A Guide to Reformed Worship – Baptism
We began this series of articles by noting the two important guiding principles for Reformed worship: the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) and the Principle of Covenantal Structure. Together these two principles determine the elements and the arrangement of the elements in our worship services. As we’ve surveyed the elements, we’ve noted more than once that Reformed worship is very much centred on the Word of God. Not only does it determine the elements and structure, it also features strikingly in those very elements.
When we come to the sacraments, we seem to come to something of a different nature. Here we deal with “signs and seals,” we deal with something that not only enters our ears (as happens with the Word), but something that addresses various senses. The sacraments function with our sight, with our smell, with our taste, and with our touch. In this multi-sensory way, the sacraments are special.
This is captured in the Belgic Confession (Art 33) when we confess that God has ordained sacraments “to seal his promises to us and to be pledges of his good will and grace to us.” The sacraments are designed to do this in a way different than the Word because the sacraments represent “better to our external senses both what (God) declares to us in his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts.” Because of “our insensitivity and weakness,” God gives something that goes beyond the one sense of hearing. With these sacraments that God has ordained we are to be content and we are not to add or subtract from them in any way.
Indeed, the RPW leads us to insist that there are only two sets of God-approved symbols in Reformed worship. Nothing else that attempts to supplement God’s Word is lawful in our public worship services. Consequently, things like paintings, videos, drama, dance – while legitimate in other settings – have no place in our corporate worship. The two sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper are the only signs and seals beyond the Word that lawfully belong when we gather together on Sundays.
There is no question that the Lord Jesus instituted the sacrament of holy baptism. Consequently, the church of all ages and places has always baptized. When the Reformers set out to “re-form” Christ’s church according to the Scriptures, the institution of baptism remained (although some of its trappings and theology needed re-working). However, the oft-neglected question remains: why should baptism take place in a worship service? A glance at all the New Testament passages in Scripture where baptism takes place seems to indicate that the sacrament was freely administered in any context: even a deserted road (Acts 8:38) or a jailer’s house (Acts 16:33). So, how did we arrive at the situation today where baptism normally takes place in church?
Word and sacrament belong together. This is because they express the same truths in different ways. The sacraments can be considered a sort of visible, tangible preaching of the gospel. Baptism, for instance, visibly and tangibly portrays the believer being washed with the blood of Christ. It confirms the promise of the gospel heard from the pulpit. For this reason, normally baptism is administered in a public worship service by a minister of the Word and sacraments. As history progressed, the church came to recognize this as a good and necessary consequence of scriptural teaching on the relationship between Word and sacrament. However, since the biblical evidence shows diversity in this matter, we cannot say that baptisms done in another context (or even by someone who is not ordained) are invalid.
Of course, many other questions can be raised about baptism. However, it is not my intention to delve into those here. Rather, I would like to consider a couple of the more practical, liturgical issues associated with the sacrament.
The first issue is the timing of baptism within the worship service. Should baptism take place early in the service (before the sermon) or later (after the sermon)? In some of our churches, as a concession to the difficulties of bringing a baby into the service, baptism takes place early in the order of worship. In other churches, no concessions are made and baptism takes place after the sermon. This is done with the reasoning that the sacrament confirms what is promised in the Word and, therefore, it is only logical for the sermon to be preached first. The proper order is Word and then sacrament.
Four objections can be brought to this line of reasoning. We proceed on the assumption that if done early in the service, it takes place either after the confession of sin/assurance of pardon (in the morning) or after the creed (in the afternoon). First, if baptism is to be done in the morning service, and if there is a meaningful confession of sin followed by a gospel-focused assurance of pardon, then what is promised in the Word has already been declared before the sacrament is administered. Second, if baptism is to be done in the afternoon service, and if the promise of the gospel has already been proclaimed in the morning service, then what is promised has already been proclaimed beforehand. Third, if baptism is to be done in the afternoon, and if the Apostles’ Creed truly summarizes the promise of the gospel (Heidelberg Catechism QA 22), then the promise has already been sounded out before the baptism is administered. Finally, while it is certainly an ideal to strive for, not each and every sermon contains the promise of the gospel confirmed in holy baptism. For these four reasons, there can be no liturgical difficulty with placing the baptism early in the worship service if so desired. On this point, the Word of God gives freedom to the churches.
A second issue has to do with who participates in the sacrament of baptism and how. There are four participants in every baptism that takes place in a public worship service. First and most importantly, we have God present. God the Father, Son, and Spirit are present and make beautiful, rich promises. Those promises are made to the second participant: the one being baptized. In every case (adult or infant), the one being baptized is a passive participant: baptism is not something you do; it is something that you have done to you. The third participants are only present in the case of infant baptism and they are the parents of the child. They are involved as those who make vows to raise this child in the doctrines of Scripture. It’s the fourth participant(s) who is/are often neglected in any consideration of baptism: the congregation of believers.
What are we doing and what is being communicated to us in the sacrament of baptism? What is God doing with us at that moment? Most of us having been baptized as infants, we do not recall the moment of our own baptism. However, each baptism we witness as self-conscious believers is a visible reminder of the covenantal gospel that was signed and sealed to us in our own baptism. This is the beauty of the Form for the Baptism of Infants.
The Form is addressed to the “Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Much of the language of the Form is in the first person plural: “we,” “our,” and “us.” As we hear the Form, the congregation is reminded first of our need for the gospel:
It signifies the impurity of our souls, so that we may detest ourselves, humble ourselves before God, and seek our cleansing and salvation outside of ourselves.
Those words are not addressed to the child being baptized (that would be absurd!), but to the congregation of already-baptized believers. Second, we are reminded of what God promised each and every one of us at our baptism. Finally, we are reminded of the Lord’s call to a new obedience, to a life of sanctification. There too, the little child being baptized can hardly be expected to heed that call, but the believers can! In these three things, we see a familiar pattern. It’s the pattern of the Apostle Paul in Romans and it’s the same pattern taken over in the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism: sin, salvation, service. Each time there’s a baptism, we’re visibly and powerfully reminded of all we “need to know to live and die in the joy” of the comfort afforded by God’s Word. If we approach it in that way, each administration of baptism is a source of strength for every believer in the congregation.