Does Baptism Work?
Are Presbyterians aware of what a high doctrine of baptism is taught in the Confession of Faith (Chapter 28). And, do they believe it?
The first thing to note is that no distinction is made between adult baptism and child baptism. The oft heard, “We are observing the sacrament of infant baptism today,” implies a distinction that does not exist. Baptism is baptism. One enters the church, not by profession of faith, but by baptism. Hence, it is not correct to speak about children who make professions of faith as “joining the church.” Rather they move from one status within the church (non-communicant) to another (communicant).
And what is baptism? “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 (picture) and a seal (guarantee) 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.”
Who should receive baptism so defined? “Not only they that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.”
What is the expected effect of baptism? “…By the right use of this ordinance, the promised grace is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants — this is the Confession’s parenthesis, not my explanatory note) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.”
I am not sufficient as etymologist, historian, or theologian to nail down precisely the words “exhibit” and “confer.” Both words appear to have come into our language in the 15th century and to have had then meanings pretty similar to their meanings today. “Exhibit” meant to hold out, display, show. But its range of meaning included to present, deliver from exhibere meaning to have, hold. “Confer” meant to give, converse, compare. Only the first of the meanings of confer seems possible here.
Perhaps what the divines meant was no more than to say here by different words that baptism is both a sign and a seal.. Whether “exhibit” and “convey” mean the same thing or something more than “to sign” and “to seal” the effects of baptism are powerful. It seems to me that among evangelical Presbyterians the tendency is to emphasize the sacraments as a signs and to the neglect as of their function as seals of covenant grace. The Confession calls for us to treat baptism as both sign (picture, depiction) and seal (guarantee, solemn promise).
Now the Confession does make some qualifications: (1) It is possible to be saved without baptism. Although “it be a great sin to contemn or to neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed to it, as that no one can be regenerated, or saved, without it.” (2) Baptism does not inevitably result in the salvation of the person baptized. Although there is a very close connection between baptism and salvation not “all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.” (3) Baptism does not work automatically. “The grace…is not conferred by any power in (it) …but…the efficacy of (it) depend(s) upon the work of the Spirit and the word of institution…”. (4) One can receive the grace promised before, at the time of, or after the baptism. “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to the moment of time wherein it is administered…” These are important qualifications, but they serve to clarify, not to weaken, the high doctrine of baptism.
But now we have to face a reality: we know of children, who were baptized as infants and who as teenagers or young adults, show few or no evidences of true faith. (I am not so sure that statistically there is any difference between those who were baptized as children and those who are baptized on the basis of their professions of faith as older teenagers or adults regarding receiving the sacrament and possessing the grace, but I confine myself here to child baptism.) How do we explain the discrepancy? Does baptism not work? I believe that baptism does work just as the Confession teaches, but I want to suggest some possible reasons for the discrepancy we observe.
First, we have to remember two of the qualifications that the Confession makes. Not all who are baptized “are infallibly regenerated.” Both Word and sacrament are effective only because they are accompanied by the Holy Spirit. There is a mystery about the Spirit’s application of redemption. Also, we need to remember that the Spirit’s making baptism effective “is not tied to the moment of time” when the baptism takes place. It can be later, much later, when the baptism’s saving effect is experienced.
Second, we who are parents have to remember that, when we present our children for baptism, we make some big promises. We “unreservedly dedicate” our children to God. We promise we will “set before (them) a godly example,” that we “will pray with and for (them),” “teach (them) the doctrines of our holy religion,” and “strive by all the means of God’s appointment to bring (them) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” These promises are so big that, when my wife and I speak of the grace in our sons lives, we never attribute it to anything we have done, for we have failed, but rather wholly to “covenant mercies.” Still, there is a part parents play, and, when we consider the quality of spiritual life in some homes, the influences parents allow from outside, and the conduct of children and teenagers that is allowed by parents, we must say that some “baptismal failures” are attributable in whole or part to parental vow breaking.
Third, I wonder how many churches act consistently with our doctrine of baptism. In many churches, except for “baptism Sundays,” the baptismal font, which reminds us that the church is “the community of the baptized,” is not seen. Many ministers, rather than getting a handful of water, get so little as to perform a virtually “dry baptism.” Some ministers say hardly anything in sermons about the importance of baptism or about baptism as a real means of grace. We often teach, by practice that, baptism is nothing but a Baptist dedication of infants service with a few drops of water.
We so emphasize what the parents say to God that we diminish what is more important – what God says to the community in baptism. Often, influenced as we are by revivalism and pietism, we do not treat children as those who are to be brought up in the faith, but as those who must wait for “something to happen” – regeneration, or conversion, or maybe a “decision.” If the church does not take baptism seriously, we cannot expect God to honor it or our children to know its meaning and importance.
Fourth, how many parents teach their children their “baptismal identity”? Do we tell them they have been baptized, that God has marked them as His own, that they have become “engaged” to Him, that He has made wonderful promises to them about their salvation? Do we expect them to believe what we teach them? Do we encourage them to affirm the Gospel and to walk worthy of their privileges? Too often parents act as though they do not believe that baptism makes any difference at all in the lives of their children. They are Presbyterian by profession and practice, but Baptist by their view of and rearing of their children.
Fifth, we fail to remind ourselves of, or to teach our children, the importance of “improving” baptism. The Larger Catechism (Q. 167) teaches: “The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all the other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized for the mortifying of sin, and the quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.”
Here is a wealth of applicatory material for ministers to use in their preaching to all who have been baptized. Too often ministers may fail in sermons to apply the implications of baptism to young people. Rather than asking if they have experienced something, it might be wiser to ask them and their parents why they are so distracted and flip in services, why they dress, even in the solemnity of worship, choose their company, make their choices, and conduct themselves as they do - all when they have been marked in baptism as loved by and belonging to God. Rather than sending them off to youth conferences to experience spiritual highs, and perhaps to be asked if “Jesus has come into their hearts” or if they “have a personal relationship with the Lord”, we might do better to use weekly preaching to call on them to believe and take hold of the realities of grace that God signed and sealed to them at their baptisms.
If we were to take baptism more seriously, I wonder if we would see more of its powerful efficacy in our churches.