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§ 9. The Subjects of Baptism.

“Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the risible Church, till they profess their faith in Christ and obedience to Him: but the infants of such as are members of the visible Church are to be baptized.”557557Westminster Shorter Catechism, quest. 95.

The question, Who are the proper subjects of baptism? is determined by the design of the ordinance and the practice of the Apostles. It has been shown that, according to our standards, the sacraments (and of course baptism) were instituted, to signify, seal, and apply to believers the benefits of the redemption of Christ. The reception of baptism, so far as adults are concerned, is an intelligent, voluntary act, which from its nature involves, 541(1.) A profession of faith in Christ, and (2) A promise of allegiance to Him.

This is clear, —

1. From the command of Christ to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. A disciple, however, is both a recipient of doctrines taught, and a follower. Every one, therefore, who is made a disciple by baptism, enrolls himself among the number of those who receive Christ as their teacher and Lord, and who profess obedience and devotion to his service.

2. This is further clear from the uniform practice of the Apostles. In every case on record of their administering the rite, it was on the condition of a profession of faith on the part of the recipient. The answer of Philip to the eunuch who asked, What doth hinder me to be baptized? “If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest,” discloses the principle on which the Apostles uniformly acted in this matter.

3. This has in all ages been the practice of the Church. No man was admitted to baptism without an intelligent profession of faith in Christ, and a solemn engagement of obedience to Him. The practice of Romanist missionaries in baptizing the heathen in crowds, can hardly be considered as invalidating this statement.

Although this has been the principle universally admitted, there has been no little diversity as to its application, according to the different views of the nature of the faith, and of the character of the obedience required by the Gospel. In some points, however, there has ever been a general agreement.

Qualifications for Adult Baptism.

1. Faith supposes knowledge of at least the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel. Some may unduly enlarge, and some unduly restrict the number of such doctrines; but no Church advocates the baptism of the absolutely ignorant. If baptism involves a profession of faith, it must involve a profession of faith in certain doctrines; and those doctrines must be known, in order to be professed. In the early Church, therefore, there was a class of catechumens or candidates for baptism who were under a regular course of instruction. This course continued, according to circumstances, from a few months, to three years. These catechumens were not only young men, but often persons in mature life, and of all degrees of mental culture. Where Christian 542churches were established in the midst of large heathen cities, the Gospel could not fail to excite general attention. The interest of persons of all classes would be more or less awakened. Many would be so impressed with the excellence of the new religion, as to desire to learn its doctrines and join themselves to the company of believers. These candidates for baptism, being in many cases men of the highest culture, it was necessary that their teachers should be men thoroughly instructed and disciplined. We accordingly find such men as Pantænus, Clemens, and Origen successively at the head of the catechetical school of Alexandria.558558H. E. F. Guerike, De Schola quæ Alexandriæ floruit catechetica, Halle, 1824. These schools, although primarily designed for converts from among the Jews and heathen, on account of their high character, soon began to be frequented by other classes, and especially by those who were in training for the ministry. When Christianity became the prevalent religion, and the ranks of the Church were filled up, not by converts of mature age, but by those born within its pale and baptized in their infancy, the necessity for such schools no longer existed. Their place, however, was supplied by the systematic instruction of the young in preparation for their confirmation or their first communion.

2. All churches are agreed in demanding of adults who are candidates for baptism, a profession of their faith in Christ and the Gospel of his salvation.

3. They agree in requiring of those who are baptized the renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil. This involves a turning from sin, and a turning to God.

Although these principles are, as just remarked, generally admitted, there is, in practice, great diversity in their application. Where the Church was pure and its ministers faithful, these requisitions were strenuously enforced; but where the reverse was the case, the most formal, and often evidently insincere, assent to the creed of the Church was taken for a profession of faith; and a renunciation of the world compatible with devotion to its pleasures and its sins, was accepted in the place of genuine repentance. It is well, however, to have a clear idea of what the Church has a right to demand of adults when they apply for baptism. It is evident from the teachings of Scripture, and from the avowed principles of all Christian churches, that we are bound to require of all such candidates, (1.) A competent knowledge of the Gospel. (2.) A credible profession of faith. (3.) A conversation void of offence.


The question, although thus simple in its general statement, in nevertheless one of great difficulty. As it is almost universally the fact that, so far as adults are concerned, the qualifications for baptism are the same as those for admission to the Lord’s table, the question, What are the qualifications for adult baptism? resolves itself into the question, What are the qualifications for church-membership? The answer to that question, it is evident, must be determined by the views taken of the nature and the prerogatives of the Church. We accordingly find that there are three general views of the qualifications for adult baptism, founded on the three generic views of the nature of the Church.

Romish Theory of the Church.

First, the theory derived from the ancient theocracy and from the analogy between the Church and a civil commonwealth. The theocracy, or the Church, under the old dispensation, was essentially an externally organized body. All the natural descendants of Abraham, through Isaac, were, in virtue of their birth, members of the “Commonwealth of Israel.” As such, independently of their own moral character or that of their parents, they were entitled to all the privileges of the economy under which they lived. They were freely admitted to the services of the Temple, to the Passover, and to all the sacred festivals, and typical institutions of the Mosaic dispensation, even to those which were truly of a sacramental character. The Hebrews were, of course, subject to the laws of the theocracy under which they lived; for minor offences they forfeited this or that privilege, or were subjected to some specified penalty; and for graver offences they were excommunicated or cut off from among the people. All this finds a parallel in the kingdoms of this world. All native born Englishmen are subjects of the crown, and are entitled to all the privileges of Englishmen; they may be good or bad citizens, but their citizenship does not depend upon their character, they may be punished for their offences, but they cannot be deprived of their rights as citizens unless they are outlawed.

This theory has, by Romanists and Romanizers, been transferred bodily to the Church. The Church, according to them, is essentially an externally organized society. All born within its pale are “ipso facto” its members, and entitled to all its privileges. They are entitled to all its sacraments and ordinances, not in virtue of their character, but in virtue of their birthright. Thus Mr. Palmer,559559Palmer, On the Church, New York, 1841, vol. i. p. 377. of the Oxford Anglican School, says that the 544Scriptures make no mention of regeneration, sanctity, or real piety visible or invisible, as prerequisites for admission to the sacrament of baptism.560560This is not inconsistent with what was said above of all churches requiring as the conditions of adult baptism, competent knowledge, a profession of faith, and the renunciation of the world. What was there said concerned the reception of members into the Church ab extra. What is here said concerns those who are members of the Church by birth. No doubt a pious Hebrew priest would exhort those who came to offer sacrifices or to celebrate the Passover, that they should attend on those services in a devout spirit and in the exercise of faith, assuring them that the mere external service was of no account. The Romanist, with his “ex opere operato” theory of the sacraments, could hardly go as far as that, but he would doubtless exhort the candidate for baptism, and all who come to the sacraments of the Church, to perform those duties in a proper spirit. But this has nothing to do with the right of approach. We may exhort citizens to exercise their civil rights conscientiously, and with a due regard to the interests of the country, but the rights themselves are not to be disputed.

The same result is reached, although on a different theory, in all those countries in which Church and State are so united that the head of the State is the head of the Church; and that membership in the Church is a condition of citizenship in the State. This was the case for centuries in England, and is so to a great extent to the present day. The reigning sovereign is still the head of the Church, the supreme authority in administering its government. The laws of the Church are acts of Parliament; every Englishman, unless he voluntarily makes himself an exception, has a right to all the services of the Church, including the right to be buried as a Christian “in the sure hope of a blessed resurrection.” Until of late years no man could hold any important office, especially in the army or navy, who was not in communion with the established Church. So also in Prussia, the head of the State governs the Church. No man, unless a Romanist or a Hebrew, can marry, become an apprentice, or enter on the practice of a profession without producing a certificate of baptism and confirmation.

Puritan Theory of the Church.

The second general theory of the nature of the Church is that, which for convenience sake, may be called the Puritan. The word Puritan has in history a much wider sense than that assigned to it in modern usage. In English history the designation Puritan was applied to all those, who under the reigns of Elizabeth 545and Charles I. were desirous of a further reformation of the Church. Many prelates, and thousands of Episcopalians and Presbyterians, were included in that class. Modern usage has confined the term to the Independents or Congregationalists, the followers of Brown and Robinson. They were, therefore, often called Brownists. According to them the visible Church consists of the regenerate; and it is the duty and the prerogative of the Church to sit in judgment on the question whether the applicant for admission to the sacraments is truly born of God. Hence in New England, there was a broad distinction made between the Church and the parish. The former consisted of the body of communicants; the latter of those who, though not communicants, frequented the same place of worship and contributed to the support of the minister and to other congregational expenses. “To join the Church,” thus came to mean joining the number of those who were admitted to the Lord’s Supper. This of course implies, that communicants only are in the Church. This view has gained ascendancy in this country even, to a great extent, among Presbyterians.

The Common Protestant Theory.

According to our standards the visible Church consists of all those who profess the true religion together with their children. The common Protestant theory of the Church agrees with that of the Puritans in the following points. (1.) That the true or invisible Church as a whole consists of the elect. This is the Church which Christ loved, for which He gave Himself, that He might sanctify it, and present it to Himself a glorious Church without spot or wrinkle. (Eph. v. 25-27.) (2.) That the true or invisible Church on earth consists of all true believers. (3.) That the profession of faith made by those who are baptized, or come to the table of the Lord, is a profession of true faith. That is, those baptized profess to be Christians. The point of difference between the theories concerns the duty and prerogative of the Church in the matter. According to the one view the Church is bound to be satisfied in its judgment that the applicant is truly regenerate; according to the other, no such judgment is expressed or implied in receiving any one into the fellowship of the Church. As Christ has not given his people the power to search the heart, He has not imposed upon them the duty which implies the possession of any such power. Both parties require a credible profession of faith on the part of the 546applicant for membership. But the one means by credible, that which constrains belief; the other, that which may be believed, i.e., that against which no tangible evidence can be adduced. If such applicant be a heretic, or if his manner of life contradicts his profession, he ought not to be received; and if already in the Church, he ought, as the Apostle says, to be rejected. The common Protestant doctrine is that nothing authorizes us to refuse a man admission to the Church, which would not justify his exclusion if already a member of it. If guilty of any “offence” or “scandal,” he ought to be excluded; and if chargeable with any such “offence” or “scandal,” he ought not to be admitted to membership, no matter what his profession or detail of experience may be. The late Dr. John M. Mason clearly and forcibly expresses the common doctrine on this subject, when he says: “A credible profession of Christianity, is all that she [the Church] may require in order to communion. She may be deceived; her utmost caution may be, and often has been, ineffectual to keep bad men from her sanctuary. And this, too, without her fault, as she is not omniscient. But she has no right to suspect sincerity, to refuse privilege, or inflict censure, where she can put her finger upon nothing repugnant to the love or the laws of God.”561561Essays on the Church of God, by John M. Mason, D. D., New York, 1843, Essay III, p. 57. And on the following page he says: “A profession of faith in Christ, and of obedience to Him, not discredited by other traits of character, entitles an adult to the privileges of his Church.”

This is not the place for the discussion of the question concerning the nature of the Church. These theories are simply mentioned here because of their bearing on the subject of adult baptism. According to all these theories believing adults are, by the command of Christ, entitled to Christian baptism. Much more difficulty attends the question concerning

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