Baptism as Means of Conferring Grace
As stated previously, baptism is an objective seal that inaugurates us into a covenant. But of course, Biblical faith entails more than being in a formal covenant with God. The binding agreement is intended to surround a living, vibrant relationship between God and His people. God’s promise to Abraham was “to be God to you, and to your descendants after you…”, a promise of relationship. The Psalms are filled with David’s personal experiences of a passionate relationship with God. In this way, the ritual and binding nature of baptism is analogous to a marriage ceremony. In marriage, God joins two people together in a binding covenant, and that binding agreement is a protective wall surrounding an intimate love relationship.
For sinful human beings to live in relationship with Holy God requires grace. The graces of salvation (if you will) and this right relationship with God are as follows, in summary: being brought into living union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. There are many other aspects of salvation and terms to define it, but I think this covers the major points.
Clearly baptism signifies and represents these benefits, just as the Lord’s Supper does. But is that where the power of the sacraments ends? Are they “merely” signs to remind us of what Christ has done, or is there something more to them? This debate is alive and well throughout Christendom.
The Reformed view, affirmed in the confessions, is that the sacraments are means which God uses to confer the grace of salvation on His people. The Belgic Confession states that the sacraments “are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. So they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing.” (Article 33, para. 3). Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) states in section 27 (Of the Sacraments):
II. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.
III. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither does the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that does administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.
Note that when the confession states that the grace exhibited in a sacrament is not conferred by any power in them (the water, bread, or wine), it implies that the grace is conferred by some power – the power of the Spirit, as the Belgic confession also states. It goes so far as to say that the sacraments contain a promise of benefit, to worthy receivers.
To some ears, this will sound like heresy, superstition, or Roman Catholicism. However, the WCF is the most widely used and accepted standards for Reformed theology, which claims to be based on Sola Scriptura (scripture alone), not the traditions of men. Where does this claim about baptism as a means of grace come from in the Scriptures? It stems from several of the passages given in Part 1 of this series. Although it is debated whether some of these references are to water baptism vs. the baptism of the Spirit, there are several passages that clearly refer to water baptism. For example:
Acts 2:38 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 22:15-16 15 For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’
Ephesians 5:26-27 26 so that He (Christ) might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.
These kind of verses must be dealt with in anyone’s view of baptism. Imagine if at Pentecost one of the crowd approached Peter and said: “I repent, I believe, but no thanks, I don’t want to be baptized. Salvation is by faith and I don’t believe in that superstitious baptism stuff.” Would that person’s sins be forgiven? Would they have received the Holy Spirit? I say no. I think Peter would have turned them away, as a rejector of his gospel message. The same could be said of Paul right before his baptism. Although he had already interacted with Jesus and received his revelation from heaven itself, Annanias STILL called him to “be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” The Reformed view is that baptism is a means of grace, a tool used by God to confer the grace of Christ on His people. The sign and the thing signified are connected, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This view of baptism has to be qualified based on all of scripture. First, we know that not all who receive baptism also receive the grace exhibited and offered. We see this in the Bible (for example, Simon in Acts 8:9-24), as well in our life experiences. The WCF provides this qualification when it says that the sacraments contain “a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.” Similarly, in the section on baptism (WCF 27.6) states: “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 belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.”
It is those to whom that grace belongs that it is conferred upon. To whom does the grace belong? Ultimately, the confession leaves this in the realm of God’s sovereignty, when it says “according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.” This is very proper to say. However, God’s divine decree is something hidden from us. I believe the simple way to explain in human terms who the grace belongs to, is those who possess true, living faith in God and Jesus Christ. WCF 27.3 hints at this when it says that the proper use of the sacraments contains “a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.”
First, it is clear that the phrase “worthy receivers” in no way indicates someone that merits God’s grace, or deserves the grace of the sacrament. That would be folly; those people do not exist. Rather, the obvious explanation of a worthy receiver is one who receives the sacrament in dependence and faith, looking to the God of the sacrament. Unbelief in the Bible is THE SIN from which all other sins flow. Unbelief is what pries the blessings away from the sacraments, and causes them instead to result in condemnation. The sacraments of the Mosaic Covenant included sacrifices, incense, feasts, and festivals before the Lord. And yet, look at His response when Israel practices His ordained means of grace in sin and unbelief:
Isaiah 1:10-13 10 Hear the word of the Lord, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the instruction of our God, You people of Gomorrah. 11 “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” Says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. 12 “When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? 13 “Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies— I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
The scriptures that reference baptism also make clear that it is to be used in faith, calling upon God for salvation. Acts 22:16 includes the command: “calling on His name”. Galatians 3:26-27 says: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” 1 Peter 3, after discussing those “brought safely through water” in the great flood, says in verse 21: “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” Practiced properly, baptism is not something done superstitiously, looking to the water, but is rather an appeal to God Himself for a clean conscience, through Christ’s work. The Reformed view of baptism could be summarized in this imperative: “Look to God for your salvation through Christ’s work (faith); come to Him through the means that He has provided (baptism).”
This brings up the question: if baptism confers God’s grace when received in faith, then what about babies? Babies cannot think cognitively as adults can. They can’t exercise active repentance or faith in the way adults can. They cannot tell us that they believe. How can you baptize a baby? First of all, all the Reformed confessions affirm the use of infant baptism. I have written a separate series of posts that more fully discuss the Biblical justification for this practice. In brief summary, and as it relates to this topic of baptismal efficacy, the classical Reformed view is that the Bible not only authorizes and commands the baptism of the church’s children (implicitly, not explicitly), but also indicates that the things signified belong to our children. Therefore, they can receive baptism rightly. This is rooted in the understanding of the covenant promise made to Abraham, “to be God to you and to your descendants after you (Genesis 17:7).” It is easy to demonstrate that the children of the covenant belong to God and have His blessing in the old covenants, prior to Christ. And when Christ came, and people that believed in Him brought their children (Matthew 19:13-15) and infants (Luke 18:15-17) to Jesus for His blessing, Jesus said “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The kingdom of God is Christ’s New Covenant rule over the world, as manifested in His church. Jesus is stating that this kingdom belongs to the children of believers, as a class. In fact, He makes it clear in Luke 18:17 (and in Matthew 18), that unless adults become like children (presumably in their dependence and trust), they cannot enter the kingdom! If the kingdom belongs to children (down to infancy) and adults must become like children to enter the kingdom, then we have things backwards when we require children to become like adults in order to enter the kingdom through baptism. This certainly does not mean that it is impossible for a child of believers to grow up in unbelief and hypocrisy and NOT inherit the kingdom of God. It would be foolish to imply that, since it is obvious that all who are baptized are not ultimately saved. However, the expectation in faith of Christian parents, based on God’s word, is that their children belong to God and His kingdom, and will grow and develop in faith, repentance, and love. We should treat them as such, welcome them into the church, and bring them up in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Two further items should be addressed briefly in a discussion of baptism as a means of grace. First, it is plain from scripture that God is free to work outside the means of baptism and bestow salvation. The thief on the cross that believed in Jesus is a clear example. Also, salvation was given to Cornelius and his family prior to baptism, to demonstrate to Peter and the other apostles that salvation had indeed come to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Of course, any child that dies within the womb and goes to heaven has been saved apart from baptism. God exercises His grace freely, and is not bound to use baptism. However, these examples should not be taken as the rule, and should not be seen to make baptism dispensable. I believe Peter’s statement at the very beginning of the New Covenant church age in Acts 2:38 should be taken as normative. WCF 28.5 says “Although it is 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.”
Finally, baptism should be administered to any person only once. Both WCF and the Belgic Confession teach this. WCF 28.6, as mentioned above, states that “The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered…”. Similarly, the Belgic Confession states that “baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives.” What is objective about baptism (being claimed by God and placed in His covenant people) can only happen once. If we receive His mark in an unworthy manner (in unbelief), and later turn in faith and repentance to Him, we need not be rebaptized.