Is Baptism a Converting Ordinance?

From A Speech that was to have been delivered to the members of the Warfield List March 10, 2004
The Covenanters Baptism, by George Harvey, 1831

In a letter to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great 19th century Scottish Presbyterian Pastor and Theologian John “Rabbi” Duncan wrote, regarding the concept of baptismal regeneration, “Horrible as the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is, it would be still more so if combined with those scriptural principles which are usually called Calvinism.”[1]

Over a hundred years after he penned that solemn warning, it seems that exactly that horror has taken hold in a portion of the Reformed community. For instance, Norman Shepherd in his book The Call of Grace, published by P&R (2002), had this to say:

“Baptism is the moment when we see the transition from death to life and a person is saved…This covenant sign and seal marks his conversion and his entrance into the church as the body of Christ. From the perspective of the covenant, he is united to Christ when he is baptized…Baptism marks the entrance into the kingdom of God and the beginning of life-long training as kingdom subjects. According to the Great Commission, conversion without baptism is an anomaly. A sinner is not really ‘converted’ until he is baptized… Christians are those who have been baptized. Unbelievers are those who have not been baptized”[2]

According to Shepherd, God converts sinners in Baptism. It is the moment at which a person is saved. This opinion is echoed by CREC pastor Rich Lusk, who opines, “‘Does God save or does baptism save?’ poses a false dilemma. God saves through baptism; it is one of his instruments of salvation, along with the Word and the Eucharist”[3]

Surely, although these are quotes from men in good standing in Reformed denominations, this cannot be Reformed teaching? How can this be reconciled with what our Standards teach? That too is being answered. Apparently, Rabbi Duncan’s “horror” was quite unfounded, for as David Wright tells us in his essay “Baptism at the Westminster Assembly,” which is part of the otherwise excellent book The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, “The Confession teaches baptismal Regeneration.”[4] Lest there be any uncertainty as to what he means by this, Wright goes on to inform us, “The Westminster divines viewed baptism as the instrument and occasion of regeneration by the Spirit, of the remission of sins, of ingrafting into Christ (cf. 28:1)”[5] 

This necessarily begs the questions, “Is the sacrament of baptism a converting ordinance as these men have implied?” and “Is this what our standards really teach?” Those questions are not merely hypothetical. Both for Pastors and for parents it is manifestly of the greatest importance to determine whether or not PCA Pastor Jeff Myers is correct when he urges us to, “Think about how we begin our Christian life among the assembled people of God when we are named and claimed by the Triune God at the baptismal font. The Father adopts us in his one and only Son by means of the washing of regeneration, giving us a new life in his redeemed family.”[6] If Reverend Myers is correct, and we have regeneration, adoption as Sons, and redemption via baptism, it will have inevitable repercussions on whether, for instance, we urge our children to close with Christ by faith alone. Why, after all, would we urge them to do something that has already occurred at the font?   

This past Sunday I was honored to Baptize five children ranging in age from 13 years to 10 months. Did the church see those five children, several of whom were already professing faith in Christ, “transition from death to life,” as Norman Shepherd puts it? Were they converted by their baptism? Was that the moment that they entered the Kingdom of God? Did God save them through baptism as Reverend Lusk maintains? The questions, brothers and sisters, are of the greatest possible importance.

Do the Westminster Standards – our Confession as Presbyterians of what we believe the Bible teaches – really teach that baptism is a converting ordinance?

I must tell you that if I believed that this was what the Westminster Standards taught, I would immediately leave Presbyterianism.

Robert Shaw, a nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian commentator on the Confession of Faith, certainly did not think baptism was a converting ordinance or the moment at which the children of believers are admitted into the church or even the moment when they are “made Christians.”

Shaw wrote of baptism:

“It is a solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, and to all its privileges. “It supposes the party to have a right to these privileges before, and does not make them members of the visible Church, but admit them solemnly thereto. And therefore it is neither to be called nor accounted christening—that is, making them Christians: for the infants of believing parents are born within the covenant, and so are Christians and visible Church members; and by baptism this right of theirs is acknowledged, and they are solemnly admitted to the privileges of Church membership.”[7]

So what then is going on here? Men like Lusk have answered that what has happened is that modern Presbyterians have adopted “gnostic” and “baptistic” theology and have abandoned the real efficacy of baptism in favor of an over-reliance on the word preached.[8] They argue that we have corrupted the true meaning of baptism, that we have denuded it of its efficacy as a means of salvation due to baptistic, revivalistic, and rationalistic influences. What they believe they are doing is recovering the original Reformed understanding of baptism but I must respectfully disagree. In embracing baptismal regeneration they are actually teaching something that is not only historically rejected by Presbyterians, they have moved back even further than the initial Reformed teachings regarding baptism.

Now, it is quite true that when one turns to Calvin and some of the continental Reformed theologians, there is indeed an unhappy tendency to use language in regard to infant baptism that would seem to imply that they are regenerated at the time of their baptism. But even Calvin and his contemporaries do not make the same sacramental errors as the “Federal Vision” theologians (as the movement has been called.) These errors are in a nutshell:

  1. To confuse the sign with the thing signified
  2. To suppose that the sacraments can be efficacious to salvation without faith

I will freely admit that in the midst of showing why this is the case and positing some solutions to the problem, I am going to advance a thesis that is contrary to the statements of most of the Federal Vision theologians, namely that modern Presbyterians should regard the teachings of the Southern Presbyterians and Princetonians not as the worst statements on the subject of baptism, but the best, for while I am a great admirer of men like Calvin and Ursinus, they frequently make statements regarding the efficacy of the sacraments that either can be misunderstood or which do indeed, in the case of infants, seem to exceed the bounds of scripture.

On the other hand, the statements of the Southern Presbyterian, Princetonian theologians, and indeed many contemporary Presbyterian Theologians like Sinclair Ferguson on the subject of baptism – while never denuding the sacrament of baptism of its efficacy as a means of grace or reducing it from its rightful place as a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace to the status of a “mere symbol” – have sharpened our understanding of the sacrament. By using more careful language, they have safeguarded us from the dire errors of sacramentalism which has historically been the precursor to nominalism and thence to liberalism amongst Protestants.

Now, what do I mean by safeguarding us from such injudicious or over-reaching language? Well, for instance, Ursinus in his commentary on the Heidelburg Catechism makes statements such as “There is in baptism a double washing: an external washing with water and an internal washing with the blood and Spirit of Christ. The internal is signified and sealed by that which is external, and is always joined with it in the proper use of baptism.”[9]

Ursinus immediately qualifies this by noting that the internal and external washing “may take place at the same time” (which is, of course, very different from the tenor of the absolute statements of Federal Vision men) but we would still be very foolish to suppose that Federal Vision advocates have no statements they can appeal to in the work of Calvin and the continental Reformed in order to support their even more sweeping sacramental theories.

That said, while Ursinus makes some comments that the FV men can appeal to, neither Calvin nor Ursinus make the mistake of making the sacrament of baptism efficacious without faith.

Ursinus writes, “The condition of faith is joined to the promise; for those who are baptized do not receive what is promised and sealed by baptism unless they have faith, so that without faith the promise is not ratified, and baptism is of no profit. In these words we have expressed in a concise manner the proper use of baptism in which the sacraments are always ratified to those who receive them in faith; whilst the sacraments are no sacraments, and profit nothing in their improper use.”[10]

Calvin makes exactly the same point as Ursinus in Book 4, Chapter 15, section 15 of his Institutes,“But from this sacrament, as from all others, we gain nothing, unless in so far as we receive in faith.”

The problem with the way Ursinus and Calvin occasionally speak of baptism is that they presuppose that this necessary faith exists in the children of believers. Note the language in Ursinus here, after affirming that adults must first believe and make a profession of faith prior to being baptized, Ursinus writes:

“This we admit and would add, that to be born in the church[11], is to infants, the same thing as a profession of faith. Faith is, indeed, necessary to the use of baptism with this distinction. Actual faith is required in adults and an inclination to faith in infants… Infants born of believing parents have faith as to inclination.”[12]

The problem with this statement (apart from the biblical data presenting us with numerous infant children of believers without such an inclination – Esau, Hophni, Phinehas, Ishmael, etc.) is that it runs afoul of the substance of Charles Hodge’s solemn warning:

“The doctrine of baptismal regeneration, that is, the doctrine that inward spiritual renovation always attends baptism rightly administered to the unresisting, and that regeneration is never effected without it, is contrary to Scripture, subversive of evangelical religion, and opposed to universal experience. It is, moreover, utterly irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Reformed churches. For that doctrine teaches that all the regenerated are saved. “Whom God calls them he also glorifies,” Romans 8:30. It is, however, plain from Scripture, and in accordance with the faith of the universal church, that multitudes of the baptized perish. The baptized, therefore, as such, are not the regenerated.”[13]

Federal Visionists eliminate this difficulty in their theology by introducing something that would probably have struck “Rabbi” Duncan as even more horrible than baptismal regeneration – the notion of real apostasy i.e. that those who are engrafted into Christ really can fall away. As the official Auburn Avenue PCA position paper [Note: Since this paper was written Auburn Avenue became a congregation in the CREC and is now Church of the Redeemer] put it:

“Once baptized, an individual may be truly called a “Christian” because he is a member of the household of faith and the body of Christ (I Cor. 12). However, not all who are “Christians” in this sense will persevere to the end. Some will fall from grace and be lost.”[14] 

This notion, however, should be abhorrent to us as contrary to all the great and precious promises of scripture that teach us that our perseverance depends not on our own obedience as is presupposed by this system of “Covenant Nomism,” for then we would all be lost, but upon the work of the Christ in preserving and keeping us. As Hodge rightly spoke, all those who are regenerated will certainly be glorified for “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phi 1:6)

The Westminster Standards substantially improve on the statements of Calvin and Ursinus that we have looked at. The Standards note that the sacraments are efficacious only to those who receive them in faith, and also makes the critical statement in Chapter 14 section 1:

“The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.”

By this definition, the only ordinance that the Confession regards as converting is the ministry of the Word! The purpose of the sacraments is not to convert but to increase and strengthen the faith of believers. What then of David Wright’s statement that baptism is the instrument and occasion of regeneration and engrafting? The Confession does not teach that baptism is the instrument of these things! Baptism is an external and visible sign of an inward spiritual reality and is a seal of the promises of the Covenant of Grace only to those whom the spirit either has already regenerated or will surely regenerate at some later date.

Baptism in the New Testament is no more a converting ordinance than circumcision was in the Old Testament. Think about it, was Esau really saved and then lost? No! Esau lacked faith, which no external sign can grant for it is the work of the spirit. It is circumcision of the heart that is needed which cannot be granted by the external washing of water. The point about salvation depending upon spiritual regeneration and not external signs was the central point of Christ’s comments to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and yet once again, we seem to have a generation of teachers in Israel who do not know these things.[15]

The answer to how we deal with and teach infant baptism lies, I believe, with a greater appreciation of the work of the Southern Presbyterian theologians and their realization that the status of minors in the political commonwealth is the best analogy for the status of the children of believers. This preserves the essential truths that they really are members of the visible church and have a right to many of its benefits and protections. As R.L. Dabney points out:

When our standards say, “All baptized persons are members of the Church,” this by no means implies their title to all sealing ordinances, suffrage, and office. They are minor citizens in the ecclesiastical commonwealth, under tutelage, training, and instruction, and government; heirs, if they will exercise the graces obligatory on them, of all the ultimate franchises of the Church, but not allowed to enjoy them until qualified. Yet they are, justly, under ecclesiastical government. The reasonableness of this position is well illustrated by that of minors under the civil commonwealth.[16]

B.M. Palmer also said this noting that, “In the church, this ecclesiastical minority terminates only when the man is born again of the Spirit of God, it being known that a new and divine life is indispensable to fulfill the obligations of a Christian.”

Now is this position – that the children of believers while members of the church are not saved by their baptism and still need to be encouraged to close with Christ by faith – a new or “baptistic” understanding? Not at all, its essential truth was recognized in the 17th century by Presbyterians such as Thomas Watson:

“Get a real work of grace in your heart. ‘It is a good thing that the heart be established with grace.’ Heb 13: 9. Nothing will hold out but grace; it is only this anointing abides; paint will fall off. Get a heartchanging work. ‘But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified.’ I Cor 6: 2: Be not content with baptism of water, without baptism of the Spirit. The reason men persevere not in religion, is for want of a vital principle; a branch must needs wither that has no root to grow upon.”

And William Guthrie:

“Believing on Christ must be personal; a man himself and in his own proper person must close with Christ Jesus—‘The just shall live by his faith.’ (Hab. 2:4.) This says, that it will not suffice for a man’s safety and relief, that he is in covenant with God as a born member of the visible church, by virtue of the parent’s subjection to God’s ordinances: neither will it suffice that the person had the initiating seal of baptism added, and that he then virtually engaged to seek salvation by Christ’s blood, as all infants do: neither does it suffice that men are come of believing parents; their faith will not instate their children into a right to the spiritual blessings of the covenant; neither will it suffice that parents did, in some respects, engage for their children, and give them away unto God: all these things do not avail. The children of the kingdom and of godly predecessors are cast out. Unless a man in his own person have faith in Christ Jesus, and with his own heart approve and acquiesce in that device of saving sinners, he cannot be saved. I grant, this faith is given unto him by Christ; but certain it is, that it must be personal.”

This is also the understanding of Evangelical Anglicans such as Bishop J.C. Ryle:

“I am aware that many do not admit the truth of what I have just said. Some tell us that all baptized people are members of Christ by virtue of their baptism. Others tell us that where there is a head knowledge we have no right to question a person’s interest in Christ. To these views I have only one plain answer. The Bible forbids us to say that any man is joined to Christ until he believes. Baptism is no proof that we are joined to Christ. Simon Magus was baptized, and yet was distinctly told that he had “no part or lot in this matter”  (Acts 8:21). Head–knowledge is no proof that we are joined to Christ. The devils know Christ well enough, but have no portion in Him. God knows, no doubt, who are His from all eternity. But man knows nothing of anyone’s justification until he believes. The grand question is: “Do we believe?” It is written, “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” “He that believeth not shall be damned” (John 3:36; Mark 16:16). If Bible words mean anything, to be without faith is to be “without Christ.””[17]

Princetonians such as Samuel Miller, could not disagree more strongly with the supporters of the Federal Vision in this regard:

“But it may be asked, what kind or degree of efficacy do Presbyterians consider as connected with baptism? Do they suppose that there is any beneficial influence, physical or moral, in all cases, connected with the due administration of this sacrament? I answer, none at all. They suppose that the washing with water in this ordinance is an emblem and a sign of precious benefits; that it holds forth certain great truths, which are the glory of the Christian covenant, and the joy of the Christians’ heart; that it is a seal affixed by God to his covenant with his people, whereby he certified his purposes of grace, and pledges his blessing to all who receive it with a living faith; nay, that it is the seal of valuable outward privileges, even to those who are not then, or at any other time, “born of the Spirit;” that, as a solemn rite appointed by Christ, it is adapted to make a solemn impression on the serious mind; but that when it is administered to the persons, or the offspring of those who are entirely destitute of faith, there is no pledge or certainty that it will be accompanied with any blessing. They receive the water, but not the Spirit. They are engrafted into the visible church, but not into the spiritual body of Christ, and are, after baptism, just as they were before, like Simon the Sorcerer, “in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23).”[18]

Which then is easier to believe? That for over four centuries, the greatest of Presbyterian theologians have totally misunderstood the biblical teaching on baptism and were wrong to deny that it was a converting ordinance, or that it is the proponents of the Federal Vision who are promulgating a serious error regarding baptismal efficacy? For my part, I’ll stick with the old paths and put my trust in the biblical understanding spelled out in our Standards rather than adopting this Federal Revision.

Let me close with a quote from A.A. Hodge that beautifully illustrates the falsehoods of the FV Doctrine as well as warning of the dangers that will befall us should it continue to spread:

“The Protestant advocates of Baptismal Regeneration, without committing themselves to the Romish theory of an opus operatum, hold that baptism is God’s ordained instrument of communicating the benefits of redemption in the first instance. That whatever gracious experiences may be enjoyed by the unbaptized, are uncovenanted mercies. That by baptism the guilt of original sin is removed, and the Holy Ghost is given, whose effects remain like a seed in the soul, to be actualized by the free–will of the subject, or neglected and hence rendered abortive. Every infant is regenerated when baptized. If he dies in infancy the seed is actualized in paradise. If he lives to adult age, its result depends upon his use of it (Blunt’s “Dict. of Theology,” Art. Baptism). See above, Ch. 29., Ques. 4.

They rest their doctrine on a large class of Scripture passages like the following, “Christ gave himself for the church that he might sanctify and cleanse it by the washing of water, by the word”Eph 5:26, “Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins.”––Acts 22:16. Also John 3:5;1 Pet. 3:21;Gal. 3:27, etc.

The Reformed explain these passages on the following principles.

1st. In every sacrament there are two things (a) an outward visible sign, and (b) an inward invisible grace thereby signified. There is between these a sacramental or symbolical relation that naturally gives rise to a usus loquendi(meaning of words by usage), whereby the properties and effects of the grace are attributed to the sign. Yet it never follows that the two are inseparable, any more than it proves the absurdity that the two are identical.

2nd. The sacraments are badges of religious faith, and necessarily involve the profession of that faith. In all ordinary language, therefore, that faith is presumed to be present, and to be genuine, in which case the grace signified by the sacrament is, of course, always not only offered but conveyed (“Shorter Catechism,” Ques. 91 and. 92).

 That baptism can not be the only or even the ordinary means of conveying the grace of regeneration (i. e., for initiating the soul into a state of grace) is plain.––

1st. Faith and repentance are the fruits of regeneration. But faith and repentance are required as conditions prerequisite to baptism.— Acts 2:38;8:37;10:47,  11:17.

2nd. This doctrine is identical with that of the Pharisees, which Christ and his apostles constantly rebuked.––Matt. 23:23–26. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith that worketh by love––but a new creature.”––Gal. 5:6, and 6:15; Rom. 2:25–29. Faith alone is said to save, the absence of faith alone to damn.––Acts 16:31, and Mark 16:16.

3rd. The entire spirit and method of the gospel is ethical not magical. The great instrument of the Holy Ghost is the TRUTH, and all that is ever said of the efficacy of the sacraments is said of the efficacy of the truth. They are means of grace therefore in common with the word and as they contain and seal it (1 Pet. 1:23, and John 17:17,19). Our Saviour says “by their fruits ye shall know them.”––(Matt. 7:20).

4th. This doctrine is disproved by experience. Vast multitudes of the baptized of all ages and nations bring forth none of the fruits of regeneration. Multitudes who were never baptized have produced these fruits. The ages and communities in which this doctrine has been most strictly held have been conspicuous for spiritual barrenness.

5th. The great evil of the system of which the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is a part, is that it tends to make religion a matter of external and magical forms, and hence to promote rationalistic skepticism among the intelligent, and superstition among the ignorant and morbid, and to dissociate among all classes religion and morality.”[19]

[1] Just a Talker, Sayings of John (Rabbi) Duncan, John M. Brenthall

[2] Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace, p. 94.

[3] Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future By Rich Lusk (2002)

[4] David F. Wright, “Baptism at the Westminster Assembly” in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, p.169

[5] Ibid.

[6] Trinitarian Worship & Confession, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi by Jeffrey J. Meyers

[7] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith

[8] This is the thesis advanced by Lusk in Baptismal Efficacy & the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, & Future

[9] Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelburg Catechism

[10] Ibid

[11] Note that Ursinus and the other Reformers state that the children of believers are born members of the church, not made members of it by baptism

[12] Ibid

[13] Charles Hodge, Commentary on Ephesians

[14] Summary Statement of AAPC’s Position on the Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation, section 10

[15] Incidentally, the idea that Jesus is speaking of baptism in John 3:5 as some of the Federal Vision proponents believe – is an idea that not even Calvin is comfortable with: “So far as relates to this passage, I cannot bring myself to believe

that Christ speaks of baptism; for it would have been inappropriate.” Almost every Reformed commentator in history has dismissed the idea entirely, generally agreeing with Calvin that: “By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit.”

[16] R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology

[17] J.C. Ryle,  Holiness : It’s Nature, Hinderances, Difficulties and Roots.

[18] Samuel Miller, “Baptismal Regeneration” in Infant Baptism Scriptural and Reasonable: and Baptism by Sprinkling or Affusion
the Most Suitable and Edifying Mode

[19] A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology


About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
This entry was posted in Baptism, Children, Ecclesiology, Pastoral Theology, Sacraments, The Means of Grace, The Puritans and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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