The Key to Reformed Theology
by Kent Philpott
Setting out the issues
The purpose of this essay is to examine the impact of election on the doctrine of salvation. In order to do this it will be necessary to briefly examine views of original sin, guilt, infant baptism, and Covenant Theology.
Classical Calvinism has embedded in it the doctrine of the imputation of sin, meaning that guilt is passed from the parent to the child at conception or at birth, a concept stemming from Augustine and John Calvin. It is characteristic of those who espouse a Reformed theology, including me, to accept that all people are born with a fallen nature as a result of the sin of Adam and are absolutely inclined toward evil to the point that it is so that “all have sinned.” The question then is: Are human beings guilty and thus condemned on account of Adam’s sin or their own?
However, an additional insistence arises in some Reformed circles that a true Calvinist must hold to a Covenant theology that, in part, defends infant baptism as an event which makes infants and children safe in salvation through that baptism. The practice is usually likened to or is an extension of the command in the Law of Moses that circumcision of the male child be conducted on the eighth day after birth, which act made that child a part of the covenantal community of Israel. This looks to me as tantmount to a separate means of salvation and therefore at least a partial negation of the all encompassing doctrine of the sovereign electing of God.
Typically, Reformed people embrace two covenants—the covenant of works and the covenant of grace—both of which I maintain as well. But it is more complicated than that, and when the discussion is done, the conclusion emerges for many that the event of baptism of infants, or young children, or even adults establishes the covenant of grace, a covenant between the baptized person and God. Does this do justice to the biblical concept of baptism?
The issue is: How does God save? Is it by means of the baptism of an infant or child? Is it dependent on a covenant relationship with God through the family and/or church? Or is salvation based on election alone?
The doctrine of election stated
Foreknowledge, predestination, election, calling, justifying, glorifying—these are the work of God and are the terms that describe our salvation.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8:29-30
Though the word elect or election is not found specifically in this passage describing the sovereign work of God, it is the perfect and unifying term which sums it all up.
From the Hebrew Old Testament baw-khir is the transliterated form for the word that is translated as choose, chosen one, or elect. Isaiah used the term in 42:1, 45:4, 65:9, and 65:22 to describe Israel. Israel was selected by God to be His own people; the people themselves did not choose God.
From the Greek New Testament, Eklektos and ekloge are the transliterated forms for the words that are translated as choose, elect, select, or choice. Jesus used eklektos in Matthew 24:22, 24:24, and 24:31; and also in Mark 13:20, 13:22, and 13: 27; then in Luke 18:7—all in reference to those whom God had chosen.
Paul used the terms in Romans 8:33, Colossians 3:12, 1 Thessalonians 1:4, 1 Timothy 5:21, 2 Timothy 2:10, and Titus 1:1. Peter used the terms in 1 Peter 1:2 and 6, 1 Peter 5:13, and 2 Peter 1:10. John used one of the terms in 2 John 1 and 13.
Election is without question how it is that God calls us to Himself—His foreknowing, predestinating, calling, justifying, and glorifying—all under the grand and large umbrella of election.
Baptism in the New Testament
What then of baptism? It is unquestionably the pattern for new believers in the New Testament to be baptized in water following their conversion, often soon thereafter. Though no mention of water baptism is mentioned in the missionary work in Cyprus, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Derbe, Lystra, Thessalonica, Berea, or Athens, it is explicitly stated that new converts were baptized in these passages in the Book of Acts: 2:37-41, 8:12, 8:36-38, 9:17-19, 10:44-48, 16:14-15, 16:30-34,18:8, and 19:1-6. In order then, in Acts 2:37-41--the new converts on the Day of Pentecost, following Peter’s sermon, were baptized. In Acts 8:12—those saved under the ministry of Philip were baptized, as was the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:36-38. Then Paul was baptized after his conversion in Acts 9:17-19. Cornelius was baptized following his conversion in Acts 10:44-48, as was Lydia and her household as recounted in Acts 16:14-15. The Philippian jailer and his household were baptized in Acts 16:30-34. In Acts 18:8 Crispus and household were baptized upon their conversion, as were the Ephesian converts Paul ministered to in Acts 19:1-6.
Baptism for households / Baptism for believers
There are three instances in Acts where “households” were baptized. One--Lydia’s (Acts 16:15); two--the Philippian jailer’s (Acts 16:33); three—Crispus’ (Acts 18:8). Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus could have had servants and others present in their households, which would have been common in that era. Whether there were small children in those households is unknown, and so it is not reasonable to base something as critical as baptism, let alone salvation, on silence or conjecture.
“Believer’s baptism” is the term used by Baptists and many others to describe the baptisms in the New Testament. The Greek word for baptize means to plunge under, dunk, place into the environment of water, immerse, and so on. Many prefer the term immersion, because it more clearly symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.1
Jesus himself was baptized in water by John the Baptist; Jesus’ disciples, during the course of Jesus’ own ministry, performed baptisms as well (see John 4:1-2). Jesus even commanded that His disciples baptize new believers (Matthew 28:16-20). Paul baptized, though he made it clear that “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). It is evident that Paul did not think that baptizing was a saving event.
Baptism is a confession of faith
Water baptism is important for a number of reasons, all solidly biblical, but the act itself is not a saving one. What counts is God’s election. Baptism, which follows conversion, fulfills the command of Jesus to baptize, a command He made to His Church. His command to new believers to be baptized provides a public confession of faith in Christ, which is actually a testimony to the Gospel and an identification of the baptized person as belonging to Christ and His Church. Baptism in the New Testament is not an insignificant detail.
Church history on the issue of baptism
This limited view of baptism has not been, nor is today, the unanimous conclusion of the visible church. In the Creed of the Council of Constantinople of 381, commonly called the Nicene Creed, is the statement, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
Constantine himself, who convened the initial council of Nicaea in A.D.325, refused to be baptized until he knew he was close to death, since the concept had already taken root in the fourth century church that baptism washed away sin, though only sin previously committed.2
Beginning somewhere in the late second or early third century, baptism took on saving properties in the thinking of church leaders. The Apostolic Fathers had previously held closely to the New Testament views that baptism was something someone submitted to following conversion and which served as a means of obeying the commands of Jesus to be baptized. It was considered a way to declare that Jesus was Lord and functioned as a public testimony of identification with Jesus and the Christian community, among other things. However, the Church Fathers, that group of leading Christians who followed in time after the Apostolic Fathers, began to depart from their predecessors and elevated baptism to a place foreign to the views of the New Testament writers.
The earliest clear evidence that the Church had begun to baptize infants is found in the writings of Origen (A.D. 185-254): “Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants” (from a sermon based on Leviticus 8:3). In Origen, the Greek dualistic notion of a separate existence, even pre-existence, of a soul is evident. It is apparent then that the concept of baptism’s efficacy for washing away sin was held by some in the early third century.
The Church Fathers did find some biblical support for infant baptism. Two New Testament passages at first reading seem to indicate that baptism is a saving event. Peter, in the Jerusalem Pentecost sermon said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). But then again, in Peter’s second sermon in Jerusalem, this one delivered in Solomon’s Portico in the Temple, he said, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). Actually Peter meant the same in both places, since many Jews in that era, especially those who were expecting the arrival of the Messiah, equated repentance with baptism: to demonstrate repentance one would be publicly baptized. And repentance meant to change one’s mind about the Messiah and who He was, as there were a number of competing ideas abroad.
Then in 1 Peter 3:21 we read: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Peter is referencing Noah and his family saved from judgment by means of the flood waters by being in the ark. Baptism is a vivid portrayal of being delivered from judgment, a dramatic means of picturing the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is like the ark of salvation that carried Noah safely through the threatening storm of God’s wrath. And Peter makes it clear that baptism is not a cleansing from sin event but is rather an appeal to God for a good or clear conscience. Baptism is important but not saving, and it is grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ.
From whence comes our guilt?
Many also point to Psalm 51:5 and appeal to David’s lament as support to insist that a person is born guilty, which for some opens the door to infant baptism and more importantly, to a diminishing of the doctrine of election: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Psalm 51 is one of David’s penitential songs and is thought to have been written by the guilt-stricken king after he had been confronted by the prophet Nathan over his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. David declares his own sinfulness and does not intend to blame his mother for his own failure, much less to theologize that he was condemned while in the womb.
Does the passage teach guilt from conception or birth? Or is it an expression of grief over sin and the realization of being utterly sinful as far back as memories or imaginings could go?
The Psalm is a song; it is poetry but not a considered statement of doctrine. It does agree with Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” Yet it is a reach too far to suggest that the verse teaches guilt at conception or birth.
Secondly, there are Paul’s statements in Romans 5, verses 12 to 21:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death3 through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Does Paul teach that guilt is present from conception, or for that matter, from birth? No, in my view, he does not. Paul is stressing that sin and death had their entry into the human family through Adam. Adam sinned, and the door was opened—nothing, until the future arrival of heaven and the kingdom of God, will be the same.
What Paul does teach is that, through Adam’s law-breaking, death and sin entered into the world, and death spread to all humans as a result. The meaning of “death” here is crucial. Is it physical death, or is it separation from the fellowship Adam had enjoyed with his Maker prior to the rebellion or Fall? Satan told Eve that there would be no death in contradiction to what God had said (see Genesis 2:16 and 3:1-4). Indeed, after the sinning Adam and Eve did not physically die; rather they were driven from God’s presence and sent East of Eden. Salvation and eternal life is the re-entry into God’s presence, as Revelation chapters 21 and 22 so beautifully describe. Once again God and man will be “face to face” (Revelation 22:4). Ever since Adam we have been separated from God because of our sin. We can only have fellowship with God and be reconciled to Him through the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let it be noted that Paul directly said that death spread to all men because “all sinned.” He had the perfect opportunity to state that all the guilt of all the people who would be Adam’s descendents (all humans) proceeded from Adam. Instead he repeats what he had made clear in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
It is guilt that is under discussion, and the question is, are people condemned for Adam’s sin or for their own? At some point in early Church history, due to the influences of pagan Greek myths, it was decided that is was Adam’s sin that condemns us. It was only a natural progression, then, to desire some mechanism to deal with that problem, especially for infants or children who die. Infant baptism was the solution and continues to be for large numbers of Christians. But, from my understanding of things, election is a better answer.
The limitations of basing doctrine on scant evidence
Experience has taught me that systems, however logical and developed by great theologians, are helpful and necessary, but they may well be flawed at points, as one would expect, given our fallen nature.4 I prefer to see really large and crucial theological positions clearly revealed in the Old Testament, and I am most comfortable when they are spelled out or loudly hinted at in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—all three. Then, in addition, I want to see them clearly, explicitly, in the Gospels, meaning in the mouth of Jesus. Finally, core doctrine should be evident in the writings of the earliest Church, meaning clearly presented in the Book of Acts or in the letters of Paul, Peter, John, James, or Jude. The basics of the doctrine of salvation cannot be anchored on interpretations of a couple of passages that allow for varying understandings.
Serious debate abounds
Sometimes I wonder about the intramural debates that go on among those of us who embrace the Doctrines of Grace. It is not enough for some to affirm inability and completely reject Pelagianism or its cousin, semi-Pelagianism.5 Instead, a quasi-sectarian attitude seems to be present.
Some insist that Calvin, along with Augustine, taught that condemnation of the individual is present at birth, if not from conception, and is why infant baptism is necessary. For them, rejection of the bed rock view of original sin,6 that the first sin resulted in guilt and condemnation of all human beings, actually amounts to a rejection of Reformed Theology in general.
Others think that the individual, all the children of Adam and Eve, are fallen, sinful, depraved, twisted, and bent on evil, while simultaneously saying that condemnation is the result of personal sin and not the sin of Adam.
Small point? No, it is at the heart of the intramural debate, and the controversy that can erupt clouds discovery of the biblical Doctrines of Grace for those who are emerging from long held Arminian points of view.
Election: the final word
My anchor is the doctrine of election. Whether one is committed to infant baptism or not, whether one is convinced that every person is condemned for Adam’s or their own disobedience —whatever view about lostness one might have, election overcomes them all. Augustinianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, or Philpottism7 , the whole of the matter is the electing grace of God. Because of God’s electing, anything a human being does amounts to nothing in terms of absolute salvation. Discipleship, obedience, and the full range of all of what contributes to sanctification are other issues entirely.
The point is not whether a person is condemned from conception or birth, based on the inheritance of a fallen and corrupt nature, or whether he will join all humanity in the ranks of “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The point is that all are sinners and in need of grace. My view, and the point of this essay, is that the saving mercy and grace of God comes through election only. Everything and anything else practiced by churches and individuals—ceremonies, sacraments, and rituals—are ultimately beside the point. Every form of baptism is of no avail when it comes to salvation. A miscarriage, a still birth, an abortion, or some other horrifying circumstance will not nullify or deter saving grace—election trumps all.
Therefore, when the worry and the question arises, Can the unbaptized be saved?, the answer, in light of election, is yes, and a resounding YES!