Belgic Confession Article 34, "Holy Baptism."

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 How do Reformed Christians understand baptism? 

 

 

 

Belgic Confession, Article 34; Day 1: An End of All Other Sheddings of Blood

by Rev. Martyn McGeown

 

Hebrews 9:22 “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood there is no remission…”

 

In Article 33, we looked at the idea of sacraments in general. Now we consider baptism. Remember two things as we study this important subject. First, we must make a distinction between the sign of baptism (water baptism) and the reality behind the sign (spiritual salvation). Second, sacraments are not only signs, but also seals, or pledges of the goodwill and grace of our God toward us, and therefore not empty symbols. If we bear these two things in mind, we will avoid many errors.

The Belgic Confession contrasts baptism with circumcision. This is fitting because they have essentially the same meaning. “Jesus Christ,” says the Confession, “having abolished circumcision … hath instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof.”

To understand baptism, therefore, we examine circumcision.

When an Israelite boy was but eight days old, the priest or his father would remove part of that child’s flesh in a rite called circumcision. This was done according to God’s express commandment. This taught the people that their corrupt flesh had to be cut off, that they had to be cleansed, in order to have fellowship with God. Colossians 2:11 calls circumcision “the putting off the body of the sins of the flesh.” What man did with hands, God did spiritually without hands in the heart. Thus, God promised to circumcise the hearts of Israel and of their seed after them (Deut. 30:6).

Circumcision was, therefore, not a sign of Jewishness, of physical descent from Abraham or of citizenship in the nation of Israel. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant, in which Jehovah was Israel’s God and Israel was Jehovah’s people in their generations for an everlasting covenant (Gen. 17:7, 11).  This must be the case because a sign is a visible thing pointing to an invisible, spiritual reality. Neither physical descent from Abraham nor citizenship in Israel are invisible, spiritual realities, but spiritual circumcision of the heart and covenant membership are.

God abolished circumcision in the New Testament and fulfilled it in the better sign of baptism. He did this for at least three reasons. First, only boys were circumcised. In the New Testament, there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). Second, circumcision divided Jews from Gentiles. Christ came to unite believing Jews and Gentles in one body by His sacrifice on the cross (Eph. 2:13-16). Third, and most importantly, circumcision involved the shedding of blood. In the New Testament, there is no more shedding of blood. By one sacrifice Jesus Christ has accomplished everything which all shedding of blood in the Old Testament signified and promised. Thus the Belgic Confession says, “He, having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, hath instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof.”

Circumcision was a sacrament. It was a sign and a seal: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of righteousness of [the] faith” (Rom. 4:11). In the New Testament the signs and seals are baptism and the Lord’s Supper, both bloodless signs and seals of the finished work of our Saviour.

 

 

 

 

Belgic Confession, Article 34; Day 2: Baptism: The Sacrament of Initiation

by Rev. Martyn McGeown

I Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit are we all baptised into one body.”

God has given two sacraments. Both sacraments are bloodless, because sacrifices have ceased with the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross; and both sacraments point to (signs) and assure us of (seals) salvation in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Of the two sacraments, baptism is the sacrament of initiation for by it “we are received into the church of God.”

Remember, again, that the one baptism of Scripture must be distinguished. Real, spiritual baptism (the reality, that which the Spirit performs in the hearts of God’s people) is signified and sealed by water baptism (the sacrament). Not all who receive the sign (water baptism) receive the reality (spiritual salvation in the blood of Christ). Not all who are baptised in water are baptised by the Spirit and truly saved. We must never forget that, lest we fall into the errors of those who seek salvation in water baptism.

According to the Belgic Confession, water baptism as a sign is an initiatory sign, that is, it is the sign and seal of God bringing us into the covenant, church and kingdom of God. The Spirit baptises us into Christ at the beginning of our spiritual life, so we are baptised with water as a sign of the beginning of our Christian life.

This explains, too, the use of prepositions in connection with baptism. Prepositions are small but important words in Scripture which describe position or movement. The most common baptismal prepositions are “in” and “into.” Jesus commands that His people be baptised “in [lit. “into”] the name of [the Triune God]” (Matt. 28:19). Galatians 3:27 teaches, “For as many as you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ.” I Corinthians 12:13 teaches, “For by one Spirit are we all baptised into one body.” And Romans 6:3 teaches, “Know ye not that so many of us as were baptised into Jesus Christ were baptised into his death?” From these passages we conclude that in [real spiritual] baptism we are brought into association with Christ; that we are united to Him in His death and resurrection; that we come into fellowship with the Triune God through Jesus Christ the Mediator; and that we are united to Christ’s spiritual body which is the church. All of these glorious benefits (union with Christ and reception of all His benefits) are signified and sealed to us in the sacrament of water baptism.

Again, we issue the caution. Water baptism neither causes nor brings about these things, nor are these things dependent on water baptism. These things are promised to all believers in the Gospel, and our confidence that these things are real and are given to us personally is strengthened and confirmed by the use of the sacraments.

 

 

 

Belgic Confession, Article 34; Day 3: Baptism: An Ensign and Banner

by Rev. Martyn McGeown

Song of Solomon 2:4: “He brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love.

Remember the illustration we used of the sacraments in previous meditations—a wedding ring. The sacraments are the token and pledge of Christ’s love to His church, reminding her of His faithfulness and assuring her of His tender affection for her as she awaits His Coming. A wedding ring serves another function—it is a mark of ownership. When a man places a wedding ring upon his bride, he says, “You are mine. You belong exclusively to me. You must share your love with no other man.” And when a man sees a wedding ring on the finger of a beautiful woman, that ring speaks: “This woman is married. Do not touch her, lest you anger a jealous husband!”

According to the Belgic Confession, baptism marks us as belonging to Jesus Christ. This ought not surprise us since we have already learned that baptism signifies and seals our union with Jesus Christ (we are baptised into Him). Baptism, therefore, acts as an ensign or banner. That figure, too, is familiar to us. Every organisation rallies under a flag of some kind. For the Americans, it is the “Stars and Stripes,” for the British, it is the “Union Flag.” Armies, too, have ensigns and banners under which they gather. The banners are all different, so that one army can be distinguished from another. It would cause utter confusion on the battlefield if soldiers could not identify the banner under which they were fighting.

Spiritually speaking, baptism is the banner under which we rally as soldiers of Jesus Christ. By baptism, Christ marks us as belonging to Him. Negatively, baptism separates us “from all other people and strange religions.” In the Old Testament, there were the circumcised covenant people of God, and the “uncircumcised Philistines.” In the New Testament, there are the baptised people of God (the church) and the non-baptised heathen. Positively, baptism marks us out as Christians: “that we may wholly belong to Him, whose ensign and banner we bear, and which serves as a testimony to us, that He will forever be our gracious God and Father.”

This has great implications for how we live. A bride who wears the wedding ring of her husband does not live as if she belonged to herself; a soldier who bears aloft the banner of his commanding officer does not live as he pleases; and a Christian who is baptised does not live as if he belonged to the world. Christian parents, who bring their children for baptism, and adult converts, who by baptism are received as members of the Christian church, must remember this.

This solemn responsibility comes upon all baptised members—both adults and children—that we live holy lives in devotion to the one in whose name we are baptised. Those who live in ungodliness deny their baptism. Let us live as baptised believers in gratitude to our Heavenly Bridegroom whose love is confirmed to us in the sacrament of baptism!

 

 

Belgic Confession, Article 34; Day 4: Baptism: A Washing

by Rev. Martyn McGeown

Acts 22:16: “Arise and be baptised and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord…”

Water baptism is a washing. This ought to be obvious because of the element of water. In baptism we do not drink the water, nor do we drown the person in water, but we sprinkle or pour the water on the person who is being baptised. Water is the universal cleansing agent, and it is used both in the Old and New Testament to purify from filth or defilement (Ezek. 36:25; Heb. 10:22)

Even children can understand this very important aspect of baptism. Why do we take showers? Why do we wash our hands? Because we are dirty! Why during the worship service do we bring a person—often a little child—to have water sprinkled upon him? Because in so doing we confess that we and our children are sinners—spiritually dirty, defiled and unclean—and we must be washed.

Baptism tells not only that we need to be washed, but that we are washed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ. Baptism declares to sinners, guilty and worthy of punishment, shameful and polluted by nature, that God has cleansed and purified us. Baptism takes our eyes off ourselves and directs our attention to the perfect work of Christ. There on the cross our sins were washed away. And when we see the water of baptism washing the dirt from a baptised person we are reminded of and strengthened in our faith in the power of Christ’s blood to cleanse us from sin.

Thus water baptism becomes a seal or a guarantee of spiritual salvation. Do you doubt that pure water has the power to wash away the dirt of the body? Then do not doubt that the blood and Spirit of Christ cleanse you from all sin. Of course, we do not believe that water washes away our sins, even the water used in the sacrament of baptism. It is not magical water! But we do believe that the water of baptism is used by God Himself to assure us that Christ’s blood washes away our sins. This is because the Spirit is pleased to use baptism to strengthen our faith. All this explains the sacramental language of our Belgic Confession: “signifying to us, that as water washeth away the filth of body … so doth the blood of Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost, internally sprinkle our souls of all filth and unrighteousness.”

How foolish, then, to come to water baptism puffed up with notions of one’s own righteousness! One who comes to be washed confesses that he is unclean! But what a beautiful picture we have in baptism of our salvation—just as water cleanses the body, so the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ cleanse us from all sin. Believe that and be comforted!

 

 

Belgic Confession, Article 34; Day 5: Christ Our Red Sea

by Rev. Martyn McGeown

I Corinthians 10:1-2: “All our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and were all baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”

In the Old Testament, there are two types or pictures pointing ahead to the reality of spiritual baptism, which reality is now signified and sealed to us in the sacrament of water baptism. The first is the Flood. Of this Peter writes, “the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us” (I Peter 3:21). The second is the passing through the Red Sea of Exodus 14. The Belgic Confession makes reference to this second picture: “the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass, to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, that is the devil, and to enter into the spiritual land of Canaan.”

The typology of the passage through the Red Sea is clear. Israel is God’s church, loved, chosen and redeemed by the blood of Christ. Egypt is the world of sin and death, especially its enslaving power, with Pharaoh as the tyrant of that world, the devil. Moses is the Mediator of God’s people, and therefore a picture of Jesus Christ. He calls us to follow Him and promises to bring us safely into the Promised Land and into fellowship with God there. Canaan is the land where God dwells, and is therefore a picture of heaven. And the wilderness wanderings are a picture of the Christian pilgrimage, a life of trials, and a life lived in faith, following Jesus Christ wherever He leads us. The passage through the Red Sea is the means by which God separates His people from sin and death and consecrates them to God, and the way in which God finally destroys Egypt and the power of sin. Therefore the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of the cross through which God’s people are redeemed. Thus, the Belgic Confession fittingly and beautifully identifies the crucified Christ as “our Red Sea,” and the sprinkling of His blood as the way of our salvation. All of this is signified and sealed to us in baptism.

Several other points we notice from this typology. First, not all the Israelites who experienced the type or picture experienced the reality. All the Israelites were baptised (I Cor. 10:2), but not all were united to Jesus Christ by a living faith. The same is true in the church today: all the members of the church, and all the children of godly parents, are baptised with water, but God gives the reality only to His elect. Second, by baptism unto Moses, Israel was consecrated or set apart unto God and His Mediator, Moses, who is a picture of Jesus Christ. We saw that already when we considered baptism as an ensign and banner. Third, in both pictures of the Red Sea and the Flood, the ungodly were immersed, drowned and destroyed, while God’s people were sprinkled and saved. This has implications for the mode of baptism: the Belgic Confession speaks of sprinkling, not immersion. And, finally, in the passage through the Red Sea, children were baptised. This has importance for the subject of infant baptism in the church today.

What a rich picture God has given us in baptism! Let us use the sacrament believingly and gladly for God’s glory and for our own comfort!

 

 

Belgic Confession, Article 34; Day 6: Not That This is Effected by the External Water

by Rev. Martyn McGeown

I John 1:7 “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”

Baptism signifies and seals regeneration unto us: “the blood of Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost, [doth] internally sprinkle the soul, cleanse it from its sin, and regenerate us from children of wrath, unto children of God.” In addition, baptism signifies and seals unto us, “[God’s] gifts and invisible grace; washing, cleansing and purging our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts, and filling them with all comfort; giving unto us a true assurance of His fatherly goodness; putting on us the new man, and putting off the old man with all his deeds.”

As we see the sprinkling of water in the sacrament we are reminded of these marvellous benefits and assured by the Spirit that these benefits are indeed ours. As the water washes us from dirt, so surely and more so do the blood and Spirit of Christ cleanse us from all sin.

But, lest we trust superstitiously in the sacrament of water baptism itself, the Belgic Confession adds these words: “Not that this is effected by the external water …”

These words are necessary to confute the errors of Roman Catholicism. At the time of the Reformation, and now, Rome taught, and teaches, the error of baptismal regeneration. The Catechism of the (Roman) Catholic Church (1994) states, “By baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin” (paragraph 1263). Earlier, it teaches, “The sacrament is also called the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit” (paragraph 1215). Rome teaches the opposite of the Belgic Confession. Our creed declares, “Not that this is effected by the external water …” Rome insists that spiritual salvation is effected by the external water.

Rome’s error is simple, and deadly. Rome confuses the sign with the reality, and thus overthrows the very nature and meaning of sacraments. Sacraments are signs and seals. They are not, and can never be, the reality which they signify. We will see this again when we look at Rome’s errors concerning the Lord’s Supper. Rome fails to understand the sacramental union, that Scripture speaks of the sign in terms of the thing signified because of the close connection between the two, for example it speaks of “the washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5.

Wisely, however, the Belgic Confession does not overreact to the errors of Rome. Neither the element of water nor the minister who baptises can give the reality, but this does not mean that baptism is an empty sign: “The Lord giveth that which is signified by the sacrament, namely the gifts and invisible grace.” We do not seek the reality in water, but neither does God deceive and mock us. God graciously gives the thing signified to us. That’s the beauty of our salvation: all of grace!

 

 

Belgic Confession, Article 34; Day 7: One Only Baptism

by Rev. Martyn McGeown

Ephesians 4:5: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

At the time of the Reformation, the Reformed churches battled against the Roman Catholic Church on the left, and against the Anabaptists on the right. The Belgic Confession is harshly critical of Anabaptism: “we detest the error of the Anabaptists.” This is the case, especially because the civil authorities in Europe wickedly grouped all Protestant “heretics” with the radical Anabaptists. Many of the Anabaptists were violent revolutionaries; some were mystics; others had heretical notions of the Person and work of Christ, but all had one thing in common: they rejected infant baptism and insisted on rebaptism for their followers. The name Anabaptism means “Rebaptism.” The spiritual children of the Anabaptists are especially the Baptists and Charismatics.

Against all Anabaptism, the Belgic Confession insists on one baptism. “Every man who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal ought to be but once baptised with this only baptism, without ever repeating the same: since we cannot be born twice.”

The Bible is clear: “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5)!. The Holy Spirit baptises all of God’s people but once into Christ (Gal. 3:27), but once into Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3) and but once into Christ’s spiritual body (I Cor. 12:13). Just as we are not born again, and again, and again, so we are not baptised again, and again, and again, either with the reality or with the sign of water. Reformed churches, therefore, refuse to baptise again someone who was properly baptised in another church, as long as their previous baptism was valid—with water, in the name of the Triune God and by an ordained officebearer.

But perhaps someone might object. Should we not be baptised over and over again because we sin over and over again? Not at all: “Neither doth this baptism only avail us, at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.” The Spirit engrafts us but once into Christ, but the effects of that spiritual baptism are ongoing. Martin Luther would often take comfort from his baptism. When doubts and temptations assailed him, he would say, “I am baptised.” By this, Luther was not trusting in his water baptism, but reminding himself of the sign and seal of baptism, that as surely as water washes away the filth of the body, so surely he was washed from his sins in the blood and Spirit of Christ.

An elderly saint can have the same comfort today as he sits in a baptismal service. Many years ago he was baptised with water. He cannot remember his own baptism, and he certainly does not need to seek another baptism, but every time he sees a baptism he is reminded of it: “I am baptised. I have—once and for all—the reality which is signified and sealed to me in water baptism. And believing that, I have comfort.” As do we!

 

 

Belgic Confession, Article 34; Day 8: The Baptism of Our Children

by Rev. Martyn McGeown

Acts 2:39: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children and to all that afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”

Reformed churches have always practiced infant baptism. We do so, not because we can find an explicit command in the Bible to do so—there is none—but because of God’s covenant promise to our children.

Again, the Belgic Confession finds a parallel between baptism and circumcision. In the Old Testament, God’s covenant included the children of believers. Therefore, they were marked with the sign of the covenant. Nothing has changed in the New Testament, except the sign itself. In fact, we would be surprised, if under the Old Testament times of types and shadows the children of believers had greater privileges than they do now under the New Testament with the coming of Christ. That would be the case if children were no longer in God’s covenant. But Peter immediately on the Day of Pentecost assures the people that God’s promise still includes the children of believers—“for the promise is unto you and to your children” (Acts 2:39).

The argument for infant baptism is surprisingly simple. God promises to give to our children the reality of salvation. Therefore, we give to them the sign of that which God promises. Since God is faithful and keeps His promises, we can be assured as Christian parents that God will save and has already saved our elect seed. That is why we treat the children of believers—not the way the Baptists do, as “little vipers,” as unsaved, unregenerate children—as the lambs of Christ’s flock and the children of God. Thus the Belgic Confession insists, in opposition to the grievous and distressing error of the Anabaptists, “indeed Christ shed His blood no less for the washing of the children of the faithful than for adult persons, and therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that which Christ hath done for them.”

First, children of believers are members of the covenant of God. This means that God says about our children, “I will be their God and Father, to love them, care for them and save them from their sins.” In every manifestation of the covenant God declared to His people that He included the children. Second, children of believers are citizens of Christ’s kingdom. Therefore they are ruled by the Word and Spirit of Christ (Mark 10:13-14; Luke 18:16). Third, children of believers are members of the church. Paul addresses them as such (I Cor. 7:14; Eph. 6:14; Col. 3:20). These promises are not to the children when they grow up but to the children already as children.

If children have the reality—spiritual salvation in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life—they must be given the sign and seal of the reality. We believe, says the Belgic Confession, that they “ought to be baptised and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised, upon the same promises which are made unto our children.” We do not, as the Baptists do, wait until our children are old enough to confess their faith before we baptise them.

What mercy! Christ washes us and our children from sin in His own blood, and He has given us the sign and seal of baptism to assure us of this truth. In this hope we bring forth and raise children to the glory of His name!