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Baptism (Blogging the Belgic: Article 34)

We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.

Reflecting what we read in Ephesians 4:4-6, Christians of all traditions confess that there is one hope, one faith, one God, and one baptism, but the understanding of what this one baptism looks like and means is something that differs among Christians. Article 34 of the Belgic Confession lays out what the Reformed tradition believes is true regarding baptism (and is one of the longer articles of the Confession - and thus a longer post!). Before moving into the article itself, it is important to remember that this understanding of baptism builds upon the understanding of sacraments discussed in the previous article, with baptism being a sign and seal that God has given to Christians to assure them of His promises and to nourish them -- it does not save them nor is it primarily about what we do, but rather what God has done for us in Christ.

The opening words of this article on baptism draws attention to a connection between the sacrament of baptism and the practice of circumcision, which was a sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants. Baptism now replaces the practice of circumcision, being bloodless because Jesus Christ has shed his blood and been the sacrifice. Circumcision looks forward to the death of Christ while baptism looks back to the fact that He has cleansed us. As the article states, “We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled, has by his shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood, which anyone might do or wish to do in order to atone or satisfy for sins. Having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, Christ established in its place the sacrament of baptism.” This connection between baptism and circumcision is found in Colossians 2:11, which talks about the circumcision of Christ in relationship to baptism. Moreover, there is also a connection between circumcision and baptism in that circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign for him and his children after him in Genesis 17:7-10. The same language was used to describe baptism in the sermon that Peter preaches on the days of Pentecost in Acts 2:38.

A further link between circumcision and baptism comes is evident you read the language in the Old Testament regarding the circumcision of the heart in Deuteronomy 10:12-17 and 30:6 and Jeremiah 4:1-4: circumcision was a symbol that was to point to rebirth and transformation, the removal of the sinful nature. Baptism is also a symbol of the rebirth and change that happens, with the Confession noting, “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. This does not happen by the physical water but by 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, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan. So ministers, as far as their work is concerned, give us the sacrament and what is visible, but 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 (Colossians 3:9).”

I realize that this is a large section with many dense ideas, but hopefully you will note in these words that baptism itself does not change us (it is just physical water), but instead points to the change that happens in us, both cleansing  and renewing us so that we can be children of God.

In addition to being a sign of the change that God performs inside of our hearts, baptism also is a mark on us that we belong to God. As the Confession states, “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. …. Therefore Christ has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’.” When we baptize someone, we tell them that by being baptized, they now belong to God.

This understanding of baptism as a sign and seal is important in order to comprehend why Reformed believers baptize their children. It follows the same pattern as the practice of circumcision in Israel, as the promise is for a believer and for his children: “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, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the ‘circumcision of Christ’ (Colossians 2:11).” We read in the book of Acts (Acts 16:15 and 30-34) and letters of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:16) where households are baptized, presumably parents and children. In addition, since Jews of the day would have given the sign of the Old Covenant on their male children (and as the confession notes here, sacrifices also happened for children), it would make sense that they would expect to place the same sign on their children (but now it has expanded to male and female). Paul states that the children of believers are holy (1 Corinthians 7:14 )-- there is something special about being born into a covenant family. Like the people of Israel, however, these children need to take hold of the covenant through faith as well and experience the inward transformation of which baptism is a sign of.

People sometimes ask whether a person can be baptized multiple times, perhaps first as an infant and then again when they  confess their faith. The Belgic Confession says no, as this re-baptism or second baptism would break the symbolism found in it. “For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it—for we cannot be born twice.” One is born and then born again by the Spirit, but this being born again experience is singular. Some will say that those who were baptized as infants do not receive  the same  benefit from baptism as those who are baptized  when they are older, but the Confession notes that the benefit is not tied primarily to the moment of baptism, but rather all of life after it: “Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it, but throughout our entire lives.” If we don’t remember being baptized because we were baptized as an infant or child, we have a reminder that God has been with us even when we did not know it, and that our faith did not even come through our own seeking of God but through His placement of us in a family of faith.  

The other issue that often comes up in the discussion of baptism is how you should be baptized:  must one be immersed with water or can one have water sprinkled or poured on them? While the Confession does not directly address this question, this lengthy article does point to the foundation for why the Reformed Church normally practices baptism by sprinkling. It is not because it would be difficult to immerse an infant (other traditions actually do!), but because of symbolism found in sprinkling, with the Confession noting, “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.”  A reference to sprinkling is found in 1 Peter 1:2 and that in the Old Testament priests would sprinkle to make things clean. What I find even more compelling, but not explicitly mentioned in this article, is Ezekiel 36:25-27 which speaks about sprinkling and water and the Spirit: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Therefore, sprinkling is symbolic of the work of Christ and thus a proper way to be baptized; it is not the only way to be baptized, but saying it does not count ignores the way that it reflects Scripture.

Because Christians disagree in terms of who and how to be baptized, we must not spend more time looking at the differences and forgetting about the symbol of baptism and what we all agree about. Regardless of how or when you were baptized, in baptism you see a picture of what God has done for us and been connected to the family of faith of all times and places - as even when there are differences in practices, churches are still baptizing. Don’t forget what God has done for you and that you are part of a family of believers. This is important to remember when you might struggle with your faith or find challenges to the faith in this world. God has given it as a gift for us; we must cherish this gift rather than disagree about it.

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