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…
Thanks for this citation from Sinclair Ferguson. I’m not sure that Ferguson would sign on to your summary of his position, but perhaps he would; I wouldn’t. It is true that the promise of baptism summons faith in every baptized person, but I’d be careful about linking the reception of what is promised with faith to the extent that the promise means nothing for a child who dies in infancy. I would rather say that the blessings of Christ are really pledged to all baptized children, and that all baptized children must grow up to embrace them in faith. Covenant children who die in infancy are saved by virtue of the pledges of God’s mercy toward them, even though such infants are completely ignorant of these pledges.
Of course, the child of believing parents who dies in infancy receives the blessings of Christ. That’s Canons of Dort 1.17.
I don’t understand the difference between your position and mine. I can agree that “the blessings of Christ are pledged [which I understand to be synonymous with “promised”] to all baptized children, and that all baptized children must grow up to embrace them in faith.” I don’t see that as being any different than what I’m saying. We agree, I think, that there is a real promise for every single covenant child in baptism. Am I right?
Thanks for posting this! Question: can you explain the difference between this understanding of Baptism and that of someone like Michael Horton and R. Scott Clark?
I could be wrong, but I think that they would agree with this formulation as far as it goes. Certainly that’s my impression from my reading of what they’ve written and from personal discussions. They (and I imagine Ferguson too) would want to qualify and explain it further, however.
We agree that every promise is a real promise for every single covenant child; we differ on your formulation, “that promise calls for faith in every person who is baptized so that they may receive what is promised.” Covenant children who die in infancy do not believe and yet they receive what is promised. I would rather say something like, “the blessings promised at baptism belong to all covenant children unless and until they spurn the covenant, despise their baptism, reject their Saviour, etc.” Does that work for you?
Bill, I’m not with you on that formulation. That’s something different than what I was taught as a catechism student, what I was taught at our seminary, and what I understand Scripture and our Confessions to be teaching. I appreciate the explanation of J. Van Bruggen in his commentary on the Belgic Confession, The Church Says Amen:
“The connection between the sign and what it signifies is federal or covenantal. God promised in his covenant to bind his grace to the use of the sacraments (Q&A 69 of the Heidelberg Catechism, ‘and with it gave’). This usage entails more than giving or receiving. The promised benefit of cleansing is only received in the way of faith, to which the Lord also encourages us through holy baptism.
Over against this some say that baptism does not assure us an entitlement to forgiveness through grace, but that we have forgiveness already. They base this on what is stated in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 69: that I am washed, and in Q&A 73: that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins. However, one may not forget that in these answers it is the believing confessor who speaks; he who trusts the LORD. It can be compared to the receipt of a cheque. The cheque itself does not say that you have $100, but that you are entitled to $100. That cheque is a pledge, a proof of that entitlement, proof of the promise. The recipient who trusts the reliability of the cheque will say, ‘I have $100.’ Yet that cheque itself is not $100, nor the guarantee that the owner has it, but the evidence and the guarantee of the promise made and his entitlement to the $100. In order to receive the amount stated in the cheque, one needs to go to the bank and cash it. Likewise, to receive what is promised in holy baptism one must go to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
On November 10, 1997, Dr. Gootjes lectured on this subject in our Dogmatics class at the Canadian Reformed seminary. He rejected your formulation, and taught instead that it is better to view baptized children as being promised the benefits, being entitled to the benefits. He appealed to Romans 4:13 and said that the “promise is appropriated through faith, through faith we embrace the promises of God.”
I’m not exactly sure what your catechism instructors or seminary professors have to do with this issue, unless of course the assumption is that we are not free to think differently.
I find it fascinating that you appeal to J. Van Bruggen, Sr. For all of the strengths of the book, this is the one area where I repeatedly hear criticisms: Van Bruggen had a strange view of covenantal promise. Perhaps you should read Trimp’s article, “The Promise of the Covenant” in the Faber festschrift.
Lastly, I’m still quite curious whether you believe covenant children who die in infancy receive what is promised at baptism. If they do, why do they?
The reason I mentioned my catechism and seminary instruction is to preempt anyone who might think that your formulation is standard Canadian Reformed teaching. I get a bit of traffic on this blog and most of it is not Canadian Reformed. There are enough misconceptions out there about us.
As for Van Bruggen’s “strange view,” it would seem to be quite common in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Just reviewing my wife’s catechism notes and it’s there too. It’s also in the Teacher’s Lesson Book for I Belong, a resource used for many catechism classes in the Canadian Reformed Churches (including my own).
With regards to the children of believers who die in infancy, I believe what Canons of Dort 1.17 says. The children of believers are holy in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents. Therefore, I do not doubt the election and salvation of our unborn children who were taken to the Lord before they could be baptized.