Christian Baptism: The Reformed Interpretation

John Murray: CHRISTIAN BAPTISM. Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church. 1952. vii, 93. $1.75.*

Most controversies throughout the history of the church have at least contributed to a clearer understanding of the truths of Scripture. But quite the opposite seems true of those distressing conflicts concerning the sacraments which have divided the Protestant churches since the Reformation. Today few people have a clear view of the meaning and significance of the sacraments. Frequently theologians have added to the confusion by seeking answers to questions they have no right to ask. We need precisely the type of discussion which Professor Murray of Westminster Seminary here gives the sacrament of baptism.

In his own inimitable, patient and precise manner, Murray examines Scripture. He seeks to understand what it reveals concerning the meaning and significance of baptism. He refuses to speculate beyond the givens of revelation. These characteristics make this little volume of less than a hundred pages a truly great book. Not only its argument, but also its method is inspiring and well worth the modest price. No one can afford to miss reading and studying this gem.

Although many books have been written on this subject in the last few centuries, Murray’s book is certainly needed today. Only a minimum of pastoral experience is needed to impress one with the current ignorance on the subject. Professor Murray, biblical-theologian by pre-eminence, tries to meet this apologetic need. He has noticed “within Protestant circles today a wide-spread loss of conviction regarding the propriety and preceptive necessity of infant baptism” (p. 1). He aims to reach those who are “on the margin of abandoning the position” of the Reformed churches and accepting, at least in practice, the baptistic view. Murray also hopes his book will bring Baptists to reconsider their position. He knows that he has not chosen an easy subject. It requires careful study. One can not simply point to a few proof texts. In fact, great difficulty arises because people frequently jump from “proof-text” to “proof-text” in grasshopper fashion. Murray wants them to think “organically of the Scripture revelation,” and that is obviously much more difficult. If one fails to do this, he will miss the heart of Murray’s argument. “The argument for infant baptism,” he contends, “rests upon the recognition that God’s redemptive action and revelation in this world are covenantal” (p. 2). Because the reviewer firmly shares these views, he feels called upon to trace the argument in detail.



What is the precise meaning (import) of the sacrament of baptism? Perhaps the most common view, looking at the action of the washing with water, emphasizes the idea of purification. Murray insists that, although this idea is not foreign to the sacrament, it is not fundamental. The formula “baptizing into” expresses a relationship to a person. In Christian baptism it is union with the person of Christ which is the fundamental idea. “Baptism signifies union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection” (p. 6). Even though Christ is central, Murray correctly calls attention to the fact that Matthew 28:19–20 clearly shows that it is a relationship of union to the three persons of the trinity. This union is signified and sealed by baptism. The concept of purification enters then only because it is presupposed in union with. Christ. This is Murray’s summary: “Baptism signifies union with Christ in virtue of his death and the power of his resurrection, purification from the defilement of sin by the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit, and purification from the guilt of sin by the sprinkling of the blood of Christ. The emphasis must be placed upon union with Christ” (p. 8).

In the second chapter Murray refutes the Baptists’ view that immersion is the only legitimate mode of baptism. The two pillars upon which this baptistic contention rests are (1) that the Greek verb Baptizo means to immerse and (2) that passages like Romans 6:3–6 and Colossians 2:11–12 plainly imply that the death and resurrection of Christ provide us with the pattern for immersion in, and emergence from, the water. After a careful study of crucial passages from Scripture, Murray concludes that the word Baptizo and its cognates do not require immersion as the only legitimate mode. Baptizo is a word which indicates a certain effect but does not require a particular mode to secure this effect. It denotes an action which can be performed by a variety of modes, such as immersion, sprinkling, dipping and pouring.

The other pillar, those passages referring to being buried with Christ, is shown to rest upon an arbitrary selection of one or two texts. The invalidity of the argument is demonstrated from these very texts which seem to give the Baptists support.

Thus Murray contends that the BibIe neither prohibits nor demands immersion as the only proper mode of baptism. Murray simply refutes these two main pillars and does not refer to other arguments and contentions used.

Since Christ has instituted baptism as a sign and seal of union with him. It is also a sign and seal of membership in the Church which consists of those who are united to Christ. To the question of the nature of the church, Murray next directs our attention. Here we face some very perplexing questions, still much alive today. Since the body of Christ is the company or the regenerate, the communion of the saints, it has an invisible aspect known perfectly and infallibly by God alone. At the same time this body of Christ, as defined by Scripture, is also the company or society or assembly or congregation or communion of the faithful, that is, a visible organization. Confession of faith is the criterion by which the church must admit members. Since only God can judge the heart, man’s prerogative as administrator in the church is only to judge in reference to the public profession. This is by divine institution.

Now the difficulty arises that although only a true believer can honestly and truly make such a profession, yet such a profession may be made by one who is not a true believer so that the administrators must allow him to enter (cf. Acts 8:13,20–23). “We are face to face with the anomaly that the visible entity which is called the church may comprise within its membership those who do not really and truly belong to the body of Christ. Even when human vigilance is exercised to the fullest extent of its prerogative people may be admitted to the church, and necessarily admitted as far as human administration is concerned, who do not really belong to the church of Christ” (p. 39). In facing this anomaly Murray insists that we must avoid the two dangers of either lowering the confession to simply an intellectual or historical faith or by defining the church to be something less than the congregatio fidelium, the communio sanctorum. These definitions are scriptural, and we may not revise Scripture to relieve the tension that results. Murray’s solution again shows his unwillingness to speculate beyond Scripture. “For the anomaly in this case is just one way in which the discrepancy between God’s secret and infallible operations, on the one hand, and the way by which He has pleased to administer the means of grace in the world on the other, appears” (p. 45).

The argument for infant baptism is given in the fourth chapter. “The basic premise of the argument is that the New Testament economy is the unfolding and fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham and that the necessary implication is the unity and continuity of the church.” The generic unity and continuity of the church in Old and New Testaments rests upon the basic and underlying unity or the covenant of grace. The church is the covenant people of God in all ages and among all nations. It is readily admitted that in the Old Testament infants were included in the covenant and received circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant. Arguing then from the basic premise of the generic unity of the church, Murray concludes that apart from a specific injunction changing the matter, the sign should continue to be given to the children. This is not found. There is even increased generosity and more abundant scope to the blessings of the New Testament. Baptism bears essentially the same significance as circumcision did of union and communion with God. Since there is not only no revocation of the command to administer the sign of the covenant to the infants, but also positive evidence in its favor, infants must be baptized.

What then is the significance of the baptism of infants? It should have the same significance as the baptism of adults. And this again involves us in perplexing problems similar to those referred to above concerning the church. Circumcision and baptism are signs and seals of the covenant union and communion. But it does not follow that everyone who bears this sign and seal is an actual partaker of the grace signified and sealed. This is true even when the church exercises the necessary diligence. To relieve the tension of this anomaly, we may not redefine the covenant and its blessings nor the significance of the sacrament.

Although Murray admits that the distinction between the external covenant relationship and an internal covenant relationship may not be improper, he insists that we may not say that baptism is the sign only of external covenant privilege and blessing as distinguished from the internal and spiritual blessing dispensed in and through the covenant or grace. Here again the solution to the anomaly rests in “the consideration that there is a discrepancy between the secret operations and purposes of God in his saving grace, on the one hand, and the divinely instituted method of administering the covenant in the world on the other.” In other words the administration of the sign and seal of the covenant must not be conducted in accordance with God’s secret operations and infallible purposes of grace, but in accordance with certain requirements which fallible men may execute and apply.

Upon what ground do we baptize infants’? Murray contends that the only answer is the ground of the divine command. It is not because of presumptive election or presumptive regeneration.” We may make no further judgment respecting the secret purpose of God. “To require any further information than the divine institution would go beyond the warrant of Scripture” (p. 57) . In this way Murray avoids the perplexing pitfall of so much theological discussion. No further question is legitimate. Murray refers to the First Helvetic Confession which sets forth the idea of presumptive election and Charles Hodge who adopts it. Although he does not mention it, this type of question has greatly perplexed Dutch theologians. To one who is averse to non-biblical speculation, Murray’s is certainly “the more excellent way.”

Murray concludes: “In the case of adults we baptize on the basis of an intelligent and credible confession, not on the basis of a judgment to the effect that the person is regenerate and not even on the basis of the judgment that the person is presumptively regenerate. This is the divine ordinance. It is the institution of God that all who make such a confession be baptized, and no further judgment may be posited as the ground of administration. Likewise, in regard to infants, we baptize the infant seed of those who make this confession simply because God has instituted this ordinance. Short of that we must not top. Beyond that we may not go” (p. 58). The case of Ishmael and Esau fit into that pattern of the divine administration of the covenant. God commanded that all males were to be circumcised. And so there was me obligation to obey and to circumcise Ishmael and Esau even though prior revelation had been granted to their parents concerning other matters. This data had nothing to do with the regulation of the administration of the sacrament. Divine institution alone constitutes the ground and that constitutes our obligation to comply.

Consideration is given to what is called the positive evidence for infant baptism. Evidence here which corroborates his position is that of the continued existence and operation of the principle of representation of: solidarity, of corporate relationship, coming to expression in the administration of God’s redemptive and saving grace in the world through baptism and circumcision. “It is the divine institution, not, indeed, commended by human wisdom and not palatable to those who are influenced by the dictates of human wisdom, yet commended by the wisdom of God. It is the seal to us of His marvelous goodness that He is not only a God to His people but also to their seed after them” (p. 71).

Three short chapters conclude the treatise. Chapter five refutes seven objections to infant baptism which are frequently used. Chapter six answers the question as to which parents are eligible to receive baptism for their children. Murray holds that only those who are themselves baptized, have made an intelligent confession of faith as is required for communicant membership, and who obey the Lord’s command to commemorate his dying love in the use of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, are eligible.

The final chapter discusses the efficacy of baptism. It is an important chapter with far reaching implications. A visible element and an observable action are used to signify and seal a spiritual relationship, namely, union with Christ and membership in his body the Church. Obviously the sign and seal should not he identified with what it signifies and seals. It presupposes the existence of what is signified and sealed. Baptism is the sign and seal of a spiritual reality which is conceived of as existing. Where that reality is absent the sign or seal has no efficacy.

Murray goes on to set forth the biblical view in its simplicity and clarity in opposition to all of the confusion added by the inventions of men. Neither does baptism itself bring into existence what it is meant to signify and seal. It does not effect our union with Christ. It is a means of grace not to confer the grace but to signify and confirm grace.

Therefore we cannot determine the efficacy of baptism by our reasoning. In his goodness and wisdom God condescends to our weakness. “He not only unites His people to Christ but He also advertises that great truth by an ordinance which portrays visibly to our senses the reality of this grace. It is a testimony which God has been pleased to give to us so that we may the better understand the high privilege of union with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the purpose of baptism as a sign...As a seal it authenticates, confirms, guarantees the reality and security of this covenant grace. It is not indeed indispensable to the grace sealed; the grace exists prior to the seal and the seal does not produce the grace sealed…God does not need baptism to confirm Himself in His faithfulness. It is additional certification with which He provides us so that we may thereby be confirmed in the faith of His grace. He thereby shows more abundantly the immutability of the covenant relation in order that we may have strong consolation” (p. 87).

Baptism is necessary only because God has commanded it. It has preceptive necessity. Both its meaning and its efficacy are the same for infant and adult. It is “the divine testimony to their union with Christ and the divine certification and authentication of this great truth” (p. 90).

What comfort is to be derived from the fact of one’s baptism? We are to have no mystical or unbiblical ideas about this. Comfort for children and adults is only to be derived from the context of faithfulness. It can be no pledge or guarantee to us except as we are mindful of God’s covenant and embrace its promises and faithfully discharge its obligations. Infant baptism shows us that his grace is from everlasting to everlasting, that his method is not atomistic. “The efficacy of infant baptism principally consists in this that it is to us the certification or seal that God works in accordance with his covenant provision and fulfills his covenant promises. It is, after all, the Lord’s own nurture which infant baptism signifies and seals.”

Professor Murray has made a substantial contribution to a better understanding of the biblical significance of the sacrament of baptism. The reviewer sincerely hopes that the able author will write more extensively on other aspects of Christian baptism as well as on the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. Not only Baptists and Roman Catholics, but also Reformed people will be greatly benefited by such studies.

*This book may be obtained from O.P.C. Committee on Christian Education, 728 Schaff Bldg., 1505 Race St., Phila. 2, Pa.