Chapter 28.1, Part Two
July 24, 2013
i. Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, or remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.
The Westminster Confession's second important theme in treating baptism concerns the efficacy of baptism. This is a vitally important matter today, in which Christians must avoid errors that fall on both sides of the Bible's teaching. On one side, Baptists and many other evangelicals err by denying that there is any efficacy to baptism, instead treating the sacrament as a bare sign. On the other side, hyper-covenantal Reformed Christians err by granting too much efficacy, or rather the wrong kind of efficacy, to baptism's role in Christian salvation. This latter concern is especially associated today with the so-called Federal Vision movement, which treats the rite of baptism as being essentially the principle instrument of salvation.
The Confession takes up this matter by making the classic statement that baptism is "a sign and seal of the covenant of grace." As a sign, baptism points to the blood of Jesus which cleanses our sin and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit that enables us to believe and be saved. As a seal, baptism presents an authentic offer from God and an official authentication of saving faith when it has been acknowledged by the elders of the church. Properly defining the word "seal" is essential, since some readers take the Confession to mean that the grace of Christ is more or less infused by baptism into the recipient's spirit. Instead, baptism serves as a seal in the way that a government seal makes a passport official. Those who profess true faith in Jesus receive baptism as a seal that makes the covenant relationship official, together with all its benefits.
A particular controversy today concerns the claim that the Confession's teaching that baptism confers "ingrafting into Christ," "regeneration," and "remission of sins." This is the Federal Vision teaching that states that baptism confers the reality of these saving graces, so long as one upholds his or her baptism by remaining in the church. This is not what the Confession teaches, however. The Confession teaches that baptism confers the "sign and seal" of these things. Union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, and regeneration come only with faith; baptism presents the sign and seal of these things, upon the confirmation of saving faith. Appeal is made to paragraph 6, where the Confession states that "the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost." This is true, so long as we remember that the grace promised in baptism comes in the form of sign and seal. Baptism never confers the reality of union with Christ and its saving benefits, but rather the sign and seal of those blessings which only faith may receive. This understanding is confirmed when we consult WCF 14:1, which says, "The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word." Salvation is received only through faith in the Word of God (see 1 Pet. 1:23). That statement goes on to say, "by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened" (WCF 14:1). In other words, union with Christ and its saving benefits occurs through faith alone in God's Word, and that saving faith is then strengthened by the Word, the sacraments and prayer.
WCF 28:6 makes the interesting point that the "efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether or age or infants) as that grace belongeth to, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time." This answers the objection that many are baptized without believing (often as infants), so that they cannot receive the grace offered by baptism. The Confession answers that the grace of baptism is nonetheless conveyed at the time of saving faith, at whatever time that God has willed. Here again, we must remember that the Confession speaks of baptism conferring not saving grace but signing and sealing grace - that which signifies and confirms salvation through faith. The point of the Confession is that whenever true and saving faith occurs, that is when the sign and sealing grace of baptism is actually received.
Consider two situations. When a non-Christian adult believes, the subsequent baptism conveys the sign and seal of the covenant that faith has received. What about a covenant child who was baptized as an infant, who then comes to saving faith later in life? In this case, the saving faith looks back to what was offered and exhibited in baptism, the reality of which has now been conferred through the gift of faith. Understanding this teaching helps us to realize that when a covenant child is baptized, the grace of salvation is really offered and exhibited to him or her, and the sign and seal of that grace (to be received through faith) is really conferred. With such a beginning to the child's life in the church, our covenant nurture of the child must continue to offer and exhibit the covenant of grace. Later, when faith marks the child as truly possessing salvation, that faith receives the grace that was set before the child from the beginning of his or her life in the church, through baptism, which grace now belongs to the believing child through the Spirit's gift of saving faith.
Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.