What is the Presbyterian and Reformed View of Baptism?

What is the Presbyterian and Reformed View of Baptism?

The Reformed view, over against the Baptist view, is that the children of at least one believer should be baptized as well (WCF 28.4). Under the old covenant, children were considered members of the covenant community and were granted the sign of initiation into that covenant, which was circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14). Under the new covenant, the substance of the one overarching covenant of grace has not changed; only the administration has (Col. 2:11–12; WLC 35). Therefore, the children of believers are to receive the sign of initiation, which is now baptism (Acts 2:38–39).

J. Gresham Machen said, “In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.” If Machen is right, and I think he is, then it is because baptism is very important that Christians often disagree about it. To be sure, debates about baptism are intramural, but they help us understand the distinctives of various Christian traditions. In this way, they also help us understand our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Reformed view is summarized in the confessional documents of the Presbyterian and Continental Reformed churches: the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms for the former, and the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort for the latter. These documents lay out a view of baptism that is distinctly different from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist views. This view can be understood under three headings: the meaning of baptism, the recipients of baptism, and the mode of baptism.

The Meaning of Baptism

Baptism is the rite of initiation into the visible church, which consists of all those who possess faith in Christ, along with their children (Acts 2:39; WCF 25.2; 28.1). In administering baptism, the church exercises obedience to Christ’s command to “make disciples . . . baptizing them” (Matt. 28:19).

Baptism is a visible word, a sign act whereby Christ and His benefits are shown forth to believers and applied to them (WCF 27.1). Over against the Baptist view, the Reformed view asserts that something actually happens in baptism—grace is actually conferred to worthy recipients—and over against the Roman Catholic and Lutheran views, the Reformed view asserts that baptism does not regenerate; nor does it work through the automatic efficacy of the sacrament itself or in the precise moment of its administration.

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