Should infants be baptized? William Shedd thought so. Here, in this excerpt from his text Dogmatic Theology, he explains why:1
Baptism, being the initiatory sacrament, is administered only once. While symbolical only of regeneration, it yet has a connection with sanctification. Being a divinely appointed sign, seal, and pledge of the new birth, it promotes the believer’s growth in holiness by encouragement and stimulus. It is like the official seal on a legal document. The presence of the seal inspires confidence in the genuineness of the title deed; the absence of the seal awakens doubts and fears. Nevertheless, it is the title deed, not the seal, that conveys the title.
Baptism is to be administered to believers and their children:
- “The promise [of the gift of the Holy Spirit; v. 38] is unto you and your children” (Acts 2:38–39);
- “if the root be holy, so are the branches” (Rom. 11:16);
- “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean: but now are they holy” (1 Cor. 7:14);
- “go teach [disciple] all nations, baptizing them” (Matt. 28:19). If the command had been “go teach all nations, circumcising them,” no one would have denied that infants were included in the command.
- Infants are called disciples in Acts 15:10: “Why tempt God to put a yoke [namely, circumcision] upon the neck of the disciples?”
Accordingly, Westminster Confession 28.4 affirms that “the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.”
The baptism of the infant of a believer supposes the actual or prospective operation of the regenerating Spirit, in order to the efficacy of the rite. Infant baptism does not confer the regenerating Spirit, but is a sign that he either has been or will be conferred in accordance with the divine promise in the covenant of grace. The actual conferring of the Holy Spirit may be prior to baptism or in the act itself or subsequent to it. Hence baptism is the sign and seal of regeneration either in the past, in the present, or in the future.
Westminster Confession 38.6 teaches that “the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered”; in other words, the regenerating grace of the Spirit, signified and sealed by the rite, may be imparted when the infant is baptized or previously or at a future time. The baptism is administered in this reference and with this expectation: “Baptism is to be administered, to be a sign and seal of regeneration and engrafting into Christ, and that even to infants” (Westminster Larger Catechism 177).
Under the old dispensation, the circumcision of the flesh was a sign and seal of the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6). “God,” says Calvin (4.16.5), “did not favor infants with circumcision without making them partakers of all those things which were then signified by circumcision.” Similarly, under the new dispensation, the baptism of the body of the infant is the sign and seal of the baptism of the soul by the Holy Spirit.
The infant of the believer receives the Holy Spirit as a regenerating Spirit, by virtue of the covenant between God and his people:
- “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto you and to your seed after you” (Gen. 17:7);
- “the promise [of the gift of the Holy Spirit; v. 38] is unto you and your children” (Acts 2:39).
The infant of the believer, consequently, obtains the regenerating grace by virtue of his birth and descent from a believer in covenant with God and not by virtue of his baptism. God has promised the blessing of the Holy Spirit to those who are born of his people. The infant of a believer, by this promise, is born into the church, as the infant of a citizen is born into the state: “Children born within the pale of the visible church and dedicated to God in baptism are under the inspection and government of the church” (Directory for Worship, 9).
They are church members by reason of their birth from believing parents; and it has been truly said that the question that confronts them at the period of discretion is not “will you join the visible church?” but “will you go out of it?” Church membership by birth from believers is an appointment of God under both the old and the new economies, in the Jewish and the Christian church.
Baptism is the infallible sign of regeneration when the infant dies in infancy. All baptized infants dying before the age of self-consciousness are regenerated without exception. Baptism is the probable sign of regeneration, when the infant lives to years of discretion. It is possible that the baptized child of believing parents may prove, in the day of judgment, not to have been regenerated, but not probable. The history of the church and daily observation show it to be the general fact that infant church members become adult church members. Yet exceptions are possible.
A baptized infant on reaching years of discretion may to human view appear not to have been regenerated, as a baptized convert may. The fact of unregeneracy, however, must be proved before it can be acted upon. A citizen of the state must be presumed to be such until the contrary appears by his renunciation of citizenship and self-expatriation. Until he takes this course, he must be regarded as a citizen. So a baptized child, in adult years, may renounce his baptism and church membership, become an infidel, and join the synagogue of Satan; but until he does this, he must be regarded as a member of the church of Christ. Such instances are exceedingly rare, both in church and state.
The possible exceptions to the general fact that baptism is the sign of regeneration are not more numerous in the case of baptized infants than of baptized converts. Says Hodge (Theology 3.590):
It is not every baptized child who is saved; nor are all those who are baptized in infancy made partakers of salvation. But baptism signs, seals, and actually conveys its benefits to all its subjects, whether infants or adults, who keep the covenant of which it is a sign. It does not follow that the benefits of redemption may not be conferred on infants at the time of their baptism. That is in the hands of God.
What is to hinder the imputation to them of the righteousness of Christ or their receiving the renewing of the Holy Spirit, so that their whole nature may be developed in a state of reconciliation with God. Doubtless this often occurs; but whether it does or not, their baptism stands good; it assures them of salvation if they do not renounce their baptismal covenant.
The reason why there is not an infallible connection between infant baptism and regeneration, when the infant lives to years of discretion, so that all baptized children of true believers are regenerated without a single exception, is the fact that the covenant is not observed on the human side with absolute perfection.
Should the believer keep the promise on his part with entire completeness, God would be bound to fulfill the promise on his part. But the believer’s fulfillment of the terms of the covenant, in respect to faith in God’s promise, to prayer, to the nurture and education of the child, though filial and spiritual, is yet imperfect. God is, therefore, not absolutely indebted to the believer, by reason of the believer’s action, in respect to the regeneration of the child. Consequently, he may exercise a sovereignty, if he so please, in the bestowment of regenerating grace, even in the case of a believer’s child.
We have seen (p. 776) that the regeneration of an unbaptized adult, depending as it does upon election, cannot be made infallibly certain by the use of common grace, though it may be made highly probable by it. In like manner, the regeneration of a baptized child, depending also upon election, may be made highly probable by the imperfect faith and fidelity of the parents, yet not infallibly and necessarily certain.
 William Greenough Thayer Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2003), 817–819.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He’s also an Investigations Program Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?