J. Gresham Machen said, “In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.” If Machen is right, and I think he is, then it is because baptism is very important that Christians often disagree about it. To be sure, debates about baptism are intramural, but they help us understand the distinctives of various Christian traditions. In this way, they also help us understand our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Reformed view is summarized in the confessional documents of the Presbyterian and Continental Reformed churches: the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms for the former, and the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort for the latter. These documents lay out a view of baptism that is distinctly different from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist views. This view can be understood under three headings: the meaning of baptism, the recipients of baptism, and the mode of baptism.
The Meaning of Baptism
Baptism is the rite of initiation into the visible church, which consists of all those who possess faith in Christ, along with their children (Acts 2:39; WCF 25.2; 28.1). In administering baptism, the church exercises obedience to Christ’s command to “make disciples . . . baptizing them” (Matt. 28:19).
Baptism is a visible word, a sign act whereby Christ and His benefits are shown forth to believers and applied to them (WCF 27.1). Over against the Baptist view, the Reformed view asserts that something actually happens in baptism—grace is actually conferred to worthy recipients—and over against the Roman Catholic and Lutheran views, the Reformed view asserts that baptism does not regenerate; nor does it work through the automatic efficacy of the sacrament itself or in the precise moment of its administration. Instead, baptism works through the operation of the Spirit in His people, meaning that it can either precede faith or follow it (John 3:8; WCF 28.6).
The sacrament is a sign and seal of cleansing from sin and ingrafting to Christ (WCF 28.1). It is not simply an outward sign of an inward change; it is an act of God, a solemn promise to apply to worthy recipients the benefits signified in the sacrament—namely, the promises of God’s covenant.
The Recipients of Baptism
Anyone who comes to faith as an adult and who has never received a valid baptism should be baptized (Westminster Larger Catechism 167). On this, all sides agree; Presbyterians as much as Baptists will baptize adult converts. But the Reformed view, over against the Baptist view, is that the children of at least one believer should be baptized as well (WCF 28.4).
Under the old covenant, children were considered members of the covenant community and were granted the sign of initiation into that covenant, which was circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14). Under the new covenant, the substance of the one overarching covenant of grace has not changed; only the administration has (Col. 2:11–12; WLC 35). Therefore, the children of believers are to receive the sign of initiation, which is now baptism (Acts 2:38–39).
The Mode of Baptism
Protestants agree that ordinary water is to be used in the sacrament, but they disagree on how it is to be used. The Baptist view of baptism asserts that immersion is the only valid mode of baptism, based partly on the meaning of the Greek word baptizō, which, it is said, means “to dip” or “to immerse.” Baptizō, however, cannot and does not always mean “to immerse” (see, e.g., Mark 7:4 [“washing” = baptizō]; Acts 2:41; Rom. 6:3). In the Baptist view, immersion—going down into and coming up out of the water—is said to best picture the death and resurrection of Christ, but this misses the fact that in ancient Israel the dead were buried horizontally, in caves and such, rather than vertically as in the soft ground of North America.
The Reformed view, over against the Baptist view, sees immersion as nonessential and instead sees affusion—sprinkling or pouring—as a better picture of what baptism signifies (Heb. 10:22; WCF 28.3). Various passages speak of the Holy Spirit as “coming upon,” “falling upon,” or being “poured out” on believers (see, e.g., Acts 1:8; 2:3, 17; 11:15–16). When the Holy Spirit falls on someone in this way, it means He is regenerating him and working faith in him. This is baptism of the Holy Spirit—salvation (Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:33; Eph. 1:13–14; WLC 165). Therefore, it makes sense for the baptism of water to imitate the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
To summarize, the Reformed view understands baptism to be a sacrament that was instituted by Christ and is properly administered to those who are in the visible church, along with their children.