How Infant Baptism Works

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

This morning your letter arrived about your forthcoming debate on infant baptism in Christian doctrine class. At first I wondered why your tone seemed so panic-stricken, but then I realized that your assignment is merely a week away. It seems that procrastination remains a time-honored tradition at my alma mater.

You probably know the main arguments for infant baptism. And if you don't, there are plenty of books that handle the proof texts ably enough. Be sure to check with the reference librarian.

While it is important to be armed with the biblical rationale, don't expect it to convince many people, because these arguments are rarely won by a battle of proof texts. Most of those who eventually embrace the logic of infant baptism do so after stepping back and seeing the broader picture of the covenant of grace in the unfolding of redemptive history. Here is where dispensationalist tendencies usually start to unravel, and the corporate dimension of baptism dissolves American attachments to individualism.

Even so, my experience is that many Presbyterians appear to have little confidence in the efficacy of baptism, infant or adult. The reason, it seems, is that we have misguided assumptions about what baptism is and how it is supposed to work. Baptism is not a pledge of loyalty to God, either by the recipient or the parents. And of course, baptism does not automatically save anyone. But it still works, in at least two important senses.

As you remember from the catechism, baptism is a sign (or picture) and seal (or guarantee) of the covenant of grace. Thus, baptism is God's work; he establishes the covenant with its accompanying signs. Like the written and the preached word, baptism as God's visible word is his self-revelation, and God's word never returns to him empty. As covenant revelation, it comes to us with "dual sanctions." It will produce either a blessing or a curse, either as a means of grace or as a means of judgment.

In the Old Testament, Isaac and Ishmael each received the sign of the covenant (circumcision), as did Jacob and Esau. In all four cases, their circumcision "worked." Similarly, baptism is effectual, both when it is received by faith and when it is rejected by apostasy. The church that administers God's means does not only bless his people. It is also in the business of executing his judgment: it pronounces excommunication on those who do not make their baptism their own.

So will a baptized child confess the faith and "live" his or her baptism—or prove to be a covenant breaker? Of course, we don't know. But we don't know whether the profession of faith made by an adult before baptism will prove genuine either. Either way, baptism will work in the sense of blessing or cursing.

As true as this is, it seems to offer little comfort. But there is a second sense in which infant baptism works, and you might find this useful in debate. Often when Reformed young people hear spectacular conversion stories that result in faith and baptism, they are tempted to view their own experience as inadequate by comparison. Because we don't have a crisis moment of decision, we wonder whether our faith is genuine. I suspect you feel this way, judging by your prediction that you will lose the debate.

What you need to do is to turn that argument on its head. If you have not had extraordinary experiences like some of your classmates have had, it is because the Holy Spirit has worked in you in a quiet way. Our Reformed heritage teaches us to consider this an asset rather than a liability. There is no disadvantage in failing to remember your baptism. Consider this analogy as a debating point: do you remember when you learned to walk? Do you remember when you couldn't walk? Of course not: you have been walking as long as you can remember. So, will you wake up tomorrow and suddenly despair that you are unable to get up and walk to class? On the contrary, your failure to remember when you could not walk only undergirds your confidence in your present walking ability.

You should regard baptism in the same way. You do not remember a day when you did not belong to your faithful Savior. That is because God has nourished and strengthened you gradually over the course of many years. Reformed piety works in us in this gradual way. We receive it little by little, through the growth of years. It is the fruit of the Spirit, not the spectacular conversion story, that we are called to cultivate.

Finally, let me encourage you to be patient with your opponents. After all, there was once a time when you yourself did not take to infant baptism, either. I was in attendance when you were given the sign and seal two decades ago, and boy, did you holler and scream.


Uncle Glen

"Glen Roberts" is a pseudonym shared by two prominent ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2008.

New Horizons: November 2008

Every Spiritual Blessing - Thank Offering 2008

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