Friday, August 20, 2010

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.

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