Three parts there are to the doctrine of holy baptism. Though these three may be distinguished, they are not to be separated since baptism is one; and therefore the doctrinal facets are to be integrated. The three parts of the doctrine of holy baptism are like three links of a chain, welded together by God in such a way that they cannot be severed.
The first of these parts is the doctrine of total depravity. Two sentences is all that our Baptism Form contains and in which the first part of this doctrine is expounded. These two sentences, however, are quite sufficient. The brevity of the matter in no way detracts from its significance. Rather, it may indeed be conducive to conveying not an intricate exposition of the details of truth but to impress upon our deepest consciousness the importance of this truth in relation to the holy sacrament of baptism. Without this we cannot see the sign!
Several significant things are to be noted in this description of our depravity. The form speaks of “we and our children” which points to the organic, covenant idea rather than, or in distinction from, the individualistic approach which is always followed by the Pelagians and Arminians. We in our generations are “conceived and born in sin.” This thoroughly Scriptural statement (Cf. Psalm 51, Romans 5, etc.) includes both the legal and moral aspect of sin. As we enter the world, we are already guilty, and our nature in its totality is corrupt. Such must not only be our confession; but as we present our children in baptism, we must realize this consciously before God and the church. In fact, this is not simply an admission on the part of the parents who present their children in baptism; but this is the confession of the entire church.
Resultant from this depravity is the fact that “we are children of wrath.” Borrowing the language of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2, we observe that this statement means not only that we are by nature the objects of God’s holy and just wrath; but our natural origin and destiny both are described by the term “wrath.” We are born out of wrath, and it is for that reason that we are by nature haters of God and despisers of all the holy things. Wrath encompasses us daily, for “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven upon all ungodliness of men. . . .,” Romans 1:18. This we attempt to avoid recognizing, and are naturally prone to try at least to find in the cursed world of our existence some manifestation of Rove and kindness and grace on the part of God to all men. But it isn’t there. Children of wrath we are, who pine away in wrath; and so our ultimate and eternal end is wrath. In the eternal darkness of perdition the sinner suffers without alleviation the horrors of the divine wrath. This is our portion. It is all we deserve. We have nowhere else to go and nothing else to expect. We are children of wrath!
“Except we are born again.” O glorious exception! Outside of the Kingdom of God are we, except we are born again. Into the Kingdom of God, which is light and life and love, we cannot enter except through the new birth. There are no conditions to fulfill. Works performed by us will avail nothing toward this objective, for they can only aggravate the wrath under which we as sinners die. Offers and promises we could not accept if they were offered to us. There is only one thing that will suffice and only one way that entrance into God’s Kingdom is obtained. That necessitates a complete renovation. This renovation or new birth is the work of God, performed in grace, sovereignly executed, so that the recipients of it are made to partake of the heavenly life and given in principle all the blessings of eternal salvation. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
Now the dipping in or sprinkling with water in baptism is a symbol of all this. We note that to the fathers the question of immersion or sprinkling was a matter of minor consequence. Both have been used, and whichever is used can serve the symbolic purpose. That is what counts. We will discuss these elements in baptism more fully later. The point here is that in the symbol of baptism we see the “impurity of our souls,” our total corruption and depravity, and the washing of those souls by the reality signified in the poured or sprinkled water. The rite of baptism does not deliver us from this depravity, nor save us; but it “teaches us,”—it causes us to realize that we are corrupt sinners, in need of a thorough washing and renewal: for without it we have no fellowship with God.
Hence, the ceremony of baptism in itself is immediately an “admonition” to the church. This emphasis is striking in our Reformed Confessions. We have no room or place in our doctrine for admonitions? Let the reader consult the Heidelberg Catechism and take note that in treating both of the sacraments the question is asked: “How art thou admonished and assured . . .?” (Lord’s Days 26, 28). Assurance comes through and in the way of admonitions. So here baptism admonishes us, and to reap the benefits of the sacrament we must be able to hear and receive the admonition. It contains three elements: (1) that we loath ourselves. (2) that we humble ourselves before God. (3) that we seek for our purification and salvation without ourselves.
Scripture may be abundantly brought forth to substantiate this admonition. We are told that unless we are able to hate ourselves, we can have no part in Jesus. This follows because there is nothing in us to love. Remember, we are children of wrath, children of corruption. This in us we must hate. And it follows then, too; that we loath all the works that proceed from ourselves; for they are no better than their source. The proud God hates and will bring them low, but the humble He will exalt in due time; Always we are enjoined to humility. Let us be very low and raise the Name of our God on High. No other Name is worthy to be exalted save the Name of Him who is Lord of lords and King of kings forever. And so we will not, yea cannot, expect any salvation out of ourselves but will seek it elsewhere. We will not even entertain the thought that somehow our salvation is a co-operative endeavor in which God and we mutually participate, but we will look solely to the God of our salvation and put our hope and trust in Him alone. Salvation is from the Lord! He is our help and our shield! Nothing in our hands we bring. Simply to the cross we cling!
The second part of the doctrine of Holy Baptism instructs us that baptism is a sign-and seal. A sign is a visible token of some invisible reality. A seal is an authoritative pledge. Here the invisible reality that is pledged by divine authority is the “forgiveness of sins.” This glorious blessing must not be isolated as a singular gift of God to us, but rather it must be construed as the very basic gift of salvation. Essentially forgiveness is salvation. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity.” (Psalm 32:1, 2) Such a man has the whole of salvation.
This salvation is in Jesus Christ. There is no other name under heaven whereby we are saved. This Jesus was so named of the angel of God because “he shall save His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21) Thus does baptism signify and seal the salvation of grace to us and our children, who are conceived and born in sin, children of wrath by nature, regenerated by the Spirit. Otherwise stated, we may say that baptism is the sign of the covenant. The unspeakable riches of the covenant of grace are visibly signified and sealed in this sacrament. In that light we may consider the beautiful description of the work of the Triune God in baptism. This work depicts Him as the Covenant God, who unilaterally establishes, maintains, and perfects His covenant with His people.
In His Name we are baptized. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three distinct Persons and yet of the same Essence perform each His work in the salvation of God’s covenant people; and the work of each is individually signified as we are baptized in these names.
“God the Father witnesses and seals 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.” To be noted here is that in the making of’ the covenant and the adoption of children there is a parallelism. These are in essence one. The work of God by which He takes us into His family and makes us partakers of His life is the essence of His covenant. The covenant is not a pact, agreement, promise or alliance between parties. It is the relation of highest fellowship between God and His people in Christ. Again we observe that in baptism God does not witness and seal to each child individually that receives the outward sacrament that He will do this. The viewpoint of the Form is the organic view, according to which believers and their spiritual children are organically the recipients of these blessings. With them, according to His own sovereign purpose and the good pleasure of His unalterable will, God the Father makes His covenant. Unconditional and sovereign is His work of grace.
“God the Son seals unto us that he doth wash us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into de fellowship of his death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God.” This, too, is the work of God which is the making of His covenant. It views, that work as it is objectively realized in the Son of God, Who was revealed in the fulness of time. It directs us to the basis or foundation on which that covenant rests. This is the work of Christ in our stead. As our Mediator, Surety, and the Head of the covenant, He laid the foundation on which He builds the house of God. On that foundation He sets His people so surely that they are “accounted righteous before God.” It is as if they themselves had satisfied in their own persons for all their sins; and God, receives them in perfect righteousness unto Himself, dwelling with them, imparting the blessings of His covenant fellowship.
And, finally, “in like manner,” the Holy Spirit “assures us, by this holy sacrament, that be 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 de assembly of the elect in life eternal.”
Blessed Spirit! Applying the benefits of Christ’s work to the heirs of the covenant, and that in the same sovereign, unconditional manner. He will assuredly do this. Baptism signifies and seals it unto us. The sacrament each time confirms the conviction of the faith of the church that it is not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.” (Zech. 4:6)