This Paedobaptist Agrees with Mark

I’m grateful for Mark’s gracious invitation for me to participate as a guest at 9Marks. I have great admiration for 9Marks and the topic at hand is important. What is at issue here is that which at the heart of the work of 9Marks, the church and the ministry of Word and sacrament. What I am posting here is a lightly revised version of my original response to the controversy that developed over Mark’s recent post on why he is ecclesiastically intolerant of infant (paedo) baptism. I’m new to this space. There should be a bit about me available here or at my home blog.

My friend Mark Dever says that baptizing infants is sin. Mike Bird and others are offended, and Mark has replied. I’ve received a few emails about this. Frankly, I don’t understand why folk are in high dudgeon.

Mark is a Baptist and as such thinks that we paedobaptists (who haven’t been re-baptized) are unbaptized and it is sinful to remain unbaptized. Now, as a principled paedobaptist (baby-baptizer) who started his Christian life as a evangelical Baptist, who came to his views through biblical theology and exegesis, and who is comfortable with the history of the doctrine, I’m quite convinced that the Baptists are wrong, but Mark is right that it’s sinful to remain unbaptized. Further, if he’s right about baptism, he’s right to say that we paedobaptists are sinning. I’m not offended. God bless Mark Dever for taking the holy sacraments seriously and for taking the doctrine of the church seriously. Hang in there buddy.

What I’m about to say is not by way of retaliation. What I’m about to say here is what I’ve said to Mark privately. As a principled paedobaptist, it is not too much to say that believing parents who refuse to baptize covenant children are sinning. This is, after all, what the Reformed Confessions teach. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Q. 74 says:

74. Are infants also to be baptized?

Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents, and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as the sign of the Covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is instituted.

Art. 34 of the Belgic Confession (1561), one of the confessions of the Dutch Reformed Churches says in part,

For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children. And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.4-5 says:

4. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

5. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

A recent essay in the Westminster Theological Journal has argued quite reasonably and plausibly that the best interpretation of art. 5 is as a reference to Baptists. Recall that the Particular Baptists had published a confession of faith in 1644, three years before the WCF was finished. The divines were well aware of the growing Particular and General (to speak anachronistically) Baptist movements.

Evidently it is not fashionable to say that it is sinful not to baptize one’s children is sin. I understand that, but consider this scenario: A gentile comes to Abraham,

Convert: I’ve heard about your God Yahweh Elohim and have come to believe that he is, in fact, the true God and that the gods of the nations, the gods I formerly served, are nothing but idols. I want to identify with this people, I believe Yahweh and I want to be admitted to his covenant people.”

Abraham: “Yahweh bless you my son. He has given you the grace of trusting in Yahweh and in his promised Savior (John 8:56). I too was a Gentile before God gave me faith in the coming Messiah and the sign and seal of his promise, the sign and seal of the covenant of grace (Rom 4:11). When Yahweh revealed himself to me he instituted the sign of circumcision to be applied to believers and to their children. As a mercy, I will sharpen the flint rock as well as possible.”

Convert: “I can understand how I should take the sign, but why should my children also receive the sign since they are but infants and we cannot be sure they believe?”

Abraham: “God will have it so. He promised, ‘I will be a God to you and to your children.’ This is the promise of the eternal covenant of grace. They are to be admitted to the administration of the covenant of grace. We trust that by Yahweh’ sovereign grace they too will trust in Yahweh and that the sign will become to them a seal, a promise that just as their schmuck has been removed so too their sins have been removed by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Messiah alone. It is a great sin to refuse to initiate your children into the covenant of grace. Indeed, Yahweh says, ‘Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.'”

According to Reformed theology, the same promise that God made to Abraham is still in force. Indeed, in the New Covenant all the types and shadows having been fulfilled by Christ, the sign of baptism is to be applied to believers and all their children, males and females alike (just as both sexes come to the Lord’s Table). Peter says so in Acts 2:39.

The point here, however, isn’t to make the case for infant baptism but to say that a certain view of the sacraments is of the essence of the Reformed understanding of redemptive history and revelation, it is essential to our (covenant) theology, piety, and practice. We may be wrong but it’s what we believe the Word to teach. We have a moral duty, as Mark does, to confess the Word and teach it.

I’m not offended. Mark is a good friend, a very good scholar, and a churchly gentleman. God bless him and may he embrace the faith of Abraham with us. I stand ready to baptize his children any time he wishes.

R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark teaches church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California. He is also a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America.

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