This article is about the emphasis on personal experience and faith experience we find today, rather than the building of our lives on the truth and promises of God’s Word. This subjective believing has been used in the past to reject infant baptism and to support rebaptism and believer’s baptism. The author draws lessons from the struggle of the Reformers with the Anabaptists on this subject.

Source: Diakonia, 1990. 7 pages.

Subjective Believing

In the theological arena much attention is paid to the experience and feeling of man. The search after man's essence also occupies centre stage. One could say that theology has to a large degree become subjective. Personal experience is emphasized to such a degree, that here and there the norms of the Lord's revelation threaten to fall away. The only im­portant question becomes: Is your experience of faith true and authentic? If your experience of faith is true to life, then everything is okay.

From that perspective heathen religions, if they are experienced correctly, have as much right as the Christian religion based on God's revelation in Christ. Human feelings and experiences stand central.

In the Roman, as well as in Protestant churches, the wind of subjectivism blows. It rages as a reaction to a withered life of faith which all of a sudden de­mands its rights and which (unfortunately) is no longer ruled by Holy Scriptures. The subjective life of faith is emphasized. Some para-church move­ments which make a strong appeal to the will and the emotion, attract young and old. The pursuit of spe­cial experiences becomes the mark of serious Chris­tians. There is growing criticism of the church as an institution, of the offices and of child baptism.

Today we see deeply serious Christians having themselves re-baptized. They are of the opinion that their baptism as children was not a true baptism, because at that moment they were incapable of be­lieving. They did not ask for it and further study of the Bible has taught them the New Testament does not speak of infant baptism. That is the motivation for their re-baptism as adults. In this (re) baptism lies the clear confession that from now on another (Chris­tian) life will be lived. With this (re) baptism the old life is left behind and they begin the new life. These people present themselves as serious Christians with deeply held convictions.

Regarding this, however, we must keep in mind that the earnestness of subjective experience does not guarantee that it is Scripturally correct. The truth of what I feel and experience does not mean that I am building on a solid foundation.

We have already mentioned how an over emphasis on emotions can rob us of child baptism. It is not our intention here to defend child baptism. That does not need defending in a Reformed church, for we confess it with heart and mouth in Lord's Day 27 (Heidelberg Catechism) and Article 34 (Belgic Confes­sion). Perhaps already many years ago we confirmed it, when we made confession of our faith. We said "yes" and "amen" before God and His holy congre­gation. As today's car industry does not have to invent the wheel, so the church of today does not have to prove the validity of infant baptism. This the church believes with the heart and confesses with the mouth. That means that from time to time the church must defend it against the outside world. Internally it means look up your confession, if need be with the help of an appropriate study guide.

Let us be thankful that the Reformed Churches of the sixteenth century fought against the Anabaptists. There is nothing new under the sun. Let us then profit from that battle.

No Infant Baptism?🔗

What are the thought processes of people who are against infant baptism and in favour of adult bap­tism? We will pay some attention to this. In the first place, the subjective experience of faith occupies a central place. Man must, in faith, decide to live a Christian life. At the time of adult baptism the con­gregation accepts the baptized person as a member and assures him that he is a brother of Christ, a child of God. Adult baptism means a conscious and clear choice of the believer for the faith and the brother­hood of the Christian congregation.

The conscious incorporation into the congrega­tion takes place only at the time of adult baptism. The baptized person voluntarily joins the group of be­lievers and with its approval, the congregation ac­cepts the new believer. Only in this way does the holy congregation become visible in this world. The impending day of judgment is an important motiva­tor. With that in mind people must repent and as a sign thereof be baptized.

Baptism thus functions as the capstone of faith. The order in which God's salvation is realized is as follows: first comes the preaching, then faith grows, and finally baptism is administered. In the sixteenth century the Anabaptists saw infant baptism as the first and worst abomination of the Pope. A radical break with the church of Rome could only come about by radically breaking with infant baptism.

The Reformers had to do battle with Rome and the Anabaptists. In their opposition against Rome, the Reformers and the Anabaptists agreed on many things. In that time the Reformation and the Anabap­tist movement were often equated. That, however, was completely incorrect. It is interesting to trace where the Belgic Confession (1561) turns against Rome (e.g. Art. 7, 26 and 31) and where it addresses the Anabaptists (e.g. Art. 2, 3, 28, 34 and 36). Those currents (Rome, the Reformation and Anabaptism) continue to the present day.

Next we will show what is at stake when infant baptism is rejected in favour of adult baptism. In the first place, both Reformers and Anabaptists appeal to the Scriptures. What was the value of the appeal to the Old Testament? The Reformers, without any hesitation appeal to both the Old and the New Tes­tament. The Anabaptists, however, consider the Old Testament to some extent finished.

W. van't Spijker correctly writes:

For the latter (the Anabaptists), the Old Testa­ment to a certain degree is finished. To be sure, it has meaning as an antiquated phase of revela­tion which can be understood figuratively and which, within the framework of the education of a Christian, can provide examples. However, in general the Old Testament is finished.1

Anabaptists, therefore, failed to take the totality of the Scriptures into account. They broke (and still break!) the Scriptures apart. Just imagine what the consequences of this trend are: The Old Testament remains for the most part a closed book and the "Alleluiah, praise the Lord" is preferred over a psalm (for Oh, those Old Testament psalms!); "Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me." That vision has ruinous consequences for the Bible reading and liturgy of God's people.

Secondly, with the Anabaptists the new is so radically new, that the old has disappeared, root and all. For example: the new covenant replaces the old one and the new revelation negates the previous one. The Reformers emphatically stated that the old was not destroyed nor finished. Instead, the old covenant is fulfilled in the new one; the birth of Christ is connected with Adam and Abraham in a real sense. Re-creation does not mean another creation, but a restoration of the old one. Grace does not cancel out nature, but it fights against sin in nature. For that reason there is Reformed politics and Re­formed social action. Anabaptists hardly pay any attention to these matters.

Thirdly, how does the congregation come into being? Is the congregation the sum of separate, individual converts, or is the congregation a unit in which young (!) and old live as the Lord's people? Is nationhood done away with in the New Testament or not? Are natural ties broken when a new Christian congregation is instituted, or are blood ties placed under the blood of Christ?2

Finally, old and new Anabaptists are generally for free will and against election. For most of them baptism does not represent an underlining of God's gracious promises, but a public proclamation of an inner decision. Baptism is not so much a matter of God's promises, but of our promises (Oh, this pious, religious man!). At bottom it is not God's covenant with us, but our covenant with Him. Adult baptism (or re-baptism) is a sign of disobedience. At bottom the pious, religious man is number one and God number two. The accent has been shifted from God to the pious man, from God's acting, to our acting. "And so the question about certainty has, in the final analysis, become a question which rests on the sub­jective basis of our experience."3

Again and again man must justify himself. Here individualism comes home to roost in the worst possible terms. Read our classic Form for Baptism of Infants against the background of the foregoing.

Luther, Zwingli and Calvin🔗

We already saw how a strong emphasis on emo­tions can rob us of infant baptism. We shall now clarify the thought processes of those who opt for adult baptism. The whole vision of the Old and the New Testament is at stake.

Luther states that those who seek the foundation of their faith in baptism, continue to baptize. Again and again they will ask themselves whether or not they had true faith, when they were (re) baptized. "Now I feel true faith, that of a year ago was not completely true. I must be baptized again. The previous baptism was not completely true. Now I really feel that I truly believe."  Those who seek the foundation for baptism in their faith, continue to baptize and to waver and doubt.

Luther says, "Not our word spoken at baptism is fundamental, but God's Word. For it is a perfect masterpiece of the devil when he turns the justification by faith into a justification by works."4 Here is the profoundest motive for Luther's opposi­tion to the Anabaptist: justification by works! He also says, "I thank God and rejoice that I have been baptized as a child. For then I did what God commanded. Whether I had faith or not, I was baptized according to God's command. This baptism is good and certain, regardless whether my faith is certain or uncertain today. Nothing was lacking in my bap­tism, in my faith alas, much too much!"

Let us now turn to Zwingli. Zwingli emphasi­zed that the circumcision of the Old Covenant was the same as baptism in the New Covenant. Concern­ing the confrontation with the Anabaptists, Zwingli always emphasized the unity of the Old and New Covenant. Infant baptism (as circumcision), was an expression of God's electing grace. Naturally Zwingli recognized the differences between circumcision and baptism, but as far as its essence is concerned it deals with the same God, who in His election comes to us in Christ. He is the first. Therefore Christians must take the education of their children seriously. With an appeal to Colossians 2:11, where Paul calls bap­tism "a circumcision done by Christ," Zwingli ar­gues the sameness of circumcision and baptism in principle.5 For both Luther and Zwingli it was clear that baptism was not an act of man but of God.

The Reformers were well aware that baptism by itself was not enough. Consequently the children must receive a Christian education. Catechism classes are an essential part of this. Infant baptism pre-supposes permanent support and guidance from the congregation. Calvin also emphasized the unity of the Old and New Covenant. He pro­ceeded from God's promise. That promise contains the washing away of sins by Christ and the dying of flesh, through par­ticipation in His death, which gives s birth to the renewal of life.

 Calvin pointed out the similarity and the difference between circumcision and bap­tism. Both deal with the same promises. The difference lies in the outward ceremony. Under the Old Covenant, children shared in the matter signified. "Would this have changed under the New Covenant?" Calvin asks. When the children share in the matter signi­fied, should the sign be kept from them? Should one accept that through Christ's coming, grace has di­minished?

God's covenant remained the same, only the outward manner is different. Christ Himself also re­ceived the children. And if it is correct to bring children to Christ, why would it not be correct to have them baptized? If the kingdom of heaven be­longs to them, why should the sign be refused them?

W. van't Spijker writes correctly:

For Calvin it is not a serious objection, when one says that nowhere does one of the apostles men­tions that a child has been baptized. Over against it an appeal is made to texts which inform us that a whole family was baptized. Such argumenta­tion, however, makes little sense. In the same fashion one could say that nowhere do we read that women partook of the Lord's Supper. No woman is denied access to the table because of it. In the matter of the Lord's Supper one proceeds from the rule of faith, i.e. from its essence one decides that women may partake in the Lord's Supper, even though it is not mentioned any­where.6

Those who have seen God's grace also desire that "the covenant of the Lord is ingrained in the bodies of the children," as Calvin says.

Sola Scriptura, sola gratia and sola fide.

By maintaining infant baptism, the Reformers took a stand against the Anabaptist movement of their days. The Reformers were clearly aware of history. They knew that they followed the thinking of the early Christian church. This historical awareness was not a matter of traditionalism or conservatism on the part of the Reformers, but a reverent recogni­tion of God's work in history.

The Reformers lived out of the Sola Scriptura: from Scripture only. The Anabaptists appealed especially to the "spirit" and to the "inner light." Their own experience of faith was published as God's revelation. So they increasingly distanced themselves from the Scriptures; that was only the "outward word." What the "spirit" gave them was important. Thus spiritualism began to rule over God's Word, as it was "once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). Of course the Anabaptist quoted many texts, but they did not listen to the complete Word of God. They did not see the unity of the Scriptures. Espe­cially the Old Testament did not receive justice. The Reformers always wished to understand the Scrip­tures in its totality as the one Word of God's promise both in the Old and New Testament.

The Anabaptist often found theological study unnecessary. You could live "very simply" by "single texts" and the Spirit would lead you into all truth. For this you did not need theological study. "The spirit leads you into all truth," could easily become: your own experience of faith leads you into all truth. How dangerous such reasoning is. The drama of Munster (1525) makes that clear!

The Reformers emphasized that grace only (sola gratia) stands over against our works and the achievements of our will. Among older and modern Anabaptists one finds many radical propo­nents of the free­dom of the hu­man will. The works of pious man are very im­portant to the Anabaptists and the summit of man's obedience is his re-baptism. Man works his own salvation. "He lets himself be bap­tized. In fact he baptized himself, for the office and authority of the church have long since disap­peared."7

The Reformation maintained infant baptism as the absolute expression of God's grace and His elec­tion. Before we know the differences between our right and left hand, there is God's faithful hand which reaches out to us. God does not do something in us, God does it all, from the beginning to the end of our life. The ground of our faith does not lie in the believer, but in God who promises. Sola fide! At bottom the controversy between Reformers and Anabaptists has been: the reconciliation by Christ only or, the reconciliation in the way of our imita­tion, our experience of faith and our obedience of faith with, as crown, our baptism as an expression of our faith.

This line of thought has consequences as regards our view of the church. The Reformers correctly saw baptism as a means of God's grace. Where is this means administered? In the Church! The church, however, is unimportant to the Anabaptists. This thought resurfaces in all sorts of evangelical move­ments who reject infant baptism. Because of indi­vidualism, spiritualism, emotionally directed "I" thinking and subjectivism, many do not see the church anymore. Ecclesiastical indifference is grow­ing and the number of religious groups increases, for the experience of faith is more authentic in the one than in the other!

As long as the church is not relevant to many, as long as the congregation is not a real community, the influence of the individualistic Anabaptism, as reac­tion, will continue.

W. van't Spijker writes:

It concerns God's church. She has the breadth of the covenant and has its roots in an enormously broad basis. She, however, needs the power of the Spirit and must be rooted in the depth of God's mercy, which is from eternity. Between Adam's blood guilt and Christ's blood which cleanses us of all sins, lies the covenant of grace, established from generation to generation.8

We, therefore, must not consider the baptized per­son in isolation. He does not stand alone, but is a member of the entire congregation, of the one large family of the Lord. Parents and the congregation are responsible for him. Behind the baptized child stands the whole congregation. The congregation, too, is actively involved in the baptism, for the child is incorporated into the body of Christ. In baptism the child is, as it were, placed in the lap of the congregation. It is taken up in its circle. Baptism is therefore, not only a family matter! The children are "baptized into" the body of Christ (the congregation). There, in the congregation, the Holy Spirit wishes to work in these children. The congregation is the workshop of the Holy Spirit. My baptism tells me that God sought me out, before I sought Him and that gives joyful certainty.

Our baptism does not save us. Even stronger: our baptism demands a personal decision of faith. When that personal decision does not come, we (with the water of baptism on our foreheads) are doomed and will be punished more than if we were never baptized. When I make confession of faith, that in the final analysis is not my decision, but the decision of God's Spirit within me. Infant baptism calls for our new obedience. That new obedience is a gift of God. Only then is there a line between the baptismal font and the Lord's Supper table! Everything is God's work. Those who boast, boast in the Lord!

Church or Group🔗

We wrote that the church is unimportant to Ana­baptists and we made the connection with differ­ent groups who reject infant baptism. Evangelical groups take the place of the church. We see these occurrences throughout history. The early church had the Montanists and Donatists. In the Middle Ages there were many movements which overem­phasized the work of the Holy Spirit. They all had a certain form of subjectivism in common. They re­vealed themselves in smaller or larger groups which were indifferent to, or in opposition to, the church.

They suffered much persecution, also from the church. They, however, remained throughout his­tory. But never was their power as great as in last decades. Its power resides predominantly in the experience of the faith community, in the mutual ties in which the often neglected office of the church, the priesthood of all believers, receives its due.

W. van't Spicier writes:

Apart from certain opinions we see in these groups the typical characteristics of the early Anabapists, namely simple biblical piousness, that reminds us of biblicism, a congregation –  ­ideal in which adult baptism plays a large and dominating part and an opinion of the free will whereby the choice of faith is dependent upon the decision made by man's will.9

There is much talk about the experience of faith in these groups. They reject a dog­matic, doctrinal position. These groups offer a warmth and glow which to many is pleasing. They exert a great influence on those "who have been disappointed in their church." They offer a form of ecumenism which runs right through the church, steps over church walls and unites people in a spontane­ous witness.

Its theological significance is compared with "the discovery of justification by faith of the sixteenth century and with the confession of Christology in the first century." The twentieth century is considered the age of the church, but it appears to have become the age of groups, "which like oil spills slowly cover the eccle­siastical water."10 The ecclesiastical institute for many no longer has any significance, (it is often seen as a ball and chain). To many, the group in which one recognizes each other is all that matters. If we are to remain Re­formed, we must remember that the covenant comes from God. The Almighty God establishes it with us, insignificant people. He rules over us and in that covenant He promises His eternal grace and mercy for sinners. This covenant is the foundation of our baptism.

God promises us His grace. This promise is given to the children as well as to the adults. This covenant is the foundation of the church. It is not a matter of the individual in the first place but of the people. In this covenant people do not find each other, neither does man find God. No, God has in His mercy for sinners, found us. He promises He will give us all that is necessary for this life and the life to come. The Holy Spirit makes what we have in Christ our own. Those who relinquish the covenant and set baptism aside, take away the foundation of the church. Again and again, Reformed people through­out history did not make baptism dependent on the faith of the child or the parents, but on God's promises alone. So today infant baptism is an important point of difference with those who use the same arguments as sixteenth century Anabaptists.11

The point of the foregoing is this: let us as Re­formed church, as covenant community, form a real communion of saints. Let us have eyes and heart for each other and radiate warmth. Christian mercy is a Christian virtue which we can only exercise when we practice it! Only then (and not before) will the complaint, which alas is heard in the congregation as well, "people do not know, see, or miss me," be silenced. The proclamation of Christ does not bring us under a new yoke of slavery but teaches us that mercy is a Christian virtue. Do we not confess that we are more than prophets and kings, and also priests (Lord's Day 12)? Then we ought to know that we are responsible for each other. Not in a group but in the congregation of the living God! Only then does the congregation fulfill an exemplary function in the world. God's electing grace in Christ makes us mutually active.

Where are the Front Lines?🔗

Of course much more can be said, but this will have to suffice. We must discern the modern movements that reject infant baptism. We have shown what is involved when that is done. Throughout the ages there has been opposition to the revealed Word of God and to the confession of the church. Where doctrine and walk of life are not in agreement with the Scriptures, the church must do battle. It is impor­tant to remain Reformed in this age and to know where the front line is.

  1. Where is the enemy located? I would say: in your own heart. The book of Proverbs teaches us that, "Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life" (Proverbs 4:23). Our life has been re­deemed by the Lord Jesus Christ. The devil is out to take possession of that heart, the heart of parents and children. Proverbs teaches us that we must be wise, must not give false witness, be dependent on the Lord, must love, must be honest and faithful, must be thrifty and not wasteful, must be diligent and not lazy, must be friendly and merciful, not conceited and haughty, must not slander, must not be revenge­ful, not drink too much, be honest in making money, must be careful and humble, must not be hot tem­pered, must honour old age etc., etc... Christ, the Wisdom, lets His light shine over our entire variegated life! What does it mean to be Reformed? That you keep a careful watch on your heart! In all the circumstances you may find yourself, live with the Lord. How do you react with your heart and your mouth in those situations? Where does the church of today have to do battle? There, where life is not lived out of the Gospel of Christ and where His commandments are trespassed. Our hearts are also attacked from the outside. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks about our sworn ene­mies: "the devil, the world, and our own flesh" (Lords Day 52).
  2. We mention secularization as a mighty enemy. For many God no longer exists. People who formerly prayed no longer do so. Our time has become god­less. We live in the "I-era": I do what I will, find and feel; I do not let myself be taught from above. I am of age and have my own rights and do not let myself be manipulated by authority. When marriage no longer works, I will seek di­vorce and when I meet someone else who is more pleasant than my own wife, then I'll change partners etc. There is nothing like liberty! Criticism of Scrip­ture has (had) disastrous results for life in the covenant and for the life of faith. When you do not hurt your neighbour and are faithful, then you may go to bed with him/her before marriage. If you are faithful, you may maintain a homosexual relationship.12 What I feel, is the norm. Our experiences are more important than God's revelation.
  3. In another form, we encounter subjective Christi­anity in Evangelical groups and Pentecostal congregations. There is today an intensely pious subjectivism which one-sidedly emphasizes pious feelings, so that confession of the church and with it the church and its offices, is no longer seen. It is then enough to "accept Jesus in your heart." Unfortu­nately this acceptance coincides with criticism of the church's confession. Your own life of faith opposes the doctrine of the church. That which is evangelical and "reformational" is chosen in preference to being reformed. The unity of faith makes way for the personal experience of faith.
  4. Of course much more could be said about the subject. But it seems to me that its principle points have been indicated. Finally, with young people you often encounter the thought "to be a church, okay, with pleasure, but you have to work it out concretely and make room for a healthy experience of faith. Do not only talk about the church, but act and live as an upright Christian. Confront the world with your Christianity. Do something with your riches." Such talk, in my opinion, is legitimate. In various articles in "De Reformatie" Dr. C. Trimp has correctly pleaded for such a healthy experience of faith.
  5. The foregoing urges us to study the Scriptures and confessions of the Church (and also the Church Order, after all we agreed on all sorts of practical matters). It also urges us to study the many current questions. Young people (correctly) ask for well-developed answers. Let us guard our own heart and that of our neighbour. The "sworn enemies" do not sit still and we must be aware where the frontline is. In doctrine you may think precisely and correctly (you see the church in the right light) but you may be at fault regarding money management. You perhaps have the ability to analyze all sorts of errors outside the church, but may be in the dark when it concerns, for example, the ninth commandment. The service of the Lord is very precise. We may have all the arguments against Millennialism at our finger tips, but when it comes to family life, for example, we are not honest. Guard your heart, have a heart for the youth of the church, and man the frontline.


  1. ^ W. van't Spijker, Doop in plaats van besnijdenis, (Goudriaan, 1982), p. 22.
  2. ^ Spijker, op. cit., p. 24.
  3. ^ Spijker, op. cit., p. 25.
  4. ^ Spijker, op. cit., p. 30.
  5. ^ Spijker, op. cit., pp. 32-37.
  6. ^ Spijker, op. cit., p. 44.
  7. ^ Spijker, op. cit., p. 54.
  8. ^ Spijker, op. cit., p. 56.
  9. ^ W. van't Spijker, Gereformeerden en dopers - gesprek onderweg ,(Kampen, 1986), p. 116.
  10. ^ Spijker, op. cit., p. 117.
  11. ^ Spijker, op. cit., p. 118.
  12. ^ See the report published in synodical circles: "In Liefde trouw zijn.

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