Babies and Bathwater

by Spencer Harmon

Baptism is a big deal.  When someone becomes a Christian, they are not merely subscribing to a local club that meets on Sundays; rather, a supernatural work of God has taken place.  Christians believe that when someone puts their trust in Jesus their old “self” – with its selfish desires, rebellious disposition toward God, and cold heart – dies, and a new “self” – with a heart inclined to obey God, love his Word, and pursue righteousness – is born.  It is this reality that baptism declares.  Baptism is symbolic – it talks to us and reminds us of these transcendent truths.  It screams out that just as this person is plunged down into these waters that envelop them so their old self has been plunged down into death with Christ; just as they rise out of the water and gasp for air, so their new self has arisen with Christ.

For Protestant Christians, there have been two views as to who should be baptized:  1) those who have professed faith in Christ (credo baptists); and 2) those who have professed faith in Christ and their children (paedo baptists).  I’m a credo baptist.  I don’t think you should baptize babies.

One of the strongest arguments for believer’s baptism can be made from an Old Testament passage:  Jeremiah 31:31-34.  It is here that God Himself delineates through His prophet Jeremiah his “new covenant”  This is God’s new agreement with his people that binds him to treat them in a certain way so long as they keep their end of the bargain.  However, the problem with God’s people over history is that they have never been able to keep their end of the bargain.  They always worship the idol; they always complain in the desert.  But God has a plan – a new covenant.  The newness of this covenant is found in that fact that God promises to give his people a heart that actually wants to keep the law (verse 33).  God promises that everyone will know him in a saving way, and that all of their sins will be forgiven.  God says that this new covenant will not be like “the covenant that I made with [your] fathers” (verse 32).  The newness of the new covenant is found in the fundamental difference between the people of God before and after the coming of Jesus.  Before Christ, the covenant members were those who were born into the people of God – this means that there where people who really loved God in the community, and those that just were among the group, but did not really know the Lord.  After Christ, God’s covenant members are only those who have been regenerated (i.e. given a new heart that truly loves God).

If Jeremiah is interpreted as an announcement of a regenerated covenant community, those who support baptizing infants need to reconsider their view.  For if the covenant community is only those who have been regenerated, then it follows that the mark of the covenant community – baptism – should be limited to this specific group of people.  The new covenant has a new sign and it is reserved for people who have new hearts.

Some Practical Concerns

  1.   It seems inconsistent for a paedo baptist not to include infants in the Lord’s Supper.  If they are seeking to emphasize the continuity of God’s dealings with his people in one overarching covenant, it would seem consistent to include the children of the God’s people in this rite as well.  However, this would pose problems.  First, if children participate in the Lord’s Supper, it seems like this would say something that is not true.  When I take the Lord’s Supper, my pastors say to me, “Spencer, this is the body of Christ broken for you; This is the blood of Christ poured out for you”  But we can’t honestly say this to babies until they make a profession of faith.  Second, babies are incapable of examining their conscience, or confessing sin (one of the things baptism should push a believer towards), so why should they participate in the Lord’s Supper?  Yet infant baptism seems to lead to this.
  2.   Another concern is that church discipline seems to lose its relevance.  If children are included in the people of God by baptism, how do you determine if they are ever not a part of the true covenant community?  If the church is constantly a mixed community of both believers and unbelievers, why would any church discipline a non-Christian from their midst if it has embraced a mixed church?  Some may object that if a paedo baptist church knew that there was an unbeliever in their midst, they would most certainly discipline them.  Yet, for every baby that is baptized, an unbeliever is added to their community.  Why the inconsistency in church discipline?

Conclusion

Baptism is a secondary issue, but not a small issue.  Baptism is the sign of salvation, and how the church understands this sign of salvation matter immensely.  To misunderstand the issue of baptism is to run the risk of false assurance to those baptized as children, and a distortion of a beautiful portrayal of salvation.  Although evangelical Christians ought to keep the main thing the main thing, we ought to openly acknowledge our disagreements over these important issues.  So, let there continue to be conferences; let pastors be together for the gospel, and let evangelicals make coalitions; nevertheless, let there be an open and plain acknowledgement of these distinctive beliefs that make whole denominations form.  For these issues are exceptionally important, and ought to be treated like it.  So, keep the baby, but throw out the bathwater.

 

3 thoughts on “Babies and Bathwater

  1. Interesting. As a deeply committed Baptist, as I’m sure you know, I wonder why you would leave out verse 34 in your treatment of the text. In regards to baptism and the nature of the members of the covenant it is, perhaps, the most important verse.

    “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
    (Jeremiah 31:34 ESV)”
    In light of this, we can (without abstraction or systematic reasoning) conclude that all who are in the covenant know God. I say this not to argue with you but, rather, to strengthen the handling of the text. Otherwise I’m with you.

    As for paedocommunion, I’m not sure your research is finished. There is currently a move in the Federal Vision group of the PCA to do such a thing. For example, Douglas Wilson here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suzGBvLKNwg

    To note: I have a lot of friends who are Presbyterians, paedobaptists, and some paedocommunionists. I do not agree with them whatsoever. I’m not sure, however, they would agree with your handling of what they think they are doing. Obviously, they think there is a way to do church discipline (and it’s fits in with their overall presbyterian model as opposed to our congregational models). Perhaps looking at their resources is better than beating down a straw man. Simply put, they have answers to the questions you ask. Addressing their answers would be more intellectually honest than simply re-asking the questions so many have already asked. I don’t think their answers are good, but I think they’re worth your time.

    As stated somewhere earlier, I’m in agreement with you. I just thought I’d engage. Iron and iron and all that jazz.

    Blessings.

    P.S. Great last line. I will certainly steal it at some point.

    1. Griffin,

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful response, brother.

      In regards to Doug Wilson. I had heard of his interesting position on paedo-communion; however, from the padeo-baptists I had read concerning the issue, Wilson seems to be a rarity among the bunch. Most of the Presbyterians / Paedo-baptists I have read (Horton, Murray, Ferguson, Pratt, etc.) seemed to shirk away from this position. I found this inconsistent and thought I would point it out. I’m glad the Wilson is at least being consistent. I was simply pointing out what looked like the logic of paedo-baptism to me. Yet, I think if Wilson starts giving babies communion he’s got a whole lot of other issues to be concerned about.

      Seriously, thanks for responding to my little article here. I’m working at being a little more precise in my convictions, and to have someone take some time to read and comment who is a a little more theologically nuanced than I am is really helpful as I try to understand better how to articulate what I believe.

      All the best, bro!

      Spencer H.

      1. Those paedobaptists certainly do shirk away from the paedocommunion stance, but the largest conservative presbyterian denomination, the PCA, has allowed it. Considering the disciplinary power the presbyterian system holds in regards to doctrine, I think that’s a pretty big step. I think that the greatest reason those guys reject paedocommunion is because of Paul’s call to the church of Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11:28 to examine themselves. I respect their being biblical over logical.

        If there’s anything we all (them included) agree on, it is this: baptism signals one’s entry into the church (albeit we disagree on the mixed nature of the church). This is where I think logic collapses their house of cards. If baptism yields entry into the church (ignore congregational voting rights, etc. for a moment, even if it strengthens our case) then it seems to also place upon that person the demand to examine themselves or so bring judgment on themselves in taking communion. The traditional Covenantal solution to this is simply not to serve communion. Hence the logical disconnect you were talking about. But why not serve the communion? In reality, it’s due to this: the children don’t have a repentant heart. The Covenantal theologians would not deny this. If they persist in sin, they will remain under the wrath of God. For those who are in Christ Jesus, this is not the case (Romans 8:1). Now all the logic is broken. Paedobaptism has polluted either a) the church or b) truth.

        Pastorally, what do we do?
        I do not want consistency. That’s not what I’d call for. I’d call for Biblicism. The true conclusion to all this has to be (and I’d like your opinion on this), that paedobaptists need to repent. Sure, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, but they have within their ranks unbiblical doctrine. As such, we can not (for consistencies sake) serve them communion in our churches! And that, it seems, is the question to us: Will we call paedobaptists to repent and refuse them communion for their own sakes or do we bring them into full fellowship with no apprehension (just thinking out loud here)? Do we do what Jared C. Wilson’s church has done (which I find deeply troubling): http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/gospeldrivenchurch/2010/05/27/our-church-and-baptismal-dual-practice/
        No, that seems wrong as well. Perhaps the issue is more complex than it first appeared.

        Of course, I enjoy interacting. Keep digging, keep writing.
        G.

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