Baptism Isn’t Faith

Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (( This is a repost from February 2010.))

One of the major ways in which the Federal Vision departs from the historic Reformed/Presbyterian confessions is in their view of baptism.  Federal Vision teachers teach that baptism is an effective instrument which unites a person to Christ.  Here are a few FV quotes to show this significant departure.

“By baptism one is joined to Christ’s body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of his work” (Summary Statement of AAPC’s Position on Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation).

“In baptism, we are transferred by the power of the Spirit, from the old Adam, and the wrath and curse of God which rested upon the old man, into the new man, which is Jesus Christ.”  “By baptism the Spirit joins us to Christ since he is the elect one and the Church is the elect people” (Steve Wilkins, “Covenant and Baptism” & “The Legacy of the Halfway Covenant”).

“All baptized persons receive, objectively, the same promised inheritance and privileges” (Rich Lusk, “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?”).

“Baptism is covenantally efficacious.  It brings every person baptized into an objective and living covenant relationship with Christ, whether the baptized person is elect or reprobate” (Douglas Wilson, “Credos: On Baptism,” #8).

Unlike the Federal Vision, the Reformed position doesn’t attribute this type of efficacy or instrumentality to baptism.  Instead, Reformed theology talks about faith alone (sola fide) as an instrument: the Heidelberg Catechism says we are grafted into Christ and receive all his benefits and our inheritance by faith alone (Q/A 20, 21, 60, 61; cf. Calvin’s Institutes, IV.15.6).  The catechism is unambiguous: the only way we can make Christ’s benefits ours is by faith alone (Q/A 61).  Baptism signifies the truth that Jesus’ blood washes away sins, but baptism’s water does not do that (Q/A 65-66, 72).

In other words, faith alone unites us to Christ and through that faith we receive all the blessings of salvation.  Baptism is a sign that points us to Christ’s cleansing blood, and is a mark/seal of the promises of salvation.  The Belgic Confession says that cleansing and regeneration are “not…effected by the external water” but by the Spirit applying Christ’s blood to the sinner’s soul through the instrument of faith, which “keeps us in communion with” Christ and all his benefits (BCF 22, 34).

Here’s the historic Reformed position articulated by Herman Bavinck.

“Faith alone apart from any sacrament communicates, and causes believers to enjoy, all the benefits of salvation…Baptism can only signify and seal the benefits that are received by faith and thereby strengthen that faith”  (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.515).

Though this is a brief intro, from the outset it is clear that these two positions are at odds.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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4 comments on “Baptism Isn’t Faith

  1. Rob says:

    Hello and thanks for your concise summary of the issue. The citation from Bavinck is clear but what about the following points:

    -The Form for the Baptism of infants used in the URCNA states that the children of believers are “received into grace in Christ,” just as they shared in the condemnation in Adam. So the Form wants us to see covenant children as “standing in grace.”

    -The promises of the covenant are unpacked in this Form in the present tense. The care of God the Father and the cleansing by God the Son are presented not only as future realities to be received through faith but as a present reality for the one baptized.

    -Finally, in the second prayer of the Form, God is thanked because he has forgiven us and our children all our sins and because he has received us (including again the children) through the Holy Spirit as members of his only begotten Son. Then it is explicitly added: “You sealed and confirmed this to us by holy baptism.” So the Form appears to regard covenant children as united to Christ.

    Since the Form is of 16th century provenance, it can be included in the category of “Reformed” sources. I wonder if you have any comments about how to understand the language of the Form in light of the sola fide of our confessions.

    • Rob – thanks for the comments. Here are a few of my thoughts:

      – The form (#1 of 3 forms) has three main points. The first two points are directed towards believers, those who can understand (in the present tense, as you noted), the third point talks about children of the covenant who “do not understand these things.” So the language in the first two points aren’t directed towards infants specifically.

      – As far as these phrases you mention: “children…are received unto grace in Christ,” and “[God] has forgiven us and our children all our sins…;” I admit the language isn’t the best, but the other two very similar forms use this language: “our children are received into God’s favor in Christ” and don’t include the “forgiven” line in the prayers. Also, the form uses the term “signs,” which means there is a distinction between the sign and thing signified.

      – I don’t know the exact history of the forms, and when or how they’ve been updated, nor do I know what kind of translations these are (literal, dynamic, etc.). So the two phrases you mentioned don’t necessarily prove “baptism = union with Christ” without further study.

      – Finally, the forms must be read in line with other historical Reformed theology. Since none of the older Reformed confessions or orthodox teachers teach “baptism = union,” I’d hesitate to say the historic forms DO teach that. Make sense?

      Thanks again!
      Shane

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