Friday, August 20, 2010

The Grace of Baptism -- Part 5

Why Does it Matter?

Part 1: The Question on the Floor: Baptism's Effect; Scriptural Texts
Part 2: The Effect of Baptism in Reformed Thought
Part 3: The Efficacy of Baptism
Part 4: Interactions With Derksen's Arguments
Part 5: Why Does it Matter?

One might wonder why I've undertaken the effort to dispute Phil on this point. Certainly it is not to give aid and comfort to anyone teaching that baptism gives grace indiscriminately! With Derksen, I affirm that the grace of baptism is received by faith and applies to the elect at the time of God's choosing. I join him in denying that the grace of baptism is given to all recipients, in any sense.

Nevertheless, I've undertaken this project because Derksen's construction raises a large yellow flag that should concern us.

He has created a system in which baptism presupposes prior faith. This system begs for a Baptist practice. And indeed, those Presbyterians who came closest to Baptists (such as Thornwell) articulated an uncomfortably similar theology of infant baptism -- that it grants an external privilege only.

Derksen, a faithful Presbyterian, is in no danger of becoming Baptist any time soon. His view, however, separates the sign from the thing signified. What is signified in baptism is our justification and our union with Christ. What is given in baptism (on Derksen's account) is not justification and union with Christ, but merely confirmation of those things.

He has created a system in which the sign does not actually convey the thing signified, but merely confirms it. This small bit of daylight is too much daylight. The Reformers and their Confessions were comfortable attributing salvation itself as the effect of baptism, of attributing the thing signified to the sign. I encourage my brother Phil Derksen to do the same.


The Grace of Baptism -- Part 4

Interactions with Derksen's Arguments

Part 1: The Question on the Floor: Baptism's Effect; Scriptural Texts
Part 2: The Effect of Baptism in Reformed Thought
Part 3: The Efficacy of Baptism
Part 4: Interactions With Derksen's Arguments
Part 5: Why Does it Matter?

Update: after writing this piece, I discovered that my own knowledge of the sources was incomplete. As a result, some of my criticisms of Derksen are downright unfair. If the reader wishes to see the original work, he may click
here for the original Part 4. But I'm not entirely proud of it; consider it deprecated.

So far, we have endeavored, with little reference to Derksen's arguments, to trace the Scriptural and Reformed view of baptism. The conclusion of the matter has been that all three agree: the sacramental effect of baptism is salvation.

But now we must reckon with the fact that Derksen supplies an impressive array of quotations from various Westminster Divines and other Reformed theologians that plausibly show that these divines thought of baptism as a "confirming, not converting ordinance." This part will therefore directly challenge the arguments of BWS.

(1) Derksen's over-relies on the Westminster Divines as the primary window for understanding the Confession.

Citing the Westminster Divines Rutherford, Gillespie, Ussher, and others, together with the Reformed theologians Cunningham, Manton, and Turretin, Derksen claims that these representatives of Reformed thinking taught his two theses:

In this installment we will begin to show that the Westminster Standards’ teaching on baptism is in full accord with the historical Reformed understanding of the sacraments, as was outlined in Part 1. That is, baptism does not intrinsically confer spiritual grace, but rather spiritually benefits only the elect. Or, as it has frequently been stated in historical Reformed language: the sacraments are confirming and strengthening ordinances, and not converting ordinances -- BWS Part 3.

The problem is that the language of the Confession is drawn heavily from the writings of Calvin and from previous Reformed Confessions. Derksen in particular omits any discussion of Calvin in reference to his second thesis. The result is that he ends up pitting statements from Rutherford and Cunningham -- unwittingly -- against the dispositive statements of Calvin that we have already seen.

(2) Derksen improperly conflates his two theses; as a result, he illegitimately takes evidence for the one as if it proved the other.

Take a second look at Derksen's quote above, which explicates his two theses. With the word "Or", he signals his anti-ex opere operato thesis is to be considered as logically equivalent to the claim that baptism is confirming and not converting. And in fact this is precisely how he reads his sources. Statements against ex opere operato are taken as evidence that baptism does not confer, but only confirms salvation.

We note that Derksen's sources are addressing the question of ex opere operato. Their opposing formula of "confirming, not converting" is specifically directed against the view that the act of baptism creates grace or faith of itself. Their opposition is certainly not directed against Calvin's view that in baptism, we are ingrafted into Christ.

For example, Derksen cites: Our divines do not say that the sacraments are exhibitive ordinances, wherein grace is communicated to those who have none of it, to unconverted or unbelieving persons. (Gillespie, Aaron's Rod Blossoming p. 233, cited in BWS part 4)

As an anti-ex-operato statement, this is clear. Baptism does not, via its action, give grace to the unconverted.

But as a denial that baptism exhibits and conveys justification, it is much less clear. Gillespie is certainly not saying that the divines reject the idea that sacraments exhibit and convey grace, since they most certainly believed this! (WCoF 27). Nor could he be denying that sacraments are effectual means of salvation, since the divines affirmed this also (WLC 161).

So some of Derksen's citations are being applied to an issue different from their original context. This criticism applies also to his citations of Gouge, Gataker, Reynolds, Willet, and Turretin. All of these gentlemen affirm that baptism is ineffectual without faith; none of them affirm that the effect of baptism is something other than salvation, or deny that baptism effects our washing of sins.

(Incidentally, many of his citations are taken from treatises on the Lord's Supper, which makes them less obviously relevant to baptism.)

(3) Derksen's reliance on Rutherford creates some difficulties.

Despite the forgoing criticisms, some of Derksen's quotes do substantially show that some Reformed theologians of the Westminster era held to the "confirming, not converting" formula for the sacraments.

Rutherford is his best example:

Baptism is not whereby we are entered into Christ’s mystical and invisible body as such, for it be presupposed we be members of Christ’s body, and our sins pardoned already, before baptism come to be a seal of sins pardoned; but baptism is a seal of our entry into Christ’s visible body, as swearing to the Colors is that which entereth a soldier to be a member of that army, whereas before his oath, he was only a heart-friend to the army and cause.”)
...We teach not that baptism constituteth the Church simply, as the Church, but that it is a seal of a visible membership.
-- S. Rutherford, Due Right of Presbyteries, pp. 211, 218, cited in BWS, part 4

But what difficulties has Rutherford involved himself in! For he flatly contradicts Calvin and the 2HC here, that baptism ingrafts us into Christ.

As Rutherford develops his theology, he is forced to say,

Christ by his Seals [sacraments] rightly and in faith used, do not only confirm grace and pardon, but also really exhibit and give grace and pardon in a further degree, and a new measure of assurance to the conscience which there was not before...” -- ibid, 217.

Since Rutherford denies that pardon is the effect of baptism, there is nothing left for baptism to effect except assurance and "pardon in a further degree."

Dear reader, stop and contemplate what the phrase "pardon in a further degree" might mean. Is not our justification "done and done", once-for-all, at the moment of faith?

No doubt Rutherford believes this also, but it is difficult to understand his position on the sacraments as a proper window into the understanding of the Confession.

(4) "Converting" and "confirming" are not strict opposites.

The issue in the ex opere operato debate was whether (as some Anglicans had it) the act of baptism creates faith. Thus, baptism was claimed to be a "converting" ordinance.

The Westminsterian divines clearly rejected this position.

But the opposite of "converting" is not "confirming." There might be other options besides either of these.

And in fact, I have argued here that baptism is "initiating." It is not "converting", except in the very narrow sense of Calvin's "secondary instrument." The action of baptism does not create faith (though its sealing of the spoken promise of the gospel might). But nor is it "confirming", increasing a faith that already exists.

No, the purpose of baptism is "initiatory." It unites us to Christ when (and not after) we believe. This is not merely Calvin's position, but it is expressed in the Reformed Confessions also, as we saw earlier.

"Converting" and "confirming" are false opposites, an unfortunate pairing born out of the ex-opere-operato conflict and pressed into a different service here.

(5) The baptism of infants argues against the view that baptism presupposes faith.

If baptism presupposes faith, then how can we baptize infants? Derksen is aware of this challenge, and he addresses it in BWS part 5. His argument in favor of infant baptism pursues the traditional lines of Reformed reasoning (which I affirm together with him). However, he does not answer the question, except to speculate that covenant children might have seed faith -- or they might not.

This is unsatisfactory. For if baptism of adults presupposes faith, then either baptism of children must be a different rite entirely from baptism of adults, or else the seed faith view must be correct. The first notion, that baptism of children has a different meaning than that of adults, has been tried in Reformed circles and rejected. The second view, that all children of believers contain seed-faith within them, is hotly contested.

But most telling is that Calvin denied that baptism of infants presupposed their faith. Contra Cunningham, he says,

Master. - If these things are requisite to the legitimate use of Baptism, how comes it that we baptize Infants?

Scholar. - It is not necessary that faith and repentance should always precede baptism. They are only required from those whose age makes them capable of both. It will be sufficient, then, if, after infants have grown up, they exhibit the power of their baptism.
-- Geneva Catechism.

Far better to acknowledge that baptism means but one thing to all recipients: it is the objective seal of the truth of the Gospel, and the reception of the Gospel is the moment at which baptism takes its effect.

(5) Baptism is outwardly a symbol of initiation; its inward grace should correspond.

Baptism is outwardly a sign of solemn admission into the visible church. As an outward sign, it symbolizes initiation. Why then should we deny (as Rutherford does) that the inward reality is also initiation?

(6) Rebaptism is universally rejected

If baptism were a confirming ordinance, rebaptism would be perfectly legitimate. Just as communion confirms Christ's death for us, yet without re-sacrifice, so also a confirming baptism would confirm our justification -- and that sign could be continued indefinitely.

Instead, it is but once applied because it symbolizes (and therefore sacramentally effects) our once-for-all justification.

(7) Derksen (and those he cites) completely overlook the stated Confessional meaning of the sign.

The Shorter Catechism says this:

Q. 94. What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s

What is signed is the ingrafting into Christ, the initiation into our relationship with Him. Likewise the Larger Catechism:

Question 165: What is Baptism?

Answer: Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ has ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord's.

The things signed are the things conveyed! Derksen, by contrast, has the things signed not conveyed, but merely confirmed. I humbly submit that the language of "confirmation" is not how the Standards describe the efficacy of the sacraments.

Increasing of faith? Yes. Signing, sealing, and applying the benefits of Christ? Yes. But "confirming the thing signified?" No.

To summarize: Derksen's arguments carry some weight, given his copious research into the views of the Westminster Divines. But his sources are concentrated too heavily in the Divines, not heavily enough in the early Reformers (especially Calvin), and they create odd difficulties on the very point he wants to establish. In short, Derksen has over-emphasized the views individual theologians to provide an idiosyncratic read of the Confessions.

In particular, Derksen's adoption of the "confirming, not converting" formula creates a false opposition. Baptism is neither; it is a kingly seal that testifies to God's promise, and it is an initiatory sacrament.

By contrast, the Westminster Confession presents a clear testimony, consistent with Calvin, Ursinus, 2HC, and the Gallic Confession that baptism effects what it signifies: namely, the washing away of sins and our union with Christ, at the moment of faith.

Charles Hodge deserves the last word:

How then is it true that baptism washes away sin, unites us to Christ, and secures salvation? The answer again is, that this is true of baptism in the same sense that it is true of the word. God is pleased to connect the benefits of redemption with the believing reception of the truth. And he is pleased to connect these same benefits with the believing reception of baptism. That is, as the Spirit works with and by the truth, so he works with and by baptism, in communicating the blessings of the covenant of grace. Therefore, as we are said to be saved by the word, with equal propriety we are said to be saved by baptism; though baptism without faith is as of little effect as is the word of God to unbelievers. -- C. Hodge, Comm. Eph. 5.17-33.


My central (and current) objection to BWS is that it conflates baptism as a means of grace with the efficacy of baptism as a sacrament. The two are quite different, the first referring to baptism's temporal effect at the moment of application, the other referring to baptism's sacramental effect, independent of the moment of application. Consequently, Derksen rejects several eminently Reformed statements of the sacramental effects of baptism, such as "baptism saves us" or "baptism unites us to Christ."

Consider the Word as a means of grace. It is used by the Spirit, in a moment of time, to create or to strengthen genuine faith. The benefits of Jesus’ work are then apprehended by faith.

If we consider the sacraments as a means of grace, focusing on their operation in time, then we find that sacraments do not create saving faith (at least not in their normal function as means of grace – the Spirit is of course not limited), for the simple reason that the sacraments are never found without the Word. A "seal" with no promise to seal is nothing. The seal confirms the promise, and so strengthens faith, but it does not create it.

It is precisely in this sense that Rutherford and Cunningham affirm that the sacraments are "confirming, not converting" ordinances. They specifically rejected the Anglican and Lutheran notion that the act of baptism creates new faith in the recipient. Berkhof puts this succinctly:

According to Reformed theology it is not, as the Roman Catholics claim, the means of initiating the work of grace in the heart, but it is a means of for the strengthening of it or, as it is often expressed, for the increase of grace. (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 641).

So viewing baptism as a means of grace, in its operation in real time, I would agree with Derksen that baptism is a confirming, not converting ordinance: that is to say, the act of baptism does not, of itself, impart saving faith.

However, there is another question concerning baptism’s efficacy as a sacrament. This effect of baptism is not causal, not linked in time to the moment of administration. What does God do through baptism, as a sacrament?

The sacrament seals the promises of God – specifically, it seals the promise to cleanse us from sin, and the promise to unite us to Christ. What is signed is also what is effected. As the Confession states,

There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other. – WCoF 27.2

How can this be? Is it a mere fiction of language? Thus the Zwinglians, who make the sign empty by saying that it is a symbol only, with no effect. But their error, besides discarding the mystery of God, is to assume that the efficacy of baptism has to do with the action itself. It does not.

Instead, the efficacy of baptism is contained in the promises that it seals. The baptism itself is nothing – that is, merely a seal to the promise. The promise is everything. When the promise is believed, the baptism has had its effect – whether before or after (or rarely, during) the action of baptism itself. Thus the Confession again:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time. – WCoF 28.6.

There is an element of mystery about this, how it is that God links the sign to the thing signified; but notwithstanding, we can understand at least that baptism points to the promise; when the promise is believed, the pointing has done its work.

It is this sense that baptism is considered an initiatory and saving rite. Sacramentally speaking, it confers what it signs: justification and union with Christ. It is this sacramental language that Calvin and other Reformers used so readily. Here is Ursinus:

There is in baptism a double washing: an external washing with water, and an internal washing with the blood and Spirit of Christ. The internal is signified and sealed by that which is external, and is always joined with it in the proper use of baptism. – Ursinus, Comm. Heidelberg Catechism, Qn. 70.

He then comments on "proper use" and "improper use" of sacramental language, saying that the latter is figurative or sacramental (Comm. HC, Qn. 72). Improper use includes such phrases as "Baptism saves us." The question then arises, Why does the Holy Ghost call baptism, "the washing of regeneration" and "the washing away of sins"? (HC Qn. 73).

The answer is in three parts, but his second is this: Because in the proper use of the sacraments, the exhibition and reception of the signs, and the things signified, are inseparably connected. (ibid)

Of modern theologians, there was division in terms of this usage. One finds that such as Dabney and Berkhof eschew the sacramental language. Berkhof goes so far as to say

In view of the fact that according to our Reformed conception, this baptism presupposes regeneration, faith, conversion, and justification, these surely are not to be conceived as wrought by it. (Berkhof, Systematic Theology 632).

Here is particularly concerned to contrast the Reformed view with the Roman Catholic.


But [sacraments] are not the channels or vehicles for acquiring the saving grace first; inasmuch as the possession of those graces is a necessary prerequisite to proper participation in adults. The efficacy of the sacrament, therefore, is in no case more than to strengthen and nourish saving graces. – Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology 740.

Nevertheless, Dabney does admit that baptism is an initiating sacrament:

As to baptism, we assign this reason why it is never to be repeated to the same subject like the Lord’s supper: It is the initiating sacrament, like circumcision. The man who is in the house needs no repeated introduction into the house. It "signifies our ingrafting into Christ." He who is grafted in once is virtually united, and requires no new union to be constituted -- Lectures, 747

Hodge on the other hand embraced the sacramental language, cheerfully claiming,

Unless the recipient of this sacrament be insincere, baptism is an act of faith, it is an act in which and by which he receives and appropriates the offered benefits of the redemption of Christ. And, therefore, to baptism may be properly attributed all that in the Scripture is attributed to faith. Baptism washes away sin (Acts xxii. 16); it unites to Christ and makes us the sons of God (Gal. iii. 26, 27) ; we are therein buried with Christ (Rom. vi. 3) ; it is (according to one interpretation of Titus iii.5) the washing of regeneration. But all this is said on the assumption that it is what it purports to be, an act of faith. -- C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, 589.

One of Hodge’s concerns was to minimize the daylight between adult and infant baptism:

But baptism signs, seals, and actually conveys its benefits to all its subjects, whether infants or adults, who keep the covenant of which it is the sign. As a believer who recalls some promise of the Scriptures which he has read or heard, receives the full benefit of that promise ; so the infant when arrived at maturity receives the full benefit of his baptism, if he believes in the promises signified and sealed to him in that ordinance. Baptism, therefore, benefits infants just as it does adults, and on the same condition. -- Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, 590.

Clearly, there is a bit of ambiguity in the Reformed statements here, and it is fair to say that Derksen and I have attacked opposite ends of the question.

On the one side, rejecting ex opere operato, are those who focus on baptism’s effect in time. They (correctly) assert that baptism is not a "converting" ordinance, in that the act of baptism does not create saving faith. We can put Rutherford, Cunningham, Dabney, Ursinus, and Berkhof into this bin.

On the other, rejecting Zwinglian empty sign theory, are those who focus on the fact that in some mysterious way, God conveys the graces signified by baptism (justification and union with Christ), in the time of His choosing. We can put Calvin, Ursinus, various Reformed Confessions, and Hodge into this bin. Even Dabney and Berkhof admit this, though they pass quickly over it (as does Reymond).

Which is correct? Well, the reader will have already picked up that the first is correct in its proper temporal sense, while the second is correct in its proper sacramental sense.

My issue with Derksen, then, is simply this: he does not admit the validity of the sacramental language. That is, he rejects the language "baptism saves" or "baptism justifies" or "baptism unites us to Christ in his death" as unReformed.

In my view, this is overly strict. It creates an uncomfortable situation in which a preacher must teach Rom 6.3-4 in this way: "You were buried with Christ through baptism. But you weren’t really, and we mustn’t say this."

This cognitive dissonance is especially evident when Derksen deals with the term "applied" in the Catechism. On his account, the graces that are signed in baptism are not "applied" per se (that is, actually given to the worthy recipient); instead, the word "applied" must mean "confirmed." In this, he follows Cunningham, citing

[W]e take the position, that the doctrine that the sacraments are for believers, and assume the previous existence in worthy recipients of the great spiritual blessings with which faith is invariably connected, is far too explicitly and too fully set forth in the Westminster symbols, in accordance with the general doctrine of the Reformed churches, to admit of its being set aside or involved in uncertainty, on the ground of a single vague and ambiguous expression, even though there were greater difficulty than there is, in interpreting that expression in harmony with the general strain of their teaching. – W. Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, pp. 277-279, cited in BWS Part 4.

Baptism as it is such is a seal, and a seal as a seal addeth no new lands or goods to the man to whom the Charter and seal is given, but only doth legally confirm him in the right of such lands given to the man by prince or state, yet this hindereth not but baptism is a real, legal seal, legally confirming the man in his actual and visible profession of Christ, remission of sins, regeneration... (ibid, 211)

The reader can see Cunningham’s confusion clearly: he is hung up on the temporal effect of the sacraments, so that instead of embracing the sacramental language, he reinterprets the word "apply" to mean "confirm" (which is lexically absurd).

The alternative, and the one I recommend generally, is to clearly separate the temporal action of the sacrament as a means of grace, from the time-independent sacramental effect of baptism.


The Grace of Baptism -- Part 3

The Efficacy of Baptism

Part 1: The Question on the Floor: Baptism's Effect; Scriptural Texts
Part 2: The Effect of Baptism in Reformed Thought
Part 3: The Efficacy of Baptism
Part 4: Interactions With Derksen's Arguments
Part 5: Why Does it Matter?

Having considered the Scriptural and Reformed teachings on the meaning and effects of baptism, we need urgently now to consider the way in which baptism works. The use of the word effect can certainly mislead, leaving the reader with the picture of an action (baptism) preceding a state (salvation) and leading to it causally. This is far from the case. Rather, the effect is a relationship between the meaning of baptism and the state of salvation.

Baptism operates as a seal of the promises of God. As such, it testifies to the truthfulness of the preached Gospel, acting as a "liquid sermon." When the recipient therefore believes the promise, he has appropriated the meaning of baptism. In this sense, the baptism has had its effect.

Baptism as Seal

The word "seal" has changed primary meaning over time. Nowadays, a "seal" is viewed as a hermetic barrier, as in the phrase "Ziploc bags seal in freshness." For this reason, Reformed writers have sometimes presented the sealing function of baptism as an action that guarantees the result.

Derksen seems to lean in this direction:

Thereafter, also through the Spirit, the sacraments serve to seal and strengthen the faith of the converted (more on this arrangement coming in Part 6). -- BWS, Part 3

This use of the word seal ("to seal the faith") would have been entirely foreign to Calvin. For Calvin, sacraments are "seals" in the sense of a royal seal.

A king who wished to attest to the genuineness of a document would close up the envelope, place a dollop of hot wax on the joint, and stamp it with his ring. This process, much like signing the back of an envelope, attested that the document inside was none other than the king's true message (cf. Bedos-Rezak). It identified the document with the person.

This was the process of sealing that Calvin had in view when he spoke of the sacraments as seals:

The seals which are affixed to diplomas, and other public deeds, are nothing considered in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment, and yet this does not prevent them from sealing and confirming when they are appended to writings. It cannot be alleged that this comparison is a recent fiction of our own, since Paul himself used it, terming circumcision a seal, (Rom. 4: 11,) where he expressly maintains that the circumcision of Abraham was not for justifications but was an attestation to the covenant, by the faith of which he had been previously justified. And how, pray, can any one be greatly offended when we teach that the promise is sealed by the sacrament, since it is plain, from the promises themselves, that one promise confirms another? The clearer any evidence is, the fitter is it to support our faith. But sacraments bring with them the clearest promises, and, when compared with the word, have this peculiarity, that they represent promises to the life, as if painted in a picture. Nor ought we to be moved by an objection founded on the distinction between sacraments and the seals of documents, viz., that since both consist of the carnal elements of this world, the former cannot be sufficient or adequate to seal the promises of God, which are spiritual and eternal, though the latter may be employed to seal the edicts of princes concerning fleeting and fading things. But the believer, when the sacraments are presented to his eye, does not stop short at the carnal spectacle, but by the steps of analogy which I have indicated, rises with pious consideration to the sublime mysteries which lie hidden in the sacraments. -- Calv Inst. 4.14.5

Importantly, sacraments have an objective meaning, pointing the recipient to Christ. It is the word of the Gospel that is sealed.

In contrast, the "sealing" of Derksen (and others!) is something subjective. The faith of the believer is sealed.

If we wish to understand baptism aright, we must understand that it is an objective seal, testifying to the truth of the Gospel.

The Semantic Content of Baptism

Baptism, then, has a meaning. Its meaning is identical to the gospel message: that God washes us of our sins and unites us to Christ in his death. The sign of baptism is thereby united to the message of the Gospel, and the two speak with one voice. Baptism is thus a "liquid sermon", a physical seal of the truth given in the Gospel.

Moderns would therefore call baptism a "speech-act", an action that has semantic content (like the exchange of wedding rings). Baptism is a symbol that means washing of sins.

Receiving the Message of Baptism by Faith Brings About its Effects

Since baptism has this semantic content, what happens to the person who believes the message? When the gospel is believed, the believer is united to Christ. What baptism promises, has occurred. It is at this moment that baptism is effectual.

There is a sense in which it is legitimate to say that baptism "presupposes faith", for it is true in a logical sense that baptism is effectual for believers only. The promise of baptism has faith as an implicit condition (a condition made explicit by the preached gospel). But the term "presuppose" is misleading, for it conveys to some a temporal sense, that saving faith comes first and the effects of baptism after. Not at all. Rather, the moment of efficacy of baptism is the moment of faith. They are simultaneous because they are the same thing: to believe the promise is to make baptism, the seal of that promise, effective.

In the case of children baptized in infancy but believing at a later time, baptism's moment of efficacy is the moment of faith. It is at this later time that the message given years prior has finally been received. Baptism has (finally!) been effectual.

Likewise, in the case of believing adults, baptism is administered after faith; but its effect took place when the individual believed. The effect of baptism occurs before the moment of baptism! This appears to disturb our sense of cause-and-effect, but only if we think of baptism as an action with an effect. If instead with think of it as an action with meaning, then the meaning of baptism has already occurred -- and the effects go along with it.

This is difficult, but reflection on the nature of baptism as (a) an objective declaration of the promises of God, and (b) a sign with meaning, will help the reader to grasp that the efficacy of baptism is accomplished by the instrument of faith, and that the time of administration of baptism is neither here nor there.

Hence the Confession:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time. -- WCoF 28.6.

Notice that both infants and adults are included in the "appointed time" clause.

To sum up: The efficacy of sacraments is faith.

Next -->

The Grace of Baptism -- Part 2

The Effect of Baptism in Reformed Thought

Part 1: The Question on the Floor: Baptism's Effect; Scriptural Texts
Part 2: The Effect of Baptism in Reformed Thought
Part 3: The Efficacy of Baptism
Part 4: Interactions With Derksen's Arguments
Part 5: Why Does it Matter?

Calvin on Baptism

It makes sense to consider Calvin's writings, partly because he wrote several of the early Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, and partly because his work is pervasive in the Westminster Confession. He is the ursprung of much of the language in the Confession, including language on baptism; and he is therefore an important source for understanding that language.

When Calvin considers the Scriptural passages we reviewed in part 1, he says this:

What he intimated in the last verse — that Christ destroys sin in his people, he proves here by mentioning the effect of baptism, by which we are initiated into his faith; for it is beyond any question, that we put on Christ in baptism, and that we are baptized for this end — that we may be one with him. But Paul takes up another principle — that we are then really united to the body of Christ, when his death brings forth in us its fruit; yea, he teaches us, that this fellowship as to death is what is to be mainly regarded in baptism; for not washing alone is set forth in it, but also the putting to death and the dying of the old man. -- Calv Comm Rom 6.3

This is clear and direct: the effect of baptism is to put on Christ, first in the washing of sins, and then in being united with Christ in death.

The sacraments present, both to good and to bad men, the grace of God. No falsehood attaches to the promises which they exhibit of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Believers receive what is offered; and if wicked men, by rejecting it, render the offer unprofitable to themselves, their conduct cannot destroy the faithfulness of God, or the true meaning of the sacrament. With strict propriety, then, does Paul, in addressing believers, say, that when they were baptized, they “put on Christ;” just as, in the Epistle to the Romans...” -- Calv. Comm Gal 3.27

Here we see the first hints of our sacramental solution to the puzzle of efficacy: that the efficacy of the sacraments is faith. We also see reaffirmed here that the effect of baptism is that we "put on Christ", and that the sacrament effects what it represents.

For completeness, the reader is referred to his commentaries also on 1 Pet 3.19-22 and Acts 22.16.

From these four, a clear picture emerges:

(1) The effect of baptism is exactly what is figured in baptism: the washing of sins.
(2) That effect is not a property of baptism itself. Calvin was familiar with and rejected the ex opere operato theory. Rather, baptism testifies to the promises of God in a manner parallel to the testimony of the word. He says of agency, "Therefore, when the question is concerning remission of sins, we must seek no other author thereof but the heavenly Father, we must imagine no other material cause but the blood of Christ; and when we be come to the formal cause, the Holy Ghost is the chief. But there is an inferior instrument, and that is the preaching of the word and baptism itself." -- Calv. Comm. Acts 22.16.
(3) Therefore the effect is realized through faith in those promises.
(4) And thus the effect is realized only in the faithful. Baptizing anyone else is an "external baptism only" (ibid).

It is clear, then, that Calvin affirms Derksen's first thesis while rejecting the second. The effect of baptism is not confirmation of salvation, but salvation itself.

Continuing on to the Institutes, we find the exact same theology at work. Calvin sets forth the sacraments as "seals" of the promises of God (Inst 4.14). Because the word "seal" has been somewhat distorted in the discussions, it must be made clear what kind of seal he has in mind.

The "seal" for Calvin is a physical sign from the divine king that testifies to the truth of the spoken promise. The sacrament by itself, without the preached word, means nothing; together with the preached word, it is used by the Holy Spirit to bring about faith in the testified promise:

From the definition which we have given, we perceive that there never is a sacrament without an antecedent promise, the sacrament being added as a kind of appendix, with the view of confirming and sealing the promise, and giving a better attestation, or rather, in a manner, confirming it. -- Calv Inst 4.14.3

Some have taught that the "sealing" of the sacrament means something like "making its effect certain." But here it is clear what Calvin -- and those following him -- have in mind: that the "seal" is a sign from God to us, testifying that the promise is true. Baptism in particular confirms to us that God really does wash away our sins "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

We also see here for the first time the word "confirm." Baptism is said to "confirm", but in a different sense in which Derksen uses it. For Calvin, baptism "confirms" to every man that God's message is genuine. For Derksen, baptism "confirms" to the believer that he has been saved. Calvin's confirmation is one of objective truth; Derksen's, one of subjective appropriation.

This subtle shift of meaning from objective to subjective is at the root of Derksen's insistence that baptism does not confer salvation. It should also remind the reader of the root of the Baptist error (see A.A. Hodge below).

To be sure: baptism does provide us of assurance. But it does so by means of objectively assuring us of the truth of God's promises, not by confirming to us our participation in those promises. It points to the objective ground of our salvation, not to our subjective state. As Calvin says, baptism draws our eye to Christ (Inst. 4.15.2).

When Calvin turns to consider baptism, he says this:

Baptism is the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the Church, that being ingrafted into Christ we may be accounted children of God. Moreover, the end for which God has given it (this I have shown to be common to all mysteries) is, first, that it may be conducive to our faith in him, and secondly, that it may serve the purpose of a confession among men. The nature of both institutions we shall explain in order. Baptism contributes to our faith three things, which require to be treated separately. The first object, therefore, for which it is appointed by the Lord, is to be a sign and evidence of our purification, or (better to explain my meaning) it is a kind of sealed instrument by which he assures us that all our sins are so deleted, covered, and effaced, that they will never come into his sight, never be mentioned, never imputed. For it is his will that all who have believed be baptised for the remission of sins (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38).

Hence those who have thought that baptism is nothing else than the badge and mark by which we profess our religion before men, in the same way as soldiers attest their profession by bearing the insignia of their commander, have not attended to what was the principal thing in baptism; and this is, that we are to receive it in connection with the promise, "He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved," (Mark 16: 16.)
-- Inst 4.15.1

It cannot be clearer: Baptism is an initiatory rite -- not merely into the visible church, but into Christ as well. It is a sign of our salvation, not a sign of the confirmation of our salvation.

As Calvin develops the theology of baptism, he definitely grants it the role of assuring the believer. But that assurance is not the confirmation to the believer that he has saving faith; it is the confirmation rather that God's promises are true (Cf. A.N.S. Lane, "Calvin's Doctrine of Assurance")

To sum up: Calvin's doctrine of baptism assigns it the role of an initiatory rite that testifies to the truth of the Gospel. It is a secondary instrument used to create saving faith, parallel to the function of the Word. As such, baptism's effect (realized by faith) is our salvation: our ingrafting into Christ, accomplishing the washing of our sins.

Reformed Confessions

The Gallic Confession

GC Chapter 35 says this of baptism: [Baptism] is given as a pledge of our adoption; for by it we are grafted into the body of Christ, so as to be washed and cleansed by his blood, and then renewed in purity of life by his Holy Spirit.

Here again, baptism is the initiatory rite whose effect is salvation. This is unsurprising, as the Gallic Confession was written by Calvin. Further, we see a necessary connection between the sign and the thing signified:

We believe, as has been said, that in the Lord's Supper, as well in baptism, God gives us really and in fact that which he there sets forth to us; and that consequently with these signs is given the true possession and enjoyment of that which they present to us. (GC 37)

This principle that the sacrament effects what it symbolizes falsifies Derksen's thesis; for baptism clearly symbolizes the washing of sins, and it must therefore effect the same.

The Genevan Catechism is more direct. After explaining the meaning of baptism, the "Master" asks:

Master. - But do you attribute nothing more to the water than that it is a figure of ablution?

Scholar. - I understand it to be a figure, but still so that the reality is annexed to it; for God does not disappoint us when he promises us his gifts. Accordingly, it is certain that both pardon of sins and newness of life are offered to us in baptism, and received by us.
(Genevan Catechism -- emph. added)

2nd Helvetic Confession

The 2HC puts forth a developed doctrine of sacramental union, which solves the problem of instrument that we raised when considering Scriptural passages. It says,

[Sacraments], in their holy use, take upon them the names of things signified, and are no longer called mere water, bread or wine, but also regeneration or the washing of water, and the body and blood of the Lord or symbols and sacraments of the Lord's body and blood ... Therefore the signs acquire the names of things because they are mystical signs of sacred things, and because the signs and the things signified are sacramentally joined together; joined together, I say, or united by a mystical signification, and by the purpose or will of him who instituted the sacraments. For the water, bread, and wine are not common, but holy signs. And he that instituted water in baptism did not institute it with the will and intention that the faithful should only be sprinkled by the water of baptism; and he who commanded the bread to be eaten and the wine to be drunk in the supper did not want the faithful to receive only bread and wine without any mystery as they eat bread in their homes; but that they should spiritually partake of the things signified, and by faith be truly cleansed from their sins, and partake of Christ. -- 2nd Helvetic Confession 19

We notice here that the 2HC very comfortably ascribes cleansing of sins and partaking of Christ as the effects of baptism.

The 2HC further rebukes those who separate the sign from the thing signified:

Neither do we approve of the doctrine of those who speak of the sacraments just as common signs, not sanctified and effectual. Nor do we approve of those who despise the visible aspect of the sacraments because of the invisible, and so believe the signs to be superfluous because they think they already enjoy the things themselves, as the Messalians are said to have held."

Derksen does not in any way despise the signs. His position, however, insists that the sign does not convey what it actually signifies, but conveys rather the assurance of those things. Since assurance is in fact optional (cf. WCoF 18.3), this opens the door to viewing baptism as "superfluous." I consider this to be a "yellow flag" for Derksen. He is placing some unwarranted daylight between the sign and the thing signified.

To consider Ursinus here would belabor the point, but the interested reader is encouraged to read his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, qn. 70 - 73.

The point is that the Reformed community has affirmed in its Confessions, and following Calvin, that

(1) Baptism signifies washing of sins and ingrafting to (union with) Christ,
(2) The sacraments effect what they signify when received by faith, and
(3) That baptism effects washing of sins and ingrafting to Christ.

A.A. Hodge is representative of modern takes on the question:

"3. The sign in every sacrament is sacramentally united to the grace which it signifies; and out of this union the Scriptural usage has arisen of ascribing to the sign whatever is true of that which the sign signifies.

4. The sacraments were designed to represent, seal, and apply the benefits of Christ and the new covenant to believers. S. Cat., q. 92."--
A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 27

"The real Baptist position -- as stated by Dr. Alexander Carson (p. 55) -- is, that the command to baptize is a simple and single command to immerse, in order to symbolize the death, burial, and resurrection of the believer with Christ. The true position maintained by other Christians is, that Baptism is a simple and single command to wash with water, in order to symbolize the purification wrought by the Holy Ghost." -
- ibid, ch. 28, emph. added.

Notice Hodge's rejection of the subjective in favor of the objective sign, contra Derksen.

Hodge again: Baptism does not only signify, but really and truly seal and convey, grace to those to whom it belongs according to the covenant -- that is, to the elect -- ibid.

Here Hodge makes clear by the term "convey" that the effectiveness of the sacraments is to give to the elect its grace, the grace of the thing signified.

This is in stark contrast to Derksen's stated position, which is that baptism confirms to the believer his washing, cleansing, and uniting, and has its effect only after the reality has taken place. For Derksen, baptism effects the assurance of the believer in his salvation; in the Reformed statements above, baptism effects the salvation itself. Here is his account of the language of application:

In saying that baptism “exhibits” or “applies” spiritual benefits, it is meant that baptism is an instrument through which the Holy Spirit confirms and strengthens saving faith, in God’s appointed time. -- BWS, part 7.

Derksen uses sealing language, not to refer to the confirmation of the truth of God's promises, but to refer to the increase of faith:

In speaking of the sacraments as “seals” it is meant that they confirm and strengthen true, preexistent faith. -- ibid.

And he denies that salvation should be attributed as an effect of baptism:

The preaching and hearing of the Word is the principle outward agency through which the Holy Spirit initially conveys saving faith. Such faith is then sealed and strengthened by the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. -- ibid.

It is clear that for Derksen, salvation is not the effect of baptism.

This brings us finally to the Westminster Confession of Faith:

There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other -- WCoF 27.2.

There is a sign, there is a thing signified. When the thing signified comes to pass, the names and effects are attributed to the sign.

The obvious way to unpack this is to ask, "What does baptism signify?" It most certainly signifies our washing of sins (justification) and our union with Christ.

When that comes to pass -- which occurs at the moment of faith -- those things are attributed to baptism.

To summarize: Baptism signifies the washing of regeneration, cleansing from sin, uniting with Christ. Those effects, which are once-for-all, are conveyed at the moment of faith -- and are therefore attributed to baptism. In Reformed sacramentology, baptism is an initiatory sacrament, pointing to our justification and union with Christ.

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The Grace of Baptism -- Part 1

The Grace of Baptism
A reply to Phil Derksen, Baptism in the Westminster Standards vs. the Federal Vision

Update: after interaction with Phil Derksen and further study, I've modified my earlier criticisms, which were not entirely fair. Part 4 has been entirely redone.

Part 1: The Question on the Floor: Baptism's Effect; Scriptural Texts
Part 2: The Effect of Baptism in Reformed Thought
Part 3: The Efficacy of Baptism
Part 4: Interactions With Derksen's Arguments
Part 5: Why Does it Matter?

The Question on the Floor: Baptism's Effect

Phil Derksen, a member of Black Hills Community Church in Rapid City, SD, has written a multi-part article entitled Baptism in the Westminster Standards vs. the Federal Vision (BWS). BWS refutes the teaching (often associated with the Federal Vision) that all those who are baptized partake of the grace of baptism in some sense.

Derksen's refutation advances two points.

(1) [T]he doctrine that baptism objectively effects a form of conversion in all who partake of it, is clearly opposed to the historical Reformed position that the sacraments are efficacious only for those who possess true faith.

(2) [T]he claim that baptism is the means by which persons who receive it are brought into the covenant of grace, and apprehend its benefits, contradicts the classical Reformed understanding that the sacraments are by nature confirming signs and seals to those who are already positionaly within the covenant. -- BWS, Part 1

For Derksen, the effect of baptism is to confirm to the believer the truths of his salvation, and most certainly not to directly accomplish it. He expresses it in the opposition (borrowed from Cunningham and Rutherford) that the sacraments are "confirming, not converting ordinances."

I want to express appreciation for Phil's careful work. He demonstrates without question the truth of (1), which is the most important point. We are in full agreement that the grace of baptism is only efficacious in any sense for the elect.

Nevertheless, thesis (2), that baptism is a confirming sign for those already possessed of salvation, is an awkward recasting of the Scriptural and Reformed doctrine of baptism. It appears to deny the teaching of the Scripture, Reformers, and Confessions that the sacramental effect of baptism is nothing less than salvation.

This paper aims to persuade the reader that baptism symbolizes, and therefore effects, our justification and union with Christ. The moment in time of this effect is not the moment of baptism, but rather the moment of faith. As the reader shall see, the key to baptism is its symbolic meaning: it seals (or testifies) to us God's promises of justification and baptism by the Holy Spirit. When those promises are believed, baptism has had its effect: salvation.

In the end, Derksen's opposition of "confirming" and "converting" rites is confused. Baptism is neither a confirming rite, nor yet a converting rite.

In the end, Derksen's opposition of "confirming" and "converting" rites, which is legitimate when considering baptism's temporal effect, is misapplied to baptism's sacramental effect. Sacramentally, baptism is an initiatory rite whose efficacy is accomplished at the moment of salvific faith.

Part 1 -- Scriptural Texts

The place to begin is the Scripture. Four important texts confirm that baptism signifies and therefore effects our cleansing from sin and union with Christ.

Romans 6.3 - 5
[D]on't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.

Paul states here clearly that our baptism effected our burying with Christ unto death. For Paul, this burial through baptism initiates our participation into His death and resurrection, with the result that we are now united to Christ, participants in both the "justification that brings life to all men" (5.18) and also the life that Jesus "lives to God" (6.10-11).

The instrumental language here is troubling to exegetes because it attributes our burial in Christ to our baptism, which might suggest that baptism is the instrumental means of our burial. We know, however, from the Paul's preceding argument in Rom 5 that faith is the sole means of justification. Baptism is thus not the direct instrument of justification, but is efficacious in some other way -- a sacramental way, in fact, as will be explained in Part 3.

We see also in the text a connection between physical baptism and the "baptism of the Holy Spirit." The former is a symbol; the latter is the reality behind the symbol. Baptism symbolizes being made clean by the Spirit.

We must therefore observe clearly what the effect of baptism is here: to bury us with Christ.

The word "burial" is a figure of speech referring to our death to the sin nature and death to the law (Rom 7.4-6), thus granting us freedom from the penalty and power of sin (cf. Calvin's duplex gratia).

If we spoke without metaphor, we would say, "You were made participants in Christ's death through baptism; you were therefore made participants in his resurrection in the same way."

Now, it might be argued here that baptism symbolizes a past action: Paul is assuming that his readers have already been justified through faith, and that baptism symbolizes this fact to us, confirming our salvation. Unfortunately, the text does not permit this circumlocution. Paul's words cannot be construed to mean, "You were buried with Christ through faith, symbolized and confirmed to you by your baptism." Rather, he says a more difficult thing: "You were buried with Christ through baptism." In joining burial with baptism, he appears to make the (symbolic and sacramental) effect of baptism to be our actual burial, our participation in Christ's death.

Gal 3.26-27
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Paul here attributes the effect of baptism to be our clothing with Christ. This clothing is understood to be a clothing with the righteousness of Christ which covers our uncleanness and justifies us (cf. Zech. 3). For Paul, this has covenantal significance: all those in Christ are automatically children of Abraham -- that is, participants in the covenant. Baptism is thus an initiatory rite. Inwardly, it clothes us with Christ; outwardly, it signifies our inclusion in the covenant. For this reason, he argues, we do not need to be further circumcised.

We note here the close connection between baptism and faith. Those who are baptized into Christ are those who also have faith in Christ. This suggests a resolution to the puzzle of instrument that arose in Romans 6: that the effect of baptism is somehow dependent upon faith.

1 Pet 3.18 - 22
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

Here, baptism is directly said to save us. Yet it saves not in the action (which is the washing away of dirt), but in the pledge of a good conscience. Once again, faith is required for the effect of baptism. More to our purpose, the effect of baptism is clearly salvation.

Acts 22:16
"A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, 'Brother Saul, receive your sight!' And at that very moment I was able to see him.

"Then he said: 'The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.'

With respect to our question, this passage is quite interesting, for Paul has already (presumably) trusted in Christ. Notwithstanding, his baptism is said to have the effect of washing away his sins.

Keeping in mind that justification is effected by faith alone, we still see that the language of Scripture, as above, is that baptism effects the washing away of sins.

The reader is also encouraged to consider Col 2.11-12 in this light.

In summary: The effect of baptism in Scripture is the application of the death of Christ to the believer: justification and union. Contra Derksen, the effect of baptism is not to confirm our salvation to us. In fact, such language is never (to my knowledge) used in the Scripture. Instead, baptism is used always as a symbol of the thing itself.

This raises the obvious question: How does the effect of baptism fit together with the clear teaching that justification is through faith alone. This question will be addressed in part 3, but first, we must confirm our reading of Scripture by testing it against the Reformed tradition. Did the Reformers agree that the effect of baptism was justification and union with Christ?

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Skipper Mystery Solved

Every year at this time, I get one or more of these "little brown thingies." I'd always labeled them as Tawny-Edged Skippers, Polites themistocles.


Trouble is, Crossline Skippers P. origenes can look like this as well. So which is it?

Here were the shots from above, first the male and then the female.



The evidences in favor of Tawny-Edged were

(1) TEs are usually flat brown on the hindwing below. Crosslines usually have a spot-band around the edge of the disc. Confusingly, TEs may have a hint of spot-band, and Crosslines may not have it.

Example of Crossline(?) with spot-band.

In my case, I was looking at six individuals which uniformly showed no spot-band or maybe the barest hint of one.

(2) TEs are small, the size of Peck's Skipper. Crosslines are larger, the size of Dun Skippers. My individuals were all smallish.

Here's a size comparison:


On the other hand, the following evidences favored Crossline:

(3) Crosslines are the more common of the two.

(4) Crosslines are more likely found in yards and meadows; TEs on the edges of wet meadows.

I posed this question to several knowledgeable folk and got opposite answers. What to do? The answer came in the form of an article by Nick Grishin describing how to differentiate these two species by examining the genitalia of the male.

Quoth my wife: "You have got to be kidding me!"

So: I reverted to my childhood, got a net, and captured two males that were a little worn. They were placed in an ad-hoc killing jar, and their abdomens prepared for examination under the microscope. Here were the results:




With reference to Nick's article, can you make the call?