The next issue to which we need to reply is TE Rayburn’s claim that the SJC erects a false dichotomy between responding to the Gospel and responding to baptism in TE Leithart’s theology. TE Rayburn claims that TE Leithart would not deny that faith is the proper response to the Gospel just because Leithart also says that faith is the proper response to baptism. Now, here we definitely get into murky waters (pardon the pun).
I believe that TE Rayburn has missed an important point of the SJC decision here. The SJC’s decision is making the claim that TE Leithart teaches justification by baptism. They say, “Leithart erroneously teaches that we are declared righteous, or justified, by water baptism.” This immediately precedes the quotation to which TE Rayburn objects. TE Leithart says, “In baptism, God judges sin, declares the baptized righteous, and delivers the baptized from death in the new life of the Spirit-filled body of God’s Son” (p. 76 of The Baptized Body).
Now, at this point, it is necessary to ask the question of how Leithart is using the term “baptism.” Probably the most important section in Leithart’s book to examine this is pp. 32ff. TE Leithart doesn’t mean water alone. This is clearest when Leithart says, “We do, of course, need to remember that when the word ‘baptism’ refers to the water ritual, the writer is talking about baptism and not merely water” (p. 32). A little later on, he says, “Therefore, the question is never ‘Can water do this?’ but always ‘Can baptism do this?'” (emphasis original, p. 33). It seems clear to me, then, that the word “baptism” for Leithart means that everything happens all at once: the sign and the thing signified, to use the WCF’s terminology.
To my mind, this contradicts WCF 28.6, which says that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered. A side note on the interpretation of this phrase: some FV writers interpret this phrase to mean that the efficacy starts at the moment of the rite, but is not limited to that moment, that it continues on throughout life. The majority, however, (rightly, in my opinion), interpret the phrase to mean a delayed reaction effect of the efficacy of baptism. The reason that I believe this is the correct interpretation is that the last phrase of the section, “in His appointed time” qualifies the efficacy of baptism in such a way that continual process is not in view. Thus, the efficacy occurs when God wants it to occur, which could be before, during, or after baptism.
The sacrament of baptism can be distinguished by sign and thing signified. We cannot really separate the two. They belong together. However, in the case of unbelievers, they do not receive the thing signified at all. The thing signified by baptism is the grace of salvation through faith alone. Unbelievers do not receive this, and hence the sign points to judgment for them.
My point in all this is to put the SJC’s statement in context. The SJC is stating that Leithart puts the response of faith in the baptismal context, tying it to the moment of baptism way too strongly. The SJC then makes the point that faith belongs in the Gospel context, as the response to the Word. Yes, the sacrament seals the Word, confirms the Word, signifies the Word. But faith comes by hearing, not by dunking. So, I don’t think that the SJC is making the error that TE Rayburn thinks they’re making. They are merely answering this question: what triggers faith, baptism or the Gospel? And they are answering, quite rightly, that it is the Gospel that triggers faith. Is this an unnecessary dichotomy? I don’t think the SJC would call it a dichotomy so much as a distinction. The Gospel, as Spirit-effected faith, is the thing to which the sign points. But when you use the word “baptism” to refer to both sign and thing signified, and then connect faith to that, confusion can result as to the precise trigger of faith. Yes, faith is strongly connected to the thing signified, but it is not so much connected to the sign, since there are many who receive the sign, but never believe. The issue comes down to this, then: when it comes to reprobate recipients of baptism, do they have faith in any sense? I and the SJC answer no. The FV answers yes. This is a somewhat lengthy response to TE Rayburn’s point here, but that is because the issue is tremendously complicated.