By OPC Minister William Shishko
October 19, 2006, brought a long-awaited “great debate” between Dr. James White and myself on the topic, “Resolved: The subjects of Christian baptism are only those who have personally repented and believed in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.”
Dr. White, pastor of a Reformed Baptist church in Phoenix, Arizona, a well-known author, and the director of Alpha Omega Ministries (a Christian apologetics organization), presented and defended the affirmative. I, as a “paedobaptist,” presented and defended the negative. Dr. White and I have been friends for many years, and we approached the debate as Christian brothers and fellow servants of Christ. Many commented on that aspect of the debate. It was attended by perhaps five hundred people.
The purpose of this article is to reflect on this debate. We can learn from projects like this, and become better able to respond biblically to those who differ with us. [click here to listen to the debate]
All Baptists (including Reformed Baptists, who hold to the basic Calvinistic doctrines of salvation by sovereign grace) believe that the New Testament pattern is “Believe and be baptized.” Infants, they say, cannot believe, and so should not be baptized. Reformed Baptists, such as James White, grasp the covenantal character of God’s dealings with his people, so they make a further argument from the nature of the new covenant (see Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:7-13; 10:16-17). Because only those who “know the Lord” and have received forgiveness of sins are part of the new covenant, only they (the regenerate) are to be baptized and received as part of the Christian church. This is a more sophisticated (but no less problematic) argument for the historic Baptist view that the church is composed only of the regenerate.
Reformed Baptists say that Presbyterians emphasize only the continuities in God’s covenantal dealings (what we call “the covenant of grace”), but do not see the discontinuities between the old and the new covenants. For Baptists, the essential discontinuity is that, in the new covenant, the church is not a “mixed multitude” of the regenerate and the unregenerate, but rather a body of those who are “truly saved,” as evidenced by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The issue with our Baptist friends is, actually, more over the nature of the church than it is over the subjects of baptism.
On the surface, these arguments may seem compelling, particularly because the New Testament does speak frequently (but not exclusively) of a person believing in Christ prior to his being baptized. What is the best way to present the traditional Presbyterian and Reformed view of the subjects of baptism in response to that?
1. We have not helped ourselves by beginning with the Old Testament covenants, and then working to the new covenant. It is far better to start with the New Testament data and then go back to the Old Testament roots. This puts us on the same “turf” as the Baptists. We are too defensive about the New Testament! We should stop using the term “paedobaptism” (baptism of infants) and use the more biblical expression “oikobaptism” (baptism of households). The point is not that infants were baptized in the New Testament, but that whole households were baptized. There are specific references to household baptisms in the New Testament. See Acts 10; 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16 (a text which indicates that household baptisms were the norm in the apostolic age). Certainly in the missionary context of Acts, there had to be faith in new converts to Christianity before they could receive the sign and seal of Christian baptism (in the same way that Abraham received the sign and seal of circumcision only after he believed the promises of God, Rom. 4:11-12). But even as whole families were received as part of the covenant people in all previous ages, so that pattern continues in the New Testament. If, in fact, this household principle was abrogated in the new covenant, one would not expect the household formula to be used as it is in the New Testament.
2. It is not the case that the New Testament always speaks of a person believing before he or she is baptized. Lydia is baptized with her household, but there is no mention of each member of that household exercising faith prior to baptism (Acts 16:14-15). And in the case of the Philippian jailer and his family, the text clearly speaks only of the faith of the jailer himself. Acts 16:34b literally reads, “And he rejoiced with all his household, he having believed in God.” If the discontinuity of the new covenant is that only those who personally repent and believe in Christ are to be baptized and received as part of the church, why is that not clearly indicated in a text like this?
3. All of God’s covenants have included families. Even the major prophecies of the new covenant clearly indicate the continuance of the household as the basic unit of the people of God. See Gen. 12:3; Isa. 54:10, 13; 59:21 (the Old Testament backdrop to Acts 2:39); 61:8-9; Jer. 32:38-40; Ezek. 37:25-26; Zech. 8:5; 10:7, 9; 12:10-14; 14:17. In response to the use of the new covenant passages made by our Baptist friends, we must show that in those very passages the household principle remains as an aspect of the new covenant. If noble Christians “searched the Scriptures” (i.e., the Old Testament) to find out whether the things taught by the apostles were so (Acts 17:11), where would they have found warrant to abrogate the household principle? (I am indebted to G. I. Williamson for this significant observation.)
4. Baptist views cannot account for the language used of children in the New Testament. While it is true that Jesus did not baptize little children, what did he mean when he took little children and said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)? If, as our Baptist friends say, Jesus was simply speaking of childlike faith, he could have (would have?) used an adult with childlike faith as an object lesson, but he did not. On a Baptist model, how are children regarded as part of the kingdom of heaven (the visible representation of which is the church)?
Children of at least one believing parent are regarded as “holy”—separated unto God (1 Cor. 7:14). How are they regarded as such on a Baptist model? It is an evasion to say that this means the children of at least one believing parent are “legitimate.” Paul would not have used a term connected with covenantal holiness if he wanted to say this. (Besides, children are “legitimate” whenever they are born in the context of the marital union.)
On a Baptist model, how is it that children are included among “the saints” in Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:20 (cf. Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:2)? Paul gives specific instructions to husbands, wives, children, and servants because these were the basic constituents of a household in the first century. How can our Baptist friends instruct the children of their believing adults to “obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1)? “In the Lord” does not mean that children should only obey “Christian” parents. Rather, it indicates that children should obey their parents in the context of their covenantal connection to Jesus Christ—which is signified and sealed in baptism. On a “household baptism” model, all of this makes sense. Baptist responses in any of the standard treatments are lame, at best.
5. Can our Baptist friends point to one church that is composed only of the regenerate? This is the Achilles heel of any Baptist view. In the new heavens and the new earth, when the new covenant will be consummated, only the elect will compose the church. Until then, even the best of Baptist churches and any other Christian church will be composed of both regenerate and unregenerate people. Hence, there are stern warnings addressed to people in the church (e.g., Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-36). There are calls to examine ourselves, to see whether we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). Paul has doubts about those in Galatia who had professed faith and been baptized, but were falling back into legalism (Gal. 4:19-20). Simon the sorcerer “believed” (outwardly) and was baptized (Acts 8:13), yet he was hardly regenerate (see Acts 8:21-23). People left the church because they never were truly a part of it (1 John 2:19). Whole churches were threatened with Christ’s judgments because they had left their first love, given in to sexual immorality and false doctrine, and become lukewarm; they had the reputation of being alive, but they were dead (Rev. 2, 3). These are new covenant realities, and they are hardly the realities of a fully regenerate church!
6. What exactly is a Baptist theology of children, and how can it be aligned with the specific passages of the New Testament that deal with children? On a household baptism view, we can develop a coherent view of children and the church that does justice to all of the material of the Old and New Testaments. It is the inability of our Baptist friends (including Reformed Baptists) to present such a view that has caused many Baptists who have gotten a taste of covenant theology to abandon the so-called credobaptist (believer’s baptism) view and become believers in household baptism.
One recent Baptist writer stated, “The true test for anyone’s theology is this: Does it do justice to all the biblical data?” It is precisely for this reason that we maintain the baptism of whole households and the theology of God’s covenant, the church, and children that undergirds the practice. In this, and in all theological debates, may we present our views graciously, unapologetically, and above all biblically!
The author is pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Franklin Square, N.Y. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2008.