Recently, OHS Scott Clark posted about the Promise of Baptism. While his distinctions between sign and signified, between baptism and union, are true and helpful, I am reminded how much more helpful Kline’s insights into baptism have been for me. (You can hear Kline speak about Baptism in lectures 8 and 9 via this link.)
Most people get too wrapped up in Baptism’s signification of washing. Gone, Kline laments, is the primary symbolism of baptism as judgment; of death-ordeal by water. Perhaps this is because, culturally speaking, the sea is no longer seen widely as a capricious force of destruction and danger. But consider how the Egyptians were baptised in the Red Sea. Or how all but 8 were baptised in the Flood. Or how the prototypical covenant sign of circumcision was literally a “cutting off”.
The concept of judgment also neatly explains the reason why the sinless Christ had to submit to John’s baptism “of repentance”. All prophets were covenant lawyers, and John, the greatest prophet of the Old Covenant, was God’s process server, delivering the final summons before the judgment which was at hand. Those with ears to hear John’s message responded in repentance, except that Jesus had nothing to repent of. Instead, by submitting to the judging waters of baptism, he signified and sealed his coming submission to God’s judgment on our behalf.
And so, returning to the point at hand, what does all this have to do with infant baptism? When a baby is baptised (assuming, ordinarily, that the baby does not have faith), the parents are affirming that it is a child of wrath, subject to the curse of a holy God. Newborns are not as innocent as we would all like to suppose, but (as the WHI crew so charmingly puts it) vipers in diapers. It is not until God’s effectual call regenerates and brings faith that the subjects of baptism are united with Christ in his resurrection (WCF 28.6: “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered”); in the meantime, they are united with Christ only in his death — “dead in their trespasses”.
In terms of this gap, Clark states “That delay doesn’t change the meaning of my baptism.” I (and I think Kline) would disagree. When the Holy Spirit delivers the gift of faith, the signified which is promised by the sign of baptism changes from threat to blessing. The subject of baptism moves from being cut off by his outward circumcision, to membership in true Israel, by virtue of circumcision of the heart. Formerly covered by the waters of judgment, he is now covered by Christ, who submitted to the same waters of judgment for us. Previously united with Christ only in his death, now united with Christ also in his resurrection. When a believer looks back at his infant baptism, he may see a promise fulfilled, but also he should be able to say “Whew! Through grace alone I survived the death-ordeal of baptism by water!” (Conversely, when the apostate looks back to his baptism, instead of taking assurance from a promise, he should recognize that, apart from faith in Christ, he is still subject to the wrath and curse of God due to sin, and he will not survive the death-ordeal.)
It was for this reason that Kline admitted he has a problem with the form of baptism in the OPC BOCO , in which parents are asked to affirm that, by baptism, the child is “holy in Christ”. ” ‘Holy’ yes, but not ‘holy in Christ‘ “, says Kline. “Holy” only in the “institutional sense” that children of believers have a right to membership in the set-apart covenant community.
So next time you witness a baptism, think on the water-ordeal that the infant has just embarked on. Perhaps it will help you take more seriously your responsibility to assist the parents in evangelizing that “viper in diapers”. (And perhaps it will also give you a good reply to that visiting baptist who complains that infant baptism is equivalent to an assumption of infant salvation!)