What About the Promise?

Jason writes to ask (re-phrased for clarity):

In your paper on baptism you wrote:

“It is sometimes said, ‘I was baptized as an infant but did not come to faith until much later, so I was re-baptized.’ Might it not be the case that if one is baptized in infancy and later comes to faith, God has been faithful to his promise in the sign. The sign is like a seed which God through his sovereign, gracious Holy Spirit, brought to fruition. We should rejoice that we believe and all that baptism promises is true for us. So I wondered what might be the case if one never came to faith. In short is this the answer? The promise is salvation to those who believe (therefore it’s conditional, i.e. not a promise of election, which is to say it is not a promise to grant saving faith).”

There’s a distinction between the administration of the covenant of grace (i.e. the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and church discipline) and the eternal decree. When we talk about “the promise” we’re talking about the administration. When we talk about outcomes, we’re talking about the decree. We don’t know what the decree, in any given case, is so we look at the promises. God said, “I will be a God to you and to your children….” That’s a promise. It’s not a promise that means, however, that every child of every believer will necessarily come to faith. Why not? I can’t say. Ask God. Ask Paul in Rom 9 and he says, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated” (Read Rom 2:28; 9:6 – read all of Rom 9!). When one comes to faith, we see that as a fulfillment of the promise—because this is how Scripture speaks. If one doesn’t come to faith we continue to pray and to trust in the promise and leave the outcome to God. We never know as God knows. We don’t judge the heart. That’s God’s business. We judge profession of faith and, when necessary, the church judges a life that grossly contradicts one’s profession of faith in church discipline (Matt 16;Matt 18). We employ a “judgment of charity” as to profession. We don’t look across the congregation to try to guess the elect. Nor do we ask, “Am I elect?” We ask, “Do I believe?” If one believes it is because of God’s unconditional electing grace.

Thus, there can be a delay between the administration of the sign (per divine command) and the realization of the benefits of the covenant or “the promise” (Acts 2:39). It’s always been thus. Not every circumcised child came immediately to faith and some (e.g. Esau) never came to faith. Who knows about Ishmael (Gen 17) but that doesn’t prevent God from commanding infant initiation into the covenant of grace and making the promise, “I will be your God and your childrens’ God.”

So we obey God and trust the promise. In my case, there was a chronological delay but God was faithful to the promise even though there was a considerable delay between the administration of the sign and the realization of the promises in my experience (i.e., the application of the benefits in the ordo salutis). That delay doesn’t change the meaning of my baptism. I’m thankful for all that baptism promises to those who believe. I’m thankful  that God graciously brought me to life, to faith, and through faith, into union with Christ whereby I understand that my baptism is a sign of the union with Christ enjoyed by believers (Rom 6). Baptism itself doesn’t confer or create that union nor does it confer or create any of the benefits of Christ. That’s why we speak of the sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. WCF 37.2 says:

There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.

Baptism doesn’t create that union but because of the close relation between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (union) it sometimes sounds as if baptism creates union or confers benefits. This is why it’s important to bear in mind that, ultimately, God sovereignly elects whom he will and that it is election that determines the outcome of the administration of the covenant. It is not, as some have said, that the administration of the covenant of grace determines election.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr Clark, I agree with your explanation of the connection between administration of the covenant in baptism and election. I am interested to know if you would hold to the two or three covenant view. I am “sitting on the fence” regarding these views and it seems to me that a moderate position on either of these views leaves a subtlety of distinction that does not substantially affect theological distinctives within the Reformed Confessions. regards

  2. I think a short answer is available to Jason. Namely, if one is baptised and then turns out to be a false son, then as the Puritans said, “You drowned under the baptismal waters.” They rejected their baptism. Baptism is the sign of the covenant, and as Kline said in his book, By Oath Consigned, that sign is like the flood of Noah in that it reveals an ordeal.

    Q. So I wondered what might be the case if one baptized never came to faith?

    A. Their baptism is still valid, because it points to something outside of them. And their baptism is a curse to them, for they were in the church and yet did not unite that with faith in Jesus. These words might have application: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Matthew 11:21.

    Steve Rives

  3. Steve & RubeRad,

    I appreciate the clarification on the double meaning of baptism and believe that this should be taught as well to counter any false security that might arise in those baptized, but I don’t think this is necessarily the answer to my question. In short, my question was more about the promise God is making and signifying and sealing, not so much what baptism represents. But now that I think about it you really can’t separate the two.

    So is it fair to say that this is the promise God is making in baptism: I promise to be your God and save you by washing away your sins with the blood of my Son, just as water washes away the dirt from the body, if you will only believe. But if you will not believe, then I promise to be your Judge and damn you by washing you away, just as I did to all those in the days of Noah. Therefore it is a continual call to repentance and faith and not presumption.

    If so, then in short, this is the promise: the Gospel – salvation to those who believe… and conversely damnation to those who don’t. Not election, i.e. to grant saving faith, which coming from a Baptist background is what I think fails to be distinguished and so it causes all kinds of confusion and misunderstanding.

    If this is correct, then I can hear the objections to this from Baptists. “What’s the purpose then of baptism? The Gospel promise is to everyone who hears it, not just those who receive the sign and seal of it.” Of course this is true in a sense, but this reveals their view of the church as just the gathering of believers, not also a visible institution where divine grace is primarily administered, and of baptism as just an ordinance, not a sacrament.

    The implications then of not viewing baptism as a sign and seal of God’s promise, but rather as a sign of a spiritual reality, really are vast. Now it makes sense why there are divisions over this, as opposed to other doctrines where various interpretations are tolerated within a denomination. With this in mind, one can see how the Reformers really desired to reform the church, but the Baptists were setting up a new one.

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