This past week I spent some time with friends and family at a local campsite. It was relaxing after a week at ETS. I began talking with a friend about the ministry. He’s a baptist and is very involved in his church. He’s a faithful lover of the Gospel and intentional about discipling his children in the Lord. We talk often about our differences in baptism, communion, etc. This particular time we talked about baptism.
He asked me “Why baptize a baby when you don’t know if they have faith?” These questions are honest questions that are asked by sincere Christians. I want to take time to explain in this post is the answer that I gave him because I’m sure there are many others who have similar questions. I would recommend for further reading on this subject The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism.
In Reformed theology we understand the sacraments (baptism and communion) to function as signs and seals of the covenant that we are in as the Church, with Christ as our mediator. Thinking baptism from a Reformed perspective requires understanding the function of baptism. Baptism functions as a sign and a seal of the covenant that we are in. Baptism is an initiatory rite like circumcision. Therefore it is common in this discussion to look at the function of circumcision in the Old Testament and understand how it functioned as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant.
In the Old Testament when God enters into covenants he always gives a sign for that covenant. With Abraham that sign is circumcision. This sign, much like road signs we see today, communicates something. The sign speaks of the words of institution for the covenant, the blessings that come with faithfulness and the sanctions that come with disobedience. There is a careful distinction to keep in mind here. On one hand the sign adds nothing to the promise of God and on the other hand God is not enslaved to work because of the administration of the sign. God is still free to work as He wills. The promise and the content of the sign are real and the content of those promises are only received by faith and not by a work of man, thereby making God a debtor.
Recall briefly the promises contained in the sign of circumcision. God promises to remove the uncleanness for the flesh of those who are obedient. (Dt 30:6) To those who have the sign of the covenant and are unfaithful they are “cut off”. For brevity and clarity, the point I want to make is that there is a promise represented/signified by a sign.
Christians have passed through the waters of baptism and have received the sign of the New Testament covenant. Above in the post I referred to signs and seals. A seal is used in the New Testament as evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 9:2; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13) In Reformed theology it is common to say we “distinguish but don’t separate” the ways the sacraments function as signs and seals.
Baptism is sacrament administered to an individual for entrance into the covenant mediated by Christ. The question therefore is what qualifies someone into this covenant? Is it faith? Clearly not because all we need to do is look at those who were circumcised (Pharisees, Esau, Ishmael, Judas, etc) and they did not have faith in the person and work of Jesus. Ross points out that we can see baptism in the Church similarly. If baptism is a sign of faith, forgiveness of sins, or “outward expression of an inward reality” then it fails at representing that. If baptism were an “outward expression of an inward reality” then there would never be those who fall away from the faith but clearly there are.
If these signs do not signify an existing faith then how does Scripture tell us to see them? Phil 3:9 …not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—
Paul is speaking of a righteousness he has that comes by faith. And the law (circumcision included) does not give righteousness. God gives righteousness through faith.
Circumcision represents the promises of God that “righteousness from God depends/comes through faith”. Circumcision isn’t a statement of the presence of faith in the recipient but a statement of the promises given by God that are received through faith. Similarly baptism does not signify that someone has definitely been forgiven of their sins. Rather it signifies what God has said, that all who believe will be washed from their sins and accounted as righteous before God. It is the visible reminder of God’s promise. In baptism God speaks and we shut our mouths.
Ross, in chapter 5, provides a helpful syllogism to think through this.Major Premise: All who have faith in Christ will be accounted righteous Minor Premise: I have faith in Christ (this is supplied by our own hearts and confirmed by the church through leaders) Conclusion: I am accounted righteous
Baptism serves the Major Premise here. It makes this announcement that all who bear this sign by faith are righteous before God.
So back to the original question. “Why baptize a baby when we don’t know if they have faith?” Implicitly what my friend was doing was turning baptism into our promise. But there is a difference between a sign that signifies someone making a choice and a sign that signifies that someone is bound to a duty. We all come to the baptismal font silent. Simply stated: God speaks in baptism not us.