A Defense of Reformed Orthodoxy
against the Romanizing Doctrines of
the New
Auburn Theology (3/5)

By Rev. Brian Schwertley

Part 3 of 5

The Auburn Theology and Baptismal Regeneration

One of the main reasons that the Auburn theology must hold that the blood of Christ only temporarily saves most “Christians”, that Jesus’ atonement is simultaneously efficacious and non-efficacious for most professing believers is their bizarre understanding of baptism. Note the following quotes:

“How could you know you are in Him? God gave you the seal and sign of baptism. He gave you that rite that brought you into Christ and you can look and you can trust that God’s promises are objective.” (John Barach, “Covenant and Election,” tape 6)[1]

“The Bible doesn’t know about a distinction between being internally in the covenant and really in the covenant, and being only externally in the covenant, just being in the sphere of the covenant. The Bible speaks about reality, the efficacy of baptism.” (John Barach, “Covenant History,” tape 3)

“Raise your right hand if you knew that the Westminster Confession taught baptismal regeneration.... Baptism means that the one baptized has a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, the one baptized has been grafted into Christ, he has the sign and seal of regeneration, forgiveness of sins, and the obligation to walk in newness of life.”[2]

“Traditionally, the Reformed have said, we have to view our children as presumptively elect or presumptively regenerate, and therefore, Christian, if we are willing to take the Scriptures as face value, there is no presumption necessary. Just take the Bible. And this is true, of course, because by the baptism, by baptism the Spirit joins us to Christ since he is the elect one and the Church is the elect people, we are joined to his body. We therefore are elect. Since he is the justified one, we are justified in him. Since he is the beloved one, we are beloved in him. Since he was saved from his sin in death...so are we.” (Steve Wilkins, “Halfway Covenant,” tape 11)

“The Bible teaches us that baptism unites us [Wilkins believes that baptism is efficacious to everyone baptized] to Christ and by his, and to his body the power of the spirit. By one spirit we were all baptized into one body whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, we’ve all been made to drink of one Spirit. Paul says that at baptism you are clothed with Christ Jesus. For as many of you as are baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Union with Christ is a real, vital blessed union. The clothes make the man. With our union with Christ, we have all spiritual blessings. Union with Christ is union with the church, his body” (Steve Wilkins, “Halfway Covenant,” tape 11).[3]

“... some persons, not destined for final salvation, will be drawn to Christ and His people only for a time. These, for a season, enjoy real blessings, purchased for them by Christ’s cross and applied to them by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament.... Saul received the same initial covenantal grace that David, Gideon, and other men who persevered in faith received, but he did not receive the gift of perseverance.... In one sense, all those in the covenant are ‘saved.’ They have been delivered out of the world and brought into the glorious new creation of Christ, but not all will persevere in that ‘salvation’.” (Summary Statement of the Auburn Ave. Presbyterian Church’s Position on the Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation, emphasis added)

Although the Auburn theologians assert in their lectures that they reject the Roman Catholic view of baptism, that the water of baptism works automatically (i.e., ex opere operato), nevertheless they adhere to some form of baptismal regeneration. Their view of baptism, coupled with their rejection of the distinction between the visible and invisible church, forces them to adopt positions regarding regeneration, the work of the Holy Spirit, forgiveness and the love of Christ that have much more in common with Arminianism than historic Reformed teaching. The Arminian system, however, while unscriptural, is much more logical and coherent than the Auburn paradigm. The Auburn theology weds together doctrines and ideas that are completely incompatible and contradictory.[4]

The Auburn speakers, as we have seen in the above quotes, teach that baptism is always efficacious and insist that the Westminster Standards also teach baptismal regeneration. For example Wilson writes: “Raise your right hand if you know that the Westminster Confession taught baptismal regeneration....”[5] Baptismal regeneration is one of the pillars of the whole Auburn system. The Auburn assertions raise an important question. Do the Westminster Standards teach baptismal regeneration? Have all Reformed theologians misunderstood the Standards for 350 years? No, not at all. The Auburn speakers completely misrepresent the teaching of the Confession and are teaching an unbiblical view of baptism. When the Confession of Faith discusses baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace and all the benefits of the covenant, it is not teaching baptismal regeneration or the idea that baptism is always efficacious. Further, the Confession explicitly teaches that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment it is administered. Mr. Wilson is taking WCF 28:1 out of context. For, in a subsequent section, the Confession says that “grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated” (28:5, emphasis added). The Confession cites Acts 8:13, 23 which refer to Simon Magus who was lawfully baptized yet who remained “poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity” (Acts 8:23). Earlier in verse 21 Peter tells Simon Magnus in explicit language that he is not saved. The Confession also says: “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time” (28:6, emphasis added). Baptism is only efficacious for those to whom grace belongs, according to God’s counsel or decree. What this means is that the benefits of the covenant of grace are only efficaciously conferred by the Holy Spirit to the elect.

The Westminster Standards (which are the pinnacle of Reformed Confessional theology) emphatically reject the Auburn doctrine that baptism is always efficacious and that everyone baptized is truly united to Christ and receives all the benefits of redemption. The Auburn doctrines have more in common with Romanism, Lutheranism and Anglicanism than historic, confessional Reformed thought. Theirs is a dangerous doctrine that has no warrant from Scripture or precedent in Reformed theology.

The absurdity of the Auburn theology is demonstrated by what baptism signifies and seals. Note the following: (1) Baptism like circumcision is “a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:11). (2) Baptism is a sign and seal of regeneration. “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols” (Ezk 36:35). “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). “He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Tit 3:5). (3) Baptism is a sign and seal of the remission of sins (Mk 1:4; Ac 2:38). (4) It also symbolizes the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:8; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:26, 33; Ac 1:5; 2:2, 17; 11:15-16) and spiritual purification (Ezk 36:25; Jn 3:6) that leads to a true inner and progressive sanctification (1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; Mt 7:18). (5) Baptism is a sign and seal of our union with Christ and all the saving benefits that flow from that union (Col 2:11-14): regeneration, forgiveness of sins, sanctification (Rom 6:4-18), physical resurrection and glorification (1 Cor 15:20-23, 26, 42-55).

Given the Reformed teaching regarding what baptism signifies and seals, if baptism were truly efficacious in all cases, then everyone baptized would without question go to heaven. If people who are baptized are sealed by the Holy Spirit and receive all the benefits of redemption, then of necessity they are guaranteed an eternal inheritance. They cannot lose their salvation. Paul writes: “You were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph 1:13-14). In Ephesians 4:30 the apostle says: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Gordon Clark writes:

“He seals us ‘to the day of redemption’. Until or for the day of redemption. Here we have the Calvinistic doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This or that man in the pew may or may not have been sealed; but, if he has been, he will not be finally lost. Regeneration is a once-for-all act. We are not saved at breakfast, lost at noon, and born again in the evening. The redemption of the body from the grave, and redemption from sin will always affect us in our present life.”[6]



The Auburn doctrine of baptism once again places their teaching in an unresolvable dilemma. Logically, their position leaves them with three possible alternatives, each of which is unscriptural: (1) That everyone baptized will certainly go to heaven. (2) That the recipients do not really receive all the things signified by baptism. This view divides the work of Christ into pieces like Arminianism, contradicts the biblical doctrine of baptism and contradicts their own statements that those baptized receive everything signified but they can lose their salvation if they do not persevere with true saving faith and the works of faith. This position explicitly denies the true meaning and efficacy of baptism because the Bible teaches that those who truly receive the merits of Christ’s death, who are sealed by the Holy Spirit, cannot apostatize and go to hell. The Auburn “theologians” are in the precarious position of having either to deny the meaning of baptism and the doctrine of perseverance (which contrary to Mr. Wilson’s comments is clearly taught in Scripture and easy to prove), or hold together teachings which are blatantly contradictory. (3) Further, if salvation is truly lost, they must either hold to the position that people are saved for a time without saving faith which is a gift of God merited by Christ, or they must hold to an Arminian view of faith which is self-generated and liable to fail at any moment. The first position explicitly denies the biblical doctrine of salvation,[7] while the second makes faith a work or partial ground of salvation and thus also is a denial of salvation by grace alone.[8]

Regarding the efficacy of baptism, the Reformed position has always been that it is made efficacious by the Holy Spirit and that only true believers (the elect) receive the full benefits of baptism. Elect infants who are regenerated at baptism will obviously never know a time when they did not believe in and love Jesus. Sometimes the infants of believers are regenerated at a later time. No person, however (except the extraordinary case of elect infants who die in infancy), can receive the full benefits of the covenant apart from saving faith. Sadly, sometimes the children of believers who are baptized are never regenerated and never receive the gift of saving faith. Such persons were members of the visible church with certain rights and privileges. However, their baptism was never made efficacious. Their baptism will only bring upon them greater condemnation. Paul says that circumcision, to the unbelieving Jew, was uncircumcision (Rom 2:25). Our Lord says that the circumcised Jews of His day were the synagogue of Satan (Rev 3:9). Jesus told the circumcised Pharisees that their covenantal father was the devil (Jn. 8:44). “[F]or the efficacy of a sacrament faith is required, devotion and an internal motion of the mind, both because the Scriptures expressly assert it (Mk 16:16; 1 Cor 11:27; Ac 2:38) and because without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6), and because the promise (which is continued in the sacrament) and faith are correlated....”[9] Hodge’s comparison of baptism and the word as means of grace is very helpful. He writes:


Baptism, however, is not only a sign and seal; it is also a means of grace, because in it the blessings which it signifies are conveyed, and the promises of which it is the seal, are assured or fulfilled to those who are baptized, provided they believe. The Word of God is declared to be the wisdom and power of God to salvation; it is the means used by the Holy Spirit in conferring on men the benefits of redemption. Of course all who merely hear or read the Word of God are not saved; neither do all who receive the baptism of water experience the baptism of the Holy Ghost; but this is not inconsistent with the Word’s being the means of salvation, or with baptism’s being the washing of regeneration. Our Lord says we are sanctified by the truth. Paul says we put on Christ in baptism (Gal 3:27). When a man receives the Gospel with a true faith, he receives the blessings which the Gospel promises; when he receives baptism in the exercise of faith, he receives the benefits of which baptism is the sign and seal. Unless the recipient of this sacrament be insincere, baptism is an act of faith, it is an act which and by which he receives and appropriates the offered benefits of the redemption of Christ. And, therefore, to baptism may be properly attributed all that in the Scriptures is attributed to faith. Baptism washes away sin (Ac 22:16); it unites to Christ and makes us the sons of God (Gal 3:26, 27); we are therein buried with Christ (Rom 6:3); it is (according to one interpretation of Titus 3:5) the washing of regeneration. But all this is said on the assumption that it is what it purports to be, an act of faith.[10]

The only argument to which the Auburn “theologians” can appeal to circumvent the standard Reformed position on the efficacy of baptism and faith is to assert that what Reformed theologians have always referred to as a temporary, non-genuine, non-saving faith is actually a real saving faith that can be lost. Such a view, however, is exegetically and theologically impossible because true saving faith is a gift that is founded on the merits of Christ. As such it cannot be temporary. To assert that it is involves separating the foundation of salvation (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) from its application by the Holy Spirit.[11][34] That separation is precisely what Arminians do.

To be continued…


[1] Note what Doug Wilson says regarding John Barach’s lecture: “Theologically I think I want to amen everything that John said in his talk about election and covenant and the reality of it, how that works” (Doug Wilson, “The Curses of the New Covenant,” tape 7). Barach rejects the distinction between the visible and invisible church to the extent that he asserts that Ephesians 1 (the classic passage regarding God’s predestination of the elect) applies specifically to what orthodox theologians identify as the visible church. Note how Barach speaks of the visible church as though non-elect tares simply don’t exist. “What does it mean, though, to be a church member? What does it mean to be one of God’s covenant people? It means that you have been brought into relationship with God, you are in fellowship with the triune God, brought into his family life to share with him in his love. God has brought you into the people on whom he has set his love, and therefore you personally are the object of God’s love. You are among the people he has saved, the people he has exodused and the people he has committed to saving” (“Covenant and Election,” tape 6). Note Wilson’s absurd comments: “I want to begin by saying that when we first start talking about the objectivity of the covenant and it starts to sink in what we are saying. You mean that you are saying that lesbian Eskimo bishop lady is a Christian? She is not a Buddhist, she is not a Muslim, yes, in the New Testament sense, she is a New Testament Christian” (Doug Wilson, “The Curses of the New Covenant,” tape 7).

[2] Doug Wilson, Reformed Is Not Enough (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002), 103.

[3] In the same lecture Steve Wilkins refers to the modern Presbyterian view of infant baptism as “nothing more than a wet infant dedication service.” He also accuses the great southern Presbyterian theologians Thornwell and Dabney of holding the same view. Given the fact that Wilkins holds to a Lutheran, high-church Episcopalian view of baptism (i.e., baptismal regeneration), his criticisms should be taken with a large grain of salt.

[4] Sometimes they attempt to eliminate serious problems in their system by redefining or recasting certain doctrines. Note for example Doug Wilson’s rejection of the invisible / visible church distinction in history in favor of the concepts: the historic and eschatological church. Once one adopts the position that everyone baptized is regenerated and truly united to Christ, then obviously the invisible / visible distinction in history must be set aside. Wilson still needs to explain (given his definition of baptism and the covenant) why the historic and eschatological church are not identical. According to the Auburn system the answer is that some people who are baptized, united to Christ, and receive “the full blessings of salvation” do not persevere. This answer raises the question: “Why don’t they persevere?” The Reformed answer is that they were not elect and therefore Christ did not die for them and the Holy Spirit did not apply Jesus’ saving work unto them. The Auburn paradigm asserts that these people were regenerate, “saved” and really forgiven by Jesus’ blood but because they did not persevere in faithfulness to the covenant they were cut off. The Auburn paradigm has two separate categories of salvation. There are people who are halfway saved (the temporarily regenerate) and then those who are the eschatological elect who are saved totally. Although the Auburn theologians loudly proclaim their loyalty to the Protestant doctrine of justification and the Reformed doctrines of grace, their system logically places the ground of salvation in both the work of Christ and continued faithfulness to the covenant. The only logical manner by which they can avoid this accusation is to go back to the Calvinistic position that people who do not persevere were never really saved in the first place. Keep in mind that while the Bible does teach that people who do not persevere will go to hell; it also explicitly teaches that such people were never saved and loved by Jesus in the first place (see the sections above that discuss 1 Jn 2:19-20; Mt 7:24-25 as well as Heb 6:4ff. below).

[5] Doug Wilson, Reformed Is Not Enough, 103.

[6] Gordon Clark, Ephesians (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1985), 162.

[7] Steve Schlissel says: “The keeping of the commands of God identified as putting trust in God is contrasted with forgetting God and disobeying God. To be in the gospel is to be in the law, the law of God. The question has always been what does the Lord require? We have changed the question since Luther’s day. Perhaps imperceptible to some, but quite drastically if you look at it. The question is commonly, what must I do to be saved? But that’s the wrong question! The question is, what does the Lord require? If we don’t retool our churches, to turn around from the “What must I do to be saved?” to “What does the Lord require?” we are going to die. Because in answering one, what must I do to be saved, you move in the idea of sola, sola, sola, and then you have the sola fide and if you are only saved by faith apart from any activity or any response to God’s word and then what kind of faith is that?.” (“Covenant Hearing,” tape 1).

According to Schlissel we should never ask the question “What must I do to be saved?” Such a question does not fit into Schlissel’s view of salvation, which is a combination of faith and law keeping. Was sola fide a great mistake on the part of Luther, Calvin, Knox and the whole Protestant Reformation? No, not at all! Afer Paul and Silas were miraculously set free from prison by God the Philippian jailer asked: “What must I do to be saved?” According to Schlissel we would expect Paul to rebuke the jailer for asking the wrong question. Apparently Paul should have said: “Get baptized, enter the covenant and keep living in obedience to the law and then you (if you persevere) will be saved.” Paul instead answers in the fashion of Luther or Calvin. He says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Ac. 16:31; cf. 2:21; 4:12; 11:12). Paul taught that the moment a person believes in Jesus he or she is saved, that is, justified by faith (sola fide) apart from the works of the law (see Rom 3:20-22, 27-28). Is the Reformed doctrine of sola fide anti-law (or antinomian) as Schlissel implies? Did the Reformers teach that people are saved by a faith that stands alone as Schlissel implies? No. Schlissel either completely misunderstands or purposely sets up a straw man. The Reformation doctrine is that a person is saved by faith alone apart from the works of the law. But once a person is saved (i.e., justified) he is sanctified or progressively made holy by the Holy Spirit as a result of his union with Christ (Rom 6:1-18). The keeping of the law is done out of gratitude for our salvation and does not contribute one iota to it. Schlissel apparently defines antinomianism as a refusal to make law-keeping an instrument of justification along with faith. Apparently Schlissel and his comrades have failed to distinguish between salvation in the narrow sense (justification) and salvation in the broad sense (justification, sanctification and sometimes even glorification). When Paul tells believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) he is definitely referring to sanctification, for he completes the verse by saying “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13). Anyone who confounds justification and sanctification, as Schlissel does, has placed himself squarely in the Romanist camp on this matter. Beware of the leaven of Norman Shepherd. His doctrine of salvation is theological poison.

[8] After reading the lectures from the Auburn Ave. conference, the type of answer that I would expect to receive after pointing out the illogical absurdities of their system is: “Well you are obviously influenced by Greek and Enlightenment thinking. What you need to do is return to a Hebraistic mind set.” The problem with such a response is that their system is not really rooted in a Hebrew worldview. It rather has much more in common with the Barthian concept of dialectical tension and paradox. I am not aware of any place in the Old Testament in which we are encouraged to adhere to two contradictory, self-refuting ideas at the same time. It is very arrogant for such young, untrained and inexperienced theologians to assert that they have discovered something new and improved; that all the Reformed divines and theologians of the last four hundred years were grossly mistaken in their concepts of the church, the covenant, baptism, justification and perseverance.

[9] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 3:365.

[10] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 3:589.

[11]  Although the Auburn lectures are almost completely devoid of biblical exegesis, a passage that is used to support their understanding of baptism is 1 Peter 3:21. It reads, “There is also an antitype which now saves us: baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ....” What is particularly interesting about this passage is that it is an excellent proof text against baptismal regeneration and the Auburn view of baptism. Verse 21 comes immediately after a discussion of Noah and his family who were saved through water. Peter says that baptism is an antitype or counterpart to Noah’s deliverance through water. The apostle then inserts a parenthetical statement to make sure that his comment about baptism saving us is not misconstrued. To paraphrase he says: “Look I don’t want you to get the impression that being sprinkled with water saves you because physical water can only remove dirt from your skin. What I am really talking about is baptism in the Spirit and regeneration which takes place within man, that leads to a clean conscience before God. Spirit baptism is rooted in your union with Christ in His resurrection.” The absurdity of the baptismal regeneration view is further demonstrated by the obvious fact that the antitype to physical water is not physical water but that which the water represents: the spiritual cleansing and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Jay Adams writes: “Spirit baptism puts a person ‘into Christ’ (1 Cor. 12:12). The argument in Romans 6 helps clarify Peter’s use (1 Peter seems in many ways to parallel Romans). Paul says there that we were ‘baptized into Christ Jesus’ (vs. 3). That is, we were ‘baptized into every aspect of His life’. He argues if we have the whole, then we have the parts; if we are in Christ, then we are in His circumcision, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and seating at God’s right hand. His point in Romans 6 is that we must live a new life. If we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into His death and resurrection to a new life. In Colossians 2:11, 12, Paul can also say that we have been circumcised with Christ by virtue of our Spirit baptism into Him. And, in Ephesians 2:6 (see also Col. 3:1), He considers us in the heavens seated at God’s right hand in Him” (Trust and Obey: A Practical Commentary on First Peter [Greenville, SC: A Press, 1978], p. 116). If (as the Auburn view apparently asserts) the ritual of baptism itself actually brings one into a true union with Christ then every single person who was ever lawfully baptized would go to heaven because (as Dr. Adams just noted) union with Christ gives the believing sinner salvation in the fullest sense possible.