The first sacrament to consider is baptism, for through baptism men, women, and children enter into the church. Baptism is not only what admits an individual into the church, but is also “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life” (WCF 28.1). In baptism, individuals are washed with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as was commanded and instituted by Christ in the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19).
Mode of Baptism
This washing of the body with water represents a spiritual washing and cleansing, a practice that was a common religious symbol in ancient Near Eastern cultures (Acts 22:16, 1 Pet. 3:21). Because the primary symbol of baptism is washing, the mode of baptism does not particularly matter, contrary to the arguments of Baptists who advocate for immersion only (WCF 28.3). That said, while immersion would be acceptable, sprinkling seems to be the biblical method for the following reasons.
First, in the Old Testament purification rituals, sprinkling was the mode used. When Moses cleansed the Levites, setting them apart to serve the Lord, he was commanded to “sprinkle the water of purification upon them” (Num. 8:7, see also Lev. 14:6–7). Likewise, when God prophesied salvation for Israel through Ezekiel, he declared that He would “sprinkle clean water” on them to remove their uncleanness (Ezek. 36:25). And in Hebrews we are reminded that Moses took the blood of calves and goats, mixed with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled it upon all the people saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you” (Heb. 9:19–20, Ex. 24:8).
Second, when we survey baptisms in the New Testament, there is not one example where immersion is explicit or required for the context. Instead, continuity with Old Testament purification rites can be assumed, where the priest would be dipping their hand into the water (or blood) and sprinkling it on the people. In fact, St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1–2 that the Israelites were baptized into Moses under the cloud as they passed through the sea. The whole point of that story is that the Israelites were not immersed, while the Egyptians were. Additionally, St Peter says that baptism is the anti-type of Noah’s ark of salvation, in which again, Noah and has family were not immersed while the rest of the world was.
Baptism and Circumcision
In the New Covenant, baptism replaces circumcision as the sign and entrance into the covenant. St Paul teaches this in Colossians 2:11–13 which reads,
“In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses…”
In the Old Covenant, physical circumcision was the sign that represented spiritual circumcision—the circumcision of the heart or regeneration (Deut. 10:16, Rom. 4:11). God said to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you… This is My covenant, which you shall keep… every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:7, 10). And here in his letter to the Colossians, St Paul is connecting circumcision with baptism. He says that the Colossians were spiritually circumcised (“circumcision made without hands”) by repentance (“putting off the body of the flesh”) and by the circumcision of Christ (his death on the cross). This they see in their baptisms, where they were buried with Christ and raised with Him through faith. In this short passage, Paul is connecting spiritual circumcision and spiritual baptism (the thing signified), therefore we have grounds to then connect the signs as well.
Recipients of Baptism
The sacrament of baptism is not to be administered to anyone outside of the church, until they profess faith in Christ and obedience to Him (WSC 95). As Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). The exception to these stipulations would be the children of Christians, which will be addressed in the next section.
When a person desires to be baptized, the elders of a church should interview them in order to discern their knowledge of the gospel and basic Christian beliefs, their understanding of baptism, that they make a credible profession of faith that is not contradicted by their life, and that they promise to be obedient to Christ and under the authority of His church. All of this is done acknowledging that church officers are not given a supernatural ability to judge a man’s heart, therefore unless there are very obvious issues with the criteria above, elders cannot ultimately judge the genuineness of a profession and are not required by God to. Elders should strive to be gracious with new believers seeking baptism, understanding the old phrase. “God accepts us where we are, not where we should be.” As A.A. Hodge wrote, “If any man holds the fundamentals of the gospel and professes allegiance to our common Lord, and acts consistently therewith, we have no right to exclude him from his Father’s house.”
Now we turn to the “controversial” doctrine of paedobaptism, the belief that children of believers should receive baptism, the sign of the New Covenant. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that not only should those who profess faith in Christ be baptized, “but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized” (28.4). While this belief may feel controversial in modern American evangelicalism, dominated largely by credobaptists, it actually is a very catholic (universal) and historic doctrine. It is held not just by the Reformed, but also by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Methodists, and more. Now the theological reasoning for baptizing infants in these traditions will differ, but the practice is still one that is much agreed on across many different traditions and denominations.
Often the argument against infant baptism is this: Show me where a baby is baptized in the New Testament or when Jesus or the Apostles commanded us to baptize babies. And the honest reply is to acknowledge there are no explicit prooftexts for this practice. However, nor are there explicit prooftexts for other doctrines and practices we hold to. Instead, they are inferred from many texts and themes in Scripture. But if we were to take into account only the New Testament texts concerning baptisms, there is certainly not a conclusive case for anti-paedobaptism, but instead a solid case for household baptisms which would naturally include children. With eleven cases of Christian baptism recorded in the New Testament, two were individuals: St Paul and the Ethiopian eunuch, neither of which had children. Of the rest of the baptisms, five were of large crowds (one of the crowds including the apostate Simon the Magician). And whenever a household is present, they too are baptized along with the head of the household. We see this with Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16), Cornelius (Acts 10:44–48), Lydia (Acts 16:15), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31–34), and Crispus (Acts 18:8). The faith of the head of the household is mentioned, but not the faith of the household (except for Acts 18:8). It is clear that the New Covenant sign was being applied the same way the Old Covenant sign was applied, with the faith of the head of the house representing the entire household.
Beyond looking at the baptism texts of the New Testament, there are other arguments that take into account God’s covenants with His people and the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. These additional arguments for infant baptism below are summarized from A.A. Hodge’s commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith and cover well the many reasons for practicing infant baptism according to the Reformed tradition.
First, and most simply, God has designed this world to work in a particular a way. There is a covenantal relationship between parents and their children, in which the decisions of parents automatically affect the children. Children, while individuals, are not merely individuals, but members of a family, a people, a nation, and so on. A parent’s loyalties become a child’s loyalties. Therefore, “God has in all respects made the standing of the child while an infant to depend upon that of the parent. The sin of the parent carries away the infant from God; so the faith of the parent brings the infant near to God.” This is simply how it is. Even parents today who militate against this, who wickedly desire for their young children to “choose their own identities,” are still teaching and applying their own ideologies to their children. It is inevitable.
Second, every covenant between God and man has included children along with parents (Gen. 1:26–30, 2:16–17, 3:16–19, 9:9, 17:17, Ex. 20:5). This is the established pattern: God’s covenants include children of believers. If this were to change in the New Covenant, we should expect to see it made explicit by Christ and His apostles. But instead we find the opposite in the opening sermon of the New Covenant era, with St Peter declaring on the Day of Pentecost that this “promise is for you and for your children and for all who far off” (Acts. 2:39).
Third, the Old Testament church is the same as the New Testament church. While in the New Covenant the gospel has been received in a special way by Gentiles, there are not two separate people of God but one. St Paul explains in Galatians 3 that believers today are “sons of Abraham” who heard the “gospel” when the Lord said to him that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in him (3:7–9). The entire Book of Hebrews consists of the author explaining how the rituals of the Old Testament were a shadow of the person and work of Christ. Abraham and the saints under the Old Covenant were saved by faith just as the Apostles and the saints under the New Covenant are (Rom. 4:3). Indeed, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).
Fourth and lastly, as we have noted, children were members of the Old Covenant, having been circumcised because of the faith of their parents. Since the New Covenant church is the same church as the old with the same conditions of membership, and since baptism takes the place of circumcision, then children under the New Covenant should continue to receive the covenant sign. If this is not the case, then under the new and better covenant, Christ would be now turning children “out of their ancient birth-right in the Church.” But nowhere do we find our Lord doing this. Rather, He tells the disciples to let the children come to Him, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs (Mt. 19:14). Christ never warns His apostles, Jews who themselves were circumcised as infants, that the relationship between God and the children of believers has changed. Instead, we find St Paul saying that the children of at least one believer are holy (1 Cor. 7:14) and instructing Ephesian and Colossians children as believers (Eph. 6:1–4, Col. 3:20).
Find other posts in this series here.