Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #3—
Believer’s Baptism (or the Gathered Church)

August 30, 2011

By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.


All denominations that broadly share the Reformation heritage share more beliefs in common than beliefs that differ. This is true of dominations in the Baptist, Arminian, and Presbyterian/Reformed tradition – we agree on many more points than we disagree about orthodox Nicean Christianity and other key Reformation beliefs. Despite these many points of agreement, it is the points of agreement on which theological discussions tend to focus. In an earlier post entitled “The Middle Way,” I asserted that centrist Baptists are “the middle way” between Arminians, on the one hand, and Calvinists/Presbyterians, on the other. In it, I listed twelve points of doctrinal disagreement between centrist Baptists and many Arminians. In this series I want to point out nine points of difference between centrist Baptist beliefs and the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition.

These nine Baptist doctrinal distinctives I will discuss do not include the five point summary of Reformed soteriology (best known in the TULIP acronym–for a critique of five-point Calvinism from a centrist Baptist perspective see our book Whosoever Will). In fact, most of the nine points that I will be addressing were explicitly held by the Particular Baptists in contradistinction from the Presbyterian or Reformed theology from which they separated themselves. These, then, are distinctively Baptist beliefs. The first Baptist distinctive I addressed was a cluster of interrelated beliefs — soul competency, priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty. The second Baptist distinctive addressed was the age (or state) of accountability. This third post concerns the Baptist distinctive of believer’s baptism (or “the gathered church”).[1]

Distinctive Baptist Belief #3:
Believer’s Baptism (or a Gathered Church)

One of the most obvious changes in the Second London and Philadelphia confessions from the Westminster Confession regards believer’s baptism. According to the Westminster Confession, “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.”[2] In clear contradistinction from this statement, the Second London and Philadelphia confessions affirm, “Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36, 37, 2:41, 8:12, 18:8).[3] The affirmation of believer’s baptism is in all major Baptist confessions, including all three Baptist Faith and Message statements.[4] Likewise, the Westminster Confession defined the visible church as consisting “of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion,” together with “their children.”[5] The Second London and Philadelphia confessions defined the church as consisting of “All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it . . . and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted (Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:20-22).[6] Obviously, the Baptist confessions omitted the children of church members from membership until they had made their own profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. The Baptist confessions speak of a “gathered” church. The three editions of the Baptist Faith and Message follow the New Hampshire Confession in describing the church as consisting of “baptized believers.”[7]

It is, after all, because of Baptists’ distinctive practice of baptizing new believers (rather than sprinkling infants) that separated us from the magisterial Reformers.  And it was this practice that gave us the name “Anabaptists” (baptize again) or, more simply, Baptists. Believer’s baptism is central to our identity as Baptists. The notion of sprinkling of infants to wash away or remove their original sin is repugnant to Baptists throughout our history. This is not a peripheral issue for Baptists. Baptists have literally given their lives for this belief at the hands of Calvinist authorities. The New Testament is utterly bereft of any reference to infant baptism, and thus it is one of the Presbyterian doctrines without any significant Biblical support. Indeed, it is accurate to say historically that infant baptism was simply a “leftover” from the universal Catholic practice, and leaders like Calvin realized that it was a practice too engrained in European culture to simply eliminate it. Leaders like Zwingli recognized that the practice lacked Biblical support, but they compromised out of political expedience.  Indeed, this was one of the key differences between the magisterial Reformation and the radical Reformation. As Al Mohler asserts, Baptists and Presbyterians “fervently disagree over the most basic understanding of Christian baptism.” [8]

Is believer’s baptism a secondary or peripheral issue? When one applies a “theological triage” [9] among various theological issues, how important is believer’s baptism?  Baptists deny belief in baptismal regeneration – that baptism is required for salvation — baptism is a symbol of a salvific event that has already taken place. Nonetheless, for Baptists, persons are not viewed as saved (and thus candidates for baptism) until they have repented of their sins and placed their faith personally and consciously in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. This is impossible for infants.  Do Baptists recognize the salvation of Presbyterians (or Catholics) baptized as infants?  No, because as infants they were incapable of believer’s baptism. So believer’s baptism is directly tied to an essential doctrine – the doctrine of salvation. The baptism of those baptized as infants would not be recognized because their salvation is not recognized, since it was not associated with repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus.

If Baptists today don’t see believer’s baptism as a crucial issue, it is a departure from our heritage. Baptists in prior generations suffered persecution and even martyrdom from Calvinist and Catholic authorities in defense of their beliefs. For example, Balthasar Hubmaier, Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel, Georg Blaurock, and Wilhelm Reublin opposed Ulrich Zwingli in two disputations in Zurich about Zwingli’s continuance of the Catholic practice of infant baptism which they viewed as unbiblical. Hubmaier and Zwingli also exchanged rather sharply worded pamphlets on the subject. Early Anabaptist leaders like Manz, Grebel, Blaurock, and Manz were imprisoned repeatedly for their beliefs, and most of them fled Zurich to avoid further torment (although some such as Hubmaier were tortured and executed in other places). Felix Manz stayed and was executed by Zwingli and the Zurich city council for the crime of “having said that he wanted to gather those who wanted to accept Christ and follow Him, and unite himself with them in baptism.”[10] Clearly, their convictions were that believer’s baptism was an essential rather than secondary issue, an issue of conscience that was important enough to these early Baptists to lay down their lives in affirming it. Baptizing those who are not yet the age of accountability and have not affirmed Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is a crucial soteriological issue, not merely a secondary ecclesiological one.

[1] To preview the entire series, you can see the larger article from which these posts are drawn, plus responses from three theological perspectives, from a paper presentation for a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. You can see them at Steve Lemke, “What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 5, no. 2 (Fall 2008):10-39, available online at http://www.baptistcenter.com/Documents/Journals/JBTM%205-2_Baptists_in_Dialogue_Fall_08.pdf#page=11. It is posted in this blog format in SBC Today to facilitate discussion on these issues. The next scheduled article in this series is “Baptist Distinctive #4:  Baptism by the Mode of Immersion.”

[2] Believer’s baptism was the first distinction between Baptists and Presbyterians that T. S. Dunaway addressed in “Why Baptist and Not Presbyterian,” in J. M. Frost, ed., Baptist Why and Why Not (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1900), 127-136. Dunaway cited Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge that “children of one or both believing parents” are proper candidates for baptism (131-132), and the Book of Church Order adopted by the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1879 that “the infant seed of believers are through the covenant and by right of birth members of the church” and thus “entitled to baptism” (132). See also R. P. Johnston, “Why Baptism of Believers and Not Infants,” 151-162; and J. O. Rust, “Why a Converted Church Membership,” 205-224, in Baptist Why and Why Not.

[3] Second London Confession, Art. 29, par. 2; Philadelphia Confession, Art. 30, par. 2.

[4] BF&M, Art. 7.

[5] Westminster Confession, Art. 25, par. 2.

[6] Second London Confession, Art. 26, par. 2; Philadelphia Confession, Art. 27, par. 2.

[7] BF&M, Art. 6.

[8] Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” in Baptist Press (August 23, 2006), available online at http://www.bpnews.net/bpcolumn.asp?ID=2359; and at Dr. Mohler’s web site (July 12, 2005) at http://www.albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity/.

[9] Ibid; see also John Piper, “Twelve Theses on Baptism and Its Relationship to Church
Membership, Church Leadership, and Wider Affiliations and Partnerships of Bethlehem
Baptist Church,” p. 14 in “Baptism and Church Membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church: Eight Recommendations for Constitutional Revision,” by John Piper, Alex Chediak, and Tom Steller, available online at http://desiringgod.org/media/pdf/baptism_and_membership.pdf.

[10] The Mennonite Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Reference Work on the Anabaptist-Mennonite Movement, 5 vols. (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1990), 3:473. Manz was executed by being paraded through town, put in a boat, his hands bound over his knees, with a stick between his knees and arms to immobilize him, and lowered into the water of the Limmat Reiver and drowned as a symbolic final baptism.