As Christians we believe the words of St. Paul when he says that sinners are justified by faith, and as Protestants we recognize that the added “sola fide” of the Reformation was not a novel invention meant to remove the human element in salvation, but a traditional way of adding emphasis to a word (see the line in Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” – “Sola fides sufficit“), and in this case adding emphasis to the filial trust that believers have in the word of God who declares sinners to be “righteous” apart from their merits.
When God declares something about a sinner, he always uses inanimate and animate instruments to conveys that message. He used a burning bush to get his message across to Moses, and he used Moses to point Israel to that guiding flame and cloud, through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. And, it was through that divine fire and cloud that all of Israel were “baptized into Moses,” as St. Paul says (1 Cor. 10:2 – εἰς τὸν Μωϋσῆν ἐβαπτίσθησαν ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ καὶ ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ). All of these visible elements (the fire, the cloud, the sea, and Moses) were divine instruments and signs of Israel’s redemption. And, as St. Paul tells us, these signs correspond to the Christian sacraments, especially baptism. The sacraments are visible words spoken by God himself in sign language concerning the status of his people, saying, “I am their God, and they are my people.”
There really is no conflict between God’s objective sign language to us and our subjective seeing and hearing – faith comes through hearing. And so, there is no conflict in the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Rather than detract from individual faith, the sacraments are actually given for the sake of bringing about faith (or in faithful adults, bringing about more faith), faith in God’s gracious declaration about us sinners, namely, that despite our sin we are righteous in Christ. There is a sense in which everyone who is baptized is justified, not through faith, plus sacraments, but because of their profession of faith in God’s word revealed through the sacraments. This is why they are called “means of grace.” Though this may come as a surprise to many, this is a Reformed view of baptismal efficacy. Jerome Zanchi says (in his Miscellanies) we are to believe that in baptism infants are washed with the very blood of Christ:
When the minister baptizes, I ponder and I believe, with the eyes of my mind lifted up to heaven, that Christ, as if with his own hand sent down from heaven, sprinkles my son with his own blood for the remission of his sins, through the hand of this man, who I see sprinkling the head of the infant with water.
We cannot talk about the remission of sins without talking about justification, since the very declaration included in God’s act of justifying sinners is his declaration that their sins are remitted. And, sins are remitted because we are united to Christ through the Holy Spirit that we receive in baptism. This applies to baptized infants as well, even though they are not capable of believing with their mind as adults do.
And therefore the infants of faithful [parents] receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of regeneration, the Spirit of faith & charity, as well as the remission of sins & the right to eternal life, since they become members of Christ when they are in the covenant. For it is not true that because they cannot believe due to the defect of their age, so they are destitute of the Spirit of faith, through whom they are regenerated. Just as it does not follow that because they cannot yet use reason, they lack a mind and reason (Zanchi, Commentary on Ephesians, 298).
Zanchi also affirms the appropriateness of attributing a power to the minister for regenerating and remitting sins, and justifying sinners through the sacraments:
Can the ministers of baptism also be said to truly baptize, that is, to wash away sins and to regenerate? I respond, yes in every way … But it should always be understood, that ministers do this sacramentally, that is, as they administer the sacraments, through whom Christ himself cleanses, regenerates, as through an instrument. And in the same sense it is said ministers are able to show forth not mere bread, but also the true body of Christ itself. For as it were, all who receive baptism, although hypocrites without true purification from sins, are said despite this to be cleansed from sins and justified because they have taken hold of the sacrament of these things. And so in the super of the Lord hypocrites, when they accept the bread of the Lord, can be said to also take up the body of Christ itself, namely sacramentally. Likewise ministers are also said to administer the things themselves, because they administer the sacraments of the things themselves. Therefore they justify and regenerate because they are ministers of these things and they serve the interests of Christ for the sake of regenerating humanity (Commentary on Ephesians, 305).
Zanchi’s qualifications here are very important. In every sacrament there is a mystical (or sacramental) union between the signum and res, between God’s sign language and the spiritual reality hidden behind the sign. In the crossing of the Red Sea God’s sign language (cloud, sea, and Moses) conveyed the hidden reality of Israel’s actual spiritual redemption and adoption into the family of God. And, in the same way, the sacraments act as God’s declarations to us today that he is our God and we are his people, that we are truly washed in the blood of the Lamb and clothed with his righteousness, and justified (declared “righteous”) in him. But, the sacraments do not work magically or automatically, otherwise they would not be sacraments (i.e., they require a real distinction between sign and thing signified). We know from experience (e.g., Judas) that the reality is not always given with the sign to everyone automatically and indiscriminately. Some, for example, “eat and drink to their own damnation”, while others participate in the full reality of blessed union with Christ, but all receive the sacrament, i.e., the sign mystically united to Christ himself.
And, unless someone might want some evidence for this view from an Anglican theologian, I’ve translated a passage from Samual Ward’s De baptismatis infantilis, British delegate to the Synod of Dort – there was obviously disagreement regarding this language, as Ward’s debate with Thomas Gataker attests. Ward’s language here is less guarded than Zanchi’s, but it is dependent on the same sacramental relationship, namely, the turn of phrase whereby we can refer to the sign as if it were the thing signified (i.e., metonymy):
All baptized infants are without doubt justified.
It is asked at present about the particular effect of baptism on infants [parvuli]; namely, whether it has without doubt this effect on infants, that it is effective for a solution to the guilt of original sin.
[F]irstly we assert it to be certain that Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism for an antidote [remedium] for original sin, and for a true solution to the guilt of the same.
Even if “antidote” taken strictly is the antidote of some illness, nevertheless even that can be called an “antidote,” which removes any evil whatsoever; whether it be of guilt, or penalty, or even of an obligation with regard to a penalty, which is called “guilt.” So theologians say that Christ came “for an antidote for sin,” as well for removing guilt through satisfaction on the cross as removing defect [culpam] through healing grace.
According to Ward, therefore, since God remits original sin in the baptism of infants, he also without doubt justified them.
Ward and Zanchi remind us that we ought to have a deep reverence and holy fear about God’s holy sacraments, not attributing too little to them nor too much. Everyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is justified in a sacramental sense, and so God calls them to believe that they truly share in Christ’s righteousness – and the Father’s declaration to Christ, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The mystery of the sacraments is in God’s work. There is no mystery in the evil of man. When someone spurns the gift of justification offered to them in their baptism, they reveal their own evil, not the weakness of God. Their unbelief, that is, does not detract from the mystery of their sacramental justification (to use Zanchi’s language). The sign and the thing are conjoined in God’s declaration and offering, and we should be very cautious in saying otherwise. In fact, that is why the condemnation of a lapsed Christian is greater than the unbeliever who has never been baptized. When it comes to the sacraments it is better to err on the side of mystery than on the side of presumptuousness. Because, as Zanchi says, the ministers of God “administer the sacraments of the things themselves.”