The Conditional Nature of Baptism
December 26, 2017
In this article, I want to look at a fourth reason that suggests that the Westminster Confession of Faith does not teach baptismal regeneration, and that is the conditional nature of baptism.
The sacraments are not efficacious and effectual means of salvation to all recipients, but only to some who are referred to as “worthy receivers (WCF 27.3),” those to whom the grace belongs (WCF 28.6), and those who believe (WSC 91). If faith is required in order to receive the benefit of baptism, then baptism does not convey regeneration or work faith in the recipient. In other words, the conditional nature of baptism necessarily precludes the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.
In the context of discussing baptismal justification, Anthony Burgess says the sacraments do not convey grace unless faith is present. Even as food does not benefit the dead, so the sacraments will not be effectual “where spiritual life is not laid as a foundation…But although the Sacraments God hath appointed be not empty mockeries, yet they are effectual onely, where there is due preparation.” One of the differences, according to Samuel Rutherford, between a sacrament and a civil seal is that faith is required in order for the sacrament to be effectual. The seals of grace are conditioned upon faith. Without faith the sacrament is blank and null, yet when used in faith, grace is exhibited and conferred.
Stephen Marshall was a leading member of the Assembly who chaired the sub-committee that drafted the Directory for Public Worship. In his book on infant baptism, which was dedicated to and appreciated by the Assembly and personally recommended by Robert Baillie, Marshall notes that there are both absolute and conditional elements in the sacrament of baptism. One of the conditional elements is the person’s interest in the thing signified. In this respect all sacraments are conditional seals, “sealing the spirituall part of the Covenant to the receiver, upon condition that hee performe the spirituall condition of the Covenant.” Marshall then approvingly cites Ames who taught that “Sacraments are conditionall Seales, and therefore not seales to us but upon condition.” By making the membership of the covenant broader than the elect and the sacraments conditional, Marshall is accused of leaning towards Armininianism. He responds with a claim to orthodoxy. He writes:
And are not the Sacraments signa conditionalia, conditionall signes and seales? and did any Orthodox Divine before your self charge this to be Arminianism, to say that the Gospel runs upon conditions? I confesse it is Arminianisme to say any thing is conditionall to GOD, this I never asserted, but that the Gospell is both preached and by the Sacraments sealed to us upon condition of faith, will passe for orthodox doctrine, when you and I are dead and rotten.
The Westminster Standards’ teaching on the conditional nature of baptism is yet another reason to doubt the claim that they teach baptismal regeneration. Baptism does not exhibit initial grace because baptismal grace is received by faith.