A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism 2005 R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
Among Western Christians there are four major views on baptism: 1
a.. Baptism is the means of spiritual renewal and initial justification and sanctification through the infusion of grace received in it, in such a way that one cannot be saved ordinarily without it. Baptism communicates saving grace, by the working of its own power. Children of all church members and unbaptized adult converts must be baptized (Roman Catholic).2 b.. Baptism is a public testimony to one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Only those who have reached the age of discretion can make such a profession of faith. Therefore, only those who are able to confess Christ should be baptized. (Baptist). 3 c.. Baptism is so closely related to the gospel that through it, Christians receive eternal life and without baptism there can be no assurance of salvation. Both the children of believers and unbaptized adult believers should be baptized (Lutheran). 4 d.. Baptism is a means of sanctifying grace and a gospel ministry to the people of God. It is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace illustrating what Christ has done for his people and sealing salvation to the same. Therefore covenant children of believing parents as well as unbaptized adult converts should be baptized. (Reformed).5 Protestants uniformly reject the Roman Catholic view of baptism as unbiblical and sub-Christian since it replaces faith as the instrument of justification. Among Bible-believing Protestant churches, the Baptist view is easily the most common and the Reformed view is probably the least well known. The view labeled Lutheran is probably somewhere in the middle in popularity.6
Unfortunately, many Bible-believing Christians assume that all infant baptizing (paedobaptist) churches are identical.7 This essay is intended in part to change that perception. I believe (perhaps naively) that if more Bible believing Christians understood the Reformed view of baptism, they would accept our explanation of what God’s Word says about baptism. I also intend to give Reformed believers a clearer understanding of what God’s Word says about baptism and to answer objections which are often made against the Reformed position.
Is Infant Baptism Protestant?
In short, yes. All the Protestant Reformers including Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin held to infant baptism. Though these three great Protestants disagreed on many things, they all agreed on the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They also agreed that infant baptism is a biblical practice and the best expression of the Protestant gospel.8 In fact, infant baptism has been the practice of the historic Christian church since the Apostolic period.9 Of course the historic practice of the church does not settle the question. Historic practice, however, suggests a certain presumption in favor of infant baptism. Nevertheless, tradition alone is not sufficient reason for any practice in the church. Therefore Reformed Christians practice covenant baptism because we are commanded to do so in both the Old and New Covenant Scriptures. 10
We believe that the Bible alone is the Spirit inspired, infallible, Word of God written. God’s Word alone is the source of our faith.11 Comparing our ideas with God’s clear revelation in the Bible is the only way to safety and certainty.
Why Do Christians Reach Different Conclusions?
Christians study the same Bible, but we often read it differently. Sometimes we begin with different assumptions about the nature of things and authority. These different methods and starting points lead to different conclusions.
True Bible study requires comparing Scripture with Scripture and especially comparing clearer passages with those which are less clear. True Bible study requires a submissive attitude to the clear teaching of God’s Word.12 Bible study is not just looking for isolated texts which seem to prove one’s point. Rather, Bible study means that we must do exegesis, that is, understand what the biblical writer is saying, why, and to whom.
What is the Covenant of Grace?
In the gospels our Lord Jesus left us two great signs to be observed until he returns, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.13 These two new covenant signs broadly correspond to the old covenant signs of circumcision and Passover.14 We call baptism and the Lord’s supper covenant signs because that is what God himself calls them. They are signs of his covenant relationship to those he loves, his people.
The term covenant is a very frequent word in the Bible. In fact, God’s covenant with believers is so important that it is nearly impossible to correctly understand the Bible while ignoring it.15 The covenant of grace describes the way God relates to his people. It involves a binding oath between the LORD and his people in which he promises his people to be their God and his people, in response to God’s grace, swear complete fidelity to the LORD. The covenant of grace was signed and sealed in blood.
God made a covenant of grace with Adam, after the fall, in the garden.16 He made a promise to save and preserve Noah through the flood and us after it.17 He promised to be a God to Abraham and his children.18 With each the promise God attached conditions. The first is saving faith, which God works in us (Romans 4:3). The second is to make use of the covenant signs and seals. In Genesis 17 the LORD spoke to Abraham about his covenant:
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring….My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.19
The LORD gave a bloody mark as a sign to Abraham that he and his children belonged to the LORD. Similarly, in Exodus 12:1-13; vv.21-29, 43-51; God remembered his covenant with Abraham.20
The LORD also instituted an annual celebration to remind his people how he mercifully and graciously redeemed his people from bondage in Egypt. 21 As a sign and seal of his saving grace he instituted the sacrament of Passover along with many other feasts. 22
The Passover had many of the same characteristics as the circumcision. Both were bloody and associated with God’s covenant promises. Passover (like the other feasts) differed from circumcision, however, in the same way that baptism and the LORD’s supper differ: circumcision, the first covenant sign was applied to infants and adults alike, and was a mark of entrance into God’s covenant people.
The Passover feast was restricted to those who are able to understand God’s redeeming acts because it was a sign designed to nurture and lead to growth. It was not a sign of entrance into visible covenant assembly of God’s people, but served as a means of renewing the covenant of grace.
Is There Still A Covenant of Grace?
Just as God made a covenant with Abraham, he promised a new covenant to come later. 23 He made this new covenant in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The Lord Jesus consciously and specifically established “the new covenant.” 25 The Apostle Paul said he was “a servant of the new covenant.” 26 How can this be if there is but one covenant of grace? The new covenant is new, as contrasted with Moses, but not as contrasted with Abraham or Adam. 27