3. The Meaning of Holy Baptism, (cont.)

In general, of course, we may say that as a sacrament baptism serves to declare more fully and seals “the promise of the gospel”. Cf. Qu. 66. That is, it declares the promise of the gospel to us more fully: not, of course, than the Word, but more fully with the Word. The Word is always the chief means of grace: and without the Word the sacraments mean nothing. But they are supplementing that Word by obsignating what the Word declares. And in that sense also the sacrament of baptism declares more fully unto us the promise of the gospel.

Of this promise we wrote rather fully in Vol II, pp. 53, ff., of this same work. And therefore for a complete explanation of the Scriptural idea of the promise we may refer the reader to that.

In this connection it is sufficient to emphasize once more a few elements implied in the Scriptural idea of that promise.

Once more we wish to remind ourselves that the promise of the gospel is the same as the gospel of the promise. The epangelion ton euangeliou is the euangelion ton epangeliou: the gospel is essentially the promise.

This promise of the gospel is one and is centrally always the promise of Christ. Nevertheless it is distinguished into many individual promises according to Scripture. It is the promise of the Holy Ghost, Acts 2:23; the promise of “the life that now is, and of that which is to come,” I Tim. 4:8; the promise of eternal life, I John 2:25; the promise of His coming, II Peter 3:4; the promise to enter into His rest, Heb. 4:1; the promise to be heir of the world, Rom. 4:13. Besides, the Bible speaks of the Holy Spirit of promise, Eph. 1:13; of “the children of the promise”, Rom. 9:8; of the heirs of the promise, Heb. 6:17 and Heb. 11:9. The one promise of God in Christ is individualized into many distinct promises. Yet the promise is always one and the same essentially.

This promise of God is absolutely unconditional and can never fail to be realized. It is not to be confused with a certain so-called “well-meaning offer of grace and salvation to all’ that is contingent on the will of man for its realization. The promise rests in God alone, in the truth and faithfulness of the eternal and unchangeable Jehovah. It is God alone that realizes His promise both objectively and subjectively. In the objective sense He realizes it through Jesus Christ, His cross and His resurrection and exaltation at the right hand of God; and subjectively He fulfills His promise in the hearts of all the elect by the Spirit of grace. Powerfully and efficaciously He realizes His promise within us. He raises us from death and regenerates us, calls us with an almighty calling from darkness into light, strikes us down in true repentance and makes us cry out for Him, implants into our hearts the saving faith and makes us one with Christ, justifies us and gives us peace with God, sanctifies us and gives us a new delight in His precepts, causes us to persevere even unto the end and glorifies us, and ultimately raises our body from the dead and with all the saints gives us a place in the eternal tabernacle of our covenant God that will be with men. Thus the promise of God is certain and is in no wise contingent upon the will of man as a condition of its fulfillment.

For the same reason the promise is only for the elect. It is true that in the historical line of the covenant all the children of believers are under the administration of the promise. They all receive the outward sign of the promise in baptism, are instructed in the truth of the promise, are under the preaching of the gospel, and are all “by God through baptism, admonished of, and obliged unto new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that we trust in him, and love him with all our souls, and with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.” But this does not alter the fact that not all the children of the flesh are children of the promise; and the heirs of the promise are, according to Hebrews 6:18-18, only the elect.

That all this is included in the promise of the gospel and that baptism as a sacrament serves to declare to us and seal that promise is also beautifully expounded in the first part of the Baptism Form, where we read: “Holy Baptism witnesseth and sealeth unto us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ. Therefore we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. For when we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that he doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for his children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit. And when we are baptized in the name of the Son, the Son sealeth unto us, that he doth wash 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. In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that he will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us, that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins, and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly f the elect in life eternal.”

And so baptism, also according to the passages of Scripture which we quoted above, has a rich significance. For the water of baptism signifies the death of Christ into which we submerge and from the which we arise again unto newness of life. The water in baptism symbolizes the blood of Christ: and that blood means that He voluntarily laid down His life and satisfied God’s righteousness, made an atonement for sin. Hence, in that blood we have both the remission of sins, the removal of the guilt of sin, and the cleansing from all defilement and pollution of sin. Through that death of Christ we pass through baptism. On this side of that water of baptism there is the guilt of sin and the pollution of corruption, damnation, the world, and death. But as we pass through the water of baptism we find on the other side righteousness with God and peace, perfect freedom, and the favor and friendship of God in life eternal.

And thus baptism has a rich practical significance for the believer. Through it God seals unto us His promise and assures us that we are as certainly washed by the blood and Spirit from all the pollution of our soul, that is, from all our sins, as we are washed externally with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away. And thus baptism serves to strengthen our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. For faith and baptism are inseparable. The unbeliever cannot lay hold on the promise in baptism. He must needs despise this sacrament, reveal himself as profane, and aggravate his punishment. But to the believer baptism is a means of grace through which the Spirit works for the strengthening of his faith and by which he becomes assured that he is passed from sin into righteousness and from death into life.

On the other hand, baptism also implies a very serious calling. For our part of the covenant is that we love the Lord our God with our whole heart and our whole being, that we cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit, that we walk in newness of life, fight the good fight, and thus reveal ourselves as those that are of the party of the living God in the midst of the world.


“Qu. 72. Is then the external baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?

“A. Not at all: for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Ghost cleanse us from all sin.

“Qu. 73. Why then doth the Holy Ghost call baptism ‘the washing away of regeneration and ‘the washing away of sins’?

“A. 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.

“Qu. 74. Are infants also to be baptized?

“A. Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.”

1. The Sign and Its Meaning.

In regard to the first two questions and answers of this Lord’s Day we can be brief.

Ursinus in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism has the following exposition of question and answer 72: “The same division which we made when speaking of the sacraments in general, is also true of baptism, that there are some forms of speech which are proper, and others which are improper. These forms of speech are called sacramental. It is a proper form of speech when those who receive the sign are said to receive the thing signified, as ‘he that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved.’ The same is true when the sign is said to signify the thing, as when it is said, ‘baptism is the sign of the washing away of sin’. ‘He gave unto them circumcision to be a sign of the covenant.’ Improper or figurative forms of speech are when the sign is said to be the thing itself, as ‘Baptism is the washing of regeneration;’ and when the sacrament is said to confer the thing, or things pertaining to that which is signified, as when baptism is said to save us. All these forms of speech may be said to have this one signification: Baptism is a certain sign of the remission of sin, and of everlasting life to them that believe: for the figurative speeches which are used in reference to the sacraments are to be interpreted in the same manner as the figurative speeches in reference to the sacrifices. Sacrifices are often called expiations for sin, and yet the apostle Paul affirms that the blood of bulls, and of goats, cannot take away sin. So when it is said, ‘Baptism saves us,’ is ‘the washing of regeneration,’ and ‘the washing away of sin;’ it is the same thing as to say, Baptism is the sign of all these things.”

And his exposition of question and answer 73 reads as follows: “There are three reasons which may be assigned why the Scriptures thus speak, interchanging the names of the signs, and the things signified. The first is on account of the analogy which there is between the sign, and the thing signified. The thing signified is according to its own nature, such as the sign is according to its nature, the opposite of which is also true: for as water which is the sign, washes away the filthiness of the body, so the blood and Spirit of Christ, which are the things signified, wash away the pollution of the soul: and as the minister applies the sign outwardly, so God by virtue of his Spirit applies inwardly the thing signified to all those who receive the sign with true faith. Secondly, the Holy Ghost thus speaks for the confirmation of our faith through the use of the signs: for the signs used in the sacraments testify the will of God to us on account of the promise annexed thereto: ‘He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved.’ But why does the Holy Ghost thus speak for the confirmation of our faith? Because in the proper use of the sacraments the exhibition and reception of the signs, and things signified, are inseparably connected. And hence the Holy Ghost interchanges the terms, attributing what belongs to the thing signified to the sign, and what belongs to the sign to the thing, to teach us what he gives, and to assure us that he does really give it. The third reason, therefore, why such language is employed is because the exhibition of the things signified, is inseparably connected with the signs used in the sacraments.”

You may notice, however, that in this twenty- seventh Lord’s Day two subjects are treated that seem to be rather wide apart and separate in their significance. The one subject is that of true spiritual baptism in relation to the outward sign of the washing with water; the other subject is that of infant baptism, the question whether infants are also to be baptized. And yet these two apparently so different subjects can very well be properly grouped together: for there is indeed a connection between the two, the connection being that especially with regard to the baptism of infants it is easy for carnal and idolatrous and superstitious minds to consider the outward washing of the water the real, spiritual baptism. A child that is baptized has, as far as we know, no active faith, and at least it has no conscious activity of faith with respect to the signs of baptism that is administered to it. It is at the moment of baptism apparently utterly passive: baptism is administered to the child, but it does not know it, far less appropriates consciously the spiritual significance of the sacrament which it receives. Hence, the question might perhaps be asked, why do you really baptize children: what does it mean when children who have not the consciousness of the living faith, who cannot possibly receive consciously that which is signified by baptism, the washing away of sins through the blood and Spirit of Christ, are baptized ? What in their case is the significance of baptism? Is it possible that without any activity on the part of the child the sins of that particular child are washed away, so that really the outward sign, the outward rite, the outward form of baptism, is the washing away of sin itself? You see that the two questions are after all rather closely related.

For this reason it is expedient that we enter a little more broadly into the exposition of questions and answers 72 and 73.

The Catechism asks the question “Is then the external baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?” Now if you look at that question as it stands there and superficially, you might perhaps feel somewhat insulted and think that the question is rather silly and puerile. Does the Catechism indeed proceed from the idea that in the midst of an intelligent, new dispensational congregation there would be those that actually think that the outward washing with water could cleanse away sin? It might be perfectly all right to ask such questions of little children, but to propose a question of that kind in the midst of the congregation seems to be somewhat insulting. There is no one in the Church of Christ that ever entertained the notion that the washing with water affects a spiritual washing away of our sins, of the guilt and of the corruption of sin, and the cleansing of the soul.

However, we must remember that the Catechism is not exactly speaking of such washing with water. It does not simply propose the question whether any water and any washing with water cleanses the soul from sin. The Catechism is speaking of the outward washing of baptism. The question is not, therefore, whether if you take a bath at home your sins are washed away in the bath-tub: that would seem to be sufficiently absurd. But the question is, whether if you are baptized with the water that has been instituted and separated by God Himself, the water of baptism, your sins are not washed away by that outward rite. If you receive on your face, or if you submerge your body into the water, to which God has divinely attached the promise that as surely as you are outwardly washed with water so surely He will wash away your sins, does not then, perhaps, that external reception of the sign actually carry with it the fact that you receive the forgiveness of sins spiritually? Is not that water of baptism, the outward rite, the forgiveness of sin itself? Or, to put the question in a slightly different form: if the Church, the Church as an institute of God, upon the command of God and in harmony with His will baptizes you with water, are not your sins forgiven? That is the question.