I am an administrator in a Facebook group called “The Reformed Pub”. For those unfamiliar with the Reformed Pub, it is a unique and wonderful group in which two things are discussed:
Theology and Beer
As your friendly neighborhood innkeeper, you can imagine this is the sort of place that I would enjoy. And I do. It is associated with the Reformed Pubcast, which I also recommend highly. About a week ago, I posted an image which caused quite a stir. Here it is:
I fully admit that I anticipated some debate from that post; however, the level of discussion and debate went far beyond what I had expected. Three words…from Scripture no less…brought both edification and a lot of questions. I want to clarify what I meant in that post and hopefully it will be helpful to others.
Peter’s Teaching on Baptism
We first need to examine Peter’s teaching on baptism. The text in question that prompted that post is this:
Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: (1 Peter 3:20-21)
Now, we have two different moments in Scripture being described here: the salvation of Noah’s family in the ark as the waters of the flood covered the earth and washed away those who were wicked in Noah’s day. God also confirmed a covenant with Noah, that he would spare his family in the ark. We also have the baptism of God’s covenant people, made efficacious in a metaphysical sense by the death and resurrection of Christ.
Now, many commentators disagree on what Peter precisely meant by the word translated as “like figure” above. Some hold that it is a type-antitype relation. Matthew Henry takes this view in his commentary on the passage; the temporal salvation of Noah’s family (type) is more fully realized in the greater, eternal salvation of the saints through baptism (antitype). Calvin, on the other hand, in his commentary says that there is a likeness between these two, not necessarily one less and one greater. It seems a minor point to make a fuss about. However, for Calvin, the difference is important for a Reformed sacramental theology.
Having the Sign But Not the Thing Signified
To get to the point: for the Reformed, the sign and the thing signified can be used interchangeably but possession of the sign does not mean one possesses the thing signified. In other words, baptism in Scripture may be spoken of according to the action it signifies (namely, salvation in and union with Christ) but one may not actually possess that which it signifies. Westminster refers to this as a sacramental union. Thus, Calvin wants to preserve that there is a correspondence between Noah’s salvation in the ark and our salvation in baptism; however, he is hesitant about making a lesser-and-greater typological distinction since it is evident that Noah’s whole family was efficaciously saved through the flood, yet not all who are baptized are saved in baptism.
Let’s take another text from Scripture to help illustrate the point. It is outside the scope of this post for me to demonstrate the proofs that would lead one to make parallels between OT circumcision and NT baptism. For now, I assume these parallels. In Jeremiah 4:4, God exhorts his covenant people in this way:
Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.
Now, once again we see the importance of the sacramental union, otherwise we cannot make sense of this passage. If it is always true that one possesses all that baptism signifies by receiving triune baptism, then why would God need to tell the nation to circumcise themselves? Especially when we see later in this passage that the nation will not turn back to God? The reason is simple: the people certainly possessed the sign (circumcision). But they did not possess what it signifies (repentance and faith). God tells them to take hold of what the sacrament is intended to mean and he does so by telling them to do the sacramental action. Some would argue that circumcision of the flesh is a separate reality from circumcision of the heart. I have to disagree with this assertion. The circumcision of the flesh signified the circumcision of the heart (by which is meant repentance from sin)
It would be similar to God telling a New Covenant people to “baptize yourselves to the Lord”. Certainly, the people are already baptized; but do they possess what baptism signifies?
Is Baptism Meaningless, Then?
Not at all. The temptation on the one hand is to jettison the meaning of baptism as merely a symbolic action or as an act of obedience. Since the action of baptism does not automatically bring about what it signifies, then some conclude it is only a symbol. But this isn’t correct either.
One word that Westminster uses to describe baptism is that it is a “seal”. We have talked much of signs – namely, a physical thing that signifies something, usually of a religious or covenantal nature. If we take the rainbow for an example, it was a sign of the covenant made with Noah, that he will be our God and we will be his people. And yet, it is a seal: meaning, that it confirms that which it signifies. It does not do this simply by being done. In other words, one doesn’t possess what is signified simply because the sign is applied. One appropriates what is signified by the instrument of faith found in the one who receives the sign and seal. Think of it this way: was the rainbow, the sign of the covenant with Noah, able to prevent a flood in and of itself? Or was it God who prevented the flood, and made the rainbow a sign of that work of preventing the flood, which was a benefit of the covenant of grace in the time of Noah and was appropriated by faith?
Why It Can’t Be Automatic, Either
A number of the Reformed scholastics pointed out that a physical reality cannot bring about a spiritual one. Thus, baptism by water – which is a physical object – cannot bring about a spiritual change. Why is this? Any thing that causes something else must have a direct relation to the qualities it brings about. In other words, it would be contrary to logic to believe that a physical thing could impart spiritual realities efficaciously without positing nonphysical, spiritual properties to that physical thing. Water, in and of itself, does not have nonphysical, spiritual properties. It does not receive spiritual properties by virtue of the act of baptism. What is at work in the act of baptism is a supernatural reality – faith – receiving supernatural benefits (such as regeneration by the Spirit).
How Does Baptism Save, Then?
Thus, in baptism, what is signified is our ingrafting into Christ through faith in his resurrection. That we are Christ’s is sealed – or guaranteed to us – in baptism. However, this reality must be appropriated in a manner that is commensurate with its cause. Thus, we cannot presume that all who are baptized are thus saved. No, only those who receive the sign by faith are thus partakers of Christ and his benefits in baptism. On account of the sacramental union found throughout Scripture (which we described above), we can speak of the sacrament according to what benefits it confirms for the believer, recognizing that not all those who receive the sacrament will appropriate those benefits without faith…a faith which only God can give.
To this point, Wilhelmus a Brakel argues as follows:
Scripture expressly denies that the sign has the efficacy to work grace. “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but He that cometh after me … shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matt 3:11). Here the persons and their work and the efficacy of their work are placed in distinction to each other. John and Christ baptized with water, and baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire is being energized by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is denied that John, the water, and his baptism have this efficacy, but it is attributed to Christ. Therefore the baptized person receives saving graces, not due to the efficacy of the water, but from Christ through the Holy Spirit. (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 2, p. 499).
Then Why are We Baptizing Babies?
I’m going to close this reflection with another quote from Wilhelmus a Brakel. He responds to precisely this objection to infant baptism.
Objection #2: Small children are baptized who do not as yet have understanding and are as yet unable to be believingly exercised with their baptism in order to be sealed by it. Baptism either has no efficacy—and is thus administered to them in vain—or by reason of inherent efficacy must beget grace in a natural sense. Since the first concept is absurd, the second is therefore confirmed.
Answer 1) The children in the Old Testament were circumcised and their circumcision was not in vain; it nevertheless had no inherent efficacy to circumcise the heart. It is thus evident that a child‟s reception of a sacrament can be of benefit, even though the sacrament has no inherent efficacy to beget grace. 2) Since baptism functions as a sign and a seal, a child can likewise be sealed. God, the congregation, and thus also the parents, view him as being sealed. The parents derive their comfort from this, and the baptized child, upon coming to the years of discretion, derives from his baptism its sealing efficacy to his comfort and sanctification. (TCRS, vol. 2, p. 502).
Thus, we speak of baptism as saving, precisely because that’s what it signifies. A sign can be spoken of according to what it signifies. When Peter says baptism saves us, he points out that it does not save us simply by the water going on. It saves us because it confirms the work of the Spirit in us according to its own time and manner; that we will, through faith, be united to Christ and receive the benefits of his death and resurrection. These benefits are not only to be sealed to believers but also to their children.