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Rebutting Gavin Ortlund on Baptismal Regeneration

Trent Horn

Audio only:

In this episode Trent engages Baptist apologist Gavin Ortlund’s arguments against the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.


Welcome to The Counsel of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

Trent Horn:

Hey everyone. In today’s episode, I’m going to go through a recent video that Gavin Ortlund did on baptismal regeneration where he questions the universality of this teaching in scripture and the early church. Now, a few caveats. First, I like Gavin a lot. I even offered to debate this issue with him instead of doing a rebuttal video because I think direct engagement can be more productive. He graciously declined saying he’s really busy, and I completely understand that. Sometimes I feel like I’m barely treading water with everything I’m doing at Catholic Answers. And I myself have three or four debates or dialogues coming up in the next few months, so I might need to dial it back as well. So I totally understand.

Trent Horn:

However, we are tentatively scheduling two debates on sola scriptura and apostolic succession. We might do both in the fall or we’ll only do one in the fall, one in the spring. Stay tuned for that, I’m very excited about those. Also this video will be very catechism heavy to explain the church’s teaching on baptism. But that’s a good thing because catechism is awesome. Finally, it’s important to know that Gavin is not giving a comprehensive defense of arguments for the anti-baptismal regeneration position. So I’ve tried to raise other objections people might make. And I understand that this video is not the last word on the subject. There’s a lot more that can be said for my position and for Gavin’s position. Maybe one day we’ll have a direct engagement on this, I think that’d be great. In fact, if you want an in-depth treatment check out Gavin’s dialogue with the Lutheran scholar Jordan Cooper, I’ll link to it below. Very interesting. So let’s take a look at his video.

Gavin Ortlund:

People often say if there’s anything that’s clear in the church fathers, if there’s anything that’s universal, it’s baptismal regeneration. From the New Testament as well, people will often say, look, the New Testament couldn’t be clearer about this. You guys interpret the Bible so literally until you come to the baptism texts. And then when you get to 1st Peter 3:21, baptism now saves you. And those six or seven other texts that assign saving efficacy to baptism, you twist into pretzels to get around them. That’s the charge. And you’ve probably heard that if you’re into these discussions at all, it’s very common.

Gavin Ortlund:

And this is a really key area in the whole issue of differences among Christians today, this whole question of baptismal regeneration. So I’d like to give a response to those concerns in this video drawing and summarizing some of the things I’ve done in earlier videos and having a few new thoughts as well. My hope is this could help people who are wrestling with this but also it could push the conversation forward so that perhaps those who are making those appeals would maybe make them a little bit less absolutely or simply in relation to some of the observations I’m going to make.

Trent Horn:

I think it’s fair that we shouldn’t be triumphalistic in our approach to history or scripture, we should really engage people who disagree with us. But on the other hand, I don’t think this precludes us from recognizing where certain doctrines have really significant evidence for them in scripture and early Christian history. And one of those in my opinion is the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

Gavin Ortlund:

So I’m going to go in five steps here we’re going to talk about. First, I want to define baptismal regeneration, Then I’m going to explain my view as an alternative to baptism regeneration. Won’t be arguing for it yet, just want to get clear about what these things are right up front. Thirdly, we’ll talk about the book of Acts and how baptism functions there. Fourthly, and we’ll look at the rest of the New Testament, especially the epistles. And then fifthly, we’ll look at baptismal regeneration and the church fathers very briefly. None of this is exhausted, but especially that is not, that’s just hitting a few trajectories of thought not going through all the fathers.

Gavin Ortlund:

So let’s dive right in, first, what is baptismal regeneration? This is one of those things where this point alone could advance the conversation if there was more that there’s not just one definition of what baptismal regeneration is because when the appeal comes in, it’s universal among the fathers. We have to know what are we talking about specifically? Certainly there’s an association between baptism and regeneration that is universal among the church fathers. But the nature of that association does change a bit from one to another. And there’s nuances and questions about how that relationship is construed. And then today from a Catholic to a Lutheran to Credobaptist groups like the Church of Christ, there will be differences in how baptismal regeneration is understood.

Trent Horn:

That’s a fair point. Though I would say that even with some nuances that churches and ecclesial communities that believe in baptismal regeneration would basically hold the same major views. So for example, the catechism says of baptism, by baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins as well as all punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn, nothing remains that would impede their entry into the kingdom of God. Neither Adam sin nor personal sin nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God.

Trent Horn:

Baptism not only purifies from all sins but also makes the neophyte a new creature, an adopted son of God who has become a partaker of the divine nature. Member of Christ and co-heir with him and a temple of the Holy Spirit. So in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, you have more of an emphasis on baptism being part of the process of theosis, divinization, that which allows us to become partakers of the divine nature as 2nd Peter 1:4 says. But not every Protestant would agree with that. But I do think that proponents of baptismal regeneration would all agree that baptism is what regenerates us. It is what forgives us of sins and makes us spiritually capable of entering into heaven.

Gavin Ortlund:

So for our purposes in this video, let me define baptismal regeneration as simply the view that baptism is the ordinary means of regeneration. And I say ordinary because most traditions acknowledge that it’s not always in an every case how God generates someone through baptism. But ordinarily, it’s how God regenerates a person is through baptism.

Trent Horn:

That’s another fair point. The catechism puts it this way, the church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude. This is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are reborn of water and the spirit. God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. The church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This baptism of blood like the desire for baptism brings about the fruits of baptism without being a sacrament. And I think a lot of Protestants would actually agree with this kind of reasoning. For example, I would ask Protestants what gets us to heaven? And most will say, well, faith, faith in Jesus will get you to heaven.

Trent Horn:

But what about people who die without faith in Jesus? What about a newborn baby who dies shortly after birth? Will that baby go to heaven? I think many Protestants would say that faith is the ordinary means by which someone goes to heaven, but it is possible for someone to be saved who never made an act of faith. And they would say, however, that doesn’t negate the fact for them faith is the ordinary way you go to heaven. So I would say, well, Catholics can say the same thing, it’s possible for the unbaptized to be saved but that doesn’t neglect that baptism is the ordinary means of what saves and regenerates us.

Gavin Ortlund:

Now, one side point here is I want to call my other Baptist friends and others who don’t believe in baptismal regeneration to not necessarily assume that this is works righteousness. I think we need to move away from that. People often say that, but I think that is a category error. Just because you believe that baptism is the means of regeneration doesn’t mean you’re understanding that to be a work. Faith alone is still the way you receive that. Now, I’m not saying it couldn’t go into works righteousness, but I don’t think it’s necessarily works righteousness. And the obvious thing here is with the reformers themselves. I mean, Luther believed in both sola fide and baptismal regeneration. Some people say he’s inconsistent, but I don’t think that’s the best way to respond to this whole issue. So I want to try to encourage that not to be the main criticism or concern at issue here.

Trent Horn:

I agree. And this is how Martin Luther put it, yes, our works indeed avail nothing for salvation. Baptism however is not our work but God’s for as was stated you must put Christ’s baptism far away from a bath keeper’s baptism. God’s works however are saving and necessary for salvation. And do not exclude but demand faith for without faith they could not be apprehended

Gavin Ortlund:

Now, so definition of baptismal regeneration, ordinary means of regeneration. One of the frequent consequences of this view throughout history is that baptism is thereby necessary for salvation. Now, one of the curiosities in this is people will appeal to all of the church fathers for saying baptismal regeneration, but then they’ll leave off that appeal to tradition with regard to the necessity of baptism for salvation, which was a frequent corollary of it. So there’s a selectivity in this appeal to tradition. Look at all what all the fathers say, oh yeah, and they’re also saying this other thing, but we’ll leave that off. Now, that is not universal the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation. You can find some people prior to Augustine who would say, no, an unbaptized baby who dies, for example, can be saved. But it comes to be pretty much universal particular in the west. I’ve looked into this, some people deny this, but it really is true from Augustine on through Gregory the Great, through Anselm. Pretty much everywhere throughout the medieval era, you find if the baby is unbaptized the baby is damned.

Trent Horn:

First, the magisterium of the church tells us what aspects of the father’s writings represent a matter of faith or morals. Even if the fathers universally agreed about something like geocentrism or the age of the earth, that doesn’t mean that this specifically is a part of the deposit of faith or it’s a binding upon all Christians to believe. So even if they did universally agree infants were damned, that wouldn’t entail this was a truth of the faith. But the fact of the matter is that they don’t say this because we have to make a distinction between damnation and lack of salvation. And that’s where the doctrine of limbo would come into play. So for example, St. Ambrose said the following, “Unless one be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. He accepts no one neither the infant nor one hindered by unavoidable accident. These may indeed enjoy some unexplained immunity from suffering, but I fail to see how they can possess the honor of the kingdom.”

Trent Horn:

So what Ambrose is saying here would be part of the development of the idea of limbo. This idea of a state of natural happiness for unbaptized infants who had never sinned but also lacked grace to enter into heaven. Now, limbo was never an infallibly defined teaching. You can check out various sources that show how the church’s understanding of the fate of unbaptized infants has developed over time to the point where it would allow people to have a hopeful confidence but not complete assurance of their salvation since God hasn’t revealed that truth to us. I’d recommend the International Theological Commission’s document the hope of salvation for infants who die without being baptized. Talks a lot about how this is developed and how we can have, as I said before, this hopeful confidence that the same Lord who said let the little children come to me will not turn away little children who were not baptized to no fault of their own.

Gavin Ortlund:

And then you see it in the East as well. Not I’m not aware of whether it’s universal in the East, I can’t speak to that, I know it isn’t today. But historically you see it in [inaudible 00:13:11] and many others. But the key point here with the definition of baptismal regeneration is that with this word means, means of regeneration, we’re getting at causation, this is how God causes regeneration to happen. It’s the means by which it happens. So second section, here’s my proposal as an alternative to that. I’m not trying to argue for this whether this is biblical or patristic yet, I just want to explain. Again, we’re trying to disentangle some things and be clear about what we mean by baptismal regeneration and what the various spectrum of options is.

Gavin Ortlund:

So here’s an alternative that baptism and salvation are … I’ll say baptism and the blessings of salvation including regeneration, so not limited to that are drawn into extremely close coordination in the New Testament and in the fathers. But that relationship is not a causative one, it’s not the means of it. It’s not that baptism causes regeneration, it’s not that precisely. So that it’s really unhelpful when people frame this issue as either you believe in baptismal regeneration or you believe that baptism is just a symbol. We hear this language all the time now.

Gavin Ortlund:

So let’s just get some conceptual clarity about what the different options are here because people are often ignorant of historic Baptist views. They think that the Baptist view is that it’s just a symbol. That is not the historic Baptist view, a lot of Baptists don’t know that. Historically, Baptists spoke of baptism as a sign among other things but as an effective sign, by which language they were rejecting the idea that it’s just a symbol. They spoke of it as a sacrament, and they didn’t think of the word sacrament as an alternative to the word ordinance. They spoke of it as a meeting place of grace and faith.

Trent Horn:

So the idea here is that one could believe that baptism is a sign the person has been regenerated, but it was not the water of baptism that regenerated them. There’s a parallel to Calvinism here when it comes to whether we’re saved by grace and faith. Calvinists would say that your spiritual regeneration took place before you make an act of faith. That it’s God regenerating you that made you capable of accepting the faith. For them, regeneration is the cause of faith. Now, other Protestants would say, “No, the Bible says we’re saved by faith, and so it’s our act of faith that causes our regeneration.” So in discussing the issue of baptismal generation, we might be getting into similar technical territory.

Gavin Ortlund:

It’s one of the most common, that’s the touching point for grace and faith. They spoke of it as a means of grace, they spoke of it as … Some will talk about it as the objectification of faith and repentance. Some will speak of it as a ceiling of regeneration and the other blessings of salvation. Some will speak of it as a further endowment in the spirit. So you have the spirit but you get the spirit more copiously, more abundantly at your baptism. If you want to look at all these different options by the way, I highly recommend people checking out Stan Fowler’s book More Than a Symbol. He goes through 16th century, 17th century, 18th century British Baptists up to the present day and just shows over and over and over how the idea of just a symbol isn’t the historic Baptist view.

Gavin Ortlund:

Two of the specific points of emphasis in the Baptist tradition for what God is doing through baptism because it’s not just us show our faith or something, God is at work in it. One is the emphasis upon the gathered community, it’s not just for the baptizeined, it’s for everyone who is gathered. And it’s giving a visible portrait of the Gospel to everyone who is present, and God is communicating grace to those who observe in faith. And so the language of sign and seal that you find throughout the reform tradition, that isn’t just with reference to the baptizeined.

Trent Horn:

There’s another parallel here to baptism making us members of the body of Christ and to have this kind of corporal element. The catechism says baptism makes us members of the body of Christ, therefore we are members one of another. Baptism incorporates us into the church. And so when we’re baptized, this is also an opportunity for the body of Christ to be blessed through things like the renewal of our baptismal vows. But we still have to confront the central question, am I saved before I was baptized or after I was baptized? Was baptism what saved me or did baptism just accompany something else that saved me?

Gavin Ortlund:

Another emphasis in the Baptist tradition is on the experiential role for assurance of salvation in baptism. That’s a really fascinating one. If we were to cut to the chase and if I could just try to make it really conceptually clear really quickly because I’m already going on longer in this video than I thought I would, I’ll try to keep it moving is let’s just use the word seal. It’s just one of the terms that was frequent in the Baptist tradition. To set up the contrast like this, we’re saying it’s not the cause of regeneration, it’s the seal of regeneration. What does that mean? Well, here’s a way you can picture it, this is from Henry Lawrence, who is a 17th century Baptist, lived from 1600 to 1664 in history. He’s describing the way the word and sacrament are different. And he says the word especially teacheth the sacraments especially seal and confirm. The word indeed signifies and applies spiritual things, but the sacraments more efficaciously represent and apply.

Gavin Ortlund:

So if we were to take a distinction here between the grace by which God brings us into a state of salvation and the grace by which God nourishes and strengthens and furthers us in our salvation, the Baptist tradition puts baptism in the latter category. It’s not the cause. And although that’s not universal, you can find of course Baptist who do believe in baptismal regeneration. But the view that I’m trying to articulate right now is between that and the just a symbol idea. And it’s saying, no, it is a powerful ceiling and means of grace and communication of the spirit, and communication of assurance and all these things, but it’s not actually what causes you to become alive to God. Because regeneration is when you go from dead in sin to alive to God And the Baptists are saying, “No, I don’t think that’s actually what happens when you’re baptized, I don’t think baptism causes that.” I think it’s associated with that, it symbolizes that, it seals that and so forth, but it’s not actually the cause of that.

Trent Horn:

Here I would say baptism is both the cause and seal of our salvation. Once again, the catechism puts it this way, incorporated into Christ by baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark even if sin prevents baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, baptism cannot be repeated. Incorporated into the church by baptism, the faithful have received the sacramental character that consecrates them for Christian religious worship.

Trent Horn:

The baptismal seal enables and commits Christians to serve God by a vital participation in the holy liturgy of the church and to exercise their baptismal priesthood by the witness of holy lives and practical charity. So baptism not only saves us, it strengthens and empowers us to live out our life as new creations or as adopted sons and daughters of God. So as we look to the evidence presented, we need to ask, does this say baptism is only a ceiling of regeneration that already took place or that it’s only assigned to others we have been saved? Because baptism can be what saves us, and it can also be a sign and a seal as well. The question instead is do the scriptures or the church fathers deny that baptism causes our salvation, do they deny that point?

Gavin Ortlund:

So that’s a brief explanation of the view. Now, let’s ask why would somebody think that? Because I’m sure people are watching now, and I’ve gotten used to the comments and how to anticipate them. And I’m sure they’re saying, yeah, but that goes against all the fathers. You’re just trying so hard to make your view work and that kind of thing. Well, I don’t think so. I think it’s actually a view I’m inexorably driven to by the data. And let me just explain why in a spirit of appealing for less simplistic arguments for baptismal regeneration when people just say, well, it’s obvious, you quote 1st Peter 3:21, close your Bible, case shut. And I want to say, no, it’s actually not. This is actually really tricky to figure out the relationship. And we all agree there’s a profound interconnection between sign and thing signified, baptism and regeneration. The nature of that relationship, that that’s causative, that’s not so clear in scripture or in the fathers. And I think this idea of a ceiling actually makes a lot of sense, and I’ve argued for it. I’ll get into metonymy and all that stuff in this video,

Trent Horn:

That’s a fair point. A person who believes in baptismal regeneration should cite passages like 1st Peter 3:21 which talks about baptism saving us. But they should be prepared to answer objections that say the text doesn’t necessarily have to be read in that way. For example, let’s look at 1st Peter chapter 3 versus 20 through 21. It says when God’s patients waited in the days of Noah during the building of the arc, in which a few, that is eight persons were saved through water, baptism, which corresponds to this now saves you. Not as the removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So how would you get around this if you denied baptismal regeneration, what 1st Peter 3:21 says?

Trent Horn:

We might say it isn’t the water that saves us, the water of baptism. It’s an opportunity to ask God for a clean conscience, for forgiveness. They say it’s about that not the water washing away filth. But Peter explicitly says baptism now saves you because the act of baptism itself is the appeal to God for a clear conscience. The Protestant author Jack Cottrell notes this, he says even though it does not save through its physical element of action, it is still baptism that saves. The point Peter is making is that the water of baptism doesn’t have some kind of magical property that saves us apart from grace nor does the water of baptism simply take away ritual impurities or physical imperfections, I.e., filth of the flesh. Instead as the Lutheran scholar Oscar Coleman says, just as ordinary water takes away the physical uncleanness of the body, so the water of baptism will take away sins.

Gavin Ortlund:

So let’s walk through this a little bit, third section. Let’s talk about the book of Acts. If I were to say, why do I think baptism isn’t the cause of regeneration? One of the reasons is over and over and over and over in my ministry and throughout my life, I see people whose seem to become regenerate at faith and then baptism happens subsequent to that. But in their catechetical process between the baptism and the coming to faith, they look regenerate already. Now, that itself is not an argument for anything just yet because the Sacramentalist traditions can allow for that as a concession, as something that sometimes happens as we’ll see.

Trent Horn:

I wouldn’t deny that a person can experience spiritual renewal prior to baptism. I had faith in God and I experienced a growth and holiness between the time I came to believe in Jesus when I was a teenager and when I was baptized a year later. The church recognizes that God already works through catechumens, people preparing for baptism who have the gift of faith. The catechism says the catechumenate or formation of catechumens aims at bringing their conversion and faith to maturity in response to the divine initiative and in union with an ecclesial community. For catechumens who die before their baptism, their explicit desire to receive it together with repentance for their sins and charity assures them the salvation they were not able to receive through the sacrament.

Trent Horn:

So there’s that assurance you have for catechumens who die before baptism. So yes, you’ll see a difference in someone who comes to have genuine faith in Christ before baptism, but that doesn’t mean you have witnessed the sign of regeneration. After all, a person could be spiritually regenerated and lapse as a Christian, lead a mediocre Christian life that lacks explicit fruits of the spirit but then the person could still be saved. So I don’t find arguments about seeing spiritual gifts outside of baptism that persuasive. The real question is what has God told us that we must do to be saved and receive sanctifying grace for the forgiveness of sins.

Gavin Ortlund:

But when you look at the book of Acts, my experience I think is what you see consistently in the book of Acts. We’ve got these four major baptismal episodes in Acts, in Acts 2, Acts 8, Acts 10, and Acts 19. There’s a few others as well, but those are the four most pivotal ones.

Trent Horn:

I also want to express a hesitation about deriving our doctrine about baptism from the application of baptism in the book of Acts. For example, Acts never records anyone using the proper baptismal formula, I baptize you in the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Instead, it talks about baptizing people in the name of Jesus. And some Oneness Pentecostals use this improper formula.

Trent Horn:

Now, I assume that Gavin uses the Trinitarian baptismal formula in his church. But if someone were rigidly looking at Acts to look at how baptism is done, they might not do that. Now, I think the early church did use the Trinitarian formula given what Jesus says in Matthew 28, what the Didache says in the first century. Saying I baptize you in the name of Jesus doesn’t say the early church used a different formula, it’s a description in Acts saying this is the authority the person was baptizing under, in the name of Jesus rather than in the name of John the Baptist. But my point is that if we just focused on Acts we could easily get an erroneous baptismal formula. And so if we do this when it comes to the question of regeneration, we could also get an error. But as we’ll see, Acts does attest to baptism regeneration. So even in this instance, it does not support Gavin’s position on baptismal regeneration.

Gavin Ortlund:

Now, to acknowledge two things upfront, these are historically unique events. They are showing the expansion of the Gospel out into different groups. So that’s true, that’s one of the things the other side will say to try to get around these is they’ll say, well, this is redemptive historically unique. ANd that is true that these are unique. They’re also odd cases for all of us in some of like Acts eight. So I want to acknowledge that as well. Nonetheless, I come back to this, I don’t see a single time in the book of Acts where baptism is the cause of regeneration, where someone is baptized and that is the instrumental means by which they are made alive to God. Now, the contrary, in every case without exception, I see it happening differently where someone comes to faith or someone is regenerated and receives the Holy Spirit prior to the baptism.

Gavin Ortlund:

Now, again, I know that there are ways that the other side can respond and interpret that, so I’ll deal with those in a little bit. But first let’s just see what this is because even in, the clearest example is Cornelius, but even with Paul in Acts chapter nine when Ananias lays hands on Paul, the spirit descends upon him upon the laying on of Ananias’ hands, and he receives his sight back at that time according to Acts 9:17-18. And then subsequently he rises up and is baptized. That’s not instrumental means of regeneration.

Trent Horn:

I think this is reading a few assumptions in the text. Let’s go back to Acts 9:17-18. It says, “So Ananias departed and entered the house and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And immediately, something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized.” I think Gavin is assuming that Paul was regenerated or received the Holy Spirit when Ananias prayed over him. And then the baptism would be a sign or a seal of the regeneration or maybe he was saved on the Damascus road, I don’t know. But the clause that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t require those two things happen with the same action.

Trent Horn:

That baptism is what took away Paul’s sins becomes clear when this part of his conversion is retold in Acts chapter 22. Here’s how it’s described in that passage, “And one an Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all Jews who lived there came to me and standing by me, said to me, “Brother Saul, receive your sight.” And in that very hour, I received my sight and saw him. And he said, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see that just one And to hear a voice from his mouth For you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait, rise and be baptized and wash away your sins calling on his name?”” So Paul was healed of his blindness through the prayers of Ananias, but it was the act of baptism that washed away Paul’s sins, it was baptism that spiritually regenerated him.

Gavin Ortlund:

And that’s what you just see over and over throughout Acts. You get Cornelius. This is what I see in my ministry all the time, there’s the word preached, there’s a response to the gospel. An connection to that, there’s the Holy Spirit reception, the Holy Spirit falls down. They’re speaking in tongues. And then in response to that, Peter says, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Water baptism is then subsequent to and in response to spirit baptism. Someone can say, well, those are exceptional circumstances because the Gospel’s expanding in this way and so forth.

Trent Horn:

Yes, that is the traditional reply. The Protestant author Everett Ferguson puts it this way in his massive book Baptism in the Early Church. He writes, the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the case of Cornelius, instead of eliminating the need for water baptism was the justification for administering it. That Peter commanded water baptism shows the norm. If these Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit, then they have to be baptized in water. The implication of Acts 11:17 is that God would’ve been hindered in giving salvation if they were denied baptism. But if we’re going to talk about Peter and baptism in the book of Acts, we absolutely cannot skip Acts chapter two verse 38. Anyone who denies baptismal regeneration needs to be able to explain what Peter is saying here. In the first sermon given after Pentecost, Peter told the crowd in Jerusalem that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. And that quote, God has made him both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.

Trent Horn:

Luke, the author of Acts tells us that when the crowd heard this quote, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter then replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for the promises to you and to your children and to all that are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Now, some people say the word for in Greek ice in the clause for the forgiveness of sins refers to the forgiveness of sins being the cause of baptism not the effect of baptism. For example, if I say I took look an umbrella to work today for the rain, that doesn’t mean my umbrella caused the rain.

Trent Horn:

Likewise, they say you get baptized for or because your sins were forgiven not to have them forgiven. But the eminent Greek scholar Daniel Wallace who rejects the doctrine of baptism regeneration says that quote, the ingenious solution of a causal ice lacks conviction and has no basis in altering the grammar of the passage. Also, when the crowd asked Peter what shall we do, they wanted to know how to have their sins forgiven. They weren’t looking for a way to show God had already forgiven them. That means Acts 2:38 shows that baptism is the way to receive the forgiveness of sins not the way to merely demonstrate God’s forgiveness of our sins.

Gavin Ortlund:

Maybe you can feel my dilemma because basically what I see in my ministry over and over, and over and over is the same exception. I see only the exception and never the rule. I never see someone who is baptized and then that is the cause of regeneration. Over and over, I see people who they’ll come to faith on January 1st, they’ll go through a catechetical process and they’ll be baptized on June 1st. And throughout the spring, they look regenerate. Obviously, we don’t know their heart, but they give all the fruits of regeneration. That’s sort of an initial observation that starts the process of, okay, maybe this idea that, yeah, baptism is doing something with respect to regeneration, it’s spoken of as regenerative in some ways. But it’s not actually the cause, it’s the seal. Why that kind of might make sense to somebody based upon what you’re seeing universally in your ministry and universally in the narrative passages of the scripture.

Trent Horn:

Here’s my concern with Gavin’s dilemma. He’s saying how can baptism be what regenerates us when Gavin has seen over and over again evidence of regeneration in people who aren’t baptized yet? The problem here is that evidence of spiritual regeneration, it’s not always reliable. Consider Protestants who believe a Christian cannot lose his salvation. I don’t know if Gavin falls in this camp or not. But for those who do, I bet they’ve seen this before. Someone who converts, they appear to have all the fruits of the spirit after they come to faith. They appear to be spiritually regenerated, but then they permanently fall away, become apostates, leave the faith and never repent. Now, the standard reply to these cases is, well, they were never saved to begin with. But if that’s true, then no external evidence of regeneration would ever be sufficient to show a person was really saved in the first place since there’s always examples of really holy people who become apostates, permanent apostates.

Trent Horn:

Or let’s say you’re a Protestant who thinks salvation can be lost. It’s not that hard to imagine someone coming to faith, manifesting fruits of the spirit, leaving the faith but retaining the fruits and still exhibiting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness more so even than they had before their conversion. That’s why I would say it makes more sense that God gave us baptism so we could have a sure sign that we have been saved and regenerated, and we don’t need to use a kind of spiritual barometer to determine if our initial salvation was authentic. We can know we received the indelible mark even as babies simply because the sacrament was validly performed. Now, I know, I know, there are cases where it isn’t performed validly. Very rare cases, and that stinks. But the vast majority of the time it’s done validly, and we have confidence we’ve received this indelible mark on our souls.

Trent Horn:

It doesn’t guarantee salvation because we must remain in a state of grace, but it leaves us with less doubt, far less doubt about our initial salvation. And some people might say, well, if you allow an exception that people will be saved even if the priest botches the baptism and says something like we baptize you instead of I baptize you, uses the wrong formula, well, maybe baptism isn’t necessary at all. Well, I’d say the same dilemma arises for Protestants, will a person be saved if they have faith in Jesus but had poor theological formation? Someone who lives in a developing country, here’s a missionary, here’s a radio announcement. What if they deny that Holy Spirit is God? What if they think that Jesus is Lord and savior but not fully divine? If a Protestant says, “We’re saved by faith and we’re saved in spite of an incorrect faith through God’s grace,” well, then a Catholic can say, “we are saved through baptism, even in spite of an incorrect baptism.”

Gavin Ortlund:

But what about, fourth section of the video, all the … And this would be the longest one, all the passages that say baptism saves, how do we then interpret those? All right, let me make some reflections on these. All I can do is protest with all of my heart. I’m not trying to get around anything, I genuinely think it’s unavoidable to recognize complexity in how we interpret those passages. And I don’t think it’s crazy to wonder at how literally do we take these? I think it’s instinctive and unavoidable to wonder how literally do we take these? So just to lay some groundwork work here. I’d say first of all, based upon the nature of what a sacrament is, it’s unavoidable that there will be linguistic complexity for how it functions.

Gavin Ortlund:

Sacraments are symbolical and representative events. I’m not saying it’s just a sign, but it is at least a sign. And so you have this question of how does the sign relate to the thing signified? And basically what you see is the sign, and I think every view has to acknowledge this, the sign and the thing signified are often spoken of one for the other. One is often a stand-in for the other. You can see that with circumcision, for example, where circumcision of the heart is signified by physical circumcision. Oftentimes physical circumcision will function as a stand in for that. So Paul can say, “Circumcision is of the heart,” in Romans 2:28-29.

Trent Horn:

Says in Romans chapter 2:28-29, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.” This praise is not from men but from God. But the problem with this comparison is that Paul does not believe circumcision itself contributes to salvation even though Paul thinks there’s nothing wrong with being circumcised per se. Paul doesn’t think it’s intrinsically wrong to be circumcised because in Acts 16:3 Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to help him evangelize to Jewish people. But Paul does say that tying circumcision to salvation leads to damnation. He says in Galatians chapter five, “If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law, you are severed from Christ. You who would be justified by the law, you have fallen away from grace.”

Trent Horn:

So Paul is saying, you want to be circumcised, fine, but you also have to renew your heart and not make faith only an external ritual.” So Paul makes a distinction between what a physical sign shows and the internal change that must also take place. And he doesn’t connect the two of them in circumcision, but he does do that with baptism. Here’s what Paul writes in Romans chapter 6:1-3, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death. So that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been United with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be United with him in a resurrection like his.”

Trent Horn:

Now, some people try to say that Paul is talking about baptism of the spirit not water baptism, but the Protestant scholar Douglas Moo in his commentary on Romans writes this, “By the date of Romans, baptize had become almost a technical expression for the right of Christian initiation by water. And this is surely the meaning the Roman Christians would have given the word.”

Gavin Ortlund:

Baptism is also the visible public formal part of salvation. You can look at baptism happening and say there is salvation, that person is now a Christian, it’s their formal identification. So based upon its symbolic and representative thrust as well as its visible formal character, the possibility of linguistic complexity is only natural to wonder about here. The other reason why it’s not crazy to wonder how literally do we take these passages in the epistles, which I’m about to canvas some of those, how literally do we read those that talk about baptism as saving is because the Bible also speaks of faith as saving, and faith and baptism are usually not coincident. So you then have to ask, well, how do we coordinate those two?

Trent Horn:

Here we can find some common ground, faith and baptism are mutually linked. When an adult is baptized, it is because he already responded to God’s grace and received the gift of faith. That motivated him to be baptized. According to the catechism, the preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This ladder is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it. This is even the case with infants, since it is through the faith of the parents that the child receives baptism. The church requires that parents who seek to baptize an infant also have faith. And the code of canon law says in section 868.2, there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion.

Trent Horn:

If such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason. So baptism is not just a magical ritual of supernatural water, it is intimately connected with faith. Or as the catechism says, the apostles and their collaborators offer baptism to anyone who believed in Jesus, Jews, the God fearing pagans. Always baptism is seen as connected with faith. Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household. Justified by faith in baptism, they are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be called Christians. And with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. So baptism involves a parent’s faith or the catechumen’s faith, but it is not the faith alone that saves or generates us. Our faith is what makes us capable of receiving the baptism that regenerates and saves us.

Gavin Ortlund:

Right? Just like I mentioned in my ministry, it happens over and over. And what’s interesting is that almost all of the traditions that teach baptismal regeneration will acknowledge. That’s why I said ordinarily, the ordinary means of regeneration. They’ll almost all acknowledge that it can happen differently. Someone can become a regenerate prior to baptism. I’ll just give a few examples of this and then I’ll make the point from that. Here’s how the Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard puts it, I reference this passage in my dialogue with Jordan Cooper. And I’ll put up the citation so people can look it up for themselves if they’re interested. He says when therefore they are baptized to have already been regenerated through the word as a spiritual seed, they have no need of regeneration through baptism, but in them baptism is confirmation and sealing of regeneration. You can see there are different views in the Lutheran tradition, but you can see that view pretty commonly. Francis [inaudible 00:46:55] says the same thing, he says basically regeneration can happen prior to baptism. And in that case, baptism is simply a strengthening and confirming of regeneration.

Gavin Ortlund:

And that’s very similar to my view and to the Baptist view, sealing. We’re not saying the spirit is not poured out at you in a powerful way on your baptism, we’re saying it’s not the cause of regeneration. It doesn’t make you alive to God. And Thomas Aquinas and many others will have similar concessions, Aquinas in Summa Theologica. At one point he frames it in terms of a baptism of desire. But he has a way of acknowledging that, yeah, before your water baptism, you can be regenerated. And so a lot of people would say the person in that catechetical process from January 1st to June 1st, the baptism of desire is sufficient that, first of all, they’ll be saved if they die. And some would speak of them as regenerative or as regenerated or some they’d see them in some kind of hybrid complicated states.

Trent Horn:

I would say we shouldn’t base our major theological truths on minor or boundary cases. Yes, it is possible for a person to receive God’s grace apart from water baptism. But that doesn’t mean baptism is not the ordinary means by which we are saved. Just as I noted earlier, most Protestants would say it’s possible for a child without faith to be saved even though faith is the ordinary means by which we are spiritually regenerated. Here is how St. Thomas Aquinas understood what happened to catechumens who died before they could be baptized. He writes the following, when a man wishes to be baptized but by some ill chance he is forestalled by death before receiving baptism, such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized on account of his desire for baptism, which desire is the outcome of faith that worketh by charity.

Trent Horn:

Whereby God whose power is not tied to visible sacraments sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says a Valentinian who died while yet a catechumen, “I lost him whom I was to regenerate, but he did not lose the grace he prayed for.” It could also be the case that in these situations God and his timeless providence arranges the world so that those people he knows will seek baptism but die before receiving it will receive sanctifying grace through unextraordinary means. Whereas everyone else will receive that Grace when they’re baptized. Once again, catechism paragraph 1,257 puts it well, God has bound salvation to the sacrament to baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.

Gavin Ortlund:

So that’s kind of interesting. Now, here’s my point from all of that. So I’m not arguing for anything just from that alone, here’s the point, the possibility of regeneration prior to baptism generates linguistic complexity because, and it shows why we have to wonder how do we interpret it when 1st Peter 3:21 says baptism now saves you. Because the person who’s regenerated like Gerhard talks about through the word like Cornelius. Though some will say Cornelius wasn’t even regenerate while he’s speaking in tongues, but I don’t find that very plausible.

Gavin Ortlund:

I think the better route is how most people will go and say, yeah, that can happen. When that happens, it’s still true that baptism saves you. You see, we all acknowledge that baptism can be spoken of as salvific without necessarily being the cause of salvation. The only question is whether you see that as an exceptional circumstance or as I do more of the norm. So for those two reasons, I would say that the language about the saving efficacy of baptism and scripture is complicated, and we’ve got to work at it. So let’s do that, let’s work at it a little bit, let’s talk about some of these texts.

Trent Horn:

Sure, but we also need to be careful that we don’t start with a presumption that is so high no evidence can overcome it. Sometimes in debates about baptism, it seems like the burden of proof is on the person defending baptismal regeneration. A person who doesn’t believe in this doctrine will say, “Well, John 3:5, Acts 2:38, 1st Peter 3:21.” Doesn’t necessarily have to mean this or that. But I think given just how the verses appear when we read them, baptism now saves you. Repent and be baptized with the forgiveness of sins. Unless you were born of water and spirit, you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven. The burden of proof is really on the person denying baptismal regeneration to show why these verses don’t mean what they clearly seem to mean. And for them to give a positive case of biblical data to show baptism where the Bible says, hey, baptism is not what saves you, faith is what saves you instead. Baptism is only for showing other people you are already Christian, but there’s nothing in scripture or tradition that shows that.

Gavin Ortlund:

Let’s work through some of the details. What we’re going to see is they’re very complicated. And I won’t cover all of them, maybe I’ll just making a few general comments because it seemed with the church fathers … I actually had planned if you can believe it or not to make this a briefer video, and here I go. But I have meeting coming up soon, so I’ll keep it moving. A few general comments on these texts and then on the fathers and I’ll wrap it up. And I can say more in the comments if people want to raise a question in the comments. So here’s the thing, there is language all throughout holy scripture including in the Old Testament about saving water, and no one takes every reference of that to baptism. Some of the big ones are in the Old Testament, Ezekiel, it’s a common motif throughout Ezekiel.

Gavin Ortlund:

Ezekiel 16:9, God speaking to the nation of Israel, “I bathed you with water and washed off your blood.” Later in Ezekiel, there’s the promise in chapter 36 of a new heart and the removal of a heart of stone. And I will put my spirit within you. And this is where you get the language of sprinkling clean water on you to cleanse. This is an image all throughout the scripture, and I think there’s two errors that we could make. On the one hand is to completely flatly identify this imagery of cleansing water with baptism so that it’s nothing other than that in every text. And the other error I think would be to disassociate them as though they have nothing to do with each other.

Gavin Ortlund:

And my proposal would be that there’s a larger spiritual category of language of cleansing water that baptism participates in and fulfills. And it points to baptism, but baptism does not exhaust it. It’s not always and only talking about baptism without remainder, if that makes sense. So why do I say that? Well, if you look at these various passages, an interesting one would be … Oh, and by the way, if you just go into the New Testament, you can just plainly see this. I mean, people always quote John 3, and we can talk about John 3. I actually don’t think John 3 is an open and shut case either.

Trent Horn:

And once again, I would say that when we have a case where scripture appears to be talking about baptism, then we should go with how things appear unless evidence suggests otherwise. So it’s true that not every reference to water will be a reference to baptism, but there are many references to water or saving water that can only be plausibly explained by baptism. One of these is John 3:5 where Jesus says, “Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Now, some Protestants say, well, this is talking about the water of the womb. Jesus is saying you have to be born once in a natural way, born of water, which means going through the birth canal, amniotic sack and then born in spirit where you make an act of faith.

Trent Horn:

But the problem here is the Bible never refers to birth, biological birth as being born of water. According to the Protestant scholar D.A. Carson, there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as from water, and the few that use drops to stand for semen are rare and late. Instead, the Bible uses phrases like born of the flesh to describe biological birth. Jesus even uses that phrase to describe biological birth in the next verse. The Baptist theologian Stanley Fowler who Gavin mentioned earlier says the following, “The grammar of the statement seems to link water and spirit closely as two aspects of the same birth and that the two nouns are objects of one preposition.” In other words, Jesus is not saying you must be born first from amniotic fluid and then be born again of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is instead saying a person must be born of water and the spirit or be baptized. And when we get to the fathers, it’s important to know here that they all linked this, those who discussed it, linked this verse, none of them denied that this verse in John 3:5 related to baptismal regeneration,

Gavin Ortlund:

But then you just keep going to John 4 and 7, cleansing water. Spiritual water is all throughout the book of John. And at times, it’s explicitly identified with the Holy Spirit rather than baptism as in John 7:38 and 39, which I’ll put up on the screen. But just looking at a few of these other texts that people often take as baptism when there’s reference to cleansing water, and they say, well, that’s baptism. It’s actually impossible to take all of them as baptism. I think they point to baptism, but I don’t think they’re necessarily referring to baptism directly. So Hebrews 10:22 is a good example, it talks about let us draw near to God with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Gavin Ortlund:

People often see baptism in this text, I think it’s better to do it the way I framed it, remember where it’s there’s a larger spiritual category of language that baptism participate it’s in but it’s not just baptism per se. And the reason is it’s talking about people who are already Christians, and he’s already talked about the elementary things of the faith like washings. Chapter six of Hebrews, this whole passage is about perseverance. So to have your body washed with pure water, it’s not really baptism. You’re not saying let’s be baptized. He’s talking about the spiritual reality baptism points to and fulfills and is typified in baptism.

Trent Horn:

Even in these cases, I would say it’s clear baptism is what’s being described. Sprinkling and washing with water in Hebrews 10:22 is a call back to Exodus 29, which refers to the washing that was part of what initiated men into the Aaronic Priesthood. And baptism brings us into the priesthood of all believers. Hebrew 6:1-2 says, “Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity.” Not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and a faith toward God with instruction about ablutions or washings. The laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. This is talking about the sequence of catechesis a Jewish convert received in becoming Christian. You would learn about why Christian baptism differed from Jewish baptism, washings, ablutions. How Christian priesthood or lay on of hands differed from Jewish priesthood and how the concepts of resurrection and final judgment differed in Christianity.

Gavin Ortlund:

And that’s true with a lot of the language of the Old Testament. With Ezekiel 16, I don’t think God is saying I baptized you. I mean, how would you baptize the entire nation at once? You could have an event like the Red Sea or something like that could be seen as a type of baptism. But again, it’s not baptism per se. Another example of this would be Ephesians 5:26 which talks about as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word. Some people see baptism in this passage. Again, it’s an example of where you’ve got the language of cleansing water that can’t refer just to baptism because you’ve got a reference to the entire church collectively here.

Gavin Ortlund:

There’s no episode in which the entire church collectively was baptized. We can understand that with reference to the effects of Christ saving death for the church. So what I’m trying to say here is there’s again, linguistic complexity in how we coordinate sign and things signified. And I think it’s a little bit sloppy to just cut through all of that nuance and just say, well, if it’s saving water, it’s baptism per se. Now, if it’s saving water, it’s got a relationship to baptism, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is baptism.

Trent Horn:

Sure. As I said before, not all saving water images in scripture refer to baptism. And you can use the word baptize in the Bible to just mean immerse like when the Pharisees ask why Jesus’ disciples don’t wash or literally baptize their hands. But none of this refutes the clear cases where baptism is described as water that saves us.

Gavin Ortlund:

I’ve got so many notes on some of these other passages, Titus 3:5 and the texts in Acts. I won’t go through all of them for the sake of time. And I’ve said more about 1st Peter 3:21 in my dialogue with Jordan Cooper. So people could see that if they’re interested. But essentially I would just say if people are wondering, because I know some people will accuse me of just trying to throw complexity at things, I’m not. I’m trying to abstract what the meaning is because if you can’t take it as baptism all the time, well, then what do you take it as?

Gavin Ortlund:

And the view that I’ve argued for is one I’ve expressed with the word metonymy, which means part for the whole. So in the sentence, the blood of Jesus saves, we’re not saying that it’s the blood as distinct from the flesh. The blood is representative of the larger complex of events we associate with Jesus’ death on our behalf. So similarly when we say baptism saves, this doesn’t mean baptism per se, baptism as distinct from the prior parts of conversion that lead up to it. But baptism as representative of that entire process because baptism is the visible picture of salvation. So it’s true that baptism saves, but it’s not like, well, you’re unregenerate until you actually get in the water.

Trent Horn:

A metonym or metonymy, I hope I’m pronouncing that right, is a figure of speech dealing with representation. So when we say I pledge my loyalty to the crown, I’m not pledging loyalty to an object, I’m pledging loyalty to the king who wears the crown, or more precisely the king and his kingdom. Or it’s like when we refer to the Department of Defense as the Pentagon even though it’s not the building itself that does anything. So what Gavin is saying is that maybe baptism is being used in this sense in these verses. And it isn’t literally the water of baptism where that act that saves us, but baptism it represents something else that saves us like faith.

Gavin Ortlund:

And the metaphors I’ve given for this are graduating from college, the actual graduation ceremony is the visible public expression. But you’re not actually made a graduate on that day. You can for job application purposes function as a graduate as soon as all your coursework is in. Or the coronation service of a monarch, that doesn’t actually make the person the king or queen. Technically, they’re already the king or queen, but that’s when they’re formally publicly recognized as such. Sometimes there’s a year gap between when you become the queen and you’re actually coroneted as with Queen Elizabeth II, there were 14 months between. That’s the idea here that baptism is not the cause of regeneration, but it is the formal public summative expression of salvation. Among other things, it’s sealing salvation. So that hopefully can explain the idea, I can go back to some of those New Testament passages if people want.

Trent Horn:

So is baptism the cause of our going from being in sin to being adopted children of God or is baptism a celebration of something else that did that? So far, we’ve seen that when we look at the biblical text, they do not say baptism is merely a sign of something else that saved us. Instead, it talks about how baptism itself is what is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven for the forgiveness of sins and is what saves us. So I think that while this is an interesting grammatical hypothesis to consider, what the text related to baptism actually say simply doesn’t support it. And we should be careful in approaching the texts and say, well, here’s why they don’t 100% have to point to baptismal regeneration. Remember, one who denies baptismal regeneration also has a burden of proof. And I would like them to show us where the texts explicitly say baptism is assigned to communicate our salvation to others but it does not communicate salvation to us. And I don’t think that they can show us that verse because that’s not what the Bible teaches.

Gavin Ortlund:

Let me quickly touch on the church fathers and try to show why. Similarly here there’s more complexity than is often seen. So how do we know that the fathers don’t always mean … It is true that throughout the fathers you find pretty universally this profound inter-coordination between baptism and regeneration, the sign and thing signified often stand in one for the other. How do we know that there’s more complexity to it than simply being a causative relationship?

Trent Horn:

Before we talk about the church fathers, I want to share with you a clip where Gavin is asked in this dialogue could one of the church fathers be a pastor at his church? Do they share similar beliefs? And then my colleague, Joe Heschmeyer later brings this point up and makes a really good point about the nature of the fathers and baptismal regeneration, and it’s something that Gavin does not dispute.

Gavin Ortlund:

I would think that some of the early church fathers could fit the bill here at First Baptist like Polycarp and some of these type people. But I would acknowledge that many of the later ones couldn’t for the specific issue of baptism. If you believe in infant baptism and baptismal regeneration, then you wouldn’t be acceptable to administer that sacrament in my church context.

Trent Horn:

Something real quick on just the baptism issue, I think it’s telling there, you have a universal belief in regenerative baptism like all of the church fathers who write on this are either explicitly pro-regenerative baptism or are ambiguous enough that someone who believes in baptismal regeneration can claim 100% of the fathers. There’s no one who says baptismal regeneration doesn’t happen. Even in the debates about infant baptism, both sides assume regenerative baptism happens. And there’s a big debate about whether or not you want that regeneration to happen at the end of your life because you’re afraid you might fall into mortal sin later on. The whole framework of the debate, getting back to something we said earlier is just not the framework that a modern Catholic and Baptist are having. They’re assuming, I would argue, a Catholic theology. And so the only ones we can point to are in the first or second century where the evidence is at least vague enough that it isn’t obviously wrong.

Gavin Ortlund:

I’ll just give three reasons, one is that you can see fathers speaking of people having been regenerated prior to baptism at the moment of faith and yet they’ll still use that language of baptism as regenerative.

Trent Horn:

Before I continue on this point, I need to point out that this view is a minority one even among Protestants. There is a recognition that the fathers universally taught baptismal regeneration or that baptism was the ordinary means by which we are forgiven of sin and received the promises of eternal life. According to the Anglican scholar J.N.D. Kelly, he writes, “From the beginning, baptism was the universally accepted right of admission to the church. As regards its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins.” William Webster in a book that denies the fathers’ taught many Catholic doctrines, he makes an exception here. He says, “The doctrine of baptism is one of the few teachings within Roman Catholicism for which it can be said that there is a universal consent to the fathers.”

Gavin Ortlund:

Cyril of Jerusalem is the one that I pointed to in the past where in his catechetical lecture he’s talking about Cornelius not as an exception. He gives Cornelius as an example or rule for those in the catechetical process. And he says, “Peter came,” he’s summarizing Acts 10, “and the spirit was poured out upon them that believed and they spoke with other tongues and prophesied.” And after the grace of the spirit, the scripture says that Peter commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, Acts 10:48. In order that, the soul having been, past tense, born again by faith, the body also might by the water partake of the grace. Now, I want to be really clear that Cyril does have a very high view of baptism. To not think baptism is the cause of regeneration, it doesn’t mean you think it’s just a symbol. And it doesn’t mean you don’t have a realist view of baptism in some way.

Gavin Ortlund:

So Cyril, he really coordinates faith and baptism together. He sees them like as two parts of one thing really. People are going to go nuts and come up with all these other quotes in Cyril. I’ve read through the catechetical lectures very carefully, I’m aware there’s other passages where he talks about baptism in a very high way. My point is he does understand Cornelius to have been born again at the moment of faith, and yet he still speaks of baptism as regenerative for him. And again, this is drawing attention to the fact that baptism and salvation can have this profound relationship without it being a causative one.

Trent Horn:

But this is also a boundary case where criticism is explaining how someone who is described as having the Holy Spirit and scripture could do that without being baptized. It’s not very helpful to tell us what St. John Chrysostom thought about baptism in general. And when you see what Chrysostom says about baptism, it’s hard to say, well, it’s just a really high view. And we can’t require them like the fathers like Chrysostom they have to use technical language like baptism is the primary cause of salvation or something like that in order to say they believed in baptismal regeneration, we should just look at the plain meaning of what they said. Here’s what he writes, you see how many are the benefits of baptism? And some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated 10 honors it bestows.

Trent Horn:

For this reason, we baptize even infants though they are not defiled by personal sins so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ. And that they may be his Christ members. And that comes from Chrysostom’s baptismal catechesis. By the way, speaking of baptizing infants, if the fathers believe that it was faith that regenerated you and baptism was a sign of that faith, then they would not have baptized infants. Some people who don’t believe in baptismal regeneration still baptize infants. But I think that if baptism is a sign of saving faith, then most people who believe that will delay baptism until a child manifests faith. And I believe that’s the position that Gavin has defended publicly in numerous places.

Trent Horn:

But infant baptism was the norm in the early church. There was some debate about how long after birth to baptize, should it be immediate or should you wait eight days because in the Old Covenant you waited eight days to circumcise someone? And you had some people like Tertullian who said, “You should say baptism until right before you die because you don’t want to waste all the power of baptism to remit sins early in life because what if you lose your salvation later.” Instead, baptism to make infants Christians or regenerate members of the body of Christ was the norm in the church. Not every father attests to this, but we can see it in many of them. Hippolytus in the third century says, “They shall baptize the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family.”

Trent Horn:

Origen said, “The church has received the tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to little children for they to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were committed, we’re aware that in everyone was original sins innate defilement which needed to be washed away through water and the spirit.” Once again, call back to John 3:5. Even Protestants, there are a lot Protestants who recognizes this consensus. R.C. Sproul writes the following, “The fact that the practice of infant baptism seems to have spread to the whole Christian community within a hundred years with no known protest is a further indication that the acceptability of giving infant children the covenant sign was simply assumed by the early church.”

Gavin Ortlund:

All right. A second thing we see in the fathers is that the very term baptism as well as related terms like washing and bath are used for more than simply the actual event of getting baptized. But again, they stand in as a metonymy for the entire process. Sometimes the word baptism simply means repentance. So Justin Martyr is a good example of this in his dialogue with Trypho, chapters 13 and 14. He references that saving bath of the olden time which followed those who repented. And then he quotes the entirety of Isaiah 53. And then’s says, by reason therefore of this laver of repentance and knowledge of God which has been ordained on account of the transgression of God’s people as Isaiah cries, we have believed and testified that that very baptism by which he announced, that’s Isaiah, is alone able to purify those who have repented.

Gavin Ortlund:

So you see the words baptism and laver of repentance and saving bath here and throughout to refer to the spiritual cleansing that results from repentance and is in view in Isaiah 53. And then he goes on to contrast the baptism that cleanses only the body with the baptism that cleanses the soul. Well, what’s the baptism that cleanses the soul? Repentance. You repent, and that baptizes your soul. So my point in these comments is to show that the term baptism is used as metonymy in some cases for the entire process. And that creates a complexity when you’re saying, but he says, baptism saves. You see.

Trent Horn:

In this section, Justin is saying that water baths that were used for Jewish ritual purity are not enough to take away sin. But rather it is faith through the blood of Christ and through his death he says that is necessary. And he’s absolutely right that adults who hear the Gospel must repent and then they must seek baptism. And you could use washing language to describe this entire process. 1st Corinthians chapter six for example lists a whole bunch of sins. And in verse 11, it says, “Such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified. You were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit of our God.” The washing here refers to baptism but it might also refer to things like initial faith or repentance. So it’s possible in Justin washing could refer to more than baptism.

Trent Horn:

But in his other writings, Justin is more explicit when it comes to what water baptism specifically does to us. For example, later in the dialogue with Rabbi Trypho, Justin says the following, “And we who have approached God through him have received not carnal but spiritual circumcision which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism since we were sinners. By God’s mercy and all men may equally obtain it.” Likewise in Justin Martyr’s first apology or his defense to the Roman emperor, Justin has a very long description of baptism where he says this.

Trent Horn:

He writes, “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true and undertake to be able to live accordingly are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For the name of God, the father and Lord of the universe and of our savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Gavin Ortlund:

I’m not saying every text is like that, but that’s another example of the complexity where the profound connection between baptism and salvation is not always understood as a causative one. And the third example is that the fathers frequently insist upon the necessity of faith in order for baptism to be efficacious. Now, some traditions that affirm baptismal regeneration could agree with that, and that wouldn’t be a problem. Others though, it would depend upon how it works out. So let give just another example from Cyril of Jerusalem here.

Gavin Ortlund:

It’s really interesting, the whole set of catechetical lectures opens with this warning about Simon the Magician in Acts 8 who’s baptized, and he doesn’t have faith. And it says that basically his baptism does nothing for him. And he’s offering all these warning throughout of basically don’t be a Simon. And he says if you don’t repent, the water will receive you but the spirit will not accept you. And he says this throughout. In lecture three section four, he says, “Neither does he that is baptized with water but not found worthy of the spirit receive the grace and perfection.” Now, this is not going to be a problem for all views of baptismal regeneration but to the extent that you get infant baptism and then a disconnect between the regenerative work of baptism and saving faith in the baptizeined. These passages are going to require some kind of explanation

Trent Horn:

In the prologue to the catechetical lectures, Cyril talks about Simon the Magician in the book of acts. And he says this, “Even Simon Magus once came to the laver. He was baptized, but was not enlightened. And though he dipped his body in water, he enlightened not his heart with the spirit, his body went down and came up but his soul was not buried with Christ nor raised with him. Now, what’s interesting here is the presumption that baptism does enlighten us and it does something to our souls by uniting them to Christ, which parallels Romans 6:1-3, we discussed earlier. Baptism is supposed to do these things unless something in a person’s heart or soul makes that impossible like if they aren’t sincere. Faith has to be present and anti-faith cannot be present.

Trent Horn:

However, a person who is incapable of faith like an infant but is brought to Jesus through the faith of others like his parents, that’s a difference story. There’s actually an interesting parallel to this in the Gospels when the paralytic is lowered through a hole in a roof for Jesus to heal him. Mark 2:3-5 says this, “And they came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him. And when they had made an opening, they let down the palette on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.””

Trent Horn:

Notice Jesus said their faith, the men helping the paralytic. The paralytic is never described as asking for healing. Instead, the faith of those who brought him to Jesus was sufficient. The same can be seen in the case of Jairus asking Jesus to heal his daughter or the Centurian asking to heal his favorite servant. People can experience God’s grace in their lives because other people with faith asked for it. And the same principle applies to parents coming in faith to the church seeking baptism for their infant. So as we say in the baptismal ceremony, they seek faith, they seek baptism for their child.

Gavin Ortlund:

Overall, you look at the church fathers and you see again the association between baptism and regeneration is very clear, the nature of that association is not. And I don’t think it does work to always understand that as a causative relationship. At the very least, hopefully those who are advocating for that position would factor in my comments here and not just say baptismal regeneration is universal in the fathers or not just quote 1st Peter 3:1, case closed. But try to enter into and interact with the alternative view of these things historically among, say, the Baptist tradition. Which would agree with that general association to say that doesn’t mean causation. And again, there’s good reasons to not take it as causative based upon what we see in the book of Acts and what we understand the nature of a sacrament to be, and the other considerations I’ve raised here.

Trent Horn:

I think it’s fair to ask people to be more nuanced and charitable to an opposing view and really look at the reasons in favor of it. It might also be the case that when we do this kind of investigation we find that certain proof texts or biblical arguments we think support baptismal regeneration or any doctrine frankly might not be as strong as we think. And so it’s helpful to dialogue and make room for development and improvement. But at the end of the day, if you’re not convinced, you’re not convinced. And I’m not convinced, especially on a doctrine like baptismal regeneration that not just Catholics believe but many Christians, Protestant Orthodox that has such strong biblical and historical support. As I said, Gavin would be disagree how I’ve looked at the evidence in this video. So hopefully in the future we can dialogue about that.

Trent Horn:

I apologize if I misunderstood any of his arguments or his positions. I just want to put this out there as something to have a reply, for you to think about, weigh all the evidence forward against yourself. Hopefully one day in the future when Gavin’s not super busy, might be a long time from now we could dialogue about this or debate about it. If you want an in-depth dialogue about it now though, check out the dialogue Gavin have with Jordan Cooper on issues related to baptism. I’ll put those links in the description of the video below, definitely check that out. But thank you guys so much. And hey, I hope you have a very awesome day.

 

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