The Form for the Baptism of Infant Children that is used in our churches contains two significant prayers. The first of these is uttered at the conclusion of the reading of the form proper and just before the parents are asked to answer the questions. The other one occurs at the conclusion of the ceremony and is a prayer of thanksgiving. To these two prayers we now give our attention because they also are an integral part of the administration of the sacrament.
The importance of the prayers of baptism is already signified in the introductory statement that precedes the first prayer and in which the congregation is exhorted. That statement reads: “That therefore this holy ordinance of God may be administered to His glory, to our comfort, and to the edification of His Church, let us call upon His holy name.”
This statement must not be overlooked. It may not be passed by or simply regarded as a necessary indication to the congregation that it is now time to pray. The statement contains too much for this. It expresses a beautiful confession in which the church acknowledges the truth that she is always dependent upon God, and without Him all that she does is meaningless and fruitless. She must not only say this in her form, but this must be her living experience and in that consciousness she draws nigh to God in prayer. Although this is always true and applies to everything we do, we cannot overemphasize the importance of it when it comes to the matter of our baptism. Baptism, we have learned, is not a “custom or superstition.” It involves much more than the traditional sprinkling with water for it is a deeply spiritual matter which involves our being incorporated into Christ and made partakers of His death and resurrection. Only God is able to effect this and without the operation of His grace these outward ceremonies do us no good, but rather become means to our condemnation.(1) Therefore are we exhorted to call upon His holy name.
We note further that this introductory statement contains a threefold description of the purpose of the sacrament or, to express it otherwise, it points us to a threefold objective we must have in our prayer. There is not only need for prayer in this connection but there must be purpose in our prayer. The church has something specific in mind, and with this end in view she comes to God in prayer.
That end is that the sacrament she is about to administer may be administered firstly, “to God’s glory;” secondly, “to our comfort;” and, lastly, “to the edification of His Church.” We may not equate these three things, nor may we separate them as though they were unrelated to each other. The relationship is such that the object of our prayer is expressed in the first mentioned, viz., the glorification of God and the last two mentioned purposes are then entirely dependent upon this for their realization. The church can have no comfort or edification except through the glorification of God. With this in mind, we might paraphrase the matter by saying that in effect the church goes to the throne of grace to beseech God to maintain His Covenant through baptism and to multiply His gifts of knowledge and grace unto the heirs of that covenant. In the manifestation of this work of God the church is comforted and built up as she can be through no other way. In this same work the glory of God becomes revealed in the midst of a sinful world where God’s people have been called apart to show forth His eternal praise. That baptism, therefore, may not be a meaningless ceremony, but rather may be an effectual means of grace, through which the church of Christ is established and the glory of God is radiated, we come to our Heavenly Father, calling on His Holy Name in prayer.
In the first prayer God is addressed as, “O Almighty and eternal God;” and in the second prayer this is changed slightly to, “Almighty God and merciful Father.” We note especially that in both instances the attribute of God’s omnipotence is mentioned. It is this attribute that stands out in all the work of salvation as obsignated in baptism. That which is impossible of human accomplishment God does! It belongs to the fundamental requirements of our Mediator that He is very really God, for without omnipotence it is impossible to save us from the death into which we have fallen.(2)
That the attribute of eternity is also mentioned here stresses the fact that the work of God symbolized in Holy Baptism is an eternal work of God. He has established His covenant of grace with His people in Christ Jesus from before the foundations of the world. From everlasting to everlasting He is the unchangeable One Who keeps and maintains that covenant. Great is the faithfulness of Jehovah from all eternity. This, we remember, is stressed in the prayer before the baptism. After the baptism is completed, this is not repeated in the prayer of thanksgiving, but the address is then changed to merciful Father. The significance of this must be found in the fact that now the church looks at the finished work of salvation as set before her in the sacrament and remembers that all this is of sovereign mercy alone. None of it has she merited in any way. “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail net.”(3) And in the manifestation of His mercy God reveals Himself to us as our Father. Not simply as Creator, Lord, or Sovereign, which He also most assuredly is, but it is as our Father that we behold Him in this merciful manifestation of His love.
Returning then to the first of these two prayers, we note that it contains a reference to two Old Testament types of baptism. According to the prayer, “baptism is signified” in the flood of Noah’s day and the passage of the children of Israel through the midst of the Red Sea at the time of Moses. This is in accord with the New Testament interpretation of these events; for we read in I Corinthians 10:1, 2, “Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” And again in I Peter 3:20, 21, “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Of great significance then are these two events in the history of the church. They signify the wonderwork of salvation. Also here the Baptism Form mentions a truth commonly found throughout Scripture, which is that the work of salvation is always accompanied by judgment. According to God’s severe judgment He punished the unbelieving and unrepentant world with the flood and through the same flood according to His great mercy He saved and protected believing Noah and His family. Carrying this thought to its fulfillment we note that the death of Christ was the judgment of this world and at the same time the salvation of His Church. Always Zion is redeemed through judgment; and so when the end of time is reached, God will have made all things ready for the Church to receive her eternal inheritance of glory, and the ungodly world will be ripe for the judgment that will be meted out to her. The cup of iniquity will have been made full. Wondrous are the ways of God, unfathomed and unknown.
Although in this rubric we do not devote ourselves to expounding the types and symbols of Scripture, we may nevertheless mention the symbolical significance of the two types mentioned in this baptismal prayer. God saved Noah and his family through the deluge. He also redeemed Israel, His people, from the house of bondage through the Red Sea. In both instances, even as in baptism, the water signifies the blood of Christ. By the power of that blood separation is made between Noah and the ungodly world, between Israel and Egypt, and between the righteous and the wicked through all the ages. In both instances there is awonder, a miracle of grace signifying God’s unspeakable power by which the wicked are overthrown and His people are saved through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. GOD reaches down into a world that had totally corrupted itself and into a house of slavery in sin and delivers His people by grace alone. GOD reaches down into death and hell and saves His children through His Son Jesus Christ. In doing so GOD destroys utterly the power of the devil and gives complete victory and perfect salvation to His own. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”(4) “So then it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”(5) Salvation is not a cooperative work of God and man, nor is there synergism here; but it is unconditionally the sovereign work of divine grace. This is signified clearly in baptism.
The next main section of the prayer before baptism contains the petition. The church comes to God with a request; and although several things are asked here, the substance of it all is contained in the prayer that these children may be “incorporated into Christ.” Out of this all blessings flow, even as without incorporation into Christ there is no blessing, no grace, common or otherwise. It is therefore very important that we understand just what is meant by this prayer. Let us not assume the mistaken idea that our children are brought to baptism as little heathens and that now the church prays for them asking God to receive them asking God to receive them and incorporate them into Christ. This prayer is not to be understood as if this incorporation takes place only at the moment of baptism, and not before. On the contrary, we believe that the elect children of believers are usually incorporated into Christ before they are baptized, though admittedly, as an exception, this may take place later in life. In a sense, however, we may say that these children are incorporated into Christ from all eternity. The prayer, therefore, does not refer to the act of incorporation as such; but it merely asks for that which is obsignated in baptism and that this may be applied to the children that are baptized. The prayer may then also include an acknowledgement of the gift of incorporation as a gift of God’s mercy to us and our children. It may also contain the subjective desire on the part of the church that God will bring into the consciousness of these children at an early time in their life the fact that they are Christ’s. We might illustrate this point by using the example of the Lord’s Prayer. We sit down at a table that is filled with an abundance of food. Before us there is the visible provision which God has made and which is more than sufficient for today. Yet we do not hesitate to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” But God has already done so before we have asked it of Him. Does this make our prayer meaningless? Certainly not: for in this prayer we acknowledge His gifts and we pray that we may realize in our hearts that we have nothing which we have not received from Him, and, further, that we may be given to use these means of food and drink to accomplish the tasks of the day unto His glory and our salvation. Indeed, “neither our care nor industry, nor even thy gifts, can profit us without Thy blessing.” (6) So it is with the prayer for “incorporation into Christ.” We believe that this is God’s work, which He sovereignly performs according to the pleasure of His will; but if we and our children are to be enriched in this blessing it must be made reality in our consciousness, and this reality must live in our experiences throughout our life. For this we pray, and this prayer is then also in line with all the other blessings mentioned here in the baptism prayer.
We mention these other blessings in this connection and will have to wait until next time to comment on them and explain various implications in this beautiful prayer. It follows from being incorporated into Christ that:
(1) God will graciously and mercifully look upon us, His children.
(2) We may be buried with Christ into His death and be raised with Him in newness of life.
(3) We may receive grace joyfully to fulfill our part in God’s covenant.
(4) We may die with a comfortable sense of God’s favor.
(5) We may be justified in the last day, appearing without terror before the judgment seat of Christ.
There is nothing carnal in this prayer. It does not seek to use God to promote the material and temporal wants of the creature. It seeks throughout after God and longs for the blessings of His grace and covenant. But to see this more fully we will have to wait till our next article.
(1) Belgic Confession, Article 35
(2) Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 5
(4) Zechariah 4:6
(5) Romans 9:16
(6) Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 50