Alan D. Strange
God communicates his love to us through the means of grace (the Word, the sacraments, and prayer)especially, as I argued in the May 2000 issue of New Horizons, in the preaching of the Word. While preaching may be primary among the means of grace, the Holy Spirit (who makes effectual the means of grace) also uses the sacraments (holy baptism and holy communion, or the Lord's Supper) to convey the love and grace of God to us. As with preaching, the content of baptism and the Lord's Supper is the gospelthe blessings and benefits that are ours because of the person and work of Christ. Precisely the same thing, then, is communicated to us in the sacraments as in the preaching of the gospel.
Think of it this way: as we hear the gospel preached, we hear God, by the Holy Spirit, saying to us, "I love you." After the preaching of the Word, in the administration of the sacrament of holy communion, we not only hear God tell us that he loves us, but we see, touch, smell, and taste that God loves us. Just as when a man tells his wife that he loves her and she joyfully believes his declaration of love, so in preaching we are blessed as we joyfully believe God in his declaration of love for us. When a man kisses his wife, he not only demonstrates that he loves her, but also conveys love. A kiss is certainly a sign of love, a visible attestation of the man's love. But it is more than just a sign; it is also a seal: the love of man and woman is sealed with a kiss because the kiss itself is an act of love, a physical conveying of the love that is in the heart of the man, a visible demonstration of his inward love.
Augustine spoke of the sacraments as visible words. Just as a man declares his love and then signifies and seals it with a kiss, so God declares his love and then signifies and seals it to us with the visible words of the sacraments. In the sacraments, we may say, God embraces and loves his people.
The sacraments are defined in the Reformed and Presbyterian standards as being signs and seals of the covenant. In fact, the Belgic Confession (Articles 33-34), the Heidelberg Catechism (Questions 66, 94), the Second Helvetic Confession (Chapters 19-20), and the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Larger Catechism (LC), and Shorter Catechism (SC) all speak of baptism and the Lord's Supper as signs and seals. LC 162 asks, "What is a sacrament?" It answers, "A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without."
According to one view, the sacraments are little more than bare signs or memorials. But the LC asserts that they are not only signs (visible attestations of God's favor), but also seals (confirmations of God's love, in which he gives assurance of that which is symbolized by the sign). LC 163 speaks of this reality in asking, "What are the parts of a sacrament?" Its answer: "The parts of a sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign ...; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified." This is true of both baptism and the Lord's Supper, although our concern for now is the former.
Baptism, according to LC 177, is "a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants." Thus, baptism is not just an outward sign of what must happen to us inwardly if we are to know and love God trulythe washing of the water of the Word, applied by the Holy Spirit in regeneration. It is also a seal to us of God's promise to be our God and to make us his, both now and forever. In other words, baptism not only pictures God's grace to us (the sign), but also is our basis for claiming the promise of salvation (the Holy Spirit both sealing us and sealing the promise to us).
In baptism, in fact, the Holy Spirit, in God's time, actually confers grace on his people (which can be seen as part of the sealing activity). WCF 28.6 puts it this way: "The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time."
"Baptism," according to SC 94, "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." Who is in the covenant of grace? LC 31 answers that the covenant of grace "was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed." Consequently, some believe that baptism is a sign and seal only to the elect, and that it is not a sign or seal when administered to one who is not elect. After all, is not a sacrament "a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation" (LC 162)? And are not those within the covenant the elect in Christ?
Baptism is indeed not to be administered to "any that are out of the visible church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise." However, it is to be administered to those outside the visible church when they "profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him," and are thereby brought into the visible church. Furthermore, "infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be baptized" (LC 166). Infants of believing parents are within the covenant.
But does this not contradict LC 31, which says that the elect are in the covenant? No, for when the Westminster standards speak of the invisible church and of the covenant made with Christ and in him with the elect, it is speaking of reality as seen by God. But all that we ever have to deal with is the visible church. We know nothing more about the invisible church than we do about the list of names in the Lamb's book of life. Furthermore, everyone who is in the visible church (i.e., those who profess faith, together with their children) is in some respect within the covenant (WCF 27.1; 28:1; LC 165-167).
Clearly, then, infants of believing parents are in the covenant (and for that reason ought to be baptized), not because we presume them to be elect, but simply because God says that they are in the covenant and are thus to be given the sign and seal of the covenant. Because our children are within the covenant, they are to be told that God's promises are for them, not that God's promises are for them if they are elect. No one in the Bible is ever pointed to his election as the ground for faith and assurance. Rather, we see our election indirectly as we trust in Christ and as obedience flows from that trust.
It is as absurd to tell our children that Christ's work is for them only if they are elect as it is to tell a man that he ought to have assurance before he exercises faith. No, baptism signifies and seals to our children all the blessings of salvation that Christ has won for us. We ought to encourage our children to love and serve the Lord who has died for them. The failure of some parents to regard their children as within the covenant highlights a great danger in Reformed and Presbyterian communions: the temptation to allow the glorious doctrine of election to swallow up everything else, particularly the means of grace.
While the Westminster standards certainly affirm the doctrine of election as a source of comfort for the people of God, they refer to "the doctrine of this high mystery of predestination" and warn that it "is to be handled with special prudence and care" (WCF 3.8). It is true that the reprobate do not receive grace through the means of grace (though it is "held forth ... to all nations," LC 35), but the means of grace are never to be held forth with the proviso "if you are elect." Baptism is for those who are in the covenant, whether coming as an adult professing faith or as the child of one who professes faith, and it signifies and seals the grace of God to all who receive it.
Baptism not only places the name of Christ on those who undergo it, but also seals the promise of God to them with the authority of God himself, much like a king signing a royal decree and then affixing his seal to it, imprinting it with his signet ring. We sign documents and then, to certify them as authentic, have a notary seal them. Second Corinthians 1:21-22, Ephesians 1:13-14, and Ephesians 4:30 make it clear that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, the earnest (or guarantee) of our coming inheritance, sealed for the day of redemption.
That sealing was begun in baptism and is continued in the Lord's Supper. The sealing aspect of baptism is for our comfort and assurance. Whenever our enemies (the devil, the flesh, and the world) tell us that we are anything other than who we are in Christ, we are comforted to know that the Holy Spirit's seal of us, of our life being hidden with God in Christ, of being seated in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus our Lord, is confirmed both in the Word and in the sign and seal that the sacrament is. Our baptism is a sign and seal to us that we are no longer our own, but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, and we receive the testimony of our baptism in faith. We believe that for which our baptism stands. It is not a bare sign, but also a seal, a warranty, of the grace that has brought us safe thus far and surely will lead us home.
Alan D. Strange is a teacher at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, July-August 2000.