Mark Dever, Regenerate Babies, and Gospel Protectors

So Mark Dever recently said a little something at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He went hard in the paint on the Paedobaptist brethren. He went to dunking on them in the style of a Southern Baptist Lebron James. After descending from the rim, he even extended the right hand to them, lifting them from the floor with an altar call invitation by which the Reformed Paedobaptists of the world could come down and enter the baptismal waters for the first time.

Many of you know that I stumbled my way from the Second London Baptist Confession to
the Westminster a little while back. And while that journey has its bumps, it is nice to discover that one can go through the whole Shabang without ever leaving London. One of the benefits to this particular trip is that you really do know what is happening over there in Baptistville. And it also makes one appreciate how someone like Dever is working out his theological system. I loved Baptists when I was a Baptist. And in the weirdest and most delightful way, I love them even more now that I baptize infants.

Now Mark said a number of things so there are multiple toppings on this slice of pie. I would like to isolate two of them and offer some commentary. Before doing so, I should note that I count Mark a friendly acquaintance. Over the years of my ministry, I have learned things from him. I have made a couple of trips to Capitol Hill Baptist Church over the years. I enjoyed one of those weekenders back in the day. Now Mark’s practice at Capitol Hill is to not baptize until the age of eighteen.* I never agreed with that practice. But Mark preaches the gospel and for that I am grateful. All that to say, my commentary here is the friendly kind with a brotherly kick in the pants at the end. I got quite tickled watching Mark go full Baptist. I’m summarizing here, but you should watch and enjoy lines like, “Paedobaptists I love you, you are welcome in our pulpits. You are smarter than us, but I get quite tired of being condescended to on this regenerate church membership point.” So Dever’s vent at SEBTS is worth a good laugh in my opinion and there are a couple of important points in there to boot.

First, we should say something about regenerate little ones and regenerate church membership. A very dicey topic indeed. So I would just remind you that I didn’t bring it up. Mark did. In the second position, I’d like to consider Mark’s claim, a widespread Baptist claim— indeed a hallmark Baptist claim—that we must get rid of infant Baptism if we would protect the gospel.

Little Regenerate Babes

The topic of regenerate church membership came up. And Mark made the point that he, as a Baptist mind you, is cozied up right there next to Rome and the East on the matter. Yes, I am having a bit of fun with that last sentence. But Mark is making what appears to be a solid point: “You Reformed Paedobaptists claim that the church includes regenerate and unregenerate. But the Baptists along with Rome and the East maintain a regenerate church membership.” Mark jumps up and down on this point, saying that the Reformed Paedobaptists are the weird ones in the room claiming a church full of unregenerate people.

His statement brings up the question about the relationship between regeneration and the little Christian babes who Paedobaptists of course baptize and acknowledge as members of the visible church (WCF 25.2). If a Paedobaptist were to stand up and say, “Now, Dever, we’re not that strange. Historically, the Reformed Paedobaptists generally believe in a regenerate church,” he is locked and loaded with his next question, “Oh, so do you think those little infants you baptize are regenerate?” And now we have a controversy on our hands. I understand that in our current climate, one can get in trouble for even putting the word “regenerate” and “infant” in the same sentence. But, I repeat: Mark brought this up. And I am simply going to point to the well-beloved and trusted Geerhardus Vos who might shed a bit of light into our times which are in great need of that particular substance.

Vos himself writes, “Another point of difference concerns the time when the promises of the covenant are usually realized by regeneration in the children of the covenant. Three schools of thought can be identified: the first school (including Ursinus, Polanus, Junius, Walaeus, Cloppenburg, Voetius, and Witsius) not only assumes that the children of the covenant who die before they reach the age of discretion, possess the Holy Spirit from their earliest childhood and so are born again and united to Christ, but also maintains this thesis as generally valid for the seed of the promise without distinction. They use it as an argument in defense of infant baptism in their polemics with the Anabaptists.”

Then Vos delivers several quotes, many of which follow.

Reformed Paedobaptists Respond

Polanus, the 16th century German Reformed theologian, wrote that the children of believers must be baptized “because they have been purchased by the blood of Christ, have been washed from their sins, and possess therefore by the work of the Holy Spirit the thing signified.… Because the Holy Spirit is promised to them, they possess the Holy Spirit” (Syntagma, VI, 55).

Antonius Walaeus, the 16th century Dutch Calvinist minister wrote, “we require with the Scriptures antecedent faith and repentance in the one who is baptized, at least according to the judgment of love, both in the infant children of covenant members, and in adults. For we maintain that in infants too the presence of the seed and the Spirit of faith and conversion is to be ascertained on the basis of divine blessing and the evangelical covenant.”

The 16th century Italian Reformed theologian Peter Martyr Vermigli wrote, “because we must not curiously investigate the hidden providence and election of God, we assume that the children of believers are holy, as long as in growing up they do not demonstrate themselves to be estranged from Christ. We do not exclude them from the church, but accept them as members, with the hope that they are partakers of the divine election and have the grace and Spirit of Christ, even as they are the seed of saints. On that basis we baptize them. We do not need to respond to those who object and ask whether the minister is deceived, whether perhaps the infant is in truth no child of the promise, of divine election and mercy. Similar diatribes could be adduced with regard to adults.” (Loci Communes, IV, 8, 7).

Ursinus, the 16th century Reformed German theologian wrote, “This is sure and certain, that God instituted his sacraments and covenant seals only for those who recognize and maintain the church as already made up of parties of the covenant, and that it is not His intention to make them Christians by the sacraments first, but rather to make those who are already Christians to be Christians more and more and to confirm the work begun in them.… 

Hence, if anyone considers the children of Christians to be pagans and non-Christians, and damns all those infants who cannot come to be baptized, let him take care on what ground he does so, because Paul calls them holy (1 Cor. 7), and God says to all believers in the person of Abraham that He will be their God and the God of their seed.… Next let him consider how he will permit them to be baptized with a good conscience, for knowingly to baptize a pagan and unbeliever is an open abuse and desecration of baptism. Our continual answer to the Anabaptists, when they appeal to the lack of faith in infants against infant baptism, is that the Holy Spirit works regeneration and the inclination to faith and obedience to God in them in a manner appropriate to their age, always with it understood that we leave the free mercy and heavenly election unbound and unpenetrated.”

Then there is Junius, the 16th century Reformed theologian who studied in Geneva under Calvin: “We call it false to argue that infants are completely incapable of faith; if they have faith in the principle of the habitus, they have the Spirit of faith.… Regeneration is viewed from two aspects, as it is in its foundation, in Christ, in principle, and as it is active in us. The former (which can also be called transplanting from the first to the second Adam) is the root, from which the latter arises as its fruit. By the former elect infants are born again, when they are incorporated into Christ, and its sealing occurs in baptism” (Theses Theologicae, LI, 7).

Voetius, the 16th century Dutch Calvnist, wrote, “The seventh opinion is the general point of view of Reformed teachers, in which regeneration is acknowledged in each of the children of the covenant in particular, namely those who are elect, whether they die in infancy or are brought to faith when growing up, etc.” (Selectarum Disputationum, II, 410–412)

Each of these men would obviously raise an objection to Dever’s comments at Southeastern Seminary. And it would be fun to watch how things unfolded from there. Their objection would run along the lines of, “Mark, you have us wrong on the unregenerate church thing.” Now, Mark’s fellow Baptists on stage were already slightly uncomfortable with Mark saying that they were all closer to Rome and the East on this subject than the Reformed Paedobaptists. So if someone of the likes of Polanus stood up and said, “Mark, you know, we’re really all together on this. You, us, Rome, and the East,” I can’t tell you what would happen. But I, my friend, would pay for admission. 

I know that I have not answered all of the questions one might ask about a regenerate church and infant baptism. This was merely a little resourcement exercise, demonstrating that Mark left a large swath of Reformed Paedobaptists out when he dropped the proverbial hammer at Southeastern. 

Gospel Protectors

Mark pivoted from his regenerate church membership comments to ones about protecting the gospel, making the widely held Baptist claim that you must be done with infant baptism if you want to protect the gospel. 

Much could be said, but I only have time for a brief word here. If Mark is right that God has not brought the Christian’s children into covenant with Himself, then he has a point. If they are no different than a pagan when it comes to the covenant of grace and church membership, then his logic holds up. On the other hand, if God has brought the Christian’s children into covenant with Himself, then Mark’s point gets turned around on him. Surely what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Before noting the gospel-protecting power of Paedobaptism, let me say that there is such a thing as protecting the gospel in the wrong way. Some seem to try to protect the gospel, forgetting that it is the gospel that protects them. They glory in their administration of the sacraments more than the sacraments. And what Spurgeon said of the Scripture applies just the same to the gospel, “Scripture is like a lion. Who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose; it will defend itself.”

With that qualification in mind, I would turn around Mark’s gospel-protecting statement. If God has said, “I will be God to you and your children after you in their generations” (Genesis 17:7), and if God has said, “Believe on the Lord and you will be saved and your house” (Acts 16:31), and if God has said that His elect are, “the seed of the blessed of the Lord and their offspring with them” (Isaiah 65:23), then, you are simply fumbling things like the disciples, stiff-arming the children so they can’t get to the Lord Jesus. He has given them access, but you stand in the way. Christ has a body and welcomes them to it. But you will not let them be a part of His body. He gives them cleansing water. But you will not allow them to be washed. He gives them bread and wine. But you won’t let them be nourished. He gives them a house, His very own temple, but you insist that they stay out in the court of the Gentiles until their papers of credible profession are in order. Christ gives them the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the mother of us all (Galatians 4:26). But you won’t let the little babes who have the Holy Spirit, according to the testimony of the Reformed tradition, be nurtured by their mother. 

Knock, and the Lord will answer when you are eighteen is not a strategy for the church militant.


* Post-publish clarification: Someone has brought to my attention that this is the general practice, but exceptions are made. For those interested see: The Baptism of Children at Capitol Hill Baptist Church