Heidelbasics: Weekly Reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism by Rev. Chuck Muether
72. Is, then, the outward washing with water itself the washing away of sins?
No, for only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin.
73. Why then does the Holy Spirit call Baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins?
God speaks thus with great cause, namely, not only to teach us thereby that just as the filthiness of the body is taken away by water, so our sins are taken away by the blood and Spirit of Christ; but much more, that by this divine pledge and token He may assure us that we are as really washed from our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water.
74. Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes, for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and through the blood of Christ both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be engrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed.
One of the points of distinction that can be made between evangelical churches and Reformed churches can be found in the institution of baptism. Even in the broader Reformed community, there are different convictions regarding participation in this means of grace.
Most professing Bible-believing churches will follow infant baptism, believer’s baptism, or credo-baptism. Both believer’s baptism and credo-baptism require some sort of a testimony or profession of faith before an individual can be immersed in water. In the former, the believer must first repent and believe, and in the latter, a decidedly more confessional element is involved. With believer’s baptism, generally the person makes a personal decision for Jesus; whereas with credo-baptism, it is mostly understood that God chose the elect, but the elected individual must still confess Christ before given the sacrament, and that mature confession is often the outcome of catechetical training.
What then does the Word say about this means of grace and the sacramental institution of it? The New Testament contains no direct imperative to baptize infants, but Scripture does indicate who shall receive the sign of the covenant promise.
The Heidelberg Catechism points out that believing parents and their children belong to the covenant. They are the people of God. Some Christians ask, how can children receive the sign of promise before they confess? In Genesis 17:22-27, Abraham received the old covenant sign of the covenant, circumcision. His son, Isaac, however received the same sign well before his confession (21:4). The boy had not yet expressed his faith, but that does not mean faith is then to be discounted. In the case of Abraham, he had expressed faith and then received the sacrament, but in the case of Isaac, he would receive all the benefits of the covenant sign upon his later expression of faith.
While it is true that adults are called to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38), it is also true that “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). Since the apostle Paul connects circumcision and baptism (Col. 2:11-14), it can be inferred that as one sign replaces the other, the administration of the sign is not to be so tied to the moment of profession that our children do not receive this means of grace.
The Heidelberg Catechism also points out the importance of distinguishing covenant children from the offspring of unbelievers. As this was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, so it is achieved today in the New Testament through baptism. God’s children are to be marked as holy (1 Cor. 7:14), but that does not mean the sacrament is a “one and done,” and the giving over to Christ in true faith is not later required. Baptism marks the child as part of the visible church; by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone does that child become part of the invisible church or of the elect.
Our Lord himself said, “‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt. 19:14). As children belong to the kingdom of heaven, they ought to bear the sign of a kingdom citizen even if they are not full ranking communicant members of the church. The promise is theirs.