A discussion starter from Dr Peter Toon, Feast of the Epiphany, 2007
Many celebrate the Evangelical Revival in Great Britain and the Great Awakening in the American Colonies of Great Britain in the eighteenth century, and recall such names as John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards with warm affection. The zeal and preaching of the evangelists and the heightened spiritual experience of thousands of people of all ages is often recounted—sometimes with a longing for the recovery of such things in our time.
However, in terms of right understanding and use of the Dominical Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it may be said that the Revival and Awakening set the Churches back a long way (maybe too far)—especially with Baptism.
In the main, the evangelists preached to nominal and committed Christians, that is, to persons who had been baptized as infants and who went to church even if irregularly. Now the baptismal service of the Church of England particularly, and of other Churches generally, contained an assumption that there is a close relation between being born again (regeneration) and water Baptism. And being born again meant being placed by God the Father in the covenant of grace and thus born into his Family as his adopted child. To say the least it meant that the person baptized, infant, child or adult was in some sense a Christian in reality or in potential. And over the centuries the Church in West and West had treated the baptized as Christians and exhorted them to live daily as such. Baptism is a Sacrament that is never repeated. So the baptized of any age were not to be evangelized for they were not the heathen but they certainly had to be called to consecration and commitment to the Lord.
Instead of taking their model for their preaching from the Prophets of Israel who called the people of Israel as God’s people back to the LORD from their apostasy and faithlessness, the evangelists preached to the “Christians” as if they were heathen, as if they were not baptized in the Triune Name. Thus frequently they preached, “Ye must be born again,” and equated the new birth, regeneration, with both an internal renewal and an outward conversion, available there and then. They assumed that the people were not regenerate but needed to be born again in the extended sense of full conversion, and this meant that –without necessarily thinking about it— they actively denied the doctrine of the Baptismal Services. They separated the grace and mercy of God in regeneration from the Sacrament of Baptism and made Baptism to be merely and only an outward sign. And thereby they set in motion what has become a massive pastoral and doctrinal problem for those majority of Churches which baptize the Infants of baptized Church members.
In later periods of British and American revivalist preaching, “ye must be born again,” was heard often as a command from God to be obeyed at once—and it meant “make a decision for Christ and thus be born into his people/family.” In contemporary America this kind of preaching and practice is commonplace and thus any attempt—by traditional Anglican or Presbyterian or Lutheran— to relate regeneration to sacrament is a huge task for there are so many layers of explanation and understanding required to set the context for and to teach the historic doctrine of Baptism as God’s Sign and Seal of the Covenant of Grace .
Where we are in 2007 and what are our problems in America stand in stark contrast to evangelization in the Early Church where evangelism led people to desire to become a child of God and disciple of Jesus, but this was not seen as fully realized until, after instruction and exorcism, Baptism was administered. Here, it was proclaimed, regeneration took place (as the believer was adopted by God into his covenant and family) and afterwards the new Christian, as a family members, for the first time prayed, “Our Father…” When they had children, they were also baptized and admitted thereby into the new covenant, the family of God.
As in ancient Israel where boys of 8 days were circumcised, and as converts to Judaism be they male or female, old or young, were “washed” (baptized), so in the administration of the new covenant, inaugurated by the sacrifice of Jesus himself, God places male and female, old and young, through Baptism into that covenant, which makes all the baptized the children of God. They are born into a new and everlasting Family. Once within this covenant of grace they are called to live as “God’s elect,” true followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This said, to hold the right doctrine of, and to administer rightly, Infant Baptism in local churches in the land, where many claim to be “born again” and see not the slightest relation of this to Baptism, are difficult, if not impossible today!
Many of us take the easy way out and reduce Infant Baptism to a service of dedication or suchlike and make no assumption that the one baptized is actually and really a Christian, to be nurtured and instructed as such until he is sufficiently mature to recognize and accept to whom he belongs! Rather, we assume that the baptized, as the un-baptized, is to be evangelized whenever possible and is to be encouraged to make a decision for Christ so that he may then be “born again.” And in all this we ditch the pastoral mind and practice of the Church over many centuries!