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 Issues | Infant Baptism | Subjects

The Child's Right to Baptism

J. Stafford Wright

 

3. Prayer Book Statements

Baptism must have the same fundamental meaning whether it is applied to adults or to infants. It cannot fundamentally be one thing to an adult and another to an infant. Now baptism neccessarily has prior reference to an adult, since the children are only baptised after the adult has first believed. Therefore, the language of baptism is language normally applied to adults, and that is what we find in the Prayer Book.

In the Prayer Book the blessings of the Gospel are associated with Baptism, the right to these blessings being summed up by the word “Regenerate.”  In this association the Prayer Book is perfectly scriptural. For example in the New Testament there are such statements as Acts 22.16, “Arise, and be baptised, and wash away thy sins.” Romans 6.4, “We are buried with Him by by baptism into death.” Gal. 3.27, “As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ.” 1 Peter 3.21, “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us.”  A number of verses speak of baptism as introducing the recipient into a new state, such as baptising into the name of the Trinity and into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then clearly there is an allusion - if not a reference - to Baptism in Titus 3.5, “He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”

We interpret all these verses in harmony with the rest of the New Testament which speaks of faith as the means of our initiation into the blessings of the Gospel. Yet the fact remains that Baptism also is spoken of as the instrument of blessing. And quite rightly so.

Baptism was definitely commanded by the Lord Jesus, and coupled with faith, as the gateway into into the Christian life.  The natural interpretation of this is that, in the same sense as was circumcision, Baptism is the Covenant made between the Lord and us, in which He openly declares that He gives us the blessing of the Gospel in response to our acceptance of Him and them. Hence from one point of view Baptism can be regarded as securing, or guaranteeing,  the blessings of the Gospel to us.

It is in this sense that the Prayer Book uses the strong terms of Baptism, though it safeguards itself against the misinterpretation hat the mere performance of the act of Baptism is sufficient for salvation. In the Service the godparents are told, “Wherefore, after this promise made by Christ, this Infant must also faithfully, for his part, promise by you that are his sureties (until he come of age to take it upon himself)....” And in the Catechism the child answers, “They promise them both by their Sureties; which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform:

On the assumption that the promises are genuine, the child is baptised, and the full significance of its baptism is declared in the words, “this Child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church.” The words are not intended to be interpreted in an absolute and irrevocable sense any more than they are in the Service of Adult Baptism where they also occur. If the adult has answered the questions falsely, no one would dream of interpreting the words about his regeneration literally.  It is also worth noticing that similar words occur in Calvinistic forms of Service, and that the Calvinists, Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr, both approved of our Prayer Book Service. Yet no Calvinist believes that a child is regenerate because it is baptised.

Infant baptism is claiming for our children the blessings of the Gospel. Whether we are Calvinists or not, we do not believe that God works aimlessly.  If He has sent us a child, we believe that it is His express will and intention that this child should be saved. To believe otherwise would be an insult to God. The child is born within the Covenant, and we mark it with the Covenant sign of Baptism and use the language of faith over it. We do not merely dedicate it, but we boldly take for it all the blessings which God has covenanted to give in Baptism, and we sum up these blessings by the word “Regeneration.” If we are faithful, we look for the earliest possible fulfilment of our prayers. Regeneration has its human side, but in its essence it is the work of the Holy Spirit, and none can set any limits to the age at which the Holy Spirit will regenerate a soul. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb.

It seems reasonable to suppose that it is God’s ideal for a Christian child to grow up to love Him from its earliest years - not that it should grow up dead in sin and need to be converted later in life. But if the child does grow up unconverted, its baptismal blessings are in abeyance. God made the offer, and the transaction was entered into, but one party has failed. But if conversion follows later, then the Covenant and the prayers that accompanied it become operative.

But every Christian, even if he has been converted later on in life, may look upon his baptism as something tremendously solemn. He was claimed as a Christian from his infancy, and God's gift of eternal life was accepted for him. The rite of Baptism was not a mere ceremony, but an entering into covenant relationship with God, whereby the child through its representatives pledged itself to God, and God through the sign which He Himself instituted pledged Himself to the child. This transaction was carried through for all to see in the divinely-appointed sacrament of Baptism.

What then is the relation between Baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit? Baptism is not a magical charm whereby the Holy Spirit can be induced to regenerate the recipient. But it is the contract made with God by those who believe that the blessings of Regeneration, denoted by Baptism, belong to them.  That is to say, if they are adults they believe that the Holy Spirit has so worked in them that He has brought them to Regeneration.  If they are infants, those who bring them believe that they are Christian children, because they have been born within the Christian circle, and that consequently the Holy Spirit is already working in them, and that in the mind and purpose of God their Regeneration is already an assured fact.  In neither case are the candidates saved because they are baptised, but they are baptised because they are actually or potentially saved. This thought comes out clearly in a question to the Christian parents in the Dutch Reformed Baptismal Service: “Do you acknowledge that although your children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to condemnation itself, yet they are sanctified in, and therefore as members of His Church ought to be baptised?”  (Quoted by A Kuyper “Work of the Holy Spirit,” p: 299.)

The parents and godparents may be mistaken in their hopes, just as those who baptise adults may be mistaken in their belief that the candidates are regenerate. But it is hard to believe that a child of true Christian parents will finally die unconverted and unregenerate if the parents have truly claimed it for God, sought for it the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, prayed for it, and brought it up in the ways of God.

One of our grounds of assurance is Baptism. It is God's own pledge to us. If I, as a Christian parent, bring my child to Baptism, I enter into a solemn covenant with God, and accept from Him the grace of Regeneration by His Holy Spirit which He offers. And having entered into the Covenant of Regeneration, what language shall I use?  It would be insufficient to say “This child is dedicated,” or “I hope this child will be regenerate.” I have accepted God's proffered gift for my child, and as a believing Christian I must say, “This child is regenerate.”  I use the language of faith enjoined in Mark 11.24 which runs literally, “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye received them, and ye shall have them.” The how and when of Regeneration we leave to the Holy Spirit, though we dare to hope that the child will know God from its earliest years. But since God Himself has instituted the Sacrament of Baptism, and, as we believe, of Infant Baptism, we are bound to speak of the outward act in terms of what that act signifies, namely the inward working of the Holy Spirit. Later the converted Christian may look back to his Baptism, not as though the mere performance of the rite were a magical charm, but regarding it as God's visible guarantee of his regeneration and all that this involves.

To sum up, then, the Holy Spirit is not tied to the outward act of Baptism any more than He is tied to the outward acts of the Lord’s Supper, or to Bible reading, or to prayer. He may bless us if we never read the Bible, or if we never receive Communion, or if we are never baptised. He will not deny a blessing to our children if we do not bring them to Baptism. But if obedience and faith count at all in the things of the Spirit, we know that there is a special blessing attached to the Baptism of a Christian infant, since in that act obedience and faith are seen at their highest.

 

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