When baptists talk about regenerate church membership, Presbyterians often mock the idea, noting that we must have “regeneration goggles” or we must know infallibly who the elect are. Part of this is a result of sometimes imprecise articulation of our position by baptists. For example, baptists do not always make it clear that possession of faith is not what we require in order to baptize someone. What is required for the proper administration of baptism is profession of faith. But a profession is required precisely because baptism is a sign of church membership, a sign of union with Christ. Profession indicates possession. Therefore no one ought to be baptized whom we do not judge in charity to be united to Christ. Acceptance of someone’s profession of saving faith entails judgment of their possession of saving faith.
Regarding a credible profession of saving faith, Baptists and Presbyterians are in agreement. Both agree that it is the fallible means that God has given us to judge who are regenerate on this earth. Presbyterians distinguish between non-communicant members (those baptized as infants who have not yet professed faith) and communicant members (those who have made a profession of faith and may therefore partake of the Lord’s Supper). Below are examples from various Presbyterian books of order and directories of public worship demonstrating their view of communicant members.
The Communicant Membership of the Church
1. Any person capable of forming moral judgments and of making decisions for himself may be received into communicant membership in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, upon credible profession of faith, baptism, and acceptance of the Covenant of Church Membership. Communicant members have an obligation to present their children for baptism and to do all in their power to rear their children so that they will seek communicant membership in the church
4. Candidates for communicant membership shall be examined by the session in constituted court. The examination shall seek to bring out the degree of the candidate’s knowledge of Divine truth, his personal sense of sin and need of salvation and his knowledge of and willing acceptance of the Covenant of Church Membership including the distinctive principles of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. The degree of knowledge necessary for admission depends, to a considerable extent, upon the capacity of the candidate and the opportunities which he has had for acquiring such knowledge. Children should be encouraged to memorize the Shorter Catechism and urged to read and study the Testimony and Confession of Faith as they come to years of fuller understanding. No one should be admitted who is ignorant of the plan of salvation, or who gives no credible evidence of having been born again, or who assumes an attitude antagonistic to the principles set forth in the standards of the Church.
Note also that any person who wishes to be baptized and is capable of forming moral judgments and of making decisions for himself must give this credible evidence of having been born again (profess saving faith).
The Administration of the Sacraments
4. Under the oversight of the Session, Baptism is to be administered to those who make a credible profession of faith in Christ, and to their children. The Baptism of adults must follow their public profession of faith and assent to the Covenant of Communicant Membership. When a covenant child is born, the session should encourage the parents to arrange for the child’s Baptism as soon as it is convenient. The elders should use this occasion to speak with the parents about their own Christian walk, and to encourage them to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
The RPCNA is not claiming to know infallibly who the regenerate are, but they are limiting baptism (in the case of those “of age”) to those whom they have reason to believe are regenerate. What baptists do is no different.
Public Reception of Church Members
A. General Provisions
1. Only those may be admitted to full communion in the church who have been baptized and have made public profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
2. In order to aid those who contemplate making public profession or reaffirmation of faith in Christ to understand the implication of this significant act and to perform it meaningfully, the pastor or someone approved by the session shall conduct classes in Christian doctrine and life, both for the covenant youth and for any others who may manifest an interest in the way of salvation.
3. Before permitting anyone to make profession of his faith in the presence of the congregation, the session shall announce his name to the congregation on a prior Lord’s Day in order that the members of the church may have opportunity to acquaint the session with such facts concerning him as may appear to be irreconcilable with a credible profession. In order for the session to assure itself so far as possible that the candidate makes a credible profession, it shall examine him to ascertain that he possesses the doctrinal knowledge requisite for saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, relies on the merits of Christ alone, and is determined by the grace of God to lead a Christian life.
8. Noncommunicant members of the congregation may be received into communicant membership only by confession of faith.
9. The following provisions are designed to assist ministers and sessions to receive members in accordance with the Book of Discipline, Chapter II, Section B.2, which provisions should always be followed.
B. Reception into Full Communion of Noncommunicant Members by Profession of Faith
1. When a noncommunicant member is received into full communion, that reception is effective at the time of his public profession of faith. On the occasion of that person’s public reception, it is highly advisable that the minister remind the people that he is already a member of the church, albeit a noncommunicant member, and has been receiving the blessings of Christ as a member of the church, and that those blessings have resulted in this day wherein, having given evidence of conscious saving faith in Christ, he is now about to confess that faith and become a communicant member of the congregation. The minister may then address him in these or like words:
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, we thank our God for the grace that was given you, in that you have accepted God’s covenant promise that was signified and sealed unto you in your infancy by holy baptism. We ask you now to profess your faith publicly.
If the session deems it appropriate, it may also ask him to bear brief testimony to his faith in his own words.
Again, like the RPCNA, this same standard is applied to baptism in the case of adults.
2. The Baptism of Adults
An adult who seeks to be baptized shall make a public profession of his faith before the congregation prior to the baptism. He shall previously have received instruction in the Christian faith in accordance with the confessional standards of this Church, including instruction as to the meaning of baptism, and have also made before the session of the church a credible profession of faith in Christ according to the provisions of Chapter IV, Section A.3, of this Directory.
[B]y the clear teaching of the Scriptures, regeneration in the case of adults is assumed to precede baptism. No man was ever baptized in the Apostolic Church until he professed faith and repentance. When the Eunuch asked, “What doth hinder me to be baptized? Philip said, If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest.” On this principle the Church has always acted. Men have always (except in the most corrupt days of the Romish Church) been required to profess faith in Christ and repentance toward God, before they were admitted to baptism. But faith and repentance are the fruits of regeneration. A man had, therefore, to profess to be regenerated before he could be baptized[.]
What then is the visible Church, and what the ground of membership in it? We accept the answer which our Confession gives to these questions. But what does this fairly imply? Surely, that the true Church of God is made up of those whom he hath purchased with his own blood; and that those who apparently, or to the eye of a judicious charity, are of this number, are visibly, or for all purposes of human judgment and action, of this Church – i.e. are the Church visible. Now in what way do they thus become visibly, or for all purposes of human recognition and treatment, of the number of Christ’s redeemed people, the household of faith? In two ways: 1. In the case of all capable of it, by a credible “profession of the true religion.” Without professing it in some form, they cannot appear to possess it… [M]embership in the visible Church is founded on a presumptive membership in the invisible, until its subjects, by acts incompatible therewith, prove the contrary, and thus, to the eye of man, forfeit their standing among God’s visible people.
To answer the original question, no Presbyterians do not have regeneration goggles. Neither do Baptists. We both treat adults according to their profession, not according to infallible knowledge of their hearts. The only difference is how we apply the question of profession and baptism to infants.
For further reading:
- Who Should Be Baptized – Professors or Believers?
- Witsius: Baptism Belongs Only to the Elect
- The Evolution of Reformed Paedobaptism
- Hodge’s (Baptist) Understanding of the Visible/Invisible Church
- The French Reformed Understanding of the Visible/Invisible Church
- 19th Century Scottish Presbyterian Criticism of Bannerman’s Visible/Invisible Church(es)
- John Murray (the Baptist) vs James Bannerman (the Presbyterian) on The Church
- Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?