For the biblically-minded and biblically based, traditional Reformed Catholic Christian of the Anglican Way (living in the West and particularly in the U.S.A.) the commendation of the wonderful Sacrament of Baptism—particularly as administered to infants—presents several major problems or difficulties in today’s religious context.
Let us focus on two of them—the biblical basis/authorization (already done in Part One), and the connection with regeneration (Part Two) to be done here.
In this essay, what was stated in the first is assumed, especially the covenantal and familial relations of the human being as a person-in-relation.
Those familiar with the traditional Anglican Services of Baptism for Infants and Adults in the various editions of the classic Book of Common Prayer (e.g., in the English 1662, the American 1928 and the Canadian 1962 editions) have heard the verb, to regenerate (and its equivalents), and the associated noun many times. For example in the 1662 Service for Infants words related to regenerate occur more than ten times and in significant contexts. Prayer is offered to God for the regeneration of the child before the Baptism; and then thanksgiving is made to God after the Baptism for the regeneration of the infant. This act of God by his Holy Spirit in and upon the infant in answer to the prayer of the assembled church (and other prayers offered elsewhere) is obviously understood to be internal and not external, within the soul not in the flesh, and invisible not visible in its arrival, action and immediate effects. Further, it is presupposed that the fruit of this divine action will grow and be seen later.
What is regeneration?
Regeneration is not to be identified with repentance or saving faith which are human activities (prompted by God) which normally presuppose regeneration; further it is not to be identified with conversion which again is a human activity of turning around to face and be with God (again energized by God and presuming regeneration). To be born again, to be regenerated, to become regenerate, to be spiritually washed, is wholly and completely, from beginning to end, a secret, invisible action by God the Holy Spirit in and upon the soul/heart of a human being. Further, it is a sovereign action of God in that only he, as the LORD, decides to do and can do it. At the same time, it is a covenantal action of the LORD God who has created the covenant of grace to relate to his (sinful creatures) as his adopted, forgiven children. So regeneration is the action of the Covenant LORD in and upon the one whom he is calling into his covenant, to be of his elect, a member of his Household and an adopted child. And Baptism, instituted by the Lord Jesus, is the sign and seal of this covenant; it is an outward and visible sign of an internal and invisible grace, and the first part of this grace (gracious action of God) is being born again by the Holy Spirit.
Normally on earth one is born into this world and into a family. Likewise one is born again by the Holy Spirit into the kingdom of heaven and the Family of God. As an infant, one is probably not conscious of this internal regeneration during one’s first months, even years. In this period, the human response to, and outworking of regeneration, is impossible to discern and to see accurately. But, the Christian family and local church have the privilege and duty of nurturing the infant member of the Family of God, treating him as a very young Christian, instructing and supporting him, and praying for him and with him. It is for the child himself to appropriate, to make his own, to absorb, by faith in the Lord Jesus what God has given to him and made him to be by regeneration. The result will be a self-conscious, believing Christian young person. Because of the mystery of human freedom, God looks for and requires the willing and ready commitment of the growing child (which normally in the church setting will be given publicly at Confirmation). However, the presence of free-will and the every present work of the devil means that there is always the possibility that the child will use his freedom to resist what God has given to him—and this resistance will be the more probable where the nurturing in the Christian Faith has been absent or weak in family and church. There will always be those who seem to fall away or actually do so.
[Much popular evangelical thinking—in part encouraged by popular evangelists—has tended to identify regeneration or new birth with conversion. Thus the text in the KJV in John 3, “Ye must be born again” has been taken as a command for man to do something, rather than a statement of divine necessity (It is necessary that you be born again…). To be born again is wholly, completely and absolutely the work of God, in which man has no part as such—even as the human infant had no active part in his conception and birth from the mother’s womb.]
As to the Christian status of baptized infants, there is the universal belief and practice of the Church to give to any who die in infancy or childhood, Christian burial.
Can the belief in the new birth of the infant, that is being born into the kingdom of heaven while remaining of a child of earth, be justified by reference to the Bible?
Yes, but only (as was emphasized in the first part) if the Bible is read not as if it were a modern book deeply affected by expressive individualism; but rather as a book in two testaments of the covenant of grace, where people of any age are persons-in-relation and the elect of God.
First of all, there is an abundance of teaching in the New Testament about the secret and supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the soul of man which is both necessary and preliminary before man can repent of sin and believe the Gospel. There is no reason—in the light of the covenant of grace—to restrict this to adults. In fact we have scriptural references to the work of the Holy Spirit in infants and children, of whom John the Baptist is a well-known example.
Secondly, there is explicit connection of new birth, regeneration, to “washing” which usually means Baptism—see e.g., John 3 & Titus 3:5. Again, though the references are to adults the covenant background means that they apply also to the infant children of believers.
Thirdly, there is the very warm welcome that Jesus gave to children from Jewish homes (Mark 10). He did not forbid them at all to come to him, and he warmly embraced them as God’s children, as within the Israel of God.
Fourthly, there is the analogy of ancient Israel and membership therein of infant children as the elect people of God, and there is the NT assumption that children of believers are within the covenant of grace unless they deliberately and knowingly step outside of it—“the promise is unto you and to your children…”.
Finally, in relation to the “timing” of regeneration in relation to Infant Baptism. Since God’s “time” is not our “time” we cannot dogmatically say precisely when the new birth occurs, but we presume that it is in direct connection to the Baptism, for Baptism is a Dominical Institution and Sacrament. But there is no need to speculate as to precisely when; rather, it is better to affirm that God does regenerate within or in relation to this Sacrament.
Modern problems—a few!
The doctrine and discipline within the classic BCP Rite for Baptism presuppose that only the infant children of baptized believers are to be baptized. And the only way that Infant Baptism makes sense is on covenantal terms and that those baptized are from Christian families. Within this situation of the presence of the covenant of grace then regeneration occurs.
In the West there has been over the centuries a massive amount of what we may call “nominal Christian profession” based upon what we may call “indiscriminate infant Baptism.” This has led to all kinds of pastoral problems for devout pastors and parents, not the least of which has been the absence of committed Christianity appearing in the lives of the baptized when they have reached maturity as young people and adults. One solution to this is to make the claim that Baptism as a Sacrament always and without exception is accompanied by regeneration, and therefore all these nominal Christians are in the kingdom of God and on their way to heaven—even if because of their lack of dedication they will have a long routing through purgatorial cleansing. Another is to decry or devalue Infant Baptism altogether and discount all connection between regeneration and baptism, as we hear some evangelicals saying today.
Let us admit that to administer Infant Baptism on covenantal principles in modern America is difficult, perhaps nearly impossible, especially if one desires to see one’s church grow in both numbers and maturity. Expressive individualism and the general inability to exercise church discipline in the American situation contribute to make the task enormously difficult. No wonder pastors and churches (not least ECUSA priests and parishes) go for indiscriminate infant baptism upon modern communitarian principles. But a parish church doing so can never aspire to be holy unto the Lord for it has forsaken that holiness in its misuse of the first of the two Dominical Sacraments. (And when this is followed by indiscriminate giving of Holy Communion, the problem is much compounded.)
It is easier to pass through the eye of needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven today in western, secular society. But so it was also in Jerusalem in A.D. 30! The Christian Way remains that of the tiny entrance (gate) and the narrow road which happily goes directly to the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon, December 29, 2006.