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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




The two sacraments are now to be severally explained, and in this chapter the ordinance of baptism is to be considered. This leads to a subject about which, since the Reformation, there has been more controversy than even during that great period. The controversy has in recent times been chiefly in regard to the proper mode of baptism, and in reference to the subjects who should be baptized. The two questions, therefore, are: Is immersion of the person under water necessary to valid baptism? and should the children of professed believers be baptized ? It is interesting to note the fact that at no point in the Standards is there any controversy upon the subject, or any discussion of a controversial nature upon the questions above stated. In giving a strict creed statement, the Standards very properly avoid all controversy in their positive statements of the doctrines. The results are given in a clear doctrinal form, as that which is to be accepted and believed in each case.

There is one point in the controversy that has arisen about baptism which it may be well to notice at the outset of this chapter. This point relates to the actual fact in regard to the discussion and vote upon the mode of baptism in the Westminster Assembly. The statement is often made, that affusion or sprinkling, as against immersion, was made the doctrine of the Confession by a vote of only one. This is not the fact, as Mitchell's excellent account of the actual debate, based upon the Minutes of the Assembly, clearly shows. The question debated by the Assembly was not affusion, as against immersion, but it was as to whether immersion should be acknowledged to be a valid mode of baptism at all. At the close of the debate the result of the vote was that by a majority of one it was decided that immersion may be regarded as valid baptism, but that baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling, that is, by affusion. This is a very important fact to remember.

In setting forth in an orderly manner the doctrine of the Standards upon this important subject there are two distinct, though closely-related, questions to be considered. The one is as to the proper mode, the other is as to the rightful subjects, of baptism. A single chapter must include the discussion of both.

I. The Mode of Baptism.
In dealing with this question there are also two aspects of it to be considered. The one relates to the real nature of baptism, and the other to the proper mode for its observance. What is baptism, and how should it be administered ? Here, too, a very important distinction noted in the last chapter again appears. This is the difference between the application of the sign, and the experience of the grace. Baptism with water is one thing, and baptism with the Spirit is another thing, though there is, as was seen, a close and intimate bond between them. The former is the sign applied, while the latter is the grace experienced. The question as to the nature of baptism relates to the latter, and to the relation between the two aspects of baptism just noted. The question as to the mode of baptism pertains to the former, and to the way in which the sign should be applied. It is evident that the former of these questions is far more important than the latter; and it is rightly so regarded in the Standards. Moreover, the clear understanding of the nature of baptism will go far to decide the question of the proper mode. First, then, some things must be said in regard to the nature of baptism.

1. The nature and design of baptism now claims attention. Under this twofold heading several factors made prominent in the Standards will be gathered up.

First, Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained or instituted in his church by Jesus Christ, to be continued to the end of time. As a sacrament, it has all the qualities described in the preceding chapter. As pertaining to the New Testament, it takes the place of circumcision in the Old. It pertains to the church, and it can only be observed by, or in relation to, the visible church. It is instituted therein by Jesus Christ, who is the mediator of the covenant of grace, the redeemer of his people, and the head of his church. It is to be administered only by a regularly ordained ministry, and is to be observed on to the end of the world and the consummation of all things.

Secondly, Baptism is the badge of the solemn admission of the baptized person into the visible church, so that those who are baptized are thereby admitted into membership therein. This aspect of the subject may be viewed in a twofold way. The Spirit's baptism first unites the person to Christ, and thereby makes him a member of the invisible church, while water baptism is the outward initiatory rite of admission into the visible church. The latter is what is chiefly under notice in this paragraph.

It is to be observed, also, that according to this view of baptism, it sustains a somewhat different relation to adults than it does to infants. In the first case, water baptism is simply their solemn admission into the visible church, upon their profession of faith in Chirst. But in the second case the ground upon which the infant seed of believers are baptized is the covenant relation of their parents. On this ground the birthright privileges of the infant seed of believers, through the covenant relation of their parents, is recognized by their baptism, and it supplies the faith-ground for the administration of baptism to them. In both cases, therefore, water baptism may be regarded as the formal initiation into the visible church, just as the Spirit's baptism is the condition of admission into the invisible church.

Thirdly, Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, and particularly of our engrafting into Christ, of our regeneration by his Spirit, and of the remission of sins by his blood. This phase of the nature of baptism really raises the question of its design or meaning, and water baptism in its relation to the Spirit's baptism is the particular point in view. In regard to what is meant by baptism being a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, reference need only be made to what was said in the last chapter upon this point. Water baptism is the outward and sensible sign of certain spiritual benefits provided for in the covenant; and it is also the seal of the covenant, supplying its divine warrant, and constituting it the divine channel by which the grace signified by the sign is actually conveyed by the Spirit under the proper conditions. The particular thing signified and sealed is union with Christ, and all that this union implies. This union is described in a twofold way here, as elsewhere, in the Standards, and it is really the same thing as that denoted by effectual calling, and fully explained in an earlier chapter. The two things alluded to are spiritual union with Christ, and the renewal of the nature. The phrase "engrafting into Christ," used in the Shorter Catechism, very properly denotes the first of these things, but it scarcely does justice to the second. The Confession and the Larger Catechism are much more complete upon this point than the Shorter. They speak of regeneration, of the remission of sins, and of resurrection unto everlasting life, as all signified by baptism. Hence, the Standards, taken in all their parts, teach that water baptism signifies and seals our union with Christ, our regeneration by the Spirit, the remission of our sins, and our being raised to newness of life in Christ. All of these things are the result of the Spirit's work in us. Perhaps the briefest form in which the truth could be stated here would be to say that water baptism signifies and seals the work of the Holy Spirit in us, thereby applying the benefits of Christ to us. This is the all-important inward spiritual fact which baptism by water signifies and seals. The Spirit is the agent who unites the soul to Christ, and at the same time regenerates the soul, takes away its sin and gives it a new life, and then the application of water signifies and seals these things. This may be regarded as one of the most important features of this whole subject, and one, moreover, where the statement of the Shorter Catechism can scarcely be regarded as complete. But the teaching of the Confession and the Larger Catechism fully supplements this defect, and gives very adequate instruction upon the subject.

Fourthly, There are several other facts mentioned in the Standards in regard to the nature of baptism which may be set down together, under the general heading of baptism being our engagement to be the Lord's. Baptism, as it denotes the inward cleansing of our nature by the washing of regeneration, also signifies the outward remission of our sins by his blood. In connection with this, our giving up of ourselves unto God, through Christ, to walk in newness of life, is properly implied. The Larger Catechism, further, makes baptism signify our adoption and our resurrection unto life everlasting by Jesus Christ. These facts all follow from the deeper fact of our union with Christ, and the renewal of our nature in connection therewith. Those who are united with Christ, regenerated, and justified, are adopted into the household of faith, and they also experience a true spiritual resurrection from a death in sin to a life of holiness or newness of life. These passages do not mean merely death, burial, and resurrection with Christ, but they express facts which are involved in our union with Christ, which is effected by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Hence, when we are united with Christ we are identified with him in all the experiences through which he passed. Thus we die with him, we are crucified with him, we are buried with him, we are raised up together with him, we live with him, and we are finally raised with him to the heavenly places. All these are great and glorious facts, but they have meaning to us only because of our union with Christ, which union is effected for us by our engrafting into Christ, which is brought about by the great husbandman, the Holy Spirit. The outward formal sign or expression of this union and all that it implies is baptism with water, and on our part we thereby enter into a solemn engagement to be the Lord's only and wholly. In this way an outward badge of distinction is placed upon all those who are baptized. They take the oath of allegiance to Christ.

2. The mode or manner of baptism next engages careful attention. In general, baptism is a washing with water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. In this very brief statement several things are to be observed.

First, The formula or divine authority for the ordinance is here announced. It is to be administered in the name, and by the authority, of the triune Jehovah. This statement also indicates the element to be used in baptism. It is to be water only, without any of the unscriptural additions which Home introduces, such as the use of salt, and the anointing with oil. Water is an exceedingly appropriate element for the purpose to be served. For, as water is the element used in cleansing, so it is a fit sign for spiritual cleansing, and as water is an important condition of life, so it suitably denotes that newness of life to which we are raised by our union with Christ. At this stage baptism is said to be a washing with water, without reference to the quantity of water to be used, or to the precise manner of its application. It is not at this point said that any particular mode is absolutely necessary to the validity of the washing here described. It is not positively asserted that the water must be applied in any definite way, though it does say that the water is to be applied to the person, and not the person to the water. Later on in the exposition clearer teaching as to the proper mode will emerge.

Secondly, While the Catechisms content themselves with this simple statement that baptism is a washing with water, the Confession speaks more definitely, and yet in a very cautious way, regarding the mode of baptism. It says that the dipping of the person under water is not necessary, but that baptism is properly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person baptized. This passage does not teach absolutely that dipping or immersion is in no circumstances to be regarded as valid baptism, but the statement is simply to the effect that it is not necessary, and that baptism is properly administered without it. It is very important to note this with care in the controversy about the mode of baptism. The debate is not so much whether sprinkling or immersion is the valid mode of baptism, but whether immersion is needed to constitute valid baptism. From the position of the Standards it can be argued that it is not necessary, and those who attack this position undertake to argue that immersion of the whole person in water is necessary to valid baptism, and this means that immersion only is baptism. Such being the case, those making this attack are bound to show under all the proofs adduced, such as those from the terms used, from the early church practice, from the history of the church, and from the great creeds, that immersion only is the mode, or was alone practised, before they have made out their case. Hence, they do not succeed in their attack even if they do find immersion under any of their heads of proof, for they must show that immersion only existed, or is commanded. On the other hand, the position of the Standards may be maintained, even though immersion as well as affusion was practised, or is the meaning at times of the terms used in regard to baptism. As a matter of fact, more than this can be done from the position of the Standards, but it is important to understand clearly the logical status of the controversy.

Thirdly, As already noticed, the Standards do not enter upon any controversy, and consequently none of the arguments by which their position is supported are presented. It may, however, be of some value to have the mere heads of the proofs of the doctrine of the Standards in regard to the mode of baptism set down at this point. Only the leading proofs are noted in bare outline.

First, The words baptize and baptism used in the Scriptures are not modal words. This means that they are not words which in themselves denote the mode in which anything is done. They simply denote the end, result, or state reached, but they do not indicate the means by which this is attained. Just as the word bury does not denote whether the dead body is put under the ground, or in a vault, or beneath the waters of the sea; so the word baptize, so far as the mere word is concerned, does not indicate whether baptism is to be by affusion or by immersion. All that it signifies is that the result attained by baptism is secured. The fact that the translators of our English Bible did not really translate the word baptize, but simply Anglicized it, fully confirms this view, and means much in this connection. The words by their own clear meaning do not prove that immersion only is valid baptism.

Secondly, The element is always, according to the Scriptures, applied to the subject, and never the subject to the element. This is the uniform usage of the Scriptures, and the Greek prepositions are of the utmost importance in relation to this proof. Baptism is always said to be by, or with, water, and this very usage confirms the position of the Standards. The immersionist reasonings turn things upside down at this point, and play havoc with the Greek language.

Thirdly, The practice of the early church and the testimony of church history support the view of the Standards. In the New Testament age, the household baptism, and the large number of baptisms, can be better explained from the position of the Standards than from any other, and there are serious practical difficulties in the immersionist theory in every case. In regard to the baptism of the eunuch, it is enough to say that it was not the going into the water, nor the coming up out of it, that constituted baptism, but what was done when they were both in the water, otherwise both were baptized, for the language thus applied is precisely the same concerning both.

Fourthly, The fact that the Holy Spirit is always in Scripture represented as poured out upon those who receive his benefits has great force in determining the proper mode of baptism. The uniform usage of both the Old and the New Testaments is to the effect that the Spirit comes upon those who are the subjects of his operations. Never once is there language to be found which can be construed to mean that the subject of the Spirit's influences is immersed in the Spirit. The very idea is absurd, if not almost profane. This must ever stand as a fatal objection to the immersionist doctrine and practice, and it can only be made to appear even plausible by denying that baptism signifies the Spirit's work in us. Such are some of the great lines of reasoning by which the doctrine of the Standards can be most abundantly established.

II. The Subjects of Baptism.
The question as to those who ought to be baptized yet remains. The teaching of the Standards is very plain upon this subject. It is stated in both a negative and a positive way. Negatively, it is not to be administered to any who are out of the visible church till they profess their faith in Christ and their obedience to him. This relates to unbap-tized adults, and to the infants of those who do not profess faith in Christ. Positively, all those who do profess faith in, and obedience to, Christ are to be baptized. This includes not only adults making this profession, but also the infants of such as are members of the visible church, and so have professed faith in Christ. This is true when either one or both of the parents are in professed covenant with the Lord in the visible church. But some details may now be given.

1. In regard to adult baptism, the Standards teach the propriety of this in cases where it was not administered in infancy. Hence, adult baptism is taught as clearly in the Standards as anywhere else. Of course, in an ideal state of the church visible, such baptisms could not be numerous, for the majority of the people would be baptized in their infant years. Such adult baptisms would be in the case of those who come into the church from the world without, whose baptism is based upon their own profession of faith in Christ.

2. But the infants of families where one or both of the parents are professed members of the visible church are to be baptized. The ground for this is the promise of the covenant, which includes the seed of those who are in covenant with the Lord. This is the plain statement of the Standards. This teaching of the Standards also forbids the baptism of the children of those who do not profess to be in covenant with the Lord, and it enjoins the baptism of those whose parents are in confessed covenant with God in Christ. The duty and privilege of parents in this connection are very important. The Confession has some very careful words in regard to the efficacy of this sacrament. Its teaching runs in two directions. The first statement is that grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed to baptism as that no person can be regenerated without it, or all who are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated and saved. The reference is to water baptism, and the teaching of the Standards simply is that such baptism is not absolutely essential to salvation. What is necessary to salvation is the true baptism of the Spirit, which unites us to Christ and renews our nature. But important as baptism with water is, and close as is the sacramental union between the sign and the grace, yet it is not so important that those who are not baptized may not be saved in some instances.

The other statement bears specially upon infant baptism, and it is to the effect that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of time at which it is administered. It may be delayed for a long time in some cases; still, by the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conveyed by the Holy Ghost, to those, whether of adult years or in infancy, to whom this grace belongs, according to his appointed time. This implies that the benefit is not in the ordinance itself, but in the agency of the Holy Ghost, and it depends upon the sovereign will and grace of God, who sends the Spirit how and when he pleases. Hence, in some cases baptism and union with Christ may come almost together, and in other cases, perhaps the majority, it may be after baptism, a longer or a shorter time, that union with Christ and the new birth are experienced in the case of those baptized in infancy. Still, in the end, on the basis of the covenant, both parents and children have good reason to expect the grace which the sign signifies.

4. The proofs for infant baptism, though not given in the Standards, may very properly be set down at this point in the briefest possible outline.

First, Infants were in the Old Testament connected with the visible church, and they received circumcision as the sign and seal of their covenant relationship, through their parents. As a matter of fact, this is admitted on all hands.

Secondly, There is no command in the New Testament to exclude them from the church under the Christian dispensation. If any such direction had been given by divine authority, it would surely have been found in the Scriptures. And if any attempt had been made to enforce such a prohibition upon the Jewish converts, they would have been sure to have raised opposition. Of these things there is no hint in the Scriptures, nor does the history of the early church contain any allusions which imply the exclusion of infants of professed Christians from the visible church. Hence, there is good ground to conclude that they are still within its pale, and have a right to its privileges.

Thirdly, Infants are capable of salvation, and hence they are entitled to baptism. They are capable of salvation, otherwise there is no basis for the belief in infant salvation. This simply means that the infant seed of believers may be united to Christ, and regenerated by the Spirit. If this be so, then, surely, they are entitled to receive the sign of this saving relation and experience. Hence, to deny infant baptism is to compel the denial of infant salvation.

Fourthly, The New Testament instances of household baptisms in all probability included infants and children. The language implies this, and the circumstances are largely in favor of this view. The New Testament church, as to its outward form, seems to have largely grown out of the synagogue; and the Jews, who were familiar with its laws and customs, would naturally bring their children to the threshold of the Christian church, as they had done to the Jewish synagogue.

Fifthly, The testimony of church history is decidedly in favor of infant baptism. In the early ages of the church, as in missionary regions at the present day, it is to be expected, in the nature of the case, that there would be many adult baptisms, as large numbers of new converts were brought into the church. But the prevalence of adult baptism in such cases does not prove that infant baptism was not also practiced. Then, all through the history of the church, the baptism of infants was in vogue. Moreover, it does not seem to have been regarded as an innovation, but was observed as the proper scriptural usage in the case. The denial of such baptism is the innovation and the heresy.

5. The improvement of baptism is the closing topic for this chapter. Upon this matter the Larger Catechism alone speaks directly. The needful and much-neglected duty of improving our baptism is to be attended to by us all our life long. Baptism is to be administered but once, but it is to be improved constantly, even unto the end. Especially in time of temptation, and when present at the administration of it to others, we are to make serious and thankful consideration of what baptism really is, of the design for which Christ instituted it, of the privileges and benefits sealed and conferred thereby, and of our solemn vow made by our baptism. The result of this will surely be to greatly cheer us on in the Christian pathway, and to comfort our hearts continually in the service of Christ.

Then, too, baptism is suited to humble us, as we consider our sinful defilement not yet wholly removed, our falling short of, or walking contrary to, the grace signified in baptism, and our solemn engagements made thereby. This will result, under the blessing of God, in our spiritual good, by causing us to grow up to the assurance of the pardon of our sins, and of the possession of all the other blessings sealed to us in our baptism, for we thereby draw strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized by the operation of the Spirit uniting us to him. Further, sin will be mortified and grace will be quickened if we thus improve our baptism. "We shall endeavor to live by faith, and to have onr conversation as becomes the gospel. We will also seek to walk in brotherly love with all those who are Christ's followers, since we are all baptized into one body by the same Spirit. Such are some of the important fruits of the improvement of our baptism.

This whole subject of baptism, especially the matter of infant baptism, deserves very careful study by all Presbyterians. There is a tendency on the part of many who bear the Presbyterian name to regard it as a matter of but little importance whether their children are baptized or not. This is a very dangerous tendency, and it should be most carefully avoided by both ministers and people alike, if they would be loyal to the scriptural doctrine upon this subject, as it is set forth in the Standards, and at the same time be true to the best interests of their children whom they love so well.

At this point emphasis should be laid upon the importance of the family and family worship as well as upon the value of religious training in the home. The breaking down of family life is one of the dangers to which we are exposed at the present day, and earnest attention should be directed to these dangers. To guard against them is a service every Christian should seek to render alike to the church and the nation. Neither the church nor the Sabbath-school can take the place of the religious training of children at the home circle. Each has its place, and they should all unite in seeking the same good end.

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