A common Baptist objection to a Reformed doctrine of baptism is that it applies a sign of spiritual realities to people (infants) who do not have those realities. The Reformed have answered this objection in a variety of ways, but one far-less-than-biblical (hyphens for the Kline fans!) approach is to create a two-tiered doctrine of baptism, in which the church is agnostic about the spiritual state of covenant infants. Baptism means one thing for the adult and another thing for the infant. In this paradigm, for the adult convert or the one who has publicly professed faith, baptism means all the things the Bible says (WCFXXVIII) :
- solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church
- a sign and seal
- of the covenant of grace
- of ingrafting into Christ
- of regeneration
- of remission of sins
- of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life
Yet for the infant under this paradigm, baptism simply means that they are part of the external church and so benefit from more preaching, parental care, and Christian friendships: a "freer free offer" as one has said. A common approach is to say something like, "Baptism says nothing certain about whether this child is to see himself (or we are to see him) as truly in the covenant of grace, united to Christ, regenerate, forgiven, and personally a disciple of Christ. For those things, they need to get saved." And baptism for the covenant infant means only something like:
We raise them to be disciples of Christ in His visible church and we look for fruit throughout their lives--as we do in our own lives. If they do not show signs of saving faith at a particular stage of their growth, we may come to the conclusion that they do not know Christ. However, we always hold the promises and warning before them, give them the Gospel and encourage them to continual faith and repentance. 1
Well enough, but this is far less than the Bible says to those who are baptized. This is really no different than how most Baptists raise their children: they are privileged to be in a Christian family because they get more good stuff, but we ought not say with confidence that God is their Father, Christ died for them, and the Spirit has been given to them.
Let me say this plainly for the heresy hunters: it is true that some who are baptized will one day prove not have true faith, and that the grace of baptism is not automatic or tied necessarily to the time of its administration. That said, the biblical solution to the horror of apostasy is not waiting until a child proves (to our standard!) to be a Christian before we treat him like one. The answer to Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 177 states plainly:
...baptism is ...a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants...
Our approach toward baptized children should be to treat them as what they are according to what God has said of them: Christians. That approach would differ from the pastoral advice above in the following way:
We raise them as disciples of Christ, living members of His visible church, and we rejoice in the fruits of the Spirit in their lives--as we do in our own lives. If we can't see signs of saving faith, we call them to repentance and faith, as we do ourselves. We warn them and ourselves that there is nothing but God's wrath apart from a living faith in Christ. Yet we never despair, but we always believe and plead and act according to God's promise: He is their God and they are his people, Jesus' blood is shed for them, and God has promised to give the Spirit to us and our children and our children's children. This is the good news that creates and sustains in us faith. This is the good news both we and our children need.
There is only one baptism, for us and our children.
P.S. Alan Strange once wrote "Fear of FV, or fear of being considered FV, has prompted some to stake out positions on the opposite end of the spectrum and, particularly, to decry a high view of the sacraments. FV errors should not lead us to respond with Zwinglian views, but with solid, historic, confessional views." I couldn't agree more.