One of my first memories as a pastor was baptizing my infant son. I remember how special that moment was as I held him in my arms and poured the water over his head. Now I was raised a Baptist, and in many ways the baptism of my son was a clear break with that tradition. But what was being symbolized in that act? What makes baptism so special? Why is it a norm in all churches that call themselves Christian?
From the outset, we begin with the traditional Sunday school answer: Jesus. The Lord Jesus as He prepared to ascend unto heaven gave this command to His apostles, and by extension to the pastors today: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV) The Apostles and Pastors were charged to be disciple-makers, and that the two means of doing so would be baptism and instruction.
In baptism, a person is set apart from the total mass of humanity. In baptism, God makes a distinction between persons. Such individuals who are baptized are forever marked in such a way, that they can never be unmarked. Just as the sign of God’s covenant in the Old Testament was circumcision (Genesis 17), so today God’s covenant sign from the New Testament is water baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). As such, there is an objective dynamic to baptism. Holy Baptism is a sacrament whereby a believer, or their infant, is welcomed into Christ’s church.
We are drawn back to Christ’s words. The ordinary means of disciple-making is by means of baptism and instruction. Baptism is the sign of initiation into God’s covenant people. It is seen as the beginning of the Christian life. However, we must not misunderstand this sacramental sign. Not everyone who receives the sign of baptism (water) receives what it signifies (union with Christ).
Archbishop James Ussher (AD 1581-1656) was an influential theologian in the English Reformation. In his significant work, A Body of Divinity, he helps explain how we ought to understand baptism’s efficacy. Ussher wrote, “Does this Sacrament seal up their spiritual engrafting into Christ to all who externally receive it? Surely no.” What is Ussher saying? Simply, that there are many who receive baptism who have never received what the water signifies: the blood and Spirit of Christ (Titus 3:5). We must not slavishly tie the efficacy of the sacrament (regeneration; justification; adoption, etc.) to the sign.
So is the application of water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit vain? Absolutely not. God makes His promise in the waters of Holy Baptism. There are two distinctions that we must recognize, and again here we turn to Ussher. The first is, that in baptism there is what Ussher calls “general grace” which is that those who receive baptism are brought into the visible church of Christ. They regularly participate in public worship. They regularly witness the visible seals of God’s covenant in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are regularly discipled. They come under the oversight of pastors and elders to shepherd their souls. They are regularly surrounded by Christ’s people to be encouraged, served, and loved. In short, whether they are born again or not, God extends these general gifts to them. To use language common in theology, the members baptized are admitted into the visible church.
But baptism is not meant to merely convey “general grace”, but more. Ussher adds this secondary aspect, which every minister prays for as they pour out the sanctified water. Ussher wrote concerning “special grace” and said, “[Baptism] is always an effectual seal to all those that are heirs of the Covenant of grace: the promises of God touching Justification, Remission, Adoption are made and sealed in Baptism to every elect child of God; then to be actually enjoyed, when the party baptized shall actually lay hold upon them by faith.” Faith is the ordinary means by which these promises sealed to us are made ours.
So regardless of whether Holy Baptism is administered an infant or an adult, as the waters are poured out in the name of the triune God we can celebrate the mercy of God. For the promise persists even to today: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)