Baptism and Sola Fide
Today Catholics celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, and most likely heard a homily on the topic of baptism accompanying the prayers, hymns, and readings that focused on this topic. As I sat in Mass this morning I was thinking about baptism and what a messy topic it was for me as a Reformed Protestant minister. On the one hand we have the teachings of the New Testament — teachings which are quite clear — about how “Baptism now saves you,” “Be baptized and wash away your sins,” “Be baptized for the forgiveness of sins,” and “All of us who have been baptized … have been united with [Christ].” An even cursory reading of the New Testament would give no other impression than that baptism actually imparts divine life to all who receive it.
On the other hand, however, Calvinists insist that the sole instrument by which justification occurs is faith, and that baptism per se accomplishes nothing. While it is a sign and seal of the righteousness we receive through faith alone, without faith baptism is ineffective.
As anyone familiar with the Federal Vision controversy surely knows, navigating between the seemingly obvious teachings of the New Testament and the doctrine of Sola Fide is anything but easy. In order to stay faithful to the Reformed confessions and catechisms, one’s affirmation of the biblical texts must come with severe qualifications: “Yes, I believe that all who are baptized are united with Christ, but in that statement ‘all’ doesn’t really mean ‘all.’ What Paul means there is that all the elect who have exercised faith in Christ for justification can be said to be united to Christ by their infant baptisms, even though that union did not really occur until much later. And likewise, all the reprobate who were baptized as infants received no saving blessings from their baptisms whatsoever, even though there were surely reprobates among the Romans to whom Paul’s epistle was addressed, to whom his statements did not apply.”
I hate to have to play the Paradigm Card™ again (just kidding, I love it), but I have a hard time understanding how the apostles, if they held that the sole instrument through which saving blessings are received is faith (with baptism itself being a powerless and empty ritual), could have written the things they indeed wrote in the New Testament.
But on the other hand, if the early church understood baptism, as such, to confer divine life, well, they pretty much would have said things exactly the way they in fact did say them.
And while I’m at it, I have a hard time understanding how to defend the idea that the early church fathers wrongly taught baptismal regeneration using the exact same language with which their predecessors the apostles rightly denied it.