I am pleased that you have touched on the subject of signs, for I think you have treated the matter with acuteness, though your statements imply that it would be better for our religious to abandon those superfluous signs which they have invented. But reply I pray you to my two other objections.
The task you impose is a pleasure. you must mark afresh the distinction between the two kinds of statement to which I have before adverted. With regard to your first objection, I think it probable, that Christ might without any such washing, spiritually baptize, and by consequence save infants. Accordingly, it is commonly said that the church hath a threefold baptism,—the baptism of water, of blood, and of fire. The baptism of water, is the baptism with that material element, of which mention is most frequently made. The baptism of blood is the washing wherewith the souls of the martyrs are cleansed. Nor do I dare assert that the infants slain for Christ (Matthew 2.) who, not having reached the eighth day, had not been circumcised, are lost. And I believe the Bishop of Armagh spoke on supposition only, not positively, when he said that this was the case. The baptism of fire is the baptism of the Holy Ghost, which is absolutely necessary to every man if he is to be saved. Accordingly, the two former baptisms are antecedent signs, and supposed necessary to this third baptism. So then, without doubt, if this unseen baptism be performed, the man so baptized is cleansed from guilt: and if this be wanting, however the others may be present, the baptism availeth not to save the soul. And since this third baptism is not perceptible by the senses, and is so far unknown to us, it appears to me presumptuous and unwise to decide thus on the salvation or damnation of men simply from the circumstance of their baptism. Our conclusion, then, without a doubt is, that infants duly baptized with water, are baptized with the third kind of baptism, inasmuch as they are made partakers of baptismal grace. The above argument holds also concerning the martyrs who were slain for Christ, as it manifestly was with the Theban legion, many of whom were not baptized with water.
With regard to the language of Scripture, (John 3.) “Unless a man be born again of water and of the Spirit,” &c. it is probable that Christ there speaks of the water which flowed from his side, and of the third kind of baptism, because it appears indubitable that a man who suffers martyrdom for Christ will be saved even though he may not have been baptized with water. So it seems probable that the words of Christ have this negative meaning—viz. that no man can enter the kingdom of heaven except he be baptized with the baptism of the water that flowed from the side of Christ, (i. e. cleansing from guilt by his passion,) and with the baptism of fire, (i. e. from the influence of the Holy Spirit,) since the Trinity could not save the fallen by receiving them into happiness, unless the second and the third persons remove their sins. Accordingly, Christ taught that the first baptism should be celebrated in the above words of the Gospel. Yet must it not be imagined by believers that the baptism of the Spirit altogether supersedes the baptism of water, but that it is necessary wherever circumstances permit, to become recipients thereof. When an infidel baptizes a child, not supposing that baptism to be of any avail for his salvation, such a baptism we are not to regard as serviceable to the baptized.
Yet we believe that when any old woman or despised person duly baptizes with water, that God completes the baptism of the Spirit along with the words of the sacrament. For our signs are but of small avail unless God shall graciously accept them. Thus I reply to your objection, by admitting that God, if he will, may condemn such an infant, without wrong done to himself; and if he will, can save it. Nor dare I determine on the other side, or strive for the sake of mere opinion, or for the gaining of evidence in this matter, but I hold my peace as one dumb, and humbly confess my ignorance, making use of conditional expressions, because it doth not seem clear to me whether such an infant would be saved or lost. But I know that whatever God doth in the matter will be just, and a work of compassion, to be praised by all the faithful. But those, who relying on their own authority, or their learning, come to any decision hereupon, cannot establish what they are so foolish and presumptuous as to assume.