Here are my latest reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism and its contents in honor of its 450th anniversary. (For some background and the entire document, check this out).
[Note: For thematic purposes in the section on the sacraments, the two weeks that cover Baptism and the three weeks that cover the Lord’s Supper will be grouped together.]
LORD’S DAY 26 & 27
Q. 69. How does holy Baptism remind and assure you that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross avails for you?
A. In this way; Christ has instituted this external washing with water and by it has promised that I am as certainly washed with his blood and Spirit from the uncleanness of my soul and from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water which is used to remove the dirt from my body.
Q. 70. What does it mean to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?
A. It means to have forgiveness of sins from God, through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood which he shed for us in his sacrifice on the cross, and also to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified as members of Christ, so that we may more and more die unto sin and live in a consecrated and blameless way.
Q. 71. Where has Christ promised that we are as certainly washed with his blood and Spirit as with the water of baptism?
A. In the institution of Baptism which runs thus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” This promise is also repeated where the Scriptures call baptism “the water of rebirth” and the washing away of sins.
Q. 72. Does merely the outward washing with water itself wash away sins?
A. No; for only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins.
Q. 73. Then why does the Holy Spirit call baptism the water of rebirth and the washing away of sins?
A. God does not speak in this way except for a strong reason. Not only does he teach us by Baptism that just as the dirt of the body is taken away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood of and Spirit of Christ; but more important still, by the divine pledge and sign he wishes to assure us that we are just as truly washed from our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water.
Q. 74. Are infants also to be baptized?
A. Yes, because they, as well as their parents, are included in the covenant and belong to the people of God. Since both redemption from sin through the blood of Christ and the gift of faith from the Holy Spirit are promised to these children no less than to their parents, infants are also by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the Old Covenant by circumcision. In the New Covenant baptism as been instituted to take its place.
If there’s one thing that Christians argue about, it’s baptism. What does it mean? To whom is it applied? Do we sprinkle, immerse, or use a hose? (OK, I’ve never heard of anyone doing the last one–but you get the point.)
I want to keep this post fairly short, so there’s no way I can get into all of these issues, but there a few basic points that can be made which will help to establish a framework for answering all of the other questions.
First, much debate about baptism stems from divergent understandings of the nature and function of the sacraments in general. Are the actions that reveal and confirm what we pledge to do for God, or what God has promised to do for us?
Scripture clearly teaches that they are signs and seals of God’s covenant promises to us. Baptism, then, is not a visible marker of “my decision to follow Jesus”, but is, rather, a visible maker of God’s pledge to cleanse me from my sins. It is, fundamentally, a sign and a seal of what God pledges to do for us in Christ.
This may sound like a simple point, but it carries a lot of freight. For example, it helps us to understand why baptism is something that is administered only once and not repeated every time we have a profound moment of spiritual growth. Instead of being re-baptized, we are called to remember our baptism and celebrate God’s promise to cleanse us from our sins. This is why Calvin says, “Baptism is the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children” (Institutes, IV.xv.1).
This–and much more–is what the waters of baptism signify. Just as water is used to remove dirt from the body, the catechism says, so Christ’s blood is that which removes the filth of my sins. It is the work of the Spirit to unite us to Christ, so that we are “buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
The waters of baptism remind us of the waters of Creation (when the Spirit brought forth life), the waters of the Flood (when God issued forth judgment against sin), the waters of the Exodus (when God brought his people out of slavery), the waters of the Jordan (when God lead his people into the Promised Land), and the waters of Jesus Christ’s own baptism.
Yet the waters themselves are not what cleanse our sin. They are, again, signs and seals of what God does in Christ and by the Spirit. In Calvin’s words, “…all the gifts of God proferred in baptism are found in Christ alone” (Institutes, IV.xv.6). We are saved by grace alone, though faith alone, and in Christ alone, yet baptism nevertheless is a visible sign and seal of these truths.
The final point the catechism raises is, perhaps, the most debated. Are infants to be baptized?
If you think that baptism is a confirmation of what you decided to do (i.e. believe in God), then the answer would be no. Baptism, however, is not a sign of what you do for God, but a promise of what God does for you and the sign which he has attached to his covenant promises. Therefore, for the adult who has never been baptized and comes to know and call upon Jesus Christ as Lord, it is appropriate for them to be baptized. But why baptize the children of believers?
This is a deep topic, and my post has already gotten too long, but a very helpful discussion can be found here. I’ll sum up the main points of the Reformed position and it’s Scriptural foundations.
- Scripture teaches that the signs and seals of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament are circumcision and the Passover. Scripture also teaches that with Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, these promises have been fulfilled. Because of that, while the promises have not changed, the signs and seals representing these promises have. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as the new meal for the people of God, and instituted baptism as the new sign of covenant inclusion. Paul makes it clear in Colossians 2:11-12 that “the circumcision of Christ” is baptism.
- Circumcision was a sign and seal given by God to Abraham (who believed in God’s promise), and to all of his offspring (Genesis 17:1-14). It was given to children to show their inclusion in those covenant promises. While it is true that there is no New Testament verse that says, “Thou shalt baptize infants”, there is also no verse that says, “For the first time in the history of God’s people, stop giving the sign of the covenant to your children.” R. Scott Clark puts it like this (see the link above):
“To exclude the children of believing parents from the sign of admission to the visible covenant people or to say that God no longer wishes children to be considered a part of the visible community of God’s people is no mere change in circumstance but rather a radical change in God’s way of dealing with his people.
To change God’s clear command to Abraham, one would expect a clear Word from God on the subject, but nowhere does God’s Word tell believers to stop applying the sign of the covenant to their children. Since the new covenant Scriptures never tell us not to apply the covenant sign to our children, we have every reason to believe that the children of believers must receive the sign of entrance into the covenant people.”
- When Peter preached at Pentecost, he ended his sermon with this: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39, italics added).
- There is every indication that entire households were baptized in the New Testament whenever an adult in that household came to saving faith (Acts 16:15,33).
- The baptism of children bears witness to the fact that God’s grace is at work in our lives long before we respond in faith. It does not guarantee the salvation of children, but it points to the promise of cleansing and salvation in Jesus Christ, and visibly unites them to the covenant community and the promises of God.
In short, baptism is the “visible word” (Augustine) that God has instituted to communicate to us the cleansing that comes in Jesus Christ. Just as surely as I use water to wash the dirt from my hands, so does the blood of Jesus Christ wash away the filth of my sin. In baptism, I am united to Christ in his death and resurrection, and marked as a member of the covenant community which joyously celebrates and wholeheartedly clings to the promises of God.