The Threat of Baptism

Recently, OHS Scott Clark posted about the Promise of Baptism.  While his distinctions between sign and signified, between baptism and union, are true and helpful, I am reminded how much more helpful Kline’s insights into baptism have been for me.  (You can hear Kline speak about Baptism in lectures 8 and 9 via this link.)

Most people get too wrapped up in Baptism’s signification of washing.  Gone, Kline laments, is the primary symbolism of baptism as judgment; of death-ordeal by water. Perhaps this is because, culturally speaking, the sea is no longer seen widely as a capricious force of destruction and danger.  But consider how the Egyptians were baptised in the Red Sea.  Or how all but 8 were baptised in the Flood.  Or how the prototypical covenant sign of circumcision was literally a “cutting off”.

The concept of judgment also neatly explains the reason why the sinless Christ had to submit to John’s baptism “of repentance”.  All prophets were covenant lawyers, and John, the greatest prophet of the Old Covenant, was God’s process server, delivering the final summons before the judgment which was at hand.  Those with ears to hear John’s message responded in repentance, except that Jesus had nothing to repent of.  Instead, by submitting to the judging waters of baptism, he signified and sealed his coming submission to God’s judgment on our behalf.

And so, returning to the point at hand, what does all this have to do with infant baptism?  When a baby is baptised (assuming, ordinarily, that the baby does not have faith), the parents are affirming that it is a child of wrath, subject to the curse of a holy God.  Newborns are not as innocent as we would all like to suppose, but (as the WHI crew so charmingly puts it) vipers in diapers.  It is not until God’s effectual call regenerates and brings faith that the subjects of baptism are united with Christ in his resurrection (WCF 28.6: “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered”); in the meantime, they are united with Christ only in his death — “dead in their trespasses”.

In terms of this gap, Clark states “That delay doesn’t change the meaning of my baptism.”  I (and I think Kline) would disagree.  When the Holy Spirit delivers the gift of faith, the signified which is promised by the sign of baptism changes from threat to blessing.  The subject of baptism moves from being cut off by his outward circumcision, to membership in true Israel, by virtue of circumcision of the heart. Formerly covered by the waters of judgment, he is now covered by Christ, who submitted to the same waters of judgment for us.  Previously united with Christ only in his death, now united with Christ also in his resurrection.  When a believer looks back at his infant baptism, he may see a promise fulfilled, but also he should be able to say “Whew!  Through grace alone I survived the death-ordeal of baptism by water!” (Conversely, when the apostate looks back to his baptism, instead of taking assurance from a promise, he should recognize that, apart from faith in Christ, he is still subject to the wrath and curse of God due to sin, and he will not survive the death-ordeal.)

It was for this reason that Kline admitted he has a problem with the form of baptism in the OPC BOCO , in which parents are asked to affirm that, by baptism, the child is “holy in Christ”.  ” ‘Holy’ yes, but not ‘holy in Christ‘ “, says Kline. “Holy” only in the “institutional sense” that children of believers have a right to membership in the set-apart covenant community.

So next time you witness a baptism, think on the water-ordeal that the infant has just embarked on.  Perhaps it will help you take more seriously your responsibility to assist the parents in evangelizing that “viper in diapers”.  (And perhaps it will also give you a good reply to that visiting baptist who complains that infant baptism is equivalent to an assumption of infant salvation!)

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36 Responses to The Threat of Baptism

  1. Steve Rives says:

    Thanks for the clarification. It is too bad that Kline is the forgotten Old Testament theologian who is too oft missed. He taught at Westminster CA, so maybe they still read him there… his legacy does survive in Pratico’s latest edition of his Hebrew Grammar.

    Regarding the Baptism of Jesus, one of Kline students, Bill Baldwin, preached the same interpretation as you give here. This is one place, however, that I think the meaning is elsewhere.

    Namely, Jesus was anointed King by the prophet, and the parallels with 1 Sam 16 may support this. Jesus being anointed King by John is the turning point in the life of Christ. And when it happens, he is like David — rightful king, but treated as an enemy and an outsider.

    Baldwin argues that Jesus being baptized was him standing in our place, the ultimate sinner (imputed to him, for he himself knew no sin) undergoing on our behalf the baptism of repentance.

    Given these two views, we at least discover that the Baptism of Jesus is something of a challenge for us to interpret.

    What seems certain, however, is that the baptism of sinners is effectual (as you point out), even if we die in unbelief. It reminds me of that sermon by Edwards where he said something like, “Sinners useful to God in their destruction”; God gets glory in all ways from all creatures, and the baptism of a pretender does not damage his majesty or his emblem but instead plays its ironic part in the working-out of Jesus’ fame. Even the wicked in hell will be their as a testimony to God’s excellence and justice. There is no wasted baptism.

    Not to interpret Paul, but to use his phrase to complete my own thoughts: I work out my baptism with fear and trembling.

    Steve Rives

  2. We still read Meredith. Some of us can still hear his voice in our heads when we teach/lecture/preach.

    I appreciate this reminder and I do think we have to be careful what language we use and we should remind those who have been baptized but who’ve not yet made profession of faith that there is a liability in baptism.

    I am influenced by Bob Strimple here who used to remind us, in view of MGK, that the primary message of baptism is a gospel message. I think that’s true and has influenced the way I speak about it.

    I don’t know what language the new OP forms use. That might be worth checking.

  3. RubeRad says:

    Jesus was anointed King by the prophet, and the parallels with 1 Sam 16 may support this

    Hmmm, no strong parallels are jumping out at me. They seem to be as different as oil and water!

  4. RubeRad says:

    the primary message of baptism is a gospel message

    In his lectures, MGK does seem to insist that the primary meaning is one of ordeal. But I think another distinction that often is ignored, is baptism’s message to the subject vs. baptism’s message to the covenant community witnessing (participating in?) the baptism. To the latter, I would say absolutely that the primary message is a gospel message, as it points the people of faith of God’s faithfulness to their own baptisms. To an infant being baptised, water-ordeal may be more prominent; but to restrict the discussion of baptism solely to the subject is an inherently Baptistic mistake!

    I don’t know what language the new OP forms use.

    This link takes you to PDF of the 2005 OPC BOCO, at, which has:

    Do you acknowledge that, although our children are conceived and born in sin and therefore are subject to condemnation, they are holy in Christ, and as members of his church ought to be baptized

    The only way I could endorse that phrasing is to define “in Christ” as “part of Christ’s visible body” (not “in union with Christ”). But the point of applying the covenant sign is that the infant has not yet been initiated into the covenant! Does baptism recognize covenant membership, or create covenant membership? I think it must be the latter, otherwise Baptism becomes like Zwinglian, memorial-only communion.

  5. sean says:


    Got a question for you; if baptism creates covenant membership in the case of infant children of believers(members whether one or both), how do you understand 1 cor 7 designation of these infant children as holy? Would you argue that these children have already been water baptized and Paul is merely recognizing their cultic status or is Paul pointing to their rightful state in the cult by birth. Fully agreeing that this cultic membership is not tantamount to union or regeneration.

  6. RubeRad says:

    I think MGK’s point is that the form’s phrase “holy in Christ” goes above and beyond 1 cor 7:14 (or since it is wrong, maybe that would be “below and beyond”?).

    MGK doesn’t seem to (and I don’t) quibble with the form’s direction of inference: holy, therefore “ought to be baptized”, so it would seem that your second option (rightful state in the cult by birth) is included in 1 cor 7:14.

    But I would quibble also with the form’s “as members of his [Christ’s] church ought to be baptized.” That’s like saying “as members of his church, ought to be made members of his church”

    So perhaps there are three stages of holy: newborns are holy in that they are entitled to baptism (whereas children of nonbelievers are not)

    Baptized infants are holy in that they are members of the visible covenant community (whereas unbaptized infants are not)

    Regenerate believers are full-on Holy In Christ.

  7. riorancho says:


    It is better to see baptism as publicly recognizing the set apart status of covenant children. It is the FVers who see it the opposite, because they want baptism to be an enterance into the covenant.
    Also, as much as I love MK, I never saw the ordeal idea as the chief idea of baptism. The sacraments are good news, that Christ bore our ordeal. And how much of baptism’s symbolism come from Ezek 36 and the sprinkling of clean water. I don’t think the point is the one baptized was saying, “either Christ or me must take this judgment” though of course the false professor will be judged more severely, but I don’t think that is ever the point of baptism in the Scriptures.

  8. RubeRad says:

    The sacraments are good news, that Christ bore our ordeal

    Yes, and the point is that there is an ordeal to be borne, and baptism recognizes that. Just as with the gospel, there is no good news without there first being bad news. You can’t be baptized into Christ’s resurrection, except you are first baptized into his death. As flip sides of the same coin, baptism, which signifies the cleansing and rebirth of the new man, also therefore signifies the filth and death of the old man — especially for those who do not yet possess saving faith.

    I don’t think that is ever the point of baptism in the Scriptures.

    The horse and his rider beg to differ, as well as n-8 people from the world that then was. If those baptisms of God’s people did not include judgment of God’s enemies, then they wouldn’t have been redemption — they’d just be water sports.

  9. riorancho says:


    But baptism is not making an oath that we will suffer and die with Christ – baptism is a profession that he has suffered and died for me. Jesus had a baptism to undergo, and it is his baptism we are professing and proclaiming in baptism, that Christ bore the waters of judgment for us. Does it also look forward, that we are committing ourselves to die for him, well, yes, but only incedently, not as the meaning of the symbol of water though


  10. RubeRad says:

    You only say that because you disagree with me.

    baptism is not making an oath that we will suffer and die with Christ

    No, but rather that we would suffer and die without Christ!

    Also, I wouldn’t say “making an oath”, because that puts the focus on our will. Rather professing a truth. Don’t (and shouldn’t) baptismal vows include an acknowledgement of original sin? And thus God’s just response to it?

    Now I’ll grant that maybe Kline goes a little overboard in claiming that the concept of judgment is primary in baptism. Maybe it’s not as primary as the gospel, but certainly it’s there and certainly it’s important.

    And just like the reality of sin is “part” of the gospel (cf Sproul’s book Saved From What?), even if sin is not the primary message of the gospel, at least it is logically and chronologically first. (And a “gospel” in which sin plays no part at all, is a false gospel)

  11. Todd says:


    A gospel where sin plays no part? I’m not sure what we are debating now. Little confused.

  12. Steve Rives says:

    Answer this: The rightful king is anointed by the prophet and the Holy Spirit comes down upon him. That king is not recognized as the rightful king, and is treated as an outsider and a threat. Am I describing David or Jesus?

  13. RubeRad says:

    How many churches out there claim to faithfully preach the gospel, and yet never utter word one about sin. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” is not the gospel. The gospel is: God hates you, but has a wonderful plan for your next life.

    Hey, that’s catchy!

    My point is, if sin is not preached, then the gospel cannot be preached. Likewise, any treatment of baptism without regard to the concept of death-ordeal by water, is incomplete.

  14. RubeRad says:

    OK, I yield completely; baptism is nothing but gospel

  15. RubeRad says:

    P.S. don’t forget that the “preaching of the holy gospel” not only opens the gates of heaven for believers, but shuts them against unbelievers:

    when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, they stand exposed to the wrath of God, and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted: according to which testimony of the gospel, God will judge them, both in this, and in the life to come.

  16. RubeRad says:

    Hmmm, I didn’t know that “spirit of the lord rushed upon him” part was in there. I see all the parallels in there, except anointing I have never thought of anything like baptism. I guess the point is all the other parallels draw that in. The key missing ingredient for me, I guess, is that this analogy does nothing to explain why Christ submitted to what is many times described as a “baptism of repentance”.

  17. Rana says:

    Hi Steve,
    Just wondering where you are getting Bill Baldwin’s sermons from? Are these his sermon notes on his blog? Or are his sermons online somewhere in audio form?

    I attended the church Bill pastored for many years and greatly miss his Christ centered preaching, would be thrilled to hear it online.


  18. Steve Rives says:


    Bill preached this at Park Woods OPC, as I recall (or he may have told it to me at the coffee house one day when we met).

    Bill recently preached at Eastside Church of the Cross on Psalm 1, I have that sermon in audio format, I may be able to upload that for you (I need to see if it is in the church library).


  19. I read Baptismal form #1 (in the ’59 Blue Psalter Hymnal) yesterday morning, as part of the baptism of Daxton Jeremiah Hyde (!) and I was struck by the appeal to the flood. This is an aspect of the traditional account that supports the Klinean argument regarding jeopardy and threat. The flood is an implied threat and it becomes explicit in 1 Peter when he appeals to the flood as type of the Second Coming. The language in the form regarding our baptism (i.e. identification with) into Christ’s death is also, of course, an implicit threat.

  20. Rick says:

    Dr. Clark,
    The prayer in form #1 after the instruction and before the address to parents is a most beautiful prayer:

    O Almighty, eternal God, Thou who hast according to Thy severe judgment punished the unbelieving and unrepentant world with the flood, and hast according to Thy great mercy saved and protected believing Noah and his family; Thou who hast drowned the obstinate Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea and led Thy people Israel through the midst of the sea upon dry ground—by which baptism was signified—we beseech Thee that Thou wilt be pleased of Thine infinite mercy, graciously to look upon these Thy Children and incorporate them by Thy Holy Spirit into Thy Son Jesus Christ, that they may be buried with Him through baptism into death and be raised with Him in newness of life; that they, daily following Him, may joyfully bear their cross, cleaving unto Him in true faith , firm hope, and ardent love; that they, being comforted in Thee, may leave this life, which is nothing but a constant death, and at the last day may appear without terror before the judgment seat of Christ Thy Son, through Him, our Lord Jesus Christ, who with Thee and the Holy Spirit, one only God, lives and reigns forever, AMEN.

    I rarely get through its public reading with a dry eye.

    But it’s the only part of the form that uses water judgment imagery

  21. kazooless says:


    Great post. I think this is one of your better written articles.

    I want to preface my following comments by saying that I strongly affirm the necessity of infant baptism.

    In reading this post I was thinking about how the danger of the sea, the flood of the earth, and the drowning of Pharoah, all involve being completely immersed in water. Once can’t easily drown by being sprinkled. Only a little more so by having water poured on you.

    I find it helpful when reading scripture and seeing the transliteration of the word baptize, to think of the picture of being immersed.

    Galatians 3:7 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

    How can a person be ‘sprinkled’ into Christ? If we are thoroughly covered by Him, isn’t this the “putting on” of Him?

    I know these are fighting words in this neck of the woods, but I do find it helpful when reading scripture to translate the word “baptize” so as to bring out its fuller meaning, and maybe some of you will be helped just as much. The mode I (actually do) participate in at church doesn’t bother me so much, as I consider it a circumstance of convenience and it is more practical for us in our day and age.

    Just my two cents.


  22. RubeRad says:

    Thanks, Onomist!

    First off, I’d note that the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” even though they walked on dry land. Likewise Noah+7 were baptized without being immersed.

    Also, check out all the references to “sprinkle” in Heb 9-10, especially 10:22:

    let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    Which gives cross references to: Ezek 36:25, Heb 12:24, 1 Pet 1:2,

  23. kazooless says:

    Yer welcome. 🙂

  24. Ron Smith says:


    I had to race home and read this after you told me about it at worship today. I see what you mean about how I would disagree. It seems to me that you make the meaning of baptism too subjective, as if threat was never held out to the elect or promise was never held out to the reprobate. Not to take a hammer from RSC’s tool belt :), but this is not Reformed.

    I would (as I said today) agree with the picture of baptism as judgment, though, I am not sure about the “primary” part. Baptism, like circumcision, pictures both promise of cleansing and threat of judgment. And (as I have said repeatedly, along with WCF 16), Saving Faith trembles at God’s threats and embraces His promises. It seems you would put fear and comfort into the hearts of the apostate and believer respectively, but our confession puts them both in the believer (and FV would add that they are extended to the unbelieving covenant member).

    In baptism, we are receiving promised blessings, but we are also saying before our Holy God and His saints, “So may God do to me and more also (that common OC phrase that accompanied vows) if we violate this sacred covenant.” We are saying, “may we be cut off, judged, etc., if we apostatize from the faith.” We say the same of our *own children* as parents offering them up for holy baptism, and we teach them that both promise and threat are held out to them as God’s Covenant children. “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay. I will judge *MY* people”, God says. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10)

    One last thing. You seem to desire an objective union with Christ via baptism, but you don’t want to go all the way to John 15, Rom 11, Heb 10, etc. Your solution to this is seems to be a sort of half-way covenant: “in the meantime, they are united with Christ only in his death…” and “Previously united with Christ only in his death…” So unbelieving covenant members are united to Christ in His death, but not in His resurrection? First, to this, I would respond with Paul in Romans 6. Paul doesn’t seem to allow one without the other. Secondly, doesn’t that deny Limited Atonement in some way? How could one be a partaker of Christ’s death, but then have to suffer their own eternal death? Double Jeopardy, anyone?

    In closing (just noted how long this was) 🙂 , these questions accompany the Reformed doctrine of Covenant. I find the doctrine of objective covenant to be the solution to these questions. A covenant member is truly united to Christ unless and until he is cut off. While in Christ, he has all the benefits of Christ’s mediation extended to him in Word and Sacrament. If he fails to abide in faith, he is cut off (either by the Church in time or by Christ on the last day). This seems so simple to me…

  25. RubeRad says:

    Not to take a hammer from RSC’s tool belt

    If you want to know what RSC actually said, you can just scroll up…

    “united with Christ only in his death” … doesn’t that deny Limited Atonement in some way?

    Good point. What I meant by “united with Christ only in his death” was not what Paul was talking about; I don’t mean anything to do with atonement, or receiving “all the blessings of Christ”, or becoming dead to sin. All I meant was confirmation of being dead from sin; dead in sins and trespasses; subject to judgment for original and actual sin; so it’s not union with Christ as I would describe for the regenerate (which is the whole point of Kline rejecting “union” language in the form for baptism), it’s just being right up there on the cross with Christ, being cursed, cut off, and punished for (our own) sin — albeit in more of a “not yet” sense than in an “already” sense.

    If he fails to abide in faith, he is cut off … This seems so simple to me…

    Yes it is simple to us because it is a covenant of works, which aligns neatly with our natural inclination towards Law. But that foolish, foolish Gospel is founded on the principle of grace, not works. How’s this for simple: Baptism is a threat… until it isn’t. The turning point is faith and all the blessings of Christ, including assurance and perseverance. It seems so simple to me…

    But if all of this is not your cup of tea, perhaps you’d prefer some coffee?

  26. David Cronkhite says:

    Two tiered holiness really opens up a can of worms. “Administratively” holy? This sounds baptist to me. In the Reformed church a child is baptised on the profession of faith of his parents. To tell believing parents that the child is holy but not necessarily united to Christ, “…let’s wait and see…” is baptist bunk. (my apologies to MLK) The fact is we don’t have special knowledge either way. Rather we confidentally believe that our children are 100% holy in Christ. Anything else is a lack of faith in His promise to us, Abraham’s posterity.

  27. Zrim says:


    I’m as troubled by “Bapterianism” as the next paedobaptist (more?), and I think you’re right. I would only add that if we want to maintain a measure of integrity for our credo-communionism we must recall that while a child is baptized on the basis of his folks’ profession, s/he is not admitted to the Table until s/he appropriates that very same confession. So while we confidentally believe that our children are united to the external covenant, it seems to me our credo-communionism suggests we ordinarily speak more conservatively about their internal union.

  28. David Cronkhite says:

    Yes, indeed. I like the way you put it, that we speak more conservatively about their internal union (given their atrocious behavior!) And we must not give in to our desire to gain the perspective that God alone enjoys. This is the difference between faith and knowledge. We hope, that is, assume that an adult’s profession of faith is valid. Why not assume that the sign actually signifies, whomever is being baptized?

  29. David Cronkhite says:

    Oh, now I see it. Can we keep that confidenchul?

  30. Ron Smith says:

    Baptism is a threat… until it isn’t.

    Agreed. We would just disagree on exactly *when* baptism ceases to be a threat. Baptism ceases to be a threat when there is no longer any opportunity for the baptized to apostatize from the covenant, viz. (don’t I feel smart using viz. 🙂 ) Glory.

    Kline’s rejection of union language in baptismal forms was a deviation from the Reformed doctrine of baptism. Of course, he deviated quite often from Reformed doctrine.

    Take the French Reformed Baptismal Form:

    “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you, he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you he uttered the cry ‘it is finished.’ For you, he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you he intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, ‘We love him because he first loved us.’” (emphasis added)

    Get a Reformed view of baptism:

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