"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
BAPTISM REPLACES CIRCUMCISION
DeBres begins Article 34 by reminding us of what we confessed in Article 25 concerning Christ's fulfilment of the ceremonial laws. All the Old Testament ceremonial laws were shadows of what would happen in Christ on the cross. Circumcision was one of these ceremonies and symbols. Circumcision involved the drawing of blood by making an incision in the flesh. This blood pointed to the blood of Christ shed on the cross (Article 25). Through His shedding of blood, Christ put an end to all shedding of blood. For that reason circumcision was discontinued. Writes deBres, "We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law, has by His shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood that one could or would make as an expiation or satisfaction for sins. He has abolished circumcision, which involved blood, and has instituted in its place the sacrament of baptism" (Article 34). As much as the sacrifices of animals in the Temple were fulfilled and abolished by Christ's sacrifice, so too was circumcision fulfilled and abolished.
However, the content of circumcision was not abolished. God has replaced circumcision with another sign. In His care for us, God has given not only the text of His Word, but also pictures, graphics to illustrate His gospel (see Article 33). The Old Testament sacraments of Passover and circumcision were replaced by holy supper and baptism respectively in the New Testament. That baptism replaces circumcision is to be concluded from what the apostle writes in Colossians 2:11,12, "In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." Here we read that baptism is the circumcision made without hands; it is Christ's circumcision, the replacement Christ gave for the circumcision He fulfilled. That circumcision has been replaced by baptism in the New Testament is also confessed by the Catechism in Lord's Day 27, "This (ie, being "grafted into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers") was done in the old covenant by circumcision, in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant."
THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM: SIGN
It pleased the Lord to give His children of the New Testament the sign of baptism. Inherent in baptism are the notions of washing, the use of water, and water being put on a person (be it by sprinkling or by immersion). One might well ask why circumcision was replaced by the picture of baptism? Why couldn't circumcision have been replaced by, for example, shaving one's head bald? Is the washing so important? What is the significance of the water (as opposed to, say, apple juice)? Why must a person have water put on him or be immersed in water? All these aspects of baptism teach something very fundamental about the meaning of baptism.
The notion of washing implies the presence of dirt, the act of getting rid of dirt, becoming clean (think of our daily habit of washing our hands before we eat). Inherent in baptism is the reality that I am dirty before God, sinful. With the fall into sin, I became offensive to God, dead in sin. (See Article 15 concerning the doctrine of original sin.) However, Christ shed His blood on the cross, and by His blood He washes me. Christ's blood and what His blood does for me is comparable to what water does to my body. As the Catechism puts it, "... as surely as water washes away the dirt from my body, so certainly His blood and Spirit wash away the impurity of my soul, that is, all my sins" (Lord's Day 26, Q & A 69). The blood of Christ cleanses me, and that washing by the blood of Christ is signified by the washing of water in baptism. That's why water is used, plain water. That water is used in baptism points up for us the very heart of the gospel. DeBres puts it this way: "By this (ie, baptism) He signifies to us that as water washes away the dirt of the body when poured on us, and as water is seen on the body of the baptised when sprinkled on him, so the blood of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, does the same thing internally to the soul. It washes and cleanses our soul from sin and regenerates us from children of wrath into children of God."
Similarly, the "Form
for the Baptism of Infants" (Book of Praise, page 584) echoes
this understanding of baptism, ie, that it signifies the washing of souls
filthy with sin. In no uncertain terms the Form say that the doctrine of baptism
teaches that we, and the children we conceive, are dirty, dead in sin, and
are therefore in need of washing. To quote the Form, "The doctrine
of holy baptism is summarised as follows: First, we and our children
are conceived and born in sin and are therefore by nature children
of wrath, so that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are born
again. This is what the immersion in or sprinkling with water teaches us.
It signifies the impurity of our souls, so that we may detest ourselves,
humble ourselves before God, and seek our cleansing and salvation outside
of ourselves. Second, baptism signifies and seals to us the washing away
of our sins through Jesus Christ. We are therefore, baptised into the
Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
This sacrament, then, is a graphic picture of what the gospel is all about. Through this sacrament, the Lord portrays me as filthy, dead in sin. At the same time, through this sacrament God portrays what He sovereignly does for me in Jesus Christ; He washes my sins away so that I am clean, pure. Yes, here is a graphic picture of what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about.
Baptism as a symbol of washing away sin finds its roots in the Old Testament. In the tabernacle there was a need from time to time for the priests to wash themselves, or for sick people to wash themselves before offering sacrifices (cf Exodus 30:18ff; Leviticus 14:8f; 15:5ff). One also reads of it in Ezekiel 36:25, "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols." This is the Old Testament background to the New Testament baptism one reads of in Mark 1:4,5: "John came baptising in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptised by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins." John the Baptist baptised with the water of the River Jordan implying thereby the notion of dirt (sin) and cleansing (water). After John the Baptist came Christ, who shed His blood. Christ replaced the OT sacrament of circumcision with this new picture of baptism, a picture rooted in the OT. In Matthew 28:19 Christ told His disciples to baptise all believers: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of he Holy Spirit." Similarly, in Mark 16:16 Jesus says: "He who believes and is baptised will be saved." So it is that in the book of Acts we read repeatedly that people were baptised when they came to faith (cf Acts 2:38,41; 8:12f,36ff; 9:18; 10:47f; 16:15,33; 18:8).
SPRINKLING OR IMMERSION?
One reads of sprinkling in Ezekiel 36:25: "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols." In Hebrews 12:24 the apostle speaks of "the blood of sprinkling." These texts have been used to justify that baptism ought to occur by means of sprinkling.
On the other hand, proponents of baptism by immersion refer to a passage as Romans 6:3,4: "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." The picture presented by these words is of a baptised person disappearing under the surface of the water as a symbol of his being buried with Christ. Similarly, as one is raised with Christ to a new life, the baptised person arises from under the water. A case can certainly be made, then, for the argument that immersion gives a clearer representation of the wealth of the gospel. This is also the reason why baptism on the mission field tends to be done by immersion.
At the same time, one ought not to become dogmatic about whether baptism is done by sprinkling or by immersion, since the Scriptures do not specify about the manner of baptism. Two practical arguments have contributed to the practice of sprinkling being dominant in reformed circles. These are 1) immersion is not practical for infants; 2) extremes of temperature in Europe (where the reformed have their roots) have historically discouraged immersion.
THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM: SEAL
Christ commanded that each believer be baptised individually (cf Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16). The book of Acts mentions numerous texts telling us of persons who were baptised individually (cf Acts 2:38,41; 8:12f,36ff; 9:18; 10:47f; 16:15,33; 18:8). This is because baptism is more than a sign, a picture of the gospel. Baptism is also a seal by which God certifies that the truth signified in the sacrament is true for me. By having the individual receive the sign of baptism, the Lord assures that individual that the promise of the gospel is not a general truth valid for every body in general and no one in particular. Rather, by having the individual receive the sign of baptism, the Lord assures the individual that the promise of the gospel is true specifically for him. He may, then, not doubt the truth of what God has done for him.
GOD TOOK THE INITIATIVE AND IMPOSED HIS COVENANT
Jesus has given baptism in place of circumcision (see above). If one believes that baptism has replaced circumcision, then consequently the content of baptism is the same as the content of circumcision. Even though the picture has changed, the contents of the picture are still the same. The picture still says the same thing, it still has the same message, it still illustrates the same text, the same gospel message.
One first reads of circumcision in Genesis 17:1-14. In Genesis 17:1,2 we read of God taking
the initiative in coming to Abraham. "When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, I am Almighty God; walk before me and be blameless and I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly." It was the Lord who came to Abraham and spoke to him. One does not read here of Abraham coming to the Lord, nor of any communication from Abraham to God. God talked with him. He did not ask Abraham whether he would be interested in a covenant, did not seek Abraham's permission. Rather, "Almighty God" imposed His will on Abraham. Awareness of this fact is crucial for a correct understanding of the concept of baptism. God said to Abraham, "I will make my covenant between me and you ..." (See Article 17). With this covenant God said "Abraham, you are mine. I am your God. I establish a bond between Me and you." See below for the content of this bond. God claimed Abraham for Himself, and Abraham had no say in the matter.
As an abiding reminder to Abraham that God meant what He said to Abraham about this covenant, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself. "... And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you" (Genesis 17:11). Looking from a New Testament perspective at this bond which God made with Abraham, we may understand God's claim upon Abraham with the words of the Form of Holy Baptism. That is: though Abraham belonged by nature on Satan's side and was filthy through sin, God yet adopted Abraham as His own, claimed him for Himself. That claim meant that God promised to be Abraham's Father, promised to "provide (him) with all good and avert all evil or turn it to (his) benefit." This was a promise so incredibly rich for Abraham. Here he was, on Satan's side by his own choice, personally responsible for the fact that he was dead in sin and doomed to eternal death. Yet God came to him and gave him such promises! What's more, God's promises didn't end there. To be "your God" meant also that He promised to give up His own Son to death so that He might wash away all Abraham's sins and return him to God's side (justification). On top of that God promised to give His Holy Spirit to dwell within Abraham so that in turn he might receive a new heart, a changed heart (sanctification).
All of the above promises are contained within the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17. What was there for Abraham to say in reply to God? Was there room for Abraham's input? Note how God introduces Himself to Abraham in Genesis 17:1, "I am Almighty God." Would it have been fitting then for God to have said to Abraham, "let's discuss a covenant I wish the two of us to make?" Would it have been proper for God to ask Abraham, "are you interested in making a covenant with me?" No! To whom was Almighty God addressing Himself? To none other than Abraham: a creature, a sinner. To this sinner God said "you are Mine."
Circumcision as sign of the covenant has been replaced by holy baptism. All the wealth implicit in Abraham's circumcision is then true also for me! I am by nature a child of the devil, filthy in my sins. But God sovereignly imposes His covenant upon me, so that He is my Father, His Son is my Saviour, His Holy Spirit is my Renewer. Baptism "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" means that all the riches summarised in the "Form for Holy Baptism" (page 584) are true for me. Almighty God sovereignly imposes His wealth on me, without my asking. How gracious this God is! And how incredibly rich He makes me!
GOD'S COVENANT IS ALSO WITH ABRAHAM'S DESCENDANTS
In Genesis 17:7 one reads, "And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you." At face value these words surprise us, and would no doubt have surprised Abraham, for at the time God said this to Abraham he had no children. However, God didn't need Abraham's children to be there. God said He made His covenant with Abraham and with the children He would give Abraham. It was important that God said this, so that when Abraham later received a son, he would know that the child he received was a covenant child because God had already said so, and not because the child was good or because Abraham agreed to it. Just as Abraham had no input, no say in the matter, likewise his children would have no input. God's covenant speaks first and foremost of God's relation with His people; it speaks of God's actions towards His people.
Abraham is "the father of all those who believe," Romans 4:11. That is why we speak in terms of the covenant being made with believers and their seed. God's covenant is imposed on us before we are able to make any decision.
In view of the riches of this doctrine, deBres could tell his congregation how rich they were in spite of the tensions of their day, the threats and realities of persecution. In the face of the difficulties of their circumstances, he reminded them how rich they were because God had made His covenant with them. Hence deBres writes concerning baptism, "This serves as a testimony to us that He will be our God and gracious Father for ever."
GOD GIVES PROMISES; I AM TO EMBRACE THE CONTENTS OF HIS PROMISES
We believe that God makes His covenant with believers and their children. Due to the very rich promises contained in this covenant, this covenant makes these believers and their children so very rich. Does this mean, however, that every child also receives the contents of the promises? The point is this: God's covenant contains two parts: promises and obligations (see "Form for Baptism", page 585). In order to get the contents of the promises of the covenant I must answer the obligations of the covenant. This can be compared to receiving a cheque. I don't have the $100 mentioned in the cheque unless and until I do something with the cheque, namely, cash it. The cheque itself is no more than a promise with which I must do something in order to receive that which has been promised. Likewise, with baptism. God graciously imposes His glorious covenant upon me. How do I obtain the contents of what He promises me in His covenant? I obtain the contents by responding to the promises made to me in baptism. I need to respond to my baptism! This response is faith. In faith I need to embrace what God promises me. If I fail to do that, I will not get the contents of His promises.
Jacob and Esau serve to illustrate the point. They both received the same promises, yet Jacob went to Heaven and Esau went to hell (see Malachi 1:2f). When God said to Abraham in Genesis 17:7, "And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations ..." then God meant this with respect to both Jacob and Esau (Abraham's grandchildren). God made His covenant with both of them, gave both of them exactly the same promises. Yet only one received the contents of these promises. How can this be? Faith is the deciding factor. "Since every covenant contains two parts, a promise and an obligation, we are, through baptism, called and obliged by the Lord to a new obedience. We are to cleave to this one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to trust Him, and to love Him with our whole heart, soul and mind, and with all our strength" ("Form for the Baptism of Infants", page 585). Here is described for us what faith is and entails. If I fail to believe what God has said and promised to me in the covenant, then I do not receive the contents of the rich promises God gives. I need to respond to the promises of the covenant, to believe them.
Responding to God's promises, believing them, working with them is not a 'once off' action' but a daily exercise. Today God leads my life in a particular way. In my particular circumstances today (be it an accident, a head-ache, a rebellious child), I am to work with the promises of Scripture, namely, that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). This promise of Scripture is paraphrased by the "Form for the Baptism of Infants" as God "providing me with all good and averting all evil or turning it to my benefit."
My response to God's promises then also determines how I respond to the sins I commit daily. As I reflect upon my sins of the day and repent of them, I respond to God's promises by remembering and believing that today's sins too are washed away in the blood of Christ, forgiven, for that is what God signified and sealed to me at my baptism. Similarly, in the face of the failures I daily see in myself in my struggle against sin, I respond with faith to the promise of God every time I believe again that God gives me His Holy Spirit to renew my heart. Responding to God's promises in baptism is a daily exercise.
If, on the other hand, I decline (daily) to respond in faith, my unbelief does not undo the covenant God made with me, for God's covenant stands eternally. Then the curses of God shall invariably come upon me.
CHILDREN ARE ALSO TO BE BAPTISED
Prior to and during the
days of deBres', it was said that children should not be baptised. It is still
said today. The reasons given for not baptising children include
1. the New Testament does not in any text command infant baptism,
2. the New Testament does not cite any example of infant baptism,
3. children don't understand baptism, and
4. we do not know if the children in question indeed believe.
DeBres argues strongly against the notion that children ought not to be baptised. He writes, "... we reject the error of the Anabaptists, ... who also condemn the baptism of the little children of believers. We believe that these children ought to be baptised and sealed with the sign of the covenant ...."
In Lord's Day 27.74 the Heidelberg Catechism gives three reasons why infants must also be baptised:
as well as adults belong to God's covenant and congregation." This
is a reference to Genesis 17:7, where God told Abraham that His covenant was
made with Abraham "and your descendants after you." This
notion one finds repeated in Acts 2:39, "For the promise is to you
and your children ..." God does not just make His covenant
with individuals but also with the children He gives to believers. To the
Corinthians, amongst whom there were families in which only one of the parents
came to faith, Paul writes, "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified
by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise
your children would be unclean, but now are holy" (1 Corinthians
7:14). If one parent believes, then in God's eyes the children are holy -
2. The promises of the covenant apply no less to the children than to the adults. "Through Christ's blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults." See again Acts 2:39, "and to your children." For that reason Christ also laid His hands on the children and blessed them, acknowledging the children too as heirs of the kingdom of heaven. "Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:14). Jesus was also interested in the 'little ones.'
3. Children of believers are different than children of unbelievers. "Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant, they must be grafted 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." The children of believers are different because they are God's children. (See proof-texts above.)
For us in the Free Reformed Churches today infant baptism as such is not an issue. Around us though, 'conservative Christianity' is characterised by evangelicalism. Characteristic of evangelicalism is that children are not baptised. How can this be? We have above established on the basis of Scripture that children do belong to the Covenant, and therefore should be baptised; God's promises in Jesus Christ are meant for the children too. The Gospel speaks of God sending His Son to pay for my sins when I have not even desired or asked Him to do so. This was entirely God's will. It was God who imposed His covenant gospel, salvation, on me and on the children He is pleased to give. I do not have any say in the matter. God imposes His covenant upon me. God is God, and I am a sinner. Here we come to the deciding factor with regard to baptising or not baptising infants. How does one view the relationship between Almighty God and the sinner? Today the distance between God and the sinner is being shrunk. See Diagram 3 on page 63. In the diagram, the distance between God and man is absolute. Today's theological climate, however, brings God down somewhat from the top of the page, and raises man somewhat from the bottom. Hence today there is room for the opinion and input of the sinner. So, instead of baptism spelling out God's sovereign work upon me, baptism is made into a sign that faith exists in my heart, that I am pleased to receive God's promises and believe in Him.
This attack on the relation between God and man does not pass the Reformed faith by. How long will the Church continue to embrace the notion of infant baptism? The Church will do so for as long as it holds on to the fact that God is God. As long as God is seen to be the Almighty who sovereignly imposes His work of salvation upon people dead in sin, there is a place for infant baptism. When man is given a place in the covenant in the sense that the reality of God's promises is dependent in some way on man's answer, there is no longer room for a sacrament that celebrates God's sovereign gift of salvation to dead sinners. The Church will continue to administer infant baptism for as long as she holds on to the opening section of the Form for the Baptism of Infants - which in no flattering terms describes us as filthy sinners. As soon as one raises the self, and so implicitly lowers God, the doctrine of infant baptism is at stake.
That is also when we loose our comfort. If baptism no longer signifies God's deeds to me, if baptism instead signifies that I have faith in my heart, then I'm left with doubt. For we all experience that daily our faith fluctuates, from strong to weak, from confident to doubtful. If baptism signifies the faith in my heart, then I am robbed of all comfort and security.
Baptism is about God saying, "you are mine." I have been baptised. That means that God said to me, "I am your God. My Son washed away your sin. I give my Holy Spirit to live in your heart. Nothing can ever change that." The enemies in this world can take away house and health, freedom and fortune. But no one can take away from my forehead the sign and seal of God's covenant, the promise from God that His Son died to pay for my sins so that now Almighty God is my faithful Father. " I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38,39). None of these things can ever take away the comfort of my baptism. Therefore I must hold on to what baptism is. It is the sign and seal of God's gospel to me: "You are mine." This alone gives security, come what may.
NO REPEAT BAPTISMS
Since God is God, His
promises are sure. God always means what He says, and therefore He only needs
to say it once only. Hence I am baptised once only.