Baptism Impasse: Baptists vs. Presbyterians (Part 1)
May 18, 2017

Is Christian baptism given to believers only or to believers and their children? That’s the question that must be answered—but only if you’re Baptist or Presbyterian. That’s how the question is framed between these two denominations in this dispute, and it’s along these lines the debate unfolds as each side has their biblical verses and persuasive arguments.

Outside of these two denominations, however, a debate over baptism is framed differently, but it doesn’t have the popular draw that evangelical Christians bring to the Baptist and Presbyterian debate. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to find an article or a Youtube debate posted by a follower of one of these two denominations on this topic.

Searching the Internet will lead you to various debates between Baptists (mostly of the Calvinist stripe) and Presbyterians taking sides making their historic case. The debate doesn’t change much. Presbyterians point to select passages that refer to Jesus blessing children (Mk.10, Lk.18.), children being holy (1 Cor. 7) the “household” baptism passages, and a connection of circumcision to the New Testament practice of baptism (Col. 2).

Baptists respond with verses stating that faith saves through hearing the Word (Rom. 10:9,10) and as a consequence baptism doesn’t save. This is followed by Baptists noticing the absence of an explicit example of infants being baptized in the New Testament, and pointing to the passages such as Acts 2 where individuals have first repented and believed and only after a conversion experience do they receive baptism.

I found it amusing when I looked up “Infant Baptism” in the reference section of an early edition of John MacArthur’s Study Bible, a Baptist theologian. It referred to Proverbs 30:6–Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.

As intense as this debate can be, you would think there is “no stone left unturned” as each side pulls out baptismal passages. However, when one listens to recent modern debates, it is interesting that many passages of baptism in the New Testament are rarely discussed. Despite a couple of select passages mentioned, the debate really revolves around hermeneutics and systems of theology: continuity vs. incontinuity between Old and New Testaments, Covenant Theology vs. Dispensationalist or New Covenant Theology. Questions arise such as: Do we read the New Testament back into the Old or the Old into the New? Is your Covenant Theology consistent or inconsistent? Etc.

Catch phrases, known primarily to Baptists and Presbyterians such as “the covenant of grace” or “covenant sign and seal” are used to buffer arguments. Adding to this jargon, are questions and the definition of words: What is your definition of a “covenant?” Is it an “eternal” covenant or “temporary” covenant? It there an “external” covenant and an “internal” covenant? It is an “unconditional” covenant or “conditional” covenant? Words like “seal” (referring to circumcision in Rom. 4:11) are difficult to understand, and as a result, it is difficult to know if or how the word “seal” should apply to baptism.

As interesting as these arguments are, I would like to highlight the real impasse in this debate, and it is not what it appears to be. This impasse has more to do with how this debate is framed by these two denominations rather than by the answers given. In other words, the impasse is rooted more specifically in the poor question that is asked: Is Christian baptism given to believers only or to believers and their children? A more fruitful question to move the discussion further is: What does baptism do? Before ever deciding on whether or not to baptize children, it is crucial to agree on what baptism does. Or can they even agree on that?

By asking, “What does baptism do?” it opens up a host of biblical verses rarely discussed in this Presbyterian-Baptist debate. Various baptismal passages offer interesting or startling answers as we read things like: Baptism unites us to Christ (Rom. 6:2-3); baptism clothes us with Christ (Gal.3:26); baptism washes away our sins (Acts 22:16); and baptism saves us (1 Peter. 3:21). No doubt, disagreement would arise over the interpretation of these verses, but at least these passages would necessarily be discussed due to the different question being asked. Since these verses address what baptism does, they would not be ignored or taken lightly.

It’s no wonder since these verses are rarely mentioned and discussed at length, Lutherans enjoy making fun of the debate between Baptists and Presbyterians. Lutheran Satire mocks this Baptist-Presbyterian debate as it leads to an ultimate stalemate reached at the conclusion. (See Lutheran satire, HERE)

It’s as if the Lutherans are watching a comedy show unfold as hilarity ensues while both Presbyterians and Baptists fumble over Romans 6 or 1 Peter 3–which according to Lutherans, are hardly ambiguous because they speak about baptismal efficacy. However, the Lutherans highlighting this “fumbling” over these passages brings out an important distinction in this debate.

In order for Baptists to distance themselves from any efficacy of the sacraments as a “means of grace” to confer salvation, they call the sacraments “ordinances.”[1] These two words (sacraments and ordinances) historically have been interchangeable in some contexts, but in modern language, they have come to two different definitions.

An ordinance, commonly understood, can function as a “sign” or “symbol” only. This insures, according to Baptist theology, that “regeneration” or “salvation” is what God confers through preaching and not through other “means” like baptism.

The word “sacrament” connotes the understanding that Jesus Christ is present “with” the bread, wine, and water. This is why a sacrament is commonly called a “means of grace.” It’s a “means” by which the “grace” of Jesus Christ is made present by the power of the Holy Spirit in the giving of the physical elements. The Westminster Confession puts it this way: There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.

It is precisely this understanding of “sacrament” that Baptists distance from, and instead, use the word “ordinance.” “Ordinance” helps to avoid any such understanding that the word “sacrament” connotes. Baptists believe in two ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

But the truth is that many Baptists really don’t believe in two ordinances as understood as symbols only. In the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (a popular confession among modern Calvinist Baptists) says that Jesus Christ is present with the Lord’s Supper. “Those who, as worthy participants, outwardly eat and drink the visible bread and wine in this ordinance, at the same time, receive and feed upon Christ…” This is a keen biblical insight that Baptists believe.((The word “ordinance” is used in this Baptist confession and is probably synonymous with the word “sacrament” at the time this was written.  My point in drawing the distinction is how Baptists are holding to an understanding of the Lord’s Supper that is distinct from their view of baptism.)) After all, it’s not as if those in 1 Cor. 11:30 who ate and drank of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner became sick and died because they were eating bread with a gluten allergy. They ate of Christ, and they died.

In other words, what Baptists really believe, in modern parlance, is that there is one ordinance (baptism which is a sign or symbol only) and one sacrament (the Lord’s Supper in which feeding upon Jesus Christ takes place).((Not all Baptists hold to this view. But many Calvinist Baptists do, and the primary debates on the sacraments that I can find are from various Calvinist Baptists.)) Jesus Christ is present with bread and wine but not water. It’s a “one-ordinance-one-sacrament” ecclesiology that Baptists really confess.

But this is where Baptists fail to really push Presbyterians in the debate. Baptists give too much leeway to their Presbyterian brethren on this issue. Presbyterians say they believe in two “sacraments,” but do they?

In my next post, I will explore how Baptists can really stump Presbyterians by making them really own their sacramental theology and force them past Presbyterian ambiguity in their understanding of the sacraments.

Rev. Mani Marprelate is a pen name of a Reformed pastor in the USA.

[1] For a good understanding of the distinctions between sacrament and ordinance in modern parlance, see here:

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