The heading or title that appears in our English Psalters above the Baptism Form reads: “Form for the Administration of Baptism.” It is alleged that other tides appeared in various and older editions of this form. In the very oldest Holland edition the heading is supposed to have read: “Formuliei om den Heiligen Doop aan de kinderen te bedienen.” Translated this is: “Form for Holy Baptism to Be Administered to Children.” Then some time later, at the time of Rutgers, Bavinck and Kuyper, this heading is supposed to have been changed slightly. The modified form allegedly read: “Formulier om den Heiligen Doop te bedienen aan de kleine kinderen der geloovigen.” Translated this would be: “Form of Holy Baptism to Be Administered to Infant Children of Believers.”
Upon casual reading the change in this heading may not have been noticed and the significance or purpose of the change left unfelt. It only involves a matter of two or three words and these do not appear to be important. Whether then they are included or omitted from the heading above the Form is inconsequential. In fact it might even be .argued that whereas the older forms omit them, and for the sake of brevity, their omission is to be preferred.
However, a more careful consideration of the historical background and doctrinal reason for the insertion of the words “infant” and “of believers” leads us to the conclusion that the matter is not as inconsequential as we first thought. There may have been two arguments of position bolstered by this maneuver. First, there is the Reformed emphasis on the doctrine of infant baptism which insists that not just children are to be baptized but infant children. The form itself devotes some attention to this question and adduces strong proof which we may consider later but this emphasis must also be projected into the heading of the formulary. Secondly, it is distinctly a Reformed view that baptism is a covenant sign and seal, and therefore is not to be administered promiscuously to children, to all children, to all infant children, but to children of believers. God maintains His covenant with believers and their seed in generations for an everlasting covenant, and baptism is the sign administered to these generations whereby they are distinguished from the world. They must not be marked alike, for they are not identical. Baptism, therefore, is not a sign that can or may be affixed to all without distinction; but it must be administered only to the children of believers. The insertion of the words, “of believers,” in the heading accentuates a needed emphasis upon the particular character of the sacrament. The Reformed of the Rutgers-Bavinck-Kuyper era felt this keenly, but it is indeed a sad commentary upon the present generation that this can no longer be said to be the case. It is to be regretted that this more complete and accurate heading is lost in our English Psalters for even though it may be a bit cumbersome because of its length we would like to see above the Baptism Form the words: “Form for the Administration of Baptism to the Infant I Children of Believers.”
The Baptism Form begins with the statement: “The principal parts of the doctrine of holy baptism are these three.” This beginning has been criticized as being far inferior to the beginning of the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper. In the latter form we begin with: “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, attend to the words of the institution of the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ as they are delivered by the; holy Apostle Paul. . . .” Then follows a literal quotation of the passage of Holy Writ found in I Corinthians 11:23-30. There is something impressive about all this. Believers, as the beloved in Christ, are called to listen to Christ speak as He comes to them through the holy apostle Paul and instructs them in regard to the significance of the holy sacrament they are about to celebrate. Would it not be preferred to begin the Baptism Form in a similar way. We might, for example, begin something like this: “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ: Listen to the words of the institution of holy baptism which are given to us by our Lord and Savior in Matthew 28:19, ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.'”
In commenting upon this, we probably ought to observe, first of all, that the fact that we are so very familiar with our Baptism Form may very well be the cause of our failure to appreciate it and to see anything special in it. In the second place, it can hardly be expected that the two forms we have compared could be alike even from the formal aspect because the differences in the sacraments themselves must be remembered. Baptism is the sacrament of incorporation; the Lord’s Supper of indwelling. Through baptism, we are buried with Christ into death and raised again in newness of life, while in the Lord’s Supper we commune with Him in that new life. In baptism there is a certain passivity on our part, while in the Lord’s Supper we are active through faith. These differences are reflected even in the form of the Form and consequently, even the approach in the Baptism Form is different from that of the Lord’s Supper.
The Baptism Form itself divides into two main parts, a doctrinal part and a liturgical part. We deal with the doctrinal part first, which in turn is again divided into several parts. There is a part that explains the meaning of baptism in general, and then there is a part devoted to the explanation of the doctrine of infant baptism. Concerning the first of these two it must again be noted that, to quote the Baptism Form, “the principal parts of the doctrine of holy baptism are these three.”
Three parts! That’s rather striking, isn’t it? Why aren’t there four or perhaps seven principal parts to this doctrine? And that number three we recollect we have encountered before. Pondering that a moment we remember that in Scripture this number is the number of God. It denotes His Deity. He is the Triune God, three in one! Perhaps we ought to remember this, so that we may be impressed by the significant part that must be ascribed to God in the doctrine of Holy Baptism. But that number three also appears in our Confessions. We think especially of our Heidelberg Catechism with its familiar division of the knowledge of sin and misery, redemption, and gratitude. To even the most casual reader the explanation of the Biblical teaching in the Baptism Form reveals a close similarity to that contained in the Heidelberg Catechism. Here we find the fundamental truths of our misery because of sin, our deliverance by the grace of the triune covenant God, and our Christian duty of gratitude. In each case reference is made to the symbolism of baptism. We confess that both we and our children are conceived and born in sin. Thus the sprinkling with water admonishes us to loathe and humble ourselves before God and seek for our purification and salvation apart from ourselves in divine mercy.
We likewise confess that baptism is a sign and seal of the washing away of our sins. The rich provisions for salvation made by our covenant God are clearly and concisely set forth. We are charged to look to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit for all things necessary to salvation. And, finally, baptism is a sign and seal of our covenantal separation from the world. Thus, in thankfulness for divine grace we obligate ourselves to walk in the ways of the Lord.
It is therefore the experiential approach that we have to do with in the Baptism Form. It is not the dogmatic or theological that predominates in our consideration of the baptismal truths, but the form is designed to impress upon our consciousness the awareness of the glorious salvation symbolized in the sacrament. In that light we will consider the doctrinal part of the form somewhat in more detail.
Further the explanation of infant baptism likewise follows the Scriptural pattern. Here is a rich arsenal of truth for those who would defend this precious practice. We believe that also our children belong to God. Just as without their knowledge they by nature he in the midst of death, so too are they by grace received into God’s covenant. Nowhere is the sovereignty of God in the work of salvation more vividly demonstrated than in extending His covenant mercies to such infants. It is therefore understandable that all who reject infant baptism must deny the doctrine of original sin as taught by Scripture, or else deny the possibility of the salvation of all who are not old enough to exercise active faith. Room is given here for the consideration not only of the Biblical proof of a doctrine of fundamental importance but also to raise various important practical questions in connection with the practice of baptizing infants.
With this in mind we will scrutinize the three principal parts of the doctrine of holy baptism. The first of these parts has to do with a statement which is at the same time a confession concerning the truth of our total depravity. We and our children are:
CONCEIVED AND BORN IN SIN
The statement of the Baptism Form is significant enough to quote in its entirety. Each phrase of the two short sentences it contains ought to be carefully pondered. And we must see how this undeniable fact of depravity is related to the truth of baptism. The statement then is:
“First, that we with our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are children of wrath, insomuch that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God, except we are born again. This, the dipping in, or sprinkling with water teaches us, whereby the impurity of our souls is signified, and we admonished to loathe, and humble ourselves before God, and seek for our purification and salvation without ourselves.”
The logic of the above is exact. The major premise, the basic fact, is the truth taught in all Scripture that we are conceived and born in sin. In consequence of this we are “children of wrath.” Resultant therefrom is our inability to enter God’s Kingdom. This necessitates rebirth, regeneration, renewal, which is signified in the dipping in, sprinkling, or pouring of the water of baptism, The instruction obtained through the symbolism humbles us (We are taught by the Word; and the Word applied brings forth the fruit of humility in us.); and this results in our repudiation of self and the seeking of our salvation outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Next time, D.V., we will consider these elements in greater detail, for they must be part of our consciousness ere we can proceed to understand the work of the Triune God in baptism.