Today’s great priority for missionary labor in Italy

200286501-001In the sixteenth century, various Reformers and many Protestants suddenly found themselves without a true church. If we consider the influence of Roman Catholicism in the life of people and of communities, it is easy to see that after the decline of the hope for reform from within the church, many believers felt like exiles of the dispersion in Babylon (I Peter 1:1, 5:13), as Daniel and his friends felt after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Many Christians lived like foreigners and strangers in their own country, longing for the pure spiritual milk and for the communion of the saints. Suddenly, many realized that Europe was a mission field, because as they looked for true churches as close as possible there were very few possibilities.

Among these exiles of the dispersion looking for an asylum, there was the Florentine Peter Martyr Vermigli. In a letter on “flight in persecution,” Vermigli thinks about how many and what kind of churches one could find in Italy, France, and Belgium and makes a sad comment: “I do not see how I can concede that visible churches have been set up in those regions, founded on good regulations, in which the pure teaching of Christ is proclaimed, the sacraments rightly administered, and some form of discipline is in place” (“Letter No. 5, On Flight in Persecution,” The Peter Martyr Library, V, p. 85). And responding to those whom accused him unjustly of having fled from Italy, he adds: “We may say more correctly that those who flee from there are joining themselves to the churches rather than leaving them. Those who flee for the sake of religion usually go to a place where there are daily sacred sermons, where the sacraments are rightly administered at given times, where God is praised by the faithful gathered together, where good pastors have been assigned, where they can have lawful and organized dealing with the other faithful” (Ibid.).

As he looked to the spiritual condition of sixteenth century Europe, this was the great priority for Vermigli: true churches were needed which believers could join. What do you think today’s great priority for missionary labors in Italy is?

~ Pastor Andrea Ferrari

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Vermigli on the Two Parts of Scripture: the Law and the Gospel

PMVThe Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) said that “Whatsoever things are contained in the holy Scriptures should be referred unto two principal heads, the law and the gospel.” (Commentary on the book of Judges, London, 1564, p.1)

In a sermon delivered to theological students at the University of Oxford, Vermigli explained that the two tables of the law make us “shrink in utter terror from transgressing even the least of his commandments” (“Life, Letters, and Sermons”, The Peter Martyr Library, V, p. 302). In fact, our human condition before God is lived out before what his law requires of us. And this is our problem because in Adam, as it pertains the law, we are guilty and corrupt.

This is the reason why divine services in Reformed churches usually include the reading of the law, so that we shrink in utter terror from transgressing even the least of the commandments. Therefore, the law shows us the greatness of our sin and our misery. And that’s why – again in the words of Vermigli – “those who are strangers to Christ and do not believe, can do nothing to please God” (“Predestination and Justification”, The Peter Martyr Library, V, p. 171).

However, if on the one hand the law shows us our sin, on the other hand, the gospel shows us our forgiveness and justification. Again, that’s why in our divine services after the reading of the law and the confession of sin we have the announcement of the promise of the gospel. First of all, the gospel shows us that Christ gives forgiveness to sinners because he bore their iniquities, so that it is as if they never transgressed any of the commandments. But this is not all and there is something even more wonderful: the most perfect obedience of Christ to the law becomes ours, so that it is as if we always fully obeyed the law!

These observations help us understand why Vermigli insists, “that gospel should be distinguished from law and law from gospel” (“Predestination and Justification”, p. 114). This is our faith and that in which we glory ourselves: Christ’s merit, for “eternal life is the reward of such righteousness” (“Predestination and Justification”, p. 150).

~ Pastor Andrea Ferrari

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What the Church in Italy Needs is Something Ordinary

Perugia agriturismoNowadays, ordinary is a bad word. In a culture that is constantly looking for the next big thing, who wants what is ordinary? We want the spectacular. We want what is bigger, better, and exciting. We desire extraordinary gadgets, extraordinary kids, and extraordinary lives. To feel validated as a person, one must not settle for what is ordinary.

Our approach to church is not much different. In a world that values novelty, innovation, and relevance, the expectation is for pastors to appear hip, worship to feel amazing, and teaching to be useful for our most recent news feed of felt needs. We don’t want ordinary ministers of ordinary churches, but bigger-than-life celebrities who lead transformational movements that are in a rush to make a radical impact on our lives. We want churches that are worthy of our personal quest for the spectacular. We want churches that are worthy of us.

In such an age as ours, why should we bother planting churches that are committed to the ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament? Such an endeavor seems backwards and counterintuitive. Yet this is precisely what the Head of the church has called us to do. Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus gave us our marching orders:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18–20)

The goal of the church’s mission is to make disciples. The means of the church’s mission is the ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament in the local church.

This becomes clear when we consider how the Apostles sought to fulfill the Great Commission. After receiving the power of the Spirit (Acts 2:1–4), they preached the gospel (vv. 14–36), baptized people (vv. 37–41), and began meeting weekly with those who “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v. 42). Not long after receiving their commission, they planted a church.

The whole book of Acts goes on to document this pattern of planting churches that were committed to the ordinary means of grace, following Jesus’ prophecy that the Apostles would be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8). The Apostles went throughout the world preaching the gospel, baptizing believers and their households, and planting congregations where they appointed elders to oversee the new disciples (14:21–23). This work continued in the transition from the Apostles to ordinary ministers (1 and 2 Timothy; Titus), and remains to this very day (Eph. 4:1–16).

The necessity of the local church for the making of disciples can hardly be overemphasized. This is our Lord’s chosen means for gathering His redeemed people, feeding them with His Word, receiving their worship, nurturing their faith, and bonding them as a community rooted and established in love (Rom. 12; Eph. 4; Phil. 1:27–2:11). The local church is a manifestation of the people who belong to Christ, and also the place where He meets them through the means He has ordained: an ordinary ministry of Word, water, bread, and wine.

Those means do not appear spectacular to the world. There is nothing particularly exciting or novel about a ministry of preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. It is the same routine each week. We hear the Scriptures proclaimed, we come to the table, we sing, we pray, we enjoy fellowship, and then we go home. There are no halftime shows, no rock concerts, and no celebrity personalities. It is plain, ordinary, and even boring at times. Truth be told, it is about as exciting as watching a tree grow.

But then Jesus said that the coming of His kingdom is like the growing of a tree (Luke 13:18–19). A tree doesn’t grow by big and marvelous events but through the slow, steady diet of sun and rain year after year. The same is true with the kingdom of God. More often than not, it does not grow by what the world considers a mark of success: big buildings, big budgets, and big names. Instead, it grows in simple and often small services where the gospel is proclaimed. It grows where believers and their children are baptized into the covenant community. It grows where repentant sinners come to a holy meal that appears tiny and insignificant. It grows where ordinary members of a congregation love and serve one another. It grows in those late-night, unglamorous meetings of the elders as they seek to tend faithfully to Christ’s sheep.

We do not need more movements, more conferences, and more celebrities. We do not need the next big thing. What we need are more churches committed to the way disciples have been made since the Apostles planted a church in Jerusalem two thousand years ago: the slow-going, unspectacular, ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament, where God is raising dead sinners and creating a living communion of saints.

By God’s power and grace, we are growing together into a tree whose glory will not appear fully until the end of the age. Until then, the extraordinary is God’s business. Our task is to be faithful to fulfill the ministry Christ gave us, as ordinary as it is.

By Michael Brown, published in Tabletalk Magazine

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Does Italy need a new denomination of Christian churches?

Does Italy need a new denomination of churches? According to the standards of the Protestant Reformation, the answer is “Si!” Article 29 of the Belgic Confession (1561) points out what Scripture teaches regarding the marks of a true church:

“The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if discipline is exercised in punishing sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowleged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.”

The sad reality, however, is that churches bearing these marks are very hard to come by in Italy. Few places preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments faithfully, and exercise church discipline according to the Word of God. Although the Protestant Reformation initially gained footing in the sixteenth century, it was subsequently crushed by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Consequently, Italy has not had a strong Reformed and Protestant presence in the past 450 years.

Today in Italy, Roman Catholic churches dot the horizon throughout the country. Huge cathedrals (such as Milan’s Duomo pictured above) attract thousands of tourists every day of the year. Yet, not on one day of the year is the Gospel of God’s salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone proclaimed. They stand only as a tribute to Rome’s abandonment of the good news. Tragically, no confessional Reformed denominations exist in Italy today.

A small handful of people, however, are working to change that. Rev. Andrea Ferrari, URCNA minister and pastor of Chiesa Evangelica Riformata ‘Filadelfia’ (CERF) in Milan, is laboring under the oversight of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA to establish confessional Reformed churches in his native country. Le Chiese Riformate in Italia (The Reformed Churches in Italy) is the suggested name at this time of this future denomination. We pray that Christ, the only Head of the Church, will raise up faithful men and women within Italy to labor in this difficult in work of planting true and solid churches.

We remember Paul’s words to the Romans that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. The cathedral downtown may attract thousands of tourists and visitors every day of the year, but not on one of those days is the gospel preached. On the outskirts of town, however, it is being proclaimed each week. And as long as the gospel is preached, Christ’s church will be established and not even the gates of hell shall prevail against it.

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Why is the Heidelberg Catechism important for the church in Italy?

The Heidelberg Catechism explains the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed line by line. Pastor Andrea Ferrari explains why this is important for the Christians in Italy.

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The Divine Irony: Reflections of an Ulsterman in Milan

Patterson FamilyWritten by Mark Patterson

Romanticism or realism? Growing Christian character in Italy. When we think of Italy we invariably think of its illustrious history. From the glory days of the Roman Empire to the Italian Renaissance we could be fooled into thinking that Italy is a romantic mission field. Every little town has a “Via Alighieri Dante” or a “Via Leonardo da Vinci”. All the major cities, from Rome to Florence to Verona to Milan have Renaissance culture imprinted on them. However, Italy is no place for a Christian romantic! This land needs realists, men and woman who are prepared to role up their sleeves and earth their theology in the harsh reality of this valley of tears.

As I wrote in my first article, during my teenage years I was a punk. I hated everything about the “new romantic” fashion scene of the 1980’s. It was all hairspray, makeup and falseness. Punk was direct, raw and offensive to most but at least it was honest. When I surrendered to Christ I maintained that direct, honest approach. At first I saw the visible church as a bunch of “new romantics” and felt so out of place. Then I read about Donald Cargill (“No King but Christ!”), who was a Reformed Minister and Scottish Covenanter. Here was a Christian who lived out his theology. He opposed the newly installed King Charles II after the King renounced in 1662 the Solemn League and Covenant, which he formerly promised to uphold twelve years prior in 1650. (Treaty of Breda) Over the next two decades Cargill was a fugitive but preached on, eventually being arrested and hung in 1681. This type of Christianity appealed to me. Men whose devotion to their God meant more to them than their lives. I then discovered as I read more of the Bible and Church history that Cargill was no exception. On the contrary, he was walking in a great tradition that sought to be God pleasers.

Since coming into membership of CERF I have come to appreciate more the Continental Reformed believers, who 100 hundred years before Cargill had that the same spirit. Guido de Brès (1522-1567), for example, the presumed author of the Belgic Confession, heroically died as Cargill in 1567 as did tens of thousands in the area we now know as Europe. How did they resist? What kept them brave? The answer must be they had a mind and heart grasp of divine truth. Truth grounded in reality. It cannot be a coincidence that for so many who resisted persecution unto death were confessional. They had a summary of saving knowledge that was “earthed” in daily living.[1]

There’s nothing romantic about dying. Those centuries, the 16th more than the 17th, were bloody periods and to be a Christian then meant having a practical theology that could withstand all the powers of hell. History records that Elector Fredrick III in the mid 1560’s wanted to make Heidelberg a safe haven for Reformed believers who were then suffering all over the region. It’s hardly surprising then that the catechism he commissioned has as its first question how to possess comfort not only in living but also in dying. Reformed theology is supposed to be a practical theology that produces real men and women, real boys and girls who wear no masks. This is the type of person Italy needs. A person willing to be disliked for the glory of God. A person who will refuse to compromise the principles of gospel-cantered worship and insist there is right way and a wrong way to worship God. A person who will put their roots down into Italian soil and be prepared to get their hands dirty fighting against false religion and the obvious secularism that pervades everywhere these days.

So please, put to death any romantic view you may have of Italy! It is a very needy mission field, not for the faint hearted. It is a place to come and live out your theology in real time, worshipping God as His Word prescribes. View it as a place to come to, serve Christ and His Church, to search for the lost and grow Christian character.

I heard it said years ago that the LORD is more interested in your character than in the work you will ever do for Him. Romans 5:4 confirms this. After telling us that we have been justified by faith and have peace with God through Christ alone, Paul goes on to pin point the one thing every Christian must expect in life, namely ‘tribulation’. He says the same to Timothy in his farewell letter. “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” (2 Tim. 3:12) However, tribulation is allowed in order to produce in the believer “proven character” which leads to hope, which “… does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Christian hope is a precious commodity. It is obtained via a process. It is gained by living the ordinary Christian life by embracing the circumstances the LORD has placed you in and worshipping Him regardless.

Italy is great place to help grow Christian character. It is teaching this Ulsterman the true meaning of the expression “leaning on the LORD”. Rev. William Still often used that expression when replying to the question, “How are you?” At times he would modify it replying, “leaning very hard on the LORD”. May the LORD help you too, to lean on Him continually in whatever circumstances you may be in.

For now, I remain an Ulsterman in Milan.


[1] Cf. Geerhardus Vos. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation. The Shorter Writings of G. Vos. P & R Publishing. 2001. p. 10 “The knowledge of God communicated by [revelation] is nowhere for a purely intellectual purpose. From beginning to end it is a knowledge intended to enter into the actual life of man, to be worked out by him in all its practical bearings.” From “The idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline.” May 8th 1894.


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Reformed Family Reunion

reunionWritten By Dan Borvan

Ephesians 4:4-6 (ESV)“There is one body and one Spirit . . . one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” 

My wife and I recently visited Chiesa Evangelica Riformata Filadelfia while on vacation in Italy. We planned our trip to include a Sunday in Milan so that we had the opportunity to worship with Rev. Ferrari and his congregation. What we encountered there was unexpected.

I come from a small family. In fact, the majority of my extended family lives on the same street in a Chicago suburb. Needless to say, we never held an official family reunion. There was no reason – we saw each other multiple times per week. As a kid, I was curious about people who traveled across the country to attend family reunions with dozens of guests, hours of stories, and lots of potato salad. Sometimes, they even printed t-shirts to commemorate the occasion. I could not imagine taking a trip to meet aunts, uncles, and cousins that I had never met. I never understood how people who had never met could feel an instant connection just because they were part of the same family tree. What kind of bond can you have with people you don’t really know?

These many years later, I have had opportunities to visit dozens of Reformed churches in North America and the U.K. In every case, I have sensed a connection to people I had just met – my brothers and sisters in Christ. The bond of the Holy Spirit unites us, and we fellowship not as complete strangers but as members of the same family. We share the same beliefs, speak the same theological language, and possess the same spiritual lineage.

I did not know what to expect in our visit to CERF. I had met Rev. Ferrari briefly a few years ago and we share a few mutual friends, but I had never worshiped in an Italian-speaking congregation. I had a few questions before we arrived: Will I have any idea what is happening in the service? Will anyone speak English? Will my wife and I be out of place – sitting when everyone is standing, standing when everyone is sitting, wandering aimlessly not knowing where to go?

All my anxieties dissipated when Rev. Ferrari picked up my wife and me from the Metro station.
He speaks perfect English and is very gracious and kind. He introduced us to members of his congregation, many of whom speak English fluently. They offered us a warm welcome. Those who did not speak English instantly recognized my Americanisms and said, “HELLO!” while I sputtered “Buongiorno” in my Chicago accent. Despite the language barrier, a genuine connection was made. We recognized that we shared the same bond even if we could not communicate it.

Rev. Ferrari introduced my wife and me to Mark and Sonia Patterson, who served as our CERF ambassadors for the day. Mark, as you know from his Ulsterman in Milan posts, is from Northern Ireland. Sonia is a native Italian who studied in the U.K. My wife and I talked with Mark and Sonia for hours over the course of the day. Mark professed thankfulness for the opportunity to discuss theology with a native English-speaker. He, Rev. Ferrari, and I “talked shop” over coffee. Our common Reformed heritage eliminated any introductory formalities and allowed us to speak as if we had known one another for years. We share the same Reformed pedigree, use the same inside lingo, and value the same truths. I felt like I was chatting with guys from my presbytery.

Rev. Ferrari and Mark provided us with sermon notes in English. More than just an outline, the three pages of notes allowed us to follow the message closely. The language was different, but the redemptive-historical approach and clear law/gospel distinction made me feel as if I was in my home church. After the service and subsequent Sunday School (with Mark providing helpful translation), most of the congregation gathered for lunch. We had a great time chatting as we enjoyed simple yet delicious Italian food. Many in the congregation have a deep level of spiritual maturity, which is amazing for such a young church.

I still have never loaded up the station wagon for a cross-country drive to a family reunion but I’m sure that it could not surpass the joy of my Reformed family reunions in North America, the U.K., and Italy. Gathering for worship and fellowship with my newfound brothers and sisters in Christ at CERF expanded my view of the Reformed Family Tree. Although language and distance separate us, the bond of the Holy Spirit unites in a way that transcends all physical barriers.

Please pray for Reformation Italy and Chiesa Evangelica Riformata Filadelfia. If your travels take you to Italy, arrange to spend a Sunday in Milan and experience your own Reformed family reunion.

Daniel Borvan is a PhD candidate in Church History at the University of Geneva. He holds degrees from Westminster Seminary California and Oxford University. He is Under Care of the Midwest Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He lives in London with his wife, Marcy.

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How Filadelfia Changed Me

Yi WangWritten By Yi Wang, a Personal Testimony of God’s Ordinary Grace.  

26, September 2012, Wednesday:

Dear pastor, I am a Chinese Christian studying in Milan. I am looking for a reformed church for a long long time. Thank God that today I finally got the website of your church and the contact of you. Expect your response.

7, October 2012, Sunday:

The first time we participated in Filadelfia’s service.

9, June 2013, Sunday:

Publicly joined the congregation, became church members.

8, December 2013, Sunday:

It is the 57 th Lord ’s Day in Filadelfia.


During this year, the Lord has changed me a lot, as “I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told” (Ps. 40:5). In Filadelfia, I have experienced the Reformed dialogical liturgy, have received Christ-centered and redemptive-historic preaching, have understood the law and gospel, have learned covenant theology, have realized the significance of confessing and adopting historic creeds and confessions, have been aware of the necessity of submitting to the church, being a church member and practicing family worship, and have eventually been united with this big family of love in Christ. All of these things changed me and helped me realize one thing, i.e. how to be a true Christian.

If the Five-Points of Calvinism can be used as a boundary of Reformed circle, then before I came to Filadelfia, I was a “Reformed” Christian. I was reborn as a Calvinist. The sovereignty of God was the first blood drop in my newly regenerated vessels. It was, and still is my simple yet unalterable belief: God is God because He alone controls everything. Previously, I was an unmitigated evolutionist due to my educational background, and for this reason it was deep in my Darwinian consciousness that everything is based on chance. I could not believe in any supreme being because nobody should be absolutely in control, it is all about probability, and it is all relative. Hence, this was also my first difficulty to overcome. If probability is ever in charge of anything, then probability is equally sovereign, and consequently God is no more the ONLY ONE true God (Deut. 6:4; Jn. 17:3). You see, it is not that hard to convince me of Reformed theology in this stage.

However, Filadelfia made me realize what “Reformed” really means. I had no idea about what it meant to be confessional. I was confused. Isn’t it enough to believe God’s sovereignty? Isn’t it enough to believe the Five Points? Isn’t it enough to be a self-recognized “Reformed” Christian? Unfortunately, I found the answer was no. What is Reformed? This question looks simple, but to answer it is still not easy. Today, many recognize themselves as Reformed Christians; at the mean time many despise this title for unfair understanding. The term “Reformed” has somehow become as blurry and ambiguous as the term “Evangelical”. Under the domination of relativism and individualism of this age, I couldn’t find a better way to preserve and “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” than coming back into the root which the church once had, confessing the confessional documents which were born through the “anguish in labor” of church, planting our faith in the confessional soil. Therefore, in Filadelfia, along with the saints in the past, without any excuse, I “believe with the heart and confess with the mouth” the biblical instructions which are summarized in historic confessional documents (we adopt the Three Forms of Unity) as the definition and boundary of Reformed faith.

As doing so, I live in the safe “communion of saints”. Whew! That’s a relief! Now I just lie on the Mediterranean beach and read the twenty-eighth article of Belgic Confession. Wait. What? Joining the church? I agree with the teaching and preaching, I frequent the same church, is that not enough? Oh, Filadelfia asks too much! Why does this church need membership? Where in the Scripture does it talk about church members? Carrying on all these questions, I searched throughout the Scripture and found the conclusion: there is not one mention in the bible of the term, “church member” (I searched the bible app on my phone!). But in Filadelfia, I realized the difference between a church visitor and a church member, between frequenting a church and submitting to a church. If I am not a member of any church, it would be impossible to obey my leaders, and submit to them (Heb13:17), since I am not led by anyone. And if there is no membership in a church, it would be impossible for the apostles to appointed elders in church (Act14:23). The Belgic confession says it well, “No person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself”. I admit that I was content to be by myself, lying on the beach, self-satisfying with Christian “knowledge”. I go to church, I cross my legs, I judge the preaching, I complain about the hymns, I (want to) leave when I don’t feel good. All I was thinking about is me: my needs, my tastes, my freedom, my spirituality, my knowledge, my situation.

But in Filadelfia, through the Confession, the Lord reminded me of duty, “all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church”. Joining the church means “submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline”. It is unreasonable for elders to exercise discipline on church visitors who do not under their supervision. “Bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.” Confession leaves me no excuse. Therefore, I repented to the Lord for my selfishness and ridiculousness, and on the 9th of June 2013, I publicly joined the church Filadelfia.

On December 8th, 2013, on the 57 th Lord ’s Day in Filadelfia, we were facing to the end of year, and reflecting on God’s grace. For me, Filadelfia is truly a blessing of the Lord. It is an “incarnation” of Reformed theology. It changes me ordinarily with the ordinary means of grace appointed by this loving God. By His grace alone, Filadelfia lively exhibits the Reformed theology and ecclesiology. Now I am also a member of this family, and am ready to live out affectionately the Reformed life, and to help others.

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A Letter on Infant Baptism: How My Mind Has Changed


infant baptismWritten By Dennis E. Johnson, Ph.D. Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California

Here at last is my long-overdue letter to explain why I believe it’s consistent with the Bible to baptize the infants and children of believers.  I want to let you know what biblical evidence changed my mind from holding a “believers’ baptism” position to the conviction that both those who are converted as adults and the infants and children of believers should be baptized.

You know, of course, that I don’t consider this issue one on which our trust-relationship with Jesus depends.  Nor should differences on this issue disrupt our fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who see things differently.  On the other hand, since we all want to show our gratitude for God’s grace by living our lives to please him, and since we learn what pleases him in his Word, we all want to get as clear a picture as we can of what the Word teaches.

The difference of views on infant baptism unfortunately does affect Christians’ ability to demonstrate in practice our unity as the Body of Christ.  “Infant baptizers” can and do recognize the baptism received by “believer baptizers” as genuine Christian baptism (although we may think that it’s administered later than it should be in the case of children of Christian parents).  But “believer baptizers” cannot acknowledge that believers who were baptized as infants have been baptized at all.  So if “believer baptizers” are right–if people who have received infant baptism have not received biblical baptism at all–then there have been hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Christian believers who have never obeyed the Lord’s command to be baptized in his Name, believers such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, J. Gresham Machen, J. I. Packer, John Stott, R. C. Sproul, etc.  On the other hand, if “infant baptizers” are right, then it’s sad that the convictions of “believer baptizers” prevent them from recognizing the baptism of so many other members of the Body of Christ.  So our difference of understanding on this issue does hinder our putting into practice the unity of the church.

Although this question is not a matter of salvation, it is certainly worth our investing time and thought and study, to see whether we can come to unity as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I Changed My Mind

First a little autobiography (I may have told you this before): It was a major change of mind for me to come to accept infant baptism.  I was baptized as an infant in First Covenant Church of Los Angeles, but by the time I was an early adolescent we had a different pastor (in the same congregation!), and our new pastor didn’t believe that infant baptism was valid. My parents had not really studied this question or taught me whether there was a biblical basis for infant baptism, so I had no reason to question what my pastor said when he taught that my baptism as an infant wasn’t genuine Christian baptism. Therefore, after a time of instruction in Bible doctrine (in effect, a catechism class), I publicly confessed my faith in Christ and “joined the church,” being baptized by immersion on the basis of my personal profession of faith.[2] (This means that, whichever view of baptism is right, I personally am covered!) I went through high school and Westmont College assuming that only people old enough to believe and testify to their faith should be baptized.

This was my view even as I started my seminary studies at Westminster, although I was puzzled that my seminary professors, who understood the Bible so much better than I in so many areas, seemed to have missed the obvious point that in the New Testament people are called to believe, and then they are baptized. I suppose I concluded that they believed in infant baptism because that was what they were accustomed to. (That explanation, however, didn’t fit everyone: Dr. Strimple had remained a Baptist throughout college and his studies at Westminster, and had taught at a Baptist Bible college in Canada for many years before he became convinced that infant baptism is biblical.) “I’m accustomed to this” is not a good reason for believing or doing something as a Christian, but sometimes what we’re used to does influence our faith and our conduct. In any case, at Westminster I had to face the possibility that I was the one operating on the basis of what I was accustomed to, dismissing infant baptism because of assumptions I had picked up as a teenager and had reinforced through college.  In particular Westminster forced me to examine my assumptions about how to search the Bible for the answer to a theological question like this.[3]

How Should We Expect the Bible to Answer the Infant Baptism Question?

I had to face the question, how should I expect the Bible to answer my question, “Should the babies of Christians be baptized?” I was expecting the Bible to answer the question with an explicit statement in one or more verses. I read verses like Acts 2:38 (“Repent and be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”) or Acts 16:31-34 (“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household . . . . Immediately he and all his family were baptized . . . he had come to believe in God–he and his whole family.”). The order of things seemed so clear: first repentance/belief, then baptism. What could be plainer and simpler?

Everybody Agrees that Adult Converts from Judaism and Paganism Must Be Baptized.

But then someone pointed out something to me: Throughout the Book of Acts we read about the conversion of people who were not Christians, nor had they grown up as the children of (New Covenant) Christians, before the Apostles preached to them–either Jews or Gentiles. The preaching and examples of conversions in Acts all have to do with missionary situations, in which the Gospel is entering the lives of individuals and families and communities for the first time. Everyone, “believer baptist” and “infant baptist” alike, agrees that in circumstances like these, when people have not grown up in Christian families and the “covenant community” of the Church, those converted as adults need to receive baptism when they confess their faith in Jesus.

But Acts Is Silent About Children Born to Christian Parents.

Acts never explicitly describes a situation that would make crystal clear how the apostles handled the situation of children born to Christian parents. (Obviously, if Acts had spoken directly and clearly on this point, the discussion between “believer baptist” and “infant baptist” would have been settled long ago.) In particular:

(1) Acts never tells us about an adolescent or young adult who had been raised from infancy by parents who believed in Jesus, and who then received baptism only after he or she personally expressed his/her faith in Christ.[4]

(2) Although Acts records the baptism of whole households, it never explicitly states whether or not there were infants or young children in any of these homes, or whether infants in the household were excluded from receiving baptism because they were too young to express personal faith in Christ.

(3) Acts and the rest of the New Testament never record any statement by Jesus or the Apostles that the infants of believers are now to be treated differently in the New Covenant from the way that the infants of Israelite believers were in the Old: namely, that, whereas Israelite children were treated as part of the covenant community, the children of Christians are to be treated as outside the covenant community that is under Christ’s Lordship.  The other changes that occurred with the coming of Christ are clearly indicated in the New Testament: Circumcision is not to be required of Gentiles (Galatians), but both Jews and Gentiles who come to faith must be baptized (Acts). Animal sacrifices are done away with because of Jesus’ final sacrifice (Hebrews 10). The kosher dietary laws no longer apply because Jesus cleanses people from all nationalities (Mark 7; Acts 10-11). The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by a “living temple” made up of people (1 Peter 2). But the New Testament never hints that the relationship of believers’ children to the church community has changed: The New Testament never suggests that, although before Jesus’ coming Israelite children were “inside” the covenant community and received the covenant sign of circumcision (the boys, that is), now since Jesus’ coming the children of believers are “outside” the community and therefore excluded from the covenant sign of baptism.

We’ll come back to this topic of the way the New Testament views the children of believers, but for now I simply wanted to show you how I came to recognize that there is no New Testament text that answers pointblank the question, “Should believers have their children baptized?”

Starting from Broader Themes Where the Bible Speaks Clearly

So then, where do we go from here? We approach this question, like other, even more important questions (the Trinity, the mystery of the Person of Jesus as both fully God and fully man): We approach it from the perspective of broader, bigger questions that the Bible does answer clearly for us. Then, since God’s Word is consistent from beginning to end, we carefully draw conclusions from what we know the Bible teaches.

This is more complicated than simply pointing to a verse or two, but it’s also safer than drawing our own conclusions from what a particular verse says or does not say. Suppose every Christian concluded that Jesus’ words in Mark 10:21 are addressed literally to us all: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor. . . .  Then come, follow me.” We all need to beware of being “owned” by our possessions, but if we all sold everything, could we also obey 1 Tim. 5:8 (“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”)? Would there be anyone in the church for Timothy to instruct to use their wealth in doing good (1 Tim. 6:17-19 )? We recognize that we have to understand Mark 10:21 in the context of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man, and in the context of the teaching of other passages of the Bible. We need to do the same with infant baptism.

Circumcision Was Administered to Infant Israelite Boys.

Tne clear place to start is with the fact that circumcision was administered to infant Israelite boys at the age of 8 days (Gen. 17:9-14). This sign of God’s covenant was given to Abraham long before the Law was given to Moses in Mt. Sinai. Apparently all of those circumcised that day in response to God’s command were older than infancy: Abraham was 99 and Ishmael was 13; other males (including servants) were no doubt of various ages (Gen. 17:23-27). But their age, and thus their mental/spiritual ability to respond to God’s promise in faith, was irrelevant.  All were circumcised because Abraham believed God.

Circumcision Was a Sign of Salvation Blessings that Are Received by Faith.

God calls circumcision a “sign” of his covenant, so we can ask what circumcision “signified,” what it “pointed to” in terms of the relationship of Abraham and his family to the Lord.

A Sign of Transformation of Heart (New Birth by the Spirit)

Later in the Old Testament God makes it clear that external circumcision of the flesh was a sign or symbol of a spiritual cleansing that God calls “circumcision” of the heart: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Deut. 10:16). Moses prophesies that the Israelites will disobey God and receive the judgments they deserved (especially the Babylonian Exile). But after this God will regather them to the land (return under Ezra and Nehemiah), and “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut. 30:6). I believe God is referring to this promise when he says through Ezekiel: “I will gather you from all the countries. . . . I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. . . .  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees. . . .” (Ezek. 36:24-27).

But Outward Circumcision Did Not Guarantee Circumcision of Heart

Now, receiving external circumcision did not guarantee that an Israelite boy had received spiritual circumcision, or would later receive spiritual circumcision. “‘The days are coming, declares the Lord, ‘when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh–Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab–and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (Jer. 9:25-26).  How shocking for an Israelite to hear these words, to be grouped among the uncircumcised, unclean Gentiles!  But only if they never understood that circumcision was a sign pointing to their hearts’ need for cleansing by the gracious Spirit of God!

Sign of the Righteousness We Receive by Faith.

In the light of God’s teaching in the Old Testament we can understand Paul’s comments on circumcision in Romans. First Paul points out that the “circumcision” that counts is “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit,” and that without this spiritual cleansing the external surgery brings no blessing or favor from God (Romans 2:25-29, especially verses 28-29). Then he comments on God’s first command to Abraham to circumcise his household: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). So Paul says that Abraham is not only the spiritual father of uncircumcised Gentile believers (4:11b), but also of “the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12). Circumcision symbolized the righteousness that believers (like Abraham) receive by faith, just as it symbolized cleansing and renewal of heart by the Holy Spirit. Yet God commanded that it be administered to Israelite baby boys at 8 days old, before anyone could tell whether God had changed or would change their hearts by his Spirit, whether he would enable them to trust his promises!

 A Sign of Union with Christ in His Sacrificial Death

Since the blessings of the New Birth and righteousness by faith came to Abraham and other Israelites (BC) and come to us (AD) only as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice, we could even say that circumcision symbolized union with Christ in his death–his being “cut off from his people” for us (Gen. 17:14; see Isaiah 53:8), even though he didn’t deserve the curse, since he was circumcised both in flesh (Luke 2:21) and in heart. In fact, Paul pretty much says just this in Colossians 2:11-12: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Christ was cut off for us, put to death for us; so his death for our sins is counted by God as our own death. Circumcision symbolizes this reality of Christ suffering as our substitute, and so does baptism.

Circumcision Was Applied Before Anyone Could Know Whether a Baby Had Received or Would Receive the Spiritual Blessings It Symbolized.

Before we move on to consider what baptism symbolizes, we need to reflect on the fact that circumcision in the Old Testament symbolized the blessings that come to believers (like Abraham) by faith in Christ: cleansing and transformation of heart, forgiveness of sins, right standing before God, all through the sacrifice of Jesus. This symbol was applied to adult Gentile converts when they abandoned their idolatry and confessed faith in the God of Israel; but it was applied to the children (well, just the sons) of Israel 8 days after they were born–before Mom or Dad or priest or rabbi could tell whether that baby would later receive, through his faith, the reality symbolized in circumcision.

Baptism Symbolizes Transformation of Heart (New Birth by the Spirit), the Righteousness of Faith, and Union with Christ in his Death.

Water baptism symbolizes the same spiritual blessings that circumcision symbolized: renewal and transformation of our hearts (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 5:23; etc.) by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), who brings us into a community of faith, a Body (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism speaks of being united to Christ, clothed with Christ, right with God by faith, Abraham’s seed, and heirs of God’s promises (Gal. 3:26-29). It speaks of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, so that his death for us is counted as our death before the justice of God (Romans 6:3; Col. 2:11-12).

Water Baptism Doesn’t Guarantee that the Person Receiving It Has Received or Will Receive the Spiritual Blessings It Symbolizes–Even When Adults Are Baptized after Confessing Faith!

 Just as the external act of circumcision could not guarantee that the recipient would prove to be a recipient of the spiritual reality it symbolized, so also the external act of water baptism does not guarantee that its recipient will prove to have received the spiritual reality it symbolizes. Simon of Samaria was baptized, but his later attitude toward the Holy Spirit showed that he was still “captive to sin” (Acts 8:12-13, 20-23). Peter emphasizes that the flood waters that “saved” Noah and his family were pointing ahead to baptism–not merely the “removal of dirt from the body” (external water baptism) but the inner spiritual reality it symbolizes:  the pledge of a good conscience toward God (1 Pet. 3:21). Sadly, some churches have practiced infant baptism (and others have practiced adult “believer baptism”) under the misunderstanding that the external ceremony automatically produces the New Birth it symbolizes, or guarantees that the New Birth is bound to follow eventually because of the outward ceremony. But the Bible shows that the purpose of the sacraments (circumcision, Passover and other animal sacrifices in the Old Testament; baptism and the Lord Supper in the New) is to show us our need for the spiritual blessings and to call us (as the Bible and preaching do) to receive these blessings by trusting in Christ himself.

Why Apply Circumcision/Baptism to Infants Before We “Know” Whether They Will Become Believers?

 When I was a “Baptist”, my biggest problem with infant baptism was that baptism symbolized the spiritual benefits of union with Christ, which are received only by faith; and parents and pastors couldnÂ’t know whether or not an infant had or would have this saving faith. But then I began to see that circumcision in the Old Testament symbolized the same blessings of union with Christ, which Old Testament believers received by faith and which unbelievers in Israel did not receive. So we face the same question for both the Old Testament sign and the New Testament sign: “Why apply a symbol before we know whether or not the reality is there?”  I see three main reasons:

(1) To emphasize God’s gracious initiative to us in our helplessness. Circumcision and baptism are not events in which the recipient acts, but in which someone else acts (in God’s name) on or for us. This is true, of course, when an adult is converted and comes for baptism: she doesn’t baptize herself, but a pastor applies the water of baptism to her. The Apostles’ instruction to adults is not “baptize yourselves” (reflexive) but “be baptized” (passive: receive baptism from someone else). But it’s even more obvious, when infants are baptized, that baptism is “announcing” to us that God graciously gives a change of heart that we in our spiritual death could never produce in ourselves.

(2) To emphasize the mysterious role of the family in the communication of God’s covenant grace down through the generations. This role really is mysterious. On the one hand, the Bible is so clear that being born into a believing family is no guarantee of salvation: every individual is accountable to respond to the Gospel in faith, or endure the consequences of rebellion. (And, by the same token, to be born into an unbelieving family doesn’t condemn a person to a life of unbelief, rebellion, and condemnation.  God’s grace welcomes Gentiles [Pagans] and turns them to Jesus (Acts 14:27).

I was reading Ezekiel 18 in my devotions earlier this week, and was struck by how powerfully God makes the point that “family tree” doesn’t guarantee an individual’s salvation or his condemnation. On the other hand, God has set up the family as the context in which his Word is to be taught and lived before children as they grow up. In contrast to our American emphasis on individualism and democracy, God clearly viewed Abraham as the head of his household, with the authority to command even his servants to undergo the painful procedure of circumcision! “I have chosen [Abraham], so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Genesis 18:19).

Apparently the ancient Israelites tended to look at themselves only from the standpoint of their family connection: those in the right family (Abraham’s) were in (no matter what), and everyone else was out. In twentieth-century America we tend to look at ourselves only from the standpoint of our personal individualism: we think we stand as isolated individuals before God, and our parents’ relationship to the Lord presumably has no influence on the benefits we have received from him or the responsibilities we bear toward him.

But God seems to view us both as members of a family, influenced (for good or ill) by our family context and identity, and as individuals, bearing responsibility for our own response to his Word of grace. This is God’s perspective not only in the Old Testament, when virtually all the covenant people were of one physical family (Abraham’s–although Gentiles such as Rahab, Ruth, Uriah, and Naaman were also included); but also in the New Testament, as the Gospel goes out to all the families of the earth (Acts 3:25). This is what I find striking about the baptism of Lydia and her household (Acts 16:14-15) and of the jailer and his household (Acts 16:31-34). There’s no way to tell for sure whether or not there were babies or children in those households, so both sides in the infant baptism dialogue read these texts in light of their own presuppositions. But what we can agree on is that in these texts the Holy Spirit speaks of the persons involved not as disconnected individuals but as “households,” as families (or perhaps even families with resident servants). Doesn’t this suggest that in the New Testament God does not discard the family as a means for extending his gracious covenant-kingdom, but rather he spreads his grace to and through more families, to households not previously reached with his salvation?

Infant circumcision and infant baptism in themselves emphasize the balance: they are administered to infants not because we presume to know or predict the infant’s spiritual state, but because the child is in the home of and under the authority of Christian parents (hence the sign belongs not only to “birth-children” but also to adopted children). Yet the fact that circumcision and baptism are administered to infants at all is a testimony to the fact that birth into a particular family is no guarantee of ultimate spiritual blessing, rather that something more is needed, something that only God can do for us through the shedding of Christ’s blood and through his resurrection, applied through the regenerating power of the Spirit, in order for us to become children of God.

(3) To emphasize the life-or-death consequences of our response to the Gospel of Christ.  Earlier I showed the spiritual blessings that both circumcision and baptism symbolize, but that is not the whole story. Both circumcision and baptism are double-edged.  They have a solemn side as well, because each in its own way “pictures” the judgment that our sin deserves, the judgment that will be received some day by those who do not trust Christ. Circumcision, which of course involved shedding of blood, symbolized the penalty of breaking God’s covenant, being “cut off” from God’s presence and God’s people (Gen. 17:14). Baptism symbolizes not only cleansing, forgiveness, and the Spirit’s transforming presence, but also judgment and death. The floodwaters that “saved” Noah were also God’s instrument of judgment on those who refused to heed Noah’s preaching (1 Pet. 3:19-21). Jesus spoke of his own death as a “baptism,” a painful ordeal (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). So it’s not surprising that Paul views both circumcision and baptism as symbols pointing to Christ’s death (Col. 2:11-12). By symbolizing the deadly consequences of being unfaithful to God’s covenant–the shedding of blood, being cut off, being overwhelmed by floodwaters–circumcision and baptism reinforce the message of the Word as we read it and hear it preached: the only place of safety for guilty rebels like us is close to Jesus, trusting in Jesus, who bore sin’s guilt and penalty for those who believe in him. So I see circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New as ongoing testimonies to children raised in Christian homes that there are severe, eternal consequences if they turn away from the grace offered in the Gospel. But of course these warnings are intended by the Lord to work along with the wonderful promises of his grace to encourage us to stick close to Jesus in living, intimate faith and love.

Circumcision and Baptism Mark the Boundaries of the Community that Is Under Christ’s Lordship.

Now, the fact that circumcision and baptism both symbolize spiritual blessings that are received by faith in Christ and the fact that circumcision was administered to infants before they could give evidence of faith doesn’t prove that now, in the New Testament, baptism should be administered to covenant children before they personally give evidence of their faith. It suggests to me, however, that the fact that an infant cannot express faith doesn’t exclude her from receiving the sign that points to blessings that are received by faith.

If circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New do not absolutely guarantee that the person receiving the sign has received or will receive the spiritual reality, what is the purpose of these covenant signs? They mark the boundaries of the community that acknowledges Christ’s covenant Lordship and authority, the church. Since we can’t infallibly read others’ hearts, the church as we see it on a day-to-day basis may not correspond exactly to God’s perfect knowledge of his chosen ones (2 Tim. 2:17-19). Even when an adult convert is baptized, we do it not because we have supernatural knowledge that he is born again but because he confesses to believe in Jesus, seems to understand what that means, and his life is beginning to bear fruit consistent with his confession of faith. Sometimes, however, church leaders are mistaken or misled, and a person who once seemed to be a believer will turn away from the life of faith he had seemed to start (remember Simon of Samaria). So as an elder I have to admit my limitations: I can’t read hearts to know for certain who is “born again” from the Spirit; all that I can do is to evaluate whether people acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus both in their words and in the general direction of their behavior.

In the New Testament, Are Believers’ Children “Inside” This Community or “Outside”?

 I’m leading up to this important question: In the New Testament, if parents confess Jesus as Lord, are their children inside this community, the church, or are they outside? Clearly in the Old Testament the children were included in the community of God’s covenant, receiving the mark of the covenant (circumcision), participating in the feasts of the covenant (for example, Passover, Exodus 12:25-27), being taught the Law as the guide for their grateful response to God’s redemptive grace (Deut. 6:4-9, 20-25). But what about the New Testament? When Christ comes, is there a change in the composition of the community of God’s covenant?

 The Trend in the New Testament Is to Include People Who Used to Be “Outside.”   

There are changes in the composition of the covenant people as we move from Old Testament to New, but they are not in the direction of excluding a category of people because of their age or mental immaturity. The most obvious change is that Gentiles, people from other physical families than Abraham’s, are welcomed in droves. As we see in MatthewÂ’s mention of  Rahab, Ruth, and others in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1), even in the Old Testament God did welcome a handful of Gentiles into his community; but with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the baptism of the Spirit which he poured out on the church, the floodgates of grace are thrown wide open to Samaritans, Greek, Romans–even the Swedes and Scotch-Irish! Secondly, the sign of the New Covenant, baptism, is one that can be and is applied to females as well as males (Acts 8:12), in contrast to Old Covenant circumcision, which was only for males. Although the New Testament still speaks of a distinction in role between men and women in the family and the church, baptism makes clear what was implied in Genesis 1:26-28: in terms of creation in God’s image, and now new creation in the image of Christ, and in terms of personal value and worth to God, women and men are equal (Gal. 3:28). Hence women worship with men in Christian congregations, not in a separate courtyard as in the Jerusalem temple or behind a screen as in some Jewish synagogues. So now, with Gentiles welcomed in and women more fully included by receiving the covenant sign along with males, does  God now take a very different stance toward the children of believers, excluding them from his covenant people as he is welcoming other groups in?

 Peter at Pentecost: The Promise to Jewish Converts, Their Children, and Gentiles “Far Off.” 

Probably the most direct answer to our question comes from Peter’s lips on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the climactic turning point of the transition between Old Testament and New because on Pentecost the crucified, risen, ascended, enthroned Lord Jesus baptized the church with the Holy Spirit–as John the Baptist had prophesied (Acts 1:5). Peter’s audience were Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism from throughout the Roman world, and some of them (despite their heritage as covenant people) had committed treason against God’s Messiah, Jesus. When they realized what they had done, Peter told them to repent and receive baptism in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:38). Then he added: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call” (2:39). “All who are far off” are the pagan Gentiles.[5]  This is consistent with the expansion of the reach of God’s gracious covenant that I mentioned above. But now notice this: the children of these people who are at the point of repentance, faith, and baptism are not bypassed as Christ’s promise goes out to the pagans. The promise of forgiveness and renewal by the Spirit is spoken specifically to the children of Peter’s listeners. As these children grow and understand the promise and the Promise Maker, they of course bear the responsibility to respond in personal trust (just as Peter’s Pentecost audience do and the Gentiles “far off” will). But the point is: In expanding his community of grace to the Gentiles, God will not expel the children.

 Jesus: The Kingdom Belongs to Little, “Useless” Children. 

This continuing inclusion of children in Christ’s community is what we would expect when we reflect on the way Jesus rebuked his disciples’ adult arrogance in trying to shield him from “insignificant” (in their minds) children (Luke 18:15-17). In fact, I’m convinced that it was precisely children’s “insignificance” and “uselessness” that Jesus had in mind when he said, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” When some people hear these words, they think romantically of the “innocence” or “simple trust” that they suppose children have. But Jesus knew children better than that. His point is: Unless you come to the kingdom without any claim that you deserve it, you will never enter it. Apparently by Pentecost Peter had absorbed the point that Jesus made that day: Jesus does not expel children from his community, for his kingdom belongs to them (those left outside are those who refuse to swallow their pride, who refuse to come as insignificant children, unworthy in themselves but dependent on the King).

 Paul Talks to Children in the Church, Calling Them to Obey “in the Lord” without Distinguishing Between “Insiders” (Who Have Confessed Faith and Been Baptized) and “Outsiders” (Too Young to Be Baptized as Believers). 

This perspective–that children are not excluded from the community of the King with the coming of the New Testament–also explains why Paul can address children in his letters with instructions that presuppose Christ’s authority over them: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ which is the first commandment with a promise ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'” (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20: “for this pleases the Lord.”) Paul does not talk to two categories of children: (1) children who have confessed faith and been baptized; and (2) children who have not been baptized, and are presumed not to be believers. Rather, he speaks to all the children present in the congregation, and he implies that their identity “in the Lord,” their trust in the promises of God, and their desire to do what “pleases the Lord” should motivate all these children to obey their parents. Of course, these congregations may include some children who are not born again, not believers; but Paul is not presuming to read individual hearts at long distance. He is simply treating the children, as a group, as members of the King’s community, under the King’s authority, and therefore responsible to the King for their response to their parents.

What About Infant Dedication as a Way of Symbolizing that the Children of Christian Parents Have a Special Place and Special Responsibilities?

 Now, we could ask, couldn’t a “dedication” ceremony such as that practiced at many Baptist churches serve the same purpose as infant baptism in recognizing that the children of believers do have some sort of special place in the community of Christ’s covenant? Well, yes and no.

Yes. Infant dedication in Baptist churches seems to reflect a sort of Spirit-prompted “instinct” that, even though (in such churches) they are treated as unbelievers and outsiders by being denied baptism, the children of believers actually do have some sort of a relation to Christ and his church. It would be more consistent, it seems to me, for churches of “believer baptism” convictions not to replace infant baptism with dedication, but simply to wait and see what path kids choose (faith or rebellion) as they grow up. Typically the dedication services I have heard still imply that believing parents are doing something in relation to the Lord on behalf of their infant children. Wouldn’t it be more consistent to wait until children are old enough to decide for themselves whether they want to be dedicated to God? And yet, frankly, I’m glad that Baptist churches are inconsistent enough to have infant dedication, and that Baptist parents bring their children to church and teach them the Gospel at home and sing “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” with their kids. The way I see it, in all these ways they are acting as though their children have a place in the community of Christ, even though Baptist parents don’t acknowledge that their children can receive the sign of inclusion in Christ’s community, baptism. And since (in my view) the Bible teaches that believers’ children have a place in the community of Christ (though that doesn’t guarantee their salvation!), the more that Christians act in ways consistent with the Bible (even if our understanding of its teaching is unclear), the more the Lord is glorified.

No.  A Biblical Case for Infant Dedication in the New Testament Is Far Weaker than the Case for Infant Baptism.  If we are looking for a biblical justification for how we treat the infants of believers, it seems to me that it is far harder to make a case for dedication than for infant baptism. Consider the biblical examples of infant dedications: There was Samuel, whom his mother Hannah promised to return to the Lord for tabernacle service even before he was conceived (1 Sam. 1:11, 24-28). But Hannah’s dedication of Samuel did not replace his circumcision, of course. Rather, it made him a “Nazirite,” whose uncut hair signified his special consecration as a servant of God ( 1 Sam. 1:11; Numbers 6:1-21). Nor is it treated as an ongoing pattern for Israelite infants in the Old Testament, let alone for the children of believers in the New Testament. There were Samson and John the Baptist (also Nazirites from conception), whom God had promised to barren parents and set apart for his own special purposes even before their conception (Judges 13:3-5; Luke 1:13-17).

Then there is the presentation of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-24) when he was about 41 days old.  (He was circumcised at 8 days, and then 33 days later Mary could be “purified” following her son’s birth, Lev. 12:37). But we should notice that this presentation fulfills the command that came from the Exodus from Egypt, and specifically the night when the Passover lamb died in the place of the Israelites’ firstborn: “Every firstborn male shall be called holy to the Lord” (Exod. 13:2). Firstborn animals were to be sacrificed as holy to the Lord (Exod. 13:12). Firstborn sons were to be redeemed (Exod. 13:15). It is hard for me to see how this Old Testament custom, which had to be observed carefully for Jesus since he came to fulfill every requirement of the Law of Moses, could be viewed as a model for Christians dedicating their children. Christian infant dedication services don’t mention the ceremonial purification of the infant’s mother after the birth; they are performed not only for firstborn sons but also for later children–of both genders! They do not involve offering sacrifices for the redemption of the child from death or the purification of the mother. In all these ways Christian infant dedication services today are very different from Jesus’ presentation to the Lord at the age of a month and a half–and they should be! The Old Testament sacrificial system, which included the redemption of Israel’s firstborn and the ceremonial cleansing of Israel’s mothers, was fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Because I find no convincing biblical command or example that would provide a basis for infant dedication by Christian parents today, if we have to choose between infant dedication and infant baptism on the basis of biblical evidence, it seems clear that the weight of biblical evidence favors infant baptism, because of the continuity between circumcision and baptism as signs of entry into God’s community.

“Dedication” Focuses More on the Parents’ Action Than on God’s Promise of Grace through Faith.  Finally, infant dedication as a ceremony lacks an important element that infant baptism has: Infant baptism encourages us and our children to trust in Christ by symbolizing the promises of God, achieved for us by Christ and received by faith alone. Dedication tends to focus more on what we do than on what Christ has done. As parents look back on that day with their kids, they are saying, “We dedicated you to the Lord’s service when you were a baby.” On the other hand, as “infant baptist” parents look back on the day of their child’s baptism, they say to her, “On that day long ago, the Lord Jesus promised to you that if you trust him he will wash away your sins and give you a heart to love and serve him by the power of his Spirit. Just as the water ‘cleansed’ your baby skin, so the Holy Spirit will make your heart clean if you trust in Jesus, because Jesus died for the sins of everybody who trusts in him.” You can see the difference. Both sets of parents are calling their kids to respond in faith and both sets do so by teaching the Gospel about what Jesus did for us in his sacrifice on the cross, but children baptized as infants have received a sign/symbol that points directly to that gift of God’s grace.

So I would say that infant dedication is better than nothing (since it is a way of recognizing that the children of believers have the privileges and responsibilities of being included in the Lord’s community), but it seems to me that infant baptism has much stronger biblical support than does infant dedication in the New Testament church.

Fatherly Encouragement: Study the Scriptures. Pray. Think. Ask

 Since I’ve walked the road between “believer baptism” and “infant baptism,” I appreciate the fact that you want to re-examine childhood assumptions in the light of what God’s Word teaches. Go to it! I also sympathize with you, since we both realize that this issue is not as “cut-and-dried” as whether Jehovah or Baal is God, or whether we are saved by faith in Jesus or by our own obedience to the Law. The biblical answers to those questions are plain and clear. But sincere believers who love the Lord and want to follow his Word have drawn very different conclusions on this question of infant baptism. So I would just encourage you to study the Bible’s teaching, not only in individual verses that contain the word “baptism” but also in passages that explain the symbolism of circumcision and baptism, that show how God treats children in the Old Testament in the New, that show us who belongs to the community of Christ on earth (both ancient Israel and the Church today), and that explain ideas like “covenant” and the role of the family/household in God’s plan for his covenant people. I would encourage you to think and pray over what you have read. No doubt I haven’t covered in this letter all the questions you may have, so please feel free to ask them and I’ll do my best to give you answers that are faithful to God’s Word.




[1] This is not a polished, published document yet, but I reserve the right to turn it into one in the future.  It is circulated for the benefit and discussion of students at Westminster Seminary California and, with permission, to other Christians who may be helped by it.

[2]My pastor also believed that immersion (Romans 6:4) is the only right mode by which to apply the water of baptism. He would not recognize sprinkling (Hebrews 9:13-14; 1 Peter 1:2; Ezekiel 36:25) or pouring (Acts 1:5; 2:17-18, 33: “You will be baptized with Spirit” = “I will pour out my Spirit”; see Titus 3:5-6), even though these methods of applying cleansing liquid (water/blood) are used repeatedly in Scripture, and sometimes tied directly to the language of baptism (as in Acts 1-2). The verses above suggest that baptism symbolizes not only death, burial, and resurrection with Christ, but also cleansing from sin’s uncleanness (sprinkling) and the gift of the Spirit (pouring). Therefore it seems that any of these modes is appropriate, since each mode points to some aspect of the spiritual reality of which baptism is a sign.

[3]Over Labor Day weekend I was preaching in Portland, OR, and spent the afternoon with a couple in the church there. We were talking about infant baptism and I learned that the husband had come to faith in a Baptist church and had then come to believe that infant baptism is biblical while he was studying at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. I asked him what had changed his mind, and he mentioned especially coming to see that circumcision in the Old Testament was a sign of “the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:11), and yet Abraham was commanded to circumcise infants who were too young to demonstrate faith. If that was so in the Old Testament, he concluded, it could also be true of baptism in the New. I’ll pick up this idea below, but I thought you would be interested to learn of this brother’s experience of coming to believe in the appropriateness of infant baptism not in an “infant baptist” seminary like Westminster but in a “believer baptist” seminary like Western.

[4]Timothy is the only individual whose “childhood history” we know much about, but it’s likely that both he and his mother were, so to speak, “Old Testament believers” until Paul arrived in Lystra, bringing the news that God’s Old Testament promises had been fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah (Acts 16:13; 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:10, 15). Since Timothy’s mother taught him the Scriptures “from infancy,” apparently she would have had him circumcised as an infant as the Law commanded, were it not for the fact that his Gentile father forbade it. Paul circumcised him as a young adult not because circumcision is a sacrament/sign still applied to believers under the New Covenant, but simply to remove a potential obstacle to the effectiveness of Timothy’s ministry among Jews. Anyway, we don’t ever read about when Timothy was baptized.

[5]The expression is from Isa. 57:19 and is applied to Gentiles in Acts 22:21; Eph. 2:13, 17.



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The Divine Irony: Reflections of an Ulsterman in Milan

Writtemark's familyn by Mark Patterson

Speaking in tongues to edify the church. Have no fear, Via della Polveriera 56/58 Novate Milanese, Milan hasn’t been transformed into 312 Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles. Neo-Pentecostalism hasn’t arrived at La Chiesa Evangelica Riformata ‘Filadelfia’ (CERF), but the church is now hearing on a monthly basis a “new” tongue, English.

I was asked by our consistory a while back to consider preaching once a month in English and  once a month in Italian. While the thought of preaching in Italian filled me with dread, it was nevertheless the very thing I came to Italy to do. Preaching in English on the other hand made me “raise an eyebrow,” because this was something I could do  since I began preaching at 18 years old. However, I have been saying from the beginning of my arrival to Italy that I want to rid myself of my native tongue. It has been a kind of “stop-start-stop-start” experience in regard to language learning, since I’m studying my Italian; then preparing a lesson in English; then teaching the lesson; then listening to Italian radio; then preparing another lesson in English; then doing an Italian conversation lesson!

Therefore, when I was asked to take on this monthly responsibility, I saw it as an “invitation” from the church that I could not refuse. In many ways, it fitted into my Christian experience in as much as so many of the things I’ve done in my walk with the LORD have come from invitations. So, upon reflection, I said “yes” as a service to the church and as a means to reach others.

From September 2013 CERF has been following Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:5. “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.” I preach in the English ‘tongue’ and Pastor Andrea Ferrari interprets into the Italian ‘tongue’.

Now I know this subject of “speaking in tongues” can be a controversial one. All I what to highlight in this article is the importance of “building up the church” with intelligible words. A simple reading of this chapter 14 presents us with one repeated verb that highlights one overwhelming point … a gathered group of people who confess Christ as LORD form a “local” church and create a place of blessing, at least that’s the idea!

In the ESV the rending of this Greek verb is consistently translated as “to build up”. Verse 3 uses “up-building” while in verses 4, 5, 12, 17 and 26 we read various forms of this phrasal verb. Other English versions use various forms of the word “edify” but the point is clear: the gathered church forms a place of encouragement and edification.  It is where understandable words, intelligible words about God do good, for He is good and all that proceeds from Him is good. He is benevolent, longsuffering and ready to forgive. He communicates the problem and gives us the solution in Christ.

The opposite is true too. Unintelligible words are linked to judgement. Paul, in verse 21, cites “the Law” (Law-covenant) and uses Isaiah 28:11-12 to show this. In the context of chapter 2, Isaiah speaks of the LORD’s frustration over Judah’s refusal to hear His prophet in their “tongue”.  They had complained that God’s word to them was like childish repetition; “… precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little”, so they refused to hear. (v.11-12) Therefore they were going hear God speak, but not in a language they knew. The Assyrians were coming!

Hearing the WORD of God and not understanding it is a great judgement upon people. Being exposed to the gracious instruction of the benevolent Creator-God with no capacity to understand it is a form of judgment.

This has two clear applications, one of which I’ve already intimated. The preaching of God’s Word must be in a known human language the people can understand. That just doesn’t mean speaking a “common” language but using words, terms, expressions and illustrations that make sense to the people. It’s possible to be in an English speaking church, hear a Minister preach in English and modify the words of Dr. McCoy to Capt. Kirk… “It’s English Jim, but not as we know it!”

In our church, the primary language is Italian, but we also have a number of people who use English as their second language and Italian as their third. This initiative is designed to “build up” such people and also attract others. For this alone I am happy to comply, even if it may inhibit my own Italian learning curve a bit.

The second point of application is equally important and has to do with the unbeliever. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, the same fragrance of Christ can be perceived as life or death. (2:15-16) There is veil over the eyes of those who are perishing preventing them from seeing the truth. (3:14-15; 4:3) Therefore, regardless of how many “tongues” are spoken in our church; regardless of the appropriateness of words used or of translation, what we need is God the Holy Spirit to speak in accents loud and clear and breathe life into dry bones. We’re doing what we can and asking the LORD to help… As Oliver Cromwell said, “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”

Until next time, I remain an Ulsterman in Milan.

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