Who Should be Baptized?
Part Three of the study of the Sacrament of Baptism
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 94-95)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
The Subjects of Baptism
The question of who should be baptized has caused a great deal of debate between some who equally love God’s word and who take it as the only standard in determining what we should believe and do. The differences are not because some are unaware of certain Bible verses. They all cite the same ones. The divergence takes place in the area of interpretation.
Those who have a more extensive understanding of the original languages admit that rigid dictionary definitions of the words, and narrowly interpreted grammatical structures of individual verses are not honest solutions to the problem. It comes down to how each passage fits together with other related passages and teachings of the inspired Scriptures. Scripture must interpret Scripture.
All those who sincerely profess faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord should be baptized into membership in a local congregation.
Historically Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore are also proper subjects of baptism. Those who do not baptize infants until they are able to make a credible profession of faith are classified as baptists. The term baptist does not identify particular denominations which may use that word in their name. The term is used here to identify a particular belief system concerning baptism.
The Westminster Standards summarize the understanding of the Reformed branch of Christianity about what the Bible says on this topic.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism
Q. 95. To whom is Baptism to be administered?
A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized.
Westminster Confession of Faith 28
IV. 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.
Theologically conservative Christians all agree that the Bible is God’s infallible and inerrant word. Therefore it alone must be the final and authoritative test of what is to be believed. The primary divergence between the historic Reformed view and that of the Baptist position relates to how they undersand changes in the administration of God’s promises to his people following the finished work of Christ. This impacts not only the question of who are the proper subjects of baptism, it also effects the meaning attached to baptism and its presumed efficacy.
The first and primary issue is the unity of God’s covenant with his people. The Baptist Confession of 1689 is largely based upon the Westminster Confession, but it differs in the section about baptism, and about the nature of the church. In chapter 26 it does not include the children of believers as members of a visible church. The explanation given by some falls short of defining the visible church concept accurately. The term “visible church” does not codify the admission of unbelievers into the church as some accuse. It merely admits that the church has the same basic type of composition as the symbolic church embodied in the nation of Israel by God’s own commandment. Some members are not true believers. Jesus himself mandates this same view as illustrated in his parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30).
We need to determine from Scripture what changes God made in the composition of his church. Does he now exclude infants of believers, and deny them the sign and seal of his covenant which they previously had received? The identifying sign of God’s people during the age from Abraham until the resurrection of Jesus Christ (which was then circumcision) was commanded to be administered to two groups of people.
1. Circumcision was to be performed upon those males outside the covenant community who come to make a credible profession of faith in God’s promises and salvation, and who demonstrate their sincerity by a desire to live by God’s principles and to submit to the God-appointed authority of the church.
2. Circumcision was to be performed upon the children of those already members of the covenant community. This sign was to be administered to all male children at the age of 8 days. This did not mean that they were also necessarily members of the invisible church which is the body of all those God actually regenerates by the promised future work of Christ. The election and regeneration of any person, adults as well as children, cannot be determined by the church, therefore it cannot be what the sign of the covenant represents. The circumcision of children indicates that God considered them to be members of the visible church, otherwise he would not have permitted them to receive its sign and seal.
The changes made in the covenant are well documented in the books of the New Testament. The narrowness of the church before Christ was expanded beyond Israel so that it would include people from all nations. The post-ascension church did not “replace” the pre-ascension church identified as Israel. The Church after the time of Christ is Israel in its fulfilled and completed form as promised by God throughout the Old Testament.
The sign marking members of the covenant was also enlarged so that both males and females were proper recipients. The reason for this change likely involved the symbolic federal headship of the husband and father which was fulfilled by the completion of the work of Christ who is the second Adam, the federal head representing all who believe. This was taken up earlier in this topic where we compared Baptism and Circumcision.
It would be contrary to God’s enlargement of the covenant community if all the children of believers who were not old enough to believe on their own were no longer to be included. Rather than enlarging the church, it would be a diminishing of its scope. Only God can announce changes resulting from the fulfillment of his previous commandments. Considering this, it would be unprecedented and contrary to sound biblical interpretation to presume such a change when nothing is said of it in the Bible. No where in any of the New Testament books is such a change announced, or shown by apostolic example.
Even a casual reading of the Epistles of the New Testament or the history of the early church in the book of Acts shows that the Inspired writers and the Apostles were diligent to advise the church about questions that would naturally arise among the Jewish believers as the covenantal changes took place. It would be astounding that no Jewish family in the decades covered by those books ever raised the question of their children’s inclusion in the covenant community. For thousands of years obedient parents placed the sign of the covenant upon their male children on the 8th day of their lives. If suddenly children were to be excluded, their godly parents would have been informed. That no controversy or issue is recorded for the churches then, or for the churches using the New Testament as their guide in the years to come, it is indicative that no such dramatic change took place. For lack of evidence to the contrary, God’s already revealed word must stand.
On the positive side of the issue, there is abundant evidence in the New Testament that the same practice of God’s people continued regarding the children of believing members of the covenant community, and regarding the families of those who come to believe and who join the church.
The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament were directly applied to the New Testament church.
Acts 2:38-39 reports the words of Peter at Pentecost. He applied to the church the ancient promises made to Abraham and his descendants, “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’ ”
It connects the covenant promise made to Abraham and to his seed, with the New Testament church as the proper heirs of the covenant. That promise includes both the forgiveness of sin and the reception of the Holy Spirit. These are both central in the meaning of baptism as we have demonstrated in a previous heading in this lesson.
However, some confuse the Covenantal position by misrepresenting the identity it makes between circumcision and baptism. The Reformed view actually limits this identity between the prefiguring and the fulfillment of it. It recognizes changes clearly explained in the teachings of the New Testament.
For example, the pre-messianic shedding of blood in sacrifices and in circumcision is no longer appropriate after the shedding of our Savior’s blood completed what was signified. Blood is replaced by water, which was also an Old Testament symbol for purification, for the washing away of the pollution of sin.
Also, the sign is no longer limited to the male as representative for his entire family. The death of Jesus as the representative for his church, the bridegroom dying to redeem his bride, is what that male headship representation was about.
The New Testament church and pre-messianic Israel are the same olive tree in Romans 11:16-17. Their unity does not deny basic changes directly explained by God himself. But the removal of children from the covenant community is no where commanded as part of this change.
To see how the New Testament church both understood and carried out the promise mentioned by Peter at Pentecost, we need to examine the examples of baptism in Scripture after the resurrection of Christ. There are only nine examples of baptism recorded in the book of Acts.
The first is the baptism of 3,000 at Pentecost. There are four baptisms where individual men were received into the church but families were not present. This leaves four baptisms where it expressly mentions the baptism of households along with the adult who became a believer. As Dr. Gregg Strawbridge observes, “… virtually every person who had a household had it baptized!”
If a person presumes that only adults who make a credible profession of faith can be members of the church and therefore can be baptized, he must also presume in all these cases that all the members of each household were not only old enough to understand the gospel, but they each also believed, and voluntarily and knowledgeably submitted to baptism at the same moment. This is certainly possible. But it has nothing to do with the issue. We do not know the ages of any children present in these families. We do know that they were received as families without any qualifying comments being made about those families in the biblical record.
If we set aside the presumptions, we would see these passages as a continuation of the practice commanded by God long ago for his covenant people. The including of the children was the common understanding every Jew would already have had. The Apostles who were sent out to baptize, and the families to whom the gospel first came, would have known God’s instruction to mark out their children as members of the covenant community.
At this point the reader is directed to the excellent article by Dr. Gregg Strawbridge, Infant Baptism: Does the Bible Teach It? It would be redundant to reproduce here all the careful work he has done in reviewing the passages and arguments from Scripture that support the continuation of the inclusion of the children of believers in both the visible church, and as proper subjects of the sign and seal of that membership.
The baptism of the infant children of believers does not save them, nor does it contradict the fact that babies are not able to believe before they are baptized. The question does not fall down upon the fact that covenant children are commonly excluded from the Lord’s Table in most Reformed churches. We will take that up in the study of the Lord’s Supper.
The Efficacious Nature of Baptism
Westminster Confession of Faith 28
V. 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.
VI. 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.
VII. The sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.
It confuses the sign with what it represents if we believe that Baptism itself produces all that it represents and seals upon the recipients. The act of baptizing does not mean that the person receiving the sacrament is actually among the elect and therefore a member of the invisible church. As with circumcision in the time before Christ, it assures for every person being baptized only that he is a member of the visible church, and is subject to the blessings or cursings of God’s promises.
The grace represented is truly granted to those qualified by the work of Christ under God’s covenant. Others receiving the sacrament who prove never to be regenerated by their lack of profession of faith and disobedience to God, receive rightfully all the curses of that same covenant. This applies to adults as well as to infants who are baptized. The Reformed view is therefore completely distinct from the view of Sacerdotalism as held for example by the Roman Catholic Church.
Similarly, if we look upon this act as merely an outward ritual or object lesson, we deny the promises God’s word attaches to Baptism. The Reformed view therefore directly denies the limited symbolic view of the Memorialists.
Since infants may not evidence the work of regeneration until later in life we say that the efficacy of baptism, the actual conveying of the graces signified, may not take place at the moment when the Sacrament is administered.
Since baptism represents the cleansing of sin and engrafting into the covenant body of the church it is rightly administered only once. There is no biblical justification or example of multiple baptisms of the same person. To do so would be a direct rejection of the meaning of Baptism and would obscure what God intends it to reveal about himself and his work of cleansing the guilty sinner of the stains of his sin.
The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament are directly applied in Scripture to the New Testament church. Historically Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore proper subjects of baptism. Baptism does not regenerate a person. It acts as a sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)
The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament are directly applied in Scripture to the New Testament church. Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore proper subjects of baptism. Baptism does not regenerate a person. It acts as a sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace.