What’s The Use Of Infant Baptism?

Baptism Election-FeaturedRob 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.

Arguably, the force of WCF 28.4–5 is that it is a sin (and here) to neglect the baptism of 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.

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  1. Daniel Hyde, Welcome to a Reformed Church (RT, 2010, p 137)–”As signs, they are visible means that point us to the reality that WE ARE WASHED from sin….As seals, they are means that the Holy Spirit uses to confirm OUR faith.”

    Hyde: signs about us

    Scott Clark (“Baptism and the Benefits of Christ”, Confessional Presbyterian 2, 2006. p 8 )– “Fundamentally, baptism is to strengthen our faith, not replace it. It is a seal to those who believe, that what baptism promises is actually TRUE OF THEM.”

    Clark: seals about us

    Bahnsen: The signs of the covenant, whether circumcision or baptism, declare the objective truth that justification comes only by faith in God’s promise. Circumcision and baptism are NOT an individual’s personal, subjective testimony to having saving faith for himself. So,those who are in the visible church but not elect are nevertheless within the covenant of grace but under its curse.

    • Mark,

      Not sure how to interpret your post.

      We confess:

      69. How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism, that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

      Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water1 and joined therewith this promise:2 that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away.3

      1 Matt 28:19, 20. Acts 2:38. 2 Matt 3:11. Mark 16:16. Rom 6:3,4. 3 Mark 1:4.

      70. What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?

      It is to have the forgiveness of sins from God through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us in His sacrifice on the cross;1 and also, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin and lead holy and unblamable lives.2

      1 Heb 12:24. 1 Pet 1:2. Rev 1:5. Zechariah 13:1. Ezek 36:25-27. 2 John 1:33. John 3:3 1 Cor 6:11. 1 Cor 12:13. * Heb 9:14.

      71. Where has Christ promised that we are as certainly washed with His blood and Spirit as with the water of Baptism?

      In the institution of Baptism, which says: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit .1 He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believs not shall be damned.”2 This promise is also repeated, where Scripture calls Baptism the washing of regeneration,3 and the washing away of sins.4

      1 Matt 28:19. 2 Mark 16:16. 3 Titus 3:5. 4 Acts 22:16.

      Belgic Art. 34 says:

      We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled, has by his shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood, which anyone might do or wish to do in order to atone or satisfy for sins.

      Having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, he established in its place the sacrament of baptism. By it we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to him, bearing his mark and sign. It also witnesses to us that he will be our God forever, since he is our gracious Father. Therefore he has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

      In this way he signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the body of the baptized when it is sprinkled on him, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit. It washes and cleanses it from its sins and transforms us from being the children of wrath into the children of God.

      This does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.

      So ministers, as far as their work is concerned, give us the sacrament and what is visible, but our Lord gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the “new man” and stripping off the “old,” with all its works.

      For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it—for we cannot be born twice. Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives.

      For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.
      And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ.

      Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”

      That’s all I’m saying. No, it’s not all about “me.” It’s about Christ’s objective promises and it’s a promise to those who believe.

  2. As a Baptist, I appreciate this post. It helped me understand a little better why you practice infant baptism. I would disagree with one thing you said about Baptists,
    “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.”
    If I understood you correctly, this is incorrect. Baptism is a public proclamation of your faith plus an initiation into the visible Church. In a Baptist Church, infants are not members of the Church (visible or invisible). To be a part of the invisible Church all that is necessary is to be saved. To be a part of the visible Church, you have to be saved and baptized.
    I think I have my terms correct, as Baptists don’t really talk about the visible/invisible Church. More natural terminology for Baptists would be Children of God (saved) & members of a local Church.

    • You should read the relevant portion again, in order to get RSC’s point; rather than reading into his language what you may have been expecting to find.

      For the Baptist, *both* ordinances/sacraments are confessing ordinances as such. The initiatory rite (baptism) may not be repeated (but for some it is, and that on the grounds that said baptism wasn’t done in the right order relative to conversion, and is therefore invalid); but it is still primarily an ordinance of personal confession and validation of a indubitable precondition. And the L.S. is *also* a confessing ordinance, in which worthy participants restate (ratify) their statement of faith.

      Presbyterians do not rebaptize, ever. Not an adult who “really” believes later, nor an infant who later is admitted to the Table. Thus, baptism–while it may follow a public profession or be the symbol of it in the case of an adult, is not essentially a confessing ordinance as such. It is an initiatory rite, separating those who have a right (as we understand it) to be identified with Christ’s visible kingdom administration.

      If children, then they are minor-citizens (similar to minor citizens of a secular country), whose full admission to ALL the rights and privileges of membership awaits the day of their public ratification of their status in the Lord’s Table.

      RSC’s comparison of the Baptist approach and the paedo-communionist approach recognizes the inversion of a common principle. The paedo-communionist (like the Baptist) thinks that initiation and ratification belong to the same parties, regardless of condition. The p-c simply thinks the baptized infant should be ratifying his identity in the Supper as soon as he can chew. He has abandoned Paul’s dictum regarding the necessity of self-examination.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Perhaps you can clear up some questions I’ve had for the past couple of years. I’m fairly new to a PCA congregation, having been raised in a Baptist/non-denominational-but-basically-Baptist church (I know, it confuses me too).

    I am beginning to understand the covenantal aspect of infant baptism; in fact, my pastor explained the connection between paedo-baptism and the OT practice of circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The passages in the New Testament, particularly in Acts, where Paul promises salvation to the Philippian jailer and his entire household, as well as the incident with Lydia, are also compelling for the covenantal understanding of baptism. However, there are also passages in Acts where salvation for an entire household was not promised — the Ethiopian eunuch comes to mind, where his baptism was one of faith and no household is mentioned. Or in Romans 10, where it seems that an actual, personal declaration of faith in the Lordship of Jesus and faith in His resurrection is necessary for salvation. How would you reconcile these?

    My second question, and one that has been bothering me for a while: Growing up, I had several friends who turned their backs on the church and became apostates, despite having been baptized and having made declarations of faith. What happens when someone who has been baptized as an infant becomes an apostate? Is the sign and seal of the covenantal relationship nullified? Is it also possible that such a practice of paedo-baptism could lull a child into a false sense of security, i.e. my parents are members of a church, so I’m okay as far as my relationship with Christ — without ever having come to an understanding of their need for their own faith in Christ’s work?

    Thank you in advance.

    • CJ,

      To answer your second question, I highly recommend you get J.V. Fesko’s Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism.

      In the book he goes through what baptism actually means. How both baptism and circumcision can represent covenant judgement. Once you understand that, you begin to see that baptism is never “in vain.” Baptism always either points to covenant blessing or curse. Therefore those who become apostates, their baptism points to the covenant judgement that will overtake them unless they repent and come to Christ.

      A correct understanding of baptism is necessary before you can understand infant baptism.


  4. I’m surprised there is nothing in here about ‘improving our baptism’. If i understand q167 LC right then baptism’s use is as a sign to encourage us to greater holiness in times of temptation and as a sign of all the benefits conferred to us by union with christ, that should encourage us and convict us at all times, spurring us on to acts of love and away from sin. Kind like the way the ‘gospel coalition’ folk talk about preaching the gospel to yourselves, we should ‘preach our baptism to ourselves’

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