James D. Slopsema is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
According to the baptism form there are three principal parts of the doctrine of holy baptism. The second principal part is that:
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 sin, 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 of the elect in life eternal.
According to the opening sentence of this paragraph of the baptism form, baptism “witnesseth and sealeth unto us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ.”
The first principal part of baptism signifies the impurity of our souls. Consequently, baptism teaches us that we with our children are all conceived and born in sin, are all children of wrath and cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are born again.
Following from this is the second principal part of baptism, that baptism signifies and seals to us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ. This truth concerning baptism is quite evident from the sacrament itself. Baptism involves washing with water. In baptism one is either sprinkled with water or immersed in water. Now, water has the power to wash away the dirt of the body. Hence, baptism is a sign and seal of God of the washing away of sins in the blood of Jesus Christ.
Having established this fact, the baptism form proceeds to connect baptism to God’s covenant of grace.
In this the form is certainly correct. For baptism along with the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. Baptism is a sign of incorporation into this covenant; the Lord’s Supper is a sign of being continually nourished and fed in God’s covenant. Both can serve as signs of the covenant, of course, because they both are signs of the cross of Jesus Christ, which stands at the heart of the covenant.
The baptism form connects baptism to the covenant by showing that we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This was the command of Christ Himself shortly before His ascension into heaven. In Matthew 28:19 He charged His disciples, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Now, according to the baptism form, when we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesses and seals to us that He makes an eternal covenant of grace with us.
It ought to be quite obvious that when the form speaks here of God the Father it refers not to the first person of the holy Trinity alone but to the Triune God. For it is not the first person alone who establishes the covenant of grace with us apart from the second and third persons of the Godhead. The establishment of the covenant is the work of the triune God. That triune God is time and again called Father in the Scriptures. The triune God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and for Christ’s sake is also our God and Father. And it is in this same sense that the baptism form speaks here of God the Father.
Jumping ahead just a bit we ought to bear in mind that when the baptism form speaks of the Son, it speaks not just of the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, but of the eternal Son as He came into our flesh in the fullness of time to be our Mediator—Jesus Christ. And when therefore the form speaks of the Holy Spirit, again the reference is not simply to the third person of the Godhead but to the Spirit of God as given to Christ at His ascension into heaven to be the Spirit of Christ, through Whom Christ dwells in the church and blesses her.
At this point it is very important in our consideration of the baptism form to understand the nature of God’s covenant.
Many ideas concerning the covenant have arisen throughout the history of the Reformed churches. The covenant of God has been conceived of as an alliance between two parties over against a third. Again, it has been described as a contract or agreement between two parties with promises, conditions, and threats. It has also been viewed as essentially a conditional promise. These views, however, inevitably lead us into Arminian waters and are to be rejected.
Rather is the covenant of grace to be viewed as a living relation of friendship and fellowship between God and His elect people in Jesus Christ.
Key to this concept of the covenant is the idea of friendship and love. In the covenant of grace God draws near to His people with His eternal love. In that love He richly blesses them. He adopts them as His own children, making them heirs of His eternal inheritance. He cares for them and provides for all their needs, whether physical or spiritual, whether for time or for eternity. The fruit of this wonderful love of God for His people is that they in turn love Him with deep gratitude and devotion. They cherish Him as their God and Father. In this love they serve Him with all their hearts, seeking in all things to honor and glorify Him. The covenant is a most beautiful relation of love between God and His people.
In the context of this loving relationship there is also a most beautiful fellowship. In His covenant love God draws near to His people in fellowship. He walks with them and talks with them. He lives and dwells with them in His tabernacle. He shares all things with them. He and His people live one life together so that the elect of God are able to enjoy God completely and forever.
Such, briefly, is the covenant of grace.
It ought to be evident from this brief description that the covenant of grace is all of God. Its conception, its establishment, its continuation, its preservation are all of God and not of us. Furthermore, this beautiful covenant is with the elect of God alone, whom God has eternally destined to eternal life. In that connection, the covenant itself is also the essence of that life eternal to which God has destined His people.
Now, in baptism, whether it be our own baptism or the baptism of another we witness, God witnesses and seals to us that He makes such a covenant of grace with us. And He assures us through baptism that in that covenant He “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.” This “us” of course is the believer, whose faith is the fruit and thus the proof of his election by God.
Now the baptism form goes on to teach that when we are baptized in the name of the Son, God the Son seals to us that He washes us in His blood from all our sins.
The Son referred to here, we have seen, is the Son of God come in the flesh as our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is of utmost importance that we have also this assurance of the Son of God in baptism concerning the washing away of our sins. For the covenant of God can be established and maintained with us only in the way of the washing away of sins.
We must understand that by nature we are corrupt and depraved. So total and complete is this depravity of ours that we can only hate God with all our heart. This hatred comes to manifestation in a life of terrible rebellion against God. We will not nor can we in the least bit serve Him according to His commandments. All our works are evil. We are guilty of transgressing in one form or another all the commandments of God. This, in turn, offends God greatly. What an abomination we are before God in our sin! It ought to be quite obvious that no covenant relation of love and fellowship can exist between God and us so long as we remain in this state. We do not want God; nor can God have us.
For God’s covenant with us to exist it is necessary that our sins be washed away. First, the guilt of our horrible sins must be removed through perfect payment so that they are no longer offensive to God. Then we must be delivered from the horrible depravity that has taken hold of us. We must be changed spiritually so that we no longer rebel against God in hatred but serve Him in love and adoration. To use the expression of the baptism form, we must be “freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God.” This constitutes the washing away of our sins. And it is only then that there can exist between God and us the beautiful relation of friendship and fellowship which is the covenant of grace.
This washing away of our sins is accomplished only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through His death Christ paid the full price for our sins so that we are no more guilty before God. In Christ we are righteous. The cross has removed the offense of all our sins. And it is through the power of Christ’s resurrection that we are delivered from sin’s control, changed and renewed to serve God in love.
The washing away of our sins in Christ’s blood is the key to God’s covenant with us. That washing away of sin is graphically depicted for us in the sacrament of baptism. That we may be assured of God’s covenant with us, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, assures us through baptism that He does “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.”
Finally, the baptism form teaches us that when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit assures us that He will dwell in us and apply to us all that we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins.
We have already seen that the Holy Spirit referred to here is the Holy Spirit as given to Christ at His ascension to be the Spirit of Christ.
We must understand that if our sins will actually be washed away it is necessary that we be brought into living connection with the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To use the language of the form, we must be incorporated into the fellowship of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is accomplished by faith. By faith we are made one with Christ, one in His death and one in His resurrection. It is by faith and by faith alone that the power of the cross and the resurrection actually reaches us to wash away our sins.
This all important work of bringing us into living connection with the cross and resurrection of Christ and applying to us that which we have in Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ.
And this same Spirit assures us in baptism that He will accomplish this great work in us. Through baptism He assures us that He will dwell in us, that He will sanctify us to be members of Christ by faith and that He will apply to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins. Furthermore, He assures us through baptism that He will continue this work until we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.