Baptismal Regeneration and Baptismal Practice


Christos anesti.

(Note: I’m only moderately high-church, so my views are really not radical.)

CFC baptized five high school students on Palm Sunday, and I wanted to think here about the appropriateness – especially in the absence of the Apostles’ Creed – of the question used by the minister: ‘Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?’ (by which was undoubtedly meant, ‘are you already a Christian believer who has had a conversion experience?’). In particular, leaving questions of infant baptism aside, I question whether even ‘believer’s baptism’ requires a prior conversion experience, or whether instead it requires only a profession of faith at the time of baptism, without a baptismal ‘testimony’. The Bible tells us that the elect have been saved and are being saved, and it’s in this context that I can speak of baptismal regeneration, because no one can be saved by virtue of having gotten ritually wet.

The biblical doctrine of baptismal regeneration emerges in First Corinthians: And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. This verse refers to baptism (‘washed […] in the name of the Lord Jesus’) and parallels the external ritual, done in the holy Name, with the action of the Holy Ghost, who concomitantly hallows and justifies the Christian internally and makes him new (cf. Tit 3.3–7). As John Calvin says in the Institutes, the life thereafter lived is a life of regeneration into God’s righteousness:

This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare. (3.3.9)

Bp Peter Robinson puts it in this way: ‘In the absence of any positive will to the contrary on the part of the minister or of the person being baptised, Baptism confers regeneration; the [person] receiving baptism is born again of water and the Holy Spirit, and is made a child of Christ. If they continue in the profession and practice of the Christian Faith they will be saved.’ Bp John Jewel affirms the same in his 1562 Apology of the Church of England:

We assert that Christ in his sacraments doth exhibit [i.e. hold out, tender, proffer] himself truly present. In baptism, that we may put him on; in his supper that we may eat him by faith and in the spirit; and that by his cross and blood we may have life eternal. (II.15)

Publicly, then, I see no reason to regard as Christian anyone who has not been baptized, though he be in fact already incorporated spiritually, through faith, into the mystical body of Christ, because the Lord himself implies that baptism’s part of being ‘born from above’ (Jn 3.5–6), and St Paul also consistently points to baptism as an event marking entrance into the Church (Rom 6.3; 1 Cor 1.13; 10.2; 12.13; Gal 3.27). This point is the reason, traditionally, for restricting the Lord’s Supper to baptized believers, a practice that ought universally to be upheld, lest the Lord’s body and blood become scorned as a thing dependent on a recipient’s subjective state and so open to anyone, even one who denies the orthodox creeds of the Church. As both the Scriptures and Christian tradition show, baptism acts as the public marker of membership in Christ’s body politic.

Regardless of anyone’s thoughts or feelings, the harm done by treating uncommitted churchgoers as Christians should be clear, in two ways that ultimately may prove to be one. First, to allow those who do in fact believe to attempt the Christian life without the attendant civic duties of the Christian overthrows the nature of man created and redeemed. I need not speak at length, I think, on the specious dichotomy often made between spiritual life and regular life, between godly life and earthly life. Suffice it to say, this divide would banish God out of our doors every time we did something as earthy as homework. Second, to expect a pagan to obey God’s word qua God’s word is nothing but folly. For anyone indeed who isn’t entrusted to the Lord’s covenant faithfulness, fully given to Christ, cannot but die, and in his deathly state the one who’s regarded as a believer can only be increasingly bewildered by his inability to live as a Christian. Either state, left as it is, precludes a godly life.

I urge, therefore, that greater caution be taken to teach the truth of God’s holy word, not by the defaults of the Evangelical subculture but by the priorities and the structure and the thought of holy Scripture itself. Rather than dwelling on conversion experiences and testimonies and subjective events and the actions and mental states of men, let’s fix our eyes, and our practice, on Christ alone as our saviour.

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