The Baptist Sacrament

I read Mere Orthodoxy’s “The Case for Baptist Anglicans” with great interest as an Anglican pastor in North Texas where the Baptist faith is the dominant religion. Accompanying Christians who have been catechized as Baptist is a core part of the job which I consider a privilege, having grown up Southern Baptist myself. The ecumenical proposal in the article is for Anglicans to go beyond toleration of credobaptism and incorporate the practice into our canons and future prayer books. Parents who are in for Anglican liturgy but are unconvinced of baptizing their babies or young children would have more than toleration from their Priest: an official sanction written into the canons and the liturgy. The idea is confused, if well-meaning. A lot may be said responding to the course its argument takes through some finer points of theology and liturgics, but the peremptory reason for refusing a “Baptist Option” into Anglican baptismal practice is that doing so would result in the destruction of baptism as we have known it in our Communion, and indeed the sacraments in general.

The unfortunate fact is that Baptist practice covertly supplants baptism (and Holy Communion as well) with another sacrament, unknown to scripture and the Church’s practice: The Public Profession of Faith. Baptists are often unfairly maligned as being anti-sacramental, but in fact they are no strangers to the idea of an outward sign disclosing inward grace—it is only that they locate it in the Public Profession and not the Dominical sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Unlike a confession of belief (such as in Romans 10:9‒10), once universally understood to be the prerequisite in order to participate in the main event of baptism, the Public Profession is something else altogether: a super-sacrament that purports to contain within itself all of the graces that the Church once promised were dispensed by the sacraments of the gospel. Moreover, it even results in a revision of the meaning of grace in order to turn entirely on the internal disposition of the believer, rather than the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Once it is impressed on someone that the Public Profession is all that is required in order to be saved or to participate in the life of the Church, the idea is very difficult to dislodge, and in all fairness, it is not hard to see why. The Public Profession is an efficient rite that requires no participation by the covenant community and sits neatly alongside the low view of physical matter characteristic of our post-modern culture. It harmonizes with today’s scientific vision of the cosmos as a neutral realm of roiling of atoms, only coincidentally associated with one another, and entirely divorced from the “spiritual” realm of the soul. While this picture of the world is not a recent idea (see Democritus) it has lately come to dominate what modern people expect of the material world. How could anything eternal depend upon what is done with the shifting and corruptible matter that we are mired in here below? Whether he has ordered it or not, surely God stands outside and apart from such a place, intervening only in a spontaneous and unpredictable way as befits Divine Freedom. Leaving one’s eternal destiny, even in part, to the use of arbitrary and mutable substances of water or bread would be totemistic and unspiritual, even idolatrous.

These ideas help to clarify why not only Baptists but the full range of independent churches that speckle the American map, have come to understand salvation not as the reward of a life of enduring faithfulness to God, or a Spirit-empowered process of being changed into his image, but as an instantaneous reaction to an individual’s intellectual decision to become a Christian. In this novel sacramental system, faith, belief, repentance, justification, and sanctification are denuded of their rich meanings, relinquish their special roles in the drama of salvation, and collapse into a single, pure act of intellectual assent to the proposition that Jesus Christ is Lord. Once one is internally convinced of this bare fact, everything necessary for the salvation of the sinner is accomplished with the immediacy of flipping on a light-switch. This is often explained as an outworking of the implications of taking seriously the biblical doctrine that Christ accomplished everything necessary for salvation on the Cross, and we can put forward nothing to add or subtract from it. But in practice, it cordons off the interior experience of the individual believer from the insecurities of matter and other people. Other human beings, even those who purport to be the Body of Christ, can have no real role in the destiny of the individual believer, whose inner spirit, after assenting to the propositions of the gospel, enjoys direct and unmediated access to the Divine. That the Church once referred, not to intellectual assent, but to the rite of water Baptism as “illumination”—and required that it be performed by the covenant community, or in an emergency by any other person—can only be regarded as an ancient error once “enlightenment” comes to be understood as an inner, intellectual, and entirely personal experience.

Once kindled by intellectual assent, this new source of enlightenment, an Inner Light, outshines all other sources of connection with God and discloses all things necessary for salvation. Indeed, under the glaring light of immediate internal intellectual illumination there can be no means of grace whatsoever, for how can one speak of words or water, or really any thing at all being the means of sealing and delivering such effulgence? Thus, baptism can no longer be simply understood as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” but a declaration of one already cleansed by the one great Work of the inner assent. Such an inward grace as this demands an outward sign appropriate to it. No mutable material substance, nor word spoken by a minister of the gospel will suffice as an appropriate outward sign to demonstrate it. The internal disposition of the individual is a “grace” that can only be properly disclosed by the believer’s self-report. Hence, the Public Profession of Faith. It is not the word that the minister speaks but the word the believer speaks that is effectual. The traditional elements of Water and Word were for simpler minds of a bygone era, now understood to be practiced only as a theatrical demonstration of a state already enjoyed. The old rite of water baptism may be continued, but only out of respect for Jesus himself who, it must be admitted, had a cryptic penchant for prescribing all sorts of “external” things (fasting, almsgiving) to his disciples, but such must surely go unconsidered when judging their eternal destiny. The many scriptures that appear to militate against this are not to be understood literally. To do so would prescribe a “works-based salvation.” All other signs, whatever their scriptural or historical pedigree, must fall away to make room for the one great Public Profession.

Though this is not what the author intended, the practical effect of trivializing paedobaptism to make way for credobaptism would be to give the Public Profession a permanent place in the sacramental life of our churches, which will in turn ultimately lead to its preeminence over the sacraments of the gospel. This is why credobaptism cannot be squared with Anglican agreement with baptismal regeneration, since it makes the “credo” the essential ingredient, instead of the baptism. It only takes a conversation with a concerned parent to realize that reticence to baptize children does not come from scriptural scruples or a preferred interpretation of historical theology, but from belief in the sacramental efficacy of the Public Profession. It is plain that the age of the child is never at issue, but rather her ability to assent intellectually to the propositions of the gospel and then give verbal evidence of that inner commitment. Taking this path as a normative option, even for a segment of conscientious objectors, all the theology and catechesis in the world will be powerless to convince anyone that the Public Profession is not the only real sacramental act necessary for salvation. This is not because the idea is more persuasive than the Church’s traditional sacramental view, but because the Public Profession lays down the more restrictive standard; and especially in this anxious age of parenting, well, don’t you want to be sure when it comes to your child’s baptism? Subtly but surely, our churches will come to teach by example that the child’s Public Profession is the thing that really counts, if we are party to delaying baptisms for as long as it takes to secure it.

None of this is to suggest that making a public profession of faith ought to be avoided. Indeed, whenever it is possible, we rightly expect as much. For those capable of it, a conscious intention to follow Christ and assent to his Lordship are prerequisites for receiving baptism at all, and asking the baptizand to say so publicly is a commonsense way to disclose this. For those already baptized as children we confidently expect that they will be brought to a place where they will be able to make that confident profession of faith, not only once but many times over the course of their lives as they are called to be witnesses to his saving power. But the confession is not the main thing any more than a verbal agreement may supersede a signed contract. The way I like to explain it is that our public profession of faith is like our engagement to Christ, but our baptism is our wedding day. Like marriage, we then enter a new life lived together in union with God, and by remaining faithful to that covenant, we can be sure of our salvation. Like loving spouses looking back at our lives together, we may cherish the memory of our public profession of faith, but our union with Christ was sealed at our baptism.

Despite all of this, I am proud to have been raised in the Baptist tradition which taught me the foundational truths of forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, the inspiration of scripture, the centrality of mission, and the reality of God. None of the above is to suggest that those with Baptist sympathies ought to be marginalized or reduced to second-class membership in any of our churches. Good pastors must recognize that each of us are on a journey to understanding the fullness of the faith and each of us are in different places depending upon our backgrounds. Individual believers’ consciences must be respected, and in any case parental cooperation is essential to the baptism of any infant or young child no matter what their background. But this is a far cry from willingly ingesting an alien sacramental system into our liturgy and teaching. If we want to maintain—not only on paper, but in practice—that the Dominical Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion are those sure and certain witnesses and effectual signs of God’s work in us that our Articles say they are, then we must never risk giving the false impression that the only thing that counts is a speech that we are capable of delivering, rather than what God imparts to us by water and word and bread and wine. We must always follow our Lord’s command to make disciples in no other way than by baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Alexander Wilgus

Fr. Alexander Wilgus is the Rector at Redemption Anglican Church in Frisco, TX. He is creator of the Word & Table podcast and Director of Saint Paul’s House of Formation online catechesis program. Fr. Wilgus is married to Lauren and father to four children: Owen, Bryan, Abraham, and Mae.

'The Baptist Sacrament' have 7 comments

  1. March 27, 2024 @ 10:26 am Sudduth Rea Cummings

    Good article. While I was baptized as an infant in a Presbyterian Church, through poor theology, I was baptized again at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Carrollton, MO, my hometown. That should not have been done, but then, the pastor elected not to immerse my older brother who was always tall and reached 6’11” but poured water from the filled baptismal tank on his head. Since I was ordained in 1971, I’ve baptized a few adults, innumerable babies, and once even in a brass tub provided by the parents, and once in a Texas Hill Country creek. Only one time did I ever re-baptize someone who was a college student and who doubted the legitimacy of her first baptism. That was during the brief time I served as a diocesan appointed college chaplain attached to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Edmond, OK.


  2. March 27, 2024 @ 10:30 am Jonah M. Saller

    Simply excellent, Father.
    Thank you for stating the thoughts of many so succinctly.


  3. March 29, 2024 @ 2:12 pm PWH

    Thank you for the very good article. I was raised in a Baptist tradition. My parents, still working out their own theology and probably preferring to cover all the bases, had me baptized as an infant at Corona Presbyterian in Denver, Colorado, but they then followed it up with a baptism upon my public profession of faith when I was eight, at First Baptist of Richmondale, Ohio. I never knew about the infant baptism until I found the baptismal certificate about 40 years later. Clearly it was efficacious, because I recall making professions of faith (which apparently my parents did not think I was old enough to understand properly) long before my eighth birthday, and praying, and experiencing God\’s answers to prayer all during my early childhood.


  4. April 2, 2024 @ 3:05 pm Evan S

    This is a fine piece and helpful. As a (soft) credobaptist layman in the ACNA, I agree with Mr. Joss that the Articles and Scripture place no impediment to a layperson being confirmed, received, or appointed to lay leadership roles in the church who disputes the doctrine of paedobaptism, provided he is willing to live irenically with his fellow church members who disagree and that he agrees not to teach publicly anything contrary to his pastor and recognize that paedobaptism is the church’s normative practice. (One reason I describe my credobaptism as “soft” is that I accept the validity of baptisms of infants and of baptism by sprinkling and do not believe they need to be rebaptized either as adults or by immersion.) I also agree with Fr. Wilgus that we cannot sustain a church in which clergy have differing convictions and practices. It’s not just the need to find alternative clergy when a baby is brought for baptism in a church led by a credobaptist priest; it’s also the question of the administration of the Lord’s Table to individuals present in a congregation whom a priest may not believe were baptized licitly or who are still young and have not publicly professed faith in the time since their infant baptism. My rector is a model of teaching the normative doctrine and practice while making space for laypeople who disagree to be part of our church. We can share the church peacefully together, but we cannot go so far as to accommodate dual-practice baptism in our canons or among our clergy.


    • April 11, 2024 @ 4:05 pm Joshua Perkins

      Evan, I’m curious—if you believe that infant baptism is valid, in what way do you still consider yourself to be a credobaptist?


  5. April 2, 2024 @ 8:34 pm Sudduth Rea Cummings

    Since I grew up in a denomination where “believers’ baptism” was the rule, I was glad to enter the Anglican tradition which allowed for infant baptism as well. Looking at church history as well as the entire Biblical record, I don’t think that any mode of baptism should be made normative or prohibited, except maybe the reported practice of some clergy sprinkling a few drops of water from a rosebud! Ugh! Water baptism in the name of the Trinity is the basic requirement. (Even though the Disciples of Christ began in 19th century America as requiring adult baptism by immersion, by older brother who was 6’11’ tall was baptized in the walk-in baptistry of our local church by the pastor pouring water over his head! )


  6. April 5, 2024 @ 1:33 am Petros

    There are many baptists pastors who would push back on the notion that being saved is reduced to a cognitive act of the will of simply affirming certain prepositional truths. They see faith itself as a gift of God involving the whole person in trusting in Christ. These baptists are not fans of the so called “sinners prayer” approach to conversion. The profession of faith is not what saves but the possession of faith that saves. I am not trying to be an apologist for them, for there is a disconnect with the sacraments as the article points out, which is one of their major flaws. But I do want to avoid generalized broadbrushing here. Just as Anglicans are far from being monolithic so the Baptist. Matter of fact they are more diverse since they have don’t have any formularies like we do.


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican