Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 26 - Holy Baptism
Question 69: How does holy baptism
signify and seal to you
that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross
Answer 69: In this way:
Christ instituted this outward washing
and with it gave the promise that,
as surely as water washes away
the dirt from the body,
so certainly his blood and Spirit
wash away the impurity of my soul,
that is, all my sins.
Baptism here is immediately called a washing with water. The symbolism speaks for itself: we need to be washed. Essentially this says everything about the language of baptism. Yet there is cause to ask: to what extent does baptism represent a cleansing?
A washing with water or a burial with water?
There is more than one view on the symbolic language of this sacrament. According to the Catechism, it represents a cleansing bath. The water of baptism is a sign of the blood of Christ, which purifies us from all our sins. According to another view, baptism is a symbol of our burial and resurrection. “After all, when the person to be baptized is immersed this signifies his burial with Christ, and when he rises again from the water it means his resurrection with Christ.” The water is here the portrayal of “great distress and going through the valley of death” from which one is saved.1 Yet another perspective is the depiction of baptism as a ceremonious drowning, which underscores how the person being baptized has forfeited his life. In this case the rising from the water is no longer part of the rite. It is about a symbolic drowning.2
Sometimes one allows the representations of cleansing and burial/resurrection to coexist.3 In a similar way the Catechism of Geneva speaks of “two parts” (or aspects) to baptism. The water represents the washing away or the forgiveness of sins. That is one side. The other side is that the water on our heads is a “figure of death,” while at the same time the resurrection is presented to us, for it lasts only “for a moment” and it does not serve to drown us.4 The fact that the symbolism of baptism is interpreted so differently has to do, among other things, with the double meaning of the verb “to baptize” in the New Testament. Originally baptize means to immerse or submerge, usually in water. It does of course make a difference for what purpose or effect something or someone is immersed. A “baptized ship” was a sunken ship or a scuttled ship. To be baptized then means to go under, to drown.5 But when Naaman, the leprous Syrian immerses or “baptizes” himself seven times in the Jordan River, he does not drown himself — not even symbolically — but he is “purified” again.6 His self-baptism in the Jordan by order of the prophet Elisha was as much as a purification.
The first to baptize others on God’s behalf was John the Baptist. He immersed people in the Jordan River. We do not hear him say in as many words whether his baptism represented a cleansing bath or a drowning death, or both. Apparently, the symbolism of his baptism spoke for itself. In our opinion, it is most obvious that people would think of a cleansing bath (washing). Immersion in fairly shallow water does not immediately evoke the image of someone being drowned. The familiar instructions for purification in the law of Moses made people naturally think of a cleansing bath. Water was a well-known cleansing agent for cleaning oneself, and being reconciled to God again.7 It contained a promise that God would cleanse and redeem his people from “all their transgressions.”8 We see this happening at the place where John baptized. Jews repented and were immersed after “confessing their sins.”9 Their baptism symbolizes and seals the promised washing away of their transgressions. In this context, we note a discussion of the disciples of John the Baptist with some anonymous Jew. They are talking “about purification” (John 3:25). This will have referred to the cleansing through the baptism of Jesus and John.10
More than once the New Testament suggests a connection between baptism and the washing away of sins. After his conversion Paul is called to “rise and be baptized and to wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16). Answer 71 refers specifically to Titus 3:5 which calls baptism “the bath of rebirth” (ESV: “the washing of regeneration”).11 Also 1 Corinthians 6:11 speaks of being “washed” in a context reminiscent of baptism.12 Ephesians 5:26 speaks of a “water bath” (ESV: “washing of water”). Here, too, the thought of baptism strongly comes to mind.13 Further, 1 Peter 3:21 also suggests that the baptism represents a symbolic washing when it speaks of baptism “not as a removal of dirt from the body.”
We do not claim that each of the texts mentioned above is hard evidence, but together they point in the direction of baptism as a cleansing bath, a form of purification. For this reason, both this and the following Lord’s Day rightly speak of baptism as a cleansing water bath.14
Meanwhile, baptism is a way of immersion. This is what Paul is alluding to in Romans 6:3, 4. Those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been “baptized into his death” and “were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.” In his choice of words and his formulation, the apostle ties in with what was seen happening during a baptism: the person being baptized disappears under the water. To drown symbolically? According to us, it is to symbolically undergo a radical cleansing. The water of baptism is a sign of the cleansing blood of Christ, that is, of his atoning death. Those who sink down in it are not drowning. On the contrary, his immersion depicts a radical cleansing by which he loses his guilt and his old manner of existence — the old nature — and receives a new legal status.15
All in all, baptism by water depicts a rich promise of cleansing.16 The question as to whether baptism actually makes us share in this cleansing takes it to a different level. How certain is it?
As surely as...
In terms of our baptism there are a few things that we can be sure about. The fact that it happened is certain. If necessary, we can request a baptismal certificate. It is also certain that we have been sprinkled with water or were immersed in it. The cleansing effect of water is also beyond dispute. The whole world uses water for washing. Therefore, it is very fitting for baptism to depict the cleansing of our inner self — our soul.
So far, there is certainty. But what does such a baptism with pure water guarantee for the washing of our sin? The water in the shower is good enough to wash our bodies, but it certainly does not cleanse our souls. Even a river of baptismal water cannot remove the slightest stain from our soul. Yet a few drops of baptismal water on our heads serve as valid proof that we have been washed of our sins “just as surely.” Why “as surely as”? Simply and only because Christ has promised: your sins are washed away as surely as the baptismal water came upon your head and made you wet.17 Thus he turns the washing of baptism into a certificate or proof of the cleansing of our souls. For that reason, every earnest baptized person may trust that he/she has been washed as surely with Christ’s blood and Spirit as he received the water of baptism.18as certain as the other.
Question 70: What does it mean
to be washed with Christ’s blood and Spirit?
Answer 70: To be washed with Christ’s blood means
to receive forgiveness of sins from God,
because of Christ’s blood,
poured out for us
in his sacrifice on the cross.
To be washed with his Spirit means
to be renewed by the Holy Spirit
and sanctified to be members of Christ,
so that more and more
we become dead to sin
and lead a holy and blameless life.
Baptism assures us that we are washed with the blood of Christ. Invariably it is added, also in the following Lord’s Day: “and with his Spirit.” Apparently, the blood and the Spirit of Christ each have their own cleansing effect. And yet — the New Testament does not speak of a washing “with the Spirit.” Why is it always mentioned separately here?
Blood and Spirit
Baptism symbolizes how Christ washes his own with his shed blood. With that blood he washes and cleanses away their guilt, day in and day out. As often as they have made a mess of things, they may start with a clean slate. However, this cleansing is not sufficient as long as they continue to mess up. More is needed: their wrong disposition has to go.
Therefore, God wants to wash them so thoroughly that their old way of existence — their old nature — disappears. He expresses this clearly in Ezekiel 36:25. He will sprinkle his people with “clean water,” so that they “shall be clean from all their uncleannesses.” This happens in such a radical way that not only their guilt because of idolatry is washed away, but also their inclination toward idolatry. Their cleansing implies that they receive “a new heart” and that “a new spirit” is put within. God calls this new spirit in verse 27: “my Spirit.” He will give his Holy Spirit inside us, so that his people will again serve him with all their heart.
Baptism represents one cleansing with a twofold effect: removal of guilt and inner renewal. These two together cause us to be sinless and blameless. Therefore, in addition to forgiveness, baptism further also pictures how Christ renews us through his Spirit. This renewal is the definitive end result of the washing. This is also proven by Revelation 7:14. John sees all the people who have washed their long robes clean in the blood of Christ. Unlike earlier, they never fall into the mire of sin again. In addition to being guilt-free, they are also perfectly flawless on the inside.19
How much certainty does baptism give us about this twofold cleansing?
A far-reaching guarantee
According to the Catechism, baptized people can say: we have received forgiveness of sins. They have this certainty not because baptism automatically brings forgiveness with it. A washing with water will automatically clean you — that is not how baptism works. God does not inform those who are baptized that their acquittal is a fait accompli. He promises that they will be acquitted. On their part this promise requires faith. Otherwise, they do not “have” true forgiveness, even if they are lawfully baptized. Having the promise of forgiveness is not the same as having the forgiveness itself.
On the other hand — and this is the point at issue here — this promise of forgiveness is so serious that they may believe, that is, they may know and trust firmly,20 that they have the forgiveness of sins and that they are washed with his blood. This is just as certain as the fact that baptismal water was poured upon their heads.
In addition, they may also say that, by the working of his Spirit, they have been renewed and freed from their sins. In doing so, they do not immediately think of their own results in the struggle against sin. For it is not they themselves who begin their renewal, but it is Christ. Through baptism he assures them that he, from his side, has already begun their renewal. After all, he provides them with a new status. No longer do they belong to the world, but to him. They are officially joined to him and sanctified as his members. Therefore, they no longer share in the misfortune of this world, but in all his benefits. To this extent they are already renewed, well before they themselves part with sin “more and more” and “lead a holy and blameless life.” This beginning of their renewal through Christ cannot be undone. They may fail badly and fall deeply into sin. This can make them despondent. Nevertheless, baptism is and remains a guarantee that Christ wants to renew them by his Spirit and that he has already made a start with this.
Question 71: Where has Christ promised
that he will wash us with his blood and Spirit
as surely as we are washed
with the water of baptism?
Answer 71: In the institution of baptism, where he says:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,
but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16).
This promise is repeated where Scripture calls baptism
the washing of rebirth and the washing away of sins
(Titus 3:5; Acts 22:16).
We were once washed with baptismal water. Nothing is more certain than that. It is quite another thing whether Christ will wash us with his blood and Spirit to redeem us completely in that way. Does he really want that? He wants that as surely as we are baptized. Where did he promise this?
The Institution of Baptism
“Baptize them.” This command comes directly from Christ. We are thus sprinkled with water at his clear command. Moreover, in doing so, he himself also spoke other words, because according to Matthew 28:19 he commanded to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.21 It is unfortunate that the rich meaning of these words does not come through with full clarity in the baptismal form familiar to us. “Baptizing them in the name of...” we quickly understand as “baptizing on behalf of.” This is not wrong. Of course it is true that baptism is administered on behalf of the Triune God. But the expression “in(to) the name of...” has a much richer meaning. It does not merely say that baptism comes to us from God, but that baptism brings us to him. “In the name of” means as much as: in communion with.22 Through baptism the Triune God embraces us in his arms, as it were.
It is impressive the way Christ, through baptism, pictures and guarantees the core of all his work of salvation. The actual baptism takes no longer than the uttering of a name plus the baptismal form. It takes barely fifteen seconds. In those scant fifteen seconds Christ positions the person being baptized back into full communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.23 Meanwhile, through the baptismal water, he emphatically calls us to focus on his suffering and death on the cross.
Christ does not merely position the person to be baptized back into the name of — or into communion with — the Triune God with a few words, but he has him or her baptized into his name or communion. That “baptism” is of the utmost significance. During the pronouncement of the baptismal formula, Christ repeatedly has the person being baptized sprinkled with water. Thereby he illustrates and guarantees: as surely as that baptismal water cleanses you, so surely will I cleanse you with my blood and Spirit, and in that way bring you back into the glorious fellowship with the Triune God.
Mark 16:16 is also mentioned: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. We do not hear Jesus saying that everyone must first believe and that only then one can be baptized.24 His starting point is the proclamation of the gospel; see verse 15. When someone — obviously a mature convert — believes this gospel from his side, God in turn confirms the truth of this gospel through baptism.25 What Jesus means is that baptism is a guarantee for all believers of their salvation.
That same promise is repeated where Scripture calls baptism “the washing of rebirth and the washing away of sins.” These are apt characterizations that unreservedly indicate what Christ, from his side, promises us through baptism.
Those who have once been baptized may later refuse this “cleansing” and this “washing away,” but no one can turn baptism into an empty shell or a sham. “Baptism is the washing of regeneration, even if all the world would be unbelieving.”26 Therefore, we may always fall back on our baptism.