Article 34 - The Sacrament of Baptism
THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM
We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law (Romans 10:4), has by His shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood that one could or would make as an expiation or satisfaction for sins. He has abolished circumcision, which involved blood, and has instituted in its place the sacrament of baptism. By baptism we are received into the church of God and set apart from all other peoples and false religions, to be entirely committed to Him whose mark and emblem we bear. This serves as a testimony to us that He will be our God and gracious Father for ever.
For that reason He has commanded all those who are His to be baptized with plain water, into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). By this He signifies to us that as water washes away the dirt of the body when poured on us, and as water is seen on the body of the baptized when sprinkled on him, so the blood of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, does the same thing internally to the soul. It washes and cleanses our soul from sin and regenerates us from children of wrath into children of God. This is not brought about by the water as such but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, which is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, that is, the devil, and enter into the spiritual land of Canaan.
Thus the ministers on their part give us the sacrament and what is visible, but our Lord gives us what is signified by the sacrament, namely, the invisible gifts and grace. He washes, purges, and cleanses our souls of all filth and unrighteousness, renews our hearts and fills them with all comfort, gives us true assurance of His fatherly goodness, clothes us with the new nature, and takes away the old nature with all its works.
We believe, therefore, that anyone who aspires to eternal life ought to be baptized only once. Baptism should never be repeated, for we cannot be born twice. Moreover, baptism benefits us not only when the water is on us and when we receive it, but throughout our whole life. For that reason we reject the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with a single baptism received only once, and who also condemn the baptism of the little children of believers. We believe that these children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as infants were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises which are now made to our children. Indeed, Christ shed His blood to wash the children of believers just as much as He shed it for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, as the Lord commanded in the law that a lamb was to be offered shortly after children were born. This was a sacrament of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Because baptism has the same meaning for our children as circumcision had for the people of Israel, Paul calls baptism the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11).
BAPTISM REPLACES CIRCUMCISION
DeBres begins Article 34 by reminding us of what we confessed in Article 25 concerning Christ’s fulfillment of the ceremonial laws. All the Old Testament ceremonial laws foreshadowed the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Circumcision was one of these ceremonies and symbols. Circumcision involved the drawing of blood by making an incision in the flesh. This blood pointed to the blood Christ would shed on the cross as payment for sin. Now that Christ has shed His blood and reconciled sinners to God, there is no more need for blood to be shed. For that reason circumcision was discontinued. Writes deBres, “We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law, has by His shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood that one could or would make as an expiation or satisfaction for sins. He has abolished circumcision, which involved blood, and has instituted in its place the sacrament of baptism” (Article 34). As much as the sacrifices of animals in the Temple were fulfilled and abolished by Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, so too was circumcision fulfilled and abolished through Him.
Accordingly, Jesus Christ replaced the sign of circumcision with a new sign, the sacrament of holy baptism. The Lord God told Abraham that all belonging to the people of Israel were to be circumcised, on penalty of being “cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Genesis 17:14). Yet when Abraham’s great Son Jesus Christ was about to ascend into heaven, He instructed His disciples to preach the gospel to all creation and then did not add that all must be circumcised; He instead added, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16; see also Matthew 28:19). As circumcision was required in the Old Testament, so baptism is required in the New Testament as replacement for circumcision. That is why the apostle calls baptism “the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). Accordingly, the church confesses in Lord’s Day 27, “This was done in the old covenant by circumcision, in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.”
THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM: SIGN
Why did the Lord give as new sacrament the picture of baptism? Why did He not have circumcision replaced by, for example, shaving one’s head bald? Or decreeing that His people wear a purple armband?
Essential to the sacrament of baptism is the use of “plain water”. We use water daily for washing our hands, an action that assumes the presence of dirt and the desire to get rid of that dirt. Behind the sacrament of baptism is the confession that I am dirty before God, sinful. See Article 15, concerning the doctrine of original sin. Christ, however, shed His blood on the cross, and by His blood He washes me clean of my sins in the sight of God. As an illustration, now, of what Christ’s blood does for sinners, the Lord has given us the sacrament depicting washing. As the Catechism puts it, “... as surely as water washes away the dirt from my body, so certainly His blood and Spirit wash away the impurity of my soul, that is, all my sins” (Lord’s Day 26, Q & A 69). That’s why water is used, plain water. This water points up for us the very heart of the gospel. DeBres puts it this way: “By this (ie, baptism) He signifies to us that as water washes away the dirt of the body when poured on us, and as water is seen on the body of the baptized when sprinkled on him, so the blood of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, does the same thing internally to the soul. It washes and cleanses our soul from sin and regenerates us from children of wrath into children of God.”
Similarly, the “Form for the Baptism of Infants” (Book of Praise, page 584) echoes this understanding of baptism, ie, that it signifies the washing of souls filthy with sin. In no uncertain terms the Form says that the doctrine of baptism teaches that we, and the children we receive, are dirty, dead in sin, and are therefore in need of washing. To quote the Form, “The doctrine of holy baptism is summarized as follows: First, we and our children are conceived and born in sin and are therefore by nature children of wrath, so that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are born again. This is what the immersion in or sprinkling with water teaches us. It signifies the impurity of our souls, so that we may detest ourselves, humble ourselves before God, and seek our cleansing and salvation outside of ourselves. Second, baptism signifies and seals to us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ. We are therefore, baptized into the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Yet Jesus’ choice to replace circumcision with the picture of washing does not lie ultimately in people’s daily habit of washing hands. Baptism as a symbol of washing away sin finds its vital root in the Old Testament. In the tabernacle there was need from time to time for the priests to wash themselves, or for sick people to wash themselves before offering sacrifices, lest they appear before God as unclean (cf Exodus 30:18ff; Leviticus 14:8f; 15:5ff). One also reads of washing in Ezekiel 36:25, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” In agreement with this Old Testament imagery, one can understand the actions of John the Baptist: “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4,5). The message of John’s baptism was clear to people steeped in Old Testament teaching; he was insisting they were filthy on account of sin and needed to be cleansed through the blood of the coming Messiah. When Jesus Christ, then, shed His blood to atone for the sins of His people, it is no surprise that He commanded the same Old Testament picture of washing to be used as a sacrament of the gospel in place of circumcision (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16). As a result, we read repeatedly in the book of Acts that people were baptized when they came to faith (cf Acts 2:38,41; 8:12f, 36ff; 9:18; 10:47f; 16:15,33; 18:8).
Baptism, then, is a graphic picture of what the gospel is all about. Through this sacrament, the Lord portrays me as unclean, dead in sin, and at the same time through this sacrament God portrays that my sins are washed away in Jesus Christ. Where sins are washed away, one is righteous before God! How rich the picture of baptism is for persons by nature filthy before God on account of their sins!
THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM: SEAL
God commanded that every male in Israel was to receive the sacrament of circumcision in his flesh. In His providence the Lord could have given Israel a picture of the gospel that remained at a distance from each individual. Yet in His care He did not do so; each male Israelite was to carry in his own flesh the sign of God’s covenant of grace with him. God particularized the sacrament so that He might impress on each individual Israelite the fact of God’s covenant with him; no one was to think that God’s promises were true for Israel-in-general, but not true for himself specifically. (Of course, the women in Israel were included with their men; the sign granted to the male was equally valid for the female – and evident in marriage when the two became one.)
In line with God’s personalizing of His promise in the Old Testament, Jesus Christ in the New Testament commanded that each believer be baptized individually (cf Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16). So the book of Acts mentions numerous instances of persons who were baptized individually (cf Acts 2:38,41; 8:12f, 36ff; 9:18; 10:47f; 16:15,33; 18:8). Baptism is more than a sign, an illustration of the gospel; like circumcision, baptism is also a seal by which God certifies that the truth signified in the sacrament is true for me. When God in His providence has a particular individual receive the sign of baptism, the Lord assures that particular person that the promise of the gospel is not a general truth valid for everybody in general and no one in particular. Rather, by having a particular individual receive the sign of baptism, the Lord assures that person that the promise of the gospel is true specifically for him. He may, then, not doubt the truth of what God has done for him.
SPRINKLING OR IMMERSION?
One reads of sprinkling in Ezekiel 36:25: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” In Hebrews 12:24 the apostle speaks of “the blood of sprinkling.” These texts have been used to justify that baptism ought to occur by means of sprinkling.
On the other hand, proponents of baptism by immersion refer to a passage as Romans 6:3,4: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” The picture presented by these words is of a baptized person disappearing under the surface of the water as a symbol of his being buried with Christ. The baptized person arises again from under the water as a symbol of his being raised with Christ to a new life. A case can certainly be made, then, for the argument that immersion gives a clearer representation of the wealth of the gospel. This is also the reason why baptism on the mission field tends to be done by immersion.
At the same time, one ought not to become dogmatic about whether baptism is done by sprinkling or by immersion, since the Scriptures do not specify about the manner of baptism. Two practical arguments have contributed to the practice of sprinkling being dominant in Reformed circles. These are 1) immersion is not practical for infants; 2) extremes of temperature in Europe (where the Reformed have their roots) have historically discouraged immersion.
GOD TOOK THE INITIATIVE AND IMPOSED HIS COVENANT
Jesus has given baptism in place of circumcision (see above). Despite the change of picture, though, the essential message of baptism is the same as was the message of circumcision. That is evident from Paul’s characterization of baptism as “the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11).
One first reads of circumcision in Genesis 17:1-14. God took the initiative in coming to Abraham: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly” (vss 1,2). It was not Abraham who approached God seeking a relationship, but God who sovereignly approached Abraham. God did not offer to negotiate with Abraham, nor did He ask Abraham to jump certain hurdles before He would establish a relation with him. How could a creature approach his Creator for a deal, let alone a sinner approach the Holy One?! God’s very identity as God dictates that any relation between Him and man must come completely from Him. “Almighty God” imposed Himself upon Abraham: “I will make My covenant between Me and you” (see also Article 17). As a sign and seal of God’s claim upon the man Abraham, Abraham was to be circumcised.
The same is true in the New Testament. Because His eye was set on Lydia the Lord sovereignly sent the messengers of His glad tidings to her town and proclaimed to her the gospel of forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Jesus Christ – and that’s exactly the content of the covenant God made with Abraham; God would be Lydia’s God. Sovereignly “the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Here was no negotiation, nor did the Lord give Lydia any options. He imposed on her His bond of love. In accordance with Christ’s command in Mark 16:16, she was baptized when she believed (Acts 16:15), as a sign and seal to her of God’s wonderful claim upon her.
Abraham and Lydia –though removed from each other by centuries of time and hundreds of kilometers received from the same God the identical promises and gifts that characterize the covenant of grace. Though both by nature belonged to Satan and both by nature were filthy before God on account of sin, God promised to be Father for them both, promised to “provide [them] with all good and avert all evil or turn it to [their] benefit” (as the “Form for Holy Baptism” puts it). He would be ‘Father’ for them because He would give up His own Son to death so that He might wash away all their sins and return them to God’s side (justification). On top of that God promised to give His Holy Spirit to dwell within their hearts so that in turn they both might receive a new, changed heart (sanctification). This is the gospel of redemption God impressed upon them both in the covenant – of which the sacrament of circumcision and baptism was the sign and the seal. How marvelously rich this was for them both!
GOD’S COVENANT SPANS THE GENERATIONS
Yet the covenant God established with Abraham was not made with Abraham-by-himself. God was emphatic: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7). When Abraham some time later received a son, he could know that the infant in his arms was a covenant child (with all the wealth of that!) on grounds that God had earlier said so. Offspring of Abraham were not God’s children because they earned it, or because Abraham wanted it that way; they were children of God because God imposed His decision upon them. Just as Abraham had no input as to whether there would be a relation between God and him, so also his children would have no input. This fact is made so abundantly clear from God’s express command that “he who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations” (Genesis 17:12) – long before they can give their consent. It is God who initiates the covenant, never man, and He includes also the children.
CHILDREN ARE ALSO TO BE BAPTISED
Prior to and during the days of deBres, it was said that children should not be baptized. It is still said today. The reasons given for not baptizing children include:
- the New Testament does not in any text command infant baptism,
- the New Testament does not cite any example of infant baptism,
- children do not understand baptism, and
- we do not know if the children in question indeed believe.
DeBres argued strongly against the notion that children were not to be baptized. He writes, “we reject the error of the Anabaptists, ... who also condemn the baptism of the little children of believers. We believe that these children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant.”
In Lord’s Day 27.74 the Heidelberg Catechism gives three reasons why infants must also be baptized:
- “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation.” This is a reference to Genesis 17:7, where God told Abraham that His covenant was made with Abraham “and your descendants after you.” This notion is repeated in Acts 2:39, “For the promise is to you and to your children.” God does not just make His covenant with individuals but also with the children He in His sovereign providence gives to believing parents. To the Corinthians, amongst whom there were families in which only one of the parents came to faith, Paul writes, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). That can only mean that the children of a believing parent are special in God’s eyes, set apart from the other children of town. That, in fact, is why God sovereignly and graciously gave the child (a) believing parent(s).
- The second reason the Catechism mentions in support of infant baptism is, “Through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to [infants] no less than to adults.” See again Acts 2:39, “and to your children.” For that reason Christ also laid His hands on the children and blessed them, acknowledging the children, too, as heirs of the kingdom of heaven. “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus taught, in keeping with the Old Testament word of God to Abraham (Matthew 19:14). That is also why Lydia was not the only one baptized when she came to faith, but “she and her household were baptized” (Acts 16:15; see also Acts 16:33). Paul told the elders of Ephesus to “take heed to … all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). He himself set the example as to the scope of the word ‘all the flock’ when he later instructed the children of Ephesus to “obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1). These children belonged.
- In the third place the Catechism supports infant baptism on the ground that children of believing parents “must be … distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the old covenant by circumcision, in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.” The children of believers are different because they are God’s children. (See proof-texts above.)
Over the years and centuries of church history, there was general uniformity within Reformed churches on the correctness of infant baptism. That uniformity is eroded today, due to a strong Arminian strain in today’s evangelicalism. The Gospel speaks of God sending His Son to pay for my sins when I have not even desired or asked Him to do so. It was God who sent Christ into the world, and it was God who imposed His covenant gospel –redemption in Christ on me and on the children He is pleased to give. Since He is God and I but a man, I do not have any say in His laying a claim on me and giving me rich promises. Here we come to the deciding factor with regard to baptizing or not baptizing infants: How does one view the relationship between Almighty God and the sinner? In Arminian thinking the distance between God and the sinner is shrunk. See Figure 14.3. In that diagram, the distance between God and man is absolute. Today’s theological climate, however, brings God down somewhat from the top of the page, and raises man somewhat from the bottom. The lessened distance between God and man gives man (he thinks) the right to express an opinion toward God and consider himself a negotiating partner. So, instead of baptism spelling out God’s sovereign work upon me, baptism is made into a sign that I agree to a relation with God, that I consent to receive God’s promises and believe in Him. Since this baptism now expresses my agreement with God’s gift, baptism can only be administered to those who have come to an age of discretion.
This attack on the relation between God and man does not pass Reformed churches by. How long will the Church continue to embrace the notion of infant baptism? The Church will do so for as long as it holds on to the fact that God is God. As long as God is seen as the Almighty who sovereignly imposes His work of salvation upon people dead in sin, there shall remain in our thinking a place for infant baptism. When man is given a place in the covenant in the sense that the reality of God’s promises is dependent in some way on man’s answer, there is no longer room for a sacrament that impresses upon sinners God’s sovereign gift of salvation. The Church will continue to administer infant baptism for as long as she holds on to the opening section of the Form for the Baptism of Infants – which in no flattering terms describes us as lost sinners. As soon as one raises the self, and so lessens the distance between God and man, the doctrine of infant baptism is at stake.
That is also when we lose our comfort. If baptism no longer signifies God’s claim upon me, if baptism instead signifies that I have faith in my heart, then I am left with no objective sign of God’s claim upon me. We all experience that our faith fluctuates daily. One day we feel strong in the faith, while the next day we doubt whether that sin of years ago, or perhaps of last week, is really forgiven. If my baptism signifies the faith in my heart, this baptism cannot remind me of God’s unchanging promises to me, but it can only remind me that once upon a time, in a pious moment, I said I believed in God. In times of doubt a reminder that I once embraced the faith is not really helpful. Comfort and security come not from recalling the conviction I used to have, but come from focusing on a God who does not change. That is what God intended with the sacrament of baptism; sinners’ attention should be focused on the God who once laid claim to us and never changes.
In view of the riches of this doctrine, deBres could tell his congregation how rich they were in spite of the tensions of their day, including the threats and realities of persecution. They were rich because God had made His covenant with them, and signified and sealed it to them in baptism. Hence deBres writes concerning baptism, “This serves as a testimony to us that He will be our God and gracious Father for ever.”
I AM TO EMBRACE THE CONTENTS OF GOD’S PROMISES
God, then, establishes His covenant with believers and the children He entrusts to their care. This work of God makes believing parents and their children so very rich. Does this mean, however, that every child also automatically receives the contents of the promises? Is every child entrusted to believing parents guaranteed a place in heaven?
The point is this: God’s covenant contains two parts, promises and obligations (see Article 17). In order to get the contents of the promises of the covenant I must answer the obligations of the covenant. Consider receiving a cheque. I do not have the $1000 mentioned in the cheque as long as the cheque remains in my drawer; my bank balance has not grown and I have no cash in hand to spend. The $1000 mentioned in the cheque does not help me a penny unless and until I do something with the cheque, namely, cash it. The cheque itself is no more than a promise with which I must do something in order to receive what has been promised. So it is with the covenant. In baptism as sign and seal, the Lord God graciously imposed His glorious covenant upon me. How do I obtain the contents of what He promises me in His covenant? I obtain the contents by responding to the promises made to me in baptism. I need to respond to my baptism! This response is faith. In faith I need to embrace what God promises me. If I fail to believe those promises, I will not receive the contents of those promises. (See the explanation on Article 22 for more on Faith).
Jacob and Esau serve to illustrate the point. Father Isaac could set both boys on his two knees, and reassure both that the Lord God had claimed them to be His children (see Genesis 17:7). Both had the promise that God was their Father, both had the promise of the forgiveness of their sins through Christ, and both had the promise that God would dwell in them through His Holy Spirit. Yet Jacob went to heaven and Esau went to hell (see Malachi 1:2,3). How can this be? Faith is the deciding factor. “Since every covenant contains two parts, a promise and an obligation, we are, through baptism, called and obliged by the Lord to a new obedience. We are to cleave to this one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to trust Him, and to love Him with our whole heart, soul and mind, and with all our strength” (“Form for the Baptism of Infants”, Book of Praise, page 585). Esau did not embrace God’s promises in faith, while Jacob did; Esau did not ‘deposit his cheque’, while Jacob did. I, too, need to believe what God has promised to me in His covenant with me, on penalty of forfeiting the wealth inherent in the covenant. I may not take the wealth contained in my baptism for granted, but need to respond to my baptism.
Responding to God’s promises, believing them and working with them, is not a ‘once off’ action’ but a daily exercise. Today God leads my life in a particular way. As I digest the feelings awakened by singing birds or a carping boss, I am to work with the promises of Scripture that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). The “Form for the Baptism of Infants” paraphrases this promise of Scripture like this: God the Father “provides me with all good and averts all evil or turns it to my benefit”. My response to God’s promises in the nuts and bolts of daily living shows whether I appreciate His covenant bond with me or not, whether I am ‘cashing in’ on His promises or not. The same is true in relation to the sins I commit daily. As I reflect upon my sins of the day and repent of them, I respond to God’s promises by remembering and believing that today’s sins are washed away in the blood of Christ, forgiven – for that is what God signified and sealed to me at my baptism. Similarly, in the face of the failures I daily see in myself in my struggle against sin, I respond with faith to the promise of God every time I believe again that God gives me His Holy Spirit to renew my heart. Responding to God’s promises in baptism is a daily exercise, giving daily benefits.
CURSES ON UNBELIEF
If, on the other hand, I decline (daily) to respond in faith, my unbelief does not undo the covenant God made with me, for God’s covenant stands eternally. If I despise His promises, I shall receive the greater punishment –eternally– “for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48). Through his unbelief the child of Christian parents who spurns God’s covenant of grace invariably brings the curses of God upon himself – unless he repents. That in turn is why parents can continue to lay the promises of the covenant before their straying child. Promises of curse and of blessing remain, dependent on how we respond to the covenant.
NO REPEAT BAPTISMS
“We believe, therefore, that anyone who aspires to eternal life ought to be baptized only once.” After all, God’s promises are sure. He always means what He says, and therefore He needs to say it once only. Besides, baptism portrays that we are raised to new life with Christ, and as “we cannot be born twice … baptism should never be repeated.”
We understand that for a people persecuted on account of the faith (as they were in deBres’ day), God’s gift of baptism was a source of great encouragement. How true is deBres’ word, “baptism benefits us not only when the water is on us and when we receive it, but throughout our whole life.” One is not to be baptized repeatedly, but one may and certainly must keep on using this gracious gift of God to His struggling children.
Points for Discussion:
- Why is circumcision no longer the sign and seal of God’s covenant with His people?
- Why does the new sign revolve around the illustration of washing? What encouragement does the kitchen tap daily give us?
- Is sprinkling or immersion the preferred method for baptizing? Why?
- In what way is baptism a sign of the covenant?
- In what way is baptism a seal of the covenant?
- Why did the Lord not negotiate a covenant with you? Why did He impose the covenant long before you could express your interest (or rejection)?
- Do all (baptized) children of believers automatically receive the goods promised in baptism? Explain.
- Argue from Scripture that children of believers are to be baptized.
- Explain why the practice of adult baptism is popular among evangelical Christians.