Paedobaptist Perspectives: Not All Christians Are Christians

I've never really understood infant "baptism". I mean, I know that people say baptism is the New Testament equivalent of circumcision, and that therefore the covenant sign can be given to children who don't yet believe, but I've never really got how that works when it comes to specific texts, particularly those that talk about union with Christ, burying our old life with Christ, rising with Christ, putting on Christ, and all of these things happening through faith (Rom 6:1-4; Gal 3:27; Col 2:12). So I was thrilled when David Gibson, editor of From Heaven He Came And Sought Her, and my friend Alastair Roberts, took the time to enter into a detailed discussion about it in a comment thread on one of my posts. (The irony of the post in question being about what credobaptists get wrong has not been lost on me, and nor, I trust, on them). Here's the way David handles things; Alastair's approach, though I imagine very similar in many ways, will be the subject of a subsequent post.

My main question, to use the specific language of Colossians 2:12, is how any baby can be said to have been “raised with Christ in baptism through faith.” Here’s David’s initial response:

Rom 4.11 says that Abraham is circumcised as sign and seal that God gives righteousness to the one who has faith. Gen 17 says that circumcision to be applied to his children and does not at all say that it has a different meaning for his kiddos. Strange, given it is sign and seal of righteousness by faith! If baptism is a parallel sign to circumcision, might Col 2 function in the same way re. baptism as Rom 4 functions re. circumcision? i.e., it shows the meaning of the sign and that for a parent with faith in Christ might the sign also not be given to their child, as it was for Abraham? Abraham was circumcised as a sign of union with Christ and gave the same sign to his children as a sign of their union with Christ.

After a bit of clarifying back-and-forth, I expressed the questions that David’s answer raises for me. “Can someone be converted without having faith? And can a person be buried with Christ without ever being converted? I’m trying to understand how a paedobaptist - who, by definition, does not believe that someone needs to believe in order to be baptised - could possibly agree with my statement, ‘being buried with Christ, and rising with Christ, happens in baptism, through faith.’ I’m also trying to figure out whether you think those who are christened end up being buried many years before they are dead.” He replied:

I think baptism signifies what circumcision signified: righteousness by faith, union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, they both seal to us the spiritual reality they speak of. So: Abraham himself believes, is reckoned righteous by faith, and is circumcised as sign and seal of that fact. He now applies exactly the same sign to his sons who do not believe and who do not have faith but who are all circumcised as sign and seal of the fact that God gives righteousness to the one who has faith. The sign has the same meaning for parent and child even though faith is only (yet) present for one of them. Baptism is the same. Everything that baptism signifies for a believer (death, burial, resurrection etc) it signifies for their children at the time of their baptism but the reason the Westminster Confession of Faith says that the efficacy of the sign is not tied to the moment of time at which it was administered is because it thinks covenantally: it wasn’t tied to the moment of time for Abraham’s children, why should it be so for ours?

So I think about my kids the way you admit we must think about all baptisms: their bodies carry the mark of having been buried and raised with Christ and now they carry the standing obligations of the sign. To paraphrase Doug Wilson, there’s death and burial and there’s death and burial. You admit this above in saying you can have it physically but not spiritually. This is the key question for credobaptists, for you understandably keep pressing me about the necessity of faith and its connection to conversion: how can something (circumcision) which in very essence was meant to sign and signify the necessity of faith and conversion (Rom. 4:11) be applied to those incapable of faith? If there’s a way in which it can be so applied, might it be the same for baptism?

You’ll notice that we now have a distinction being made between those who have died and been buried with Christ, and those who have really died and been raised with Christ. For David, this is warranted on biblical grounds (Paul distinguishes between all Israel and Israel, the circumcision and the true circumcision, the Jew and the true Jew), and credobaptists do it anyway, by acknowledging that some people are drenched in water yet without showing subsequent signs of being truly converted. On the latter point, I respond: “The difference (which I think is a big difference) between my view of the person we baptise who turns out not to be united with Christ, and your view of the child you baptise who never gets united with Christ, is that I would not regard Rom 6:1-4 as being true of my person - since, as it turns out, there’s no faith - but you would (I assume) regard it as being true of yours. That seems to me to be crucial: in your view, as I understand it, an unbeliever can be “buried with Christ through baptism”. In mine, they can’t. And I don’t think a “because circumcision” helps us here, since there is no equivalent (is there?) to Rom 6:1-4 or Gal 3:27 when it comes to physical circumcision.”

The former point - that there’s “union with Christ and union with Christ,” “burial with Christ and burial with Christ”, “Christians and Christians”, “dying with Christ and dying with Christ” - is where I really have trouble, though. Paul explicitly and polemically redefines Israel in Romans, but he never goes through the same process with those who are in Christ (unless you read Romans 11 as referring to baptised covenant members being cut off from Christ, having been grafted in). For David’s view, however, this distinction is crucial, because without it, no paedobaptist sense can be made of texts like Colossians 2:12, referring as they do to being raised with Christ in baptism through faith. Here’s how he defends that:

Think about the apostate Jew who was circumcised as an infant. The whole point of the prophets was not to say to them “because you don’t have faith today nothing actually happened years ago when you were circumcised”. His body tells him that is not true! The message of the prophets is be what you are ... Which sounds rather like someone in the NT ... Doesn’t Paul remind people of their baptism as an exhortation to stop sinning? I would take your apostate fully immersed folks and parade them again past the tank: don’t you know who you are? How can you now live like this? For their bodies will tell them something really happened - they were submerged beneath the flood waters - and words which were spoken (“in the name ...”) really meant something.

When you say you don’t agree that there are two ways of being Christian etc, then I think we touch the heart of the issue don’t we ... For you see discontinuity where I see continuity. I think the ‘not all Israel are Israel’ principle still continues today, Paul didn’t write that in Rom. 9 and then in Rom. 11 say thank goodness that’s all in the past and not relevant today, no, be warned you boasting Gentile Christians, what happened to them can happen to you etc. I think all the structures apply in the new covenant - general/special election, visible/invisible church etc - and that’s because I see the new covenant as new within the covenant of grace made with Abraham, it is not a departure from it but the fulfilment of it. Paul writes to the sanctified in Corinth and says it looks to me like you need to be sanctified.

Which, I agree, is exactly the issue. If there is no discontinuity between circumcision and baptism - if baptism is simply a post-Christ equivalent of circumcision, and the new covenant is a subset of the covenant with Abraham - then what David has argued could certainly follow. (I obviously see some continuity and some discontinuity between the two; David, I think, sees just continuity). For my part, I simply cannot see the warning passages of Romans 11, 1 Corinthians and so on as referring to baptised covenant members who apostasize; I see them as giving warnings as a means of preserving the readers, and reflecting a now-and-not-yet tension - you’re holy, so be holy! - but not as indicating that there is faith and faith, Christians and Christians, rising with Christ and rising with Christ, and so on. (I don’t see any sign of this in Paul at all.) Nevertheless, I can see that if one presupposes a covenant theology framework - which, it is worth pointing out, has been held by a huge number of the Protestant church’s greatest theologians, pastors, missionaries and hymnwriters - then everything David has said makes sense.

For me, the conclusion that not all Christians are Christians is so odd that it would (and does) reinforce the questions I have about the framework. But that notwithstanding, it has been a hugely illuminating conversation, and I am extremely grateful to David for taking the time for it. I’ll summarise Alastair’s argument, which includes some different and (in my view) helpful insights and comparisons, in an upcoming post.

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