Baptism: Entrance into God’s Visible People
Though some may believe that Presbyterians’ understanding of baptism is somewhat complex, it actually is rooted in the larger story of what God is doing in this world through his people. The sign of baptism is rooted in God’s larger unchanging purpose in human history. From the very beginning, God has been redeeming a people for his own possession for his own glory. While God certainly calls individuals, from the very beginning, he has especially emphasized the relationship of federal heads and their households and their place within his larger and unchanging purpose of redemption. Thus, human history began with Adam and his household; with Abel and Cain and their households; and particularly, with Abraham and his household.
God made a covenant with Abraham, promising “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). And in order to seal that promise, God gave Abraham a sign—circumcision, which was to be administered to Abraham and to all the males in his household. This sign was a promise, a reminder, and a community marker that always went with Jewish males that God had promised to be God to them. Circumcision also served as the initiatory rite into the body of those who profess to be God’s people. The content of the promise that God made to Abraham—"to be God to you and your offspring after you"—remained the same throughout the Old Testament. Each father was charged with instructing his household in the meaning of circumcision—the need to have one’s heart circumcised by God, the need to claim the covenant promises by faith in the coming Redeemer of God’s elect and to repent of sins.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Peter makes plain that the content of God’s promise has not changed—God promises to be a God to us and our households (Acts 2:38-39). What changed was the form and subjects: whereas in the Old Testament, circumcision was applied to males in the household, in the New Testament baptism was applied to all who profess faith in the Redeemer of God’s people as well as their households. For example, in Acts 16, household heads Lydia and the Philippian jailer believe and their entire households are baptized. The reason such household baptisms were appropriate was this household logic that was operative in the Old Testament is still in operation in the New. Our children are set apart (“holy”) in God’s sight because we as household heads profess faith in God (1 Corinthians 7:14); as a result, it is right to extend to them the sign that they belong to God’s visible people. This sign seals God’s promise to our children, reminds our children of God’s promise, and marks them off from the world as belonging to God.
In this New Testament era, as household heads, we are called to instruct our children in the meaning of their baptism, to urge them to embrace God’s promise in Jesus Christ by repenting of their sins and professing faith in him, and to improve their baptism at every opportunity. And God’s work of redemption is extended when God’s purpose in our households is fulfilled—when the children of the household leave their father’s house and establish their own households, professing repentance and faith, embracing Jesus Christ to whom the signs pointed, dedicated to raising godly offspring for God’s glory.
This understanding of baptism is rooted in a particular understanding of the church as a visible people. Presbyterians believe that the visible church is made up of professing believers and their children. In other words, the ideal of a “regenerate church membership” is an unbiblical ideal because it makes too direct a connection between the visible people of God and the body of those God has chosen from the beginning to the end of time. Those who are in charge of admitting people to the Lord’s Supper have no way of ascertaining who is regenerate and who is not. All we have are individuals’ professions of faith. Now, elders do their best to investigate those professions of faith, to insure that they are credible and sincere. And we do believe, in a judgment of charity, that these professions of faith are genuine and represent a true spirituality reality. Still, that is a long way from saying that the visible church’s membership is to be restricted to those only whom we deem to be truly elect and genuinely regenerate.
Once our view of who makes up the visible church shifts, our understanding of baptism as a sign of initiation into the visible church shifts as well. Suddenly, baptism moves from being our act of testifying that we are following Jesus in obedience to God’s act of initiating us into the visible people of God. As a result, it is properly administered to those who are making professions of faith as well as their children, because God’s promise is offered to both us and our children (Acts 2:39).