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What, Who, Where, How: Reformed Perspectives on Baptism

Baptism is an act of faith which sets forth that covenant made for us and our children in Christ so long ago.


Between and even within today’s congregations and denominations, almost every aspect of baptism seems to be a topic of debate. Should we baptize babies as well as adults? Should we immerse or merely sprinkle? Indeed, why do we baptize at all? While these and other questions are widely debated, such debates often generate more heat than light. The passion surrounding discussions of baptism shows that concerns about who gets baptized when, where, and how are not abstract, academic ruminations of interest only to professional theologians. Rather, they are intensely practical and personal concerns that arise in the daily faith and life of the people of God. Whether we realize it or not, our answers to these questions will shape both the way we live together in the Church and the ways in which the Church reaches out to an increasingly post-Christian culture.

In addressing this potentially divisive topic, James Torrance observes, “In any discussion of baptism, the first question to be asked is not who should be baptized—infants or adults or both—nor how it should be administered—by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion—nor whether it may be repeated. These are important questions, but they can only be answered when we have first asked what the meaning of baptism is. What does it signify? The important thing is not the sign but the reality signified.”1

Following Torrance’s lead, and consisting mainly of citations of theologians from the Reformation through today, this article will offer Reformed perspectives on four key questions in current debates about baptism: What is the significance of baptism? Who should we baptize? How should we baptize? and, Where should we baptize?

What is the significance of baptism?

When John Calvin described baptism as “a sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children”2 (emphasis added), he was far from the first theologian to see the sacrament of baptism as a sign.

Baptism as Sacrament and Sign

As Donald Bloesch observes “It was Augustine who defined a sacrament as ‘a visible sign of an invisible grace.’ A sacrament has two sides—the inner reality and the outward sign; these two come together through the power of the Holy Spirit.… Augustine’s emphasis was not on the sacrament as a magical cure-all but on ‘the inner acceptance of the grace offered in the sacrament.’”3

He continues, “For Calvin, who is here very close to Augustine, the sign becomes an instrument or means of grace when united with the preaching of the Word.… Ulrich Zwingli, on the other hand, thought within the framework of a radical dualism that separated the spiritual and the material so that the only efficacious baptism is the baptism of the Spirit. The outward sign becomes not a means of grace but a testimony to grace. In the radical Zwinglian view, the sacraments become signs of faith and commitment.”4

The Westminster Confession of Faith declares “There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other” (27.2).

Elaborating on this distinction, Daniel Migliore insists, “The sign and the reality signified must neither be identified (as Barth thinks the Roman Catholic doctrine of baptism tends to do), nor must the sign be reduced to an empty cipher or mere illustration (as happens in Zwinglian teaching). While taking creaturely form, the grace of God always remains free and beyond our control.”5

The Reality Baptism Signifies

In discussing the Reformed understanding of the significance of baptism, Hugh Thompson Kerr draws on John Knox’s Book of Common Order and the Westminster Confession of Faith: John Knox’s Book of Common Order, in use in Scotland from 1564-1645, says “Baptism was ordained to be ministered in the element of water, to teach us that like as water outwardly doth wash away the filth of the body, so inwardly doth the
virtue of Christ’s blood purge our souls from that corruption and deadly poison, wherewith by nature we were infected, whose venomous dregs, although they continue in this our flesh, yet by the merits of his death are not imputed unto us, because the justice of Jesus Christ is made ours by Baptism, not that we think any such virtue or power to be included in the visible water, or outward action, for many have been baptised, and yet never inwardly purged; but that our Saviour Christ, who commanded Baptism to be ministered, will, by the power of His Holy Spirit, effectually work in the hearts of His Elect, in time convenient, all that is meant and signified by the same.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith, seeking to make clear the same Calvinistic position, says, “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” (28.6).6

Answering his own question about the reality that baptism signifies, James Torrance describes three ways in which baptism serves as a sign.

First, he says, baptism is a sign of the one work of the one God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—in the fulfillment of his purpose “to bring many sons to glory.” He quotes from the French Reformed baptismal liturgy: Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary. For you he uttered the cry “It is finished!” For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and there he intercedes—for you little child even though you do not know it. But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true. We love him because he first loved us.

Baptism is thus the sign of what the triune God does: God forgives, God cleanses, God regenerates, God adopts, God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts whereby in response we cry: “Abba, Father.”

Second, Torrance writes, baptism is a sign of the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is not a bilateral covenant which we make with God at this moment of time as though God’s grace is contingent on our faith and decision! Baptism then would be a seal of my faith and my decision, a badge of my conversion! The good news is that God has made a covenant for us in Christ, and sealed it with his blood nineteen hundred years ago.… Baptism is an act of faith which sets forth that covenant made for us and our children in Christ so long ago.

Third, says Torrance, Jesus spoke of his death on the cross as his baptism (Luke 12:25; Mark 10:38). This is not just a metaphor for suffering. It is by his baptism for us—his cross, his atoning death and his resurrection— that he forgives and sanctifies and secures our sonship.

“Baptism is the sacrament of cleansing and forgiveness. But it is not the water, not the church, not the minister, not my faith, not my dying and rising, which forgives and heals. It is Christ who has done this for us and in us by his Spirit. So we are baptized ‘in the name of Christ’ —not our own name—and we are baptized into a life of union with Christ, of dying and rising with Christ, into a life of communion.”7

While the foregoing is certainly a very brief survey of the significance of baptism, it does lay the foundation for considering the next three questions.

Who should be baptized?

While questions about where and how we baptize are challenging and important, perhaps the most divisive question about baptism in the Church today concerns who the Church rightly ought to baptize. The Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Martos has aptly observed, “As the practice of baptism has varied, Christians’ understanding of baptism has varied, and yet through it all there is a continuity which is greater than the differences. For the theology of baptism is always a variation on the theme of salvation played in different modes and different keys in different ages.”8 [emphasis added]

The importance of Martos’ observation cannot be overemphasized. The Reformed tradition, which, as indicated above, understands salvation to be God’s work alone, recognizes the validity of infant baptism. In contrast, the Anabaptist tradition rejects the notion of infant baptism on the grounds that salvation requires some conscious action by an individual before he or she can be saved. Ultimately, it is this foundational difference in how we are saved that leads to different understandings of who should be baptized.

The Practice of Infant Baptism

While the Church throughout its history has numbered among its members those who supported and those who opposed infant baptism, there is significant historical evidence that infant baptism was practiced from the Church’s earliest days.

Alister McGrath shows that the practice of infant baptism “had become normal, if not universal, by the second or third century…. In the third century, Origen treated infant baptism as a universal practice.… Opposition to the practice can be seen in the writings of Tertullian, who argued that the baptism of children should be deferred until such time as they ‘know Christ.’”9

Expanding on these observations Hugh Thompson Kerr notes that “Tertullian argued against baptism not only of infants but of children, which is evidence that such baptism was the accepted practice of his day. It was certainly not an innovation. Origen states that the custom had come down from apostolic times. If there were in the New Testament any definite statement to the effect that baptism should not be administered to little children, then we should be constrained to follow New Testament guidance. There is, however, no such prohibition and there is at the same time presumptive evidence that children were included in the covenant of grace and in the fellowship of the Christian Church.… There are repeated references in the New Testament to the baptism of whole families and households, and it is inconceivable that there were no little children in these homes. The family then, as now, was an organic unity and as a unit was received into community life.

Kerr concludes, “These references, of course, give no positive assurance that in the New Testament Church the baptism of infants was observed, but it is pertinent to recognize the fact that the baptism of families and households is presumptive evidence that children were included.”10

Turning from the history to the theology of infant baptism, Daniel Migliore agrees with Martos’ observation when he writes: “A doctrine of baptism cannot be isolated from its larger theological context. Luther’s interpretation of baptism is inseparably connected with his doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and Calvin’s teaching is closely related to his doctrine of the covenant. Similarly, Barth’s doctrine of baptism is embedded in his entire theology and lights up its central themes.”11

Again quoting Kerr, “Augustine, toward the end of the fourth century wrote, ‘Therefore an infant, although he is not yet a believer in the sense of having that faith which includes the consenting will of those who exercise it, nevertheless becomes a believer through the sacrament of that faith.… The infant, though not yet possessing a faith helped by the understanding, is not obstructing faith by an antagonism of the understanding, and therefore receives with profit the sacrament of faith.’”12

The Reformation-era Heidelberg Catechism affirms the validity of infant baptism, answering question 74, “Should infants, too, be baptized?” by saying: A. Yes. Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation. Through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults. Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant, they must be grafted into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the old covenant by circumcision, in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.

Moving into the 20th century, Migliore writes, “In his early period of his development, Barth staunchly supports infant baptism.… he asks ‘Does it make any sense to be ashamed of infant baptism on the grounds that human reason and experience are absent in this act? As if they are not always lacking with respect to what this act means. As if even the baptism of the most mature, most pious, and most rational adult could be in principle anything other than ‘infant’ baptism.’”13

Another line of theological support for infant baptism is to see it in continuity with, and as a replacement for, the Jewish rite of circumcision. The origins of this approach are to be found with Zwingli.… Zwingli found his answer in the Old Testament, which stipulated that male infants born within the bounds of Israel should have an outward sign of their membership of the people of God. The outward sign in question was circumcision—that is, the removal of the foreskin. Infant baptism was thus to be seen as analogous to circumcision—a sign of belonging to a covenant community.14

The Anabaptists and Believer’s Baptism

The Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation was marked by the belief that the only people who should be baptized were those who had made a personal, public confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. “Anabaptist” (the prefix ana is Latin meaning “again”) literally means “rebaptizer.”

Historically, Anabaptists stressed that only believers are to be baptized; as a result they rejected infant baptism as invalid, necessitating the rebaptism of those who had become believers but who had received only infant baptism. Baptism is to be administered only to those who consciously exhibit faith in Christ. Today this belief is found in most Baptist churches as well as in churches that view themselves as direct descendants of the Reformation-era Anabaptists.

For example, the U.S. Mennonite Brethren website lists as one of the 12 Principles of Anabaptism: The necessity of a believers church. Anabaptists believe that Christian conversion, while not necessarily sudden and traumatic, always involves a conscious decision. “Unless a person is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Believing that an infant can have no conscious, intelligent faith in Christ, Anabaptists baptize only those who have come to a personal, living faith. Voluntary baptism, together with a commitment to walk in the full newness of life and to strive for purity in the church, constitutes the basis of church membership.15

A both/and approach

According to McGrath, “The essential difference between Zwingli’s view and [the Anabaptist] position is that the event which baptism publicly declares is interpreted differently. Zwingli understands the event in question to be birth into a believing community; Baptist writers generally understand it to be the dawn of a personal faith in the life of an individual.”16

Taking an irenic approach in support of the Reformed position, Bloesch believes that “Pedobaptism is a more credible symbolism for the mystery that God’s election is prior to human decision. Believer’s baptism calls our attention to the biblical truth that God’s election is realized through human decision. My recommendation is that both sides in this dispute respect the integrity of the other side and also accept the baptism of the other side, so long as it is performed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and in the context of the community of faith.”17

In a similar vein, Donald Wilson Stake observes, Many Protestants baptize adults who have not been previously baptized but stress the baptism of infants. There is a realization that baptism is the beginning of one’s life in Christ and will issue in personal commitment, witness, and service. For the infant, this means a commitment on the part of the church to nurture the child in faith toward personal confession of faith and a life of discipleship. For the adult, this means a similar commitment on the church’s part to help the disciple grow in faith and in service. Baptism in either case is prophetic of the Christian life, the beginning of a long process to be developed through one’s life by the church.18

And David F. Wright insists, It is surely a critical test of a satisfactory baptismal theology that it can encompass both infant and believers’ baptism within a single understanding. As I see it, baptism as the sign of the covenant is appropriately given by Christ’s ministers whenever there are grounds for believing that God is calling persons into his covenant people which is the body of Christ. These grounds are of two kinds: for those able to speak for themselves, it is their faith, professed (Acts 8:12, 37-38; 11:16-17; 16:31-33, etc.); for those not so able, it is their birth to parents whose faith enables them to speak on their children’s behalf.19

How should we baptize?

“There are, generally speaking, two opinions regarding the proper manner of administering baptism: that only immersion is lawful, and that the mode of baptism is a matter of indifference.”20

Hughes Oliphant Old writes, “Whether baptism should be administered by immersion or sprinkling has aggravated American Protestantism unduly. If it is true that in classical Greek the word for baptism means to submerge, it is also true that in the popular Greek of NT times, the same word was used to refer to a number of different Jewish rites of purification involving washing.”21

Some who agree that immersion was the primary mode of baptism in the early church point out that other modes were permitted. In the Didache, a manual of Christian faith and practice variously dated from 70-150 A.D., we read “Baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if thou hast not running water, baptize in other water. And if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou has neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Didache 7.1).

William A. BeVier comments “This passage should make all the advocates of any mode today take notice.… The concept appears to be that any mode can be used, just so water is applied. The immersionists can well point out that their mode seems to have first choice (but one cannot even be dogmatic here), and it must also be noted that ‘cold’ and ‘running’ water would have precedence over any other, which excludes the modern heated baptistery.… the very tone of the Didache seems to allow a great amount of freedom as to mode and amount of water used.”22

Historically, the Reformed tradition has held to this freedom and taught that the mode of baptism— immersing, pouring, or sprinkling—is a matter of indifference. This was the position of John Calvin, who wrote, “But whether the person who is baptized be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, or whether water be only poured or sprinkled upon him, is of no importance; Churches ought to be left at liberty in this respect.”23

Where should we baptize?

In the Reformed tradition, the sacrament of baptism is normally performed by a minister in the presence of the congregation where the one to be baptized is a member. To be sure, there have always been exceptions, but this has been the general rule.

In his thought-provoking essay “Habitats of Infant Baptism,” David F. Wright expands on this historic understanding, offering a series of intriguing observations linking baptism not only to the local congregation but also to the believing nuclear family. Infants do not bring themselves to baptism.… We may therefore regard the Christian family as an essential habitat—the essential microhabitat—of infant baptism. From this it follows that if the Christian identity of the family or the integrity of the family itself is insecure, infant baptism will not thrive as it ought.… Should baptism be expected to bear fruit in the lives of infants when the context which the Christian tradition has invariably held to be the God-assigned habitat for childbearing—the one-flesh union of marriage—is not operative?24

Wright deftly links the sacrament of baptism to two institutions that, at present, appear to be in decline: the family and the Church. Not surprisingly, all three have been the subject of sustained attacks within Protestant mainline denominations in recent decades. While space does not permit the exploration of Wright’s thesis in detail, for those with ears to hear there is much to be learned from his analysis.


That baptism has been a topic of debate in the Church from the earliest Christian centuries until today is a measure of the sacrament’s importance to Christian faith and life. Baptism touches on such vital questions as: How are we saved? What is the Church? and How are we to live as Christ’s disciples in a world that loves the darkness and hates the light? These are the broader and deeper questions we discuss as we debate the what, who, how, and where of baptism. And these discussions and debates must continue, for, to end with one last quote from David Wright, “We probably should not expect sacraments of the gospel to thrive in an ecclesial context where the gospel itself is stunted or impoverished.”25


Rev. Robert Mills is author of numerous articles and books. He is the Director of Music at Northminster Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Madison Heights, Virginia.


1 James Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 63.

2 Institutes, 4.15.1.

3 The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines a sacrament as “a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” and teaches that “The sacraments of the New Testament are, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper” (Questions 92-93).

4 Donald Bloesch, The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), pp. 149, 151.

5 Daniel Migliore, “Reforming the Theology and Practice of Baptism: The Challenge of Karl Barth,” Toward the Future of Reformed Theology: Tasks, Topics, Traditions, eds. David Willis, Michael Welker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 495.

6 Hugh Thompson Kerr, The Christian Sacraments: A Source Book for Ministers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1944), p. 57.

7 Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, pp. 66-67.

8Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred (New York: Doubleday Image, 1982), p. 163.

9 Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 515.

10 Kerr, The Christian Sacraments, pp. 64-66.

11 Migliore, “Reforming the Theology and Practice of Baptism,” p. 499.

12 Kerr, The Christian Sacraments, p. 64.

13 Daniel Migliore, “Reforming the Theology and Practice of Baptism: The Challenge of Karl Barth,” Toward the Future of Reformed Theology: Tasks, Topics, Traditions, eds. David Willis, Michael Welker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 496.

14 McGrath, Christian Theology, p. 517.

15 accessed 9/21/2013.

16 McGrath, Christian Theology, p. 518.

17 Bloesch, The Church, p. 158

18 Donald Wilson Stake, The ABCs of Worship: A Concise Dictionary (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), pp. 23-24.

19 David F. Wright, “Habitats of Infant Baptism,” Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Thomas W. Gillespie, ed. Wallace M. Alston, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 263-264.

20 R.S. Rayburn, “Baptism, Modes of,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 133.

21 Hughes Oliphant Old, “Baptism,” The Westminster Handbook to Reformed Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 15

22 William A. BeVier, “Water Baptism in the Ancient Church: Part I,” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 116, No. 462/April, 1959, p. 142.

23 Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.15.19.

24 David F. Wright, “Habitats of Infant Baptism,” Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Thomas W. Gillespie, ed. Wallace M. Alston, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 255, 258.

25 Wright, “Habitats,” p. 264.


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