Born into a Christian family, I cannot remember a time when I did not love the Lord Jesus or love his church. Sunday was, as it remains, the high point of our week. As a child I loved the psalms and hymns we sang, the minister’s gravity (accentuated by his wearing the clerical collar), and the solemn order of our participation in the Lord’s Supper. My Baptist church looked and felt like the Presbyterian church down the street.
Sensing a call to preach when I was 11, I immediately developed passionate interest in reading theology and doing evangelism. When I discovered the doctrines of grace at age 14 and began to talk about them to everyone who would listen, it caused dismay to my parents, peers, and church leaders who urged me to get over it and stick to the simple gospel. I was baptized as a believer by immersion at the age of 15; it was the thing to do in obedience to Christ.
When the minister and church officers recognized my call to the ministry they naturally directed me into the Baptist ministry, and I went to Ireland to study in a college that identified itself as “reformed and evangelical.” There I first heard the arguments that went beyond the usual proof texts used to support the credobaptist position, arguments that rooted believer’s baptism in the covenant of grace. These discussions and my love for the church sparked a serious study of ecclesiology that I would pursue over several years.
By the time I became a pastor of my own church at age 22 I was already beginning to think that Presbyterian government most closely resembled that which I saw in the New Testament, and I was prepared to say that to anyone who asked throughout the rest of my ministry. Three of the churches I served instituted eldership as a result of my teaching on the nature and function of church office.
‘Getting’ Infant Baptism
But a sense that Presbyterian polity was biblical was one thing; “getting” infant baptism was something else. Looking back over the first ten years of my ministry I was becoming increasingly unconvinced that I had resolved my views on baptism, and I began to dismiss the issue as divisive and sought to rise above it. What reflection was possible with three (or four as in my first church) sermons a week to prepare; no sabbatical (in 40 years of pastoral ministry), and a series of busy churches and a growing family?
In Canada I had the opportunity to study Reformation thought at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, where there are strong Anabaptist influences. Reading the primary documents of the Reformation, especially the spiritual and Anabaptist writers, I increasingly sympathized with the magisterial reformers. I eventually moved to churches with an “open” membership where I was not bound to persuade people to be re-baptized and where I had the opportunity to explain the paedobaptist position to people from the Baptist tradition who applied for membership.
I felt deeply committed to serving the congregations where we were led; I appreciated the fact they welcomed paedobaptists into full membership, and I respectfully implemented their church order and baptized believers by immersion. I could not accept invitations to pastor “closed” membership churches—to the perplexity of many friends who simply never asked me why.
As a couple our approach to rearing our five children became driven by covenant theology—we followed the advice of William Still of Aberdeen who encouraged us privately to bring our children up in faith that they would become Christians rather than in fear they would not. And in my practice of child dedication I urged parents to see their children as children of promise. My wife and I are grateful to God for that godly and helpful advice.
Where Does Baptism Fit in Biblical Theology?
What were my problems? I wanted to understand where baptism stood in the context of biblical theology, how it fit into the flow of the Bible’s storyline. I could not understand why, given the Old Testament emphasis of God’s working through families, the New Testament did not signal a change in that policy. It seemed passing strange to me that the new covenant sacrament included women and Gentiles but excluded the children of believers. It seemed in that respect the new covenant was less generous than the old. There were too many questions surrounding the family baptisms in Acts and Corinthians; Paul’s “holy” children; the warning passages of Hebrews; and the nature of the church that I could not resolve from a Baptist perspective.
Was the church exclusively composed only of the elect? The Anabaptists and Baptists (like many such movements in the history of the church) aimed at forming a “pure” church of “believers only” and often contrasted themselves with the mixed nature of churches in the magisterial stream of the Reformation. Scripture seemed to contradict this assumption. My early dispensationalism dissolved during expositions of the prophet Daniel that led me to understand that the true Israel was the believing remnant within the larger body of circumcised and professing Israelites. God’s covenant community in the times before Christ was a community of believers and their children; in that community some did and many did not fulfill the spiritual expectation of their circumcision.
Our Lord himself claimed to be the true Israel when he said, “I am the true vine.” He went on to describe the branches “in him”—all of which were externally united to him and some of which were organically united and brought forth fruit as a result of his word. The writer to the Hebrews specifically links his Christian readers with the Hebrews of the old covenant and warns them that some in their community that have been “washed” (baptized) and who have eaten the heavenly food (the Lord’s Supper) and have felt the powers of the age to come (the Word of God) may fall away.
These were obviously church members, part of the Israel of God, but they were not savingly united to Christ or numbered among the elect. When our Lord addresses the congregations in Revelation he recognizes that many within the churches will not have “ears to hear.” This address suggests New Testament churches were not pure though they strove to be, and it explains why the language of Israel is so indiscriminately applied to the churches (God’s people; holy nation, 1 Pet.2:10).
Continuity of the Covenant of Grace
At seminary it became apparent that the fundamental issue separating credo- and paedo-baptists is that of the relationship between the old and new covenants. Here theologians make a helpful distinction between ordo salutis (order of salvation) and historia salutis (history of salvation). The ordo salutis relates to the way salvation is applied to believers; the historia salutis refers to the once-for-all event of our Lord’s coming into the world and all that he accomplished for our salvation by his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. This distinction helps us answer the question, “What is new about the new covenant?”
Older dispensationalism spoke of several administrations of salvation in different dispensations or ages. I clung to a revised form of dispensationalism through seminary and even preached it in the first months of my ministry, but it soon evaporated when I set myself to teach through the book of Daniel. Instead I was persuaded that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in every age.
This covenant of grace was announced to Adam, established with Abraham, administered provisionally under Moses, and realized in Christ. Genesis 3 shows that Adam believed in the promise of the Messiah who would crush the serpent’s head. That unilateral and unconditional promise of a Savior is called the covenant of grace. It is established in God’s covenant with Abraham who was “justified by faith.” Paul can say that Abraham was justified (ordo) even though when Abraham believed, Christ had not yet been raised for our justification (historia) (Galatians 3:6). In Hebrews 11 Abraham is shown to have new covenant faith as he looked for a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. Moses “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward,” even though Christ had not yet come into the world to be “reproached” when Moses believed these things (Hebrews 11:26). When the later prophets predicted a new covenant it was not in contrast with the covenant of grace announced to Adam and Abraham.
In Luke’s two-volume work (Luke-Acts) I noticed that each book begins by anchoring the gospel in the covenant with Abraham—in Mary’s song where she places the events surrounding her son in the mercy of God “to Abraham and his offspring forever” (Lk.1:55); and in Peter’s sermon where his punchline after pointing to Christ is the “promise” (of the gospel—forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit), which is for us and our offspring. Later he says that Abraham “rejoiced” to see his day; and that Isaiah had seen him in the temple “high and lifted up.”
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism
We are grateful to God for every church where we have served, and now we feel enormously privileged to serve in a church that holds to my beloved Westminster Confession of Faith. It is my joy to baptize the children of believers and to see those children treated not as little strangers until they make their profession of faith, but as members of the family of God. As such they are instructed in the full width of Bible truth and in the catechism of the church. It is the most wonderful privilege to see those children come to the point where they want to express their faith publicly and be admitted to the Lord’s Table.
Of course it is still disappointing that baptism remains the “water that divides,” but I have learned to appreciate the joy in knowing there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. And it gives me more joy than I can express to belong to a church that takes seriously the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Reformation.