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Is Conversion an Act of the Will?

To continue with the theme of voluntarism, let us examine a claim often made against advocates of believers’ baptism. It is generally argued that to require the subject of baptism to be professing believers is to make the grace of God contingent upon an act of the human will (voluntas). That is, by insisting that the baptized be believers, the church places human volition above God’s divine initiative. The act of the will to believe in Christ is prior to and more determinative than God’s baptismal grace. So the argument goes as I understand it. I trust my interlocutors will correct me if I have stated this in an unbalanced way.

The problem with this argument lies in its hidden premise, namely that believing and wanting to follow Jesus as some sort of self-asserting act of willpower. Biblically and theologically this is simply wrong. No one comes to Christ unless drawn by the Father (John 6:44; 65). To respond to Christ’s call to discipleship is not the act of human self-assertion, but rather of submission to God’s own initiative which has taken hold the person called. Following Christ is not an act of heroic effort that we chose, rather it is something that we cannot do other than choose on the basis of God’s action towards us in Christ: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

As such, believers’ baptism does not rest on any sort of enshrining of human voluntas. Conversion to Christ, commitment to discipleship—none of this is a heroic act of the will. Rather it is simply the response of evoked love that is manifest whenever the Father draws people to the Son through the Spirit. An advocacy of believers’ baptism simply reflects a commitment to respond to God’s action in human beings with a Yes. Baptism is merely our agreement with what God has done, our recognition of the truth of how God has drawn a person into the Triune life.


  1. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I agree, Halden.

    In fact, speaking of the vicarious life of Christ, credo baptism is something that is grounded in Him. He chose to ‘fulfill’ all righteousness, he took this decision first, so we too might follow.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  2. Kampen wrote:

    The will is something Augustine struggled with a lot. The two wills, actually, which I’m sure you are familiar with in light of your recent Augustine themed blogs. During or shortly after one of Augustine’s conversions as described in Confessions, Lady Continence comes to him and says: Do you think you achieved this by your own resources?

    The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak; there is no conversion without Divine agency.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Thomas wrote:

    I think this clears up some of my (unexpressed) questions with your earlier post, foremost among which was: why are you approaching this so differently than theology has traditionally approached baptism. The answer seems to be that you view baptism as the monument to a choice, rather than a dispensation of grace that fundamentally alters human nature. You seem to be discussing baptism as a rite of passage, or as a sign of a decision made (one dependent, as you have specified, upon a prior act of God’s grace).

    Traditionally, the approach to baptism has been very different. Baptism is not in any simple sense a memorial or a sign, but a ritual ordained to effect the renewed human nature. The efficacy of Baptism does not rely primarily on a human being, but on God. The Anabaptist practice of rebaptism was so repugnant to both the mainline reformers and the Catholic Church not because the Anabaptists were not “falling in line”, but because their rebaptism was in essence a declaration of God’s impotence in getting it right the first time.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  4. ‘Baptism is merely our agreement of what God has done …’. You’ve got to be kidding!

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Zack Allen wrote:

    I really like Boyd’s take on this:

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    You don’t like that, Jason?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  7. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Beyond the theological interpretation (which is quite impossible) credo baptism seems to be a very early practice within the church. The Didache seems to imply it.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Bobby, according to the Didache, the stipulations are simply that baptism should be done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, there should be running water (if possible), and that the one baptizing and the baptizand (and all others who are able) should fast (with the added stipulation that the baptizand should fast at least one or two days prior to the baptism).

    I’m not sure what the implication is there? Because an infant cannot fast? But what does this have to do with “credo baptism”? Unless of course you are referring to the two ways in a roundabout manner… nor am I clear on what’s driving this for you here…

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  9. Not at all Halden. To be sure, I like where you’re going in this post, but I’d be happier with it if you deleted the word ‘merely’ in the last sentence. You are right to bear witness to the fact that baptism is both a human sign of a decision to embrace discipleship and that that sign rests upon God’s changeless will of salvation in Christ and the Church. Baptism is both God’s sign to humanity that we have been redeemed by Christ, and humanity’s sign to God that we are willing partners in God’s work of reconciliation. In your words, baptism represents our ‘submission to God’s own initiative which has taken hold [of] the person called’. I would want to proceed from here by drawing attention to the basis of baptism in the hypostatic union through which God draws near to humanity and humanity draws near to God. Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity. It is the prius of the divine ecomony in the incarnation that baptism testifies chiefly to, and not to any subjective attainment of our confession, which might change. Anyway, that’s my problem with ‘merely’.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Bobby Grow wrote:


    Yeah, that an infant cannot fast would imply that at least we have a non-paedo-baptism here.

    I don’t know, I just find this interesting in discussing paedo vs. credo baptism. The early church, insofar the Didache had any kind of normativity, at least illustrates that baptism was presumably for people who could fast and people who could be “immersed.” Here’s what it says for those interested:

    7:1 But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize.
    7:2 Having first recited all these things, baptize {in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit} in living (running) water.
    7:3 But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water;
    7:4 and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm.
    7:5 But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
    7:6 But before the baptism let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any others also who are able;
    7:7 and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before.

    What would be driving my point is simply that “believers” baptism was at play very early on. How the inner logic or “theology” of that is unfolded is what posts like Halden’s are intended to expose (I would imagine).

    So yeah, I’m making an inference. Col 2 would certainly provide a much more substantial piece for discussing this.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:38 pm | Permalink
  11. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    Great discussion, not since that profound scene in Godfather 2 have I reflected on baptism this much. Thanks to youall. I don’t know much about the history of Christian baptism (though these posts are very educational); how does Christian baptism relate, if at all to Jewish mikvaot or ritual baptisms for purity and repentance etc.? Are there any affinities with circumcision? Does it matter who does the baptizing? Seems like many here come from different traditions, do you all accept each others baptisms? If so/not, why so/not? Is baptism crucial or determinative for inclusion in the/a church or the body of Christ? thanks so much for your consideration, obliged, Daniel.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 9:35 pm | Permalink
  12. To put it another way, what you call ‘merely’ is nothing less than our participation in the full and vicarious humanity of the Son of God.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Yes, good point there.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  14. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Hey, isn’t this what I said ;-). Just not as eloquently as, Jason.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:19 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Sorry, Bobby. Comments are multiplying like bunnies around here.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  16. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I know, Halden; your blog is seriously on fire, I don’t know how you have time to even sleep :-). Keep’m coming, I know we’ve disagreed in the past . . . but I still like you, kumbaya my lord, kumbaya . . . :-)

    I’m just excited that something I said was even trying to head in the same direction as Jason :-).

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 12:56 am | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    I’ve disagreed with myself in the past. It’s no big deal.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  18. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I rest my case, it’s 12:57 in the morning, and here you are commenting . . . get some sleep.

    Hope “Western” is cool (seems lonely over there).

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  19. Sally D wrote:

    If Baptism is our agreement with what God has done (a statement that I support) then it’s just as much an argument for infant baptism as for any other kind.

    I don’t think that a discussion of infant baptism makes any sense without a context of what/who a small child IS, in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was rather clear on that.

    Although there may be many reasons to consider a “believers baptism” later, and I have over time given it much thought both before and after having children, my main reason now for rejoicing in the baptism of babies and children is that they are being acknowledged as full members of our Christian family. We don’t have to treat them as little peri-pagans, waiting anxiously for them to “convert”. These day, most of our Anglican churches also admit young children to Communion, for the same reason.

    However, this has allowed us to move the age of Confirmation to a later point and thus to improve the standard of Christian education available to young people who are now in a position to make their own choice (albeit still sometimes under some pressure from families, something I personally don’t appreciate).

    There’s something really sad and depressing, for me, about those Evangelical “dedication” ceremonies. The people stand there, clutching their precious babes, who are as often as not dressed in white ‘christening’ robes. And then…what? They’re blessed and prayed for and their lives – without their consent – are “dedicated” to the Lord. Or maybe (a better option) the parents dedicate themselves to the tough task of raising their children in the faith. Either way, it’s a festival of subliminal anxiety and God’s only there as a witness, not as the main act.

    It may sound clever, attacking infant baptism as a worldly way of sustaining Church membership or as dead traditionalism. Maybe there’s something in it, and I don’t dispute that paedo-baptism has many associated problems. But you’ve also surely got to speak with families, with parents and children, and find out what it means for our lives and for the way we relate to our children, before prescribing in this theoretical way what we should do.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 2:33 am | Permalink
  20. Theophilus wrote:

    To be honest, that makes paedobaptism sound like a sop to parents that helps them dodge the (admittedly unpleasant) thought that their child might not share in their faith and their salvation. In doing this, it dehumanizes the child, as it is presumptuous of the way that child will choose to live.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 6:16 am | Permalink
  21. I would also add that God’s grace consists more in the fact that, as Paul says, while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8). This isn’t at all diminished by a so-called voluntarist position on these matters. So it seems rather off the mark to say that this view makes God’s will contingent upon man’s will. On the contrary, God’s grace is present whatever the direction of man’s will.

    I’ve enjoyed the posts on this topic, and find myself in substantial agreement.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  22. James Grant wrote:

    I am a pastor of a church that comes out of the Baptist tradition, and over the past few years I have been more open to infant baptism for several reasons. I am interested in what you are saying here from both a theological and practical perspective. Theologically, I get what you are saying about voluntarism, but there are some important practical questions. At what point is a child able to voluntarily choose Christ? Is it voluntary if it takes place before the child is 18? 16? 12? 8? or so on. I would really like to see you address the issue of voluntarism and the choice of children/young adults. On a practical basis, this is where we have struggled as a church.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  23. Andrew wrote:

    As a total novice, I am always open to correction, but does Acts 16 (specifically verses 25-33) imply infant baptism? If so, does it even matter whether credo baptism was practiced early on if infant may have also been practiced. It’s my understanding that we simply don’t know enough about early baptismal practice to draw a line in regards to what we ought to be doing today.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 7:19 am | Permalink
  24. Andrew wrote:

    As a Baptist serving in a United Methodist Church I am perennially conflicted about paedo vs. credo Baptism – especially now that I have an infant son. Halden, when you say that “following Christ is not an act of heroic effort that we chose, rather it is something that we cannot do other than choose on the basis of God’s action toward us in Christ…” do you mean to say that infant baptism is or is not a valid option?

    Regardless of how you would respond to that query, what you say fits strongly within a Wesleyan understanding of Baptism as an act of God by which God draws both the baptized child and the family / church into a fuller covenantal relationship with the Triune God a means of “prevenient” (i.e. preparing) grace whereby we are sanctified (I know, lots of theo-jargon – but I assume that’s appropriate on this site).

    You also said that “Baptism is merely our agreement with what God has done, our recognition of the truth of how God has drawn a person into the Triune life.” Wouldn’t infant baptism within the context of a covenanted, baptized community be a similar agreement? After all, who really knows what they’re getting themselves into when they agree to enter into the Triune Life (either voluntarily or when initiated by proxy with believing / confessing parents)?

    This question is important and applies to James’ question, “At what point is a child able to voluntarily choose Christ?” The question I would have is “At what point is anyone really able to voluntarily choose Christ? I don’t want to mess up my latin but I believe it was Augustine who spoke about our voluntas curvetas – our will which is “bent inward.” It would seem that both believers and infant Baptism (both understood as a an act of God and a means of grace) would at least be “effective” in achieving the same ends (i.e. combating the “inward bent” of our will).

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. I really do enjoy your blog and LOVE to see discussion flourishing.

    Peace, A.T.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink
  25. Chris Donato wrote:

    It should go without saying, but I’ve not seen it at least implied: those who practice paedobaptism do not deny credobaptism. When an individual is called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, he or she is to be baptized. The difference is that when a child is born into a community that is following God’s agenda in Christ, that child is thus presumed to be part and parcel of that life—through the very rite of baptism—until or unless they grow to show otherwise (i.e., “apostasy”).

    Insisting on credobaptism among the children of the Christian community, despite your statements to the contrary, Halden, nonetheless smacks of “conversion” construed under the rubric of modern Western notions of revivalism. Baptism is by no means our “agreement with what God has done”; quite the contrary, baptism “is nothing else but to be born according to Christ and to recieve our very being and nature” (Nicholas Cabasilas). And this point is nothing less that shorthand for Romans 6.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  26. Theophilus wrote:

    Sounds to me like a reductio ad absurdum argument. Extending the argument that “we never really know what we’re doing” makes it impossible to have this conversation and think it’s meaningful, or working towards truth, or anything like that. It is obvious enough that our knowledge is never complete, but if completeness of knowledge or awareness was necessary to do or say things, then a life of active discipleship would not be possible.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  27. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Ok, I promise….this is my last comment!

    Chris, I made that implication in my comments to the other posts…the problem of course w/r/t Barth is that he is saying that the acceptance of both “paedo” and “credo” baptism (e.g., in Luther) is contradictory…now, again, I believe that not to be something that can be helpfully discussed here, so I defer to y’all to hammer it out. Peace.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  28. Andrew wrote:

    That wasn’t my primary argument (and I’m sure that wasn’t clear from what I wrote…my apologies). I’m simply wondering if we need to come down one way or another regarding infant vs. adult baptism given that our “conversion” (or, rather, our “coming into conformity with Christ”) is a lifelong process. Of course an active life of discipleship would be impossible if we extended that argument into all facets of our communal life – but nobody has argued that that’s what we ought to do. I was simply wondering whether, given our constant bent to sin and self (as opposed to active discipleship), we can argue the primacy of “believer’s” baptism over infant baptism by saying that “a child doesn’t know what they’re getting themselves into.” I just don’t think that the argument for the the primacy of believer’s baptism can or should be made solely on the basis that it is an act of faith which the child cannot understand or to which the child did not consent.

    If consent or understanding is necessary for Baptism (or even for the performance of those practices by which we are made into the church – i.e. discipleship) then what are we to say regarding those (the severely mentally disabled, for example) who may not be able to provide consent or rationally comprehend “what they’re getting themselves into” in Baptism. Those of us who are able to both comprehend and to argue over the significance of Baptism (or conversion, Eucharist, etc.) run the risk of thinking that – by our rational ability and consent – we make baptism “effectual.” What we’re really doing in Baptism is forming what Stanley Hauerwas has called the “essential gestures” of the church in which we are “graced” to participate. To remove the focus in Baptism away from our rational comprehension and consent as primary motivations is not to damage our understanding of Baptism as an act of God or to forget that action and contemplation are part of discipleship. It is merely to be honest about the fact that – for most of us – Baptism (and most other sacraments) are merely gestures. And (to quote Hauerwas),

    “Nothing is more important than gestures, as gestures embody as well as sustain the valuable and significant. Through gestures we create and form our worlds. Through gestures we make contact with one another and share common tasks. Through gestures we communicate and learn from each other the limits of our world…In this sense, the church is but God’s gesture on behalf of the world to create a space and time in which we might have a foretaste of the kingdom” (Christian Existence Today, 106)

    Sorry, again, for the length of my response. Grace & peace, A.T.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  29. Theophilus wrote:

    Thanks for your response. The question of the severely mentally disabled is certainly a pertinent one here. My congregation has never baptized those who cannot make a confession of faith and a commitment to discipleship, in faith that God will treat those who cannot cognitively understand the Christian faith with justice and mercy, and otherwise including these people in the life of the church wherever possible.

    Monday, September 14, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  30. Matt wrote:

    Jason and Halden,
    I thought the “merely” was a way of getting at the reality that our agency is more one of being subsumed. It is important that we participate in the life of the Son of God. However, it is more important that the Son of God has participated in the life of humanity (or else we could not participate, of course). We are “merely” living in light of that reality.

    Saturday, September 19, 2009 at 9:49 pm | Permalink
  31. Matt wrote:

    Surely, they should be more than just included in the church. In our Gospel lectionary text for this week (Mark 9:30-37), it seems that they are at the very center of the life of God. Of course, the child is the one without legal rights, the one who is not seen, the one who lacks autonomy. Jean Vanier would certainly make this claim.

    Saturday, September 19, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

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