Is Baptism Just a Symbol or Public Testimony?

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Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized: but it is also a sign of regeneration; or the new birth. The baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church. —25 Methodist Articles of Religion, Article XVII

There is … an undervaluation of the sacraments which springs from no theological opposition or scruple, but is the result of indifference or ignorance. —William Burt Pope, Compendium

The Popular View

Although the Bible has a lot to say about baptism, I have heard little teaching on the subject. What I have heard could be summarized in three points:

  1. Baptism is a public testimony;
  2. Baptism is a symbol of something God has already done inside you;
  3. Baptism doesn’t save.

Many say that baptism is “an outward sign of an inward work,” but by this, they mean little more than what is stated in the second point above.

This is not a Wesleyan or Methodist view of the sacrament. It is not a Methodist, Arminian, Reformed, Anglican, or historically Christian understanding of what the Bible teaches about baptism. This article compares the three points above with the 25 Methodist Articles of Religion, focusing on the third and most crucial point.

The Methodist View

First, baptism may be a public testimony, but it is not always a public testimony, and it is certainly not essentially or fundamentally a public testimony. “Public testimony” is the first thing that many people want to say about baptism. Ironically, the first thing that Methodists say in their historic statement of faith, the 25 Articles of Religion, is that “Baptism is not only a sign of profession” (Article 17). This is stressing a point that has already been made in the previous article: “Sacraments, ordained of Christ, are not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession” (Article 16). These articles begin by actively opposing the view (usually charged to Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer) that reduces baptism to a public testimony—a view that has taken hold today.

Second, baptism is not a mere outward symbol of something that God has already done inside a believer. Article 16 of the 25 Articles goes on to teach that sacraments “are certain signs of grace.” The phrase “certain signs” is intentionally contrasting the idea that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are “bare signs” or “mere symbols.” A mere symbol stands for something; a sacrament does something. A symbol pictures grace; a sacrament gives grace. Historically, the formula “an outward sign of an inward work” did not mean “an outward symbol of something invisible that God has already done, in the past, inside a person.” Methodists actively opposed the view that reduced baptism to a mere symbol of a past event. That brings us to our final and most important point.

Baptism does save, but it does not save automatically.

Third, baptism does save, but it does not save automatically or merely by the work performed (ex opere operato). Baptism is means of grace—saving grace. Think for a moment about another means of grace: preaching. I have never met someone who had a problem saying, “The preaching of the gospel saves.” Paul says as much as in Romans 1:16a: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation.” But of course, the gospel does not save by the very words preached. It must be heard with faith: “to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16b).

This is why I find it odd that many people say, “Baptism doesn’t save.” This is not a biblical way of speaking. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of the way the Bible speaks: “Baptism now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21a); “Be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16a); “be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38); and so on. Like preaching, it does not save by the very work worked (ex opere operato). Faith is necessary: “as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21); “calling on his name” (Acts 22:16); “repent” (Acts 2:38). But baptism is a means, instrument, or channel of salvation.

I regularly remind my son Adam, “You were washed with water in baptism because Jesus wants to wash your heart from sin. Believe in him!” If he hears that promise and believes, and is fully regenerated, then I am very comfortable saying, “Baptism saved my son,” in the same sense that I could say, “The preaching of the gospel saved my son.” It does not matter that it is separated in time from the act of baptism. A person may hear a gospel sermon and only believe the message weeks later when the Spirit is “re-preaching” it to him, convicting him, and working faith in him, but he could still happily say, “That sermon I heard saved me!”

Many people have assumed that the “inward work” always comes before the “outward sign,” not through or after the outward sign.

Many people have assumed that the “inward work” always comes before the “outward sign,” not through or after the outward sign. But if this is the case, then baptism is not a means of grace; it is not a sacrament. Article 16 makes it clear, “Sacraments … are certain signs of grace, and God’s good-will toward us, by the which he does work invisibly in us, and does not only quicken [enliven], but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.”

Recall Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. While listening to the truth read, his heart was strangely warmed. The Spirit enlivened (or at least strengthened and confirmed—scholars debate this) his faith through the gospel proclaimed. The same thing can happen through baptism. For example, a man who thinks that he is born again, but actually is not, can have his faith enlivened through baptism, and be born again as the water (and the Spirit!) washes over his body. While this is probably rare today, since we have often separated baptism from initial faith and repentance (e.g., at an altar of prayer) by years or even decades, it may be more common than we realize.

The great Methodist theologian William Burt Pope writes that this view, the Methodist view, is in agreement with that of the Arminian, Reformed, and Anglican confessions. He approvingly cites the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which say that through the sacraments, the benefits of the new covenant are “applied to believers.” Pope explains, “Here the last expression gives additional strength to the idea of the seal: not only are blessings pledged, but they are then and there imparted.” When the 25 Articles say, “baptism is … a sign of regeneration; or the new birth,” it means that baptism is an effectual sign, a means of regenerative grace.

When people refer to “baptismal regeneration,” they typically mean the view that baptism regenerates by the very work worked (ex opere operato)—that anyone who is washed with water in the Triune name is automatically born again. Of course, I reject that view. As Article 16 says, “in such only as worthily receive the [sacraments], they have a wholesome effect or operation.” Many people have been baptized who were never born again and will ultimately perish (1 Cor. 10:5, cf. 10:2). But it would be a mistake to assume that anyone who says “baptism saves” or speaks of “the font of regeneration” is advocating this view. In fact, on the basis of this false assumption, some of the church fathers have been accused of teaching baptismal regeneration when it is not clear from their writings that they are advocating regeneration ex opere operato. The Methodist view mediates between the false dichotomy that either baptism automatically saves or it is just a symbol and testimony.

The Methodist view mediates between the false dichotomy that either baptism automatically saves or it is just a symbol and testimony.

In his Treatise on Baptism, which he repeatedly published, John Wesley writes, “the virtue of this free gift, the merits of Christ’s life and death, are applied to us in baptism. ‘He gave himself for the Church, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word’ (Ephesians 5:25, 26); namely, in baptism, the ordinary instrument of our justification.” Wesley goes on to say, “By water then, as a means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again; whence it is also called by the Apostle, ‘the washing of regeneration’ [Titus 3:5].” A person does not have to agree with every point of Wesley’s exegesis, or even all of his conclusions, in order to be Wesleyan. But to deny that baptism is a means of saving grace is a dramatic departure from the traditional Methodist doctrine of the sacraments.

Infant Baptism

With this view in place, it is easier to understand why Methodists were such strong advocates of infant baptism—the “grand question” addressed in Wesley’s Treatise. Article 22 of the Methodist Articles concludes, “The baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.”

Consider another biblical sign: circumcision (Gen. 17:11). Abraham received the sign of circumcision after he believed. For Abraham, it was a kind of testimony or profession of his faith in God’s covenant promises. And it also visualized a reality that Abraham experienced when he believed—the circumcision of his heart (e.g., Deut. 10:16). But it would have been a mistake to conclude that circumcision is always a public testimony or always comes after conscious faith. Because Isaac, Jacob, and all their children after them were circumcised before they could consciously believe or make a profession! The sign was essentially or fundamentally a sign and seal of God’s promises, God’s work, and God’s grace—not man’s obedience, man’s works, or man’s testimony.

As Isaac and Jacob grew up, we might say that they had a profound “circumcision awareness.” Every time someone else was circumcised, and the meaning of circumcision was explained, it was a powerful testimony in their flesh that “God’s covenant promises are yours! Believe them!” Infant baptism has a similar function, as I illustrated with my son earlier. It doesn’t mean that an infant is guaranteed final salvation any more than a baptized adult is guaranteed final salvation. But because infants are welcome in God’s covenant family, his church, and because they are heirs of the kingdom, covered by Christ atonement, the sign is properly extended to them.

Baptism is essentially and fundamentally a sign and seal of God’s promises, God’s work, and God’s grace—not man’s obedience, man’s works, or man’s testimony.

Although many Bible verses help to confirm this view, infant baptism—like so many of the church’s practices—isn’t based on a single proof text. It is downstream from a biblical-theological understanding of what baptism is. And it should not be taken lightly that this was the universal understanding and practice of the church for around 1500 years, which is why Article 22 says that infant baptism should be “retained in the Church” (see Wesley’s Treatise; cf. Augustine On Baptism, Against the Donatists, 4.23.31; Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 10.23.39; Origen, Commentary on Romans, 5.9.11). If we have only been exposed to one practice, and have become accustomed to thinking of baptism as essentially a public testimony or symbol of a past work, then we will obviously struggle to comprehend why our Methodist forebearers baptized their babies. But if we take a historically Methodist view of the sacrament, infant baptism makes far more sense. Baptism is essentially and fundamentally a sign and seal of God’s promises, God’s work, and God’s grace—not man’s obedience, man’s works, or man’s testimony.

For a historically Methodist view of baptism and the sacraments in general, see William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology (even over Wesley’s Treatise). It is beautifully presented on our site: “The Sacraments as the Economical or Covenant Means of Grace.” For further study, see “Resources on the Sacraments.”

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.