Review: Guy Richard’s Baptism: Answers To Common Questions

One often hears the refrain, “Doctrine is not practical,” and many Reformed folk might protest, but of all the doctrines, we can agree that baptism is the most practical. When my own daughter was born, I knew I needed to have a clear understanding of the various positions and formulate my own opinions. Baptism became a very real and practical issue in the life of my family. Although I was already convinced of infant baptism in theory, I was missing some of its underlying principles—namely, covenantal theology—which make more sense of the praxis. A slim volume on the subject of covenantal infant baptism would have been a welcome aid, and Guy Richard has written just such a book: Baptism: Answers To Common Questions.

Guy M. Richard, a noted Samuel Rutherford scholar and President and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta, has given the layman a short, yet cogent presentation of Reformed, covenantal baptism. This small volume joins several other books written on infant baptism by pastor-scholars. He structures the book around eleven questions, and these chapters reflect the standard questions that surround infant baptism. Richard’s thesis is that we should approach questions about baptism in terms of both the explicit and implicit teaching of Scripture. He points out that Jesus had rebuked the Sadducees for not knowing the implicit and deduced meaning of Scripture (Matt 22:32). Richard’s reason for structuring the discussion about baptism around this point is obvious: Scripture is not as explicitly clear on all the questions as we might wish. Both sides, paedobaptist and credobaptist, make deductions from implied premises.

There are several areas concerning baptism where Scripture is not as explicit as one might hope. The two most obvious are the mode of baptism and the recipients. Should baptism be done by pouring or immersion? Should it be given only to believers, or can it also be given to the children of believers? Scripture gives types and patterns but no detailed instructions. It commands baptism in the Triune Name, but it assumes its hearers and readers know the rest. That is why Richard argues that one must go to the implicit arguments in Scripture in order to understand what Scripture says about baptism.

What is baptism? At its most basic level, baptism is a washing with water. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the verb “wash” is used interchangeably with “baptize.” The New Testament links this idea to the Old Covenant ceremonies and calls those ceremonies “baptisms.” This segues into the mode of baptism. Does baptizo mean immersion or pouring? Richard points out that it can mean either full or partial washings. The New Testament does not explicitly say. On the other hand, Richard points out that the most important baptismal event in the New Testament, the day of Pentecost, was a pouring of the Spirit or tongues of fire. The tongues of fire rested upon the apostles. The apostles were not immersed in fire. Of course, the pouring of fire at Pentecost does not prove that New Testament baptisms should be done by pouring, not immersion. What it does establish, though, is that baptism cannot be reduced to meaning immersion and immersion only.

Richard identifies four key elements in Christian baptism: washing from sin, Spirit baptism, union with Christ, and union with other believers. That baptism with water points to a cleansing from sin is obvious enough. How does water baptism relate to Spirit baptism? Should one wait for a secondary baptism of the Spirit? No. Water baptism points to Spirit baptism.As Richard notes, “When we receive the Spirit, we are washed of all our sins.” Water baptism points to the promise of the Spirit. A similar promise and pointing occurs in our union with Christ. Baptism of itself does not unite us to Christ. Paul says those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death (Rom 6:3-5).

As is to be expected, Richard anchors his theology of baptism in God’s covenants. The singular Old Testament example is Genesis 17. God establishes his covenant, not only with Abraham, but also with Abraham’s household. This covenant is the covenant of circumcision. In fact, circumcision is called the covenant. As Richard points out, “The covenant is spoken of as the sign, and the sign is spoken of as the covenant.” Everyone in Abraham’s household received this sign. 

This raises the question: does baptism replace circumcision? Before answering yes, Richard clears up misconceptions about the role of circumcision. Circumcision at its heart was spiritual, not physical. Far from baptism being a spiritual replacement of circumcision, circumcision pointed to spiritual, not physical promises. For example, Abraham sought a heavenly city (Heb 11:10). Circumcision pointed to a spiritual circumcision of the heart. As physical circumcision points to a spiritual circumcision of the heart, so also does physical baptism point to the promise of the Spirit. Baptism and circumcision have the same function, as both point to God’s saving work, but circumcision is no longer required in the New Covenant.

If there is then continuity between Abraham and the New Covenant Christian, and continuity between circumcision and baptism, does that mean the household baptisms in the book of Acts prove that infants were baptized? Richard suggests that this is not as strong an argument as one might expect. Most likely, there were children in the households, but we should not read into the passages more than that. What the household accounts do teach, however, is that the benefits of the covenant extended beyond the head of the household.

Richard then examines some Baptist objections to this reading of the covenants. He reviews arguments in David Kingdon’s Children of Abraham. Kingdon contrasts the Abrahamic covenant with the New Covenant, referencing Jeremiah 31:31-34. If this is true, and if the New Covenant will not be like the Old Covenant, then the paedobaptist case is clearly mistaken. Richard notes that Kingdon is wrong on several counts. As noted above, circumcision pointed to spiritual, not physical promises. Moreover, the Old Covenant is the Mosaic economy, not the Abrahamic covenant. The contrast is between Sinai and Zion, not Abraham and Zion.


There are not any new ideas in this book. Richard takes several complicated issues (e.g., union with Christ, relationship between the covenants, and mode) and presents them in a clear format. There is one area, however, I wish would have received more attention. Richard outlined what baptism means, noting that it conveys the ideas of washing, Spirit, union with Christ, and union with other believers, but I wish he would have spent more time on how baptism connects us with other believers. The first three aspects received a page each; union with other believers got only one paragraph with reference to 1 Corinthians 12:13. To be sure, I agree with what he is saying, but I think he could have said more. It would have strengthened other claims concerning church unity and our covenantal responsibilities to one another.

One must appreciate how Richard avoids weak arguments, both by credobaptists and paedobaptists, and gets to the heart of the issue. As he noted earlier with his thesis, we cannot settle the debate on proof texts alone. We must get to the underlying issues. Paedobaptists are justified in their practice of baptizing the children of believers. They make this argument based on deductions (which Jesus commands) from Scripture.  On the other hand, Richard never forces his deductions beyond where Scripture goes. For example, he does not read too much into the household accounts, nor does he make Scripture say that one mode of baptism is preferred over another. 

This is an example of how doctrine is practical. It is not always clear how doctrine could be practical. Doctrine usually deals with ideas, and it is difficult to see ideas. Sacraments, though, as Augustine said, are “visible words.”  One can see them. Baptism, especially the baptism of infants, is a doctrine that is visibly enacted. It shows God’s promises in action. This book is highly recommended for both the lay reader and the pastor who needs a short summary of Reformed baptism.

© Jacob Aitken. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. It is a great little resource. Don’t let the end notes go unexplored. Should he have expanded on them he would have doubled the length of the book.

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