Dear Church Family,
Having discussed what the Bible teaches about sacraments in general (as summarized in chapter 27 of the Westminster Confession of Faith) this past Sunday in our adult Sunday school class, we turned our attention to chapter 28 (“Of Baptism”).
Before we delve into this chapter, however, it might be good to remind ourselves of the fundamental difference between the Reformed view of the sacraments and how they are most commonly viewed by many evangelicals today. For the Reformed, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper are “signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (WCF 27.1); they are God’s ‘visible words’ by which He communicates the grace of His covenant promises; however, for many evangelicals the sacraments (or ordinances) symbolize the individual’s faith and obedience; they are man’s testimony (for example, see paragraph 7 of the Baptist Faith and Message).
This is an important difference to keep in mind, especially when considering the doctrine of baptism. The Reformed view of infant baptism – which is mentioned in the chapter – is not a stand-alone doctrine. It is based on a fundamentally different view of the meaning and purpose of the sacraments, the nature of the covenant of grace, and the biblical teaching on the difference between the visible and invisible church.
That said, let’s now consider what the confession teaches regarding the sacrament of baptism.
WCF 28.1 – The Purpose and Meaning of Baptism
The purpose of baptism is for the “solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church” (1 Corinthians 12:13). According to the Great Commission, baptism marks a person as a disciple, or follower of Christ (Matthew 28:19).
To the individual who is baptized, it is a sign and seal of several things: (1) the covenant of grace (Colossians 2:11-12); (2) their ingrafting into Christ (Galatians 3:27); (3) regeneration (Titus 3:5); (4) remission of sins (Mark 1:4); and (5) a person’s giving up unto God through Jesus Christ to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3).
WCF 28.2 – The Proper Administration of Baptism
There are three conditions by which baptism may be deemed to have been rightly administered: (1) the outward element is water; (2) it is Trinitarian; (3) it is done by a lawfully called minister of the Gospel. We find these criteria, once again, in Jesus’ command to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19-20). For a brief explanation of the third criteria, I recommend Kevin DeYoung’s article: “Who Can Baptize?”
WCF 28.3 – The Proper Mode of Baptism
Because baptism symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration (John 3:5-8 (cf. Ezekiel 36:24-29); Matthew 3:11, 15; Titus 3:5-7; 1 Corinthians 12:13), pouring or sprinkling is the proper mode of baptism.
Some Christians argue that baptism is only properly administered by the mode of immersion, and they do so usually based upon three arguments:
(1) that the Greek word “baptize” means ‘to immerse’ (but there are instances in the New Testament where this is not necessarily the case: Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38; Hebrews 6:2; 9:10).
(2) supposed New Testament examples of immersion (but see Acts 10 and Acts 16 for examples where immersion was highly unlikely).
(3) that baptism represents burial which is more in keeping with immersion (there are two instances in Scripture where baptism is spoken of in terms of burial (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12); however, most often in Scripture, baptism symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration (John 3:5-8 (cf. Ezekiel 36:24-29); Matthew 3:11, 15; Titus 3:5-7; 1 Corinthians 12:13)).
WCF 28.4 – The Proper Recipients of Baptism
The sacrament of baptism ought to be applied to both those who profess faith in Christ, as well as to the infants of one or both believing parents (Acts 2:38; Colossians 2:9-12; 1 Corinthians 7:14). The understanding of infant baptism is based on the continuity between the old and new covenants, particularly with respect to the connection between circumcision and baptism. For further reading, I have previously written about the doctrine about the doctrine of infant baptism here.
Some Christians argue that baptism should only be applied to individuals who have professed faith in Christ, and they do so usually based upon the argument that these are the kinds of baptisms that we find in the New Testament. However, the New Testament also contains records of “household baptisms” (Acts 16:15, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 1:16). In these instances, individuals believed and thus they – and all those in their households – were baptized. While it is not specifically stated that these households included infant children, it does point us to the fact that God’s covenant promises were intended to work in and through families, not just individuals. This is in keeping with the practice of household circumcisions of the Old Testament, and even the initial institution of circumcision in which all the males of Abraham’s household were circumcised (Genesis 17:23-27), including 318 trained men of Abraham’s household (Genesis 14:14).
It is true that in the New Testament, most all of the baptisms that are recorded are those in which the sacrament of baptism was applied to people after they believed. This, they did out of obedience to Christ’s command (Matthew 28:18-20), as well as to demonstrate and publicly profess their new-found allegiance to Christ and His church. This does not, however, take away from the fact that baptism represents God’s initial work of regeneration, to which our faith is a response. That is to say, baptism represents God’s initiatory promises to which we respond in faith.
In example, the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt and “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:2) and yet with most of them God was not pleased (1 Corinthians 10:5) because the good news that was preached to them was not united by faith in those who heard (Hebrews 4:2). This is yet another reason why we apply the sacrament of baptism to our infant children. We are declaring the promises of God in the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) which our children (like us) must embrace in faith. In baptism, we are maintaining and declaring that God initiates the work of salvation through His promises in His Son, Jesus Christ, and that these promises must be embraced by faith, otherwise the sign and seal is ineffectual (see WCF 27.3).
For a better understanding of the proper mode and recipients of baptism, I recommend Robert Rayburn’s short little book What About Baptism?
WCF 28.5 – The Importance and Qualifications of Baptism
As the sacrament of baptism was commanded by Christ, it is a great sin to contemn (regard with contempt) or neglect its practice (Luke 7:30; Exodus 4:24-26). At the same time – even as the right administration of baptism is one of the essential marks of the true church – God’s grace and salvation are not inseparably linked to it. That is to say, a person may be saved apart from baptism (Acts 10:2, 4, 22, 31, 45, 47), and not everyone who is baptized is saved (Acts 8:13, 21-23).
WCF 28.6 – The Efficacy of Baptism
The efficacy of baptism (its ability to communicate God’s grace) is not necessarily tied to the time of its application to an individual; after all, the Spirit of God works when and where He pleases (John 3:8). Thus, the grace promised through baptism is given according to the counsel of God’s own will (Acts 2:38-41), His mercy (Titus 3:5), and is for those whom He has appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48).
WCF 28.7 – The Frequency of Baptism
Because baptism is a symbol of the one-time act of regeneration, it is only to be administered once (Titus 3:5).
In some churches, baptism is viewed as necessary for salvation. Some view baptism as an essential work of a priest, and others view it as an essential work of the individual being baptized. In other churches, baptism is viewed as insignificant and irrelevant.
In the summary of the teaching of the Bible on the doctrine of baptism – as we find this summary explained for us in the Westminster Shorter Catechism – we find that baptism is one of those means by which God communicates His grace to His people. Baptism with water does not save, but baptism by the Holy Spirit does (that which water baptism points to). Thus, the practice of baptizing new believers and the children of believers in the church reminds all of God’s people that we are without hope, apart from God’s sovereign mercy.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch