Holy Baptism

“We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law, hath made an end, by the shedding of his blood, of all other sheddings of blood which men could or would make as a propitiation or satisfaction for sin: and that he, having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, hath instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof; by which we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to him, whose ensign and banner we bear: and which serves as a testimony to us, that he will forever be our gracious God and Father. Therefore he has commanded all those, who are his, to be baptized with pure water, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”: thereby signifying to us, that as water washeth away the filth of the body, when poured upon it, and is seen on the body of the baptized, when sprinkled upon him; 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. Not that this is effected by the external water, but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God; who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass, to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, that is, the devil, and to enter into the spiritual land of Canaan. Therefore the ministers, on their part, administer the sacrament, and that which is visible, but our Lord giveth that which is signified by the sacrament, namely, the gifts and invisible grace; washing, cleansing and purging our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts, and filling them with all comfort; giving unto us a true assurance of his fatherly goodness; putting on us the new man, and putting off the old man with all his deeds. Therefore we believe, that every man, who is earnestly studious of obtaining eternal life, ought to be but once baptized with this only baptism, without ever repeating the same: since we cannot be born twice. Neither doth this baptism only avail us, at the time when the water is poured upon us, and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life; therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of infants of believers, whom we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised, upon the same promises which are made unto our children. And indeed Christ shed his blood no less for the washing of the children of the faithful, than for adult persons; and therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that, which Christ hath done for them; as the Lord commanded in the law, that they should be made partakers of the sacrament of Christ’s sufferings and death, shortly after they were born, by offering for them a lamb, which was a sacrament of Jesus Christ. Moreover, what circumcision was to the Jews, that baptism is to our children. And for this reason Paul calls baptism the circumcision of Christ.” 

The Belgic Confession, Article XXXIV

The previous article spoke of the sacraments in general, emphasizing their ordination by God to seal to us His promises. This article discusses what we believe and confess concerning the sacrament of holy baptism. The subject of baptism has always been an important subject and one about which a great deal of controversy has swirled in the church. As important as it was at the time of the Reformation when this article was penned, it has not decreased in importance today. In our own Protestant Reformed history this subject in connection with the doctrines of the covenant and promise was the subject of serious controversy in the late nineteen forties and early nineteen fifties. What is more, the same errors which our fathers denounced in theConfession are still present today. This article was written over against the Anabaptists who made the sacrament dependent upon man’s faith and denied infant baptism and insisted on re-baptism. The Article also confesses the Reformed faith over against the Roman Catholics who teach that the power of the sacrament is in the water itself. 

The Confession begins by emphasizing that it is Jesus Christ Who has instituted the sacrament of baptism. It does this in a rather striking way, not by speaking of the historical circumstances surrounding the institution of baptism, but by speaking of Who the Savior is. Jesus Christ Who provides us with this sacrament is our gracious and all-sufficient Savior. For us He is “the end of the law,” Who: “hath made an end, by the shedding of his blood, of all other sheddings of blood which men could or would make as a propitiation or satisfaction for sin. . . .” Christ has paid the penalty for our sin and fulfilled for us the whole law of God. Salvation, therefore, is the free gift of grace. Nothing can or may be added to His finished work. He gave us baptism as a testimony that our life is complete in Him. 

The Confession finds the basis for the entire doctrine of baptism in the fact that baptism has come in the place of circumcision, the Old Testament sign and seal of the covenant. It is pointed out that Jesus Christ is “the end of the law.” That is an almost literal quotation from the Scriptures which state, “For Christ is the end (telos) of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” (Romans 10:4) This does not mean that Christ is the termination of the law, but that He is the purposeful end, the aim, the goal of the law for righteousness to the believer. In other words the law does not cease to be with Christ. The law finds its fulfillment in Christ. Therefore Christ, by His own perfect and bloody sacrifice on the cross, is the end or fulfillment of all the sheddings of blood prescribed by the law. This means that the sign of circumcision, a bloody sign belonging to the law, found its fulfillment in Christ. Thus baptism was instituted by Christ in the place of circumcision. 

The meaning of all this is clear. Circumcision was an Old Testament sign which God gave to Abraham and his generations to seal to them the promise of His covenant. (Cf. Genesis 17:7-14) Christ instituted baptism when He commanded His disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations and to baptize in the name of the triune God. (Matthew 28:19) Circumcision pointed to the necessity of the shedding of blood as an atonement for sin. As such the rite of circumcision was prophetic, that is, it pointed ahead to Christ and His bloody sacrifice for sin. When Christ came and made atonement through the shedding of His own blood on the tree of the cross, the need for a bloody sign passed away. Thus circumcision was fulfilled in Christ. That for which it stood and to which it pointed was accomplished by our Lord. Thus too baptism, a sign of the washing away of our sins through Christ’s blood, was instituted by the Savior in its place.

Furthermore, that baptism is come in the place of circumcision is evident from the fact that both rites have precisely the same meaning. As to form, the two are different, but as to meaning, baptism and circumcision are the same. Both signify the putting away of sin and the renewal of the heart by grace. Genesis 17:7-14 teaches that God instituted circumcision as the sign of His covenant between Himself and His people and their children. The spiritual meaning of circumcision is taught in Deuteronomy 30:6 which speaks of Jehovah circumcising the hearts of His people and their seed to love Him with all their heart and soul.Romans 4:11 teaches that the sign of circumcision is “a seal of the righteousness of faith.” This is exactly the significance of holy baptism. By baptism we are buried into the death of Christ and raised with Him in order that we should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3, 4) Perhaps the clearest passage in this regard is Colossians 2:11, 12which mentions both baptism and circumcision: “In whom (Christ) ye also are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.” Clearly both stand for the same reality: the putting off of sin, and the resurrection with Christ through faith. 

As to its meaning, baptism is first of all, as ourConfession emphasizes, an emblem which marks the separation of the believer from the world. Baptism signifies that we have been received into the Church of God by being separated from all other people and strange religions. It is the ensign or banner of Christ which we carry with us all our life long. By baptism we are marked, set aside as the people of God. “God himself welcomes us into the corporate fellowship of the body of his Son, Jesus Christ. The underlying emphasis, is clear and comforting. We do not take the first step towards church membership. God opens the way for all whom He recognizes as his people. Baptism therefore is not a guarantee of membership in the invisible church as such. Much rather because we belong to Christ as the people of God’s promise, he unites us with the visible church. As such members we have great spiritual responsibilities and obligations. Yet our membership does not spring from or rest upon our fulfillment of these. It roots in God’s gracious disposition to us.” (P. Y. De Jong, The Church’s Witness To The World, vol. II, p. 357) 

Therefore we are baptized into the name of the triune God. By nature we are members of the fallen race in Adam, dead in trespasses and sins. Baptism signifies that we are incorporated into Christ, buried with Him into the fellowship of His death and raised with Him to newness of life. By means of this incorporation into Christ we are delivered from the world, from death and guilt, from our own flesh, and brought into fellowship with our Covenant God: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptism signifies heaven for us, everlasting life and glory, righteousness. That is the sign of baptism. Just as water cleanses the body of its filth, so the blood of Christ cleanses us from all our sins and regenerates us from being children of wrath into being children of God. That this is true is clear as well from the Old Testament types of baptism. By means of the flood waters God saved Noah and his family: “. . . the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us. . .” (I Peter 3:20, 21). Similarly Israel was delivered out of Egypt (type. of the bondage of sin and death) into Canaan (type of the heavenly Canaan) through the waters of the Red Sea. (I Corinthians 10:1, 2

All of this is effected not by the external water itself, but by the Holy Spirit. The ministers are the called servants of God to administer the sacrament, but only God can give that which is signified and sealed: “. . . namely, the gifts and invisible grace; washing and cleansing and purging our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts, and filling them with all comfort; giving unto us a true assurance of his fatherly goodness; putting on us the new man, and putting off the old man with his deeds.” These blessings are worked not by the power of the water itself, but by the operation of the Holy Spirit. This is written against the errors of Rome. Rome teaches that baptism cleanses from original guilt and puts a man into the state of grace by which he can either accept or reject the gospel. This is effected by baptism itself to all who are baptized. Against these errors theConfession stresses that the water has no power in itself, but is only the sign and seal of what God the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the hearts of His elect. 

Finally, these blessings of the sacrament of baptism are ours not only at the moment of baptism but all our life long. 

to be continued. . .