Monday, May 9, 2011

Baptismal Regeneration

BAPTISMAL REGENERATION In considering this subject, we shall do well to begin by endeavouring to ascertain the true meaning of the word Regeneration, as employed in the New Testament ; and then proceed to inquire into the connection of this spiritual experience with the ordinance of Christian Baptism.

It is a singular but instructive fact that the desire on the part of some to exalt this sacrament, as the means of inducing regeneration, has led to a depreciation of this term, by a lowering of the spiritual value of its connotation. Inasmuch as facts will not allow us to affirm that the administration of the ordinance is followed, in the vast majority of cases, by any moral results that can be discerned, it has been concluded by many who belong to the High Church school that the benefits of regeneration are not to be looked for (at any rate directly) in the moral region; the grace that is bestowed is a capacity or potentiality rather than any thing that affects us consciously; it is the implanting of a germ, which may or may not develop and fructify, rather than the occurrence of a moral or spiritual revolution.

The New Testament, on the other hand, represents regeneration as the most radical and far reaching that the mind can conceive of, constituting him who is the subject of it a new creature, with whom old things are passed away, and all things have become new (2 Cor. v. 17). It is the initial step in the process of salvation by cleansing from sin, and spiritual renewal (Titus iii. 5). It produces, according to St. John, deliverance from conscious and habitual sin, and victory over the world; it is a birth by the Spirit, which constitutes him who undergoes it "spirit" (John iii. 6). It in duces a sense of freedom and spontaneity in religious life, which is in the strongest contrast to all legal bondage and restraint (ibid. v. 8). It carries with it the privilege of a new and spiritual sonship towards God, and the blessed assurance of it.

That all this represents something more than a mere "capacity" goes without saying; but the case becomes immeasurably stronger when we observe that, while regeneration and its cognate terms are but seldom employed, [1] there can be no reasonable doubt that the word indicates that one supreme and radical change which is insisted on as necessary in the New Testament Scriptures under many differing designations. This change is spoken of as Justification, Salvation, Remission of sins, Cleansing from old sins, Translation from darkness into light, Passage from death into life, Death and burial with Christ and resurrection into newness of life. It is represented as inducing consequences affecting our consciousness, condition, and experience, such as inward joy, peace, and hope, love to God and to the brethren, deliverance from sin and devotion to God, the holy intimacy of sonship and the blessedness of acceptance, all resulting in actual righteousness, and at any rate incipient holiness.

One other aspect of regeneration needs to be noticed, inasmuch as it is the most important of all, and that is its close connection with the gift of spiritual life. The natural life of the human spirit having become forfeit through sin, regeneration is effected by the imparting of a new life, which is God’s gift to man through the atoning work of Christ. It is this introduction of a new life that constitutes the recipient a new creature; for the new and divine life thus communicated carries its own proper moral characteristics along with it. Our reception of this new life is dependent upon our death to sin, in the person of Christ, and our rising up with Him into a new condition, in which we live unto God. Regeneration may therefore be defined as that supreme change which takes place when by faith we regard ourselves as dead to sin in the death of Christ, and claim with Him to be raised to a new life, "through faith in the operation of God." Where faith is thus exercised God responds to its claim, by imparting that new life which is in His Son—a life that carries with it its own moral characteristics, and renders him who receives it a new creature.

If this be regeneration, what is the nature of the relation of Baptism to it? Three distinct answers may be returned to this inquiry; and between these our decision lies. First, some hold that this change, called regeneration, is directly dependent upon Baptism, so that when Baptism takes place it also occurs. Secondly, others hold that Baptism is only a sign or symbol of this change, witnessing to the fact, that it already has occurred in the case of the true believer, and also a public confession of its occurrence. Third, it may be answered that the ordinance is designed to bear witness to the specific provision for our regeneration, made in Redemption, and to concentrate our faith upon this, as a definite issue, and, in normal cases, to be its sacramental expression. [2]

The first of these answers might seem to be justified by the fact that, in the memorable words of our Lord to Nicodemus, the birth by water and that of the Spirit seem to be spoken of as elements in the same great change; and by the further fact that the Apostles seem ever to refer to the moment of Baptism as the time when that change took place. But a small amount of reflection suffices to show that to this view there are many and insuperable objections. A large amount of confusion of thought has been caused on this subject by the habit of theorising on the subject of infant Baptism, and the benefits that are believed to flow from it, instead of basing our conclusions on that which was actually revealed with respect to the Baptism of adults. Few will have the temerity to affirm that the mere process of baptizing an adult, whatever his moral condition or attitude, will produce real spiritual regeneration. A man may submit to baptism merely because the chief of his tribe has become a nominal Christian, and he desires to keep in his favour; or he may be baptized, as multitudes of Jews recently were in Russia, merely to escape persecution. To suppose that, in response to a sacrilegious abuse of the sacrament, the Holy Ghost confers on the recipient the blessing of regeneration, and works in him, as the reward of his impiety, the greatest and most beneficent change that supernatural power can effect, is to come perilously near blaspheming the Holy Ghost. But as soon as the admission is made that the act of Baptism does not produce regeneration in such cases, logic constrains us to conclude that Baptism is not the cause of regeneration; nor is it even, if we regard God Himself as the cause, a condition upon which it is absolutely dependent. In such cases as we have suggested unquestionably the man is not regenerated; but he may become so, if he comply with certain other conditions ; that is to say, if he subsequently exhibits that frame of mind which ought to have accompanied his Baptism. His regeneration, then, will have been dependent, on man’s side, not on his Baptism, but on the sincerity of his repentance and the reality of his faith.

But if Baptism be not the cause of regeneration (on man’s side), is it one of two alternative causes? Are we, for instance, to believe that God sometimes regenerates through the act of Baptism without faith, and sometimes by faith without Baptism? To ask such a question is to answer it. God does not deal in alternative methods, saving one man through a mere mechanical act while he saves another by a moral process. On this point nothing more need be said. But are we then driven to believe that Baptism and faith are two co-ordinate causes of regeneration? For a full discussion of this important point the reader may be referred to a book which has recently appeared on the subject of this article (Canon Aitken’s Doctrine of Baptism: Nisbet). In this volume the writer points out that in both the Acts and the Epistles one and the same great change is represented as sometimes conditioned on Baptism and sometimes on faith; and argues that this could never have occurred if it were the case that two entirely distinct and co-ordinate conditions had to be fulfilled before regeneration could occur. If peace were offered to China on the two co-ordinate conditions that the Celestial authorities should pay down sixty millions and also abolish a score of their forts, what should we think of an ambassador who should at one time affirm that peace could be secured by the payment of sixty millions, without referring to the forts ; while at another time he averred that it could be obtained by the destruction of the forts, without referring to the millions?

There is only one way in which this phenomenon can be explained. The sacramental act was regarded as the appointed means of expressing the faith, which it concentrated on the specific provision of divine grace; and therefore it was the means whereby the spiritual grace of regeneration was received while it was also a pledge that assured us of its reception. To say this is not to affirm, in accordance with the second of the three views of the relation of regeneration to the sacrament stated above, that the ordinance is a mere symbol of the spiritual experience, or a public confession that it has taken place. This explanation of the case is forbidden by the fact that the spiritual benefits symbolised by the ordinance are invariably spoken of in the New Testament as being realised in and through the ordinance. The ordinance is nowhere described as a mere sign of a spiritual benefit independently realised, and Protestants do untold damage to their cause when they put themselves in the position of having to explain away numerous clear and definite expressions to this effect. The true statement of the case would seem to be, that regeneration is conditioned upon faith in Christ and His atoning work; while Baptism has been appointed to concentrate that faith upon the specific features of that atonement, and to give it definite expression when so concentrated. Thus, in strictly normal cases the moment of the believing reception of Baptism would be the moment of regeneration, but in many cases the faith may precede the ordinance, with the result that the spiritual regeneration will take place before Baptism, as in the instance of Cornelius and his friends. Where this occurs the ordinance will be the outward and formal expression of a faith already existing (Rom. iv. 11; Col. ii. 11); and on God’s side the pledge assuring us of a benefit already received. It will be to the Christian very much what his coronation was to our King. It did not make him king, yet it was the complement of his accession, and who will say that it was unnecessary to the recognition of his kingly position? Besides this, Baptism will be the sacramental admission of the recipient into the spiritual society called the Christian Church, which the kingdom of heaven upon earth identifies itself with, and by which he is assured of the enjoyment of all the rights of our heavenly citizenship.

Where, on the other hand, the ordinance is performed upon an adult without that faith being exercised which it was specially designed to evoke (excitat, Art. xxv. ), as, for instance, in the case of Simon Magus, regeneration does not occur. It is clear that Simon Magus could not have been born of God, and made a new creature in Christ Jesus, and yet have remained "in the bond of iniquity and the gall of bitterness." He could not have been received into that Church of the first-born whose names are written in heaven, and yet have been "without part or lot in the matter." In all such cases regeneration, if it occurs at all, must occur apart from the sacrament; and this in itself suffices to show that the ordinance, considered apart from the faith which it should express, does not stand to regeneration in the relation of cause to effect. Yet, even in such a case, upon the occurrence of repentance and faith, the penitent would find in the ordinance an assurance of his pardon, and a pledge of the specific divine grace to which the ordinance bears witness. See Homily of Salvation.

With regard to Inward Baptism we may point out that we have strong ground for inferring that God has a provisional economy of grace for our little ones, resulting, at any rate in certain cases, in their regeneration, and thus in their final salvation, if they die in infancy. Why then should not the Christian parent plead that this economy of grace may be extended to his child, inasmuch as it is needed, as for death so also for the perils of continued life; and why should he not prove the faith of his prayer by submitting his child to the ordinance, which is the means whereby this grace of regeneration is normally received? In such a case, whatever benefit may be granted through the ordinance by Him who sees the faith of those who bear the helpless infant and lay him at the Master’s feet, that benefit must needs be provisional in its character. The condition on which the enjoyment of the new life is dependent, i.e. faith in the Life-giver, cannot be evaded or dispensed with; and if special adaptations of divine grace to the case of helpless infancy are not met by such a repentance as forsakes sin, and such a faith as steadfastly believes the specific promise of God made in the sacrament, all such benefits must needs be forfeited.

The point of cleavage between those who hold the crude theory of Baptismal regeneration, ex opere operato, and those who maintain what is usually spoken of as the "Hypothetical Theory," lies just here. The former believe that the recital of a formula and the performance of a particular action necessarily produce the spiritual effect of regeneration; the latter hold that where believing prayer is offered for a blessing, which we have reason to believe it is God’s will to grant, that prayer will be provisionally answered. The former believe that this spiritual result is absolute, and admits of being neither reversed nor supplemented; the latter maintain that the result, whatever it is, must needs be provisional in its character, and cannot be made absolute until the condition upon which in the case of an adult it is contingent is complied with. The former maintain that the saving effect of this ordinance may be lost by wilful sin; the latter maintain that such saving effects only remain if the condition on which they are contingent is complied with, and, even where wilful sin does not occur, are forfeited by the non-fulfilment of the appointed condition. According to the former theory, no baptized member of our congregations needs to be born again, or, indeed, can be, although his life may be a discredit to our common humanity, and it would seem that the only hope for him lay in the possibility of so radical a change ; according to the other, all who have never consciously exercised faith in the special promise of God made in Baptism need to be told, "Ye must be born again." The difference between the two positions, which may seem to be slight, is really radical. The Gorham judgment given on appeal by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council affirmed that the hypothetical explanation of the formularies of the Church of England was a perfectly reasonable and legitimate one, though it did not affirm that it was the only possible interpretation. See GORHAM CASE.

[1]The word translated regeneration (παλιγγενεσία – paliggenesia) only occurs twice in the New Testament: (1) in Matt. xix. 28, where by "the regeneration" is meant the new birth of the world, or its restitution to its original state of blessedness ; (2) in Titus iii. 5, where " the washing of regeneration " or " the laver of regeneration " i.e. the laver of baptism, which symbolises "regeneration" is spoken of. See note p. 141, and C. H. H. Wright, Roman Catholicism, R.T.S., p. 39.—EDD.
[2] [Note by Editors. The phrase used by John the Baptist, "He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire" (Matt. iii. 11), is
essentially the same as "born of water and of the Holy Spirit " (John iii. 5), used by our Lord, and explained by Him in the subsequent verses. The first refers to the work of the Spirit as "the Spirit of burning," predicted in Isaiah iv. 4, the second to that of the Spirit predicted in Isaiah xliv. 3, and Ezekiel xxxvi. 25-27, which a "master of Israel" ought to have understood. The first phrase might, exegetically considered, have reference to a rite or ceremony, for "baptize" is used; the second refers only to an inner birth unto righteousness, and therefore ought, we contend, to be explained by such passages as 1 John ii. 29, 1 John iii. 9. Both phrases speak of the work of the Spirit as a cleansing and purifying work, and both use language drawn from the prophets of Israel. Christ’s words are of universal reference, and ought not, we maintain, to be interpreted primarily to refer to Christian Baptism which was not ordained till Christ had risen from the dead.]

Rev. W. H. M. H. Aitken, M.A..Canon Residentiary of Norwich. Author of Mission Sermons(3 vols.); The School of Grace; The Highway of Holiness; The Doctrine of Baptism, Mechanical or Spiritual; and other works.

1 comment:

  1. Your comments reflect a major misconception that evangelicals and the Reformed have of orthodox Christians. Lutherans do not believe that baptism is necessary (mandatory) for salvation. Not even the Roman Catholic Church believes this. All the saints of the Old Testament, the thief on the cross, and thousand of martyrs down through the centuries have been saved without Baptism. Baptism is not the "how" of salvation!

    Lutherans believe that baptism is one of several possible "when"s of salvation, it is not the "how" of salvation. The "how" of salvation is and always has been the power of God's Word/God's declaration of righteousness.

    A sinner can be saved by the power of God's Word when he hears the Word preached in a church, preached on TV or radio, reading a Gideon's Bible in a hotel room, or reading a Gospel tract that contains the Word. Salvation is by God's grace alone, through the power of his Word alone, received in faith alone. In each of these situations, the sinner is saved the instant he or she believes. Baptism is NOT mandatory for salvation to occur.

    However, the Bible in multiple passages, also states that God uses his Word to save at the time of Baptism.

    It is the work of the Holy Spirit, using the Word of God, that works salvation in the sinner's spiritually dead soul, according to the second chapters of Ephesians and Colossians, and the third chapter of Romans. Your "decision for Christ" does not save you, neither does your decision to be baptized.

    God saves those whom he has elected, at the time and place of his choosing. Sometimes God saves them while hearing a sermon in church, sometimes at home reading the Word, and sometimes by the power of his Word spoken during Baptism.

    God does 100% of the saving. The sinner is a passive participant in his salvation. There is no passage in the New Testament that asks sinners to make a decision for Christ. The Bible states that God quickens sinners, gives them faith, and they believe and repent.

    The sinner does not decide to be saved. God decides to save the sinner!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals