Baptism Debate (June 24, 2021)

The Gospel Truth host debate/dialogue on baptism. I represented the Reformed view. My opening statement is below.

The Covenantal Reformed View of Baptism
Rev. Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D. (
Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church (CREC, Lancaster, PA)
Director of – an online audio library of Christian scholarship

The view of baptism I am defending arises from “Reformed Theology.” “Reformed” means the reformation of the catholic Church. Original protestants, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, desired the reformation of the existing Church, but were ultimately excommunicated from the self-conscious Roman Catholic church. My view is expressed in the great Reformation catechisms and confessions (Genevan, Helvetic, Heidelberg, Belgic, Westminster, etc.). Many of the greatest minds of the Christian Church defended this view, men such as John Calvin, Francis Turretin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, and many others. The most recent books defending this are Randy Booth’s, Children of Promise (P&R), Douglas Wilson’s, To a Thousand Generations (Canon), Peter Leithart’s, The Baptized Body (Canon), as well as the book I edited, The Case for Covenant Communion (P&R). While other traditions hold to infant baptism, the Reformed “covenantal” view stands against the rationale for baptism of say, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Covenantal Reformed view holds that baptism is covenant sign and seal. It is both efficacious and means salvation by grace through faith, requiring the active loyalty of the baptized, but according to the capacity and maturity of the person.

What is the nature of baptism in the covenantal view? The language of “sign and seal” is drawn from Romans 4:11, speaking of Abraham, “and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised…” So the action of circumcision (Gen. 17) is an “effected” visible sign (meaning that it does something). It is also a seal (Greek: sphragis) a term used of wax seals for identification, as well as a mark like a tatoo (e.g., on a slave) or a brand on an animal. It is an identifying mark.

This passage provides support for several important foundations for a covenant theology of baptism.

There is a continuity between the covenantal actions of the OT with the NT signs (baptism and communion). This point is strengthened in Colossians 2:11–12 – “and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
Circumcision is called a “seal of the righteousness of faith” and yet it was properly applied to male children and adults. A sign of faith does require “credible profession” to be properly administered. A sign of faith could be applied to children as is plain in the case of circumcision, the baptism of the Red Sea (1Co 10:1-10), Passover, indeed the entire sacrificial system of Israel. As Calvin says, “For what will they bring forward to impugn infant baptism that may not be turned back against circumcision?”
The essence of the covenant sign of baptism is illustrated here. a) One the one hand, circumcision cannot be a bare symbol that does nothing, but only pictures some other deeper spiritual thingy. “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised … an uncircumcised male . . . that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Gen 17:10ff). b) On the other hand who could claim that the scalpel or knife is magic (over against Rome, EO)? Is there any person who believes that the essence of this covenant sign had anything to do with the cutting instrument or the foreskin having some kind of magical substance? Does anyone suppose that the Passover lamb meat was transformed into a completely different substance? Did the Red Sea which is the archetype of the baptism Israel run with holy water? Did the Jordan have some other substance than earthly water?

However, let us be clear that there is a complete continuity between the reception of covenant signs for households from the OT to the NT. There is no radical individualist change from the OT to the NT. Consider all of the biblical covenants and their signs and whether they specify the inclusion of households/descendants: Is Baptism is a Sign, Like Other Signs?

Biblical signs were given corporately to families in the Old Testament. Has that changed? This is a question of continuity. Baptism is similar to other faith rites in the Old Testament. Rituals which involve a symbolic act, such as baptism, are connected to Biblical covenants. Biblical covenants include signs to visibly represent the realities behind the covenant promises.
Reviewing the Biblical teaching, we find the covenant with Adam involved all the children of Adam. “As in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22, Rom. 5:12). The covenant with Noah included the “salvation of his household” (Heb. 11:7). The sacrifices of the patriarchs (including Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were for the whole family. Job offered “burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (Job 1:5). Similarly, “Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal” (Gen. 31:54). Circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of God’s covenant for “you and your descendants after you throughout their generations” (Gen. 17:9). Under Moses the blood of the Passover lamb preserved the firstborn in the household. Israel was to observe Passover “as an ordinance for you and your children forever” (Ex.12:24). In the promise to David, the Lord said, “I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever, and build up your throne to all generations” (Ps. 89:3-4).

Are Children Still Included? In obedience to Jesus’ command to baptize (Matt. 28:19-20), who did the apostles baptize? By their actions, how did they apply the command of Jesus? In looking at all the actual recorded cases of apostolic baptism, is the individual (Baptist) thesis affirmed, or is the covenant (Paedobaptist) thesis affirmed?

We will consider all the biblical examples of Christian baptism, beginning in Acts. (I will deal with John the Baptist and pre-pentecost baptism below.) Do these examples indicate only individual, professing believers are to be baptized or do they indicate both adult believers and their family members are to be baptized? The basic outline of Acts is indicated in the first chapter. The gospel of Christ goes forth: “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The pattern of baptisms follow this expansion: Jerusalem and Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the world.

In summary of the actual baptisms, we find the following: (1) The new covenant promise came “to you and your children” (Acts 2:39) at Pentecost. Only men (3000) are said to have been baptized (Acts 2:5, 14, 41). (2) In Samaria “men and women alike” (Acts 8:12) were baptized, including Simon (the apostate Sorcerer). (3) The Ethiopian eunuch (who had no familial household) was baptized (Acts 8:38). (4) Paul (who had no familial household) was baptized (Acts 9:18; cf 1 Cor. 7:7-8). (5) Cornelius’ household was baptized (Acts 10:48, 11:14). (6) Lydia’s household was baptized (Acts 16:15). (7) The Philippian Jailer’s household was baptized (Acts 16:33). (8) Many Corinthians were baptized, including Crispus, Stephanas’ household, and Gaius and it is likely that “allos” any “other” refers to his household (1Cor. 1:16), since he has a prominent person that was host to the whole Corinthian church (Rom. 16:23; Acts 18:8, 19:29; 1 Cor. 1:14, 16). (9) The disciples of John (adult men) were baptized (Acts 19:5).

These are the facts about who was baptized. From this we learn: of nine people singled-out in the baptism narratives—five clearly had their households baptized (Cornelius, the Jailer, Lydia, Crispus [inferred], Stephanas), two others had no familial households for obvious reasons (eunuch & Paul). That leaves Simon, who actually turned out to be an unbeliever, and Gaius listed with Crispus [household] and the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:14). In 1 Corinthians 1:14–16, the text says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other (allos).” The most grammatically obvious referent to the pronoun allos is “household” (oikos). This is not a “mixed list” grammatically since each of these nouns in masculine and singular. Given the grammatical evidence and the contextual fact that Gaius had a home that could host the church of Corinth, it seems plain that Gaius is a household case. This is strongly suggested by Romans 16:23, “Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you.” Given the nature of first century families, it is unlikely that the host of a group of dozens of people if not many more was single and had no household servants. For more on this see my paper on “The First Century Family.”

The outline of Acts is punctuated by the baptismal cases as the gospel goes from Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria, and then to the rest of the world. After the Judean and Samaritan baptisms, we have the baptism of Paul (the Apostle to the Gentiles), then the gospel crossed to Gentile territory. Beginning with Cornelius, every baptism is a household baptism passage—except where we are told those present were “twelve men,” who were apparently Jews (Acts 19:7). When Peter recalls the first case of Gentile conversion (Cornelius), it is framed with covenantal words: “And he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household”(Acts 11:14). Then, the Gentile households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Jailer, Stephanas, and Gaius were all baptized.

Acts is a selective history of thousands of examples of baptisms over the first few decades of the church. Surely Luke did not record the only household baptisms in the entire apostolic period. Rather, this was the normative practice of the apostolic church as the gospel went to Gentile families. The gospel and its outward sign went to families because families were to be saved (Acts 16:31b). The salvation of ethnic families was the goal of the covenant: “The covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:25). This is how Luke frames the first case of Gentile conversion (Cornelius): “And he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household”(Acts 11:14). Then there is an important pericope on the Philippian Jailer who seems to be the first pagan to be baptized. All the previous examples indicate they were “God fearers” (Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius, Lydia, etc.). This one is also framed with the same “you and your household” language: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household” (Act 16:31).

Do you believe infant baptism saves the child? Baptism “saves” a person in a similar sense as a wedding marries a person. It is the start of the union, it is the official declaration, but does not automatically provide all the blessings of a married life. Baptism is the official start of Christian identity, but it is in living out one’s baptismal identity, that all the blessings of salvation are received.

Shouldn’t baptism be done by immersion? If we compare baptism and communion, whether the Lord’s Supper is actually a “supper” (deipnon, an evening meal) is not essential to its purpose, meaning, or sacramental quality. In the same way, the mode of baptism, whether by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling, is less important than its meaning and recipients. The Reformed view does not require a particular mode as necessary for a valid baptism. However, a strong case can be made that most Biblical baptisms were like an “anointing” from above, e.g., in the Tabernacle sprinklings (baptismois in Heb. 9:11, see verses 9:13, 19, 22). The baptism of the Spirit is spoken of as the Holy Spirit “poured out upon the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45-47). Baptism is also a “crossing” into (e.g., Red Sea, Jordan river, John’s baptism). The baptismal washings in Scripture are many and varied, so don’t worry about how water is applied.

If you believe in infant baptism, do you have to believe in infant communion? I have written on this elsewhere. The earliest historical sources on infant baptism, like Cyprian (c. 200-258) and later Augustine (354-430), make clear infant baptism and infant communion were normative in their day. Still, this is a separate question and depends upon other principles such as: (a) whether infants or young children partook of Passover and other Old Testament sacrificial meals, (b) if there were any qualifications for participation, such as asking and understanding (Ex. 12:26), and (c) whether in the new covenant there are any additional qualifications. B. B. Warfield said, “The ordinances of the Church belong to the members of it; but each in its own appointed time. The initiatory ordinance belongs to the members on becoming members, other ordinances become their right as the appointed seasons for enjoying them roll around.