Infant Baptism and the Promise of Grace

In considering the differences between those who support and those who oppose the baptism of infants, focusing too narrowly upon the need for faith in the recipients of the rite can be misleading, for among Reformed Christians this necessity is granted on both sides of the debate. No less than for those who baptize only on the basis of a candidate's sincere personal confession of their faith, those who baptize infants hold that faith is required for the realization of its intended meaning. The differences between the stances generally lie less in this principle than in contrary understandings of the character of faith and of what and how baptism means.

It is not my purpose here to explore the important question of different understandings of the character of faith. In treating the infant children of believers as believers themselves--as members of the visible church--we recognize, among many other things, that a person's 'true self' and loyalties are not solely private, individual, internal, and chosen, but are also public, relational, external, and given.

Rather, the intent of this article is to explore contrasting treatments of a key dimension of the doctrine of baptism that, while not decisively determining positions on either side of the question, has for very good reasons often been closely correlated with them. Though often neglected, this dimension of baptismal doctrine is an exceedingly significant one; it is one of the principal areas in which the magisterial Reformed doctrines of baptism distinguished themselves from alternative positions among their Roman Catholic and Anabaptist contemporaries.

The contrasting positions at this point are perhaps best exposed through the question 'when is the grace of baptism received?' For Anabaptists and Baptists the grace signified in baptism is typically understood to be grace already received: baptism looks back to the event of the baptismal candidate's spiritual deliverance. For this position, baptism is largely placed on the side of human response: it is a rite that we undergo in obedience to Christ, signifying our faith, repentance, and our self-surrender to him, and our commitment to living faithfully for him in the future. As it relates to the grace it signifies, for Anabaptists and Baptists, baptism is predominantly retrospective, looking back to a salvation largely completed.

In characterizing magisterial Reformed objections to the Roman Catholic understanding of baptism at the time of the Reformation, some commentators have often focused too narrowly upon the theme of baptismal efficacy. While firmly opposing notions of ex opere operato, few of the magisterial Reformers resisted the notion of baptismal efficacy as such, but rather insisted upon the necessity of faith for the reception and enjoyment of this efficacy, upon God's freedom in the bestowal of his grace, and upon the Word-based character of the sacraments. If we mistakenly equate baptismal efficacy with an ex opere operato mode of efficacy, we are in danger of missing the fact that the magisterial Reformers presented a higher and more efficacious doctrine of baptism than their Roman Catholic interlocutors.

It is at this juncture that the significance of the 'when' question should be recognized. The Roman Catholics related the grace of baptism to the performance of the rite itself. For them, the grace signified in baptism was a grace received through the performance of the rite. The answer to the 'when' question was 'at the point of baptism itself.' Yet the grace of baptism received through the ex opere operato performance of baptism--so powerfully efficacious at the time of the performance--swiftly lost its efficacy. The grace of baptism, once given, was radically at the mercy of the baptismal candidate's subsequent behaviour. The Canons of Trent (Session XIV in particular) reveal that, the grace of baptism being easily forfeited by sinners who failed to persevere in it, it was necessary to supplement its grace with that of another sacrament--penance. Penance was the answer to the acute problem of post-baptismal sin and to the (temporally) limited efficacy of the grace of baptism. The result was the diminishment of baptismal grace within the sacramental economy: beyond giving an initial impetus, baptism was swiftly substituted for by other sources of grace.

The perceived problem of post-baptismal sin robbing baptismal grace of its efficacy was by no means a new one. Indeed, the earliest anti-paedobaptist argument in the Christian tradition was prompted by this very issue. In chapter 18 of De Baptismo, Tertullian argues that the delay of baptism should be preferred, especially in the case of young children and the unmarried, who are particularly vulnerable to temptation and risk squandering and falling from baptismal grace. Although baptism grants the remission of sins, those who receive it and fall into sin again may find themselves in a worse state than those who have never been baptized (De Poenitentia VI). Forgiveness after such a post-baptismal lapse occurs through a second repentance, granting the penitent one final strike ('...although the gate of forgiveness has been shut and fastened up with the bar of baptism, [God] has permitted it still to stand somewhat open. In the vestibule He has stationed the second repentance for opening to such as knock: but now once for all, because now for the second time; but never more because the last time it had been in vain.' De Poenitentia VII). The grace of baptism is great and marvellous in its initial power, but weak in its long term efficacy. Baptismal grace soon retreats in the rear view mirror of the Christian life, leaving us dependent upon discovering new sources of divine forgiveness. While the Roman Catholics at the time of the Reformation baptized infants, believing such baptism necessary for the remission of original sin (Canons of Trent, Session V), in common with Tertullian they had a weak view of baptismal efficacy. Despite the many other differences between their sacramental theologies, the Roman Catholics shared with the Anabaptists and the Baptists the conviction that baptism predominantly stood for past grace.

In contrast to the Roman Catholics, the accent of the magisterial Reformed teaching concerning infant baptism did not rest primarily upon the negative retrospective dimension of remission of original sin. The positive flavour of the magisterial Reformed doctrine of infant baptism was of a piece with the character and logic of its doctrine of baptism more generally, a doctrine within which the prospective and promissory force of baptismal grace was given considerable prominence. When the grace baptism signifies is neither chiefly a grace already received nor merely a grace received at, yet largely limited to, the time of and period immediately following the reception of the sacrament, there is a much more positive rationale to give it to those with the most incipient forms of faith.

One of the most powerful theologies of the promissory and prospective force of baptism--a theology that addresses the problem of post-baptismal sin head on--is encountered in the work of Martin Luther. Jonathan Trigg has highlighted Martin Luther's resistance to the 'linear model' of the Christian life, characterized by conversion connected with baptism, followed by progress beyond that point.[1]  In a sharp departure from this model, Luther maintained that we never move beyond the point of baptism. Conversion is not a past event, but a status that we persevere in, by constantly returning to our baptisms (p.170). Conversion is an ongoing reality in the Christian's life, a continual act of going back to the beginning. Baptism also declares death and resurrection, a reality that has yet to be fully accomplished in us (p.202). As our bodies are baptized into Christ's death, they are marked out for future participation in his resurrection, sealed with a promise of future deliverance. Consequently, the entirety of our existence as baptized Christians is lived in the space between promise and consummation. The primary theme of Luther's doctrine is the 'present tense' of baptism (p.171). Trigg writes:
[T]he 'beginning' to which the Christian is continually recalled is baptism. At the trysting place of baptism, God addresses me with his word of promise. I must live from moment to moment by faith in that word, never daring to rely on a past conversion, or to progress in empirical righteousness, although tempted to do so. To yield to that temptation would be to abandon the despised trysting place of baptism in the search for a glory of my own (p.171).
The baptismal promise is an 'unsinkable ship', remaining in force throughout our lives (p. 202). The light of hope that baptism holds out to desperate sinners neither gutters nor dims. However far the prodigal has wandered from home, he can always recall the promissory declaration of his adoption into the household of God at his baptism and return to his Father's house, assured of a ready welcome.

It is perhaps in the magisterial Reformed doctrine in particular that adoption is able to come into its own as a paradigm within which we can understand the import of baptism. The Second Helvetic Confession declares in chapter XX:
Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God; yes, and in this life to be called after the name of God; that is to say, to be called a son of God; to be cleansed also from the filthiness of sins, and to be granted the manifold grace of God, in order to lead a new and innocent life. Baptism, therefore, calls to mind and renews the great favor God has shown to the race of mortal men. For we are all born in the pollution of sin and are the children of wrath. But God, who is rich in mercy, freely cleanses us from our sins by the blood of his Son, and in him adopts us to be his sons, and by a holy covenant joins us to himself, and enriches us with various gifts, that we might live a new life. All these things are assured by baptism. For inwardly we are regenerated, purified, and renewed by God through the Holy Spirit and outwardly we receive the assurance of the greatest gifts in the water, by which also those great benefits are represented, and, as it were, set before our eyes to be beheld.
For many of the Reformed, it was important to make clear that baptism doesn't confer some benefit that didn't already belong to faith. Baptism doesn't entitle you to the enjoyment of the covenant and its promises, but it does seal them to you. Just as a monarch's accession to the throne typically precedes their coronation--the ritual which formally seals and publically manifests and declares their sovereignty--so baptism, the rite sealing our adoption, belongs to those who are already in fact members of the household to which the promises belong.

While adoption has a necessary retrospective dimension, presupposing deliverance from an undesirable situation, its primary purpose is prospective, the establishment of new relationships and a situation of loving communion and belonging. The 'when' of the grace of an adoption does partially lie in the past--in the adoptive parents' rescue of the child, their creation of a relationship with the child, and in their formalization of that relationship in adoption. However, it is chiefly found in the continuing present and in the future as the adopted child lives out of the new life, privileges, and status that they were once and are continuously being given and as they will one day receive the full inheritance to which their new status entitles them.

For this reason, the magisterial Reformed were concerned to emphasize that the grace of baptism is the grace of a promissory seal, a grace that extends throughout our lives. Westminster Confession of Faith expresses this point, insisting that 'the efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered.' Nor do I consider it accidental that the Westminster Confession of Faith refers to the grace of the sacrament as 'grace promised' [emphasis added] or that the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of baptism as a 'divine pledge and sign' (Question 73). Likewise, the Thirty-Nine Articles declare that in baptism: 'the promises of the forgeuenesse of sinne, and of our adoption to be the sonnes of God, by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed' [emphasis added].

Far from negating the importance of faith, this understanding of the grace of baptism underlines its importance. As a promissory seal of our adoption, declaring grace in the continuous present and in the future, baptism never ceases to call us to the response of faith in the here and now. The force of the grace of adoption--founded upon a unilateral initiative of love--continues throughout the adoptive child's life, but also summons them to live out of that grace and not to turn their backs on it. An adoption is never just a completed event of the past, but is an enduring reality enjoyed by all of those who continue to receive it. Just as an adoption is much less about its initial reception than it is about its lifelong reception, so a focus upon the mature faith of the baptismal candidate can dull us to the fact that the faith baptism calls for is not present faith so much as future faith, a faith that will persevere to the end, therein receiving the promise of baptism.

A number of things follow from this for our baptismal teaching and practice, two of which I want to draw our attention to briefly before concluding. First, if baptism is a promissory seal, rather than a rite whose meaning is principally comprehended or efficacy is primarily enacted in its own celebration, it doesn't matter that much if the baptismal candidate has little or no understanding of the meaning of the rite at the time of its celebration. Nor need the rite itself be dramatic and awe-inspiring, calculated to manifest the power of some divine act that is being accomplished at that moment. The efficacy of a person's baptism is a lifelong reality and they have their entire lifetime to grow into an understanding of what it means.

Second, teaching concerning baptism has typically been directed primarily at baptismal candidates. Without dismissing the importance of such preparatory teaching, once we recognize the promissory force of baptism, I believe that most of our teaching concerning baptism ought to be addressed to those who have already been baptized. Baptism is never something that we leave behind. The promised grace that it seals to us is the grace that we depend upon throughout our lives. Baptism is a reservoir of divine promise given to each one of us personally and individually that never runs dry, a spring of cleansing to which we can always return, however far we have wandered. By baptism my very body has received the promise of its resurrection, a promise that I receive by faith and whose realization I anticipate in hope.

This understanding of the promissory force of baptism, a glorious reality perhaps most powerfully articulated within the magisterial Reformed tradition, need not be its exclusive possession. Although their paedobaptist convictions meant that the magisterial Reformers were particularly well-situated to discover such a truth, I see no reason why this truth need be considered incongruent with core Baptist convictions or not come to be accounted the common possession of all Reformed Christians. Indeed, it could allow for a greater degree of rapprochement between the two parties, as the weight of our doctrine of baptism shifts to truths that we affirm together.[7] Such a doctrine of baptism would de-centre, without excluding, the confession of the individual and would re-centre the initiative of our promising Father. It would teach us to think of ourselves as recipients of the grace of baptism, not as something we once were, at the time when we were baptized, but as something that we always are, as we live out of the promises that our baptisms sealed to us.

Alastair Roberts did his doctoral studies in Theology in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair's Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged


[1] Jonathan Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther (Boston, MA: Brill, 1994), pp. 166-69