Question and Answer: “Does the Bible teach Baptismal Regeneration?”

Does the Bible teach baptismal regeneration, that one is saved by baptism?

Well, there are some groups who believe in some nuanced form of “baptismal regeneration”. Some groups baptize babies on the ground that it is a necessary sacrament for their salvation. Catholics and Lutherans would fall in this camp. There are other groups who would still require profession of faith before administering water baptism, but still believe that the baptism was the occasion of regeneration. The Church of Christ would be one such group.

There are many mediating positions on baptism which are highly nuanced. While some groups deny that water baptism should even be practiced (Quakers, Friends), other groups (already mentioned) believe baptism to be necessary for salvation. There is everything in-between those two bookends.

Baptists have tended to emphasize baptism as an outward sign of an inward reality; attributing no sacramental grace in the act. The confessional reformed traditions (Westminster, Belgic, Heidelberg, Dordt) have offered fairly nuanced and qualified statements about baptismal efficacy. This is a rough overview and I am well aware I’m not doing all groups justice in this brief treatment. I’ll proceed to specifically answer in the negative to the question on whether baptism saves.

Baptism, as an act in and of itself, does not save. The view that baptism does save is known as “ex opera operato”, that salvation is imparted efficaciously in the act itself apart from the consent of the one baptized. Hitler would be in heaven today if his baptism alone saved him. While some groups seem to teach baptismal regeneration, they also need to maintain a doctrine of apostasy, or qualified regeneration based on persevering faith. Essentially, baptism saves those who remain saved. Catholics, Lutherans, and Church of Christ folks all believe in some qualified view of baptismal regeneration because neither of the groups are willing to say that one remains saved based solely on baptism. In other words, all the mentioned churches that believe in baptismal regeneration also believe in discipline and possible excommunication.

The Bible gives us cases of baptized people who have gone on to apostatize. Because of such evidence, we can clearly rule out any notion that baptism itself saves one in and of itself with disregard to the subsequent life of the one baptized. Because of this obvious evidence, some will conveniently tie the efficacy of baptism to God’s decree of election. In other words, baptism truly saves those who are among the elect. The instrumental cause would be God’s decree of election, which is then conferred through the baptismal act itself. Luther, however, actually believed in baptismal efficacy as dependent upon faith. He taught that the infants are actually exercising consenting faith when receiving baptism, which then brings about more grace. Things get even more complicated the more you dig. It gets more complex and more nuanced.

The complexity is due to not wanting to say baptism is just some optional accessory to salvation, which clearly doesn’t represent the heart and teaching of Scripture, but then also wanting to navigate the tricky waters of defining what exactly baptism does do on the other hand. If anything, this should beget some humility from all sides of the issue.

A few things to keep in mind for all parties:

  1. The Bible doesn’t teach baptism as the instrumental cause of regeneration or justification. One can perhaps argue that it formally makes one part of the visible church, but no matter how high ones ecclesiology, none could equate church membership with decretive regeneration.
  2. The Bible annexes faith, repentance, and belief with baptism. As a Baptist, I therefore believe that some sort of visible faith is the basis for baptism. Baptism is a means of grace for the believer, whereby they gain a good testimony (1 Peter 3:21). It is impossible to render such faith unless one has been regenerated and converted, thus called by God. While there is always room for hypocrisy and the such, we are called upon to administer the sacrament based as best as we can discern on visible faith. John the Baptist baptized only based on some visible repentance, but couldn’t guarantee that each person rendered perfect, genuine, God-wrought repentance. Paul said in Romans 10:9 that if one believes in the heart and confesses with the mouth that, “Jesus is Lord”, they shall become saved. While public confession is important, it is not the instrumental cause of regeneration or salvation. Merely saying the magical 3 words doesn’tsave anyone. One is saved when the confession proceeds from the believing in the heart. I think that’s what’s going on with Peter when he says that, “Baptism now saves you”. He proceeds to state that such is an “appeal to God”. So far as one’s baptism proceeds from the earnest desire for a good conscience does it save.
  3. The Bible gives testimony of those who demonstrated God’s work of conversion prior to baptism. One such case is Cornelius’ household (Acts 10). Peter contends for their water baptism and initiation into the church based on the testimony of God’s work of grace in his presence. Do note that Peter sought their baptism, signifying to us that baptism is of upmost importance. It’s not enough that one supply enough descriptive narrative to show that some were believers prior to baptism, while failing to acknowledge that these are exceptional cases. I think it was F.F. Bruce who said that the thought of an unbaptized Christian would be unheard of and even thought an anomaly to the early church. Clearly, we have become too lax in regards to the importance of baptism in the modern Evangelical church. No wonder that many disillusioned Evangelicals have flocked to traditions that believe God IS doing something in the sacraments. Folks don’t want the sacraments qualified to death in what they aren’t doing, but would rather embrace some mystery in that something is being done. Qualifications are necessary from each side of the issue.

I’m not attempting to answer exhaustively the proper mode of baptism and the many other concerns attached to this rite. Does baptism save? I can answer “yes” (with many qualifications) or can just as comfortably answer “no” (with many qualifications). Having said that, I’m a credo-baptist who believes that God does do something to the one baptized and the one who receives the supper. I’m a qualified sacramental credo-baptist. I don’t believe in baptismal regeneration if one understands regeneration in the formal “ordu salutis” (order of salvation) sense. Here it is important to note the traditional order of salvation. I know that some would accuse me here of importing systematic theology where it ought not be imported, but I would fire back that the other camp is importing al kinds of theology as well, so we’re both guilty as charged, if we are guilty at all.

Regeneration precedes faith, which then possesses the promises of God through the occasion of conversion. At the first instant of God-wrought faith, the sinner is converted. This conversion consists of an actual transfer from darkness to light, from being children of wrath to children of promise, from being guilty as charged to justified by union with Christ. None can confess Christ as Lord in a saving fashion apart from the Spirit. It is this Spirit of adoption that enables us to even declare “Abba! Father”. One is thereby fully adopted in this heart cry of faith. The person who is thus converted by faith is called into the waters of baptism to solemnize and formalize this union with Christ. Though they posses all of the realities of salvation prior to baptism, the baptismal act grants further grace of assurance before the triune God. Since the baptismal act is public and visible, the person baptized is thereby formally counted as part of the visible church. Luke notes that 3000 were baptized and “added” (Acts 2:41).This denotes that those who believed and baptized were formally counted as part of the visible church. Now part of the visible church, the baptized believer is to continue their discipleship as part of the gracious institution and participate in the sacrament of communion, thereby being perpetually assured that they are indeed part of God’s covenant people and heirs of salvation.

© 2011, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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13 comments on “Question and Answer: “Does the Bible teach Baptismal Regeneration?”
  1. Does the marriage ceremony marry?

    What did circumcision do?

    “What then about the efficacy of baptism according to the Westminster Confession? Its central affirmation seems clear: “the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost” (28.6). It is true that a variety of qualifications to this assertion are entered…But these qualifications serve in fact only to highlight the clarity of the core declaration, which is set forth as follows in the preceding chapter on sacraments in general:
    niether doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution; which contains…a promise of benefit to worthy receivers (27.3).
    The Westminster divines viewed baptism as the instrument and occasion of regeneration by the Spirit, of the remission of sins, of ingrafting into Christ (cf. 28.1). The Confession teaches baptismal regeneration. (from “Baptism at the Westminster Assembly” in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, volume 1, ed. by J. Ligon Duncan III, Mentor 2003:168-9)”

    Quoted here:

    http://www.joelgarver.com/writ/sacr/wcf.htm

    I know we don’t agree, so there is probably no point in going around and around on it. I think Calvin’s stuff on the subject in Institutes should be enough to give Reformed Anabaptists pause!

    • Hey Joel,

      While this may sounds like a simple response to yours, I think that while there are many good things to be learned from the various confessions, and great theologians of old, we should remember that they were fallible words and fallible men. Our last word on these issues, as I am sure you would agree, ultimately needs to be the scripture. “What does Scripture say?” “What does Scripture teach?” We should ask these questions at the end of the day over asking “What do the confessions say?”, “What did Calvin say?”

      I can just as easily say, I think God’s Word in Scripture should be enough to give paedobaptists pause!

      • Aaron, yes we are all going to say that the Bible has the last word, but we are viewing it through the lens of a tradition. The Holy Spirit did not abandon the church in 100 A.D. The Creeds and liturgies of the Church need to hold much more weight with us than they commonly do, and by that I generally mean the Creeds of the first 7 centuries. I read Scripture from within a tradition, and I am happy to do so. I trust the inherited authority of that tradition as it interprets Scripture to be collectively much wiser than me. I don’t need to rethink every single issue and exegete every single passage to come up with my own answer, I trust faithful men who came before me.

    • Joel, my friend, thanks for chiming in. Marriage does bring one into the objective reality of marriage, I agree. I use that illustration more than any other when catechizing folks about baptism. As a baptist, I of course view marriage as two parties consenting over the terms of the covenant. Though we can discuss the nuanced ways in which a covenant involves our children, it is ratified by consenting parties. The Adamic covenant, Noahic covenant, Abraham covenant, Sinaiatic covenant, etc, all involved the willing ratification of the parties dealt with (The Abrahamic covenant may be the only one that doesn’t explicitly command terms, but Abraham’s faith seems to be the appropriate response…we also must remember that God commanded Abram to get up and move as a stipulation in Gen 12 before the terms of the covenant are laid out more explicitly in Gen 15).
      The covenant encompasses the household, I am willing to joyfully admit, but the covenant’s blessings are only efficaciously received by faith. Our children must ratify the terms of the covenant if they are to experience God’s grace unto the next generation. They must “fear” Him.
      Baptism does clothe one with Christ, call them to newness of life, and does “save”, albeit in a qualified sense. The efficacy is rooted in consenting faith. This is why I’m a Baptist. Marriage does bring one into the objective reality of marriage, but requires witnesses to the consent of both parties to the terms of the covenant given by means of vows. Baptism also formally ratifies ones membership in the church. It is public, should have witnesses, and involves vows of consecration by way of repentance and faith.
      I think graduation is another good illustration. The ceremony is required by most schools in order to receive one’s diploma. Of course, the requisites for the ceremony is that one has completed the course of study in a satisfactory manner. One can say that they have truly passed all the courses, but the ceremony is what formally makes one a graduate. The student who has passed the courses should long for the graduation, knowing that they will then posses the official diploma, and have the assurance that they are in fact a graduate. Baptism is that public seal that one has been called by God and is already part of the “invisible church”. It makes visible the invisible. Marriage makes visible the longings of the heart for one another. Graduation makes visible the thousands of hours obscurely spent in study. In this sense, baptism makes one a Christian in a formal sense. The terms of the covenant require faith.
      I agree that the New Covenant makes demands upon parents in relation to children and children in relation to their parents. One can echo the words of Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. I believe that the Spirit often does regenerate the hearts of our children from a young age. The Spirit is sovereign and secret in this work. If our children believe the Gospel as they grow, we ought to accept such as evidences of regeneration and the growth of their faith. Children are naturally disposed to believe whatever their parents tell them, so we are often cynical of accepting such consent as a fruit of regeneration in our desire to protect the supernatural nature of God’s work, but this is where we do our children no favor by being cynical. We must feed that faith wherever we see it, and feed them plentifully with the Gospel. After a season of observable fruit, I believe that we should embrace our children in baptism and communion, viewing them as members of Christ by faith alone.
      Am I sinning by withholding baptism and communion if it becomes evident that a child has believed for some time? Perhaps. But no different than the confessional tradition which may withhold communion from a believing child for a prolonged period of time. The paedo faith, paedobaptist, paedocommunion camp does offer an alternative that seems appealing at first, but that paradigm is just as susceptible. Is it a sin to tell a child that they were born in the covenant in such a way that they already posses baptism, communion, and the benefits of salvation when it is later revealed that this child doesn’t believe. I guess one would say that they did in fact believe and have apostatized. Is it possible they never believed? Most are not willing to concede such a point because it would mess up their system.
      All this to say that administering the keys of the kingdom is a difficult pastoral task. Our consciences must be captive to Scripture. The paradigm that would seem to jive with Scripture, I believe, is the credo-baptist paradigm. You have to over think to arrive at the other paradigms. No position is without its struggles. We Baptists need to do a better job of assimilating children younger than later. We Baptists need to do a better job of treating baptism as “necessary”. Baptism was not an “ought” or “should”. It was explicitly commanded from the risen Lord pertaining to the very foundation of apostolic ministry. It is not an optional accessory to salvation. In fact, I think that credo-baptists alone can have a nuanced sacramental view of the rite. I guess this is why Luther, Calvin, and the Eastern Orthodox assert that the infant is believing in some sense when they are baptized. They are good Baptists in tying the efficacy with present faith. The irony is that Luther and Calvin didn’t believe that the “believing” child had any rite to communion until their faith matured. You can see the complexity of this issue where the rubber meets the road in actual practice. Luther, Calvin, and the Catholic tradition still requires some level of visible consenting faith before one is fully communed into the church. They would truly be more consistent in adopting paedo-communion if they believe that the efficacy of baptism was tied to actual paedo-faith. What forbids them from the table if they believed in their baptism? OR, they should adopt the credo-baptist paradigm of administering both sacraments in response to some evidence of consenting faith.
      I struggle with the qualified objective status of our children prior to evidences of converting faith. All camps struggle with this. The initiation of children into full covenant status will forever divide the church. God has the final say in all paradigms. There are always exceptions, ironies, and some level of paradox. Believe me, I have no problem with God regenerated my child from the womb should He so choose. If another of my children should rebel, I would not ask God in a bewildered fashion, “Why haven’t you saved them?”. I would plead His grace and mercy. I would plead with the God who shows mercy to whomever He wishes to show mercy to deal graciously with my rebellious child. It is horrifying to think that God might not save my child, but who I am to presume his mercy in such a way that He is entitled to show mercy to a thousand generations of those who DON’T fear Him. My child needs grace from conception. God is gracious to the child in bringing them into a Christian home, but this ought never be confused with regenerating grace. The parents are definitely a means and instrument to convey God’s grace, but the quickening of the heart is ultimately His call. While children are a blessing from the Lord and our kids truly belong to Him to begin with, we must be all the more diligent in seeking His grace on behalf of our children. His grace is always undeserved and exceptional, even when poured out on children of believers. Though numbers may bear out that the conversion of believer’s children is higher than unbelievers, we must never cease to proclaim that it is still exceptional.
      I thank God that 2 of my 3 children have entered the waters and joyfully look forward to the 1st Sunday of the month when we partake of the sacred meal given by our Lord. I rejoice with tears that they are counted among the elect and are united to Christ. I am optimistic about my 4 year old daughter Lexi. She is asking to be baptized and wants to partake of the supper. I am filled with paternal pain, as well as pastoral pain, at the thought that her faith could very well be hindered and stumbled by withholding these things for further evidence of grace. In due time she will receive should her love for the Gospel continue to grow. I am willing to admit these biographical struggles. May God be gracious to her. May she grow to fear Him. May she render obedience to us as parents as unto the Lord from a heart of faith. May the covenant be ratified on her behalf as she comes as a child of Abraham, believing as He did. Abraham wasn’t given the sign of circumcision immediately following his faith, but his faith secured him within the benefits of what was promised. So also, Lexi may have very well have the faith of Abraham and is at no risk of losing anything that God promises to her by faith. The covenant sign should be applied as closely to faith as possible, but her waiting for a brief season will not jeopardize what God has already sovereignly secured on her behalf, provided her faith is a fruit of that regenerating work.
      Anyhow, sorry to go all biographical here, but this is where the rubber meets the road. I am not interested in theology for theology sake. Joel, I think that all of our qualifications bring us much closer than our actual practices. Far be it from me to minimize the very real differences between all the camps, but I really do believe that all folks must admit the complexities of their respective positions. Above all, we must be Biblical. That trumps everything. Who is faithful to the evidence of Scripture?

      • Rick, a few quick points:
        1. You said, “Marriage does bring one into the objective reality of marriage, but requires witnesses to the consent of both parties to the terms of the covenant given by means of vows.”
        So if I don’t “feel” that I am married after the preacher says “I now pronounce you….” am I not married? No, I am, whether or not I believe it or am faithful to my wife. In the same way, a baptized person is now “Christian” whether or not they live it. They are either unfaithful and make a shipwreck of their faith, or by faith they persevere.
        2. I think everything you say to criticize padeo baptism could be applied to circumcision. It would just make a hash of the OT! Why presume the infant will believe in Yaweh? Wait until he has shows faith and THEN circumcise him.
        3. The way I view salvation, I am “saved” again each week when I recite the creed. I am saved every day and hope to continue being saved until the end, by faith, persevering until death. My faith waxes and wanes. It starts as a mustard seed in the infant, and can grow or die as time goes on. I see no point in waiting until someone is 8, 18 or 80 to apply the final test. The test is applied every day. But we can thank God and look to our baptism which made us part of his Church, outside of which there is no salvation.

        • Joel, my response as follows:
          1. I was in fact arguing along your lines for the objectivity of marriage, but was only highlighting that the ceremony itself requires consent from both parties, vows, and witnesses. I’m actually saying that the analogy works better with the credobaptist paradigm. Just so you know, I don’t rebaptize folks who were already baptized as believers. I argue for the objectivity of baptismal status more than any other baptist I know.

          2. I would need more time to respond. My criticism of paedobaptist is not the same as circumcision because their is no example of paedo baptism in scripture with a clearly attached Biblical theology of such as pertaning to infants. I believe that circumcision was everything the Bible says it was. It had dual purposes of designating a physical seed of Abraham, but also called for inward heart circumcision, and thus a sign of faith. Your point on my point assumes a one for one analogy between the administration of circumcision under the Abrhamic covenant and the administration of baptism under the New Covenant. I don’t even grant that analogy as you presume it, so my points of criticism would sound like an assault on circumcision when it really isn’t. I hope I’m makng some sense.

          3. I agree that we have ongoing experiences of confession and absolution, however the Bible speaks clearly about passing from death to life, from darkness to light, from children of wrath to adopted children of God. We were once under condemnation and now there is no condemnation, and on and on. The point being that salvation, in its adoptive and justifying sense, has occured. We don’t get adopted over and over again, whereas we may say Abba! Father! over and over again.

          • Jordan does a better job than me in summing up what I believe here:

            http://livingtext.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/1646/#more-1646

            As he put it:

            I would view baptism as God’s sovereign gift and call, which calls for us to respond in faith. And that faith is not a one-time acceptance, but is daily. Other Presbyterians seem to think that baptism is a sign of a person’s own personal faith, and is given to infants as a kind of exception. Well, these aren’t the same theologies of infant baptism.

          • Joel, don’t pit Jordan against me!!! 😉

            I agree with the statement based on how I understand Romans 6:1-11 (ESV) — 1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

            Baptist calls us to “newness of life” and requires that we consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”. I don’t believe in onetime faith, and nor does Scripture teach such. As a credo-Baptist, I am convinced that faith is a neccesary requisite for salvation and that the sacramanets are given to those who are “being saved”. Faith comes to the waters and is also strengthened by the waters, and is subsequently daily strengthened by the waters if one looks at their baptism rightly.

  2. Thanks for this great discussion. Being recently married, I’m thinking about this myself as we hope to have children soon. I was baptized as an infant, and my wife was baptized while we were engaged after growing up in a Christian family that was very laid back about baptism.

    I think that one of the things that makes this so hard to agree on is the paradigm with which we approach the Bible, which impacts how we interpret the evidence. The NT’s clearest examples of baptism are always converted adults, although of course there are the “household” baptisms. On the other hand, Paul’s advice about raising children assumes that they are brought up in the Lord and never talks about the conversion of one’s children or when they are to be baptized.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems to me that paedobaptists tend to approach the NT as the extension of the OT model, so the continuity means that infants are baptized just as they were circumcised. I think it was James Jordan who said that OT Israel is the model of a discipled nation, and therefore that’s what we’re trying to replicate as all nations are brought into the New Covenant under the lordship of Christ. Obviously Jordan is more pro-Christendom than most American Christians, but I think that this speaks to the paradigm that he’s coming from. So that model is applied to baptism.

    On the other hand, credobaptists tend to look at the NT as its own model, prefigured and promised in the OT, but operating according to different principles where one enters the kingdom not a birth but at conversion, like the adult converts in the NT.

    • Scott, you sum up well, in brief, the different paradigms of approaching the intertextual relationship between the covenants. I will do some more writing on this on my series of Credo-Baptist apologies. One key for me is that the Abrahamic covenant, which entitled physical seed to the sign of circumcision, is fulfilled in the seed of Christ, who is the true circumcised seed of Abraham.
      The new covenant administration no longer entitles a physical seed to the covenant sign. Jesus has no biological offspring who are entitled to the covenant sign of baptism. The Abrahamic administration finds its fulfillment in Christ. The Holy Spirit grafts people into the Abrahamic covenant through faith in Christ. By being in Christ, one becomes a child of promise. The succession of the covenant to a physical seed is no longer applicable. That was necessary when God dealt with a truly physical seed of Abraham in a physically set apart land. It was necessary to cover the genealogical promises that would be fulfilled in Christ. In the new covenant, we are to no longer concern ourselves with genealogies and the like. Genealogical records were once necessary to lead to Messiah, but now that Messiah has come, physical stock plays no role in how God constitutes His covenant people in Christ.

    • Very true about paradigms Scott. I would add that our view of the human person, of what we are, is assumed and brought to the text. To steal from Leithart: he argues from Rom 6.3,5 and 6.11 that we are changed by baptism. He says that Catholic/Protestant disagreements on the issue assume the same “view of personal identity”. Protestants believe that the “real me” “is a soul tightly and hermetically sealed within my body” he continues “Behind both ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ views of baptism is the notion that the ‘real me,’ what makes me uniquely me, is some internal ghostly me that remains unaffected by what happens outside and is unchanged by what happens to my body.” He says both views “seek to locate some eternal, unchangeable, autonomous “me” deep within.”
      He cites Scriptural evidence that the soul is right along with the body in being hungry, thirsty, etc. [Ps 107.9, I Sam 30.12, Prov 22.15, Ps 42.1, 9-10]
      “There is always more to a human being than appears on the surface, but being human is always “being in the world” because it is always “being a body.” What makes me uniquely me includes what happens to my body.”

      Water on your body in baptism does something. Words said in a marriage ceremony do something. Performative action. Words are deeds. I could tell my wife, “they were just words” as I cheat on her, but they weren’t. They had power, whether I accept my married status in my heart or not, it is true. In the same manner, I would appeal to a baptized person who seems unregenerate as a wayward son of God, not an unbeliever. I would appeal to their baptism and tell them that God has claims on them, not that they are outside of Him. It’s a different mindset.

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