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[159th General Synod Minutes, 22 May 1981, pp. 32-45; Documents of Synod, pp. 101-114.]

The Rev. David Linden presented the following report:

The report is in response to the action of the 157th General Synod where a study committee was erected to provide some guidelines or principles by which local sessions may decide whether previous baptisms with water in the name of the Triune God are to be deemed valid. The overture to the 157th Synod gave as an example Roman Catholic infant baptism. The overture informs us of a decision of Midwestern Presbytery in declaring that if a session deems a previous baptism to be valid, then baptism is not to be repeated. This committee report agrees to a high degree, but counsels a flexible response in certain situations.

I. A Typical Expression of the Problem
When pastors in our churches face requests from adult converts for baptism, they sometimes find that such converts were previously baptized. The baptism was with water, in the Name of the Triune God, and with the purpose of officially linking the person so baptized with the Lord Jesus Christ. If the pastor says, "You have been baptized and we should not repeat it," he may well find a reply like, "Well, yes, I was baptized as a baby in the Roman Catholic Church, but it didn't mean anything. I never heard the gospel in the Catholic Church nor in my home. My parents hold that my baptism was how I was born again and they are quite upset when I say I just became a Christian, so obviously the Lord was not in that ceremony. It is a ceremony I cannot respect." If the Reformed pastor responds as this report will urge him to, a reply to that pastor's counsel may be, "Well, I hear what you're saying, but since nobody involved even believed in the Lord and it was a baptism in circumstances where you, pastor, would not even consider performing such a baptism yourself, why do you insist I accept it? I frankly repudiate it and I want to be sure I am obedient to the Lord—I just want to be baptized."

What is a man faithful to the Word to do when he sees a "baptism" as valid and yet it was so defective that the one who received it cannot be contented that the sign was truly applied? 

II. Is Saving Faith Essential to Baptism?
Is the presence of saving faith at the time of administration an essential requirement to recognition of baptism as valid?

The case for an affirmative answer:
On this point our church is not unanimous. Some of our men, with reason, insist that only saving faith on the part of some participant can rescue the ceremony from utterly dead ritualism.

The Confession states, "The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered. . . ." [XXVII:VI] This statement is directed to the condition of the recipient of baptism. It does not settle whether saving faith may be absent in child, parents and minister—all three—and the ceremony still be valid.

Charles Hodge, in the section of his Systematic Theology entitled "Validity of the Sacraments," held that "the ordinance must be administered and received in the faith of the Trinity."[1]

Scripture contains many examples of divine disgust for ceremonies lacking faith and good works [Isaiah 1:11-17]

Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. 
They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. [Isaiah 1:14]

How can we say anything is valid if it clearly violates the biblical ideal? Do we have the right to see the chief spiritual element on our part in the ritual detached and still declare such a ritual valid? It appears, thus, that the church sides with the Pharisees against the Lord!

When the Confession declares that "the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered,"[2] it is referring to the fact that the one baptized [in this case a child], though not then having faith, will, if one of the elect, in God's appointed time, indeed receive the promised grace. It is not declaring valid all baptisms regardless of saving faith on the part of those responsible for the decision of baptism. And when the Confession holds to one administration[3] of the sacrament, it means of course one valid baptism. If a previous baptism is not valid and thus is replaced by a genuine one, then and only then would the Confession prohibit another.

The case for a negative answer:
Here we must distinguish between efficacy and validity. It is painful indeed to differ with esteemed brethren whose only "fault" in this debate seems to be a pure love of the gospel! Justification by faith is the point, purpose, and goal of baptism. But baptism is as valid as the gospel itself, even though neither may be received with faith. No one would declare the message spoken by angels invalid if it was ignored by its hearers [Hebrews 2:2-3]. The message of the gospel was of no value [efficacy] to some because it was not heard with faith [Hebrews 4:2]. These verbal communications are analogous to the non-verbal communication of the visible ceremony.[4]

If lack of faith invalidates a ceremony, what is to prevent lack of faith from invalidating the gospel itself? It is probably this line of reasoning that provoked such a strong reaction from the apostle Paul:

Circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by written code. . .
What advantage, then is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?
Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness?
Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. . . (Romans 2:29; 3:1-4)

If we ask Paul what made circumcision efficacious, he would reply, ". . .In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Galatians 5:6). Another reason circumcision had value no longer – in Romans 3 it is presented as having value in the past – is that it is surpassed as a superior sacrament. However, the same principle still applies. In Christ Jesus the ritual of baptism detached from faith, or the lack of the ritual does not determine one's relationship with God. In short, saving faith is the chief element on the human side that demonstrates efficacy. Validity, however, is determined by the fact that baptism is God's seal, a witness to the truth of the gospel whether that witness is heeded or not. In this world, a check is a valid contract or promise; it is not efficacious, however, if the signer is unrighteous and does not back up his word with sufficient funds. In Romans 3, God's faithfulness is not blemished by our lack of faith. The real contrast is between our unrighteousness and God's righteousness, not validity versus lack of it. The seal of baptism is a genuine, honest, and sincere attachment that God adds to His word which He will carry out as promised if His conditions are met. Validity does not stand or fall on human response! It is valid because it is given by God.

The Old Testament sacrifices, feasts, and rituals, all of which were frequently distorted by human sin, and their purpose in Christ ignored by the bulk of Israel, became repulsive even to God. But they still had their validity as His institution.

The miracles of Christ, which, like sacraments, are objectifications of the gospel, did not create faith. Indeed, they were so resisted at times that they were purported by some of the leaders of Israel to be works of Satan. Such unbelief did not damage the miracles themselves, however, or enable the observers to escape from increased responsibility to believe. The miracles are so objectively of God that they made the sins of Bethsaida more heinous than those of Sodom.

Wedding rings do not make marriages, but they add witness to the covenantal relationship and stand to support vows whether taken in sincerity or not. What pastor involved in counseling a couple whose marriage is in a condition of advanced deterioration has not heard this argument: "Well, pastor, marriages are made in heaven, you know, and neither of us were Christians at the time. We had not real spiritual foundation to our marriage—why are we still bound by those vows now?" The effort here is to escape an objectively binding ceremony by refuge in subjectivity. The reasoning goes, "We are married only if we meant it! we did not mean it; therefore, we were not validly married!" But God who joined them together meant it, and God holds them to the compact. Cannot God also, in the day of judgment, hold up the witness of the defective, insincere, unenlightened baptismal ceremony as rightfully increasing His claim upon the baptized sinner who would not bow before Christ as Lord? Can he not treat that sin as not only the rebellion common to the fallen world, but also one aggravated by the witness of the covenantal sign, so that the sin now is more explicitly treasonous?

If saving faith determines validity, then covenant obedience must be present prior to administration. But the sign like the gospel witness may also call to obedience even before it exists. If we fuse validity and efficacy into the same concept, we would be unable to appeal as Scripture does in Hebrews 10:26-31. There the blood of the covenant truly and externally had sanctified unregenerated people (verse 29) who were part of His people to be judged (verse 30). The call of Hebrews is to make efficacious by faith and repentance what God had made valid and binding by His sovereign institution. God shows no hesitation to expect covenant compliance from these unregenerate people. This He could not do if saving faith had to be present to make the covenant binding.

III. Who Determines Whether a Baptism is Valid?
Shall the subject who receives baptism or the church which administers it decide its validity?

This determination is most definitely to be made by the church. Some reasons to support this:

1. It is the church's role both to teach God's people to be baptized and to baptize them. Matthew 28:18-20 is addressed to the church. If laymen can declare a church's administration valid or invalid, the role of administration assigned by Christ to His ministers is superceded by the declaratory powers of those receiving baptism. If a baptism is pronounced invalid by an individual Christian, the church then in a severe role reversal, must, at the church member's insistence, baptize again. If the determination of validity remains with the individual, he may insist on a third or fourth baptism as well, and the church would be forced to acquiesce. We will do well not to yield our role and our authority. Determination of validity is actually superior to administration.

2. Christ has assigned the church the authority to make such decisions. Christ Himself possesses all authority in heaven and in earth, but delegates to His servants certain tasks where the church acts in His name. The Great Commission, preceded by the affirmation of Christ's authority, is then a delegation of responsibility to act in His name while supported by His presence (Matthew 28:18-20).

This is clear also from those passages spelling out the meaning of the keys.[5] The church binds and looses as the delegated holder of the keys of the Kingdom. In His name and by His Word the church remits or retains sins—this defining who are in or not in the Kingdom of God. Thus, the church extends or withholds the sacraments and does so because it acts in a declaratory capacity as the pillar and foundation of God's truth (I Timothy 3:15). How, then could the subject of baptism have the final word on the validity of a sacrament only extended in the regulation of Christ to the church?

It is our present view and practice that the church determines the validity and acceptability of confessions of faith. But the Lord alone knows who are really His (cf. II Timothy 2:19). If the church must do such responsible things as these, how much more is it able to do the lesser which already properly belong in the scope of its divine delegation. If our members determine the validity of their baptisms, who can hinder their independent decision on the acceptability of their confession of faith? Or shall members under the sterner censures unilaterally declare a repentance unrecognized by the leadership as sufficient and proceed to serve themselves the Lord's Supper? We think not!

To doubt that it is the church who makes this judgment is to question if the church is anything more than a conglomerate of people with a common experience of personal salvation. Even if that were all the church is, all conglomerations of people develop leadership to fill vacuums. We are human, and therefore instinctively arrange ourselves in family structures. Leaders we will have and we will follow, and decisions for us and about us they shall make. Even if we were to admit that the flock will determine the validity of their own baptisms, they would then be at pains to know if the leadership of the church agreed with their decision.

While we insist upon an unwavering position at this point, we do recommend a more yielding countenance toward any who have protracted difficulty accepting their previous "baptism" as valid. There are important subjective considerations to be addressed.

IV. Counsel to Pastors and Sessions

A. Reasons to Resist a Subsequent Baptism.

1. Broken Symbolism.
Here lies our strongest reason to resist a second baptism. Baptism with water symbolizes cleansing; if it were done with mud the imagery would be irretrievably destroyed. Baptism is done by someone to a person who passively receives the ceremony—this demonstrates beautifully that we are not our own Savior—that He alone does the saving and we are the ones saved. It stands, thus, as a witness against dead works. But there is also extremely important symbolism in the singular administration! Our church has godly reasons to hold to this proposition.

By the grace of God our church is of the unified conviction that the segment of salvation, which is the conversion complex, is unrepeatable. This is part of the spiritual reality which baptism as shadow signifies. If we allow a perversion of the shadow, we possibly open the door to a misreading of the reality. Some Christians think they can be in and out of Christ, which error does great damage to their souls! Baptisms should be occasions of teaching sound doctrine. Good doctrine insists that the baptism with the Holy Spirit, regeneration, justification, and adoption can only occur once. We men may baptize twice, but God Himself cannot regenerate twice without breaking His Word (1 John 3:9). Christ cannot baptize twice with the Spirit. Those disposed to second baptisms may be susceptible to the logical consistency that the things signified are also repeatable. This is the very thing our Lord wants His courageous servants in His name to oppose. If we know a Christian believes himself to have a valid baptism, we must refuse all requests for repetition. The one requesting may not realize it, but we know we would be insulting by symbol those saving acts of the Lord which are punctiliar in nature. Similarly, if we were by policy to partake of communion only once, we would thereby assault the continuous nature of the work of sanctification. The symbolism of baptism being administered only once communicates foundational truths about our union with Christ.

2. The Faithfulness of God.
In those defective "baptisms" where the gospel is detached from the ceremony, if it was administered to one of God's elect, which circumstance would later be made manifest by saving faith, there is still something of meaning in that ceremony. All humans present may have been unregenerate, but God was also present and by His sacraments was reminding Himself (Genesis 9:16) of His promise to His Son that this one, too, was one of the number and was, "according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time"[6] to be united to Christ. When that elect person believed and received the Spirit, did not God fulfill what the visible ordinance was meant to depict? Meditation upon God's covenant faithfulness rather than one's lack of faith is what will usually provide that internal satisfaction that the ceremony had true meaning.[7] What is more supporting to our faith than contemplation upon God's faithfulness? We must admit that if God had no plans to save His elect, and if He had no commitment to His promise, that no value could then be found in millions of baptisms that have occurred since the time of Christ. But in the case of the elect, He was doing something, and in the case of the non-elect only externally called, He was saying something. We must not forget that God not only imposes covenant making and covenant "entering" upon others, He swears and binds Himself by signs added to His Word (Genesis 15:8-20; 9:12-17). He has even made promises to animals whose total lack of apprehension of the meaning of the rainbow does not and cannot invalidate the rainbow's meaning as a witness to the faithfulness of God. The baptized person, dead in sins but later made alive in Christ, would do better to be in rapture over the mercy and faithfulness of God than to curse his old condition. While doing so he might even repudiate the sign of God's faithfulness.

A marriage with one partner faithful to the vows and the other not does not require ceremonial repetition of vows in order to be a true marriage. The faithful partner could well refuse a repetition on the grounds of seriousness about them the first time. Such vows are really made only once, even though reaffirmed in the heart constantly. Likewise, we counsel against rebaptism in favor of reaffirmation!

3. The Impact Upon the Convert's Family.
A second baptism is a repudiation of the first one. This can easily be read as a rebuff to the convert's family and can create unnecessary strife. A convert's family is not likely to understand if the earlier religious training is treated with complete contempt.

The apostle Paul found sincere zeal in unbelieving Israel. It registered with him (Romans 10:1-4); he was in anguish over Israel's unbelief and dismissal of the true significance of their entire tradition in order to win them (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). He even participated in Jewish ceremonies in Acts 21:17-26 that were already fulfilled in Christ. It would be very easy in the light of some New Testament teaching to avoid all Jewish ceremony and practice. Most of Paul's observers knew only the ceremony and not Christ: His atoning offering or true purification. But Paul was reaching out to win Israelites, without denying His Lord. In fact, he fought with unwavering principle all attempts to require any ceremony as a prerequisite to salvation. The offense of the cross he joyfully and boldly embraced. But unnecessary insult to the sensitivities of even the unregenerate who are so attached to their ceremonies, was something to be avoided. The example is clear to us.

Our counsel to our new Christians with parents sensitive to this issue is that they not be baptized again. Those could well have been loving parents hoping and praying the best for their children in much sincerity, even if crippled by ignorance. The positive witness to the family could well be, God has done these great things for me that my baptism pointed to. By faith I have confirmed those vows and I now truly belong to the Lord. A testimony that stresses the divinely intended substance of the first "baptism" is far better than a defense of the superiority of the second one. Converts might even be able, in sincerity, to thank their parents for showing an interest in their eternal welfare.

4. The Burden of Investigating all Baptisms.
If a baptism within a Christian tradition is not objectively valid, then research into many avenues that just cannot be researched must ensue. Baptism must have validity on some basis. A heavy burden will fall upon the sensitive and conscientious pastor who wants to avoid breaking symbolism but who still believes in a subjective determination of validity. Roman priests may have died or moved or become unavailable for interview. 

And some may have had faith! Some may have been in Christ at the time they gave the rite. The process of investigation through the dim past, searching out such things as faith or the lack of it in deceased priests or parents will convince one that only God knows the heart. The difficulties of investigation will also lead, in practicality, to a policy of second baptism without the often impossible research. Subjective validation will spread to all other baptisms also. If an RPCES pastor is shown to be unregenerate, all his "baptisms" could fall with him. Dr. Buswell wisely wrote of participation in the other sacrament. "The value of participation depends wholly upon its institution by Christ, and not in the slightest degree upon the human channel by which it is administered."[8] If we are not careful, none of us will know for sure if we have been baptized. Likewise, if our salvation rested on the quality of our faith rather than faith's perfect object, we could not truly know if we are saved. The committee believes God has not left us in such confusing positions. We can know we are saved and we can know we are baptized.

5. Our Doctrinal Standards.
We do have an unequivocal doctrine forbidding second baptisms: "The sacrament of baptism is to be but once administered to any person."[9] Occasionally, when previous "baptisms" are rejected, a person is urged to be "rebaptized"[10] or "baptized over again." Such language is a contradiction of our doctrine. If anyone is baptized after conversion, even though he had had a Roman ceremony earlier, those who administer such baptisms must speak of such as the sole baptism. We would never counsel a person with a false profession to be "resaved", but rather to be saved. The committee wonders if the rebaptism language is not a subliminal realization that there was, indeed, a religious ceremony that was more than just a flinging about of words and water. It was a handling of God's holy seal.

Those who perform subsequent baptisms have a confessional responsibility to treat them purely as initial baptisms. This must be done on some grounds, either the convictions of the Presbyterian minister and session, or the conscience of the convert. 

B. Reasons to Consider Requests for a Subsequent Baptism.
In the light of the preceding argument, there would seem to be very little room for any favorable response from the church to those who still request another ceremony to replace their previous one. But new Christians have a perspective on this question too. We must look at it from that angle also. We need to meet their legitimate needs and respond tenderly to their consciences.

1. The Lingering Question of Whether the "Baptism" was Truly Valid.

After discussion and review of this question, we will probably not be fully persuaded as a body of elders on this question. On such a question as this, a commissioner is allowed to leave Synod persuaded of a view different from that recommended by Synod. Such a brother is not under the same strain as the new convert. The mature brother is not being denied an opportunity to obey Christ. In fact, he is being allowed to obey with a free conscience. We may, in unhurried fashion, review and refine our views. The new believer may want to know without undue delay if he can obey the Lord by being baptized! Since we allow fellow elders leeway on this subject, can we not allow some to those less capable of bearing the same burden? Must we make God's lambs accept positions His shepherds are not so sure of? The problem is not so much that the lambs ask us hard questions, as that we have not adequately resolved the replies. In such circumstances, the greater burden ought to be carried by the strong.

2. The Nature of a Ceremony.
A ceremony is just a ceremony. Its value lies outside itself in the important things it signifies. Thus, on one hand, baptism is important because it illustrates and points to inclusion in Christ as a result of His saving work. Separated from these spiritual realities, a separation God will not allow, it becomes a mere ceremony. As it was with the ritual of the Old Testament, though commissioned by God to teach us, the sacraments also will pass away. In fact, without the Word, they are unintelligible. Baptism, like the ceremonial law, is meant to be a testimony (Mark 1:44). They stand in order to catch our attention and provoke us to embrace the gospel and our standing by grace with our covenant God. If we have the purpose of these ceremonies fulfilled, we have secured the real heart of our Christian faith. There is a sadness in losing a wedding ring. But, in perspective, the loss is small if the relationship is intact. If, with full vigor, we defend our intricate views of the sacrament with the same zeal as we do the gospel itself, do we not depart from placing the higher valuation upon the gospel which the sacrament was meant to provoke? The emphasis must be disproportionate. When the word "baptism" is uttered, do not most of us think of water and not the Holy Spirit? Does this not reveal a veering off the course to the less essential? If Israel wanted a god she could see, aren't we also tempted to indulge distorted fascinations for created things above the Creator? It is very possible that a convert who requested in the joy of his first love to be baptized, will find himself in an experience of being put through mystifying doctrines that he does not comprehend. It could dampen his ardor for the more important things of the Lord.

We urge ourselves to remember that this is a ceremony, not the inner substance of our faith. It is not to be neglected or abased, but neither is it to be magnified. The apostle Paul could not specifically recall exactly how many he had baptized (I Corinthians 1:13-17). Baptismal ceremonies were not central to his ministry.

3. The Priority of Human Need over Ceremony.
Old Testament ceremonies had a temporal purpose. God was serious about the lessons to be taught and the relationships to be signified, and He therefore required non-optional ceremonies to underline them. Disobedience about ceremonies was censurable (Exodus 4:24-26). Disregard of any Scripture is a violation of a minister's calling. However, the earthly elements and ritual were not so all-important that all else gave way. There was no panic in the Old Testament to circumcise a dying Israelite baby prior to the eighth day—something sacramentalists should ponder. The Passover could be repeated the following month if a man was away on a trip (Numbers 9:10). The hand of God was upon an order of Hezekiah in II Chronicles 30 to have the feast for the entire nation in the second month, even though the ideal was for it to fall in the first month. Here is an example of flexibility, while close adherence was still the ideal to strive for.

Possibly the most notable example of ceremonial violation is David's eating the showbread, lawful only for the priests to eat (Mark 2:23-26). For David to eat the priest's showbread without reason would be wrong, but it was allowed in the situation David faced, and the Lord expressly indicated that it was permitted even though ceremonially unlawful! The Sabbath is meant for man, the showbread could be used for man, and baptism, too, is meant for man to bolster faith and be for them the occasion of sealing vows of allegiance. Thus, it is a gracious condescension to our human, physical, and psychological makeup.

In a situation where the convert is not confident that he has been baptized, there is a need the church must meet. We may be assured that he has been baptized, but he needs to know that he has been, too. We ought to meet this kind of hunger even by bending of ceremony so that each of our flock knows for certain that he has been baptized once. In the context of sacrifice and ceremony, the Lord told rigid Pharisees that he desired mercy. In the tension between our scruples and the needs of the converts, your committee advises that the weightier issue is the need of our people. 

4. Our Responsibility to the Convert's Conscience.
Baptism is attached to the reception of the gospel. The sinner not only believes in the heart and confesses with the mouth, he arises and is baptized, washing away his sins. By this sacrament he is initiated into the community of believers. He is aware of the Lord's command to be baptized. He sees it as an additional act of external confirmation of his faith. His zeal prompts him to engage in this form of confession also. If the baptism is denied, the problem is likely to be not so much his understanding of a previously valid baptism, but his alarmed conscience questioning whether he has obeyed God or not. On one hand we fear breaking symbolism, but the new Christian fears disobeying God. He will have difficulty respecting a ministry that frustrates him regarding this fundamental responsibility.

Our counsel is to teach patiently the full-orbed doctrines we believe the Lord has graciously brought us to understand. If the arguments against dismissing an earlier "baptism" do not avail—we propose a cheerful administration of the water of baptism for conscience's sake. We believe that if the minister is secure in his convictions and committed to the health of his people, second administrations will be rare.

5. A Possible Hindrance to Fellowship.
If a believer is denied a ceremony when it is in the power of our hands to acquiesce and that ceremony is available elsewhere, do we not unintentionally tempt the immature to seek other fellowships? Some Christians rebaptize members of their own denomination in simple transfers from one congregation to another. Many groups will baptize in an instant. Baptism is part of the official entrance requirement into a body of Christians. Would it not be a poignant tragedy if a Christian could be part of our fellowship in spite of various doctrinal differences, but couldn't find the opportunity to satisfy himself that he met a basic entrance requirement to his own satisfaction, and so went elsewhere out of a sense of rejection? This rejection would be the very opposite of the truth his baptism was symbolizing, namely union with Christ. If the situation came to that, then, again, the ceremony should fade while the substance prevails, namely heart-felt acceptance of the one already belonging to Christ.

C. Pastoral Responsibilities.

1. The Pastor's Conscience.
In urging respect for the consciences of others, at no time do we advise a pastor unpersuaded of our argument to violate his own. We, too, have a Master to obey.

2. The Pastor's Role as Teacher of the Word.
The sacraments are golden opportunities to teach the grace of God. If our people are confused about the sacraments and are full of questions, they are easier to teach when curious and are showing the need of an informed ministry. The symbols are easy enough to see. God created symbols to spark curiosity. Israelite children asked, "What mean these stones?" and godly fathers were glad to answer. We should capitalize on the opening afforded us. Requests for second baptisms are not occasions of stating "our policy", but for opening the Word. Baptisms without explanations are opportunities lost. Ministers who baptize but do not explain have difficulty justifying their years of preparation. The ceremony takes little; the exposition of the Word demands much. Converts should catch the pastor's deep attraction to the meaning.

3. The Pastor's Role as Shepherd.
Some of our people grow at slower rates than others, but they are still our sheep. We are Christians who encourage the timid and help the weak (I Thessalonians 5:14). We lay down our lives for the sheep. They do not need to have sharp minds to be part of our flock. We, too, are careful that no one pluck them out of our arms. We do not compromise our teaching, but we are reasonable in our expectations and go before, leading without coercion. Baptism speaks of inclusion in the Good Shepherd's fold. By His Spirit we do all we can to fulfill our Savior's desire. Those who come to Him are not driven away. We must focus again on these principles. We remember, too, that sheep are not very bright and all of us are called sheep.

V. Guidelines to Assist in Recognizing the Validity of a Previous Baptism.

"What is Baptism?

"It is a sacrament wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and the partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord's" (Q. 94, Westminster Catechism).

If a baptism comes from within a Christian tradition where the Trinity is understood and Jesus Christ is accepted as the one who came in the flesh and where He is designated the Savior, we urge acceptance of that baptism as valid. Thus, we reject outrightly the baptisms of the cults who stand outside the stream of catholic history. There is a distinct difference between contrived imitations and Roman distortions. The Holy Spirit and the truth of the gospel are not absent in the Roman Catholic Church. However, at this point, we express our firm outrage that so many of its communicants have been taught to trust in the sacraments themselves and to give only lip-service to the atoning sacrifice of the Savior. The truth of God has been slighted, but the enemy of God has not had a thorough victory. Recent developments in some segments of the Roman church have been beyond the expectations and faith of most of us.



[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p. 523-524. "The other condition necessary to the validity of the sacraments concerns the intention of those engaged in the service. They must intend to do what Christ commanded. If a man receives the ordinance of baptism, he must intend to profess his faith in the gospel and to accept the terms of salvation therein presented. And the administrator must have the purpose to initiate the recipient into the number of the professed disciples of Christ."

[2] Westminster Confession, XXVIII:VI 

[3] Westminster Confession, XXVIII:VII

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 506. "The ministry of the sacraments must, of course, go hand in hand with the ministry of the Word. It is merely the symbolical presentation of the gospel, addressed to the eye rather than the ear."

[5] Matthew 16:18; John 20:21-23. The key to the House of David in Isaiah 22:15-24, symbolized office, position, authority, opening and shutting, and being in charge of the royal palace. In Revelation 3:7, this same symbolism shows the royal authority of Christ in the House of David.

[6] Westminster Confession, XXVIII:VI

[7] We urge again, at this point, attention to Romans 2:28 – 3:4, referred to previously.

[8] James Oliver Buswell, Jr., A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion. Vol. II, p. 237.

[9] Westminster Confession, XXVIII.VI

[10] In the Minutes of the 22nd General Synod of the Evangelical Presbyterian branch of the RPCES, a motion concerning a brother who had been previously ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, would have required "that he also be rebaptized". This is the very terminology we must avoid. The Judicial Commission did not insist that his baptism be repeated.


1. Northern Presbyterian History of This Doctrinal Debate

In 1790, the General Assembly resolved that sessions should judge the validity of baptism in difficult cases with the aid of presbytery:

The following question was proposed by the Committee of Overtures, viz.:

Ought such persons to be rebaptized as have been offered in baptism by notoriously profligate parents, and baptized by ministers of the same description?
Resolved, that it is a principle of the church that the unworthiness of the ministers of the gospel does not invalidate the ordinances of religion dispensed by them. It is also a principle that as long as any denomination of Christians is acknowledged by us as a church of Christ, we ought to hold the ordinances dispensed by it as valid, notwithstanding the unworthiness of particular ministers. Yet, inasmuch as no general rule can be made to embrace all circumstances, there may be irregularities in particular administrations by men not yet divested of their office, either in this or in other churches, which may render them null and void. But that cannot be anticipated and pointed out in the rule, they must be left to be judged of by the prudence and wisdom of church sessions, and the higher judicatories to which they may be referred. In such cases, it may be advisable to administer the ordinance of baptism in a regular manner, where a profane exhibition of the ceremony may have been attempted. These cases and circumstances, however, are to be inquired into by the church sessions, and referred to a presbytery before a final decision. (William E. Moore, The Presbyterian Digest: A Compend of the Acts and Deliverances of the PCUSA [Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1873], p. 659).

J. Aspinwall Hodge summarizes the following history of this discussion in What is Presbyterian Law as Defined by the Church Courts? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1884), p. 84-85.

Unitarian baptism was pronounced invalid by the Assembly of 1814. "It is the deliberate and unanimous opinion of this Assembly that those who renounce the fundamental doctrine of the Trinity, and deny that Jesus Christ is the same substance, equal in power and glory with the Father, cannot be recognized as Ministers of the gospel, and that their administrations are invalid."

The Old School Assembly decided in 1864 that baptism by the Campbellites or Disciples is invalid.

The O.S. Assembly in 1845 declared that the Romish Church is not a Church of Christ, nor its Priests his Ministers, and therefore its baptism is invalid. In cases of doubt, the Session must decide if the applicant must be baptized.

Immediately following the 1845 Assembly, Charles Hodge wrote a vigorous dissent to this nearly unanimous (169 for, 8 against, 6 abstaining) Assembly decision. It is an article so definitive, it still merits the church's closest study. In it Hodge argued:

We are, therefore, constrained to regard the decision of the Assembly as in direct conflict with our standards, and with the Word of God; and as incompatible with Protestant principles, as well as with the practice of the whole Protestant world. We have no scruple in saying this. For in protesting against the decision of one hundred and sixty-nine members of the Assembly, we can hide ourselves in the crowd of 169,000,000 of faithful men who, since the Reformation, have maintained the opposite and more catholic doctrine ("Validity of Romish Baptism," Church Polity, p. 214.

Since the 1845 General Assembly had been influenced by various southerners (including James H. Thornwell), later assemblies took a more tolerant position, after the withdrawal of the Southern Presbyterian Church. J. Aspinwall Hodge (p. 85) summarizes this more moderate position:

In 1875, our Assembly answered to the question, "Should a convert from Romanism be again baptized?" that "the decision of the question be left to the judgment of each church Session, guided by the principles governing the subject of baptism as laid down in the standards of our Church."

This decision, however, has all the marks of parliamentary compromise about it. It says neither that Roman Catholic baptism is valid, nor that it is not. The decision to leave the question to the judgment of each church session may as much reflect the absence of a consensus as its presence. Did the two sides merely agree to disagree? Or was there a principled return to the more catholic position of 1790?

The current practice of the Northern Presbyterian Church is given by Eugene Carson Blake in Presbyterian Law for the Local Church (The Division of Publication of the Board of Christian Education of the PCUSA, 1953), p. 45:

A baptized Roman Catholic may be received either on profession of faith or on reaffirmation of faith. Discretion is left to the session as to the mode of reception, even to the inclusion of a rebaptism, if it is desired by the new member, although a session should be careful not to require rebaptism of anyone who has already been baptized in the name of the Triune God.

2. Southern Presbyterian History of this Doctrinal Debate

Under the influence of James H. Thornwell, the Southern Presbyterian Church took a more restrictive view of the validity of Roman Catholic baptism:

The General Assembly of 1871 declared invalid the baptism of the Romish, Unitarian, and Campbellite (Christian) Churches. (AD, pp. 25-26.) In 1882, this position was modified with reference to the Campbellite (Christian) Church as follows:

To affirm that no minister of that denomination ever administers Christian baptism, is a proposition that this Assembly is not prepared to accept, and the decision of the question of how far the certificates and sacraments of the churches of that denomination are to be recognized and received, must be left to the session and Presbyteries immediately interested in the subject. (GA, 1882, pp. 573-574).

The Assembly of 1884 (p. 206) reaffirmed the action of 1871 relating to this subject, as it applied to Romish baptism only. The other two were not mentioned. Again in 1909, (p. 48), the Assembly deemed no further action on Romish baptism necessary, and in 1914, (pp. 62-63), the Assembly declined to rescind its action of 184 on this subject (J.D. Leslie, Presbyterian Law and Procedure in the PCUS [Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1930], p. 135.

We commend "Validity of Romish Baptism" by Charles Hodge in his Church Polity.


1. We recommend that baptism be recognized as valid when the following three elements are present:
(a) Washing with water,
(b) In the name of the Trinity, and
(c) With the ostensible professed design to comply with the command of Christ.

2. We urge our pastors and sessions to accept Roman Catholic baptism as valid because baptism is God's institution.

3. We urge our pastors and sessions, thus, to avoid a subsequent baptism of those we believe to have been validly baptized.

4. If, after careful instruction on the meaning and symbolism of baptism, our people still cannot believe that they have ever been truly baptized, we recommend yielding to their needs and consciences by baptizing them. It should not be done, however, if the candidate for baptism has tendencies toward denial of such clear biblical doctrines as the unrepeatable nature of regeneration, justification, adoption, and the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Breaking the symbolism would do evident damage in such cases.

Respectfully submitted,
John DeBardeleben
David Kiewiet
David Linden (chairman)
Gareth Tonnessen
John M.L. Young

Synod upon motion, adopted all four recommendations as present in the report.

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