Baptism in the New Testament

The glorious history of the Reformation has been entangled in the whole question of the efficacy of the waters of baptism.  It appears that impressive Gospel message of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone has been ensnared by a Reformed tradition.  In the Reformed and Presbyterian world, a huge conflict has taken place over the meaning of water baptism.  The reason for this is what is called the Auburn Avenue controversy.[1]  From 2002 Doug Wilson, Steve Wilkins and Steve Schlissel, leading Presbyterians have advocated the new birth in Christ Jesus by means of the waters of baptism. Thus Doug Wilson states, “Baptism is our introduction to union with Him.”[2], and “while we do not take the connection between water baptism and grace and salvation as an absolute, we do take it as the norm.”[3]

In Jeremiah 31:31-34 we read that the New Covenant was not to be like the Mosaic Covenant, which the Israelites broke.  Plainly put, the New Covenant is unbreakable.  Furthermore, as the Lord reports through Jeremiah, God will write His law upon the heart of every member of the New Covenant, and every member of the New Covenant will know Him.  In stark contrast to the word of the Lord through the Prophet Jeremiah, Steve Wilkins teaches that by means of water baptism God elects His people into a conditional covenantal union.  Wilkins states, “The elect are those who are faithful in Christ Jesus.  If they later reject the Savior, they are no longer elect.”[4]  In other words Wilkens teaches that there can be covenant breakers within the New Covenant, when the Lord clearly declared the opposite through the Prophet Jeremiah.  This is just the top of the iceberg of what is now a massive movement inside Presbyterian Reformed circles and beyond.  There is an equally strong movement that opposes these teachings by upholding the traditional teachings of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the teachings of such as Calvin and Luther.[5]  What is necessary in the face of this monumental struggle is to go back to the clear-cut teaching of God’s Words in the New Testament.

In the New Testament there is an absolute connection between the Spirit and the Word of God and not between physical water and grace.  Thus the Lord Christ Jesus said, “the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”[6]   The Apostle Paul spoke of “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[7]  The Word of God and the Spirit of God are so connected that they cannot be separated.  Coming to new birth in the New Testament is by the Holy Spirit through the instrument of God’s Word.  Thus the Apostle Peter proclaims, “being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.”[8]  Consistently and absolutely in the teaching of Christ Jesus and the Apostles, sinful people receive the Spirit simply by the hearing of faith, “this only would I learn of you, received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”[9]  Conversely the absolute word of God also proclaims how salvation is not accomplished.  It is “not of works, lest any man should boast.”[10] Similarly, when the Jews asked Jesus what they should do to work the works of God, He responded, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” (John 6:29 — footnote it if you like it).  Salvation is not by means of the moral law or any ceremony, as the Scripture states, “and if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace”.[11]  Thus the Lord Christ Jesus clearly stated, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[12]  The Apostle Paul states how this same Biblical principle is lived out, “for we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”[13]  In this passage Paul has reference to the true circumcision, the circumcision of the heart, as opposed to that ritual which was merely outward in the flesh.

The Scripture clearly states that, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.[14] The parameters of salvation are the Lord and His grace, as is stated in Romans and Ephesians, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”[15]  The Gospel of the Lord Christ Jesus in the Word of God is the only channel through which the Spirit of God communicates new life to a sinful human being.

The Holy Spirit’s Baptism That Brings New Life

The direct work of the Holy Spirit on the soul of man is necessary because man is spiritually dead.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, “for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”[16]  In similar fashion the Apostle P
aul wrote,  “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God”.  The new birth is a change wrought by God’s sovereign Holy Spirit.  The new birth by the Holy Spirit is essential because natural man is totally deficient in and of himself.  It is not that he is weak and needs stimulation.  Spiritually he is dead.  As the Apostle writes elsewhere, “and you has He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.”[17]  Because there is a direct connection between the redemption of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, it is a soul damning error to substitute ritual or ceremony for the work of the Holy Spirit.  “God hath given to us eternal life and this life is in His Son.[18]  The work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary to bring the sinner to Christ, to overcome his innate opposition, and induce him to believe.  And it is sinful arrogance to suppose that you have had either the inclination or the capacity to affect this change in yourself by any work or ritual.

Concerning the Holy Spirit, the Lord promised that, “when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.”[19]  The Holy Spirit convicts of sin as He makes the sinner realize his lost condition and brings him to sense his need of Christ’s righteousness.  The Holy Spirit alone can impart spiritual life to the soul and supernatural light to the mind.  Therefore the Lord Himself proclaimed, “verily, verily, I say unto thee except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”[20]  The Holy Spirit is the sole and only efficient cause of being “born again”.  The same principle of life is later repeated by the Lord, “it is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing…”[21]  The wonderful work of the Holy Spirit opening the mind and heart to redemption is highlighted by the Apostle Paul, “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.”[22]  The Lord God saves sinners gloriously, “according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”[23]  True believers are “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,”[24] for “of his own will begat he us with the word of truth.”[25]  This is utterly splendid, clear, and profound.  The Spirit of God’s unique work is to apply Christ’s redemption to the sinner.  In this regeneration He works as a free agent.  He dispenses His power where, when, and on whom He pleases.  In the words of the Lord, “the wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”[26]  The wind is an element which man cannot control.  As the wind is not regulated by man’s desires or plans, so likewise it is with the Spirit of God.  He is absolutely sovereign in all His operations.

Water Baptism in Contrast

In stark contrast to the written statements of leading Presbyterian Pastors, the words of the risen Christ in giving the Gospel are crystal clear.  “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be damned.”[27]  Faith is the key of saving grace, and unbelief is the chief damning sin.  Faith is what is necessary for salvation, and baptism is an ordinance that follows faith and simply testifies to it.  Proof of this is found in the fact of the omission in the second half of the verse:  it is not “he that is not baptized shall be damned,” but rather he that believeth not. 

The sign of the New Covenant is not baptism but regeneration.  Nevertheless, many force a parallel between circumcision, the Old Covenant sign, and baptism, far beyond anything, which the Scriptures intend.  Nevertheless, if for the sake of argument we concede such a parallel, we must consider the significance of the fact that Paul declares that Abraham was justified prior to his circumcision.  And he received circumcision as a sign of the faith, which he had previously exercised.  If we are to force a parallel between circumcision and baptism, is it not obvious that baptism should be the sign of a faith previously exercised?

Faith is so indispensable that though one is baptized yet believes not, he shall be damned.  The sinner is condemned because of his sin nature and his personal sin.  God’s divine justice is upon him; nothing can propitiate God’s justice but saving faith in Christ.  This faith, by God’s grace, brings instantly God’s act of justification.

Doug Wilson teaches that the sacrament of baptism creates a union with Christ. He says, “Moderns who are stuck with the language of Westminster want to say that we actually have to understand this as a sacramental union, with the word sacramental being understood as some sort of diluting agent. But I want to say that it is a sacramental union, with union meaning union.”[28]  This teaching mocks both the justice and grace of the Lord God.  The Scriptures proclaim the Holiness and Righteousness of God in the flawless life and death of the God-man the Lord Christ Jesus. Justification in the first place has to do with God Himself, to show that He is just in justifying the sinner in Christ.  He brings about legal union with Christ only by the Gospel that deals with who God is in His Holy and Righteous nature.  The Gospel demonstrates that because of who God is, He alone justifies.  Thus Romans 3:26 states, “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.  The final cause of justification is the glory of the Divine Holiness, Justice, and Goodness.  Thus the one who teaches union with Christ by means of a sacrament is teaching another gospel accursed by God.[29]  In the ministry of the Apostle Paul, the jail keeper in great agony of spirit, asked, “What must I do to be saved?”  The clear and direct answer of the Apostle Paul and Silas to the question was, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”[30]  The jail keeper and his household heard the Word of the Lord first in order that they might believe.  “And they [Paul and Silas] spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.”[31]  Believing on Christ Jesus is life and salvation.  In the words of the Apostle, baptism is important because the Lord commanded it.  It testifies to saving faith and is a public declaration of the finished work of Christ applied to an individual soul.  Faith is what is necessary for salvation; but baptism, while important, is not of the essence of salvation.  In Christ Jesus’ own words, “he that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.”[32]


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[1] Going back the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) conference in 2002 when Steve Schlissel, Doug Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and John Barach sought to redefine reformed doctrine.

[2] “Reformed” Is Not Enough by Douglas Wilson (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) p 168.

[3] Ibid., p. 105

[4] “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation’ by Steve Wilkins 56-58

[5] Reformed” is Definitely Enough: A critique of Douglas Wilson’s book, “Reformed” is not Enough” By C. Matthew McMahon on: www.apuritansmind.com/BookReviews/Sourpuss/WilsonDouglasReformedNotEnough.htm

[6] John 6:63

[7] Ephesians 6:17

[8] 1 Peter 1:23

[9] Galatians 3:1-2

[10] Ephesians 2:9

[11] Romans 11:6

[12] John 3:6

[13] Philippians 3:3

[14] Romans 10:17

[15] Romans 3:24, Ephesians 2:8

[16] Romans 8:2

[17] Ephesians 2:1

[18] I John 5:11

[19] John 16:8

[20] John 3:3

[21] John 6:63

[22] I Corinthians 2:9-10

[23] Titus 3:5

[24] John 1:13

[25] James 1:18

[26] John 3:8

[27] Mark 16:16

[28] “Reformed” Is Not Enough by Douglas Wilson (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) p 89

[29] Galatians 1:8-9

[30] Acts 16:31

[31] Acts 16:32

[32] John 5:24