Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw

Posted by R. Fowler White

In this post and (God willing) a series of posts to follow, I plan to work through the chapters of Jeffrey D. Johnson’s book, The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (Free Grace Press, 2010). Yes, it’s been out a while, so perhaps you’ve seen it mentioned here and there. The initial reasons for my interest in the book are that I was once a convinced credobaptist myself (even publishing on the topic!) and that Johnson’s book has been applauded by some noteworthy (self-identified) “sovereign grace Baptist” leaders, such as Tom Nettles and Richard Belcher, Sr. The more significant reason that I picked up the book, however, is that it is part of a relatively recent flurry of activity among Baptists who have been reexamining covenant theology (e.g., Tom Wells, Fred Zaspel, Gary Long), and Johnson states that his own position on covenant theology is very similar to that of Meredith Kline, Michael Horton, and Kim Riddlebarger (p. 22 n. 70). All these factors provoke my interest in Johnson’s critique of paedobaptist covenant theology.

Johnson divides his book into two major parts, the first of 16 chapters on “The Fatal Flaw” behind paedobaptist theology and the second of 8 chapters on what he calls “Covenantal Dichotomism” and in which he discusses the relationships between Abraham, Moses, and Christ. For the purpose of interaction, I don’t expect to review each of these 24 chapters in detail, but to focus on what Johnson tells us is the primary thrust of his book, namely, “a direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Even with that emphasis, “the purpose of this work is not so much to convert the die-hard paedobaptist as much as to help prevent credobaptists from changing their position” (p. 20). In addition, the book is not offered merely to deliver negative commentary (ibid.). For Johnson “there are many sturdy stones, which must be left alone” (ibid.) in paedobaptist covenant theology. Not least among those stones is the progressive unfolding of God’s eternal plan of redemption in each of His covenants throughout history. Given Johnson’s purpose and primary thrust, I’ll leave aside the helpful introduction in which he surveys the history of infant baptism and various paedobaptist interpretations of its rationale and settles on engaging presbyterians who’ve adopted the Westminster Confession. I’ll use this opening post to look at his first two chapters (pp. 25-48), where he takes on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and the analogy between circumcision and baptism.

Zeroing in on the paedobaptist appeal to OT inferences to fill in where no NT command exists, Johnson argues that those inferences leave too many uncertainties to justify infant baptism. He insists that, if OT inferences are really to make up for a missing NT command, then some related issues should also be considered: 1) that, besides baptism, no duty of the local NT church comes from the OT; 2) that baptized children are excluded from the Lord’s Supper even though circumcised children were included in the Passover meal; 3) that the NT church experienced much confusion on almost everything related to the old covenant; 4) that the NT church experienced major controversy over circumcision in particular; and 5) that NT Gentile converts, largely ignorant of circumcision’s meaning, doubtless needed instruction on baptism and its participants. With these uncertainties as backdrop, Johnson moves on to take up the circumcision-baptism relationship itself, intent on showing that the two ordinances are only analogous and not identical. Contending that “the NT must set the limits of the analogy” (p. 45; see also p. 47), he concludes that they are similar, not in that both involve children, but only in that both signify circumcision of the heart (regeneration). Citing Jer 31.34, he goes on to urge that, “unlike the old covenant, the new covenant leaves no room for unbelieving participants” (ibid.). All told, then, Johnson maintains that neither OT inferences nor the circumcision-baptism relationship can be authoritative for determining the nature of baptism or its participants (p. 47).

The absence of a NT command to baptize infants – What shall we say about Johnson’s claim that OT inferences leave too many uncertainties to warrant infant baptism? In my view, the uncertainties that Johnson highlights do little to discourage the paedobaptist appeal to the OT to locate the warrant for infant baptism. For example, when he argues that, besides baptism, no requirement for the local NT church comes from the OT, Johnson asks us to presuppose that the administrative principles of the NT church originated without any connection whatsoever to OT Israel. Leaving aside the question of baptism, this is a bridge too far: we cannot simply concede that the administrative principles of the NT church generally or the basis of its membership specifically are disconnected from OT Israel. After all, we know that God is administering one household in redemptive history, not two (Heb 3.1-6). Going on, Johnson observes that, unlike circumcised children, baptized children are excluded from the covenant meal. We acknowledge, of course, that paedobaptists differ on this point, though we cannot pursue it here. Suffice it to say, then, that back of Johnson’s objection is the debatable assumption that the function and basis of the OT ordinances differ from those of the NT. Further, Johnson points out that almost everything related to the old covenant, including circumcision, created confusion or controversy in the NT church that was eventually dominated by largely uninformed Gentile converts. The difficulties of the transition from the old covenant to the new notwithstanding, Johnson offers no evidence that there was ever confusion or controversy in the NT church about the membership status or baptism of children. In sum, Johnson’s collection of uncertainties does not touch the fundamental concern of the paedobaptist argument from the OT. More pointedly, if the administrative principles of the NT church, including the basis of its membership, originated without any connection to OT Israel as Johnson argues, there would have been an obvious and profound need for and expectation of an exposition not unlike the one we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews to make this change emphatically clear. Instead we find that the principles and practices of the NT church are stated in language that imitates the language in which the principles and practices of OT Israel were stated.

The circumcision-baptism relationship – Moving on to Johnson’s take on the circumcision-baptism relationship, we can agree with him that the relationship is one of analogy and not identity. There are clear differences between the two (thus the denial of identity), but both rites testify to the same realities (thus the affirmation of analogy): death to sin and new life to God (otherwise known as circumcision of the heart). In fact, because both rites speak as one, we can understand better why circumcision became obsolete and baptism superseded it. The transition came to pass because Christ’s death and resurrection was both a circumcision (Col 2.11) and a baptism (Mark 10.38; Luke 12.50). Whether we say that Christ was circumcised or baptized in His death and resurrection, God’s witness to us is that the death He died He died to sin, and the life He lives He lives to God (Rom 6.10). In that light, it makes sense that the circumcision of Christ made circumcision obsolete as a covenant sign, while the baptism of Christ established baptism as the covenant sign that continued to testify of the realities formerly signified by circumcision.

Meanwhile, however, the differences between the two and the change from the one to the other do nothing to revoke the membership status of children in God’s covenant. How can we be so sure? Because the NT narrates the administration of baptism by the apostles in language that imitates the narration of the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. In particular, the apostolic company is said to have baptized households (Acts 11.14; 16.15, 31-34; 1 Cor 1.2), just as God is said to have baptized the household of Noah in the flood (1 Pet 3.20-22; Gen 7.1) and the households of “our (circumcised!) fathers” in the cloud and the sea (1 Cor 10.1). Strikingly, in the baptism into Moses, the baptized are even said to have been those who “feared the Lord and believed in Him and His servant Moses” (Exod 14.29-31). Paedobaptists might ask, then, shall we dispute that those OT baptisms included both parents and their children? Can we imagine Joshua saying anything other than, “as for me and my house, we were baptized into Moses”? If baptism into Moses was administered thus to our circumcised ancestors, it at least strains credulity to maintain that the apostles administered baptism into Christ differently to those who are the descendants of those baptized into Moses. To press the point still further, paedobaptists might ask, would not the Jews at Corinth (Acts 18.1-8), who were among those addressed in 1 Cor 10.1, have justifiably inferred that just as parents and children were baptized into Moses, so also parents and children were to be baptized into Christ? Consider here especially what Crispus, the ruler of Corinth’s synagogue, and his household (Acts 18.8) would have been thinking. Insofar, then, as we observe the parallel language in the narration of the baptisms of Noah’s household, Israel’s households, and the church’s households, there is warrant sufficient for paedobaptists to urge that the apostles’ practice of baptism into Christ took place on the same principle as did OT baptism and circumcision: “you and your household.” All this to say, then, that we can agree with Johnson that the relationship of circumcision and baptism is one of analogy, but we cannot agree that the analogy makes infant baptism less than clear. To the contrary, the administration of baptism in the NT imitates the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. To be sure, other questions and passages remain to be considered.

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Maximum Fruitfulness: Discipleship for Unity, Discernment, and Stewardship

Posted by R. Fowler White

In a previous post – “Maximum Fruitfulness: A Statement of Aspirations” – I laid out a working hypothesis about the fruitfulness to which we aspire in church ministry. My view is that, accepting that the church’s purpose is to gather and perfect (i.e., grow) the saints, we pray and work to see the saints bear the fruit of unity, discernment, and stewardship. United, discerning, and faithful, we saints will stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by our opponents (Phil 1.27-28).

That said, the question arises as to how we’ll see those aspirations fulfilled. Even in what we’ve said so far we’ve implied the general answer to this question: God grows His saints through the ministry of discipleship, that is, through the life-long process of being renewed to know God (Col 3.10) and His will (Rom 12.1-2). It’s a process that focuses on learning from and with others the historic doctrines and practices by which God has built Christ’s church (Rom 6.17-18; Eph 4.20-23). We say “learning from and with others” because that learning occurs in community with others devoted to fulfilling the duties of Christian discipleship. Furthermore, that devotion has to be grounded in a shared confidence that God gives growth to Christ’s disciples by His appointed means and that He gives His Spirit and gifts for their common good. So, confident in God’s means of growth, disciples commit themselves especially to the ordinances of the Word, prayer, and sacraments. Likewise, confident in God’s Spirit and gifts, those gifted in the ministries of the Word and leading commit themselves to equipping others for Christian living, mindful that, for good or ill, “everyone when fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6.40; cf. Eph 4.12; Heb 5.12-14). Discipleship, then, is a lifelong process of renewal that takes place in community.

Now, if discipleship may be said to consist of learning historic Christian doctrine and practice, it is no surprise to expect that, in that process, the early beliefs and behaviors of disciples will change. Take beliefs first. Converted to the elementary truths of the gospel, we expect disciples to mature over time as they learn the core doctrines of Scripture (e.g., Heb 5.12; 6.1-2). Yet, because both Scripture and the church are rooted in history, we have also to anticipate that learning Scripture’s doctrines will involve discovering the key storylines of revelation and redemption and of the church and its doctrinal standards. Those discoveries made, disciples appreciate more and more how Scripture is the rule of faith and life for the church and its members. That is, Scripture does not just formally organize the gathered disciples as God’s house (e.g., 1 Tim 3:15); it orders their beliefs, the better to perfect them in the knowledge of God and His will (2 Tim 3.14-17).

Just as Scripture orders the beliefs of Christ’s disciples, so it also orders their behaviors. As their renewal continues, disciples acquire “know-how” with respect to self, family, church, workplace, and civil government, in order then to bear fruit in their relations and occupations and in the use of their gifts. New “habits of holiness” are formed: devotion to the Word, prayer, and sacraments improves; membership vows, marriage vows, baptism vows are taken seriously; and duties as a worker and a citizen are fulfilled. In sum, these holy habits will find disciples declaring the gospel of forgiveness (justification) and obeying the law of love (the Two Great Commandments and the Ten Commandments), whether in family, church, workplace, or society.

We like to say that there is a regulative principle of worship. We should also say that there is a regulative principle of discipleship. Just as we cannot worship any way we want, so we cannot make disciples any way we want. As people covenanted together to bear witness to the historic Christian faith and moral vision, each congregation of Christ’s church receives the joyful commission to make disciples and is required to teach them to observe all that He commanded. Barbeques, bake sales, bounce houses, and ball games – as fun as they may be – are not the stuff of discipleship. Our assignment is to pass on the gospel of forgiveness and the law of love that our Lord taught while on earth. Such is how we will make disciples and see the unity, discernment, and stewardship that we seek. Broadly speaking, it seems to me, this is what it means to gather and perfect the saints.

Maximum Fruitfulness: A Statement of Aspirations

R. Fowler White

Is there any congregation of Christ’s church who doesn’t aspire to see maximum fruitfulness from her ministries? Seems doubtful, doesn’t it? Even those churches who don’t buy into goals of “big attendance, big budget, big building” want to see “maximum fruitfulness.” But, of course, if we don’t define fruitfulness in terms of bigness, how will we define it? Exactly what fruit are we looking for? With that last question in mind, what follows is a brief exposition of a working hypothesis about fruitfulness in local church ministry – a statement of aspirations, if you will.

So, where to start? I start with what I take to be a biblically faithful “purpose statement” for the congregations of Christ’s church. Granted that the chief end for which Christ’s church and all other things exist is to glorify God, I find a purpose statement for the church in WCF 25.3. There, according to the Assembly, the purpose for which Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God is this: “the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” Understandably, we think of “gathering the saints” primarily in terms of evangelistic fruitfulness. And well we should. That’s not our focus here, however. Rather our attention is on “perfecting the saints.” Lest I misinterpret this “perfecting,” I look back to WCF 13, where I find that the term perfecting is virtually interchangeable with the process of sanctification, that is, with the saints’ “grow[th] in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13.3). In that context, we recognize that the growth in view is that of the saints’ traits (qualities), not their number (quantity). Please note: that’s not to say that numerical growth (even “big attendance”) is irrelevant: it’s just to say that the number of gathered saints is not the Assembly’s point in their choice of the word perfecting. So, if you’re looking for a purpose statement for your congregation, here’s one: to gather and grow saints. Simple, brief, memorable.

But maybe too brief. It’s possible and desirable to describe the perfecting of the saints more fully. Surely, increasing holiness and decreasing worldliness in the individual saint’s life are in view. Again, however, we can say more. We can focus on the perfecting/growth of congregations as well as of individuals. It’s vital for us to look for the fruit of more holiness and less worldliness in our congregations. Yet we should not overlook other fruit in which “congregational sanctification” should be expressed. As far as I can tell, in addition to growth from evangelism that gathers the saints, Scripture points to three other categories of fruitfulness – three crops, if you will – yielded by congregations who grow the saints they’re gathering.

First, congregations are to grow in unity. It’s striking how frequently the NT authors address the duty not just to maintain unity (see Phil 1.27–2.2), but to attain it too. Eph 4.1-16 provides a sweeping overview of the two tasks. In 4.1-6 Paul makes an appeal to “maintain the unity” created by the one Spirit (4.1-3), an appeal based and expressed in seven unifying confessional acclamations (4.4-6). In 4.7‑16 Paul highlights how the diverse gifts bestowed on the church enable her members to “attain to the unity” of faith and knowledge. The context of Ephesians 4, then, sees the church moving from the unity of childhood (4.4‑6, 14) to the unity of adulthood (4.13, 15‑16). From the unifying articles of her immaturity (4.4‑6), through the “speaking the truth in love” of her maturation (4.15), to the unity of faith and knowledge in her maturity (4.13), confessional unity is at the heart of the church’s identity. In fact, as one commentator puts it, oneness is essential “to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as a confessing church.” And lest we think that Paul has only the universal visible church in mind in Eph 4.1-16, we should note that he speaks of “pastors and teachers” in 4.11, gifts whose ministries are associated primarily with local church contexts. Thus, maturation unto unity in the faith takes place in and through the local congregations of Christ’s universal visible church. Most notably for our purposes, however, maturation in the faith is conceived in terms of confessional unity (i.e., shared convictions and witness about what to believe and how to behave) at the congregational level.

Second, congregations are to grow in discernment. As the pillar and bulwark of the truth, the church is responsible to grow, corporately as well as individually, in her discernment of God’s revealed will (Rom 12.2; 16.17-19; Eph 4.13-16; Col 1.9-10; 2 Pet 3.18) and to bear public witness to that will in word and deed (1 Tim 3.15-16; Jude 3; 1 Pet 3.15; Eph 4.3-6, 13-16). To empower the church to fulfill these responsibilities, Christ gives her the Spirit of truth, thereby enabling and obliging her members to distinguish truth from error, right from wrong, good from evil (1 Cor 2.12–3.3; 12.1-3; Heb 5.11-14; 1 John 2.27; 4.1). Possessing the same Spirit, God’s household also possesses at least the seed of those saving graces necessary to make public confession even from its childhood. Yet congregations are expected to grow in discernment too, so that members are no longer little children in the faith (Eph 4.14). Accordingly, parents generally and fathers particularly are exhorted to instruct their families (Gen 18.19; Deut 6.7; Prov 1.8; 22.6; Eph 6.4). Moreover, through training and practice, some in God’s household will emerge to exercise saving graces more ably and fully than others, thus distinguishing themselves as examples worthy of emulation (Heb 5.14). In this light, we understand that a congregation’s maturation will be recognized in their increasingly shared discernment of what is true, right, and good.

Third, congregations are to grow in their stewardship of the gifts-for-ministry that the Spirit has distributed among His saints for their perfecting (1 Cor 12.11; 1 Pet 4.10-11). Out of love for neighbor (1 Cor 12.31–13.7), saints are exhorted to devote themselves to “the common good” (1 Cor 12.7) – in other words, to edifying one another (1 Cor 14.12). In that devotion, a division of labor emerges: both Paul and Peter teach us that some will minister in word; others in deed (Eph 4.11-12; 1 Peter 4.11). Whatever one’s gifts, the saints are told to remember that “each has received a gift,” and each is to “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet 4.10; cf. 1 Cor 14.12). So, growth in the household of faith at the congregational level will find members with a justifiable conviction of what their gifts are (Rom 12.3) and also a spirit of accountability to employ those gifts for the common good (1 Pet 4.10).

So there you have it: a working hypothesis that, when it comes to perfecting the saints, the fruitfulness we’re looking for in local church ministry is that God would grant our congregations to be united, discerning, and good stewards of our gifts for ministry. Let me know where you agree or disagree, especially where I have wrong or incomplete information or where I reach wrong or incomplete conclusions.

R. Fowler White