Peter Leithart: "No baptism, no justification."

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The thing I like about my seminary friends Scott Hahn and Marcus Grodi is their honesty. They Poped (converted to Roman Catholicism) and announced it clearly. They continue to announce it to anyone who will listen.

Meanwhile Dr. Peter Leithart hangs around reforming Westminster Confession Presbyterianism into bad Lutheranism, typical Anglo-Catholicism, or timid Roman Catholicism—take your pick. His own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, tried him for heresy but he was acquitted. It's noteworthy the prosecutorial role was filled by a man who Poped himself soon after Dr. Leithart's acquittal.

Dr. Leithart is putting Reformed church officers on edge but he's not losing sleep over it. The Presbyterian Church in America doesn't much matter when you turn to the infinitely larger task of Protestant/Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox reunion. Pontificating on the path to Protestant reunion with Rome has given Dr. Leithart the whole world as his audience. He's switching venues from Trinity House to Theopolis, from Birmingham, Alabama to the Manhattan of First Things and the Known-Universe of Patheos. Watch a man's venues and you know his aspirations...

Readers remember that Dr. Leithart posted his "End of Protestantism" project on the website of the Roman Catholic journal First Things where it stewed for a while before reappearing as the lead article in First Things' print edition retitled "The Future of Protestantism." A little while ago Dr. Leithart posted a very short announcement on First Things that readers would have to click on over to Patheos to consume the next installment. There on Patheos's Evangelical channel (they also host a pagan channel), you will see what I've included as the screenshot to the right: Dr. Leithart appears at the top with Dr. Peter Enns just below.

Those committed to the bloody work defending Biblical doctrine know Dr. Enns as the former Westminster Seminary (Philly) professor who was fired because of his departure from the Reformed doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. So here in one screenshot is Peter Leithart denying the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments and justification just above Peter Enns who denies the Reformed doctrine of Scripture.

Dr. Leithart's piece "No Sacraments, No Protestantism" ought rather to be titled by his other statement, "No Baptism, No Justification." Are there still some deluded souls who are looking to Dr. Leithart to define the boundaries of Protestantism? It's like looking to Charlie Crist to define the Republican Party or Tim Keller to define Hell.

Nevertheless Dr. Leithart continues to claim subscription to the Westminster Standards and to hold membership in the Presbyterian Church in America. So theoretically, what we have here is Dr. Leithart's explanation of the Reformed Westminster Presbyterian doctrine of the sacraments and justification.

"Dr. Phillip Cary... has argued, "Protestantism cannot carry through its own deepest intention – to put faith in the word of Christ alone – without a (Roman) Catholic doctrine of sacramental efficacy.” Cary is right... let me narrow and sharpen the point (by saying) “No baptism, No justification.”

Of course, some will say I'm not understanding Dr. Leithart. They'll assure me there are nuances I'm missing here. Maybe a few verbal infelicities snuck in, but overall he's firmly Biblical. Orthodox. Reformed. Protestant. Presbyterian. Westminsterian.

No baptism, No justification.

After twisting several Scripture texts, Dr. Leithart turns to a discussion of his readers' Christian assurance:

Suppose I ask you, “How do you know you are in a right standing with God?” You might say, “Because I feel the relief of forgiveness.” But then I’ll ask, “Do you always feel relief? Do you never feel guilty?” And I suppose you’ll admit that you do feel guilty sometimes.

Even momentary lapses in feelings of relief or momentary recurrences of feelings of guilt amount to utter failure. Dr. Leithart then moves on to this:

You might say, “I know I’m justified because I believe the gospel.” ...That sounds a lot like putting faith in your faith, which is putting faith in something you’ve done...

Again, note Dr. Leithart's rhetoric. "Sounds a lot like" smoothes the path for equating "believe the Gospel" with "putting faith in something you've done." You and I both know that's what we mean when, with the Apostle Paul, we say we are not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: we are actually saying we believe in our own works and our own selves.


Reformed Protestants deny faith is a work. It is the gift of God. Yet Dr. Leithart doesn't blush to tell us that belief in the Gospel is "putting faith in something (we've) done."


Dr. Leithart has only begun his deconstruction. After morphing "belief in the Gospel" into "faith in something we've done," there's more:

You might protest, “But faith is a gift. I’m not putting faith in my own belief, but in God’s gift of faith.” Fair enough, but you’ll notice that you’re still focusing on what’s happening in you. Instead of getting assurance by turning outward to God, you’re assured by turning inward.

Having shaken his readers' confidence in the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, Dr. Leithart trots out Baptism as the place to find relief and peace:

We cannot get assurance unless we’re convinced that God declares me His beloved child in the water of baptism.

Which means, No baptism, No justification.

There it is, bald-faced, ugly, and raw. Also diametrically opposed to John Calvin. In his commentary on Genesis 2, speaking of the Tree of Life, he writes:

(Jesus) was the life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:3-4). If, then, we want to relate the outward sign to the thing it signifies, the tree of life has to be the figure and image of our Lord Jesus Christ. Otherwise, that would pervert Moses’ meaning and consequently obscure the grace of God, in the way papists made idols of the sacraments. And from all time, Gentiles have followed that path, for when they performed their ceremonies, they attached to them the full confidence of their salvation. And then there are the Jews, who had confidence in their sacrifices as if they acquired righteousness in this way. Today the papists think there is salvation only in the water of baptism. And that is why, in their opinion, children are damned even though there was no vice or ingratitude or negligence on the part of the father and mother. Why so? They do not consider what baptism means. The same is true of all the rest.

 Now the sacraments must not diminish God’s grace or the power of the Holy Spirit or the substance of what is figured. For example. We have the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is called ‘our washing’ (Titus 3:5), and that he is. Now if we think we are cleansed of our filth by the water of baptism, the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ loses the honour which must be attributed to it. Such, therefore, is to pervert completely the use of the sacraments and make idols of them! If we think we are made righteous when we come to the Lord’s Supper, when we take a piece of bread and a drop of wine, what becomes of our Lord Jesus Christ’s passion and death, to which the sacrament refers us? For it is said, ‘This is my body which is given for you; this is my blood which is shed for the forgiveness of your sins’ (Luke 22:19; Matt. 26:28). We must, therefore, in keeping with our low estate and weakness, be led to the true substance of the sacraments and place our complete confidence in them and find rest there.

Therefore, when the tree of life is spoken of here, it is certain Adam would not have lived off this fruit, which was unpalatable and subject to dying and rotting. And in fact, we are not dealing here with animal life, that is to say, the life that we have in common with other animals. We must understand spiritual life, which is in the reason, the intelligence, and the will. In short, the image of God in Adam has nothing to do with eating fruit, whether apple or pear. Consequently, we must deal with the substance that was understood in the external sign. And what is this substance? It is made known only in the word, for it is life. That distinction cannot be taken from it.

These warnings John Calvin and Reformed fathers across the centuries never stop giving are the warnings Dr. Leithart never gives. Being a sacramentalist, these are the warnings Dr. Leithart cannot give.

Servants of God who know the depravity of man's heart will never stop calling souls under our care to turn away from ceremonies to the Living God, putting our complete faith in Him Who died for us. Thank God for John Calvin! 

There are endless hymns of devotion to Jesus, to His blood and righteousness. Not so many are written in devotion to baptism and the Lord's Supper. Certainly baptism and the Lord's Supper are precious, but somehow they've never been prominent in our hymnals, and that's as it should be.

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in Thy great day;
For who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

The holy, meek, unspotted Lamb,
Who from the Father’s bosom came,
Who died for me, e’en me to atone,
Now for my Lord and God I own.

Lord, I believe Thy precious blood,
Which, at the mercy seat of God,
Forever doth for sinners plead,
For me, e’en for my soul, was shed.

When from the dust of death I rise
To claim my mansion in the skies,
Ev’n then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.

This spotless robe the same appears,
When ruined nature sinks in years;
No age can change its glorious hue,
The robe of Christ is ever new.

Jesus, the endless praise to Thee,
Whose boundless mercy hath for me—
For me a full atonement made,
An everlasting ransom paid.

O let the dead now hear Thy voice;
Now bid Thy banished ones rejoice;
Their beauty this, their glorious dress,
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness.


Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!