Does the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) teach baptismal regeneration (new birth)? Does it say that the sacrament of baptism actually confirms an individual’s regeneration, conversion, justification, etc? A quick reading of Ch.28, section 1 might give that impression:
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.
Many, if not most would agree that baptism is a sign (or symbol) of these spiritual blessings, but is it a “seal” (confirmation) of them in every baptized person? Does the WCF teach that every person baptized possesses these spiritual blessings, among them regeneration?
There is a maxim of biblical interpretation which says that “a text without a context is pretext for a proof-text.” We must interpret every passage of Holy Scripture in its context, both immediate and ultimately, the context of the entire Bible. This is a principle which applies just as well to other forms of communication: don’t take people’s words out of their context.
If we read on in Ch.28 of the WCF, we find this in section 5:
V. Although it be a great sin to contemn [despise] or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
This statement in pretty clear, once you wade through the double-negatives! There is no certainty that all who are baptized are regenerated. There is no inseparable link. That’s what it says, very plainly. The WCF denies baptismal regeneration in section 5.
But how does that fit with the statements in section 1 which say that baptism is a sign and seal of the person’s ingrafting into Christ, etc?
Let’s be generous to the Westminster divines (top theologians), and NOT assume that they contradicted themselves within a few sentences!
We must ask, in what sense did they use the word “his” in section 1? “…a seal… 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…”
Baptism doesn’t guarantee salvation, whether in the case of the children of believers (paedobaptism) or in the case of professing believers (credobaptism). In both cases, people have been known to fall away from the Lord. However, we may speak of the blessings of salvation “belonging” to all the baptized insofar as it is the sign of admission to the church (the WCF would say, “visible church”), and these are blessings that belong to Christ’s church in a general sense. So if you belong to that church, in one of her congregations, these blessings are said to be yours (“his”). Through faith, cultivated in the covenant communities of church and family, you partake personally of these blessings. However, by forsaking Christ and his church, you lose those privileges and blessings.
Here’s an illustration: someone deposits a million dollars in your bank account, but you never draw on it; you never receive any benefit from it. In one sense, it’s yours, but in another, it’s not. Christ is that great fortune. As a baptized member of his church, he’s offered to you, he is yours for the taking, but you must actually take him in order to receive his benefits!
Baptism preaches the gospel of Christ. But just as a sermon won’t do you any good unless you believe and obey God’s Word, so with baptism. In fact, it will add to your condemnation on the Day of Judgment, because you had it, but you didn’t use it.