But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women…Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. (Acts 8:12,17)
Today we will discuss baptism and its relationship to saving faith. Since Presbyterians and the Continental Reformed baptized their infant children, many misunderstand this to mean that for them baptism imparts some kind of efficacious grace simply by the water going on. Therefore, they see a disconnect: how can someone who is not elect receive the grace of regeneration, faith, forgiveness of sins, etc.?
However, this is not the belief of paedobaptists (those who baptize children of believers). As the Westminster Confession of Faith says:
V. Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
VI. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, 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 belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.
What does this mean? I am fond of saying – and I hope my meaning is not misunderstood because this is a complex subject – that we receive these graces in baptism but not necessarily at baptism. Baptism is the sacramental – meaning, it points toward – of those graces (in baptism) but one does not receive those graces just because water went on (at baptism). Certainly, that can happen according to the will and purpose of God. However, we do not make it a necessary cause of those graces. Calvin in his commentary on our passage today helps to explain what the confession says:
It appeareth plainly, by this example of Simon that all men have not that grace given them in baptism, which grace is there figured. The opinion of the Papists is this, That unless mortal sin be the cause of let, 506 all men receive the truth and effect with the signs. So that they attribute unto the sacraments magical force, as if they did profit without faith, But let us know that the Lord offereth to us by the sacraments, whatsoever the annexed promises do sound; 507 and that they are not offered in vain, so that 508 being directed unto Christ by faith, we set [seek] from him whatsoever the sacraments do promise. And although the receiving of baptism did profit him nothing then, yet if conversion followed afterward, as some men suppose, the profit was not extinguished nor abolished. For it cometh to pass oftentimes that the Spirit of God worketh afterward after a long time, that the sacraments may begin to show forth their force. 509
-Calvin, Commentary on Acts 8
As we see in the passage in Acts, there were some who did not receive the power of the Holy Spirit in baptism. It is for this reason we say that baptism does not confer ex oprere operato (from the work worked) the grace we receive in baptism. What we receive are the promises of regeneration, of faith, of salvation, and we are “directed unto Christ by faith” to seek those promises.
This is important for all believers to consider. Too often, we seek to set our assurance in our baptism (I was baptized that means I’m going to Heaven!) or in a prayer we prayed years ago. No. God uses His sacraments to show forth the promise the He will be our God, and we will be His people. His Spirit working in the hearts of His covenant children will, according to God’s time and appointed purpose, bring all those whom He has called to Himself.
Therefore, may baptism be a sign to you that God is faithful to the promises He has given in His word. And lest you be presumptuous, remember that He has told someone to depart from Him because He never knew them (Mat 7:23). Cling to Christ, and Him alone, for our salvation.