Rob writes to say that one a loved one is emerging from one of the Baptist traditions into a Reformed/Presbyterian church setting.1 In addition they are expecting a covenant child and are, of course, thinking through infant baptism. As he’s tried to help them make the transition he has found a lot of material defending infant baptism (paedobaptism) but not much on one of the more difficult questions they are facing: Since baptism doesn’t save the individual (adult or child), what is the practical advantage to the child in infant baptism? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until the child is old enough to understand, and remember, his baptism and have it coincide with a public confession of faith?
I reply: I suspect that the reason you haven’t found much on this topic is that it is a question that assumes a different paradigm, i.e., it’s a different set of assumptions and conclusions about the nature of the covenant of grace in the new covenant. It’s like a fish asking a bird the value of air. The fish gets his oxygen via water. Air, as the bird experiences it, means nothing to him. So it is with the Baptist and the (confessional) Presbyterian/Reformed Christian. For the Baptist, baptism is a recognition of what has already happened, of what is already true of the baptized—that he has been given new life, that he believes, that he is united to Christ. For the Reformed/Presbyterian Christian (hereafter Reformed), however, baptism is a sign and seal of what is true of believers whenever they believe. We don’t presume to wait until we think we can be certain that one believes before administering the sign/seal of initiation into the visible covenant community because we understand baptism to be the sign and seal of initiation or entrance into the visible covenant community. We do not know when God will bring the sign to fruition. It may be, in God’s secret providence, that a covenant child has been given faith as an infant. There are instances of this in Scripture (e.g., John the Baptist). Is this the ordinary way that God operates? Experience suggests that the answer is no. It may be that the sovereign Holy Spirit may wait years before bringing the baptized person to faith.
This is why we confess in Westminster Confession of Faith 28.6:
6. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.
In any event we do not need to speculate about what God might or might not have done in any particular instance before baptism, as the basis for administering the sign and seal of initiation into the covenant of grace. We administer baptism not upon the basis of speculation but upon the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 17: “I will be a God to you and to your children” which he repeated through the Apostle Peter in Acts 2:39, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39; ESV). It is administered to the children of parents who have made profession of faith on the basis of our Lord’s command to reach the lost and to make disciples:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18–20; ESV)
As in the case of Abraham, the father of all believe (Rom 4:11), uninitiated adults who come to faith receive the sign and seal as adults. Abraham had not yet been initiated into the covenant community. Thus, he received the sign as an adult. The same is true in the New Covenant with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:37, 38). He was an adult, who had not yet been initiated into the New Covenant church and so he received the sign, as an adult, after he believed. Nevertheless, as in the case of Abraham (Genesis 17:10–14) and those covenant households in Acts (e.g., Acts 16:15) the children of believers were also initiated into the visible covenant community (the church). God has made promises to believers and to their children.
When we ask, “what’s the point?” or “what’s the use?” or “what’s the practical value of initiating covenant children into the covenant community?” we might as well start with Abraham. What was the point of initiating Isaac into the visible community of the covenant of grace? Well, the first benefit is that it is obedient to God’s command. It’s always beneficial to do what God says. We might ask Moses about the benefit of obeying God’s command to administer the sign and seal of admission to the visible covenant community (Exodus 4:24–26). Zipporah saved Moses’ life by doing what he neglected or refused to do. Certainly we may infer from this admittedly difficult passage that the Lord takes seriously the administration of the covenant of grace and it seems reasonable to infer from it that he is displeased when we refuse to administer the sign and seal of admission to our covenant children.
4. 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 baptized.
5. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
The second benefit of baptizing covenant children is that it initiates them into the visible assembly of God’s people, into the that visible society (the church) to which God has attached promises to work salvation in his people and outside of which he has not made such promises. Thus, to ask “what is the value of admitting covenant children to the visible church” is really to ask, “what is the value of the visible church?”
For many American evangelicals the church is like a safety net under a tightrope. It recognizes what has already happened. It is a collection bin for finished products. The Biblical conception of the church is different. It is not a mere safety net or collection bin. No, it is like air for the bird or water for the fish. It is the place where covenant children are nurtured, in which they flourish, in which they come to faith. We might just as well ask, “what is the value of a ship on the sea?” or “what is the value of an airplane at 25,000 feet?” Here is an extended answer to that question. Here it should be enough to say that our Lord Jesus valued the visible church.
I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ (Matt 16:18–20).
The visible church is that institution to which Christ has given the keys of the Kingdom of God. That cannot be said of any other institution. No one who would enter Christ’s kingdom should expect to be able to do so apart from entrance into the church. It is Christ’s official embassy to this world. His ministers are his ambassadors. His Word is is the royal charter and his sacraments the royal signs and seals of his kingdom. The ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline (Matt 18) is the ministry of the keys of Christ’s kingdom. As Cyprian said, he would have God for his Father must have the church as his mother and the Reformed church agrees. The Reformed Churches confess (Belgic Confession, Art. 28) “We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.” One who is unbaptized is outside the visible church.
The question, “if it doesn’t do anything, what’s the point?” assumes that there is no real distinction between initiation into the visible covenant community and ratification of the covenant of grace. In the Baptist paradigm, as for the proponents of paedocommunion, the two signs (initiation and renewal or ratification) are collapsed into one. Baptism In that scheme, baptism ratifies what is already thought to have taken place. In Reformed theology we assign that function to the Lord’s Supper.
In the Reformed view baptism signifies what is true to all those who believe. It seals or promises salvation to those who believe. We baptize our covenant children in the expectation and hope that the Lord will bring them to faith. We do not imagine that baptism is magic or that it works, as the Romanists say, ex opere operato (by the working it is worked), that baptism regenerates (grants new life). Baptism itself does not save. Christ saves. One asks: “What does it do in every instance?” In every instance it initiates the baptized into the visible covenant community.
Finally, there is, we say, a “double mode of communion” in the visible church. I’ve explained this at length here and in the pamphlet, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace. Jacob and Esau were both admitted to the visible covenant community, to the visible church. Each, however, had a different status. This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:28. Both were outward members of the church but both (Rom 9) did not enjoy that same inward or internal relation to the church, the covenant of grace, the promises, and election. Nevertheless, the same God who elected one and reprobated the other also commanded us to include all of the children in the visible assembly. It is not our calling to try to guess whom God has or has not elected. That’s not our business. Our business is to pay attention to God’s revealed will (as distinct from his secret, hidden will; Deut 29:29).
There are two paradigms at work here. The Reformed paradigm, which we think to be the biblical paradigm, is that God has established a visible covenant community in which salvation is administered. We readily admit that not everyone who receives the sign comes to faith but that’s true in the Baptist congregations too, is it not? I have seen people in Baptist congregations who have been baptized twice, three times, four times—I’m thinking particularly of a case in Oklahoma for which I was present.2 Clearly they thought that this child had not actually come to faith prior to his previous baptisms. No Baptist congregation can have infallible assurance that a candidate for baptism is actually regenerate and actually believes, in that case, one could just as well put the question to the Baptist paradigm: If baptism itself does not save (on which we agree), what’s the use? Thus, we are down to our competing explanations of the nature of the covenant of grace, the nature of the new covenant, the relations between Abraham and Moses, and the new covenant to the old.
1. The name has been changed to protect the author’s privacy. I get this question regularly so I might have used any number of names.
2. This is not an argument against the Baptist view. I recognize that this would be regarded by most Baptists as an abuse of the sacrament. There are many abuses of paedobaptism too. This is merely an extreme case illustrating the point about the limitations of our knowledge.
More on baptism.