Baptism, Salvation

Question
Most of your response on Calvin and baptism was very helpful to me, but the last couple paragraphs confused me even more. I understand that baptism is not only a "sign," but also the "seal" of membership in the covenant community (is that the same thing as the "visible church?"). And I understand that person who is baptized is then accountable to both the blessings and curses of the covenant. And I see how that makes sense for both infants and adults.

But what exactly do you mean when you say that "certain benefits of salvation" or "certain blessings of salvation" are typically applied through baptism? Does that mean the salvation/regeneration/eternal life type of benefits, or the peace/joy/provision type of benefits? Or both?

If you mean the salvation/regeneration/eternal life type of benefits, then that leads to more questions: For someone like Paul (Saul) or Cornelius, didn't they get those blessings before they were baptized? In that case would it be faith, and not baptism, that God used as the means of conveying those blessings? Or did they not really get those benefits until God used baptism to give them to them? Is regeneration conveyed to an infant through baptism, but not realized until faith comes years later?

Also, you seem to indicate that God can use baptism as a means of conveying salvation just as he can use faith as a means of conveying salvation, but he's free to convey salvation with either, both or neither (as per WCF 5:3). But I thought that salvation by grace through faith was the rallying cry of the Reformation. I've always thought that we were saved through faith, not works, and that baptism would be considered a work. I suppose that God could save someone without the means of faith (He can do anything He wants, after all) but that just doesn't seem biblical to me. It just seems that faith as a means of conveying blessings can't be compared to baptism (or communion, or prayers of confession, etc) as a means of conveying blessings. Or can it?

What, then, of the born-again believer who was never taught the importance of baptism, and never "got around to it?" Is he missing out on the peace/joy/provision type of benefits but not the salvation/regeneration/eternal life type of benefits? Or what about the believer who doesn't believe that 1 Jn 1:9 applies to Christians? He may be very open with God about his shortcomings and ask God for help, etc., but he doesn't "confess" his sins as a means of "forgiveness" because he believe that he's already forgiven. What benefits is he foregoing?
Answer
Sorry it's so confusing. The "certain blessings of salvation" phrase was intentionally vague, since Calvin and the Westminster don't say precisely the same thing. According to the Confession, those blessings are pretty broad, including: the covenant of grace; ingrafting into Christ; regeneration; remission of sins; and giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.

I agree that this definition is somewhat problematic. After all, as you point out, people who come to faith before they are baptized are supposed to be regenerated and forgiven already, right? Well, the Confession has a very interesting clause to handle that difficulty: "the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered" (WCF 28.6). How's that for confusing? Basically, it says that baptism is the means by which these blessings come to us, even if we receive the blessings before we are baptized or long after we are baptized. I have to admit that I'm not sold on the idea as stated, and that I think there are other ways to understand the proof texts to which the tenet appeals. For example, I'm not convinced that Titus 3:5 ("he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,") is talking about baptism being a means of regeneration.

At the same time, Paul makes the case that we are baptized into Christ's life and death (Rom. 6:3ff.). It sounds to me like he is talking about baptism as one of the means by which we are united to Christ. If that is the case, then, since all the blessings of salvation that we receive are aspects of our union with Christ, baptism is, in a roundabout way, a means to all the blessings of salvation, not just to those the Confession mentions.

And yes, there is some overlap between the blessings conferred through baptism and those conferred through faith. But it is worth remembering, in this regard, that both Calvin and the Westminster Divines said that the blessings in the sacraments come by means of faith working in the sacraments.

Also, it helps to split a couple hairs. For one thing, the Reformation's slogan sola fide did not assert salvation by means of faith alone, but only justification by means of faith alone. Justification is an aspect of salvation, but it's not the whole thing. For another thing, sola fide was intended to distinguish the Protestant/Reformed doctrine of justification by means of faith alone from the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by means of faith plus meritorious good works. Since baptism's efficacy is tied not to merit in the work but to the Holy Spirit working through faith, it is non-meritorious and therefore doesn't challenge the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For a point of comparison, consider that Jesus said that even faith is a work (John 6:29 "Jesus answered, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'"). But it is a non-meritorious work. God does not reward faith with justification. Rather, faith is simply the means by which he graciously bestows justification upon us.

On the point of people being saved without faith, the Bible is not explicit. For example, it does not specifically state how infants may be saved. By most reckonings, an infant is incapable of faith. If this is true, then infants who are saved are saved by some other means than by faith. Then again, the example of John the Baptist leaping in the womb for joy (Luke 1:44) may indicate that God grants a special awareness and faith to infants he saves. If I recall correctly, Calvin was undecided on this issue. Anyway, the Bible doesn't define what the minimum amount or quality of saving faith looks like. Frankly, I'm not sure the biblical data is complete enough for us to draw hard and fast conclusions on this one. What is clear is that non-meritorious faith is the normal means by which God justifies people.

Now, with regard to people who don't get around to being baptized or who don't confess their sins, the questions are a bit more complicated, but not impossible. Calvin and the Westminster Divines said that we should get baptized because God tells us to do it and because it the normal means God uses to bestow certain benefits on us. In the case of those who despised baptism, Calvin, as I recall, was less than encouraging regarding their salvation. I suspect, however, that he had in mind the person who knows what baptism is and does, and still rejects it. God has a tendency to forgive failures in practice, however, when the heart is right (cf. 2 Chron 30:18-20). At the same time, if we really believe that the means of grace (e.g., the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, prayer) benefit us, then we also have to conclude that, generally speaking, we receive more benefits when we make use of the means of grace than we do when we neglect them.

I think the same is true of confessing our sins. Confession and repentance are normal means God uses to apply forgiveness to us. That doesn't mean that if we fail to confess a sin, God won't forgive it. In the first place, I think 1 John 1:9 is talking about a lifestyle and attitude of the heart rather than about a strict accounting of every sin. In the second place, Jesus and the Holy Spirit both intercede for us, and God can apply forgiveness to us in response to their intercession just as he can apply it to us in response to our confession.

But what about people who deny they have sinned? If they don't think they need a savior, then they are neither forgiven nor saved. But if they do recognize the need for Jesus to save them and simply have poor theology regarding forgiveness, then in the worst-case scenario they are forgiven through the intercession of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. For example, someone might believe that we are forgiven for all sins — past, present and future — when we come to faith, and that to ask for subsequent forgiveness is to belittle the forgiveness we received at conversion. That's bad theology, but not a denial of sin and the need for forgiveness. I would even say that type of grace extends to people who are perfectionists, believing that as Christians they no longer sin. They are wrong, of course, but their fault is that they misunderstand the Bible, not that they deny their need for a savior and not that they don't love the Lord.

But the best situation is the one in which we recognize our continuing sin and appeal to God for forgiveness and cleansing. I suspect that in these cases, our forgiveness and cleansing yields more earthly blessings as well as heavenly. Earthly blessings we might otherwise miss could include: a clearer conscience and peace of mind that God graciously bestows beyond that enjoyed by those who fail to confess; greater purifying by strengthening us to resist that sin in the future; closer experiential intimacy with God; etc. We should also gain greater heavenly rewards for our obedience to the command to repent.

So, in summary, the Bible teaches us that there are often more than one means to an end. Nevertheless, we are to strive to use the means God has commanded. His mercy is wonderful, and it extends to us because he loves us. He will find a way to bless us. But our blessings will sometimes be greater when we are obedient to make use of the normal means he has ordained for us. With regard to baptizing your daughter, I would say you should do it if you think the Bible teaches you to do it, whether or not you fully understand its significance right now. If you think the Bible teaches you not to do it, keep studying until you are convinced otherwise.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.