Q: What is baptism?
A: Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord's.
Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
As I said in my prior post, we get a lot of questions about why we baptize infants. It may be one of the more "controversial" points of doctrine within Presbyterianism. And, as I also said, I won't be saying anything new here in these blog posts. But what I would like to do, even before discussing infant baptism, is present a theological survey, guided by the Scriptures and the catechism this week, of what baptism is. And, as noted in the prior blog, we need to understand the New Testament sacraments not only within the context of the New Testament, but also within the context of the whole of Scripture. If we don't understand the Old Testament roots of the sacraments, we will never understand their use, their application, and how God uses them as means of grace.
The catechism speaks of baptism being a sign and seal, marking our participation in the benefits of the "covenant of grace", and it's important to note that a major way in which the New Testament relates to the Old Testament is the fact that believers in both testaments were and are under the very same covenant of grace. The covenant God made with Abraham, for example, is the same covenant God made with David is the same covenant Jeremiah would predict is the same covenant Christ established the night before he was betrayed which is the same covenant we are now under. And while each covenant would reveal a little more about the covenant of grace, about God's plan to redeem a people for himself, it is all part of the same covenant. So when we get to the "new covenant" we must remember it is not entirely "new". There are new things about it, new things revealed to us in light of the coming of the Messiah, but the "new covenant" is really a RE-newed covenant between God and his people. There are no new terms and conditions, there is no new path of salvation laid out in the new covenant. It is all part of the same covenant of grace that God had already established. And when we understand this covenantal continuity between the Old and New Testaments, we begin to see how the Bible really is one story of God redeeming a people to be part of his eternal kingdom. It is one, unified history of redemption.
I know that one thing that used to puzzle me is the question, "where did baptism come from?" John the Baptist, for example, appears on the scene baptizing people in the New Testament. Christ, before his ascension, gives the command to baptize but never explains what it is. Somehow, somewhere, the Jewish people of the first century knew what baptism was! It would be wrong to say that John the Baptist "invented" the idea of baptism. The catechism begins by defining baptism with the phrase, "the washing with water". And here, I think, is the answer to the question, "where did baptism come from?" The idea of washing with water can easily be connected to the Levitical ceremonial washings, which every Jew in the first century would have been familiar with. Under the Levitical law, there are lists of things that are "clean" and "unclean". Certain animals were labeled as clean or unclean, certain activities, such as touching the corpse of a dead family member made you unclean, and of course, sin made you unclean. Being unclean is not a statement of being sinful (who would be sinning by touching the corpse of a dead family member to prepare the body for burial, for example?), but rather, it was a ceremonial distinction. Who is permitted or not permitted to participate in the religious life of Israel? Only those who are ceremonially declared as "clean". And how did one become ceremonially clean? There are many instructions in the book of Leviticus for this, and most of those instructions include the idea of washing with water. But the important thing to remember is, the ceremonial washings with water did not reflect on the condition of a person's heart, but rather, it changed a person's administrative status. In other words, it changed a person's ceremonial standing from unclean to clean, from unholy to holy in a ritualistic sense so that that person could participate in the religious life of Israel. And by being made ceremonially clean, by being made ceremonially holy, a person would then be a recipient of the benefits of being able to participate in Israel's religious ceremonies. The hope would be, then, that because they are ceremonially clean and able to participate in the religious life of Israel, their hearts would be changed and they would become not only declared holy (clean) on a ritualistic level, but also holy in their hearts. And Jews in the first century, again, who would be quite familiar with all of this, would understand at least on this level the idea of baptism, of "washing with water".
Now, that's a lot of Old Testament to digest! But as I said, we cannot and will not understand New Testament theology without understanding it's foundation, which is the Old Testament. And as understanding ceremonial washings helps us understand baptism, so too does the sign and seal of circumcision, which is very much tied to this idea of "ceremonial washings". Circumcision was a sign and seal, a statement of administrative change (again, not a change in one's heart, but rather, in one's ceremonial standing) from "unholy" to "holy", from "unclean" to "clean", in the Old Covenant. Circumcision got you into the visible covenant community of God (the people of Israel). It was a visible sign that you were set apart and included in this people. This is why anyone who "converted" to Judaism in the Old Testament had to be circumcised. This is why, in the days of the early Church, there were a lot of discussions about whether the Gentiles who converted to Christianity should be circumcised or not. It was a sign that you now were part of the covenant people. And baptism, as a sign and seal, does the same thing in the new covenant. It's a visible, physical marking out, a sign and seal of one's change in "administrative status", a change from one being considered "unclean" to being considered "clean". It's what "gets you in" to the visible people of God (remember from last week, sacraments act as seals in that we receive a confirmation that we are the recipients of the benefits of the covenant community). This is why when someone outside of the covenant community (the visible church) professes faith in Christ, they are to receive the sign of baptism. This is why baptism is required for membership into the visible covenant community, that is, the local church. This is why baptism is required before someone is able to participate in the Lord's Supper.
It is important to note that the catechism says baptism "signifies and seals" our ingrafting into Christ. It does not say that baptism "achieves" our ingrafting into Christ. What the catechism is saying here is that to be "baptized into Christ", as Paul would say, is not a statement of salvation, but rather, is a covenantal term. When Paul speaks of us being baptized into Christ, he is using covenantal language. He is using Old Testament language. He is not saying that being baptized into Christ achieves our union with Christ in terms of salvation, but rather, in terms of getting us into the covenant community of which Christ is the head. If anyone would understand his words in terms of salvation, that person is confessing baptismal regeneration whether they realize it or not. They are essentially saying that it is baptism, ultimately, that achieves our union with Christ. But Jesus Christ as the head of the church is not just a reality for the invisible people of God, but also the reality for the visible people of God. He is the one who represents God's covenant people, visible and invisible, before God's throne, much the same that Moses or Abraham or David represented the visible covenant people before God. An example of this is how Paul talked about being "baptized into Moses" in 1 Corinthians. No one was saved in a final sense by being "in" (or "under") Moses. Rather, Moses was acted as the covenant representative of the people before God. And just as circumcision was a sign and seal of being included into the covenant people, it put them, administratively, under the covenant representative, it made a person "ceremonially holy" so that the person could be included in the religious life of Israel and expose them to the benefits of being part of that religious community, so too is baptism a sign and seal of being "ceremonially holy". It puts them into the covenant people, with Christ as the covenant representative, and allows them to participate in the benefits of being part of the covenant body. It allows a person to participate in the religious life of God's people. And what are the benefits of the covenant of grace that a person gets to participate in once they're baptized? Some of the benefits are full participation in worship, the benefit of being in fellowship with the people of God, the benefit of sitting under the administration of the gospel, be it in preaching or in the Lord's Supper, and so on.
One way that may be helpful in thinking about this is if we think of the covenant community, be it OT Israel or the NT church, in terms of an outer and inner covenant community. The inner covenant community is the true people of God, those who have been made new creations in Christ, and the outer covenant community being the professing people of God which is a mixed number. That means that in the "outer" community, there are those who profess faith who truly do have faith in Christ, and those who profess faith who do not truly have faith. What circumcision in the Old Covenant and baptism in the New Covenant did and does is, it got you into that "outer community". It put you, as one of my seminary professors said, into the "proximity of the gospel" where you are constantly exposed to and can participate in the benefits of the covenant of grace. This "division" between the outer and inner covenant community is why Paul could say in Romans 9 that "not all who are of Israel are Israel". Just because a person was part of that "outer" covenant community, the visible Israel, and had received the sign and seal of that community (circumcision) it did not mean they were part of the true Israel, those who "children of the promise". And likewise, we could say that not all who are of the church (those who have been baptized in the flesh) are the church (part of the "inner" people of God-those who have received the "circumcision of the heart").
As you can see, this is a very "covenantal" way of understanding baptism, but that's good! The Bible is a very "covenantal" book because our God is a very covenantal God! He relates to individuals and people by means of covenants. So why shouldn't our understanding of how those covenants work and who the covenant people are guide and shape our understanding of the sacraments?
I realize, this is a lot to take in. This is the longest blog we've done in the catechism series (so far...), and it is by no means exhaustive! But I believe it's so vital that we understand the nature of baptism before we can even begin to discuss who should receive the sign and seal, which we will begin to discuss with the next question of the catechism. There is no point in discussing the administration of a sacrament until we understand it's nature, and hopefully this post helps us understand a little more clearly the nature of the sacrament of baptism.