|Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.
| -- John iii.5.
None can be saved, unless the blood of Christ, the Immaculate Lamb of God, be imputed to him; and it is His gracious will that it should be imputed to as, one by one, by means of outward and visible signs, or what are called Sacraments. These visible rites represent to us the heavenly truth, and convey what they represent. The baptismal washing betokens the cleansing of the soul from sin; the elements of bread and wine are figures of what is present but not seen, |the body and blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper.| So far the two Sacraments agree; yet there is this important difference in their use, -- that Baptism is but once administered, but the Lord's Supper is to be received continually. Our Lord Christ told the Apostles to baptize at the time that they made men His disciples. Baptism admitted them to His favour once for all; but the Lord's Supper keeps us and secures us in His favour day by day. He said, |This do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.|
Here, then, a Question at once arises, which it is important to consider: -- At what time in our life are we to be baptized, or made disciples of Christ? The first Christians of course were baptized when they were come to a full age, because then the Gospel was for the first time preached to them; they had no means of being baptized when young. But the case is different with those who are born of Christian parents; so the question now is, at what age are the sons of Christians to be baptized?
Now, for fifteen hundred years there was no dispute or difficulty in answering this question all over the Christian world; none who acknowledged the duty of baptizing at all, but administered the rite to infants, as we do at present. But about three hundred years ago strange opinions were set afloat, and sects arose, doing every thing which had not been done before, and undoing every thing that had been done before, and all this (as they professed) on the principle that it was every one's duty to judge and act for himself; and among these new sects there was one which maintained that Infant Baptism was a mistake, and that, mainly upon this short argument, -- that it was nowhere commanded in Scripture.
Let us, then, consider this subject: and first, it is but fair and right to acknowledge at once that Scripture does not bid us baptize children. This, however, is no very serious admission; for Scripture does not name any time at all for Baptism; yet it orders us to be baptized at some age or other. It is plain, then, whatever age we fix upon, we shall be going beyond the letter of Scripture. This may or may not be a difficulty, but it cannot be avoided: it is not a difficulty of our making. God has so willed it. He has kept silence, and doubtless with good reason; and surely we must try to do our part and to find out what He would have us do, according to the light, be it greater or less, which He has vouchsafed to us.
Is it any new thing that it should take time and thought to find out accurately what our duty is? Is it a new thing that the full and perfect truth should not lie on the very surface of things, in the bare letter of Scripture? Far from it. Those who strive to enter into life, these alone find the strait gate which leads thereto. It is no proof even that it is a matter of indifference what age is proper for Baptism, that Scripture is not clear about it, but hides its real meaning; not commanding but hinting what we should do. For consider how many things in this life are difficult to attain, yet, far from being matters of indifference, are necessary for our comfort or even well-being. Nay, it often happens that the more valuable any gift is, the more difficult it is to gain it. Take, for instance, the art of medicine. Is there an art more important for our life and comfort? Yet how difficult and uncertain is the science of it! what time it takes to be well versed and practised in it! What would be thought of a person who considered that it mattered little whether a sick man took this course or that, on the ground that men were not physicians by nature, and that if the Creator had meant medicine to be for our good. He would have told us at once, and every one of us, the science and the practice of it? In the same way it does not at all follow, even if it were difficult to find out at what age Baptism should be administered, that therefore one time is as good as another. Difficulty is the very attendant upon great blessings, not on things indifferent.
But a man may say that Scripture is given us for the very purpose of making the knowledge of our duty easy to us; -- what is meant by a revelation, if it does not reveal? -- and that we have no revelation to tell us what medicines are good or bad for the body, but that a revelation has been made in order to tell us what is good or bad for the soul: -- if, then, a thing were important for our soul's benefit, Scripture would have plainly declared it. I answer, who told us all this? Doubtless, Scripture was given to make our duty easier than before; but how do we know that it was intended to take away all difficulty of every kind? So says not Christ, when He bids us seek and strive and so find; to knock, to watch, and to pray. No; Scripture has not undertaken to tell us every thing, but merely to give us the means of finding every thing; and thus much we can conclude on the subject before us, that if it is important, there are means of determining it; but we cannot infer, either that it must actually be commanded in the letter of Scripture, or that it can be found out by every individual for and by himself.
But it may be said, Scripture says that the times of the Gospel shall be times of great light: |All thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.| This is true: but whose children? The Church's. Surely it is a time of light, if we come to the Church for information; for she has ever spoken most clearly on the subject. She has ever baptized infants and enjoined the practice; she has ever answered to the prophecy as being |a word behind us, saying, This is the way; walk ye in it.| Her teachers surely (according to the prophecy) have never been removed into a corner. But if we will not accept this supernatural mercy, then I say it is not unnatural that we should find ourselves in the same kind of doubt in which we commonly are involved in matters of this world. God has promised us light and knowledge in the Gospel, but in His way, not in our way.
But after all, in the present instance, surely there is no great difficulty in finding out what God would have us to do, though He has not told us in Scripture in the plainest way. I say it is not difficult to see, as the Church has ever been led to see, that God would have us baptize young children, and that to delay Baptism is to delay a great benefit, and is hazarding a child's salvation. There is no difficulty, if men are not resolved to make one.
1. Let us consider, first, what is Baptism? It is a means and pledge of God's mercy, pardon, acceptance of us for Christ's sake; it gives us grace to change our natures. Now, surely infants, as being born in sin, have most abundant need of God's mercy and grace: this cannot be doubted. Even at first sight, then, it appears desirable (to say the least) that they should be baptized. Baptism is just suited to their need: it contains a promise of the very blessings which they want, and which without God's free bounty they cannot have. If, indeed, Baptism were merely or principally our act, then perhaps the case would be altered. But it is not an act of ours so much as of God's; a pledge from Him. And, I repeat, infants, as being by nature under God's wrath, having no elements of spiritual life in them, being corrupt and sinful, are surely, in a singular manner, objects of Baptism as far as the question of desirableness is concerned.
Let us refer to our Saviour's words to Nicodemus in the text. Our Lord tells him none can enter into the kingdom of God who is not born of water and the Spirit. And why? Because (He goes on to say) |that which is born of the flesh is flesh.| We need a new birth, because our first birth is a birth unto sin. Who does not see that this reason is equally cogent for infant Baptism as for Baptism at all? Baptism by water and the Spirit is necessary for salvation (He says), because man's nature is corrupt; therefore infants must need this regeneration too. If, indeed, sin were not planted deep in man's very heart, -- if it were merely an accidental evil into which some fell while others escaped it. -- nay, even if, though (as a fact) all men actually fall into sin, yet this general depravity arose merely from bad example, not from natural bias, then indeed Baptism of water and the Spirit would not be necessary except for those who, having come to years of understanding, had actual sin to answer for: but if, as our Saviour implies, even a child's heart, before he begins to think and act, is under Divine wrath, and contains the sure and miserable promise of future sin as the child grows up, can we do otherwise than thankfully accept the pledge and means which He has given us of a new birth unto holiness; and since, by not telling us the time for Baptism, He has in a way left it to ourselves to decide upon it, shall we not apply the medicine given us when we are sure of the disease? |Can any man forbid water,| to use St. Peter's words under different circumstances, |that| children |should not be baptized?| The burden of proof, as it is called, is with those who withhold the Sacrament.
Will it be said that infants are not properly qualified for Baptism? How is this an objection? Consider the text. -- |Except one be born of water and the Spirit,| says our Lord, |he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.| There is nothing said about qualifications or conditions here which might exclude infants from Baptism, -- nothing about the necessity of previous faith, or previous good works, in order to fit us for the mercy of God. Nor indeed could any thing be said. Christ knew that, without His grace, man's nature could not bear any good fruit, for from above is every good gift. Far from it. Any such notion of man's unassisted strength is wholly detestable, contrary to the very first principles of all true religion, whether Jewish, Christian, or even Pagan. We are miserably fallen creatures, we are by nature corrupt, -- we dare not talk even of children being naturally pleasing in God's sight. And if we wait till children are in a condition to bring something to God, in payment (so to say) of His mercy to them, till they have faith and repentance, they never will be baptized; for they will never attain to that condition. To defer Baptism till persons actually have repentance and faith, is refusing to give medicine till a patient begins to get well. It would be hard indeed, if Satan be allowed to have access to the soul from infancy, as soon as it begins to think, and we refuse to do what we can, or what promises well, towards gaining for it the protection of God against the Tempter.
On this first view of the case then, from the original corruption of our nature, from the need which all men are under from their birth of pardon and help from God, from Baptism being a promise of mercy just suited to our need, and from the impossibility of any one (let him be allowed to live unbaptized ever so long) bringing any self-provided recommendation of himself to God's favour; on all these accounts, I say, since God has given us no particular directions in the matter, but has left it to ourselves, it seems, on the first view of the case, most fitting and right to give children the privilege of Baptism.
2. But, in fact, we are not, strictly speaking, left without positive encouragement to bring infants near to Him. We are not merely left to infer generally the propriety of Infant Baptism; Christ has shown us His willingness to receive children. Some men have said (indeed most of us perhaps in seasons of unbelief have been tempted in our hearts to ask), |What good can Baptism do senseless children? you might as well baptize things without life; they sleep or even struggle during the ceremony, and interrupt it; it is a mere superstition.| This, my brethren, is the language of the world, whoever uses it. It is putting sight against faith. If we are assured that Baptism has been blessed by Christ, as the rite of admittance into His Church, we have nothing to do with those outward appearances, which, though they might prove something perhaps, had He not spoken, now that He has spoken lose all force. To such objections, I would reply by citing our Saviour's |own word and deed.| We find that infants were brought to Christ; and His disciples seem to have doubted, in the same spirit of unbelief, what could be the good of bringing helpless and senseless children to the Saviour of men. They doubtless thought that His time would be better employed in teaching them, than in attending to children; that it was interfering with His usefulness. |But when Jesus saw it, He was much displeased.| These are remarkable words: |much displeased,| -- that is, He was uneasy, indignant, angry (as the Greek word may be more literally translated); and we are told, |He took them up in His arms, put His hands upon them, and blessed them.| Christ, then, can bless infants, in spite of their being to all appearance as yet incapable of thought or feeling. He can, and did, bless them; and, in the very sense in which they then were blessed, we believe they are capable of a blessing in Baptism.
3. And we may add this consideration. It is certain that children ought to be instructed in religious truth, as they can bear it, from the very first dawn of reason; clearly, they are not to be left without a Christian training till they arrive at years of maturity. Now, let it be observed, Christ seems distinctly to connect teaching with Baptism, as if He intended to convey through it a blessing upon teaching, -- |Go ye and teach all the nations, baptizing them.| If children, then, are to be considered as under teaching, as learners in the school of Christ, surely they should be admitted into that school by Baptism.
These are the reasons for Infant Baptism which strike the mind, even on the first consideration of the subject; and in the absence of express information from Scripture, they are (as far as they go) satisfactory. At what age should we be baptized? I answer, in childhood; because all children require Divine pardon and grace (as our Saviour Himself implies), all are capable of His blessing (as His action shows), all are invited to His blessing, and Baptism is a pledge from Him of His favour, as His Apostles frequently declare. Since infants are to be brought to Christ, we must have invented a rite, if Baptism did not answer the purpose of a dedication. Again, I say, in childhood; because all children need Christian instruction, and Baptism is a badge and mark of a scholar in Christ's school. And moreover, I will add, because St. Paul speaks of the children of Christian parents as being |holy,| in a favoured state, a state of unmerited blessing; and because he seems to have baptized at once whole families, where the head of the family was converted to the faith of the Gospel.
To conclude. Let me beg of all who hear me, and who wish to serve God, to remember, in their ordinary prayers, their habitual thoughts, the daily business of life, that they were once baptized. If Baptism be merely a ceremony, to be observed indeed, but then at once forgotten, -- a decent form, which it would neither be creditable, nor for temporal reasons expedient to neglect, -- it is most surely no subject for a Christian minister to speak of; Christ's religion has no fellowship with bare forms, and nowhere encourages mere outward observances. If, indeed, there be any who degrade Baptism into a mere ceremony, which has in it no spiritual promise, let such men look to it for themselves, and defend their practice of baptizing infants as they can. But for me, my brethren, I would put it before you as a true and plain pledge, without reserve, of God's grace given to the souls of those who receive it; not a mere form, but a real means and instrument of blessing verily and indeed received; and, as being such, I warn you to remember what a talent has been committed to you. There are very many persons who do not think of Baptism in this religious point of view; who are in no sense in the habit of blessing God for it, and praying Him for His further grace to profit by the privileges given them in it; who, when even they pray for grace, do not ground their hope of being heard and answered, on the promise of blessing in Baptism made to them; above all, who do not fear to sin after Baptism. This is of course an omission; in many cases it is a sin. Let us set ourselves right in this respect. Nothing will remind us more forcibly both of our advantages and of our duties; for from the very nature of our minds outward signs are especially calculated (if rightly used) to strike, to affect, to subdue, to change them.
Blessed is he who makes the most of the privileges given him, who takes them for a light to his feet and a lanthorn to his path. We have had the Sign of the Cross set on us in infancy, -- shall we ever forget it? It is our profession. We had the water poured on us, -- it was like the blood on the door-posts, when the destroying Angel passed over. Let us fear to sin after grace given, lest a worse thing come upon us. Let us aim at learning these two great truths: -- that we can do nothing good without God's grace, yet that we can sin against that grace; and thus that the great gift may be made the cause, on the one hand, of our gaining eternal life, and the occasion to us, on the other, of eternal misery.
1 Cor. vii.14. Acts xvi.15, 33.