Monday, January 11, 2010

Baptism as a Seal of Saving Blessings

There seems to be a lot of confusion of late surrounding baptism, and more specifically, what kind of salvific blessings can be attributed to the sacrament. In the minds of some, if things like union with Christ or forgiveness of sins are the results of faith, then we mustn’t give baptism any of the credit. After all, we’re not Federal Visionists, right?

I think the Westminster Confession is helpful here. We read in xxviii.6:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwith-standing, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost....
So it appears that there is a thing called “baptismal efficacy,” but we are cautioned against insisting that baptismal efficacy takes place at the time of baptismal administration. What, then, is baptismal efficacy? In WCF xxviii.1 it says:

Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life....
Baptism, then, is a seal to the believer of his union with Christ, his regeneration, and the forgiveness of his sins. Now the whole point of a “seal” is that it provides some sort of confirmation or authentication of something. In this case, the seal is baptism, which is meant to function for the believer as that which confirms his participation in the blessings of the entire covenant of grace.

Now here’s the kicker: If the Confession says that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of its administration, it stands to reason that there is a “moment” to which it is OK to “tie the efficacy of baptism.” Now, we would all agree that that moment is when we exercise saving faith. It follows, therefore, that it is perfectly valid for the believer (who has exercised saving faith), seeing his baptism as the seal of his regeneration, union with Christ, and forgiveness of sins, to attribute to that sacrament the blessings of the covenant of grace. In other words, he can say, “I have been united with Christ through baptism,” or “I have been forgiven of all my sins because I have been baptized.”

To deny this not only demonstrates a person’s suspicion of the language of confessional Reformed theology, but it also leaves him with little to say in response to the sacramental language of Scripture.