A Case for Credobaptism

A Case for Credobaptism

One of the most important things you need to know about the ordinances is that they are visible. They are visible symbols. They are objects to be seen, felt, and in the case of the Lord’s Supper, tasted.

This post, though, is only about the first ordinance, baptism. I say first not because it is more important, but because baptism marks one’s entrance into the visible church. Something most Christians, regardless of their views on the proper subjects of baptism, would agree on.

The credobaptist position states that baptism is an ordinance reserved for believers. Note the Baptist Faith and Message (2000):

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.

Samuel Renihan notes, “Baptism is…a two-way declaration. On the one hand, it is God’s visible promise that all who are in His Son are new creations by virtue of their union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). And on the other hand, it is the individual’s profession of faith in those very promises (1 Pt. 3:21-22).”[1]

Not For Infants

The argument between credo and paedobaptists over the subjects and mode of baptism goes much deeper than water. Phillip Griffiths comments on the baptism debate that being a Baptist should mean more than just “the mode of baptism…Reformed Baptists need to rediscover their rich heritage.”[2] Part of that heritage is understanding Baptist covenant theology. Volumes have been written on the subject, so there is not space here to treat it in any sort of fullness.

However, it needs to be said that, historically, Baptists have understood only believers as being in God’s covenant of grace. Both paedobaptists and dispensationalists, ironically, want to assign unregenerate people as being part of the people of God. Reformed Baptists reject this and assign only those born again as comprising the one body of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:4).

So, in the Old Testament, infants were circumcised in the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, ultimately under a covenant of works.[3] This circumcision, though certainly in some senses a gracious sign, did not bring someone into God’s covenant of grace. If circumcision was not kept, the children would be cut off from the physical people of God (Gen. 17:14). Circumcision was another work that’s essential point was to remind the physical people of God that they stood in desperate need of One who could fulfill God’s Law and then be cut off for the sake of those who would put their faith in Him (cf. Isaiah 53:4-5).

The argument between credo and paedobaptists over the subjects and mode of baptism goes much deeper than water.

The true Israel of both the Old and New Testaments has always and only been believers (cf. Romans 9:6-7). And the only way anyone can savingly believe the promises of God is by being born again. So, yes, even members of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament were born again.

Though there are similarities between baptism and circumcision in some ways, Griffiths writes, “Baptism…is both a sign and a seal, marking one as belonging to the spiritual seed of Abraham; sealing the fact that he is united to Christ. The one prerequisite for baptism is that the individual repent and believe. These different criteria hardly suggest parity between these two rites [of circumcision and baptism].”[4] The members of the covenant of grace, then, have always and only been regenerate people, not of a mixed nature. That is, the covenant of grace has never consisted of believers and unbelievers.

New Testament Baptism

The New Covenant, ratified in the blood of Christ, has established water baptism as the outward sign and symbol of the inward reality of the Spirit’s application of Christ’s work to the Christian. The signification of baptism is clearly only for those who have already been born again. Even 19th century paedobaptist, James Bannerman, writes, “The immersion in water of the persons of those who are baptized is set forth as their burial with Christ in His grave because of sin; and their being raised again out of the water is their resurrection with Christ in His rising again from the dead because of their justification.”[5]

Bannerman goes on to say of the signage of baptism that

[T]heir [those baptized] burial in water, when dying with Christ was the washing away of the corruptness of the old man beneath the water; and their coming forth from the water in the image of His resurrection was their leaving behind them the old man with his sins and emerging into newness of life. Their immersion beneath the water, and their emerging again, were the putting off the corruption of nature and rising again into holiness, or their sanctification.[6]

Similarly, Louis Berkhof, also a paedobaptist, writing about Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, says that “They who accepted Christ by faith were to be baptized in the name of the triune God, as a sign and seal of the fact that they had entered into a new relation to God and as such were obliged to live according to the laws of the Kingdom of God.”[7]

The New Covenant, ratified in the blood of Christ, has established water baptism as the outward sign and symbol of the inward reality of the Spirit’s application of Christ’s work to the Christian.

Though writing centuries before Berkhof and Bannerman, 17th Century Baptist, John Spilsbery, pulls no punches in responding to this type of faulty paedobaptist argumentation when he writes,

to Baptize Infants, makes the holy ordinance of God a lying sign, because none of those things can be expected in an Infant which the said ordinance holds forth or signifies in the administration thereof, which is the parties Regeneration and spiritual new birth; a dying and burying with Christ in respect of sin, and a rising with him in a new life to God, and a confirmation of faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, and a free remission of sin by the same; as 1 Cor. 15:29. Rom. 6:3, 4. Col. 2:12. 1 Pet. 3:21. Act. 2:38. none of all which can be expected in an Infant.[8]

There is an incontrovertible connection between the ordinance of baptism and regeneration. The latter is inward and performed by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. The former is performed by the local church only to those born again as a sign and symbol of what has happened to the new believer. That is, New Testament water baptism is not an “anticipation” of what might happen to a child in later years. It is specifically designed by the wisdom of God to signify what has already happened!

Do we have to have “regeneration goggles” then in order to know who to Baptize?[9] Of course not. The local church ought to do her best in only baptizing believers by examining the confession and life of those wishing to be baptized. Sadly, in a fallen world, sometimes local churches can “baptize” unbelievers.

But, do I Have to Be Baptized?

Jeff Johnson writes,

Although baptism is not essential to salvation, it is highly unlikely that a person has been truly born again without an eager desire to follow the Lord in this first command that God gives the new Christian (Acts 2:38). Baptism is a public confession of Christ (Matt. 10:32-33) that evidences to the church and the world that there has been a radical transformation within. Baptism is also a visible sermon. It demonstrates a spiritual reality of one’s death to sin and resurrection to the newness of life in Christ Jesus.[10]

Baptism is for those who have already received the Holy Spirit, and it is not what effects or brings about our regeneration. Rather, baptism is something that the regenerate do. Those already born again desire to follow the Lord in believer’s baptism[11] because baptism, in the words of Sam Waldron, “says he or she is in union with Christ, is forgiven and has a cleansed heart.”[12]

Baptism is not what brings the Holy Spirit’s work of effectual calling and regeneration about, but it is a physical symbol of the inward spiritual realities that have already taken place. So, baptism is an ordinance only for those already born again. It does not have the power to bring about a change of heart.

When Jesus talks about being born of the water and the Spirit (John 3:5), He doesn’t mean baptism and the Spirit mixed together creates a saving formula. Rather, being “born of the water” is the inward renewal and cleansing we need as prophesied in Ezekiel 36:25-27 and mentioned again in Titus 3:5.

This is also a reason we should be cautious about baptizing young children. I do think young children can be born again. It takes the same grace to save a 4-year-old as it does a 44-year-old. But the biblical issue is the church being sure of what has taken place and in our society, I think a lot of people have unfortunately been baptized when they were very young but have since walked away because they had never actually been born again.

The symbolism in baptism matters. This is why we should not sprinkle or pour water over baptismal candidates but instead immerse the person fully in water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptism shows how the person has already been spiritually cleansed and is symbolically buried with Christ and raised again to the newness of life. And has now been publicly and visibly marked as a follower of King Jesus.

[1] The Mystery of Christ, 204.

[2] Phillip D.R. Griffiths, Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 4.

[3] Reformed Baptists have different views on this. Some see the Abrahamic Covenant as dichotomous in nature. Some early Baptists saw it as two covenants.

[4] Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective, 68.

[5] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 557.

[6] Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 557.

[7] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 624. Berkhof goes on to write, “there is no explicit command in the Bible to baptize children, and that there is not a single instance in which we are plainly told that children were baptized”, 632.

[8] John Spilsbery, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptism, Second Edition Corrected and Enlarged. (London: Henry Hills, 1652), 41.

[9] “Regeneration Goggles” is a phrase some Paedobaptists have used on social media to accuse Baptists of needing to see the invisible church before being willing to admit someone to the ordinance of baptism.

[10] Jeffrey D. Johnson, The Church: Her Nature, Authority, Purpose, and Worship, (New Albany, MS Media Gratiae, 2020), 206.

[11] I do not mean to imply that convinced paedobaptists are not born again! Though they are wrong about a very important matter.

[12] A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 407-408.

Allen S. Nelson IV is the pastor of Perryville Second Baptist Church in Perryville, AR, where he resides with his wife Stephanie, and their 5 children. Allen is the author of From Death to Life: How Salvation Works and Before the Throne: Reflections on God’s Holiness . His other titles include blogger, rookie podcaster, and occasional conference speaker. Most importantly, he is a recipient of the undeserved grace of God.
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