How Serious Is a Second Baptism?
Some of our brothers and sisters choose to undergo a second baptism. “Because there is no room for that in the Reformed Church”, someone wrote to me, “we lose some of our most committed members.” Is this spiritual loss of blood not too high a price to pay? Is a second baptism really such a problem?
I hope that we do not just dismiss this matter with a simple appeal to Article 34 of to the Belgic Confession, where it says: “For this reason we reject the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with a single baptism, received once...” The Anabaptists of the 16th century were entirely different from our own brothers and sisters, who full of exemplary faith, hope and love approach the baptismal font for a second baptism.1 Afterwards, most of them just want to remain ‘ordinary Reformed’. Shouldn’t that be possible?
What Drives Them?
Conversations, discussions, lectures, correspondence, all kinds of written texts (books and articles) have helped me see a number of reasons. The sacrament of baptism is intended as a visible, tangible sign and seal; but I never noticed anything of my baptism as a baby. If the New Testament consistently connects faith and baptism,2 then how can we baptize children? The Holy Supper is a sacrament, and it is endlessly repeated; why the one and not the other? And then there are the more incidental arguments: a believer feels the need for an external expression of cleansing after a particularly bad period in his life; someone was baptized in a church or movement which he now regards with aversion; someone was presented for baptism by parents who later abused their children; the one who administered the baptism turned out to have committed such foul acts that the water of baptism defiled rather than cleansed.
Or a less common argument: the formula that was used at their baptism deviated from the one we find in our own form.3 That raises the feeling that the baptism was not legitimate.
What are the Arguments?
The Reformed argument that baptism has come in the place of circumcision, and that baptism is to be administered to infants as a once-and-for-all event is sufficiently well-known, but many are not convinced by it. It doesn’t seem to be difficult to shoot great holes in this commonly-used argument.4
Circumcision, as a visible sign, belongs to the old covenant. The Old Testament church was a church-in-its-infancy, and a visible confirmation that children really were included in the covenant was still necessary. In addition, circumcision, as a national symbol, fitted well with a church that was at the same time a nation-state. The new covenant is essentially different from the old one (Hebrews 8), and the passing away of some external symbols fits with that: land, nation, cities of refuge, stoning and hanging as forms of church discipline, bloody sacrifices, circumcision, etc. In the Old Testament, the sign of the covenant was for boys only. In the present dispensation, no-one would advocate withholding the sign of the covenant from females. Somehow, then, a change has taken place. A new covenant brings with it a new situation. This might be the transition from circumcision to baptism, but it could just as well be the passing away of the external sign of the covenant.
Added to this, we encounter the arguments already listed above: the visible and tangible character of the sacraments, the connection between baptism and faith, the repeated use of the other sacrament, etc, etc.
History, too, is brought to bear. Is there any direct evidence of infant baptism in the New Testament? Was there such a thing as infant baptism in the first centuries of the church’s history? When was infant baptism introduced, and what were the reasons for that?
Adult baptism had always taken place. The New Testament gives numerous examples. Christ Himself was baptized as an adult (by John), and so were his disciples. Christ Himself baptized adults, after confession of sin and guilt; would His disciples have done it differently? There would have to be compelling evidence that they did. Scripture does not furnish such evidence. From the days of the New Testament on, the baptism of faith has been administered, and to this day, it is still defended vigorously by millions of believers.
How do we Resolve this?
To begin with, it is important that we thoroughly understand and respect each other’s views and motivations. The value of infant baptism will regularly surface in the discussion. What percentage of those baptized as children still attaches any value to their baptism? The more one values one’s infant baptism, the less desire there will be for a second baptism.
We also need to consider to what extent baptism can be repeated. Of itself, the act of baptism – in contrast with circumcision – can take place more than once. If infant baptism is valid, and if it can be shown that it should not be repeated, then this might be very difficult for someone who longs for the experience of baptism, but I imagine he will acquiesce. After all, we submit together to the will of God, also as it comes to us in His Word. If the validity and once-and-for-all character of infant baptism is not so clearly established, then there appears to be room for a second baptism. These are questions that are widely discussed today. In the Protestantse Kerk in Nederland they struggle even more with requests for a second baptism than in the Reformed Church. Proposals to permit a ‘water ceremony’ for those who desire a second baptism are being discussed. Over against this, the Hervormde Bond van Gereformeerde Jongeren (the youth organisation of the – old – Dutch Reformed Churches: tr) has proposed the wearing of a blue arm-band as a lasting reminder of infant baptism.
Those who oppose infant baptism do so for a wide variety of reasons. Some deny that children are included in the covenant. Some go so far as to deny that unbaptised children will be saved. Some argue (as, for example, the Reformed Baptists in Britain) that children are included in the covenant, and share in the blessings of Christ, and yet ought not to be baptised. It is much more difficult to defend the legitimacy of infant baptism in a discussion with them.
And isn’t the discussion of infant baptism in the Confessions something of a happenstance? Would it still have taken place, if it were not for the militant Anabaptists of the 16th century? Should this difference of view about the moment of baptism be something that divides the church? Shouldn’t we form a united front with ‘evangelical’ believers,5 against the growing secularization of the Netherlands? Within a century, our country has changed beyond recognition. A hundred years ago, 90% faithfully attended church. Now, only 7% do. What will happen in the next 100 years? The churches that once flourished in North Africa have all disappeared. Shouldn’t we close ranks then, to save what can still be saved in Western Europe? How can we resolve this problem?
There is only one way: by letting the word of God shine its light over these questions.
Denial of Baptism?
How much weight ought we to give to a second baptism? Within families, strong language is sometimes used in discussions between parents and children: you may have the best of intentions, but if you have a second baptism you disown the baptism you received as a child. For baptism is a once-and-for-all event. Associations are made with Peter’s denial. Deep rifts emerge. Bitter quarrels take place. Parents and children become estranged. Parents and family members will demonstratively boycott the young person’s baptism, a high point in his (new) life, because “that’s what the Lord requires”.
Farewell to God’s Promises?
Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s promises. When you undergo a second baptism, you distance yourself from the promises God already made when you received infant baptism. You act as if God never promised anything, for you choose to have a second baptism. And that’s why a second baptism is a conscious denial of the promises God gave you as a child.
You could say that you don’t mean it that way. But so what? You can have the best of intentions. Paul was certain that he was doing God a service by persecuting the church of Christ. Good intentions cannot remove the fault of a wrong action. In the same way, isn’t a second baptism in reality a rejection of God’s promises?
Farewell to the Church?
Baptism is a sign and seal of being incorporated in the church of Christ. Therefore, whoever undergoes a second baptism has, by that very fact, been incorporated in another communion. Membership of two churches is impossible. A church is the bride of Christ, and Christ is monogamous. A second baptism is, in fact, a withdrawal from the church. Strong arguments, which ask for a response.
Doesn’t this difference justify the disappearance of circumcision, and can it really be shown from Scripture that baptism has become the sign of the new covenant? Doesn’t the New Testament show that it was adults who were baptised, and then only after they professed their faith? If that is so, then you need compelling arguments to advocate infant baptism, especially since the New Testament does not mention it at all.
What is the Dilemma?
Up till now, we have used the terms ‘infant baptism’ and ‘adult baptism’. This does not help to clarify what the problem is. For in most churches that strongly defend infant baptism, adults are baptised when they join the church (if they had not already been baptised elsewhere), and in mission areas adult baptism is the rule rather than the exception. The dilemma is not between infant and adult baptism. The real issue concerns the underlying views on baptism.
The defence of infant baptism is chiefly based on the concept of the covenant. Baptism is understood to be a sign and seal of the covenant; that is why all children ought to be baptised. Baptism is also a seal of one’s entry into the covenant. This covenant is eternal, and cannot be broken. It follows, then, that a person can only enter once into this covenant. Baptism, therefore, is an infant baptism, once and for all, based on the notion of the covenant. For proponents of adult baptism, on the other hand, the primary connection is between baptism and the faith of the one who is baptised.
This is not to say, however, that faith does not play a role with defenders of infant baptism, nor that proponents of adult baptism see no place for the covenant. Still, the difference of view concerning the moment of baptism is grounded chiefly in the dilemma between covenant and faith.
This also is an indicator of the depth of this difference. If this was no more than a simple disagreement concerning the moment of baptism, it could probably be shrugged off. But when we highlight the background to this disagreement, then we encounter profound differences of view: faith and covenant. The dilemma, therefore, is between ‘covenant baptism’ and the ‘baptism of faith’.6 From now on, in the interests of clarity, this is the terminology we will use. In Baptist and ‘evangelical’ circles, baptism is dependent on the faith of the one who is baptised. Such a baptism can be characterised as a ‘baptism of faith’. This is a pivotal point. In any discussion, the problem needs to be clearly defined. Lack of clarity in terminology often leads to a confused discussion. And for this topic, the right words may sometimes be hard to find.
It is clear enough that proponents of infant baptism base their argument on the covenant. It is equally clear that defenders of adult baptism take faith as their starting point. It is not so clear what precisely the role of faith is. For some, faith is the basis for baptism; for others, it is little more than the precursor. Still others just say: “there has to be faith”, without any further indication of the role of faith. Hence my formulation: ‘faith as the starting point for baptism’. I believe that by highlighting ‘covenant baptism’ as distinct from ‘baptism of faith’, the key issue is best described.
May We or Must We?
In this connection, there is one important question to answer: must children of believing parents (for it is these children we are talking about) be baptised, or may they be baptised? Often, a plea is made to retain infant baptism as an option, but not to require it of parents who are members of the church. The Heidelberg Catechism leaves no room for this freedom: children ought to be baptised (Lord’s Day 27, Q&A 74). In the classic Form for Baptism used in churches with a Dutch Reformed background, parents agree that their child ‘ought to be baptised’ (1st question). Those who do not baptise their child are subject to church discipline. Parents who withhold the one sacrament from their child will not be able to just participate in the other sacrament. Whoever persistently errs in doctrine or life must be withheld from the Lord’s Supper.
In this discussion, there are two different approaches to the covenant. Those who defend infant baptism take the covenant as their starting point. Particular emphasis is placed on the continuity between circumcision and baptism as a sign of entry into and continued membership of the covenant: baptism is regarded as having taken the place of circumcision. Those who argue for adult baptism usually do not deny the importance of the covenant. Those who believe (together with their children) have been included in God’s covenant. In their view, however, baptism plays no role in anyone’s entry into the covenant.
Let us, therefore, trace the role that the covenant plays in Scripture, and the connection between covenant and baptism, if indeed there is such a connection.
The Covenant of Grace
Whenever ‘the covenant’ comes up in discussions about baptism, a special covenant is meant: the covenant between God and people, in which He does not account their guilt and sin to them – the covenant of grace. In this discussion, the covenant God made with Noah, and agreements between people (such as the one between Jacob and Laban) can be left out of the picture. What we are talking about is the bond between God and man, which after the fall, by the grace of God, is again possible. It is important to keep this notion of a ‘bond’ in mind when thinking about the covenant.7 God has given a Redeemer, who has paid for the guilt of mankind. His work God graciously imputes to people. They stand with Him in a covenant relationship. God wants this to be a real covenant, and expects that people will behave as real partners in this covenant.
The first time this covenant of grace is explicitly mentioned is in Genesis 15. Here, God shows that He has chosen Abram to stand in this covenant relationship with Him. In Genesis 17, God adds a sign to this covenant: all male members of the covenant are to be circumcised.8 On the eighth day of their lives, this already needs to be brought home to them. This circumcision functions as a seal of their membership in the covenant. This is not a point of dispute between defenders and opponents of ‘covenant baptism’ on the one hand, or ‘the baptism of faith’ on the other.
The Covenant Broken
The covenant of grace has been instituted by God as an eternal covenant (Genesis 17:7; Psalm 105:8ff; Psalm 111:8).9 In practice, this covenant frequently falls apart. Already at its beginning God takes this into account: whoever refuses to be circumcised has broken My covenant (Genesis 17:14). Whoever fails to keep God’s commands does the same (Leviticus 26:15; Psalm 78:10). In so doing, the people lose their position as His covenant people, and are regarded as any of the other nations (Jeremiah 7:25ff). Still, from God’s side, the covenant does not come to an end. He will never break it (Judges 2:1). If, after breaking the covenant, God’s people turn to Him in repentance, He will remember the covenant (which the people had broken from their side, Leviticus 26:14-45). Time and again, the covenant is the reason why the Lord rescues them from the misery into which they, by breaking the covenant, had plunged themselves (Deuteronomy 4:31; Judges 2:1, 2; 2 Corinthians 13:23; Psalm 106:44ff; Ezekiel 16:60ff, cf Ezekiel 20:37).10 Truly, the covenant is eternal.
The New Covenant
Man may often break the covenant; God upholds it. At such times, it may not function as a covenant, but it is still there. Still, there is such a thing as a new covenant. This new covenant is promised already in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (see also Hebrews 8:7-19). There was a need for a new covenant, for God’s people had broken the old one, and were unable to keep it. The bond between God and people would have disappeared if God had not provided a new covenant, one with better promises. The characteristics of this new covenant are: its laws are written in its members’ hearts; God is a God to them, and they are His people; from the least to the greatest, they will know God fully; and He will forgive their sins. This is also called the covenant of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6-18), for the Spirit is the gift of the new covenant. This ‘new covenant’ is first spoken of when Christ institutes His Holy Supper (Luke 22:20).
This aspect of the topic needs some attention, for some take the position that the new covenant has replaced the old, and that therefore baptism could not have taken the place of circumcision. This argument, however, does not go to the heart of the matter, for even if the unity of the old and the new covenants could be shown, that does not necessarily imply that the sign of the covenant itself was not simply abolished.
Still, let’s pay some attention to the relationship between the old and the new covenant. It is clear that there is unity between the promise of the old and the new covenant (compare, for example, Jeremiah 33:31 with Genesis 17:7) and between the gift of the old and the new (the Spirit, see Isaiah 44:3 and Acts 2:16ff). The new covenant gives new radiance to the old (it tears away the veil covering the old covenant, 2 Corinthians 3:14). In the new covenant, the covenant, the ancient covenant God made with mankind, reaches its full bloom.11 The argument that a new covenant by definition abolishes the sign of the old is not valid; but its continuation has not been proved either. Since a great deal has changed with the transition from the old covenant to the new, such change might also include the abolition of the sign of the covenant.
Those who support infant baptism insist that baptism belongs to the new covenant, since it is a sign and a seal of that covenant. But is that really so? Let us follow the development of the ‘new covenant’.
The Development of the New Covenant
Christ used this expression when He instituted the Holy Supper. In doing so, He showed that the phase of the ‘new covenant’ had begun (Luke 22:20). Concretely, what form would the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 31) take? In His conversations at the Last Supper, the Lord already gives some indication (John 13-16). Here, it becomes clear that the great gift of the new covenant is the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 3). After His resurrection, the Lord explicitly says the same (Acts 1:5), after which He is taken up to heaven (Acts 1:9; Matthew 28:19).
At the time of His ascension, the Lord gives a number of instructions, including one with the word ‘baptism’. First, He tells His followers to go to ‘all nations’. In this command, there is an allusion to God’s promise to Abraham: “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). While at that time, God limited his covenant activity to one family, to one people, He did not forget all the other nations. In Genesis 17, God promises Abraham that he will be ‘a father of many nations’, that He will ‘make nations’ of Abraham (Genesis 17: 4, 6). The promise that all nations on earth will be blessed through Abraham is repeated in Genesis 18:18 and 22:18. Clearly, at Christ’s ascension, the moment of fulfilment for these prophecies has arrived. The Gospel has to cross national borders, and go to ‘all nations’. In doing so, Christ gives his disciples one overarching mandate: ‘Make disciples of all nations’. And He surrounds this mandate with three associated instructions: go, baptize and teach.12 The central command is that all nations are to be made colleagues of the eleven (remaining) disciples. Of course, to make that happen, they will have to go to them, make disciples of them, at the same time baptizing them and giving them further instruction.
All the Nations
Let’s approach this now from the point of view of ‘all the nations’. They have been discipled. Whoever is a follower of Christ, just as the eleven disciples are, belongs to the Master, and therefore to God Himself. So often, Christ proclaimed His unity with the Father. He would allow no wedge to be driven between Himself and His Father. Followers of Christ are children of God. It is clear then, that here the covenant begins to extend beyond the borders of Israel.
It isn’t enough simply to become a disciple of Christ. More needs to happen: they need to be baptized, and they need to be taught. It is remarkable that something extra, additional to baptism, needs to happen.
Up till now, baptism was all that was required. Immersions took place: the cleansing rituals of the Old Testament, the incorporation of proselytes into the Jewish nation, and the confirmation of the final cleansing before the coming of the Kingdom – and of the King Himself – in all its glory (through the baptism of John and of Christ’s disciples). At these baptisms, no names were used.13
But now, all of this changes. When you are united with Christ – and therefore with God Himself – the Name of God is invoked. This immersion is done in the Name of God, who by this time is known as the Triune God. Literally, Christ commands his disciples, ‘...baptizing them to/towards/into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...’ Faith in Christ brings you into the covenant; after that, through baptism, you are brought into the revelation (the ‘Name’) of the Triune God. You are immersed in God, you get ‘a dunking’ in God, He is the ‘fluid’ in which the new convert is immersed.
There are no stronger words to express the new bond with God.
This is a completely new phenomenon. There were all kinds of other ‘baptisms’: as a sign of ritual purification (the Old Testament), a sign of inclusion as a member of the God’s people (the baptism of proselytes), a sign of new purification prior to entering the new phase of the Kingdom of God (John’s baptism). But this is different. This baptism is a visible sign that you have been included in the New Testament revelation of the Triune God. By becoming a disciple of Christ, you have been united with this God. Whoever is converted to Christ, will at the first opportunity be immersed in or sprinkled with water, in the Name of the Triune God. This baptism follows immediately after your bond with God in Christ has formed (as soon as you have been included in the covenant).14 We note therefore:
- all nations must come to faith in Christ (and in this way be included in the covenant)
- next, they must undergo an immersion in the Name of God (an immersion that seals their cleansing, separation and inclusion)
After that, they are to be taught further, in order to obey everything that Christ has commanded. We note something remarkable: upon faith and conversion (that is: inclusion in the covenant of Abraham), a sealing immersion must follow. Circumcision is conspicuous by its absence. We would have expected: “...and circumcise them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...” But in the New Testament, circumcision disappears very quickly (Acts 15:5-11, there is to be no circumcision for converted Gentiles; Galatians 5:1-6 and 6:12-15).15
Ten days later, Christ pours out the gift of the new covenant: the Holy Spirit (Acts 2; 2 Corinthians 3). Immediately, people from all nations come to conversion. And all of them are baptized, be it in the Name of Jesus. As far as we know, they are not baptized with the words of Matthew 28:19. This has provoked a great deal of thought and discussion, more than is probably necessary. For we should not forget that it would be wrong to create a contrast here between Christ and the Triune God. Didn’t Christ often emphasize His unity with God, even to the point where it cost Him His life?16 The point is that by faith, you come to belong to the only true God. And as a seal of that, you are baptized.
Baptism in Place of Circumcision
What else is there left to say? Whoever simply follows the Bible will see that baptism, as a sign and seal of the covenant, has come in the place of circumcision. Since that is so, then only a very explicit prohibition of infant baptism would justify withholding this sign from the children of those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ.
In truth, we find the very opposite of such a prohibition. Peter emphasizes that the promise of the new covenant is for Israel (parents and children) and from now on also for those who are still far off (Acts 2:39), that is for all peoples. Baptism goes into the wide world. When the head of a family (a ‘household’) comes to faith, the whole household is baptized (Acts 10:24; 11:14; 16:15ff; 16:31; 1 Corinthians 1:16). This was necessary, for in that culture, eating with the unbaptized was simply not done. True: children are not explicitly mentioned; but that has to do with the fact that in those days the children in the household rarely received separate attention. They were, in a manner of speaking, hidden in the bosom of the family. In the household, there was no living together of those who were baptized with those who weren’t. The tone of the Old Testament is simply continued: where the head of the household comes to faith, all those who belong to the household are included in the covenant, and they all receive the sign of the covenant. If children were to be excluded, a separate statement to that effect would have been necessary. Otherwise we, who read the Bible from beginning to end, would have been left on the wrong foot.
In addition, baptism has taken over circumcision’s function as a seal of the righteousness of faith (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; 8:37; 9:18; 16:31; 18:1- 8; 22:16; Galatians 3:37; Ephesians 5:26, compare Romans 4:11), and as an encouragement to a godly life (Romans 6:1-14; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 2:11; Titus 3:11; 1 Peter 1:3ff; 2:1ff, compare Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25ff; Ezekiel 44:7, 9; Romans 2:28). Texts such as Philippians 3:3 and Colossians 2:11 leave no doubt that baptism is seen as the fulfilment of circumcision.17
The Core of the Argument
The key text in the debate between ‘covenant baptism’ and the ‘baptism of faith’ is Matthew 28:19. This text is decisive. Whoever has discovered the real meaning of this text will begin to understand that the transition from circumcision to baptism is confirmed throughout the New Testament, and is in fact already foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Other texts and Scripture references may raise other possibilities, but nothing is conclusively shown.
It is a common complaint that books about infant baptism often do little to convince a Baptist.18 Most of them seek their strength in showing that children are included in the covenant. The problem is that many Baptists and ‘evangelically inclined’ brothers and sisters do not dispute that. The real question is whether baptism actually does seal the covenant, as circumcision did in the Old Testament. And Matthew 28:19 demonstrates that clearly. This will also give direction to discussions about a second baptism. Circumcision was also not tangibly experienced. No one remembers the events of their ‘eighth day’. Clearly this sacrament was not intended to be experienced by the child that received it.
For all kinds of reasons, believers may have a heartfelt longing for a tangible experience of baptism. We saw that already at the beginning of these articles. However, our Lord has given baptism to seal, from the very beginning, the covenant He has established, and to be administered once-and for-all because it is an eternal covenant. If that is so, then it is not for any man to challenge this institution of God by means of a ‘baptism of faith’ after a ‘covenant baptism’ as an infant.
The claim is made that infant baptism was introduced at a later period, and was a departure from New Testament practice. It should be clear from the preceding material that this is not the case. The history of the early church shows the same thing. From the earliest history of the church, infant baptism was regarded as a perfectly normal practice. Rev. A Verbree, in his Over Dopen, provides extensive evidence of that.19 And in view of what we read in the New Testament, that is only to be expected. From the beginning, there was a sign that sealed incorporation in the covenant: circumcision. And when that sign is superseded by baptism, it follows naturally that this new sign also ought to be administered to infants. It might have been possible that the new covenant no longer required a sign of incorporation – after all, it was a new covenant (or a new phase of the covenant), but if a new sign has been given, then children ought to receive it also, as a matter of course.
From the earliest history of the New Testament church, this was the approach that was taken. The story of Polycarp’s youth (he was born around AD 70, well within the time of the New Testament) shows that clearly.
In the circles where ‘the baptism of faith’20 is defended, children are often ‘dedicated’ to the Lord in a special ceremony, instead of being baptized. That’s a fine gesture. It makes us think of parents coming to the baptismal font in churches where infant baptism does take place. The first time you take your child to church, you take it to be baptized. And if you do not accept infant baptism, you will still have the need to bring your child in its earliest infancy, to present it before the Lord, and to commend it to His attention and care.
Such a dedication is purely a parental act. And no matter which way you look at it, that makes it inferior to baptism. When a baby is baptized, God lays His sign and seal upon it: this child is His, and He includes it in the family of His covenant. By the washing with water, He affirms that its sins have been washed away for the sake of Christ’s blood, and that the Holy Spirit will come to live in it. The most important aspect of infant baptism is what God does. He confirms, from above, His gifts to this child. That is not what happens in a dedication. At best, the latter is an (unanswered) request from the parents.21
Rejection of God’s Promises?
In discussions with Anabaptists during the 16th century, strong language was sometimes used. Zwingli compared a second baptism with crucifying Christ anew.22 And it is possible that when one of our children leaves for another church or fellowship, the emotions that this arouses will lead to sharp words. Still, the ‘baptism of faith’ cannot be characterized as a rejection of God’s promises. For the one who is baptized actually seeks the promises of God, and wants to live by them. It isn’t God’s promises themselves that are rejected. What is rejected is the sign and seal, once given in baptism.
Compare this to a bride, who looks at her hand and sees the wedding ring sparkling on her finger. She no longer sees it as a symbol of her husband’s vow of faithfulness. She no longer is assured of its value. What she wants is another affirmation of his faithfulness and love, and that is what she asks for. So this is not a rejection of what God has promised. But at the same time, a second baptism is not a trivial matter. The example of the wedding ring should make that clear.
God sees a child of believing parents, “conceived and born in sin, and therefore subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation itself”. He “sanctifies it in Christ”, and as a sign of that He wants it to be baptized. In a manner of speaking, he slips the wedding ring of His love onto the child’s finger. And as the child grows up, it becomes aware of this wedding ring, and what it means. Its parents instruct it in the meaning of baptism. Subsequently, the child begins to ignore that, regarding the ring as having no value, and asks the Lord for a new sign. That is no small thing, but it is not a rejection of God’s promises. It is a rejection of its (infant) baptism. Strictly speaking, it’s a denial. But then, it’s a denial of the sign of God’s promises, rather than of the promises themselves. That was the mistake that the 16th century Reformers (sometimes) made. It is a personal decision whether or not you wish to attend the second baptism of your child, your brother or sister, your friend or workmate. But I can well imagine that you would not want to witness a public demonstration that God’s wedding ring is being ignored.23
‘Baptism of Faith’
This remains an awkward expression. Still: in circles that reject infant baptism, adult baptism needs to be seen as such. One way or another: the faith of the one to be baptized plays a role. That is not so with ‘covenant baptism’. The dilemma remains: infant baptism or ‘baptism of faith’. The precise role that faith plays in this conception is, however, not always very clear.
Before the baptism of faith can be administered, it needs to be clear that the adult who requests it is a believer. To that end, an investigation takes place. And at the beginning of the ceremony, the one to be baptized gives a personal testimony of faith. If you should ask, then, whether faith is in some way the basis for the baptism, that will usually be vigorously denied. And that’s just as well, for this cannot be true. Nothing that comes from us, not even our faith, can ever be the ground for an act of God. Anyone who does regard one’s own faith as the basis for baptism ends up in some form of (semi-)Pelagianism or Arminianism, and that greatly widens the division. Still, for anyone who defends the baptism of faith, the notion that faith itself might be a good work on which baptism is based is a very real danger.
Within the Reformed community, a public profession of faith is necessary before adult baptism can take place. Such faith is seen as a precursor to (but not as a ground for) baptism. A proponent of faith-baptism might say the same thing. In Reformed thinking, however, there is the following addition: in baptism, God seals the covenant that originates with Him. In this way, any notion that faith might somehow be the ground for baptism is cut off. The ground for baptism is that God has established His covenant with this brother or sister. And the church has come to know this because it has observed his/her faith. All who believe (and their children) have been included in the covenant. And to such the seal of membership in the covenant, baptism, ought to be administered. The ground for baptism, therefore, is the command of God. In this way, one’s own righteousness is excluded, and much more clearly than in the baptism of faith.
And that is very important. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it in the sharpest possible terms: one must find in Him all that is necessary for one’s salvation, and whoever seeks their salvation or wellbeing anywhere else than in Christ alone, in fact denies the only Saviour Jesus (Lord’s Day 11, Q&A 30). And that’s the danger that lurks in the baptism of faith. If the covenant is not clearly confessed as the only ground for baptism, there will always be the danger that some notion of self-delivery might creep in. Where faith plays a dominant role in baptism (as it does in circles where the baptism of faith is practised), the door to such a danger is not fully locked. Once again: that really is important. For it touches the heart of our faith: salvation through Christ alone (sola gratia).
But what about the Holy Supper? Isn’t the same danger present there? After all, profession of faith is a necessary condition for taking part in the Holy Supper. The visible sign and seal of Christ’s suffering and death is only for those who have professed their faith. We need to be alert here. Sitting at the Lord’s Table may lead to complacency or self-satisfaction. At the same time, we must note that Christ Himself has instituted the Holy Supper in this way. Those who take part eat and drink not on the ground of their faith, but on the ground of Christ’s command: “Take, eat, drink, all of you”. This command goes to everyone who has come to an adult faith. This command is the ground for our celebration. The danger of seeing our faith as the ground is thus warded off, much more so than with a baptism of faith, where the public profession of faith immediately precedes the administration of baptism. What’s more: baptism is a once-only event, while we do not repeatedly profess our faith before the Holy Supper. That limits even more the danger that we see our faith as the ground for taking part.
The core of the argument is that Christ has instituted baptism separately from the faith of the one to be baptized.24 The same cannot be said of the Holy Supper. Having said that, we do need to remain alert to the danger of complacency when we take part in the Holy Supper.
Finally: God’s Word does not teach ‘the baptism of faith’. Just as in the Old Testament, baptism is administered to believers and their children, as a sign and seal of their membership in the covenant. Whoever longs for a sign with his faith may take part in the Holy Supper. That is the sign God has given to strengthen the faith that is present. That is where you may be assured of your faith by its fruits (Lord’s Day 32, Q&A 86). That is not what God gave you your baptism for.
How Serious is a Second Baptism?
The example of the wedding ring, described above, should make that clear enough. God has shown you that you may always belong to Him, from infancy on. You may belong to God’s people: baptism is the sign that you have been incorporated in God’s New Testament people: the church. Baptism is a sign of inclusion; in that too, baptism is a continuation of circumcision.25 You cannot be a member of two churches at the same time. There ought not even to be two churches (John 17:21). And for that reason, a second baptism ought rightly to be regarded as a de facto withdrawal.26
In addition, the notion of self-delivery is an ever-present danger. The Biblical doctrines of original sin and divine election are often neglected (or even denied) in the circles of faith-baptism.
Should a second baptism lead to the exercise of discipline? May brothers and sisters from an evangelical fellowship be allowed as guests at the Lord’s Table? For the most part, discipline is applied because of a sinful life (drunkenness, unlawful killing, neglect of the worship services, unlawful divorce) rather than because of sins in doctrine. Still, both of these can be grounds for exclusion from the Holy Supper. At the Lord’s Table, we celebrate our unity of faith in Christ. Then, such unity ought to be present.
We have a history behind us in which God has given us a great deal. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded (Luke 12:48). In the course of history, God has given a clear understanding of the meaning of baptism, in part through our struggle against Anabaptism. In other places, the church may not have that clarity, possibly because it did not have that struggle. They may well have more insight on other points, because their struggles have been different. But since God has given us this clarity, if anyone will not be convinced, and persistently rejects the instruction of the Reformed confessions, there is insufficient unity in faith to celebrate the Holy Supper together.
One may ask: Isn’t the fact that our confessions include a statement opposing a second baptism (Belgic Confession, Art.34) something of a happenstance? It’s true: this comes from a very specific point in our church history. It was part of our struggle against the Anabaptists during the European Reformation of the 16th century. This is wisdom God has given us, in His time in history. It would be improper for us to ignore it or resist it. After all, from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. That is why it is entirely proper to require a rejection of faith-baptism. Anyone who does not reject it may receive extensive instruction from the wisdom of the Reformed confessions. And this instruction will provide evidence of the condition of our brother or sister’s faith. Whoever is willing to be instructed, and who does not propagate their divergent views, could be admitted to the Lord’s Table, on condition of ongoing instruction.
Those who reject such instruction, undergoing a second baptism, refusing to acknowledge error, rejecting admonition or instruction, and/or failing to have their children baptized, deviate so clearly from the instruction of God’s word about the one sacrament that they ought to be excluded from taking part in the other sacrament.
It’s a great pity that – as someone said – we might “lose some of our most committed members” as a result. (By the way, I do not share that impression). It may be true that committed members may be drawn towards the baptism of faith. At the same time, a great number of highly committed members remain. With conviction of faith, they present their children for baptism, teach them to understand their baptism, and themselves draw on the riches of their own baptism as infants every day!