VII. Understanding the Means of Grace: The Initiatory Rite
Having explained that a sacrament is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace--a sign outwardly displaying what the inward reality should be and a seal testifying of God's faithfulness and encouraging our faith--we proceed to Baptism.
As an initiatory rite, Baptism brings one into the Church visible. This is not seriously debated by any Protestant. As a sign of regeneration, it portrays the truth of the Spirit's work in the lives of His people. As a seal, it confirms our adoptions as children of God. These truths are less known. So, as the goal is more instructional than polemic, let us define our terms:
Q94: What is baptism?
A94: Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord's.
1. Matt. 28:19; 2. Rom. 6:3; 3. Rom. 6:4
It is 1) a "washing with the water"-meaning that the mode presumably should follow the Biblical pattern. Historically, the Reformed (both Presbyterian, Anglican and Congregational) have understood that mode to follow the prophecies of the Older Testament, pouring or sprinkling (just as the Spirit was promised, Ez. 36, Acts 2). This "washing" 2) signifies, or symbolizes or points to our engrafting into Christ, partaking of His benefits and the demand to be the Lord's own in thought, word & deed. In parallel with the signifying (at least for the elect), there is 3) a sealing aspect to baptism (as just explained in part 6). It more confirms our consciences (increases our subjective awareness) of our part in Christ & all His benefits. As a seal it does not transmit grace, it confirms what is already ours. It highlights what is already ours. It strengthens what is already ours. That is why it is dubbed a "means of grace," for it increases saving faith (cp. WCF 14:1).
Naturally, just as baptism may be meaningless to some adult converts who publicly profess Christ (but inwardly are full of dead man's bones), so too, children may never be regenerate (cp. WCF 28.5). Yet in both instances, they were baptized. This is because baptism does not regenerate nor transmit saving faith to the recipient. That is the work of the Spirit. And the Spirit may work spiritual life before, during or after baptism because His ways are inscrutable (John 3:5, 8). Again, this is a Presbyterian dogma: "Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated" (WCF 28.5).
The fact that children are given the sign of Baptism in many Protestant churches (Anglican, Congregationalists & Presbyterians) is because of Abraham (Gen. 17:7) & Peter. Yes, I said Peter. Note Acts2:38-39:
Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call."
The promise-the Gospel-is "to you and to your children." Just as the Gospel call is given to all, yet only those who are born-again will respond (John 3), so the call is especially given to those children of Covenant households, yet only the elect will respond. The children have greater illumination; hence, they have greater responsibility. To whom much is given much is required. They must own their baptism through public confession.
And that moral truth is the basis of question 167 of the Larger Catechism:
"How is our Baptism to be improved by us?
Answer: The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others..."
What this entails is the fact that our baptism is not a relic of our past. Although objective insofar as God is publicly declaring our entrance into the Church, it is also subjective insofar as it is part of our past and conscience. Our baptism (whether as an infant or an adult) is for our comfort ("in the time of temptation") & our encouragement as we are faced with "the administration of it to others..."
The answer continues in detail how both of these are accomplished (with a plethora of verses!): by considering what baptism signifies and seals; by humbling ourselves for not living faithfully; by "growing up to assurance of pardon of sin..."; by clinging to our spiritual baptism into Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5); by living in faith; by obeying the call to holiness; by walking in the brotherly love because of our unity in the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13).
Although justification and regeneration should not be confused with baptism, baptism is for our own good. It should encourage us as part of our overall sanctification in righteousness. It should be part and parcel of our living in obedience (1 John 2:3ff.). The Spirit uses this tool to point to His work; confirm our faith; thus having begun in grace, we should continue in grace.
Understanding the Means of Grace Series:
I. What Are They?
II. Passion for the Word
III. Benefits of the Word
IV. Power of God
V. Foolishness of God
VI. What is a Sacrament?
VII.The Initiatory Rite