Thursday, November 15, 2012

Conversion, Baptism and Church Membership

- Joachim Rieck

All  Christian denominations basically agree  that Christian baptism  is the point of entrance into the church.  What is not so clear in the minds of many  is whether   an actual conversion  experience  should  precede  Christian  baptism  and church membership  or not.  

Evangelical Paedo - Baptists  generally  baptize their infants  into the  faith of their  believing “covenant parents“ , in the certain hope that in years to come, the LORD  would  be pleased  to add saving faith   to these  baptized children.   Evangelical Paedo Baptists therefore baptize their children in anticipation of  their children’s conversion.  

Roman Catholic - Paedo Baptists   and some  Anglicans   unashamedly confer  a saving status  upon their children in the act of baptism. In their view  baptism actually saves! This is called baptismal regeneration.

The Paedo- Baptist movement  generally does not  baptise by immersion (although the Greek word  baptizo  suggests immersion ). They ‘baptize’  by sprinkling! The Eastern Orthodox church  is  an exception in this matter.  In keeping  with the  true meaning of ‘baptizo  they  practise  infant immersion!

Baptism -   Church Membership - Conversion (?)

Credo Baptists  believe that  baptism by immersion should only  follow  upon conversion.  For this they have strong scriptural warrant, since every instance of baptism in the New Testament  follows  (and never precedes)  conversion. Baptists believe that  conversion is  the warrant for  baptism, which  leads into church membership.

Conversion – Baptism – Church Membership  


Here follows a perhaps  controversial  question :  Are Paedo Baptists  really reformed  in their  practise of baptism ?
At a recent  meeting with some  dear  Paedo  Baptist  brothers  they expressed  their doubt  to me as to whether a Baptist could  really be reformed.  Without entering into a long debate on  who owns the name “Reformed”, I want  to suggest  that we use the   title ‘reformed’ in a  “biblical” sense and not in a  “philosophical” sense.   To be sure, no one  is ever  completely biblical, and the reformation process  should be   on-going (Semper Reformanda – ‘ always reforming’)  
The conscience of a true  Reformer   is always  bound  by  the Word of God. When Martin Luther, the famous  German Reformer  was asked to recant  his Protestant  beliefs   before the Council of Worms  (April 16-26 , 1521 AD)  he said this:
Unless I am convicted by Scriptures and plain reason- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other concerning  - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot  and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise . God help me. Amen[1]     

Following Luther’s logic[2],   I too must say to my Paedo Baptist brothers  that “Scripture and plain reason” must determine my understanding  on  this subject . I say this as one who himself was born into the Lutheran tradition, but who has subsequently rejected  the  unreformed view of “Lutheran baptism”.
How could I possible dispute on this matter with the great Luther and  for that matter, Calvin?  I will say only this. If Luther  and Calvin  with their profound  understanding of the Word of God  had given their great minds to further study on this subject, and  if they  had lived longer, and in peaceful times, and with a more settled disposition,  both  would have come to the same view  on  believers  baptism  as some  of their contemporaries,  the often despised  Anabaptists.  Anabaptist Swiss pastors such as  Conrad  Grebel,  Georg Blaurock and  Felix Manz   were   godly and competent men[3].  Their contributions  to the  corporate  Reformation  effort  has often been underrated.

My argument  with  Paedo Baptists is  that their view of baptism is essentially unreformed! It is a hangover  of  a “sacralistic society” [4] , cemented  by  the Roman   emperor Constantine and fomented later by  Roman Catholicism. By   the end of the 4th Century,  not yet baptized persons were  required to attend catechism classes in preparation for baptism; all who after  attending such  classes who refused to present themselves for baptism… were subject to the ultimate sentence.”[5]

And so, infant baptism had become a tradition in the church rather than a biblical practise. When tradition rules over the plain teaching of Scripture, the Spirit who causes His Word to be inspired is grieved. This  unreformed tradition  of baptizing  babies  into the  communion of the church  has spawned a huge  group of “nominal  believers “ in the world. A nominal believer is   a person who  may be convinced but not converted !  

Baptists  commit   a similar mistake when they  baptize  and add  unconverted people into membership.  
When we  ignore  the  necessity, importance  and primacy of the  new birth as  the vital entry point into Christ and into the church, we  will soon find that  our churches  will slowly  die, for the church  that is populated by unregenerate men and women is indeed a barren tree!
Christianity grows alien to its essence when it is made into law for those who have been born instead of reborn” .[6]

Many mainline denominations (including many Baptist churches )   are now led by unconverted men and women. Having not entered through the narrow gate themselves (Matt 7:13, 14) they cannot teach and persuade others concerning the importance and necessity of the new birth (John 3:1-8).  If we ignore the necessity of the new birth, then the only other alternative is a mechanical view  of  conversion. The doctrine of baptism has  sadly been abused to this end.  

Oddly enough, a good number of evangelical believers today continue to hold on to the practise of infant baptism, justifying this practise by appealing to  God’s  covenant with the believer. If a child has a converted parent, then it is said that the child  is subject to the privileges of the   covenant of God with his /her parent(s).  There is much truth in  this. The covenant  that the believing parent has with God  is indeed a rich blessing and a source of hope.  God requires parents to teach their children, pray for their children, and walk in covenantal faithfulness before their children. There is certainly much hope for parents who walk in covenantal faithfulness before their God.  However, the covenant requires children to respond obediently to their parents teaching.
The covenant was never designed by God to be an unconditional guarantee that believer’s children would be automatically saved because their parents were in covenant with God! The whole history of Israel is surely  a sad testimony  to this.  Second generation  believers  are often notoriously unfaithful to the God of their fathers.  

The hope of the Christian parent does not  begin with  the act of baptism. The hope of the Christian parent begins  with wrestling in prayer for the souls of  their children who are  born after the likeness of the fallen Adam. The Christian parent will remain restless in this regard until their offspring are in Christ, after which they should be baptized and  introduced to the church – the ekklesia literally ‘the called out ones.’  
We are of the opinion that Luther and Calvin did unfortunately not take the Reformation far enough in this matter. They did not reform the Roman Catholic practise of infant baptism.
Thankfully then  there were those children of the Reformation   (e.g. the Anabaptists and the  English Baptists )  that did  see  the plain meaning, teaching  and practise  of Scripture  in this regard.  Their insistence upon the  biblical practise of the manner and mode of baptism made them to inherit the name “Baptist”.  They clearly saw that the     New Testament practise of baptism always only applied to believers. They also saw very clearly ,that since baptism is the biblical response to one’s profession of faith, that this act also became the door to church membership. 
Reformed   Baptists therefore teach that only those who are converted and baptized should have a right to membership in Christ's church.

[1] Roland Bainton : Here I stand, p.  185f
[2] To be sure he wasn’t disputing on baptism ! He was  defending the  5 SOLA’s
[3]  A good  resource  for further study on the Anabaptists: “The Anabaptist Story” by William Estep. Eerdmans 1996 ( 3rd ed.)
[4] A sacral society  is a society held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed” (Leonard Verduin : The Reformers and their Step children , p. 23)
[5] Verduin :p 32
[6] Verduin: p.31

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