Particular Baptists, the Reformed taught 1) Only the elect ever have the substance of the covenant of grace. All credible professors of faith, however, whom we regard as Christians under the judgment of charity, and 2) their children are eligible to receive the external administration of the covenant of grace. This is but one area where the Baptist and Reformed traditions diverge. The Baptist traditions have attempted to get rid of the messiness entailed in the external administration of the covenant of grace by identifying it utterly and only with the New Covenant and by restricting admission to the external administration to professing believers.

        Of course, no Baptist knows with ontological certainty that the professors he admits to the church upon baptism are actually elect and believers. Like the Reformed, under the judgment of charity, he accepts a credible profession of faith. He excludes the children of believers on the basis that the New Covenant is so eschatological (heavenly) that none but believers may be admitted.

        He cannot show, however, where God revoked the Abrahamic covenant and promise in Gen 17:7. To Abraham (not to Moses) God said, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” Reading that passage in light of Col 2:11-12, we understand baptism to be the New Covenant sign and seal of admission.

        It puzzles me to no end why Baptists, who posture as more biblical than thou, will not concede the obvious: Paul clearly connects circumcision, the cross, and baptism in Col 2:11-12:

        In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

        Paul’s argument there is about sanctification but in order to make his point about our identity with Christ, about dying to sin as a consequence, he illustrates it with circumcision, the cross, and baptism. Circumcision was a ritual death. In it the old man is ritually, symbolically cut away. The cross, of course, is a literal death, which Jesus died. It was a figurative circumcision. The sacrament of circumcision was a foreshadowing of the cross and Calvary a fulfillment of the type. Baptism is also a ritual death, a retrospective identification with Christ’s death. In Paul’s mind the 3 were inextricably bound together. He thinks of circumcision, which leads him to the cross, which leads him to baptism. All these things point to the same thing: dying to sin, which is the point he makes here and in Romans 6.

        For a long time I’ve taken “the baptism of Christ” as objective, i.e., as referring to Christ’s death on the cross but grammatically, it’s possible that it should be taken subjectively (which is the traditional Reformed interpretation of Col 2:12).

        “ἐν τῇ περιτομῇ τοῦ Χριστοῦ, συνταφέντες αὐτῷ ἐν τῷ ⸀βαπτισμῷ…”.

        The comma, which the editors of the NA28 insert was not present in the ancient MSS. The participle συνταφέντες may well be qualifying what it means to “ἐν τῇ περιτομῇ” so that the circumcision he has in view is really our baptism. In that case, the identification is direct and not indirect. In any case, the identification of baptism and circumcision is undeniable and it does not credit to the Baptist position for them to evade the grammar and the doctrine of God’s Word.

        As to your repeated claim that infant baptism is the result of belief in baptismal regeneration. That is pure fiction.

        The earliest evidence of infant baptism occurs in the early 3rd century (c.AD 205) about 150 years before anyone was teaching baptismal regeneration. I teach Patristics and I do not find anyone teaching baptismal regeneration in the early 3rd century. There is no evidence that infant baptism arose in the early 3rd century. It seems to have existed well before. There’s no evidence that the practice of the church had changed or that infant baptism was controversial. Had the practice been changed it would have been controversial. There was a major fight in the same period about when to observe the Christian pascha (Passover/Easter). Some wanted to observe it as a floating holiday and others as a fixed. It was a serious argument that nearly split the church. Had someone changed baptismal practice we could be sure that would have been even more controversial. Augustine was right when he said that infant baptism was the ancient, universal practice of the church.

        It is true that some, perhaps many (though not as many as is often assumed) came to teach baptismal regeneration there is no evidence that infant baptism arose because the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Further, there is no clear link between the two since one of the problems that developed in light of baptismal regeneration was the practice of delaying baptism in order to make sure that one was regenerate just before death.

        In other words, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration had, as a matter of fact, the opposite effect than the effect you claim.

        Please take some time. Do some serious reading and get back to me. In addition to the resources I’ve supplied you, here are my course syllabi to help you get started:

        CH601 Ancient Church

        HT602 Patristics Seminar

  9. I am a Baptist who would not participate in communion in a Reformed church, nor would I knowingly allow an unbaptized person to take communion at a Baptist church. I think, as you say, faith and discipline matters. They think I am in sin. I think they are in sin. I am fine with that. Let’s have the debate on the basis of Scripture.

    • That was a reply to an earlier comment which posted down here for some reason. Not sure why.

    • LT: Would you allow a person who had been baptized and admitted to the Communion table after a credible profession of faith in a Reformed church to take Communion in your church?

Comments are closed.