Bradley Trout very kindly reviewed my book on baptism, Troubled Waters, from a Baptist perspective, and his responses are certainly very heartening. You can read it here. He was subsequently kind enough to clear up some of my minor misreadings of his post in private. What follows is my response to him, and many thanks to him for his time and generosity.
Troubled Waters argues that the two major ways of understanding baptism—what we’ve labelled believer’s baptism and paedobaptism—are incompatible all the way down to their foundations, and so it is at the foundational level that discussion needs to be had, otherwise we will continue to talk past one another. Brad’s review was appreciative of this approach, and agrees that it does offer a way forward for the discussion.
Perhaps the main point of difference between our two baptism traditions is over what baptism does. Obviously, if we don’t agree on what it does, it is pointless to go on to ask whether the children of believers can also be baptised (because that question depends on the answer to the first)—and yet most discussions of baptism fail even to consider the first question.
Perhaps this question gets glossed over because on one level, both sides agree about what baptism does—it is a sign of regeneration (that is, the gift of the Spirit by which one is ‘born again’), and it initiates a person into the Christian church.
However, when one looks more closely, the agreement that we seem to have is perhaps not as complete as one would like.
Firstly, the sign: baptism is a sign of regeneration, but believers baptists tend to see it as a sign that the individual baptismal candidate has become regenerate (or is at least claiming to be regenerate). Paedobaptists rather think of it as a sign that may be fulfilled only in the future. Think of it like this: imagine you reach a fork in the road, and there is a sign that reads ‘New York’ (for the sake of argument) pointing down one path. It may not tell you how far down the road New York is, but this is the New York road. The paedobaptist believes that the sign of baptism may be of this kind—pointing to a road (and the destination is simply ‘this way’). If you can recognise that a sign is able to function like this—marking a change in direction rather than a destination—you are closer to understanding how paedobaptists typically understand baptism and regeneration.
Why do paedobaptists try to make this seemingly odd distinction? It is because of the second point of disagreement: the way in which baptism joins one to the church. The camps disagree over whether baptism:
- recognises a person’s wish to become a follower of Christ and bonds them to the visible church community (as paedobaptists typically believe); or
- celebrates a person’s regeneration and marks their entry into the true church (as believer’s baptists typically believe—see for example Troubled Waters, pp. 65-66).
Paedobaptists do not believe that it is possible to know at what point someone is regenerated, and so baptism can’t function as the sign of the destination; it functions as the sign that points in the correct direction.
This long preface is an attempt to explain why Brad and I disagree about baptism, in spite of our many areas of agreement.
Brad is a slightly unusual case, because he sees himself as a visible-church Baptist. As such, he chiefly disagrees with my book’s characterisation of believer’s baptists. Troubled Waters says that the believer’s-baptist view sees baptism as for the born-again only, and that they must examine candidates to see if their profession is credible. For Brad, it is enough that someone claims to believe and that there are no obvious impediments to that claim. Brad says:
“[Believer’s baptists] recognize that we can’t [test for regeneration] with great accuracy, and so we generally baptize anyone who professes faith and gives us no reason to doubt it (i.e., the visible church).”
Although Brad sees his form of baptism as being into the visible church, his assumptions seem to me still to operate within a true-church paradigm. What I mean is, he still sees the sign as pointing to the individual’s regeneration (the true-church view); he merely agrees that we can’t be fully sure that that has happened for someone else, and so we need to take their word for it.
Let’s look at how these views differ.
True Church vs Visible Church
Look at the diagram of the true-church view below:
In the true-church paradigm, there are really only two categories: those who are regenerate Christians and those who aren’t. Baptism should take place shortly after someone has converted, and so someone’s personal declaration of faith is all-important. Under this paradigm, baptising babies is clearly illegitimate, because before they are reasonably self-aware they are not capable of declaring faith or being regenerate. This is why believer’s baptists accuse paedobaptists of baptising non-Christians when they baptise infants:
“Baptists are… men and women who do not wish to confuse the church with the world… Baptism stands at the door of the church; a church that opens to receive believers and closes to exclude unbelievers. Once a Christian community begins to welcome the unbeliever, the half-believer and the infant incapable of belief within its actual membership, that community will begin to lose its spiritual zeal and evangelical experience.” (Bridge & Phypers, quoted in Troubled Waters, p. 113f)
Brad shows vestiges of this binary view (Christian / non-Christian) when he says [emphasis mine]:
“Saying that people who receive the sign should be Christians and making sure they’re Christians are not the same thing.”
“Surely the fact that there are two types of seed in the field [in the parable of the wheat and the weeds] does not lead to shoulder shrugging about whether our churches ought to consist of true Christians or not?”
In Brad’s view—it seems to me—the church may in practice consist also of impostors, but at least in theory and in what we aim for it to be, it should consist of true Christians. As Brad said to me privately, baptism as a sign should point to a reality: salvation.
But look at the visible-church view (as it is understood in Troubled Waters) below:
In this paradigm, it is acknowledged that there is a true church made up of the regenerate, and anyone who is unregenerate is on the outside, but it is also acknowledged that the identity of this community is known only to God. How do we know when salvation takes place? Is it possible for baptism to signify an individual’s salvation if we don’t know when it takes place?
So in the visible-church view (or my preferred term—in discipleship baptism), we don’t see baptism as celebrating salvation (the unseen changing of the heart); we see it as formalising the commitment to follow Christ (the changing of the mind). The sign does indeed signify salvation (‘this way’), but in its function, it marks that observable transition from outsider to disciple. The individual’s profession of faith is still important, but the thing that the church is looking for from the candidate is personal commitment to take up their cross and follow Christ—that the person wishes to be on the road to salvation (wherever the definitive salvation event actually takes place for that person).
In discipleship baptism, it is recognised that a person’s actual spiritual state before God is unknowable except to God, and so it affirms what can be known about a person’s status from the outside; namely:
- Their profession—we can know whether they claim to follow (to be disciples) or not;
- Their fruit—we can know when their behaviour matches or doesn’t match their profession (see Matthew 7:20; but bear in mind, the very next verse (7:21) implies that some church superstars will be strangers to Christ at the End; so even fruit is not an infallible indicator); and
- Their perseverance—we can know whether they persevere or leave (As 1 John 2:19 says: “[Antichrists] went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” According to John here, being in the church or out the church is as sure a sign as we have that someone belongs or not).
As I tried to demonstrate in the book, the latter two criteria are the best indicators that someone is truly Christian, but neither of these is available at the start of one’s walk. Baptism therefore seems not to be for marking salvation but only the personal commitment to be on the road.
The discipleship-baptism paradigm is not resigned to a church made up of Christian and non-Christian (the ‘shoulder shrug’)—this paradigm is merely taking seriously that we have no view of someone’s true status. And discipleship baptism does play a role in keeping the church pure by being the ‘contract’ on which church discipline is based—when a disciple behaves as a non-Christian, the church is able to call a person to account for the promises made at baptism.
It’s not that regeneration is irrelevant to discipleship baptism; it is just that regeneration is God’s work within the church—at some point along the road and not uniformly at its beginning. Discipleship baptism understands the rite in terms of what can be known about a candidate at the start of the Christian walk—that they are professing to follow Christ and must be held accountable to the terms of that profession. It makes baptism as a rite more significant, because rather than merely celebrating a conversion that hopefully proves genuine, baptism actually does something—it enters a person into the church. And when someone leaves the church and the faith, they are not proving their baptism false; they are revoking it.
So we would merely wish that both traditions could unite in using baptism to mark the beginning of the road, which is what it seems to be for in the New Testament.
So what about children?
The biggest sticking point, then, and the main expression of our division over baptism, is the matter of the children of believers. As mentioned above, Baptist heavyweights Grudem and Ware insist that infants cannot be baptised, because babies are incapable of profession of faith, and incapable of being individually regenerate.
However, if we are correct that baptism signifies simply the entry to the visible church and the personal commitment to follow Christ, then the stakes are significantly lower. Neither camp seems to contest that the children of believers belong in the visible church—in other words, neither camp sees it as strange for children to attend church meetings, nor treats them as outsiders to the faith. Paul, for example, addresses children with instructions in his epistles, which implies a form of discipleship. Because kids follow their parents into the church and because they are held accountable to the terms of Christian discipleship, they should be baptised as disciples and thus be held accountable (in an age-appropriate way).
Or one could approach the matter from a different direction—what is lost if one baptises children as disciples when it really ought to be only for adults? We haven’t in baptism declared them to be regenerate; only followers whom we believe will become regenerate by grace if they persevere along the road of discipleship. The only thing that is lost, really, is that they are robbed of an occasion on which they can personally declare that they wish to be members in their own right. (And there is nothing stopping us making a ceremony for that purpose if we feel its loss.)
In conclusion, the believer’s baptist need not be cynical about discipleship baptism, as though it makes the church impure, or represents the entry of ‘non-Christians’ into the church, or represents indifference to the holiness of the community. None of those things is implied.
The point is that scripture and reason both point to baptism as a rite for disciples, and if we can agree on that, we are still free to determine by our own conscience whether or not infants can be default disciples (by virtue of their obedience to Christian parents), or if discipleship needs to be consciously chosen. At least we’ll be able to acknowledge that very little of consequence is at stake in that discussion, and we’ll be able to unite without conflict under the gospel.