One of the ironies of being a Baptist is that my tradition puts much less weight on baptism than most others.  As my friend Dave Lamb said recently, we spend so much time saying what the sacraments/ordinances aren’t that we end up with very little when we’re done.  Dave had a word for that, which I now forget, so Dave if you’re out there, please comment below.

For the other extreme, I read this today in Augustine’s Sermon 142, “On the Burial of Catechumens” (AD 406).  The catechumens in North Africa were folks who remained on the fringes of the church until they became competentes—students who learned the church’s mysteries during the month of Lent, culminating in their baptism on Easter morning.  Since Augustine believed in baptismal regeneration, he believed that catechumen who died without expressing a wish for baptism (becoming competentes) went to hell.  I admire Augustine’s muscular refusal to compromise his beliefs, but this is a pretty severe view of the gospel.

Augustine said:  “Still, you all ought to know, dearly beloved, what most of you and in fact almost all of you do know, that according to the Church’s custom and discipline the bodies of catechumens who have died ought not to be buried among the bodies of the faithful, and that such a concession should not be granted to anyone.  Otherwise it would be nothing but culpable respect of persons.  I mean, why should such a concession be made to a wealthier person, and not to a poor person—if indeed there can be any comfort to the dead in it?  The merits of the dead, after all, do not depend on the places their bodies are laid in, but on the dispositions of their souls….it’s because of the sacraments that bodies cannot be laid to rest where it is not right for them to be laid.”

“All the same, we do mourn the passing of a catechumen from this world, and we grieve for the one over whom the question arose in the first place.  And on this score I must seriously remind you, brothers and sisters, that none of you should take it for granted that you are going to be alive tomorrow.  Run quickly to grace, change your habits; may this sad event serve you as a salutary warning.”

“…Well after all, my brothers and sisters, what am I to say?  Am I going to pander to human feelings, and say that catechumens too go where the faithful go?  Are we to treat human grief with such kid gloves that we argue against the gospel?”


Add yours →

  1. Brian McLaughlin May 26, 2010 — 4:06 pm

    So based on your previous post, was Augustine an “old Pharisee?”

    But I agree with you completely. If Augustine is at one end of the spectrum we are at the other. We are even worse with communion. At least we can identity some meaning with baptism, even if it is often individualistic. Communion, it seems to me, is often an add on just because Jesus told us to do it.

    I know that I want to have a better theology and practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but I can’t seem to muster one up – probably due to my baptistic heritage. I can say that they are really meaningful, but they just doesn’t penetrate my worship and being. Can you help???

  2. Brian:

    Your best bet is to become a new fangled Pharisee. Short of that, you may get inspired by reading I Howard Marshall, “Last Supper and Lord’s Supper” (Eerdmans).

  3. I am a little weak on baptism, but I always start communion with a liturgical unison prayer of confession and absolution and end it with a prayer that includes Calvin’s “just as” forumla. Yeah, we’re the Baptists who put the “holy” back in “holy communion.”

  4. A prayer of confession in a Baptist church?! Are you trying to imply that we’re sinners?! Speaking of which, here is a great post on the redefinition of sin:

  5. So now that I confessed to reading your blog, you are going to test me. The term I used in our discussion the other day was “The Real Absense of Christ in the Sacraments,” which is a play, of course, on the “Real Presense of Christ in the Eucharist” doctrine of those traditions which teach transubstantiation. This term is not original with me. I learned it from Steve Spencer some 20 years ago. I do think it captures well the result of the pastoral practice of spending so much time at every Baptism or Lord’s Table observance of instructing the congregation about what is “not happening” as we participte or observe.

  6. I would argue that, to the extend to which it may indeed be happening in this setting, when we find Reformed ministers spending more time explaining the “is not’s” of the sacraments, this has been made necessary by the increasingly excessive claims about the “is’s” of the sacraments which are being advanced by some in their midsts (e.g. Federal Visionists).

  7. I have run into an interesting problem. At first I thought it was a lack of concern for baptizing professing believers. Then in talking with a couple high school students and one out of high school, I find (at least among those I have talked to about baptism) that they “don’t feel ready”. They are professing believers who appear to be growing in the faith. But they are nervous about being baptized. They aren’t Roman Catholic as they are clear baptism doesn’t accomplish anything salvifically, but they aren’t what I am used to in Baptist circles either where anyone who can say the name of Jesus is thrown into the bath. Short of bringing in Augustine as a guest speaker at our youth summer retreat (what an image), any advice on how to approach this trepidation toward baptism?

  8. This is totally unrelated to the post…your calvin institutes french edition is here at Eerdmans ready for you to pick up.

    Just thought you’d wanna know.

  9. You’r totally correct on this writing!!


    Can involuntary baptism wash away your sins? Is involuntary baptism a Biblical concept? Does involuntary baptism play a role in your salvation? The answer is no, no, and no.


    Faith:John 3:16

    Repentance: Acts 2:38 (repentance is making the commitment to turn from sin and turn toward God)

    Confession: Romans 10:9-10

    I know of no one who involuntarily baptizes adults. Why would they, then, force infants to be baptized against their will? It not only is nonsensical, it is not according to the Scriptures.

    There are some Biblical accounts of involuntary baptisms.

    A couple thousand demons were involuntarily baptized.(Mark 5:12-13 The demons implored Him, saying, “Send us into the swine so that we may enter them.” 13 Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drown in the sea.

    These demons confessed that Jesus was the Son of God, however, they did not repent. (Mark 5:1-13) These demons were not saved. They were not forgiven of their sins. Involuntary baptism drown the swine, but did not wash away any ones sins.

    A few unbelieving, unrepentant Egyptians were involuntarily baptized in the sea. (Exodus 14:27-28) The Egyptians who were involuntarily baptized were not saved, all they got was dead.


    The Ethiopian eunuch heard Jesus preached from the Scriptures. He believed and confessed Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He asked to be baptized in water. He went away rejoicing. (Acts 8:27-38) The eunuch had his sins washed away by the blood of Jesus. The eunuch was saved. He was added to the Lord’s church. The eunuch was part of the body of Christ. The eunuch was baptized into Christ.

    If you were baptized before you believed, all you got was wet.
    If you were baptized without repenting, that is if you did not make the commitment to turn from sin and and turn toward God, all you got was wet.
    If you were baptized without acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God and that God raised Him from the dead, all you got was wet.



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