Lesson 4 – Baptism


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Bob Burridge ©2011

Ecclesiology: Lesson 4 – Of Baptism
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2003, 2011

Lesson Index
The Meaning of Baptism
The Mode of Baptism
The Significance of Baptism
The Subjects of Baptism
The Efficacy of Baptism

The meaning of Baptism

Westminster Confession of Faith 28

I. Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ for his church. In Matthew 28:19-20 he gave a three-fold commission to his apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. ”

Clearly these three commands are to continue in the church until the end of the world. In carrying out the duty of baptizing those evangelized it is obviously important to know how baptism is to be administered, who is to receive it, who is to perform it, and upon what conditions is it right and appropriate to do so.

Before we get into the details of those questions, ones which have sadly divided the evangelical churches, it is important to understand the basic meaning of “baptism” as presented in God’s word. There is a great deal of overlap of issues since what it represents partly determines how it is to be done, and to whom it is to be administered. Therefore, only at the conclusion of our study will all the individual parts come together to produce a consistent understanding of the sacrament.

In our last lesson we defined a sacrament as that which is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. It was directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice for his church, represents Christ and his benefits, confirms our interest in Christ, and puts a visible distinction upon members of Christ’s church. Baptism qualifies in all these areas if it is rightly understood, administered, and received.

We will see how it meets the demands of these elements as our study continues. To begin with, it is clear from the verse quoted above that it was directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice of his church.

As a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community baptism represents being a part of the visible church. All those properly baptized are to be considered as citizens of the covenant community. It is evident that not all who are baptized are truly members of the invisible church which is composed of only the elect of God. From the many warnings in the New Testament about false believers and the process of excommunication it is clear that some who are received as members of what we see as the church visibly, are not truly God’s redeemed people.

As a sacrament baptism is also a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins and of being given up to God through Christ to walk in newness of life. As we saw in the last lesson a sacrament does not in itself convey these spiritual blessings. It is a sign and seal of God’s promise concerning them to the proper recipients of the sacrament. We will see these issues clarified as we progress in the topics of this lesson.

The Mode of Baptism

Westminster Confession of Faith 28

II. The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto.
III. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.

Water is the outward element used to represent and seal baptism’s inward grace. While there is no significant debate about the use of water, the method of applying the water has divided some branches of the evangelical churches. The issue surrounds several areas of difference.

  • The meaning of the words baptism and baptize
  • The examples of baptism in the New Testament
  • The significance of the act of applying the water

The meaning of the words baptism and baptize
Since no actual definition is given in the New Testament when the concept of baptism is first introduced, it is obvious that the words used had a meaning which was already understood. The Greek terms in the books of the New Testament are: baptizo (βαπτιζω), baptismos (βαπτισμος), baptisma (βαπτισμα), baptistaes (βαπτιστης), and bapto (βαπτω). Instead of being translated, where the English meaning or synonym is substituted, they are most often transliterated by dropping the Greek ending and using the English alphabet instead of the Greek letters. This often requires adjustment such as the adding of a final “e” to conform the English sound as closely with the Greek as possible.

The first is the verb baptizo (βαπτιζω) which is usually simply transliterated as “baptize”. This word is used approximately 80 times in the New Testament.

The second word is the noun baptismos (βαπτισμος) which is used four times and has reference to the ritual washings already practiced in Israel (Matthew 7:4, Mark 7:8, Hebrews 6:2, and 9:10). The subjects of these washings are cups and pots in the Gospel references. In the Book of Hebrews it is used to describe the Jewish ritual washings based on the prescriptions in the Old Testament law. It is usually either transliterated as “baptism”, or translated by using the word “washing”.

The third word, baptisma (βαπτισμα), is a noun related strongly to the previous one. It is used 22 times usually being transliterated as “baptism”.

The fourth word is also a noun. Baptistaes (βαπτιστης) is used 14 times and always in reference to John describing him as the baptist or more accurately “the baptizer”.

The fifth word is another verb bapto (βαπτω) which is used four times in the New Testament. It is usually translated by the word “dip” and has reference to dipping a finger in water, of Jesus dipping the sop at the last supper, and of clothing dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13).

Lexicons and dictionaries range from sound scholarly studies of how words are actually used, to slanted attempts to define words to defend a particular theology. Some who promote a single meaning for baptizo (βαπτιζω) tend to ignore many obvious places where it is clearly used in other ways. The meanings of words are determined by how they are used by those speaking the language naturally. Often words take on new meanings and drop old ones since languages grow with the cultures using them. An honest approach will seek to assemble the possible meanings a word may have, then let the context determine which definitions are allowable or ruled out in any particular place where the word is used.

The words for baptism are very ancient in the Greek language and are used by Homer, Lucian, and other classical writers from various eras. They show a wide variety of uses of the words all having to do with the basic idea of cleansing in some way. The range of uses include: sprinkling, washing, dying of fabrics, and often of immersing things in a basin or pool of some kind. But ancient meanings and those used by writers in pagan cultures are hardly a good standard for judging the way the words were understood by the first recipients of the New Testament message.

The meanings of the words for baptism when introduced in the New Testament are deeply rooted in how the terms were used by the Greek speaking Jews to whom the gospel was first given. The historically wide range of meanings for these words seems to continue as they are used by the Christians who authored the New Testament books. The basic and most literal idea is “to wash”, or “to cleanse’. This was done in the same way people have always washed things. They may dip them into some solvent (usually water) therefore immersing them. Often washing is done by pouring the solvent over something or rubbing it over the object to be cleansed. Sometimes washings were symbolic of a moral or spiritual purification in which case simply sprinkling the solvent on the object was sufficient to represent the cleansing.

These various types of cleansings were part of the Old Testament writings. When the Hebrew and Aramaic texts were translated into Greek in the Septuagint versions (often represented by the letters LXX), words based on the bapt- (βαπτ-) root were often used.

A summary of these uses is offered in this table:

passage Hebrew Greek LXX use
Lev 11:32 בוא (bo’) βαπτω (bapto) to place into water (immerse)
Lev 14:6,51 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip one bird in the blood of another bird
Lev 14:16 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip a finger in oil to sprinkle it
Josh 3:15 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to step one’s feet into water
Ruth 2:14 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip a morsel of food in vinegar
Psa 68:23 חץ (makhats) βαπτω (bapto) to smite an enemy (figurative)
1Sm 14:27 טבל (taval) βαπτω (bapto) to dip the end of a rod in honey
2Ki 5:14 טבל (taval) βαπτιζω (baptizo) Naaman washed himself in the Jordan River
Isa 21:4 בעת (ba’at) βαπτιζω (baptizo) to terrify (figurative)
Dan 5:21 צבע (tsava’) ¹ βαπτω (bapto) to wet with morning dew

¹(Aramaic)

The Levitical and traditional practices described in the book of Hebrews are summarized in 9:10 using the word baptismos (βαπτισμος) in the plural. They are all called “baptisms”. The actions described here are mainly sprinklings of the priests where the Old Testament passages primarily use the Hebrew words:
nazah (נזה): which means to sprinkle, spurt, spatter, or splash.
zaraq (זרק): which means to scatter, or sprinkle.

A complete analysis of each of these passages would simply repeat the careful work done by some of the best exegetes God had given the church. A very good summary is given by Dr. John Murray in his book Christian Baptism. A simple reading of the contexts of these texts shows that no one meaning can be forced into them. Those who insist that the words always have only just one meaning struggle with some of these passages. For example it’s hard to make the words always mean ‘to immerse” when a living bird is “immersed” in the blood of another sacrificed bird (Leviticus 14:6), or how the body of Nebuchadnezzar was “immersed” in the morning dew.

The most important question that demands an answer is how the words chosen by the Holy Spirit were used and understood in the Jewish contexts in which they first appear in the New Testament writings. The first reference to baptism in the New Testament is in relation to the baptism being performed by John prior to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.

John’s baptism was performed as a sign of repentance. It was to call God’s people from the corruption that surrounded them to a renewed commitment to trust and honor their Lord.

John’s activities soon got the attention of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem which sent a delegation to find out who he claimed to be (John 1:19-27). It is helpful to note that they were not sent to ask what he was doing. Baptisms were well known to the Jews as proper things for a priest of God to do. They were performed in various contexts including the sprinklings of the Temple services and cleansing rituals (Hebrews 9:10).

It is also wise to note that they weren’t concerned with identifying the name of this baptizer. They would certainly have known the son of the High Priest Zacharias. Their questions were about who he claimed to be with relationship to biblical prophesy, not about his human identity. It is as if they were asking him, “Just who do you think you are, baptizing people to repentance as you have been doing?”

If John had been introducing some new concept, such as immersing people rather than following the Levitical and traditional mode of sprinkling or pouring water in symbolic purification, it is strange that nothing is ever mentioned of this in the record of the New Testament. You would think that those looking to find something wrong in what John was doing would have latched onto that as a good argument that he was straying from the ways prescribed by God in his word.

The next baptism described in the New Testament is the baptism of Jesus. This is of a different nature than the baptisms John had been administering to show the repentance of the people of Israel who came to him. Jesus had nothing from which to be cleansed. There was nothing of which to repent. So John expressed his reluctance and lack of understanding. He should be seeking baptism from Jesus for the purification of his own soul.

Jesus answered in a manner that satisfied John that this baptism was to be for a different purpose. It was “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). John gave no further argument. He understood what Jesus was asking.

Righteousness is defined in Scripture as innocence before God’s law. In Deuteronomy 6:25 it defines it this way, “it will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us.”

But what law would be fulfilled and honored by a baptism of Jesus by John? Jesus was about to begin his public ministry. In his ministry he would exercise the office of priest in several respects. He must therefore qualify in keeping with the law given to Israel if he was to be above reproach and was to be understood for what he was doing.

There were three basic requirements of the law that had to be followed for someone to assume the authority of a priest in Israel.

First, he had to be called of God in a manner consistent with the Scriptures. He was not of the line of Aaron as was John. Jesus was not going to circumvent the law and intrude upon the authority of the priesthood. There were several called specially by God in the Old Testament who were not identified as priests by their blood line. Melchizedek is an example of those called by special revelation. In Hebrews 7:17 it is directly said that Jesus was a priest of the order of Melchizedek. The calling of Jesus was made clear by the revelations of angels at the time of his conception and birth. Many times the words of the prophets were quoted identifying him as the one who fulfilled the promises of the Messiah, the Anointed One. It was by this authority, not by his human heritage, that he was called to the office of a Priest of Israel.

Second, a priest must be at least 30 years old (Numbers 4:3). It is interesting that the gospels are very clear to state that at the time of his baptism Jesus was 30 years old (Luke 3:23). His age is not given again during any time after that in his ministry. This shows that here it must have had some particular importance. We need to remember that it isn’t that Jesus had to be 30 to qualify as much as it was God’s preshadowing of the priestly ministry of our Promised Savior that set 30 as the age for all priests in the Levitical system. Many of the details of the Mosaic law made little sense until the coming of our Redeemer where the shadows became a reality.

Third, a priest needed to be properly set aside by the forms of ordination. This was only valid if done by an already properly recognized and authorized priest. John was qualified since he was of Aaron’s tribe, son of Zacharais (Luke 1:5) of the division of Abijah, those charged with temple service (1 Chronicles 24:10). The mode of ordination was also specified in Scripture. Among the things required was the sprinkling with water mentioned in Numbers 8:7. “and thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing, sprinkle purifying water on them …”

It is reasonable to assume that the baptism Jesus was seeking from John fulfilled this requirement of God’s law, and therefore fulfilled all righteousness in preparation for his ministry which was about to begin.

In confirmation of this line of reasoning, we see that when the authority of Jesus was questioned as he cast the money changers out of the temple, he cited his baptism by John. Matthew 21:23 records, “when He had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching and said, ‘ By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?'” The answer of our Lord in verse 25 is instructive, Jesus answered, “The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” The accusers were left with no grounds for complaint that Jesus had abused priestly authority.

The writer of Hebrews makes this same connection with the priesthood of Jesus when he quotes the words spoken by God at his baptism. In Hebrews 5:5-6 he says, So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, “Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee”; just as He says also in another passage, “Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The words “Thou art my Son” were spoken at Jesus’ baptism.

If Jesus had been baptized into the priesthood by an innovative ceremony, one that was at variance with the details of the law he was honoring, there would have been ample reason for the Pharisees at the temple to reject his argument. But they did not. The mode of the baptism of Jesus was most likely done by sprinkling water on him as he and John walked down into the waters of the Jordan river. Then after the baptism into the priesthood they came together up out of the water.

Jesus obeyed every part of the law in securing our righteousness. He did not dare to disturb even the shadows of the Levitical system lest any confusion should occur concerning the reality it prefigured. He partook of circumcision, temple presentation, Passover, and other of the biblical feasts. The baptism of Jesus is another example of his devotion to God’s law to encourage us that He is our righteousness. He kept the law in every point to be above reproach.

Other references to baptism in the rest of the New Testament build upon this same foundation. The words used come from the respected heritage of biblical law. There were also baptisms added by the Rabbis which Jesus and his disciples did not respect and follow. They did not come from God’s law but from human-invented superstitions and evil prejudices.

In several places it is recorded that Jesus and his followers did not follow the traditions of the Rabbis in washing their hands before eating (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:2-5 and Luke 11:38). John Murray points out that the tradition of this Rabbis is described in the Talmudic tractate Yadayim in chapter 2, mishnah 3. It says, “Hands become unclean and are made clean as far as the wrist. How so? If he poured the first water over the hands as far as the wrist and poured the second water over the hands beyond the wrists and the latter flowed back to the hands, the hands nevertheless become clean.”

Significantly, Mark 11:38 refers to this by using the word baptizo. There is no evidence that the critics of Jesus expected that Jesus and the disciples should have immersed themselves in water every time they ate, as if all good Jews did this. It is most reasonable to believe that this tradition of the Talmud was what they had in mind.

A similar reference is found in Mark 7:4 when the ritual cleansing expected of those returning from the market place is referred to by the word baptizo (βαπτιζω). Some Alexandrian Greek texts substitute the word hrantizo (ραντιζω) which means to sprinkle. This variation was probably introduced to clarify the type of Rabbinic practice to which the critics of Jesus referred. Even if we keep the more received reading of baptizo (βαπτιζω), the ritual it describes is unlikely that everyone returning from the market totally immersed himself in water.

There are these types of water baptisms in the New Testament:

  • The Levitical purifications and sacrificial sprinklings of God’s Law
  • The traditions of the Rabbis who added ceremonial washings of their own
  • John’s baptism, an established symbol of purification showing repentance
  • The baptism of Jesus as a priestly ordination following Numbers 8:7
  • a new kind of baptism which marked out the followers of Jesus Christ as the New Testament church which was established in fulfillment of the old Jewish order of the covenant.

In summary, the uses of the words transliterated as “baptism” in the New Testament have a wide variety of meanings. There is no support for the theory that they must always mean “to immerse”. The practice of the church in the sacrament of Christian Baptism must be defined not by a narrow assumed meaning for the words, but by the significance and purpose of the sacrament where that matter is discussed directly in God’s word. The mode will become more clear as we look to the passages which describe why believers are to be baptized.

The Significance of Christian Baptism

In this era, believers in Christ are marked out by Baptism. When people come to believe the gospel the common practice is to administer that sacrament to them with water in the name of the Triune God. This is one of the things Jesus commanded his disciples to do in the great commission recorded in Matthew 28:19-20.

God has always marked out his people by an outward sign ever since he constituted them as a covenant people in the time of Abraham. The sign he commanded in that era was circumcision. That practice continued until the Apostolic age when the New Testament church became established as the earthly representative of God’s continuing covenant people. The continuity of God’s church in both eras was dealt with in detail in previous studies. (See our syllabus notes on chapter 7 of the confession God’s Covenant With Man, and chapter 25 of the confession about the nature of The Church.)

The changes that took place in the covenant community after the coming of the Messiah were massive and dramatic. The old symbols of redemption were fulfilled and replaced with a system of practices that looked back upon the finished work which the earlier system prefigured. The change is well documented in the New Testament so that the church would have an authoritative record of them. God alone had the right to direct his people to stop doing what he had formerly commanded, then begin doing something different. The new system does not indicate a change in God’s plan of redemption. It reflects a completion of many of the promises made in his continuing covenant.

One of the noticeable changes was in how members of the covenant community were to be marked out as belonging to the people of God. Circumcision was no longer to be required. Instead the ancient concept of baptism would be used, but with deeper meaning attached. Yet its root meaning continued the primary symbolism it always carried. The practice of baptism would still illustrate washing and purification.

Obviously such a dramatic change would have to be explained. It is not surprising that the New Testament addresses this issue in several places. It was important that the church in its new form should understand this revised requirement. The change of initiatory practice impacted the life of every family among God’s people.

The change in the sign and seal of the covenant involved fulfillment of what the old sign and seal prefigured. The finished work of Jesus Christ as Savior by his death in the sinner’s place changed the practices that represented God’s dealing with the guilt and pollution of sin. The new sign also shows how the redemptive benefit of the atonement is applied by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the sinner to regenerate him and give him spiritual life where before there was death.

The replacement of circumcision with baptism is much more than just a change in outward practice. It represents the change brought about by the ending of the era of symbols where the physical nation of Israel represented the church of Christ. To understand this change it is important to briefly review the significance of circumcision.

1. Circumcision was a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community, the visible church of God at that time. It did not mean that every person circumcised, or every family member represented in the circumcision of the male head of the home, was chosen for redemption before the foundation of the world. It marked the recipients as part of the visible church, not as part of the invisible church which is made up of (and only of) the elect of God.

2. Circumcision was a bloody ritual representing the cutting away of sin and its pollution in the soul. Before the shedding of the blood of the Messiah God used bloody rituals to prefigure what had not yet taken place, but was still future by his promise.

3. Circumcision could only be administered to those outside the covenant community upon a credible profession of faith in, and submission to, the promises of God regarding redemption and his covenant. Believers’ circumcision was mandated in Israel. No one could receive this sign and be grafted into the visible body of the covenant people if the Elders had reason to doubt that his professed trust in the prefigured gospel was both informed and unfeigned.

4. Circumcision was a representation of an invisible and spiritual reality. Moses and the prophets repeatedly told the people they need to be circumcised in their hearts, not just in their bodies (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, etc.). The church was never to be imagined as being made up exclusively of the truly redeemed. There were provisions for removal from Israel of those circumcised members who showed by their rebellion or unbelief that they were not circumcised in the heart.

To see the changes in the New Testament along with the continuity of the underlying meanings, baptism can be described in similar statements.

1. Baptism is a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community, the visible church of God at this time. It does not mean that every person baptized was chosen for redemption before the foundation of the world. It marks the recipients as part of the visible church, not as part of the invisible church which is made up of (and only of) the elect of God.

God’s earthly representation of his kingdom was expanded. It no longer would be seen in just one nation, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That nation prefigured the New Testament church (Galatians 3:14,16, Ephesians 1:12, etc.). The male representation of the family, which prefigured the federal headship of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-31), faded so that wives and female children would receive the sign and seal of the covenant also.

2. Baptism is a non-bloody ritual representing the washing away of sin and its pollution in the soul. After the shedding of the Messiah’s blood God rescinded the use of bloody rituals since what they prefigured had been fulfilled.

3. Baptism is only to be administered to those outside of the covenant community upon a credible profession of faith in, and submission to, the promises of God regarding redemption and his covenant. Believers’ baptism is mandated for all those becoming members of the New Testament form of the church. No one should receive this sign and be grafted into the visible body of the covenant people if the Elders have reason to doubt that his professed trust in the gospel is both informed and unfeigned.

4. Baptism represents an invisible and spiritual reality. Jesus warned that in the New Testament church the tares and wheat are to grow together without attempts to judge the heart.

Excommunication recognizes that the visible church includes some baptized members who come to show no evidences that they are regenerated members of the invisible church of the redeemed. But we don’t judge the heart. We only remove those who openly deny the grounds upon which they were admitted in the first place. Baptized believers are reminded that it is the purifying of the heart, not of the body that is important in the eyes of God.

The spiritual import of the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace continued even though the form of the initiatory rite changed. The connection is clearly referenced in Colossians 2:11-14.

11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ;
12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,
14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

The outward acts of circumcision and baptism are not the issue here. Paul shows that they both relate to an inner change by which we are identified with Christ as our Sin-bearer. This atonement and its application to the believer is what the physical signs and seals represented in both eras.

There are many clear references in the New Testament showing that membership in the church after the time of Christ was a continuation of the same covenant and promises made to Abraham (see Acts 2:38-39; Romans 3:21; 11:16-17; Galatians 3:14,16,29; Acts 26:6,7; etc.).

Baptism represents the union of the believer in Christ’s victory over sin and its judicial effects. Since the true believer is identified with Christ who is his substitute, he is considered to be free from the penalty of sin which is death, the separation of the offending soul from the presence of God (see notes on the Work of Christ section of the syllabus notes on Jesus Christ, the Mediator from Confession chapter 8).

Sadly, many have missed the main point of Paul’s argument in the previous passage of Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:3-5 to hijack the words as an argument to support the mode of total immersion in baptism. A reading of the context shows that the manner of how water is applied neither supports that view, nor has any place in the Apostle’s line of reasoning. In reality the Apostle presents baptism in a sense that is most consistent with the covenantal view presented here.

The reference to being baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3), and to being buried with him in baptism (Romans 6:4) is certainly not represented in immersion under water. Jesus was laid in a tomb, not buried in the ground. The concept that submerging a person under water and his emerging up as if coming out of a grave doesn’t picture at all what Jesus did in his being laid in a tomb with a rock over the door and his coming forth from that tomb. The argument falsely imposes our modern idea of burial upon the actual facts of how the body of Jesus was handled upon his death.

Another serious problem with that argument is that it isolates one image from other similar images in the New Testament. We are also said to be planted with Christ and to put on Christ. Since neither of these images supports immersion under water and emersion from it, they are not seen as promoting a mode of baptism while the Romans 6 passage is taken that way. This is an inconsistent approach to exegesis and should be transparently invalid.

The point of the Apostle is that by our baptism into Christ, we show our identity with his full and complete work as our Savior. Primarily that work is the purifying of the soul from sin and its pollution. That washing away of the offense of sin removes the penalty of sin which is death, that debt which was paid for in our place by the Savior. This ensures that we will be raised with him to walk in newness of life. The passage in Romans deals with the results of the applied work of Christ as the believer is given spiritual life in him by purification from sin. It has nothing to do with how water is to be applied to the believer when he is physically baptized into the church. The baptism is a symbolic act which in itself washes away nothing. It is a ritual cleansing with promises and conditions attached by God in his Covenant. Ritual cleansings all through the history of God’s people up through the time of the New Testament were commanded in the law of Moses to be done by sprinkling or by pouring.

Baptism then is an initiatory rite into the visible covenant community. It represents our union with Christ for the purification of the soul by his shed blood.

Water baptism also represents another kind of baptism mentioned in the New Testament, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This shows the coming of the Spirit upon a person to apply the work of Christ in cleansing them from sin. The presence of the Spirit imparts the life which is restored when our separation from God is repaired by the removal of the barrier of our offenses.

This was the promise of John the baptist (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:26, Acts 1:5). In Titus 3:5 Paul mentions this as “the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Again, the mode is in most proper agreement with sprinkling and pouring since these are the terms that describe what this baptism of the Holy Spirit represents. It is the coming of the Spirit upon the believer. He is said to be “poured out,” “shed forth,” to have “fallen upon” God’s people. Even the symbolism of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is that of flames coming upon the people, not of immersing them in fire.

For such reasons we say that baptism, considering its import and meaning, is best represented by sprinkling and pouring rather than immersion under water.

The Subjects of Baptism

(Who should 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.

Reformed Christianity has almost exclusively recognized the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore 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.

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. It would be either naive or dishonest to assume that one group or another of these has knowingly rejected some biblical piece of information, or that all who hold to one of these views are ignorant of certain passages in the Bible. The difference in views among these conservatives about baptism depends upon how certain passages are interpreted and fit together into a system. The primary divergence between the historic Reformed view and that of the Baptist position relates to their view of how God’s covenant has changed or has remained the same in the time 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.

We have already laid a good foundation for why most Reformed believers baptize their infant children. In this section we will try to put the pieces together as they relate to this particular issue.

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. Their explanations fall short of defining the visible church concept accurately. Rather than a codifying the admission of unbelievers into the church, as we are accused by some of them, the visible church merely admits that the church has the same basic composition as the symbolic church embodied in the nation of Israel by God’s own commandment. Jesus himself mandates this view as illustrated in his parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30).

In our study of chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession we included several diagrams which illustrate the biblical evidences supporting the visible/invisible distinction which has always existed in the earthly body of God’s called-out people.

One of the primary issues is to determine if God has made a change in the composition of his church. Does he now exclude infants of believers and deny them the sign and seal of his covenant? This sign during the age from Abraham to the resurrection of Jesus Christ (which was then circumcision) was commanded to be administered to two groups of people:
1. those 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 their desire to live by God’s principles and to submit to the God-appointed authority of the church.
2. 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 work of Christ. The election and regeneration of any person, adults as well as children, cannot be determined by the church and is not what the sign of the covenant represents. The circumcision of children indicates that God considered them as members of the visible church then, 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 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 lesson 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. 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 (with the change of the sign marking out believers from circumcision to baptism) 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, 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 believe and join the church.

The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament were directly applied to the New Testament church.

In Acts 2:38-39 we read the words of Peter at Pentecost where he applied to the church the ancient promises made to Abraham and his descendants: And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.”

The Historically Reformed position has sometimes been misrepresented by well meaning Baptists regarding this passage. It is not claimed that the Genesis text directly addresses external membership in the church. But it does identify the covenant promise made to Abraham and his seed with the New Testament church as the proper heirs of the covenant nation promised to Abraham. That promise has to do with both the forgiveness of sin and the reception of the Holy Spirit. These are both central in the meaning of baptism as we showed in the previous section of this lesson.

The Reformed or Particular Baptists are more willing than other Baptists to see a connection between the Old and New Testaments, even between circumcision and baptism. But they misrepresent the infant baptism position as going too far in making an identity between the prefigurings and the fulfillments. Reformed infant-baptists limit the identity between circumcision and baptism by the changes clearly implied by the change in outward form. For example, both the pre-messianic shedding of blood and the limited application of the sign to only males anticipate the greater realities brought to completion by Christ (as explained previously).

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 a dispensational 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 submitted to baptism at the same moment. This is certainly possible. But it has nothing to do with the issue. We don’t know the ages of any children present in these families. But we do know that they were received as families without any qualifying comments being made.

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. Both 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. We will take up these and similar issues in the next section about the efficacy of baptism. 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 next chapter of the confession about that Sacrament.

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.

The issue of efficacy has been covered in the previous chapter in the section about the Sacraments as a Means of Grace.

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.

The grace represented is truly granted to (sealed upon) 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.

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. But 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.

Discussion Questions:
1. How can infants be baptized if they are not able to believe first?
2. What about infant salvation? Is it needed? Is it possible? Is it presumed?
3. Is there biblical justification for infant dedications?
4. Whose children may be baptized? Whose may not be baptized?
5. What if parents do not have their infant children baptized?
6. At what point in his life may a child no longer be baptized on the basis of the profession of faith by one of his parents?

Note: The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.

return to the top of this Page

Leave a Reply