Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A Critique of Peter Leithart: “No Sacraments, No Protestantism"

On November 14, 2014, Peter Leithart published a blog post at Patheos in which he declared, “No Baptism, No Justification.” In that post, he clearly argues that baptism is a means by which we receive God’s verdict of justification. I would like to respond briefly to several of his points.

1. Leithart claims that two passages of Scripture teach justification by baptism. 

1 Corinthians 6:11. 

1 Corinthians 6:11 says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Commenting on this verse, Leithart says, “The Corinthians had been the kind of people who do not inherit the kingdom, but Paul tells them they are no longer such people because “you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).”

Let’s consider Leithart’s exegesis. In order to argue that this text teaches justification by baptism, Leithart needs to read the word “washed” as “baptized.” But this is a questionable interpretation in light of how the word “washed” is used in the Scriptures. Throughout the Bible, words translated “washed” frequently refer to the cleansing of heart and conscience at the time of conversion. For example, Isaiah 1:16 says, “Wash and make yourselves clean.” Psalm 51:7 says, “Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” Jeremiah 4:14 says, “Wash the evil from your heart and be saved.” Leithart claims that 1 Corinthians 6:11 is a baptismal formula, but he does not use the Bible to support this claim. I submit that Leithart loads more interpretive weight in the word “washed” than it is capable of bearing. 

Romans 6. 

Romans 6:1-7 says, “1. What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2. By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”

To show that this passage teaches justification by baptism, Leithart says:
Paul actually uses the word “baptize” with “justify” in Romans 6. Whoever dies, Paul writes, is “justified from sin” (v. 7). (That’s what the Greek says, though your English Bible may translate the verb as “freed.”) When does one die to sin? Paul has already told us: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death” (vv. 3–4). Through baptism, we die to Adam and brought to life in society with Jesus. Paul calls that transition from the reign of Death to the reign of Life a “justification,” and it happens at baptism.
Let’s briefly examine Leithart’s exegesis. Leithart’s reading depends on understanding the term “baptism” to refer to the ordinance of Christian baptism. That certainly may be the right reading of this passage. But consider that the term “baptism” in Scripture often does not refer to baptism with water. John the Baptist says Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11) and with fire (Matt 3:11).  Christ’s baptism with the “Holy Spirit” is the immersion of the believer into the Holy Spirit Himself. Christ’s baptism with “fire” is the immersion of a person into judgment.  Moreover, Acts 1:5 sharply contrasts water baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, showing that the two are not the same: “For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Water baptism is insufficient for salvation. Spirit baptism is necessary. In conclusion, the meaning of the term “baptism” in the Bible should be interpreted contextually and the notion of “Christian water baptism” should not be read into every occurrence of the term.

So, what is the meaning of the word “baptism” in Romans 6? Romans 6, in particular, appears to refer to a baptism other than water baptism, though water baptism certainly stands in the background. Verse 3 says that we are “baptized into Christ.” Paul doesn’t tell us that we’re baptized “into water as the means of entering into Christ.” Rather, he tells us that we’re “baptized into Christ” Himself. And when we’re baptized into Christ Himself, we die and rise with Him. Baptism into water is a fitting symbol of this deeper reality of baptism into Jesus.

2. Leithart claims that baptism is a justifying act of God. 

Later in his post, Leithart writes:
“How are we to understand this? If we talk about baptism and justification in the same breath, aren’t we falling back into justification by works?  
No, because baptism is an act of God. A human pours the water and says the words, but God performs the baptism. Baptism is an enacted word that declares the forgiveness of sins and the justification of the ungodly. The big difference between the word and baptism is that the word offers God’s grace to everyone-in-general while baptism declares God’s favor to me. Baptism wraps the gift of forgiveness and justification and puts my name on the package.  
Like the gospel, baptism requires a response of enduring faith. Faith involves believing what baptism says about you. Because you have died in baptism “consider [reckon] yourselves to be dead to sin” (Romans 6:11). The self-imputation of “righteous” is based on the baptismal declaration that we are “justified from sin” by union with the death and resurrection of Jesus. And I can’t, of course, live a life of unbelief and disobedience, and expect baptism to recuse me at the end. Such a life would betray my baptism, which is Paul’s whole point in Romans 6. Still, baptism is the moment when I “die to sin” through Christ, the moment I’m washed to become “justified from sin.”  
The heart of Leithart’s argument is that baptism is an act of God, not a work of man. While that claim certainly sounds appealing, one wonders whether the Scriptures themselves separate baptism as an act of God and as a work of man the way Leithart does. In Acts 2:38, Peter issues two commands: “Repent and be baptized.” Both of these are works that human beings are to perform. Even more explicitly, Acts 10:48 says: “And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Similarly, Acts 22:16 says, “Rise and be baptized.” It appears that baptism, in Scripture, is indeed a work God commands human beings to do. While baptism represents the free and gracious promise of God, the rite itself is a work of faith that God commands of men. In itself, this does not prove that justification is not by baptism (a work of faith). Rather, it shows that Leithart’s argument that baptism is not a work seems to fail.

Also, notice what kind of justification is given through baptism on Leithart’s model. Leithart’s justification is not a sentence of complete redemption, full and everlasting pardon, and a certain title to eternal life. Instead, according to Leithart, if you’ve been justified by baptism, you are also required faithfully to endure to keep your justification to the end. Leithart tells us that the sentence of justification, announced at baptism won’t necessarily “recuse me at the end.” In other words, if you receive the justification of baptism, but then “live a life of unbelief and disobedience,” you will not enter into heaven, but you will go to hell. The kind of justification you receive at your baptism, according to Leithart, doesn’t guarantee that you will endure to the end, nor that God will keep you to the end. Consider Leithart’s doctrine of justification in relation to the Bible’s doctrine of justification, which says, “Those whom he justified, he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). Justification, in Paul’s view, guarantees glorification. Paul also says “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God . . . Since therefore we have been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:1, 9).  Notice the logic.  Since we have been justified, we will be saved from God's wrath.  Paul tells us that justification guarantees final peace with God, full rescue from the wrath of God forever.

Let me illustrate the problem using Leithart’s gift metaphor. Leithart tells us, “Baptism wraps the gift of forgiveness and justification and puts my name on the package.” But to be more accurate, in Leithart’s system, he would need to say, “Baptism wraps the gift of forgiveness and justification and puts my name on it, but this gift comes with a list of conditions that I have to meet, if I want to keep God’s gift.” Perhaps Leithart should change his metaphor. Everyone knows that a truly free gift doesn’t come with conditions. Perhaps a better metaphor would be that of a master who gives his servants wonderful living quarters, delicious food, and provisions for his work, but then tells his servants what they need to do to remain in the masters house. And the master warns them that if they don’t obey, they’ll be removed from the household. That metaphor seems much more consistent with Leithart’s model, much less like a covenant of grace, and much more like a covenant of works. 

3. Leithart claims that only baptism can give us settled assurance. 

Leithart writes:
Suppose I ask you, “How do you know you are in a right standing with God?”  
You might say, “Because I feel the relief of forgiveness.” But then I’ll ask, “Do you always feel relief? Do you never feel guilty?” And I suppose you’ll admit that you do feel guilty sometimes. You might say, “I know I’m justified because I believe the gospel.” You know you’re justified because you’re confident that you have fulfilled the condition of justification, which is faith. That sounds a lot like putting faith in your faith, which is putting faith in something you’ve done, which is the opposite of what a Protestant should say.
Leithart’s solution to the problem he alleges is justification by baptism. If our baptism justifies us, according to Leithart, then we only need to look to our baptism when we feel guilty and need to be reminded of God’s promises to us. We can be sure we belong to God by looking to our baptism. But does Leithart’s solution solve the problem he proposes?

First, is Leithart suggesting that believers should not feel guilty? His opening questions appear very strange indeed. David felt guilty in Psalm 51. Paul says that he felt guilty in Romans 7. Is the standard of the accuracy of our doctrine of justification whether or not we “never feel guilty?” I submit that we should feel guilty when we sin, but that our feelings of guilt should be alleviated, not by looking to our faith, nor by looking to our baptism, nor by the works of perseverance, but by looking to Christ and His finished work on the cross. Leithart is correct that our object of faith must be outside of us. It must be something concrete and certain. The object of our faith must not be our subjective faith, feelings, or works. Instead, the Bible urges us look to what Christ did objectively in history, and there we find our comfort. This is the plain and consistent teaching of the Scriptures. The Lord says, “Look to Me and be saved all the ends of the earth” (Is 45:22). “Whoever believes in Me will not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). “Everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:40). There is true and perfect comfort for sinners who look to Christ and His work. The Word of God never teaches us to look to our baptism for salvation or for assurance of salvation.

Second, it would seem that Leithart’s proposed solution does not solve the problem he thinks he has identified. Even on Leithart’s model, a person must look to his baptism and believe its promises. He must still do something subjective. He must “look” to baptism in faith. Leithart writes, “Faith involves believing what baptism says about you.” But more than that, on Leithart’s model, he must also do good works, and persevere to the end in covenant faithfulness in order to remain secure in his baptismal promises. Leithart is clear: “Baptism requires a response of enduring faith.” Thus, Leithart says his system resolves a problem he perceives in classic Reformed theology, but in fact, his system creates the very problem he thinks he is solving, and makes it worse.

Leithart tells people to look to baptism for their assurance, but the Scriptures teach us to look directly at the objective Christ and His historic work (Heb 6:17-20; 9:12). Does looking to an objective baptism (the lesser) really give us greater assurance than looking to an objective Christ (the greater)? How can you know for sure that you’re really “looking” to your baptism? Do you “really believe” the promise of your baptism? If you don’t, then on Leithart’s model, perhaps you have committed apostasy. It may be that you believed once, but now you’ve stopped believing the promises of your baptism. How do you know? Maybe you’ve fallen away from faith and it’s only a matter of time until your unbelief manifests itself. Moreover, are you sure you’re going to endure to the end so that you can receive all the promises that baptism makes to you? You might fall away in the future, and your baptismal promises will be lost. This system throws a person back onto his faith and works for salvation in a covenant of works.

The covenant of grace in Christ is far better than any of this. In His covenant, He washes us completely; He keeps us by His power; He works life in us, and will never let us go. He finishes all He begins, and He keeps all of His sons forever. Thanks be to God for the covenant of His boundless grace. He is so good.


  1. I think you will enjoy this post as well, brother.

    Another PB said this about the Baxterian errors:

    Thank you for your labors!

    1. That's excellent! I wrote my PhD dissertation on Benjamin Keach's arguments against Richard Baxter. May the Lord raise up more like Keach. :)

  2. Hey Tom,

    A friend pointed this article out to me, and though I am not particularly interested in getting into a blog discussion on it (though I did write a doctoral thesis on baptismal regeneration with Gerry Borchert supervising), I am interested to see your name pop up on my radar. I talked with you on AOL occasionally back in the late 90's, and I see you married Joy Axsom. I went to Belhaven with her for a year. Anyway, small world...

    1. Hi Rick, it's great to hear from you. It has been a long time since the 90's. I have no idea what we discussed on AOL! But it is a small world, indeed. Joy remembers you as well. She sends her greetings! Hope you're doing well.

  3. I've often heard people talk about their sins being washed away; it sound as if Leithart would have baptism wash away the work of Christ. I guess, if Leithart is right, that Jesus lied to the repentant thief--since there's not record of the latter being baptized.

    1. I completely agree. This model nullifies the efficacy of Christ's work.

  4. Leithart sounds absolutely Lutheran here. It was at this very point where I had to take a stand against the Lutheranism in which I was raised, and so I ended up joining a Presbyterian church. (It's ironic that Leithart is a Presbyterian.) I cannot accept arguments that say water baptism itself gives salvation without fail--but that we must exercise the faith given to us in baptism, or else we should fall short of reaching our heavenly rest. It all sounds well and good, but in reality we are either saved (in baptism) or we are not. I think the Bible is absolutely clear on the perseverance of true believers, and any sort of once-saved or contingently-saved arguments fail on this point. The Federal Vision has had to redefine election into two categories: the presently or temporally elect, and the eschatologically elect. If you are saved, given grace in Christ, forgiven, born of the Spirit and granted faith and repentance, then you are among the elect who will always persevere until glory (Romans 8:29-30).

    For more on Luther's "logic of faith" versus Calvin's, see