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Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: May 1, 2006, p. 345.

There are centrally two errors taught concerning the sacraments: the error of denying that the sacraments are means of grace, and the error of teaching that everyone who receives the sacraments receives grace. The second error amounts to teaching either that the sign becomes the grace of God or that God’s grace and the sign are inseparably connected. Either way, the result is that everyone who receives the sign receives also the grace.

Roman Catholics and Lutherans are examples of those who hold to this false teaching. But they are not the only ones. There are many today who claim to be Reformed who hold to essentially the same position. A gracious promise, they say, is received by every child that is baptized. The child, however, must make good use of this grace, in order to benefit from it everlastingly. This gracious promise is said to be conditional, and only those who fulfill the condition—whether that condition is said to be faith alone or faith plus the good works done out of faith—will end up going to heaven. It is not a coincidence that this is essentially the same error as that taught by the Roman Catholics. The error is taught and promoted today with the desire—which is often explicitly stated—of bringing the Protestant churches back into communion with Rome.

I will begin by setting forth the truth over against the error of the papists and Lutherans, which error has a very long history. Then I will consider this same error as it is taught today by those who hold to a conditional covenant.

The Error of Rome and of the Lutherans

It was quite early in the history of the new dispensation that the Romish church fell into the error of teaching that the sacrament of baptism confers grace on every individual who receives it. The sacrament, they say, confers grace ex opere operato, which is a Latin phrase that means “by the act performed.” In short, they teach that by means of the act of administering the sacrament, grace is automatically conferred upon all who receive it. Magically, the sacrament itself supposedly washes away the guilt of original sin and of all sins committed prior to baptism, incorporates the one baptized into the communion of saints, and brings about spiritual renewal by the infusion of sanctifying grace.

The teaching common among the Lutherans is very much the same. According to them, when an infant is baptized, God creates faith in the heart of that infant, regenerates him, and gives him the blessings of salvation by means of the faith he has received. This position is often referred to as baptismal regeneration. On the one hand, they acknowledge that one is saved only by faith; but then they go on to say that God gives this faith to every person that is baptized, and then saves that person by means of this God-given faith. Does that mean that everyone that is baptized goes to heaven? No, they would say, because the faith that the baptized person receives must be constantly nourished, or it will die. In other words, they blatantly deny the preservation of the saints. According to them, there are many who receive the life of Christ for awhile, only to fall away later and perish everlastingly in hell.

So do the Lutherans teach that receiving the sacrament of baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation? No, they do not. They say that baptism is only one way in which God regenerates a person. Some individuals, like the thief on the cross, are regenerated by the spoken word of the gospel. One who is regenerated in this way should also submit to being baptized, they would say. For even though baptism will not be a means to regenerate him—since he is already regenerated—it will still be used as a means by which his faith will be confirmed and he will be blessed. But what about infants of believers who die before they are baptized, and who never consciously hear the gospel? It is commonly held among Lutherans that God can save these little ones without working through either the spoken word of the gospel or the sacrament of baptism. Nevertheless, they would say, God normally regenerates His people through the sacrament of baptism, in such a way that they are actually regenerated at the moment that they are baptized.

The Sign and the Grace: Not Inseparably Connected

Over against this position, the Reformed have clearly distinguished the sign from the grace that is signified by it. Firmly they have maintained that some who receive the sign do not receive the grace, or, in other words, that the sacrament of baptism and the real baptism are not the same. The pastor administers the former; Christ administers the latter.

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… (Belgic Confession, Art. 34).

This is actually the same distinction that was made by John the Baptist. While preparing the way for Christ by his preaching and baptizing, John made clear that the sign he was administering was to be clearly distinguished from the grace given solely by Christ.

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.

Matt. 3:11

Now someone may say, even if the minister administers only the sign, while Christ administers the reality, could it be that Christ always administers the reality at the very moment that His representative on earth is administering the sign? This question both Scripture and our confessions answer in the negative. In the old dispensation, for example, there were many who received the sign of circumcision but did not receive the real circumcision.

For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

Rom. 2:28, 29

The Belgic Confession teaches this same truth:

Further, though the sacraments are connected with the thing signified, nevertheless both are not received by all men. The ungodly indeed receives the sacrament to his condemnation, but he doth not receive the truth of the sacrament (Belgic Confession, Art. 35).

This quote from the Belgic Confession, although found in the article on the Lord’s Supper, applies also to the sacrament of baptism. There are many who receive only the visible sign and not the invisible grace. The latter is received only by the believer.

Why the Sign Is Called the Reality

Those who object to this would be quick to point out that Scripture does in fact call baptism the washing away of sins. Soon after Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, Ananias was sent to him to open his eyes and to instruct him concerning his calling. At that time Ananias exhorted Paul 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.

Acts 22:16

Here baptism is indeed called the washing away of sins, even though the sacrament itself does not wash away anyone’s sins. This same idea is found in the book of Titus, where the washing of baptism is called the washing of regeneration.

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.

Tit. 3:5

Baptism is called the washing away of sins and the washing of regeneration, even though the sacrament itself does not perform this washing. One may wonder why this is.

The Heidelberg Catechism gives a good answer to this question. After pointing out that the external baptism with water is not the washing away of sin itself, the Catechism goes on to ask the following question:

Q. 73 Why then doth the Holy Ghost call baptism* “the washing of regeneration,” and “the washing away of sins?” 

A. 73 God speaks thus not without great cause, to wit, not only thereby to teach us that, as the filth of the body is purged away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ, but especially that by this divine pledge and sign He may assure us that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water.

Our fathers said that the Spirit of God called baptism the washing away of sins in order to teach us something and to assure us of something. First of all, it is to teach us that there is an analogy between the cleansing of the body and the cleansing of the soul. We all know that God has given us water to cleanse our bodies. By calling baptism the washing away of sins, God is saying that this bodily cleansing pictures a spiritual cleansing that is performed by the Spirit of Christ, who washes our souls in Christ’s blood, and regenerates us unto children of God (Belgic Confession, Art. 34).

But the main reason why the Spirit calls baptism the washing away of sins is to assure believers that as really as they receive the sign so really do they receive also the grace signified by it. This, our Catechism says, is the central reason.

God’s promise is what assures us. It is the only thing that can assure us. So the significance of calling baptism the washing away of sins is that this was a way of promising to us that He would give us the reality with the sign. The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. Christ’s act of calling the bread His body was a way of promising to us to give His body along with the bread. It is a promise, however, not to everyone who receives the sacrament, but only to those who partake by faith. And it is only when we are believing this promise that we experience our faith being strengthened by the sacrament.

As was stated at the beginning of this article, those who deny this and who instead teach thatevery baptized child receives a gracious promise from God are really falling into the same error as that of the Roman Catholics and of the Lutherans. Next time, Lord willing, this subject will be considered.

* It is important to note that this is one place in our creeds where we officially confess the inerrancy of Scripture. When Scripture calls baptism the washing away of sins, the Catechism says that it is the Holy Spirit that is saying this. There are those today who deny that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is found in our Reformed confessions. But in the Catechism here we officially call the Scriptures the words of the Holy Spirit. It naturally follows, then, that the Scriptures must be without error, since the Spirit of God makes no mistakes.