I. Baptism is 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 unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world.
6) Remission of sin
VI. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.
“But there is another explanation of the subject which has obtained extensive currency I refer to the doctrine of BAPTISMAL REGENERATION If baptism be designed as we have no doubt it is for the benefit of infant children it has appeared to many that this precious ordinance affords the readiest explanation of the means by which the Spirit of grace executes his gracious work by imparting to them the germ of a new spiritual life and engrafting them into the Church of Christ On no subject is it more necessary to speak with caution and to think with accuracy especially in the present day when the most opposite errors are current respecting it some representing baptism as a mere ceremony a naked sign or an empty form while others are strenuously contending that in every case in which it is administered it necessarily implies regeneration and that no other regeneration is to be looked for The language of the Westminster Confession is equally opposed to each of these pernicious errors and while it unfolds the spiritual import of baptism in all its fulness by the use of Scriptural terms which may almost seem at first sight to imply all that the advocates for baptismal regeneration contend for it singles out with the strictest discrimination and condemns with the utmost explicitness the groundless opinions which have been mixed up with that doctrine so as at once to confirm the truth and to correct the error”
“Did the question relate only to the right use of a term or to a distinction betwixt one term and another it might be of little consequence in most cases though not in this where the sense attached to regeneration would go far to nullify the import of many precious texts of Scripture but the evil is greatly increased when having attached this meaning to the term it is contended that no other regeneration is to be sought or hoped for it and that all are alike regenerated whether elect or non elect and whether ultimately they be saved or lost Considered in this light our divines have generally opposed the doctrine of baptismal regeneration Regeneration does not consist says Owen in a participation of the ordinance of baptism and a profession of the doctrine of repentance ”
“And it deserves to be remarked that even those who hold the highest views of baptismal regeneration should not on that account object to a detailed illustration of His subsequent operations on the mind and heart since they admit that whatever grace may be imparted at baptism there must be an internal and spiritual change of mind and heart a change wrought by the agency of the Spirit and the instrumentality of the truth in riper years before any man can enter the kingdom of God”
Obviously Westminster held to the fact that men can and are regenerated at baptism. The error would be thinking that every person that comes under the sacrament is regenerated; that runs against what Westminster believed.
Here is Matthew Henry using similar language:
“2. As to the real influence of baptism,
we cannot be so clear; nor need we. As
far as the parents are concerned, we are
sure, that the children are not so regenerated,
as not to need good instructions,
when they become capable of them, and
yet are so regenerated, that if they die in
infancy, parents may take comfort from
their baptism in reference to their salvation:
and as to the children, when they
grow up, we are sure, that their baptismal
regeneration, without something more, is
not sufficient to bring them to heaven :
and yet it may be urged, (as I said before,)
in praying to God to give them
grace, and in persuading them to submit
Here is Bannerman on the issue: He acknowledges 3 types of understanding within the Church of England and it’s divines:
“There are at least three different modifications of the doctrine
of baptismal regeneration held by divines of the Church of England,
which can be readily enough distinguished from each other.
First, there is one party who assert that Baptism, by the administration
of it, gives the person baptized a place within the covenant
of grace, i n such a sense that he has a right to all its outward
privileges and means of grace, and by a diligent and right use of
them, may secure to himself salvation. This is the lowest view
of the efficacy of Baptism held by those who assert the doctrine
of baptismal regeneration, and amounts apparently to this, that
Baptism is necessary i n order to the salvability of a man,—all
unbaptized persons having no right to the privileges of the
covenant, and being left to ” the uncovenanted mercies of God.”
I n answer to such a theory, i t is enough to assert, with the Word
of God, that the Gospel is free to a l l ; that all, without exception
of class or character, are invited to avail themselves of i t ; and
t h a t ” the free gift unto justification of life ” is not restricted to any
limited number of men, baptized or unbaptized, but is co-extensive
in its promises and invitations with ” the judgment that has come
upon all unto condemnation.”1 Second, there is another party of it, regenerating grace—a true spiritual life ; which may continue
with the baptized person, so as to avail at last to his
everlasting salvation, but which may also be forfeited in after
years by means of sin. This second form of the doctrine of baptismal
regeneration proceeds upon an alleged distinction—held
apparently by Augustine,1 and after him maintained by many
Lutheran divines—between those who are predestinated unto life,
and those who are regenerated. I t is affirmed that the two classes
do not coincide, and that regeneration, though once imparted to
the soul, may be subsequently lost. Third, there is another party
who admit that Baptism imparts saving grace and regeneration to
the soul, which under no circumstance can be entirely forfeited,
but which entitle the person baptized to everlasting life.
These three different forms of the theory of baptismal regeneration
i t is not necessary to reply to separately. ”
Charles Hodge writes:
“Conversion is “a change of heart and life from sin to holiness.” ” To the heathen and infidel
conversion is absolutely and always necessary to salvation.” To the baptized Christian conversion is not always necessary.” Some persons have confused conversion with regeneration, and
have taught that all men, the baptized, and therefore in fact regenerate, must be regenerated afterwards, or they cannot be saved. Now this is in many ways false : for regeneration, which
the Lord Jesus Christ himself has connected with holy baptism, cannot be repeated : moreover, not all men (though indeed most men do) fall into such sin after baptism, that conversion, or as they tel-m i t , regeneration, is necessary to their salvation ; and if a regeneration were necessary to them, it could only be obtained through repetition of baptism, which were an act of sacrilege.”
” They who object to the expression baptismal regeneration, by regeneration mean, for the most part, the first influx of irresistible and indefectible grace ; grace that cannot be repelled by its
subject, and which must issue in its final salvation. Now, of such grace our Church knows nothing, and of course, therefore, means not by regeneration at baptism, the first influx of such grace. That the sins, original and actual, of the faithful recipient of baptism, are washed away, she doth indeed believe ; and also that grace is given to him by the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit; yet so that the conscience thus cleansed may be again defiled, and that the baptized person may, and often does, by his own fault, fall again into sin. in which if he die he shall without doubt perish everlastingly ; his condemnation not being avoided, but rather increased, by his baptismal privilege.”
Obviously, our fathers in the faith used the term; it is not the same term we understand it to be; much like the term Common Grace. Todays definition of Common Grace is not the same that Westminster held to.
1 Peter 3:21
21 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,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
The Efficacy of Baptism
That baptism has power is expressly stated: baptism that now saves you. What kind of power this is, is equally clear from the way it is here expressed. It is not by a natural force of the element. Even when it is used sacramentally it can only wash away the dirt of the body, as its physical power reaches no further. But since it is in the hand of the Spirit of God, as other sacraments are and as the Word itself is, it can purify the conscience and convey grace and salvation to the soul through its reference to and union with what it represents. It saves by the pledge of a good conscience toward God, and that by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Thus, we have a true account of this power, and so of other sacraments, and we find the error of two extremes. First, that of those who ascribe too much to them, as if they worked through a natural, inherent value and carried grace in them inseparably. Second, the error of those who ascribe too little to them, making them only signs and badges of our profession. Signs they are, but more than signs that merely represent something. They are the means exhibiting and seals confirming grace to the faithful. But the working of faith and the conveying of Christ into the soul are not put into them to accomplish in themselves but are still in the supreme hand that appointed them. God causes the souls of his own to receive these seals of his with faith and makes them effectual to confirm the faith that receives them in this way. They are then, in a word, neither empty signs to those who believe, nor effectual causes of grace to those who do not believe.
~Leighton/Thomas 1 Peter Commentary
But the fanatics, such as Schuencfeldius, absurdly pervert this testimony, while they seek to take away from sacraments all their power and effect. For Peter did not mean here to teach that Christ’s institution is vain and inefficacious, but only to exclude hypocrites from the hope of salvation, who, as far as they can, deprave and corrupt baptism. Moreover, when we speak of sacraments, two things are to be considered, the sign and the thing itself. In baptism the sign is water, but the thing is the washing of the soul by the blood of Christ and the mortifying of the flesh. The institution of Christ includes these two things. Now that the sign appears often inefficacious and fruitless, this happens through the abuse of men, which does not take away the nature of the sacrament. Let us then learn not to tear away the thing signified from the sign. We must at the same time beware of another evil, such as prevails among the Papists; for as they distinguish not as they ought between the thing and the sign, they stop at the outward element, and on that fix their hope of salvation. Therefore the sight of the water takes away their thoughts from the blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit. They do not regard Christ as the only author of all the blessings therein offered to us; they transfer the glory of his death to the water, they tie the secret power of the Spirit to the visible sign.
What then ought we to do? Not to separate what has been joined together by the Lord. We ought to acknowledge in baptism a spiritual washing, we ought to embrace therein the testimony of the remission of sin and the pledge of our renovation, and yet so as to leave to Christ his own honour, and also to the Holy Spirit; so that no part of our salvation should be transferred to the sign. Doubtless when Peter, having mentioned baptism, immediately made this exception, that it is not the putting off of the filth of the flesh, he sufficiently shewed that baptism to some is only the outward act, and that the outward sign of itself avails nothing.
John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 118–119.
We must hold, therefore, that there is a mutual relation between faith and the sacraments, and hence, that the sacraments are effective through faith. Man’s unworthiness does not detract anything from them, for they always retain their nature. Baptism is the laver of regeneration, although the whole world should be incredulous: (Tit. iii.5) the Supper of Christ is the communication of his body and blood, (I Cor. x.16) although there were not a spark of faith in the world: but we do not perceive the grace which is offered to us; and although spiritual things always remain the same, yet we do not obtain their effect, nor perceive their value, unless we are cautious that our want of faith should not profane what God has consecrated to our salvation.
I. Declares what he means by saving baptism; not the outward ceremony of washing with water, which, in itself, does no more than put away the filth of the flesh, but it is that baptism wherein there is a faithful answer or restipulation ofa resolved good conscience, engaging to believe in, and be entirely devoted to, God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, renouncing at the same time the flesh, the world, and the devil. The baptismal covenant, made and kept, will certainly save us. Washing is the visible sign; this is the thing signified.
II. The apostle shows that the efficacy of baptism to salvation depends not upon the work done, but upon the resurrection of Christ, which supposes his death, and is the foundation of our faith and hope, to which we are rendered conformable by dying to sin, and rising again to holiness and newness of life. Learn, 1. the sacrament of baptism, rightly received, is a means and a pledge of salvation. Baptism now saveth us. God is pleased to convey his blessings to us in and by his ordinances, Acts 2:38; 22:16. 2. The external participation of baptism will save no man without an answerable good conscience and conversation. There must be the answer of a good conscience towards God.—Obj. Infants cannot make such an answer, and therefore ought not to be baptized.—Answer, the true circumcision was that of the heart and of the spirit (Rom. 2:29), which children were no more capable of then than our infants are capable of making this answer now; yet they were allowed circumcision at eight days old. The infants of the Christian church therefore may be admitted to the ordinance with as much reason as the infants of the Jewish, unless they are barred from it by some express prohibition of Christ.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2430.
Some additional quotes that are relevant:
“We, too, acknowledge that the use of Baptism is necessary–that no one may omit it from either neglect or contempt. In this way we by no means make it free [that is, optional]. And not only do we strictly bind the faithful to the observance of it, but we also maintain that it is the ordinary instrument of God in washing and renewing us; in short, in communicating to us salvation. The only exception we make is, that the hand of God must not be tied down to the instrument. He may of himself accomplish salvation. For when an opportunity for Baptism is wanting, the promise of God alone is amply sufficient.”
— Calvin, “Antidote to Trent”
“Here we say nothing more than the apostle Paul expounds most clearly in the sixth and seventh chapters of the Epistle to the Romans. He had discoursed of free justification, but as some wicked men thence inferred that they were to live as they listed, because their acceptance with God was not procured by the merit of works, he adds, that all who are clothed with the righteousness of Christ are at the same time regenerated by the Spirit, and that we have an earnest of this regeneration in baptism. Hence he exhorts believers not to allow sin to reign in their members.”
— Calvin, “Institutes” (4.15.12)
“The first sacrament of the Christian church, by which upon the covenanted, having been received into the family of God by the external sprinkling of water in the name of the Trinity, remission of sins and regeneration by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit are bestowed and sealed.”
— Francis Turretin, “Institutes”
In the course of my ministry, in my own cure, I was lately cast upon this point: viz. “That all elect infants, do, ordinarily, in baptism, receive the Spirit of Christ, to seize upon them for Christ, and to be in them as the root and first principle of regeneration, and future newness of life.” This is the way I spoke (as then I expressed myself) with reference only to such infants as do not die in infancy, but live to years of discretion, and then come to be effectually called, and actually converted by the ordinary means of the word applied by the same Spirit to them, when and how he pleases. As for the rest of the elect, who die infants, I will not deny a further work, sometimes in, sometimes before baptism, to fit them for heaven.
The sacrament profits no man of years, without faith to apprehend the promise: nor can the elect themselves sensibly perceive the fruit and comfort of their baptism, in the ordinary course, until after they have obtained actual faith at their actual conversion. Nor does it follow that they did not have the Spirit in baptism, because they were not capable of so much as knowing the same at the time; much less, of believing; for so says the author, “Although infants in the instance of circumcision were not able to comprehend what that sign meant, they were yet truly circumcised unto the mortification of their corrupt and defiled nature, which after they were yet truly circumcised unto the mortification of their corrupt and defiled nature, which after they came to years they meditated on.
–Cornelius Burgess, Baptismal Regeneration, n.d.