July 23, 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... Which sacrament is, by Christ's appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.
The Westminster Confession's teaching of the sacrament of baptism may be understood under five headings, the first of which is the necessity of baptism. This sacrament is "by Christ's appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world." The point is that the church is obligated to administer baptism and Christians are likewise obligated to be baptized, as Christ's prescribed manner for joining his Church.
One argument against the necessity of water baptism is made by Quakers, who assert that there is no gospel precept for this sacrament and that we are instead to baptize in the Spirit (see Mt. 3:11). To the contrary, however, Jesus expressly charged the church with instituting baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a necessary accompaniment to evangelism: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19). It is evident that this does not refer to baptism in the Spirit, for the simple reason that the Church is not able to regenerate the sinner's heart.* Instead, the example of the New Testament makes it perfectly plain that the Church is to administer water baptism in the name of the Trinity, so that believers and their households may properly receive admission into the visible body of Christ's people (see Acts 8:36-38, 9:18, 10:47-48, etc.).
Christian baptism is necessary, therefore, because it was instituted directly by the Lord Jesus Christ, together with his express command for it to be administered "in his church until the end of the world" (WCF 28:1), even as Jesus extended his Great Commission "to the end of the age" (Mt. 28:20). This gives us the answer to a number of important questions. Is it necessary for a believer in Jesus to be baptized? The answer is Yes, at Jesus' institution and command. Is baptism necessary for church membership? The answer is Yes, since Jesus linked evangelism to baptism in bringing disciples into his church (Mt. 28:19). Is baptism necessary for admission to the Lord's Table? The answer is Yes, since the public rite of admission to the church and its privileges, including the Lord's Supper, is baptism. This naturally accords with the uniform example that we see in the New Testament. When Peter preached to the crowd after the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, about three thousand believed and "those who received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41). During Philip's evangelizing ministry in Samaria, those who believed "were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12). So it goes throughout the book of Acts, including the conversion/baptism of Paul, Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailor, Crispus, and the Ephesian converts (Acts 9:18, 10:48, 16:15, 33, 18:6, and 19:5).
When we speak of the necessity of baptism, however, we do not mean that the rite of water baptism is absolutely necessary as a condition for salvation. The Confession guards against this view, saying that although "it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it" (WCF 28:5). The great example is the thief on the cross who believed in Jesus and was saved, without being baptized by water (Lk. 23:39-43). He was not in a position to be baptized, as it true of others who are soon debilitated or die after trusting in Christ. The point is that baptism is not necessary as a condition of salvation, but rather as a consequence of salvation (either the believer's own salvation or that of his or her parent's, as we will see).
Baptism is necessary in that it is required of Christians and the Church that they obey Christ's commands and give him glory by faithfully administering the sacraments of his church. This means that new believers who have not been baptized, as was my case when I came to faith in Christ at the age of 30, should feel an obligation to receive baptism, thus joining the church and giving a public testimony to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As we will see in our next study, this manner of public testimony also grants a sealing assurance to the believer that he or she really does belong to Jesus.
*Properly speaking, baptism in the Holy Spirit refers not to the individuals' regeneration at the moment of conversion but rather Christ's outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost. Peter made it very clear in Acts 2:33 that Jesus' baptism in the Spirit took place at Pentecost, and the symbolism of the Spirit descending in tongues of spiritual fire clearly fulfills the expectation established by John the Baptist's teaching: see Luke 3:16 and Acts 2:3.
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.