Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Baptism in the Light of Old and New Testaments

Robert Letham, The Christian’s Pocket Guide to Baptism: The Water that Unites (Geanies House, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2012). 120pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

It has been said that the doctrine of the sacraments serves as a litmus test for the strength or weakness of any system of theology. This is true because our theology of the sacraments draws upon our broader conception of the grace of the gospel and how the Triune God communicates Christ and the benefits of salvation to us (see pp. 102-104). In particular, the sacraments serve as a window into what are often referred to as “the means of grace.”

Robert Letham’s contribution to the new Christian’s Pocket Guide series is an outstanding addition to a series that promises to serve the church well for years to come. This short book is a great achievement. It is one of the most profound, simple, and compelling treatments of the subject of baptism in a short space that this reviewer has read. Letham’s treatment is comprehensive without being overwhelming. He has rooted the doctrine of baptism into an entire biblical theology that is confessionally Reformed and accessible to readers who have no prior knowledge of the subject, yet he addresses virtually all questions that are pertinent to his topic (including a refutation of Karl Barth and others in less than six pages! pp. 62-67).

The book consists of two primary sections and a conclusion that comprise nine brief chapters. The first two chapters address the theological method that we bring to reading our Bibles as well as how we view the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Then, using the Noahic covenant as an important precedent, Letham stresses in Chapter 3 the manner in which sacraments are God’s actions in making promises to us and not merely the badges of our professions of faith. Chapter 4 helpfully illustrates the relationship between individuals and the corporate body of the church. These four chapters masterfully set the stage for all that follows by challenging our Western individualism with the biblical balance between the corporate and the individual. The following two chapters demonstrate what baptism means in terms of cleansing from sin and union with Christ. Union with Christ encompasses every aspect and benefit of salvation, and this is what baptism signifies, seals, and applies in the lives of believers. After addressing the efficacy of the sacraments in light of several Reformed confessions in Chapter 7, Chapters 8 and 9 address the proper subjects of baptism as well as how Christians should regard and treat their children. Woven within these chapters are treatments of the mode of baptism, the relation of sacraments to faith and repentance, and virtually every other question that is relevant to this subject.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that its treatment of the subjects of baptism is situated in a wider view of the both testaments of the Bible. The discussion of the baptism of infants clearly does not drive the discussion, but it is a natural outworking of God’s dealing with households throughout redemptive history. God has always dealt with his people and their households. In this regard, I have always told my congregation that I do not believe in infant baptism, but that I believe in household baptism. Households are mentioned in the New Testament in connection with baptism because households are the subjects of the Abrahamic covenant. Letham points out that the Baptist view of asking for express mention of the children in these examples would be entirely out of accord with the manner in which the Bible treats the households of believers in both testaments: “Since the household remains the basis of administering the covenant, there is no need to mention its individual constituent members unless there is a reason pertinent to the argument of the book. The first century apostles were not operating with modern Western individualistic assumptions” (86). The sections on the efficacy of the sacraments will also challenge many to realize that even Reformed churches have often lost a Reformed view of the manner in which the Spirit confers grace to those who use his means through faith (72, 77-78). This book will challenge you to consider whether you have come to the text of Scripture with biblical or non-biblical assumptions. (See pp. 103, 105.)

This work has a few minor flaws that should not detract from its overall value. One typographical problem is that while endnote 55 is listed in the text (68) it is absent entirely in the list of endnotes. Letham mistakenly asserts on page 60 that the grace of regeneration and union with Christ are received by faith. While this is true with regard to union with Christ, it is not true of regeneration which precedes faith and produces faith following our effectual calling. This appears to be an unintentional error in the text. On page 70, he asserts that while baptisms administered by non-ordained persons should not occur, they are nevertheless valid baptisms if they are Trinitarian. This is an unusual view among Reformed authors, both past and present. The primary problem with his assertion is that it appears in a section treating the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith. This implies that this is the confessional position, but there is no proof to this effect in that document.

This book should profit ministers in their teaching as well as every church member who has questions about baptism. Finally, I have found a brief inexpensive yet comprehensive book to give to people who do not understand the Reformed view of baptism. This work will not only help people recover what it means that baptism is a means of grace, but it will serve as a window into the entire Reformed view of how the Triune God meets with sinners through his own appointed means of grace.


The preceding review is scheduled to appear in The Puritan Reformed Journal January 2013 issue.