The Right Reverend John Stark Ravenscroft, first Bishop of North Carolina


John III. 5. “Jesus answered, verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water, and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

The divisions and dissensions among Christians are at once the reproach of the gospel and the proof of its divine origin, in the fulfillment of the prophecy of its author and founder. “Think not that I am come to send peace upon the earth; I came not to send peace but a sword.” The foresight and declaration of this perversion of the gospel of peace tends in no degree however, my brethren and hearers, to lessen the guilt and responsibility of those who separate themselves from the visible communion of that one spouse and body of Christ, here called the kingdom of God, and by which is meant that Church of Christ, which he purchased with his own blood—which he hath built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, himself being the chief corner stone—with which he hath left the sacraments of his grace, and in which only are the promises of God, yea and amen to us, in Christ Jesus. “Woe unto the world because of offences. It must needs be that offences come, but woe unto that man by whom offence cometh. Many shall come in my name, and shall say, I am Christ; but believe them not, for there shall arise many false Christs and false prophets, and shall deceive many, but go ye not after them—behold I have told you before.” If these passages of Scripture, then, mean any thing, and are intended for our warning and instruction, it must be to teach us that it is not a matter of that indifference we are so prone to think it, in what way, or by what means we attach ourselves to the gospel in the outward communion of Christian privileges—that among such direct opposition in doctrine and practice as now obtains in the Christian world, all cannot be right—that as there may be false Christs and false prophets, there may also be false hopes and unfounded expectations—and that, as the consequences are eternal, every care and diligence should be adopted that we build on a foundation which cannot be shaken, and use as much caution not to be imposed upon in our spiritual concerns as we do to avoid it in temporal affairs. This, it appears to me, is so very reasonable a duty, that all must assent to the propriety of being guided by it; and as all are furnished in the word of God, and in the purpose of visible ordinances in religion, when rightly considered, to make this necessary inquiry, I would hope that the principle will be remembered and acted upon by all who are seriously concerned for the salvation of their souls.

Among the existing divisions in the religious opinion and practice which prevail in the present day, there is none more pointed or more injurious in its effects than that on the doctrine of baptism, as to the subject, the mode, and the effects. As by reason of this difference many are unsettled in their minds, and not a few disposed to neglect it altogether—as the solemnity and importance of the ordinance is lessened in general estimation, and the obligations growing out of it impaired and neglected in those who use it—and as I am in the practice of admitting to the sacrament of baptism the infant or other children of those who apply to me for that purpose, and there is a denomination of Christians who consider this as unscriptural and a corruption of Christianity—for these reasons, I have considered it my duty on this occasion, to make known the foundation on which, with a good conscience, I thus act. And that what I may say on the subject may be to your edification, I shall consider,

First, the ordinance itself.
Secondly, the subject, or description of persons entitled to its administration.
Thirdly, the mode, or manner of administering it.
And then, Conclude with an application of the subject.

“Jesus answered, verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

I. First, the ordinance itself.

There can be no difficulty, I should suppose, as to the meaning of the expression in the text–“Being born of water,”—that it recognizes and establishes in the most pointed terms the institution of water baptism in the Church of Christ. Neither can there be a doubt in any serious mind, I think, of the absolute necessity which all who would become Christians are under, of being thus baptized. A more solemn and express declaration is not to be found in the Scriptures, to any point of faith and practice. But if any doubt could reasonably be entertained, it must be done away when it is considered that the concluding injunction of the Author of our religion to his apostles, was “to teach all nations—baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” And when to this solemn command was added a declaration no less express, of the awful consequences depending on the observance or rejection of this institution—”He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved; he that believeth not, shall be damned”—it must be a hardier mind than I possess, that can lightly esteem this sacred ordinance and nitiating sacrament in the Church of Christ.

The obligation of the ordinance, therefore, in the outward application of water in some way, to all who would be, or even be called Christians, being out of all reasonable dispute, I will say a few words on its nature and use.

When the terms and conditions of the covenant of mercy in the Son of God were made known to our first parents after their fall, the Scriptures do not inform us that any particular token or outward seal was given to them; and it is not for us to conjecture where Scripture is silent. When the same covenant, however, was renewed with Abraham, and it pleased God to appoint and define the channel or course in which the promised seed of the woman should come, a special outward sign, token, and seal of the covenant was appointed by the Almighty, to designate and keep separate this channel, and to confirm to the chosen people the assurance of God’s favor in their obedience to the terms thereof. “This is my covenant which ye shall keep between me and you, and they seed after thee: every man child among you shall be circumcised, and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you; and he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generation, and the uncircumcised man shild shall be cut off from his people—he hath broken my covenant.”

Hence we learn, my hearers, that circumcision, as the outward sign of the covenant, was strictly in the nature of a signature to a contract, that it conferred special privileges which could no otherwise be obtained, and its use was to determine by a visible mark, who were, and who were not, parties to the covenant.

In like manner under the gospel dispensation, when it pleased God to put an end to the shadows of the law, by the offering up the body of Christ once for all, and to call all nations, as well the Gentiles as the Jews, to the hope of eternal life, by the obedience of faith, the same method was pursued by appointing a seal tot he covenant of grace also, which seal is baptism, and is of the same nature and use as the previous seal of circumcision, and as certainly determines our interest in the covenant of redemption, as the former determined the interest of the seed of Abraham in the covenant of promise. As it was the same mercy founded on the original covenant, “that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent,” so those to whom it was proposed under either of its subsequent forms, could only become parties to it, and be made partakers of its benefits, by personally subscribing to the terms, and conforming to the conditions, on which it was tendered to them.

As the descendants of Abraham were not parties to the first covenant by their natural birth, but by the application of the seal of taken annexed to it; in like manner the children of Christian parents cannot be parties to the second or new covenant otherwise than by the application of teh appointed seasl in the sacrament of baptism. And the reason and connexion of the appointment, with the express declarations of the word of God, most undeniably teaches–that there is no revealed method of entering into covenant with God, of becoming entitled to the benefits of the death of Christ, in the forgiveness of sin, the renewal of the Holy Ghost, and the reward of eternal life, but by the water of baptism.

I therefore do not wonder that baptism should have occupied so much the attention of Christians, even in the circumstantials belonging to it, as a rite or ceremony. All I regret is, that attention has not been rightly directed, and that in disputing about circumstantials, the end and design of it, which is newness of life, has too far been lost sight of.

That the arguments drawn from the analogy between Christian baptism and Jewish circumcision, have been objected to and considered irrelevant by those who deny infants the privileges of baptism, is very certain, as it also is, that this objection has been pushed so far by ignorant and heated minds as to separate the New from the Old Testament altogether. But this proves onbly to what lengths men will go in favor of a particular notion, and that they will even risk the certainty and obhligation of the Bible, rather than yeild a distinguishing though untenable point. For, beyond dispute, if you destroy the connexion between the Old and New Testaments, you deprive us of the whole Bible. Uncertainty or disagreement in the revelation of God’s will deprives us of it entirely. Yet nothing is more plan and certain, than that our Lord himself and his inspired apostles viewed this point very differently, and continually refer to the Old Testament, as the ground and authority of those transactions which afterwards formed the New. And St. Paul himself argues this very point on the analogy of the two ordinances, styling Christian’s the circumcision made without hands. And if we would only bear in mind, my friends, that in the says of our Lord and his apostles there was no such book as that which we call the New Testament, it might serve to convince us, how dangerous it is to separate the Scriptures from the unity of their purpose, and how certainly unsound and unsafe that form of doctrine must be which requires so desperate a support.

From the words of my text also, we learn the connexion of spiritual regeneration with the baptism of water; “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit.” This has been a fruitful theme of opposition and even of ridicule on the subject of baptism, not only from those who are opposed to infant baptism, but even from some who practice it. Yet nothing is more clear from the express words of Scripture, than the connexion of regeneration with the sacrament of baptism. The words of my text connect them inseparably. The apostle St. Paul expressly styles baptism the washing of regeneration, and it is every where spoken of and set forth in Scripture as a new state, a new life, commenced on new principles, and actuated by new motives. Nothing is more clear from the actual condition of man, as a fallen creature, spiritually dead, than that at some time, and by some means he mist be rendered capable of spiritual growth and advancement, other wise the gospel is preached to stocks and stones. Now this we are certified by our baptism is then done for us; such a measure of divine grace being then imparted, as renders us once more capable of trial and improvement, if duly cultivated. To this amount the Scriptures speak, “Repent and be baptized every one of you for the remission of sins, and ye shall recieve the Holy Ghost.” Nor is there a single instance in the acts of the apostles, the case of Cornelius excepted, which was for a special purpose, where spiritual communication of any kind was obtained, except at and after baptism.

In the primitive Church, immediately after the days of the apostles, the word baptism was hardly ever used, but instead thereof some word which expressed its spiritual accompaniments–such as regeneration, re-creation, renovation, resurection, renewal, with many others, which all expressed a communication of spiritual benefit annexed to the right administration of this ordinance. Nor is there a single denomination of Christians who have set forth the articles of thier common belief, as the principle of their particular union, who do not recognise this doctrine in connection with water baptism. If there are any such I have not met with them.  That the Protestant Episcopal Church recognizes it in the fullest manner, you have witnessed in the service of this day; and though attampts have been made to explain away the true meaning of the words as used in the baptismal office, they are unauthorized and indefensible from any just view of the subject.

But however certain it is, that this view of the connexion of spiritual regeneration, with the sacrament of Baptism, is that set forth in the articles and declarations of their faith by the great majority of reformed Christian denominations, it has within no very distant period come to be questioned, so that the faith of many is unsettled, and the ordinance itself lowered in estimation, and lessened in the use. Considering this, therefore, to be a most dangerous corruption of Christianity, inasmuch as it strikes at the only revealed and appointed means of entering into covenant with God, and becoming partakers of his grace; it is my duty to show you, both the true ground on which the doctrine rests, and also the fallacy of that on which the opposite notion is supported. Now this fallacy is two fold–

First, an alteration in the meaning attached the word regeneration.

originally, as I have showed you, it was always used to express the spiritual benefit conferred by baptism in connection with the change of outward condition thereby accomplished; and as the spiritual benefit was infinitely the most valuable, that was cheifly in view in the use and application of the word.

By degrees, however, the word has become to be generally used as synonymous with conversion, or the turning of a sinner to God by repentance and faith. And this change it is, which the cheif difficulty in the question. Accustomed to use the word in a particular sense, it sounds strange when used in a different one, as I doubt not was felt by many of you to-day during the baptismal service. To give thanks to God for the conversion of an infant, which common sense told you could not possibly be the case, must have sounded strange in your ears, and contributed to lessen your respect for the ordinance itself. But take the word regeneration in its scriptural, primitive, and only just meaning, as the communication of that principle of a new and spiritual life which every child of Adam must recieve from God, to render him capable of religious attainment, and consequently of salvation; all is consistent and harmonious, and is calculated to produce a deep and lasting impression upon the mind, of the goodness of God, of the reasonableness of religion, and of the worth and efficacy of this sacrament.

Secondly–Those views of the doctrine of grace, which are commonly called Calvinistic.

As it is the opinion and belief of those who thus think, that the grace of God, when given, cannot fail, but must operate in producing holiness of life; and as much the greater number of baptized persons, who live to years of discretion, not only fall into sin, but continue therein through life, therefore they cannot admit, that the grace of God is bestowed on every baptized person.

And had they established this doctrine, had they proved their point, that the grace of God is of this nature, and necessitating in its operation, the conclusion would be a just one. But as they have not done this, and never can do it but at the expense of all religion, the scriptural connexion of regeneration with baptism stands firm for the confirmation of that reasonable service which the gospel requiress, for the comfort and edification of parents, in the religious education of their children, and for the encouragement of all baptized persons, to work out their salvation with care and diligence, inasmuch as they are certified by this sacrament, lawfully administered, that it is God that worketh in them both to will and to do.

That regeneration and conversion are not the same thing, is evident from this: that regeneration, or imparting spiritual life, to a creature spiritually dead, must be previous to the conversion of such a person from a state of actual sin; it being clear and beyond dispute, that an unregenerate person never could be converted.

That the grace of God does not act upon us in a manner necessitating and compulsory, is shown from our condition as accountable beings, hereafter to be judged, and punished or rewarded according to the improvment or abuse of the grace given to every one of us in Christ Jesus, whereof baptism is the only seal and certificate.

Having thus showed you the obligation of the ordinance, together with its nature and use, as an appointment of Jesus Christ in his Church; and noticed some of the corruptions and perversions of the doctrines which prevail in the present day; I come now to the inquiry, who are the proper subjects of this ordinance–that is, who are entitled to it?

Secondly then–Every denomination of Christians is agreed, that all who can with understanding profess their faith in Christ, are fit subjects of this ordinance. In other words, that believers’ baptism is lawful and scriptural. On this subject there is no dispute.

Every denomination of Christians, with the exception of one, is further agreed, that the infants, and other children of believing parents, are entitled to this only seal of the covenant of grace, and are in the practice of recieving them to church membership by baptism. And being of the number of those who thus act, I shall now lay before you the grounds on which I think myself warranted in so doing, by the word of God.

First–As the covenant of mercy established in the blood of Christ, is one and the same, under every dispensation of religion, and embraces every description of persons, (every creature under heaven, is the strong expression of St. Paul) it must embrace infants as well as adults. But as there are no revealed means of becoming parties to the Christian covenant, but by the waters of baptism, I consider infants entitled to this benefit. “For the promise is unto you and to your children.”

Secondly–As it pleased God, in constituting the Old Testament Church, to command the membership of infants, and to direct them to be taken into covenant with him, by recieving the seal thereof at eight days old; I consider, that an alteration in the seal merely, without any alteration in the conditions of the covenant, does not make such a change as to exclude those who were before admissible. I therefore receive infants to membership in the Church of Christ, by the now appointed seal of baptism.

Thirdly–as the covenant is an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure, no change, in any thing that relates to its essence, can be made, from the very nature of the parties to it, Almightly God, and mortal man. As therefore, the benefits of this covenant were once extended to infants by divine appointment, and no notice of any repeal of this privilege is either known or pleaded, as a minister of Christ I dare not take upon me to narrow or curtail the grace of God, by refusing its seal now, to those who were once clearly entitled to it, upon any presumed inconsistency, or specious reasonings of an incapacity of which I cannot judge. I therefore baptize them.

Fourthly–As it is only by the influence of the Holy Spirit that we are rendered capable of any thing good and acceptable in the sight of God–as this help and influence is essential to our growth in grace–and as it is only to persons rightly baptized that this grace is promised and given, according to the authority of God’s word, which is the more sure word of prophesy–I therefore receive and baptize them, that they may receive the gift of the Holy Ghost–that the spirit of grace may occupy their hearts, and work in them, and with their parents and friends, in training them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that they may be guided into all necessary truth, and strengthened unto all required duty.

Fifthly–As “that which is born of the flesh is flesh”–as by natural birth we have no part in the covenant of grace, but are under a sentence of condemnation, which can be removed only by the merits of Christ’s death, applied in the appointed means, by being baptized into his death,–I therefore receive them into the ark of Christ’s Church, that they may be made partakers of the promises, and nourished up into eternal life: for “it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

On these scriptural and reasonable grounds, brethren and friends, do I, as a minister of Christ, with a good conscience administer the sacrament of baptism to the subject, and after the manner, ye have this day witnessed; and it is your part carefully to consider and apply them.

But it may reasonably enough be expected that the objections of those who are opposed to this practice should not pass without notice, more especially as it might be said, that they could not be answered, and therefore were not met: for I know by long experience, that what I have this day said in discharge of my duty, will be considered as an attack upon a favorite notion, and withstood in every way that can be devised.

As there are to main objections to the practice of infant baptism, and cheifly made use of by those who are opposed to the practice, I shall confine myself to them; and this the rather because they contain all of difficulty on the question.

The first objection is, that there is no warrant in Scripture, no Thus saith the Lord, for administering this ordinance to infants. And I admit that there is no such express command as, Thus saith the Lord, thou shalt baptize thy children: but in reply I observe that it was not necessary to give any such command.

Reflect a moment, my hearers, what description of persons it was to whom the gospel was first preached. Was it not to Jews?–to descendants of Abraham, the Israel of God, who for nineteen hundred years had been accustomed to the church membership of infants, by express command of God, in the application of the outward seal of the covenant, with a severe penalty denounced against the neglect of it? In what sense then would those Jews to whom Peter preached the gospel on the day of Pentecost receive his exhortation to repent and be baptized, that they might receive the Holy Ghost, with his declaration that the promise of this benefit was to them and to their children? Would they understand it as excluding their infants from the benefits of the Christian covenant and membership in the church of Christ, or as continuing to them the privilege they were already in possession of and accustomed to? I think I there cannot be a reasonable doubt in any mind as to what their understanding of it would be. For it was a Jew preaching to Jews, and as such, would be understood according to the general and long accustomed impression among them, on this point; and the reason is equally good for a like understanding and practice on our part.

But further. Had it been in the counsel of the unchangeable God to alter the terms of his covenant, on the revelation of the gospel, so as to exclude infants, then would an express prohibition of the former practice have been made. No such prohibition, however, being to be found, and no express command being necessary to those who were already accustomed to the membership of infants, I conclude that the objection is not of that serious nature which those who rely upon it would have it thought, nor sufficient to warrant the dangerous and injurious innovation of denying the sacrament of regeneration to infants.

But further yet. Was a Thus saith the Lord indispensable to the circumstantials of a positive institution? There are many things in our common Christianity to which we attach a very high degree of reverence and sanctity, and as to which we are equally deficient of this particular kind of authority. Where, for instance, shall we find a Thus saith the Lord–a positive command–to observe the first day of the week instead of the seventh, as the day of rest and holiness to the Lord? Where is the command obliging us to attend public worship on this or any other day? Where is there a like authority for admitting females to the Lord’s Supper? None of these are thus provided for in the New Testament. Are they therefore corruptions of Christianity, and to be abandoned and put down in the use and observance? God forbid! and yet if the objection is good in the case of infant baptism, it is good as to these also, and the opponents of the one ought to be equally so of the others, to be consistent with their principles. How then stands the authority of all these religious observances? To this I answer: on the same ground on which the Scriptures themselves stand, as the word of God–that is, on the testimony, authority, and practice of the primitive Church under the unerring guidance of the inspired apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that which, I think, we need no better security for the quiet and assurance of our consciences in any religious observance.

The next objection is, That faith and repentance being necessary preparations for baptism, therefore, as infants are incapable of either, they ought not to be baptized. To this I reply: that faith and repentance are absolutely necessary, and strictly required of all who are capable of them; and I would no more baptize an adult, a person come to years of discretion, without a profession of faith, than my opponents would. But where do we learn, either from Scripture or reason, that these are required of those who from the nature of things have nothing to repent of, and cannot believe? How stands the case, as respects the qualifications for the seal of the first covenant? Of Abraham and all who were capable of it, faith was required; but of those who were incapable of it was not required, nevertheless we know assuredly that they were entitled to the deal and all its benefits. Shall we then, my hearers, venture to apply the Scriptures differently in a similar case, and without an express warrant, say that the words of my text require an impossibility when they declare, “that except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

In defence of this objection, the strong hold of the opponents of infant baptism, is a text from St. Mark’s gospel–“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” Believing they say, is put before baptism, and therefore none but believers ought to be baptized. Now, my friends, to show you the weakness and fallacy of all such arguments, I will oppose my text to theirs; in that it is said, and very expressly too, “except a man be born of water and of the spirit.” Here baptism is put before spiritual influence of any kind, of course before faith and repentance, which are the fruits of the spirit; and therefore, if the views of our opponents are just, there is a contradiction in the Scriptures. In this case what is to be done?