A Baptism Debate with R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur
Ligonier Ministries has on their website a baptism debate with R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur. The debate is introduced with the following words. “The church’s practice of infant baptism came under attack in the sixteenth century. Since that time, many Christian churches have rallied against the practice, administering baptism only to believing adults. From Ligonier Ministries’ 1997 National Conference, Drs. John MacArthur Jr. and R.C. Sproul discuss their views on the Biblical meaning and mode of Christian baptism. Dr. MacArthur presents the credo-baptist position and Dr. Sproul presents the historic paedo (infant)-baptist position.”
I am grateful for the honest dialogue held between these two great men of God, and the personal fellowship they could still enjoy despite their differences. Each person contended for their position, without rancor or discourtesy. They were not reconciled on this issue, but an honest presentation of their views remains helpful to those of us who struggle to know the mind of the Lord on this matter.
One morning in March, 2018, I awoke about 3:00 AM with the topic of paedo-baptism on my heart, for some reason. I had not been consciously thinking of this issue, or recently studying it. But, since I was awake, I wanted to consider again some of the Biblical passages that deal with baptism in the Bible, and a few of the reasons people have embraced in order to practice infant baptism. This study, to be continued, is a partial result of that effort.
The Circumcision of the Flesh vs. the Circumcision of the Heart
The Argument of the Paedo-baptist
Many church teachers take the position that baptism of infants should be practiced in order to give them the sign of the New Testament Covenant with God just as circumcision was given to infants to include them in the Old Testament Covenant.
An Alternative Understanding
The spiritual circumcision of the heart of Colossians 2:11, being made “without hands”, does not mandate, or authorize literal hands to be laid on male, and female, infants to give them the sign of salvation, and to make them “a member of the new covenant community in Christ, having been sanctified through a believing parent (1 Corinthians 7:14), given the covenantal promises (Acts 2:39), and welcomed into the Kingdom of God.” (Westminster Confession)
Cast Out of the Covenant
One logical implication of the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Lutheran positions on infant baptism is that, if a baptized infant grows up and proves in their maturity to be rebellious, ungodly, and an unbeliever, then that child will no longer be sanctified, despite a believing parent, will not receive the covenantal promises, and will not be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, but they will be cast into outer darkness because there is no regeneration by the Holy Ghost.
Kicked out of the Kingdom of God
The idea of someone being “received into the covenant community as a child of God”, being cast out of the kingdom of God, at any age, is a frightening, and repulsive thought, to many who have heard Jesus say, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” (Heb. 13:5) Jesus promises eternal life to those who believe in Him. “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” (John 10:28) Those who are in His kingdom will never be forsaken.
A Misplaced Emphasis
As Baptist tradition rejects infant baptism, it also rejects the teaching of the Church of Christ, which places too much emphasis on professing believer’s baptism. The Church of Christ does not practice infant baptism, but it does teach that individuals can be cast out of a covenant relationship with the Lord, and kicked out of the kingdom of God by the loss of their salvation. So a word of protest is directed against that position.
Baptist believe that Christ alone saves. People are baptized because they have been born of God, and have received the Holy Ghost, not in order to be born of God. “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.” (Acts 10:47-48)
When Paul found the Corinthians placing too much emphasis on the ritual of baptism, he said, “I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; 15 Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name. 16 And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.”
An Important Distinction
According to Paul, the gospel is distinguished from baptism. The Church of Christ has incorporated baptism into the gospel, as an essential part of salvation. The gospel promise is found in Acts 16:31, when words of comfort were given to the Philippian jailer. “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”
The jailer believed. He was saved. Then, in gospel obedience, he was baptized. That is the biblical pattern. Believe, and be baptized. Every individual must believe for themselves, and then, be obedient to the command of Christ to be baptized. Parents cannot, and must not give the sign of salvation to unbelievers, no matter how good their intentions may be. Christ does not kick the children of God out of the kingdom. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” (John 6:37)
A Heartfelt Desire
Returning to the practice of infant baptism, it is not wrong for Christian parents to want to include children in their faith. In the Old Testament economy this was done, in part, by circumcising the male child on the eighth day after birth.
“And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17:14)
No Commandment to Baptize Infants
In the New Testament economy, there is no commandment to baptize infants in order to bring them into covenant blessings. Moreover, it is a false assumption that water baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the New Covenant, with the implication, that Christian parents should baptize infants.
An Alternative Understanding
If baptizing infants did replace circumcision as a ritual, then there would be no essential difference in this area, between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. In the Old Covenant, the sign of the covenant was given to Esau as well as to Jacob. Esau despised his spiritual heritage, and was hated by God.
The New Covenant is a Better Covenant
In the New Covenant, which is a better covenant, a baby “Esau” is not given the sign of the covenant. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:” (John 1:12) So a delay is not a denial for the child of a Christian parent. But there must be personal faith in Christ, not a substitutionary faith.
In the New Covenant, those who enter into the kingdom of God are never cast out. In the Old Covenant, those who were brought into the covenant could lose their rights and privileges.
Two Commandments for Christian Parents
Regarding children of Christian parents under the New Covenant, what are the commandments?
First, children are not to be kept from the Lord. “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16)
Second, children are to be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4) The word for nurture is paideia, and means “tutorage, i.e. education or training; by implication, disciplinary correction. The word for admonition nouthesia, and means “to call attention to, i.e. (by implication) mild rebuke or warning. So Christian parents are to educate their children in the teachings of Jesus, and then guide them with mild rebukes and warnings. When this is done, when children of Christian parents are taught about the promises of God to save sinners, then God the Holy Spirit might be pleased to convert them, so they will never be kicked out of the kingdom of God.
No One in Christ Can Ever be Lost
Any person who is truly sealed and engrafted into Christ, a person who truly has their sins taken away by His blood, a person who has been regenerated by His Spirit, a person who has been, by the Spirit of God, adopted, will inherit the promise of the resurrection, and everlasting life. “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” (John 10:28) A person who can lose their salvation, a person who can be kicked out of the Kingdom of God, a person whose covenant relationship with the Lord is proven to be false, regardless of the sign of salvation superimposed without knowledge or permission, does not have eternal life.
When the various traditions of faith, and practice, are kept in mind, a fresh look can be taken at all the verses in the Bible that refer to baptism. It is good that each faith tradition appeals to Scripture in support of its position.
The Sound of Silence
Unfortunately, when each Scripture set forth by paedo-baptist is actually turned to, in order to justify the practice of infant baptism, there is not a word in the Bible that teaches infant baptism.
Charles Spurgeon noted this sound of silence, and pleaded with parents to bring their children to Christ, not the font. Said Spurgeon, “The addition of infant baptism to the Word of God, for it certainly is not there, is fraught with mischief! Without faith or even consciousness, as in the case of babes, how can spiritual benefits be connected with the sprinkling of water? ‘Baptismal regeneration’ rides in upon the shoulders of infant baptism! We find a class of people who are the children of former converts, and who have been baptized as infants, and are therefore called Christians. But they are not one whit better than the heathen around them! They seem to think that they are Christians because of their infant baptism; and at the same time, being thought Christians by the heathen, their evil lives are perpetual scandal and a dreadful stumbling-block! May God give us that vital, essential faith, without which there is no salvation. Baptized, re-baptized, circumcised, confirmed, fed upon sacraments, and buried in consecrated ground, you shall all perish except you believe in Him!”
Argument of the Paedo-baptist: Infant Baptism is Not Prohibited
It is not uncommon for paedo-baptist to agree that while there is a scriptural sound of silence commanding, or illustrating, infant baptism, the practice of paedo-baptism is never prohibited.
An Alternative Understanding
That is true. The Bible does not prohibit infant baptism. What the Word of God does prohibit, is the turning of Scripture to justify a person’s desire to do something sentimentally questionable, or to embrace a philosophical construct that changes the meaning of a biblical practice.
What is Affirmed, is Denied
What also appears to be true, is that paedo-baptist deny what they affirm, and then affirm what is denied. For example. Many Presbyterians affirm that infant baptism is a form of baby dedication, whereby parents pledge to bring the children up in the Christian faith. The congregation is invited to participate in molding the life of the child being dedicated to the Lord. What seems to be denied, is that the Westminster Confession places a far greater meaning to baptism, than an act of dedication when it states that baptism is “a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s.”
Another example. Responding to Question 70 in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lutherans affirm that baptism indicates that a person is washed with Christ’s Spirit, and that means “that the Holy Spirit has renewed and sanctified us to be members of Christ, so that more and more we become dead to sin and live holy and blameless lives.” However, in Question 72 it is denied that “this outward washing with water itself can wash away sin for “only Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanses us from all sins.” The result is personal, and theological confusion. Is a baptized baby “renewed and sanctified” in Christ, being washed with Christ’s Spirit, or not? The Catechism does not teach that the Holy Spirit may, or will, renew and sanctify an infant in their maturity. It is a fait accompli, or a thing that has already happened, with no option, but to accept, or be cast out of the covenant.
Can Salvation be Lost?
If the Holy Spirit has renewed and sanctified the one being baptized, then that one is a child of God. A Lutheran minister in Apollo, PA told me personally, “Salvation, which I received as an infant at baptism, is mine to lose.”
If, according to Lutheran theology, the Holy Spirit has renewed and sanctified the one being baptized, the infant, then it is possible, that in a state of maturity, that individual will prove to be an unbeliever, and renounce Christ. In short, they will be lost.
Giving the Sign of Salvation to the Unconverted
Again, all of this seems to be contrary to Scripture, which teaches that people are born physically alive, but dead in trespasses and sin. (Eph. 2:1) The Bible calls such a person a, “Natural Man.” The Natural Man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 2:14) So, the sign of salvation, the sign of being renewed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, is often given to the Natural Man, through infant baptism, not because of any commandment of God, but because of a theological construct.
An Alternative Understanding
To argue that the sign of the Abrahamic covenant was given to unbelievers in the Old Testament economy, and confirmed in the Law of Moses, does not justify the sign of salvation being given to those who are still “in the flesh” in the New Testament economy. There is no New Testament commandment to give the sign of salvation, baptism, to anyone, but those who have confessed Jesus as Lord. The New Covenant is not the same as the Old Covenant.
Disciple, Baptize, Teach
Disciples of Jesus are to be made first, and then baptized. Paedo-baptism reverses this divine order. “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matt. 28:18-20) Christians are to teach (Gk. matheteuo), meaning to disciple (i.e. enroll as a scholar) individuals, who are to be baptized, and then taught (didasko) all things commanded of the Lord. The apostles took this Great Commission seriously, and implemented the desired pattern.
The Day of Pentecost: A Biblical Example of the Great Commission Fulfilled
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. 37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? 38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. 39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. 40 And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.
41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.
42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:36-42)
Paedo-baptist reverse the pattern established by Christ, and carried out by the apostles. They first baptize, and then teach the way of salvation. The apostles first taught the way of salvation, and then baptized those whom the LORD added to the church. Paedo-baptist add to the visible church, by infant baptism, some, if not many, who prove to be apostates, and atheists. They say that baptism should not be given to the unconverted, in their Confessions, but do it anyway.
An Alternative Understanding
While allowing those who proved to be apostate was done in the Old Covenant, illustrated by Ishmael, and Esau, the New Covenant is a better covenant. It is designed to give the sign of salvation to those individuals whose hearts the Lord has converted, and the Holy Spirit has truly circumcised from dead works. Such souls will never be cast out of the covenant. “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31:33)
May the Holy Spirit reveal that the New Covenant teaches parents to bring a child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and give the sign of salvation to all those who call upon the name of the Lord. They shall be saved, according to promise.