The Sacramental Principle

by William Cunningham

We have referred only incidentally to the doctrine of the Church of Rome as to the bearing and influence of the sacraments in the justification of sinners. But as this is a very important feature of the Romish system of theology, —as the Romish doctrine on this subject was strenuously opposed by the Reformers, —and as the doctrine of sacramental justification, as it has been called, has been revived in our own day, and been zealously maintained even by men who have not yet joined the Church of Rome, —it may be proper to make some further observations upon it.

I. Sacramental Grace

The natural enmity of the human heart to the principles and plans of the divine procedure in regard to the salvation of sinners, —the natural tendency to self-righteousness which is so strongly and universally characteristic of mankind, —has appeared in two different forms: first, a tendency to rely for the forgiveness of sin and the enjoyment of God’s favour upon what men themselves are, or can do; and, secondly, a tendency to rely upon the intervention and assistance of other men or creatures, and upon outward ordinances. Heathenism exhibited both; and the corrupted Judaism of our Saviour’s days, —the prevailing party of the Pharisees, —exhibited both. The Sadducees of the apostolic days, and the Socinian and the rationalistic, or the semi-infidel and the infidel, forms of professed Christianity in modern times, have exhibited only the first of these tendencies, in different degrees of grossness, on the one hand, or of plausibility, on the other; while Popery, like heathenism and corrupted Judaism, exhibits a combination of both. There appeared in the church at an early period, a tendency to speak of the nature, design, and effects of the sacraments, or the “tremendous mysteries,” as some of the fathers call them, in a very inflated and exaggerated style, —a style very different from anything we find in Scripture upon the subject. This tendency increased continually as sound doctrine disappeared and vital religion decayed, until, in the middle ages, Christianity was looked upon by the great body of its professors as a system which consisted in, and the whole benefits of which were connected with, a series of outward ceremonies and ritual observances. The nature, design, and effects of the sacraments occupied a large share of the attention of the schoolmen; and, indeed, the exposition and development of what is sometimes called in our days the u sacramental principle,” may be justly regarded as one of the principal exhibitions of the anti-scriptural views and the perverted ingenuity of the scholastic doctors. An exaggerated and unscriptural view of the value and efficacy of the sacraments was too deeply ingrained into the scholastic theology, and was too much in accordance with the usual policy of the Church of Rome, and the general character and tendency of her doctrine, to admit of the Council of Trent giving any sanction to the sounder views upon the subject which had been introduced by the Reformers, and especially by the Calvinistic section of them, —for Luther always continued to hold some defective and erroneous notions upon this point. The doctrine of the Church of Rome upon this subject is set forth in the first part of the decree of the seventh session of the Council of Trent, which treats de Sacramentis in genere, and in other statements made in treating of some of the sacraments individually. The leading features of their doctrine are these: —that, through the sacraments of the Church, all true righteousness either begins, or when begun, is increased, or when lost, is repaired; that men do not obtain from God the grace of justification by faith alone without the sacraments, or at least without a desire and wish to receive them; that the sacraments confer grace always upon all who receive them, unless they put an obstacle in the way (ponunt obicem), —that is, as they usually explain it, unless they have, at the time of receiving them, a deliberate intention of committing sin, —and that they confer grace thus universally ex opere operato, or by some power or virtue given to them, and operating through them. And with respect, more particularly, to the forgiveness of sin, the Church of Rome teaches, as we have seen, that baptism is the instrumental cause of justification, —that all previous sins are certainly forgiven in baptism, —and that no sin is forgiven, not even the original sin of those who die in infancy, without it;— and, finally, that post-baptismal sin is forgiven only in the sacrament of penance, that is, through the confession of the sinner and the absolution of the priest.

This is just, in substance, the doctrine which is taught by the modern Tractarians, under the name of the “sacramental principle.” Mr Newman, in his Lectures on Justification, published several years before he left the Church of England, gives the following summary of his views upon the subject: “Justification comes through the Sacraments; is received by faith; consists in God’s inward presence, and lives in obedience and again: “Whether we say we are justified by faith, or by works, or by Sacraments, all these but mean this one doctrine, that we are justified by grace, which is given through Sacraments, impetrated by faith, manifested in works.” he admits, indeed, that, in some sense, faith is the internal, while baptism is the external, instrument of justification; but, in explaining their respective offices and functions as instruments in the production of the result, he ascribes to faith a position of posteriority and subordination to baptism. “The Sacraments,” he says, “are the immediate, faith is the secondary, subordinate, or representative instrument of justification.” “Faith being the appointed representative of Baptism, derives its authority and virtue from that which it represents. It is justifying because of Baptism; it is the faith of the baptized, of the regenerate, that is, of the justified. Justifying faith does not precede justification; but justification precedes faith, and makes it justifying. And here lies the cardinal mistake of the views on the subject which are now in esteem (evangelical). They make faith the sole instrument, not after Baptism but before; whereas Baptism is the primary instrument, and makes faith to be what it is, and otherwise is not.” He admits, indeed, what could not well be denied, that, in some sense, faith exists before baptism, —i.e., of course, in adults; but he denies that faith has then, —or until after baptism makes it, as he says, justifying, —any influence whatever upon justification. This was certainly raising the efficacy of the sacraments at least as high as the Council of Trent did; while it also exhibited, in addition to its heresy, a depth of folly and absurdity, and a daring opposition to the plain teaching of Scripture, which the Council of Trent had usually the sense and the decency to avoid.

The essential idea of this Popish and Tractarian doctrine of the sacraments is this: that God has established an invariable connection between these external ordinances, and the communication of Himself, —the possession by men of spiritual blessings, pardon, and holiness; with this further notion, which naturally results from it, that he has endowed these outward ordinances with some sort of power or capacity of conveying or conferring the blessings with which they are respectively connected. It is a necessary result of this principle, that the want of the outward ordinance, —not the neglect or contempt of it, but the mere want of it, from whatever cause arising, —deprives men of the spiritual blessings which it is said to confer. The Church of Rome has found it necessary or politic to make some little exceptions to this practical conclusion; but this is the great general principle to which her whole system of doctrine upon the subject leads, and which ordinarily she does not hesitate to apply. The Protestant doctrine, upon the other hand, is, that the only thing on which the possession by men individually of spiritual blessings, —of justification and sanctification, —is made necessarily and invariably dependent, is union to Christ; and that the only thing on which union to Christ may be said to be dependent, is faith in Him: so that it holds true, absolutely and universally, that wherever there is faith in Christ, or union to Christ by faith, there pardon and holiness, —all necessary spiritual blessings, —are communicated by God and received by men, even though they have not actually partaken in any sacrament or external ordinance whatever. If this great principle can be fully established from Scripture, —as Protestants believe it can, —then it overturns from the foundation the Popish and Tractarian doctrine about the office and function of the sacraments; while, on the other hand, if they can establish from Scripture their doctrine of the sacraments, this would necessitate a rejection or modification of the great Protestant principle above stated. It is to be observed, however, that even after this Protestant principle has been established from Scripture, and after the Popish and Tractarian view of the sacraments, which is inconsistent with it, has been disproved, it still remains incumbent upon Protestants to explain what the design and efficacy of the sacraments are, —what is the place they hold, and what is the influence they exert, in connection with the bestowal by God, and the reception by men, of spiritual blessings. The general doctrine of Protestants upon this subject, though there is some diversity in their mode of explaining it, is this, —that the sacraments are symbolical or exhibitive ordinances, signs and seals of the covenant of grace, not only signifying and representing Christ and the benefits of the new covenant, but sealing, and, in some sense, applying, them to believers. They regard them, however, as mere appendages to the word or the truth, and as exerting no influence whatever, apart from the faith which the participation in them expresses, and which must exist in each adult before participation in them can be either warrantable or beneficial. These are the leading topics involved in the discussion of this subject, and this is the way in which they are connected with each other.

There is one remark that may be of some use in explaining the discussions which have taken place upon this point, —namely, that when the subject of the sacraments in general, —that is, of i their general nature, design, and efficacy, —is under consideration, it is usually assumed that the persons who partake of them are possessed of the necessary preliminary qualifications; and, more particularly, that when statements are made upon this subject which are applied equally to baptism and the Lord's Supper, or when the general object and design of baptism and the Lord’s

Supper are set forth in the abstract, it is adult participation only which theologians have ordinarily in view, —the participation of those who, after they have grown up to years of understanding, desire to hold communion with the visible church of Christ. It is in this aspect that baptism, as well as the Lord’s Supper, is usually referred to, and presented to us, in the New Testament; and it is from the case of adult participation that we ought to form our general views and impressions of the meaning and design of these ordinances. It tends greatly to introduce obscurity and confusion into our whole conceptions upon the subject of baptism, that we see it ordinarily administered to infants, and very seldom to adults. This leads us insensibly to form very defective and erroneous conceptions of its design and effect, or rather to live with our minds very much in the state of blanks, so far as concerns any distinct and definite views upon the subject. There is a difficulty felt, —a difficulty which Scripture does not afford us materials for altogether removing, —in laying down any very distinct and definite doctrine as to the precise bearing and efficacy of baptism in the case of infants, to whom alone ordinarily we see it administered. And hence it becomes practically, as well as theoretically, important to remember, that we ought to form our primary and fundamental conceptions of baptism from the baptism of adults, in which it must be, in every instance, according to the general doctrine of Protestants, either the sign and seal of a faith and regeneration previously existing, —already effected by God’s grace, —or else a hypocritical profession of a state of mind and feeling which has no existence. This is the original and fundamental idea of the ordinance of baptism, as it is usually represented to us in Scripture. And when we contemplate it in this light, there is no more difficulty in forming a distinct and definite conception regarding it than regarding the Lord’s Supper. We have no doubt that the lawfulness of infant baptism can be conclusively established from Scripture; but it is manifest that the general doctrine or theory with respect to the design and effect of baptism, as above stated, must undergo some modification in its application to the case of infants. And the danger to be provided against, is that of taking the baptism of infants, with all the difficulties attaching to giving a precise and definite statement as to its design and effect in their case, and making this regulate our whole conceptions with respect to the ordinance in general, —and even with respect, to sacraments in general, —instead of regarding adult baptism as affording the proper and fundamental type of it; deriving our general conceptions of it from that case, and then, since infant baptism is also fully warranted by Scripture, examining what modifications the leading general views of the ordinance must undergo when applied to the special and peculiar case of the baptism of infants. The Reformers, when discussing this subject, having adult baptism chiefly in their view, usually speak as if they regarded baptism and regeneration as substantially identical; not intending to assert or concede the Popish principle of an invariable connection between them, as a general thesis, —for it is quite certain, and can be most fully established, that they rejected this, —but because the Council of Trent, in treating of the general subject of justification, discussed it chiefly in its bearing upon the case of those who had not been baptized in infancy, and with whom, consequently, baptism, if it was not a mere hypocritical profession, destitute of all worth or value, was, in the judgment of Protestants, a sign and seal of a faith and a regeneration previously wrought in them, and now existing; and because it was when viewed in this aspect and application, that the great general doctrine of the design and efficacy of the sacraments, in their bearing upon the justification of sinners, stood out for examination in the clearest and most definite form. Accordingly, all that Calvin says upon the declaration of the Council of Trent, that baptism is the instrumental cause of justification, is this: “It is a great absurdity to make baptism alone the instrumental cause. If it be so, what becomes of the gospel? Will it, in turn, get into the lowest corner I But they say baptism is the sacrament of faith. True: but when all is said, I will still maintain that it is nothing but an appendage to the Gospel (Evangelii appendicem). They act preposterously in giving it the first place, —that is, in preference to the gospel or the truth; and this is just as if a man should say that the instrumental cause of a house is the handling of the workman's trowel (trulloe manubrium). he who, putting the gospel in the background, numbers baptism among the causes of salvation, shows thereby that he does not know what baptism is or means, or what is its functions or use.”

These considerations are to be applied— and, indeed, must be applied— to the interpretation of the general abstract statements about a sacrament or the sacraments, and more particularly about baptism, which are to be found in the confessions of the Reformed churches. They ought to be kept in view in considering the general declarations of our own Confession and Catechisms. Sacraments are there described f “as holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and His benefits, and to confirm our interest in Him; as also to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His word.” This statement, of course, applies equally and alike to both sacraments; and it evidently is assumed, that those whose interest in Christ is to be confirmed by the sacraments, are persons who already, before they participate in either sacrament, have an interest in Christ, and are possessed of the necessary qualifications, whatever these may be, for the reception and improvement of the sacraments. This is brought out, if possible, still more clearly in the simple statement of the Shorter Catechism, that “a sacrament is an holy ordinance, instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers;” to believers, —a statement plainly conveying, and intended to convey, the doctrine that one fundamental general position concerning the sacrament is, that they are intended for believers, and, of course, for believers only, unless some special exceptional case can be made out, as we are persuaded can be done in the case of the infants of believers. In like manner, baptism is described in our Confession as a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church, but also to be in do him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his engrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.” Now here, first, it is to be observed, in general, that this is just an application to the special case of baptism, —its import, object, and design, —of the general definition previously given of the sacraments, and, of course, with the assumption of the possession of the necessary qualifications of the persons baptized: and secondly, and more particularly, that it applies primarily and fully only to the case of adult baptism, where the previous existence of these qualifications may be tested; while it still remains a question, to be determined after the lawfulness of infant baptism has been established, how far this general description of baptism applies fully to infant baptism, how far some modification of the general doctrine may be necessary in that special case. 

 It is common to adduce against the Popish and Tractarian view of the design and efficacy of the sacraments, —against the alleged invariable connection between them, and the communication and reception of spiritual blessings, —the general character of the Christian dispensation as contrasted with the Jewish, in that, under the gospel, external rites and ceremonies have nothing like prominence assigned to them; and that its whole arrangements are manifestly adapted to the object of addressing directly men’s understandings and consciences, and engaging them in the worship and service of God, —while very little provision is made for impressing their external senses. I have no doubt that the predominant spiritual character of the Christian dispensation affords a very strong presumption against the Popish system, with its seven sacraments, and its huge and burdensome load of rites and ceremonies, contrasting, as it does, very glaringly with the Christianity of the New Testament. Put a general and indefinite consideration of this sort is scarcely of itself sufficient to overturn a distinct and definite position which professed to rest upon scriptural evidence. Men are not able to determine, upon general grounds, with anything like certainty, whether a particular principle or arrangement is, or is not, inconsistent with the spiritual character of the Christian dispensation. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, deduce, as an inference from the spiritual character of Christianity, that no external ordinances were intended to be permanently administered in the Christian church, and allege that the apostles baptized and administered the Lord’s Supper for a time merely in accommodation to Jewish weakness and prejudice. Even if a great deal that was plausible could be said in support of the general position, that the permanent observance of any outward ordinances is inconsistent with the spiritual character of the Christian dispensation, it would still be a competent and valid answer to the Quakers, to undertake to prove from Scripture that it was manifestly Christ's intention that the observance of Baptism and the Lord's Supper should continue permanently in His church. And, in like manner, Papists might argue, that, if the permanent observance of these two outward ordinances is not inconsistent with the spiritual character of the Christian dispensation, neither can it be easily proved that such an inconsistency necessarily attaches to any particular view of their office or function, or of the relation subsisting between them and spiritual blessings.

I have made these observations chiefly for the purpose of teaching the general lesson, that in estimating the truth or falsehood of a doctrine which professes to rest upon scriptural authority, the best and safest course is to examine, first and chiefly, the scriptural statements that bear most directly and immediately upon the point under consideration, instead of resting much upon mere inferences from views or principles of a somewhat general and indefinite description. Now, it cannot be said that we have in Scripture any explicit statements, bearing very directly and immediately upon the precise question of what is the design and effect of the sacraments, and of whether or not there subsists an invariable connection between the observance of them and the reception of spiritual blessings. The Scriptures, indeed, contain nothing bearing very directly upon the topics usually discussed in systems of theology, under the head, De Sacramentis in genere. They tell us nothing directly about the general subject of sacraments, as such; but the New Testament sets before us two outward ordinances, and two only, —the observance of which is of permanent obligation in the Christian church, and which both manifestly possess the general character of being means of grace, or of being connected, in some way or other, with the communication and the reception of spiritual blessings. As these ordinances evidently occupy a peculiar place of their own in the general plan of the Christian system, and in the arrangements of the Christian church, it is natural and reasonable to inquire what materials there are in Scripture for adopting any general conclusions as to their nature, design, and efficacy, that may be equally applicable to them both: and what is usually given as the definition or description of a sacrament, or of the sacraments, is just an embodiment of what can be collected or deduced from Scripture as being equally predicable of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Under this general head, the question to which we have had occasion to refer may very reasonably be broached, —namely, Does the Scripture represent the observance of these ordinances as necessary to the enjoyment of any spiritual blessings does it contain any materials which establish an invariable connection between the observance of them, and the reception and possession of anything needful for men’s salvation? And in considering this question, we must first examine the scriptural materials that seem to bear upon it most directly and immediately.

Now, this brings us back to  the consideration of the topics formerly adverted to, as those on which the settlement of this subject depends. Protestants, as I have said, maintain that it is a scriptural doctrine, that the only thing on which the possession of spiritual blessings absolutely and invariably depends, is union to Christ; and that the only thing on which union to Christ depends, is faith in Him. As soon as, and in every instance in which, men are united to Christ by faith, they receive justification and regeneration; while without, or apart from, personal union to Christ by faith, these blessings are never conferred or received. Every one who is justified and regenerated, is certainly admitted into heaven whether he be baptized or not, and whether he have performed any actual good works or not, as was undoubtedly exhibited in the case of the thief whom the Redeemer saved upon the cross. In saying that the possessing of spiritual blessings, and the attaining to the everlasting enjoyment of God, depend absolutely and universally upon union to Christ through faith, and upon nothing else, we do not of course mean to deny the importance and obligation either of sacraments or of good works in their proper order and connection, and upon legitimate scriptural grounds. It is undoubtedly the imperative duty of every one not only to repent, but to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, —to obey the whole law of God; and when these fruits, —this obedience, —are not manifested whenever an opportunity is afforded in providence of manifesting them, this of itself is a universally conclusive proof that the blessings of justification and regeneration have not been bestowed, and that, of course, men are still in their sins, subject to God’s wrath and curse. In like manner, the sacraments are of imperative obligation; it is a duty incumbent upon men to observe them, when the means and opportunity of doing so are afforded them, so that it is sinful to neglect or disregard them. But there is nothing in all this in the least inconsistent with the position, that union to Christ by faith infallibly and in every instance secures men’s eternal welfare, by conveying or imparting justification and regeneration, even though they may not have been baptized, or have performed any good works.

The Council of Trent insinuated that the Reformers taught that the sacraments “non esse ad salutem necessaria, sed superflua.” The Reformers never denied that the sacraments were necessary in the sense that has now been explained.— that is. that they were matters of imperative obligation, —and they never alleged that they were superfluous Calvin's remark upon the canon which we have just quoted is this, “Facile patiar. ut quae nobis Christus dedit salutis adjumenta. eorum usus necessainus dicatur: quando scilicet datur facultas. Quanquam semper admonendi sunt fideles, non aliam esse cujusvis sacramenti necessitatem. quam instrumentalis causae, cui nequaquam alliganda est Dei virtus. Vocem sane illam nemo pius est qui non toto pectore exhorreat, res esse superfluas.”  Upon the subject of the necessity of the sacraments, Protestant divines have been accustomed to employ this distinction, and it brings out their meaning very clearly.— viz., that they are necessary, ex necessitate proecepti, non ex necessitate medii: necessary. ex necessitate proecepti, because the observance of them is commanded or enjoined, and must therefore be practiced by all who have in providence an opportunity of doing so, so that the voluntary neglect or disregard of them is sinful; but not necessary ex necessitate medii. or in such a sense that the inert fact of men not having actually observed them either produce or proves the non-possession of spiritual blessing.— either excludes men from heaven, or affords any evidence that they will not. in point of fact, be admitted there. Regeneration or conversion is necessary both ex necessitate proecepti and ex necessitate medii; it is necessary not merely because it is commanded or enjoined, so that the neglect of it is sinful, but because the result cannot, from the nature of the case, be attained without it, —because it holds true absolutely and universally, in point of fact, and in the ca«e of each individual of our race, that “except we be born again, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

Now, the question comes virtually to this. Can a similar necessity be established in regard to the sacraments? And here comes in the argument upon which Papists and Tractarians rest their case. They scarcely allege that there is any evidence in Scripture bearing upon the necessity (ex necessitate medii) of the sacraments generally, or of the two sacraments the observance of which Protestants admit to be obligatory, singly and separately. But they assert that, in regard to one of them.— viz., Baptism.— they can prove from Scripture that it is invariably connected with justification and regeneration, so that those who are not baptized do not receive or possess these blessings, and that those who are baptized do, universally in the ca<c of infants, and in the case of adults whenever men are suitably disposed and prepared to receive them. — the preparation required not being very formidable. Now, this is a perfectly fair argument; and though there is a very large amount of presumption or probability from Scripture against its truth, both in general considerations and in specific statements, there is perhaps nothing which can at once and a priori disprove its truth, or deprive it of a right to be examined upon its own proper professed grounds. The establishment of the position, however, it should be observed, would not prove anything in regard to the sacraments in general, or entitle us to put a statement, asserting the invariable connection between the sacraments and grace or spiritual blessings, into the general definition or description of a sacrament. It would establish nothing about what is called the sacramental principle. In order to effect this, the same general position must be established separately and independently about the Lord’s Supper, and about any other ordinance for which the character and designation of a sacrament are claimed; for the sacramental principle, rightly understood, whatever may be the definition or description given of it, is just that, and neither more nor less, which can be proved from Scripture to attach to, and to be predicable of, each and all of the ordinances to which the name sacrament may be applied. But though the general doctrine of Papists and Tractarians about the design and effect of the sacraments could not be proved merely by this process, still it would be a great matter for them if they could establish from Scripture the more limited position, that Baptism is the instrumental cause of justification; and that, according to God’s arrangements, there subsists an invariable connection between the outward ordinance of baptism, and the communication and reception of forgiveness and renovation; and it may therefore be proper to make a few remarks upon the evidence they adduce to this effect.

II. Baptismal Regeneration

session of spiritual blessings, and even ascribe to the sacraments an important amount of actual influence upon the production of the result; maintaining that they confer grace ex opere operato, by an intrinsic power or virtue which God has bestowed upon them, and which operates invariably when men do not put a bar in the way of their operation,— that is, as it is usually explained by Romish writers, when men are free at the time of their participation in the sacrament of a present intention of committing sin. The Tractarians, indeed, have not formally committed themselves to the language of the Council of Trent upon the subject of the opus operation; but they teach the whole substance of what is intended by it, and, generally, inculcate as high views of the efficacy of the sacraments as the Church of Rome has ever propounded, —as is evident from the extracts already quoted from Mr Newman, in which he, while still a minister of the Church of England, explicitly ascribed the whole efficacy of faith in justification to baptism, and declared that “baptism makes faith justifying.'

Protestants in general, on the contrary, regard the sacraments as signs and seals of the covenant of grace, signifying and representing in themselves, as symbols appointed by God. Christ and His benefits, and the scriptural truths which set them forth, and expressing, in the participation of them by individual', their previous reception of Christ and His benefits by faith, —operating beneficially only in those in whom faith already exists, and producing the beneficial effect of confirming and sealing the truths and blessings of the gospel to the individual only through the medium of the faith which participation in them expresses. There is nothing like evidence in Scripture in favour of the general doctrine of an invariable connection between participation of the sacraments and the reception of spiritual blessings; and, indeed, as I have explained, there is nothing said in Scripture directly about sacraments in general, or about a sacrament as Mich. The only plausible evidence which Papists and Tractarians have to produce upon this point, is to be found in those passages which seem to establish an invariable connection between baptism on the one hand, and regeneration and salvation on the other. I cannot enter upon a detailed examination of these passages; but a few general observations will be sufficient to indicate the leading grounds on which Protestants have maintained that they do not warrant the conclusions which Romanists and Tractarians have deduced from them; and that, on the contrary, to adopt the language of our Confession, “grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto” baptism, “as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.”

We remark, first, that, in opposition to the Popish and Tractarian view of an invariable connection between baptism and regeneration, and in support of the doctrine just quoted from our Confession of Faith, there is a large amount of scriptural evidence, both in general principles and in specific statements, which, though it may not amount to strict and conclusive proof, so as to entitle us to reject as incompetent any attempt to rebut the conclusion to which it points by an offer of direct scriptural evidence on the other side, is vet quite sufficient to require us to maintain this conclusion as a part of God's revealed truth, unless it be disproved by very clear, direct, and cogent scriptural proofs, and to authorize us to direct our attention, in considering the proofs that may be adduced upon the other side, to this special point, —viz., to show that they do not necessarily require the Construction put upon them, and to reckon it quite sufficient for the establishment of our doctrine when we can show this.

We remark, in the second place, that the sacraments have manifestly, and by universal admission, a symbolical character, —that they are signs or representations of something signified or represented. And if this be so, then there is an obvious foundation laid, in accordance with the practice of all languages and the usage of the sacred writers, for a sort of interchange between the terms properly applicable to the sign, and those properly applicable to the thing signified, —for a certain promiscuous use of the expressions applicable to these two things. Our Confession of Faith lays down this position: u There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pa that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other;” and as this general position can be established, partly a priori from general views about the nature and objects of the sacraments which are admitted by all parties, and partly by general considerations of a philological kind, which cannot reasonably be disputed, we are entitled to apply it to the interpretation of the scriptural passages in which baptism may be spoken of. or referred to. as if it were virtually identical with the faith or regeneration which it signifies or represents. 

We remark, in the third place, that participation in the ordinance of baptism is an imperative duty incumbent upon all who are enabled to believe in Christ and to turn to God through Him, which it is assumed that they will at once proceed, if they have an opportunity in providence, to discharge, not merely as a duty required by God's authority, but also as a suitable expression and appropriate evidence of the change that has been wrought in their views and principles: and. moreover, that the New Testament, in its general references to this subject, having respect principally and primarily, as I have explained, to the case of adult baptism, usually assumes that the profession made in baptism corresponds with the reality of the case.— that is. with the previous existence of faith and union to Christ, and deal with it upon this assumption. All these general considerations, when brought to bear upon the interpretation of the passages usually produced by Papists and Tractarians in support of their doctrine upon this subject, afford abundant materials for enabling u» to prove that these passages do not require, and therefore upon principles already explained, do not admit, of a construction which would make them sanction the notion that there is an invariable connection between baptism and regeneration, or even— what, however, is only a part of the general doctrine of an invariable connection that none are regenerated or saved without baptism.

Some of the passages commonly adduced in support of the Popish and Tractarian doctrine upon this subject, contain, in gremio, statements which not only disprove their interpretation of the particular passage, but afford a key to the explanation of other passages of a similar kind. It is said, for instance, — “the like figure whereunto. even baptism, doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God).” Now here, indeed, as in one or two other passages, baptism is said to save us; but then a formal explanation is given of wlmt this statement means; and it just amounts in substance to this, that it is not the outward ordinance of baptism, or anything which an outward ordinance is either fitted or intended to effect, to which this result is to be ascribed, but the reality of that of which baptism is the figure, —the sincerity of the profession which men make when they ask and receive the ordinance of baptism for themselves.

The only passage of those usually quoted by Papists and Tractarians in support of their doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which seems to bear with anything like explicitness upon the conclusion they are anxious to establish, is the declaration of our Saviour, “Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.' Protestants have usually contended that our Lord did not here speak of baptism at all, any more than he spoke of the Lord’s Supper in the discourse recorded in the sixth chapter of the same Gospel; and they have no great difficulty in proving this much at least, which is all that the condition of the argument requires of them, —namely, that it cannot he proved that the water of which our Lord here speaks was intended by Him to describe the outward ordinance of baptism.

There is one of the passages commonly adduced by Papists and Tractarians, which, while it gives no real countenance to their doctrine, affords a very clear indication of the true state of the case in regard to this matter, and of what it is that Scripture really meant to convey to us concerning it. It is the record of the commission given by our Lord to His apostles after His resurrection, as contained in the sixteenth verse of the sixteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where we find that, after directing them to go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature, our Saviour added, “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved;” (here Papists and Tractarians commonly stop in quoting the passage, but our Lord goes on),  he that believeth not, shall be damned.” None can fail to be struck with the very remarkable contrast between the two different portions of this declaration, —the manifestly intentional, and very pointed, omission of any reference to baptism in the second part of it. Had the first part of it stood alone, it might have seemed to countenance the idea that baptism was just as necessary to salvation, and as invariable an accompaniment of it, as faith, although even in that case a more direct and explicit statement would have been necessary to make it a conclusive proof of this position. Had it been followed up by the declaration, “He that believeth not, and is not baptized, shall be damned,” the Popish doctrine might have been regarded as established. But when we find that our Saviour, in so very marked and pointed a manner, dropped all reference to baptism in stating the converse of His first declaration, and connected condemnation only with the want of faith, tin conviction is forced upon us, that He did so for the express purpose of indicating that He did not intend to teach that there was an invariable connection between salvation and baptism, though there certainly was between salvation and faith; and that he was careful to say nothing that might lead men to believe that the want of baptism excluded from the kingdom of heaven. The combination of baptism with faith, in the first part of the declaration, is easily explained by those general considerations which were formerly stated, and which warrant us in saying that, even had it stood alone, it would not have necessarily implied more than what all Protestants admit, namely, that it was our Lord s intention that baptism should be set forth by His apostles as not less really obligatory with faith as a matter of duty, and wax therefore usually to be expected in all who were enabled to believe as the certain consequence in all ordinary circumstance', the appropriate and incumbent expression of their faith.

If there be nothing in Scripture adequate to establish the doctrine of an invariable connection between baptism and the spiritual blessings of forgiveness and regeneration.— but, on the contrary, much to disprove it, it is still more clear and certain that the Popish doctrine, that the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato, is destitute of any authority, and ought to be decidedly rejected.

Even if the doctrine of an invariable connection U-tween the sacraments and spiritual blessings could be established, as we have shown it cannot, it would still require additional and independent scriptural evidence to show that the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato; while, on the other hand, the refutation of the doctrine of an invariable connection overturns at once that of the opus opera turn, and removes the only ground on which any attempt to prove it could be based. It should also be observed, that this doctrine with respect to the efficacy of the sacraments is much more directly and explicitly inconsistent with great scriptural truths, as to the principles that regulate the communication of spiritual blessings to men, than that merely of an invariable connection, —as is evident from this consideration, that this doctrine of the opus operatum ascribes to outward ordinances an influence and an efficacy in procuring forgiveness which the Scripture does not ascribe even to faith itself, —the only thing existing in men, or done by them, by which they are ever said in Scripture to be justified. Baptism, according to the Church of Rome, is the instrumental cause of justification, while faith is merely one of seven virtues, as they are called, which only prepare or dispose men to receive it; and a mere wish to receive the sacraments is represented as one of those six other virtues, each of which has just as much influence or efficacy as faith in procuring or obtaining justification, —the sacrament itself, of course, upon the principle of the opus operatum, having more influence or efficacy in producing the result than all these virtues put together; while, on the other hand, the Protestant doctrine, though assigning to faith, in the matter of justification, a function and an influence possessed and exerted by nothing else, does not ascribe to it any proper efficiency of its own in the production of the result, but represents it only as the instrument receiving what has been provided and is offered.

The subject of the sacraments forms a most important department in the system of Romanists. Their whole doctrine upon the sacraments in general, —their nature, objects, efficacy, and number, —their peculiar doctrines and practices in regard to each of their seven sacraments individually, —all tend most powerfully to corrupt and pervert the doctrine of Scripture with respect to the grounds of a sinners salvation, and the way and manner in which God communicates to men spiritual blessings as well as to foster and confirm some natural tendencies of the human heart, which are most dangerous to men's spiritual welfare. The effects which they ascribe to the sacraments in general and individually, —the five spurious sacraments they have invented without any warrant from Scripture, —and the load of ceremonies with which they have clothed those simple, unpretending ordinances which Christ appointed, —all tend most powerfully to promote the two great objects which the Romish system is fitted to advance, namely, first, to lead men to reject the gospel method of salvation, and to follow out for themselves a plan of procedure opposed to its fundamental principles; and, secondly, to make men. in so far as they sincerely submit to the authority and receive the doctrines of their church, the abject slaves of the priest, by representing them as dependent, for the possession of spiritual blessings, upon act which the priest alone can perform, and by ascribing to these acts of his an important influence in procuring for them the spiritual blowings they need. Some Romish writers have indulged their imaginations in drawing fanciful analogies from a variety of sources in support of these seven sacraments; while others have produced glowing eulogies upon the bountiful kindness and liberality of holy mother church in providing so many sacraments and so many ceremonies to supply all their spiritual wants, and to afford them spiritual assistance and comfort in all varieties of circumstances, upon all leading emergencies from their birth till their death, —baptism when they come into the world to take away all original sin, both its guilt and its power, —confirmation to strengthen and uphold them in the right path when they are growing up towards manhood, —penance and the eucharist during all their lives whenever they need them, the one to wash away all their sins, and the other to afford them spiritual nourishment— and their extreme unction when they draw near to death.

The leading aspect in which these ordinances as represented and practised in the Church of Rome, ought to be regarded, is in relation to the scriptural authority on which their observance and obligation, and the effects ascribed to them either expressly or by implication, rest, and the bearing of the doctrines and practice of the Church of Rome upon these points— on men's mode of thinking, feeling, and acting with reference to the only way of a sinners salvation revealed in the word of God: and the conclusion to which we come when we contemplate the Popish doctrines and practices in this aspect, is, that they are wholly unsanctioned by, nay, decidedly opposed to. the word of God, and unspeakably dangerous to men’s eternal welfare- as having the most direct and powerful tendency to lead men to trust, in matters which concern their everlasting peace, to their fellow-men and to external observances, instead of trusting to the person and the work of Christ as the only ground of their hope, and looking to the state of their hearts and motives as the only satisfactory evidence that they are in a condition of safety. But it is impossible not to be struck also with the great skill and ingenuity with which all these observances and inventions are adapted to increase and strengthen the control of the church and the priesthood over the minds and consciences of men. Sacraments are provided for all the leading eras or stages in men’s lives, and such representations are given of their nature and effects, as are best fitted to impress men with the deepest sense of the obligation and advantages of partaking in them. This tendency is brought out with increasing clearness when we advert to the two other sacraments which the Church of Rome has invented, —viz., holy orders and marriage: the first manifestly intended, —that is, so far as the ascription of a sacramental character is concerned, —to increase the respect and veneration entertained for the priesthood; and the second being just as manifestly intended to bring under the more direct and absolute control of the priesthood, a relation which exerts, directly and indirectly, so extensive and powerful an influence upon men individually, and upon society at large. If Popery be Satan’s masterpiece, the theory and practice of the sacraments may perhaps be regarded as the most finished and perfect department in this great work of his. And it is not in the least surprising, that when recently the great adversary set himself to check and overturn the scriptural and evangelical principles which were gaining a considerable influence in the Church of England, he should have chiefly made use of the sacramental principle for effecting his design, —that is, the principle that there is an invariable connection between participation in the sacraments and the enjoyment of spiritual blessings, and that the sacraments have an inherent power or virtue whereby they produce these appropriate effects. In no other way, and by no other process, could he have succeeded to such an extent as he has done, in leading men to disregard and despise all that Scripture teaches us concerning our helpless and ruined condition by nature; concerning the necessity of a regeneration of our moral nature by the power of the Holy Spirit; concerning the way and manner in which, according to the divine method of justification, pardon and acceptance have been procured and are bestowed; concerning the place and function of faith in the salvation of sinners, and concerning the true elements and distinguishing characteristics of all those things that accompany salvation, —and, finally, in no other way could he have succeeded to such an extent in leading nun who had been ministers in a Protestant church to submit openly and unreservedly to that system of doctrine and practice which is immeasurably better fitted than any other to accomplish his purposes, by leading men to build wholly upon a false foundation, and to reject the counsel of God again>t themselves; while it is better fitted than any other to retain men in the most degrading, and, humanly speaking, the most hopeless bondage.

III. Popish View of the Lord's Supper

It is proper, before leaving this subject, to advert to the special importance of the place which the Lord's Supper, —or the sacrament of the altar, as Romanists commonly call it, —holds in the Popish system, arid the peculiar magnitude of the corruptions which they have introduced into it. I his forms the very heart and marrow of the Popish system, and brings out summarily and compendiously nil the leading features by which it is characterized. In a general survey of the doctrine and practice of the Church of Lome upon this subject, we meet first with the monstrous doctrine of transubstantiation, which requires us to believe that, by the words of consecration pronounced by the priest, the bread and wine are changed, as to their substance, into the real flesh and blood of Christ, —the bread and wine altogether ceasing to exist, except in appearance only, and those being given to the partaker instead of the actual flesh and blood of the Redeemer. This doctrine not only contradicts the senses and the reason, but it cannot possibly be received until both the senses and the reason have been put entirely in abeyance. The imposition of the belief of this doctrine may not unjustly be regarded as a sort of experimental test of how far it is possible for the human intellect to be degraded by submitting to receive what contradict the first principles of rational belief, and overturns the certainty of all knowledge. The manifest tendency of the inculcation of such a doctrine is to sink the human intellect into thorough and absolute slavery, or, by a natural reaction, to involve it in universal and hopeless scepticism. Both these ruinous results have been fully developed in the history of the Church of home. There this doctrine of transubstantiation is made the basis of the foundation of some deadly corruptions of the fundamental principles of Christian truth, and of some gross practical frauds and abuses. It is the foundation of the adoration of the host, or the paying of divine worship to the consecrated wafer, —a practice which, on scriptural principles, is not saved from the guilt of idolatry by the mistaken belief that it is the real flesh of Christ. It is the foundation also of the doctrine and practice of the sacrifice of the mass, —that is, of the offering up by the priest of the flesh and blood of Christ, or of the bread and wine alleged to be transubstantiated into Christ’s flesh and blood, as a proper propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead. The mass is the great idol of Popery, and it presents a marvellous and most daring combination of what is false, profane, and blasphemous, —of what is dishonouring to Christ, and injurious to men, both as pertaining to the life that now is and that which is to come. It dishonours and degrades the one perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ, by representing it as repeated, or rather caricatured, daily and hourly by the juggling mummery of a priest. It tends directly to lead men to build their hopes of pardon upon a false foundation; and the whole regulations and practices of the Church of Rome in connection with it, are manifestly fitted and intended to impose upon men’s credulity, and to cheat them out of their liberty and their property. The celebration of mass for their benefit is made a regular article of merchandise; and, by the device of private or solitary masses, the priests are enabled to raise much money for masses, which of course they never perform.

These hints may be sufficient to show that the whole subject of the doctrine and practice of the Church of Rome in regard to the Eucharist, or the sacrament of the altar, is well worthy of being carefully investigated and thoroughly known, as presenting an epitome of the whole system of Popery, —of the dishonour done by it to the only true God and the only Saviour of sinners, and of its injurious bearing both on the temporal and spiritual welfare of men.

IV. Infant Baptism

The Reformers, and the groat body of Protestant divines, in putting forth the definition of the sacraments in general, or of a sacrament as such, intended to embody the substance of what they believe Scripture to teach, or to indicate, as equally applicable to both sacraments; and in laying down what they believe concerning the general objects and the ordinary effects of the sacraments, they commonly assume that the persons partaking in them are rightly qualified for receiving and improving them, —and further, and more specially, that the person baptized are adults. It is necessary to keep those considerations in now in interpreting the general description given of sacraments and of baptism, in our Confession of Faith and the other Reformed confessions; and with these assumptions, and to this extent, there is no difficulty in the way of our maintaining the general principle, which can be established by mo»t satisfactory evidence, —namely, that the fundamental spiritual blessings, on the possession of which the salvation of men universally depends, —justification and regeneration by faith, —are not conveyed through the instrumentality of the sacraments, but that, on the contrary, they must already exist before even baptism can be lawfully or safely received. The general tenor of Scripture language upon the subject of baptism applies primarily and directly to the baptism of adults, and proceeds upon the assumption, that the profession implied in the reception of baptism by adults, —the profession, that is. that they had already been led to believe in Christ, and to receive Him as their Saviour and their Master, -was sincere, or corresponded with the real state of their minds and hearts. It is necessary, therefore, to form our primary and fundamental conceptions of the objects and effects of baptism in itself, as a distinct subject, and in its bearing upon the general doctrine of the sacraments, from the baptism of adults and not of infants. The baptisms which are ordinarily described or referred to in the New Testament, were the baptisms of men who had lived as Jews and heathens, and who, having been led to believe in Christ, —or, at least, to profess faith in Him, —expressed and sealed this faith, or the profession of it. by complying with Christ's requirement, that they should be baptized. This is the proper, primary, full idea of baptism; and to this the general tenor of Scripture language upon the subject, and the general description of the objects and ends of baptism, as given in our Confession of Faith, and in the other confessions of the Reformed churches, are manifestly adapted.

As, in the condition in which we are placed in providence, we but seldom witness the baptism of adults, and commonly see only the baptism of infants, —and as there are undoubtedly some difficulties in the way of applying fully to the baptism of infants the definition usually given of a sacrament, and the general account commonly set forth of the objects and ends of baptism, —we are very apt to be led to form insensibly very erroneous and defective views of the nature and effects of baptism, as an ordinance instituted by Christ in His church, or rather, to rest contented with scarcely any distinct or definite conception upon the subject. Men usually have much more clear and distinct apprehensions of the import, design, and effects of the Lord’s Supper than of Baptism; and yet the general definition commonly given of a sacrament applies equally to both, being just intended to embody the substance of what Scripture indicates as equally applicable to the one ordinance as to the other. If we were in the habit of witnessing adult baptism, and if we formed our primary and full conceptions of the import and effects of the ordinance from the baptism of adults, the one sacrament would be as easily understood, and as definitely apprehended, as the other; and we would have no difficulty in seeing how the general definition given of the sacraments in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms applied equally to both. But as this general definition of sacraments, and the corresponding general description given of the objects and effects of baptism, do not apply fully and without some modification to the form in which we usually see baptism administered, men commonly, instead of considering distinctly what are the necessary modifications of it, and what are the grounds on which these modifications rest, leave the whole subject in a very obscure and confused condition in their minds.

These statements may, at first view, appear to be large concessions to the anti-paedo-baptists, or those who oppose the lawfulness of the baptism of infants, and to affect the solidity of the grounds on which the practice of paedo-baptism, which has ever prevailed almost universally in the church of Christ, is based. But I am persuaded that a more careful consideration of the subject will show that these views, besides being clearly sanctioned by Scripture, and absolutely necessary for the consistent and intelligible interpretation of our own standards, are, in their legitimate application, fitted to deprive the arguments of the anti-paedo-baptists of whatever plausibility they possess. It cannot be reasonably denied that they have much that is plausible to allege in opposition to infant baptism; but I am persuaded that the plausibility of their arguments will always appear greatest to men who have not been accustomed to distinguish between the primary and complete idea of this ordinance, as exhibited in the baptism of adults, and the distinct and peculiar place which is held by the special subject of infant baptism, and the precise grounds on which it rests. Paedo-baptists, from the causes to which I have referred, are apt to rest contented with very obscure and defective notions of the import and objects of baptism, and to confound adult and infant baptism as if the same principles must fully and universally apply to both. And in this state of things, when those views of the sacraments in general, and of baptism in particular, which I have briefly explained, are prosed upon their attention, and seen and acknowledged to be well founded, they are not unlikely to imagine that these principles equally rule the case of infant baptism; and they are thus prepared to see, in the arguments of the anti-paedo-baptists, a much larger amount of force and solidity than they really possess. Hence the importance of being familiar with what should be admitted or conceded, as clearly sanctioned by Scripture, with respect to baptism in general, in its primary, complete idea, —estimating exactly what this implies, and how far it goes; and then, moreover, being well acquainted with the special subject of infant baptism as a distinct topic, with the peculiar considerations applicable to it, and the precise grounds on which its lawfulness and obligation can be established.

It is not my purpose to enter upon a full discussion of infant baptism, or an exposition of the grounds on which the views of paedo-baptists can, as I believe, be successfully established and vindicated. I shall merely make a few observations on what it is that paedo-baptists really maintain, —on the distinct and peculiar place which the doctrine of infant baptism truly occupies, —and on the relation in which it stands to the general subject of baptism and the sacraments; believing that correct apprehensions upon these points are well fitted to illustrate the grounds on which infant baptism rests in all their strength, and the insufficiency of the reasons by which the opposite view has been supported.

Let me then, in the first place, remark that intelligent pa3do-baptists hold all those views of the sacraments and of baptism which I have endeavoured to explain, and are persuaded that they can hold them in perfect consistency with maintaining that the infants of believing parents ought to be baptized. There is nothing in these views peculiar to the anti-paedo-baptists; and there is, we are persuaded, no real advantage which they can derive from them in support of their opinions. These views are clearly sanctioned by our Confession of Faith; while, at the same time, it contains also the following proposition as a part of what the word of God teaches upon the subject of baptism: “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.” Now, let it be observed that this position is all that is essential to the doctrine of the paedo-baptists, as such. We are called upon to maintain nothing more upon the subject than this plain and simple proposition, which merely asserts the lawfulness and propriety of baptizing the infants of believing parents. Let it be noticed also, that the statement is introduced merely as an adjunct or appendage to the general doctrine of baptism; not as directly and immediately comprehended under it, any more than under the general definition given of a sacrament, but as a special addition to it, resting upon its own distinct and peculiar grounds. This is the true place which infant baptism occupies; this is the view that ought to be taken of it; and I am persuaded that it is when contemplated and investigated in this aspect, that there comes out most distinctly and palpably the sufficiency of the arguments in favour of it, and the sufficiency of the objections against it. On this, as on many other subjects, the friends of truth have often injured their cause, by entering too fully and minutely into explanations of their doctrines, for the purpose of commending them to men’s acceptance, and solving the difficulties by which they seemed to be beset. They have thus involved themselves in great difficulties, by trying to defend their own minute and unwarranted explanations, as if they were an essential part of the Scripture doctrine. It is easy enough to prove from Scripture that the Father is God, that the Son is God, and that the Holy Ghost is God, and that they are not three Gods, but one God; but many of the more detailed explanations of the doctrine of the Trinity which have been given by its friends, have been untenable and indefensible, and have only laid it open unnecessarily to the attacks of its enemies. In like manner, we think it no difficult matter to produce from Scripture sufficient and satisfactory evidence of the position, that the infants of believing parents are to be baptized; but minute and detailed expositions of the reasons and the effects of infant baptism are unwarranted by Scripture; they impose an unnecessary burden upon the friends of truth, and tend only to give an advantage to its opponents. The condition and fate of infants, and the principles by which they are determined, have always been subjects on which men, not unnaturally, have been prone to speculate, but on which Scripture has given us little explicit information beyond this, that salvation through Christ is just as accessible to them as to adults. One form in which this tendency to speculate unwarrantably about infants has been exhibited, is that of inventing theories about the objects and effects of infant baptism. These theories are often made to rest as a burden upon the scriptural proof of the lawfulness and propriety of the mere practice itself; and thus have the appearance of communicating to that proof, which is amply sufficient for its own proper object, their own essential weakness and invalidity.

It is manifest that, from the nature of the case, the principles that determine and indicate the objects and effects of baptism in adults and infants, cannot he altogether the same; and the great difficulty of the whole subject lies in settling, as far as we can, 'hat modifications our conceptions of baptism should undergo in the case of infants, as distinguished from that of adults: and, at the same time, to show that, even with these modifications, the essential and fundamental ideas involved in the general doctrine ordinarily professed concerning baptism are still preserved. The investigation even of this point is, perhaps, going beyond the line of what is strictly necessary for the establishment of the position, that the infants of believing parents are to be baptized. But some notice of it can scarcely be avoided in the discussion of the question.

infants of believing parents are to be baptized, consists chiefly in the proof which the word of God affords, to the following effect: —that, in the whole history of our race, God’s covenanted dealings with His people, with respect to spiritual blessings, have had regard to their children as well as to themselves; so that the children as well as the parents have been admitted to the spiritual blessings of God’s covenants, and to the outward sins and seals of these covenants;— that there is no evidence that this general principle, so full of mercy and grace, and so well fitted to nourish faith and hope, was to be departed from, or laid aside, under the Christian dispensation; but, on the contrary, a great deal to confirm the conviction that it was to continue to be acted on;— that the children of believers are capable of receiving, and often do in fact receive, the blessings of the covenant, justification and regeneration; and are therefore— unless there be some very express prohibition, either by general principle or specific statement — admissible and entitled to the outward sign and seal of these blessings;— that there is a federal holiness, as distinguished from a personal holiness, attaching, under the Christian as well as the Jewish economy, to the children of believing parents, which affords a sufficient ground for their admission, by an outward ordinance, into the fellowship of the church: —and that the commission which our Saviour gave to His apostles, and the history we have of the way in which they exercised this commission, decidedly favour the conclusion, that they admitted the children of believers along with their parents, and because of their relation to their parents, into the communion of the church by baptism.

This line of argument, though in some measure inferential, is, we are persuaded, amply sufficient in cumulo to establish the conclusion, that the children of believing parents are to be baptized, unless either the leading positions of which it consists can be satisfactorily proved to have no sanction from Scripture, or some general position can be established which proves the incompatibility of infant baptism, either with the character of the Christian dispensation in general, or with the qualities and properties of the ordinance of baptism in particular. I do not mean to enter upon the consideration of the specific scriptural evidence in support of the different positions that constitute the proof of the lawfulness and propriety of baptizing the children of believing parents, or of the attempts which have been made to disprove them singly, and in detail. I can only advert to the general allegation, that infant baptism is inconsistent with some of the qualities or properties of the ordinance of baptism, as it is set before us in Scripture.

It is manifestly nothing to the purpose to say, in support of this general allegation, that baptism in the ease of infants cannot be, in all respects, the same as baptism in the case of adults; or, that we cannot give so full and specific an account of the objects and effects of infant as of adult baptism. These positions are certainly both true; but they manifestly concern merely incidental points, not affecting the root of the matter, and afford no ground for any such conclusion as the unlawfulness of infant baptism. In the case of the baptism of adults, we can speak clearly and decidedly as to the general object, and the ordinary effects, of the administration of the ordinance. The adult receiving baptism is either duly qualified and suitably prepared for it, or he is not. If he is not duly qualified, his baptism is a hypocritical profession of a state of mind and heart that does not exist; and, of course, it can do him no good, but must be a sin, and, as such, must expose him to the divine displeasure. If he is duly qualified and suitably prepared, then his baptism, though it does not convey to him justification and regeneration, which he must have before received through faith, impresses upon his mind, through God s blessing, their true nature and grounds, and strengthens his faith to realize more fully his own actual condition, as an unworthy recipient of unspeakable mercies, and his obligations to live to Gods praise and glory. We are unable to put any such clear and explicit alternative in the case of the baptism of infants, or give any very definite account of the way and manner in which it bears upon or affects them individually. Men have often striven hard in their speculations to lay down something precise and definite, in the way of general principle or standard, as to the bearing and effect of baptism in relation to the great blessings of justification and regeneration in the case of infants individually. But the Scripture really affords no adequate materials for doing this; for we have no sufficient warrant for asserting, even in regard to infants, to whom it is God's purpose to give at some time justification and regeneration, that He uniformly or ordinarily gives it to them before or at their baptism. The discomfort of this state of uncertainty, the difficulty of laving down any definite doctrine upon this subject, has often led men to adopt one or other of two opposite extremes, which have the appearance of greater simplicity and definiteness, —that is, either to deny the lawfulness of infant baptism altogether, or to embrace the doctrine of baptismal justification and regeneration, and to represent all baptized infants, or at least all the baptized infants of believing parents, as receiving these great blessings in and with the external ordinances, or as certainly and infallibly to receive them at some future time. But this is manifestly unreasonable. “True fortitude of understanding,” according to the admirable and well-known saying of Paley, “consists in not suffering what we do know, to be disturbed by what we do not know.” And assuredly, if there be sufficient scriptural grounds for thinking that the infants of believing parents are to be baptized, it can be no adequate ground for rejecting, or even doubting, the truth of this doctrine, that we have no sufficient materials for laying down any precise or definite proposition of a general kind as to the effect of baptism in the case of infants individually.

But the leading allegation of the anti-paedo-baptists on this department of the subject is, that it is inconsistent with the nature of baptism, as set before us in Scripture, that it should be administered to any, except upon the ground of a previous possession of faith by the person receiving it. If this proposition could be established, it would, of course, preclude the baptism of infants who have not faith, and who could not profess it if they had it. We are persuaded that this proposition cannot be established, though we admit that a good deal which is plausible can be adduced from Scripture in support of it. It is admitted that all persons who are in a condition to possess and to profess faith, must possess and profess it before they can lawfully or safely receive the ordinance of baptism. This can be easily established from Scripture. It is admitted, also, that the ordinary tenor of Scripture language concerning baptism has respect, primarily and principally, to persons in this condition.— that is, to adults, —and that thus a profession of faith is ordinarily associated with the Scripture notices of the administration of baptism; so that, as has been explained, we are to regard baptism upon a profession of faith, as exhibiting the proper type and full development of the ordinance. Had we no other information bearing upon the subject in Scripture than what has now been referred to, this might be fairly enough regarded as precluding the baptism of infants; but in the absence of anything which, directly or by implication, teaches that this previous profession of faith is of the essence of the ordinance, and universally necessary to its legitimate administration and reception, an inference of this sort is not sufficient to neutralize the direct and positive evidence we have in Scripture in favour of the baptism of infants. The only thing, which seems to be really of the essence of the ordinance in this respect is, that the parties receiving it are capable of possessing, and have a federal interest in, the promise of the spiritual blessings which it was intended to signify and to seal. Now, the blessings which baptism was intended to signify and seal are justification and regeneration, —that is, the washing away of guilt, and the washing away of depravity. These, and these alone, are the spiritual blessings which the washing with water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, directly signifies and represents. Faith does not stand in the same relation to baptism as these blessings do, and for this obvious and conclusive reason, that it is not directly and expressly signified or represented in the external ordinance itself, as they are.

Faith is, indeed, ordinarily, and in the case of all who are capable of it, the medium or instrument through which these indispensable blessings are conveyed; and there is certainly much better scriptural evidence in support of the necessity of faith in order to being saved, than in support of the necessity of a profession of faith in order to being baptized. But yet it is quite certain, that faith is not universally necessary in order to a right I to these blessings, or to the actual possession of them. It is universally admitted that infants, though incapable of faith, are capable of salvation, and are actually saved; and they cannot be saved unless they be justified and regenerated. And since it is thus certain that infants actually receive the very blessings which baptism signifies and represents, without the presence of the faith which is necessary to the possession of these blessings in adults, —while yet the Scripture has much more explicitly connected faith and salvation than it has ever connected faith and baptism, —there can be no serious difficulty in the idea of their admissibility to the outward sign and seal of these blessings, without a previous profession of faith.

If it be said that something ore than a mere capacity of receiving the blessings which baptism signifies and represents, is necessary to warrant the administration of it, since the ordinance is, in its general nature and character, distinguishing, and it is not all infants that are admitted to it— it is not difficult to show, that not only does the admission of this general idea, as pertaining to the essence of the doctrine of baptism, not preclude the baptism of infants, but that we have in their case what is fairly analogous to the antecedently existing ground, which is the warrant or foundation of the administration of it to adults. In the case of adults, this antecedent ground or warrant is their own faith professed; and in the case of the infants of believing parents, it is their interest in the covenant which, upon scriptural principles, they possess simply as the children of believing parents, —the federal holiness which can be proved to attach to them, in virtue of God’s arrangements and promises, simply upon the ground of their having been born of parents who are themselves comprehended in the covenant. If this general principle can be shown to be sanctioned by Scripture, —and we have no doubt that it can be conclusively established, —then it affords an antecedent ground or warrant for the admission of the children of believing parents to the ordinance of baptism analogous to that which exists in believing adults, —a ground or warrant the relevancy and validity of which cannot be affected by anything except a direct and conclusive proof of the absolute and universal necessity of a profession of faith, as the only sufficient ground or warrant, in every instance, of the administration of baptism; and no such proof has been, or can be, produced.

Calvin, in discussing this point, fully admits the necessity of some antecedent ground or warrant attaching to infants, as the foundation of admitting them to baptism; but he contends that this is to be found in the scriptural principle of the interest which the infants of believing parents have, as such, in virtue of God’s arrangements and promises, in the covenant and its blessings. He says, “Quo jure ad baptismum eos admittimus, nisi quod promissionis sunt haeredcs? Nisi enim jam ante ad eos pertineret vitae promissio, baptismum profanaret, quisquis illis daret.” 

My chief object in these observations has been to illustrate the importance of considering and investigating the subject of infant baptism as a distinct topic, resting upon its own proper and peculiar grounds, —of estimating aright its true relation to the sacraments in general, and to baptism as a whole, —and of appreciating justly the real nature and amount of the modifications which it is necessary to introduce into the mode of stating and defending the general doctrine as to the objects and effects of baptism, in the case of infants as distinguished from adults; and I have made them, because I am persuaded that it is when the subject is viewed in this aspect, that the strength of the arguments for, and the weakness of the arguments against, infant baptism, come out most palpably, and that by following this process of investigation we shall be best preserved from any temptation to corrupt and lower the general doctrines of the sacraments, —while at the same time we shall be most fully enabled to show that infant baptism, with the difficulties which undoubtedly attach to it, and with the obscurity in which some points connected with it are involved, is really analogous in its essential features to the baptism of adults, and implies nothing that is really inconsistent with the view taught us in Scripture with respect to sacraments and ordinances in general, or with respect to baptism in particular.


from William Cunningham's Historical Theology, vol. 2

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