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Should I Be Re-Baptized?

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In recent days this question has come up a few times but it occurs regularly. It occurs in the context of a new members class at church when someone entering a Reformed congregation, coming from outside the Reformed church approaches the pastor to say something like, “I was baptized by an unordained [fill in the blank] college ministry staff member” or “by my neighbor ” or “in the Roman Catholic Church” or “in a Baptist congregation” or “by a person who has since apostatized from the faith” or “in the Mormon church.” The question that follows is usually, “Should I get re-baptized?”


This is a complicated, multi-layered question and answer. The first question is whether one was ever baptized at all. As far as I can tell “re-baptism” is an impossibility. Either a baptism has been performed or it hasn’t. What is baptism? It is a sacrament of visible identification with Christ’s death, it is ritual death, a sign and seal of what is true of all those who believe, of the good news that Christ the obedient one died, was buried, and was raised on the third day so that all who believe have been given new life, have been given the grace of faith, and through it are united to him by the Spirit, are freely accepted and declared righteous (justified) by God for Christ’s sake alone.


The biblical images for baptism are once-for-all acts that cannot be repeated. The Israelites (adults, children, covenant households) were all “baptized into Moses” (1Cor 10:2; i.e., ritually identified with him in their ritual, corporate death) in the Red Sea, “on dry ground” (Ex 14:16, 22, 29; 15:19). This was a definitive, once-for-all act. The Israelites were dead. Their backs were against the sea.


Pharaoh’s armies were about to destroy them until the Lord baptized them all and saved them through (not by) the parted waters of the Red Sea. Before that episode there was the flood, never to be repeated, in which God’s little church was delivered, corporately through (not by; 1Pet 3:20) the flood waters, which was a ritual death, in which God’s people stayed dry and all the opponents of God’s people, were immersed and actually, not ritually, killed. Later, the Israelites went through the Jordan “on dry ground” (Joshua 3:17; 4:18, 22). In Romans 6 Paul uses baptism as a picture of our once-for-all definitive break with sin and the inauguration of our new life of progressive sanctification by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ by the gracious, ongoing work of the Spirit in believers. He teaches the very same thing even more explicitly in Colossians 2:11-–2, where, in order to explain the nature of this definitive break he appeals to circumcision, a typological, ritual death that looked forward to Christ’s being “cut off” for us. There was a circumcision, as it were, on the cross, when Christ was, as it were, cut off for us, when he was made unclean (Heb 13) for us outside the camp. That’s why Paul connects death, circumcision, and baptism in Colossians 2. They are all singular, onetime acts. That is why Paul says to the Judaizers that if circumcision is so powerful, they should go the whole way and cut themselves off (i.e., emasculate themselves; Gal 5:12).


Thus, a regular (i.e., according to rule), properly administered, Christian baptism is the application of water in conjunction with the Word of God (namely the Gospel) by a rightly ordained minister in a true, catholic, evangelical, Reformed congregation, i.e., a congregation with the marks of a true church (Belgic Confession, Art. 29), in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Obviously, in America, many ostensible baptisms take place in congregations that do not meet all these tests. Hence the difficulty.


We are not the first Christians to face these questions. The church faced this problem in the 4th and 5th centuries (300s and 400s AD) in the Donatist Controversy. In the persecution of Christians by Diocletian, some Christians resisted the call to renounce the faith and to hand over Scripture to be burned. Others renounced Christ and handed over (traditur) to be destroyed. A controversy arose over how to regard those who had failed to give witness to the faith and especially with the election of Caecillian as Bishop (think senior pastor) of Carthage in 312. He was consecrated by a bishop who had been a traditur or who had lapsed. Donatus (died c. 355 AD) led a separatist movement of which he served as Bishop from 315 until his death. The Donatists argued that the legitimacy of the administration of the sacraments (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper) is contingent upon the spiritual state of the minister. Many in North Africa found this position attractive. Augustine (354-430), who became the Bishop of Hippo, rejected this position and argued against it strenuously and persuasively. Eventually, Augustine’s rejection of the Donatist was adopted by the church and it was to the church’s rejection of Donatism that John Calvin (1509-64) appealed in his critique of Anabaptists.


In Institutes 4.15.16 Calvin compared the Anabaptists, whom he called “Catabaptists” (Gr. Kata, against + baptismos) a term that Zwingli (1484–1531) and others had used to describe the Anabaptists because they rejected infant baptism and because, as Calvin notes, they denounced the baptisms performed in the Roman church. It’s true that Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and Calvin were all baptized in the old, medieval, pre-Reformation papal communion. It’s also true that they and the Reformed churches after them accepted those baptisms as valid.


…we think of ourselves as initiated by baptism not into the name of any man, but into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:19]; and that baptism is accordingly not of man but of God, no matter who administers it. Ignorant or even contemptuous as those who baptized us were of God and all piety, they did not baptize us into the fellowship of either their ignorance or sacrilege, but into faith in Jesus Christ, because it was not their own name but God’s that they invoked, and they baptized us into no other name. But if it was the baptism of God, it surely had, enclosed in itself, the promise of forgiveness of sins, mortification of the flesh, spiritual vivification, and participation in Christ. Thus it was no hindrance to the Jews to be circumcised by impure and apostate priests; nor was the sign therefore void so that it had to be repeated, but it was a sufficient means by which to return to the real source.


It is not the quality of the person administering the sacrament that makes it a sacrament. It is the divine promises (the gospel) in the Word attached to the sign and seal that make it a sacrament. As Calvin noted, if we use the Donatist principle makes a hash of the history of redemption. The Donatist principle assumes that we can know things that we cannot really know. This is part of the Reformed critique of the (ana/cata)Baptist position: even if we suspend baptism until profession of faith we still only know the candidate’s profession. Only God knows the heart. What if a minister was unregenerate when he baptized a person but later coma to faith? Does that mean that the baptism was invalid but later, when the minister was regenerated, became valid? What, if a candidate discovered or judged that her minister was unregenerate when he baptized her and so obtained another baptism before the first minister became regenerate? When the first minister became regenerate, did that invalidate the second baptism? We can see how needlessly tangled this becomes very quickly.


It has been argued to me that post-Vatican II Romanism, with its turn toward Modernism, is more corrupt today than it was in the 15th and 16th centuries when the Reformers were baptized. I doubt that. The Western church was deeply corrupt “in head and members” (Fifth Lateran) at the turn of the 16th century. The nature of the corruption may have changed but the degree hasn’t. In the 16th century laity couldn’t read Scripture in their own language but now, post-Vatican II, they may. The truth is, there are as many versions of Rome as there are Romanists. They all, every single one of them, picks and chooses those aspects of the church’s dogma to they will adhere. The only thing uniting them is a formal, outward submission to the Bishop of Rome. In reality, the status of Vatican II varies from Pope to Pope. John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to roll back aspects of Vatican II but Francis seems intent on returning, in certain ways, to the advocacy of Vatican II prior to John Paul II. There is not substantively, single, Roman Catholic Church. We have no more or less reason to reject Roman baptisms than did the Reformers.


What about the validity of lay baptisms? Calvin addressed this problem in three sections of the Institutes (4.15.19–22). In §19 he argued that despite the corruption of the sacrament by the medieval accretions, which he called “theatrical pomp,” it remained a sacrament. It was still a Trinitarian, Christian baptism. In the next sections he rightly complains about midwives and others performing so-called emergency baptisms. These are improper because they assume that one cannot enter heaven without baptism. That is a false assumption. The thief on the cross was not baptized and yet he entered heaven. If a person was on a desert island and a water-tight package containing a bible floated to shore, and the shipwrecked person read it and came to faith and then died without baptism, he would go to be with the Lord. Baptism is a holy sacrament, a covenant sign and seal but it is not salvation itself. A lunch sign is not lunch itself.


Recently someone wrote to ask what to think about a case of a person who was baptized by a lay pastor who was not baptized. This layman was arguably ministering on behalf of an organization that we would regard as lacking one or perhaps two of the marks of a true church:


The Pure Preaching of the Gospel

The Pure Administration of the Sacraments

The Administration of Church Discipline


Absent one of these marks this lay minister is arguably acting on behalf of a non-ecclesiastical and, at best, para-ecclesiastical body. Arguably, this is true even of a more obviously ecclesiastical act (e.g., the minister is ordained in a body that lacks one or more mark). In effect this is the same case as a baptism administered by a layman working in campus ministry.


Calvin rightly argued that Zipporah’s circumcision of Moses’ second son (Exod 4:25) is no precedent for lay baptism but it was a circumcision never to be re-done. It was an irregular act. Calvin argued that Zipporah was presumptuous. Perhaps but the narrative seems to present Zipporah in a positive light—as if she saved Moses’ life. It’s a difficult narrative from which is risky to conclude much but it does seem like a good example of an irregular administration of the sacrament of admission to the visible covenant community.


My view is that, assuming the acts are performed by consciously Christian persons (i.e., not Mormons or members of some other duplicitous sect) then they should be regarded as irregular but valid administrations of the sacrament. To say that they are not baptisms pushes us perilously close to Donatism. It is best for baptisms to be performed regularly, by duly ordained ministers, under ecclesiastical sanction, in a true church, without corruption but it seems dangerous to say that an administration lacking all those qualities is no administration at all. Calvin, even though he railed against the abuse of baptism by laity did, not reject them as baptisms. Lay baptism is irregular but valid. In short: Stop it! Don’t do it but if it’s already done, don’t do it any more and join yourself to a true church and submit to its government and discipline. Those who’ve been baptized irregularly, e.g., by campus workers or some other layman, should not doubt that they have been baptized.


How far does this anti-Donatist approach go? What about Mormon “baptism”? It has been objected to me that the Mormons may pronounce the triune name but they deny the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. They re-define the unity to be one of will or purpose but not of being. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is that God is one in being, three in persons. This is the doctrine of Athanasian Creed, for example. Thus, even though water is administered using Christian-sounding words, it is not a baptism. When a person is converted from Mormonism to Christianity he is not re-baptized because he was never baptized in the first instance. A Christian minister and a shower both put water on one’s head but that doesn’t make both things a baptism.


These are difficult questions but the anti-Donatist view is fundamentally correct. It is not the spiritual quality that defines a sacrament. It is not even the ordination of the officiant that defines a sacrament. Nevertheless, we are still bound to say that laity ought not act presumptuously. They are not authorized by God to administer the sacraments. It belongs to the visible, institutional church to administer the sacraments. Jesus did not commission every believer to preach, evangelize, and to administer baptism (Matt 28:18–20). He authorized and commanded the visible, institutional church to do these things but if someone irregularly preaches and someone else comes to faith (praise God!) through that act we cannot say that the message did not go forth and that the Spirit did not use it to give new life and true faith. Which ecclesiastical body sent Billy Graham? Do we deny that God the Spirit used Graham to bring people to faith? No. Was it irregular? Yes. Should he have gone without ecclesiastical commission and oversight? No. It’s the distinction between is and should.


Source: https://heidelblog.net/2014/05/should-i-be-re-baptized/

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