Revival, believer’s baptism, and the need for personal conversion, and justification by faith alone apart from sacraments are very closely connected, as are baptismal regeneration, traditional Reformed theology, and opposition to revival. Rich Lusk, a high-church Presbyterian who accepts Calvin’s doctrine of baptismal regeneration and consequently rejects the Biblical and Baptist necessity of personal conversion, as well as the value of revival, powerfully describes what he believes is the unfortunate connection between revival, experimental religion, and the decline of infant baptism in his well documented essay, “Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies” (Pgs. 71-125, Chapter 3 of The Federal Vision, ed. Steve Wilkins & Duane Garner. Monroe, LA: Athanasisus Press, 2004). Lusk writes:
America became progressively “baptist” on a massive scale in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. . . . [T]he loss of paedobaptism [was closely connected with] experiential Revivalism[.] . . . [T]he experientialism of Puritanism (which was only exacerbated by revivalism) eventually overthrew the Calvinistic principle of the church membership of children. . . . As baptism degenerated into a “mere ceremony” . . . New England Congregationalism continually lost members to newly formed Baptist churches. . . . Charles Hodge . . . [u]sing statistics provided by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church . . . pointed out that from 1812 onward, the number of children being brought for baptism was radically declining in relation to the overall number of communicants. In 1811, there had been 20 paedobaptisms per 100 communicants; by 1856, the ration was just over 5 per hundred. . . . Hodge reported a similar downgrade was occurring in other ostensibly Reformed denominations. The Dutch Reformed ration was only slightly better than the Presbyterian in 1856, at around 7 paedobaptisms per hundred communicants. Things were even worse in other bodies. The New School Presbyterians were leaving six out of seven children unbaptized. Paedobaptism was so rare among the Congregationalists by the mid-1850s that Hodge could truthfully claim, “in the Congregational churches in New England, infant baptism is, beyond doubt, dying out.” Only the high church Episcopalians [who believed in baptismal regeneration and rejected revival] seemed unaffected by the trend. . . . [T]he 50 year period of decline Hodge traced out coincides, more or less, with the institutionalization of Revivalism in American Christianity. . . . The revivals of the Second Great Awakening totally restructured American religious life in radical fashion. . . . The doctrines of God’s sovereignty and predestination [as Calvin understood them] . . . were jettisoned[.] . . . Paedobaptism also fell into disfavor since it . . . imposed a religious identity on an unwilling subject. Personal choice was exalted. . . . [T]he revivals focused on the immediacy of religious experience, to the exclusion of traditional means of grace [that is, sacramental grace]. . . . [I]t is easy to see that paedobaptism would fit very awkwardly into such a religious matrix. . . . Instead of “growing up Christian” under continual covenant nurture, children were expected to undergo their own “conversion experience” at the appropriate age. . . . A conscious conversion experience from enmity to friendship with God was looked upon as the only way of entrance into the kingdom. . . . Infants, it was thought, needed new birth, as well as adults. They could not be saved without it. But the only channel of the new birth which was recognized was a conscious experience of conviction and conversion. Anything else, according to Gilbert Tennent, was a fiction of the brain, a delusion of the devil. In fact, he ridiculed the idea that one could be a Christian without knowing the time when he was otherwise. . . . Obviously, revivalism was no friend of covenant children. . . . The experiential rigor of Puritanism and revivalism . . . seemed like a safeguard against merely “nominal” membership in the churches . . . As adult-like credentials for conversion and full membership were pressed more and more, infant baptism became an increasingly tenuous practice, until it finally gave out altogether. . . . [T]he rise of the Baptist movement, with its individualistic approach to the faith and its voluntaristic ecclesiology . . . [made] [i]nfant baptism . . . preposterous on such presuppositions. . . . [I]nfant baptism [declined as] baptistic principles of church membership [became] the essence of true religion. . . . [T]hese views eroded the traditional Catholic and Reformation view that God acts to accomplish God’s purposes through sacraments. The desacralizing tendencies played down God’s role in the sacraments . . . [Such] influence[s] . . . reshaped the way some conservative Presbyterians read their . . . Reformed confessions . . . [c]ertainl[y] the sacraments could not be viewed as powerful, saving actions of God. . . . The [alleged] mystery of God’s activity through these physical instruments could not be allowed to saint. Any view of sacramental efficacy came to be regarded as “magic.” The sacraments were viewed [instead] as visual teaching aids. . . . In short, then, . . . the sacraments are basically treated as human acts of piety[.] . . . Their value is completely subjective—they help us remember divine truth, profess our faith, stir up emotions, and so forth . . . they cannot be regarded as genuine means of saving grace, for God’s grace is not actually found in the lowly natural elements of water, bread, and wine. In such a context, the sacraments obviously cannot belong to infants in any true sense since infants cannot perform the requisite acts or experience the proper emotions. . . . Given the push and pull of Revivalism . . . perhaps the wonder is not so much that paedobaptism declined in America . . . but that it survived at all. . . . [Lack of interest in sacramental theology . . . became a distinctive feature of American religiosity. . . . Some Southern Presbyterians had severely degraded the meaning of baptism, so that baptized infants were not regarded as genuine church members, much less recipients of salvific blessings in union with Christ. Presbyterian giant James Henry Thornwell regarded baptized covenant children as enemies of the cross of Christ and under church censure until they made a mature and experience-based profession of faith. . . . For Thornwell, “covenant” children stood condemned until they passed revivalism’s test of an experiential conversion and . . . [made] an articulated, cognitive profession of faith. . . . A credobaptist victory was virtually inevitable unless strong views of baptismal grace were recovered. . . . [T]he real issue underlying the loss of infant baptism was the loss of baptismal efficacy . . . infant baptism presupposes an objective force in the sacrament itself . . . [that] children . . . were made Christians at the font. . . . Apart from an efficacious view of baptism, the question “Why baptize infants?” became progressively more difficult to answer coherently. The credobaptists won the day[.]
In a passage by Thornwell quoted by Lusk, as representative of Presbyterian baptismal theology affected by revival, Thornwell wrote:
[I]n heart and spirit th[ose] [who have received infant baptism] are of the world. In this aspect, how is [the church] to treat them? Precisely as she treats all other impenitent and unbelieving men—she is to exercise the power of the keys, and shut them out from the communion of the saints. She is to debar them from all the privileges of the inner sanctuary. She is to exclude them from their inheritance until they show themselves meet to possess it. By her standing exclusion of them from the Lord’s table, and of their children from the ordinance of Baptism, she utters a solemn protest against their continued impenitence, and acquits herself of all participation in their sins. It is a standing censure. Their spiritual condition is one that is common with the world. She deals with them, therefore, in this respect, as the Lord has directed her to deal with the world. . . . Is not their whole life a continued sin? Are not their very righteousnesses abominable before God? Repentance to them is not the abandonment of this or that vice; it is the renunciation of the carnal heart, which is enmity against God: and, until they are renewed in spirit and temper of their minds, they can do nothing which the Church is at liberty to approve as done by them. . . . As of the world they are included in the universal sentence of exclusion, which bars the communion of saints against the impenitent and profane. They are sharers in its condemnation. They are put, as impenitent, upon the same footing with all others that are impenitent. As rejectors of Christ, they are kept aloof from the table of the Lord, and debarred from all the rights and privileges of the saints. Their impenitence determines the attitude of the Church towards them; for God has told her precisely what that attitude should be to all who obey not the Gospel. What more can be required? Are they not dealt with, in every respect, according to their quality? . . . Is it not equally clear that their condition, as slaves, determines their treatment in all other respects, until they are prepared to pass the test which changes their status? Is not this precisely the state of things with the Church and baptized unbelievers? Are they not the slaves of sin and of the Devil, existing in a free Commonwealth for the purpose of being educated to the liberty of the saints? . . . But until they come to Him, [Scripture] distinctly teaches that they are to be dealt with as the Church deals with the enemies of God. (pgs. 341-348, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, James H. Thornwell, vol. 4: Ecclesiastical. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1986)
Thornwell’s views are set in contrast by Lusk with the view of baptismal salvation found in traditional Reformed theology, as presented, for example, by “John Williamson Nevin . . . [who sought] . . . along with . . . Philip Schaff . . . [in] the Mercersburg movement . . . to maintain the traditional ecclesial and sacramental theology of classic Calvinism” (pgs. 85-86, The Federal Vision). Nevin wrote:
If the sacraments are regarded as in themselves outward rites only, that can have no value or force except as the grace they represent is made to be present by the subjective exercises of the worshipper, it is hard to see on what ground infants, who are still without knowledge or faith, should be admitted to any privilege of the sort [quoted from pgs. 237-238, Romanticism in American Theology, Nichols] . . . [T]he Baptists . . . refuse to baptize infants, on the ground that they have no power to repent and believe in Christ, so as to be the subjects of that inward spiritual conversion of which baptism is the profession and sign, and without which it can have no meaning. What conclusion, indeed, can well be more logical, if we are to believe that there is no objective power, no supernatural grace, in the sacrament itself[?] . . . It belongs on the old order of thinking on the subject, as we have it in . . . Chrysostom and the Christian fathers generally, which made baptism to be the sacrament of a real regeneration by the power of the Holy Ghost into the family of God. Why then should it [paedobaptism] be given up, along with this [baptismal regeneration], as an obsolete superstition? It is becoming but too plain, that the Paedobaptist part of the so-called Evangelical Christianity of the present day is not able to hold its ground steadily, at this pint, against the Baptist wing of the same interest. The Baptistic sentiment grows and spreads in every direction. [Pgs. 214-215, “The Old Doctrine of Baptism,” John Nevin, Mercersburg Review, April 1860.] . . . On this subject of baptismal grace, then, we will enter into no compromise with the anti-liturgical theology we have now in hand. . . . It is impossible . . . to establish the necessity of infant baptism, except upon the ground that baptism imparts a special grace. . . . [Revivalistic Presbyterianism is therefore] hostile to infant baptism . . . in reality, whatever it may be in profession . . . and unfriendly, therefore, to the whole idea . . . it has been based upon in the Reformed church from the beginning. . . . To what a pass things have already come in this respect throughout our country, by reason of the baptistic spirit which is among us . . . [t]hose who have eyes to see, can see for themselves. [Pgs. 399-400, “Vindication of the Revised Liturgy: Historical and Theological,” John Williamson Nevin, in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Historical Writings of John Williamson Nevin, ed. Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. & George H. Bricker. Pittsburgh, PA: Pickwick Press, n. d.]
The true gospel of justification by faith alone, the practice of believer’s baptism as an ordinance, not a sacrament, and revival are intimately connected, as are baptismal regeneration, traditional Reformed theology, and infant baptism. Let the friends of Christ’s gospel and of historic Baptist churches take note.