When a Baby Dies – part five

When a Baby Dies, by Ronald Nash.

Baptismal Regeneration.

A number of denominations teach baptismal regeneration - Nash puts it like this:

According to this teaching, God uses the means of water baptism to produce the inward change in the human heart that theologians call regeneration. Children or adults who have not been baptized are not saved, they are not born again, and their sins are not forgiven. Water baptism is a necessary condition for the new birth.

If baptism is necessary for salvation, that leaves us with the obvious conclusion that there is no hope for the millions of babies (born and pre-born) that have died without being baptized over the centuries. So we need to look at the question of whether or not baptismal regeneration is taught in Scripture.

One of the things to keep in mind: when a Scripture passage can be read in two different ways, and one of those ways is in conflict with the rest of Scripture, then the interpretation that leads to the conflict must be discarded.

Read John 3:16,18,36.

Regeneration is a matter of the Holy Spirit and the heart of man.

John 3 is a passage that some use as a proof text for baptismal regeneration.

"I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit (...)"

Use of this passage assumes that

  1. being "born of water" is identical to the baptism that Jesus would institute after His resurrection (Matt 28:19)
  2. it is the baptism that produces regeneration.

Looking at the historical context of the encounter, we can ask, "what would Nicodemus have understood Jesus to be saying?"

  1. Would he have understood Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist to be identical with "born of water?" (no, the New Testament is clear that the baptism of John is different than the Christian baptism - Acts 19)
  2. Would Nicodemus have understood Jesus to be speaking of the Christian baptism? (no, that had not been instituded yet)

On the other hand...

Charles Hodge, (19th Century, Princeton Theological Seminary) argued that John 3:5 sets up an analogy between the way water cleanses the body and the way that the Holy Spirit cleanses the soul. In other Biblical passages, the sign and the thing signifiec are often united (Isa 35 and 55, Jer. 2:13, John 4:10). It is CHRIST that is the water, not baptism.

So we have two conflicting interpretation: 1) born of water = baptism 2) born of water = born of Christ.

The Bible never "waters down" the gospel of grace: we are not saved by anything we DO, our salvation is based on God's unmerited favor; grace. Regeneration comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Since the passage never specifically refers to baptism let along baptismal regeneration, we can come to the conclusion that Nicodemus would not have understood "water" to be physical baptism and that "water" (as used here) can be understood as an analogy for the soul-cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.
Conclusion: the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is not the basis of hope for the families of babies who have died. It gives false hope to those who believe that they or their children are fit for heaven because of a ceremony that happened sometime in the past and it (of necessity) entails the belief that unbaptized infants are in hell because their parents did not participate in a sacramental ceremony of a church.

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8 thoughts on “When a Baby Dies – part five

  1. Great post.

    It seems I have seen people also interpret the "water" part to mean the first birth. We are born of water through our mothers and born of Spirit through Christ.

    I'm not sure if I agree with that interpretation - I wonder if water was talked of in the Jewish culture in natural births.

  2. "Jewish culture"

    Carrie's onto something.

    "the baptism of John is different than the Christian baptism"

    Of course.

    But how does Christian baptism relate to Jewish mikvah, a more sure reference point for Nicodemus than John's baptism?

    The "once for all" economy of baptism over the repetitive nature of mikvah echos Christ's sacrificial death "once for all". (Hebrews 7:27)

    Moreover, we are baptized into Christ's death (one death, one baptism).

    Makes me wish I'd finished reading Beasley-Murray's Baptism in the New Testament so I can answer my own question!

    Does Nash address whether Jewish mikvah prefigures Christian baptism?

    Or, what do you think? Does mikvah factor into the discussion of John 3 at all?

  3. Sarah

    FWIW, baptism regeneration does not necessarily preclude infant salvation. I grew up in a church that taught baptismal regeneration, credo-baptism, and innocence until an "age of accoutability". At least two of these are rank heresy. I'm not championing that position. Just wanted to add to discussion the fact that some believe in baptismal regeneration but do not believe unbaptized infants who die are lost.

  4. Thanks all for commenting (I'm really glad the commenting works!)

    Sarah, I think that the point is that if a person truly believes that it is baptism that brings regeneration, then it's difficult to say that an unbaptized person can be regenerated.

    The logic of "you must be baptized in order to be saved, but if you're not baptized you might be saved anyway" escapes me.

    I've also been taught that the "born of water" meant physical birth (reflected in the "born of water, born of Spirity... flesh gives birth to flesh, Spirit gives birth to spirit". Which would actually be a better reason to conclude that the passage could not be used to teach baptismal regeneration.

    I've pondered before about the mikvah and I think that at some point blogged about the significance of Christ's baptism right before the start of His ministry (a priest's participation in the mikvah was the last thing they did before they entered the tabernacle to begin their ministry.)

    No, Nash doesn't discuss this; but but it would fit, since I don't think that the mikvah was connected to rebirth, it's connected to cleansing, which is his point.

    thanks! I'll have to read more, but this morning I actually have someplace to go...(N.T.Wright is speaking)

  5. N.T.Wright is speaking

    Oh, my, what a treat! Please share the highlights.

    The timing and significance of Christ's baptism is worth looking at. As to the significance, I like Meier's chapter in A Marginal Jew, somewhat dated.

    It's recognized that women figure prominently in John's gospel, from the mother of Jesus in chapter 2, to the woman at the well in chapter 4, to Mary & Martha in chapter 11 and Mary Magdalene in chapter 20.

    And, might Nicodemus' mention of childbirth in chapter 3 call to mind the postpartum mikvah that Jewish women undertook?

    It's a stretch.

    Obviously my own life's circumstances are influencing my reflection on Scripture.

    But then, insights come from such convergences, as life intersects with the Word, no?

  6. Sarah

    Ellen, you wrote: "Sarah, I think that the point is that if a person truly believes that it is baptism that brings regeneration, then it’s difficult to say that an unbaptized person can be regenerated."

    I agree with you. The church I was raised in was Pelagian (though they will vehemently resist that label). They did not believe a person was spiritually dead from birth, but only became so after they reached some undetermined age at which people acquire knowledge of and guilt of sin.

    I wanted to add this to your discussion so that if you run into one of these people you know that you need to address his underlying Pelagianism first. The argument you presented, as presented, means nothing to someone who doesn't believe regeneration is possible/necessary for children because he doesn't believe children are spiritually dead.

    BTW, the church I'm speaking of is the church of Christ. And there are a few other cultic and semi-cultic groups out there that are also Pelagian. I hope this clarifies and helps.

  7. Timothy

    For me this is not a hypothetical theological discussion. We lost our first child at the age of 10 months. She was never baptized.

    According to Reformed theology there are only two eternal outcomes. Where is my child for all eternity? Where is that in the scriptures?

    Everyone has great fun argueing for and against pedobaptism, but those folks never seem to face the reality of the situation.

    For the record, where are our children?

    - Timothy

  8. This is not fun and games for me either, Timothy. I lost five babies before my son was born.

    I believe that it can be shown Scripturally that babies that die are in heaven.

    (That's the next chapter in the book that I haven't reviewed yet)

    Here is an article on John Piper's site (I don't agree with everything on the site, but this article is very well written)

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