A Theology of Baptism

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What is baptism? What does baptism do? Who should be baptized, and why? Below is a short summary that answers these questions.

Starting with the Foundation: Who saves?

Baptism is a great and holy gift from God, and here at Trinity we love to baptize! Nevertheless, it is important to stress first and foremost that it is Christ who saves.

Article XI of the 39 Articles says,

“It is only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings”.

In other words, it is not by the things that we do that we are saved. God saves graciously through Christ’s death and resurrection. Baptism is not something that we do to earn salvation. It is not our action for an ungracious God. Instead, as we shall see, baptism is a gracious work of God on our behalf. Salvation is solely of Christ’s merit. He is the one who has earned it on our behalf.

How does he save?

Having said that, God delivers this salvation purchased by Christ through different appointed means. You might think of it like a delivery system. God has various ways of getting what Christ has done 2,000 years ago into our hands.  The Reformed confessions commonly call this delivery system God’s “means of grace”. Notice what the Westminster Smaller Catechism says about God’s means of grace:

“The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” (WSC, Q88)

So God “communicates to us the benefits of redemption” through means of grace. One very common means of grace is preaching. Many times, people will say: “I was saved when I heard the gospel on one Sunday morning”. They are not saying that the preacher saved them. Rather, it was God who saved through the preacher’s sermon, mouth, lungs, etc.

The same goes with the sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist). The 39 articles say this about the sacraments:

“Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us” (XXV)

Notice the wording: not only “badges”, but “effectual signs of grace…by which he doth work invisibly in us”. So then, sacraments are actions through which God acts to save. The problem is that very often people understand sacraments to be something that they do for God. It is a badge that we wear. It is some action we perform to profess our faith or please God. Not so, the articles state: they are divine actions whereby God accomplishes salvation.

In fact, Paul says this very thing in several of his letters. In Titus 3:5, Paul says, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”. This “washing of regeneration” is a reference to Christian baptism. Paul also says in Romans 6:4 that we were buried with Christ in baptism. Through baptism, we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, in the fruits of his saving work.

The 39 Articles say that for those who receive baptism rightly, that as “by an instrument, they…are grafted into the Church” (XXVII). So then, baptism delivers the goods of Christ’s salvation.

Baptism does not automatically save

All that being said, it is important to emphasize that baptism is not a “one-and-done” event. It does not automatically save. The Reformers knew this important fact: baptism must make its way into the personal faith and life of the recipient. In fact, if we do not receive our baptism by faith, it has no effect. To put it another way, baptism isn’t a magic ritual. Baptism must be, as the 39 Articles say, “rightly received”. By this, the Articles mean to say that sacraments do not work apart from the faith of the individual. People are not objects to simply be worked on. People are humans with wills and hearts that must receive and believe God’s gracious gift given in baptism.

This is especially relevant for infants admitted to baptism. Infants who are baptized ought afterward to be raised in the church, taught, and nurtured to mature faith. They should be raised within the embrace of God’s people. If a child is baptized in the church, and never sets foot in the church again, there is simply no reason to believe that on the basis of their baptism alone, they are saved.

Here is how Martin Luther explains baptism in his Small Catechism:

“[Baptism] indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever”. Luther borrows this wording from Romans 6: we are drowned in baptism, and raise as new creatures. Therefore, each day we should live as if our old man is dead, and we are new.” (4.3)

Baptism’s effect on our lives should span the entirety of our lives. It should work it’s way into daily repentance and obedience to Christ. If it doesn’t make its way into daily living, the baptism has not had its effect.

This is why Christians throughout history stressed to such a great degree the difference between the outward element of water, and the inward reality of being cleansed by the Holy Spirit. It’s easy for water to be poured on the head. It’s supernatural for the water to make its way to our hearts. Baptism must be believed and received; claimed in faith by the recipient. Otherwise it has no effect.

Consequently this is why many of the Reformation confessions speak of baptism having its effect later in life as the child believes and receives the graces offered in baptism. The Westminster Confession states,

“The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.” (WCF 28.6)

Notice the wording: baptism’s efficacy is not “tied to the moment” of its administration, but according to God’s “appointed time”. What the confession means to say is that baptism’s saving efficacy is not bound to the moment the water hits someone’s head. Water doesn’t have that sort of power! Rather, baptism has its effect through God’s Spirit, who confers the graces of baptism when he pleases. Baptism, properly, does not look back (OK, I’ve been baptized) but forward to God’s continued work to establish faith and holiness in the recipient.

Why infants?

After reading this, one might ask: if baptism doesn’t automatically save — if it must be received and believed — why baptize infants? Why not wait for them to make a decision for Christ, and subsequently baptize? A first thing to note is that Anglicans do not exclusively baptize infants. We also baptize adults believers too! Anglicans have always been keen to the reality that the church exists to make disciples, and this includes adults as well as children. Nevertheless, it is important to consider: why baptize infants? If infants cannot make a commitment to Christ, why not just wait until they are of age to do so?

The reality is, God has always embraced the children of believers into his fold. It is not simply a New Testament practice, but also a practice found in the Old Testament! In fact, during every era in history, God has graciously included believers and their children into his saving graces. But where do we find this in the scriptures?

Let’s look briefly at Peter’s sermon the Jewish leaders in Acts 2. Toward the end of his sermon, the Jewish leaders ask what they must do to be saved. Peter responds by saying,

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (v. 38-39).

Peter commands the Jewish people to repent and be baptized, and promises that through this baptism, they will receive the Holy Spirit. What is important for us to note, however, is that this promise is not simply for the believing adults. It is, as Peter says, “for you and for your children”. This presumes that the children of these new believers were admitted to baptism, and that the same promises given to their parents were given to them. In other words, children of believers were included along with their parents into God’s gracious embrace.

Another important thing to note in this passage is that when Peter says, “this promise is to you and your children”, he is quoting from the Old Testament. In Genesis 17, God says the exact same thing to Abraham. However, the context is not baptism but circumcision. Circumcision, not baptism, was the initiatory sacrament in the Old Testament. If someone desired to become part of God’s people, they had to be circumcised. However, circumcision wasn’t simply given to adult converts. Rather, as God commanded, it was given to every male adult and his children. In fact, every male child was commanded to be circumcised at the eighth day. What that meant for the Jews was that it was commonplace for children to be included in God’s people.

Peter quotes Genesis 17 in his sermon to signify that now that Christ has come, there is a new initiatory sacrament, baptism; and this sacrament is given to adult believers, and also their children, just as it was in the Old Testament.

What all of this means is that God included the children of believers in the old covenant, and he does the same in the new! Children are graciously received by God and included in Christ’s covenant people.

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Defining the Church

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On page 13 of his Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Five, Geerhardus Vos asks this interesting question: “Is it easy to give a definition for ‘the church’?”. Vos answers candidly: no.

Just pages before, he gave the instances and meanings of the NT usage of the word “church”. The most common Greek word used is, of course, ekklesia. It is common to define this term as those “called out of”. But there are several contexts in which the “called out ones” are defined.

For instance, there is the idea of the universal church: those called out of sin to union with Christ. “In the first place, it is those called by Christ and to Christ” (p 10). This has no bearing on local assemblies, but rather to the mystical reality of all the elect gathered and united to the head. Paul commonly uses the metaphor of body and head in terms of the universal church, ekklesia catholikos (catholic church). This is the church in its most comprehensive context: those in earth and heaven, united to Christ the head and receiving the benefits thereof.

However, the term ekklesia has yet another usage in the NT; and that is of the local assembly. “The second meaning of the word “church” is that of the local, visible church — thus, the gathering of believers who meet in a particular place or city” (p 11). Vos lists off numerous references in the NT of the church gathered in Antioch or Asia etc. What this means is that ekklesia can refer to a specific gathering of people, and not to the comprehensive reality of the catholic church.

For this reason, Vos explains, “the matter [of the church] is considered from differing viewpoints” (p 13). He mentions three viewpoints, or starting points, from which one may define the church:

a) From election: Some say that the essence of the church is not latent in any external institution but in internal unity with Christ (p 13)

Vos reasons that this is the opposite view of the strictly sacramental churches: some say that those who partake of baptism are ipso facto part of the church. This reasoning is “from the outside in” (p 13). However, reasoning from election is starting from the opposite end: from the inside out. The elect are those inwardly called and regenerated and thus are part of the external body. But, says Vos, those elect not yet born or those still unbelieving cannot properly be said to be part of the church. They have yet to be implanted into Christ, yet to repent and believe, and are by definition outside of the church!

There is another option, noted above:

b) From baptism: Engrafting into the body of Christ and belonging to it are outwardly signified and sealed in baptism. Thus we no longer have to do with the invisible church, but with a visible form that it assumes. (p 14)

This reasons not from election but from the sacramental life of the church: those participating in those ordinances are said to be part of the ekklesia. The difficulty lies, Vos rightly reasons, in what he calls a “valid baptism”. There are some members that receive baptism that “it would be difficult to call…believing brothers” (p 14). Vos later goes on to distinguish rightly between one who has received the sign of baptism and one who has received the grace of baptism. The two often do not meet, although ideally they should! Just as some Jews received circumcision without receiving the inward reality of “the circumcision of the heart”, so too many receive the sign without the seal. And although one cannot go on to judge the genuineness of a Christian’s baptism, nevertheless, this does not guarantee salvation.

As an aside, this was one of the Reformation’s sacramental emphases: sacraments, although salvific, are not automatically salvific. The Westminster Confession talks about the “efficacy of baptism”, but clarifies by saying:

Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (28.5)

One might interpret this article by saying that sacraments are indeed efficacious but must be received rightly. Infants admitted to baptism, for instance, are indeed participants in grace, but if one rejects or even neglects baptism through unbelief or sin, that baptism is to no effect. Baptism is not an automatic grace.

Vos moves on to his third option for defining the church:

 c) Finally, some have begun with confession. Insofar as confession is the principal external means to manifest the invisible essence of the church and to cause it to materialize outwardly, it already belongs under the preceding approach. Confession, however, is also a bond that binds the members of the church together in the external form of the church. To this extent, it is what is characteristic for the visible church in its institutional form (p 14)

Put another way, confession or outward profession, enables the reality of the inward invisible church to become visible in an institutional form. It brings invisible and visible together. Vos holds this to be the most ideal in defining the ekklesia. And of course, those who make their profession have already been part of the elect from all of eternity and presumably have already participated in the sacramental life of the church.

Having this ideal, Vos transitions into his next section by clarifying that this struggle for a definition of the church is why the Reformed hold to a distinction between the invisible and visible church (p 15). “One may not place them beside each other dualistically as if they were two churches”, however (p 18). The invisible and visible church are two sides of the same church (p 18). But this remains a reality: one may belong to the visible institutional church without being vitally united to Christ; and likewise one may not belong to the institutional church and yet still, in God’s grace, united to Christ.

Calvin on the Sacraments

Portrait of John Calvin

Calvin has a fascinating explanation of the sacraments in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He introduces the sacraments as signs and seals, as the Reformers usually do. But, he goes on to explain the sacraments as external words which affix our faith and deepen our union with Christ by the Spirit.

Calvin explains it this way:

First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us…We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 14.1)

Calvin speaks of a sacrament of an “external sign” of God’s good will toward us in Christ which he inwardly “seals” on our consciences to sustain us the “weakness of our faith”. It is God showing us visibly the promise of good will to us in the gospel. Baptism, properly speaking then, is God sealing upon our consciences his promise of renewal by the Spirit; the Lord’s Supper, that are welcome to his table.

Calvin goes on to say this:

In this way God provides first for our ignorance and sluggishness and, secondly, for our infirmity; and yet, properly speaking, it does not so much confirm his word as establish us in the faith of it. For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings. (14.3).

Calvin says rightly that the “truth of God is in itself sufficient”, but because we are physical beings, God condescends to us by physical means to “prop our faith up on every side”. The sacraments are physical words to us, to accommodate our bodily situation. Sacraments are not properly sacraments without the words or promises contained under the external sign.

In fact, for Calvin, the word and sacrament accomplish the same thing:

Both word and sacraments…confirm our faith, bringing under view the kind intentions of our heavenly Father, in the knowledge of which the whole assurance of our faith depends, and by which its strength is increased; and the Spirit also confirms our faith when by engraving that assurance on our minds, he renders it effectual. (14.11)

So then, sacraments are physical words to us, signs and seals, to bolster our faith, to deepen our union with Christ by the action of the Spirit. They are Spirit wrought instruments to seal to our consciences God’s good promises to us by the gospel.