Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
“The covenant of God shall be sealed unto the children of Christians by baptism, as soon as the administration thereof is feasible, in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached.”
(Church Order, Article 56)
“The ministers shall do their utmost to the end that the father present his child for baptism.”
(Church Order, Article 57)
With Articles 56 and 57 the Church Order begins its treatment of the sacraments. Ecclesiastical regulations pertaining to the administration of the sacraments will take up the next nine articles of the Church Order.
The space devoted to the sacraments indicates how highly the Reformed churches esteem the sacraments in the life of the church. The administration of the sacraments has a vital place in the ministry of the local congregation.
At the same time, the articles of our Church Order make plain the zeal of the Reformed churches to guard the sacraments. The sacraments must be administered, but they must be administered properly. Precautions are taken to prevent their desecration.
Precautions are taken by the churches in common.
Each congregation has the responsibility to see to the proper administration of the sacraments in its own fellowship. To be sure!
But the calling extends further. The churches have a responsibility with respect to each other — corporate responsibility. In these articles of the Church Order, the churches of the federation exercise mutual supervision over each other with a view to maintaining the purity of the sacraments.
“The covenant of God shall be sealed unto the children of Christians by baptism….” The children of Christians are to be baptized. In baptism the covenant of God is sealed to them.
Comes out in Article 56, not only the Reformed persuasion concerning infant baptism, but the basis that underlies this practice. That basis is the covenant of God. The children of Christians are included in the covenant of God. If the covenant of God is “sealed” unto the children of Christians by baptism, they are in that covenant. Baptism does not make them partakers of the covenant, but seals the covenant to them.
The children of “Christians” are to receive baptism. This means that the parents must make a Christian confession and be living the Christian life. Since the confession and walk of God’s people is under the supervision of the local body of elders, these parents must be members of the local congregation in which they present their child for baptism.
In this connection, a couple of questions arise.
“May parents who are only baptized members present their child for baptism?” The answer to this question is, “No.” The reason is simple. If these parents can assume the vows of baptism, they can also confess their faith.
“May parents who are under censure present their child for baptism?” Again, the answer is, “No.” Censure involves the suspension of the privileges of church membership. One of the privileges is the administration of the sacraments. If parents are under censure, baptism must wait until after the censure is lifted. It goes without saying that if only one of the parents is under censure, the other parent is still in a position to present their child for baptism.
Article 56 calls for the administration of baptism “… as soon as the administration thereof is feasible….”
The emphasis is on the feasibility for the parents. The child must be home from the hospital and the mother sufficiently recovered from child-birth. But this feasibility also concerns the church. A consistory meeting must be held. Baptism cannot very well be administered during another special service, like a communion service.
Nevertheless, baptism must be administered as soon as is feasible. There must be no unnecessary delay. Respect for the sacrament and appreciation for its significance demand this.
This is not to approve of the practice of vroegdoop, “early baptism.” In the days of the Reformation, this was the practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Because of its teaching of baptismal regeneration, Rome baptized children when they were only a day or two old. Often the mother was not able to be present. Rome even made provision for emergency baptisms in case of serious illness.
Even in the Reformation churches, many maintained the practice of early baptism. Often baptism took place at the first worship service following a child’s birth. Because many churches held mid-week services, baptism was administered during these services and not on the Lord’s Day. Some held to early baptism on the basis of the fact that the children of Israel were required to administer circumcision on the eighth day.
The practice of early baptism is not enjoined in Article 56. The sacrament is to be administered “… as soon as the administration thereof is feasible….”
One special circumstance relating to the time of the administration of baptism is covered in the decision that our Synod of 1960 appended to Article 56. That decision concerns the baptism of adopted children.
Adopted children shall be baptized only when their legal adoption shall have been made final.
Article 57 answers this question.
The ministers shall do their utmost to the end that the father present his child for baptism.
As it is the covenant of God that underlies infant baptism, it is the truth of the covenant that lies behind the stipulation that the father present his child for baptism. The father is the head of his home. He is first of all responsible for carrying out the vows of baptism. It is fitting, therefore, that he present his child for baptism.
Presenting his child for baptism means more than simply that the father holds his child while the questions of baptism are asked and the sacrament is being administered. That is part of it. But it also means that the father goes before the consistory to request the baptism of his infant.
The Church Order does not require fathers to appear before the consistory in order to request baptism. Nevertheless, this is the local regulation in all of our churches, so far as I know. And it is a good regulation.
It is a good regulation, first of all, because covenant parents ought to seek the administration of baptism for their children. It is a good regulation, secondly, because it gives the minister and consistory the opportunity to inquire with regard to the father’s understanding of the significance of the sacrament. Questions or concerns that the elders may have are able to be addressed.
But there are exceptions. It is not always possible that fathers present their children for baptism. Exceptions would include the situation of an unwed mother, a widow, a father who is incapacitated, or a father who is not a member of the church. But these are exceptions. The rule is that fathers present their children for baptism.
Article 56 stipulates: “… in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached.”
There is to be no private administration of baptism. The sacraments have been given to the church. The sacraments function as means of grace in the church.
Here the Church Order is opposing the practice of private baptism conducted by the Roman Catholic Church, as well as by certain radical groups that arose during the time of the Reformation. It is true that early on the Reformed made certain allowances in exceptional cases. It was permitted to baptize critically ill infants, or adults who had never received the sacrament. Condemned criminals facing execution, who had repented and desired baptism, might be baptized, although with the advice of the synodical delegates and in the presence of the consistory.
But these were exceptions reluctantly granted. The rule was that baptism should be administered in the public assembly. In time the exceptions fell away.
Not only is the sacrament to be administered in the public assembly, it is to be administered “… when the Word of God is preached.” Here the real difference between the Reformed and Roman Catholicism is highlighted. Not the sacraments are the chief means of grace, à la Roman Catholicism. But the preaching of the Word is the chief means of grace, and the sacraments are subordinate to the Word. The power of the sacraments in the lives of God’s people depends on the preaching of the Word.
The sermons preached when baptism is administered ought to be appropriate to the occasion. Baptism often takes place during the morning worship service, customarily the service at which the Heidelberg Catechism is preached. Frequently application to baptism can be made out of the particular Lord’s Day on which the minister is preaching. Otherwise a special sermon ought to be made emphasizing the meaning of baptism, God’s covenant that is the basis for baptism, or the responsibilities of covenant parents with respect to their baptized children.
In this way we can be sure that the administration of baptism will not degenerate into a mere liturgical ceremony. The covenant God will be honored. The truth of His covenant established with His people in Christ Jesus and in the line of continued generations will be proclaimed. And we and our children will be saved.