Friday, August 20, 2010

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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