The Nature and Purpose of Baptism
November 14, 2017
What does baptism do? A number of different answers have been given to this question. At one end of the spectrum are those who say that it is a converting ordinance. At the other end are those who claim that baptism is a mere sign of our salvation and profession of faith. Although it has been argued that the Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that baptism is a converting ordinance in that it is the instrument and occasion of regeneration by the Spirit and union with Christ, I will present a number reasons this is an incorrect reading of the Confession. This article will look at the first reason.
The Confession should not be interpreted as teaching the doctrine of baptismal regeneration because that doctrine is incompatible with what the Confession teaches about the nature and purpose of baptism. Unquestionably, the Westminster Standards emphasize the sealing function of the sacraments. Each time a sacrament is defined, generally or specifically, its sealing nature and purpose is mentioned (WCF 27.1; WCF 28.1; WCF 20.1; WLC 162; WLC 168; WSC 92). In one place, seal is used as a synonym for sacrament (WCF 30.3). A similarity or agreement between baptism and the Lord’s Supper is that both are seals of the same covenant (WLC 176). Interestingly, the sections on baptism contain more references to the concept of seal and confirmation than those on the Lord’s Supper.
This emphasis on depicting baptism as a seal is significant because the purpose of a seal, according to the Standards, is to confirm interest in Christ (WCF 27.1), and to strengthen a believer’s faith and all other graces (WLC 162; cf. WCF 14.1). Confirmation and conversion are two distinct functions, and so confirming grace is to be distinguished from converting grace. Although, as Richard Vines granted, confirming and converting grace may be the same in substance, even as every degree of heat is of the same nature as the first degree, there is still a difference between first coming to Christ and being strengthened and confirmed in Christ. Since the Word fulfills both functions, it is feasible that a sacrament could do so as well. Nevertheless, if baptism is divinely designed for sealing and confirming then one key implication would be that it is not a converting ordinance because sealing and confirming presuppose the existence of that which is being sealed and confirmed.
Several members of the Westminster Assembly highlighted this implication in their own writings. Daniel Featley observed that sacraments are properly and precisely seals and therefore they do not begin our incorporation into Christ but rather continue and confirm it. Similarly, Samuel Rutherford said that the true and formal effect of a sacrament is to seal and confirm which is “but a legall strengthening of a right, and not the adding of any new thing.” Thus, “Baptisme is not that whereby we are entred into Christs mysticall and invisible body as such, for it is presupposed we be members of Christs body, and our sinnes pardoned already, before baptism comes to bee a seale of sinnes pardoned.”
George Gillespie believed the Reformed have consistently taught that sacraments are not converting ordinances because God instituted them as sealing ordinances. They are, therefore, designed “not to give, but to testify what is given, not to make, but confirm saints.” Or as Walaeus, one of many Reformed theologians cited as evidence, asserted against “Papists” and some Lutherans, “sacraments do instrumentally confirm and increase faith and regeneration, but not begin nor work faith and regeneration where they are not.”
Does the Confession teach baptismal regeneration? The Confession’s teaching on the nature and purpose of baptism suggests that it doesn’t because a sacrament designed to confirm and not make saints does not confer or convey regenerating grace.
*This article and the rest of this series is based upon D. Patrick Ramsey, “Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Confession of Faith.” The Confessional Presbyterian 4 (2008): 183–193.