Opening prayer: Great God, we thank you for the gift of baptism, in which Jesus forgives us our sins yet lays your mighty claim upon our whole life. Call us back to the identity that you gave us at the font, that we would be free for grateful service to you and all your creatures. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Martha: Whenever we baptize babies, we vow to guide and nurture them as they grow up, to encourage them to follow Christ, and to be faithful members of his church. But I worry that we don’t follow through very well.
Jerry: It’s hard to keep track of the people in our congregation; we’re all so busy. Maybe it would be better to baptize children after they’ve grown up a bit and can demonstrate that they are serious about their faith.
Lisa: Frankly, I’ve never quite gotten the point about baptism. It seems to me that what matters is whether people give their lives to Jesus, not whether they have water sprinkled on their head.
Max: Well, I think baptism is a wonderful way to welcome new children and adults into our fellowship.
In Chapter Six, we noted that the Holy Spirit makes Christ’s benefits “effectual” for us. Through the Holy Spirit, we are united to the living, resurrected Christ and share in his life. We undergo a process of transformation (sanctification). In this chapter, we explore the “outward means” by which the Spirit does this work. Just as God uses the visible church to call us into Christ’s way of life, so too God uses visible signs, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to touch us with his grace and change us. John Calvin noted that humans are composed not only of mind or spirit but also of a body, and that as physical beings we are responsive to material things. The sacraments have a special power for us because they use material elements—water, bread, and wine—to communicate God’s grace to us. These physical signs reinforce, seal, and confirm God’s promises to us in the gospel.
The sacrament of baptism is of special interest—and confusion—in the church today. Some Christian traditions, such as Baptist, do not regard baptism as a sacrament, but rather as an “ordinance.” It is something that we do because it has been ordained or ordered by God, but it does not communicate God’s grace in any special way. In addition, Baptist churches baptize only people who have first made a public declaration of their faith in Jesus Christ, which rules out infants and small children. This theology of baptism has influenced much of North American Protestantism. Even people who attend churches in the Reformed tradition may ask that we “dedicate” rather than baptize their children, leaving the children to decide later and for themselves whether or not to be baptized. The American spirit of individualism and personal choice may reinforce this attitude.
Other Christian traditions, such as Catholic, have a very different understanding. For them, a person’s salvation depends on baptism. A child should be baptized as soon as possible after birth; if it appears that the infant is close to death and a priest is not nearby, a nurse, a midwife, or another layperson may perform the baptism. According to Catholic theology, baptism washes away the original sin that clings to the soul of every human, including newborn babies. Baptism immediately justifies and sanctifies us. This approach, while so different from Baptist theology, has been no less influential on many Americans. People sometimes come to our churches asking us to baptize their babies as a spiritual safety measure. These people may not be sure that baptism really does anything, but they don’t want to take any chances.
Other motives may be at work when someone requests baptism. A couple may want to have their child baptized not because they care about baptism but rather because they wish to please grandma or grandpa. Alternatively, an adult may have been baptized as a child but asks to be baptized again because only now has he or she made a conscious commitment to Christ. Or a person may have once been baptized but then fell away from the church and now wishes to recommit him- or herself to Christ.
A baptism is almost always a special moment in the life of a congregation. People take delight in watching parents bring their baby forward to be baptized and welcomed into the community of faith. We admire an adult who stands before us to be baptized because he or she has made a commitment to Christ. But just what is God doing in a baptism? Is baptism essential for a person’s salvation, or is it just a ritual that helps people celebrate their commitments to each other? Should a pastor or session ever refuse a request for baptism? We turn again to the confessions for guidance.
Two Principal Means: Word and Sacraments
The confessions speak of two principal means through which the Holy Spirit works to bring people into life in Christ: the preached word and the sacraments. As the Heidelberg Catechism declares, “The Holy Spirit produces [faith] in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments” (HC 4.065; see also WC 7.088, which adds “prayer”). The Second Helvetic Confession acknowledges “that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry” (SH 5.007). But it and the other confessions affirm that God normally uses the church and its ministry of Word and sacrament to bring people to faith.
Preaching and the sacraments are closely related. While the confessions acknowledge the value of reading Scripture on our own, they insist that we also need the church’s preaching and sacraments to help us rightly interpret the Bible. God uses the preached Word and the sacraments to “accommodate” himself to our human weakness, so that he does not overwhelm us with his power and glory but rather draws near in love and mercy.
According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, preaching aims at “enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners, of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ, [and] of conforming them to his image” (WLC 7.265). The Confession of 1967 makes a similar point: “Through preaching . . . the people hear the Word of God and accept and follow Christ” (C67 9.49). This kind of preaching makes demands on both the preacher and the people. For their part, preachers will take into consideration “the necessities and capacities of the hearers” (WLC 7.269). “The message is addressed to men in particular situations . . . [and] should be conducive to men’s hearing of the gospel in a particular time and place” (C67 9.49). For their part, the hearers will “attend upon [the preaching] with diligence, preparation, and prayer . . . and readiness of mind, as the Word of God” (WLC 7.270).
The sacraments have the same function: to touch us with Christ’s grace in the particular circumstances of our lives. The sacraments “seal and confirm [the Word and promise of God] in our hearts” (SC 3.18; see also HC 4.066, SH 5.169, and WC 6.149). Moreover, like preaching, the sacraments become effectual for us only by the power of the Holy Spirit, as it awakens in us faith in God’s promises (see SC 3.21 and SH 5.183).
The confessions declare that Christ instituted two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (SC 3.21, SH 5.178, and WLC 2.274). The Second Helvetic Confession defines sacraments as “mystical symbols, or holy rites, or sacred actions, instituted by God himself, consisting of his Word, of signs and of things signified” (SH 5.159; see also WLC 2.273). Words and signs work together to set forth a sacrament’s meaning. At the time of a baptism or the Lord’s Supper, the minister speaks words—words that the people hear and understand—that declare what God has done and is still doing, while the physical signs and outward actions of the sacraments make the meaning of these words clearer and more relevant to us. Here the Reformation-era confessions are reacting against a medieval Catholicism in which people did not understand the Latin words of the mass and the sacramental signs seemed to function as magical actions (see SC 3.22).
The sacraments, first of all, set forth God and his promises to us. As we noted above, the sacraments confirm and seal the promises of God that the preached Word sets forth. The Scots Confession tells us that God uses the sacraments “to exercise the faith of his children and . . . to seal in their hearts the assurance of his promise, and of that most blessed conjunction, union, and surety, which the chosen have with their Head” (SC 3.21). For the Heidelberg Catechism, the sacraments confirm “that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross” (HC 4.067). The Second Helvetic Confession declares that the principal “thing which God promises in all Sacraments and to which all the godly direct their attention . . . is Christ the Savior—the only sacrifice” (SH 5.175). According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the sacraments “represent Christ and his benefits, and . . . confirm our interest in him” (WC 6.149).
But the sacraments have a second trajectory, as well: to each other and our responsibilities to the world. As regards the church, the Scots Confession notes that the sacraments “make a visible distinction between [God’s] people and those who were without the Covenant” (SC 3.21; see also SH 5.169 and WC 6.149). Further, the Westminster Larger Catechism tells us that as a covenant community, we are obliged “to testify and cherish [our] love and communion one with another” (WLC 7.272). Westminster adds that the sacraments “engage [us] to the service of God” (WC 6.149). As regards the world, the Confession of 1967 emphasizes that the sacraments strengthen the church’s “service of God among men” (C67 9.49). By drawing us into the life of Christ, baptism and the Lord’s Supper move us to seek reconciliation both within the church and in the world.
These insights from the confessions about the sacraments in general help us better understand the sacrament of baptism in particular. Words of promise based on Scripture are joined to the outward sign of water, and the outward sign sets forth and clarifies the promises, so that they touch us more deeply than words alone do. Moreover, the promises attached to baptism point us in two directions: toward God and his claim on us, and toward each other and the world around us. While faith, not baptism, is necessary for salvation, baptism is such a great help to us that we should not neglect it (see WC 6.158).
As for God’s promises, baptism especially represents forgiveness. The Scots Confession tells us that through baptism our sins “are remitted” (SC 3.21; see also WC 6.154). The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of “the washing away of sins” (HC 4.071). According to the Second Helvetic Confession, to be baptized is “to be cleansed also from the filthiness of sins” (SH 5.187). Water applied to a person’s body helps dramatize this cleansing: “As surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly [Christ’s] blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, that is, all my sins” (HC 4.069).
A second set of promises relates to rebirth or regeneration. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that through baptism we are “renewed and sanctified . . . to be members of Christ, so that more and more we become dead to sin and live holy and blameless lives” (HC 4.070). The Second Helvetic Confession declares that in baptism “we are regenerated, purified, and renewed by God through the Holy Spirit” (SH 5.187). According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, baptism is a sign and seal of “regeneration . . . and of [one’s] giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life” (WC 6.154). The Confession of 1967 tells us that baptism represents “not only a cleansing from sin, but a dying . . . [and] rising with Christ” (C67 9.51). Just as water refreshes the body physically, the waters of baptism revive us spiritually (see SH 5.188).
Still other promises refer to the new identity that baptism bestows on us. The Heidelberg Catechism assures us that by baptism “we are included in God’s covenant and people” (HC 4.074; see also WC 6.154). According to the Confession of 1967, “In baptism, the church celebrates the renewal of the covenant with which God has bound his people to himself” (C67 9.51). The Second Helvetic Confession tells us that in baptism we are “adopted” into the family of God (SH 5.186-.187) and separated “from all strange religions and people” (SH 5.189). Several confessions also promise us that through baptism the Holy Spirit “engrafts” us into Christ (SC 3.21 and WC 6.154). As with cleansing and renewal, water helps make this promise of new life in Christ clearer. When we shower or bathe, water covers us; in a similar way, the waters of baptism cover us with Christ.
Next to the promises that relate us to God are promises—and responsibilities—that relate us to each other within and beyond the community of faith. The Second Helvetic Confession tells us that we are obligated by virtue of our baptism to “concur [with all members of the church] in the one religion and mutual services,” while we fight against sin and evil in the world (SH 5.189). The Confession of 1967 declares that baptism “commits all Christians to die each day to sin and to live for righteousness . . . By baptism, individuals are publicly received into the church to share in its life and ministry, and the church becomes responsible for their training and support in Christian discipleship” (C67 9.51). Baptism calls us into a different way of life with God, with each other, and in the world.
The confessions see baptism as a spiritual event in which God makes promises to us and we respond by committing ourselves to God and his ways. But then the question of baptizing infants arises, who, so far as we can tell, cannot yet understand God’s promises or respond to them. Do those parents who wish to delay baptism of their children have a valid point? Why has the Reformed tradition affirmed baptism of infants, even though they cannot yet profess their faith, obey God, or serve others?
At the time of the Reformation, groups known as Anabaptists (those who “baptize again”) insisted on baptizing adult Christians who had already been baptized as infants but were only now making a public profession of faith. The Anabaptists viewed baptism primarily as a way of marking a person’s conscious choice to follow Christ and to join the church and its alternative way of life.
Reformed confessions consistently reject this position (see SC 3.23 and SH 5.192), justifying the baptism of infants by appealing to the covenant that God has made with his people.
The Heidelberg Catechism declares that “infants as well as adults are included in God’s covenant and people, and they, no less than adults, are promised deliverance from sin” (HC 4.074). The Second Helvetic Confession recalls Jesus’ words that children belong to the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 19:14) (SH 5.192). The Westminster Larger Catechism affirms that “infants descending from parents, either both or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are, in that respect, within the covenant, and are to be baptized” (WLC 7.276; see also WC 6.157). And because infants belong to the covenant community, the members of the church have responsibilities to them. As the Confession of 1967 notes, “The congregation, as well as the parents, has a special obligation to nurture [infants] in the Christian life, leading them to make, by a public profession, a personal response to the love of God shown forth in their baptism” (C67 9.51).
What if a person falls away from his or her baptismal identity? Can a baptism ever fail “to take”? And if so, may a baptized person who returns to faith after falling away be baptized again? The confessions see baptism as a one-time event in which Christ’s death and resurrection are represented as sufficient once and for all for human salvation. Christ’s saving work is not deficient. It does not need to be repeated. At the same time, the confessions recognize that the “efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered” (WC 6.159). A person who falls “short of, and [walks] contrary to, the grace of Baptism” that he or she has received (WLC 7.277) needs not a second baptism but rather a return to the promises of the first. In the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation” (WLC 7.277). The catechism adds that the baptism of others can stir us up to reclaim our own baptismal identity (WLC 2.777).
As far as Reformed confessions are concerned, the sacraments are more than human rituals by which we attest our faith in Christ and are joined to a congregation (the Baptist position). Rather, God comes to us in a special way in the sacraments. But the confessions also reject the idea that the physical signs attached to the sacraments are somehow transformed into supernatural matter (the medieval Catholic position). For us, the waters of baptism remain water; the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper remain bread and wine. The confessions differ, however, in their explanations of just how God is present when we celebrate the sacraments.
For the Second Helvetic Confession, the Holy Spirit gives us grace inwardly at the very moment that we receive the sacraments outwardly. In regard to baptism, the confession declares that “inwardly we are regenerated, purified, and renewed by God through the Holy Spirit; and outwardly we receive the assurance of the greatest gifts in the water, by which also those great benefits are represented, and, as it were, set before our eyes to be beheld” (SH 5.187). Something similar occurs when the Word is preached or the Lord’s Supper is celebrated: The inward work of the Holy Spirit occurs parallel to the outward actions of the church (see SH 5.005 and 5.196).
The Westminster Confession of Faith sometimes sounds like the Second Helvetic Confession: As we outwardly participate in the sacraments, God’s grace touches us inwardly (WC 6.167). At other times, however, the Westminster Confession emphasizes that the sacraments point us to what God has done and is doing in Christ. They “represent Christ and his benefits” (WC 6.149). They are “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of [one’s] ingrafting into Christ” (WC 6.154). “Grace . . . is exhibited in or by the sacraments” (WC 6.151). When speaking of baptism, Westminster adds that this grace is not only exhibited but also conferred by the Holy Spirit (WC 6.159).
The Scots Confession comes closest to John Calvin’s position that the sacraments are “means of grace” (though it does not use this term), that is, instruments by which God the Father through the Holy Spirit unites us to his Son, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. The sacraments do not merely represent outwardly what the Holy Spirit does inwardly, nor do they merely exhibit God’s grace. Rather, God is really doing something to us spiritually through and by means of the physical signs attached to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Scots Confession declares that “we utterly condemn the vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else than naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by Baptism we are engrafted into Christ Jesus, to be partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted” (SC 3.21).
In sum, the Book of Confessions is not of one mind about how God is present in or through the sacraments. While agreeing that the sacraments “represent” God’s grace, the confessions leave open the question of just how. Nor do the twentieth century confessions provide definitive resolution. Like the Westminster Confession, the Confession of 1967 speaks of “representation” without defining it further: “Baptism with water represents . . . cleansing from sin . . . [and] a dying with Christ and a joyful rising with him to new life” (C67 9.51). The Brief Statement of Faith simply states that the Spirit “claims us in the waters of baptism” (BSF #62). Recent Reformed liturgical resources, such as the Presbyterian Directory for Worship and the Book of Common Worship, have, however, been influenced by Calvin’s conviction that the sacraments are means of grace that unite us to the living Christ.
In an era in which we often see baptism as a way of making a statement about ourselves—our profession of faith, our hopes for our children, or our desire as congregations to welcome and incorporate new members—the confessions challenge us to think about what God is doing in the sacraments. What is God promising us? How is Jesus Christ drawing us into his resurrection life? How is the Holy Spirit renewing us?
Salvation does not depend on baptism, yet baptism is God’s great gift to us, and we will want it for ourselves and our children. The sacrament of baptism can strengthen our faith, which is constantly under assault from doubt, temptation, and everyday trials and difficulties. When we remember that we have been baptized—as when we confess our sins or participate in the baptism of others—God’s forgiving and renewing grace can again touch us and renew us.
Our baptismal liturgies will be strong when they focus less on the beauty of a new baby or the commitment of an adult convert to Christ, and more on God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. Through baptism, we participate in his death and resurrection. Baptism therefore makes demands on us. It calls us to die to everything that separates us from Christ. It asks us to work over a lifetime to grow into the identity that Christ has already given us. Moreover, baptism can have integrity only if parents and congregations follow through on their commitments to each other and to the children in their midst. That is hard work in a world in which people in churches easily come and go, and in which church leaders get so busy with administrative duties that they neglect their spiritual responsibilities.
Yes, a church that practices baptism must be ready for its demands. But baptism is not only demanding; it is also wonderful. It is wonderful because it sets forth to us God’s free grace—the amazing truth that God accepts us and reconciles us to him before we do anything to deserve it. Baptism teaches us more deeply than through words alone that we and our children belong to God no matter what—no matter whether we or they grow in faith or fall short, no matter what hardships we or they endure, and no matter what other powers or principalities try to claim us or them. Baptism dramatically assures us, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, that “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ . . . Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him” (HC 4.001).
Do congregations follow through on their vows to guide and nurture those who are baptized?
Would it be better to wait until children can choose baptism for themselves?
Is baptism just an empty ritual?
Is baptism primarily about welcoming people into the community of faith?
Reprinted from Confessing Our Faith: The Book of Confessions for Church Leader by John P. Burgess with permission from Westminster/John Knox Press 2018.
Dr. John P. Burgess is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.