A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan M. McGraw
Baptism has always been a significant part of Christian faith and life. The Apostles included baptism alongside repentance in the earliest preaching in the Book of Acts, and confession in “one baptism for the remission of sin” found its way into the earliest Christian creeds. Our understanding of baptism can also tell us a great deal about how we understand the grace of God in the gospel. Particularly, is baptism my profession of faith in the Triune God, or his profession of faith to me through a covenant sign and seal? This book is a good introductory primer on the doctrine of baptism. In line with the Blessings of the Faith series, the author illustrates vividly how and why baptism is a blessing from God to the church.
This book is simple and easy to read, yet well-balanced and full in scope. In five chapters, followed by a series of questions and answers about baptism, the author situates baptism in God’s covenant kindness to his people, makes a case for infant or household baptism, and shows the blessings of covenantal baptism to children, parents, and churches. He sets the right tone for the topic with his gospel and God-centered approach to baptism in a way that will help readers gain clarity on what can be a difficult subject.
Several noteworthy features should stand out in this work. First, Helopoulos grounds baptism in God’s covenant love and kindness (19). This means that understanding baptism and understanding God’s covenant of grace with his church goes hand in hand. We cannot understand baptism as dropping out of the sky into the New Testament, but as a natural outworking of God’s long-term way of dealing with believing families in the Bible. Sacraments are covenant signs, and we cannot grasp their meaning apart from the covenant. One overarching covenant of grace, requiring faith in Christ, and bringing believers and their children into the covenant of grace through circumcision and then baptism shows the beautiful unity of God’s dealings with his people in history. As covenant signs, sacraments like baptism are always signs of what God says rather than what we say. This has implications for the inclusion or exclusion of the children of believers in baptism. If Helopolous’ narrative of the unity of the Old and New Testaments is sound, then a positive case is required for excluding children from believing households as heirs of God’s promises in the new covenant (40). If baptism is primarily a badge of our profession of faith, then it does not fit the biblical pattern of covenant signs, which profess God’s faith to us to bolster our faith in him.
Second, the simple fourfold testimony to household, including infant, baptism in chapter 2 is particularly clear and straightforward. The author rests on the continuity of the covenant of grace, the testimony of the New Testament, theological arguments, and the witness of the church to establish applying the initiating sign of the covenant to believers and their families. This section will not answer higher-level objections against the practice of infant baptism, but it is a useful primer for those unfamiliar with the issue or who associate infant baptism with things like Roman Catholicism. Whether readers are fully convinced or not (and I hope that they are), this chapter will give them a better grasp of why Reformed churches that baptize infants do what they do.
Third, chapters 3-5 bear out the practical value of this work by addressing the blessings of infant baptism to children, to parents, and to the congregation. It is easy to so get caught up with the question of who is right in debates like these that we can lose sight of why it matters. Helopoulous carefully explains what infant baptism does and does not mean: it does not regenerate children by changing their hearts, but it does make them heirs of the promises of God. Chapter 4 expands this theme, borrowing parental vows from the Presbyterian Church in America, to show parents how to take encouragement from the baptism of their children without presuming their salvation or neglecting the need to drive them to repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ. The fifth chapter reiterates the fact that we are not spectators in baptism, but we all actively lay hold of God’s promises in the church and as a church every time we witness a baptism. This point should apply to all baptisms, whether of infants or adults. The author also shows here that the entire congregation has a responsibility to foster the faith and godliness of every baptized child, through example and prayer, among other things. Bringing out the practical bent of this series of books, these chapters set the right tone for teaching us what to do with the doctrine of covenantal baptism.
Though this book is highly valuable and helpful, a few points of clarification are in order in relation to the generally useful series of questions and answers at the end of the book. First, Helopoulous argues that baptism does not make children members of the visible church. He adds, “Baptism does not cause this membership but rather signifies it” (128). It is better to say with the Westminster Confession of Faith (18.1) that baptism is “the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church.” Membership in the covenant is the ground of membership in the church. People show their membership in the administration of the covenant either by profession of faith in Christ, or by being born into a believing household. However, as in Acts 2, people are added to the church through baptism. While the covenant is the foundation of and charter of the church, membership in the covenant and membership in the church are not synonymous. Second, he argues that baptism sometimes means to immerse, but sometimes it means to sprinkle or to pour (119). Though a common mistake, this confuses the mode of baptism with its meaning. It is more proper to say that baptism means “to wash,” and that washing can happen through the application of water by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Conflating the mode of baptism with its meaning is the fundamental mistake, for example, that those requiring baptism by immersion alone make. We should not make the same mistake in a different direction.
Third, Helopolous blurs the distinction between the efficacy and validity of baptism. Citing WLC 161, he argues that because the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend on the power of the church or the one administering them, therefore baptism in the Triune name by a layperson is still a valid baptism (134). However, two other factors are relevant. Question 162 notes that sacraments are holy ordinances “instituted by Christ in his Church” WCF 27.4 also restricts the administration of baptism to “a minister of the Word lawfully ordained,” and 28.2 repeats this restriction with respect to baptism particularly. Reformed churches have always taught that valid sacraments are administered through Christian churches (nor by Mormons, etc) through the ordained ministers of the Word. Efficacy is a different question than validity. Validity comes in the context of the church through ministers because these are the objective ways that we see and identify sacraments as sacraments. Sacraments, however, are not effective due to the church or to the minister, but to Christ’s blessing and the Spirit’s work in those who receive them through faith. The distinction is also clear from the fact that validity is objective without faith in view, but efficacy always comes by faith. These three points of clarification were important enough to mention, yet they should not detract from the overarching value of this book.
Pastors will find Covenantal Baptism particularly useful in planting seed thoughts for the practical use of baptism, and everyone else will benefit from this clear survey of how baptism functions in the Bible, faith, and life. Some make too much out of baptism, while others make too little. This book strikes a balance between the two. Baptism is a poor substitute for the Savior, but Helopoulos shows us why baptism is a blessed means to drive us to the Savior.
Ryan M. McGraw
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Buy the books
COVENANTAL BAPTISM, by Jason Helopoulos