Previous article in this series: November 1, 2016, p. 67.
The sacraments are God-ordained elements of worship. The primary purpose of the sacraments as elements of worship is to be part of the holy dialogue between God and His church. God is speaking to His church when the sacraments are administered in worship. We are to respond to His speech. What is He saying to us in baptism, first of all (next time the Lord’s Supper)? And how do we respond?
You Need a Washing
The main thing God tells us in baptism you have already been taught. He tells His church about an invisible, spiritual washing He has performed and will continue to perform for His people. InAnanias tells Paul that baptism is a symbol in which God declares to Paul the washing away of his sins.
Washing away of his dirty sins. If God is speaking to us about a washing, it means He is also telling us we need washing. We are dirty. We and our children, as the Baptism Form puts it, “are conceived and born in sin.” “You are spiritually dirty people who have gathered before me,” He says, “and you need a washing.”
I Wash You
That washing He gives us is twofold. It is a washing that deals with sin’s guilt and with its power. God declares to us that the guilt of sin is washed away in justification, and then the power of sin is washed away in sanctification. Both aspects are involved in what it means to be washed. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that God speaks of both in baptism. “What is it to be washed?” Question 70 asks. And this is the answer:
It is to receive of God the remission of sins, freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us by His sacrifice upon the cross; [that’s justification!] and also to be renewed by the Holy Ghost, and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin, and lead holy and unblameable lives [that’s sanctification!].
The Catechism says that in baptism God speaks of both aspects of washing because Scripture does: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (). That refers to the pardon for sin, part of justification. And then in Paul says that in baptism God speaks to us of the washing of sanctification: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”
Paul is dealing here with an objection to the gospel. If we are saved by grace alone, then we might as well live in sin. And Paul says, no, that is impossible. For one who is justified will also be sanctified. And the reason for that, he says, is the speech of God to us in baptism. His people are washed in both ways; it cannot be merely one without the other. In baptism God says, “My dirty people, I wash you of sin’s guilt and power. I do that for you. It is a work of sovereign grace. You do not speak to me in this sacrament saying you will wash yourself. I speak to you. This is what I do for My people by grace. I wash them!”
Is that what you hear when you watch the baptisms take place in your church? Were you listening to God’s speech to His church? Or were you thinking about how nicely the baby was dressed?
Other Aspects of Salvation
God speaks not only about justification and sanctification in baptism; He also speaks in this sacrament about our regeneration: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (). The washing of regeneration.
Further, God speaks to the church of our unity with one another by virtue of the new birth and the washing we receive: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” ().
Union With Christ
We must hear God speak to us of all these things in baptism. And we must hear Him tell us that all of these things are ours because He unites us to Jesus Christ. This is the covenantal assembly. God’s speech to us is covenant speech. He tells us we are united to Christ by a living bond, and because we are, we have all these benefits—justification, sanctification, regeneration, unity with the body of Christ. That is really the heart of what we read in Romans 6. Romans 6 tells us not only that God speaks of sanctification in baptism, but also of why we will be sanctified. We have been buried with Christ in His death and raised with Him in His resurrection: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (). We are united to Christ eternally by election and then in time by the Spirit. So are we legally and actually united to Him; so do we receive His benefits by that union. It is as though we were personally being buried for our sin and being raised in new life when Christ was being buried for our sins and raised in new life. In baptism God says we are united with Christ and receive what He receives.
And the church must together respond to that! All of God’s people, not only the parents, not only the adult being baptized, but all of us; for He is declaring these truths to all His people gathered before Him. In this connection, I want you to notice something about the liturgy for baptism given in the Reformed Form for the Administration of Baptism that maybe you had not thought of before. It was deliberately designed to capture this idea of holy dialogue in the worship of God’s name: God speaking and His people together responding.
The form first, from Scripture, explains what speech of God will be heard in this sacrament momentarily because we cannot hear the speech unless the Word first tells us what to hear. And then, what does the form do next? It leads us in prayer! The church responds in prayer to God to what she has been told to anticipate. And in that prayer the form uses the first person plural; “we,” “us,” “we,” because it is the church together responding.
Then the form (in the infant baptism section) has the couple speak, giving their vows as they are the portion of the church that occasions this sacrament among us in that instance. But with them the other parents remember their vows of baptism and, in a sense, say them to God again in their mind. And not only that, the whole church stands behind the parents and vows to help these parents raise these children in the fear of the Lord, holding these parents accountable for the vows they make.
Then, the actual baptism takes place, where God speaks sacramentally to us. And at that point, in the old Dutch tradition, we sing in response to the speech we just heard in the sacrament, usually with Psalter 425. We respond to His declarations! We do not merely sit there having received this declaration from God in the water upon the head; we respond having heard God speak in baptism.
In song… and then in prayer. We pray in thanksgiving to God: “Almighty God we, [we!] thank and praise Thee that Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins.” And we pray that because that is what God has just told us. He washes us; He forgives us our sins.
It is worship, the holy dialogue of worship. God sovereignly engages His church in a holy dialogue. Were you aware? How does that affect how you sing Psalter 425, stanza 5, if your church does that? When you do so, are you responding to what God spoke to His church in baptism? Did you pray that last prayer in the form out of worshipful response to what He swore to us here, or was it simply going through the motions? There is a meeting going on in baptism—God speaks, we respond.
Next time we will see what God says in the Lord’s Supper and how we respond. And then we will go on to see the way God speaks in the sacraments, and how that should affect the manner in which we respond.