Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
There has been much debate among Protestant churches over the subject of baptism. The disagreement has had to do with some questions that are of fundamental importance. Is baptism really a means of grace? And, if so, is it a means of grace to everyone who receives it? In other words, does every baptized person receive a gracious promise from God? Should the infant children of believers be baptized? And, if so, what is the basis for baptizing all the children of believers, when we know that they are not all elect children of God? The answers to these and other questions have been hotly debated for centuries, and they remain a cause for division today.
When considering the truth concerning the sacrament of baptism, it will be important to see how different views on baptism are rooted in different views of God’s covenant and of our salvation in that covenant. Both sacraments testify to the truth that God’s covenant is unconditional. According to Answer 67 of the Heidelberg Catechism, they both “direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation.” To teach a conditional covenant is to teach conditional salvation, and thus to deny that Christ’s work is the only ground of our salvation. Thus, when setting forth the truth concerning baptism, it will be of utmost importance to show how the unconditionality of the covenant and of our salvation are clearly illustrated by the sacraments God has given to His church.
The first thing considered in this series of articles on baptism will be the truth that the sacrament of baptism really is a means by which God gives grace. In later articles, Lord willing, the fact that this sacrament is a means of grace only to believers will be set forth, and the reason why infants of believers are to be baptized will be explained. Throughout the treatment of this subject, I will endeavor to show how erroneous views on this sign of the new covenant are rooted in wrong views of that new covenant and of our salvation within it.
The sacrament of holy baptism is really a means of grace. The Spirit of Christ uses baptism as a means by which He strengthens the faith of His people by sealing unto them His covenant promise. This really happens. God’s people receive not only the sign but also the grace that is signified by it.
There are many who deny that this is true. Most Baptists, for example, will refuse to call baptism a sacrament, and instead prefer to call it an ordinance. We use both terms (ordinance and sacrament) to refer to baptism. But the latter term they reject. The term sacrament has long been used by the church to refer to a church ordinance that is both a sign and a means of grace. Therefore, those who deny that baptism is a means of grace will not refer to it as a sacrament.
The typical Baptist argues that when it comes to baptism (or the Lord’s Supper, for that matter) there can be only two options. Either it is sacramental in nature, and thus necessary to go to heaven, or it is merely symbolic in nature, and in no sense necessary for salvation. By using such an argument they show their ignorance of what it means for a sign to be a sacrament.
That a sign is sacramental in nature does not mean that one has to receive that sacrament in order to go to heaven. The fact that God gives grace by means of the sacrament does not mean that one has to have received this grace in order to go on to heavenly glory. Indeed many little children have died and gone to glory before they have been baptized. But the fact that it is not necessary for salvation does not mean that there is no grace of God given to His people by means of it.
Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace to those who have already been saved by grace. First they are saved by irresistible grace, and then they receive more grace by means of the sacraments. The sacraments are a blessing to those who already have faith. First the Spirit of Christ breathes faith into them and saves them. Then they partake of the sacraments by which that faith is strengthened. This is how the sacraments can be means of grace, and yet not be necessary for salvation.
It is important that we be able to prove that baptism really is a means of grace. For this sign to be a means of grace, God has to have added a promise to it. So the question is, Where do we find such a promise in Scripture? The answer the Heidelberg Catechism gives to this question is correct:
Q. 71 Where has Christ promised us that He will as certainly wash us by His blood and Spirit as we are washed with the water of baptism? A. 71 In the institution of baptism, which is thus expressed: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” “He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not, shall be damned.” This promise is also repeated where the scripture calls baptism the washing of regeneration, and the washing away of sins.
This is where our fathers found the promise that Christ attached to baptism. They found it first of all in the words Christ spoke in connection with the institution of baptism, and then secondly in other places in the New Testament where Scripture calls baptism the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5), and the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16). Therefore, it behooves us to take a closer look at these passages to see how the promise truly is found there.
Let us first consider the words Christ spoke when He instituted baptism. Christ commanded the church to baptize believers into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Although the King James Version has in the name, the verse literally reads into the name. For a person to be baptized into the name of the triune God is for him to be brought into the covenant fellowship that the triune God has within Himself. One who is baptized is thus admitted into the Christian church, which is the one house that is called by God’s name (I Kings 8:43). As God’s people say to Him in Jeremiah 14:9, “thou, O LORD, art in the midst of us, and we are called by thy name.” Therefore, when Christ told us to baptize people into the name of the triune God, He was also promising us that baptized believers will be as certainly washed and brought into His fellowship as they are externally washed with the water of baptism.
Let us turn now to the two passages in the New Testament epistles in which baptism is referred to as spiritual cleansing. The first passage quoted is Titus 3:5, which reads: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” The term washing is another word for baptism. To baptize someone is to wash him. Here this washing (or we could say this baptism) is referred to as a washing of regeneration, which is a spiritual renewal. Although this must not be taken to mean that the external baptism itself regenerates a person, it does mean that Christ is promising to give His people the real washing as certainly as they receive the external washing.
This perhaps comes out more clearly in Acts 22:16. In this verse Ananias tells Paul, who has just been converted, to arise and be baptized: “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” This is a rather amazing statement. Ananias actually refers to baptism here as a washing away of sins. If we heard someone make such a statement today, we might be inclined to correct him, pointing out to him that the sacrament of baptism is not in itself the washing away of sin. But this is not what is meant by what Ananias said. When Scripture here and elsewhere speaks of the sign and gives that sign a name or a description that properly belongs to the grace that is signified by the sign (such as when Christ called the bread His body), it is a way of saying that Christ promises to give the reality as really as one receives the sign. In other words, when we see the visible sign we are to think on God’s promise to give the invisible grace that the sign represents.
When we refer to the sacrament of baptism as a means of grace we are saying that it is a means that God uses to give us His grace and to strengthen our faith. When a true church properly administers the sacrament of baptism, the result is that the faith of the believers is confirmed. The preaching is the means of grace by which more conscious faith is worked into our hearts, but the sacraments, including the sacrament of baptism, are the means God uses to strengthen the faith that He has worked in us by the preaching.
One receives this grace, however, only by faith. When one believes the promise signified by baptism, his faith gets stronger. When one uses his hand, his hand gets stronger. Similarly, when one uses the hand of his soul, which is faith (as stated in Article 34 of the Belgic Confession), his faith gets stronger.
If we understand and believe this truth, then we will be doing what we are supposed to be doing when the sacrament of baptism is administered. When we behold the sacrament of baptism, just as when we partake of the elements in the Lord’s Supper, we are to be thinking about and consciously believing the promise that Christ has attached to the sacrament. The visible sign is to direct our faith to the invisible promise. Only when we are consciously believing this promise do we experience the sacrament to be a means of grace to us.
And we ought to experience this throughout our whole life. Article 34 of the Belgic Confession states this clearly: “Neither doth this baptism avail us [i.e., profit us—JAL] only at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.” Through the whole course of our life we profit from being baptized. But we consciously experience and enjoy this only when we are believing the promise signified by baptism. When we see someone baptized, we are to think of how we also have been baptized, and how Christ has promised us that just as water washes away the filth of the body, “so doth the blood of Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost, internally sprinkle the soul, cleanse it from its sins, and regenerate us from children of wrath unto children of God” (Belgic Confession, Art. 34). When we believe this promise, our faith is strengthened, and we come away enjoying the comfort of knowing and of being assured that we have been brought into the body that bears God’s name, the body that communes with the triune God in and through Jesus Christ, and that shall forever live to the glory of His name.