Tag Archives: Baptism

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…


Raising Covenant Children

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What difference does it make if the children of believers belong to the covenant of grace?  Chapter four of my book “I will be your God”:  An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace addresses this question.  What follows here is an excerpt:

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These spiritual truths must have an impact on how we concretely raise our children. Let us look at some of the ways. At home, as we talk to our children, we must teach them that they have been given rich gospel promises by our God. We must explain those promises, how beautiful they are, how rich, and how much good news. As soon as they can understand, we begin telling them about their baptism and what it means. From their youngest days, we tell them that baptism means that they have been claimed by God to be his child. We teach them to understand that claim, accept it, believe it, and then live accordingly. In other words, we disciple our children, we shepherd them. We raise them in the ways of the Lord; we raise them to be Christians.

In many churches, they have special youth pastors. So do confessionally Reformed churches like ours. We actually have a whole army of youth pastors in our churches. They are called parents. Parents are the front-line youth pastors in a Reformed church. Parents, your calling is to do what you promised to do at the baptism of your children: “instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he or she is able to understand and have him or her instructed therein to the utmost of your power.” Dear reader, if you are a parent, I want to urge you to take that calling seriously. It is your calling first and foremost, not the church through catechism classes or the teachers at the Christian school.  It is your calling to disciple and shepherd the children God has entrusted to you.

Yet, having made that point, no one should think that Christian education is optional for Reformed believers. We find this emphasized in article 58 of our Church Order:

The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions.

Here our churches have agreed that consistories shall pay attention to what is happening with the education of our covenant children. The elders have a responsibility to ensure that, as much as possible, the covenant children of each congregation are being taught in a way that not only does not conflict with what the church teaches, but which actually harmonizes with what the church teaches. This article in our Church Order follows article 57 about baptism. There is a good and biblical reason for that. Christian education follows from the covenant status of our children. Let me be clear: that does not begin with the consistory breathing down your neck about it. That begins with you being convinced in your heart as a Christian parent that your child has a special covenant status from which necessarily follows a Christian education. At our Christian schools, your child is educated in a way that fits with their position in the covenant of grace. That is just not going to happen in a public school. While there might be individual Christians teaching within the public system, it is a system dominated by a worldly and anti-Christian philosophy of education from the earliest levels to the highest. We want our children to honour God and acknowledge him in all their ways from their youngest years. Therefore, faithful parents of covenant children will always place enormous value on Christian education and even make great sacrifices to make it happen.

There is another important impact of our children’s place in the covenant and that has to do with the church. As participants in the covenant of grace, we believe that all our children are members of the church of Christ. They are not potential members or “members-in-training.” All our children, even the very youngest, they are all members of our churches. Sometimes there is this mistaken notion that our children become members when they do public profession of faith. This is simply not true. Our children become members when they come into the covenant of grace, which is to say, from the moment they are conceived in their mother’s womb. What happens at public profession of faith is not membership in the church, but a shift from being a non-communicant member to being a communicant member. At public profession of faith, our children take responsibility for their church membership. Yet they have always been members of the church. That is an important point of difference with so many around us. So many Christians today do not look at their children as being members of the church. This is not a theoretical question — it has a practical bearing.

One crucial place the practical bearing comes into play is public worship. If the kids are not members, then they do not really belong in public worship. They do not understand anything anyway; they are not going to get anything out of it. Therefore, instead of meeting with God along with the adults, the kids can and should go to some program designed especially for them. This is what inevitably follows from restricting the covenant and church membership to believers only.

We take a different approach and we always have. Children belong to the church, therefore they belong in public worship as soon as possible. They belong in that covenant meeting between God and his people, because they are part of God’s people. To leave them out would be to say that the call to worship for God’s people does not apply to them. If we are consistent with following through on our covenant theology, that would be unthinkable.

There was that occasion in Mark 10 where the disciples tried to keep those covenant children away from Jesus. The disciples thought that Jesus was way too important for these little kids. Scripture says in Mark 10:14 that when Jesus saw this he became indignant. It infuriated him that his disciples would restrict these little covenant people from having access to him. Then he took these little people in his arms, he hugged them and blessed them. Our Lord Jesus is not here today on earth to hug the little brothers and sisters, but he is still here to bless them too whenever we worship. It would make Jesus indignant for anyone to keep them away. Our covenant children belong in the church and they belong in our worship services. Indeed, still today we can say, “Let the little children come to Jesus, do not hinder them!”

As soon as they are able, we want to see our covenant children meeting with their God. “As soon as they are able” means that there is going to be some variation and we cannot set a hard and fast rule about it. Some children are squirmier than others. I get that — I have kids too. Some kids come into this world naturally more docile and they can sit in church when they are two. Other kids are going to take a little while longer and that is perfectly okay. Yet they all belong there eventually. There are going to be some challenges that come along with that. Sometimes kids learning to come to church are going to make some noise and be a bit restless. The rest of us in the covenant community have to cut parents and kids some slack, be patient, and just rejoice that these kids are there. Let the little children come! They belong with us in God’s presence, all of them. God is present to bless them as well as us.

As parents, there are some things we need to do to make that happen. From as soon as they able to understand, we start teaching them about what church is and what we are doing when we gather for worship. This is part of discipleship. We teach them to be respectful and reverent in church. When they are able to read, we make sure they have a Bible and a Book of Praise. We make sure they start following along and that they are singing with the rest of the congregation. We teach them to do these things from when they are young. We do not tell them it is optional, that you can sing if you feel like it. No, we are all part of God’s covenant people and so we all sing together, young and old, good singers and not-so-good singers. When the collection comes, we have to make sure that our kids are actively participating in that element of our worship too. They can put money in the collection. That is part of worship too, something they can easily do to worship the LORD. Moreover, what about the sermon? Many times, the minister will work the kids into the sermon. Parents of covenant children should follow up on that and make sure their kids understand. God’s Word is for them too. You can often be surprised what kids pick up and we should encourage them to be listening to God’s Word as it is preached. It is for them too, as part of God’s covenant people they are also being addressed.


Why No Rebaptism?

A friend recently wrote asking for resources about the topic of rebaptism.  One of the things I sent him was this little piece that I wrote for Reformed Perspective back in 1999.

WHY IS THERE NO REBAPTISM FOR EX-ROMAN CATHOLICS WHO JOIN A REFORMED CHURCH?

A good question!  We could even extend this question to those who come to us from other false churches.  This difficult question has a long history in the Christian church.  Since the time of Augustine, the Christian church has recognized the validity of baptisms administered by heretics — with one condition:  a valid baptism must be administered by an ordained minister of the gospel according to the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19.

However, an appeal to history is meaningless if we do not also show from the Scriptures why the church has always maintained this position.  One thing we notice from the Scriptures is that it is always the role of God which is central.  We see this for example in Colossians 2:12.  We do not get the impression from the Bible that baptism depends upon the one who is baptizing, other than the fact that the administrator must also be one ordained to preach the Word.  As long as the baptism is administered according to the command of Christ it is valid.  We must look to what baptism signifies, namely the covenant promises of God which are signed and sealed by God to the one being baptized.   God is the active subject in the administration of baptism, and thus a baptism is valid so long as it is administered by an ordained minister of the gospel in the name of the Triune God.  For that reason we should accept the baptism of an ex-Roman Catholic (administered under those conditions), but we should not accept the baptism of an individual baptized in an evangelical church only in the Name of the Lord Jesus.

Tied up with this question is the question of what constitutes a church.  Consider this:  in our confessions we imply that the Roman Catholic Church is a false church.  But note that we still consider it a “church.”  It has gone drastically astray, but it retains some things which permit us still to speak of it as a “church.”  It has vestiges or traces of what the church should be.  It still confesses the Triune God and baptizes in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (although adding many unscriptural elements).  It still maintains the Apostles’ Creed, although it is understood in often radically unscriptural ways.  Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, we do not find traces of what the church should be.  A baptism administered among the Jehovah’s Witnesses should never be recognized as valid.  Of course, that leads right back to the conditions for a valid baptism.

For further study:  Dr. J. Faber wrote his doctoral dissertation on this very subject: Vestigium Ecclesiae:  De doop als ‘spoor der kerk’  (Goes:  Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1969).  Although this book is in Dutch, there is an English summary by Rev. G. VanDooren: “Baptism as ‘Vestige of the Church.'” in Canadian Reformed Magazine, Vol. 18, Nos. 37-40 (1969).  For the history of this issue, cf. “Baptism as Administered in Non-sister Churches,” by Rev. G. VanRongen, in Una Sancta Vol. 34, No. 26, and Vol. 35 No. 3 and No. 4.


Belgic Confession Oddities

A couple of weeks ago we had a Classis Ontario West where a number of recent seminary grads were being examined for candidacy in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  During one of the Doctrine and Creeds exams, a colleague asked one of the men something about article 15 of the Belgic Confession.  The aspiring candidate was asked to evaluate a change that the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) had made to article 15.  The CanRC edition (along with the original and every other edition that I’ve checked) says this about original sin:

“It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”

The examiner said that the word “baptism” was replaced with “regeneration” in the RCUS edition.  I’d never heard of that before.  I made a mental note of it.

When I got home, I checked the RCUS website to see this for myself.  However, this is what I found in article 15:

“Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain…”

Hmmm…..was the examiner wrong?  We had some e-mails back and forth and he was sure that they had changed it.  Giving my colleague the benefit of the doubt, I did some further research with the help of the Wayback Machine.  There I found it, on a 2006 version of the official RCUS website:

“Nor is it altogether abolished or wholly eradicated even by regeneration; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain…”

Further investigation by my colleague revealed that the RCUS did make the change, but somehow the changes have not been made on the most recent update of their website.

This amendment to article 15 is an odd, idiosyncratic change.  I have not yet heard a convincing reason for it.  “Baptism” was originally mentioned there because of the background of the struggle with Rome.  Rome claimed (and still claims) that baptism washes away original sin.  What is gained by swapping ‘regeneration’ for ‘baptism’?  Is there a new error being addressed?  What’s going on here?  If somebody could fill us in, it would be much appreciated.


The Efficacy of Baptism

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…