In our preceding article we remarked that, beginning a series of articles on the “early views of the sacrament of baptism” we thought it not amiss to call attention to the washings and purifications in Israel in the Old Testament. We also called attention to the baptism of John, and briefly touched upon the Baptism Formula. We are now ready to continue with our “general observations” to which we purposed to call attention before deciding to write the article which appeared in the preceding Standard Bearer.
And then we wish to remark, in the first place, that a discussion of the sacrament of baptism is and must be of the greatest importance. There is no doctrine which serves to expose and reveal one’s reformed or unreformed tendencies more readily and absolutely than the doctrine relative this sacrament of Baptism. And this applies particularly, we must understand, to the baptism of children. The struggle in the Reformed Church world today and during the last several years does not revolve about the baptism of adults. We realize, of course, that there is little discussion with respect to the baptism of adults. If the Baptist baptizes only adults because he insists that only the conscious believer may receive the sign and seal of justification by faith, we, too, baptize only those adults who profess to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, the struggle in the Reformed Church today does revolve about the baptism of infants. We must bear in mind that we are speaking of the Reformed Church world. The Baptist, we know, denies the baptism of infants. We may let this pass for the time being. Of greater significance for us is the sacrament of Baptism as it pertains to the children. And the question: “why must children be baptized?”, will reveal a person’s reformed or unreformed tendencies more surely than any other question. Do we baptize them because they are in the covenant? To this question the Synodicals and Liberated both answer in the affirmative. Only, they differ with respect to the definition of the covenant. Again, do we baptize them upon the basis of presupposed regeneration? To this question the Liberated and we both answer in the negative. Only, the reasons why we answer this question in the negative differ. The Liberated answer in the negative because they refuse to acknowledge that regeneration or present inner grace can be a ground for baptism. We, on the other hand, although insisting that inner grace can be and is a ground for the sacrament of Baptism, deny that we must presuppose this operation of grace by the Spirit of God in all the children who are cause of the promise? The promise, we understand, is the ground for baptism according to the view of the Liberated. We have no objection to this as such. Does not the apostle, Peter, declare in his Pentacostal address: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as mam as the Lord our God shall call”? Does not the fact that the promise of “unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” constitute the ground, according to the apostle in this passage, for their baptism unto the remission of sins and the receiving of the Holy Ghost? And, yet, it is exactly the issue of the promise which constitutes an irreconcilable contrast between the Liberated and us. They view the promise, as the basis for baptism, as merely “toezegging,” God’s announcement and intention of salvation for all. We, however, view the promise as realized for the children and in the children, and therefore as for the elect only. Finally do we baptize the children upon the ground of a righteousness which they may receive or a righteousness which they have already received? The latter is most emphatically our conception; the former, namely, that we baptize children upon the ground of a righteousness which they may receive was advocated by the Rev. Petter already in 1951—see the Standard Bearer of May 1, 1951, pages 345-350. For these, and many other reasons, we realize that a discussion of the history of the sacrament of Baptism should be for us of the greatest significance.
Secondly, Baptism was held in high esteem during the early centuries of the Church of God in the New Dispensation. It was not merely considered a rite, a ceremony; but as a sacrament it was considered efficacious. Baptism was to the first teachers of the Church of the New Dispensation not merely a significant symbol, representing to the senses the internal consecration and renewal of the soul, but an efficacious medium for conveying objectively to believers the blessings of the gospel, and especially the benefits of the sacrificial death of Christ. We will have opportunity later to call attention to this.
Thirdly, practically all the various questions that are usually raised, even today in connection with the sacrament of Baptism, were already under discussion in that early period. This will become plain in subsequent articles. Questions were asked and discussed pertaining to the baptism of infants, the formula used in the administration of the sacrament, who should administer the sacrament, the re-baptizing of heretics who returned into the bosom of the Church, the objections raised by heretics to any form of Baptism, etc.
Finally, the heretics opposed any form of Baptism even as some are guilty of this today. Also today we have those who claim that “Spirit Baptism” is all we need. Did not John declare that, whereas he baptized with water, One came after him Who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit? And did not the apostle, Paul, minimize the sacrament of Baptism in I Cor. 1? This opposition to Baptism also revealed itself in the early period of the Church.
From some expressions of the early Church Fathers one might easily receive the impression that they attributed efficacy to the external rite of Baptism: the power of regeneration, cleansing from sin, sanctification, such as: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, etc.
From Irenaeus we quote the following: “This Spirit did David ask for the human race, saying, ‘And establish me with Thine all-governing Spirit who also as Luke says, descended at the day of Pentecost upon the disciples after the Lord’s ascension, having power to admit all nations to the entrance of life, and to the opening of the new covenant; from whence also, with one accord in all languages, they uttered praises to God, the Spirit bringing distant tribes to unity, and offering to the Father the first-fruits of all nations. Wherefore also the Lord promised to send the comforter, who should join us to God. For, as a compacted lump of dough cannot be formed of dry wheat without fluid matter, nor can a loaf possess unity, so in like manner, neither could we, being many, be made one in Christ Jesus without the water from heaven. And as dry earth does not bring forth unless it receive moisture, in like manner we also, being originally a dry tree, could never have brought forth fruit unto life without voluntary rain from above. For our bodies have received unity among themselves by means of that laver which leads to incorruption; but our souls, by means of the Spirit. Wherefore both are necessary since both contribute towards the life of God.”—end of quote. The reference which Irenaeus makes with respect to water from heaven is plain in itself. However, it is not certain whether the Church Father is referring in these words to the water of Baptism. He may simply refer to the Holy Spirit who is from above, although we cannot explain the word “both” in the quotation: “Wherefore both are necessary, since both contribute towards the life of God.”
From Justin Martyr we would quote the following: “I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water….And for this (rite) we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training, in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again (?—H.V.), and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who deads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone….And this washing is called the illumination because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.”—end of quote. One can certainly receive the impression from this quotation of Justin Martyr that regeneration and spiritual illumination are somehow connected with the sacrament of holy baptism.