Baptismal Regeneration

The theory that regeneration is effected by the means of baptism, or that it cannot be effected without baptism. Some modify these positions to allow for exceptions in extreme cases.

Advocates of Baptismal Regeneration

Baptismal regeneration is the teaching of very diverse groups.

Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholic church teaches it, describing baptism as "the laver of regeneration" (Council of Trent, Sess. 6, chap. 4). It anathematizes any who disagree: "If any one saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation: let him be anathema" (Canon V). In Rome's view baptism signifies, celebrates, and effects the new birth of the baptized, opus operatum.

Eastern Orthodox. The Orthodox Confession of the Eastern Church takes a similar position: baptism is a regeneration by water and the Spirit which cleanses and removes original sin, and without which there is no entrance to the kingdom of God (Q. 102). "Baptism is a sacrament, in which a man who believes, having his body thrice plunged in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, dies to the carnal life of sin, and is born again of the Holy Ghost to a life spiritual and holy" (Larger Catechism of the Eastern Church, Q. 288).

Lutherans. Lutheranism also teaches that baptism is necessary to salvation. Article 9 of the Augsburg Confession (1530) states: "By Baptism the grace of God is offered, and … children are to be baptized, who by Baptism, being offered to God, are received into God's favour." Luther in his Small Catechism says, "Baptism is not simply common water, but it is the water comprehended in God's command, and connected with God's Word.… It worketh forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives everlasting salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare" (Part 4, 1 and 2).

Anglicans. Anglicanism also holds to a kind of baptismal regeneration, though its articles are variously interpreted by Low and High churchmen. The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1571) state that baptism is "a sign of Regeneration or New Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the church; the promises of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God" (Art. 27). The Anglican Catechism teaches that the "inward spiritual grace" of which baptism in water is the outward sign and form is "a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for, being by nature born in sin, and children of wrath, we are hereby made children of grace." The Prayer Book uses even stronger language, teaching that the baptized are thereby born again and made inheritors of the kingdom of God.

Moravians. The Moravian church's Easter Litany (1749) says, "I believe that by holy baptism I am embodied a member of the church of Christ, which he hath loved, and for which he gave himself that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word."

It should be noted that all these Protestant churches entirely reject Rome's notion that baptism works opus operatum.*

The Reformed View

The Reformed view is succinctly put by the Westminster Confession of Faith:

"Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the parry baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ's own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world.… Although it be a great sin to condemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated" (chap. 28, sec. 1, 4).

Antipaedobaptist Views

Antipaedobaptists have often set forth their own version of the concept. Allowing baptism only upon profession of faith the Campbellites (the self-styled Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ) have taken a strong stand for baptismal regeneration.

The Baptist Confession (1689) and the New Hampshire Confession (1833) both clearly make baptism a sign of the believer's fellowship with Christ in His death and resurrection, and of his ingrafting into Him. They say nothing of the necessity of baptism for salvation, though they recognize it as a sovereign institution of Christ that should be continued in the Church to the end of the age.

However, those who hold the Baptist successionist view of the church (see Baptist) come very near to a form of baptismal regeneration in that, logically, their position is that without valid baptism (by which they usually mean baptism by a Baptist or even a Baptist successionist) no one has a place in the church. Can a person outside the church of Christ be saved?

Connection Between Baptism and Regeneration

G. W. Bromiley (ISBE, Revised) holds that there is a scriptural and an unscriptural way of stating the connection between baptism and salvation. The scriptural way is to see baptism as the sign of regeneration and regeneration as true baptism—the reality of the thing signified in baptism. No one could take issue with such statements, but they do not justify the language of baptismal regeneration. To speak as Bromiley does of all who receive baptism as being "regenerate in sign, i.e., baptismally" is dangerous and unwarranted, especially in a paedobaptist setting. Bromiley rightly points out that any introduction of cause and effect into the connection between baptism and regeneration is illegitimate. That, of course, is the very sense in which Rome employs the terms: baptism is the instrument of regeneration.

Claimed Biblical Support

The Biblical evidence for baptismal regeneration is scanty. Indeed, properly understood it is nonexistent. John 3:5; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:4–6; Titus 3:5; and 1 Pet. 3:21 are the texts chiefly relied upon.

Examination of Texts

John 3:5: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."

Calvin rejected a reference to baptism here, and proponents of baptismal regeneration are hard put to explain a reference to Christian baptism by Christ to Nicodemus long before Pentecost and the institution of the NT church. We may understand the expression "born of water and of the spirit" as a hendiadys. There is no article in the Greek text which reads simply "water and spirit." Hendiadys is a figure of speech in which two nouns connected by and are used instead of one noun and an adjective. The second noun has the force of a superlative or emphatic adjective. In John 3:5 the meaning is, therefore, "spiritual water." This is essentially the same conclusion Calvin reached. He saw water and spirit as signifying the same thing.

Would "spiritual water" have conveyed anything to Nicodemus? Assuredly it would. He was well aware of the waters of separation (Num. 19) and the cleansing waters specifically associated with obtaining "a new heart" and receiving God's Spirit (Ezek. 36:25–27). The Lord Jesus was showing him that these had to be understood as references, not to sacramental ablutions, but to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Paul follows the same line of thought in Eph. 5:26, "the washing of water by the word."

Mark 16:16: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."

While the importance of baptism as the expected public acknowledgment of Christ as Saviour is clear here, it is obvious that the thing that is so essential to salvation that its absence invariably damns a man is faith. Those who trust Christ should not fail to be baptized and those who are baptized must ensure that they do indeed have saving faith. Without it their baptism can do nothing to save them.

Rom. 6:4–6: "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin."

There is no reference to water baptism here. The reference is to real, not professed or sacramental, incorporation into Christ. The baptism is spiritual, as in 1 Cor. 12:13. It is the action of the Holy Spirit actually putting us into saving union with Christ.

Titus 3:5: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost."

The washing of regeneration is literally "the laver of regeneration" which is explained by the following phrase, the "renewing of the Holy Ghost." There is no mention of baptism. The laver is to be spiritually understood. The OT tabernacle and temple had their lavers. Here we learn that their true import was that they pointed to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. That is the laver of regeneration, not water baptism.

Acts 2:38: "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."

Campbellites are so confident that this text teaches their baptismal regeneration dogma that they at times style their gospel The Acts 2:38 Gospel. The entire argument hinges on the force of the preposition for. The Greek word is eis and it usually means "to, unto." Therefore, we are told, baptism is "unto the remission of sins." Remission follows baptism; it does not precede it.

That is the claim. But is it true? It is not The Greek preposition eis has a much wider meaning than "unto" in the sense of "with a view to."

Matthew 3:11 is clearly a parallel passage. John the Baptist said, "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance." Here again unto is eis. On the Campbellite interpretation of Acts 2:38 the repentance would have to follow the baptism. But did not those who came to be baptized by John receive baptism because they had already repented? The preposition eis here does not indicate the order the Campbellites infer in Acts 2:38, but the opposite.

Take another example. In Matt. 12:41 we read, "The men of Nineveh … repented at [eis] the preaching of Jonas." If the Campbellite interpretation of Acts 2:38 here, Matt. 12:41 would be saying that the Ninevites repented in order to obtain the preaching of Jonah. Clearly that was not the case. They repented because they had already received it.

And that is the force of eis in Acts 2:38. Baptism for (eis) the remission of sins is baptism at, or in connection with the remission received through repentance and faith.

1 Peter 3:21: "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

It is almost universally asserted that this text plainly attributes some saving action to baptism (even if it is only symbolic or declarative). However there are serious objections to this view.

First, the Greek text has nothing corresponding to "the like figure whereunto even baptism doth now save us."

Second, as the text now reads, baptism is the antitype of the waters of the flood. But Noah was not saved by water but from water. In what way then is his salvation from the flood typical of our salvation by Christ in baptism?

Let us consider these points.

The Greek of v. 21 reads, ho kai hemas antitupon nun sozei. The first question is, What is the antecedent of ho, "which"? Our translation practically ignores it, but really refers it to the hudatos, "water," of v. 20. On this basis the literal rendering would be: "Which (water) even (or also) us the antitype now saves."

Robert Nevin in Misunderstood Scriptures suggests that a better answer to the question of an antecedent to which would be "the Spirit," v. 18, by which Christ preached to the sinners of Noah's day (v. 19). That would yield the translation, "Which (or who, the Holy Spirit) now saves us, the antitype (of Noah and his family) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

This is the natural force of the word order of the Greek text and so far makes perfect sense. If this is the correct translation then we must start a new sentence with, "Baptism is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh (i.e., of sin's defilement) but the seeking or appeal of a good conscience toward God."

It is clear, whether we follow the common English version or this suggested translation, that baptism cannot cleanse away sin. It is a testimony or an appeal of a purified conscience to God on the merits of the work of Christ. In other words, baptism declares that our trust for salvation is not in baptism but in Christ who died and rose again.

Another possible view of 1 Pet. 3:21 makes water the antecedent of the relative which. In this view baptism is a reference to the death and judgment-bearing of Christ so that vv. 20–22 would then mean:

"The longsuffering of God waited, the ark having been prepared, in which few, that is eight souls were saved through and out of water (the instrument of God's judgment). Which (water shows us how) baptism (another emblem of the judgment of God on sin) now saves us the antitype (of those saved in the ark): it is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh (sin) but the appeal (or demand) of a good conscience (one cleared from guilt) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is now at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been subjected unto Him."

If we adopt this treatment, the reference to baptism is a reminder of Christ's bearing the wrath of God against our sin just as the ark bore it in the days of the flood.

1 Peter 3:21 cannot justly be made a witness for the theory of baptismal regeneration. As Nevin long ago remarked, "The doctrine of baptismal regeneration is not of Christian but of Pagan origin. It had a prominent place in the ancient Babylonian mysteries" (Nevin, p. 227). It has no place in Christian theology.

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 58–62). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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