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 Issues | Infant Baptism | Introduction

The Baptism of Infants

By the Revd G. W. Bromiley, M. A., D. Litt.

Vine Books Ltd (Publishers to Church Society) , 1955, 1976 & 1977


Chapter 5: The Substitution of the Son

Baptism in the name of God the Son declares to us the supreme fact that God has indeed fulfilled His purpose of grace for us and implemented the covenant and its promise. This is perhaps the real explanation of the apostolic administration of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ alone, for the whole point of the apostolic message is that God has acted decisively and definitely for us in Jesus Christ (Cf. Hebrews 1, 1f). Reconciliation has now been made. It can now be declared and accepted in Him. The name of Jesus Christ carries with it the whole Trinity, for it was to accomplish the will of the Father who sent Him that Jesus came (John 4, 34; Heb. 10, 9), and it was in the power of the Holy Spirit of whom He was conceived that He acted (Cf. Luke 1, 35; Matt. 12, 28, etc). But the name of Jesus Christ is central and crucial because it is in Him that the divine purpose has actually found its accomplishment.

The same point comes out in another way when we remember that baptism is connected with the remission of sins. For sins or sin are the obstacle to covenant fellowship with God and therefore to God’s original purpose for man. If that original purpose is to be attained, if there is to be a covenant between God and sinful man, then in some way it must be by the overcoming of sin. This means in effect that sin has to be forgiven, for man himself is able neither to forsake sin nor to make restitution for it. Jesus came into the world to bring the divine forgiveness, to accomplish a reconciliation, dealing with sin and in that way implementing the covenant. He was given His name Jesus because He was to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1, 21). He declared both His authority and His mission by uttering the divine word of forgiveness (Matt. 9, 2f). He finally gave His life a ransom for many (Mark 10, 45), for although forgiveness may be free in the sense that it is free to us, that does not mean that it is without cost to God. The apostles went out into the world knowing that reconciliation had been effected and declaring the remission of sins in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 5, 31).

It must be emphasized that the remission of sins and therefore the implementing of the covenant involves not only the coming of Christ but also the sacrifice of Christ. Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ is associated not only with the forgiveness of sin but also with the self-giving of the Son. We can think of this in many ways. In the language of sacrifice, we can say with Hebrews that without shedding of blood there is no remission (Heb. 9, 22). Already the sign of circumcision had pointed forward to the shed blood. Or we can use the more legal language of Paul and say that when we are baptized into Jesus Christ we are baptized into His death for us (Romans 6, 3f.). This representative or substitutionary death of Jesus Christ is the way, perhaps the only way, in which the divine purpose of grace can be and is realized in face of the obstacle of man’s sin. For sin has to be destroyed, and the destruction of sin means the destruction of the sinner. But Christ incarnate, the sinless Son, accepts this destruction representatively for all other men, in their place and on their behalf, in order that in His resurrection they may also be raised with Him as new and righteous men. Thus baptism is into His death because in that substitutionary death the sinful man is destroyed, but destroyed with a view to his replacement by a new man in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the final purpose is re-creation or renewal, baptism is linked not only with the remission of sins but also with regeneration and the ultimate resurrection of the dead.

There is, therefore, an intimate connection between baptism and the death and resurrection, but especially the death of Christ. This connection is not a mere accident suggested by the imagery, for the sign of baptism was deliberately selected and instituted by God. Nor is it merely a projection back from the individual baptismal experience of death to sin and regeneration to life. Indeed, when we turn to the Gospels we see that the very reverse is the case. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the true baptism of which our own baptism and baptismal experience are only as it were the copy and likeness. In this respect baptism is like the Lord’s Supper, for there too the outpoured blood of Christ on the cross is the true and proper cup to which the sacramental cup bears witness (Cf. I Corinthians 11, 26). This truth is very clearly brought out by Jesus Christ Himself. With reference to baptism He tells us plainly: ‘I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished’ (Luke 12, 50). With reference to the cup, He says: ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you’ (Luke 22, 20), and later He prays in Gethsemane: ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me’ (Luke 22, 42). The two are brought together in the challenge to the sons of Zebedee: Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with (Matt. 20, 22)?’ In all these cases there can be no doubt that in both the words and the mind of Jesus the reference is to His approaching death on the cross. The death of Jesus, followed at once by His resurrection, is therefore the true baptism and the true cup. Every subsequent baptism is primarily a witness to the death and resurrection of Christ.

But now we must try to understand in rather more detail what is the meaning of that death and in what sense it is a fulfilment of the eternal purpose of God which is also declared in baptism. Appropriately enough, it is Christ’s own baptism in the river Jordan which gives us the right clue. It was just as singular, if less drastic, that Jesus should be baptized with the baptism of John as that He should be baptized in His own blood on the cross. For John’s baptism was a baptism of penitent sinners (Matt. 3, 6), and as John himself saw, Jesus was not a sinner. Why, then, did He accept that baptism? We can find different reasons, but ultimately it seems to come down to this. There in the river Jordan, at the very outset of His ministry, He gave Himself up to identification with sinners. He did this first of all in the baptism of repentance. In this way He entered directly upon His ministry of substitution, and He was at once empowered by the Spirit (Matt. 3, 16) and subjected to all the crafts and assaults of the devil (Matt. 4, 1). But at the end of the road, on the cross of Calvary which was His true baptism, He went further. For there He accepted all the consequences of all the sins of man, and He did it alone. He became in the last and fullest sense the sinner’s representative and substitute, taking their place and dying their death, in order that in Him they might die and yet also be raised again to a new life in which they are made free from sin. Paul sums it all up in a pregnant sentence: ‘For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’ (II Corinthians 5, 21).

Now in our baptism it is quite true that we declare our own dying and rising again with Christ. Baptism speaks to us of a personal entry into the substitutionary death and resurrection of Christ. It is necessary that there should be this dying and rising again. But this in itself is not the first thing. The first thing, and the thing to which baptism directs us in the first instance, is the dying and rising again for us of Christ Himself. Before there can be any dying and rising again with Christ, there must be the dying and rising again of Christ Himself for us. It is an unfortunate reversal of the true message of the Gospel if in baptism we allow our own dying and rising again to occupy the centre of the stage and only casually and incidentally find in it a reflection of the atoning work of Christ Himself. The real truth is that our own dying and rising again is the reflection, and the substitutionary dying and rising again of Christ is the original. The true and proper baptism declared in every baptism is the substitutionary dying and rising again of Christ by which the covenant promise of God is fulfilled and His gracious purpose for man accomplished in spite of man's sin and fall.

Why is it so necessary that we should insist on this emphasis? The answer is not far to seek, for this emphasis alone can keep before us the fact that the death and resurrection of Christ is a representative or substitutionary death and resurrection. This means that it is very literally a death and resurrection for us, indeed, our death and resurrection. It is only in this death and resurrection that we can be forgiven and accepted and renewed and finally redeemed. It is only in and by virtue of this death and resurrection that we ourselves can die and rise again, which we do when we enter into the death and resurrection of Christ in repentance and faith. It is not our repentance and faith which are the real work of baptism, but the substitutionary dying and rising again of Jesus Christ in and by which all sinners died and were raised again two thousand years ago at Calvary. The trouble with so many of us is that we talk of substitution (and justification) without realizing the tremendous reality and sweep of it in the New Testament. Paul speaks much more boldly: ‘Because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead’ (II Corinthians 5, 14); or again: ‘For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3, 3); or again, his contrasting of the condemnation which came upon all in Adam and the free gift which came upon all to justification in Christ (Romans 5, 12f). The witness of John is similar, for in the Gospel we read that the believer in Christ ‘shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life’ (John 5, 24). This cannot mean that he has literally been raised again, nor does it seem to be merely a reference to the awakening of faith. The believer is already dead and raised again in the substitutionary death and resurrection which Christ Himself has undergone in our place and on our behalf.

But if this is so, it means that the witness of baptism is not primarily to a present event in us but to a past event for us. Here we have the real opus operatum, the finished work (John 19, 30) of baptism, and it is a genuine work of history, not an illusory subjective phenomenon. In our baptism we have the reaffirmation of the Gospel message that the death and resurrection of Christ were not for Himself but for us. They were so literally for us that in Christ our old life is not merely forgiven, but is forgiven because it is dead and done with. The judgment of God has already passed over it. It has gone for ever, and, in Christ again, we are raised to a new life in which we can be presented faultless before God (Jude 24) to live and reign with Him to all eternity. As far as our own lives are concerned we do not see this yet. We walk by faith and not by sight (II Corinthians 5, 7). But we know that it is so because we see Jesus who died and rose again, and we see that He died and rose again as our representative and substitute. It has all taken place already because it has taken place in Him, and in Him for us.

Every baptism, therefore, looks back to the substitutionary act in which all believers and in a sense all men generally did die and rise again in Jesus Christ. The adult confessor does not say: ‘By my repentance and faith I have died and risen again, and this I attest in my baptism’. He says: ‘Jesus Christ died and rose again in my place, and entering into that death and resurrection I thank Him for it’. The Christian parent does not say:
‘My child cannot die and rise again until he comes to repentance and faith. I cannot therefore give him the sign of death and resurrection’. He says: ‘My child has already died and risen again in Jesus Christ his substitute. I will mark him with the sign of that substitutionary death and resurrection as an added direction to him to enter into it when he grows to years of discretion.’

Of course, there is a danger here as with every opus operatum. We might argue: If Christ has in fact died and risen again for us, what does it matter whether we believe or not? Does not the emphasis on literal substitution lead to a final obliteration of personal decision, especially when it is concretely attested in the sign of infant baptism? The danger is there, but it is not nearly so great as the opposite one, that the emphasis on our personal dying and rising in faith obscures or even replaces the substitutionary dying and rising again of Christ. For we are confronted always with the fact that the substitutionary work of Christ is genuinely substitutionary. Christ has taken my place and acted for me. But that means that I myself am crowded out. Henceforth I must either find my true life in Christ or I am finally and utterly lost. There is no place for me except in Jesus Christ who has taken my place. When this aspect of the baptismal message is grasped, it certainly does not leave any room for complacency. The accomplished fact of the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ has all the assurance, but it also has all the exclusiveness of something which is finally done. Christ has identified Himself with us and acted for us. But we still have to accept that identification by now identifying ourselves with Christ. If we are not willing to do so, the work has still been done for us as the Gospel and our baptism testify, but we exclude ourselves from its redemptive benefits.

The acceptance of identification with Christ is necessary, but this acceptance itself is not the saving act to which baptism in the first instance directs us. The saving act is the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this is an accomplished fact quite apart from our acceptance of it. Paul brings out this aspect of the matter in his tremendous verse: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’(II Corinthians 5, 19). Jesus Himself put it more simply but no less pregnantly in the word on the cross: ‘It is finished’ (John 19, 30). If anything, the finished nature of this work is best attested in infant rather than in adult baptism, for the very helplessness of infants emphasizes the fact that it has to be a substitutionary work; that we ourselves cannot add to it or in any way supplement it or complete it; that we must not try to dispute with Christ the place which He has taken for us.

There is of course the other side. If it is the danger of adult baptism to lay too much emphasis on the human response, it is certainly the temptation of infant baptism to lay too little, and therefore to destroy the evangelistic bearing of the message. In this respect Paul can help us, for his statement that God has reconciled is at once followed by the Gospel challenge: ‘Be ye reconciled to God’ (II Corinthians 5, 20). We have to declare first that Jesus Christ has died and risen again for us, but if Christ has died and risen again for us, that means that we, too, have to die and rise again with Him, dying to sin and rising again to righteousness (Cf. Romans 6, 2f.; Galatians 2, 20). This personal application of the Gospel brings us into the distinctive sphere of the Holy Spirit and His work. It is, therefore, in relation to the particular function and activity of the Holy Spirit that we must consider it.


>> Chapter 6 - The Sovereign Activity of the Spirit





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