Improving Our Baptism


Improving Our Baptisms

Terry L. Johnson

The breakdown of ecclesiastical discipline in the 1960’s, combined with the unrestrained energy and enthusiasm of the Jesus movement, resulted in an anarchy of baptismal practices that is still with us today. Spontaneous baptisms in backyard swimming pools, at lakes, and at beaches are not uncommon. “Believers” baptisms accompanied by clapping, cheering, and high-fives are widespread. Paedobaptisms have lost the solemnity characteristic of previous generations and have devolved into a “Precious Moments” ritual.


Joseph D. Small, denominational official of the PCUSA, complains of the “chummy expression of congregational welcome” into which baptism has been transformed in recent times:


“Everyone smiles as the family joins the pastor and an elder at the baptismal font. The congregation is poised in anticipation of the moment when something cute will happen so that everyone can coo and chuckle. The minister reads gracious words from Scripture and prays familiar prayers, well-known questions are asked and answered, and water moistens an infant head. Then comes the parade, with the pastor bearing the baby up and down the aisle, introducing the adorable child to people who are rather arbitrarily identified as the ‘church family.’”



Is there a problem with this? Indeed, he says, after citing the theologically deep and biblically rich statement on baptism from The French Confession of 1559, “It makes of (baptism) too small a thing if this ocean of meaning, deep and moving, is reduced to a chummy ritual of congregational welcome.”1


Baptism is once administered, yet it is meant to be a reference point for the rest of one’s life. This vital ongoing role for baptism is lost when it is reduced to a “homerun” or “Hallmark” event. Throughout our entire lives, and particularly each time it is administered, we are meant to “improve” our baptisms, as our fathers in the faith would have expressed it. Let us turn, then, to our Reformed heritage, that we might recover the meaning and method of our baptisms.


Theological principles

The primary principles of Reformation theology led the Reformers to recognize the need to reform the sacraments generally and baptism specifically.


Sola Scriptura, the principle that Scripture alone determines the faith and practice of the church, led to sharp criticism and eventual elimination of the extra-biblical ceremonies with which baptism had become encrusted. The sacraments must be administered “according to Scripture.” Moreover they rejected the other five “sacraments” of the medieval church as without scriptural warrant as sacraments per se: confirmation, penance, extreme unction, ordination, and marriage.


Sola fide, the principle that believers are saved by faith alone, led to a denial of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, along with the doctrine that baptism confers the grace of justification (which may then be lost through sin but regained through the sacraments). Justification is by faith alone. Because faith comes by “hearing the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), biblical explanation and exhortation would be necessary to engender the faith by which the sacrament would be efficacious. The Augustinian definition of the sacraments as “visible words” was embraced. However, “visible words” are not self-interpreting. They would require explanation.


The doctrine of sola gratia, that is, the principle of divine initiative in salvation through the agency of the Holy Spirit, led to a denial of the sacramental doctrine of ex opera operato (grace is conferred by the performance of the act). Rather, sacraments are “external signs of inward graces,” another Augustinian definition. Baptism is an external sign of the Holy Spirit’s internal spiritual work. Grace is conferred through the work of the Holy Spirit, not through the inherent properties of the sacrament rightly administered. The result was a recognition of the need of prayer invoking the Holy Spirit in the administration of the baptismal rite.


The theology of the Reformation led the Reformers in the direction of simple rites, accompanied by the word and prayer, whose efficacy was dependent upon faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. These principles would shape the baptismal reforms..



Biblical study

In addition to the above theological insights, the recognition of the need for the reform of the sacraments arose out of the Reformers’ biblical studies.


Simple washings

The Reformers discovered that baptisms in the New Testament were simple washings (e.g. Acts 2:41; 8:35,37; 16:33; 19:5). They were administered without additional ceremony or ritual. Similarly, baptism as described in the Didache (c. 80–c. 110 A.D.),2  and Justin Martyr’s First Apology (c. 155 A.D.), demonstrate continuing apostolic simplicity into the late first and late second centuries. Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225) and Cyprian (c. 200–258) describe baptism as a simple washing with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without any additional anointings, washings, or exorcisms which would become so prominent in the fourth century.3


However, with Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition (c. 217, but likely much later) ceremonialism began to creep into the administration of baptism.4 By the fourth century the Apostolic Constitutions (c. 380),5 Ambrose’s On the Sacraments (c. 380–390),6 several sermons of Augustine, and especially Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catechisms (c. 350 A.D.),7 reinforced by Egeria’s observations recorded in her Pilgrimage Journal (c. 381–384),8 demonstrate that the ceremonial simplicity of previous centuries had vanished. Christian baptism “had become an elaborate liturgical drama rivaling the initiatory rites of the Greek mystery religions,” Hughes Old observes.9 Moreover, baptisms came to be delayed until late in life, when one had proven one’s worthiness to receive it. “Baptism,” says Old, “had become a sign of salvation by works rather than salvation by grace.”10


Augustine’s writings, particularly his polemics against Pelagius, reemphasized the legitimacy of the baptism of infants, important as a sign of the graciousness of salvation. As we’ve noted, he provided the standard definition of sacraments as “visible words” (visibile verbum) of God and “external signs of inward graces.” Infant baptism again became customary. However, it remained obscured by multiple anointings, exorcisms, gestures, and rituals that betrayed its original apostolic simplicity. It also continued to be compromised by an ethos of worthiness that tended to undermine the graciousness of the gospel.


By the 1500’s baptisms were typically private and not a part of the regular Lord’s Day worship of the church. Baptismal ceremonies began at the door of the church with the exsufflation (blowing in the face of the child), the sign of the cross on both the forehead and breast, the exorcism of salt, the placing of the salt on the mouth of the child, a prayer of exorcism, the “Effeta” exorcism (the priest touched the ears and nostrils of the child with his spittle, a dramatization of Mark 7:31-37). Then, the child was brought into the church, where further exorcisms commenced. At the font, the baptismal water was exorcised, then consecrated by pouring oil into it, dipping the paschal candle into it, and tracing crosses over it. The child was then anointed with oil, a practice presumably meant to represent the Holy Spirit and dating to about the end of the second century. The font was blessed. Godparents, not parents, were charged to teach the child the essentials of the Christian religion. The baptismal rite of the late Middle Ages had become obscured by exorcisms and anointings, burdened with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and viewed virtually as a bit of religious magic.11


Luther led the way in his Babylonian Captivity (1520) in denying the medieval sacramental doctrine of ex opere operato (“grace is conferred by the performance of the act”) with the opposing doctrine of nullum sacramentum sine fide (“without faith there is no sacrament”). The gospel word that accompanies the administration of the baptism engenders the faith by which the sacrament is efficacious. Luther saw baptism as a one-time event, the effects of which lasted for a lifetime. “The Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and constantly lived in,” he maintained.12 This perspective will play an important role in Reformed Protestantism’s understanding of baptism. Luther, though critical of “the whole pageantry of outward things,” was slow to reform the mass, and his baptismal rite of 1523 retained exorcism, the double sign of the cross, the placing of the salt, and the anointing with oil.13


However, by 1524 the Reformers in Strasburg had rejected all the extrabiblical ceremonies for which there was “no scriptural justification,” as Bucer explained in Grund und Ursach.14 Water baptism, he maintained, “is nothing else than a symbol of the inner spiritual baptism, that is, of the cleansing from all sins, which we must accept in faith.”15 Like the Lord’s Supper, he explained, it is an external sign of an inward grace and a “visible word.” 16 It is “a sign of the true baptism of Christ, that is of inner purification rebirth and renewal.”17 Hughes Old summarizes, “It is this sign of washing which is the primary visible sign of the sacrament.”18


The baptism of the Spirit

Closely related to this, baptism represents the baptism or outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The iconographic and archeological evidence that indicates that baptism was most often administered in the second century by pouring or sprinkling. However, by the third and fourth centuries, baptism by immersion had become commonplace, largely under the influence of the mystery religions with which Christianity was in competition. Whereas in the second century there was no trace of the idea of baptism as a reenactment of the burial and resurrection of Christ, this became the dominant motif in the Middle Ages. Immersion became the norm for the next six to eight centuries, when it was superseded once more by pouring/sprinkling.

Luther and Zwingli both originally sought to revive baptism by immersion. They appealed to Romans 6 and understood baptism to be a dramatization of Christ’s death and resurrection. They were further influenced by the interpretation of the term baptizo found in classical Greek lexicons.


However, in the end they were persuaded to give up their attempt to revive the practice of immersion. As they got deeper into the subject they come to understand that washing was the central sacramental action, not a dramatization of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Further lexical studies demonstrated that baptizo in the New Testament is used to speak of Jewish rites of purification (e.g. Mark 7:3,4), of washing and cleansing. They appealed to passages such as Revelation 1:5 (“washed us from our sins in His own blood”), and 1 John 1:7 (“the blood of Jesus . . . cleanses us from all sin”). The sprinkled water, they argued, represents the sprinkled blood of Christ who cleanses us from our sin (Heb 6:2, 9:22, 10:22; cf. Ezek 36:25). It represents he blood of the new covenant, “poured out . . . for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28).


Yet the water also represents the Holy Spirit. The agent of cleansing is the Holy Spirit. Jesus baptizes with “the Holy Spirit and fire,” both of which are to be understood as means of purification (Lk 3:16). Water baptism represents the baptism of the Spirit, who is “poured out” from Pentecost onward (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28). This dual meaning of water, representing the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit, is basic to the Reformed understanding of baptism. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism #69 says, “I am as certainly washed by his blood and Spirit from all the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.” Note the double meaning: “I am washed with His blood and Spirit.” Similarly, the Larger Catechism #165 identifies baptism’s meaning (in part) as “remission of sins by His blood and regeneration by his Spirit.”


Bucer, by 1524, was urging prayer that “Christ would baptize the child through the Spirit and purify him from all sin.”19 Beginning at Strasburg, Reformed services included such prayers. The Baptismal Invocation of the Strasburg rite of 1525 has the minister pray, “for the inner renewal and spiritual rebirth, which is truly signified by the outward baptism.”20 “As the earliest Reformed theologians saw it,” argues Hughes Old, “the rite of baptism must make clear that baptism with water is a sign and a promise of baptism by the Holy Spirit.”21 Sprinkling, representing the sprinkling of the cleansing blood of Christ, or pouring, representing the blood of the new covenant as well as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, become the preferred modes of baptism (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28). Though immersion was considered valid, and though Calvin considered the mode of baptism to be adiaphora,22 the rubrics for baptism in the Reformed rite would require pouring or sprinkling from 1525 in Strasburg, from 1532 in Zurich, and from 1533 in Geneva.23


Sign and seal of the covenant

The challenge from the Anabaptists in Zurich in 1523 led to fresh appreciation for the sacraments as signs of the covenant. “It was the controversy with the Anabaptists which led the Reformers to delve more deeply into the theology of the covenant,” Hughes Old maintains, “and from this new appreciation of covenant theology many of the most profound insights of Reformed sacramental theology have developed.”24 Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) did much of the early historical, linguistic and biblical work in his Of Baptism (1525), joined by John Oecolampadius (1482–1531) and his colleague and successor at Zurich, Henry Bullinger (1504–1575).25 The Reformers, whose work reached its apex in Calvin, came to understand that one essential covenant of grace underlies the several biblical covenants. The differences between the covenants were understood as external, matters of administration, not matters of substance.26 The fundamental principles of grace, faith, Christ, and law remained the same from Old Testament to New Testament. The place of the family within the dispensations was unaltered. They came to understand that the sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant, as the Apostle Paul calls circumcision in Romans 4:11. Commenting on this passage, Calvin identifies the sacraments as “seals by which the promises of God are in a manner imprinted on our hearts, and the certainty of grace confirmed.27 He attributes to them “the office of sealing,” that is, of “ratifying the righteousness of faith.”28 Yet they are also signs or symbols of new life which confer that which they represent. Similar language is used in the Institutes. A sacrament, he says, is “a sort of appendix, with a purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it more evident to us and in a sense ratifying it.”29 Notice the role played by the sacraments in assuring the believer. The sacraments confirm, seal, and ratify the promise of God, and as signs make it “more evident to us.”


Calvin discusses the use of the term sacramentum, as had the Zurich and Strasburg Reformers before him. He knew of Tertullian’s having coined the term in his On Baptism (c. 200–206),30 its background as a solemn oath that soldiers took binding them to their commanders, and says “by our signs we do profess Christ our commander and testify that we serve under his ensign.” 31 Sacraments have a two-fold function, Calvin says. “They should serve our faith before God; after this . . . they should attest our confession before man.”32 That is, through the sacrament God confirms His promise to redeem those who come to Him through the cross of Christ, and communicants in turn promise to be faithful servants of the Christ whom they trust. This understanding of the two-way action of the sacraments, first emphasized by Zwingli, would prove crucial in Reformed ministry and pastoral practice.33 Calvin, according to Peter A. Lillback, President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, believed that “the binding between men and God . . . is the foundational significance of the sacraments.” For Calvin, says Lillback, “The sacraments illustrate vividly the mutual nature of the covenant between God and His people.”34 As the sacraments “are testimonies of grace and salvation from the Lord,” says Calvin,


 so from us in turn they are marks of profession, by which we openly swear allegiance to God, binding ourselves in fealty to him. In one place Chrysostom therefore has appropriately called them “covenants,” by which God leagues himself with us, and we pledge ourselves to purity and holiness of life, since there is interposed here a mutual agreement between God and ourselves. For as in them the Lord promises to cancel and blot out any guilt and penalty contracted by us through our transgression, and reconciles us to himself in his only-begotten Son, so do we, in turn, bind ourselves to him by this profession, to pursue piety and innocence. Hence you can rightfully say that such sacraments are ceremonies by which God wills to exercise his people, first to foster, arouse, and confirm faith within; then to attest religion before men.”35


“Calvin’s doctrine of the sacraments is saturated with the covenant,” says Lillback.36 These covenantal insights were crucial for the reforms of baptism.37


Circumcision and baptism

Further, the Reformers came to see that baptism is the New Testament equivalent of circumcision, “the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11). Already by 1524 Bucer could say of the church at Strasburg, “baptism is for us, what circumcision was for the Jews.”38 Baptism, like circumcision, is a rite of admission into the covenant community and a sign of covenant promises (Gen 17:11). Baptism, like circumcision, is a sign of cleansing from defilement. “Arise and be baptized,” Ananias told the Apostle Paul, “and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16; cf. Titus 3:5; Mk 7:4). The sprinkled water represents the sprinkled blood of atonement by which we are cleansed from our sins (Heb 12;24; Ezek 36:25; cf. 1 Jn 1:7). Baptism, like circumcision, is a sign of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who regenerates and sanctifies. Even as circumcision represented the circumcised heart, so waters baptism represents the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Jn 1:33; Lk 3:16). Baptism, like circumcision, is a sign and seal of justification by faith (Rom 4:11). Baptism, like circumcision, is a sign of the promise of God to be the God of the believer and his or her children (Gen 17:17; Acts 2:38-39). “It appears incontrovertible,” says Calvin, “that baptism has taken the place of circumcision to fulfill the same office among us.”39 These parallels between the covenants are crucial for Reformed sacramental practice. The Reformers met the Anabaptist challenge and rebutted it. Reformed Protestants would baptize their infants.


Union with Christ

Finally, baptism represents the believer’s union with Christ. Building off of his explanation of Romans 6:3ff, Calvin argues that through baptism “we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ Himself that we become sharers in His blessing.”40 Citing Galatians 3:26-27, he affirms that believers “put on Christ in baptism.” Baptism unites its subjects to Christ. Later Reformed confessions will speak of baptism as a sign and seal of the believer’s “ingrafting into Christ” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXXVIII.1, of Larger Catechism #165; Shorter Catechism #94).


“Covenant theology is Reformed sacramental theology,” says Old.41 From Bucer’s Grund und Ursach, to Zwingli’s Of Baptism, to Calvin’s Institutes42 and Genevan Psalter (Form of Prayers) on through the subsequent Reformed tradition these theological and biblical convictions led to reforms of the church’s sacramental practices. We may summarize these reforms as follows.


Once the nature of baptism was understood through theological and biblical study as signs and seals of the covenant, as the new covenant rite of admission, as requiring faith and the work of the Holy Spirit, a series of reforms necessarily followed.



First, baptism would be administered with biblical explanation and exhortation. Baptismal exhortations were first added in Strasburg in 1525 and have been characteristic of Reformed baptismal rites ever since. In the Reformed rites, the meaning of baptism was to be explained, faith was to be urged, and the privileges and obligations of baptism were to be unfolded. Since the sacraments do not function ex opera operato, the gospel promises made visible in baptism were to be proclaimed that parents might believe. “The sacrament requires preaching to beget faith,” said Calvin. 43 The sacraments are “visible words,” but they never function independently of the spoken word. 44


Second, baptism would be administered with biblical simplicity. “It is our custom to baptize our children without ostentation,” Bucer explains.45 Extrabiblical signs, gestures, and rituals, what Calvin termed an “alien hodgepodge,” that obscured or obstructed the view of the sign were eliminated. He insisted, “How much better it would be to omit from baptism all theatrical pomp which dazzles the eyes of the simple and deadens their minds.”46 The exorcisms, anointings, and chrismation of medieval baptism were removed so that the atoning blood of Christ and regenerating, cleansing, and filling of the outpoured Holy Spirit signified in the baptism might be clearly seen. From 1524 onward, Reformed Protestants would administer baptism as simple washings without any further ceremony.


Third, baptism would be administered with prayer. An epiclesis, a prayer of invocation for the Holy Spirit, became an important part of Reformed baptismal rites. Again, the sacraments do not confer grace ex opera operato. Consequently it is vital that the Holy Spirit be called upon to make the administration of baptism effectual. Beginning with the “Baptismal Invocation” in the Strasburg Church Order of 1525, Reformed baptismal rites have called upon the Holy Spirit to do His work. Water baptism signifies Spirit baptism. “For the Reformed understanding of baptism, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is fundamental,” says Hughes Old.47


Fourth, baptism would be administered ecclesiastically and publicly. Because baptism is a covenant rite of admission, private administration was discouraged. Baptism is a church ordinance. Baptisms were to be administered in the public services of the church, in the “face of the congregation” into which the baptized one was being welcomed. Even “emergency” baptisms, those for dying infants, were discouraged because of their magical implications. The infants of believers are already part of the covenant of which baptism is a sign, and are not at risk if they die before being baptized.48 Baptism is a sign that seals a covenantal relationship that already exists. Reformed Protestants would no longer administer private baptisms.


Fifth, baptism would be administered to the children of believers. Because it was recognized that God’s covenantal dealings embrace believers and their children (Gen 17:7; Acts 2:38,39), the Reformers affirmed the propriety of infant baptism.49 Parents, not godparents, took baptismal vows and promised to catechize their children. Congregations, in turn, assumed the responsibilities of assisting parents in the Christian nurture of their children that had formerly been assigned to godparents.50 Baptism, rightly administered, whether to infants or adults was to be understood as a means of grace through which Jesus once again takes His loved ones into His arms and blesses them (Lk 18:15-17). By 1523 infant baptism was established as the normal practice of Reformed Protestantism.


Sixth, baptism would be administered by pouring or sprinkling water in the name of the Trinity. The Reformers recognized various modes as valid: pouring, sprinkling, and immersion. Yet pouring and sprinkling were preferred in the Reformed baptismal rites from 1524 onward, given the central meaning of the water as poured out blood, and outpoured Holy Spirit.


Pastoral application

The pastoral implications of Reformed sacramental theology, our primary concern, were enormous as well. Because the Reformer refuted both the Roman Catholic position, that of baptismal regeneration, and the Anabaptist position, that of baptism only upon profession of faith, the question arose of how to nurture in the faith those baptized as children. The answer at which they arrived was catechetical instruction followed by some form of confirmation of one’s baptismal vows, followed by a lifetime of what would later be called “improving one’s baptism.”


Catechetical instruction and baptism

The Reformers reconnected baptism and catechizing. We could consider this the seventh reform, that is, that baptism would be administered in the context of catechetical instruction. The Reformers knew that the early church required several weeks of catechetical instruction prior to baptism. The great series of catechetical sermons by Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, and Augustine bear witness to the seriousness with which the ancient church took its responsibility to instruct candidates for baptism. The Reformers admired this patristic devotion to catechizing.


However, during the Middle Ages the connection between baptism and catechizing had been lost. The transition from the time when most of those baptized were the infant children of Christians rather than adult converts hastened the decline. By the sixth century and through to the Reformation era, there was no widespread catechetical instruction for adults or Christian children. This lack, says Hughes Old, “was one of the chief forces behind the desire in the sixteenth century to reform the rite of baptism.51


Luther took the first step in reconnecting baptism with catechism in his Baptismal Book of 1523. However, it fell to the Reformed churches to do most of the important work. Based on Matthew 28:18, Zwingli urged in his baptismal service appended to his treatise Of Baptism (1523) that baptism (“baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) should be followed by instruction (“teaching them to observe . . .”).


Hughes Old maintains of all the Reformers what we’ve already seen of Luther: “The Reformers regard(ed) baptism as the sign under which the Christian lives out the whole of life . . . The sign of baptism, although administered but once, is a continuing reality in the Christian life.”52 This insight led to the early initiatives to establish catechetical instruction not only in Zurich, but also in Strasburg, Constance, Geneva, and elsewhere. At the age of discretion, the child whose profession of faith was postponed as an infant, would now be catechized leading to public vows. The propriety and necessity of catechizing arose out of the baptismal reforms.


The recitation of the catechism at the time of child’s public profession was seen as a baptismal profession of faith, affirming the faith into which the child was baptized as an infant, and confirming that upon that faith he/she would live thereafter. Recitation and public profession of faith was understood as the fulfillment of the baptismal covenant.


The Reformers (e.g. Oecolampadius) knew that the church fathers often spoke of baptism as illumination (Heb 6:4). Some fathers urged postponing catechetical instruction for adults until after baptism because they believed that the mysteries of Christian religion could not be understood until one received the enlightenment that comes with baptism. Thus even in the patristic era catechetical instruction sometimes followed baptisms. The order, baptism first, catechizing after, had patristic precedence.


Bullinger and other Reformers stressed that when children are baptized both the family and the church assumes the responsibility to teach them. Appealing to Deuteronomy 6:6-7, he pointed out that it was after circumcision that children were taught about its meaning (cf. Eph 6:4). Likewise the meaning of baptism, which is the whole gospel, would follow this pattern. Baptism admits a child into the church, the household of faith. At a proper time, at the age of discretion, baptized children should be instructed through the catechism, profess their faith, and be admitted to the Lord’s Table. Even then the implications of baptism should continue to unfold through the whole life of the child.


Calvin was confident that when children are old enough to be taught the meaning of their baptisms they “shall be fired with greater zeal for renewal, from learning that they were given the token of it in their first infancy in order that they might meditate upon it throughout life.”53 Commitment to catechizing baptized children can be seen in the first generation of Reformers as well as their successors through the Westminster Assembly and its Larger & Shorter Catechisms (1647, 1648). Luther and Calvin wrote catechisms, as did a number of other major Reformers, as well as several major figures of English Puritanism and their successors (e.g. Baxter, Owen, Henry, Willison).54



Beyond catechetical instruction leading to public profession of faith, baptism plays a vital practical role extending throughout the whole life of a believer. How so? Primarily through meditating on its meaning. Is it not both a sign and a seal of the covenant of grace? For example, consider Christian assurance. Meditating upon one’s baptism, contemplating its meaning, was seen as a positive help to believers. The Lord’s design, says Calvin,

is that baptism should be a token and proof of our cleansing; or (the better to explain what I mean) it is like a sealed document to confirm to us that all our sins are so abolished, remitted, and effaced that they can never come to his sight, be recalled, or charged against us. For he wills that all who believe be baptized for the remission of sins (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38).55


Baptism functions as “a token and proof” of these gospel themes.


Calvin demonstrates that the apostles themselves employ baptism as an aid to the believer’s faith. Citing Ephesians 5:26 (“having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word”), Titus 3:5 (“He saved as by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit”), and 1 Peter 3:21 (“baptism now saves you . . .”), Calvin argues that the meaning of these texts is not that water cleanses and saves, “but only that in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts.”56 He claims that it is as if the Apostle Paul said “Through the gospel a message of our cleansing and sanctification is brought to us; through such baptism the message is sealed.”57 If we stumble or fall the recollection of our baptisms is meant to assist us. “We ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins.”58 As Luther would say to himself when assailed by the devil, “I am baptized.”59 The “memory of our baptisms” fortifies us with the certainty of the forgiveness of our sins.


When we are troubled with an awareness of our failings, we are to recall our baptisms.


There is no doubt that all pious folk throughout life, whenever they are troubled by a consciousness of their faults, may venture to remind themselves of their baptism, that from it they may be confirmed in assurance of that sole and perpetual cleansing which we have in Christ’s blood.60


When we “remind (our)selves of our baptism,” Calvin says, we are reassured of the “cleansing which we have in Christ’s blood.” The symbolism of cleansing by water reminds us of the reality of spiritual cleansing through the cross.


Contemplation of one’s baptism also plays a vital role in sanctification. Citing apostolic example in Romans 6:3-4ff (“buried with Christ in baptism”) and later Colossians 2:11-12 and Titus 3:5 (“washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit”), Calvin teaches,


By these words (the Apostle Paul) not only exhorts us to follow Christ as if he had said that we are admonished through baptism to die to our desires by an example of Christ’s death, and to be aroused to righteousness by the example of his resurrection. But he also takes hold of something far higher, namely, that through baptism Christ makes us sharers in his death, that we may be engrafted in it (Rom 6:5, cf. Vg.).61




those who receive baptism with right faith truly feel the effective working of Christ’s death in the mortification of their flesh, together with the working of his resurrection in the vivification of the Spirit (Rom 6:8). From this, Paul takes occasion for exhortation: if we are Christians, we ought to be dead to sin and alive to righteousness (Rom 6:11).62


More comprehensively, citing Galatians 3:26,27 (“all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”), Calvin urges that “our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings.”63 Here we see the themes of baptism and union with Christ emphasized in connection with the strengthening of the believer’s faith.


Baptism, says Calvin, “is given for the arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith.”64 It is a sign of cleansing from sin, forgiveness, the imparting of the Spirit. God’s aim through baptism is


that we should see spiritual things in physical, as if set before our very eyes. For the Lord was pleased to represent them by such figures—not because such graces are bound and enclosed in the sacrament as to be conferred upon us by its power, but only because the Lord by his token attests his will toward us. And he does not feed our eyes with a mere appearance only, but leads us to the present reality and effectively performs what it symbolizes.65


Because baptism is the church’s rite of admission, the Apostle Paul invokes it as he exhorts believers to live in harmony with each other, since, “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13). The Apostle Paul uses baptism as a means by which to urge church unity (as also in Eph 4:3-5).


Calvin provides a succinct and comprehensive summary of the meaning of baptism in terms rich in pastoral implications:


Scripture declares that baptism first points to the cleansing of our sins, which we obtain from Christ’s blood; then to the mortification of our flesh, which rests upon participation in his death and through which believers are reborn into newness of life and into the fellowship of Christ. All that is taught in the Scriptures concerning baptism can be referred to this summary.66


Parents derive singular assurance and joy from the baptism of their children.


For how sweet is it to godly minds to be assured, not only by word, but by sight, that they obtain so much favor with the Heavenly Father that their offspring are within his care? . . . For when we consider that immediately from birth God takes and acknowledges them as his children, we feel a strong stimulus to instruct them in an earnest fear of God and observance of the law. Accordingly, unless we wish spitefully to obscure God’s goodness, let us offer our infants to him, for he gives them a place among those of his family and household, that is, the members of the church.67


This pastoral role, this discipline of remembering one’s baptism, of contemplating its meaning for assurance of salvation and motivation for sanctification, achieved confessional status in the work of the Westminster Divines. Larger Catechism question #167 asks and answers,


Question: How is our Baptism to be improved by us?

Answer: The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by
serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.

A generation later Richard Baxter, in his The Catechizing of Families (1682), Chapter XLV, question #34, asks, “What use are we to make of our baptism ever after?” He provides 7 answers, including that it reminds us of our sin for which we are to be humbled, of God’s grace for which we are to be thankful, of God’s covenant and our promise of obedience, of God’s covenant people and our obligation to love them.68 Similarly, John Willison, writing in his A Sacramental Catechism (1720) provides nine answers to the question, “How is it, that we ought to improve our baptism?”69 Likewise Thomas Boston (1667–1732), writing in his An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity (1773), urges that “though ye were but once baptized, ye should be improving it all your life long, and particularly when you see others baptized.”70 He then provides six principles for improving one’s baptism.


Clearly, the Reformed tradition takes baptism, and the ongoing duty to improve one’s baptism by meditating upon the multiples layers of its gospel meaning, with the utmost seriousness. Baptism is not a one-time event, but plays an important role in Christian consecration throughout one’s lifetime.


Matthew Henry

As is so often the case, we turn to Matthew Henry to find the classic pastoral treatment of covenantal baptism in his Treatise on Baptism (1710). Henry demonstrates continuity in the Reformed tradition and yet positive development, expressing Reformed baptismal piety at its best. Like his predecessors, he too places baptism at the center of the believer’s life and urges that its meaning be unfolded progressively in the life of the believer.71


Henry writes comprehensively of the nature, the subjects, the necessity and efficacy, the circumstances, and the practical improvement of our baptisms. He provides directions to parents regarding the baptism of their children, directions to ministers, and finally, directions to those who are present when baptism is administered. Throughout he writes solidly within the Augustinian and Reformed tradition. Noting that “the apostle” includes “the doctrine of baptisms” among his “six principles of  Christianity which constitute the foundation” (from Heb 5:12), Henry concludes that “baptism is asserted and adhered to, as a fundamental point in our religion.”72 It is, he says, “a part of our magna charta.73


Definitions and meaning

Henry defines sacrament classically as “outward and sensible representations of things spiritual.”74 That is, it is a sign. What does baptism represent? Of what is it a sign? “The water in baptism,” says Henry, “signifies the blood of Christ; and the sprinkling of that for justification.” He points to Hebrews 9:22, 1 John 1:7, Revelation 1:5, Hebrews 12:24, among other texts. Through the water of baptism Christ would “have us to see all the precious privileges of the new covenant flowing to us in the blood of Jesus.”75 The water in baptism also “signifies the Spirit and grace of Christ, and the sprinkling of that for sanctification.” Baptism, then, represents both the justification and sanctification of the believer, for “they are inseparable,” he says, pointing to 1 Corinthians 6:11, John 19:34, 1 Corinthians 1:30, “for they always go together.”76


Henry explains:


Fallen man is to be looked upon, not only as guilty, but as defiled; not only as liable to the punishment of sin, but subject to the power and dominion of sin; and therefore as standing in need, not only of a relative change, in justification, by the righteousness of Christ imputed; but of a real change, in sanctification, by the grace of Christ implanted. And this also is signified in baptism: which is therefore called “the washing of regeneration,” Tit. iii.5.77


Baptism, then, represents our whole salvation:


Now these two, the blood of Christ, and the Spirit of Christ, include all the benefits of redemption; some are the acts of God’s grace for us, others are the work of God’s grace in us; and both these are signified and sealed in baptism.78


What else is baptism? It is not only a sign but also a “seal: A seal is that by which a covenant is “confirmed and ratified.”79 Henry calls it “an ordinance of admission into the visible church.”80 As a seal of the covenant of grace, God promises to be our God, and we in turn promise to be His people. Like the Reformers, Henry appeals to the classic texts. He cites Genesis 17:7 as well as Deuteronomy 4:37. He understands circumcision to have been the sign and seal of the old covenant, citing Romans 4:11, demonstrating that infants were included in the covenant. He identifies baptism with circumcision, citing Colossians 2:11, and noting that every objection to infant baptism is also an objection to infant circumcision. Having shown that infants were once in the covenant, the burden of proof, he insists, lies with the anti-paedobaptists and anabaptists “to show where and when they were thrown out of the covenant.”81


Improving our baptisms

Twenty-seven of his seventy-seven double-columned pages are taken up with the question of how to “improve” one’s baptism (pp 533-550, 556-566). Mark Ross cites the Oxford English Dictionary in pointing out that in sixteenth century usage “improve” was commonly used in relation to property. To “improve” property was to put it to good use as opposed to allowing it to lie idle. 82 It is “using it to good purpose in our daily life . . . it means experiencing its meaning, and working out its implications, in actual life,” as Johannes Vos defined it.83 Again, it is to make “diligent use” of baptism as a means of grace, as Larger Catechism #154 urges. When Henry speaks of improving our baptisms he means “we must carry it in everything as a baptized people; and our whole conversation must be under the influence of our baptism.” He asks, “Would you have all our Christian duty in one word?” He answers, “It is to behave in every respect as those who are baptized.” 84


Improving baptism is simply ensuring that one’s baptism is not merely external, not merely formal, and not merely symbolic. It is ensuring that its spiritual meaning is full realized. The gifts if signifies (e.g. atonement, regeneration, faith, justification, sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit) and the duties it obligates (e.g. mortification, service within the covenant community) are to be cherished and pursued. Henry can say, “Baptism not improved is no baptism,” because baptism “not improved” is baptism severed from repentance, faith, and growth in grace.85 It is an empty ritual.


Improving our baptisms begins with understanding that baptism places us under the perpetual obligations of the covenant, and


That time doth not wear out the strength of it: though it was administered long ago, yet (being a specialty, a bond sealed) it binds as firmly as if we had been baptized but yesterday.86


Consequently, “what we do in religion we should do with a regard to our baptismal oath; in remembrance of the holy covenant, and in compliance with the purport and design of it.”87 After speaking of improving baptism generally, Henry then addresses what we would call “non-communingchildren. When we come of age, it is our duty.


solemnly to renew our baptismal covenant; and to make that our own act and deed, which our parents, as the trustees of our wills, to act for our good, (appointed so by God and nature,) then did for us.88


He calls this “a transition from the state of infant church membership to that of adult,” or “what is commonly called confirmation.”89


Next he addresses ministers. Henry would have ministers say to their people, especially when dealing with young people,


that being baptized, they are of the fold; lambs of the flock which we are to feed. We have this to say, against their youthful lusts, and for their early piety, that they are baptized, and are thereby laid under special obligations to be the Lord’s. This is to be much insisted upon in training up children in the way wherein they should go. It is improvable, in our dealing with them, about their first conversion and return to God, and their after growth and progress in holiness.90


Then Henry addresses all believers. He would have us improve our baptisms by remembering when are tempted by pride or passion or injustice or excess that we were baptized into the visible church and by so doing “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). We were admitted into the family of God, precious privileges were sealed to us and we were bound by covenant to be the Lord’s. Those who have put on Christ in baptism are to make no provision for the flesh (Rom 13:12). Baptism obliges us to “die to sin, and live to righteousness.” Having been buried with Christ in baptism we are to live in “newness of life.” Sin may no longer be “master” over us (Rom 6:3,4,11,14; cf. Col 2:11:12ff). He goes on like this for page after page, pointing to baptism as an incentive to duty as well as a support to our faith. “By baptism,” he says, “we have hold of God when He seems to withdraw from us.” Henry urges,


Use this as an anchor of the soul in every storm; and whatever happens keep hold of thy covenant relation to God; even then, when he seems to forsake, yet (as Christ upon the cross) maintain this post against all the assaults of Satan, that he is my God; my God for all this; and happy are the people whose God is the Lord.91

He sees baptism’s connection to adoption, and consequently sees it as an aid to our prayers.


Baptism is one special qualification that fits us for a confident approach to God: by that we were admitted into the relation of children, which should encourage us to improve the relation, by crying, “Abba, Father, Gal iv.6” . . . In prayer we stand in need of the Father’s smiles, the Son’s righteousness, and the Spirit’s aid; in reference to each of which, we should consider, that we were baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.92


Baptism is also “a great inducement to brotherly love.”93 He points to Ephesians 4:3-5 and the Apostle Paul’s appeal to “one baptism” along with “one faith.” He urges


All Christians who are duly baptized, however differing in other things, are interested in one and the same covenant, guided by one and the same rule, meet at one and the same throne of grace, are entitled to one and the same inheritance, and all this by one and the same baptism: and should they not then love one another, since the things wherein they agree are so many and so great, while the things wherein they differ are, comparatively, so few, at least, so small?94


Like Calvin, he points as well to 1 Corinthians 12:13 (“by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”) as he appeals, like the Apostle before him, for love, sympathy, and unity among Christians.


Next, Henry addresses parents. He directs parents to promote the improvement for their children’s baptisms by praying for them as baptized children. Appeal to God on the basis of their baptisms.


You pray for them as in covenant with God, interested in the promises, sealed to be the Lord’s; and those are good pleas in prayer, to be used for the confirmation of your faith. Pray that God would treat them as his; tell him, and humbly insist upon it, that they are his; whom you gave to him, and of whom he accepted; and will he not take care of his own?95


Parents are also to improve their children’s baptisms by teaching them, pointing to Ephesians 6:4, Proverbs 22:6, Deuteronomy 6:7, and other texts. Elsewhere Henry connects the obligation of parents to instruct their children with the duty of catechizing. “The baptism of your children,” he says, has “laid a strong and lasting obligation upon parents.” “You must . . . catechize your children,” he continues. “Oblige them to learn some good catechism by heart, and to keep it in remembrance; and by familiar discourse with them help them to understand it, as they become capable.”96


Bring them to church as well he says,


as soon as they are capable of being kept so quiet as not to give disturbance to others, (and with a little care and prudence they will quickly be brought to that,) though they are not able to understand what is said and done. My reasons are, that children may hereby be trained up to an observance of religion, and be ready to receive impressions as soon as ever they become capable.97


Further, he says,


They are therefore taken into the church so young, that (as we say) they may suck in religion with their milk, and like Timothy, may from their very infancy become acquainted with the “holy scriptures” 1 Tim.iii.15.98


Henry associates the value of public ordinances with the duty of catechizing. “Let families be well catechized,” he insists, “and then the public preaching of the word will be more profitable, and the more successful.”99


Finally, Henry addresses all those who are present when the ordinance of baptism is administered. “Take the occasion to reflect upon the original corruption of your nature, which needed cleansing . . . to acknowledge the mercy of your own infant baptism . . . (and) to remember the obligations of your own infant baptism.100


Application for today

The sacraments are one of three primary means of grace, along with prayer and the ministry of the word. They should not be relegated to the wee hours of the morning or to a week night. They should play the central role in the life of the Reformed church as envisioned by the Apostles, the Reformers, and their successors. This is true of baptism as well as for the Lord’s Supper.


First, administer baptism regularly. Baptisms also should be administered as frequently as is practical. Occasionally time constraints make a proper baptism inadvisable on a given Sunday. Otherwise, a baptism every week would be desirable. Why? Because it provides a regular opportunity to explain a covenantal understanding of redemption and of the whole Bible. Matthew Henry insists that baptism is an “edifying ordinance.” “It is of great use to all,” he says, “to be frequently reminded of their original corruption and of their baptismal covenant . . . therefore ministers ought not to refuse their hearers the benefit they might derive from being spectators of this solemnity.”101 Infants in particular, passive and unaware, provide an unsurpassed picture of God’s sovereign grace. The baptismal water reminds us of regeneration, the atoning blood of Christ, of the forgiveness of sins, of reconciliation with God, of gospel cleansing, of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and of the vast love of God which extends to the children of believers. It reminds us of justification, of sanctification, and of mortification and vivication. Baptized children have opportunity to “improve their baptism” by professing their faith, and communing members may do the same through contemplation of the promises and self-examination (See above Larger Catechism #167).102


Second, administer baptism covenantally and ecclesiastically. Baptism is the rite of admission to the visible church.103 It is administered exclusively by the church, by its ministers, to the children of believers on the basis of the faith (and membership) of their parents.104 Like the Lord’s Supper, baptism also signifies privilege and responsibility. The traditional Reformed baptismal vows rightly indicate both the responsibility of the parents to rear their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” and of the church to assist them (Eph 6:1ff).


Third, administer baptism with scriptural simplicity. Avoid both the complicated, the exotic and the melodramatic (by overplaying the cuteness or emotion of a baptism). Because the sacraments themselves are signs, their integrity as signs should not be obscured or cluttered with other activities whether they be relatives around the baptismal font, a walk with the infant up and down the aisles of the church in the fashion discussed above. The Reformers’ heightened appreciation for the biblical theology of the covenant led to a simplifying of the administration of church ordinances lest attention be taken away from the grace-giving signs themselves. “It was because the Reformers prized so highly the divinely given signs,” says Hughes Old, “that they had such disdain for those signs of merely human invention which obscured them.”105 We repeat Calvin’s conviction: “How much better would it be to omit from baptism all theatrical pomp, which dazzles the eyes of the simple and deadens their minds . . .” Let it be simple, he says. Let nothing essential be omitted. Let the sacraments which God ordained “not (be) buried in outlandish pollutions” but rather let them “shine in (their) full brightness.”106


We hear similar counsel from Matthew Henry, pointing out that the apostles administered baptism with “great plainness and simplicity,” he recommends that we do the same.107 He complains the “inventions of men” by which “the ordinance itself hath been thereby miserably obscured and corrupted.”108 “The spouse of Christ looks most glorious in her native beauty, and needs not the paint and tawdry attire of a harlot.” These ‘appendages,’” he says, “instead of adorning the institution of Christ, have really deformed and injured them.”109 Do not obstruct, obscure, or confuse the ordained signs.


Baptism should look like a simple outpouring of water. “Washing with water is a plain thing,” says Henry, “and the perfection of a gospel ordinance lies much in its simplicity.”110 The directories for worship in the Presbyterian tradition are clear and consistent. “The minister shall baptize the child. . . by pouring or sprinkling of the water on the face of the child, without adding any other ceremony.111


Fourth, administer baptism with the word and prayer. Word and sacrament in Reformed practice always belong together. The meaning and mode of baptism should also be explained at the time of its administration, so that faith might be engendered, and so that biblical baptisms might not be confused with baptismal regeneration or with mere symbolism. Henry comments that every baptism be accompanied by the word of God (citing 1 Tim 4:5). He says,


The word is our warrant for what we do; and therefore should be read, as our commission, “Go ye and disciple all nations, baptizing them.” The nature of the ordinance should be opened, and of the covenant of which it is the seal, and care taken to fix a right notion of the institution, and to raise the affections of the congregation.112


We repeat Calvin’s admonition: “the sacrament requires preaching.”113


Likewise prayer that is “suited to the ordinance” should be offered,


Acknowledging the goodness of God to us in making a new covenant . . . and in appointing sacraments to be the seals of that covenant, . . . giving him thanks, that the covenant of grace is herein so well ordered, that not only we, but our seed, are taken into it; dedicating the child to God accordingly; begging that he would honour his own ordinance with his presence, and sanctify and bless it to the child; that the washing of the child with water, in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, may effectually signify, and seal, his ingrafting into Christ; and that he may thereby partake of the privileges of the new covenant, and be engaged to be the Lord’s.114


All the Reformed baptismal rites include an extensive prayer for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.


Firth, administer baptism publicly. One would hope that it would “go without saying” that baptism is a public ordinance. Yet so little today actually does go without saying that we suppose we ought to say it. Protestants administer the sacraments publicly, “in the face of the congregation.”115 As we’ve noted, what public administration does is provide all who are present an opportunity to “improve their baptisms.”


Sixth, administer baptism in the context of parental counsel & instruction. A given family’s first infant baptism should also be preceded by instruction. Often there will be confusion about why infants are baptized, and so the family’s privileged status in the covenant will need to be explained (Gen 17:17; Acts 2:38; Rom 4:11; Col 2:11; 1 Cor 7:14). The duties placed on the family also need to be explained. Rearing one’s children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” is no small task (Eph 6:1ff). The obligation to “pray with and for” one’s children and to “teach them the doctrines of our holy religion,” and make use of “all the means of God’s appointment,” are considerable and should be fleshed out.116 Regular family devotions should be vigorously promoted.117

Above all parents must be urged to trust God for their children. They are to “claim God’s covenant promises in (his/her) behalf and look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for (his/her) salvation, as (they) do for (their) own.”118 This is the undertaking of a lifetime. Covenant children belong to the covenant Lord. This outlook effects how we deal with our children throughout their lifetimes. “Tell the children, and keep telling them, that they are the Lord’s,” urges William Still. Further,


“When they begin to question, do not resort to frantic affirmations, as if you were, or had become, unsure – you are standing by faith upon God’s promise, not on your own wavering hope. Quietly, sweetly and with supreme assurance in the promises of God affirm that they are the Lord’s, by birth into a Christian home, and by the prophetic gift of faith exercised; and that you as Christian parents are standing upon God’s promise in order that they may grow up in the Lord and come to voluntary commitment to Him, acknowledging their sin and need of a Savior, gladly falling in with God’s offer of mercy in Jesus Christ, and receiving Him as their personal Saviour. It would be right and proper, therefore, in circumstances of crisis and tension, simply to assert that these children are overtaken and overcome by the grace of God through the exercise of His gift of faith, and that, wriggle as they may, there is nothing they can do about it!”119


Seventh, administer baptism in the context of catechetical instruction. The Reformed tradition does not contemplate infant baptisms being administered without offering catechetical instruction at the age of discretion. The vows in Geneva required of parents that they promise, “when (the child) has come to the age of discretion, to instruct him in the doctrine that is received by the people of God.”120 As we’ve seen, more recent versions of the vows require that parents promise to “teach (the child) the doctrines of our holy religion.”121 We recommend that the church not only urge parents to catechize, but that catechetical classes be offered by the church. What Henry says to parents can be said by extension to the whole church:


You are unjust to your God, unkind to your children, and unfaithful to your trust, if having by baptism entered your children in Christ’s school, and listed them under his banner, you do not make conscience of training them up in the learning of Christ’s scholars, and under the discipline of his soldiers.”122


Eighth, finally, maintain a serious tone for the administration of the sacraments. The act of affirming or renewing covenant vows is an inherently serious exercise. Edmund Calamy (1673–1732) is particularly clear on this point. He warns us in connection with the Lord’s Supper with words that apply to baptism as well: “Take heed of levity, as if it were a common, ordinary, and customary thing you were setting yourselves about, when you go to give up yourselves to God anew.”123 We are to engage in affirming our vows “with all the seriousness and solemnity we are able, to be His servants and subjects to our life’s end.”124 Because we transact with God, “the utmost awe, reverence, seriousness and devotion” are necessary “whenever we set ourselves to this matter.”125 Henry urges that baptism be administered “in a solemn manner.”126 He insists, “That inward awe, which should possess us in divine worship, must put a gravity upon the outward deportment.”127 Further,


Whispering, and laughing, and other irreverences of behavior, at this ordinance, are a provocation to God, an affront to the institution, a disturbance to others, and a bad sign of a vain and carnal mind.128


If we understand the nature of baptism as a rite of covenantal admission and the nature of the Lord’s Supper as a covenantal meal, requiring confirmation of the covenant and reaffirmation of covenant vows, we will maintain a solemn tone throughout their administration. “Everyone involved in (these) solemn service(s),” continues Donald Macleod, “should aim at order, efficiency, and reverence.”129



Joseph D. Small, “A Church of the Word and Sacraments” in (ed) Lukas Vischer, Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past & Present (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 318-319. The French Confession reads, “In Baptism we are grafted into the body of Christ, washed and cleansed by his blood, and renewed in holiness of life by his Spirit. Although we are baptized only once, the benefit it signifies lasts through life and death, so that we have an enduring testimony that Jesus Christ will be our justification and sanctification forever.”


Cyril C. Richardson (trans. & ed.). Didache in Early Christian Fathers in The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. I. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 161-179.


Justin Martyr, “First Apology” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Vol. 1 (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, 1985), 159-187.


St. Hippolytus, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition, ed. The Rev. Gregory Dix (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New York: the Macmillan Company, 1937).


James Donaldson & Alexander Roberts (eds.), “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Vol. VII. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 385-505.


St. Ambrose, On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments, trans. T. Thompson and ed. by J. H. Srawley, Translations of Christian Literature, Series III, Liturgical Texts (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New York: The MacMillan Company, 1919).


Cyril of Jerusalem, “Five Catechetical Lectures” in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds.) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1983), 144-57.


Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage, (eds.) Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt, and Thomas Comerford Lawler, trans. George E. Gingras (New York, NY: Newman Press, 1970).


Hughes Old, Worship: That is Reformed According to Scripture. 1984, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 11.




The embellishments and extra-biblical ceremonies are criticized directly by Bucer in O.F. Cypris, Basic Principles: Translation & Commentary of Martin Bucer’s Grund und Ursach, 1524 (Dissertation: Union Theological Seminary of New York, 1971) (hereafter, Bucer, Grund und Ursach); by Calvin, Institutes, IV.xv.19, 1319, and 150 years later by Matthew Henry in his “Treatise on Baptism,”  in The Complete Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry, Vol. 1 (1704, 1855; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 532-33.


Timothy George, “Baptism: Theological Views,” in Hans J. Hillerbrand (ed), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, Vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 117.


Martin Luther, Three Treastises, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 153.


Bucer, Grund und Ursach, 166ff, 174.


Ibid., 171.


See Institutes, IV.xiv.1, 1277, and IV.xiv.5, 1281.


Bucer, Grund und Ursach, 173.


Hughes Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 275.


Old, Baptismal Rite, 56.


Ibid., 275.


Ibid., 178.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xv.19.


Old, Baptismal Rite, 251-254.


Ibid., 143.


Ulrich Zwingli, “Of Baptism” in G. W. Bromley (ed.), Zwingli and Bullinger,  Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 24 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953).


See Calvin, Institutes, IV.xvi.4, 1327.


John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, Ross Mackenzie (trans), Calvin’s Commentaries, David W. and Thomas F. Torrance (eds.) (1540, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 89, my emphasis.




Calvin, Institutes, IV.xiv.3, 1278.


Tertullian, “On Baptism,” in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Vol. III (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), VII, VIII, 672.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xiv.13, 1288.


Ibid., 1289.


See Hughes O. Old, “The Covenantal Dimension of Calvin’s Eucharistic Theology,” unpublished paper presented at the Calvin Colloquium, January 2006, 1-28; see also Hughes O. Old, “Calvin as Evangelist: A Study of the Reformer’s Sermons in Preparation for the Christian Celebration of Passover, Calvin Colloquium, VII, Jan. 1994, 51-60. Old claims that in Calvin’s Easter week sermons we have “the beginning of the Reformed communion season, the prototype of the Reformed preparatory service,” 52.


Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 246.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xiv.19, 1295, my emphasis.


Lillback, Binding of God, 263.


See Hughes O. Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) for the definitive work on the subject.


Bucer, Grund und Ursach, 177, also 180.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xvi.4., 1327.


Ibid., IV.xv.6, 1307.


Old, Worship, 175.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xv-xvi., 1303-1359


Ibid., IV.xix.6, 1454.


See Robert W. Godfrey, “Calvin, Worship, and Sacraments,” in David W. Hall (ed.) A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays & Analysis (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 368-389.


Bucer, Grund und Ursach, 174.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xv.19, 1319.


Old, Worship, 15.


See Institutes, IV.xv.20.22, 1320-1323..


See Hughes Old, Baptismal Rite, for a fascinating account of the debates between the Anabaptists, particularly Balthasar Hübmaier (c. 1480–1528) and Hans Denck (c. 1495–1527),  and the Reformers.


See Donald MacLeod, Presbyterian Worship: Its Meaning and Method (Richmond: John Knox, 1967), 59; Robert Rayburn, O Come Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 251.


Old, Baptismal Rite, 20 (my emphasis).


Old, Baptismal Rite, 285.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xvi.21, 1344.


See T. L. Johnson, Catechizing our Children, forthcoming from Banner of Truth Trust.


Calvin, Institutes., IV.xv.1, 1304 ( my emphasis).


Ibid. IV.xv.2, 1304 (my emphasis).


Ibid., 1304-05.


Ibid., IV.xv.3, 1305 (my emphasis).


Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 367.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xv.4, 1306-07 (my emphasis).


Ibid., IV.xv.5, 1307 (my emphasis).




Ibid., IV.xv.6, 1307 (my emphasis).


Ibid., IV.xv.14, 1314.




Ibid., IV.xvi.2, 1325 (my emphasis).


Ibid., IV.xvii.32, 1359 (my emphasis).


Richard Baxter, “The Catechizing of Families,” in The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Volume IV (1682; Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990-91), 157-58.


John Willison, A Sacramental Catechism (1720; Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 62-66.


Thomas Boston, An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Comprehending a Complete Book of Divinity in the Complete Works of Thomas Boston (1773; Wheaton, Illinois: Richard Owen Thomas, 1980), 480.


Henry, “Treatise on Baptism,” 489-566; see our treatment of Henry’s “Communicant’s Companion” in previous Twin Lakes seminar: “The Sealing of the Covenant.”


Ibid., 489 (my emphasis).


Ibid., 507.


Ibid,, 490.


Ibid., 493.


Ibid., my emphasis.


Ibid., 493.


Ibid. (my emphasis).


Ibid., 499.


Ibid., 498; it is the “door of admission” (523,525).


Ibid., 514.


Mark Ross, “Improving the Means of Grace,” in J. Ligon Duncan (ed.) The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, Volume 3 (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor Imprint of Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 421-22


Johannes Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Co., 2002), 480.


Ibid., 533, my emphasis.


Henry, 534.


Ibid., 535.






Ibid., 536.


Ibid., 540.


Ibid., 545.


Ibid., 547.


Ibid., 548.


Ibid., 549.


Ibid., 557.


Matthew Henry, “A Church in the House: A Sermon Concerning Family Religion,” in The Complete Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry, Volume 1 (1855; Grand Rapids: Baker Book house, 1979), 252,253.


Henry, “Treatise on Baptism” in Works, Vol. I, 558.


Ibid., 558.


Henry, “A Church in the House,” 262.


Ibid., 563, 564.


Henry, “Treatise on Baptism,” 531.


See Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship, ed. Harry Boonstra (1911, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 247, for similar counsel.


Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII.1.


Ibid., XXVIII.4.


Old, Baptismal Rite, 286.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xv.19, 1319. See also Jeremiah Burroughs: “There should be no action intermingled in the time of the receiving of the Sacrament, nothing but minding the work that you are about, which is to remember the death of Jesus Christ and to discern the body of the Lord” (Gospel Worship [1648, Pittsburgh: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990], 347).


Henry, “Treatise on Baptism,” 531.


Ibid., 532.


Ibid., 533.


Ibid., 491.


This language dates to the original Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645), my emphasis; the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America uses the same language, almost word for word (see Sec. 56-6) (Sixth Edition [2012 Reprint], Published by The Office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, Distributed by The Committee for Christian Education and Publication, Lawrenceville, GA).


Henry, “Treatise on Baptism,” 531.


Calvin, Institutes, IV.xix.6, 1454.


Ibid., 537.


Ibid., 562.


The language here is that of the baptismal vow number three of the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America. See Leading in Worship, 73-77.


See Terry L. Johnson, The Family Worship Book (1998, Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain, 2003).


This is the second parental baptismal vow of the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America.


William Still, Child Rearing within the Covenant of Grace (Aberdeen, Didasko Press, n/d), 9,10.


Elsie Ann McKee (ed.), John Calvin’s Writings on Pastoral Piety, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 156.


See note 116.


Henry, “A Church in the House,” 253; see also Johnson, Catechizing Our Children for a recommended calendar of catechism classes.


Calamy, The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper., 46.


Ibid., 42. See also Richard Vines, Puritans on the Lord’s Supper, 120,121.


Ibid., 48.


Henry, “Treatise on Baptism,” 562.


Ibid., 562.


Ibid., 563.


Macleod, Presbyterian Worship, 73; see also Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, 265ff. Rayburn seems to have leaned quite heavily on Macleod in this section.