Washed by God: The Story of Baptism, by Karl Deenick. Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2022, 204 pages, $12.99, paper.

Baptism is a vital practice in virtually all Christian churches. Being part of Christ’s Great Commission to his church, it is hard to ignore. Though the meaning and purpose of baptism have often divided Christians, especially after the Protestant Reformation, God designed it to unite us in one body in Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). One reason why confusion exists over baptism is that many people fail to realize that the story of baptism begins in the Old Testament (OT). Ceremonial cleansing rituals passed neatly into the baptism of John, Christian baptism, and Christian explanations of OT worship (Heb. 9:10). This book helpfully roots the story of baptism deeply in the OT, shedding great light on New Testament (NT) teaching on baptism.

However, while the first six chapters of the book are highly valuable, some substantial problems arise in the later material. Particularly, this review focuses on some problematic issues related to the sacraments as seals, the relationship between the covenant and the church, and the vital need for historical theology when evaluating the sacraments. The bottom line is that discerning readers have much to learn from this book, but its eccentricities run the risk of increasing, rather than lessening, potential divisions related to Christian baptism.

Unfolding the story of baptism in nine chapters, the author traces ideas related to washing and baptism from the OT into the New. Presenting three aims for his book, he targets the gospel itself, ideas running through the OT and NT, and fulfillment of the OT in Jesus Christ (14). Ultimately in the second chapter he argues that we cannot understand baptism in the life of John and Jesus without starting with the background of uncleanness and washing rituals in the OT (39). Chapter 3 then makes vital links between OT language about washing and the Spirit and key NT texts like John 3, 7, Titus 3, and Hebrews 8–10. Throughout, the author masterfully leads readers through the thought process of such biblical texts, creating a natural and gradually unfolding narrative of biblical links between washing, Christ’s blood, and the Holy Spirit. It is only towards the close of this material that he begins to connect OT cleansing rituals to the meaning of baptism via Hebrews 9:10 (70–71). Doing so has the advantage of alerting readers to the fact that the idea of baptism as washing did not drop from the sky into the pages of the NT.

The chapter (ch. 4) on circumcision is perhaps the most illuminating, since the author illustrates well how Christ is the fulfillment of the blamelessness God required and symbolized in circumcision. Having done his doctoral studies on circumcision, the author has a lot of useful things to say that go beyond standard treatments of baptism. Only in chapters 5–6 does he treat Christian baptism. By this stage, it should be clear to readers that baptism is not a novelty in the NT, but it grew out of a long-standing OT context. This OT background is very needed and often neglected in treatments of the sacraments. Chapter 8 concisely and clearly demonstrates that the mode of baptism is not essential to its administration, and the final chapter offers a conclusion of the whole.

Despite the strengths of this book, several weaknesses stand out. Among these are the paucity of material on the Trinity (179 in passing only), which is surprising in light of the author’s stress on how baptism illustrates the gospel. Additionally, he includes very little material on the life-long efficacy of baptism, God’s covenant promises to children, the spiritual relation between the sign and the thing signified, and sacraments as instruments of grace to believers. Taking a closer look at his material, it appears that all these issues stem from a defective view of the sacraments in relation to the covenant of grace. Most serious among these problematic issues are his virtual rejection of the sacraments as seals and his implicit denial of two senses in which people can belong to the covenant of grace, which appear in points two and four of his critiques of infant baptism. Since these problems largely arise from chapter 7, the material below gives careful attention to issues related to the sacraments as seals, the use of historical theology in relation to such questions, and the relationship between the church and the covenant of grace.

First, Deenick virtually excludes the idea of sealing from sacraments (160, fn. 27; 178), at least insofar as sealing entails any personal or applicatory aspect of baptism. He assumes that sealing does not depend on a response in baptized people in any sense “but is a confirmation of a truth that cannot be broken” (160). He adds that appeals to Romans 4:11[1] about Abraham’s circumcision are off base, because circumcision was only a seal to Abraham, stating that “no other act of circumcision performed that same binding confirmation.” Given that sealing has traditionally been a distinctive feature of Reformed treatments of the sacraments, this shift moves Deenick outside of Reformed treatments of the subject.[2] Maintaining that baptism does not seal our participation in redemption, he concludes, “If baptism and circumcision can be called seals at all, it is only in sealing and confirming God’s promise in general, rather than sealing and confirming God’s promise to that individual” (160, fn. 27). Yet engaging in some measure of equivocation, the author then adds that the Spirit’s work in individuals “seals and guarantees their participation in salvation” (160). If sealing relates to the promises of God only, then how does room remain for sealing in relation to the subject’s application and appropriation of redemption, whether by the Spirit in reality or through baptism as an instrumental sign? While objecting that sealing can apply only to God’s promises to Abraham in his unique circumcision, removing the seal from individuals, Deenick shifts towards sealing people with the Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5), which he detaches from the sacraments. While this point risks opening an ideological can of worms, the Spirit as seal, applying the benefits of redemption to God’s people is precisely the point at which the Christian church has always seen the sacraments as a means of applying Christ’s work of redemption to believers by the Spirit.[3] Though the Spirit is the seal applying redemption to believers, he uses means to apply Christ to them, preeminently through preaching (Rom. 10:14-17) and the sacraments (1 Cor. 12:13). Why can we not, with Heidelberg Catechism (HC) 66, apply sealing in both objective and subjective senses to baptism, including assurances of God’s promises and their application to believing individuals?[4] In the end, the author appears to make sacraments bare signs without any room left for them being instruments of the Spirit to apply redemption to believers or instruments in which Christ is present.

Second, Deenick virtually bypasses all historical reflection of the sacraments in the church, including debates that existed among Reformed authors over the nature of sacraments as seals. Assuming that all proponents of infant baptism believe that sealing applies to individual persons rather than to assurances of God’s promises (160), he fails to recognize the diversity of views over this point.[5] Often one’s understanding of the sacraments as seals depended on one’s views of Christ’s presence in the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper. For instance, authors like Heinrich Bullinger, who favored sacraments primarily as military oaths or professions of faith, tended to attach the seal to the promise, removing the personal element of application from the sign itself. If God worked in the recipient, then it was only in parallel with the sacraments rather than through them. On the other side, authors like John Calvin tended to appeal to sealing language to highlight elements of personal application to believing individuals in the sacraments. As shown above, documents like the HC merged both ideas to an extent, noting that in the Lord’s Supper, for example, God sealed his promises “to us,” pressing home both objective and subjective aspects of sealing. Deenick refers in a footnote on page 178 to the HC but wrongly pits its teaching against the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 28.1. However, like the HC, this statement in the WCF notes that baptism becomes “unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.” Both documents include a personalized applicatory aspect in treating the sacraments as seals, which classic Reformed authors regarded as a transitional term between signifying and applicatory aspects of the sacraments.[6] Generally, he appears to be unaware of post-Reformation, let alone historic Christian, thought on the sacraments as seals and instruments by which the Spirit applies Christ’s finished work to believers. This paucity of historical awareness becomes an even more glaring problem in the material below.

Third, Deenick’s book is marked by faulty views both of church and covenant in ways that place him outside of the bounds both of Baptist and paedobaptist ecclesiology and covenant theology. Though in the end he argues for a form of infant baptism that is not grounded in the participation of the children of believers in the covenant of grace, Deenick actually rejects both Baptist and paedobaptist viewpoints, replacing both with his own peculiar position. In his fourth response to paedobaptist arguments, he notes that this view fails to meaningfully distinguish those who are baptized from those who are not (161). His reasoning is that baptism is only an outward testimony of the gospel with no personal element, making it indistinguishable from offering the gospel in preaching. Since baptism only offers the gospel, then how is the offer of salvation to the baptized different from that of any other human being? From a paedobaptist standpoint, however, Deenick denies the category of covenant breaking, both in the old and the new covenant. Baptists would agree that the old covenant could be broken, while the new covenant cannot be, but Deenick actually denies the idea that the covenant of grace, whether in the OT or the NT, was ever breakable, virtually ruling out the idea of apostasy as covenant breaking.

In answer, from a NT standpoint, the book of Hebrews refers to members of the church trampling the blood of the everlasting covenant and insulting the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:29). Apostasy is a form of covenant breaking, though, as John put it, “those who went out from us were not at all of us” (1 John 2:19). Just as some people are in the church but not of the church, so some people are externally in covenant with God without partaking of the internal saving realities of the covenant. This is why it is better for those who have never come to know the truth and perish than it is for those turning aside from that which they once professed (2 Pet. 2:21). Ironically, the same things apply to circumcision, which brought Israel both greater privileges (Rom. 3:1; 9:1–5) and greater condemnation (Rom. 2:9). Precisely because the Jews were related to God by covenant, circumcision being its sign and seal (Gen. 17:10–11; Rom. 4:11), they possessed both greater privileges and responsibilities than people who were not in covenant with God. Arguing from the lesser to the greater, Hebrews 10:28–29 argues similarly,

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

Just as the church has visible and outward aspects and inward and invisible ones, so the covenant of grace, in the NT as well as the OT, has an external administration and an internal saving essence. By making both circumcision and baptism proclamations of grace with no applicatory sealing significance, he denies the realities of apostasy from the covenant and the church in both Testaments. Baptists generally only exclude the idea of covenant breaking from the new covenant, while retaining the essence/administration distinction in the old covenant. Deenick thus radically places himself outside of both Baptist and paedobaptist covenant theology at this point.

The same problems apply to his ecclesiology. In a border-line arrogant statement, alerting readers to deeper problems, he notes that “both sides have an incorrect view of the Old Testament” (164), effectively sweeping aside the entire scope of the history of theology in the Christian church. After consistently rejecting both Baptist and paedobaptist viewpoints, he adds that we cannot baptize children on the ground that “they are members of the covenant on account of their birth” (167). Yet again, this is true only if “covenant” and “church” flatten out any distinction between an outward visible body and internal saving realities known to God only. While Baptists and paedobaptists disagree over whether distinguishing an external administration of the covenant and its internal saving essence continue under the new covenant, both acknowledge this distinction on some level in the old covenant, and both uphold some form of distinction between the visible and invisible aspects of the church.[7]

Taking a third position, Deenick asserts that “both sides make their claims with a false sense of either continuity or discontinuity with the Old Testament” (172). He thus sweeps away both Baptist and paedobaptist ecclesiology and covenant theology at once. While proponents of both views could be more or less right or wrong, arguing that both are fundamentally wrong places the author out on a weak theological branch. Ultimately he claims to adopt the Baptist view of the nature of the covenant and the paedobaptist view on the nature of the church (172, fn. 50). In other words, the new covenant consists only of regenerate people, yet we should baptize anyone being discipled in the church, including children. Without citing every example, the way in which Deenick continually dismisses almost all theologians from Christian history is breathtaking. As one final example, he writes, “both sides have a wrong view of circumcision, and hence presumably, a wrong view of baptism” (175). Perhaps it is truer to say that both sides have more or less truer views of baptism, the covenant, and the church than Deenick’s apparently self-consciously eccentric position. Additionally, the ground on which he accepts the baptism of infants because they are simply born under the hearing of the gospel raises the question as to why we cannot simply baptize everyone coming under the hearing of the gospel, irrespective of their confession of faith or connection to believing households. While Baptists restrict administering baptism to those who profess faith in Christ, and paedobaptists include households on the grounds of covenant administration, Deenick advocates baptizing whoever happens to be in the church regularly, without any grounds in covenant theology or profession of faith (184–88). For him, baptism is neither a means of grace nor a seal applying Christ to believers by the Spirit, nor is it a badge of our profession of faith in Christ (as in Zwingli/Bullinger and Baptist accounts). Instead, baptism is merely one more way of saying, “Believe in Jesus,” being applied to anyone whom the church is teaching this message.

This book raises a pressing question: With all the divisions the church has suffered over the sacraments, especially from the Reformation onward, do we really need another view thrown into the mix? Though much of his material on the OT background of baptism and the meaning of circumcision is highly valuable and clarifying, asserting boldly and repeatedly that both major Protestant sides are fundamentally wrong on issues like church, covenant, and sacraments seems to be misguided. Positively, however, perhaps Protestants otherwise divided over who should be baptized will reflect in light of this book how many things they hold in common in relation to ecclesiology and covenant theology in other respects. Baptism does proclaim the gospel. It tells people that God must be their Father, that Jesus must be their Savior, and that the Spirit must dwell in their hearts. Adding people to the visible church, the Spirit also applies Christ to believers within its bounds through baptism, which is why baptism has life-long significance to believers (Rom. 6:3; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:5; etc.).[8]


[1] “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also” NKJV.

[2] As a clear representative sample of Reformed sacramental language, see Johannes Wollebius (1589–1629), Compendium Theologiæ Christianæ, Editio Ultima Prioribus Multo Correctior, 9th ed. (Cantabrigiæ, 1655), 126–27.

These four species of signs should be observed well, against those who cry out against us to have nothing but signs in the sacraments. Signs, therefore, either signify only, as a painted image signifies a man, or they exhibit also, as a scepter, keys, or similar things, which being exhibited, regal power and the right to enter the house is conferred. Or, in addition to these things, there are applying signs, as it is with regard to God’s promise concerning the protection of the 144,000, who also have a sign applied and impressed on their foreheads by the Angel. Rev. 7:3. Or, finally, sealing signs, which are of the same nature as down-payments, seals, and similar things. Now these four degrees of signs certainly agree with the Sacraments. For, first, the external symbols signify and represent Christ’s body and his blood also. Second, the sign simultaneously exhibits the thing signified, not in the sign only, but in the sacramental action by which the minister exhibits the sign while Christ the Lord is giving the thing signified. Third, the thing signified which is promised to the faithful generally by the word of the Gospel, is applied to each one of the faithful through exhibition by a sign. Fourth, the same promise is sealed by the Sacrament. For this reason [Sacraments] are not only called signs, but seals. Rom. 4:11. (My translation)

[3] Though differing in their conclusions, both medieval and Reformed authors have agreed over the need for the Spirit, who seals redemption to the elect, to apply Christ’s grace to believers in the sacraments through faith. See e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Lawrence Shapcote, Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas (Steubenville, OH: Emaus Academic, 2012), 3.75.2. Walaeus et al., Synopsis Purioris Theologiae = Synopsis of a Purer Theology, ed. Harm Gorris, trans. Riemer A. Faber, vol. 3, 3 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 3:283.

[4] “The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed by God for this end, that by the due use thereof, he may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, viz., that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the same of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.”

[5] For some historical details on this point, see Lyle D. Bierma, Font of Pardon and New Life: John Calvin and the Efficacy of Baptism, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[6] E.g., Wollebius, Compendium, 126–27; Peter van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia. Qua, Per Singula Capita Theologica, Pars Exegetica, Dogmatica, Elenchtica & Practica, Perpetua Successione Conjugantur (Trajecti ad Rhenum, & Amstelodami: Sumptibus Societatis, 1724), 914. Book 7, Chapter 3, Paragraph XXII (pars practica).

[7] Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1–2. The London Baptist Confession (1689), while defining the catholic church exclusively in terms of its invisible aspects, nevertheless maintains that all professing faith in and obedience to Christ “may be called visible saints” (LBC 26.2). Also, “the purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan” (LBC 26.3). The Congregationalist Savoy Declaration (1658), which drew from the WCF, and on which the LBC was largely based, simply asserts the catholic church with its visible and invisible aspects (SD 26:1–2).

[8] See Westminster Larger Catechism 167:

The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, June/July, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2023


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