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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 6: The Sovereign Activity of the Spirit

Baptism in the name of the Holy Spirit declares to us the supreme fact that the fulfilment of the divine purpose in Jesus Christ is appropriated to us individually in the power of the Holy Spirit. It need hardly be pointed out that baptism has always been closely linked with the Spirit. The specific mark of Christ’s baptism as opposed to that of John is that it is baptism not only with water but with fire and the Holy Ghost (Matt. 3, 11). The regeneration signified in water-baptism is stated expressly to be the work of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10, 45-48). When the Holy Ghost was poured out on Cornelius and his company, Peter recognized at once that they could not be forbidden baptism (Acts 10, 45-48). The more detailed expositions of Romans 6, 1f. and especially Romans 8, 1f. make it plain that the whole baptismal work of inward mortification and renewal is from first to last the operation of the Spirit.

We must notice again, however, that the connecting link is Jesus Christ Himself. The Holy Spirit does not work independently of Christ, just as Christ does not work independently of the Father (or the Spirit). The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8, 9). He is sent by Christ (John 16, 7). He bears witness to Christ (John 16, 14). Conversely, it was by the Spirit that Christ Himself was conceived in His human life (Luke 1, 35). The Spirit came upon Christ at His baptism in Jordan: the first association of the Spirit with water-baptism (Matt. 3, 16). Above all, it was in the power of the Spirit that Christ carried through the covenant purpose of God in His death and resurrection, for ‘through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without spot to God’ (Hebrews 9, 14), and He was raised again in the power of the same Spirit (Romans 1, 4; I Peter 3, 18). In its declaration of the work of the Spirit baptism speaks to us first of all of that work in its relation to Jesus Christ Himself, and especially to His death and resurrection.

But the work of the Holy Spirit does not end there, for the risen and ascended Christ received of the Father the gift of the Holy Ghost and shed forth the gifts of the Spirit on men. The ultimate purpose of this giving of the Spirit can be described in many ways, just as spiritual gifts may take many different forms for different detailed ends. But at bottom it all comes back to what Paul described as a being made conformable to Christ (Romans 12, 2; Philippians 3, 10-11), a participation in His death and resurrection. It is in fact the office of the Holy Spirit, by the word of the Gospel, to bring about in us the dying to sin and the rising again to righteousness which is our individual entry into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now this is what baptism signifies on its secondary but very necessary personal or subjective side. We cannot divorce it from the substitutionary death and resurrection of Christ or it has no meaning. We must not give to it the primary emphasis, for it is only because Christ has already died and risen again in the Spirit that we can be buried with Him and walk in newness of life. But all the same, as Christ died and rose again for us, by the same Spirit we ourselves must and can die and rise again with Him. This personal dying and rising again with Christ is brought out in baptism by the fact that it is the individual ‘I’ who is brought under the water of baptism and brought out again from the water to newness of life. Baptism is not just any baptism but my baptism. It is the individual entry into the dying and rising again of Christ of whom each one can say with Paul that He ‘loved me, and gave Himself for me’ (Galatians 2, 20).

This dying and rising again with Christ finds its first concrete and conscious expression in conversion, in the movement of repentance and faith which is the turning away from the old life of sin and the turning to the new life of righteousness. It is here that we come up against the real objection to infant baptism. For even if baptism is not primarily a confession of faith, even if its first testimony is to the purpose of the Father and the substitution of the Son, is it not still true that it witnesses to the inward operation of the Spirit which involves a personal identification? And does that not mean that although God may will the salvation of infants and declare their covenant status, although Christ died and rose again to accomplish that salvation, there is still no point in administering what is also a sacrament of personal identification until there is at least some evidence or expression of individual repentance and faith?

The conclusion is a plausible one for two reasons. First, there is no doubt that where the Gospel is preached to pagans, a definite conversion, or a profession of conversion, must precede baptism. But we have to remember that in these cases there will not otherwise be any desire for baptism. Second, it cannot be disputed that where baptism is administered prior to individual repentance and faith, it does often give rise to formalism and a false security which may easily destroy genuine Christianity. This is especially the case in sacramentalist systems where the opus operatum is supposed to be the individual regeneration of the recipient rather than the substitutionary death and resurrection of Christ. But even on a genuinely evangelical view the necessity of personal identification with Christ may sometimes be obscured. For that reason we must always be grateful to the baptist witness with its tremendous emphasis upon the aspect of personal decision. Indeed, it was perhaps a pity that the historical churches did not find a place for that witness within the common life of the community.

Yet that is not the end of the story, for even in the personal application we are not dealing primarily with the individual confession or consciousness of faith but with the regenerative activity of the Holy Spirit. The instructive example of Cornelius is a warning to us in this connection. For in the case of Cornelius the Holy Spirit descended in visible power, yet there is no mention of the orthodox process of repentance and faith followed perhaps by a special consecration for spiritual infilling (Acts 10, 44f). The point is this, not that repentance and faith are sometimes unnecessary, but that we cannot either control or altogether understand the underlying operation of which repentance and faith are the effect and expression. ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit’ (John 3, 8). It is this regenerative work of the Spirit which is the thing signified in baptism.

The bearing of this is fourfold. In the first place, a consciousness and confession of faith are not always the same thing as the regenerative work of the Spirit. The point need not be laboured, for we have already touched on it, and it is clear enough in itself. But it is sufficiently important to deserve a fuller mention. The Bible itself warns us, and Christian history bears it out, that there is such a thing as a purely human faith which can be induced by purely human methods: propaganda, eloquence, personalities, and the like. People can have a vivid consciousness of this type of faith and be moved to make a Christian profession. Like the tare of the parable, such a faith may often be indistinguishable from the good seed of a true faith. But it is not regeneration, as the final harvest will prove. And in spite of his consciousness and confession, the one who has it does not have the thing signified in baptism, which is the inward work of the Holy Ghost.
Second, and on the same lines, we must be careful not to think of the faith humanistically, as though it were a natural work of the human mind and will and emotions. If we analyze faith, we shall find that it is this. But the real secret of faith has still eluded us. We penetrate this secret when we turn to the Bible and find that genuine faith in Jesus Christ is the gift and work of God (Cf. Matt. 16, 17; I Corinthians 12, 3). Neither grace, salvation, nor faith is of ourselves: it is all the gift of God (Ephesians 2, 8). But the gift and work of God by the Holy Ghost are supernatural. They express themselves in terms of the human mind and will and emotions, but at the back of these things there is the incalculable factor which is the Holy Spirit. It is not to the human aspect, the consciousness and confession of faith, that witness is made in baptism, but to the sovereign operation of the Spirit.

This leads us to the third and vital point, that we have no right simply to say that our consciousness and confession of faith is the beginning of the genuine inward work of the Spirit. It may be true enough that in adults the initial work of dying and rising again with Christ takes place only when there is a conscious identification with Christ in repentance and faith. But even then the Holy Spirit has often begun His regenerative work long before. In the momentary thrill of conversion we are often impatient at much of the preceding instruction which we failed to understand, and we are therefore blind to the earlier ‘pricks’ of the Spirit. But as we grow older and wiser we see that after all the Holy Spirit was working in us long before we ourselves were aware of it. During the whole time that we were in touch with the word of God we were under the regenerative witness of the Spirit. During the whole time that prayer was offered for us we were being formed and fashioned by the Spirit. To borrow an image from the incarnation itself, there was a conception and growth in the Spirit before our actual birth of the Spirit. In many cases this conception dates right back to our infant baptism when the prayer of the minister and sponsors and congregation is made for this work of the Spirit within us. In this sense regeneration begins even though the new birth itself is not until ten, fifteen, twenty, perhaps even seventy years later.

So long as an infant stands within the covenant, under prayer and the word, it is, therefore supremely fitting that baptism should be administered from the very first, for baptism is the sacrament of the regenerative work of the Spirit, not of my consciousness and confession of faith. It is the sacrament of my faith only in so far as this is a first effect and expression of the underlying operation of the Spirit.

There is also the final point that since faith is the supernatural work of the Spirit it can be present even when there is no normal consciousness of it. One of the favourite arguments of sixteenth century anabaptists was that infants cannot have faith because they have no conscious life and faith demands self-awareness. Luther had an answer to this argument even on its own rationalistic level, that if there cannot be faith without self-awareness we are none of us believers when we are asleep. But there are two more scriptural answers. In the first place faith is not the work of flesh and blood but of the sovereign Spirit, who does not find it an impossible task to reveal the things of God to babes. Indeed, as Luther also pointed out, it is no more a miracle for the Spirit to work in the unresisting hearts of infants than it is for Him to work in the self-opinionated and sin-hardened hearts of adults. For adults, too, are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2, 1). Only the rationalistic mind of unbelief can say that it is impossible for the Spirit not only to begin His work in infants but if He wills to lead them to a faith of which they will not have the awareness until later. The sovereign Spirit laughs at this kind of impossibility, just as He laughs at the impossibility of the virgin birth or the resurrection of the dead. Regeneration and faith are always a miracle of sovereign grace and power, so that if we are thinking in rationalistic terms we shall always be forced to cry out with Mary or Nicodemus: ‘How can these things be?’ (Luke 1, 34; John 3, 4-9) The answer is still the same. They are impossible to man, but with ‘God nothing shall be impossible’ (Luke 1, 37).

But second, this is not merely an impossibility which God can do. It is an impossibility which He does do, as we see from irrefutable scriptural examples. In the Old Testament, for instance, God Himself says concerning Jeremiah: ‘Before thou camest forth from the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations’ (Jeremiah 1, 5). The case of John the Baptist in the New Testament is if anything even more explicit:
‘He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb (Luke 1, 15). Even Paul, who had had so vivid a conversion experience, was conscious that he had in effect been separated from his mother’s womb, (Galatians 1, 5) so that if he had been the child of Christian parents there would have been no real incongruity in his infant baptism. What is established by these examples is that the Spirit both can and does work in unconscious infants. No doubt they were special instances, and the work was a special work. But all the work of the Spirit is a special and miraculous work, so that in the so-called normal instances a regenerative work in infants is not precluded. If there is the prayer of faith, there is no reason not to expect Him to do or to begin that work, according to His sovereign disposing. Certainly the sign of that work cannot be withheld on the ground of the alleged impossibility of the thing signified.

The discussion of these points has taken us rather far from the main theme of our being made conformable to Christ. But if it has established the sovereignty of the Spirit in relation to the beginning of that work it has served a useful purpose. For it has shown us that where there is a Christian background it is unnecessary and foolish to try to insist on a link in time between conscious conversion on the one hand and the activity of the Spirit and therefore the sign of that activity on the other. We must now return to our main theme, and in so doing we shall see that baptism as a sign of the sovereign work of the Spirit has a significance which goes far beyond the initial movement of repentance and faith with which it is often almost exclusively associated.

 

>> Chapter 7 - The Scope of Baptism

 

 

 

 

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