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Article 27 — Of Baptism

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Posted by Glenn Davies, 30 Mar 2017

Glenn Davies looks at the Anglican doctrine of baptism in the 39 Articles.

XXVII — OF BAPTISM
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

The last recorded words of our Lord in Matthew’s Gospel were to his eleven disciples to go and make other disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus had commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). The background to this command was the making and baptising of disciples that was part of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as it had been part of John’s (John 4:1-2). The combination of making disciples and the use of water baptism as a ‘seal’ or ‘mark’ of discipleship is striking.

The prophets of the Old Testament would call rebellious Israel back to God with a reminder of the covenant of circumcision. ‘Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts’ (Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10; 9:25f; cf. Deuteronomy 10:16). However, the last Old Testament prophet was John, God’s messenger sent to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming, so a new sign was required. More was needed than merely a reminder of their circumcision; a washing of water was needed, as a sign and seal of their sins having been washed away. The ‘messenger of the covenant’ was introducing something new, and the sign of that newness was water baptism, such that the distinction between the righteous and the wicked might once again be manifest (Malachi 3:1, 18).

Thus when Peter preached his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, his hearers asked what should they do. Peter’s reply was clear: ‘Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 2:38). Likewise Paul’s preaching of faith in Christ was invariably accompanied with the baptism of Christ’s new disciples (Acts 16:31ff; 19:4f), just as he had been so baptised (Acts 9:18).

Article 27 first speaks of baptism as a sign of profession and mark of difference for Christians. This was not disputed in the sixteenth century and accords with both our Lord’s and his apostles’ teaching and practice. However, the Article then proceeds to assert that baptism is more than a sign of profession, it is also a sign of regeneration or new birth. Moreover, it is an effective sign (‘as by an instrument’), such that those who receive it ‘rightly are grafted into the Church’. This was to counter those who thought baptism was a mere sign of human response, many of whom also rejected the baptism of infants.

Baptism, rightly administered, is God’s sign of his inclusion of the person so baptised into the fellowship of his church. It represents God’s activity in changing the heart of the individual, a regeneration of the Holy Spirit, or in Jesus’ words, being ‘born of the Spirit’ (John 4:8). It is no accident that baptism is a passive sacrament, unlike the Lord’s Supper, where the participant is active (‘take and eat’). One does not baptise oneself, one is baptised by another. Such ‘passivity’ extols the very grace of God in his prior working in the human heart which elicits the response of faith. For this reason Paul reminds his reader: ‘God saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5; cf. Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 10:22). 

Baptism had been abused in the Medieval Church as a talisman or charm, such that those who were baptised considered themselves immune from God’s judgment. Article 27, by contrast, speaks of the right reception of the sacrament—‘they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church’. In other words it is not an ‘automatically’ effective sign, anymore than circumcision was an ‘automatically’ effective sign of salvation for Israel. The circumcision of the heart was needed; yet the circumcision of the flesh was the sign of such internal circumcision (Romans 2:29). That Paul compares the inner meaning of circumcision (‘circumcision made without hands’) with the reality of his hearers’ own transition from death to life in the language of baptism is instructive (Colossians 2:11-12). This is primarily the work of God in our lives, and the rightful use of baptism enables faith to be ‘confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.’ Whenever we witness a baptism, we are reminded of our own baptism, of God’s promises to us, and so our own faith is strengthened and grace increased.

The final sentence of the Article reminds us that the baptism of young children should be retained, as it is most agreeable with the institution of Christ. In contrast to the Anabaptists, the Reformers saw infant baptism as part of Christ’s mandate ‘to make disciples of all nations.’ While it is often claimed that there is no example of infants being baptised in the New Testament, thoughtful readers of the Bible will recognise that Paul has no difficulty in describing ‘all’ of Israel as being baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea—infants as well as adults (1 Corinthians 10:2). This would be very misleading language if the apostle considered infants should not be baptised under the new covenant. Indeed, in the same letter, Paul describes the children of even one believer as ‘holy’, as opposed to ‘unclean’ (1 Corinthians 7:14).

The promise of God is to us and to our children. They are not in a neutral zone awaiting salvation. They are the Lord’s children. Not bramble bushes waiting to be grafted into the vine, but olive shoots around the table (Psalm 128:3). As surely as Paul’s letter is addressed to the ‘saints’ at Ephesus, so he includes the children of believers within the same salutation (Ephesians 6:1).

It is inconceivable that the new covenant would be less inclusive than the old—quite the contrary. The expansion of God’s salvation to include Jews and Gentiles does not at the same time become more restrictive within the family. That John the Baptist would call upon people to repent and be baptised, lest they come under God’s judgment, suggests no believing Jewish parent would have left their children on the bank to receive God’s wrath, but would have brought them forward to be baptised. Like Joshua, they too would have declared: ‘As for me and my house we will serve the Lord!’ (Joshua 24:15).

Glenn N Davies is the Archbishop of Sydney. To hear more about baptism, you could also watch this video with Lee Gatiss.

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