As I understand you, we receive saving faith at our baptism when we are regenerated by God’s grace. This all fits together nicely in the case of infant baptism, but could you clarify what Anglicanism teaches about adult converts? How is it that they come to receive the sacrament of Baptism? I understand that the Holy Spirit would have to call them, but is their response to this calling considered “faith”? If not, what is it? If it is faith, how is it that their faith comes at baptism?
This is a great question because it gives us the opportunity to sort out some common confusion surrounding the topic of the doctrine of Baptismal regeneration. Though the prayer book is filled with references to our being regenerated by our baptism, by the early nineteenth century many Anglicans had abandoned the doctrine of baptismal regeneration in large measure due to misunderstanding. The Scriptures speak repeatedly of our being regenerated in our baptism. In Titus 3:5, for instance, Paul says that God “saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” But what does that mean? Does it imply that we are saved through Baptism even if we never come to faith? Just what is the relationship between Baptism and faith? All of these things become intertwined and terribly difficult to sort out if we do not first figure out what it means to be “regenerated.”
If we imagine God’s gracious action towards us in Christ to be like that of a person in a helicopter seeking to pull a drowning man out of the water, the drowning man has only two options, one active and one passive. He can choose not to trust that the person saving him has his best interests in mind. This will cause him to flail around, fighting off his rescuer, which will ultimately result in his drowning. Or he can trust that his rescuer really does intend to rescue him, in which case he will relax and allow the rescuer to do his job unimpeded. Faith represents the second of these options. Faith is not so much an action as it is a disposition. Having faith means no longer fighting God off. But there is a problem inherent in this scenario: How do we know our rescuer? Sin enslaves us. On our own, our hearts are incapable of making the choice to have faith in Christ because sin has dulled our senses. It has made us incapable of recognizing either the goodness of God or the evil of death that has us trapped. To you and I as drowning sinners, the one who reaches out a hand to rescue us appears to be some kind of monster. Would you take the hand of a monster or bat it away? Suppose that you do not even fully believe that you are drowning. Why accept the hand of someone who will rescue you when you are perfectly self sufficient and in need of no rescue at all?
In John 3, Jesus confuses Nicodemus, who has come to Him under the cover of night, by telling him that he must be born again (or born from above, as the Greek word can mean either). Nicodemus mistakenly takes Jesus literally, as if what Jesus is telling him is that he has to crawl back into his mother’s womb and come out a second time. But Jesus ignores this absurdity and restates his premise, saying that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The early Church universally understood this to be a reference to Holy Baptism. It is in the waters of Baptism that we are born again because it is in the waters of Baptism that the Holy Spirit is given to us to unite us with Christ. Baptism is God’s action of reaching out to us, grabbing hold of us, and drawing us into Himself. Regeneration is God’s action, within our Baptism, by which He opens our hearts and unstops our ears that we might be made one with Him. It enables us to have faith because it is the bond which makes the fullness of faith possible. To be regenerated is not to be given faith per se, but to be given the possibility of actually being capable of having faith. Baptism is not something that just happens in a single moment. Baptism is something that is sealed in a single moment, but that then works upon us throughout our lives to change our hearts, to renew our faith, and to make us holy. Our sins are drowned daily in our baptism and we are daily raised to new life.
Some Things are Better Together
So what does that mean for the person who comes to faith prior to coming to the font? Perhaps the best analogy for all of this is that of love and marriage. There are many different ways that a man and a woman might come together and decide to be wed. In modern western culture, men and women date before getting married, coming to know one another, and usually coming to a genuine affection for one another beforehand. In other societies and cultures, this has not always been the case. Sometimes marriages are arranged for socio-economic reasons. Nevertheless, many people in these marriages also come to love each other over time. Even in marriages that are borne out of love, most people who have been married for more than five minutes will tell you that the love they had when they got married is not the same as the love they have once they have been married for awhile. So what caused what? Does love cause marriage or does marriage cause love? The answer is yes to both. We get married because we fall in love and we love because we are married. The same is true of the relationship between Baptism and faith. We get baptized because we have come to faith and we come to faith because we have been baptized.
The Holy Spirit works upon people in different ways. Some people first come to know Jesus through the example of a friend or a relative, or through the words of a preacher or an evangelist, or through encountering liturgy. For the person who was baptized as an infant, these other things act as a catalyst for the gift that has already been given. It deepens the relationship that has already been forged in Baptism. For the person who has not yet been baptized, these other things stir up a desire to be baptized and thereby to enter into that kind of closeness in relationship with God. Baptism gives us faith in the same way that marriage gives us love. Our mistake with both faith and love is to assume that either one of those precious gifts can only be given to us in a single infusion, as if we go from complete doubt to complete faith or from complete indifference to complete love in the span of a moment. When two people fall in love and get married, the vows they make on their wedding day establish a bond that allows their love to grow and to be made stronger, better, more like the perfect and holy love of God. When we come to faith and then come to the font, the grace we receive there will continuously regenerate our hearts, so that each day, as Christ drowns our sins anew, we will be able to trust in Him anew, and that trust will become deeper over time.
There are some great passages on Baptism that help to further illuminate all of this in the work of Jeremy Taylor, but for a more modern classical Anglican perspective, I recommend reading Bishop Ray Sutton’s book, Signed, Sealed, and Delivered. Bishop Sutton is a bishop in the Reformed Episcopal Church. While some of what he says about the REC’s “Declaration of Principles” is problematic, the majority of what is in this book is very good. The connections he draws are helpful for anyone who wants to sort out the biblical material on this question while keeping an eye on the classical Anglican doctrine expressed in our formularies.