Baptism and Church Membership: A Response to Michael Horton

Because much of the evangelical talk about baptism in recent years has downplayed the importance of it in regard to church membership, I was glad to see serious discussion about this subject the last few days at the Gospel Coalition site. While the piece by Mathis on “open membership” falls in line with much of the discussion that does not see baptism as central to membership (we hope to write a response to this piece as well), the pieces by Horton (paedobaptism) and Hamilton (believer’s baptism) argue that it is central to local church membership.


I really enjoyed Michael Horton’s entry on paedobaptism and church membership. I appreciated the winsomeness and honesty of his disagreement, and I especially enjoyed the strong language he used. He used words like “sin” to describe believers who do not admit their children to infant baptism.


Baptism is a serious issue, so serious language is appropriate. Our Baptist forefathers recognized this. That’s why they used words like “evil” to describe paedobaptism, and that’s why some of them were willing to drown for believer’s baptism by immersion.


Much could be said in response to the paedobaptist position, but I want to focus briefly on a glaring oversight in the paedobaptist position as it pertains to church membership, and that is the new birth.


I actually agree that baptism is a sign of the covenant that parallels circumcision under the old covenant, but how is one born into the new covenant community? It’s not through generation; it’s through regeneration (Ezek. 36; Jer. 31; cf. John 3). One is born into the covenant community when they receive the Spirit, a new heart, and the law written on the heart.


This is why Baptists have historically made such a big deal about believer’s baptism in terms of church membership. We believe in regenerate church membership. The membership of the church should be made up only of those whose names are written in the Book of Life. Granted, there will be false professions, and we will make errors, so there are provisions like church membership to help us strive for integrity in our membership.


The sign of the covenant should be administered not to those who have been born, but rather to those who have been born again.


I am thankful for the series and think you should check out the posts. Serious language is in order, as well as charitable disagreement.

Comments 0

  1. I can hardly believe that we are covering this ground again. But we must be dilegent in every generation that we have a robust dialogue. What is amazing to me is that we end up with paedobaptism from two theologically oppoosing views; one is what I would call the reformed tradition and the other the free church more arminian position. We have a “tradition” in some churches where little Johnny gets baptized and does not have a clue as to repentance and faith. And the reformed tradtion can preach “covenant” and family commitment to that covenant while baptizing their children and be diligent in raising that child for Christ but yet that child can miss God. May God give us the grace to lift baptism back to its biblical meaning. The understanding of the gospel and my response of repentance and faith opened the door to a supernatural change wrought by the Spirit of God. I will never be the same, baptism signifies this change. And in following Jesus in this way we give Him glory. Jesus is not pleased when we baptize babies or preschoolers or anyone who is not truly born again. If someone has to “pry” and ask questions about their experience with Jesus then one might truly wonder if there has indeed been supernatural change; a true appraisal of the Gospel etc. I pray that we see many more baptisms that truly represent what it should, Almighty God has come and changed a life and that person will never be the same!

  2. Thanks for the simple yet cogent response to covenant position but from a Baptist perspective. As you said this issue has been towards the center of baptist life since the beginning & our lack of response to an unbelieving world on this subject has been glaring. I pray this conversation stokes the minds of younger pastors in the SBC to critically think thought this issue. Again, thank you.
    – Jon Nelson

  3. I really enjoy B21 because it gives me a window into a world I am very much interested in and excited about (Southern Baptist life). My wife’s father is a great SBC pastor; I am in ministry in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
    Having read the discussion over at Gospel Coalition and this article, I must say I really appreciate the dialogue – both sides.
    A couple points:
    1. Paedobaptists do NOT overlook the significance of the new birth – as a matter of fact we only admit those who have professed faith in Christ to the Lord’s Supper. It’s simply that we make a distinction between the covenant sign of initiation (circumcision/baptism) that is to be applied to believers and their children (the promise – or engagement ring, if you will) and the covenant sign of faith (the profession – or wedding ring, if you will). God works through families. God includes the children of his people in his promises. Peter makes a point to include the children of the Jews he is calling to repentance and baptism in Acts 2 – “the promise is for you AND your children…”

    2. Regenerate church membership is ambiguous. There are tons of unbaptized children in SBC churches who are regenerate. There are immersed adult Sunday School teachers and pastors (not to mention members) who are unregenerate. The percentage of elect people baptized in Baptist churches (as adults) and Presbyterian churches (as infants) is likely about the same. The wind blows where it will – regeneration is not usually a fixed point that can be identified, nor can it be tested much beyond a profession of faith and visible “fruit.”

    3. It is amazing to me how many of my Baptist brothers look up to and learn from Reformed guys like Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell, Mike Horton, RC Sproul, Tullian Tchividjian, Steve Brown, etc… but none of these fellows could be members of your churches because of their view on a non-essential doctrine. Though would any of you question that they are regenerate?!? In some SBC churches (Capitol Hill BC) they would not even be admitted to the Lord’s table! By contrast, the PCA accepts immersion in the Triune name as baptism (though we disagree with the mode or at least the exclusive requirement of immersion) – and we regularly receive those who are baptist by conviction into fellowship/membership (not leadership).

    I get that this issue has a lot to do with Baptist identity and history. All well and good, but the elevation of a non-essential doctrine to the level that it causes division between brothers seems unhealthy. Beyond that, it places an emphasis on water baptism that implies it is involved in salvation (I know better, but many do not). Even though I agree with Horton that you are sinning by not applying the sign of God’s promise to your children, I would still gladly receive you into membership in God’s church and pray for your convictions to change.

    1. Hi Matt,

      You hit the why padeobaptism is sin nail right on the head when you labeled baptism a “non-essential” doctrine. If the incarnate God commanded his disciples to baptize, what gives you OR ANYONE the authority to say to Jesus, “Your command is “non-essential ” When the prophet instructed Naaman to wash himself in the Jordan 7 times was it imperative for him to understand the prophet, or obey him? (2 Kings 5:10ff)

  4. Matt,

    Thanks for your direct and winsome response. I know we could discuss this topic at length and will most likely come away agreeing to disagree. I may just add a few things here:

    1. I just don’t understand the consistency of admitting people to baptism w/o professed faith but only allowing those who have professed faith to the Lord’s Table. Why is one ordinance/sacrament elevated above another?

    2. I think my point stands. One should not undergo the sign of initiation into the New Covenant if they’re not a part of the new cov community thru new birth.

    Plus, all of the texts about you and your children are arguments from silence about baptism. According to your argument in Acts 2, we should also admit to baptism all “who are far off” as well.

    3. I’m not sure how to respond to your 2nd point b/c it makes a claim that can’t be proven true or false (same % of elect baptized in Baptist and Presb churches).

    Baptists don’t claim to have perfect memberships. We simply claim to strive for our memberships looking like what heaven will look like. Church discipline is given to remedy mistakes when there is no fruit shown.

    I’m just not sure the answer to this ambiguity is unregenerate church membership.

    4. Calling baptism a “non-essential” doctrine is interesting. Why would the command/commission of Jesus be considered non-essential? Read Nathan’s response to Mathis.

    5. I’m curious as to why the PCA thinks immersion is not the only right “mode” of baptism when the word means “immerse”, all the baptisms of the NT are immersions, Jesus was immersed, and Romans 6 says that baptism is a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

    6. Again, Nathan mentions this in his post, but we take seriously dividing w/ gospel-believing bros over anything. But everyone excludes, either at the membership level or the elder level. Also, labeling one’s practice as “sin” is likely to divide as well.

    I enjoy the dialogue. Blessings brother,


  5. Jon, thanks for the push-back. Definitely helps me as I seek to learn more about this issue. I know we could go back and forth but are both quite settled in our convictions. I am with you in enjoying strong language and dialogue when it comes to baptism, especially when there is a confidence that we are bros bound together by the gospel – we complement and sharpen in disagreement. I will venture a brief response to your points:
    1. it’s not that one sacrament is elevated above another in presb theology. It’s that they have different meanings and are a progression in the life of the believer. I believe this understanding increases the unique value of each ordinance, not detracts from it.
    2. We have a different boundary line for who belongs in the New Covenant community. The real argument fron silence regarding baptism is the baptist position. Nowhere in the NT does God revoke his inclusion of the children of his people in the covenant community and sign. What would those 1st century Jews have assumed hearing Peter at Pentecost? Why does he not correct them? Nonetheless there is very little difference in the way presbys and baptists disciple their kids. We both assume they are unregenerate and seek to raise them on the training and admonition of the Lord. Whence baby “dedications?”
    3. You are absolutely right the claim cannot be proven true or false. It’s anecdotal, a hunch. Of course Presbys do not advocate for “unregenerate church membership,” as if anyone can join no matter what. It’s very restrictive: believers and their children (the same line drawn by the OT and NT).
    4. By non-essential I simply mean that one can be wrong about the doctrine and still be a Christian. Does not mean it is not massively important, which is why I appreciate the strong and clear language used by both sides.
    5. This would be a lengthy response (but a biblical one). Instead I will refer you to a good starting place for considering other valid modes of baptism – “The Meaning and Mode of Baptism” by Jay E. Adams. Your propositions about the word baptizo meaning immersion, every NT baptism (including Jesus’) being immersions, and the meaning of Romans 6:1-4 are all possibly true but not undeniable (or in places even likely) as you make them sound.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond! God bless you and B21!

  6. Jon,

    As a PCA elder (and a former SBC member), I’m really enjoying the dialogue that’s gone on here at B21 and at TGC. One question I have that I’ve never really had answered…

    You say that all of the baptisms of the NT are immersions and that Jesus was immersed. How do you know that? Not saying that Jesus was not immersed, of course, but the semantic range of the word “baptizo” allows for other modes. I’ve just never seen how one can say that he certainly was immersed without making certain assumptions.

    (If answering this will just hang up the discussion unnecessarily, please feel free to ignore me. :-))

  7. Matt,

    Again thanks for your response.

    I just wanna ask again about Acts 2, should we also sprinkle “those who are far off”? since we should parents and children…

    The new covenant is reserved for those who have the law written on the heart and don’t have to be told to know the Lord b/c they already do (jer. 31:34). That shows it is different in kind from OC.

    I don’t know how sprinkling could possibly picture resurrection…



    1. Of course we should baptize this far off- you and I have no hope of covenant membership if the promise of reconciliation and its seal isn’t carried to Gentiles like us. I am a credobaptist whose confidence in my position is weakening significantly from the shaky argumentation defending believer’s only baptism as well as the widespread anti-supernaturalism and voluntarism Baptists routinely adopt re: the sacramental life of the church. Credobaptist I may remain, but a Baptist, certainly not- the vision you pursue and implement would be unrecognizable to most of the church across her history.

  8. Rae,

    Thanks for your response and question. I will not give all the evidence, just in the case of Jesus.

    John 3:23 indicates John was baptizing in a place where there was “much water.” Why did he need much water if he was pouring/sprinkling?

    In fact, read Calvin’s commentary on John 3:22 where he argues that Christ’s baptism was “plunging the whole body beneath the water.” Then he goes on to say we shouldn’t concern ourselves w/ the “outward rite.”

    Martin Luther also argued that Jesus was immersed.

    Certainly someone could deny that he was immersed, but I think they’d be going against the plain reading of the text that even those who practiced sprinkling admitted was there.

    And again, how can sprinkling or pouring picture resurrection?

    Glad to dialogue about these things. I think this will be the last I can jump in.



  9. Jon,

    Yes, I do believe we should baptize “all those who are afar off” because you left off an important part: “whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Should we baptized those who are converted to Christ having been previously unbaptized? Absolutely! And their children as well, since God never revoked the inclusion of the children of his people in the covenant community and sign.

    The resurrection is one thing that baptism pictures, but not the only thing according to the Scriptures. What about the Holy Spirit, in whom no one is immersed, but who is poured out on, falls on, etc? Pouring and sprinkling accurately pictures the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They both also accurately portray spiritual cleansing as God describes it in Ez. 36:25. Even better, sprinkling of water in baptism is the picture of Christ’s fulfillment of the OT priesthood on our behalf, sprinkling his own blood (rather than the blood of bulls and goats) on the mercy seat of God. Hebrews 9 even calls the OT ceremonial sprinklings “various baptisms” – often translated

    One question I might ask you is how the passing under water in immersion baptism accurately portrays first century burial.
    Jesus was laid in a cave-tomb, not “under” the ground as we do today. I guess just the laying down and getting up again? Rae also makes a good point that “baptizo” allows for several meanings, including pouring or sprinkling along with immersion.

  10. Erectile dysfunction (inability to have or sustain an erection).
    The enterochromaffin cells of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
    secret 400 times as much melatonin as the pineal gland- so it is found to have
    an important role in GI functioning. Whichever
    the case, maybe I can either add to your knowledge or else give you some new food
    for thought.

Leave a Reply