Another book on baptism? Well, yes. And while this volume may not be the polemical tour de force you were hoping to use to answer every last objection from your questioning Baptist friend, this short book will be an incredibly useful resource that you can place into the hands of a new Christian or a church visitor who is curious to learn more about Reformed and Presbyterian belief and practice regarding baptism.
Written by Jason Helopoulos, who serves as the senior pastor at University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, Covenantal Baptism is part of the “Blessings of the Faith” series from P&R Publishing, one of several short and accessible treatments on some of the distinctives of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Readable in one sitting, these books are useful introductions, perhaps for someone new to Reformed theology.
Anyone who has been part of a Reformed congregation or around the Reformed and Presbyterian world knows that the Reformed position on baptism—infant baptism, especially—is perhaps the most objected-to (or, at minimum, the most confusing) position for newcomers. At least in this reviewer’s context, baptistic evangelicalism seems to be the default mindset within American Christianity.
All orthodox Christians are agreed on adult/credobaptism, it seems. But then the Presbyterian and Reformed (and others) add this caveat that really throws some fellow Christians for a loop and ruffles not a few feathers: that not only professing Christian believers but also the children of those believers ought to receive the sign and seal of baptism.
“What is this!?” our non-Reformed Christian friends think. “Is this not some sort of holdover from Roman Catholicism? Why are Bible-believing Christians still doing this?!”
If the above mentality is descriptive of you, or if you have folks in your congregation who might be of that mindset, or who are otherwise unfamiliar with this practice, then Helopoulos’ book is for you.
As hinted above, the book is not intended to be a high-level, academic-theological treatise. You will not find an overly-long discussion of the Greek verb baptizo, as it does not aim to engage systematic theologians and New Testament scholars with a definitive argument. Elders (especially non-Reformed), however, would certainly benefit from reading this book. This brief and accessible little volume will be of immense benefit to curious and thoughtful congregants as well. Complete with questions for reflection at the end of each chapter, this book is suited for either individual or group study.
One of the things the reader will note is Helopoulos’ deliberate use of the phrase “covenantal baptism,” as opposed to terms like paedobaptism or credobaptism. Not that the author has any particular objection to those terms (or “infant baptism” or “adult baptism,” as these accurately describe the sacramental action being performed); rather, he simply emphasizes that the Reformed practice of “covenantal baptism” is predicated on the foundation of covenant theology—that the covenantal sign of initiation rightly belongs to all the members of the covenant community. Hence, “covenantal baptism” rightly refers to children and adults receiving the sacrament of Christian baptism as a household unit. More importantly, however, it reinforces the notion that baptism is applied covenantally to members of the covenant community, and that baptism ought thus to be defined by its undergirding covenant theology. Baptism is applied theologically, not based arbitrarily on chronology, as the paedo– and credo– prefixes may mistakenly imply. Because of this, the author generally uses the term “covenantal baptism” to describe, defend, and commend the practice of infant baptism.
Helopoulos begins his first chapter by grounding the entire discussion of baptism within the reality of God’s kindness—his immense kindness in deigning to covenant with his natively sinful people. Because God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God who has stooped low to meet the needs (and ultimately to save) his people, baptism should be approached in light of God’s character. “Baptism is a gift from a kind Father who loves to lavish good things upon his children” (19).
In this first chapter, Helopoulos offers a brief introduction to covenant theology, defining covenant and helping the reader see God’s covenant plan unfold, from the first promise of the gospel in the Garden of Eden, to the promises given to Abraham in the Abrahamic Covenant and the patriarch’s desire for a sign. In light of this desire, God was pleased to condescend to fulfill Abraham’s longing by establishing the covenant sign (or “sacrament” as the author labels it) of circumcision. From there, Helopoulos offers a brief sacramentology, explaining how sacraments are signs (30–32) and seals (32–34). Here, he again highlights that the sacraments are outflows of God’s kindness to his people, providing them with tangible expressions of God’s Word—the sacraments “take what we hear and help us to see it” (28). There is no need for God to supplement his promise; yet on account of his people’s weaknesses, he does, and he does so throughout the Old and New Testaments:
[God] is trustworthy and cannot lie. Yet he provides signs of his covenant promises time and time again: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to Adam; the rainbow to Noah; circumcision, here, to Abraham; the Passover to Israel; the Sabbath to the nation at the foot of Mount Sinai; and baptism and the Lord’s Table to the New Testament church. (28–29)
In the second chapter, Helopoulos helpfully and succinctly considers what he calls the “Fourfold Stream of Testimony” in support of the case for covenantal baptism: The Testimony of Covenantal Continuity (38–41), New Testament Testimony (41–47), Theological Testimony (47–50) and the Testimony of the Church (50–51).
Having already established the Old Testament precedent for children’s inclusion in the covenant (particularly with the establishment of the “sacrament of circumcision”), Helopoulos briefly makes the case for a theological understanding of covenant continuity (a classic Reformed and Presbyterian position) between old and new covenants. That is, in general, God graciously works in remarkably similar ways (though with some important distinctions!) in his dealings with his people across the ages.
In the second section, he cites various New Testament evidences for why covenant children ought to receive the sign and seal of baptism: Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, Paul’s comparison of circumcision with baptism in Colossians 2, Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, Paul’s writing on the children of believers in 1 Corinthians 7, the various statements regarding children made by the Lord Jesus in Luke 18, Mark 10, and Matthew 19, and the household baptisms described in Acts 16, 1 Corinthians 1, and (possibly) Acts 10.
In the third section, “Theological Testimony,” Helopoulos notes the Scripture’s teaching on the nature of the family, the overall corporate nature of our faith, and the theological emphasis on God acting in salvation (as opposed to the emphasis being on our response) as reflected in our baptism. All of these serve to reinforce the Presbyterian and Reformed conviction that a small child can and should receive the sacrament of baptism.
The fourth section, the “Testimony of the Church,” briefly notes how early church fathers such as Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Irenaeus, Augustine, as well as the Council of Carthage (AD 253) also support the practice. This further underscores the Reformed view as being in line with the historical, catholic church.
Since this book is part of the “Blessings of Faith” series, Helopoulos is keen to highlight how baptism is indeed a blessing. He outlines how the sacrament contains blessings to the children who receive it (ch. 3), to the parents who rear them (ch. 4), and to the congregation among whom they worship and grow (ch. 5).
In the third chapter, Helopoulos helpfully caveats what baptism does not mean: contra the understanding of the Roman Catholic church, it does not effect grace in some kind of ex opera operato fashion. He then outlines what blessings the children do receive:
- Baptism serves to call them to faith in Christ.
- Baptism calls them to faithfulness in their Christian living and obedience to the Savior.
- Church discipline (yes, even church discipline!) is a blessing when it serves to positively discipline them toward godliness and correctively discipline them within the covenant community of the church when they are straying.
- Baptism can provide even the blessing of assurance, as this sacrament offers a tangible expression of God’s fatherly and loving care over his child and the child’s belonging to him.
What blessings are there for the parents (ch. 4)? Namely, the blessings are:
- We remember our child’s need.
- We receive faith and rest because baptism demonstrates that our child’s salvation is the work of a sovereign God, not something we can manufacture.
- We gain the blessing of labor with the call to strive faithfully and consistently to rear our children in the Christian faith.
- We are given hope—hope that God makes promises and delights to bring his promises to fruition, even when loved ones seem far from Christ.
Under that third section, “Blessing of Labor,” Helopoulos offers simple and pastorally earnest encouragements for how we might faithfully labor for our children’s eternal good:
- Remind our children of their baptism.
- Pray with and for our covenant children.
- Practice family worship in our homes.
- Call our covenant children to repentance and faith.
- Catechize our children.
- Bring them week in and week out to corporate worship.
- Talk often with them of Christ and the things of Christ.
And what of the blessings for the congregation (ch. 5)? Helopoulos outlines the blessings it receives:
- As it witnesses a baptism, the gathered church gets to behold the visible depiction of God’s sovereign saving of his people.
- The congregation participates in the duty required by assisting and supporting the parents in the Christian nurture of the baptized child.
- Baptism makes a marked distinction on the recipient—the child is God’s and not the world’s. This reminds the congregation of how all of God’s people are meant to live “differently and distinctly from those who are outside our community” (100).
- The congregation experiences the blessing of solidarity (as opposed to the rampant individualism of our age): baptism reminds the church of the union we have with Christ and with one another, of belonging to God’s church.
- A child’s baptism presents the congregation with an example, reminding them that “the more we mature in the faith, the more our own lived-out faith looks like that of a child: simple, dependent, utter trust” (102).
- Baptism is a reminder to improve our own baptisms (something every Christian is reminded of each time he or she witnesses a baptism).
In the final section (pages 105–140), Helopoulos articulates and provides succinct and pastoral answers to many of the most common and knotty questions surrounding baptism. While the whole of the book is helpful and instructive, this section may prove the most useful to readers who are wrestling through questions and objections about the practice of covenantal baptism. Helopoulos addresses common questions regarding Jesus’ baptism, the relation of circumcision to baptism, baptismal regeneration, paedocommunion, whether sacraments are necessary for salvation, the heartache of unbelieving children, the question of sprinkling vs. immersion, the various New Testament examples of baptism, what to make of the baptisms people have received in other denominations or even non-Christian churches, who should administer baptism, what to do if one is in a church or even a marriage where there is disagreement about covenantal baptism, and more.
As an interesting aside, the hyper-attuned will know there has been a longtime intramural debate among Reformed Christians (certainly within American Presbyterianism) as to the validity of Roman Catholic baptism. Without getting into the weeds of the legendary Hodge vs. Thornwell debates (and without the reviewer’s own views being inserted), apprized readers will be interested to note that the question is addressed on pages 132–133 where the author acknowledges the divided opinion within the Reformed church, while ultimately coming down on the side of Charles Hodge.
Helopoulos has provided the church with a clear, succinct, accessible, and pastoral volume that ably outlines the case for the classic Reformed understanding of baptism, providing both straightforward conclusions and a charitable spirit. The question-and-answer section especially anticipates many common questions and misunderstandings regarding baptism, and provides answers in a pithy, biblical, and understanding way. Any pastor or elder who has visitors or longtime congregants trying to get their head around the Reformed understanding of covenantal baptism will be greatly helped by putting this fine resource into their hands. Even readers who ultimately may not be persuaded of the Reformed view will nevertheless come away with a more informed understanding and, I daresay, an appreciation for the warmhearted and temperate spirit in which it is expressed.
©Sean Morris. All Rights Reserved.
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