Is Baptism A Secondary Doctrine?

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.

Conclusions

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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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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25 comments

  1. What then is the best way to go about talking with evangelicals/pietists about such things? I ask because my family (parents, cousins, siblings etc) are not reformed in any way but I don’t think that they lack saving faith, at least not the majority of them. We disagree about quite a lot; is there some point at which we must doubt the salvation/faith of those who disagree with us on these types of issues? Or is there just a better way to talk about these issues in general? I am usually told “same ice cream different flavors” when I talk about infant baptism, psalm-singing, polity, etc.

  2. It is generally the P&R side who uses this language of “Baptism as a Secondary Doctrine”. We are always asked to give up something to the rebellious. Even more so is it used by those who have something to gain by sidling up to the Credo Baptists.

    A few examples are those who use “Secondary Doctrine” to justify having children who have denied their own baptism by marrying a Baptist. This phrase is their pacifier. Then you have those who benefit financially and in popularity through book sales, speaking tours, or running non-denominational institutions of Christian education. These individuals and institutions rely on the greenbacks of the Baptists to keep the doors open and the presses running. Lastly are the Church leaders who allow the pretty little Baptist family to join in membership. Often these parents are seeking a solid Reformed Church because they have become convinced of the soteriology of the Reformers, but they are too stubborn to budge on Covenant Theology or Baptism. The parents take vows such as promising to submit to the government and discipline of the Church with their fingers crossed behind their back. They never intend to submit to the REQUIREMENT that they give their households the sign and seal of admission to the visible church. These leaders soothe themselves under the banner of grace but in reality are allowing the parents of these children to withhold from them what is rightfully theirs and allow a form of child abuse to be perpetrated right under their noses.

  3. Membership in the visible church is another result of baptism that seems to be of less and less importance to many. Those same people have wallets full of membership cards to various stores or groups. Membership in a church carries with it accountability, responsibility, and submission one to another among other things. I am grieved by this lack of commitment and submission.

  4. What do you make of Anglicans who are functionally credo-baptists? I once heard what I thought was a convincing pedestrian reason for it only to look at the biography of the speaker and realize they are Anglican. I was perplexed. There is an excellent book by John Stott and Alec Motyer called “The Anglican Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism” in which they lay down the gauntlet and clearly leave no room for such a thing as Anglican credobaptism. Yet it persists.

    • The mainline Anglican communion (CoE) is very inclusive and it is not really normed by the Articles of Religion. It’s nominally normed by the prayerbook but which one? So, it’s not surprising that there are de facto Baptists within the Anglican communion.

  5. I belong to a non-denominal congregation that allows for the (covenant) baptism of infants as well as credo-baptism for older children/adults. When a credo-baptism has been performed the congregation applauds (presumably welcoming the newly baptized into the fold of the congregation’s believers). After a paedo-baptism has been has been performed you can hear a pin drop. I applaud neither, but I told my wife that I’ll applaud the candidate who has just received a credo-baptism the day they do the same for an infant. Yes, like some the the inclusive Anglicans, they allow for both modes, but clearly the majority of the congregation does no truly recognize a paedo-baptism as valid. Sad.

  6. Great post! I am confused however as you say “ we deny that baptism necessarily confers salvation.” but then “ It tells the believer that he has “forgiveness of sins.” If in baptism one receive forgiveness of sins (on account of Christ), is that not salvation? That would align then with 1 Peter 3:21.

    • Hi Rich,

      The key term here is believer. I didn’t say professor. Salvation is received through faith alone. One who has true faith is justified and saved and baptism says to him: what you hear with your ears (i.e., the gospel) is really true. This is what we say in Heidelberg Catechism 69ff:

      69. How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism, that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

      Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water1 and joined therewith this promise:2 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.3

      1 Matt 28:19, 20. Acts 2:38. 2 Matt 3:11. Mark 16:16. Rom 6:3,4. 3 Mark 1:4.

      70. What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?

      It is to have the 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;1 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 unblamable lives.2

      1 Heb 12:24. 1 Pet 1:2. Rev 1:5. Zechariah 13:1. Ezek 36:25-27. 2 John 1:33. John 3:3 1 Cor 6:11. 1 Cor 12:13. * Heb 9:14.

      71. Where has Christ promised that we are as certainly washed with His blood and Spirit as with the water of Baptism?

      In the institution of Baptism, which says: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit .1 He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believs not shall be damned.”2 This promise is also repeated, where Scripture calls Baptism the washing of regeneration,3 and the washing away of sins.4

      1 Matt 28:19. 2 Mark 16:16. 3 Titus 3:5. 4 Acts 22:16.

      27. SUNDAY

      72. Is then the outward washing with water itself the washing away of sins?

      No,1 for only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin.2

      1 1 Pet 3:21. Eph 5:26. 2 I John 1:7. 1 Cor 6:11.

      73. Why then does the Holy Spirit call Baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins?

      God speaks thus not without great cause, namely, not only to teach us thereby that like as the filthiness of the body is taken away by water, so our sins are taken away by the blood and Spirit of Christ;1 but much more, that by this divine pledge and token He may assure us, that we are as really washed from our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water.2

      The sacraments don’t create the realities they signify. They confirm them. Hence HC 65:

      65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

      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.

      The Spirit creates faith through the preaching of the gospel. The Spirit confirms the promise through the sacraments.

      That’s why I wrote that “it tells the believer” that he has forgiveness of sins because it does.

      Better?

      • Thank you for the deeper explanation. I was happy to see Reformed theology having a place for infant baptisms but always wondered how this could be if saving faith is given in the sacrament of baptism, how that would not conflict with Limited Atonement and Perseverance of the Saints. Your explanation sounds like everything can fit together.

  7. What is the best version of the Heidelberg Catechism with scripture proofs on Amazon. I am visiting a PCA church and I believe they subscribe to that as well.

    • Rich,

      I don’t think that the PCA subscribes, as a denomination, to the Heidelberg but it is widely used in churches that don’t subscribe it.

      The best new edition is probably the URCNA edition but it’s not available on Amazon. It’s available from GCP here.

      The RCUS has an edition on Amazon. They used to publish one edition (the 1979) with archaic language and another with more modern language (1978). I don’t know which one this is.

      This is a good edition but it’s expensive. I think you can get it directly from Heritagebooks.org for less.

  8. I guess my question would be then:
    What does it exactly mean for a doctrine to be primary, if there are no secondary doctrines within the confession (I guess there are none)?

    Can there be a in fact any true christian if he/she deliberately rejects any doctrine of the reformed faith (assuming that every doctrine in the confession is primary)?

    • Mike,

      What makes you conclude that I’m arguing that every doctrine in the confession is primary?

      My argument is that the pure administration of the holy sacraments is one of the marks of true church and therefore cannot be secondary.

  9. “What makes you conclude that I’m arguing that every doctrine in the confession is primary?”
    I think the fact that you doubt the utility of the question, “is this a salvation issue”.

    “My argument is that the pure administration of the holy sacraments is one of the marks of true church and therefore cannot be secondary.”
    I completely agree!
    I think I’m trying to get my head around the question how should I think (act) about a person who has the seven marks of a true christian but willingly withdraws from the true church and deliberately attends for example a non-denominational church (no church discipline) or a baptist church (not pure administration of the sacraments) especially in light of article 28 which says, “And so, all who withdraw from the church
    or do not join it
    act contrary to God’s ordinance.”?

    • Mike,

      Your original assertion was that I’m making everything equally ultimate. That’s not true. There are three marks of the true church, not 37, which is the number of articles in the Belgic Confession.

      As to the relation of the seven marks of the Christian and the three marks of the church, according to the Reformed churches, the seven marks of the true Christian are given in the context of the marks of the true church.

      After that, you lose me. I guess you must be assuming some thing that you’re not stating. Can you explain your concerns/question a little more fully?

  10. “Your original assertion was that I’m making everything equally ultimate. That’s not true. There are three marks of the true church, not 37, which is the number of articles in the Belgic Confession.”
    -I got that now. That was a misunderstanding from my part, sorry for that.

    In light of the fact that the marks of a true Christian are in the context of the marks of a true church, I naturally ask myself what it would mean for a person who apparently has the marks of a true Christian but refuses to join a true church (the reasons can be quite different but I will now give a reason I am often confronted with:
    “What is important is your personal faith with Jesus and not which church you belong to, that is secondary and anyway the concept of “true” and “false” church is not contemporary at all, who are you or your church to claim who and who is not a true or false church?”)

    Article 28 says, “Since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are being saved, and there is no salvation apart from it, let men not withdraw from it and be content to be for themselves, regardless of their status or condition…all who withdraw from the church or do not join it act contrary to God’s ordinance”

    Of course there are many Christians in false churches who do not know any better but how and what should I think/act about Christians who deliberately refuse to join a true church (for the reason mentioned above, for example)?

    And consequently, what does it mean for a Christian to consciously refuse to join the true church and thus acts contrary to God’s ordinance”?

    • Mike,

      This is a challenging question if only because it describes the state of things in American Christianity and because the answer to which the confession of the church leads us is uncomfortable.

      I have friends who have dropped out of church for various reasons. In one case a faithful Christian who had served the Lord in various evangelical (Bible) churches for years and who worked in (and founded) contemporary Christian music radio was repeatedly demeaned by pastors, even his own (who nevertheless broadcast his sermons on the station) just dropped out of church. At best that’s an anomalous situation. The Apostles wrote to visible churches and Hebrews is explicit about not dropping out.

      The state of those with the marks of a Christian who attend irregular congregations is even more difficult. Again, I have godly, believing friends who pastor and attend Particular Baptist churches that lack one of the marks (i.e., the pure administration of the sacraments). So, I’ve invented this category of irregular congregations because they are Anabaptist congregations, which the Belgic calls “sects” and they aren’t Roman but they lack a mark. Ideally, it would be temporary but practically it probably won’t be. I’m doing the best I can but I don’t expect to persuade all the Baptists to become Reformed.

      The Belgic was written before the rise of the Baptist movement and so we are left to try to apply the categories we have to the situation we face. My approach is not to minimize the problem but also to try to account for all the facts. My Particular Baptist friends are with us on a lot of important questions even as they dissent from us on important questions. Both are true. Their affirmation doesn’t make them true churches but are they sects? That doesn’t seem quite right either.

      We need wisdom, grace, and humility in the face of such difficulties.

  11. Mike: You wrote of “the marks of a true Christian”. Is that from a confession? If so, could you give a reference?

  12. Mike: As I read your posts it seems like you are on what Dr. Clark terms a “quest for religious certainty.” As untidy as it is for us, we can’t apply religious tests to all churches and render a final judgment on which ones are legitimate or not. Dr. Clark gave the example of Baptist churches. If it is difficult to categorize all churches, how much more so individual professing believers? We look at the outward things but only the Lord knows the heart and who are His elect.

  13. “This is a challenging question…We need wisdom, grace, and humility in the face of such difficulties.”

    Thank you very much for your thoughts!

  14. Hi Bob,

    It’s difficult indeed.
    I was struggling with this topic for a long time now. You know if every Christian you knwo has deep pietistic convictions and doesn’t even care to be or not to be reformed you start to wonder if you should even start (or continue) to convince anyone at all.

  15. Mike: I left out a crucial word from Dr. Clark’s formulation: Quest for *Illegitimate* Religious Certainty” (QIRC). There are some things that are not only impossible to be certain of but we contemplate a solution at our peril. That is why such pursuits are characterized as “illegitimate.”

  16. Dr. Clark,
    I appreciate this article and have been frustrated for years at individuals, especially “Confessional,” saying baptism is a “secondary issue.”

    Belgic Confession Ch. 34
    “Therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, who we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made unto our children.

    Of note: “… one only baptism…”

    Nicene Creed
    “…we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church;
    we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins…”

    While the Belgic is primarily directed at the denial of infant baptism, and rebaptism secondarily, it’s language uses the Nicene Creed language.

    The Belgic is recognizing, which is also historically the case, that infant baptism is the only one baptism both Scripturally and Creedally, leaving those who deny that “one baptism” (infant) as outside the Nicene Creed reinforcing Holy Baptism as a primary issue, not a secondary.

    Is this also how you work view the Belgic’s language here?

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