Rev. Hanko is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Houston, Texas.
And although our young children do not understand these things, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism, for as they are without their knowledge, partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ.
This passage from the Form for the Administration of Baptism that is used in the Protestant Reformed Churches very nicely sums up what we wish to show in this article, that is, that infant baptism is part and parcel of the doctrines of sovereign grace, and that a denial of infant baptism is essentially a denial of these doctrines of sovereign, irresistible, efficacious grace.
The point in the Form for the Administration of Baptism is that infants can be and are saved “without their knowledge” (Ps. 139:13, Jer. 1:5, Luke 1:15, Mark 10:13-16), and that they can, therefore, also receive the sign of that salvation, baptism, “without their knowledge.” To put it differently, there is no other way to save an infant than by sovereign grace. He cannot make any response to the Gospel or its promises and therefore must be saved solely by the grace of God.
So, if an infant is to receive baptism as the sign of salvation, he must be baptized on some other ground than his response to the Gospel promises. He is incapable of such a response. He must, in fact, be baptized simply on the ground of God’s promise to be the God of His people and of their children (Gen. 17:7,Acts 2:31). And though on the basis of that promise we may certainly expect such a response from him in later life, neither his salvation nor his receiving the sign of that salvation depend in any way on that response.
The truth is, of course, that no one is saved by virtue of his response to the Gospel. Anything else is a denial of salvation by grace alone and without works. Yet, even those Baptists who believe in sovereign grace and salvation by grace alone say that a person’s receiving the sign of that salvation depends on his response to the Gospel! He can receive salvation “without his knowledge,” that is, even before he is able to respond, while he is still dead in sin, but cannot receive the sign of that same salvation in the same way. How inconsistent!
Baptism as the sign of salvation ought, therefore, to reflect the character of salvation, and indeed it does – especially the free and gracious character of that salvation God has given us in Christ. And it does that in a very wonderful and beautiful way when infants are baptized. In fact, it is our firm conviction that only the teaching of infant baptism fits the doctrines of grace and the truth that salvation is by grace alone without works. And what a beautiful picture of sovereign grace it is when a tiny infant, not even aware of what is happening to him, receives the sign of God’s grace and of salvation in the blood of Jesus.
It is really not enough, however, to say that baptism is the sign of salvation. It is, really, the sign of baptism – that is, what we call “baptism” is just the sign which points to some spiritual reality also called “baptism.” Now we know that the real baptism (of which the water is the sign) is being washed from sin in the blood of Jesus. If we see that, then the truth becomes even clearer. That real baptism is not something that depends on our response, or even follows our response, but is “without our knowledge.” Indeed, it was principally accomplished already at the cross, long before we were born. How fitting that the sign should match the reality at this point.
It is from this viewpoint that Mark 10:13-16 is sometimes used as a proof for infant baptism even though it does not mention baptism at all. The point is first that the children who were brought to Jesus were infants (the Greek word used indicates this as well as the fact that they were “brought”). Thus, without even the possibility of any kind of response from them Jesus grants them salvation; for what else is it, in coming to Him, being received by Him, and blessed by Him, but to be saved by Him? So the argument is that, insofar as these children received salvation “without their knowledge,” the sign of that same salvation should not be withheld from them. How could it be withheld?
The Belgic Confession uses this same argument (Article 34):
And indeed Christ shed his blood no less for the washing of the children of the faithful, than for adult persons; and therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that, which Christ hath done for them.
The Baptist teaching is that repentance, faith, and conversion must precede baptism and that, therefore, baptism can and ought to be administered only to adults. This teaching is based on a misinterpretation of Matthew 28:19, 20 (and the parallel in Mark 16:15, 16), but is essentially Arminian and a denial of sovereign grace.
This is not to say that all Baptists explicitly deny the doctrines of grace. That simply is not so. In addition to those who frankly call themselves “Free-will Baptists,” and those who without the name nevertheless believe in freewill, there are also many so-called “Reformed Baptists” who claim to hold both to the doctrines of grace and to “believers’ baptism.” Nor are we saying that such Reformed Baptists do not really believe in the doctrines of grace – only that their firm belief in free grace contradicts their equally firm belief in believers’ baptism.
The bedrock of the Baptist teaching is the idea, gotten from Matthew 28:19, 20, that repentance and faith must precede baptism.
We would point out, first of all, in connection with this and other passages (Matt. 19:21; Acts 2:38; Acts 16:30), that these passages do not say that faith or repentance must precede baptism. Even if it is true that faith and repentance must precede baptism, these verses do not say it. Nor is there any passage in all of Scripture which says that these things must precede baptism. If one argues that the order of the passage demands this, that is simply begging the question, for it may be and indeed is true that the order in these passages is important, but that does not prove that the order is a temporal order. It may simply prove what everyone believes, that repentance and faith are more important than baptism. Following the Baptist reasoning one might just as easily prove from II Peter 1:10 that calling comes before election!
Both of the texts only prove that repentance and faith as well as baptism are necessary for salvation.
In addition, the very idea that one must believe before receiving the sign of salvation and of entrance into salvation is implicitly Arminian – a denial of salvation by grace only. It is obviously Arminian to say that one must believe or respond to God in some way before one can be saved, but the Baptists go way beyond this and say that one must respond and believe even in order to receive that which is only a sign of salvation.
We are not saying by this that the sign of baptism does not in some cases follow upon faith. In the case of all adult converts it is necessarily so. We are only saying that it need not be so and that the Word of God does not say it must be so.
Even more important, in the case of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34), is the fact that on the basis of the faith of the jailer, Paul unconditionally PROMISED salvation to the man’s household (though not necessarily to every member of the household) without even having met them. We fail to see why they should not unconditionally receive the sign of that salvation if salvation itself is promised to them unconditionally and sight unseen. Yet the Baptist insists that they could only have received baptism on the condition of their believing and repenting.
The denial of sovereign grace that is implicit in Baptist teaching is probably also the reason why there always has been a strong anti-predestination sentiment among Baptists. As soon as one grants the doctrines of unconditional election and reprobation, i.e., that salvation depends only on God’s free choice in election, then the promise of God that He finds His elect especially among the children of His people (Acts 2:39, Gen. 17:7) becomes a sufficient reason to baptize those children.
This is not to say, however, that those who teach infant baptism believe or have ever believed that all their children are elect. Nor is that the reason why they have all their children baptized. They only believe that God’s elect are found among their children by virtue of His grace and promise and for that reason baptize them all, expecting, too, that baptism will work for the salvation of those who are elect and for the damnation of those who are not, that is, that baptism will have the same twofold fruit among their children that the preaching of the Gospel has, and all according to the purpose of God in predestination.
Baptism in general and infant baptism in particular, teach us, then, to “loathe and humble ourselves before God, and seek for our purification and salvation without ourselves” in the grace of God, so wonderfully revealed in the cross of our Savior.