Heidelberg 71: What’s Baptism Got To Do With It?

Open Quote 5 lines71. Where has Christ promised that we are as certainly washed with His blood and Spirit as with the water of Baptism?

In the institution of Baptism, which says: “Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned.” This promise is also repeated, where Scripture calls Baptism the washing of regeneration, and the washing away of sins (Heidelberg Catechism)

If, as the Reformed teach, baptism does not effect what it signifies and seals then of what value is it? I’ve already addressed this issue in general under Heidelberg 65. Those who confess the Reformed faith need not be tempted by sacerdotalism, which turns the sacraments into magic, nor should they be tempted to turn them into mere memories. The sacraments are signs and promises.

Because a sacrament is a divinely instituted sign and seal it is not the thing it signifies and seals (then it would not be a sacrament) but it has the closest possible relation to the thing signified. When our Lord instituted the sacrament of baptism (Matt 28:18–20) he instituted a holy sign and a seal, a visible, outward guarantee to those who believe. Sacerdotalists (lit. priestly-ists) want us to think that sacraments do what they do without respect to faith, as if faith is some second blessing. Of course that’s completely contrary to Scripture. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph 2:8). In Ephesians 2:8 the preposition “through” signifies instrumentality. There is an ambiguity in English, however, that requires us to be careful here. We also use the word through in a different sense in this discussion. We sometimes say that we were saved through the flood and the Red Sea but in that case we mean something different.

Scripture does not say that baptism is the instrument of salvation any more than the Noahic flood or the Red Sea were the instruments of salvation. No, faith is the sole instrument of salvation. We were delivered through, i.e., out of of the flood and the Red Sea. Where the flood and the Red Sea might have killed us we were, instead, delivered by God’s grace. They symbolize God’s saving acts but they were not the instruments of God’s saving acts. God did not confer salvation through them.  Christ and his benefits are received by faith alone (sola fide). Even faith doesn’t create realities. Faith apprehends them. Baptism testifies to us of the fact that Christ, in his suffering obedience underwent the flood of God’s judgment for us. It testifies and seals to believers that Christ endured the judgment of the Red Sea, as it were, for us. Therefore, though we rightly fear God,  we do not fear the coming flood of judgment (2 Pet 2:4–10). Christ has endured it for us.

Baptism Election-FeaturedFor these reasons we reject the notion that baptism confers new life (baptismal regeneration) or that through it the Spirit necessarily, at the time of administration operates through it to make the baptized person elect, united to Christ, adopted etc. This is the error of the so-called, self-described, Federal Vision movement. We confess that there are two ways of relating to the visible covenant community: internally and externally. Everyone who is baptized is admitted visibly into the covenant community. They are participants in the administration of the covenant of grace. Those whom God has freely loved and chosen, in Christ, from all eternity come to faith and through faith alone receive Christ and all his benefits.

So Scripture says:

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name’ (Acts 22:16; ESV)

Paul, in recounting how the Lord brought him from spiritual death to spiritual life, on the road to Damascus, makes the closest possible connection between baptism and the benefits of Christ (justification and sanctification or salvation). The text says literally, “having risen (ἀναστὰς) be baptized (βάπτισαι) and wash away your sins (ἀπόλουσαι), having called upon (ἐπικαλεσάμενος) his name.” There are two participles of circumstance (rising and calling) and two imperatives (baptize and wash). Did Paul mean to communicate that baptism itself or that the Spirit necessarily through baptism washed away his sins? No. Paul had already been initiated into the visible covenant community (Phil 3:5). He had been circumcised on the 8th day according to institution of circumcision under Abraham. If the sacraments of the covenant of grace necessarily (ex opere operato) confer what they signify then Paul was already regenerated. The only way to avoid that conclusion is to set up an untenable dichotomy between the covenant of grace as it was administered under Abraham and the covenant of grace as it is administered under Christ but Paul never does that. Paul does the opposite. In Romans 4:3–12. The principal burden of his argument there is to show the continuity between the substance and administration of the covenant of grace between Abraham and the new covenant. Just as Abraham believed and was justified before he was visibly initiated into the covenant community, so he is the father of all the uncircumcised Gentiles who believe in Christ. As he was circumcised and yet believed, he is the father of all those Jews who believe in Christ. In other words, Paul made no radical discontinuity between the covenant of grace as it was under Abraham and as it is under Christ. See also Galatians 3 and 4 where Paul makes a similar argument. Abraham is not Moses. The New Covenant is new relative to Moses, not Abraham. Jeremiah 31 says the new covenant will not be like the covenant God made with Israel, when he led them out of Egypt. Jeremiah 31 does not contrast the new covenant with Abraham.

In short, Paul, quoted by Luke in Acts 22, used sacramental language. He identified the thing signified (res significata) but the point of sacramental language is not to make the sign into the thing signified. The intent of sacramental language is not destroy the sacrament. By analogy of Scripture we can see even more clearly what Paul meant by looking at Titus 3:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:4–8; ESV).

Verse 5 is too often quoted without its context. Paul was writing to a pastor. Chapter 3 resumes a thought begun in 2:9. “Bondservants” (2:9) are to be submissive to rulers et al. Then, in 3:3, Paul begins to set up a contrast between what he once was , “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” By implication this is true of all of us. In v.4 he points to God’s grace, goodness, and faithfulness to his covenant promises to redeem all of his elect. Notice by the way that he teaches that God “saved” us by grace and not by (or through) our works. Justification (the narrower category) and salvation (the broader category) are by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone. Paul’s uses the metaphor of “washing” to describe the effect of salvation, the application of Christ’s righteousness. Notice too that we have these benefits “not by works done by us in righteousness.” By this expression Paul intentionally excludes all of our efforts, all of our obedience, all of our performance or striving. It is singularly wicked that interpreters have, through the course of church history, sought to restrict Paul’s language to specific acts of obedience to the ceremonial law, thereby making some place for us to contribute to our salvation. No, the image here is that of the Red Sea. How did the Israelites contribute to their salvation? They were (metaphorically) dead. They were helpless. Pharaoh and his armies were nearly upon them and would have destroyed them. It was God, in his marvelous saving power and grace, who parted the waters and “led them by the hand” (Jer 31) out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, on dry ground. That’s why Scripture says “for it is by God’s free favor you have been saved” (Eph 2:8). It is not by favor and our cooperation or performance or doing. We do, i.e., we obey, only by God’s grace and only because we have been saved not in order that we might be saved if we do enough. To say that is to turn grace into works again.

Paul says believers have been saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Clearly, necessarily, grammatically, logically it is the Holy Spirit who has washed us, who has granted us new life. It is the Spirit who renews. This is the very same teaching as our Lord’s in John 3, in the dialogue with Nicodemus. We must be born again. Only the Spirit does that. No one who is not given new life by the Holy Spirit has been saved or come into possession of Christ and his benefits (justification and sanctification) since the dead do not believe and salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone and faith is God’s free gift. Baptism is a visible representation of what the Spirit does. It is a promise and guarantee to believers that what baptism signifies is true for them but this passage nowhere says or even implies that regeneration is necessarily granted in baptism. It is the Holy Spirit, not baptismal water, who is poured out upon us, who grants new life and true faith, and through that faith alone we have been justified by God’s free favor (grace). It is believers who are heirs of eternal life. It is believers who devote themselves to good works. Baptism is a wonderful picture of all the benefits that Paul describes in Titus 3 but it no more grants them than circumcision granted them under the administration of types and shadows.

Again, does this mean baptism is of no value? Not at all. The title to my house is not my house. I cannot live in it and it will not keep my head dry in the rain but I still keep it in a safe. Why? Because it is an essential testimony and guarantee of a reality.

Baptism is essential to the Christian life. A Christian (ordinarily) is a baptized person. Yes, were you to be shipwrecked and were a bible to wash up with you and were you to read it and come to faith, you would be a Christian even though unbaptized. That’s why I added the qualifier “ordinarily.” Baptism is the new covenant sign and seal of initiation into the covenant community. It is divinely ordained and therefore should not be neglected. When we are tempted we should remind ourselves that we have been baptized. We have been set apart. The name of the Triune God has been placed on us. We are not our own. Baptism did not create those realities but it is a powerful, tangible sign and seal of all that Christ has done for those who believe.

All the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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