Tag Archives: Baptism

“Plain Water” — The Reformation and Worship

The Reformation wasn’t only about theology.  It was also, and perhaps most centrally, about doxology.  It was about the right giving of glory, about worship.  That was the central thesis of Carlos Eire’s 1986 book, War Against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin.  It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what really drove the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

At the heart of the Reformed drive to purify Christian worship was a principle.  That principle was sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Our worship is to be governed only according to the Word of God.  God alone has the prerogative to determine how we are to worship him and his prerogatives are expressed in the Scriptures.

That key principle found expression in the Reformed confessions.  For instance, article 7 of the Belgic Confession says that Scripture is sufficient for our faith and practice.  Then it adds, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  Later, in article 32, the Confession insists:

We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded.  Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the conscience in any way.

Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in QA 96, “We are not to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  That is the most succinct expression of the Reformed principle of worship.  In more recent times, it’s been called the regulative principle of worship.  It’s simply the application of sola Scriptura to worship.

Naturally, there is a background to this in the pre-Reformation church.  In the medieval church, things had been added and subtracted from Christian worship.  This had been done on human authority, without any divine approbation from the Scriptures.  When the Reformation arrived, people again became attuned to the Scriptures and they realized that the church’s worship had become idolatrous.  Worship was in need of renewal according to the Bible.

A noteworthy example of this is found in article 34 of the Belgic Confession.  This article first speaks in general terms about the meaning of Christian baptism.  Baptism has replaced circumcision.  Baptism is the means by which we are “received into the church of God.”  Through baptism we are set apart from the world.  Then the Reformed churches confess this:

For that reason he has commanded all those who are his to be baptized with plain water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

Notice especially the mention of “plain water.”  Those two words are pregnant with meaning.

“Plain water” is directed at the ways in which Rome had added to baptism.  In his book Flesh and Spirit, Steven Ozment describes how baptism was administered by Rome around the time of the Reformation:

The traditional service of baptism began with the priest blowing gently under the eyes of the newborn and commanding the devil, “Flee from this child, unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  The child then received the mark of the cross on its forehead and chest and a pinch of consecrated salt in its mouth, this time accompanied by the words, “Take the salt of [divine] wisdom, and may it atone for you in eternity.”  Thereafter, the priest imitated Christ’s healing of a deaf-mute (Mark 7:33-34) and a blind man (John 9:6) by dabbing a mixture of his own sputum and dirt in the child’s nose and ears, while pronouncing a double command, the first for the child, the second for the devil:  “[Dear child] receive the sweetness [of God]…devil, flee, for the judgment of God is near.”  The priest then anointed the child’s chest and shoulders with olive oil and placed a consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam — the holy chrism — on the crown of its head.  The final acts of the service belonged to the godparent, who took the naked, baptized child from the priest and clothed it in the traditional white shirt or gown (the Wester, Alba, or Westerhemd) — symbols of purity and acceptance into the body Christian– which the godparent provided for the occasion.  The godparent then named the child, often after the godparent.  The service concluded with the placement of a candle in the combined hands of the child and parent(s), who were exhorted to “receive the ardent and blameless Light [of God].”  (page 78)

That was a long, complicated description, wasn’t it?  And how much of it is commanded in Scripture?  You can see why the Belgic Confession says so much with two words about baptism:  “plain water.”  That’s how Christ commanded baptism to be done, so that’s how we do baptism.  It’s simple and biblical.

With 500 years since the Reformation, is this Reformed principle of worship still relevant?  Look around.  You’ll see Protestant churches that add and take away from Christ’s commands for worship here, there, and everywhere.  Sadly, there are churches where there is no biblical preaching to speak of.  There are churches which neglect the sacraments.  There are churches which substitute dramatic productions (on the stage or on the screen) for preaching.  In some “Presbyterian” churches, they’ve at times added liturgical dancing.   There have even  been “Reformed” churches where they decided to preach on The Simpsons rather than the Word of God.  It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened!  For this reason, we need to learn again from the Reformation about worship.  We need to go back to the faithful summary of Scripture in our Reformed confessions.  When we do that, we will worship God only as he commands in his Word — no additions or subtractions.


Luther: Baptizatus sum (I am baptized)

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I have heard and read it several times:  when Luther was tempted by the devil, he would look at the words written in chalk on his desk: “baptizatus sum” (Latin for “I am baptized”).  In connection with my upcoming catechism sermon on Lord’s Day 26, I decided to look into this a little more.  I have been unable to find an exact reference for the words being written in chalk on his desk.  However, I did find several other references which I find rather interesting.

In his biography, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Heiko Oberman quotes Luther:  “The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian.”  The endnote refers to the source of this as WAT 6. no.6830; 217, 26f.

A blog entitled Liber locorum communium provides a few relevant quotes from Luther, including this one:  “I am a child of God, I am baptized, I believe in Jesus Christ crucified for me” (translation mine).  The source is given as  TR 5658a, WA TR 5, p. 295, ll. 27-30.

Finally, there is Because of Christ, the memoirs of the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten.  In a footnote, he says that the full quote from Luther is:  “Behold, I am baptized, and I believe in Christ crucifed” (translation mine).  Unfortunately, he does not provide the source.

The intriguing thing about each of these quotes is that baptism does not stand alone — it is joined to faith.  Was Luther always consistent in maintaining the appropriate connection between baptism and faith?  Patrick Ramsey says no.

 


Personal Responsibility

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Does calling for personal responsibility make one into an Arminian?  Some Reformed people have real trouble with holding people accountable for the spiritual choices they make.  Some get uncomfortable when Reformed preachers make a distinct call to faith and repentance.  They feel that this somehow undermines God’s sovereignty.  After all, if God wants to save someone, he will do so in his own time and in his own way.  Calling for people to respond with repentance and faith seems to say that human beings may be trying to do something contrary to God’s purposes.  In fact, once I was even told by a Reformed church member that the Heidelberg Catechism is Arminian when it says that justification is mine, “if only I accept this gift with a believing heart” (QA 60).  Apparently, the Catechism is also Arminian when it says that forgiveness belongs to believers, “as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel” (QA 84).  Some folks really stumble over that word “accept.”  How can that be Reformed?

Leaving aside any popular misunderstandings of what constitutes Arminianism, can we speak about the need for all of us to personally accept God’s gospel promises?  Does an acknowledgement of human responsibility add up to a denial of divine sovereignty?  Or, to put it another way, does divine sovereignty mean that we are mere puppets on a string or perhaps pre-programmed robots who can only follow the Programmer’s wishes?  These are important questions and they’ve been wrestled with many times throughout church history.

One path we might take in exploring these questions could take us back to Klaas Schilder (see here for a short bio).  Personal responsibility in the covenant of grace was one of Schilder’s emphases.  Against the background of others who placed everything under the umbrella of divine sovereignty, Schilder sought to drive home the reality of the covenant as a relationship between God and his people, a relationship where human beings are treated as completely responsible for how they respond to divine overtures.

A good summary of Schilder’s approach can be found in the essay of S.A. Strauss in the book Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder (yes, as noted before, an infelicitous title).  Strauss noted that Schilder was contending with the covenant views of two theologians in particular:  Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth.  Writes Strauss:

Schilder observed the same weakness in both schools of thought, even though this weakness arose from different motives.  With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, both reasoned so strongly from the perspective of the eternal decrees of God that man’s responsibility in the covenant was underemphasized.  In contrast, this responsibility was a basic motive in Schilder’s theology: in the covenant God treats man as a responsible being and confronts him with the choice of “all or nothing,” for God or against him!  Schilder therefore did everything in his power always to define the covenant in such a way that justice was done to man’s responsibility. (Always Obedient, 21)

Schilder’s point of departure in this approach was not God’s inscrutable eternal decrees, but his dealings with humanity in history.  God’s decrees are certainly behind all he does, but what is accessible to us and what we experience are his dealings here and now.

There are consequences that follow from this and one of the most marked is going to be found in preaching.  Reformed preaching which acknowledges this reality is not going to allow for or encourage passivity amongst God’s people.  Covenant preaching of this sort will not countenance fatalism.  Strauss elaborates:

…it is Schilder’s view that true “covenant preaching presents the strongest appeal to human responsibility.  This is why such preaching is also so tremendously serious, and revealing…comforting, but destroying all excuses for idleness [maar het stuksnijding van alle duivels-oorkussens].”  Such covenant preaching is a prohibition against imagining going to hell while being on the way to heaven, and it is a prevention against imagining going to heaven while being on the way to hell. (Always Obedient, 25)

Taking Schilder’s approach means that a Reformed preacher is not going to be soft on human responsibility.  In fact, you should expect a preacher who has learned covenant theology from Schilder to emphasize this rather strongly.

What about baptism?  Where does that fit in here?  Strauss explains that Schilder taught that all who are baptized receive a concrete address from God, “a message that God proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally:  if you believe, you will be saved.” (28-29).  However, if a baptized covenant member rejects God’s overtures in unbelief, such a person will come under God’s covenant wrath and curses.  Greater blessings and promises imply greater responsibility and accountability.  Strauss concludes about what Schilder wanted to emphasize most strongly:

…that the covenant should never be allowed to lead to a false sense of security.  People of the covenant may never think that salvation is already theirs because they have received the promise.  The promises of the covenant are not predictions; they imply demands…

This is, then, the great and lasting signifance of what Schilder taught us about the covenant.  When God establishes his covenant with human persons, he treats them as responsible beings.  As Schilder characteristically put it, the covenant stands or falls by its rule “all or nothing.”  (Always Obedient, 30-31)

The fact of the matter is that no one, least of all covenant members, can use God’s sovereignty to evade their personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.  In fact, to do so would be to give in to a Satanic way of thinking.  Satan wants people to stand idly by and be passive before God — because passivity before God always means plenty of activity that pleases the evil one.

So is it Arminian to insist on human responsibility?  If it is, then not only am I guilty, but so is Klaas Schilder.  Of course, the Protestant Reformed allege exactly that.  Followers of Herman Hoeksema, most notably David Engelsma, have insisted that we are essentially Arminians because we hold to the view that there are conditions in the covenant of grace.  This is not the time to enter into a full rebuttal of that view.  Only let me say that their position is the result of viewing everything, and especially the covenant, through the lens of election.  Everything has to fit in a neat system that we humans can comprehend.  Against that, I acknowledge God’s full and complete sovereignty in our salvation in line with everything in the Canons of Dort, but at the same time I stress the human responsibility to repent and believe found in the Heidelberg Catechism and elsewhere.  That is a responsibility far more weighty for those who have been included by God in the covenant of grace.  In the covenant, God treats us as responsible creatures and, as such, calls each one of us to repent from sins and accept the gospel promises in true faith.


Is Your Worship Reformed?

Some years ago, I sat through a worship service of a neighbouring church that wasn’t Reformed.  What struck me most was where the emphasis fell in their worship.  The proceeedings began with music.  A band was on stage with singers.  They sang several praise and worship-type songs.  Eventually, the worship leader said, “Now that the worship is over, our pastor is going to come up and give his message.”  The “message” was rather anti-climactic following the emotional “worship experience.”  The focus at this church seemed clear enough.

One of the distinctives of Reformed churches is the doctrine of the means of grace.  This doctrine, when conscientiously maintained, also makes Reformed worship distinctive.  You can tell you’re at a Reformed church when the doctrine of the means of grace is taken seriously and applied to the church’s worship.  The focus in a Reformed worship service is on the ministry of the Word and sacraments.  Let’s look at how these things work as means of grace and why they need to remain our focus.

The first means of grace is the reading and preaching of the Word of God.  Scripture is opened, read, and expounded.  The law of God is applied to the congregation.  The congregation is made aware of its sin and misery.  That has the dual purpose of making us humble in the presence of a holy God and then also driving us to the cross of Jesus Christ.  This application of the law takes place with the reading of the Ten Commandments, but also through the reading and preaching of other Scriptures.  The gospel is also applied to comfort the congregation.  God’s people are encouraged with the promises of his love and salvation in Jesus.  This takes place in many Reformed churches with the Assurance of Pardon, but then of course also through the reading and proclamation of God’s Word.  Finally, the will of God as expressed in his law is also brought to bear on a thankful congregation.  We are taught God’s good will for our lives and shown how to demonstrate our love for this gracious God who has so deeply loved us.  This too happens through the reading and preaching of Scripture.

Scripture is a means of grace because this is how God plans to bless his people when he meets with them.  His intent is to bless them through his Word.  Through his Word, the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard.  It’s heard as he rebukes, as he comforts, and as he instructs.  When done faithfully, we do not not merely hear a human voice when a minister preaches.  Faithful preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God — “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as it what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess. 2:13).

The other means of grace is the administration of the sacraments.  Reformed churches administer the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, following the command of Christ and his apostles.  Baptism is administered as the sacrament of initiation.  Through baptism, we are publicly admitted into God’s covenant and church.  Through baptism, we are given the sign and seal of God’s covenant promises.  God is demonstrating a gracious stance towards those who receive baptism.  However, at each baptism, the entire congregation is encouraged with God’s grace.  We are all visually reminded of how our gracious God first approached us and took us for his own.  You see, baptism not only speaks to those directly involved in the baptism (the one being baptized, the parents), but the entire congregation!

The Lord’s Supper is administered as the sacrament of nutrition.  It is common for many to view the Lord’s Supper merely as a memorial, akin to placing flowers on the grave of a departed loved one.  The Reformed view includes a memorial aspect, but it is far richer.  At this sacrament, Jesus Christ is truly present in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit.  He is present to bless believers who partake of the bread and wine in faith.  He will refresh and nourish them, strengthening their faith.  Through the Lord’s Supper, we are truly fed by our Saviour himself.

The sacraments are means of grace because this too is how God wants to bless his people as they meet with him.  He wants to continue giving them the opposite of what they deserve in view of their continuing sinfulness.  He claims these sinful people for his own and he nurtures them with spiritual food and drink.  Moreover, our gracious God knows that the Word is often received with weakness.  Hearing alone is difficult for us as sinful creatures.  So, in his grace, he adds these two multi-sensory sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Now why are these means of grace at the center of a Reformed worship service?  Why are these things the focus and emphasis?  It goes back to the covenant of grace.  The covenant is a relationship between God and his people.  Who stands in the center of this relationship?  Not me or you.  No, Jesus Christ stands in the center as the Mediator of the covenant.  He is the one who “greases the wheels” of this relationship.  If a worship service is reflective of this covenant relationship, shouldn’t Christ and his ministry stand central?  Shouldn’t the focus be on Christ as he ministers to us with the Word and sacraments, as he “greases the wheels”?  There is a distinctly Reformed logic to our focus on the means of grace and it has everything to do with the covenant of grace.

Yes, of course, there is still a place for our response in prayer and song.  The covenant relationship is two-sided and God expects that his people will respond to him.  By virtue of the covenant, there must be a back and forth in our worship services.  That’s not an issue.  No one has ever said that prayer and song should be done away with in Reformed worship.  The question is:  where is our focus?  What is at the center?  What is the main attraction in a Reformed worship service?  The distinctly Reformed answer, drawn from Scripture, has always been:  the means of grace, Word and sacrament ministry.  With an emphasis on Word and sacrament ministry, the means of grace, your worship will be Reformed — which is to say, biblical.


Holy Baptism Signs and Seals the Benefits of Christ

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The following is the introduction to a sermon I recently preached at Providence Canadian Reformed Church.  Lord’s Day 26 was the Catechism lesson.

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Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

This afternoon we’re looking at the sacrament of baptism.  There are many wrong ways of thinking about baptism.  The errors tend to go in one of two directions.  In one wrong direction, people say too much about what baptism does.  We can think about the Roman Catholic Church here.  For them, baptism washes away all sins and puts one in a state of grace.  That’s saying far too much.  But there’s another wrong direction where people say too little about baptism and what it does.  For many Christians, baptism is just a statement to the world.  That’s saying far too little.  So there are these two wrong directions that one could go:  ascribing too much to baptism or ascribing too little.  Overstating it or understating it.

We want to avoid the extremes and find the biblical balance, saying just what God says in his Word.  Our Catechism helps us to do that.  It helps us by pointing out that baptism is a sign.  Like any sign, it points to something.  Right there you see that there’s a little warning against saying too much about baptism.  No one who understands what a sign is confuses it with what the sign points to.  No one would confuse a sign that says a certain city is 50 km away with the city itself – that would be foolish.  We say that there’s a difference between the sign and the thing signified.  But baptism is also a seal.  A seal is like a guarantee – it’s something you can count on, depend upon.  When a king puts his seal on a decree, you know it’s genuine and you know it can be trusted.  Right there you see that there’s a little warning against saying too little about baptism.  If baptism is a seal, there’s something very significant going on when it’s administered.  Someone is saying something weighty.

What baptism signs and seals are the benefits of Christ.  As a sign, baptism points to what Christ has done, especially in his death on the cross.  As a seal, baptism says that God makes certain promises in relation to what Christ has done – promises which are trustworthy and dependable.  This afternoon we’re going to explore all this further.  It’s important that we be clear about baptism and what Scripture says about it in general.   We’re going to see that holy baptism signs and seals the benefits of Christ.

We’ll look at baptism and:

  1. What it means
  2. What it doesn’t mean

Click here to continue reading this sermon…