The sin of paedobaptism, why – if I am wrong – I am in sin and how we can still work together

I asked some questions about baptism yesterday. I was generally trying to understand the position of some of my open (and more open) baptistic friends. I was wanting to hear what grounds they employed for welcoming some (or all) paedobaptists into membership of their baptistic churches. And all those who commented were helpful in explaining their reasons. It was (honestly) an exercise in trying to understand a position I don’t hold.

But one issue always ultimately reels around, at some point, in this discussion. “It sounds like you’re saying paedobaptism is sinful!” Well, it sounds like that because that is exactly what I am saying. I think paedobaptism is a sin issue.

Now, before I go on and explain what I mean by that, let me say that I love my paedobaptist brethren and I gladly work together in the gospel with all who love Christ. I have learnt enormous amounts from them and for many of them I have nothing but the utmost respect. Just as many of my paedobaptist brethren affirm their love for Baptists like Bunyan, Spurgeon and, more recently, Dever so that same love and affection flows the other way. I happily belong in gospel partnerships with them and I count some of them among my dearest friends.

But here’s the thing, we have to define sin somehow. The Bible is clear enough that sin can be intentional (cf. Numbers 15:30-31) or unintentional (cf. Leviticus 4:2-3). There are sins we commit knowingly and sins we commit without knowing. Both are nonetheless sinful. So we can’t say that intent defines sin because we can sin knowingly or unwittingly.

So how do we define sin? The Bible defines it well enough. 1 John 3:4 says that ‘sin is lawlessness.’ Elsewhere, the Bible calls sin rebellion against God (cf. Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 1:18). So a simple definition of sin is anything, regardless of intent or knowledge, that is disobedient to God. It may be a failure to do what God commands us to do (sin of omission) or a doing of what God commands us not to do (sin of commission). But anything – purposefully, knowingly or sincerely and unknowingly – that goes against God’s command is rightly called sin.

Now, all Christians agree that baptism is commanded by God. Jesus, when he gave the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 commanded his followers to baptise and be baptised. It is a straightforward, clear command of God. As a Baptist, I believe infant baptism stops us from rightly obeying this command. I believe it rejects the pattern of repenting and being baptised (Acts 2:38 cf. Acts 2:41), insists upon something that God does not command and then stops those who receive it from doing specifically what God does command. If we are defining sin as anything which disobeys a command of God, no matter how sincerely or unintentionally, it is hard to see how paedobaptism (on a Baptist understanding) doesn’t fit firmly into that category.

No doubt some will argue that humility demands – because many disagree on this issue – we ought to be a bit more open and avoid the “S-word”. But I have heard paedobaptist explanations of their position and, in the end, am not persuaded by them. In fact, I believe they are contrary to what God has revealed in his Word.

Whilst it might feel humble to pretend that we think we might be wrong, if we’re not actively practicing paedobaptism, we obviously don’t think we are wrong. Whatever the term is for pretending something we clearly don’t believe might actually be true, I’m not convinced it is humility. In the end, our conscience must be held captive to the Word of God. And if it is, we are bound to call sin what God calls sin; that is, anything that trangresses what he commands. If credobaptism is correct, paedobaptism is necessarily sin just as a refusal to baptise my children is sin if paedobaptism is a faithful reading of God’s Word.

None of that means that I doubt my paedobaptist brethren are saved. I think they are utterly sincere in their belief that they are being faithful to God. I happen to think they are sincerely wrong, but I have no doubt whatsoever that they trust the Lord and think they are being faithful to him. I am also clear that I do not believe baptism is a first order gospel issue that will lock anybody out of Heaven.

But because I think the matter at hand is one of sin, and I believe (just as many of my paedobaptist brethren do) that it is wrong to admit an unbaptised person into the church (cf. Acts 2:41-42; Romans 6:1-4), I cannot simply welcome unbaptised believers into membership of my church, no matter how sincere they might be in their beliefs. Just as I believe paedobaptism is an issue of disobedience to Christ, I similarly believe it is a matter of disobedience to Christ to welcome such people into the church and affirm them in their sincere, but wrong, belief. Whilst I am not culpable for the sin of an individual being unwilling to be baptised as Christ commanded, I would be in sin (transgressing God’s commands) were I to welcome into membership of the church an unbaptised person.

As I’ve already alluded to above, the same definition of sin that I employ to say paedobaptism is sinful would be the very same definition that would cause my paedobaptist brethren to say that my refusal to baptise my children is sinful. At the end of the day, one of us has misunderstood God’s Word here and is not being faithful to it and I look forward to the day when we will have no more disputes about these things in glory. But for now, we believe what we believe because we hold fast to God’s Word and wish to be faithful to him.

But a final Word ought to be given to partnership. Some will argue that the view outlined above means that it is entirely inconsistent for us to work together, to have in our pulpits, even to use the commentaries of those we deem in sin. How can we say, on the one hand, paedobaptism is sinful whilst happily working together in the gospel with those who sin?

There are several things we might say. First, we have to do what Al Mohler famously calls theological triage. This issue sits in the second order. It is not a primary gospel issue, but it is an issue that makes it hard for us to sit together in the same church. If this isn’t a gospel issue, whilst that doesn’t mean we can necessarily sit together in the same church, we can certainly work together in the gospel even if we disagree with one another.

Second, we have to recognise that we are all prone to sins. If I didn’t work with other sinners, not only would I not be able to work with others in the gospel, I wouldn’t be able to work with people in my own church and would, when we get to it, have to disassociate from myself! Just because something is sinful (as theological triage suggests) doesn’t mean they all have the same consequences, carry the same weight of seriousness or impede everything in the same way. Whilst the issue of baptism may impede my ability to join a consistent presbyterian church who would place me under discipline for not baptising my children, it doesn’t stop us working together with our respective churches in joint gospel endeavours.

Third, I would want to echo Mark Dever in this article:

I have many dear paedo-baptists friends from whom I have learned much. Yet I see their practice as a sinful (though sincere) error from which God protects them by allowing for inconsistency in their doctrinal system, just as he graciously protects me from consistency with my own errors.

None of us are beyond sincere, yet sinful, error. As JL Reynolds – the 19th Century Baptist preacher stated – as also quoted by Dever:

On the subject of infant baptism, and what seems to me to be its legitimate tendencies, I have recorded my sentiments without reserve, and, I trust, without offence.  I impeach no man’s motives; nor do I question the piety and sincerity of those of my Christian brethren who believe that the practice is sanctioned by divine command.  Many pedobaptists are among the lights and ornaments of the age; their ministry has been blessed of God to the extension of the Redeemer’s kingdom, and their Churches present numerous examples of pure and unaffected piety.  Such men would not, knowingly, contravene the law of Christ.  They would welcome the obloquy of the world, and even the agonies of martyrdom, in obedience to the command of their Lord and King, and rejoice that they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake. It is impossible not to admire and love men whose faith and practice associate them with Baxter, Leighton, Edwards, and Martyn, and who breathe their heavenly spirit.  While I think I see and regret their errors, I would extend to them the same indulgence which I ask for my own.

Dever, ed., Polity, p. 328