In the first post on this topic, I alluded to poor thinking on the subject. Part of the reason for that is that a huge number of Christians are part of denominations that bind themselves to creeds. My point in what follows is not that creeds are evil and ought to be abandoned. Rather, it is simply that creeds are (1) historically conditioned; (2) fallible; (3) and abbreviations of scriptural teaching. I want readers to consider how these documents create confusion for the laity (and not only the laity).
Since I’m starting with Protestant views on baptism, I need to explain what I mean by historical conditioning. Part of the historical conditioning with respect to all branches of Protestantism, is that many of the writers of these confessions (1) came out of Catholicism, having been trained in its theological precepts, and (2) didn’t want to sound catholic – since they were part of a reformation movement. This in part explains the confusion I’m going to sketch out in what follows: you have theologians trained to think like faithful catholic theologians, but who’ve broken out of Catholicism and now are struggling to articulate doctrine in some other way. The result is that, at times, the confessions are very clear in their presentation of doctrine, and at other times are self contradictory.
In what follows I cite lengthy portions of three historic Protestant confessions: The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession. My comments are interspersed.
THE BELGIC CONFESSION
Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ
We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him.
The important phrasing here is that believers “possess” Jesus Christ “through faith”. It’s a clear statement of the gospel.
Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.
So, salvation is through Christ alone. Good. How does one get that salvation? “Possessing” Christ through faith. Good again.
Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.
Faith is the conduit through which the benefits of Christ’s work come to the believer. No problem here.
Wherein Our Justification Before God Consists
We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christs sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied; as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the blessedness of man that God imputes righteousness to him apart from works. And the same apostle says that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before Him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in anything in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in Him.
So, all the above comes to those who believe. This is consistent with what has preceded. Great. Now we get to baptism.
We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law, has made an end, by the shedding of His blood, of all other sheddings of blood which men could or would make as a propitiation or satisfaction for sin; and that He, having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, has instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof; by which we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to Him whose mark and ensign we bear; and which serves as a testimony to us that He will forever be our gracious God and Father.
I boldfaced the important phrase. It suggests (really, says) that those who are baptized belong to Christ. Aside from the problem that every church that claims to preach the gospel can rattle off the names of dozens of people who were baptized who have forsaken the faith, there’s another problem. Either one has to say that this language implies that baptism *accomplishes* this status (belonging to Christ) or *marks* those who belong to Christ, presumably by election or by virtue of their parents’ status as believers. In the case of the former, that amounts to adding something to faith and thus a distortion of the gospel. If the latter, which is likely the case in Bible-believing churches, then logical consistency requires the admission that anyone baptized (especially those children of believing parents) is a believer from the moment of birth, even pre-baptism, since all baptism does is mark them (“seal” them is usually the way it’s expressed). But then what about those who leave the faith? If the answer is “they were mis-marked,” then at the very least the language of the creeds ought to be abandoned or the creed emended. The real question, of course, is “does the Bible teach either of these two alternatives?” ALL denominations that practice infant baptism use a theological connection to circumcision as a fundamental argument for the practice. That is, they see tight theological parallels (or at least they explain the doctrine of baptism that way) between the two, justifying the very practice on the fact that Abraham circumcised his children as a sign of the covenant (Gen 17). Did circumcision accomplish salvation? I refer readers to the repeated Pauline assertion that circumcision did not produce salvation, faith did (Rom. 2:25-29; Rom. 4:10-12; Gal. 5:1-6). But did circumcision mark those who were believers from their very birth? Uh . . . there’s this thing called the exile that shouts “NO” to that. Circumcision marked the majority of the nation who apostasized. How did that happen if they were believers?
Therefore He has commanded all those who are His to be baptized with pure water,
Why do we need “pure” water? Does this water DO something to the recipient that normal water won’t?
into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, thereby signifying to us, that as water washes away the filth of the body when poured upon it, and is seen on the body of the baptized when sprinkled upon him, so does the blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit internally sprinkle the soul, cleanse it from its sins, and regenerate us from children of wrath unto children of God. Not that this is effected by the external water, but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God; who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, that is, the devil, and to enter into the spiritual land of Canaan.
This is good — it denies baptism saves the soul. One wonders why the earlier language was allowed to stand then. At the very least it creates confusion.
The ministers, therefore, on their part administer the sacrament and that which is visible, but our Lord gives that which is signified by the sacrament, namely, the gifts and invisible grace; washing, cleansing, and purging our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving unto us a true assurance of His fatherly goodness; putting on us the new man, and putting off the old man with all his deeds.
Okay, the minister administers the sacrament, but the Lord gives salvation. I think one can see how people could read this paragraph and conclude that the latter (salvation) is dispensed by the Lord WHEN the former (baptism) happens. Most reformed Christians wouldn’t read it this way . . . or would they? I have personally met a number of lay people who reference baptism as at least *part* of their salvation. I’ve heard a sermon in a Bible preaching church that encouraged us to be thankful for our baptism with respect to our salvation. I’ve also met many real Christians who, speaking of the death of an infant, reference baptism as assurance that the infant was in heaven. So, while we who are careful readers of this sort of language because we like to “do theology” can give it a pass, many cannot sift this sort of theological carelessness appropriately.
We believe, therefore, that every man who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal ought to be baptized but once with this only baptism, without ever repeating the same, since we cannot be born twice.
Aarrghh. This language really does suggest that our single spiritual birth is connected to baptism — that’s the rationale for only being baptized once and no more. It certainly cannot refer to physical birth (and even if it does, it would be using physical birth as an analogy to spiritual birth and then taking THAT analogy to baptism. This language suggests that our baptism either IS our spiritual birth or is CONNECTED to our spiritual birth. I thought the confession earlier made it clear that the Spirit enables us to believe and THAT is our spiritual birth (the moment we become believers, by faith). Does the pure water of baptism enable the infant to believe? That’s some water! (and where would the Scripture be for that idea — and could you say the same about circumcision?). If the two are theologically parallel as the means by which the elect were/are “sealed,” what you say about one needs to hold true for the other. If you don’t believe this doctrinal outcome, why use this confusing language? Whom does it serve?
Neither does this baptism avail us only at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.
Oh, that’s clear. The water of baptism does not “avail” us ONLY when we get wet as babies, but through the whole course of our life. This *must* mean there is SOMETHING is accomplished by the water. I can’t see any other way to take the wording here. And if that something is connected to saving faith, then we cannot claim faith alone.
Next up, the Heidelberg Catechism.