In the last post, I noted the confusion that can be created in the minds of readers of the Belgic Confession — confusion over the true gospel and statements that appear to connect baptism with salvation in some way. This time, we’ll look at the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s important to keep in mind that the reason I’m doing this is that I have had lay people read these portions and come out very confused. They knew the gospel going in, and are left wondering why in the world the creeds say what they do; they they are clear on the gospel in one part, and then say things about baptism that muddy the gospel. The poor wording is a very real source of confusion for people who aren’t theological experts, and (frankly) the experts are so married to the creeds via denominationalism that they are left to defend the poor wording (poorly, I might add).
HEIDELBERG CATECHISM (=HC)
LORDS DAY 23
But what does it profit thee now that thou believest all this?
That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.
How are thou righteous before God?
Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.
This was a succinct articulation of the biblical gospel.
Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only?
Not that I am acceptable to God, on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.
LORDS DAY 25
Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?
From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.
I wonder what it means that the Holy Ghost confirms the faith he gives by the sacraments. Do infants exercise faith? It is hard for me to believe this given (a) there is no scriptural statement to that fact; (b) if one seeks a firm theological equation between circumcision and baptism, there is no scriptural affirmation that Abraham’s children believed when they were circumcised (or anyone’s children when so circumcised); and (3) when infants, who pretty much lack the mental capacity to be self aware, much less comprehend and believe the gospel, are supposed to be exercising faith when they are baptized. I could add that there is also no scriptural warrant for saying someone can believe the gospel on someone else’s behalf. Household baptism do NOT say that (they basically say next to nothing other than [occasionally] one or more people believed and were baptized, not specifying if that meant everyone (in which case they believed for themselves). The ones that are even less clear about who’s believing basically don’t get into the issue — they read like the account of Abraham, who believed and then circumcised his whole household, not specifying at all that he was exercising saving faith FOR people (even adults) who could believe for themselves. To argue this goes well beyond what the text says, and we ought not base our positions on what isn’t in the text but might seem “reasonable” to us. We either get biblical theology from the text of the Bible or we don’t.
What are the sacraments?
The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, viz., that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.
Interesting wording, and very common in a sacramental theology. Sacramants are “signs” and “seals”. I get the sign part – the sacrament is like a picture or analogy of some greater spiritual reality or point. But then we have problems. What does it mean that the sacrament declares and “SEALS TO US the promise of the gospel . . . the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of the sacrifice of Christ”? Is this wording saying that all who are baptized (esp. as infants) have the remission of sins, etc. “sealed to them”? Sounds like it. I have to wonder how that is the case given the clear articulation of the gospel that preceded this section. It’s the “TO US” part that I think muddies the waters here. Those in reformed circles (it seems to me) can pretty easily keep the gospel and baptism separate when talking about “signs” or analogies. When you use words like “sealing” it suggests something is accomplished and guaranteed through baptism. I think that’s theologically dangerous.
Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation?
Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.
This is better. The sacraments “direct our faith” to Christ. What does that mean? Is it a “pointer” (oh, I see, THAT’s what I am supposed to believe to have eternal life”), or is it some sort of spiritual kickstart to move us toward the gospel? If it does that, why does it fail when people don’t believe or apostasize? (That’s a nice way of saying what good is it if it has no guarantee). If it doesn’t do that, why not be clearer?
How many sacraments has Christ instituted in the new covenant, or testament?
Two: namely, holy baptism, and the holy supper.
LORDS DAY 26
How art thou admonished and assured by holy baptism, that the one sacrifice of Christ upon the cross is of real advantage to thee?
Is this speaking to the recipient (the infant? good luck) or the parents?
Thus: That Christ appointed this external washing with water, adding thereto this promise, that I am as certainly washed by his blood and Spirit from all the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.
As I noted to a commenter, I think the point here, ultimately, is analogy. But many people could read this and be confused (and of course have been confused). “As surely as X, so Y”. But think about that. It (again) suggests baptism is accomplishing or telegraphing an assured outcome of faith for the recipient. We all know that isn’t reality. So, given the reality of unbelief and apostasy, how should we view such language? What good is it, especially when it creates confusion? How is this teaching sound (biblical) doctrine when it’s point isn’t clear and (potentially) has an obvious conflict with reality?
And by the way, creeds are supposed to CLARIFY not create more questions.
What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?
It is to receive of God the remission of sins, freely, for the sake of Christs blood, which he shed for us by his sacrifice upon the cross; and also to be renewed by the Holy Ghost, and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin, and lead holy and unblamable lives.
Where has Christ promised us, that he will as certainly wash us by his blood and Spirit, as we are washed with the water of baptism?
In the institution of baptism, which is thus expressed: Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Matt. 28:19. And he that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not, shall be damned., Mark 16:16. This promise is also repeated, where the scripture calls baptism the washing of regenerations and the washing away of sins. Tit. 3:5, Acts 22:16.
Now we have a problem. The Titus 3:5 reference is taken completely out of context, and even misquoted. Here’s the full verse and surrounding text:
4 But when ?the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, ?not because of works done by us in righteousness, but ?according to his own mercy, by ?the washing of regeneration and ?renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he ?poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that ?being justified by his grace we might become ?heirs ?according to the hope of eternal life.What saves is the “washing of the Holy Spirit” not water. There’s actually no water in the verses.The Acts 22:16 is also only partially quoted. Here’s the full verse and surrounding context:
12 And ?one Ananias, a devout man ?according to the law, ?well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 ?came to me, and standing by me said to me, Brother Saul, receive your sight. And ?at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ?The God of our fathers ?appointed you to know his will, ?to see ?the Righteous One and ?to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for ?you will be a witness for him to everyone of what ?you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? ?Rise and be baptized and ?wash away your sins, ?calling on his name.Who is being baptized? Paul. When Paul gives his testimony in Scripture, does he refer to his baptism at the hand of Ananias, or his confrontation with the risen Christ that preceded it? It’s always the latter. When God speaks to Ananias to tell him to go baptize Paul, God makes it clear that he has already chosen Paul. Ananias himself says in Acts 9:17 these words: Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and ?be filled with the Holy Spirit. Ananias refers to Saul as “brother” before his baptism. Without belaboring the point, Paul had already had his conversion experience before baptism. Frankly, I know of no tradition that questions this, but I thought I should mention it, since when Paul is baptized, we have the line about “Rise and be baptized and ?wash away your sins, ?calling on his name.” This isn’t as difficult as it seems or has been made. If the verse ONLY said “rise and be baptized and wash away your sins” it would be more problematic. But it includes “calling on his [Jesus’] name,” which is how Paul describes confession of faith (Rom. 10:10-13). In this instance, the recipient of baptism knows the gospel and makes profession of faith along with baptism. It isn’t the baptism that saves; it’s the profession of faith in Christ. Infants cannot do this. As for those who can do this, the theological question is simple: In all of Scripture’s explanations of the gospel, which is the indispensible element, faith in the saving work of Christ or water baptism? The answer is obvious. Yes, water baptism marked believers and was a rite that analogized an inner spiritual reality, but one could believe without it, and one isn’t going to heaven without faith in Christ. Using Acts 22:16 to somehow suggest water baptism triggers forgiveness is theologically irresponsible and ignores a great deal of context and content in the NT.
LORDS DAY 27
Is then the external baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?
Not at all: for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Ghost cleanse us from all sin.
Good, the writers agree me with me!
Why then does the Holy Ghost call baptism the washing of regeneration,
it doesn’t; Titus 3:5 is misquoted
and the washing away of sins?
Acts 22:1 never actually calls baptism this. It describes someone making profession of faith when they are baptized.
God speaks thus not without great cause, to-wit, not only thereby to teach us, that as the filth of the body is purged away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ;
Yes; they are removed by the blood of Christ (the Spirit line is a bit awkward, but I think we know what they mean).
but especially that by this divine pledge and sign he may assure us, that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really, as we are externally washed with water.
Perhaps this is what is meant: sometime after each of us believe in Christ, we can look back at our baptism and see that as part of God’s hand in bringing us to faith. I could live with that, so why not say it clearly? But there’s a problem. God uses LOTS of things to bring us to faith. Are they to be considered on the same level? No, the HC would say there are only two sacraments. Well, that may be true in terms of the ones the NT lay out, but if we believe by “sacrament” something God does in our lives to move us toward his Son, then in real life, there are many more than two. This hints at what I think is an inherent problem with that term — either you define it as “giving saving grace in some measure” which many reformed theologians would not want to do, or you have to define it as something God uses to nudge us along — but so much of life is “sacramental” in that regard that the term becomes too elastic and kind of useless, except in church jargon.
Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult;
Well, no kidding – redemption is promised to the whole world (but how can a staunch calvinist say that!?), and we all begin as children. If you are a 5-point Calvinist (read the HC on the doctrines of election!), you must take this wording as only true of the elect. And that raises another problem: why, then, do baptized people in Bible believing reformed calvinistic churches go astray? How can the elect apostasize? Well, maybe they weren’t elect. Well, then the baptism accomplished nothing. Well, if their parents were believers, what about the covenant? It’s either a covenant or it isn’t, and if the covenant depends on us, what’s the point of the baptism? “Well, that baptism wasn’t supposed to work for the non-elect.” So, tell me, just how is that like circumcision again? Israel as a nation was elect, and all Jewish males were to be circumcised. No one was “more Jewish than other Jewish people” — and yet most of the nation apostasized. Huh?
they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.
Here we have a crystal clear theological equation of circumcision and baptism. I can’t see how one can take it any other way. And with come all the problems noted above and in the previous post. What a confusing mess.
It doesn’t get any better with the Westminster Confession (next time).