Monday 13 January 2014

A Covenantal View of Baptism and Its Relationship to Evangelism (Part 2)

Covenantal baptism as taught in the Westminster Standards

The Westminster Standards comprise the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. All three documents contain clear systematic teaching on the Reformed understanding of the faith, ecclesiology and the sacraments. John Murray held these Standards in high regard as he wrote on “The Importance and Relevance of the Westminster Confession”. He believed that “the Westminster Confession is the last of the great Reformation creeds... No creed of the Christian Church is comparable to that of Westminster in respect of the skill with which the fruits of fifteen centuries of Christian thought have been preserved... In the category to which the Confession belongs, it has no peer.”

Many are unaware that these doctrinal standards were the product of a seventeenth century English assembly, one which sat in London during the years of the English Civil War, at the request of Parliament. Its 120 ministerial members were chosen as men deemed to be experts in divinity. They discussed, debated and wrote until their precise theological statements were to the satisfaction of the majority of the whole assembly. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, along with a host of other historical factors, these summaries of the Christian faith have spread around the world, but are perhaps least known in England, from where they emerged. Even a brief historical panorama demonstrates the acceptance of Westminster theology, including its teaching on baptism, by such men as B. B. Warfield, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Archibald Alexander, Matthew Henry and Thomas Watson, to name a few. It would be challenging to argue a case that these distinguished ministers all held a theological blind-spot concerning their understanding of baptism. So what is this theology of baptism?

Three chapters in the Westminster Confession (1646) are particularly pertinent to our subject. The first is Chapter 7, “Of God’s covenant with Man”, which sets out the unifying principle of the books of Scripture: God’s covenants. The covenant pre-Fall is referred to as a “covenant of works” where a promise was given upon the condition of obedience (Gen 2:17). Following Adam’s fall, the language used to describe the successive unfolding of God’s covenants is that of the “covenant of grace”. The theological term “covenant of grace” is deliberate in order to stress the priority of the Triune God’s grace in his dealings with mankind. This fits with Paul’s teaching (Eph 2:8-10) that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith” and that even the faith we may have, is itself a gracious gift of God.

A continuity of God’s dealings with mankind is upheld between the Old and New Testaments while carefully preserving the differences. The administration of the “covenant of grace” was in the OT in “shadow”, pointing forwards until the death of the testator, the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb 9:15-17). The “substance” belongs to Christ himself (Col 2:17) which is manifested in the gospel; therefore the new covenant is the fulfilment of this covenant succession, but it is the same “covenant of grace”. It is now to be administered differently, and indeed with greater simplicity, but also with greater spiritual efficacy, clarity and power, with the promised Holy Spirit (Heb 8:6-12). The new covenant promises more for the church, and not less, than the old dispensation. The ordinary means of grace are the preaching of the Word of God, the sacraments and prayer (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 11:23-25).

It is at this point of theology concerning God’s covenants and the extent of continuity and discontinuity that exists between the two testaments, that different understandings of baptism mainly arise. Covenant theology could be understood as a kind of theological crossroads for different branches of the church.

Chapter 27, “Of the Sacraments”, is a second one of significance in the Confession and it precedes the chapter on baptism. The sacraments are signs and seals of the “covenant of grace” and they are to be applied to make visible the difference between the church and the world. Both sacraments have their roots in the previous dispensations: the Passover being the precursor to the Lord’s Supper and circumcision being the foreshadow of baptism. Paul teaches in his Letter to the Romans that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (4:11). Sacraments are signs to all people observing their administration, but they are only “seals of righteousness” to those to whom they do belong. This rich comprehension of the sacraments found in the Confession does not permit a notion that they are naked or hollow signs, but rather that they declare the “priority of grace over faith”. Furthermore, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, rightly used, do not only exhibit the grace of God, but upon the words of institution given by Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, this grace is anticipated to be conferred, according to the promises of God (WCF, 27:3).

It is unnecessary to emphasise the relevance of Chapter 28 “Of Baptism” to our subject. However, it has been important to give this background prior to discussing baptism. A doctrine of Christian baptism should encompass fruitful connections for a biblical theology and this is where a covenantal view excels. Baptism in the NT applies the new covenant name of God, “the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19), to the recipient, as a sign pointing to their adoption into God’s family. An ordained minister of the gospel must only use water, which must be administered by pouring, sprinkling or immersion, of the person being baptised. All three modes of baptism convey biblical imagery of what is being exhibited through Christ and his benefits of redemption. The Confession states that “not only those who profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptised” (WCF 28:4).

The Westminster position excludes the notion that baptism is the means of regeneration (WCF, 28:5), and is therefore contrary to what is taught by the Roman Catholic Church. It denies a doctrine of presumptive regeneration, whereby the church is led to assume that regeneration will always automatically follow baptism, with respect to infants. It likewise does not encourage what is sometimes practised among Anglicans today: the baptism of infants when neither parent professes faith but lives within a Church of England parish. (This reflects a dereliction of duty on the part of an Anglican minister rather than the official position of the Anglican church, one which supports a covenantal theology of baptism.) Spurgeon’s enthusiastic hyperbole that “infant baptism is the prop and pillar of Popery” is therefore demonstrated to be untrue with respect to the covenantal theology of this sacrament, as supported by Reformed Presbyterians.

The historic position on baptism of the Westminster divines, similarly does not affirm the contemporary ideas of hyper-covenantalism that are promoted by some within the Federal Vision movement. Some of their proponents collapse the two sacraments together and wrongly teach that baptised infants should also be served the Lord’s Supper, sometimes known as paedocommunion. Such a suggestion is surprising considering that Paul clearly forbids this practice in 1 Cor 11:28, because the recipient has to be capable of examining themselves.

The Baptist scholar Shawn D. Wright asserts that it is “no simple task” to grasp the “logic of the Reformed paedobaptist position” and he cites a Presbyterian to support his own view on this matter. I would hope that Wright is familiar with the reformed logic of the Westminster Standards, but he chooses to focus on Calvin, Pierre Marcel and John Murray in his paper to argue against paedobaptism. The three representatives he enters into discussion with, would most likely respond that the perspicuity, logic, consistency and theological depth of these documents on baptism is unmistakable.

In sum, a covenantal view of baptism as taught in the Westminster Standards constantly appeals to the whole of Scripture for its support. We agree with the Apostle Peter who preached on the Day of Pentecost that baptism signifies the “forgiveness of sins” and the “gift of the Holy Spirit”. Furthermore the promise in the gospel is “for you and your children” (Acts 2:38-39). The waters of baptism replace the rite of circumcision for visible membership of the new covenant community. Herman Bavinck rightly instructs that “circumcision pointed forward to the death of Christ, baptism points back to it. The former ends, the latter begins with that death.” The NT’s “instruction about washings” (Heb 6:2, “washings” is baptismōn) is a rich teaching. The waters of baptism are waters of promise, that being covenant promise. We look to the Triune God expectantly for the fulfilment of these promises, while also seeking to carry out our covenant responsibilities as disciples of Christ.


Brett Hoskins said...

If we just apply Sola Scriptura and point 1:9 and 1:10 of the WCF, this controversy would be over and the baptizing of confessing believers would be the church’s only baptism. Whatever else you want to say about the subject, nothing can be clearer than the fact that the baptizing of confessing adults is the only baptism ever spoken of in all of sacred scripture.
Acts 2: “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, and everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
In context this verse has nothing to do with baptizing the children of believers nor does it have anything to do with a so-called covenant community where both the regenerate and non-regenerate are members of. Christ is in covenant with one body and it is only made up of believers. This is the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34), it is not like the Old. All those in the NC know God and He has really forgiven them their sins; from the lease to the greatest. If there is anything we can take from Acts 2:38-39 it is that repentance comes before baptism and that the Good News of great joy is for all people.

Kevin Bidwell said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment. There are a number of more blog posts on the subject of baptism yet to come, this is only part 2.

Keep reading and I hope that you will enjoy them. As you will be conscious, we never draw our doctrines from just the NT. We thank God for the wonderful continuity of the unfolding of the covenant of grace which obviously climaxes with coming of God's Son (Hebrews 1:3) with a better covenant established on better promises.


Kevin B