What is baptism, and what does it mean to be baptized? This article discusses how we are to understand this testimony of God's grace, and what we are to do with it. Along the way it gives some attention to the liturgical baptism forms" used in Continental Reformed churches. It also discusses the differences of opinion over infant baptism, and what it has meant to various groups in the Reformed tradition that infants are sanctified in Christ. The article concludes with some discussion questions.

7 pages.

The Seal and Testimony of God's Grace: Baptism

A.  Introduction🔗

What is baptism? What does it mean to be baptized? What does baptism mean to you in your life?  These questions merit our close attention so that we do not lose sight of the power of this sacrament. An individual who has been baptized, but does not understand what has been received through this, will no longer rejoice in this baptism.

The confusion regarding baptism has at least two origins:

  1. In the history of the church, baptism has been the center of great struggles. Significant differences of opinion about the meaning of baptism have even led to schisms in the church. Infant baptism, for instance, has been a volatile issue for those who support or reject it. They are unable to convince one another with their arguments. The riches of this sacrament have often been hidden by the struggle about baptism. It is in danger of becoming just another controversial doctrinal item, and it can be difficult to deal with this issue.
  2. The liturgical element of baptism is generally well known. The form for baptism is read often, and is therefore one of the most known forms. The administration of baptism is a fairly simple act. But custom can blind us to the riches that baptism offers. When the doctrine of baptism no longer offers anything exciting, it runs the risk that it no longer moves the observers.

So let us discuss the question together: what do we do with this seal and testimony of God’s grace?

B.  Instituted by Christ🔗

We speak of the Christian baptism, because we have to make a distinction between it and the baptism of John, as well as the proselyte baptism practised by the Jews. This discussion is about the baptism instituted by Christ himself in Matthew 28:19.  The Saviour gave the apostles the mandate to preach and to administrate the baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In so doing, he constituted the baptism formula.

The institution of baptism shows that:

  • baptism is the official sign and seal of one’s admission into the congregation of Christ.
  • as members of the congregation, we now belong to the triune God. Baptism “in the name of” (literally: into the name of) indicates that we have become God’s own possession. From now on, we are in his name. Article 34 of the Belgic Confession strikingly calls baptism the “mark and emblem” of Christ.

C.  Cleansing to new life🔗

In the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 69, baptism is called “outward washing”.  This reminds us of the amount of water needed for immersion. It also reminds us of cleansing with water. In the Bible, the important issue is not the amount of water, but the washing away of dirt, which is symbolized through baptism. God himself uses baptism as a sign that he wants to purify us to a new life. Because our sins have been washed away, a whole new life situation comes into being. There is a new beginning.

Note:  Several striking Scripture passages are relevant:

Acts 2:38              Baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ conveys the concept of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will work renewal.

Acts 22:16            Ananias encourages Paul to be baptized and to have his sins washed away, in order to begin a new life as witness of Christ (cf. HC, Q&A 71, 73).

Romans 6:3-4    Being baptized in Christ means being baptized in his death and  beginning a radically new life with him.

Galatians 3:27   Just as one clothes oneself and becomes, so to speak, one with the clothing, so the believers become one with Christ, submitting to his rule.

D.  Struggles about baptism🔗

As has been mentioned, there has been a great deal of conflict surrounding the sacrament of baptism. The confession of the church clearly attests to this. Baptism receives much attention both in the Heidelberg Catechism and in the Belgic Confession.  What God intended baptism to be had to be thoroughly relearned in the 16th century.

For this very reason, the form for baptism (of infants and of adults) gives an extensive overview of the doctrine of baptism.

E.  The baptism form🔗

Our form for baptism dates from the 16th century. The Dutch version can be attributed to Petrus Dathenus. He used the form in the Church Order of the Paltz (1563), authored by Kaspar Olevianus (co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism). At the General Synod of Dordrecht (1574), the churches instituted and adopted a shortened version of Dathenus’ form.

In this context a liturgical form is an adopted document in which the related liturgical act, in this case baptism, is explained and laid down. One must distinguish the liturgical forms from the three forms of unity (see also Outline 1, A.2.).

Throughout past centuries all sorts of rituals were used in connection with the administration of baptism, including the exorcism of demons. The Reformed Church of the 16th century cleared all of this away and replaced the rituals with instruction about the doctrine of baptism.  In the instructional portions of the baptism form, three principles can be found.

1. The washing away of sins is necessary 🔗

Washing makes clear that we have become dirty and need to be cleansed. We must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God.

2. The washing away of sins is promised🔗

God seals the washing away of our sins through baptism. The summary of what the triune God promises us is very rich: God the Father makes an eternal covenant of grace with us, God the Son assures us that he washes us from our sins, and God the Holy Spirit promises to sanctify and renew us.

3.  With the promise comes God’s demand🔗

Every covenant, also God’s covenant, has two parts, a promise and an obligation. The obligation requires that we love God and live godly lives.

These three aspects can be summarized as follows: baptism teaches us to know our misery, to confess our deliverance, and to demonstrate our thankfulness. This is a reflection of the well-known three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 2, and can also be found in the form for the Lord’s Supper (in the section on self-examination).

F.  The power of baptism is permanent🔗

The form for the baptism of infants beautifully highlights the fact that the sacrament of baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant promises. This is also clearly formulated in the confessions (cf. BC, Art. 33, 34; HC, Q&A 66-74).  In other words, baptism always keeps its value and never loses its power. A sign and seal of a trustworthy promise always keeps its value. Baptism is valid for life (BC, Art. 34).  This repudiates the heresies of the Anabaptist and Roman Catholic doctrine of the “sacramental grace” of God. According to this doctrine, God’s grace is a means to give us supernatural life. Through baptism this grace is infused into us automatically without the necessity of faith. When much of this grace is lost through sin, other sacraments will replenish it. In effect, this is the function of confirmation, confession, the Eucharist, and the last rites. The implication of this doctrine is that, over time, baptism loses much of its power.

On the contrary, the power - efficacy - of baptism is permanent. Moreover, God’s grace cannot be seen as an entity that is independent of God.  God’s grace is his disposition of grace, his friendly countenance. Therefore, God requires the response of faith.

G.  Infants are also entitled to baptism🔗

A separate portion of the form is dedicated to the question of why children ought to be baptized, although they have no understanding or knowledge (see also the first question put to the parents).  A fundamental rationale for infant baptism was needed because the Anabaptists were vehemently opposed to it. Before the Reformation, the right to baptize infants had rarely, if ever, been a point of discussion and dispute.

In the first centuries, it was a matter of course that many adults were baptized. The church was a mission church. Many adults came to believe through the preaching, and were, together with their children, made members of the church through baptism. When evangelism diminished and the local church became an instituted church, baptism was administered mostly to infants born to the members of the congregation.

Anabaptists rejected infant baptism because of their opposition to the externalizing of baptism in the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers also rejected this superficiality (HC, Q&A 72, 73).  But the Anabaptists went too far in their opposition. They “threw out the baby with the bath-water”.

Infant baptism is still opposed by Baptists and various Pentecostal groups. It remains a point of contention.  Their main arguments are the following:

1. Baptism is a personal experience🔗

It is part of your personal faith life. You do not receive baptism until you have discovered God’s grace and experienced it for yourself. Your baptism confirms that you swear allegiance to God. Only once you choose for God do you become a member of his congregation. Christ says: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Your faith comes before your baptism. Therefore, an infant is excluded.

2. The directive to baptize children can be found nowhere in the New Testament🔗

Neither is there any recorded case of infant baptism. The Scripture passages that describe an entire household being baptized do not prove that infants were included.

3. Baptism does not take the place of circumcision🔗

Circumcision was only a sign of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:11). That was a covenant with earthly promises: there would be descendants and a land for the descendants. The covenant with Abraham had a national character; only through natural ties of the parents and tribe did God form a Jewish nation. Baby boys were circumcised for this reason. The New Testament congregation receives spiritual blessings from God, which must be individually accepted before baptism can be administered.  God forms the Christian congregation through the personal choice of believers.

The Anabaptist objections to the externalized national church with an externalized baptism have broken the unity of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible teaches that both Testaments present the same covenant and same promises:  God’s blessing in Christ for all mankind (Genesis 12:1-3; Galatians 3:16; John 8:56; Romans 9:1-5). Paul calls baptism the circumcision in Christ (Colossians 2:11-12).  In Acts 2:38-39, Peter speaks to the children of Abraham about the promise of Christ, namely the Holy Spirit, who is also for them and their children. If we hold on to the unity of Scripture, specific texts in the New Testament are not needed to justify baptism.

Children should not be baptized because of their own faith, or because they have been reborn (this is subjectivism), but because they, as much as adults, do belong to God’s covenant and congregation (cf. HC, Q&A 74). Subjectivism is very dangerous (see also section H), because it clouds the riches of God’s covenant of grace.

Children must certainly learn to experience their baptism as a gift of God’s grace. They must learn to have a trusting, confiding relationship with God because they have this privilege. But one’s personal experience is never the ground for baptism.

H.   Sanctified in Christ🔗

The danger of subjectivism has been historically demonstrated with reference to the first question in the form for the baptism of infants, which states that infants are sanctified in Christ. There has been a great deal of discussion about this. Some have understood this to mean that children are, in some way or another, already reborn. A few examples of this struggle follow.

1.  The Second Reformation🔗

The Second Reformation was a movement in the 17th and 18th centuries that supported a radical change in doctrine and life, similar to Puritanism in England and Scotland. This movement opposed the externalizing of baptism in the Reformed Churches of that time. Various preachers followed the example of the well-known Rev. J. van Lodenstein and changed the first question of the form for baptism to: “some children are sanctified in Christ”, or “children can be sanctified in Christ”, or “children should be sanctified in Christ”.  The question of whether baptism subjectively or objectively sealed God’s promise was widely discussed. If this assurance happens subjectively (dependent upon something in man), then only the true believers, the elect, have the right to God’s promise. Gijsbert Voetius (one of the leaders of the Dutch Reformed mystical movement and a member of the Synod of Dort), along with some others, went so far as to say that all children of believing parents are to be seen as regenerated, until it is proven otherwise as they grow up.  He argued that the true children of the covenant already possess the Holy Spirit, are born-again, and are part of Christ.

2.  The Liberation of 1944🔗

The teaching of presumptive regeneration reappeared with Dr. Abraham Kuyper. He deliberately chose the position of Voetius.  Kuyper thought that baptism as a sacrament was now underrated, probably as a counteraction to the Roman Catholic doctrine about the sacraments. He believed that baptism is not only a visible sign of the fact that those who are baptized belong to the congregation.  It also ‘does’ something. So Kuyper was convinced that something happens within the baptized child, namely, that he receives the ability to believe. The Holy Spirit plants the seed or root of faith in the child, which will grow into a conscious faith later in life, because the child is already regenerated before baptism. Followers of Kuyper held that being born-again is the ground for baptism. Their point of departure was the infants’ presumptive regeneration. 

The Synod of Utrecht (1905) made a statement that attempted to combine the doctrine of presumptive regeneration with the confession of the church: “... that according to the confession of our churches, the seed of the covenant is by virtue of God’s promises assumed to be regenerated, until as adults the opposite is evidenced.”  When the synodical pronouncements of 1942 and 1943 imposed Kuyper’s ideas on the doctrine of the church, the Liberation of 1944 resulted.

3.  The Reformed Congregations (in the Netherlands)🔗

Since the Secession of 1834, the Reformed Congregations 1a specific denomination in the Netherlands have had their own individual church history and typical character.  It was especially the contributions of the Rev. G.H. Kersten and Dr. C. Steenblok which led to the doctrines adhered to by these congregations.  Just like Kuyper and many others of the Second Reformation, they said that God established his covenant of grace only with the elect.  Whereas Kuyper’s assumption that baptized children belong to the covenant of grace is more optimistic, the Reformed Congregations took on a more negative view: Every child is a child of perdition, and it is assumed that the child does not belong to the covenant of grace, unless the opposite becomes apparent in the child’s life.

The Reformed Congregations differentiate between the covenant of grace, which only includes the elect, and the covenant of works, a term coined by the Synod of Rotterdam (1931). In their view, baptism, as sign and seal of the covenant of grace, is only valid for the elect. Yet, all the children of these congregations are baptized since they are in a relationship with the covenant of grace. This means that for them all children share objectively in the grace in Christ, but subjectively only the elect can be part of it. Only the elect will be powerfully converted and regenerated and truly receive this grace. Others may be onlookers. Even so, baptism is a strong call for all the children in the congregation, a summons to believe, in the hope that they will be born again.

4.  Summary🔗

There has been a great deal of speculation about the words “sanctified in Christ”.  Much damage has been done to the sure, rich Word of God. This results in insecurity, fear, despondency, and doubt about whether one may appropriate God’s promises.

“Sanctified in Christ” means that the children of the congregation belong to Christ. At the baptismal font we should not be searching for signs of rebirth. We must pay attention to what God says to and of these children. He calls them to be his. That is a rich comfort indeed (cf. CD, c. I, Art. 17). God leads them on the road of his covenant of grace to a glorious future, together with all his people. Sanctified means: God has laid claim to the children of the congregation, having them share in his blessings through Christ.

I.  Baptism of adults🔗

When someone is baptized later in life because he has not been baptized as a child, he must first confess his faith. This sequence of first believing and then being baptized is not meant in the same sense as the Anabaptists’ view.

This baptism is not, in fact, a sign and seal of his faith, but it is a guarantee of God’s promise for him, just as it is the case with children. Such an adult has been called into the covenant by God later in life, and only then becomes a member of the congregation of Christ (think of baptism in the New Testament congregations).  The form for the baptism of adults clearly explains this matter.

J.  Conclusion🔗

Frequent reflections on our baptism will make us all the more thankful for this sacrament. This simple but strikingly persuasive sacrament is worthy of being experienced as a feast and remembered for life.

K.  Tips for the introduction🔗

Using the Bible, try to show the riches of baptism.  There are sufficient Scripture passages that deal with baptism. They can be found in the Book of Praise:  in the baptismal forms, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession.

  1. Carefully work through the form for baptism. The points named in section E can be further elaborated on.
  2. Discuss the arguments against infant baptism.  In doing this demonstrate that the Baptists discard the unity of the Bible (Old and New Testaments).

L.  For discussion🔗

Discuss the meaning of the baptism that John the Baptist gave.

  1. In the prayer before the baptism, what is the significance of the reference to the flood and the crossing of the Red Sea?
  2. What is implied by the phrase in Article 57 of the Church Order:  “as soon as feasible”?  Should the mother be present or is the so-called “early baptism” to be recommended?
  3. Is there any difference between considering a child as “presumptively regenerated” or as one who shares in God’s promises?  If so, what is the difference?
  4. The argument for the baptism of adopted children is: God calls every child who arrives on the property or premises of the covenant. Try to elaborate on this view.
  5. Baptism strengthens us for life.  Do we always experience this to the fullest?

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