More than one person has said to me, through the years, that baptism is a “secondary doctrine” and not a doctrine over which the church should be divided. Obviously, confessional Baptists do not agree with such a claim, or else they would accept the baptisms of those baptized as infants. The Reformed churches do not agree that baptism is a secondary doctrine. After all, in Belgic Confession article 29 we identify three marks of the true church and seven marks of the true Christian. The second mark of the true church says: “It makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.” Regarding baptism, we confess:
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.”
We clearly do not regard baptism as a secondary doctrine or practice. A mark of the true church—by definition—is essential, and that which is essential cannot be secondary.
The Reformed churches (and the Baptists) are right to say that holy baptism is not secondary. It is one of the two sacraments instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ. He instituted it as a sacrament in the great commission:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18–20; ESV).
Baptizing is part of how we make disciples. It is and has always been basic to Christianity just as the Lord’s Supper has been. The Biblical and historical evidence is clear enough for the Reformed churches. God instituted the inclusion of believers and their children into the visible church under Abraham. That command and promise (Gen 17:7) have never been revoked. All the evidence is that the earliest Christians followed that pattern. The Apostle Peter repeated that formula in Acts 2:39, and we see households being baptized in Acts 16.
By AD 206 we have clear evidence that the post-apostolic church was baptizing infants. Both Tertullian and Origen recognized it as did Hippolytus in AD 215. Cyprian insisted on it in AD 253 and Augustine knew no other practice in the church. There is no evidence of controversy over infant baptism in the early church and were infant baptism a novelty in the early third century there would have been controversy. In that same period, the controversy over when to observe the Christian pascha (later Easter) nearly split the church. Were infant baptism a new practice we would almost certainly know about it, but we do not.
Who Thinks It Is a Secondary Doctrine?
Some people approach a wide range of issues by asking whether it is a “salvation issue.” This is one of those ostensibly clever questions that is too clever by half. What is a “salvation issue” anyway? The Trinity and the two natures of Christ were, according to the Athanasian Creed in the fifth century, “Whosoever will be saved: before all things, it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith: Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt, he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity…Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Do those who divide doctrines into “salvation issues” and “non-salvation issues” include the Trinity and the two natures of Christ? I do not believe that I have ever seen a list of “salvation issues” published by this camp. What about Pelagianism and salvation by grace alone? According to the 4th ecumenical council (Ephesus, AD 431) Caelestius, Pelagius’ colleague, was a heretic for denying the Augustinian consensus on original sin and unconditional election. The Second Council of Orange (AD 529), not an ecumenical council but notable nonetheless, took a pretty strong stand against the Pelagians (and semi-Pelagians). The Synod of Dort called Arminius and the Remonstrants heretics for the same reasons, and for denying the Reformation solas. They thought that the Five Points of the Remonstrants (1610) raised “salvation issues.”
Thus, we may reasonably doubt the utility of this question, and this gets us to another approach that marginalizes the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) and sacraments: the Pietists and their modern neo-evangelical children. The original Reformation evangelicals, e.g., Luther, Bucer, Calvin, Melanchthon, et al., all had a high view of the visible church and the sacraments. They thought the sacraments were worth arguing about and that is why, in the Belgic Confession, the Reformed churches speak as they do. They did not regard the visible church as a mere appendage to one’s personal experience or small group. They saw the visible church as that embassy of the Kingdom of God instituted by Christ, through which, by divine ordination, the elect are brought to new life and true faith. It is that institution in which true faith is nurtured and confirmed. Heidelberg Catechism 65 says: “The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.”
That which Christ has instituted to nourish faith and confirm the gospel promises of Christ cannot be secondary and yet, for many modern evangelicals, it is. Why? Because the Pietist movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries succeeded in persuading many earnest Christians that the sacraments were not as important as one’s personal experience of the risen Christ and one’s friends in one’s small group. In American revivalism what mattered was whether one walked the sawdust trail to the anxious bench and prayed the sinner’s prayer. The modern evangelical movement synthesized those two things into a system that said: personal experience trumps objective truth claims made by the visible church and private piety—for example, “the quiet time” trumps public preaching.
In such a system, objective sacraments are bound to be pushed to the side in favor of the new sacraments, the altar call, and the quiet time. It is not that the Pietist evangelicals do not think that nothing matters. They just do not agree with the Reformation churches that the visible church matters and her divine institutions (i.e., the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline) matter as much as the things that they value: the altar call, private devotions, and the small group.
Any Christian before the rise of Pietism would have been scandalized to hear that holy baptism is a “secondary” doctrine or practice. Certainly, the later Patristic church and the entire medieval church would have rejected such a notion since they tended to think that baptism necessarily confers what it signifies. Among the Protestants, the Lutherans continued this tradition but the Reformed dissented. We recognized that there is a sacramental (figurative) identification of the thing signified (salvation) with the sign (baptism) but we deny that baptism necessarily confers salvation. Nevertheless, as has been shown, we affirm the validity of baptism and even denounce those who deprive the children of believers of the sacrament of initiation into the visible church.
For virtually all Christians before the Pietist and modern evangelical movements, Baptism was regarded as a sacred institution and an essential part of the Christian life. For the Reformed churches baptism was one’s outward identification with Christ. In Heidelberg 69, the Reformed churches confess that baptism signifies to the believer “that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away.” It tells the believer that he has “forgiveness of sins from God through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us in His sacrifice on the cross; and also, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin and lead holy and blameless lives” (Heidelberg 70).
At the core of the Christian faith and life is forgiveness of sin, acceptance by God, and our new life in Christ. These things are not secondary. They cannot be, and Baptism is the divinely instituted visible sign and seal of these wonderful, free gifts.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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