Posted by: stpowen | August 6, 2010

The New Birth (6). Paedofaith and Presumptive Regeneration

Paedofaith and Presumptive Regeneration.

It seems that now may be a good time to discuss the Doctrine of Presumptive Regeneration.  In this article, I shall not be criticizing infant baptism per se.  Readers of this Blog will know that I am an unashamed advocate of Believers’ Baptism and I have written various articles on this subject (1).  However, it has to be admitted that God has blessed the ministry of many paedobaptists and paedobaptistic churches just as he has that of many Credo-baptists and their churches.  One must be right and the other wrong and Christians should know what they believe and why, but it may be that God is less concerned about the matter than we are.

My concern in this article is to deal with a belief of many paedobaptists, a doctrine which is, I believe, a virtual denial of the Gospel, that of Presumptive Regeneration, the teaching that because a child is born to a Christian parent, it may be presumed that the child is already born again.  There is a slightly less objectionable view called Presumptive Election, which does not presume that the infant is already regenerate, but that it is sure to become so in due course.  The practical effects of both doctrines are, I believe, much the same.

At quite an early stage in the Church’s history, baptism became associated with regeneration (2) due to Church Fathers’ misunderstanding of the term ‘water and Spirit’ in John 3:5 (3).  For example, Cyril of Jerusalem (310-386) called baptism the ‘bath of regeneration’ and taught that baptism washed away the guilt of all sins previously committed, conferred spiritual union with Christ and set apart the one baptized as the temple of the Holy Spirit (4)

These beliefs, which were very common among the Church Fathers, led eventually to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration.  The Church of Rome teaches to this day that babies are born again through the sprinkling of water by the Priest.  The Protestant Reformers rejected this doctrine and insisted that salvation comes through faith alone.  However, in their writings, these same Reformers produced some statements which are, at the very least, highly misleading.  For example, as we have seen (5) Cranmer’s 1552 Prayer Book makes the priest proclaim after baptizing an infant,  ‘Seeing now…..this child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church…..’  These very words remain in the 1662 Prayer Book and are still recited at christenings to this very day.  It seems remarkable that a Protestant could write or recite such a thing, but in the 19th Century, Bishop J.C.Ryle argued that the words did not mean that the child was definitely regenerate, but that it was presumed to be so.

Even Martin Luther, who was so firm in standing up for Sola Fide, made some very worrying Statements; for instance, in his great commentary on Galatians, commenting on Gal 3:27 he wrote (attacking the Anabaptists):-

‘[They are] fond and fantastical spirits, which go about to deface the majesty of baptism, and speak wickedly of it.  Paul contrariwise commends and sets it forthwith honourable titles, calling it “the washing of the New Birth, the renewal of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5).  And here also he says, that all they which are baptized have put on Christ.  As if he said:  You have not received through baptism a mere token whereby you are enrolled in the number of the Christians, as in our time many fantastical heads have supposed, which have made baptism a token only, that is to say, a bare and empty sign  But as many (says he)as have been baptized, have put on Christ: that is, you have been carried out of the law into a new birth, which is wrought in baptism….Paul therefore teaches that baptism is not a sign, but the garment of Christ.’

Luther’s problem is that he has confused water baptism with baptism in the Spirit.  The first is what man does and the other is what Christ does.  This teaching is found first in Matt 3:11, where John the Baptist proclaims,  “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after Me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  That this is an important teaching is shown by the number of times it is repeated (Mark 1:8; Luke 3:3, 16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16; 13:24-26).  Baptism by man is one thing- it is an ordinance of Christ and by no means to be despised. But what Gal 3:27 is talking about is baptism in the Holy Spirit.  The verse is saying that everyone who is baptized by the Spirit into Christ- that is, everyone who is born again- is a true Christian.  Water baptism is not ‘the washing of the New Birth,’ Spirit baptism is.  Water baptism pictures it.

Calvin seems to have the same problem as Luther.  His Strasburg Catechism asks, ‘How do you know yourself to be a son of God in fact as well as in name?’ He answers, ‘Because I am baptized in the Name of God the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’

Even the Westminster Confession seems at one point to conflate water baptism and regeneration.  In Chapter XXVIII, it states,

‘Baptism…….is for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church……Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but the infants of one, of both, believing parents, are to be baptized….The grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs to….’  

It is the word ‘conferred’ that worries me.  The Confession seems to be stating that the infant children of believers (and how is that to be known infallibly?) genuinely receive the New Birth as babies.  I understand that many Presbyterians would deny that their confession states this, but I find it hard to put any other construction on the words.   In fairness, however, it must be said that the WCF elsewhere stands firmly for salvation by Grace Alone through Faith Alone.

In recent years, a new movement has sprung up among Presbyterian churches, named Federal Vision.  Although it has been rejected by most Presbyterian denominations, F.V. still seems to be alive and well in the United States.  It is not my purpose to attempt a detailed critique of F.V. teaching (6), but to consider a book by one of its leading advocates.  The book is Paedofaith by Rich Lusk (Athanasius Press), and some of his teachings seem to be held by many who would not describe themselves as supporters of Federal Vision.

Lusk claims that every child born to Christian parents possesses ‘Christ and His benefits’ and that therefore they are included in the atonement.  He writes, ‘The promise (of Gen 17:7) declares that from the very beginning of their lives our children stand in the same covenantal relationship with God that we are in by virtue of faith.  God is our God if we are conceived and born into a covenant family.’  ‘Jesus regards covenant infants and children as believers.’

The only problem with all this is that it is utterly incorrect.  John 1:12-13 tells us very clearly that the New Birth is ‘Not of blood’ and that it is those who genuinely receive Christ as Lord and Saviour who are accounted children of God.  Paul tells us that ‘they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all Israel because they are the seed of Abraham’ (Rom 9:6-7).  In John 8, our Lord told those Jews who were priding themselves on being the circumcised descendants of Abraham, “You are of your father, the devil!”   Lusk’s teaching fails also at the historical level.  Godly men like Samuel, David, Hezekiah and Josiah all had reprobate children, and Isaiah and Jeremiah feared that there was hardly a believer left in the whole of Judah (Isaiah 1:2-4, 9; Jer 5:1).  All down through Church history, godly parents have had to mourn over unregenerate children.  The New Birth is ‘Not of blood.’  

To take these glaring inconsistencies in his teaching into account, Lusk has to shift his ground.  He writes, ‘While the covenant relationship is a blessed relationship, it is also a conditional relationship;’ and again, ‘True regenerate believers not only can fall completely and definitely from justifying faith and also from grace and salvation, but indeed they often do fall from them and are lost forever.’  He continues, ‘The faith of those who believe for a time does not differ from justifying and saving faith except with respect to its duration.’

This is dreadful stuff!  What has happened to Christ, the Good Shepherd?  His sheep are utterly secure.  “….I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand’ (John 10:28. Cf. also Rom 8:37-39).  But of course, Christ’s sheep are a special breed.  They are distinguished by their ears and their feet.  They hear the Shepherd’s voice and they obey Him (John 10:27).  They are those who have been born again of water and the Spirit, and they are no longer what they were.

That there are those who believe on Christ for a time and then fall away is perfectly true.  This is the teaching of the Parable of the Sower.  In that parable, the difference is not in the sower (the preacher), nor in the seed (the word preached), but in the soil (the heart of the recipient).  An unregenerate heart can sometimes be persuaded of the Gospel for a while, but it will not be truly changed and after a time, it will return to its unregenerate ways (Matt 12:43-45; 2Peter 2:22).  To such people Christ will say, “I never knew you!” (Matt 7:23).  Not, “I knew you once and then forgot you.” People who leave the Church were never truly part of it.  ‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that it might be made manifest that none of them were of us’ (1John 2:19).

The distinctive part of Lusk’s thesis comes when he admits, ‘’Everything in Scripture seems to connect faith to baptism.  If paedobaptism is biblically warranted then paedofaith must be a reality.’  It is unfortunate that Lusk does not consider seriously the other obvious possibility- that paedobaptism is not biblically warranted- but there we are.  He goes on to try to prove from the Bible that the children of believers are usually regenerated in the womb. If they then leave the faith of their parents, it is because they have ‘lost’ their regeneration as described above.

Lusk makes use of two texts of Scripture.  The first is the story of the pre-natal John the Baptist in Luke 1:41. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb’ (cf. also v44).  Now let us suppose for a moment that John was indeed born again before he was born the first time.  What then?  How does that prove that other children are regenerated in the same way?  We read in Numbers 22 that a donkey once talked.  Do we suppose from that that all donkeys can talk, and keep silent only because they have nothing worthwhile to say?  We read in Joshua 10 that the sun once stood still in the sky.  Do we expect this to happen regularly?    No, no!  This story is part of the Christmas narrative, and it was a miraculous sign from God, firstly to Elizabeth, to encourage her to believe Mary’s remarkable story, and secondly for Mary, to reassure her that what the angel had told her was indeed true.  I no more expect to see unborn children regenerated than I expect to see, in this world, the heavens opened and angels singing, “Glory to God” or stars leading wise men to stables.  I do not say that any of these things cannot happen again; God is sovereign.  I do say that we have no reason to expect them to.

The second of Lusk’s supposed proof texts is Psalm 22:9-10. ‘But you are He who took Me out of the womb; You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts.  I was cast upon You from birth.  From My mother’s womb you have been My God.’  Lusk claims that this verse proves that King David must have been born again either in the womb or as a tiny baby.

The first thing to notice is that Psalm 22 is a Messianic Psalm. It is talking about the Lord Jesus Christ who, of course was born totally without sin.  But even if we suppose that it also refers to David, what of it?  Let’s look at some similar verses.

Psalm 58:3. ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.’  Are we really to suppose that wicked people are born with the ability to speak so that they can tell lies immediately after birth?

Job 31:18. ‘But from my youth I reared him as a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow.’  Does Lusk suppose that Job, as a new-born infant, guided and helped widows?  The whole idea is preposterous. These verses are poems and are employing poetic imagery.

 Texts like these cannot be taken literally.  I once read about a British politician who was said to have imbibed socialism with her mother’s milk.  Did this person’s parents really mash up pages of the writings of Marx or Beatrice Webb and feed them to her along with her bottle?   It was the error of the Pharisees to take our Lord’s words in a crassly literal manner (John 3:4; 6:52).  The Bible is a spiritual book and must be read with Spirit-anointed eyes.  Inasmuch as it refers to David it says that for as long as he can remember, he has believed in God.  That  does not mean at all that he had a saving knowledge of God as his redeemer and was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah while still a tiny infant.  David knew quite well what his spiritual state was as an infant (Psalm 51:5).  There will have been some point in his life, whether he could remember it or not, when, under the teaching of his parents, he came to understand that he was a sinner and that he needed look to God for salvation.  This could have happened when he was still quite young, but not before he was born.  ‘Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (Rom 10:17).

Does it really matter if people believe in paedofaith?  I suggest it does.  How can parents, Pastors, Sunday School teachers and others tell their young people to repent and trust in Christ if they believe they already have at birth?  Instead they will (if they are consistent with their beliefs) be teaching their children that they must act like the Christians that they are supposed to be.  So works will be taught instead of faith.  Even if they do preach the Gospel faithfully, the young people will be thinking to themselves, “This doesn’t apply to me.  I already am a Christian.”  This is how Pharisees are bred.  Young people sit in church thinking that the exhortations to repentance that they are hearing apply to others but not to them.  They can go through Young People’s groups, University Christian Unions, even seminary, assuming that they are Christians because that is what their church tradition has taught them, never realising that they are lost and hell-bound.

If ever there was a man who could have believed in paedofaith, it was Nicodemus.  Doubtless he was circumcised on the eighth day; doubtless Mr and Mrs Nicodemus taught him well in accordance with Deut 6:6-9; doubtless he underwent extensive training to become a Rabbi and rose to become a leading member of the Sanhedrin, the teacher of Israel’ (John 3:10).  Yet he understands nothing of true religion; “How can these things be?” He asks.  He hasn’t got a clue and our Lord has to say to him, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (v12).

The only thing we know for sure about our children when they are born is that they are lost sinners, ‘brought forth in iniquity and in sin…..conceived’ (Psalm 51:5).  We need to teach our children as soon as they can understand that they are sinners and that they need to trust in Christ for salvation.  Even more importantly, we need to be in earnest prayer for them day by day, crying out to God, ‘We gave them life in the flesh; You, Lord must give them life in the Spirit!’

Note

(1) See my various articles under https://marprelate.wordpress.com/category/baptism/ or https://marprelate.wordpress.com/category/covenants/

(2) Justin Martyr (d. 165 AD) was the first writer to describe baptism as regeneration. Whether he actually meant to say this is less certain.

(3) Almost every Church Father from Tertullian onwards seems to have regarded the ‘water in John 3:5 as referring to baptism.  See however, my article here: https://marprelate.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/the-new-birth-4-its-nature/

(4) Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures. See especially Lecture 3, Sections 3 & 4.

(5) In an earlier article on the nature of the New Birth.  See (3) above.

(6) This is the simplest critique of F.V. that I know of.  http://www.wscal.edu/clark/tuning.php

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Responses

  1. hi, new to the site, thanks.

  2. Dear Martin,
    I quite agree with you that presumptive faith is one thing and born-again faith is another but I disagree with the way you seek to prove it. No matter how you claim to accept the Christian testimony of those who differ with you in their understanding of baptism, you nevertheless, yourself, shelter those who believe in presumptive regeneration. Let me explain. In the Church of England, their Articles clearly teach that baptism is a pointer to the New Birth which nevertheless is God’s gift which comes with His gift of faith. Baptism is a pointer to the New Birth but is not a mechanical part of it. This rules out what you call ‘presumptive regeneration’. Furthermore, you use the term ‘regeneration’ quite differently to the way our Reformers used the term, thus putting the whole discussion on a false basis. So, too, Justin Martyr, who preaced the New Birth, made it very clear what he meant by ‘regeneration’ which is not what you mean by the term.
    Now where is presumptive regeneration in the sense that the baptised is viewed as being born again? We see this in Rome, though their entire doctrine of salvation is different from the truths of the New Birth to which you and I hold. We are thus left with the Presbyterians and the Baptists who profess the Reformed faith. The Presbyterians altered Reformed doctrines radically in their short term of power from 1643-48 during Commonwealth times and afterwards split up, some believing in presumed regeneration in your sense of the word and some not. However, the Baptists, both Reformed and Unreformed) who gather themselves around a rite and name their conventicles after that rite, whereas Christians usually gather around the Name and Person of Christ, practice presumed regeneration to a high degree. He who is baptised is presumably saved.
    Of each ‘worrying statements’ you find in High Lutheransism and Low Anglicanism (which is often more ritualistic than High Anglicanism), I can give you ten ‘worrying statements’ from the works of Baptists such as Robinson, Keach, Crosby, the Halls, Fuller, Carson, Christian, Hiscox etc., etc.. Such statements are to be found in both High and Low Baptist writings and preachings. I shall not give you a length of quotes as this method is futile. No matter how many theological ‘Big Names’ are arrayed against each other, the battle will be to no avail as we do not battle against flesh and blood. Both ‘sides’ use Scripture as their authority but both sides use merely parts of Scripture to throw at each other like darts. Baptists, for instance, always use pagan linguistics to justify their interpretation of ‘immerse’, a term borrowed from Rome not the Bible, and claim that of the forty-odd pagan meanings baptizoo has, the idea of ‘immersion’ is the correct one, though it is relatively rare. They thus ignore Biblical words for baptism not found in pagan (Classic) literature.
    We need a colloquy between Christians of both sides to drop all traditions and wound-licking and gather around the Word together to sort out this problem. We should not meet as ‘Anglicans’, ‘Presbyterians’, ‘Congregationalists’ or ‘Baptists’ or those of Paul or Apollos, and certainly not as classical linguists. We should meet merely as the two or three who are gathered together in Christ’s name.
    During a recent speaking tour of Baptist churches in X, I witnessed several baptisms of five-year-old girls all dressed up to kill in white short frilly dresses and their faces covered in lipstick, rouge and maskara. They answere the questioning of the ‘baptiser’ in the correct, drilled way. Their Mums, dressed appropriatly carnivalistically (where were the daddies?) served as background singers as the ‘baptiser’ prayed to music. The little girls may have been Christians. I have my doubts about the parents, pastor and church members. I have never seen such a display in an Anglican or Presbyterian church. I have never witnessed a baptism in a papist church so I cannot comment there. Compared to this, Spurgeon’s famous joke about an Anglican baptism is just nothing!

    George

  3. Reblogged this on A Sidekick's Blog and commented:
    Even though officially denounced by several Presbyterian denominations, Federal Vision teaching enjoys growing popularity in others. But why is a Baptist writing about it? For the very same reason that Luther and Calvin wrote as they did, against Rome. FV is, in summary, a call for Protestants BACK TO ROME.


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