/ Westminster Confession of Faith / Richard Holdeman

The Efficacy of Baptism

Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God…  8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:5, 8, ESV)

The Reformed view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper is that these sacraments are more than just symbols that either accompany a profession of faith in the case of baptism or help us remember the sacrifice of Christ in the case of the Lord’s Supper.  The Reformed view is that God actually imparts grace through these sacraments when they are received in faith.  The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers” (WCF 27:3).  The Confession of Faith acknowledges that the sacraments do have a real efficacy.  In other words, that they accomplish something.  Their power, however, does not reside in anything inherent in them or in the minister.  The power is of the Holy Spirit, who works through the sacraments in those who are “worthy receivers” (i.e., those who receive them in accordance with the Word and by faith).

In light of this understanding of the sacraments, it might be puzzling to some of our Baptist friends as to why the Confession also endorses the baptism of covenant infants.  Confession of Faith 28:4 says, “Not only those that do actually profess faith in the obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.”  I am not here making a scriptural case for this position but pointing out what may seem contradictory to what we’ve already said about the power of the sacraments to work.  After all, how can infants receive baptism by faith and how can baptism have efficacy when applied to an infant unless we believe (like Roman Catholics) that the baptism has some inherent power that is conferred automatically?

It’s a fair question, and the answer is related to the way the Westminster Divines viewed the Spirit’s work through the sacrament.  “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, not withstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time” (WCF 28:6).  The Holy Spirit really works through the sacrament of baptism.  Baptism is NOT something we do.  Properly understood, it is something we receive – just like our salvation.  But the Holy Spirit is not constrained to work through baptism only in the moment when it is administered.  The Holy Spirit can impart grace through baptism throughout your life.  You don’t have to be a paedobaptist to embrace this idea.  In a moment of temptation, the Holy Spirit can call your baptism to mind, reminding you that you have been marked off as belonging to Christ and that it is incumbent upon you to obey Christ.  In the same way, the Holy Spirit can use your baptism to bring you under conviction and to faith years after you were baptized.

Just a few weeks ago, I was talking to a young adult woman, who had been baptized as an infant because of the influence of her grandmother.  She was taken to church occasionally after her baptism but was not, in any way, raised in the church.  When she got to college, she felt herself being drawn to begin attending church.  I asked her what role her childhood experiences had in her interest in attending church and her eventual conversion.  She testified that her knowledge of the fact that she had been baptized was significant.  The Holy Spirit used her baptism many years after it happened to draw her to Jesus.  I’ve talked to several others who have a similar testimony.  Baptism marks a person out as belonging to Jesus.  The Spirit can make use of baptism years after it is administered.  This should be true for you no matter when you were baptized.  Your baptism is calling you to be the person you’ve been set apart to be – namely, one who is united by faith to Jesus Christ and is living a life of service to Him in the power of His Spirit.

Richard Holdeman

Richard Holdeman

Called to faith in 1987; to marry Amy in 1989; to coach college hockey in 1992; to have daughters in 1996; to teach at I.U. in 1997; to pastor the Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church in 2005.

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