Back in question and answer 85 of our church’s Shorter Catechism, we learned that in order to escape God’s wrath and curse due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Christ and repentance leading to life. We need to turn from our sins in repentance and turn with faith to the Lord Jesus Christ who, by his death on the cross, has paid for all our sins.
However, answer 85 goes on to say that as well as repenting and believing, we must make diligent use of all the outward means by which Christ gives to us the benefits of redemption. God wants to give us repentance. He wants to give us faith. He wants to justify us so that our sins are pardoned and we’re reconciled to him. He wants to adopt us into his family. He wants to sanctify us. He wants to assure of his love. He wants to give us peace of conscience. He wants to give us joy. He wants us to grow as believers He wants us to persevere in our faith until we die. He wants to give us all of things things. And how does he give us these things? Well, he works through the outward means of grace which are the reading and preaching of his word, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. When we come to church to hear God’s word, and to receive the sacraments, and to pray together, God is at work to provide us with everything we need for our salvation.
We’ve already thought about the reading and preaching of God’s word. The Holy Spirit works through the reading and preaching of God’s word to convince and converts sinners to faith in Christ. And by means of the reading and preaching of his word, he continues to strengthen our faith and to instruct us regarding his will for us.
And then we spent another Sunday evening thinking about the sacraments in general. The sacraments, we learned, are a sign. They speak to us of Jesus Christ and the good news of the gospel. So, the water of baptism speaks to us of God’s promise to wash away our sins. And the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper speak to us of Christ’s body broken for us and of his blood shed for us and for our salvation.
Sacraments are also seals. By them God guarantees and certifies his promise to us. They’re like a signature on a contract:
With this water I promise to wash your sins away.
With this bread and wine I promise to give you eternal life for the sake of Christ who died for you.
And sacraments are also the means by which the benefits of Christ’s redemption are applied to believers. God works through the sacraments to sanctify us and to assure us of his love and to give us peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit and growth in grace and perseverance. By his Spirit, and through faith, he uses the sacraments to help us as believers.
So, we looked at the sacraments in a general way. And then, the last time, we looked at baptism in particular. First of all, we noticed the fact of baptism. Throughout the book of Acts we have examples of people being baptised. And Paul refers to it in 1 Corinthians. And, of course, in the gospels, we have John the Baptiser who baptised the Lord Jesus. And throughout the history of the church, this sacrament has been observed and practiced.
Then we thought about the mode of baptism. Baptism must be administered by the washing with water in the name of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Full immersion is not necessary, and sprinkling or pouring is fine.
Then we considered the purpose of baptism. Whereas other churches see baptism as primarily a sign of something we have done, we believe that baptism, like every other sign in the Bible, is first and foremost a sign of something God has done or will do for us. It’s a sign of his promise to wash away our sins through faith in his Son. So, when we’re baptised, the focus is on God and what he does for us in the gospel. That’s it’s primary purpose. It’s a sign and seal of God’s promise.
But then, we also say that, in a secondary way, baptism is a sign and seal of our promise to serve the Lord. First and foremost it’s about God and his promise to us. And only secondarily is it a sign of our commitment to him.
Grafted to Christ
The Catechism’s question on baptism also refers to baptism as a sign and seal of our being grafted into Christ. We didn’t deal with this last time, so I wanted to mention it briefly today. Grafting into Christ refers to the way believers are united to Christ. Think of how a branch might be grafted on to a vine so that it becomes part of the vine and the life of the vine flows into the branch. Well, believers are grafted on to Christ through faith, so that we’re united to him, joined to him, and we receive from him one good thing after another. And baptism signifies this union with Christ.
How does it do this? When someone is baptised, they’re baptised into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Or, in other words, we’re baptised into a relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism signifies the beginning of a relationship with God. And that relationship with God begins with our relationship to the Lord Jesus. Through faith, we’re united to him. And through him, we’re brought into a new relationship with the Father and the Spirit. So, Christ’s Father becomes our Father. And the Spirit becomes our Comforter and Guide.
That’s what the Catechism is referring to by saying baptism is a sign and seal of our grafting into Christ. Through faith, we’re united to Christ and are brought into a new relationship with him. And through him, we’re related to the Father and the Spirit. And baptism into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit signifies this. It speaks to us of the new relationship we have with God through Christ. So, an adult convert is baptised and by his baptism, God is signifying and certifying that yes, I have brought you to myself and I now regard you as mine. And when Christian parents bring their child for baptism, God is signifying and certifying that yes, I will indeed make this child mine through faith in the Saviour.
So, baptism is a sign and seal of the new relationship we have with God through faith in the Saviour. And it’s a sign and seal of God’s promise to wash away our sins. And it’s also a sign and seal of our promise to serve the Lord. Question 95 of the Catechism asks the following:
To whom is Baptism to be administered?
And this is the answer:
Baptism is not to be administered to any outside membership of the visible church, until 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 baptised.
In one sense, the answer is very straightforward. We’re told that no one should be baptised except for two groups of people: first of all, those who have become members of the visible church through profession of faith in Christ and obedience to him; and secondly, the infant children of the members of the visible church should be baptised. And so, during this past year, I baptised several children. I baptised them because they are the infant children of parents who are members of the church. When I was an infant, my parents brought me to church to be baptised. And when our children were infants, Yvonne and I brought them to church where they were baptised. In the Presbyterian Church, and in other reformed churches, we baptise the infants of the members of the church.
But, of course, there are many other churches which insist that only believers may be baptised. For instance, the Baptists believe this. And many of the newer fellowship churches and independent churches take the same view. And, regrettably, I know of many others who grew up in the Presbyterian Church but who have chosen not to have their children baptised. So, why do we baptise the children of church members?
Let me mention a few of the common objections to infant baptism. First of all, there’s no command in the New Testament to baptise infants. Secondly, there’s no example of infants being baptised in the NT. Thirdly, infants cannot understand the meaning or purpose of baptism. Fourthly, baptised infants often grow up to be ungodly or Christians in name only. Fifthly, some object that every church which practices infant baptism believes in baptismal regeneration. In other words, the reason we practice infant baptism is because we think that’s how a child becomes a Christian.
How do we answer these objections? To the first one that there is no command in the New Testament to baptise infants, we reply that no command is necessary. No command is necessary because baptism is a sign of all the benefits we receive from Jesus Christ. In other words, it is a sign of all the benefits we receive from the covenant of grace.
Now, we’ve come across the idea of a covenant before. God made a covenant of works with Adam: Obey me and live. Disobey me, by eating the forbidden fruit, and you will die. Well, Adam disobeyed God. And under the terms of the covenant of works, he and all his descendants after him fell into a state of sin and misery. It’s a state of sin, because we all sin naturally now. And it’s a state of sin because we’re born under God’s wrath and curse and therefore we’re liable to all the miseries of this life, and to death, and to eternal punishment afterwards.
But did God leave us in this state of sin and misery? No. God, solely of his love and mercy, entered into a covenant of grace to deliver his people from out of this state of sin and misery and to bring them into a state of salvation by a Redeemer, his Son. By this covenant, God promised that he will justify, adopt and sanctify (and, in the life to come, glorify) all who repent and believe in his Son. In other words, God’s promise is that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved.
This is God’s promise in the New Testament. But, this is God’s promise in the Old Testament as well. Throughout the Old Testament, God revealed his plan to save us by a Redeemer. And so, to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he promised that one of Eve’s descendants would crush and destroy the Devil. To Abraham, he promised that all the nations of the world would be blessed through one of his descendants. All of the sacrifices he commanded his Old Testament people to offer at the temple spoke to them of the one, true, perfect sacrifice which was coming into the world. Through the prophets, like Isaiah, he promised that his Suffering Servant would be wounded for our transgressions. Throughout the Old Testament period God announced his plan to his people to send the Saviour into the world. And all who believed God’s promises in the Old Testament were justified, and adopted, and sanctified, and, in the life to come, glorified through faith. We find God’s covenant of grace, his promise of salvation, in the Old Testament as well as in the New.
And here’s the thing: God has always given us signs to speak to us of his promise and to guarantee and to certify what he promises to do for all who believe. In the Old Testament he used circumcision and he used the Passover Feast. To his Old Testament people, he said:
By this sign of circumcision, I promise to be your God and to remove from you all your sin.
By this Passover Feast, I promise that my judgment will pass over you and will fall instead on the true Lamb of God who will suffer and die in your place.
And to his people today, he uses baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To us he says:
By this sign of baptism, I promise to wash away your sins.
By this Lord’s Supper, I promise to give you eternal life because my Son’s body was broken and his blood was shed for you.
In the Old Testament, God used signs. And in the New Testament and beyond, he still uses signs — different signs, but signs nevertheless — to speak to us of his promises.
So, who received these signs in the Old Testament? When God instituted the sacrament of circumcision, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his children. Listen to what he said:
Genesis 17:10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised.
Since God instructed his believing people in the Old Testament to give the sign of God’s promise to their children, then it’s taken for granted that God wants his believing people in the New Testament and beyond to give the sign of God’s promise to their children. The sign of God’s promise in the Old Testament was circumcision. And the sign since the New Testament is baptism. So, no command to baptise our children is necessary. Believing parents in New Testament times would have expected their children to receive the sign of the covenant because the children of believers in the Old Testament received the sign.
To the second objection that there is no example in the New Testament of children being baptised, we reply that there are examples of whole households being baptised. And so, in Acts 16 we have the story of the Philippian jailer who was converted in the night. And we read how he and all his family were baptised. Did all his family believe? In verse 34 we read how the jailer rejoiced, along with his entire household, that he had believed. The passage emphasises his faith. But all his family were baptised.
Also in Acts 16 we have the story of Lydia who heard the good news of the gospel. And the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to the message. And, in verse 15, we read how she and her household were baptised. She believed, but her household was baptised.
And in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul mentions how he had baptised the household of Stephanas.
We can’t be sure that any of these households including infants or small children. But that’s not really the point. The point is that in Acts 16, Lydia believed, but she and her household were baptised. The jailer believed, but he and his family were baptised. The family was baptised on account of the faith of the parent.
And this shouldn’t surprise us because in the Bible God gives his promises to his people and to their children. So, we’ve already seen that when God commanded Abraham to be circumcised, he also commanded him to circumcise his children — because his promise was made, not just to Abraham, but also to Abraham’s descendants. In Genesis 6 we read how Noah found favour in the sight of God — and yet all his family were allowed to enter the ark. All the people of Israel were brought out of Egypt through the Red Sea — Moses, and all the men, and all the women, and all the children. The entire people. And then, in the New Testament, Peter stood up on the Day of Pentecost and he announced to the people:
Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off.
Peter was following the same pattern which we find throughout the Bible. God deals with us in families and not just as individuals. And so, it doesn’t surprise us in Acts 16 that the whole family was baptised on account of the faith of the parent.
To the third objection that infants cannot understand the meaning or purpose of baptism, we say that in the gospels, when some parents brought their children to the Lord, the Lord Jesus took these babies in his arms and he blessed them. Now, this wasn’t a baptism. However, the point for us is that the Lord didn’t send the parents away, saying that it was wrong to bless their children because they couldn’t understand. Even though our children are too young to understand their own baptism, nevertheless this does not make their baptism useless. In fact, this highlights the greatness of God’s love. You see, whenever I baptise a baby, I say to the baby:
for you Jesus Christ came into the world:
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary
and cried at the last, ‘It is finished’;
for you he triumphed over death
and rose in newness of life;
for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you,
before you knew anything of it.
And so the Word of Scripture is fulfilled:
‘We love because God loved us first.’
Before the child knows anything at all, God has loved that child and placed on him, on her, the sign of his promise.
To the fourth objection that baptised infants often grow up to be ungodly or Christians in name only, we say that while this is the case sometimes, it’s regrettable. But it’s also the case that sometimes those who are baptised as adults also fall away from the faith. I can think of some of the people I went to school with who were baptised as adults and now never go near a church. All this problem does is highlight the duty of parents to bring up their children in the faith.
Parents, when they bring their children for baptism, must first of all promise to bring up their children in the worship and teaching of the church. In order for the child to believe, and so to receive the forgiveness of sins which baptism signifies, the parents are responsible for bringing their children up in the faith so that in due time their children will trust in the Saviour for themselves. Do you remember what we said when we looked at preaching? We learned that faith comes by hearing, hearing the gospel. And Christian parents must ensure that their children learn the gospel at home and at church, so that they will put their faith in Jesus.
To the fifth objection that every church which practices infant baptism believes in baptismal regeneration, we say that while some denominations may believe in baptismal regeneration, we do not. Baptism not does save anyone. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That’s how we’re saved, whereas baptism is a sign, and a seal, of God’s promise to save us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
We baptise two groups of people: Those who have become members of the visible church on earth through profession of faith in Christ and obedience to him. And we baptise the infant children of the members of the visible church. While there’s no command to baptise infants in the New Testament, we have the command and practice of the Old Testament to give the sign of the covenant of grace to our children. While there’s no clear example of the baptism of infants in the New Testament, we have examples of families being baptised on account of the faith of a parent. While children can’t understand the meaning of their baptism, this speaks to us of the greatness of God’s love who loved us before we even knew anything about him. Christian parents must be careful to do as they have promised, and bring their children up in the faith and worship of the church. And we teach that baptism saves no one, but it points us to the Saviour.
Let me close with two further points in favour of infant baptism. First of all, Presbyterians note that there is a natural instinct which Christian parents have no matter what their church background. And it’s a natural instinct to teach their children to regard God as their Father in heaven. So, even before their children express any sorrow for sin, even before their children express any faith in the Saviour, Christian parents will teach their children to pray to God and call him, ‘Our Father’. Why do they do this? It’s because they themselves, as believers, know they are members of God’s family, the church, and they regard God as their Father. And instinctively, they regard their children as part of God’s family too. We acknowledge this in the Presbyterian Church. And so, we baptise the children of believers because we regard them as members of God’s family. And we regard them as members on account of God’s promise to his believing people and to their children.
The children of believers are regarded as members of God’s people. They’re not full members of the church, because they have not yet professed their faith in Christ. But they are to be regarded as members of the church and therefore they benefit from the public ministry of the church. Think of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. He begins the letter by addressing it to ‘the saints who in Ephesus.’ And then, in chapter 5 he addresses the children. In other words, he regards the children as members of the church.
And then secondly, what does the Lord Jesus command his church to do in Matthew 28?
To go and make disciples of all nations….
How are they to do that?
by baptising them and teaching them.
And that’s precisely what we do in the Presbyterian Church with our children. We want to make our children disciples of Jesus Christ and we do that by baptising them and by teaching them.
There’s a huge emphasis in churches today on evangelism and reaching out to people outside the church. And this is right. Nevertheless, over the centuries the church has continued to exist and to grow because believers have been careful to pass on the faith to their children. Christian parents have brought their children to church from their earliest days, and in the Presbyterian Church at least, those children have been taught that this is their spiritual home, and this is their spiritual family and they belong here, with the rest of God’s people, who are their brothers and sisters in the Lord. And when they come, they hear the gospel message. And God works through the gospel message to enable them to believe and to keep believing.