THE UNDERSTANDING OF INFANT BAPTISM IN THE REFORMED TRADITION

As a Presbyterian Church that is part of the Reformed tradition, PSPC conducts infant baptisms as an expression of our beliefs in the infants’ distinctive relationship to Christ in terms of (1) the unity and continuity of the covenant, (2) election and the sovereign grace of God and (3) Christ’s attitudes toward infants and children.

 

The Unity and Continuity of the Covenant

 

The Reformed tradition maintains that infant baptism replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the New Covenant that had been inaugurated by Christ.  In the Old Testament, male infants received circumcision as a sign and seal of being part of the Abrahamic Covenant.  The unity and continuity of this Covenant with the New Covenant meant that infants continue to be included in the covenantal people of God under the New Covenant.  Otherwise, “the consequence will be, that, by the advent of Christ, the grace of God, which was formerly given to the Jews, is more obscure and less perfectly attested to us.[1]  In view of this, we would hardly expect the covenantal privileges of children to be reduced in the New Covenant.  Far from requiring an explicit authorisation to continue their inclusion in the Church, it would require an explicit authorisation in the New Testament to deny them the privilege now.[2]

 

Election and the Sovereign Grace of God

 

A common argument against infant baptism is to question how it can operate as a means of grace for infants who cannot yet exercise faith.  In reply, Reformed theology maintains that divine election is unconditional and is not based upon any merit, acts or claims of human beings.  Just as adult believers are predestined by God’s sovereign grace before they can even exercise faith, so likewise, infants are predestined by God as well.  Thus, infant baptism played a vital role in representing a predestinarian view of the Gospel by setting before the church in “sacramental shorthand” the entire Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God’s grace in the salvation of the elect.[3]

 

Christ’s Attitudes toward Infants and Children

 

Instead of limiting God’s grace to infants and children in the New Covenant, Christ enlarged its scope by receiving the children and declaring that the kingdom of God belongs to them (Matthew 19:14).  Calvin contended that, “If the kingdom of heaven is theirs, why should they be denied the sign by which access, as it were, is opened to the Church, that being admitted into it they may be enrolled among the heirs of the heavenly kingdom?[4]  Hence, infant baptism is a sign and seal of Christ’s promise that theirs will be the kingdom of God.  Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Christ himself was sanctified from earliest infancy so that “he might sanctify his elect in himself at any age, without distinction.[5]  In sum, Benjamin B. Warfield, the renowned Presbyterian theologian declared that, “The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it.  They must remain there until He puts them out.  He has nowhere put them out.  They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.

 

Infant Baptism, Confirmation and the Church

 

Baptism ingrafts the Christian into union with Christ and also initiates him into the fellowship of the church.  Similarly, “infants, whom he [Christ] enumerates among his members, are to be baptised, in order that they may not be dissevered from his body.”[6]  Therefore, the Westminster Larger Catechism asserts that children of believers are not among those outside the visible church or “strangers from the covenant of promise.”[7]

 

Since salvation is purely by God’s sovereign grace and not based on baptism, therefore, “children are baptised for future repentance and faith.  Though these are not yet formed in them, yet the seed of both lies hid in them by the secret operation of the Spirit.[8] This has significant implications for the infant’s relationship to the church: it is through the active spiritual nurture of parents and doctrinal instruction provided by the church that those infants who are the elect can mature in their faith.  That is why during infant baptism, the parents take the vows to instruct and guide the child in the truth, foster spiritual disciplines, provide a godly example so as to prepare the child for confirmation when he/she comes of age.  In the same way, the church also takes the pledge to guide and nurture the children so that they will follow Christ and become faithful members of the church.  This process of spiritual instruction and nurture by parents, the Sunday School, Prinsep Lighthouse and finally at the Membership Class will bring into fruition the seed of repentance and faith when the child makes a public profession of his or her faith during confirmation.[9]

 

Conclusion

 

In summary, infant baptism is the sign and seal of (1) the covenantal privileges of infants in the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ, (2) that God’s sovereign grace in election and Christ’s atoning sacrifice extend to them and (3) Christ’s promise to them that theirs will be the kingdom of God.  In relation to the church, baptised infants are not only initiated into the fellowship of the church, the church has the responsibility of instructing them in the faith so that they can make a public profession of their faith at confirmation.

           

In an era when denominationalism and Christian movements proliferate, the need for the Presbyterian Church to find its identity is even more urgent than ever.  Since Reformed baptismal theology is a microcosm of Calvin’s theological framework and therefore encapsulates the essence of the Reformed tradition, it is one litmus test of whether the Presbyterian Church is remaining faithful to the theological heritage that has been passed down to us.




[1] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, 4:16:6.

[2] Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe?, (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 1965), 241.

[3] Lyle D. Bierma, “Infant Baptism in the Reformed Confessions”, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, Gregg Strawbridge (ed.), (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 244-245.

[4] Calvin, 4:16:7.

[5] Calvin, 4:16:18.

[6] Calvin, 4:16:22.

[7] The Westminster Larger Catechism, Q.166.

[8] Calvin, 4:16:20.

[9] Richard R. Osmer, Confirmation: Presbyterian Practices in Ecumenical Perspective, (Louisville, KT: Geneva Press, 1996), 82.

 

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