After covering the differences between Protestants and Catholics I have been asked to explore why we are Baptists and not another denomination like Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. Many would first think about our belief and practice of baptism as being the main difference. It is true that all baptistic churches practice baptism by immersion (being fully dipped under water) of believers as opposed to the sprinkling/pouring of infants. While baptism is an important issue, our practice of baptism stems from a deeper and more foundational issue.
The central issue which separates Baptists from other denominations is their view of the New Covenant. More specifically, the difference lies in who we believe is in the New Covenant community (who is in the Church). The differences in how we practice baptism come from the theological foundation of how we view the Church. Baptists see the New Covenant as being vastly different than the Old Covenant. We see newness in the New Covenant which allows only those who have been born again (believers) to be a part of it.
In a later post, we will examine some texts and how they relate specifically to believer’s baptism, but today’s post will explore the newness we have in the New Covenant and how this view differs from what other denominations believe.
So what is the difference in how Baptists view the composition of the Church and how Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. view the Church? The difference is simple yet profound: we believe that the Church consists only of those who have been born-again, regenerated, that is those who possess true, saving faith. That is to say, we believe that the Church is only made up of believers.
Churches like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans believe the church is made up of both those who believe and those who do not believe (infants of believing families). The majority of Protestant Denominations believe that the Church, like Israel was, is made up of both those who believe and those who do not believe. To an extent, they believe that you can be physically born into the New Covenant when you are born to believing parents much like Jews were physically born into the Old Covenant. They would be quick to add that infants are not full members of the New Covenant until they have saving faith, but they are still members of the New Covenant.
For all Christians, baptism symbolizes someone’s entrance into the New Covenant. Those who practice infant baptism see a strong connection between the Old Covenant initiation rite of circumcision and the New Covenant rite of baptism. Because circumcision was done to infants of Covenant members, they argue, so should baptism be done to those children born to parents of the Church. The problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores what Scripture says about the newness of the New Covenant.
For us, Israel and the Church are fundamentally different entities. Israel was an ethnic community; the Church is not ethnic. To be born into the Abrahamic Covenant was a physical birth, but to enter the New Covenant one needs to be born again of God. Entrance into the Church is not about who your earthly parents are; rather, it is about Spiritual rebirth.
To put it another way, you cannot enter the New Covenant by physical birth, but only through spiritual birth. The Church is not an ethnic community, and it is not a nation. Also, the New Covenant is based on spiritual birth. For this reason, Jesus calls us to be “born again” from above (John 3:1-15). This is the vey point that many Jews did not get in New Testament times: the New Covenant was not based on ethnicity (Eph. 2:11-3:6), but solely on the grace of God as he grants new life.
This difference between the Old and New Covenants is displayed well in Jeremiah 31:31-34. In this passage we read of the coming if the New Covenant and how it is fundamentally different from what has occurred up to that point in redemptive history. Jeremiah 31 shows us that the New Covenant is fundamentally better than the Old Covenant because it is the fulfillment of it:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
We see in these verses that the New Covenant will not be “like” the old one (vs. 32). This is something new. So how is it different? I see no fewer than four differences. First, God will write his law on all the hearts of those who are in the New Covenant (vs. 33). In the Old Covenant the law was written externally on tablets of stones, in the New Covenant it is written on our hearts. In other words, every member of the Church is given a new heart; that is we are regenerated. Infants do not have faith and are not yet regenerated.
Second, everyone in the New Covenant will belong to God, not just some of them (vs. 33). In the Old Testament some Israelites were unfaithful while others remained faithful. God always had a remnant. Not so in the New Covenant, everyone who is in that Covenant will belong to God fully.
Third, everyone in the New Covenant will know God personally (vs. 34). There were many unfaithful and rebellious people in Israel who did not know God at all, but there will not be anyone in the New Covenant who does not know God.
Fourth, everyone in the New Covenant is forgiven of their sins to the extent that God will not remember their sin ever again. That is to say that everyone in the Church has been saved by the blood of Christ. Their sin is no more. They are totally forgiven (vs 34). This is completely different from the Old Covenant. Some in Israel never had their sinned atoned for. Some were never forgiven.
According to Jeremiah 31, there are no partial members of the New Covenant. The Church is made up of those who are born-again, those who have personal faith, and those who have been eternally forgiven.
This passage clearly shows us that only believers, those born-again of the Holy Spirit, are found in the Church. We cannot baptize someone into the New Covenant who does not have God’s law written on their heart, who does not already belong to God, who has not been born-again, who is not forgiven, and who does not know God. The Church is not made up of believers and non-believers. The Church is only for those who have saving faith. For this reason, we do not baptize infants. They have not yet been born-again. They do not know God through saving faith. They are not members of the New Covenant. We hope and pray that one day they will repent and be baptized and thus join the New Covenant; but until that time, they are not members of the Church. This of course does not mean unbelievers cannot come to church, but they are not to be members because they are not partakers of the New Covenant until they repent and believe.
Baptism represents a spiritual reality, entrance into the Kingdom of God, and since infants cannot have faith, they cannot be members of the New Covenant. Since infants are not members of the New Covenant, they cannot receive the rite of baptism which represents entrance into that covenant. Only God can grant that entrance into the New Covenant by causing someone to be born again. The New Covenant is fundamentally different and better than the Old Covenant because everyone in the Church knows God in a saving way and bears the mark of his saving, regenerating work. The difference between Baptists and other denominations is based primarily on how we view the Church as a spiritual entity of those who have been bought and purchased by the blood of Christ.