A Reformed sacramentalist tells us that “Baptism is not a sign that points to the person being baptized.”
There are two separate questions here. One is about the claim that the sign is from God to us, rather than from us to God. Of course for those of us believe in sovereign grace, that sounds good. Take it in the direction of saying we don’t do anything. But of course the same folks who talk about the objectivity (or the “realism”) of the “sacraments” are the people who are most concerned to stress synergism (or 100% God and 100% man) in “sanctification” and (in the case of the federal visionists who are all sacramentalists) the conditionality even of final justification. So why this concern, when it comes to “sacrament”, to say it’s all God?
But the second and more important question concerns what the sign says. If the sign is from God to us, is the sign saying that those being baptized are promised something that that those not baptized are not promised? ( Given the idea that infants are baptized not to enter “the covenant” but because they are already “in the covenant”, does that mean that infants born to credobaptists who are not baptized are nevertheless in “the covenant”?)
If the sign is from us to God, again, is the sign saying that we have
assurance of justification already (before baptism) or is it saying
that we receive baptisim in order to find (more) assurance?
To simplify my question, if the sign (from God, or from man) is simply about an objective promise by God, why not give the sign to everybody? How will we find out if folks are “covenant-breakers” or not, unless we put them all in the covenant to begin with? Why restrict the sign only to those with assurance? Why restrict the sign only to those born to a parent who is a church member? Why not baptize everybody, as the Constantians did?
(And as a historical side-note, this conclusion can be reached by folks who do not assume the unity of all covenants as one covenant. At least some Plymouth Brethren –following the lead of Darby– taught that all infants born to members of the “universal church” could be baptized, not as a sign of anything about them except the fact that we are all born dead in sins–ie, it doesn’t matter who’s a believer or not yet, because we can be sure that everybody is born guilty and corrupt, and if that what “baptism” means, then baptize anybody you want.)
To say it again as simply as I can, if “the promise” (as if it there were only one promise in all covenants !) is a conditional promise, which says, if you believe, then efficacy, and then life, why not make put that sign, that conditional promise, on everybody? (Why with-hold it from those who won’t be hearing the gospel as much as other folks, if the sign itself is objectively preaching the gospel?) But on the other hand, if “the promise” is not conditional, but it’s saying that the sign has efficacy in that the sign itself is telling us that the person being baptized WILL believe, then what has happened to the claim about objectivity and it not being about the person?
Of course, if the sign is saying that you are “covenantally elect”, without promising anything about assurance of faith or decretal election, then what does that mean objectively? Does it mean that those being baptized are under a “covenant of works” that folks who did not get the sign are not under? One, even if that were the case, the sign would be subjective, saying something about the persons being baptized, that they are under threat of greater sanctions than people not baptized.
Two, unless they confuse works and faith, works and grace, as much as the federal visionists do, other Reformed folks need to be a lot more clear about the nature of the grace found “in the covenant” for the non-elect. If they don’t want to say that Christians stop being Christians, if they don’t want to say that the regenerate stop being regenerate, the non-FV folks need to interact
more with Engelsma and the “non-conditional covenant” folks.
Calvin on I Peter 3—What then ought we to do? Not to separate what has been joined together by the Lord. We ought to acknowledge in baptism a spiritual washing, we ought to embrace therein the testimony of the remission of sin and the pledge of our renovation, and yet so as to leave to Christ his own honor, and also to the Holy Spirit; so that no part of our salvation should be transferred to the sign.
Is Calvin saying that the testimony is only that as many as the Holy Spirit calls will be saved? Or does Calvin mean something different and more? Does Calvin mean that baptism testifies that the person receiving will be given the Holy Spirit and will be saved? I would like to say the first, but I think Calvin and his
followers want to both eat their cake and still have it at this point. They want to say it’s not about the person but only an universal (condition?) from God, but at the same time, they want to say, it’s not a condition, it’s a promise, and when you get in doubt and nothing else works, then you can remember that those the pope ordained have baptized you, and that’s something you can stand on. But then again, we need to “leave Christ his honor….”
Calvin: “Doubtless when Peter, having mentioned baptism, immediately made this exception, that it is not the putting off of the filth of the flesh, he sufficiently shewed that baptism to some is only the outward act, and that the outward sign of itself avails nothing. — Calvin Comm 1 Pet 3.21
I want to think of an analogy to the argument for effective definite atonement. Those who say that Christ died for all, even for those who will perish, must end up logically consistently with the conclusion that even those who don’t perish were not saved by Christ’s death either. Maybe they were saved by intercession, by the Holy Spirit, by faith, etc, but if Jesus died for those who perish, then it’s not the death which keeps anybody from perishing. Note–I say
analogy here. I am not saying that all who do the dialectic on baptism are logically inherently Arminian on the atonement ( of course some, maybe even many are).
If water baptism is only “the outward act” to some, then it’s only the “outward act” to all. If the “outward” act has no efficacy for some, then it has no efficacy for anybody, and then the ‘efficacy” has to be found somewhere else besides in the water baptism. Two quick notes on this. One, Leithart and his associates don’t like it when you talk about external and internal aspects of baptism, or visible and invisible aspects of “church”–but I don’t know if he would criticize
or somehow accomodate Calvin’s use of the word “outward”.
Two, “the sign of itself” avails nothing. If Kobe Bryant and I together score 40 in a game, and Kobe scores 40 of them, I can say that “by myself” I did not score much, but does this mean that I then go on to talk about our “shared efficacy” when the coach never let me off the bench? Would it not be be more honest to say– it was not the water sign which had the efficacy? But to say that, one would need to agree that the word “baptism” does not involve water in texts like I Peter 3 and Romans 6 and Colossians 2. And if you do that, the
consensus (Moo, Beasley Murray, Silva, etc) seems to be that you’re agnostic and you might as well go back to being a Plymouth Brethren or some other kind of Zwinglian.
The “Reformed” guy writes that “this distinction is valuable because when baptism’s primary meaning is subjective, our attention is drawn to the state of our own hearts. But when baptism’s primary meaning is to point to the
promises, our attention is drawn to those promises and their author.
Notice the word “primary”. Primary meaning. He wants to keep some of the subjective, because he does not want to give the sign to just anybody and all, and also he does not want it to be only a condition but also some form of comfort and assurance for those being baptized. So how does he know when to talk about the “primary” objective meaning, and when to talk about the
I know the answer. It’s a situation ethic (a little like that old assurance trick– don’t just look to Christ, look to your life, and then, and now don’t just look to your life, look to Christ, and it’s not a trick, it’s maturity and balance, or so I am told) When he’s bashing credobaptists, he talks about “it’s not about the person”. But when he’s talking to federal visionists, he talks about “non-primary distinctions” between the outward and the inward etc.