What Does This Sacrament Mean?
As with the Lord’s Supper, in the Reformed tradition, this sacrament is much more than a mere symbol of being united with Christ, or a testimony of one’s personal faith, or the dedication of a child to God. The sacrament of baptism is a sign and seal of God’s promise to claim us as his own, unite us to his Son, wash away our sins, and give us the gift of the Holy Spirit as we embrace these promises by faith.
While we make some distinction between the baptism of infants and young children, and the baptism of older children and adults, especially in the vows taken in the baptismal covenant, there is but one baptism, which offers the same blessing and assurance.
God’s action in baptism is highlighted in our confessions, as the following selections from the Belgic Confession (Art. 34) demonstrate:
“By it we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may wholly belong to him whose mark and sign we bear. Baptism also witnesses to us that God, being our gracious Father, will be our God forever. . . .
“In this way God signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the bodies of those who are baptized when it is sprinkled on them, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit.
“It washes and cleanses it from its sins and transforms us from being the children of wrath into the children of God.
“Our Lord gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the ‘new self’ and stripping off the ‘old self with its practices.’ . . .
“We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.
“And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults.
“Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them. . . .”
Baptism was instituted by Christ after his victorious resurrection. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). In this command, Christ himself makes baptism the universal entrance into his church, and the mark of our discipleship.
- Baptism unites us to Christ in his death and resurrection. In Romans 6:1-11, Paul identifies baptism as our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (vv. 3-4, NRSV). Baptism symbolizes a deluge of God’s grace through which the old self dies and a new self in Christ comes to life.
- Baptism brings us into the new society, the body of Christ. This society lives by the norms of the kingdom of God. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek . . . slave or free . . . male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28, NRSV). We become members of Christ and members of each other in the one body.
- Baptism signifies the washing away of our sins. Peter announced at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Paul argued that the Corinthians were to abandon their pagan ways of life because in baptism they were “washed” and “sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:11).
- In baptism we are adopted into God’s covenant family through Christ. Being baptized “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” declares that we have a new name because we have been adopted through the Son into the family of the triune God.
- In baptism we are promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. After Peter calls people to repentance and baptism on Pentecost, he adds this promise: “And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
- Our children should also be baptized, for all the promises of baptism are for them as well as for us (Acts 2:39). We are to teach our children that they have been baptized and prayerfully encourage them to affirm the promises of their baptism by professing their faith in Jesus Christ.
- All these blessings of baptism become ours through faith. “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27, NRSV). While our faith is in Christ alone, the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 69) teaches that baptism assures us that Christ’s salvation is personally ours.
How Should Baptism Be Celebrated?
- Synod 1994 prescribed the minimal elements necessary for the celebration of baptism: the scriptural words of institution, the baptismal covenant (including God’s promises and our promises), the act of baptism with water and in the name of the Trinity, and prayers.
- Since baptism is often celebrated less frequently than the Lord’s Supper, and because it marks one’s entrance into the church, the church has most often included a brief instruction to remind those being baptized, their parents, and the baptized community of its meaning.
- The Prayer of Thanksgiving, which includes an invocation of the Holy Spirit and the biblical story of God’s salvation through water, has been a feature of baptism from the time of the early church and has been prominent in the Reformed churches from the time of John Calvin. This prayer also highlights baptism as a sacrament alongside the Lord’s Supper and seeks the Holy Spirit’s blessing to bring new life through the waters of baptism.
- Since baptism is a covenantal act, it requires faith and commitment on the part of those being baptized or their covenant representatives (parents). For adults, this requires a profession of faith, and for infants, the faith of the parents and the congregation, and their commitment to nurture the faith of the child toward a mature profession of faith.
- Some approved forms for baptism in the CRC also include the ancient renunciations that come from the earliest days of the church. The renunciation of Satan and of the powers of evil alongside the profession of faith in Christ displays the radical nature of the baptismal covenant. This is appropriate for infant baptism, since the parents are making a covenant commitment to raise their children in the Christian faith and in the covenant community of the Christian church.
- Because it is a sacrament in which an earthly element is a sacred sign and seal of spiritual reality, water should be heard and seen in the celebration of baptism, and the baptized should get wet. The trend toward larger fonts, or vessels that accommodate immersion, are helping congregations better express the material reality of the sacrament.
- In many churches, the name given at baptism is the “Christian name,” or the first and second names, of those baptized, leaving off the surname or “family name.” The practice signifies that in baptism one becomes a member of the family of God, and is, in effect, “renamed” into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- In some churches, an elder presents the candidate, or the parents and child, for baptism before the church. This further emphasizes that baptism is a church sacrament and not a family event.
- Another subtle but powerful expression of the new identity and citizenship of the baptized (infant) involves having the officiant rather than a parent hold the child for baptism, thus symbolizing further the child’s adoption into God’s covenant family.
- In some churches, ministers also make a sign of the cross with a finger on the forehead of the baptized as they say a blessing.
- After baptism, as an expression of welcome into the church of Christ, a baptized child may be carried into the congregation and shown to all while a hymn is sung.