The Subject of Baptism
December 13, 2017
Thus far we have noted what the Westminster Standards teach concerning the nature and purpose of baptism, and the relationship between the Word and sacraments. The Standards' position on these two points suggests that the Assembly rejected the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. In this article, we want to consider a third point: the subject of baptism.
According to the Westminster Standards, covenant membership has its privileges, specifically a right to the sacrament of baptism. Sacraments are for those “within the covenant of grace (WLC 172),” and baptism “is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church (WLC 166).” For this reason, unbelievers are not to be baptized until “they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him (WLC 166, WSC 95).” Prior to administering baptism to a child, the Directory for Public Worship directs the minister to inform the congregation that children of Christian parents are “Christians, and federally holy before Baptisme, and therefore are they baptized.”
Since the recipients of the sacraments, including baptism, are Christians, holy, believers and members of the covenant, it follows that the sacraments are not converting ordinances. George Gillespie employs this argument repeatedly. He marshals twenty arguments to prove that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance, the second of which is “That which necessarily supposeth conversion and faith, doth not work conversion and faith.” In order to forcefully press home his point, the Scotsman argues from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. After citing Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 41; 8:26-37; 10:47, Gillespie writes:
Now if baptism itself (which is the sacrament of our initiation) supposeth (according to the tenor and meaning of Christ’s institution) that the party baptized (if of age) doth actually convert and believe, and (if an infant) supposeth an interest in Jesus Christ and in the covenant of grace…how much more doth the Lord’s supper, necessarily, by Christ’s institution, suppose that the receivers are not unconverted and unbelieving persons?
His fourth argument is that an ordinance instituted only for believers is not a converting but a sealing ordinance. He then proceeds to prove that the Lord’s Supper is such an ordinance by demonstrating, from Roman 4:11, that every sacrament, including the sacrament of initiation is a seal of the righteousness of faith. “If therefore a sacrament be a seal of the righteousness of faith, then it is instituted only for believers and justified persons, because to such only it can seal the righteousness of faith.”
The fifth argument is also based upon Paul’s discussion of Abraham and circumcision in Romans 4. Abraham’s justification is a pattern of ours and he “was not justified by circumcision, or (as Aquinas confesseth upon the place) that circumcision was not the cause but the sign of justification.” Gillespie again argues from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. “And if God did, by his word, make a covenant with Abraham before he received circumcision, the seal of that covenant, must it not much more be supposed, that they are within the covenant of grace who eat and drink at the Lord’s table.”
Even more explicit is the fourteenth argument, wherein Gillespie states that since Baptism itself is not a regenerating or converting ordinance—at least administered to those of age—far less is the Lord’s Supper a converting ordinance. Baptism cannot be a regenerating ordinance because in Scripture a profession of faith is a prerequisite for those of age.
Another piece of evidence, therefore, that the Westminster Standards do not embrace baptismal regeneration is their teaching on the subject of baptism. A sacrament that is for Christians, believers and members of the covenant is not compatible with one that confers converting grace.
For previous posts in this series, see: