Theology Thursday - John Smyth on Baptism

On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful characters. Some are orthodox, but decidedly outside the Baptist orbit. Others are completely heretical. Regardless of heresy or orthodoxy, we hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” (Jude 3).

John Smyth on Believer’s Baptism

“[B]aptism is the external sign of the remission of sins, of dying and of being alive, and therefore does not belong to infants.”1

“The Holy Baptism is given unto these in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which hear, believe, and with penitent heart receive the doctrines of the Holy Gospel. For such hath the Lord Jesus commanded to be baptized, and no unspeaking children.”

“The whole dealing in the outward visible baptism of water, setteth before the eyes, witnesseth and signifieth, the Lord Jesus doth inwardly baptize the repentant, faithful man, in the laver of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Ghost, washing the soul from all pollution and sin, by the virtue and merit of his bloodshed; and by the power and working of the Holy Ghost, the true, heavenly, spiritual, living Water, cleanseth the inward evil of the soul, and maketh it heavenly, spiritual, and living, in true righteousness or goodness. Therefore, the baptism of water leadeth us to Christ, to his holy office in glory and majesty; and admonisheth us not to hang only upon the outward, but with holy prayer to mount upward, and to beg of Christ the good thing signified.”2

John Smyth on Infant Baptism

“Now concerning this point of baptizing infants we do profess before the Lord and before all men in sincerity and truth that it seemeth unto us the most unreasonable heresy of all Antichristianity: for considering what baptism is, an infant is no more capable of baptism than is any unreasonable or insensible creature: for baptism is not washing with water: but it is the baptism of the Spirit, the confession of the mouth, and the washing with water …

Now that an infant cannot be baptized with the Spirit is plain, 1 Pet 3:21, where the Apostle saith that the baptism of the Spirit is the question of a good conscience into God, and Heb 10:22, where the baptism which is inward is called the sprinkling of the heart from an evil conscience: seeing therefore infants neither have any evil conscience, not the question of a good conscience, not the purging of the heart, for all these are proper to actual sinners: hence it followeth that infant’s baptism is folly and nothing.”3

Notes

1 “Short Confession of Faith in XX Short Articles by John Smyth,” Article 14, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. William L. Lumpkin, ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), 101.  

2 “The Short Confession,” in Baptist Life and Thought: 1600 – 1980, ed. William H. Brackney (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1983), 36.  

3 John Smyth, “The Character of the Beast,” in A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, ed. H. Leon McBeth (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990), 20.  

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There are 44 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

More modern Baptist statements of faith and teaching materials seem to ignore the cleansing idea in the symbolism. Not sure what has motivated that, other than maybe an overcorrection vs. more sacramental and "baptismal regeneration" perspectives.

But Smyth connects the symbolism with cleansing ...

The whole dealing in the outward visible baptism of water, setteth before the eyes, witnesseth and signifieth, the Lord Jesus doth inwardly baptize the repentant, faithful man, in the laver of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Ghost, washing the soul from all pollution and sin, by the virtue and merit of his bloodshed; and by the power and working of the Holy Ghost, the true, heavenly, spiritual, living Water, cleanseth the inward evil of the soul, and maketh it heavenly, spiritual, and living, in true righteousness or goodness.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I always thought the "washing" symbolism was very powerful, even though I don't recall seeing it tied to believer's baptism in the usual Baptist tomes. This is one of my favorite passages about the Spirit's work in regeneration:

For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).

I think this symbolism in baptism, of being washed of our sins and cleansed from all our unrighteousness, should also be emphasized. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

This is a hard passage to even translate. I'd be interested in anybody's take on this passage, particularly if you're not a Baptist. I read a Lutheran recently who had a completely different take. There must be non-Baptists who read this blog - what say ye?

FYI - more stuff on baptism from decidedly non-Baptist sources will be forthcoming in the next several weeks for Theology Thursdays.

 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

Glad to see you writing more!

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Andrew K's picture

If I'm not wrong, I remember reading somewhere that proto-Baptists didn't Baptize by immersion but by a practice of "face-washing" of some sort, which would have obvious links to the symbolism of cleansing. They learned immersion from the Anabaptists (who maybe got it from the Eastern Orthodox, who still preserved the practice b/c they knew Greek Wink ).
 

TylerR's picture

Editor

You wrote:

If I'm not wrong, I remember reading somewhere that proto-Baptists didn't Baptize by immersion but by a practice of "face-washing" of some sort,

I haven't read that. There are examples of early Moravian Anabaptists (ca. 1540) who baptized by pouring:

The baptizer first testifies to the baptizand and asks if he believes in God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. the bpatizand confesses. He then is asked if he desires to yeild himself to God and to live for Him and His church. If so, he is told to kneel before God and the church, and water is poured upon him. If baptism cannot be performed before the entire church, the baptizer may perform the ordinance alone (Peter Ridemann, "Account of Our Religion, Teaching and Faith," Article 7, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised edition, ed. William L. Lumpkin [Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969], 41).

I also know the Swiss Anabaptists (ca. 1520's) baptized by immersion. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Andrew K's picture

I read it in some of Jim Renihan's works. Have to find it again. The Renihans have done a lot of original work on the early Baptist.
 

Rolland McCune's picture

As a dispensationalist I have difficulty seeing water baptism symbolizing an experiential transaction, i.e., regeneration. More particularly--to see baptism as picturing the "washing" or cleansing of the believer's defilement and pollution of sin. I would argue that water baptism is a symbol of the believer's Spirit baptism which makes him a member of the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13; Eph 1:22-23). If Spirit baptism is understood as the building agent of the ekklesia, i.e., as a judicial, non-experiential placing of the believer into the new dispensational body, then it would seem more fitting that water baptism is a symbol of Spirit baptism. (This could be offset, as do some dispensationalists more recently, by seeing two kinds of Spirit baptism: one judicial and the other experiential. In satire, I could guess this might by accomplished by appealing to a moveable nu, an enclitic mem or a gnomic aorist. But I am not convinced personally.)

Further, this would harmonize water baptism and Spirit baptism as both being initiatory rites into the respective theological divisions of church saints. I.e., the possession of valid water baptism in the final analysis is necessary for admittance into the local church while Spirit baptism initiates one into the body church. But the order is first Spirit baptism to be duly followed by the ecclesial ordinance of water baptism. One must posses the spiritual reality in order for the material symbol to be valid and meaningful. Spirit baptism validates water baptism.

Where does this leave the cleansing and life-giving aspects of the Christian experience in reality and in symbolism? Actually this is quite similar to the preceding discussion. These aspects are experiential in nature and likewise validate their symbolic practice. I would argue that the second Baptist ordinance of the bread and cup celebrates the experiential side of church truth. These symbols draw their pictorial strength from the atonement of Christ, the yielding up of His body and blood in a sacrificial atoning death. Flesh and blood is a common biblical phrase for the physical constitution of human beings (e.g., Matt 16:17). Christ's full and complete humanity was necessary in order for Him to die for human sinners, but His full and complete deity (the inseparable Logos) made that sacrifice infinitely and eternally morally valid and efficacious. The bread and cup are symbolic of "eating His flesh and drinking His blood" (John 6:53-54), a teaching picture of "sharing" in the body and blood of Christ's atoning sacrifice by penitent faith (1 Cor 10:16). In short, communion is a symbol of regeneration and ensuing sanctification, a reminder of the "new and living way" into the presence of a holy God through the veil of His flesh (Heb 10:20).

The ordinances of baptism and communion are the property of the local church. Valid baptism is practiced once in the believer's ecclesiastical experience and the bread and cup are to be practiced often in an ongoing "remembrance" of the Savior's provision of full and free salvation.

 

 

 

Rolland McCune

TylerR's picture

Editor

I suppose I've always had a hard time understanding the practical difference between Spirit baptism and regeneration. Tied up in this issue are several knotty problems for dispensationalists (like me):

  • What is the relationship of the church to the New Covenant?
  • Is Spirit baptism a new thing, or were OT saints indwelt by the Spirit, too?
  • What makes NT spirit baptism different than the OT experience? How you answer this depends on what you think about the New Covenant. Thus, you have some hard line classical dispensationalists who almost argue for two different ways of salvation. You also have some Baptist dispensationalists who never even speak of the New Covenant because they don't see the church as having any relationship to it. You also have some dispensationalists (like the late Dr. Rodney Decker) who see the church as full participants in the New Covenant

All these issues (and others) are intertwined with what you think about spirit baptism and regeneration.

  • Because I see the NC as fully in effect now (and promised to be applied to Israel later),
  • and because I believe OT saints were permanently indwelt by the Spirit,
  • I see spirit baptism and regeneration as virtually synonymous.

I see spirit baptism as sovereign application of the New Covenant to a believer's heart, mind and soul, placing them into the body of Christ, which is the church. So, with believer's baptism, I have no problem with adding the washing symbolism to the identification with Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. 

Dr. McCune wrote:

I would argue that the second Baptist ordinance of the bread and cup celebrates the experiential side of church truth.

I've always considered it the complete opposite!

  • I've viewed believer's baptism as symbolizing the experiential and the sovereign application of Christ's perfect work to the believer
  • I've always viewed the Lord's Supper as a symbol of substitutionary atonement (i.e. His broken body and shed blood for His elect, New Covenant children) and a prophesy of His imminent return

I suppose you could say I see the Lord's Supper as symbolizing and representing the provision of Christ's finished work, and believer's baptism as the experiential application of His finished work by the Spirit. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

Tyler, are you quite sure that anabaptists baptized by immersion? I could have sworn that most baptized by pouring. I don't remember if it was McBeth or Armitage where I read it. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

Josh:

I don't have my Anabaptist stuff in the house. It's in the garage, and it's pouring outside! It looks like the record is mixed.

  • I could have sworn William Estep specifically mentioned immersion, but looking now, I don't see it.
  • The Anabaptist confessions are mixed; some mention pouring, others refer to Rom 6 and I assume are advocating for immersion.

The concern for the Anabaptists, from what I can see and remember, is the issue of believer's baptism, not necessarily the mode. I could be terribly wrong. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TOvermiller's picture

TylerR wrote:

  • Is Spirit baptism a new thing, or were OT saints indwelt by the Spirit, too?

  1. Tyler, do you view Spirit indwelling and Spirit baptism as the same thing, synonyms for one another?
  2. How do you understand John 14:17 ("for he dwells with you and will be in you")?
  3. How do you explain Acts 1:5 (cf. Acts 11:15), for instance, that indicates a yet future baptism for the disciples of Jesus, at a time when they appear to be regenerate disciples of Christ already, akin to OT believers (you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now)?

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

A few things:

  • I think the Spirit indwelt OT saints, but I'm not sure to what extent. 
  • I understand the passages you cited as speaking of the application of the New Covenant to their hearts by the Spirit. In other words, once Christ's work is finished and the Spirit was sent to apply the finished benefits of that work, you have a dramatic intensification of activity in the believer. After all, Peter and the apostles were already saved.  
  • I see Acts 11:15 as essentially a Gentile Pentecost done by God for deliberate effect, so Peter could take that message back to Jerusalem

So, yes - I have always had trouble with the distinction between regeneration and Spirit baptism many dispensationalists make. I think it fundamentally stems from what you think about the New Covenant. In brief, here is my view (which is heretical to many dispensationalists, which makes me wonder if I even am one anymore):

  • There are two New Covenant people groups - Israel and the Church
  • Today, the church is being built by the Spirit, which regenerates, adopts and places believers into the New Covenant
  • One day in the future, the New Covenant will be applied to "all Israel," and Jesus will then return and fulfill all the promises to Israel from the Abrahamic Covenant
  • In eternity, on a completely new earth in a completely new creation, both people groups (represented by the names of the 12 tribes on the city gates, and the 12 apostles on the foundation stones) will dwell with the Lord and the Lamb forever. They'll be distinct groups, but the distinction between Israel and the Church will be basically meaningless at that point. Sort of like, say, one Christian being from India and another from Seattle. Good to know, but ultimately meaningless. 

Sorry to go on like this, but I think your understanding of the New Covenant undergirds what you think about these issues. Open to correction and instruction. Must dash . . . Ciao! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Intensification - the difference between the Old Covenant and the New. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TOvermiller's picture

TylerR wrote:

Intensification - the difference between the Old Covenant and the New. 

Thanks for bearing with me in grasping your perspective. So you would say that the WITH of John 14:17 is an internal presence of the Spirit for OT believers, and the IN of John 14:17 is an intensification of the Spirit in a way unknown to the OT believers. And if this is the case, I guess I would have difficulty accepting such an interpretation, in part, because it seems quite distant from the meaning or semantic range of the words used in this verse. For with to equal in and in to equal more intense). Albeit, the New Covenant discussion is much broader than the words of this verse alone, but it is one detail that I wrestle with.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

TOvermiller's picture

TylerR wrote:

  • In eternity, on a completely new earth in a completely new creation, both people groups (represented by the names of the 12 tribes on the city gates, and the 12 apostles on the foundation stones) will dwell with the Lord and the Lamb forever. They'll be distinct groups, but the distinction between Israel and the Church will be basically meaningless at that point. Sort of like, say, one Christian being from India and another from Seattle. Good to know, but ultimately meaningless. 

In addition to Israel and the Church, there will also be saints from Adam to Abraham or Adam to Moses (pre-Israel) and those saints from the Tribulation through the end of the Millennium (post-Church).

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

It's a good point, but I don't have a lot of time right now. I'll depart with this:

  • There is good evidence to read Jn 14:17 as a present-tense, not the future ἔσται as the UBS-5/TR/BYZ have it. This is a textual issue. The UBS-4 only gave the future a "C" for probability. It could well be present-tense ("is in you")
  • See Dr. McCune's discussion on the Spirit indwelling in the OT (Systematic, 2:269-289). His discussion confirms what I had suspected and been leaning towards for a while. It was definitive for me. 

I changed my position on the New Covenant, and the corresponding implications for spirit baptism and spirit indwelling, after preaching through the Book of Hebrews. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Regarding two groups or more, yes, you're right. Forgive me, for I have sinned (er . . . mis-spoke)!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TOvermiller's picture

TylerR wrote:

Regarding two groups or more, yes, you're right. Forgive me, for I have sinned (er . . . mis-spoke)!

No worries, that's just my desire to be technically correct. I do find, though, that our theological discussions often focus on Israel and the Church so heavily that we fail to include these other obvious groups (pre-law, post-church, etc.). I've done (and probably still do) the same thing inadvertently at times!

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

Looking through the Anabaptist confessions last night, I am astounded at how much they emphasized the washing symbolism. Is it a dispensationalist thing to be leery of this symbolism in baptism? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Actually, now that I re-read Smyth's words, he doesn't seem to make any connection to Christ's death, burial and resurrection. It's all about the symbolism of washing and regeneration to him. Very interesting.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Carry on, y'all.  The only thing I might add is that I'd guess that in the past century, many dispensational cessationist Baptists have been leery of getting too far into discussions of the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" because of the obvious connections with charismatic theology.  But if a prophet, John the Baptist, repeats what the OT prophets noted about this.....I guess I'd better repent of this.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Bro. Overmiller:

I have a few more minutes, so I shall pick up the fight once again.

  • Regarding the preposition in Jn 14:17 ("in you"), there is a case to be made for not seeing this as expressing spatial location. I believe it is expressing association and relationship. For example, this is precisely the way many grammars (e.g. Richard Young) understand the phrase "in Christ" to be functioning. We're not physically inside Christ; the preposition in those instances expresses relationship and union. Along those lines, you could simply translate this as saying the Spirit will be "among you." I don;t have any exegetical commentaries handy, but this is certainly a valid category for the preposition. It certainly is the case with "in Christ."   
  • If this is the case, then Jesus isn't talking about physical indwelling at all, but union with Christ as the benefits of His finished work are applied in the New Covenant by the Spirit. I'll take a look at some exegetical commentaries when I get home.

What say ye?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

It is also clear that Smyth viewed 1 Pet 3:21 as speaking of Spirit baptism, which fits with his conception of the ordinance as a symbol of regeneration. 

As I think on it now, I realize I never considered that 1 Pet 3:21 could be referring to Spirit baptism (i.e. regeneration). It's an interesting thought. I've spent a good part of the last few evenings translating 1 Pet 3:21, and if you see the "baptism" as Spirit baptism, this would solve the issue of how to classify the present tense-form of the verb "is saving." It could then easily be a durative present ("has saved") at that point. No tap-dancing necessary. 

Thoughts? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TOvermiller's picture

TylerR wrote:

so I shall pick up the fight once again.

Fight? Hopefully I haven't conveyed anything of a fighting nature through my questions. A wholesome, thoughtful conversation? Yes. A fight? Hopefully not.

  • I agree with you wholeheartedly that "we're not physically in Christ." No disagreement there. But spiritually in Christ makes most sense to me. So maybe you call that spatial (albeit in a spiritual way), but not in a physical sense. So in this sense, being spiritually in Christ definitely "expresses relationship and union."
  • "Among you" seems to be the idea of with here, more than in. An OT and Theology professor of mine taught an OT "with-dwelling" among the people of God and an NT "in-dwelling" within the people of God. I echo this perspective here. (BTW, he also recognized John 3 as indicating that regeneration was as much an OT truth as a NT one.)

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

I was being sarcastic. No worries, I promise! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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