When parents bring their children forward to receive the sacrament of baptism, they are asked to answer three questions. The first question is, “Do you acknowledge your child’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit?”. By answering this question in the affirmative, parents acknowledge that their children, regardless of age, have two specific needs. Their children need the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and they need the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit. Today we will consider the first need, the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ.
By saying that children need the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, we mean that they need redemption, the forgiveness of sins by means of Christ’s sacrificial death (Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18,19). Such a need implies that even children born to Christian parents are sinners. If they were not sinners, they would not need the cleansing blood of Christ. Someone might ask: what sins do infants and little children commit? It’s hard to say when a small child commits his first specific and identifiable sin. Experienced parents will tell you that children commit obvious sins when they are yet very young (See Proverbs 20:11). However, we do not say that children become sinners when they commit specific, identifiable sins. Instead, we say that children grow to commit specific, identifiable sins, because they are sinners. This is the distinction between original sin and actual sin. Original sin refers to the guilt of Adam’s sin imputed to us. Actual sin refers to the personal sin which proceeds from our corrupted nature (WCF 6.6).
The Shorter Catechism, speaking of mankind’s fall into sin, says, “The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.” (Q&A 16). Our children descend from Adam. They sinned in him and fell with him. Like all men they are conceived in iniquity (Psalm 51:5). Even if they were to perish before committing an actual sin, it would still be the case that they are sinners in need of redemption (Romans 5:12-21).
Notice that we confess that our children need the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. It is not the water of baptism that washes away sin; but rather the blood of Christ (which is represented by the water of baptism) washes away sin (1 Peter 3:21).
To us infants and small children look innocent. When compared to older children and adults, they are less guilty, because they have committed fewer sins. However, when compared to God’s holy law, they’re not that innocent. They are guilty enough to suffer the wrath of God (1 John 3:4; Ephesians 2:3). Mercifully, the blood of Christ was not shed for the innocent, but for guilty sinners who deserve the wrath of God (Mark 2:17). That precious blood is sufficient to wash away sins from both the old and the young (Acts 2:38,39).