Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 27 - Holy Baptism
Question 72: Does this outward washing with water
itself wash away sins?
Answer 72: No, only the blood of Jesus Christ
and the Holy Spirit
cleanse us from all sins.
Those who are baptized are washed with water. That ordinary water is a divine pledge and sign of Christ’s cleansing blood. That is why Scripture plainly calls baptism “the washing away of sins.” That is how the previous Lord’s Day’s answer concluded. So why not simply say that this washing with water is the washing away of sins itself?
Baptismal water does not provide immunity against sin
The question is not whether “baptism” but whether “the outward washing with water” itself is the washing away of sins. Thus the emphasis is on the external aspect of baptism. Does the outward washing with water in itself guarantee the washing away of sins?
A washing with water only cleans away the dirt from the body. The question is whether this particular washing with water in effect washes away sin. Is there such an extraordinary power in that baptismal water that it cleanses a soul?
The questioner does not actually say so, but no doubt he is thinking of the baptismal view of the Roman Catholic Church. It could hardly be otherwise, for this view indeed came down to mean that baptism is the washing away of sins itself.1 There was essentially no change in their doctrine.2 This is also evident from The Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992.3
Yet the Heidelberg Catechism is not concerned with refuting this view. Admittedly, it denies concisely that the water of baptism itself washes away our sins. Only the blood and Spirit of Christ are able to do that. This leaves us with the question of why the Bible itself then calls baptism so unequivocally the washing away of sins. The Catechism considers this as such a surprising element that it goes on to elaborate further on this matter. Somehow this washing with water must have everything to do with the washing away of our sins. How exactly are we to understand this?
Question 73: Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism
the washing of regeneration
and the washing away of sins?
Answer 73: God speaks in this way for a good reason.
He wants to teach us
that the blood and Spirit of Christ
remove our sins
just as water takes away
dirt from the body.
But, even more important,
he wants to assure us
by this divine pledge and sign
that we are
as truly cleansed from our sins spiritually
as we are bodily washed with water.
The water of baptism does not wash away sin. And yet baptism is called “the washing away of sin.” The water of baptism does not change us into new and better people. Yet baptism is called “the washing of regeneration.” These are characterizations of the Holy Spirit. Should we perhaps not insist this point too strongly? The Catechism certainly does not want to go in that direction. It particularly strikes us that it does not even think about weakening the meaning of these powerful words, as if it were fearful of all sorts of misunderstandings. On the contrary, it aims to explain what “urgent reason” God has for calling baptism the way he does, and as happens here.
Those who are dirty or feel tired feel better after a refreshing bath. Not only do you become clean, but you also feel like a different person. You feel reborn. Everyone will recognize this dual experience. Baptism is also such a bath, but then symbolically. It aptly portrays how someone’s guilt is washed away and how he becomes a different person. Christ accomplishes the former with his blood and the latter with his Spirit.
From whom do we know that this is the language of baptism? From God himself. He wants to teach us what tremendous consequences there are for us in the elimination of sin. He so dearly wants to make this clear to us that this is the first “urgent reason” for him to call baptism “the washing of regeneration” and “the washing away of sins.” With these two characterizations he makes it crystal clear what baptism represents. They form his own caption to the symbol of baptism. An artist makes up his own mind as to what his symbol represents. That is what God does with baptism. Therefore, we can know very well what it represents: the blood and the Spirit of Christ cleanse and renew the soul just as water washes and refreshes our sweaty bodies.
That is clear language. We now have a better understanding of the dual effect of salvation that the cleansing of sins has. Baptism depicts this in a beautiful way, but does it bring salvation itself within our reach? That is addressed next.
A divine pledge
In addition to being an illuminating representation, baptism is also a divine pledge of the washing away of sins. Thus, we are not only washed of our sins “as surely as,” but we are also “as truly cleansed” as the body is cleaned by the water. This goes a step further. Baptism serves not only as God’s instructive illustration but also as his guarantee that we are washed “from our sins spiritually.” For him, that is even a second urgent reason for calling baptism unapologetically the washing away of sins. He does so “even more important[ly]” to assure us that through baptism he is really giving us what it portrays: we are freed from guilt and experience the beginning of a new life. He assures us that, as far as he is concerned, we are “as truly” rid of our sins as our bodies are washed clean with the water of baptism. With this guarantee, he goes a long way to meet our weak faith.
The stronger someone guarantees us something, the easier it is for us to believe him. Similarly, God makes it as easy as possible for our faith. Baptism is his personal guarantee. However, this does not mean that faith therefore matters very little. Guarantees are not given to make one’s faith superfluous, but to strengthen it. Someone who is promised a house must accept this promise. If he does not accept it by a certain date, he will miss out on the promised house. The promise is not yet the house itself. Likewise, baptism is not the washing away of sins itself. The baptismal water is not infused with the power of the Spirit. It does not work as automatically as, for instance, one’s medication or intravenous therapy. Baptism is not intended to make faith superfluous, but to encourage and strengthen it. For us, it comes down to accepting what the Lord offers and assures us.4
Question 74: Should infants, too, be baptized?
Answer 74: Yes.
Infants as well as adults
belong to God’s covenant and congregation.
Through Christ’s blood
the redemption from sin
and the Holy Spirit, who works faith,
are promised to them
no less than to adults.
Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant,
they must be incorporated into the Christian church
and distinguished from the children of unbelievers.
This was done in the old covenant by circumcision,
in place of which baptism was instituted
in the new covenant.
What argument is there against the baptizing of children? We do not need to guess at the main objection. Through baptism God seals to us that he is making a covenant with us. That covenant means that he adopts us to be his children for Christ’s sake. The question is whether he also establishes such a covenant with infants. The fact is that an adult who wants to be baptized must first confess his or her faith in Christ. Babies are not able to do that. Moreover, no one knows whether they themselves will be Christians later on. Do they then still have a full place in the covenant of grace? Do they belong to God’s family just as much as the adults?
The approach of the Catechism
What strikes us immediately is that the Catechism does not mention, let alone refute, any specific objection to the baptism of children. It simply and directly asks whether infants should also be baptized. This is a strong approach, because when the Bible says that children should be baptized, all objections to infant baptism are thereby taken away and no longer need to be refuted one by one.
There is something else that stands out in the approach of the Catechism. Nowhere does Scripture say unequivocally that little children should be baptized. That is why the Catechism does not immediately seek its strength in mentioning specific texts, but it bases itself first and foremost on the steady argumentation from Scripture.5
The Old Testament
The starting point is the covenant that God made with Abraham. By doing so, God gave him — then still called Abram — the longed-for assurance that he would fulfill his promise: “Know for certain that...” Genesis 15:13. Later he instituted circumcision as the indelible “sign of the covenant,” Genesis 17:11. From here on, it was carved into Abraham’s body that he belonged to God and was, therefore, entitled to share in the promised salvation.
Important for our topic is that this covenant was equally meant for all of the little children, Genesis 17:7. It did not apply only when they came of age and could make their own choice, but from birth: all little boys had to be circumcised when they were eight days old.6 The covenant was sealed by circumcision. It was even called after it: covenant of circumcision, Acts 7:8. Those who did not allow themselves to be circumcised had “broken” the covenant and were to be “cut off from his people,” Genesis 17:14. That may sound harsh, but that is how God made it clear that “existence could become life” only within his covenant.7 That applies just as much to children only a few days old.
In referring to this history, the starting point of the Catechism is that children belong to God’s covenant and to his church just as much as adults.
The New Testament
Scripture calls Abraham the father of all believers.8 The word “father” is of prime significance. The believers constitute his offspring. Therefore, what God says to Abraham applies to all believers. Now it is perfectly natural that a person’s offspring includes the babies of his adult sons and daughters. It is no different here. The promise applies to “all posterity.” This includes the believers, but no less their children. Abraham’s posterity does not include adults only.
So believers should not secretly pretend that Abraham is their spiritual leader, rather than their father. They are not primarily his followers, but his offspring. Therefore, their little children belong just as much. Babies are too young to be followers of Abraham, but not to belong to his offspring.
Peter confirms this on the Day of Pentecost.9 He faces Jews who are complicit in the death of Christ. Without any hesitation he says to them: “for the promise is for you and for your children.” In verse 38 Peter further designates this promise as the gift of the Holy Spirit. The special thing about this promise is that it includes the full salvation of Christ. That very morning, he had poured out his Spirit to win people for this salvation. It is precisely in this promise that the work of Christ reaches its culmination and fulfillment.10 How could Peter know so certainly that this promise of the Spirit was intended for these Jews and their children? Because it was in fact the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham.11 This covenant had apparently not been dissolved with the outpouring of the Spirit earlier that morning. On the contrary, it was being fulfilled. God made his ancient promise to come true: through the working of the Spirit, the believers would share in the salvation of Christ. The address also remained unchanged: Abraham and his posterity. This seed was still not bound by any age limit. Therefore, the promise was intended for these Jews and their children. Furthermore, it is instructive that Jesus also blessed little children.12 While it does not say that they were baptized, in this account we neither hear of the baptism of adults.13 The fact is that these children — as young as they were“14 — received his blessing and thus the kingdom of heaven.15 This blessing is in no way inferior to that of baptism. 16 Therefore, we may not exclude them from baptism.
Although 1 Corinthians 7:14 does not address the baptism of children, it does speak of their involvement in the church. Therefore, this text is of great significance for infant baptism.17 Paul assumes that the church knows why its children are “holy”: it is not because of anything in themselves, but merely because they are children of believing parents.18 In their parents they, too, have been set apart for God. Thus, they are not only holy once they themselves make the choice for God, but from birth. In this respect they are on par with the children who had to be circumcised in the past.
Finally, more than once there is mention of the baptism of entire families, Acts 16:15; 16:33; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16. The word “house” denotes the whole family: the household. The free use of this general word arouses no other idea than that there was no age limit for the baptism of such a household.19
Answer 74 concludes with the clear statement that, in the new covenant, baptism was instituted in the place of circumcision.
The Bible does not actually say in as many words that circumcision was exchanged for baptism. The only text that deliberately links circumcision and baptism is Colossians 2:11, 12. That is why this text is so often referenced when the relationship between circumcision and baptism is discussed. The Catechism also appeals to it.20
We are aiming to follow the main line of this text.21 Paul starts from the symbolism of circumcision and baptism. He sees in them — despite outward distinctions — an essential similarity. In circumcision, the foreskin was removed. Alluding to this, Paul speaks of “putting off the body of the flesh.” One renounced one’s former way of life, akin to taking off dirty clothes. Away with it!
The symbolism of baptism speaks the same radical language: people are symbolically immersed in the blood of Christ and thereby get rid of their former life. Away with it! This is why Paul can call baptism “the circumcision of Christ” or Christian circumcision. It is “Christian” because this new circumcision emphatically points us to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.22 Baptism is, as it were, an enriched circumcision.23
That baptism is called circumcision argues in favour of infant baptism. The timing of a boy’s circumcision was not determined by his faith, but by his birth through the lineage of Father Abraham. That was the ground for the circumcision of infants. That is also the ground for Christian circumcision. Like the older circumcision, baptism is not a sign of the faith of the person, but it is a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, including the children.
Why infant baptism is so important to adults
The discussion of infant baptism is not concerned merely about an age limit, but it touches on the very foundation of baptism. If it is true that God does not give children any guarantees of salvation and therefore ends up by excluding them from baptism, a different kind of baptism emerges. Such a baptism — exclusively for adults — serves more as a seal of the believer’s faith than of God’s promise.24 As a result, such a baptism is only based on one’s personal faith. If someone doubts his faith, he will also have to doubt his baptism.25
In fact, in this view, God acts as a bridegroom who does not say his “I do” until his bride is also ready for it. Marriage is something you do together. But it is at this very point that God differs from such a bridegroom. He does not wait for our “I do” to give his promises and guarantees. Nothing shows this so clearly as the baptism of a child. God establishes with him or her not just a temporary but an “everlasting covenant.” With immediate effect he/she receives the status of child and heir. The infant cannot believe yet. But that is no objection. God promises to the smallest child “the Holy Spirit, who works faith.” This promise of the Spirit remains in full force in later life. Therefore, no one ever needs to despair of God’s grace. Infant baptism is clear proof that the foundation of our salvation does not rest on our own fragile faith, but it is and remains grounded in God’s promise.26