Talmuds of the Reformed

Jean flipped one page back and realized he had contradicted himself once again. This was tricky stuff, working out salvation, but at least he was showing his workings. “Oh well,” he thought. “One day they will invent word processors.”

In a post called Baptism Is Not Faith, Shane Lems points out where the Federal Vision guys depart from the “historic Reformed/Presbyterian confessions.” He writes:

Unlike the Federal Vision, the Reformed position doesn’t attribute this type of efficacy or instrumentality to baptism. Instead, the Reformed talk about faith alone (sola fide) as an instrument: the Heidelberg Catechism says we are grafted into Christ and receive all his benefits and our inheritance by faith alone (Q/A 20, 21, 60, 61; cf. Calvin’s Institutes, IV.15.6). The catechism is unambiguous: the only way we can make Christ’s benefits ours is by faith alone (Q/A 61). Baptism signifies the truth that Jesus’ blood washes away sins, but baptism’s water does not do that (Q/A 65-66, 72).

Steve Wilkins counters with some quotes from John Knox, the 1559 French Confession, Martin Bucer, John Calvin and finally a summary from the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) on the efficacy of baptism. He concludes:

…many, many more quotes could be lined up to confirm what those who stood in the historic Reformed tradition have believed about baptismal efficacy.

In spite of this our author concludes, apparently, without even the slightest twinge of uneasiness, that the “Reformed position” doesn’t hold these views. Well, ok boss, if you say so. The problem is the only way I can agree with you is if I ignore what the vast majority of the Reformers actually believed. You’ll forgive me if I conclude that your assertion is a tad weak.

But since the “Aquila Report” (to some, the official arbiter of what being “Reformed” means nowadays) has endorsed this position, I’ll just say that being called “unReformed” is a small price to pray for the privilege of standing with Knox, Calvin, and Bucer.

So, is the catechism (which summarizes the Reformers’ doctrine) correct, or are the Reformers themselves correct? Without resorting to sophistry and redefinitions, they quite obviously don’t agree with each other. For the Reformers, baptism was efficacious. But Wilkins doesn’t deal with Lems’ objection. He just grabs more doctrinal statements from the same guys and hurls them back. Is faith the instrument, or is baptism? Are we faced with a choice between an efficacious baptism or one that is secondary to faith?

The subject of the dispute is the position of the Reformers, who apparently can be used to prove both sides. But step back a little. The real problem is that both sides are arguing over documents that are helpful but at the end of the day not authoritative. (Calvin sometimes contradicts himself at the turn of a page!) Now, both sides also hurl Bible verses at each other concerning faith and efficacy. To maintain the Gospel, we either have to meddle with the faith side of the seesaw, or fiddle with the efficacy.

The Bible says that baptism is efficacious, but also that faith is instrumental. This means that the “Covenant identity only” disempowered baptism is out of the question. There are only two possible solutions that remain, and only one squares with the Bible:

a) Christians somehow have supernatural babies who are conceived as believers (in the way Jesus was conceived, I guess), or

b) a Christian is someone who heard the Gospel, repented, believed, and desired to be baptized into the Body of Christ because he or she was drawn by the Spirit of God.

Hmmm. Which one looks like what we see in the New Testament? It amazes me how many brilliant people guffaw at it and are yet entirely unaware that their argument is defenseless against not only proof texts but also against the implicit pattern of maturity found in every aspect of the Bible.

Yes, the instrument is faith. And yes, baptism is efficacious. What do we get when put faith and efficacious baptism together? Credo-baptism. Wanna see me do that again? This is elementary school level logic. The Bible puts Lems, Wilkins, Knox, Bucer, Calvin and every paedobaptistic Talmud on the receiving end of a very big stick, and Jesus is holding the stick. The Reformed doctrine on this subject is as much a perversion of Christ as the Oral Law was a perversion of Moses. At its heart it is carnal, elitist and against the true Gospel, whatever spin gets put on it to hide those facts.

As I’ve written before, if paedobaptism is removed from the equation, the problem dematerializes. And even better, nothing is lost! You can still tell your children the Gospel. You can still tell them that Jesus loves them and died for them! You can still raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. And when they ask what’s stopping them from being baptized, you can tell them it’s the pastor’s fault, and baptists need to change.

The Reformers cast long shadows, and we can be thankful for that. But we can also be thankful that they are dead and the Word of God is alive. As in other matters, if we are to understand God’s will, we must first submit to His Word. If we believe and obey, then we will understand.

Here’s a simple experiment: Invite a non-Christian to attend a paedobaptism and a credobaptism, then ask them these questions:

Which sort of baptism convicts them of sin, righteousness and judgment, and which one looks like an elitist cultural artifact?

Which practice, credo- or paedo-, invites them to come to Jesus to be cleansed from sin, and which one makes them feel like an outsider at a tribal fertility rite?

Which definition of “Christian” or “saint” promises an immediate change of heart, an ethical transformation by the Spirit, and which indicates a life of ethical training?

Which practice communicates membership in a sub-culture, and which makes Christianity more obviously super-cultural?

If baptism is an efficacious and therefore crucial rite for the Christian (and it is), and also heart-cutting testimony to the non-Christian, then paedobaptism is a deep, culturally-based sin, and an idolatry that ought to be repented of. If paedobaptism is wrong, it is very, very wrong. Claiming that paedobaptism is efficacious (based on actual Scriptures concerning credobaptism) just makes it even worse. Paedobaptist, if your baptism was “the will of a man,” not the result of a supernatural birth, repent and be baptized, and you will receive a new grace from God.

Reformation is a good thing, but it is simply placing the pieces of the sacrifice back together on the altar. If we really want the fire of God, we must obey the Reviver, not the Reformer: the words of God, not the words of men.

It’s hard to admit one is wrong. It’s harder to admit one has been wrong for at least five hundred years.


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5 Responses to “Talmuds of the Reformed”

  • Chris W Says:


    Option A is clearly a straw man. Was John the baptist or ‘heel-grasping’ righteous Jacob or any other saint from the womb a kind of super-baby? Or were they just children born under covenant, under God’s promise to be God to us and our children? Sure, they might not stay believers and sure, it’s a very immature kind of faith, but God has repeatedly affirmed for us in His Word that He is a family friend – not a baptistic individualist. The children of Christians are (very) immature believers, but believers they are, and you haven’t produced a shred of evidence to the contrary. You have simply assumed that their being ‘conceived in sin’ (which we all agree with) means that they can’t believe, despite the fact that you and I were also born in sin.

    Secondly, I do not appreciate your tone. On a complex issue like this, patience and careful listening to one another’s arguments is required. This is not a matter of a “Talmud” being added to scripture, it is a matter of differing interpretations of scripture, and certainly not of idolatry. And who cares what the pagan thinks? How would an Old Covenant pagan react if he saw a circumcision being performed?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Hi Chris

    Option A is pretty much what the Federal Vision guys propose (in such books as ‘Paedofaith.’ And Doug Wilson has even mentioned “regenerate zygotes.”)

    Because they affirm that baptism is efficacious, they are forced to construct this theory, and then support it very badly by assuming that any text containing the word “infant” somehow proves their case, regardless of historical context. I know, I have checked them *all.* They are like evolutionists who, when challenged, keep showing me Haeckel’s fraudulent embryo drawings because they have nothing else.

    Regards the family friend, the New Testament redefines God’s family entirely. Jesus’ brothers and sisters are not His physical siblings, but those who do the will of His Father. He moved the goal posts from Abraham to the One Whom Abraham pictured. Jesus’ “brethren” are those who will die for the testimony of Jesus. Family and sonship were slain and resurrected as Spiritual/Ethical under the New Covenant. Jesus deals with the heart, and dealing with hearts means dealing with individuals, and then making them One. As I have pointed out before, Israel was a “one” (baptized as one body, not individuals) but Christians are a one-minded “many.” Unless you want to tell me that we are all baptized in the same way as Israel was. Yes, something is the same, but much is different. Why? Because the Church is a swarm, that is, a cloud of individuals with the mind of Christ. History has moved on, from flesh to a fragrant cloud.

    The promise in Acts was not to your children or mine, but to the children of Abraham. This speech was spoken to Jews as a warning to repent. It amazes me how this keeps being quoted by smart people who know the Bible very well. The Abrahamic promises ended in AD70, when the circumcision was circumcised. The apostles were proclaiming the completion of the “blessing to all nations” part of the Abrahamic Covenant. It was over. We have no claim on it. (And I have blogged on this as well.)

    To claim that babies are born believing is just crazy. There are many miraculous types in the Bible, including John’s witness in the womb, but they were very clearly not the norm. What disturbs me about all this is the illogical use of Scripture to support something which cannot be supported. And the meaning of baptism, both typologically (structurally) and explicitly in the New Testament is an investiture after some sort of obedience. It is a qualification for mission. And what is our first obedience? Obedience to the Gospel, which involves the cutting of the heart. How is an infant (especially one in the womb) obedient to the Gospel? If we are going to rip Abrahamic verses concerning the flesh out of their historical context and stick them to our own offspring and apply them somehow to the Spirit, we are doing violence to the Bible. And we should go back and study what those Abrahamic promises actually were. This picking and choosing is a twisted process stemming from a false assumption. The paedobaptist has a rite to defend and will drag anything in to support it. I love the Bible and this upsets me.

    If Christians have “believing babies” then there is no need for the Gospel. Children can certainly believe if they hear the Gospel, but this strange doctrine makes infant baptism a rival Gospel. I don’t know if you’ve read the other articles concerning baptism on here, but they spell it out in detail.

    This issue is really not that complicated and I find that frustrating. I saw two Christian brothers taking shots at each other based on the writings of fallible men as if they are authoritative (just like the Talmuds – and even James Jordan and Peter Leithart are against treating the confessions as “paper popes”), and pointed out the obvious solution. The solution really is obvious if we are willing to submit to the Bible. Sometimes it’s better not to listen to any more complicated, sophisticated baloney and speak the simple solution.

    Here we have two men arguing about what baptism does to their “Covenant children” when, under Jesus, every single child in the world, along with every man and woman, is under the New Covenant. The Covenant children are out there, and they need to hear the Gospel. Circumcision was “hear, O Israel.” Baptism is “go and tell.” To turn baptism into God’s “catchment area” for the hearing of the Gospel is almost criminal. Baptism is all about our witness of the resurrection to those who need to hear. The focus is now on speaking rather than hearing, because “Israel” now has the Spirit.

    I haven’t attacked anybody. I have attacked an illogical and destructive practice that misrepresents the very heart of the Gospel of Christ to pagans whom God loves. Paedobaptism gives an unclear sound, it looks nothing like any of the examples we are given in Scripture, and as I have pointed out here over the past 2-3 years, the entire “freight-train” of the Bible’s typology is against it. There really is no excuse for this misuse of Scripture.

    A pagan who saw a circumcision (as those in Jericho did) would understand that Israel was a nation with a separate genealogy, one linked to substitutionary shedding of blood. If we twist baptism into anything remotely genealogical, we have rebuilt the wall that Jesus died to tear down. Every infant baptism not only distorts the Gospel witness, it offers unregenerate, untransformed flesh to God as though it is justified.

    Paedobaptists might not care what pagans think, but God cares what pagans think. This is why credobaptism is a public witness of what Christ has done in the Gospel. And to state that God doesn’t care is exactly the problem with paedobaptism. It focusses us inward rather than outward.

    How did God communicate to the nations? He brought a sinless male child out of the womb of Eve, and ended the circumcision of Israelite males. Then He allowed that sinless male, when *fullgrown*, to die so the serpent might be crushed. Then He brought that *fullgrown* and *transformed* sinless man out of the ground and robed Him in white for the final time. These signs go back to the curses in Genesis 3. Confusing the womb with the tomb messes with God’s order of regenerating the world, and the witness of Christ to pagans. Paedobaptism tells pagans that they are under no obligation to God, because God is still dealing only with a people set apart by a genealogical divide. If we continue to confuse the womb with the tomb we are misrepresenting God’s work in this age.

    If my tone seems unkind, it because I really hate this doctrine. It misrepresents the work of Christ, and muddies the pure Gospel. The more I study and see how the Bible fits together, and how God works in history, the more abominable paedobaptism is. Or, to put it positively, I love credobaptism and what it means and does so much that paedobaptism is an unthinkable and detestable perversion of it.

    I am passionate about credobaptism because the Gospel is about raising the dead, not raising children. The Child has already come, and there is no need for a tribal/genealogical sign any longer, just as there was no need before Abraham. The “generations” are over. What was needed at the end of the Abrahamic rift was a sign for re-generation, and that is baptism.

    Paedobaptists need to stop worrying about their “Covenant identity” as if it’s Father Abraham’s Covenant people (which appeals to the flesh), and think about the sort of identity commanded in the New Testament: each individual publicly identifies with the testimony of Jesus – as an individual – and God joins each individual to the Body through an efficacious baptism. For the Church to be truly one, she must be a gathering of regenerate individuals. And the join is Spirit, not flesh. It is Ethical, not carnal. It is the authority to testify and suffer and carry the sins of the world. This process of maturity is found throughout the Scriptures.

    Compared to the Reformers, I am quite gentle. Now, I must get back to writing my book, “On the Jews, er, Paedobaptists, and their lies.”

    Thanks for the comment. I appreciate the passion!

  • Aaronrcummings Says:

    Try this on for size:
    The efficacy of baptism isn’t tied to the faith of the baptizer (Donatist v Catholic debate settled this).
    The efficacy of baptism isn’t tied to the faith of the baptizand (credo- v paedobaptism debate gets hung up on this)
    The efficacy of baptism is contingent on none of the humans involved, but rather not the faith of Jesus. Jesus is faithful to make baptism efficacious because he performs all baptisms. Whether the efficacy will be toward greater blessing or worse judgment remains to be seen. It will be effective nonetheless.
    In short, Jesus faithfulness and grace is bigger than the waters of baptism, and certainly bigger than either the age or the immaturity of the humans involved.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Aaron – thanks – but that’s just a list of dogma, and they sound like the kind of things politicians say.
    How about dealing with the fact that the Bible presents baptism as an investiture for mission after some sort of qualifying test? Or even with some actual Bible verses?

    “The efficacy of baptism isn’t tied to the faith of the baptizer (Donatist v Catholic debate settled this).”
    So the Church shouldn’t require the minister/baptizer to be regenerate? (Only God knows the heart, but the Church must do the Church’s part.)

    “The efficacy of baptism isn’t tied to the faith of the baptizand (credo- v paedobaptism debate gets hung up on this)”
    This statement is foreign to the entire thrust of the New Covenant. Baptism wasn’t intended to create just another Israel-according-to-the-flesh. Baptism is most certainly tied to regeneration. The Federal Vision is product of trying to get the square peg of efficacious baptism into the teeny tiny round hole of bap-cision.

    “The efficacy of baptism is contingent on none of the humans involved, but rather the faith of Jesus. Jesus is faithful to make baptism efficacious because he performs all baptisms. Whether the efficacy will be toward greater blessing or worse judgment remains to be seen. It will be effective nonetheless.”
    I agree with the first part. But not because baptism is a magical act that somehow gives whoever uses it the power of Jesus without the regenerating Spirit of Christ. That’s just the works of Jannes and Jambres — trying to manipulate God for His blessings without actual obedience. Efficacious paedobaptism is just that sort of magic, based on the excellent definitions given by Ray Sutton (how ironic). It’s a stimulation of the natural for a supernatural blessing. (I have covered this here if you are interested.) As for the second part, the judgment is actually excommunication/church discipline, and that is in the hands of the Church. Just as Israel was under the sword in Egypt but wielding the sword in Jericho, so circumcision was the Church under the sword and baptism is the Church wielding the sword. Every saint is a Nazirite, a warrior, and that comes with responsibility/accountability to Christ and the Church, and privileges. That is what baptism effects – it takes a regenerate son or daughter and commissions them. The submit to the sword and are given the sword. It is the Covenant “passivity towards God and activity towards men.” So an efficacious baptism makes a saint accountable to discipline. The worst that can happen to an apostate (and some are not deceivers but self-deceived) is what would already befall them at the judgment.

    “In short, Jesus faithfulness and grace is bigger than the waters of baptism, and certainly bigger than either the age or the immaturity of the humans involved.”
    This is pure magic. Where’s the Spirit in all of this? Where is conviction of sin? Where is repentance? Where is regeneration? Where is bold profession of the testimony of Jesus, which is what we see throughout the New Testament. The whole paedobaptism thing has an entirely different flavor to the doctrine of the apostles. It is an animal that was slain in Christ, and here it is propped up again, dead flesh, and made to look alive.
    Yes, Jesus’ faithfulness IS bigger, which is why my argument has been that this supposed “objective” blessing that is afforded to the baptizee, seemingly regardless of absolutely anything except parental responsibility, was actually afforded to everyone on the planet at the resurrection. That’s the whole point. The Federal Cision isn’t big enough. Paedobaptism is not only redundant, it is just a means of hording the Gospel for our own progeny, and that’s exactly what it smells like to those on the outside.
    Not being nasty, just logical. This debate cuts right to the heart of what the Gospel is, what was achieved by Christ and at Pentecost, and what God’s aim is in this age. A progenic people of God can only ever maintain the status quo. Baptism is about plundering the nations, (and thus the devil) of their/his offspring. Paedobaptism is at odds with the New Covenant.