John Owen on Baptism

This is the last article on the baptising of our children, and I thought it would be good to give the last word to someone who has been described as the greatest Biblical theologian England has ever seen – the 17th century preacher, John Owen.


We’ve seen over the last few articles that the Church in the NT baptised her children, and that this was a practise that continued in the years immediately following the Apostles.  But we also noted that from quite early on this practise was contested.  Remember Tertullian in the second century?  Some 1400 years later we find the same discussion carrying on!  After a dubious consensus in the Middle Ages, the Reformation re-opened this debate with a vengeance.  The Church of England followed the ‘magisterial’ European Reformers (particularly Calvin in the 39 Articles) in her teaching on Baptism.  But in the mid-1600’s, the conversation polarised when an Anglican minister, John Tombes went into print arguing against the received doctrine of the Church of England that children should be baptised.  He provoked a short article from the then Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, John Owen, who brilliantly summarises the arguments, and so a short journey through his essay might help crystallise the issues as we move on.


Owen begins by reminding us what the question is, and what it is not.  It is not ‘whether professing believers … not baptised in infancy ought to be baptised’.  They should.  Neither is it whether faith and repentance should precede baptism when administered to adults.  It should.  And it is not whether every child should be baptised.  They should not.  Owen clarifies the issue: ‘the question is only concerning the children or infant seed of professing believers who are themselves baptised’.  He acknowledges the practise has been abused over the years, but that does not mean there is no right, proper and biblically mandated use for it.  In the light of such abuse we shouldn’t abolish the practise, but reform it according to a more Biblical pattern, administered correctly and followed up with catechesis. 


After some initially quite aggressive polemic, Owen moves onto more constructive ground, acknowledging that the debate is not about a few isolated proof texts, but is rather a discussion over how the Bible as a whole is structured.  He maintains the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant from Old to New Testament, and rather playfully asks if God has made things worse for children since Christ’s coming in the flesh, if they are indeed no longer incorporated into the sacramental life of the covenant?  He contends that passages such as Is.44:3 do not suggest that God intends to ever go back on the inclusion of children within the covenant arrangement.  This seems to be corroborated, argues Owen, by passages such as Eph.6:1-3 in which the Apostle clearly relates to children as included in the life of the covenant, and subject to its blessings (cf. Dt.21:18-21).  He is optimistic about the possibility of young children having a vital faith in Christ (though it may not have the cognitive sophistication of an adult’s faith); but is reluctant to argue from this

to the legitimacy of baptising children.  He does argue that if some children are in fact saved at a young age, there should be no de facto reason for children to not be baptised.  But he clearly prefers to look back to Reformers such as Luther or Calvin, and follows their insistence that baptism represents God’s promise rather than the believer’s faith.  As such, children are as capable as anyone else of receiving the grace signified in baptism: ‘They are certainly partakers of [that grace], namely such as die in infancy … therefore they may and ought to be baptised’.  This is a powerful point to make, and it serves him well in his role as a pastor.  In 1674, he wrote to close friends of his who had recently suffered the loss of a young daughter: ‘Your dear infant is in the eternal enjoyment of the fruits of all our prayers; for the covenant of God is ordered in all things, and is sure.  We shall go to her; she shall not return to us.  Happy was she in this above us, that she had so speedy a [removal from] sin and misery, being born only to strengthen your faith and patience and to glorify God’s grace in her eternal blessedness…’.


He then argues that children and their parents are by nature part of the same covenant, are dealt with by God on the same terms, and have the same rights to the signs to that covenant.  This sets Owen up for the now familiar suggestion that Christ fulfils the covenant made with Abraham (Owen cites Rom.15:8 & Mal.3:1).  He argues that if the offspring of believers are no longer to be included in the sacramental life of the covenant, then Christ has not confirmed the truth of God in His promise to Abraham.  Owen raises the stakes by linking this issue with the integrity of God’s character!  If God is trustworthy, He must continue to relate to the offspring of believers in the terms of the covenant He made with Abraham (Gen.17:7; other examples include Josh.24:15).  Christ has fulfilled the covenant with Abraham, the original promise of which included Abraham’s children.  If children are no longer to be so included in the same covenant as their parents, then Jesus has not done what He promised to do.


It might be worth reminding ourselves that a theologian like John Owen can vigorously argue his convictions about baptism to the point of entering into public controversy; yet was committed to pursuing Christian fellowship those with whom he disagreed.  His respect and admiration for the Baptist pastor John Bunyan is well chronicled.  This remarkable balance of engaging passionately with an issue on the one hand, whilst on the other not allowing it to become a cause for division, was part of the genius of John Owen, and is something I suggest we should strive to emulate in our deliberations.

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How does Baptism work?

I think this may be the last article on children and baptism – I promise; and then we’ll move on after the summer to the even more controversial question of whether children should participate fully in sacramental life of the Church and take communion.  But in this article I’ll address briefly the mode of baptism – primarily for pastoral reasons.  One of the significant questions often asked by those who have been baptised in infancy focusses on whether it really qualifies as a baptism.  This can often lead to the question of whether someone should get baptised again.  Two things seem to feed this insecurity.  One is the fact that, looking back, I doubt that I had faith at the time – or perhaps know that I didn’t.  The other thing that is often thought to undermine my baptism as an infant is that I was ‘only’ sprinkled.  It is not uncommon to hear baptism by sprinkling dismissed as un-Biblical, or portrayed as a pragmatic compromise with Biblical practise. To the first I briefly restate a point made in previous articles:  That sacraments are about what God is saying to us, rather than what we are saying to God, and so its validity is found in His faithfulness, rather than in my faith (or lack of it).


But what about the second question: does it matter how we baptise people?  Often – though not always - when children are initiated into the sacramental (is there any other kind?) life of the Church, it is done by sprinkling.  When we baptise an adult, it is often done – though again, not always – by full immersion. Does it matter?  Is one mode of baptism more Biblical?  … more authentic?  We saw last time that there was a certain historical ambivalence to the way in which a baptism is conducted.  Is this appropriate?


A lot is made in discussions about the meaning of ‘baptism’ (and please let me reiterate my commitment in these articles to be as constructive and non-polemic as possible as I outline my own convictions – I’ll try not to be too cheeky either!).  Over the years I’ve read many pages arguing that it means one thing or another.  At least one scholar has laboured (I think rightly) to show that while bapto/izo can mean tinge, sprinkle, pour or dip, it has a field of meaning that can also include drink, immerse or even drown (though surely we can agree that this last option isn’t an appropriate mode of Christian baptism!).[1] 


We can see this range of meaning even within the way the word is used within the Bible.  Hebrews 9:10 speaks of ‘various ceremonial washings’ associated with the first Tabernacle.  The Greek word that lies behind this translation is baptismois.  But to what does it refer?  Hebrews 9 outlines three ceremonies associated with the Tabernacle, all of which are characterised by sprinkling (9:13; 9:19; 9:21).[2]  To put it bluntly – something that is sprinkled is spoken of as having been baptised.  At the very least we have to acknowledge that baptism by sprinkling / pouring is a viable and Biblical option.  We could also think about the way the word baptism is used when speaking of the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt.3:11).  John’s prophesy is fulfilled at Pentecost, and is recorded for us in Acts 2.  The ‘baptism’ prophesied by John, is described by Joel as a ‘pouring out’ of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:18).  It is also prophesied and spoken of (symbolically) by Ezekiel, who again uses the language of sprinkling (36:25).  We’ve seen in previous articles how our baptism represents the pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Church in fulfilment of the New Covenant promises. 


The emphasis doesn’t seem to fall so much on how the water is applied, but what it sacramentally achieves.  A key issue in baptism is that it represents our being united to somebody.  In I Cor.10, the people are united to Moses, so that his destiny becomes theirs - and of course this uniting includes the children and infants among the people who pass through the Red Sea on dry land (Moses’ own comment on this is found in Ex.14:31).  They are identified with Moses ‘ritually’ – though as their continued unbelief demonstrated, they (at least the adults among them, excepting Joshua and Caleb) were tragically not identified with him ‘in reality’.  The glorious truth of the situation is that the children / infants who were thus baptised ritually, were in fact the ones who were also truly baptised and entered the promised land.  They passed with Moses through judgement and with Joshua into New Creation!


We are ritually identified with Christ by His Spirit through our water baptism (so e.g. I Cor.12:13 & 27).  The Gospel is thus proclaimed over us in our baptism.  Positively this includes us being united with Christ in His death and resurrection, not to mention His ascension.  It also points to that union as the source of our being cleansed from sin.  Whether these truths move from our ritualised experience to real experience depends (whether child or adult) on whether we trust in Him with whom we have been dramatically united, and whose history has been so eloquently and visibly proclaimed. 


As I have mentioned a number of times in these articles, I have sought to be as constructive and as conciliatory as possible, and not to ‘attack’ any other main positions on baptism.  I am more than happy to discuss any of these issues further, and indeed there is a great deal more to be said.  But as we are reflecting on the place of children in the life of the Church, it is worth you knowing what your pastor thinks about baptism… 


[1] See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology III, ‘The words bapto/izo and their cognates are used with such a latitude of meaning as to prove the assertion that the command to baptise is a command to immerse, to be utterly unauthorised…’  See also R.W. Dale Classic Baptism, cited in J.E. Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism

[2] An even more intriguing use of ebaptisanto is in I Cor.10:2, where of course the whole point is that the covenant people of God didn’t get wet.  NB ‘baptised into…’  is used in Rom.6, where Paul speaks of ‘all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus’, with the same language as he speaks of the fathers being baptised into Moses.

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Baptism in the early Centuries

In as non-confrontational a way as possible, I have sought in recent weeks to show why it is that I think the Bible mandates the baptising of everyone who is involved in the life of the visible church – including children.  These articles are after all exploring the place of children in the life of the Church!


Over the last couple of articles we’ve been thinking about the Bible’s teaching.  But what of the history of the Church since the days of the Apostles?  We saw how important it was that children were taught, with many of the great pastors and theologians of the church over the ages giving time to writing catechisms for children, and teaching the children in their congregation.  Is including children in the sacramental life of the Church something we can see with equal clarity? The fact that something has been done in the history of the Church isn’t necessarily proof that it is in line with the Bible’s teaching.  We’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years.  But if the Bible teaches something, it would be a bit strange if it was never practised, or referred to in the intervening 2,000 years. 


Looking at Christian writing in the first couple of centuries after the Apostles can be a hair-raising experience.  Given that people were getting things so badly wrong even while the Apostles were alive, it should be of no surprise to see that things could go equally badly wrong within a few years of their death.  And the material relating to baptism is no exception!  One example is a piece of writing from the middle of the second century called The Shepherd of Hermas.  Within 100 years of the death of Peter and Paul, some parts of the Church are already teaching that Baptism is what actually saves a person.  Some other writings are more helpful.  The Didache (meaning: teaching) gives us some insight into the fact that (some parts at least) of the Church were pretty flexible about the mode of baptism.  If running water is not available, we are instructed, then it is acceptable to pour ‘other water’ out three times in the Triune Name.  Rather quaintly there is also the note that cold water is to be preferred over warm (though no reason is given, and if cold water is not available, warm is fine!).  These passing references to baptism in these works do seem limited to dealing with the question of adults who are converting to Christ from paganism – the question of the children of believers isn’t being addressed.


The most significant writing from these early years is from the pen of Tertullian, Bishop of Carthage (c.160-225).  His Homily on Baptism is the only work specifically addressing baptism that pre-dates the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.  He understands God, through the Holy Spirit, to use the water of baptism as an instrumental means of cleansing a person from sin, and it is thus necessary to a person’s salvation.  It is, for Tertullian, through baptism that we are cleansed from sin and consequently prepared for receiving the Holy Spirit (I did say it could get a bit crazy!).  What is interesting though, is that Tertullian complained that he thought children were being baptised at too young an age.  This complaint arose from his misunderstanding that nature of baptism, and thinking that it actually cleansed from sin.  He believed infants were innocent of sin, and as such were not in immediate need of baptism.  Whatever you might think of his reasons (!), the fact that he is complaining about what he sees as the Church’s practise of baptising children is instructive.  By arguing against it, he lets us know it was being done. 


Origen (c.185-254) by contrast had a strong doctrine of original sin, and argued in favour of infant baptism: ‘there is in the Church a tradition received from the Apostles, in accordance with which baptism is conferred on little children…’.  Cyprian (died 258); Hippolytus of Rome (170-236) and Chrysostom (347-407) all testify with approval to the baptising infants; indeed Hippolytus specifically gives instruction for the baptising of those children who are too young to answer the baptismal questions for themselves.  Justin Martyr (100-165) states that older people in his time had been baptised as infants within the first century.  In addition is the rather more sombre evidence of inscriptions on the tombs of children, which seems to indicate that even those who died in their first year of life were marked as baptised.


The famous Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote about Baptism in his controversy with a group known as the Donatists.  After a season of vicious persecution, many Christians were worried about the validity of their baptism, if the pastors who administered it were among those who had denied the faith under trial or torture.  The Donatists argued that only baptism administered by a faithful pastor counted, and so taught that if the pastor later denied the faith any sacraments he had been involved with were invalidated!  Augustine argued that the validity of a sacrament had more to do with the faithfulness of Christ than any merely human pastor.  He went on to discuss how baptism freed an infant from ‘the serpent’s poisonous bite’. He continues: ‘So in infants who are baptised the sacrament of regeneration is given first, and if they maintain a Christian piety, conversion also in the heart will follow, of which the mysterious sign had gone before in the outward body … man’s [sic] salvation is made complete through the two together’.  Augustine prizes baptism to the point that he isn’t sure someone can be saved if they are not baptised: ‘Nor can there be said in any way to be a turning of the heart to God when the sacrament of God is treated with such contempt’. 


This all needs to be treated with some measure of caution.  There is clearly some level of confusion about what Baptism does and doesn’t achieve in itself, and what is its relation to faith in Christ.  What doesn’t seem to be up for question though is that children and infants were baptised by at least significant sections of the Church in these early years.

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Who should be Baptised?

We left off last time suggesting that there is a correlation between circumcision (as an Old Testament ‘prophetic’ covenant sign, or sacrament) and baptism (as its New Testament equivalent).  Whereas circumcision looked forward to the ‘cutting off’ of the Seed of Abraham (Christ enduring the curse of the covenant, and cut off on the cross), baptism looks forward to the enjoyment of all that Christ achieved through that death (Ezek.36:24-29), It is a celebration of the pouring out of the Spirit on the Church (Acts 2).  Because these two signs and seals of the covenant correspond to each other, they function in the same way.  Abraham was circumcised as a sign that his faith that was counted to him as righteousness (Gen.17:11), and was then to circumcise his household (Gen.17:11-13, irrespective of their faith in Christ or lack of it, remember e.g. Ishmael)So – in the absence of any Biblical command to the contrary - baptism is administered to us as a sign of our faith, as it is to our household.  I think this is the most natural way to understand household baptism language in the book of Acts, especially in Acts 16:34.  The Greek makes it clear that only the Philippian jailor actually believed, but that ‘he and all his whole household family were baptised’ (v.33).  This is accurately reflected in the ESV translation: ‘…he rejoiced along with his entire household, that he had believed in God’ (v.34). 


Paul makes exactly this point in Romans.  In fact for many of us who believe the Bible teaches we should baptise our children, Rom.4:11 is a critical verse.  In 4:9-10, Paul reminds us that before he was circumcised Abraham’s faith was ‘credited to him as righteousness’.  This is crucial: he was justified by God through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone – same as every believer who has ever lived.  In v.11 Paul then defines how circumcision functions: it is ‘a sign … a seal of the righteousness he had by faith’.  Baptism means the same thing and functions the same way.  It is a sign of the faith by which we are justified, and like Abraham if we are justified by faith as adults from outside the covenant, then we undergo baptism as adults.  But like Abraham, the sign and seal is to be shared with our household, even though they don’t yet share that faith for themselves, and maybe never will.  This is seemingly how sacraments function in the life of the covenant – corporately and collectively testifying to the promise of God in the covenant, rather than individualistically testifying to my ‘personal’ faith.  That is why when even one parent is a believer, the partner and any children are rendered ‘set apart’ i.e. sanctified / holy (I Cor.7:12-16). 


It is interesting to note in this context that ‘circumcision’ and ‘baptism’ are both terms used to refer to the death of Christ.  In one of the most intriguing uses of the word, Jesus speaks of the cross as His baptism (Lk.12:50, though interestingly, John also declares that Jesus will Himself baptise with fire and the Spirit).  Christ is ‘cut off’ under the curse of the covenant – an experience He refers to as baptism.


Likewise, our union with the death of Christ is spoken of as both circumcision and baptism – a move made in Colossians 2:10-12.  Paul celebrates that through our union with Christ, Christians are (spiritually) circumcised (see also Rom.2:28-29; Phil.3:3 etc.).  What the Mosaic Law was unable to enable (Dt.10:16), Christ has done through His life, death, resurrection, ascension and consequent outpouring of the Spirit (Dt.30:6).  This is why Paul speaks of our undergoing a ‘circumcision without hands’.  It is the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is accomplished by the circumcision (cutting off) of Christ (v.11 cf. Gal.3:13-14).  This uniting with Christ in His death and resurrection is testified to ‘in baptism’.  Both ‘baptism’ and ‘circumcision’ are seen as signifying and sealing our incorporation into the same reality though from different historical points in God’s dealing with His people.  Those who had been circumcised still required baptism as a sign that the Messiah had now poured out the Holy Spirit on the Church in the last days.  Baptism is first and foremost God’s sign of covenant – some theologians speak of sacraments as God’s ‘visible words’, speaking of His work in Christ.


This is not to say that everyone who is baptised is saved.  But when people who have received the sign of the covenant demonstrate that they don’t have faith in Christ, the Bible’s answer is not to lament the fact that a sign and seal of the covenant has been misapplied, or to stop circumcising  (or baptising) children.  It is rather to call people to live the reality that the sign points to: ‘Circumcise your hearts you men of Judah, you people of Jerusalem’ (e.g.Jer.4:3-4).  Failure to heed this command leads to covenantal judgement: ‘cut off’ from the land, and sent into exile.


This is perhaps the most unfamiliar aspect of the Bible’s teaching on baptism.  Peter refers to the flood as a baptism (I Pet.3:18-20).  Likewise, Paul refers to the dividing of the Red Sea as a baptism (I Cor.10:1-4).  Both encounters with water resonate theologically with the idea of New Creation, but significantly for us here is the realisation that the same water-baptism that saved some meant the destruction of others under the judgement of God.  Without faith in Christ, baptism is as meaningless as circumcision was, indeed more poignantly it is a sign of judgement.  But the glorious hope of the Gospel is that with faith in Christ, the sign of the covenant people of God is fulfilled through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. 


If what we have been thinking about over the last two or three weeks is indeed the teaching of the Bible on baptism, then we would expect to see the Church baptising households – including children – from the earliest days.  We’ll take a quick look at this next time.

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What is Baptism?

When we are considering the Bible’s teaching on a subject, we must consider precisely that:  the Bible’s teaching.  It is never adequate, and usually it is treacherous, to simply consider the New Testament in isolation.  In the subject before us in these handful of articles (the question of why I believe that the Bible teaches me I should have my children baptised), this principle is reinforced within the Bible itself.  In a number of places, where NT writers address the issue of baptism, they do so by explicitly drawing on OT precedent.  They clearly see a profound degree of continuity between the sacramental life of the Church in the Old and New Testaments.  We’ll look at these passages in due course, but for now I’d like to begin to focus on the covenant God made with Abraham.  To my mind this is foundational, in large part because it remains the covenant through which we are saved.


We find the Apostles teaching that all those who are saved through Christ, are children of Abraham – whether they are ethnically Jew or Gentile.  The covenant made with Abraham was designated an ‘everlasting covenant’ (Gen.17:7) in which God declared that He would be the God of Abraham - and of his descendants after him.  Those with whom the covenant was cut would claim the blessings of the covenant by expressing faith in God’s provision, as Abraham had done (Gen.15:6).  In this way, all nations will be blessed through Abraham (Gen.12:3).   What then is the connection between these early chapters of Genesis and our current experience of Church?  Paul – following Jesus – makes the connection for us in Galatians 3: Understand then that those who believe [in Christ] are children of Abraham … those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (v.7-9).  Indeed Paul goes further: there is no other way to be saved than through the covenant with Abraham.  ‘Christ redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit (Gal.3:14).  By virtue of our being a Christian Church, St. John’s is folded into the covenant that God cut with Abraham through redemption by Christ.  ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal.3:29). 


But what does all this have to do with baptism?  The question focusses on the sign of the covenant given to Abraham in Genesis 17 – or rather, the question of how the sign of the covenant functions.  God Almighty (17:2 – and notice that it is the LORD who does all the talking) binds Himself to Abraham and his descendants through a covenant which is to be articulated through and signified by circumcision.  Why?  Because Christians in the OT are looking forward to, and their faith is based on, the future work of the Seed / Offspring of Abraham (i.e. Christ, see Gen.3:15), who will Himself be cut off (i.e. through the cross). 




But how does this sign function?  And what is the extent of it?  The sign of this covenant was not to be taken by Abraham alone, but by his whole household (Gen.17:23 / Ex.12:48) – even those we know grew up not sharing Abraham’s faith, and so didn’t walk with the LORD (e.g. Ishmael; Esau etc.).  Nevertheless, all that Abraham has is to be devoted to the Lord.  As we mentioned last week, the head of the family represents the family to God, and commits them to the worship of Him.  Throughout the following generations the children of Abraham were to be marked by the sign of the covenant at 8 days old.  In so doing they are associated with the company of those who are marked out by the Covenant the LORD has cut; sealed (Rom.4:11) with a visible pledge that the Author will honour what He has covenanted to do when the conditions it describes are met.[1]  Their circumcision – like all covenant signs/seals – cuts in both directions.  There are no neutral encounters with the LORD – whether in Word or Sacrament.  They will always result in blessing or sanction.  The message of this sacrament is clear.  Look in trust to the event that circumcision foretells (the cutting off of the Seed), or you will yourself be cut off from the covenant people.  The conditions of belief or unbelief issue in salvation or destruction.  This is the message of the sacrament.


As Paul argues in Galatians, the Church continues to be saved, through faith in Christ, in the context of the Abrahamic Covenant.  So why are we not circumcised?  Because the great moment which circumcision pointed forward to (the cutting off of Christ the Seed through His crucifixion), has been fulfilled.[2]  And all that this great moment was designed to achieve has been accomplished.  Because of this, the sign and seal of circumcision has been replaced, as the prophets foretold generations before.  It has been replaced with a new sign that points to what the death of Christ has achieved for His covenant people: the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.  “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean.  I will cleanse you from all you impurities and from your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new Spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.  I will save you from all your uncleanness” (Ezek.36:25-28).  To this we will turn next time.


[1] It should be noted that the effectiveness of baptism, like any means of grace (such as preaching or communion) is neither automatically guaranteed, nor necessarily limited to the time of its celebration. 

[2] As one theologian, Louis Berkhof puts it: It was natural when the real Lamb of God made His appearance and was on the point of being slain, the symbol and the type should disappear.  The all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ rendered all further shedding of blood unnecessary and therefore it is entirely fitting that the bloody element should make way for the unbloody. Systematic Theology, p.647


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Baptism and Covenants

The Church of England recognises the visible Church to be in existence wherever ‘…the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same’ (Art. XIX).  As such, any exploration of the place of children in the life of the Church needs to explore their relationship with both these aspects.  We’ve spent a half a dozen articles exploring what it might look like for children in our midst to be taught the Scriptures (i.e. have the pure Word of God preached); but what about their involvement in the sacramental life of the Church?


The question of Baptism is a highly contentious issue and has the potential to be divisive…  ironic really, given that in the New Testament, baptism functions as a focal point for unity within the body of Christ (e.g. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace … there is … one baptism’, Eph.4:3-5).  There are few places in the contemporary Church landscape where division is more self-evident, and I must confess that I am anxious not to open those fault lines within the life of St. John’s.


That said, I did suggest (rather cheekily) in our last article that:  ‘my contention is that if you were to sit down and read the Bible without prejudice, it would never cross your mind that baptism should be denied to our children’.  One of the ideas behind such a claim is that throughout the Bible, active participation in covenants with God are always extended to the children of believers.  We’ll come back to this more specifically next time, but at a general level:


Adamic Covenant:  In Gen. 1:28-30, the LORD’s command doesn’t only result in children, but is to be passed on to those children.  Although the covenant is made with Adam and ‘Eve’ (though the purists in our midst will no doubt tell me that she isn’t given this name until 3:20!), their descendants are critically implicated, in either their obedience or more tragically, their disobedience (cf. Rom.5:20). 


Noahic Covenant: while we’re with Noah, there are a couple of interesting points to make.  First, although Noah is the only who one found favour in the sight of the Lord (Gen.6:8), his family is included in the visible church (i.e. the ark!)[1].  This is particularly relevant given that at least one of the family (Ham) never found favour – yet was ‘baptised’ (I Peter 3:21).  Secondly, in Genesis 9:1, God re-iterates the covenant he made with Adam (including descendants); and thirdly in Genesis 9:8-9, an additional covenant is established, which again explicitly incorporates Noah’s descendants.


Abrahamic Covenant:  This is the big one, and next week’s article will be dealing exclusively with this Covenant.  After all this is the covenant through which we are still saved even after Christ.  At this stage, all I am wanting us to see is that covenants are always made with an adult, but include their children.  This is the nature and structure of covenants.  So, Gen. 15:18, it is to Abram’s descendants the LORD gives the land; in Gen.17:7, the covenant is deliberately and explicitly framed in terms of ‘you and your descendants after you’.   This is crucial for our considerations, because there is a sign associated with this covenant, and it is shared with the children in Abraham’s family.  Though like I said, we’ll come back to this.


Mosaic Covenant:  In Deut.29:10-15 we again find the covenant being established in a way that implicates and incorporates ‘your children’.  They are seen to be involved in and included in the sacramental life of the Ancient Church (again I’ll come back to this point in a later article).


Obviously the list could be extended.  But I hope we can see even from these first four covenants in Scripture the unambiguous pattern developing.  When God makes His covenant with a representative ‘head’, all those who are represented are incorporated into that covenant, and where signs are given to testify to that covenant, all those represented participate in those signs, irrespective of age, or indeed their personal ‘commitment’ to either the covenant or the LORD who makes it.  We need only think of Cain, Ham, Ishmael, Esau, the vast multitudes who died in the wilderness (having, Paul reminds us, been baptised, I Cor.10:2), to realise that a covenant confers benefits and responsibilities even on those who are thus represented, but who personally have no love for Christ.  Where a sacrament is given as part of a covenant, that sacrament is also conferred.  This is because a sacrament testifies to what the Lord is doing in a covenant, rather than the integrity of any individual’s response to it.  A sacrament is about what God is saying in a covenant, not what I am saying in it.  It re-iterates and represents His commitment to His Church, not the Church’s – still less any individual’s - commitment to Him.


Throughout the Old Testament we see this developed consistently and without exception.  In the absence of any teaching to the contrary, why would anyone expect this dynamic of covenant to be changed when Christ cuts His covenant with His people … and their children (Acts 2:39)?


[1] This issue of the invisible / visible Church is one that we will have to bear in mind through these articles.  For now, let me say that the ‘Covenant people of God’ in this age has always been a mixed group.  In both Old and New Testament there was the recognition that in the Church as we see it (i.e. those who gather together in the name of Christ to hear the Word of God preached and to celebrate the sacraments together) there were people who were genuine believers and those who frankly aren’t.  In the Old Testament this is so self-evident that I won’t go into it here.  But it remains self-consciously still the case in the NT.  Jesus envisaged there being those who had claimed to be disciples being turned away on the Last Day (Matt.7:21f.); and indeed the disciples had amongst their number one who would eventually betray Jesus.  The Apostles also recognised they were writing to Churches that were a mixture of Christian and non-Christian. 

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What I'm not arguing for

As I was at pains to underline last time, I hope to explore the question of why I believe we should baptise our children, but in as irenic a way as possible.  I am aware of how deeply our convictions on such issues can run, and I hope I can lay out my own understanding of the key Biblical, and theological reasons why I believe in infant baptism, without leaving others feeling alienated, or disaffected.  I will not be engaging with those positions I disagree with, and am settling for positively stating my own understanding of the Bible’s teaching.


Because the question of whether or not children should be baptised is so contentious, it might be worth clearing the air of possible misconceptions.  There can be a lot of preconceived ideas that we bring to the discussion.  They can be born out of our cultural presuppositions, our theological assumptions and how they affect how we read the Bible, or our own experience of Church life which we inevitably take to be normative.   But whatever their source, they can cloud the issues and lead to all kinds of misunderstanding.


It is also worth recognising at the outset that these are not academic questions that we have the luxury of discussing in the rarefied atmosphere of a seminar room.  These are questions that affect us deeply, and that have shaped decisions we have made about our own lives of discipleship, as well as those of our children.  We have been baptised – some as children, some as adults, and some as both.[1]  We are invested in the positions we hold.  That makes it even more important that we proceed very cautiously and with as much clarity as we can manage; and is in part why I am being so very tentative in these articles.


So, what am I not arguing for?  In no particular order:


·         I am not trying to justify the pragmatic retention of something I know to be an unBilbical mediaeval practise for the sake of unity and ease, or perhaps mission.  I mention this because have been surprised over the years how many times this has been assumed.  The idea seems to be that as someone who takes the Bible seriously, I couldn’t really believe in baptising children, but am willing to live with it because of the advantages I gain from being a minister in the Church of England.  At this stage let me just say that there are (I think) compelling Biblical reasons as to why we should include our children in the sacramental life of the Church i.e. I hold my position out of genuine conviction.


·         Baptismal regeneration.  This is the idea that everyone who is baptised is automatically a born again Christian by virtue of that baptism.  I really don’t think the Bible teaches this.  As far as I can tell from reading the Scriptures, it is the Holy Spirit who applies the work of Christ.  Baptism doesn’t guarantee faith, either at the point of baptism, or in the years following.  There are those who have been baptised as children and as adults, but who have later tragically left the faith.


·         Baptising children washes away original sin.  Again, I’d like to be quite clear that the Bible doesn’t teach this.  I don’t believe it, and I don’t think the Church of England (or indeed any Reformed Church) has ever sanctioned this view.


·         That every child should be baptised.  I know that this has largely been the historical situation in England (though not universally) but – if I can put it like this – we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the baptismal water (sorry!).  The fact that a rite of the Church has been abused or misused in the past doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong.  Our reaction is not to stop baptising children altogether if that is indeed a Biblical practise, but rather to make sure that we are doing so appropriately and within the parameters laid down in Scripture.  It has never been official policy of the Church of England to have an unqualified ‘open’ Baptismal policy – though that is hardly comforting when we consider how badly the Church has in fact misappropriated it (I’ll come back to this next time).


·         Neither am I denying that adults who become Christians (and who haven’t previously been baptised) should be baptised.  Clearly they should.  Many of the baptisms in the Book of Acts fall precisely into this category:  Adults who have not grown up in the Church, and who come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are (immediately!) baptised.  This is recognised as entirely Biblical, and in the old Book of Common Prayer is rather quaintly referred to as the baptism of those of ‘riper years’.


I hope that I have now sufficiently cleared the ground to begin to explain constructively in my next article why I believe that Christian parents should baptise their children.  Let me put it rather cheekily: my contention is that if you were to sit down and read the Bible without prejudice, it would never cross our mind that baptism should be denied to our children.  Don’t believe me?  I’ll show you… 


[1] If you worship at St. John’s, but haven’t been baptised, and would like to be, please speak with Mark

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Setting the Scene

Well, it’s been a few weeks, what with Christmas & the New Year, and our series looking at prayer and fasting, but we are finally back in our series on the integral place of children in the life of the Church. Let me re-iterate that I’m not arguing that everything should be childish, or even child-focussed.  Neither am I suggesting that everything becomes about ‘the children’.  But I am contending that they are a part of the people of God, and that we should have a vision for their spiritual growth.  And it isn’t just that they are the Church of tomorrow - they are part of today’s Church.[1]  We shouldn’t be thinking about children solely in terms of the contribution they might make in 20 years.  Obviously enough, that is part of the equation (Ps.78:6; Dt.5:16) - we are investing in the future of the Church.  But the fact remains that children are part of the Church now.  Many of them are Christians, or will become Christians, and as such need to be nurtured in their discipleship just as much as adults, if not more so.  They need to be involved in the life of the Church for the same reasons that adults are: so they can worship with the people of God, serve the people of God, be taught from the word of God, learn what it means to be a disciple, benefit from fellowship with each other, and receive the sacraments.  This last one can provoke a few questions.  Over the articles to follow, I will be exploring with you part of why I am convinced the Bible teaches us that the children in our midst should share in the sacramental life of the Church.


But before we get into this, I need to stress a few things by way of introduction, and of setting the context in St. John’s:


St. John the Baptist is an Anglican Church.  As such we remain committed to the practise of the baptism of infants who are to be “received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made a lively member of the same” (BCP 264). Contrary to what is often perceived as Anglican tradition, the Church of England does not (or at least should not) operate an indiscriminate Baptismal policy.  Clear expectations are laid down in the rubrics of the Church as to the integrity of the Christian faith of parents, godparents and the expected involvement of parents, godparents and the child within the covenant community of God.  Indeed, if a minister is unsure that these expectations are met, they are instructed that the baptism should be delayed until ‘suitable instruction can be given’, and (s)he is satisfied that ‘the provisions relating to godparents are observed’.  At St. John’s we seek to honour these obligations through our baptism preparation team.  If you would like to be involved in this area of our life and mission, have a chat with me…


Our commitment to baptising our children is conscientiously made on Biblical, missional, theological, pastoral and liturgical grounds, and stands within the ancient traditions of the wider visible Church, including the Church of England.  And it will remain the normal practise of St. John’s.


That said, we wish to be generous and hospitable to brothers and sisters in Christ who are in varying degrees of fellowship with us, but whose thinking on the place and administration of Baptism in the life of a disciple, and of a Church differs from that traditionally held by the Church of England, and other denominations which hold to the baptism of infants. 


I will be outlining my own convictions as your pastor in a number of articles.  I do so aware that these are sensitive issues, over which the Church of Christ has struggled to come to a common mind, or even to maintain unity, and that much contemporary inter-denominational work and ministry is only possible because issues such as who and how we should baptise are assiduously avoided.  I do so aware that there may well be people who worship at St. John’s who are unsure of their own beliefs in this matter; or who perhaps disagree with the baptism of infants, but who for a variety of reasons may have decided to worship here in spite of that. I do so aware that godly theologians, pastors and parents throughout the ages have – in good conscience – disagreed as to what they think the Bible teaches on these matters.  I do so aware that there is much misrepresentation and assumption made on both sides about those who take differing views on these subjects. 


So as we launch into this new series of articles, let me assure you that I will not be attacking those positions or people with whom I disagree.  And in outlining my own understanding of the Bible’s teaching, I appreciate that I will not necessarily persuade everyone who attends the Church.    Although public teaching and instruction at St. John’s will remain from within the context of a reformed, covenantal framework of Biblical theology, and in agreement with the Articles of Religion of the Church of England, there will be the recognition that the mode and administration of baptism remains a secondary issue among Christians, and as such, that it should not and need not undermine the unity and fellowship enjoyed by those who worship together at St. John’s.


[1] Is the vision of children and young people in the life of St. John’s privileging them above adults?  I would want to say: ‘No’.   But a series of articles like this might create a sense we are investing far more time and effort in sorting out how and what we teach them in Church, than we seem to be doing with adults.  I’d be more than happy to redress the balance, and to get some form of systematic theology / discipleship class up and running for adults too…  Talk to me if you are interested and if there are enough of us, we’ll get going later this year!

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