A reply to defence of the doctrine of Baptismal regeneration by the Bishop of Ossory, Leighlin, and Ferns.

J. N. Darby.

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It is with sorrow and regret I publish the following paper; I do it in no hostility to any one. These are not the times for it; they are too solemn for party controversy, but they are the times for the truth - times in which every Christian is bound according to his measure to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. I have not discussed at all the system with which the fatal error I do discuss is connected; I thought it more for the good of souls to confine myself to one plain point. I appeal to every conscientious Christian to say where the truth is. The subject would admit of large development, but I prefer abstaining from it. I add my name as more open and as shewing confidence in those who are more immediately concerned - confidence in their love of the truth for the truth's sake. I trust Dr. O'Brien will be assured that there is no thought of unkind feeling towards himself or any one. He cannot be surprised that truth on so important a point should be discussed: that concerns not only him, but the whole church of God.

May the Lord only bless this brief testimony to the hearts of those to whom it may come,

From their faithful servant in Christ,

J. N. Darby.


It is a sorrowful thing to see the Protestantism of the country frittered away, and by those who should maintain it; and the only use made of the authority which is in the hands of such as should be its natural leaders (perhaps I should say the influence, for authority they seem to have none) that of damping the energy of what life there is, and suppressing that which the love of the truth would arouse in some. Popish doings they tolerate and screen, Protestant truth - and I mean by this the truth drawn from scripture by what is called Protestantism, what gives it an evangelical character - this they discountenance and suppress. Positive truth of their own they have none. That gives energy and would tell itself out. Error is become impudent and boisterous and even threatening. The only object of ecclesiastical leaders is to keep things together, and hence the energy of truth must be suppressed if possible.

271 The only effect of their weakness, of the whole course they have pursued, is to discourage God's truth and give time and opportunity to error to penetrate and gain the upper hand. People wait for them to uphold the truth and check mischief, but truth they have none, and hence they are little concerned at its loss. Mischief for them would only be the outward system that gives them their importance being touched. The right feeling which accompanies truth is in general disposed to respect authority, and they avail themselves of this to keep it down and help error. But let them be assured of this, that they are pursuing a dangerous and ruinous course. If they go on much longer popery will supplant them - and why should it not if they favour its principles? - and those who love the truth will follow it, and they will have nothing to keep together. They will be nowhere. In a war of antagonistic principles the man who seeks to temporise, while proving he has no principle of his own, and loves no truth, will disappear and leave only the memory of his own folly.

Remember, prelates of England and Ireland, if you are not Protestant, what are you? Popery will easily supply your places. Your only force is the truth. They as a system have infinitely more force than you - more force over civil government. They do not want the truth, they want power; you, Irish prelates, are sacrificing what gave vital energy to a minority to keep the support of the English hierarchy, which is at its wits end to know what to do. And Ireland is to be sacrificed to this folly. I ask every honest heart if, in the measure in which elevation in the hierarchy exists from an archdeacon to the Pope, truth is not proportionately lost, and if he can shew me an instance in which one promoted in it has honestly maintained the truth he held boldly before his promotion.

I turn to the publication which has led me to write these words - more sad than bitter - not because of what is in the tract I am commenting on, but as leading me to speak of what is going on. Dr. O'Brien was for a good while decidedly opposed to baptismal regeneration. We can understand the blinding influence of education in a system, when the word of God through traditional teaching has not its full power. Many excellent men have accepted the saying that a child was regenerate by the Holy Ghost when they did not believe it, being decidedly opposed to baptismal regeneration. But Dr. O'Brien is now convinced of it and gives us a plea for it, he tells us, from the Bible, and the Bible alone. He is as a prelate a convert to what he rejected as a simple Christian. I might be tempted to tear to pieces his pamphlet, of which the weakness stares one in the face; but I restrain myself. The times are too serious, and the author is pious and aged. I will point out calmly its fallacies.

272 That a man who believes in what is in the Prayer-book as it is should justify this unscriptural notion is natural; it runs through the book. In the miserable Catechism, in which there is not one word of divine truth and abundance of error, it is carefully instilled into the young. Dean Nowell's catechism, if I might not agree with all, still had much divine truth in it. Saving truth this has none. But in a plea from the Bible and the Bible alone, this argument from what is in the Prayer-book will not do, still less when the object of the tract is to produce an effect in a revision of the Prayer-book because these things are in it. We lawyers used to say, "allegatio ejusdem rei cujus dissolutio petitur nil valet."

But Dr. O'Brien produces at the very utmost two passages of scripture. One affords him no proof whatever unless upon the authority of the "ancients" - an interpretation of the Fathers, who, if any ever did, darken counsel by words without knowledge, of whom the great body previous to Nice were unsound on the deity of Christ, let men plead what they will; not one of whom believe really* in justification by faith; who exalted ceremonies at the expense of truth, and sanctioned immorality and superstition to win over the Pagans, putting deliberately the saints instead of the gods and demigods; and cultivated an asceticism which, in affectation of purity, pursued practices which called from shame at last repeated reprehension. Dr. O'Brien avowedly in the book rests his argument on these authorities. "From the Bible alone," is on the title-page alone.

{*One or two use the term, but it is not Paul's doctrine.}

In the only other passage Dr. O'Brien must know very well that the word 'regeneration' does not mean in scripture being born again at all; and the passage proves it. It is used but twice, and does not mean being born again.

273 Further, all his argument outside scripture is based on using a word as equivalent to another, or to a phrase which means a totally different thing, and where the whole force of his argument depends on their meaning the same; or again, on the grossest begging of the question on the very point in hand by the use of unscriptural words. As to any positive truth, you must not expect it. A teacher with authority must not commit himself to truth.

Dr. O'Brien assumes a multitude of principles which may embarrass others who accept tradition, but which I should formally deny. He copies the style of Butler, which calculates the possibilities of facts and the probabilities of truth from evidence, and investigates with much power of analysis, how far a proof goes, and what may be, though some apparent denial of what is alleged to be truth may exist; but there is no positive truth. To see how far this may lead I will only say that Butler says there must be what scripture calls sin (Butler 'propensions') in heaven, or that there could not be happiness; on the Aristotelian principle that for happiness there must be habits of virtue, for virtue conflict, consequently propensions to overcome. Such is theology.

But I must prove my statements as to Dr. O'Brien. First, the change of terms on which the whole argument depends, and the petitio principii involving the whole question. "All who believe baptism to be a sacrament must believe that what is outward and visible is connected with something inward and invisible, that what is material is connected with something spiritual - not merely as an outward, but as an effectual sign thereof: that is, a sign by which, or through which, as the channel or means or instrument (whether sole or concurrent) these inward or spiritual effects are wrought." Why so? Because that is the definition of a sacrament (which is not a scriptural word) given in the system which is attacked as false. A sacrament, in the catechism which teaches baptismal regeneration so called, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us as a means whereby we receive the same. Of course, if a sacrament confers the grace of which it is a sign, so that it is an effectual sign,* it does confer it. If I call it a sacrament (and a sacrament means conferring the grace and I must add, if this be the grace signified), the grace is conferred.

{*Its being a sign of being born again is assumed into the bargain. It is not so in scripture.}

274 But this is the whole question. Dr. O'Brien takes the definition of the word given by the impugned system, and then shews that the definition involves the system. Of course it does. But that is exactly the point in question; the adversaries of the erroneous system deny that the grace is conferred in the rite, and Dr. O'Brien, bringing in the word sacrament (which has no warrant in scripture) and the definition given of it by his system, cannot prove anything but that his system holds it. It is too gross a case of begging the question to pass current for a moment. It is the very thing denied which his definition of a sacrament involves if we call it sacrament. Of course, if I accept his word and definition, I must accept the conclusion, for it states it: that is, he states what is denied as a proof that it is true. His arguments amount to the use of an unscriptural word as the name of the rite, and a traditional definition giving a sense which the word itself never had which false definition is a statement of the doctrine denied.

Why not give a scriptural declaration of what the rite means? But after all, though all depends on this attempt to blind our eyes by the habit of calling it a sacrament, Dr. O'Brien gives this up too. He is content to accept, though he does not agree with, what upsets it altogether. He would not detract from this view (p. 21). But the change of idea in this other view is total: "For they would have thus secured to them by covenant a right to the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, with all His gracious influences." But a sign conferring a spiritual blessing, nothing less than the communication of divine life, is a totally different thing from securing a right to advantages which I may utterly neglect after all. Nor indeed is the new birth among the things we have a right to in Dr. O'Brien's list. Only, remark in all this, the Bible and the Bible alone is simply and wholly forgotten. Next we get (P. 22), "Grace or graces, like mental qualities in a natural man, as substitutes for being born again," which drops the question of giving life.

But Dr. O'Brien does quote John 3. He says (p. 24), "It is impossible to doubt that born of water and of the Spirit is to be understood of baptism," etc. Well, if so, we must of course admit people are born again in baptism; but even so, not by it of the Spirit. But this is just the question. Does it apply to baptism? and not only so; but to use it to the end Dr. O'Brien purposes we must prove that being born of water and of the Spirit means being born of the Spirit by means of water (p. 37), for this is Dr. O'Brien's and the Catechism's theory.

275 Now, why is it "impossible to doubt it"? First, it is thus "our church" interprets the words. Very likely, but the objection is to the church's teaching it. It is not a proof from the Bible alone, or the Bible at all. It is the rightness of the church's so teaching which is controverted. What further proof then? Hooker expressly declares that of all the ancients there is not one to be named that ever did otherwise expound or allege the place than as implying external baptism. Now if it be merely implied, I should not much object; the point is, does it speak of it? But if so, what is this proof? The Fathers so speak, who by this reverend term are made to palm on us a mass of heresy and nonsense that no Christian of any sense would have on his table in English. "But if this be the case," says Dr. O'Brien, "we appear to be fully warranted in stating we have the Lord's own authority for assuming that it is in baptism that the new birth takes place." If what "be the case"? If we have the authority of our church and the ancients implying it? How is that the Lord's own authority? You have our church, and the ancients for saying it means it; but nothing more whatever.

The argument of the writer is this: all the ancients say that the passage implies baptism; therefore we must conclude that we have the Lord's own authority for assuming that it is in baptism that the new birth takes place! How what the ancients say gives the Lord's own authority is hard to tell - the ancients who have not one word of solid truth, and are full of error and folly, who corrupted the church by Platonism, as every one who has reach church history knows, even to the obliterating the divinity of Christ.

We forget that the apostle assures us that in his time all sought their own, that after his decease perverse men would arise; another, that there were many antichrists; another, that those had arisen who were to be judged at the coming of the Lord; another, that the time was come for judgment to begin at the house of God. The Christian is warned by one to abide in what he had heard from the beginning; by another, that one must know from whom one had learned anything, and that the scriptures were the security of the saint in the perilous times. Another was obliged to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints; another warns, there should be false teachers and many follow their pernicious ways; and again, Paul, that there were many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, men who subvert whole houses, that the time would come when they would not endure sound doctrine, but after their own lusts heap to themselves teachers. What security does this afford me? The word of God does. I know of whom I have learned in learning of Paul, and John, and Peter, and that all scripture is given by the inspiration of God.

276 But who is Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexandria, or Origen, Tertullian, or Hermas, or any of these, to enable me to say, I have the Lord's authority? Men who have really led the way in gross error of doctrine, and wild speculation, false principles, and (I add) immorality. Is this the Bible and the Bible alone? The world, the Indian held, was on an elephant, the elephant on a tortoise, and the tortoise on what? The plea from the Bible and the Bible alone has landed us on what the ancients say, if Hooker be right.

But a word on what scripture does say: water cleanses, we all understand. We read, "Ye are clean through the word I have spoken unto you," "sanctifying and cleansing it by the washing of water by the word." And Christ, washing by the water He had poured into the basin, says to the disciples, "He that is washed [bathed] needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit." Now none of these passages apply to baptism: in most they had not been baptized; as indeed, as to the first disciples, there is not the smallest hint that they ever were - they were to receive, not be received: who should have received them?

Hence too, when the Lord speaks of what livingly subsists as born, He says only "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit," and speaks no longer of water. Water cleanses what is, life begins when one is born. And if we give heed to the Lord's words, who tells Nicodemus that as a master in Israel he should have known these things, we cannot doubt that the Lord alludes especially to Ezekiel 36:24-27: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you," etc. That is to say, there is a moral practical cleansing, typified by the word 'water,' and a new life given by the operation of the Spirit of God. No one could say that which is born of water is water; it has no sense. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit; it is the communication of life, like in its nature to its source; but that we are born of the Spirit by the means of the water, there is not the slightest hint of. And even "our church" has sense enough to see this when it has its eyes open: "Sanctify this water to the mystical washing away of sin." Hence the scripture speaks of baptism as being for death, not life; as in Romans 6, Colossians 2, where at the utmost you make speak of resurrection being involved in it, after the death, unto the likeness of which we have been planted, through the faith of the operation of God who raised Him from the dead. Hence, if we take baptism as a figure, it is as, to the water, a figure of death - Christ's death; being born of the Spirit, a communication of new life.

277 And here I may quote the only other passage which Dr. O'Brien quotes in pleading from the Bible and the Bible alone, "the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost." I have already said that the word is not used for the new birth; it is only used once again in Matthew 19, for the new order of things which Christ shall inaugurate, commonly called the millennium. Hence the word as scripturally used I have no objection to apply to baptism as a figure of true cleansing, but note it is here, as in John 3, in this sense carefully distinguished from renewing of the Holy Ghost. There are two things - a washing, water or laver, and renewing of the Holy Ghost. There is no pretence in form more than in doctrine to say born of the Spirit by, or through, or by means of, the water. It is a pure invention of corrupted Christianity.

Take Peter again. "The like figure (antitupon) whereunto baptism doth also now save us, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Not a word of being born. It is planting in the likeness of His death, not being born of the Spirit. That comes in with an "and," or alone and apart. The doctrine in baptism is death, death to sin as Christ died to sin, to whose death we are baptized. If Dr. O'Brien will take it as effectual, he must say we are actually "saved" (so says Peter) and dead to sin, one word of which he does not allude to nor believe. It is not infantine undeveloped grace, as he would make us believe by analogy, but absolute death to sin, as indeed the service declares, and actual salvation. He that is dead is freed (justified) from sin - cannot be charged with it.

278 If it be merely said that John 3 teaches truths which baptism symbolizes, provided "and of the Spirit" be kept as a distinct thing as scripture always does keep it, I have nothing to object; as John 6 teaches truth which the Lord's supper symbolizes, but what is totally and utterly untrue, if applied to the Lord's supper itself. If John 6 apply to the supper itself, every one who partakes of it not only has eternal life now but is eternally saved: "whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." The whole application of either to "sacraments" is a delusion, though the sacraments may allude to the truths taught.

But I have another question to ask Dr. O'Brien. He tells us (p. 25) that baptism is administered to the penitent and believing adult. Now we read in scripture that we are the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. One who has repented and believed is most certainly born of God. I am aware that it is prayed that they may be born again, but this only shews the gross confusion which arises from this false doctrine. Were it only that adults or children were formally admitted by Christ's institution into the place where all God's ordered privileges and blessings were, I should have nothing to say. If the word 'regeneration' were employed in its scriptural sense (though modern use would make it dangerously equivocal) one might have nothing to say; but in a statement quite unscriptural, asking they may receive the Holy Ghost that they may be born again (which is never true, for it was after being baptized for the remission of sins they were to receive it, Acts 2), and with this additional error, it is asked that they may be thus born again after having repented, and believed. And to confirm and increase the error, it is taught in the Catechism that they are not only made children of God (ascribed to faith in Galatians) but members of Christ and inheritors of the kingdom - another blunder, for we are in it. By one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, and in every case in scripture the Spirit was given apart from baptism: the apostles, those Peter spoke to, the Samaritans, Cornelius, and the twelve men in Acts 19.

279 Further, the writer rests all his argument on infant baptism being a divine institution. He admits that it would have no force if it were not (p. 25), and this last solely on the fact that Jewish habits of thought would so require. He leaves out the passages Paedobaptists use, such as Matthew 28, 1 Corinthians 7:14, relegates into more than doubt historical testimony, denies the validity of other passages they claim as proofs, and rests all on no one scripture, but the contrary (p. 11). He rests all on his own conclusion that with a Jew it must have been forbidden not to be practised. This, which has been often alleged to confirm the Paedobaptist view, stands alone with Dr. O'Brien. Scripture he has none, save to deny its application and from "this foundation being now," he says, "as I hope, securely laid," he goes on to prove we are born again in it. And this is a plea from the Bible alone! It is impossible to conceive anything weaker. Many things are assumed, but I do not dwell on them, such as the Christian covenant, the new covenant being made with us, all which is unscriptural (though we get the spiritual blessings of it); yet really all his argument is founded on this traditional error. But if Christianity were the new covenant, which it is not, the Holy Ghost is the seal of faith now as circumcision was then. Matthew 28 was never carried out. The mission to the Gentiles was given up to Paul explicitly (Gal. 2) who was not sent to baptize, and the mission in Matthew was from resurrection, not ascension, and did not apply to Jews but to Gentiles only - was not to every creature as Dr. O'Brien says, but only to Gentiles. But all this would lead me too far.

Dr. O'Brien could not have read, or has forgotten, Luther's longer catechism, when he laboriously discusses the connection of baptism and justification by faith, puts the objection to his view of baptism, because he had taught men were so justified, and answers it by its being faith in the word used in baptism. Water could not produce so great an effect, but water with the word! To such shifts does error reduce great men. It is a curious effect of this baptismal system where universal, that the forgiveness of sins, when received as the full privilege of the Christian state and standing, takes place when people have committed none at all. Those that are committed men must receive occasional forgiveness for, as Jews did for theirs. The whole of Hebrews 9, 10, is despised, the "once for all is denied in toto, the peace given by atonement (left as the heirloom of the Christian by Christ at the cost of His precious blood) is abrogated. It is a base, vile system.

280 But further, Dr. O'Brien speaks of election as a mysterious doctrine, and would seem to leave it in suspense. But the baptismal system denies all its reality: men are spiritually really born again and perish after all; alive in Christ, they perish; forgiven their sins, they are damned for them. It is not leaving it in the shade, it is openly denying the positive declarations of Christ and the scripture. Either the baptized child does not receive life, or he perishes when he has received it in many cases, and it is uncertain in all. Either he is not forgiven, or he is condemned after he is. What kind of gospel is this? Take the seventeenth article, if I am to speak to Episcopalians, where the doctrine is clearly stated in human language for them; and what will they make of the ruin of those who have received eternal life and forgiveness? If it be not eternal life, what life is it? The truth is, the system makes every truth uncertain. It takes up blessings scripture speaks of in blessed truth, and connects them with superstitious error, and truth has ceased to be truth then, and those who have received divine life perish. Those who have not committed sins are forgiven, and those who are forgiven are damned. And the plea for it is drawn from the Bible and the Bible alone! Dr. O'Brien wisely left out that part of his title when he came to the body of his book. I cannot but regret that Dr. O'Brien should have intimated that the doctrine of the Trinity is about as uncertain as infant baptism. I have not a thought here of calling infant baptism into doubt; but I should own in the fullest way the most narrow Baptist as perhaps a better Christian than myself, though I might regret his narrowness. But one who denied the Trinity I could not own at all; and I think it is unhappy to bring what is of faith on a level with the uncertain grounds of a pamphlet such as I am observing on. It presents us two propositions: one, that infant baptism is a divine institution; the other, that the new birth spoken of by the Lord takes place in baptism, for the proof of which Dr. O'Brien has assuredly brought no certain warrant of scripture at all, but the natural feeling of Jewish minds - a reasonable ground of persuasion it may be - and the opinion of the ancients, which proves worse than nothing. But what can we expect when a system takes precedence of the truth, and the truth is given up for it? Many things I should have to remark on; but my object is the main question. I only notice one, that it is - no, we must not expect "it is" as to any truth - "it seems to be (p. 34) the appointment of Christ for His universal church, the tares and wheat are growing up together." I do not argue the question, but this passage in Matthew never speaks of the church at all. Matthew 16 speaks of the church; chapter 13 of the kingdom of heaven. And the Lord's explanation of this parable expressly says, "the field is the world." There it is they were to grow together. The world is not the church.

281 There is one thing I think striking, as the effect of this balancing of arguments instead of believing the word of God. Not one single doctrine or truth is held as a divine certainty. As to what is spiritual life or the operation of the Spirit, or in what does its beginning consist, we are told the reformed teachers could not have found in scripture the means of making precise statements. Where is the testimony of God? where the pillar and ground of the truth?

I would but add, as regards forgiveness in baptism, this much: the Homilies of the Anglican body declare that that only is a sacrament in which the forgiveness of sins is annexed and tied to the visible sign; the full-grown Puseyite, that the forgiveness of sins after baptism (when there are none to forgive) is next to impossible - may be had by severe penance perhaps; the moderate Puseyite or full Anglican, that they receive it on taking the sacrament, and remain between each occasion unforgiven. What absolution may do, I do not say! This is Judaism, in contrast with Hebrews 9 and 10 where the subject is fully treated.