From Treatise of the Sacraments (1583)
Baptism is our regeneration or new birth, whereby we are born anew in Christ, and are made the Sons of God, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. It is the sacrament of the remission of sins, and of that washing which we have in the blood of Christ. We are all born the children of wrath, and have our part in the offence of Adam. St Paul writes, “By one man sin entered into the world.” … Therefore the Prophet writes, “Behold, I was born in iniquity, and in sin has my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51). We all have cause to cry out and moan with St Paul, “I see another law within me rebelling against the law of my mind and leading me captive unto the law of sin which is within me. O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Here he speaks of our Savior, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit, is spirit” (Rom. 5 & 7). And for this cause, we read, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3).
For this reason, infants are baptized. They are born in sin and cannot become spiritual but by this new birth of the water and the Spirit. They are the heirs of the promise, the covenant of God’s favor is made to them. God said to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your seed after you in their generations. This is an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your seed after you” (Gen 17). Therefore St. Paul writes, “If the root is holy, so are the branches” Rom 11) …. When the Disciples rebuked those who brought little children to Christ, that he might touch them, our Lord said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid, for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10).
The kingdom of heaven is of such as these, says Christ. And not only those children in those days, but of other like infants too, who shall be born in all times. As God took the seed of Abraham to be partakers of the covenant which he gave to Abraham so he appointed that every male child of eight days old should be circumcised… May we think that the promise of God has an end, so that it reaches not to our children? Or might the children of the Jews receive the sign of the covenant, and not the children of Christians? Whatsoever was promised to Abraham, the same is also promised to us. We enjoy the same blessings and free privilege of God’s favor. St Paul writes, in his letter to the Galatians, “Know this, those who are of faith are the children of Abraham.” And again he writes, “If you are Christ’s, then are you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs by promise” (Gal. 3).
Now is the sign of the covenant also changed, and Baptism is instead of Circumcision, as St Paul declares, and calls them circumcised who are baptized. “In whom” ( meaning Christ ) “also you are circumcised, with circumcision made without hands… you are buried with him through baptism” (Col. 2). Our Savior Christ gives charge to his apostles: baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. The apostles baptized not only such as professed their belief, but whole households. The keeper of the prison was baptized, with all his household. So was Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and his household. So too was the household of Stephanas. Infants are a part of the church of God. They are the sheep of Christ and belong to his flock. Why should they not bear the mark of Christ? They have the promise of salvation. Why, then, should they not receive the seal whereby it is confirmed to them? They are of the fellowship of the faithful…
And as the children of the faithful by right ought to be baptized, so such others also as were born of unbelieving parents and were aliens from the common wealth of Israel, and were strangers from the covenant of promise, and had no hope, if they acknowledge the error in which they lived, and seek the forgiveness of their former sins, may well receive this Sacrament of their regeneration. So when they which heard Peter, “were pricked in their hearts,” and said to Peter and the other apostles, “what shall we do?” Peter said unto them, “Amend your lives, and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins.” They were buried with Christ by Baptism into his death and made partakers of his blood and continued in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship (Act 7).
Christ, writes Paul, “loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify it and cleanse it by the washing of water through the word.” Again, “According to his mercy he saved us by the washing of the new birth, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost.” For this reason, baptism is called salvation, life, regeneration, the forgiveness of sins, the power of God to resurrection, the image and pledge of resurrection, and the garment of immortality.
And yet are not these things wrought by the water? What need, then, do we have of Christ? What good was his passion? And what does the Holy Ghost work in our hearts? What power or force is left to the word of God? Augustine writes, “Why does Christ not say, “Now you are clean, because of the washing in Baptism”… No, take away the word and it is only water” It is the covenant, promise, and mercy of God which clothes us with immortality and assures our resurrection; it is the promise of God by which we receive regeneration, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. His word declares his love to us, and that word is sealed and made good by baptism. Our faith, in which are baptized, and our continuance in the profession which we have made, establishes in us this grace which we receive….
Cyprian writes, “The remission of sins, whether it be given by baptism, or by any other sacraments, are the accomplishments of the Holy Spirit. The solemnity of the words and the invocation of God’s Holy Name and the outward signs appointed to the ministry of the priest by the institution of the Apostles work the visible outward sacrament. But touching the substance thereof, it is the Holy Spirit at work.” St Ambrose also says, “You have seen the water, you have seen the priest, you have seen those things that one can see with your eyes, but those things which work and accomplish of salvation, which no eye can see, you have not seen.”
Such a change is made in the Sacrament of Baptism. Through the power of God’s working the water is turned into blood. They who are washed in that water receive the remission of sins. Their robes are made clean in the blood of the Lamb. The water itself is nothing, but by the working of God’s spirit, the death and merits of our Lord and Savior Christ are thereby assured unto us….
Now, touching the minister of this sacrament, whether he is a good man or an evil man, godly or godless, a heretic or a Catholic, an idolater or a true worshipper of God – the effect is all one, the value or worthiness of the sacrament does not depend on man, but on God. A human being pronounces the word, but God settles our hearts with grace. Man touches or washes us with water, but God makes us clean by the cross of Christ. It is not the minister, but Christ himself who is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.
Again, whether the infant be signed with the sign of the cross or be put into the water once or three times; whether there are one or two or three godfathers or even more, or whether there are witnesses of the baptism – these do not change the virtue of the sacrament. Without these, baptism is whole and perfect. Gregory the Great says, “The Faith being one, the diversity of customs hurteth nothing.” Christ left no order for the use of these things. The Church of God has liberty to dispose of them as may be most fitting for decency and godliness.
Some wonder about those infants, the children of the faithful, who die before baptism, whether they are saved or not. What, shall we say that they are damned? It is a hard matter and too curious for us to make judgments about God. God’s mercy is infinite and his purpose secret. He shows mercy to those on whom he will have mercy. Who can tell God what to do? It is not good and does not stand with Christian reverence to be contentious and busy in searching out, or reasoning of matters, which the wisdom of God has hidden from our knowledge.
Even so, if this subject must be considered, we may be assured of this. It is true that children are born in sin and that by the sin of one man death has entered the world, and that the reward of sin is death. But who knows, if God has forgiven such children their sin? Who is God’s Counsellor, who knows his meaning? Our children are the children of God. He is our God and the God of our seed. They be under the covenant with us. The most sober way is to speak least and to leave such children to the judgment and mercy of God.
John Jewel (1522-1571) was Bishop of Salisbury and one of the most influential Anglican theologians of the Elizabethan period, the author of many polemical works, including the first major defenses of the English Reformation and the liturgy and polity of the Church of England. A Treatise of the Sacraments is a posthumous work, a collection of sermons he preached in Salisbury Cathedral.