waters of promise

As I have taught on baptism and wrestled with how it is often practiced in our Baptist churches, I have concluded that we too often limit God’s role to mere spectator. He isn’t doing anything in baptism except watching us testify to our faith. It would be textbook Pelagianism if we thought that baptism was in any way salvific, which we insist it isn’t.

I was thinking there was a need for a Baptist to write a book on believer’s baptism that takes into account, and even benefits from, some of the insights of our Reformed brothers and sisters. I was wondering if I should make this a future project, when this morning I learned that my friend Brandon Jones had just done it. So I’m simultaneously happy for Brandon and relieved that I am free to move on to other things.

Brandon’s book, which stems from his dissertation at Calvin Seminary, is called Waters of Promise. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve talked with Brandon about parts of it, and I’m sure it will help all of us who believe in believer’s baptism but wonder if there is more to it than we often say. The book is endorsed by Michael Haykin, who notes that the book lays out a biblical case for the meaning of baptism, which is something Baptists often don’t quite get.

We have got the who of baptism down pat. Waters of Promise will help us with the why.






17 responses to “waters of promise”

  1. Lenski

    Thanks for sharing, looking forward to reading it.

  2. Jonathan Shelley

    I may have to read this, too, since it was my attempt to answer the “why” and “what” of baptism that caused me to change my mind on the “who.”

  3. Mike,
    I appreciate the kind words about the book. I do argue that my view is biblically grounded. But I do not provide a detailed exegetical study on the meaning of believer baptism in the book. I figured I could do no better than G. R. Beasley-Murray’s “Baptism in the New Testament,” so I build on works like his and look at how we can best describe the meaning of believer baptism systematically, drawing from historical Baptist covenant theology in the process.

  4. Baptism is one of the doctrines that caused me to become Catholic. You made a pretty bold assertion at the start of your post that to believe baptism is in any way salvific that you have adopted pelagianism.
    My brother, the Catholic Church holds to baptism as a sacrament that brings grace and is regenerative. It is because the salvific action is not provided by the person but by the Holy Spirit working through the encounter with water. So I kind of take offense at what you said. Have you read the catechism on this matter?
    Id also point you to my recent post I wrote. http://easterpeople.wordpress.com

    I share how doctrinal positions in protestantism leads to relativism. If some protestants are saying that baptism is necessary while others are saying it is helpful do you not see the contradiction right there? You need Church of God to be one in its teaching and interpretive authority. Those who do not yet know Christ look at this and must say that Jesus lets his Church be in contradiction with itself. Please consider what I say with great care. And read the catechism on baptism. You may be as surprised as I was at what you find. Consistency and coherence.

  5. mikewittmer

    Michael: I did not say that believing baptism is salvific is a form of Pelagianism. Please read more carefully.

  6. “It would be textbook Pelagianism if we thought that baptism was in any way salvific, which we insist it isn’t.” Now, I can see how this statement when read in the flow of your thought on how Baptist beliefs on baptism can put God on the sidelines, but the way your phrased this sentence makes it sound as you ‘insist that baptism is in now way salvific.
    Having just read through the whole Catechism this year, the numeric paragraph sections that teach on it are: 1213-1284
    A good summary statement is at 1275: “Christian initiation is accomplished by three sacraments together: Baptism which is the beginning of new life; Confirmation which is its strengthening; and the Eucharist which nourishes the disciple with Christ’s Body and Blood for his transformation in Christ.”
    Also 1277: “Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ. In accordance with the Lord’s will, it is necessary for salvation, as is the Church herself, which we enter by Baptism.”
    1279: “The fruit of Baptism, or baptismal grace, is a rich reality that includes forgiveness of original and all personal sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit. By this very fact the person baptized is incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, and made a sharer in the priesthood of Christ.”
    1280: “Baptism imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual sign, the character, which consecrates the baptized person for Christian worship. Because of the character Baptism cannot be repeated.”
    1281: “Those who die for the faith, those who are catechumens, and all those who, without knowing of the Church but acting under the inspiration of grace, seek God sincerely and strive to fulfill his will, can be saved even if they have not been baptized.”
    1282: “Since the earliest times, Baptism has been administered to children, for it is a grace and a gift of God that does not presuppose any human merit; children are baptized in the faith of the Church. Entry into Christian life gives access to true freedom.”

    These are just the highlights that summarize the section. Prior to this it goes into full detail regarding all of this. I rest on the settled teaching of the Church and find no reason not to trust its shepherds who have handed on this teaching through the ages. The teaching and interpretive authority rests not on an individual or one local Christian community, but on the magisterium of Catholic Bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

  7. mikewittmer

    Michael: Are you conceding that you misread what I wrote? If so, this is a strange retraction. As I have mentioned many times already, I am sure that your conversion to Roman Catholicism is very meaningful to you, but I’m really not going to switch with you, as I’m still happily Protestant. So you’d make better use of your energy if you tried to convert someone else. I promise that if I ever consider joining the Roman Catholic Church, you will be the first to know. Until then, your well-intentioned barrages are driving me further away. Sometimes less is more.

  8. I think you should reread the way you phrased your paragraph because it still comes across as an affirmative statement. I took it as if you were saying that baptists would not believe that baptism was anyway salvific because it would be textbook pelagianism. That’s how I understood it.

    If your reflections on doctrine are open to open forum, I would think comments would be a place where people can provide alternative options. I frankly find the protestant approach to doctrine inconsistent and exhausting. Happy are you, are you? I remember in our theology classes that reading assignments contained many “views” books on key doctrines, particularly the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Is this how doctrine is established for Christianity? Each local Church opens their bible and then comes to a decision about what view of baptism they will hold to? Church ‘A’ on Leonard St. teaches that baptism is regenerative and salvific. Church ‘B’ on Division st. teaches that baptism is only a simple of God’s work of salvation and an outward testimony.
    Both of these views have lead to contradictory conclusions. The position of Church ‘A’ would cause anyone who chooses not to be baptized in Church ‘B’ to be in danger of not receiving the salvation of Christ.

    I am truly surprised Dr. Wittmer that you cannot perceive how these contradictions in the end cause any doctrinal position to become inconsequential. It relativizes belief. It also forces you to put different beliefs into two subjective categories of “essential” and “nonessential” doctrines. Some churches put more beliefs in the essential or nonessential category. So, what we have is not a Church with 12 apostles saying one thing. But Churches saying, as the Corinthian Church tried to do: “I follow Apollos, I follow Paul, I follow Peter, …or I follow Luther, Calvin, etc. etc. ad infinitum”

    Now, for asserting something with conviction and with an attempt to highlight what seems so apparently a glaring flaw to this whole protestant endeavor, I am being warned that I am driving you away. Should I also be warned not to share the teachings of the Catholic Church as a part of my comments to those who engage in this forum?

    I am making a claim for an absolute and it seems this is offensive. What is the reality of being protestant? Is not a true aspect of that reality that there was a divorce or separation? So when my ears hear that someone is ‘happily protestant’ I hear ‘happily divorced’. Well, if I recall from our Scriptures, God hates divorce and Paul, the apostle admonished against division.

    Let’s get serious. There is no happiness in God for a ‘house divided against itself’. There is no happiness in persisting in false notions and premises no matter how strong and entrenched the convictions. Were there wrongs done by some in the Catholic Church leading up to and during the rise of protestantism? Yes. But, it can also be said that the same was the reality during the rise of arianism, nestorianism, mannicheism, etc. People are sinners in the Church in every age. But that does not negate apostolic authority. The east and west schism was one that resulted over sinful actions on both sides but it is also true that both sides recognize that both sides contain apostolic succession. Also it is true that God does not take pleasure in the continued division. When there is cancer in a physical body, it destroys the body and keeps the body from functioning to its normal capacity. The same is true with division in the Church.
    The east and west division is healing. But, protestantism is a problem because they reject the apsotolic authority of the successors of the apostles. This results in continued fragmentation and divisions. It results in relativism. And it does great harm for the cause of Christ if Christ has 30,000+ mouths saying opposite things about what the faithful are called to believe.

    Happy to be protestant? Huh. You should be weeping every day. You should be striving everyday to heal this breach. Let it not be said of your generation that you were satisfied with this continued division.

    I’d be willing to speak with you everyday of every month if it meant you would consider one simple proposition. Attend mass every Sunday throughout an entire year. Go to weekday masses at different parishes. Spend time around Catholics that are living faithful to their baptism life they began with Christ. If you go through a year of this and you can stand face to face with me and say, protestantism is what this world needs more of…..then I would be shocked, but also satisfied that you began to do everything you could to bring this sad division to an end. For, I myself traveled this same journey. I opened my heart and mind and experienced the Catholic Church at multiple levels. I didn’t just read about it, I didn’t just drop in on one mass and make a judgement on how much better my protestant Church is. I attended mass frequently and at the end of the day I fell in love, like so many others, with Christ present in the Eucharist. A doctrine that started the first divisions in protestantism between Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli. What a tragedy! A doctrine accepted for 1500 years that held the Church together for century after century leads to over 300 splits within the first 100 years within protestantism. Because if apostles of the Church are no longer the final interpreters, then we are left with faction interpretations. And we then get the innumerable ‘views’ books on doctrine.

    So, I’d love not to argue about these things with you. Id love not for you to just come to some mental assent of doctrinal propositions. I want you to visit Christ in the special presence found at every mass in the Eucharist. And I’ll visit with you if you want to talk about anything. It was recently said that you learn what the Catholic Church is and what the Catholic Church believes by being a part of mass. In the mass, you are brought back to everything and it leads you to everything. The Christian life flows into the mass and out from it passing on the encounter with Christ with the world around it.

    If what I am saying is driving you away, I can’t understand it. I really can’t.
    Some things are hard to accept and hard to understand. So, don’t rush to judgement or react to what I’m saying. Increase your zeal for seeking understanding through faith and consider by action that you might be as wrong as I was just a couple years ago. I have said everything right now with the utmost concern.
    I believe Lewis was right when we said we were satisfied with making mud pies in puddles since we could not fathom a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

  9. mikewittmer


    There’s a world of difference between 1 and 2:

    1, You said: “You made a pretty bold assertion at the start of your post that to believe baptism is in any way salvific that you have adopted pelagianism.”

    2. Now you say: “I took it as if you were saying that baptists would not believe that baptism was anyway salvific because it would be textbook pelagianism.”

    What I actually said: the Baptist view of baptism would be Pelagian if they thought it contributed to salvation. Since they don’t think baptism is in any way salvific, they can not fairly be accused of this charge. My view is that baptism does play a role in sanctification, which is a piece of salvation, broadly considered. So baptism does play a role in salvation. And as such, we need to give God the primary role. He is the primary agent, not us.

    Regarding the why won’t I convert to Catholicism, I love a robust theological conversation as much as anyone, but it’s tiring when you won’t take “No” for an answer. That’s all I’m saying. Respect the fact that I have examined everything you’re saying and have no interest in becoming a Roman Catholic. You haven’t said anything I haven’t already heard, so no matter how often or how long you say it I wouldn’t expect it’s going to make a difference. I guess I’m saying it would help your cause if you put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re trying to convert, as your enthusiastic approach may lose more than it wins.

  10. Raymond

    I love your blog and read it attentively. As a former “credo-baptist” I am very interested in this new work and have just ordered it. Thanks for the heads up on this matter. I do not think that one can do much better than Peter Leithart’s work “The Priesthood of the Plebs.” I must disagree with your final words however. I do not think you have the “who” of baptism down pat. The “who” derives from the “why.” If Brandon Jone’s book helps us get the “why” answered, as you have indicated, then was it not a bit premature to claim that the “who” is already settled? Theoretically, would you be willing to change your views on the “who” if the “why” indicated a different direction than you presently hold? Check out the excellent article in the current issue of Themelios by David Gibson. Again, thanks for your work!

  11. mikewittmer


    You make a great point, and of course I’m open to changing my mind. I have much respect for the theology behind infant baptism, even though I don’t follow it completely. One of the best arguments for believer’s baptism I’ve heard is that if baptism really did replace circumcision, then why didn’t Paul use this argument against the Judaizers? He could have easily dismissed them if he thought this was the case. The fact that he didn’t use this line of attack is something that paedobaptists must answer, and I’m not sure they can.

  12. Jonathan Shelley

    Mike, are you making an argument from silence? Shame on you!

  13. mikewittmer

    What’s that Jonathan? I can’t hear you!

  14. Jonathan Shelley


    Building on the points that Raymond made, it is interesting that the New Testament is primarily concerned with the “what” of baptism and not so much the “who” and the “how.” Yet it seems, as you’ve already suggested, that Baptists are very strong on the “who” and the “how” which does beg the question: on what are the “who” and the “how” founded if not the “what”? And I would add that since not all paedobaptists use the “circumcision” argument then not all paedobaptists need to answer your critique (but an appropriate answer is to ask, how do you know that Paul didn’t use that line of argument, unless you are positing that everything Paul said and wrote on the subject is included in his canonical writings? Perhaps Paul and his contemporaries felt that the point was so obvious it wasn’t worth wasting good papyrus on it.)

    At any rate, it is encouraging to me that at least some Baptist are willing to engage in a deep, meaningful discussion on the theology of baptism. Maybe it will encourage other denomenations to do the same, thereby enriching our faith and our appreciation for the Father’s love for us all.

  15. mikewittmer

    Jonathan, You’re right that this argument from silence only works against the Reformed view of paedobaptism, but it is something they need to contend with. Do you really believe that Paul kept his best argument against the Judaizers in his pocket, especially when in his view the gospel was at risk? Are you positing a new New Perspective on Paul? 🙂

  16. Jonathan Shelley

    Personally, I think the argument that baptism replaced circumcision is a very weak argument, so I would not consider it Paul’s “best argument against the Judaizers.” If I believed that baptism replaced circumcision (or believed that Paul believed it) then I would have a very hard time understanding why Paul circumcised Timothy. What I do think, because I find it nearly impossible to disagree with Calvin, is that baptism has superseded circumcision as the sign of God’s covenant people just as the covenant in Christ’s blood has superseded (or even consummated) the Mosaic covenant. And if the promises of the inferior (Mosiac) covenant extended to the children of the faithful, how much more so should the promises of the superior covenant of Christ’s redemption extend to our children as well. I think this argument of superseding circumcision follows from Paul’s arguments against the Judaizers, especially his rejection of the necessity of circumcision. Likewise, since Paul wouldn’t argue that baptism is necessary for salvation (it has no salvific qualities) he didn’t tie baptism in to the anti-Judaizer rhetoric for fear of elevating the sacrament over that which it symbolizes, as the Judaizers had done with circumcision.

  17. mikewittmer

    These seem to be good points, Jonathan. Except for the part about not disagreeing with Calvin. Normally I’d be right with you, but I think his chapter on infant baptism doesn’t follow at all from his chapter on baptism in the Institutes. I get theological whiplash every time I try to make that transition with him.

    I think everyone agrees that baptism supercedes circumcision as a sign of the new covenant. The difference is that Reformed see baptism replacing circumcision directly, while Baptists see it as more indirect. We think that circumcision looked forward to regeneration while baptism looks back to it. So baptism is a sign of regeneration which has already occurred rather than a regeneration which is still to come, as with circumcision.

    Your last sentence may be a way to explain why Paul didn’t bring up baptism in Galatians. At least it’s a good start in that direction.

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