If the lost person is persuaded that the Roman way is the Christian way, his first duty is to be baptized. The Calvinist, however, says that once the person understands that the Christian way is the true way which he ought to accept, he neverthelesss is incapable of accepting it. Rome differs drastically there. She maintains that the enlightened unconverted person can see the truth of the Roman way and can decide to be baptized. The Protestant says the person can see the truth of the Reformed way and the need of baptism; but he can also see that “seeing the way” does not qualify him for baptism. According to Rome, seeing the truth of the Roman way does qualify him for baptism. According to Reformed doctrine, seeing the truth of the Reformed doctrine, including the necessity of water baptism, does not of itself alone qualify that person to be baptized.
What is the essential difference here? You see the two traditions are viewing the sinner as lost, but one of them says he is able to save himself by submitting to baptism. The other says he is not able to save himself by submitting to baptism. Rome says to the person, “Be baptized and you will be born again into the kingdom of God.” The Calvinist says to the person, “Be baptized at this time and you will be bringing yourself under additional judgment of God by taking a sacrament you are not yet qualified to receive.” Rome thinks a person even in his unregenerate state is qualified to receive baptism. Reformed Protestantism says that, in his unregenerate state, he dare not take the sign of baptism.
Do we Reformed charge Rome with heresy at this point? We certainly say she is wrong. But do we charge her with deep heresy for urging the unregenerate to be baptized in the name of the Trinity? We certainly do, because we claim that baptism is a sign of sin having been washed away, and that this person has not had his sin washed away because he has not yet had saving faith. Rome replies to that by saying he has not had the forgiveness of his sins as yet—that is true— but if he will receive baptism he will be born again and thus receive the forgiveness of sins by faith.
So for Rome, the baptism of an adult is not the sign of his sins having been forgiven, but the way by which his sins are to be washed away. The Reformed faith is saying, in contrast, that baptism can be administered to an adult person only if that person has professed faith and received the forgiveness of sins. Rome is saying that baptism is not a sign of the forgiveness of sins but a means to it. We are saying it is not a means to it but is only a sign when other means to salvation have occurred.
Now what are these other means of salvation to which we refer that Rome denies at this stage? The other means of salvation, and indeed the only means of salvation which we Protestants find in Holy Scripture, is the converting or regenerating work of the Spirit of God. When God has regenerated a person, and thus brought that person by the new birth into adoption into the family of God, then and only then is he to receive the baptismal sign of such membership. It is appropriate then, and only then, to be baptized. Prior to that experience, it is hypocritical for him to claim the cleansing of sins symbolically when he does not claim them actually or experientially.
Rome thinks of the candidate for baptism as an unregenerate son of the devil at the moment he receives baptism. She does not always make this clear to those whom she baptizes. But doctrinally speaking, that candidate for baptism, even though he has had a long catechumenate, is still an unregenerate child of the devil. It is that servant of Satan who is being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at a Roman font. Such baptism does not signify that he is God’s child, but assumes, in fact, that he is a child of the devil, at that point in time.
However, Rome says, the moment the water is applied in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that person is transformed into a child of God. We admit that is theoretically possible. A person could be an unregenerate child of the devil and yet it could be God’s plan to persuade him to come to baptism and thus become (by the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work at the time of baptism) a child of God. There are Protestants who believe that as well as Roman Catholics. Why do the Reformed differ with it? We do differ with it drastically. The question right now is, what right do we have to differ with it? I will not now ask what right Rome has to teach and practice it. I rather ask the question, How can we Calvinists and Evangelicals be sure that the Roman way of bringing a person into the kingdom of God is erroneous?
There are several arguments we present to demonstrate the error of the Roman view of baptism. The first is this: If a person is a child of the devil, loves the darkness and hates the light, and hates the Christ who is the light of the world, he cannot gladly accept baptism. In truth, he wants nothing to do with the God he hates as a sinner against Him. He is a bondservant of sin. He will not go happily to something God is supposed to have established which is actually going to make him something he does not want to be.
Second, it misrepresents God’s attitude toward the sinner. According to the Scripture, as even Rome admits, men are fallen and under the wrath of God. If they are not delivered, they must go eternally to suffer the torments of the damned at the hand of God. So God wants nothing to do with this person except to give him the wages of his sin, which is eternal death. But in the Roman picture of things, he is coming voluntarily and even gladly anticipating the presence of the God he hates. Meanwhile, God, who hates him with a wrath which will destroy him forever, is presumably standing there ready to convert him against his spiritual desires. That is, the sinner wants nothing to do with God. And yet here he is virtually standing and saying, “Baptize me, God, make me the kind of person who loves and serves You.” That is simple hypocrisy on the part of an unregenerate sinner. Rome is playing the role of promoting hypocrisy by urging this person to come to baptism, and simultaneously suggesting that God is pleased with him even as he sinfully comes before he is regenerated.
Rome can’t have it both ways. She can’t say that men are fallen servants of the devil under the wrath of God who is going to punish them eternally, then at the same time say that God is well disposed to them and pleased to have them come as hypocritical sinners into His presence and receive His sacrament of baptism.
By contrast, in the Reformed view the person has been born again. He is a child of God. He is coming to Christ for the symbolic cleansing of his guilt. God has regenerated him and forgiven him and is now giving him the sign of the washing away of his sin. That is very appropriate and suitable and compatible with the doctrine of Holy Scripture and Protestantism (and even of Catholicism, if it were consistent with its view of unregenerate man).
A third indictment of Rome for this practice is that she has no ground for believing that every time baptism is administered to someone that person is born again. She does champion the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. She does teach that the sacraments “work” ex opere operato in their very administration.
The Bible does not teach any such doctrine. It nowhere says that everyone who is baptized is born again. It does teach that the born again should be baptized. It nowhere teaches that adults not born again should be baptized, or that, being baptized, they will be born again.
Rome tries to counter this with the contention that in Titus 3:5 baptism is represented as the washing of regeneration. “He saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” That text refers to the washing of rebirth or the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit, to be sure. It does not say that the washing of baptism is the washing of rebirth. Rome reads that into it. The text simply says, “He [God] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Now the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit is by no means the same thing as baptism with water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Rome will say, “Granted, it is not the same thing, but is the text not saying, when it refers to washing, that the Holy Spirit through baptism creates the new birth and renewal?” We say, “No, not at all.” It simply says that God saves us by the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. We admit that the word washing does sometimes suggest the rite of baptism. But it does not say it. Washing and baptism are not necessarily identical. It is true that baptism is a kind of washing. But every washing is not necessarily baptism. Every water baptism is not necessarily washing. The washing in Titus 3:5 is qualified by rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Even Roman Catholics admit that baptism can occur without rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, and that rebirth and renewal can occur without baptism. That is the reason they say a person (be he a priest or some other person in an emergency) must have a sincere intention when he administers baptism. Presumably, if he does baptize in the triune name with a serious intention, then it “works.” God regenerates. Without a sincere intention, baptism presumably does not work.
What I am observing here is that Rome admits that the baptism could occur without a sincere intention and no change would happen. As soon as you add a human factor, such as intention, you are adding something to the Titus text. Titus simply says we are saved by washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. It says nothing about baptism. It says nothing about intention. It says nothing about the trinitarian formula. It says nothing about water. It simply refers to the washing. It simply refers to rebirth and renewal.
Rome appeals to John 3:5: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” This, Rome falsely teaches, is baptismal regeneration, by means of which a person is translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. But John 3:5 says this no more than does Titus 3:5. It simply says that one is born of water and the Spirit, obviously meaning born of water as well as the Spirit. John 3:3 had already said it was necessary to be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. One can be born of the Spirit. It is meaningless to say that washing with water creates a new spirit. Even those who teach the error of baptismal regeneration do not believe that. They deny any “magic” in the water. So new birth is a work of the Spirit, not of water. Why then is water mentioned in John 3:5? Obviously, baptism is associated with being born of the Spirit. It does not regenerate but is inseparable from it. How? One born of Christ professes Christ. His first confession is receiving the sign (baptism) of being a Christian. If he does not confess Christ he is not a Christian (Romans 10:9).
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.
Series Contents: Part One
Note: This primer is intended to give an overview of the significant theological differences between historic Protestantism and historic Roman Catholicism. In a primer of this size, it is not possible to give a thorough examination of a theology that has been controverted for centuries. For a fuller treatment of the main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism—justification by faith alone—see Justification by Faith Alone or, for Dr. Sproul's response to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," see Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together.