We have already called attention to a three-fold distinction between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant conception of the sacrament of baptism. First, Rome maintains that the water in baptism is essential unto salvation, speaks of that water as the water of regeneration in that literal-natural sense of the word; the Protestant view emphasizes the symbolic significance of the sacrament and refuses to ascribe any magical power to the water of the sacrament itself. Secondly, Rome rejects the baptism as administered by John the Baptist as having the same force as the baptism instituted by Christ; the Protestant view maintains that it does have the same significance as that of Christ. Thirdly, the Protestant view, in distinction from Rome, lays all emphasis upon the one atoning sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Rome speaks very little of the sacrifice of Christ. The Romish view stresses the essential significance of the sacrament itself. In fact, it is a striking distinction between Rome and Protestantism that the former stresses the Romish hierarchy and the sacraments whereas the latter emphasizes the Word of God. We now wish to call attention in more detail to the Protestant conception of the sacrament of baptism. First of all, the sacrament of baptism, according to the Protestant and Reformed conception of the same, emphasizes most emphatically that salvation is a fact that has been accomplished and which is not in any sense dependent for its fulfillment upon the will of the recipient. Some interpret the sacrament of baptism as a Divine seal and pledge of His promise. Against this one could not have a principal objection if only the promise were interpreted as particular, as only intended for the elect people of God, and as having been fulfilled and accomplished upon the cross of Calvary. However, this particular view of the sacrament generalizes the promise of God, extends it to all who are baptized, so that at the administration of the sacrament God, as it were, speaks to every child: “I love you and I want to save you; this baptism is My Divine pledge to that effect; only, if you are to be saved, and if My promise will actually be realized in you, you must believe.” Hence, according to this view, the sacrament of baptism is a Divine pledge and seal of a general and conditional promise, general as far as the Lord and His intention are concerned, but conditional because it depends for its fulfillment upon the faith of the one baptized. That the sacrament of baptism is a Divine pledge of a general and conditional promise is also the view of the Liberated.
However, the Protestant conception of the sacrament maintains that baptism is a Divine sign and seal of the salvation of the Lord as an accomplished fact. How beautifully this is set forth in our baptism form. According to this form, we are baptized in the name of the Father, because the Father thereby witnesses and seals unto us that He makes an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs. And we are baptized in the name of the Son, because the Son thereby witnesses and seals unto us that He washes us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God. Notice, please, that this form here speaks of two fundamental truths: God’s eternal covenant of grace and the Divine adoption of His children to be His children and heirs, and, secondly; of the work of redemption upon the cross of Calvary, that we are freed from all our sins and incorporated into Christ. The sacrament of baptism speaks of: the Divine work of redemption. This is plain. The water in baptism is a sign of the blood of Christ. What water does to the body the blood of Christ does spiritually to the soul. Even as water washes away our physical filth, so the blood of Christ washes us from all our sins. And this, mind you, happened upon the cross of Calvary. This is a fact that has been accomplished, once and forever. The efficacy of this work of the Son of God upon Calvary does not depend upon us or upon our faith. It is not so that the cross of Christ will become efficacious only if and when we believe. Fact is, we believe because the Son of God died for our sins; our faith is dependent upon the cross and not the cross upon our faith. Besides, does not the introduction to our baptism form teach us that we with our children are conceived and born in sin, and that the sacrament of baptism teaches us to seek for our purification and salvation without ourselves? And because the sacrament of baptism is a Divine seal and pledge of our redemption by the Son of God upon the cross, therefore it is also a Divine seal and pledge of God’s eternal covenant of grace and that He had adopted us to be His children and heirs. These two truths, our redemption upon the cross and the Lord’s eternal love, are inseparably connected. Christ, of course, died only for the elect. He gave His life only for His sheep that were given Him by the Father. This is most beautifully stated in John 6:9: “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent Me, that of all which He hath given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again the last day.” Notice, please, this is the Father’s will, that is, the Father’s mandate, charge which He gave to His Son, namely that He should save those, and only those whom the Father had given Him. Hence, Christ did not receive from His Father a charge to save or try to save all men, but only His sheep, His elect sheep whom the Father gave Him from before the foundations of the world. It lies in the nature of the case that Christ’s redemption of His people upon the cross of Calvary and God’s everlasting love of them are inseparably related. Fact is Christ came to seek and to save that which was lost, His elect sheep that were lost. He dies upon the cross of Calvary for their sins. He comes into this world with their iniquities and guilt upon His shoulders. He represents them in His suffering and death. And all this is possible only because He is their Head, their eternally appointed Head, because God has loved them eternally and in Christ from before the foundations of the world. The particular character of the cross of Golgotha has it cause in the eternal and unchangeable love of God.
This truth is, of course, of the greatest significance. In the light of this truth, a general and conditional promise is surely impossible. The sacrament of baptism points to Christ’s redemption of His own upon the cross. This means, must mean that the sacrament is as limited as the cross is limited. It cannot embrace those who are not covered by the blood of Calvary. The cross of Calvary is the reality and the sacrament of baptism is its symbol and shadow. The shadow can never be greater in its scope than the reality which it symbolizes and reflects. And, secondly, this also explains the last part of the baptism form which we have quoted. In this part of the baptism form, we are told that, whereas there are contained in all covenants two parts, so we, too, are admonished through baptism unto new obedience, to cleave to the one God, love Him with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength, forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life. This does not mean, we understand, that everything now depends upon what we do, that God’s adoption of us to be His children and heirs, Christ’s redemption of us upon the cross, and the Holy Spirit’s dwelling in us all depend upon our resolve to walk in a new and holy life. It is in this manner that some would explain that part of the baptism form where we read that the Holy Spirit will dwell in us and sanctify us, which means, then, that the Holy Spirit will do this if only we on our part resolve to walk in a new and holy life. But this concluding part of our form evidently means that this is the fruit of God’s eternal love and Christ’s redeeming blood and grace; because of this love of God and the blood of Christ upon the cross of Calvary we are now admonished to cleave to God, love Him wholly, and walk in a new and holy life. It is well, when we come to this concluding part of our Baptism Form that we all bear in mind that which precedes it, that the Lord has established with us an everlasting covenant of grace, and that the Son of God has washed us in His blood. Our walking in this new obedience is always the fruit of God’s irresistible grace.
Secondly, the Protestant conception of the sacrament of baptism emphasizes the activity of faith, and that the sacrament is a sign and seal of the righteousness which is by faith. This is clearly stated in Romans 4:11(stated of circumcision): “And He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that the might be the father of all them that believed, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” And this is also clearly set forth in Question and Answer 67 of our Heidelberg Catechism, and we quote: “Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation? Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross.”
We must notice that the sacraments direct and point our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation. Rome simply ascribes magical power to the water of baptism. The Protestant conception, however, emphasizes the importance of faith. Why? The sacrament of baptism is a sign and seal of the righteousness which is by or of faith. This is an objective truth. That this is a righteousness “by faith” certainly means, negatively, that it is not by works. We never attain unto this righteousness by our own works. This is a fundamental principle of the Reformation against Roman Catholicism. And, positively, that it is a righteousness by faith does not mean that it is dependent upon our faith, but surely that it is given us and realized in us by God, and that through faith. Faith, in Scripture, always stands opposed to works. Faith is a gift of God. Faith is the bond uniting us with Christ. Faith emphasizes our utter hopelessness and helplessness, does not set forth what we must do or what we can do, but what we cannot do. This is a righteousness by faith because it is based on Christ, realized by His blood, and it can never become ours except it be given us and we are united with Christ, even as lamps can never cast any light except they are united with the powerhouse. Now we also understand why the sacrament of baptism is a sign and seal of the righteousness which is by faith. Fact is, the sacrament speaks of our sin and the hopelessness of our guilt and damnation. It also speaks of the blood of Christ. And it therefore speaks of a righteousness which we could never merit, which is rooted in Christ, which we can receive only when given to us, and this occurs through faith, the gift of God. And it is also for this reason that the sacrament speaks only to the believer, that it is only the believer who is able to appropriate the blessed significance of this sacrament unto himself, and the believer, of course, is none other than the elect of God.