Gospel Proximity

A Guest Post by Chris Oswald, a pastor in the St. Louis, Missouri area

Gospel Proximity: Credo- and Paedobaptism and Pneumatological Signage

In the shadow of a tall bookshelf containing all 144,000 Douglas Wilson books, next to the covenantal family sing-a-long piano which held the covenantal tea set on a covenantal doily, I sat on a covenantal couch trying to explain our credo-baptist position to some dear Christian friends who wished to join our church without getting wet.

“But don’t our children need a sign?” – asked the Mrs.

“Yeah,” the Mr. said, “Doesn’t God want our children to have a sign?”

“This is what it all comes down to,” I thought to myself. “Does God want their children to have a sign? Are the children of believers meant to have any evidence of God’s special redemptive intention toward them? Does God have a special redemptive intention toward their children? Forget their children! What about my children?”

“Well,” I began after taking a deep breath, “I use a term, ‘gospel proximity’ for a set of arguments that explain why I believe the answer to your question is: ‘yes, but not the one you think.”

Romans 10:14-17 says,

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel.  For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

People must hear the gospel in order to believe it; and in order to hear the gospel, a preacher must go to where they are. When the gospel preacher does go, he usually goes in order to bring in and not to cast out. Generally speaking, the preacher is sent because God has “many in [that place] who are my people.” (Acts 18:10, John 10:16)

Is it a hard and fast rule that gospel proximity signals God’s redemptive intention? Of course not. Yet Romans 10:14-17 is so fundamental to our soteriology that I believe we are given explicit instructions to assume that, by sending a preacher to a people, God means it when he says, “Come.”

This means that some unbelievers living in especially close proximity to a gospel-witness have been given an advantage so significant that their rejection of the gospel will be judged with greater severity than Sodom’s sin (Matthew 11:20-24). Cities who saw and heard the gospel witness will be judged because they made themselves an exception to the rule and did what ought not be done. While Sodom will be judged for violating the self-apparent laws of nature, Chorazin will be judged for violating something even more evident and elementary: the principle of gospel proximity. Those who have a witness in their midst who is preaching and practicing the gospel have a divine visitor that even Sodom would have recognized. Individuals who see the work of the gospel are supposed to repent and believe. This is a more fundamental cause and effect relationship than the birds and the bees.

People who live closest to the gospel witness are, generally speaking, privileged. They are privileged firstly because they get to hear the gospel. They are privileged secondly because “faith comes by hearing.”

Think about it this way, is an unbeliever better off having a sincere Christian as a neighbor than he would be without one? Of course he is. The unbelieving neighbor has a “preacher” living right next door. He is therefore far more likely to hear the gospel than if his neighbor were not a Christian. This is a matter of gospel proximity.

And if this is true with those living next to our homes, how much more true is it for those living inside of them?  In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul describes how Romans 10:14-17 works within the home.

“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (1 Corinthians 7:14)

Paul means that unbelievers living in a home with a believer have been chosen by God to enjoy a privileged advantage. That advantage should not be overlooked or discounted but rather held up as a reason for hopeful faithfulness (1 Corinthians 7:16).

Unbelieving children living with regenerate parents have a decided advantage due to their proximal exposure to the good news.  Daily they hear, see, and taste the gospel of Jesus Christ which is the power of God unto salvation.

Children growing up in a home with a Christian parent are spending their most formative years living under trees which consistently yield all the various fruits of the Spirit. Because God’s Word does not return void (Isaiah 55:10-11), regenerate parents should be exceedingly thankful for the unique gospel advantage their children have been given.  The Holy Spirit has come to that home and the fruits of the Spirit go to seed. Grace pollinates by proximity. First in Jerusalem, then in Samaria and then in the outermost parts. (Acts 1:8)  The sincere faith first found in Grandma, sprouted up in Mom’s heart, and then in Timothy’s — and Paul found all of that to have gone as expected (2 Timothy 1:5).

The Holy Spirit’s presence in your home does something that a well-framed baptismal certificate cannot. God’s presence in his parents signals God’s favor and redemptive intention toward the child with perpetual power. Long after the paedo-waters dry, the Holy Spirit at work within mom and dad proclaims the power and promise of the gospel.  Will every child raised in such conditions believe? Of course not. But exceptions are exceptions and rules are rules.

Children of believers have indeed been given a sign of God’s redemptive intention toward them. That sign is the indwelling and outworking of the Holy Spirit in their parents.  The circumcision of their parents’ hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit testifies to the proximal nature of grace in a way water baptism cannot. The Holy Spirit’s presence, and not circumcision or baptism, is the New Testament sign of covenantal belonging. (Acts 11:1-18, 15:5-9, Galatians 3:2)

This conviction has held enough sway in my mind to keep me a happy and hopeful credo-baptist. Perhaps it is enough of an argument to dislodge some from believing that paedobaptism is meant to be a sign of salvific intention (see, I told you I was hopeful). Whatever position on baptism you take for your children, please understand that God does indeed have a redemptive intention toward children raised in a godly home and it is signaled to your children through the Spirit.

“Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.” (Malachi 2:15)

When my little girls were at the playground screaming from the swings, “‘Higher daddy, higher!” they did not understand that it was actually the Holy Spirit pushing them. If it wasn’t for The Spirit, their daddy would have been too busy or depressed or degenerate to spend the afternoon in the park. I’m not seeking to discount the parental love of unbelievers. I am merely recounting my own testimony as a fundamentally selfish man who remembers specific and numerous instances where “Christ in me” made the difference between loving myself and loving my kids.

Christian parenting stands on one amazing promise. Children living in close contact with Christians are living in close contact with Christ himself. These children awaken everyday to a household ruled by King Jesus and while they themselves are not members of His kingdom, they benefit greatly by His rule and have countless good reasons to eventually bend their own knee. They are in close proximity to the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. (Romans 1:16).  When you surrendered yourself to Jesus, you also surrendered your role within your home. Your home has become a gospel orchard which invites those living in it to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  (Psalm 34:8)

That sign is more than sufficient.

PS. This story ends with baptism of Mr and Mrs, nearly two years after this initial conversation took place. In yet another demonstration of God’s goodness, their five young children heard and handled gospel fruit as mom and dad obeyed.

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14 Responses to “Gospel Proximity”

  • Eric Walter Says:

    Compelling post Chris, however, I have an issue with the phrase “gospel proximity”.

    You quote Galatians 3:2 in order to prove that “The Holy Spirit’s presence, and not circumcision or baptism, is the New Testament sign of covenantal belonging.” However, later in Galatians Paul emphasizes that “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (27) implying that baptism and “covenantal belonging” are inextricably tied to one another. The argument here appears to be focused on defining those who are “in Christ” not those who are “near Christ”.

    In Ephesians 2 Paul does speak of a gospel nearness accomplished in Christ, however, the focus is on the blessings of the “commonwealth of Israel”, which were first expressed through circumcision, and now exist IN Christ’s body. The word IN is significant as it echoes the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12:3.

    “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and IN you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

    Some translators misinterpret this word as “through” and therefore misunderstanding the power of what God is saying to Abraham. The New Covenant good news is NOT that the nations will be near God’s people but that the nations will be IN God’s people. This happens IN Christ, through baptism. Perceptive of this word “in” we see elsewhere that Paul expects children of believers to “obey your parents IN the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Eph 6:1-3) Here we see Paul not only declaring children’s obedience to be done IN the Lord, but also that this obedience is tied to their “commonwealth of Israel” standing.

    Doug Wilson has written elsewhere, “The temptation is to treat this whole debate over infant baptism as a disagreement over baptism. It really is not. It is a disagreement over the status of our children.” I submit that much of our confusion today over baptism stems from ignoring the word “IN” throughout the Old and New Testament. Signs matter, as baptism declares our lives dead to the law of circumcision and alive IN Christ, the New Covenant.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Eric. Chris might also respond, but here’s my 2c. Or $2.

    I think Chris meant something quite different by “belonging.” The problem with the FV view is that it imports the Old Testament definitions of Israel into the New without putting them through the fire of Pentecost. All he means (I believe) is that the fact that our children are children of believers should be sign enough that God very likely has intentions to save them.

    So that means that “near Christ” has to do with the “nearbringing” to God through sacrifice, which is Christ, which potentially applies to all people of all nations but especially those who have heard the Gospel. That’s the nearness, and we should be satisfied with it, rather than misusing baptism to create a kind of “second class” carnal Christian, or, worse, making up stories about how our children are conceived or born “regenerate.”

    “In Christ” is for those who have heard, repented and been baptized into His Body, connected to each other by the Spirit. This is not simply the work of the Spirit in conviction, but conversion. Conviction is a necessary “death.” The New Testament radically redefines offspring, so quoting the Old Testament and applying it to our kids puts a spin on “saint” that messes with the actual work of God in the Gospel. Baptism becomes a rival means of salvation, another Gospel.

    Regarding the quote from Pastor Wilson,

    “Paul continued. ‘The temptation is to treat this whole debate over infant baptism as a disagreement over baptism. It really is not. It is a disagreement over the status of our children. If someone denied women access to the Lord’s Supper, the dispute would not be about the nature of the Lord’s Supper at all. The debate would be about the status of women. In the same way, this debate is not over baptism. It is over children.’”

    This is where the PB train goes off the rails. Circumcision was never about the children in this sense, so only a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of circumcision can ever be support for paedobaptism.

    To use baptism to put children into the New Covenant necessarily puts all the children around the world OUTSIDE of the New Covenant, when Jesus died to put them INTO it by tearing down the Jew/Gentile divide. So although this purports to be the work of God, it’s actually working against Him.

    What did circumcision do? It put a wall between Israelites and Gentiles, not just their children. It put the curses of Eden (land and womb) upon a select nation in order to bring a great blessing for all nations. When that blessing came, circumcision became meaningless.

    So, now we are back to all nations under Covenant, as we were before the call of Abraham. The New Covenant sign is not a tribal sign. To make it so means God has not called all men everywhere to repent, and brought them under Covenantal obligation to His Son.

    To turn baptism into a tribal sign is build a wall exactly where God tore it down — like the Jews who undoubtedly stitched up the veil in the Temple, only to have their entire edifice torn down.

    The status of children under the New Covenant is worldwide. We are back to “all flesh,” so paedobaptism is redundant.

    Catechizing kids is crucial, but has nothing to do with baptism. Catechism is simply preaching the gospel to them.

  • Chris Oswald Says:

    Hi Eric,

    Thank you for taking the time to read the article. Regarding Ephesians 2, it seems the argument in v. 12-13 pertains to the Gentile’s distance from a preacher. A functional distance caused by the ethno-specific ordinance of circumcision (Mike’s point). I think we’d all agree that whatever v. 15 says is abolished is in fact abolished through fulfillment (Matthew 5:17). Is re-appropriation the same thing as abolished or fulfilled?

    Or perhaps we would say that abolished here means abolished plain and simple. In which case, we’d need to understand this passage referring to the segregating effect of the ordinance having been abolished. In either reading the focus here seems to be the removal of tribal-based ordinances of exclusivity and not the creation of new ones or the re-appropriation of old ones.

    I would see circumcision as being abolished/fulfilled by Christ’s pan-ethnic and effectual preaching work (17). His inclusive calling of all flesh makes fleshly demarcations irrelevant.

    I think intuitively, reformed folks from both sides of the baptism issue understand that gospel proximity is indeed the great advantage of children growing up in Christian homes. At a local church level, I think we’d all respond the same way to the problem of a 15 year old son who rebels against his Elder/Pastor father. Practically speaking, we’d all go through a common set of diagnostics that put baptismal mode very low on the list not far from “but was the rebellious child breast fed?”

    My affinity for Wilson on this subject in particular stems from the fact that he, if faced with the described scenario, wouldn’t shy away from asking the same questions his CB father would ask. Was the child, in both formal and informal ways properly catechized? To put it simply, the kinds of questions we’d all ask would have to do with parental preaching. For me, answering questions as to why this is the case seems to further support a CB perspective.

  • Eric Walter Says:


    Looking over Ephesians 2 again I do see the aspect of preaching involved. The issue I have with emphasizing its place has to do with what Gentiles were alienated from.

    “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (12)

    The focus here, is the “commonwealth of Israel” not simply deaf ears. I believe this is the confusion experienced by Peter in Acts 10-11. Here Peter’s vision has to do with cleanliness, which was always associated with Israel’s commonwealth (hence unclean people were cut off from the people). As God declares all “foods” clean he is cutting Peter to the heart to understand that the new sign of God’s people is in Christ (baptism). As the Gentile’s received the same Spirit (you can hear Ephesians echoing here) Peter commands that they be baptized (one faith, one Spirit, one baptism). However, the kicker is that when Peter retells the story to the church in Acts 11 he adds,

    “‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and ALL YOUR HOUSEHOLD.’ (14)

    Here we see preaching, Holy Spirit, baptism, and families all included in one narrative. Obviously the issues are overlapping at this point and it’s important to keep our ducks in a row. I would like to point out that the promise given to Cornelius was for he AND his whole family, not only those who had the cognitive ability to understand the cultural implications. The CB position seeks to see an individualized fulfillment to the hearing of the word, the receiving of the Spirit and the baptizing of believers, however, even in the first instance of Gentile salvation the narrative focuses less on Cornelius as an individual and more as a Gentile family.

    To Mike’s point I’m still struggling to understand how the whole world is in the New Covenant, considering any Old Testament institution of covenants are inaugurated and not simply assumed. I guess I could argue that the whole world is under the covenant my wife-to-be and I will have, however this seems to misunderstand what covenant really means. Still wresting through that.

    Please keep the dialogue going, these points are helpful.

  • Chris Oswald Says:

    Referencing Acts 11:14 – what is the mechanism of salvation? By what will they be saved? A message. Faith comes by hearing.

    God isn’t telling Cornelius that Peter will come and tell them they will all be saved. God is telling Cornelius that Peter will bring a message by which they will be saved. I see a preaching emphasis. Thus v. 15, “…as I began to speak…”

  • Chris Oswald Says:

    Side note on Acts 10 that I only recently “discovered.” And here I’m pressing into Micheal’s expertise – I find it interesting to observe a hungry, post-Pentecost Peter praying on the roof of a house whose owner made a living repeating Godʼs post-fall garment fashioning. An edenic echoing? Just found that interesting…

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Side note makes sense. It’s vertical architecture:

    Incense Altar (bridal robe)

    Lampstand (Peter’s eyes opened)

    Bronze Altar (animal skins)

    We see the same thing in the New Jerusalem descending upon the mountain, as seen by John. It’s the union of heaven and earth, the baptismal, four-cornered “city” robe covering and glorifying the circumcised body (the Lamb).

  • Eric Walter Says:


    Great, now I’ll be up all night thinking about the garden typology! Thanks for sharing.

    Regarding the narrative of Act 10-11, I agree that the story demonstrates that the gospel was preached (too a people far off). However, the EFFECT of this gospel resulted in the baptizing of Cornielus’ entire household. To be clear, I am not arguing for a regeneration infant baptism, but rather a FV view of the covenantal family.

    To Mike, how do you think through the use of the word “Gentile” in 1 Peter? Does this not imply a redefinition of Israel and Gentiles, among the “tribal” terminology of a new temple?

  • Chris Oswald Says:


    Let me address something from a practical perspective first. There’s a hyper-individualistic, decisionistic CB straw man that I want to ensure you aren’t thinking of with this interaction. My article describes God’s purposes for households. In other words, I am copacetic with the concept of household conversions in general and actually endorsing that sort of thing as something God prioritizes. Your future children are advantaged by God’s purposes within the concept I’m describing as gospel proximity. And none of us (CB/PB) would argue that this is the effectual advantage (if there is one predestined for that particular child). CB parents are called to stand on these promises. PB parents wind up spending the majority of their parenting experience standing on the same promises.

    I think you can imagine how I read Acts 10/11 differently.

    These folks were commanded to be baptized because they were baptized in the Spirit (regeneration). In fact, doesn’t Peter leave out water baptism in his retelling? He leaves it out because it wasn’t a covenental issue.

    This kind of conversation is repeated in Acts 15. The circumcision party wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised. How did the apostles respond? “Well, actually, they don’t need to be circumcised because they were baptized.” No, they respond, “fellas – they have the spirit.” Thus my article’s statement re: the Holy Spirit’s presence being the sign. I realize this is partially an argument from silence. But ahem… that’s not always a rhetorical 666 is it?

    Back to more solid ground… Back to Acts 10/11 – Peter commanded them to be baptized because they were saved (evidenced by the Holy Spirit’s baptism).

    Seems pretty clear that they were baptized because they received the Holy Spirit. (10:47)

    The only wiggle room I’m seeing here for a PB/FV use would be that “they” means two different things in the same use.

    They received the Holy Spirit (everybody but the little kids that PB’s assume were there).

    They were baptized (everybody including the little kids that the PB’s assume were there).

    Beyond what seems to me to be a pretty clear cause / effect relationship (regeneration then baptism), I think that assumption is an important thing to pay attention to. Why are we imagining Mr C’s house to contain little ones? I am 38, my wife and I have 3 teenage children. That’s our household.

    If Peter visited our household with an effectual message for all of us (11:14), then we’d all receive the Holy Spirit and would then all be baptized.

    Another side issue: How far off was Mr C in Acts 10? (see 10:1-2)

    Now back to Acts 10/11. The first effect we see of the gospel being preached is holy spirit baptism (11:15)

  • Chris Oswald Says:

    Sorry, you can disregard that final line. It was a scrap from previous draft which I wound up inserting earlier in the comment.

  • Eric Walter Says:


    Thank you for building up the straw man, I’ll do my best to discern the differences. I can see how you read Acts 10/11 differently and that you have a genuine interest and place for children in the families of believers.

    I want to address the narrative structure of Acts 10/11, however, before that there is something I’d like to point out.

    In Acts 11, as Peter retells the narrative of Acts 10, he focuses on a promise given to Cornelius that “[Peter] will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” (14). The word “household” here can also be translated “your descendants”. The idea of descendants, depending on your perspective, may mean Cornelius’ relatives alive in the 1st Century (which we would both be hard pressed to discern their ages) or any and all who come from Cornelius’ line. This word “household” and the promises given to Cornelius are repeated elsewhere in Acts 16 in the stories of Lydia and the Philippian Jailer.

    Lydia’s Story:

    “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.” (Acts 16:13-15)

    Philippian Jailer Story:

    “Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” (Acts 16:30-34)

    What I’d like to point out is that in all three narratives (Cornelius, Lydia, and the Philippian Jailer) preaching comes first due to a lack of gospel knowledge among the Gentile people, however the EFFECT of this gospel is the baptism of entire HOUSEHOLDS. The word here again meaning “one’s descendants”. The reason this is significant in redemptive history is because in Genesis 12:3 God informs Abraham that, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The blessing, found IN Abraham (not through) is to be experienced by families.

    The word “IN” found in Genesis 12:3 and repeated in Ephesians 6:1-4 speaks of blessed families that are IN Christ (the location of the New Covenant blessing).

    I want to assure you that I am not defending a Roman Catholic view of baptism, as I do not believe PB results to regenerate babies. All must walk by faith and repentance. I simply agree with Peter Liethart, Luther, and Calvin that babies can trust. (http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/rite-reasons/no-47-do-baptists-talk-to-their-babies/).

    Regarding the order of the narrative in Acts 10 (preaching, Holy Spirit, baptism, etc.) I want to point out that there is another element being ignored in Acts 10- speaking in tongues. If we are going to keep close to the text’s linear fashion would it not validate a Pentecostal view of Spirit Baptism. I don’t know what your convictions are regarding speaking in tongues (or other Spirit indicators), however from my perspective it is not normative for Christian families today. Just a few thoughts.

  • Chris Oswald Says:


    I was proceeding with the timeline of Acts 10/11 because you seemed to rely on it initially. In the post prior to mine you said, “However, the EFFECT of this gospel resulted in the baptizing of Cornelius’ entire household.” I was merely stating that if we we’re looking at cause / effect, then we’d need to notice the causation of baptism appears to be the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.

    I am a non-tongues speaking continuationist who does happen to believe that cessationism is a curious turn of events for PBers; as they seem to rely heavily on the use of descriptive passages for prescriptive purposes unless they are talking about speaking in tongues. As many of the same passages used to commend baptism also commend tongues speaking in a similar way, this often results in some interesting gymnastics.

    Regarding the FV, I’m picking up what you are laying down. Let’s put it this way, if baptism is meant to be an evangelistic morality play that mom and dad keep pointing their kiddos back to (Leithart) – if that is the purpose of baptism, and was the purpose of circumcision, then the FV approach is the right one.

    So I think we have arrived at “agree to disagree-ville”

    The purpose of the article was merely to state that:

    For those of us who tend to see baptism as something else entirely, we have lots of other evangelistic devices to employ.

    These approaches also happen to be the ones that godly PB parents employ with far greater emphasis than baptism.

  • Eric Walter Says:


    Thanks for all of your insight and willingness to wrestle in the text. I resonate with your confusions regarding cessationist gymnastics. I myself am in line with your thinking of a more continuationist interpretation.

    Regarding baptism, as I re-read your thoughts on rebellious children and pondered Leithart’s metaphor of “water as words”, I believe our view points both intend to love and disciple children well. Grace and peace my brother! May The Lord bless your family and ministry!

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks for the civil and enlightening discussion.