I’ve quite enjoyed Sinclair Ferguson’s The Holy Spirit. A colleague recently recommended it to me and I’m glad that I followed the recommendation. It’s a wonderful, detailed, biblical-theological study of the Holy Spirit. In chapter 9, Ferguson discusses the relationship between the Spirit and the sacraments. I found what he wrote here on baptism to be especially helpful.
He noted that “baptism is first and foremost a sign and seal of grace, of divine activity in Christ, and of the riches of his provision for us. It is not faith that is signified and sealed. It is Christ.” (198). In baptism, “the Spirit bears witness to Christ, takes from what belongs to him and shows him to his people, clothed in the garments of his messianic ministry” (199).
The covenant of grace is here in this explanation of baptism. It’s mentioned a bit earlier where Ferguson notes that the Holy Spirit is the one who glues God’s people into covenant relationship with himself (196). Ferguson would no doubt agree that baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. However, as Ferguson works it out here, it is more in the background, and what receives more attention in this discussion is the way in which the Holy Spirit uses baptism in the lives of believers. I suppose that makes sense in a book about the Holy Spirit.
I found these two paragraphs to be particularly thought-provoking:
Martin Luther…would say to himself when hard pressed with temptation, ‘I am a baptised man’; thus recalling the grace and resources of Christ which the Spirit illumines through baptism, he responded with a confession of faith. In this way, baptism realizes what it signifies, just as God’s word accomplishes that for which he sends it.
An understanding of the way in which the Spirit uses baptism (as well as the Supper) preserves us from the twin errors common in sacramental theology: 1) the error of so subjectivizing the symbolism of the rite that our use of it throws us back upon our own actions, decisions and experiences, and thus distorts the function of faith, which is to turn away from the resources and actions of the believer to the grace that is his or hers in Jesus Christ; and 2) so objectifying the effectiveness of the blessing of the symbol that we identify the reception of the sign with the reception of what it signifies, and give no place to the faith which finds Christ himself unveiled in the sign, or to the ongoing ministry of the Spirit. The efficacy of baptism and the Lord’s Supper can no more be separated from the ministry of the Spirit than from the efficacy of the reading and hearing of the Scriptures. (199)
If I understand Ferguson correctly, he is saying that the promises of baptism are real for each and every person who is baptized. There is an objective promise signed and sealed. Nevertheless, that promise calls for faith in every person who is baptized so that they may receive what is promised. If you think my reading is off, I trust you’ll let me know…