Baptismal Regeneration is NOT Baptismal Salvation
I have recently seen a number of theological posts that demonstrate a woeful lack of understanding of the nature of the “theological endeavor.” One of the key elements of theological discourse that provides a critical component in understanding theological concepts is a proper understanding and application of the ordo salutis or the “order of salvation.”
When dealing with the O.S., we encounter two primary factors in its application to theological discussion and understanding – the logical and chronological. The former provides the sequential structure in how God saves us, the latter its function in space and time.
When we read Romans 8 and how the Apostle Paul presents God’s logical ordering of events:
28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.
30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30 NKJ)
we see the following: the general call to all mankind, this then move the Apostle to point out that, in this grand design and purpose of God, He first established a loving relationship with His people from eternity past, these then He predestined, marked them out beforehand, to be conformed to the image of Jesus, these were then effectually called or, as we refer to it in theological parlance, regenerated, these regenerated individuals were then justified, and those justified will be eventually glorified. This chain is as certain as the earth upon which we set foot and the air we breathe.
But, it is especially critical that we understand this chain, while inviolable assumes an important theological element – faith. We know that
a. we are justified by grace, through faith alone, and
b. that this faith is given to us by God.
Additionally, as we negotiate the O.S., we must be careful to notice a significant factor. If we distill the O.S., for the present discussion, to the middle section, we see regeneration precedes faith which is the instrumental means of justification. Put another way, regeneration and justification, while inextricably linked are also not identical, they are not the same thing. This becomes cosmically critical in understanding the sacraments, particularly baptism. This is the logical theological application.
When one rightly considers regeneration, one finds that we are speaking of “new birth,” or “a new creation,” or simply, taking a soul that was spiritually dead and making it alive. But to what end? Again, notice, regeneration, and justification are not identical because whereas regeneration precedes faith, faith must logically precede justification. Why is this important? In Scripture, we see numerous passages where the soil is prepared BEFORE the seed is planted resulting in the harvest. Or, to put it in the vernacular, our souls must be made alive in order for the seed of God’s Word to be implanted in us by the Holy Spirit to achieve the fruit of justification.
However, we also note that this sequence of regeneration – faith – justification, is not identical in each and every individual case. In some, the soil (soul) is prepared, and the seed immediately takes hold and springs forth the fruit of justification; yet, there are other times when the soil (soul) is prepared, the seed is implanted but the fruit takes years to come to fruition (See Matt 13 for one example). In other words, regeneration can occur and faith and justification follow immediately OR regeneration can occur and faith and justification might be delayed for some time.
The understanding of this distinction between regeneration and justification, if not properly grasped, leads to all sorts of theological dilemmas. For example, we know upon justification, the individual is united to Christ. This union is then “sealed” by the Holy Spirit. The meaning of this term in this context cannot be over-stated.
Secular Usage of “Seal:”
A “seal,” in general secular usage, denotes a ‘sign, ‘letter,’ or ‘terms or words.’ It carries with it two essential meanings:
1. It can mean the object itself, a “ring” or “signet.”
2. It can mean the “impression” or the “image,” “word,” or “picture” (i.e., Caesar’s face) created on the item seal is place.
The Legal Significance of Seals:
The seal served as a legal protection and guarantee. It is a guarantee against violation. The same applies to texts and records. Original documents are sealed, whereas copies are not. Wills and testamentary dispositions were sealed both by the testator and also by the witness. According to Roman law 6 witnesses had to sign and the will could be opened only when each of the 6 broke his own seal. Or to put it another way, only one equal to or greater than the one bearing the image of the seal, could break the seal. Therefore, if one is sealed by God with the 3rd Person of the Triune Godhead, only one equal to or greater than God can break this seal.
The Religious Meaning:
From early days and throughout the cultures of antiquity in all times and places seals and signet-rings bear the images of gods or signs of the god. These link the holder and user of the seal with the deity. The seal is a guarantee of inviolability in the cultic sphere also.
Seal in the Old Testament:
The seal makes a document legally valid. The seal was also meant to protect a document against inappropriate or premature disclosure. It prevented people from reading a work.
Sfragizw (seal) can also mean to engrave stone or metal in the LXX. The golden plate on the high-priests MITRE also has an engraving on it. The fact that the contents of a sealed vessel or purse were inaccessible gave sfragizw the further sense “to close.”
Mixed in it are the motifs of power and authorization, of legal validity and reliability, of the inviolate, closed and secret, of the costly and valuable.
Seal in Judaism:
The main role of the seal in Joshua is where it seems important to him in telling the OT stories. Joseph is authorized to use Pharaoh’s seal. The lions den of Daniel is sealed by the king; and Esther receives Artaxerxes’ seal and authority. The seal protects and gives the protection of the law by closing. Thus, when Augustus deposed Archelaus in 6 A.D. the high-priestly vestments were kept in a walled-up room in the castle Antonia and were placed under the “seal” of the priests and keepers of the chamber.
Finally, it is important for the history of the word in the Jewish sphere that circumcision is often called a “seal.” The idea of the seal offers many themes in interpretation of circumcision; that of the sign of righteousness in Gen 17:11; that of identity of designation: it also points to membership, it is a sign of ownership, and finally the idea of power and protection also plays a part. The word denotes the idea of providing something with a distinguishing sign or mark, a brand or notch, to denote possession.
Seal in the New Testament:
There are only a few instances in the NT where sfragizw is used in the direct sense for sealing. The stone at Jesus’ tomb is sealed against unlawful opening by the high-priests and Pharisees (Mt. 27:66).
The idea to confirm is used by the expressions in Paul’s epistles in which circumcision on the one side and endowment with the Spirit on the other are linked to the image of the seal. The sign of circumcision is a sealing, a ratifying of the righteousness of faith to which Abraham attained even when uncircumcised. As used by Paul, then, sfragizw takes from circumcision its sacramentalist character in favor of God’s justifying act. Circumcision does not replace justification; it follows and confirms it. This seal does denote membership, yet not simply of the people as God’s people, but of the justified people. In sealing believers – the apostle and the church in Corinth – God has made them His own inviolable possession; the pledge of this is the Spirit of God in the heart.
There is a variation of 2 Cor 1:22 in Eph 1:13f & 4:30.
2 Corinthians 1:22 who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Cor. 1:22 NKJ)
Ephesians 1:13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, (Eph. 1:13 NKJ)
Ephesians 4:30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Eph. 4:30 NKJ)
The Holy Spirit as the pledge of the inheritance is now the seal with which the believer is marked, appointed, and kept for the day of redemption. It shows that one is God’s possessionuntil the day of redemption! In all these passages various aspects of the concept of sealing help to fix the metaphorical use in the sphere of faith.
The decisive thing for Paul is that it is God who is at work not only in justifying but also in sealing. One may thus conclude that the idea of marking as a possession determines the use of the term.
Let’s now, summarize “seal” in this context of the relationship with and consequences of the effects on regeneration, see the relation of the terms involved. When we understand “seal” as it relates to the theological impact upon regeneration, involves:
A “seal” or “being sealed” entails the object doing the sealing, in this case, the Holy Spirit, imprinting the image of the one who is requiring the seal to be made, the Triune Godhead. This sealing by the Holy Spirit, impressing the image of the Godhead upon us, is legally inviolate (cannot be broken) unless rescinded by the Godhead themselves. I.e., only God can break the seal. This sealing denotes full possession of that which is sealed – us – and this possession or being the possession of God, irrevocably confirms and guarantees our inclusion and membership into the covenant community, adoption by the Father of the covenant community, bearing the image of that Father of the covenant community, uniting us to the Father of that covenant community, guaranteeing our full, complete, and unending membership in that covenant community until the day of redemption!
Once we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, which occurs when we are justified, it is permanent and can only be broken by God Himself. This is what justification is and, as one can see, regeneration, especially in baptism, cannot account for this.
So, justification involves, union with Christ to whom we are “sealed” by the Holy Spirit, yet we KNOW that there have been people in our Churches that have been baptized – either as infants or adults – that eventually totally abandon the faith. This creates a monstrous problem if we believe that justification involves (as it does) union with Christ and being sealed to Him, at baptism. Or to put it another way, for one who advocates baptismal generation is identical to salvation, it creates irrevocable conflicts with other, explicitly taught, theological doctrines.
Therefore, the first caveat we must recognize is, since regeneration is not identical with justification, baptismal regeneration is not identical to baptismal salvation. Or the application of water does not justify (save); There is so much more that must occur. And appeals to I Pet 3 do not resolve the issue for the one who believes in baptismal salvation because Peter, in context, in this passage makes it very clear that water didn’t save, the ark saved, i.e., washing didn’t save, Christ did. The water, the washing, is so closely linked to salvation that they can be said to be virtually one and the same, but theologically they are not.
However, if we see baptismal regeneration as the moment when the Holy Spirit takes the dead soul of the infant (or adult if that be the case) and makes it alive, prepares it, creates fertile soil for God’s seed, His Word to take root WHENEVER THAT MIGHT OCCUR, for Him to then, at the exact predetermined moment, grant faith and justification to the individual, we resolve numerous difficulties. Herein is the chronological theological understanding. The logical is outside of space and time, the chronological understanding is how the logical is worked out in space and time.
How many passages of Scripture speak of multiple types of soil, responding to God’s Word in various ways and at disparate times – some not responding at all. A soil (soul) prepared to receive “seed” is just that, “prepared.” Some will receive the seed (God’s word and then the gift of faith) and believe because, after all, it is we who are doing the actual believing. But a soil (soul) prepared MIGHT NOT ever receive the seed (God’s word and then the gift of faith) and thus, as a dying vine, be purged from the garden.
Until we understand the nature and foundations of “covenant,” that the sacraments derive from that connection, and how the ordo salutis connects these two biblical concepts, we will always stumble and grope in theological blindness never truly grasping what a doctrine such as “baptismal regeneration” truly means.
If one is going to engage in such theological discussions and inevitable disputes, one must learn to consider the coherence of their theological conclusions. One cannot, CAN NOT articulate one particular doctrine in isolation of all other doctrines of Scripture! It wreaks havoc on God’s Word. Remember one of the cardinal principles of the Reformation was Sui sacra scriptura interpres sacra scriptura, "sacred scripture interprets sacred scripture!"
Imagine dropping a stone in a lake or pond; the ripples are extensive, far-reaching and widespread. They are not simply or merely limited to the initial or immediate splash. Isolated theological pronouncements might appear to be profound, or deep, or from an educated, erudite mind, but the reality is it is merely intellectual, academic, scholarly sloppiness, and laziness. Every doctrine must be compared with every other doctrine; the clear interprets the less clear. In this case, baptismal regeneration must be understood in concert with the rest of theology to arrive at a reasonable, biblically accurate picture of exactly what it is. It is regeneration, not justification.