RPM, Volume 12, Number 25, June 20 to June 26 2010

Why Presbyterians do not Believe
that Baptism Regenerates Souls
or Remits Sins

By Dennis E. Bills

Dennis E. Bills is the pastor of Winifrede Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Winifrede WV and the author of How to Preach with an Interpreter: A Crash Course by Wipf and Stock Publishers. His website is www.adoniram.net
From time to time I run into Christians who believe that people must be baptized in order to be saved. We call this "baptismal regeneration," because they believe that the act of baptizing in some way changes the heart. This position is fairly widespread outside of Baptistic and Reformed circles. The Roman Catholic Church believes that when infants are baptized, their original sin is washed away. Among other protestant denominations, the Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, and Lutherans affirm some form of baptismal regeneration.

Occasionally, I run into confused people even in Presbyterian churches. They have often come to Presbyterianism from more baptistic denominations that tend to view infant baptism with suspicion and that may mistakenly believe that we teach some type of baptismal regeneration. Regardless of how long someone has been in the Presbyterian church, it is quite possible that our complicated beliefs concerning baptism could be misunderstood. They are not a "dinner table subject," as if the topic could be convincingly exhausted in one sitting. For some, it is simple enough to merely point out that the thief on the cross was promised eternity with Christ in spite of the fact that he was incapable of being baptized. Others require a more complicated explanation, and still others will hear no explanation whatsoever, no matter how persuasive. A long-time "Presbyterian" once challenged me with the simple statement of Scripture in Acts 2:38—"Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins." I believe his implication was that the Scriptures clearly teach that Baptism itself remitted sins. If he did indeed believe this, then he is unaware that he is out of accord with the teachings of Scripture and the long-held beliefs of the vast majority of informed Presbyterians.

But the verse does appear to connect salvation with the act of baptism in a very unhandy way. There are in fact several similar verses in Scripture frequently marshaled by those who teach baptismal regeneration:

Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:28).

And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name (Acts 22:16).

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word (Eph. 5:25-26).

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5).

In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God (I Pet. 3:20-21).

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:26-27).

In response to the claim that these verses teach that baptism is necessary for salvation, I offer the following points: 1) The Bible teaches elsewhere that faith alone in the work of Christ is the instrument of salvation. 2) The Bible teaches that external ceremonies are not themselves capable of saving souls. 3) The Westminster Confession wisely explains the apparent contradiction.

Faith Alone is the Instrument of Salvation

For every passage that appears to credit the ceremony of baptism with saving power, there are many more that clearly contradict that appearance. What this implies is that the former verses must be understood in the light of the latter. Scripture cannot be set against itself, and in the end, the less clear passages are to be understood in the light of clearer ones. The Scriptures teach and evangelicals cannot deny that faith alone is the instrument of salvation. In fact, as we will see in a moment, the Scriptures loudly decry any confidence in external actions or religious ceremony as a means to salvation. This idea of Sola Fide (Faith Alone) was restored to the common understanding of the Church during the Reformation. Therefore, the very existence of our protestant denominations is predicated upon the teaching that no person can attain salvation by means of his works. Without this most elemental of Gospel teachings, the Gospel is no Gospel at all (Gal. 1:8, 9). Consider the following passages as indisputably representative of the Scriptures' teachings on salvation by faith alone:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:16-18).

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:15-16).

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness (Rom. 4:1-5).

External Ceremonies Ineffective for Salvation

Most of the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament Scriptures pointed out human sinfulness and the need for a Savior. They were but shadows of greater things. When Christ came to fulfill the promise of those ceremonies, he entered a mutated world of manmade traditions, commandments, and rituals. Many of the Jews did not merely bank upon obedience to the Law of Moses for salvation but also devoted themselves to unbiblical and extra-biblical rituals and practices. Christ listed many of these in Matthew 23—self-aggrandizing clothing, prominent positions, names and titles, empty oaths, publicly displayed religious behaviors, and ceremonial washings. No doubt there were many more in Christ's mind.

Christ preached that these external ceremonies and practices had no intrinsic ability to save souls. In fact, they often had the opposite effect (Matt. 23:15). Instead, God was more concerned with the state of the heart: "You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness" (Matt. 23:23). Christ loudly rebuked this pharisaical confidence in empty rituals:

Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean' " (Matt.15:17-19).

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matt. 23:25-28).

Just as Christ addressed Jewish infatuation with "works religion," Paul addressed the same propensities among so-called "Christians." In the early years of the Church, the Christian religion transitioned from an exclusively Jewish religion to one that included people from every tribe, tongue, and nation under heaven. God allowed about 40 years for this transition to occur—40 years in which to alter two millennia of ingrained, religious beliefs and practices. Those beliefs did not "go gentle into that good night." During those years, the Apostles guided the process, and many books of the NT were the result. At the conclusion of the transition period, God loudly and definitively declared that it was all over. The temple was apocalyptically destroyed, the work of the Apostles was, for the most part, completed, and, ready or not, the transition was accomplished.

During that 40 year period, Paul constantly combated the Judaizers—Jewish Christians who insisted that to convert, one must first obey all the expectations of the Jewish law. Since Paul calls this a damnable heresy, it is questionable whether such "Jewish Christians" were really Christian at all (Gal. 1:8-9). Paul taught that union with Christ frees sinners from bondage to both the Law and any additional extra-biblical and unbiblical baggage. In so doing, he echoed the teaching of Christ against those who placed their confidence in external ceremonies:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col. 2:20-23).
Perhaps the most controversial issue during the transition period was circumcision, the initiatory rite of the Jewish religion. In the Old Testament, God had commanded all male Jewish children and adult coverts to be circumcised. At the same time, God expected the Jewish people to understand that the ritual itself had no power to save the soul. Instead, those with eyes to see and ears to hear would have understood that the outward ritual signified an inward reality—the circumcision or regeneration of the heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). This was not a new idea in spite of the fact that the Jews, by and large, missed the point. In Micah 6:8, the prophet explained that all the ceremonies of the law were meaningless when separated from their inward reality: "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." David declared that God does not delight in mere external ceremonies, but instead, "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart" (Ps. 51:17). God expected the law to exist "within the heart" (Ps. 40:6-8).

The Judaizers missed these Old Testament teachings and instead placed their faith in the works of the Law. To these who claimed that the initiatory rite of circumcision was essential to salvation, Paul made the simple but compelling argument that Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised (Rom. 4). Circumcision itself was nothing more than a seal of the faith that he had while he was still uncircumcised. The sign was not only unnecessary at the moment of salvation, but it had no contingent relationship whatsoever to salvation. Paul's point, of course, was that the commanded initiatory rite could not save and should not be considered essential to salvation. "It was not through law [the initiatory rite of circumcision] that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith" (Rom. 4:13). With this argument, Paul both sets aside circumcision as a requirement for New Testament converts to Christianity and ends the notion that any external ceremony, whether Old Testament or New, is necessary for salvation.

In summary, both Christ and Paul precluded the possibility that unbiblical traditions and ceremonies could in any way save the soul. They both also clarified that even biblically commanded ceremonies, such as circumcision or baptism, cannot save the soul. Whether or not one agrees that baptism is the New Testament equivalent or replacement for circumcision, one cannot deny that baptism is both a commanded initiatory rite and that it represents an important spiritual concept—the conversion of the heart by the Holy Spirit, just like circumcision. Because of this, it is unbiblical to insist that baptism saves or that the moment of salvation must be accompanied by baptism.

The Explanation of the Confession

If it is true that faith alone is the instrument of salvation, and that external ceremonies are powerless to save the soul, how do we explain the passages above that appear to teach "baptismal regeneration?" The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a reason for the language that the Scriptures, confessions, preachers and teachers sometimes use concerning baptism: "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" (XXVII:2). In other words, each sacrament is made up of both the sign—the outward symbolic and material expression that appeals to the senses—and the thing signified—the immaterial, spiritual reality that is symbolized by the outward sacrament. It is apparently not unusual for the Apostles, on some occasions, to use the external, symbolic expression to refer to the inward spiritual reality of the sacrament. To say, "baptism now saves" is a sacramental way of saying that what baptism symbolizes is what truly saves us.

In Acts 11:16, Peter quotes Christ himself saying, "John Baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." As both Christ and Peter speak, we can see three truths about the way they used the word. 1) In one case, the word refers to the external sign, water baptism, and 2) in the next case, the word refers to the thing signified, cleansing by the Holy Spirit. 3) in both cases, Christ and Peter make an intentional and obvious play on the word "baptism" that is repeated in a variety of places. In Romans 6, Paul uses the word "baptism" to refer to the concept of union with Christ. Although the word calls to mind the water-based ceremony, there is "not a single drop of water in Romans 6," as one of my professors used to say. The word is here used to refer to the spiritual reality by means of our common understanding of the external sign, i.e., the sign is the initiatory rite of the Christian religion, or the sign that we have joined the Church. Therefore, the word is used here to refer to our initiation into the Body of Christ or union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.

Once again, John the Apostle recounts the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist:

Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God" (John 1:32-34).
John the Apostle, John the Baptist, Luke, the Apostle Peter, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father are all party to this explanation in which a divine play on the word "baptism" reveals the spiritual reality that underlies the external sign: John Baptized with water, but Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit. The ceremonial occasion and the use of the word are not merely convenient coincidences in which to segue to an unrelated topic. They are, rather, an intentional revelation of the external sign's underlying meaning. In Acts 1, Christ makes the connection again even more explicitly as Luke recalls his words: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" and "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you." In the next chapter, after the Holy Spirit had come with power, Peter explains, "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people." The language of baptism in Peter's explanation is unmistakable. Once again, John the Apostle, John the Baptist, Luke, the Apostle Peter, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father are all active participants in the explanation of the simple fact that the external sign simply signifies a greater, efficacious, spiritual reality.

Peter explains this external and internal conflation of the word in I Peter 3:20-21: "In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God." Here Peter expressly says that the water of the flood is a symbol of baptism, but he also explains that the water of baptism is itself a symbol. The external act of washing the body is merely a sign of the inward reality of a conscience that has been cleansed through the work of Christ. So what "saves you" according to Peter is not the washing of the body, but the work of Christ represented in the washing.

A. A. Hodge has said, "All that is ever said of the efficacy of the sacraments is said of the efficacy of the truth." Presbyterians are fond of saying that the sacraments are a means of grace. In other words, they communicate the grace of God found in the Gospel itself. Communication occurs in many different ways—through spoken and written words, facial expressions, sign language, movies, pictures, and symbols of various sorts. Just as preaching tends to reach the ears, the sacraments communicate to all the senses. Inasmuch as they communicate the Word of God at all, they are means of grace. However, make no mistake about it, it is the Word itself, communicated through the sacraments and by the Holy Spirit, that is the conveyor of that grace. Whenever the Scriptures imply that an external sacrament communicates grace, we should understand that the Scriptures are actually referring to the spiritual truths communicated by the external sign.

Based upon the Scriptures' teaching that faith alone is the instrument of salvation, that external ceremonies can do nothing to save us, and external ceremonies are means to communicate the inward, efficacious truth of the Gospel, Presbyterians can come to no other conclusion than that the ceremonies themselves have no power to save souls or remit sins. Such actions are the work of Christ by grace through faith, and that not of ourselves. It is, totally and entirely, the gift of God.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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