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Previous article in this series: February 1, 2015, p. 202.

Lord’s Day 27

Question 72. Is then the external baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?

Answer. Not at all: for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Ghost, cleanse us from all sin.

Question 73. Why then doth the Holy Ghost call baptism “the washing of regeneration” and “the washing away of sins”?

Answer. God speaks thus not without great cause, to wit, not only thereby to teach us that, as the filth of the body is purged away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ; but especially that by this divine pledge and sign He may assure us, that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water.

Question 74. Are infants also to be baptized?

Answer. Yes, for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.

This Lord’s Day continues the catechism’s treatment of the sacrament of baptism by addressing two common errors related to baptism. The first is the error of the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, that baptism itself does something to the recipient. The other is the error of the Baptists who say that the sacrament of baptism is reserved for adult believers.

No Grace in Baptism Itself

The first two questions of this Lord’s Day teach us that the water of baptism itself does not confer grace or wash away sin. Rather, the external and visible sign directs our faith to an internal and invisible washing of sins by the blood of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we do not receive baptism, nor do we baptize our children, because we believe that the sacrament itself saves us and our children.

We also do not baptize our infant children because we believe that all children born to believing parents are elect children, chosen of God from eternity to be saved. “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6).

Nor do we baptize our children presuming that they are already regenerated and saved, and so must receive the sign that matches that reality. While it may indeed be true that some children are regenerated as infants, (e.g., Jeremiah and John the Baptist), this is not always the case, nor is this the reason to baptize them.

Also, our children are not baptized because we believe that in baptism God makes a promise of salvation to every one of them, the fulfillment of which is conditioned on their faith. Of Abraham’s sons, Isaac was the child of promise and Ishmael was not, yet God commanded that both be circumcised (Gal. 4:23). There was no grace and no promise to Ishmael in his being circumcised.

Rather, we baptize our children because baptism is a covenant sign and, since the children of believers are included in the covenant, the sign of the covenant must also be administered to them.

The Sign of the Covenant

When we say baptism is a ‘covenant sign,’ we mean that it takes the place of circumcision as the symbol of God’s saving grace to believers and their children.

According to Genesis 17:7, God establishes His covenant with Abraham and with his children after him in their generations for an everlasting covenant. That covenant is established sovereignly and unilaterally—”I will establish my covenant.” The essence of that covenant is friendship—”to be a God unto thee and to thy children after thee.”

Along with the covenant, God gives the sign of circumcision that Abraham is commanded to administer to all in his house, including his infant children. The covenant also includes the promise to Abraham that God would gather His elect church from among the children of Abraham. This is not a guarantee that all his ‘natural’ seed would be saved, but that from among his natural children God would gather the true, elect, and spiritual seed (Rom. 9:7-9).

As a sign, circumcision represented a spiritual circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:28-29) in which the body of sin is put off (Col. 1:11-12). In other words, it basically represented the same thing that baptism represents—regeneration and the washing away of sin. And so, in Colossians 1:11-12, Paul uses the words ‘circumcision’ and ‘baptism’ interchangeably.

The covenant that God established with Abraham, including the promise, God still makes with believers and their children today in the New Testament. The words of Acts 2:39, “the promise is unto you, and to your children,” tell us that as New Testament believers we can read God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 as His promise also to us. Because of this, we as New Testament believers are also commanded by God to administer the covenant sign to our children; to neglect to do so is to despise God’s covenant and promises.

Answering the Baptists

Often the Baptists, who deny infant baptism, will ask for biblical evidence in the New Testament for the baptism of infants. However, the whole argument for infant baptism cannot hang on just this. Even though there is no recorded incident of an infant being baptized in the New Testament, we do have the statements and promises of the covenant to believers and their seed in both the Old and New Testaments. If this had changed, so that God would work salvation only with individuals and not in families in the New Testament, then it seems God would have made that clear in the New Testament. But there is no such announcement. Yes, adult converts are to be baptized after they believe (Mark 16:16), but this does not become the general rule for all baptisms. Instead, just as Abraham circumcised his household, so when the Philippian jailor and Lydia believed, their households were baptized with them (Acts 16:15, 33).

In my experience with the Baptists, infant baptism is generally dismissed as a remnant of Roman Catholicism, and those who practice it are usually categorized as believing that baptism itself automatically saves children. For this reason, our teaching on the doctrine of the covenant needs to be very clear, biblical, and consistently Calvinistic. Baptism itself does not save, nor does it offer a universal grace or general promise to all recipients, but is a symbol of God’s grace and promise to believers and their elect children. And, like the preaching of the gospel, baptism becomes a sword that cuts both ways: a means of grace to those who receive it in faith, and a symbol of condemnation to those who reject the gospel. If you take the time to explain these things to a Baptist, it is likely that they will be hearing things that they have never before considered.

A Sermon in Symbols

A sacrament is the Word of God in a visible form. In Lord’s Day 26 we learned that the water of baptism is a symbol of our being washed by the blood of Christ from the guilt and defilement of sin, and of our being made new creatures through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Now, the question is, Does this also apply to the children of believers? The answer is Yes, and that is why we baptize them. This is not to say that every one of them is washed and regenerated, but then, neither were Ishmael or Esau.

So, what does baptism teach us about our children?

First, it teaches us that they are sinners who, like us their parents, need salvation through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Baptism does not mean that they are all saved, but it does teach that as sinners they all need salvation. Baptism is not to be used as a symbol of a person’s acceptance of Jesus Christ (as believer-baptism teaches), but is a symbol of the fact that God in grace comes to unworthy sinners to redeem them. Baptism calls our children to repentance and faith.

Second, baptism teaches that God makes a special promise to believers, to work salvation in their generations, that is, to save their children after them. While it is true that God also gathers His church through the work of missions from those who were not raised in believing homes, generally speaking, God works generationally in gathering His church. This is wonderful, because it provides continuity and maturity and experience in the church as it moves forward from generation to generation. Those who have grown up in Christian homes and in the context of the church carry the banner forward. This is stated beautifully, strongly, and repeatedly in the catechism—”they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God”; “redemption from sin…is promised to them, no less than to the adult”; and “they must by baptism…be admitted into the Christian church”—the point being that they are members of the church. And so they must be viewed and treated. Writing to ‘the church’ at Ephesus, Paul, addressing the different members says, “Children, obey your parents” (Eph. 6:1). And so Jesus, after receiving and blessing the infants who were brought to Him (which is essentially what we say He does in baptism), gives this as the reason, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:14).

Third, baptism teaches that believing parents have a great responsibility before God to bring up the children that He has entrusted to their care in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Viewing their children as the “heritage of Jehovah” (Ps. 127:3) who are “sanctified” (I Cor. 7:14), believing parents will see themselves as stewards and caretakers under God of His most precious possession, and so will be intentional in their instruction, correction, and example to these children.

And, baptism also teaches our children that they are set apart by God to be His people in this world. Baptism has been compared to a uniform that is worn by an officer of the law or a soldier. That uniform represents a police force or nationality, and identifies the one wearing it as belonging to that force or country. The uniform can be worn in a way that brings dishonor to what it represents—if a soldier defects to the enemy, his uniform identifies him as a traitor—and that uniform places obligations on the one wearing it. Our children are called, by baptism, to repentance and holy living.

Questions for Discussion

1. Does baptism itself confer grace on the recipient? If not, why is baptism still important and necessary?

2. What are some wrong reasons for the baptism of infants?

3. What is the teaching of “presumptive regeneration” and how is this used by some as an argument for the baptism of infants? What is wrong with this teaching?

4. How would you refute the idea that in baptism God makes a promise to all the children of believers? What is the main problem with this teaching?

5. How can we justify baptizing all our children, if we know that not every child is elect, and that not necessarily every child will believe?

6. What are some arguments that a Baptist will present against infant baptism? How would you answer these arguments?

7. Dispensationalism teaches that God saved Old Testament Israel one way, and that He saves the New Testament church a different way. Why is it important to maintain that there is one church throughout history, which includes Old Testament Israel, and that there is only one way of salvation? How does this affect one’s view of the baptism of infants?

8. Can you demonstrate from Scripture that baptism replaces circumcision?

9. What does baptism teach parents regarding their children?

10. What does baptism teach the children of believers?

11. What wonderful promises come to believers as they present their children for baptism?