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MARCH 1, 2007

Only a very small number of Christians have ever disputed the necessity of baptism in the
life of the church. Nevertheless, different groups of Christians teach widely different theologies
in their efforts to explain the significance behind the practice. In surveying this vast range of
beliefs, we might possibly examine how the most divergent views coexist in Christ's universal
church; this paper, however, will focus on two very similar, yet nevertheless different, strands of
thought: the modern Baptist understanding in the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925, and the
modern Presbyterian theology in the Westminster Confession of Faith. So, just as someone can
more clearly know the exact hue of a color when it is juxtaposed against a very similar color (so
that, for example, a person can more easily see whether a certain red is dark or light by
contrasting it against another red, rather than against a green), we shall attempt to gain a better
understanding of the essential nature of Presbyterian and Baptist beliefs by seeing how each
clashes against the other. In this paper, we will survey the way that each group individually
understands baptism, the points at which they disagree, and the areas in which both groups might
grow in their thinking and practice.
The Baptist Perspective
The Baptist Faith and Message of 1925 contains a very brief—but certainly very
carefully crafted—statement on baptism:
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the
Son and the Holy Spirit. The act is a symbol of our faith in a crucified, buried and risen
Saviour. It is prerequisite to the privileges of a church relation and to the Lord's Supper,
in which the members of the church, by the use of bread and wine, commemorate the
dying love of Christ.1


Article 13, in Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed., edited by John H. Leith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,
1982), 348.

From this, we will focus on three aspects of the Baptists' perspective on baptism: (1) baptism by
immersion; (2) baptism of believers; and (3) baptism as symbol. Even today, Baptist theologians
still consider these three components to be the sine qua non of baptism.2
First, as the Faith and Message makes clear, Baptists insist that the proper administration
of baptism requires the immersion of the candidate. Garrett points to four main reasons for this
belief: (1) the word used for “baptism” means “to dip, plunge, or immerse,” while other words
could have been used (but were not) to express pouring or sprinkling; (2) descriptions of and
allusions to baptism in the New Testament suggest immersion; (3) the long-standing tradition of
baptism by immersion in church history; and (4) only baptism by immersion clearly symbolizes
the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.3 Although other Christian traditions (including the
Presbyterian tradition) recognize different modes of baptism, Baptists consider those other
modes defective and incomplete—for Baptists, only immersion will suffice.
Second, Baptists insist that baptismal candidates profess faith in Jesus Christ before they
are baptized—baptism is the immersion “of a believer.” Most significantly, this means that
Baptists oppose infant baptism, which Presbyterians practice. Baptists argue that the New
Testament pattern always places baptism after the repentance, faith, confession, and
regeneration.4 This, on the surface, seems very simple; however, Baptists are quick to point out
the difficulties that arise from attempting to restrict baptism to believers alone. House contends
that “The problem with baptism today is not merely that it is administered improperly. The
problem is that many candidates for baptism are not converted.”5 By baptizing unsaved people,

R. Wayne Stacy, “A Baptist Theology of Baptism,” in Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Baptism and the Lord's
Supper, edited by Walter B. Shurden (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1999), 105.
James L. Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 2, 2nd ed. (North Richland
Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 2001), 579-580.
Robert H. Stein, “Baptism and Becoming a Christian,” in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2:1 (Spring
1998): 10.
Paul R. House, “Baptism, Assurance, and the Decline of Conservative Churches,” in The Southern Baptist Journal
of Theology 2:1 (Spring 1998): 2.

Baptists are not merely baptizing against their principles, but they are supplying those whom
they baptize with an incorrect assessment of their salvation. The problem is even greater than
that, since “Baptist churches generally teach the perseverance of believers. They claim that
persons who are converted can have assurance of salvation.”6 Thus, for a Baptist church to
baptize someone, they are essentially making a pronouncement on whether or not that person is
saved and going to heaven, since a person who once believes can never fall away; so to baptize
unregenerate people is to give them damnably false security.
On a related issue, Southern Baptists are beginning to notice a trend where increasingly
younger children are being baptized. For some, this is a cause for great concern,7 but Poythress
argues persuasively in favor of this trend, writing:
If people are baptized when they initially become Christians, they can never fully
appreciate baptism at the time. Full appreciation comes only later. This truth becomes
particularly evident with small children, because they so clearly must grow afterwards.
On the other hand, when adults are baptized, we can easily fool ourselves into thinking
that they are already mature spiritually, because they look mature spiritually.8
One possibility for a solution, then, would be for Baptists to become more willing to baptize any
who give a profession of faith, but to be much clearer that no one should consider their baptism
to be infallible proof of their salvation. This, however, will not likely gain momentum among
Baptists, who will see it as a “movement toward infant baptism.”9
The final distinctive of the Baptist understanding of baptism is the belief that baptism is a
symbol. Also, Baptists frequently call baptism by the legal term “ordinance,” although the Faith
and Message does not use that word. The main reason behind this terminology is that Baptists


James L. Garrett, “Baptists Concerning Baptism: Review and Preview,” in Southwestern Journal of Theology 43:2
(Spring 2001): 65.
Vern S. Poythress, “Indifferentism and Rigorism in the Church: With Implications for Baptizing Small Children,” in
The Westminster Theological Journal 59:1 (Spring 1997): 27.
Garrett, Systematic Theology, 577.

want to “distinguish and distance the Baptist position from traditional sacramental insights.”10 In
other words, Baptists insist that baptism is no more than a symbol that Jesus commands his
church to employ, because Baptists do not believe that baptism conveys grace in a “magical”
sense, or “that it works all by itself (ex opera operato).”11
Unfortunately, this idea of baptism's being merely a symbol causes problems. Certainly,
there is nothing wrong with the Baptist conviction that baptism does not “magically” bestow
grace to the person being baptized; the problem lies in the fact that Baptists have largely shaped
their definition of baptism based on what is it not. So, for the Faith and Message to claim that
baptism is a “symbol” does not, in the minds of most Baptists, convey a good understanding of
what baptism actually is. Stacy writes that “calling baptism a symbol suggests that it is merely
an arbitrary metaphor, completely inadequate to depict a spiritual transformation so catastrophic,
so complete, so countercultural that it can only be described as 'death' and 'rebirth.'”12 Grenz
argues that the word “ordinance” is not much better: “Viewing the rites of the church as
ordinances rather than sacraments leads many Baptists, finally, to understand baptism and the
Lord's supper as thoroughly human, rather than divine, acts.”13 Perhaps, then, the words
“symbol” and “ordinance” might be on their way out, so that the Faith and Message and other
Baptists Confessions may soon need amending.
On the other hand, it is possible that Baptists will redeem those words by working to
show what the words mean, rather than what they do not mean. For example, Grenz writes:
In short, the celebration of the ordinances facilitates the symbolic retelling of the old, old
story of God's action in Jesus, an action that includes not only the past but extends to the

William L. Hendricks, “Baptism: A Baptist Perspective,” in Southwestern Journal of Theology 31:2 (Spring 1989):
Stacy, “A Baptist Theology of Baptism,” 103.
Stanley J. Grenz, “Baptism and the Lord's Supper as Community Acts: Toward a Sacramental Understanding of the
Ordinances,” in Baptist Sacramentalism, edited by Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson (Waynesboro, GA:
Paternoster, 2003), 81.

eschatological future. As we tell the story in this vivid, pictorial manner, we are
transported into both the past and the future. We symbolically experience both Christ's
death and his resurrection, which constitutes our identity as those who are in Christ. As
we are en-storied in this manner—as we are caught up into both God's past action in
Christ and the vision of God's future—we find purpose and meaning for our own lives,
for we gain a sense of the connectedness of all history, and we come to see our present
within the flow of God's story.14
Clearly, Baptists are able to refuse to classify baptism as a “sacrament” without sacrificing the
ability to propound robust theology in their descriptions of baptism's role in the church.
The Presbyterian Perspective
The main statement concerning baptism in the Westminster Confession of faith sets out
the following:
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the
solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a
sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, or regeneration, of
remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in
newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ's own appointment, to be continued in his
Church until the end of the world.15
To help analyze this statement (and the many other statements in the Confession), we will focus
our attention through the four criteria Boice, a Presbyterian, gives to define what it is that
constitutes a sacrament: (1) The sacraments are divine ordinances instituted by Christ himself;
(2) The sacraments are ordinances in which material elements are used as visible signs of God's
blessing; (3) The sacraments are seals, certifications or confirmations to us of the grace they
signif; and (4) The sacraments are means of grace to the one who rightly partakes of them.16
The first criterion, that baptism is a divine ordinance instituted by Christ himself, is
straight-forward and meets with complete agreement on the Baptist side of things. In fact, we
should step back for a moment from the minutiae of this realm of theology to notice that all

Grenz, “Baptism and the Lord's Supper as Community Acts,” 92.
Chapter XXVIII, Section 1 in Creeds of the Churches, 224.
James M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Rev. Ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 595597. I rearranged Boice's order for the sake of simplicity by switching the third and fourth criteria.

Christian churches agree with this first principle, and, despite the fact that we might differ in
some ways, we Christians would do well to remind ourselves of our commonality here. That is,
we should never lose sight of the fact that all Christians are baptized because Jesus Christ
ordained baptism for his whole church, regardless of denomination or the particular way we
might explain what baptism actually does.
The second criterion, that the sacraments are ordinances in which material elements are
used as visible signs of God's blessing, reflects the first part of Confession's assertion that
baptism is a “sign and seal of the covenant of grace,” an idea central to the Presbyterian
understanding of the sacraments. Biblically, the phrase “sign and seal” is not used to describe
baptism, but is Paul's explanation of what circumcision was to Abraham (Rom. 4:11).
Presbyterians, however, interpret the Bible through a framework of Covenant Theology, which
understands our New Covenant in Jesus Christ to be the continuation of the covenant that God
made with Abraham. For this reason, Presbyterians see baptism as the sign of the New Covenant
that replaces the sign of the Old Covenant, circumcision. So, what Scripture teaches about
circumcision also applies to the church's understanding of baptism.
So what is meant by circumcision's being a “sign”? Ross explains that signs function to
remind us of God's covenant with us, specifically regarding his promises and our obligations in
that covenant. However, “The sign itself adds nothing to the promise, and we should not think
that God is under greater obligation to perform his promise when a visible sign is attached to it.
The sign is for our benefit, giving us greater assurance.”17 Furthermore, we should carefully
draw a distinction between the sign and the thing signified: “the sign is secondary, outward and
visible. The reality is primary, inward and invisible.”18

Mark E. Ross, “Baptism and Circumcision as Signs and Seals,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, edited
by Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), 86.
Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, 595.

The third aspect of a sacrament—that baptism is a seal, certification or confirmation to us
of the grace it signifies—works closely with the second. Chapell explains that “The seal acted as
a visible pledge by the author of [a] letter to honor what he had covenanted to do in the
document when the conditions it described were circumcision was [and baptism is]
God's pledge to provide all the blessings of his covenant when the condition of faith was met in
his people.”19 So, just as a seal on a letter assured the recipient of the sender's identity and
authority, Presbyterians understand the “seal” aspect of circumcision and baptism to mean that
God places his own stamp of identity and authority on the one baptized as a guarantee that he
will fulfill his covenantal promises when his people meet their covenantal condition: faith. A
seal confirms and ratifies the validity and effectiveness of the promises to which the sign points.
Although it is necessary, to a certain point, to distinguish signs from seals in our attempts
to understand the two complementary aspects to a central claim in the Westminster Confession of
Faith (i.e., that baptism is a sign and a seal of the covenant of grace), we should recognize that
neither Paul nor the Westminster Divines intended for us to split the two aspects from each other;
rather, their intentions were to show how the sign aspect and the seal aspect work together.
Duncan demonstrates this connection well:
A sacrament is a covenant sign and seal, which means it reminds us and assures us of a
promise. That is, it points to and confirms a gracious promise of God to his people.
Another way of saying it is that a sacrament is an action designed by God to sign
(symbolize) and seal (ratify) a covenantal reality, accomplished by the power and grace
of God, the significance of which has been communicated by the word of God, and the
reality of which is received or entered into only by faith. Hence, the weakness, the frailty
of human faith welcomes this gracious act of reassurance. The sacraments are by nature
supplemental to and confirmatory of the promises held out in the word...20
So, the sacrament of baptism visibly and objectively reassures a believer of God's promises.

Bryan Chapell, “A Pastoral View of Infant Baptism,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, 15.
J. Ligon Duncan, III, “True Communion with Christ: Calvin, Westminster and Consensus on the Lord's Supper,” in
The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, Vol. II, edited by J. Ligon Duncan, III (Ross-shire, Scotland:
Christian Focus Publications, 2004), 440.

This definition obviously limits Presbyterian sacramental theology from the Catholic
notion that baptism works of itself (ex opere operato), but it also moves beyond even the more
substantive levels of Baptist theology. Notice here a fine, but important, distinction between the
theology of Presbyterians and that of Baptists: Baptists understand baptism to be symbolic—a
kind of pronouncement of something already accomplished in the life of the baptized.
Presbyterians, on the other hand, believe that baptism points the candidate to what God promises
to accomplish through faith, which is the reality behind the sign. For Presbyterians, “the efficacy
of baptism is prospective,”21 but for Baptists, the efficacy of baptism is retrospective. This aspect
of Presbyterian theology is behind the Westminster Confession of Faith statement that “The
efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered,”22 and it plays a
significant role in justifying the practice of infant baptism.
The fourth element of Presbyterian baptismal theology is that baptism is a means of grace
to the one who rightly partakes of it. Boice explains this point, writing, “In saying this we must
be careful to point out that we are not therefore assigning some magical property to
if grace, like medicine, is automatically dispensed along with the material elements.”23 Again,
Boice targets the ex opere operato understanding of baptism as incorrect and contrary to
Presbyterian beliefs. But he continues: “To say that the sacraments are not magical or
mechanical, however, does not mean that they do not have value. God has chosen to use them to
encourage and strengthen faith in believers.”24 So, we might ask, who receives the “value” of
baptism? Duncan contends that “The sacraments are efficacious for the elect and the elect only,
since their benefits are sanctificational and received by faith, and for them provide effectual and

William B. Evans, “'Really Exhibited and His Appointed Time': Baptism and the New Reformed
Sacramentalism,” in The Presbyterion 31:2 (Fall 2005): 88, my emphasis.
Chapter XXVIII, Section VI in Creeds of the Churches, 224-225.
Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, 596.

objective nourishment of faith.”25 The important element of Duncan's statement is his insistence
that baptism is efficacious only for those who receive baptism's benefits through faith, although,
as mentioned above, this faith is not tied to the moment wherein baptism is administered.
Some Presbyterians have recently begun to rethink the way baptism might be effectual to
the baptized, arguing that insisting upon a more objective understanding of the covenant into
which people are baptized is a more biblical and, importantly, a less Baptistic way to speak of
baptism. Wilson uses the analogy of marriage to explain this thinking: baptism objectively and
covenantally weds to Jesus Christ all who are baptized and makes those people Christians in the
same sense that circumcision made boys born to Jewish parents officially Jews; however, this
does not mean that all who are baptized are saved in the sense that they will go to heaven when
they die, just as all who were circumcised were not heaven-bound. Wilson writes, “No one
assumes that every husband will automatically have a successful marriage. Nor should we
assume that every Christian will go to heaven. But all husbands are in fact married.”26 Wilson
goes so far as to assert that the Westminster Confession teaches “baptismal regeneration”27 in
some sense. Commonly called “Federal Vision Theology,” this particular understanding of
baptism (along with its other nuances) heavily emphasizes the distinction between covenant
membership and eternal salvation. Although the Presbyterian Church in America (a
denomination that affirms the Westminster Confession of Faith) is currently debating this issue,28
a critical examination of the theology and its implications is beyond the scope of this paper.
Suffice it to say, however, that Presbyterians will need to assess this topic carefully.

Duncan, “True Communion with Christ,” 440-441. The “elect,” in Calvinistic theology, refers to those whom God,
of his own sovereign and gracious choosing, determines to save; those who are not elect will never have the
capability to put their faith in Christ for salvation.
Douglas Wilson, “Reformed” is not Enough (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002), 106.
Ibid., 103.
For a balanced presentation of the arguments from both sides, see Calvin Beisner, ed., The Auburn Avenue
Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (Fort Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004).

Although Baptists and Presbyterians stand relatively closely to one another in their
understanding of baptism, they clearly adhere to substantive differences. Baptists describe
baptism with immersion as mode, believers as candidates, and symbol as significance, while
Presbyterians see baptism as an ordinance of Jesus, a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, and
a means of grace for those of faith. Each theology has room to grow, and each can learn from the
other. Most importantly, Baptists and Presbyterians both understand that baptism is merely one
part of Jesus' Great Commission, and, in the end, both groups should always seek better relations
with the other in order to partner up in making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all
that Christ commanded us—even as both groups affirm and refine their unique convictions.

Beisner, Calvin, ed. The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision.
Fort Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. London: Banner of Truth, 1941.
Boice, James M., Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised Ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity
Press, 1986.
Duncan, J. Ligon, III, “True Communion with Christ: Calvin, Westminster and Consensus on the
Lord's Supper.” In The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, Vol. II, edited by J.
Ligon Duncan, III, 429-475. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2004.
Evans, William B., “'Really Exhibited and His Appointed Time': Baptism and the
New Reformed Sacramentalism.” In The Presbyterion 31:2 (Fall 2005): 72-88.
Garrett, James L., Jr.., “Baptists Concerning Baptism: Review and Preview.” In Southwestern
Journal of Theology 43:2 (Spring 2001): 52-67.
Garrett, James L., Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 2, 2nd ed.
North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 2001.
George, Timothy, “Baptists and the Westminster Confession.” In The Westminster Confession
into the 21st Century, Vol. I, edited by Ligon Duncan, 145-159. Ross-shire, Scotland:
Christian Focus Publications, 2003.
George, Timothy, “The Sacramentality of the Church: An Evangelical Baptist Perspective.” In
Baptist Sacramentalism, edited by Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson, 21-35.
Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2003.
Grenz, Stanley, J., “Baptism and the Lord's Supper as Community Acts: Toward a Sacramental
Understanding of the Ordinances.” In Baptist Sacramentalism, edited by Anthony R.
Cross and Philip E. Thompson, 76-95. Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2003.
Hendricks, William L., “Baptism: A Baptist Perspective.” In Southwestern Journal of Theology
31:2 (Spring 1989): 22-33.
House, Paul R., “Baptism, Assurance, and the Decline of Conservative Churches.” In The
Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2:1 (Spring 1998): 2-4.
Lusk, Rich, “Baptismal Efficacy and Baptismal Latency: A Sacramental Dialogue.” In The
Presbyterion 32:1 (Spring 2006): 18-37.
Poythress, Vern S., “Indifferentism and Rigorism in the Church: With Implications for Baptizing
Small Children.” In The Westminster Theological Journal 59:1 (Spring 1997): 13-29.

Shurden, Walter B., ed. Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Macon,
GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1999.
Stein, Robert H., “Baptism and Becoming a Christian.” In The Southern Baptist Journal of
Theology 2:1 (Spring 1998): 6-17.
Strawbridge, Gregg, ed., The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian
& Reformed, 2003.
Wilson, Douglas “Reformed” is not Enough. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002.
Wright, David F., “Baptism at the Westminster Assembly.” In The Westminster Confession into
the 21st Century, Vol. I, edited by J. Ligon Duncan, III, 161-185. Ross-shire, Scotland:
Christian Focus Publications, 2003.