Friday, August 20, 2010

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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