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Omagh EPC

BAPTISM  By Rev. Andy Hambleton

       Within the space of this short essay I will focus on four main areas of interest concerning baptism, each of which are emphasised in chapter 28 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (“WCF”). Under each heading, I will briefly outline the teaching of the Confession, demonstrating these principles from Scripture. 

The Meaning of Baptism 

        WCF 28.1 states that baptism is a “sacrament”. The  Westminster Shorter Catechism succinctly defines a sacrament as “a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed and applied to believers” (WSC 92). Note that the WSC speaks of a threefold function of the sacraments: firstly to represent (or we might say signify) Christ and the benefits of the new covenant, secondly to seal these same things, and thirdly to apply them. In unpacking the meaning of baptism from WCF 28.1, it will be helpful to keep in mind these three functions. 

        Firstly, then, as a sacrament baptism functions as a sign. As such, baptism should be considered a “picture” of the gospel. In God’s grace to his people he has ensured that all 5 human senses are engaged in our reception of the gospel. Through the preaching of the word we hear the gospel, whereas in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper we see, feel, taste and touch the divinely ordained representations of that same gospel. By so doing, the Lord has ensured that his people can be encouraged and strengthened through every avenue possible. It is for this reason that the Reformers sometimes called the sacraments “visible words”. It is not that in the sacraments we get a “better” gospel, rather we are helped to get the same gospel better, as our understanding and assurance of that gospel is expanded through the use of the sign.  

        Chiefly, baptism signifies cleansing, repentance and union with Christ.1 The use of water in baptism is a sign of the cleansing associated with regeneration and the forgiveness of sins (see, for example, Titus 3:5 and 1 Peter 3:21) offered to us in the gospel. Baptism also functions as a sign of repentance, as those who are called turn to the Lord and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3). As with every aspect of our redemption, both the cleansing and the repentance that baptism signifies are only possible through union with Christ. For this reason, John Murray held that union with Christ ought to be considered the primary significance of baptism. Paul speaks of being “baptised into Christ” (Romans 6:3), and by implication we can also say that we are baptised into the church, which is Christ’s body (1 Cor 12:13). Baptism, them, signifies being united with Christ, and thus becoming united to his people also. 

Secondly, baptism functions as a seal (cf. Rom 4:11). As such, baptism is the way that God confirms that we belong to his covenant people, showing that we belong to the visible church. In bygone eras, seals on letters were used to show authenticity, and to show that the contents of the letter were verified by the person whose seal they bore. Today, a seal on a passport or birth certificate gives that document authenticity, confirming the person’s belonging to the state in the eyes of the state. By placing its seal on a passport, the State declares, “this person is one of ours”. In a similar way, the Lord places his seal on his people, showing that they belong to his covenant people in his eyes. As a seal, baptism therefore functions to build up the assurance of God’s people. In times when their assurance wavers, they may look back on their baptism and see that the Lord has set his seal on them, declaring “you are one of mine.” Of course, baptism does not guarantee salvation, but nonetheless it is a means by which God strengthens and confirms us in our faith. 

        Thirdly and finally, the WSC states that a sacrament is a means by which God applies the benefits of the New Covenant to his people. In other words, baptism is a “means of grace”. Contrary to the Zwinglian view of the sacraments as “nudum signum” (empty signs), the Westminster Standards rightly argue that in the sacraments there is a real, active presence of Christ, by his Spirit. For Zwingli, the sacraments are signs in the sense that they are like a signpost, pointing to something utterly separate from itself. For Calvin, the sacraments are signs more like a kiss is a sign of love, filled with the reality which it signifies.2 It is in this sense that the Shorter Catechism speaks of Christ and the gracious benefits of the new covenant being “applied”  to God’s people through the sacraments, just as love is shown to the beloved through the sign of a kiss. 

        Of course, it is necessary to ensure that our belief in the real spiritual presence of Christ in the sacraments does not lead us to confuse the sign and the thing signified, which would result in the belief in baptismal regeneration (see the later section on the efficacy of baptism). Again, the words of the Shorter Catechism give clarity here: 

Q91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation? 

Answer: The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them. 

        The Shorter Catechism rightly shows that though Christ is truly present by his Spirit in the sacraments to apply his benefits to his people, there is nothing ‘magical’ in the sacraments.3 Rather, the efficacy of the sacraments comes only through the blessing of Christ who works by his Spirit in those who receive the sacraments with faith. It is in this sense that the sacraments are means by which the benefits of the new covenant are applied to God’s people. 

The Mode of Baptism 

        WCF 28.3 simply states that “dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” Of course, this point is refuted by Baptists who hold that immersion is the only legitimate mode of baptism. In support of their view, Baptists argue that the Greek word for “baptise” necessarily means to immerse, and that certain descriptions of baptisms in the New Testament imply immersion. For example, John the Baptist chose a location for his ministry where the water was plentiful (John 3:23), people are described as going “down into” the water and coming up out of the water again (Matt. 3:16), and in Acts 8 Philip takes the Ethiopian eunuch down from the chariot, presumably to a nearby river or lake in order to baptise him.4 Furthermore, Paul’s use of baptism as a sign of union with Christ in his death and resurrection (in Romans 6:1-6 and Colossians 2:11-12) is taken by Baptists to imply that the only appropriate mode of baptism is immersion, which vividly portrays burial and resurrection with Christ.5 

        In response to the arguments in favour of immersion as the only appropriate mode of baptism, it is necessary first of all to point out that the descriptions of baptisms in the New Testament cited by Baptists are inconclusive. Of course, they may very well describe full immersion, but it is not necessary for them to do so. John’s choice of a location with plentiful water could have as much to do with the number of people to baptise rather than the mode which he employed. Likewise, “going down into the water” does not necessarily imply going under the water, and may simply mean stepping into the water. Arguing that these descriptions force us to accept full immersion is stretching the meaning of the words too far, reading this into the text rather than out of it. 

        We turn, then, to the meaning of the word “baptise”, and here we note that there are occasions in Scripture when the word simply cannot mean immersion. John Murray, in Christian Baptism notes that in Leviticus 14:6, 51 the priest is to take two birds, slay one, and “baptise” (LXX) the live bird in the blood of the dead bird. Here, the word “baptise” cannot mean immersion (unless the bird the priest killed was always significantly larger than the one he didn’t kill). The pre-dinner washings of Luke 11:38 are unlikely to have involved every diner having to be fully immersed in water before sitting down to eat. Furthermore, there are various occasions in the New Testament when certain pourings and sprinklings are overtly referred to as “baptisms”. Hebrews 9:10 speaks of the various “sprinklings” (v13, 19, 21) of the Old Testament law as “baptisms”, and in Acts 2 the pouring out of the Spirit (in fulfilment of Joel 2) had previously been described by Jesus himself as a “baptism” in Acts 1:5.  

        In accordance with WCF 28.3 it can therefore be seen that whilst “to baptise” can indeed refer to immersion, it is not necessary to render it as such. Within Scripture there is more than sufficient evidence to show that “baptise” has a broader meaning than simply to immerse, and is used also to refer to the sprinkling and pouring of water, oil, blood or other liquids. 

The Subjects of Baptism 

        As with the mode of baptism, so also the appropriate subjects of baptism is an area of controversy. On the one hand, credobaptists (those who believe in “believer’s baptism” only) argue that since the New Testament does not command the baptising of infants, and that since baptism is always linked to a profession of faith, baptism should therefore only be administered to those who have reached an age where they have been able to profess faith. Contrary to this, WCF 28.4 states that “not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents are to be baptised.” 

        Space will not allow for a lengthy discussion of who are the rightful recipients of baptism, but I would like to briefly outline what I consider to be the main reasons why the infants of believers ought to be baptised: 

i) Often, paedobaptists (those who believe in the baptism of the infants of believers) are accused of ‘arguing from silence’ that the infants of believers ought to be baptised, given that there is neither an explicit command nor a concrete example of this taking place in the New Testament. This argument, I believe, backfires on the credobaptist. It is true that there is no explicit New Testament command to baptise infants (or to refrain from doing so, for that matter). However, given that throughout redemptive history God’s covenants always included the children of the believers (see for example Genesis 15:18), it would be necessary for God to specifically reveal to the New Testament church that this family-oriented administration had become obsolete, and that now only those of an age at which it is possible to profess faith should be considered members of the covenant community. The total lack of such a dominical or apostolic directive implies that the same administration carries over into the New Testament. Hence the ‘silence’ of Scripture on this point creates a much greater problem for the credobaptist than it does for the paedobaptist. In the absence of specific revelation excluding the infants of believers from the covenant people of God, we must assume that they still belong, and can receive the sign of belonging. 

ii) Following on from this, the huge importance of Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38-39 can be seen. Speaking at Pentecost, Peter not only fails to redefine the administration of the covenant of grace so that it excludes the children of believers from the New Covenant, but instead he deliberately reaffirms the administration of the Covenant of Grace, loosely quoting from Genesis 17:9, 12 in order to show that the promises of God are for the believer, his children, and the Gentiles who are far off whom God will call to himself. Coupled with the lack of a command to withhold baptism from the infants of believers, this presents a very firm case to consider the infants of believers as members of the covenant community, and therefore legitimate recipients of the sign of baptism. 

iii) Passages such as Colossians 2:11-12 and Romans 4:11 show an important amount of continuity between the Old and New Covenant signs which further undergirds the belief that the children of New Testament believers should be treated in the same manner as the children of Old Testament believers. Colossians 2 makes a connection between circumcision and baptism, sowing that they both speak of Christ’s saving work, whereas Romans 4 shows that the thing signified and sealed by circumcision (the righteousness received by faith) corresponds to the meaning of baptism (see earlier). Whilst the bloody rite of circumcision anticipated the blood which was yet to be spilt, the bloodless rite of baptism assures us that the blood has now been shed, and the cleansing it has secured is ours in him who has already bled so that sins can be forgiven (Heb 9:22-28). 

iv) In the glorious blessings of the New Covenant we see how the work of God expands in various ways compared to the Old Testament arrangements: from the Jews to the Gentiles; from Jerusalem and Judea to the ends of the earth; the work of the Spirit abounds as Christ bestows gifts on all his people; the sign of the covenant is given not only to males but to females also. Amidst all of these areas of expansion, it would be odd to find that in one area alone (the status of the children of believers) the grace of God had retracted and become narrower. If the children of believers were worthy recipients of the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament, it would be fitting that they are fully included in the New Testament era as well, an era marked by a greater outpouring of God’s grace. 

v) Whilst it must be admitted that there are no explicit mentions in the New Testament of the infants of believers being baptised, it is often overlooked that household baptisms were clearly commonplace in the New Testament church (see, for example, Acts 16:15, 31, 1 Cor. 1:16). Of course, this is not to assume that in any or all of these households infants were baptised, but rather to show that the New Testament Scriptures point us to the fact that, just as in the Old Testament, God deals with his people as whole households, not merely as individual adults (see also 1 Cor 7:14). 

There is more that could be said here, but the five points above shows the main Scriptural background to WCF 28.4. 

The Efficacy of Baptism 

        WCF 28.5 and 28.6 both refer to the efficacy of baptism, looking at the issue from different angles. First of all, WCF 28.5 refutes the teaching of baptismal regeneration (that is, the typically (though not exclusively) Roman Catholic tendency to conflate the sign of baptism and the regenerative work it signifies so that they become one and the same thing). Contrary to this, the Confession makes clear that “grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto [baptism], as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptised are undoubtedly regenerated.” It is easy to demonstrate this truth from Scripture: the penitent thief was not baptised and yet was saved, whereas Simon Magus was baptised and yet was shown to be unconverted. In a similar way, Old Testament examples show that sacraments have never been “inseparably annexed” to saving grace. As Paul points out in Romans 4, Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. In contrast to this, Ishmael, though circumcised, was not saved. 

        WCF 28.6 also refers to the efficacy of baptism, asserting that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment in which it is administered. Instead, the grace signified and sealed by the sacrament of baptism is “offered”, “exhibited” and “conferred” to those to whom such saving grace belongs, according to the counsel of God’s will, in his appointed time. In short, the Confession here is making clear that the efficacy of baptism lies within God’s sovereign will (regardless of whether it is an adult or an infant who is being baptised). The saving grace which baptism signifies and seals is given to those whom God has chosen, at the time when he works by the Spirit to regenerate them (in infancy, or later in life). Of course, in the case of baptised infants, when they have reached the age of discretion they must profess faith for themselves (which, if they have been regenerated, they will do).  It must also be noted that both for those baptised as infants and those who are baptised as adults, a later day may come when they reject the promises of the gospel and turn away from the grace that has been offered to them. 

        Given that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of its administration, it is therefore unnecessary to re-baptise someone who has previously been baptised, fallen away from the faith, and been restored, as is indicated by WCF 28.7.