The Baptism of Christ

Text: Mark 1:4-11

Today we are discussing the baptism of Jesus. We’ll set the scene, explaining what lead up to this event as well as the baptism itself. After that, we’ll explain what Christ’s baptism means—what it meant for Him, what it meant for those around Him at the time, and what it means for us today. And lastly we will discuss our own baptisms and what we learn about them from Christ’s baptism.

The Scene

“John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, ‘There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” (Mark 1:4-8)

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Davenant and Ward on Infant Baptism

Joel Garver, ubiquitous in his learning and lauded by divines across the world, has translated a letter from John Davenant to Samuel Ward, and he has also reposted a letter from Ward to Archbishop Ussher. Both letters have to do with the efficacy of infant baptism.

Davenant’s letter to Ward is here.

Ward’s letter to Ussher is here.
Both men affirm that some type of grace is given to all in baptism. Particularly, they affirm that original guilt is taken away from all baptized infants.

Davenant also affirms some critical distinctions between “efficacy” in infants and “efficacy” in those who have reached the age of reason. Two particularly important statements that he makes are:

That the justification, regeneration, adoption, which we admit does belong to baptized infants, is not univocally the same with that justification, regeneration, and adoption, which we say is never lost with regard to the matter of the saints’ perseverance.

and:

The justification and regeneration and adoption of baptized infants confers on them a state of salvation according to the condition of infants.

So baptized infants have “infant benefits” so to speak. These are not the same as those possessing full use of their reason, which would be the ever-persevering benefits. However, these “infant benefits” are sufficient for the infants’ salvation prior to reaching such age.

I believe this is essentially Calvin’s position as well, and it is how we should understand his own language of people rejecting the grace that was given to them at baptism. Compare what we’ve seen in Davenant to this from Calvin:

It is certainly true that when children of believers reach the age of discernment [and have never repented or believed] they will have alienated themselves from God and destroyed utterly the truth of baptism. But this is not to say that our Lord has not elected them and separated them from others in order to grant them His salvation. Otherwise, it would be in vain for Saint Paul to say that a child of a believing father or mother is sanctified, who would be impure if he were born of and descended from unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:14).

~ John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines pg. 52

Take Away the Doctrine of Original Sin, and the Baptism of Infants Seems to be a Very Ridiculous Thing

Anyone familiar with Augustine’s writings against Pelagius will recognize when his methodology reappears in later writers. One of his more memorable proofs for original sin was infant baptism. The argument went something like this, “If they don’t have any sin, then why are we baptizing them for the remission of sins?” You can’t wash off something that isn’t there.

This was a simple but effective maneuver. Peter Brown argues in his biography on Augustine that it was the practice of infant baptism that secured popular support for Augustine. Just like with Athanasius, liturgical practice helped secure dogma, at least in the larger public arena.

Again, the argument works because the belief that baptism washes away sins is presumed. Baptismal Regeneration was a doctrine universally agreed on prior to similar agreement on the doctrine of original sin. Therefore it could serve as the ground of the argument for original sin.

I find it informative that Augustine could use the argument in the 4th century, but it is even more interesting to me that folks still used it in the 17th century. Edward Polhill did just that in England in 1678 (*Hint- This is about thirty years after the Westminster Assembly). Here’s his argument:

Our Saviour Christ instituted baptism, and that for infants; but if there be no original pollution in them, what need a washing ordinance for them? The washing of their bodies, whose pure, innocent, undefiled souls are incapable of spiritual washing, is but a shadow without substance, a sacrament without internal grace, a thing too insignificant for Christ the wisdom of God to institute. Hence, when the Pelagians on the one hand granted the baptism of infants, and on the other denied original sin, St. Austin saith, that hey spoke wonderful things. In sacramento salvatoris baptizantur, sed non salvantur, redimuntur sed non liberantur, lavantur sed non abluuntur; In our Saviour’s sacrament infants are baptized, but not saved; redeemed, but not delivered; washed but not cleansed. And a little after he asks, If they are saved, what was their sickness? If delivered, what their servitude? If cleansed, what their pollution? Take away the doctrine of original sin, and the baptism of infants seems to be a very ridiculous thing. To avoid this absurdity, the Pelagians asserted, That the baptism of infants was necessary, not because there was any original sin in them, but that they might be capable of the kingdom of heaven. But I answer, Where there is no defect, there is all due perfection. If infants are pure and free from all sin, then have they all their righteousness and rectitude which ought to be in them; and if they have so, they are, without baptism, capable of heaven; or if they were not, the baptismal washing, which imports pollution, seems to be a ceremony very unfit and incongruous to be applied to them who are without spot, or to render them apt for heaven.

~ A View of Some Divine Truths pg 58-59

So in a dramatic sort of irony, we could say that those who deny baptismal regeneration are the semi-Pelagians.