Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

sacraments (3)

Baptismal efficacy

In line with the accent upon the ecclesial character of salvation, in 16th century Reformed theology as well as more recent conversations, baptism comes to play an important role. This is not due to any notion that the baptismal water itself, or the event as a whole, has some sort of magical power to effect a sort of substantial change in the individual being baptized. Rather, it is because baptism is an objective rite ordained by Christ to formally make a change in relationships.

Baptism is not unique in this regard. An adoption rite, for example, alters the state of relations between a child and his adoptive parents. Likewise, a wedding rite alters the state of relations between a man and a woman. Just as these rites do not create the love of either party, neither is it supposed that baptism creates some sort of new "thing" within the heart of the baptized. But baptism does formally and really induct the one baptized into the body of Christ. And since this really is the body of Christ, such induction necessarily means that the person baptized is "in Christ." The promises of the gospel are personally spoken to the person baptized; God's own name is stamped upon him or her.


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

Tim Gallant: “Affirmations on Covenant and Baptism: An Outline.” As the title indicates, this is a concise statement setting forth a reformulation of earlier Reformed views on covenant and baptism.

Tim Gallant: “A Note on Circumcision and Baptism: Taking Account of Redemptive History.” Beginning reflections on the difference between circumcision and baptism, and why biblical statement regarding circumcision cannot simply be adopted wholesale and applied to directly to baptism without further thought.

Tim Gallant: “Pentecostal Ordination: The Newness of Christian Baptism.” Argues that one key difference between Christian baptism and analogous old covenant rites has to do with the new covenant gift of the Spirit.

Tim Gallant: “Toward a Theology of Baptismal Transition.” A cautious exploratory foray into the issue of baptismal efficacy.

Joel Garver: “The Early Scots Reformed on Baptism.” An analysis of how the early Scots Reformed viewed the efficacy of baptism

Joel Garver: “Baptismal Regeneration and WCF 28.6.” Argues that the Westminster Confession of Faith, in line with the views of the framers of the Assembly, holds to a robust view of baptism.

Joel Garver: “A Brief Catechesis on Covenant and Baptism.”

Joel Garver: “Turretin on Baptism.” Another study of how baptismal efficacy has been viewed in historic Reformed theology.

Peter Leithart:  “Analogies to Baptism.” A very brief article suggesting that the rites of marriage and ordination are helpful analogies to baptism.

Peter Leithart:  “Baptism and the Church.” Leithart suggests that baptismal power is essentially ecclesiological.

Peter Leithart:  “Baptism and the ‘Real Me.’” Credenda Agenda 14-5 (online).

Peter Leithart:  “Baptism and the Spirit.”

Peter Leithart:  “Modernity and the ‘Merely Social’: Toward a Socio-Theological Account of Baptismal Regeneration.” Pro Ecclesia 9 (2000): 319-330.

Peter Leithart:  Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003.) A groundbreaking study which draws the connecting lines between (especially) the old covenant ordination rites to the priesthood, and new covenant baptism as the rite of initiation into the priesthood of all believers. Aside from the baptismal question, an important study of the nature of the priesthood.

Peter Leithart:  “Starting Before the Beginning.” Credenda Agenda 14-6 (online).

Rich Lusk: “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future.” A survey of historic Reformed views, as well as comments for further reflection.

Rich Lusk: “Calvin on Baptism, Penance, and Absolution.”

Rich Lusk: “Calvin and the Efficacy of Infant Baptism.”

Rich Lusk: “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?” A contemporary writer defends himself against mischaracterizations of his views, and in the process expounds a great deal of relevant historical and biblical theology.

Rich Lusk: “Jesus’ Baptism: The Fount of Life.”

Rich Lusk: “Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies.” (In The Federal Vision; Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds. Monroe, LA:  Athanasius Press, 2004, pp. 71-125.  Argues that contemporary, more “minimalist” views of baptism are largely the effect of Enlightenment rationalism and individualistic revivalism, and that such views necessarily contribute to a decline in the practice of infant baptism.

Jeffrey Meyers:  “Baptism and Justification: Sacramental Instrumentality in John Calvin and the Pre-Concord Lutheran Confessions and Catechism.” Was Calvin’s view of baptism radically different from that of early Lutheran theology? [Note: TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE.]

Hughes Oliphant Old: The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.)

Steve Wilkins: “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation.” (In The Federal Vision; Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds. Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004, pp. 47-69.)  Suggests that the relationship between salvation and baptism is closer than frequently recognized.


The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time.

- Westminster Confession 28.6

We assuredly believe that by Baptism we are engrafted into Christ, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted.

- Scots Confession (1560)

[The sacraments] are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means whereof God works in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the signs are not empty or meaningless, so as to deceive us. For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment.

- Belgic Confession Art 33

Neither does this baptism avail us only at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.

- Belgic Confession Art 34

. . . for us as the water washes away all the dirt of the body, the stains and spots and any kind of impurity, so also the one over whom the baptismal waters have been poured, is received by God’s grace, washed by the blood of Jesus and obligated to live a new life.

- Heinrich Bullinger, cited in Old, Shaping p 138

Almighty God, Heavenly Father, we give you eternal praise and thanks, that you have granted and bestowed upon this child your fellowship, that you have born him again to yourself through your holy baptism, that he has been incorporated into your beloved Son, our only Savior, and is now your child and heir.

- Strasbourg Liturgy 1537 post-baptismal prayer

. . . the truth and substance of baptism is comprised in [Jesus Christ]. For we have no other washing than in His blood, and we have no other renewal than in His death and resurrection. But as He communicates to us His riches and blessings by His word, so He distributes them to us by His sacraments.

- John Calvin, 1542 Baptismal Exhortation

Q. Are you in the Church and fellowship of Christ?

A. Yes.

Q. How did you enter?

A. Through holy Baptism.

- Martin Bucer, Church Order of Cassel 1538