I know those words will create a visceral reaction in some. I’m sorry (not really).
Those words aren’t my own…and I’m not pulling them from a Catholic Catechism. In fact, they show up in a Baptist Catechism (from 1677)!
Q. 98. How do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper become effectual means of salvation?
A. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them or in him that administers them, but only by the blessing of Christ and the working of His Spirit in them that by faith receive them.
This question/answer is pretty much the same as Q.91 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) and Q.161 of the Larger Catechism:
Q. 91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.
Let me expand on these statements and offer some explanation. I sincerely believe that baptism is an effectual means of salvation in the the elect because God uses it to beckon faith in the baptized person.
Let me try a thought experiment – replace the underlined word in the above sentence with the preaching of the gospel . Does that work better for you? Of course, we’d want to emphasize that hearing the preaching of the gospel doesn’t save someone by itself. The person hearing must respond in faith to the message they have heard. So preaching of the gospel doesn’t work in a mechanical ex opere operato kind of way. But, the preaching of the gospel is a means of salvation in that God uses it to elicit faith in his elect (Romans 10:14-15).
All that I said above applies, I believe, to baptism as well. Baptism is a visible gospel sermon. It is an instrument in the hands of God to beckon faith in the baptized person. It isn’t that the water saves or the rite of baptism saves, but that God uses it just as he uses preaching to call forth faith in the elect.
For a parent who baptizes their infant, their prayer is that God will use the child’s baptism as a reminder of the great promises that are theirs if they believe. They bear the visible mark of the covenant in which God promises salvation to those who have faith.
But even in those who confess faith in Christ first and are then baptized, baptism is an effectual means of salvation because God continues to use it to beckon faith. We aren’t required to believe and trust in Christ just once – way back when we said a prayer and ‘came to faith’. We are called to live by faith, to persevere in faith – without this no one will be saved. And God uses our baptism, again, to remind us of this – to remind us of the covenant and to seal all of God’s promises to those who believe.
Baptism has no saving effect in the non-elect; in fact, it has a condemning effect in that they have been baptized into the covenant and covenant community wherein faith is a requirement. Since they don’t have faith, they are subject to the cures of the covenant, which are severe indeed.
I’m harping on baptism a lot recently. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Is it because I like being controversial? Maybe. I know in part it’s because it’s been a front burner issue in two classes I taught this past month – union with Christ and eternal security. But, it’s more than that – I have sensed in the evangelical church (broadly speaking) a minimization of the importance of baptism. Its as if we don’t consider it very important – and many don’t. It’s an add on, and optional at that. God doesn’t ‘do anything’ in baptism, we do – we profess, give testimony, etc. This is a tragic trend and I pray it’s one that gets reversed in the coming generations of believers.