The Holy Calling of Baptism: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 26

LORD’S DAY 26

  1. How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water1 and joined to it this promise,2 that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away.3

[1] Matt. 28:19–20; Acts 2:38. [2] Matt. 3:11; Mk. 16:16; Rom. 6:3–4. [3] Mk. 1:4.

  1. What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?

It is to have the forgiveness of sins from God through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us in His sacrifice on the cross;1 and also to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, so that we may more and more die unto sin and lead holy and blameless lives.2

[1] Heb. 12:24; 1 Pet. 1:2; Rev. 1:5; Zech. 13:1; Ezek. 36:25–27. [2] Jn. 1:33; 3:3; 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:13; *Heb. 9:14.

  1. Where has Christ promised that we are as certainly washed with His blood and Spirit as with the water of Baptism?

In the institution of Baptism, which says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”1 “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”2 Th is promise is also repeated where Scripture calls Baptism the washing of regeneration3 and the washing away of sins.4

[1] Matt. 28:19 [2] Mk. 16:16. [3] Tit. 3:5. [4] Acts 22:16.

 

The Holy Calling of Baptism

Both of the sacraments which our Lord instituted have a relationship between the ceremony which is performed and the thing which the ceremony teaches.  The ceremony itself is not chosen arbitrarily.  Baptism is a symbolic washing.  What it symbolizes is the washing away of my sin by the blood of Christ.

The place that the ritual of baptism holds in the life of the Christian says a lot about how fundamental the doctrine of justification by faith alone is to Christian doctrine and life.  It is the initiatory rite; a person is made a member of the Christian community by baptism.  He begins his life in the covenant people of God with a symbol of being washed of his sin, and that symbol is a promise to him, that God will certainly forgive his sins if he believes the promise contained in baptism.  Since that promise, and the call to faith in it, is the way one enters and becomes a part of the Christian community, the Christian is constantly reminded throughout his life that God’s forgiveness of his sins because of Christ’s shed blood is the foundation of his whole identity as a Christian.  Everything about our lives as Christians must start with that truth.

People have often accused the doctrine of justification by faith alone as antinomian; this was a common accusation against the Reformed by their Roman Catholic opponents.  There is of course real antinomianism, and all Christians should reject it.  The Catechism deals with that more in the third section.  In Romans 6, when defending this doctrine against this very charge or misunderstanding, Paul uses baptism to show the believer that his identity is now in Christ, and that therefore his behavior must more and more come to reflect that identity.  The doctrine of forgiveness of sins is only antinomian if fear of punishment is the only reason you can think of to repent and do good works, while the Bible and the Catechism gives us many more.

As question 70 says, being washed with the blood and spirit of Christ means forgiveness of sins, but more.  Being forgiven means being united with Christ and infused with the power of the Spirit of God, so that the life of Christ works in me.  The washing of baptism symbolizes, in addition to forgiveness, the idea of being “set apart” to God’s service, like a pot or vessel was washed ritually before being taken out of common use and dedicated to the service of God in the Old Testament temple.  A priest, likewise, when he was to begin his service, was sprinkled with water to symbolize being set apart for holy service.  But these two ideas, being forgiven and being dedicated to service, aren’t really two separate things, because the service of God is what we are created for, and our sin is what prevents us from fulfilling this service.  So if we are forgiven of our sins, it is so that we can return to that service for which we were created.

Whenever we struggle with our sin, we should always remember our baptism, for both of these intimately connected messages.  We are forgiven of sin, and thus there is no condemnation for us, as Paul says in Romans 8, for all those who believe the promise of the gospel.  Guilt and terror of the wrath of God only drives us away from God, so the believer must put it away.  But God forgave us for the purpose of consecrating us to His service, so we should repent of sin and struggle against it every day of our lives, with all the tools that God gives us to do so.  Whenever we see someone brought into the church through baptism, it should likewise remind us of our own holy calling, and re-commit ourselves to that calling with all our strength and faith.

The Means of Grace: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 25

LORD’S DAY 25

  1. Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts1 by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.2

[1] Jn. 3:5; *Rom. 10:17. [2] Rom. 4:11; *Acts 8:37.

 

  1. What are the sacraments?

The sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed by God for this end, that by their use He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel, namely, that of free grace He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.1

1 [1] Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11; Deut. 30:6; Heb. 9:8–9; Ezek. 20:12.

 

  1. Are both the Word and the sacraments designed to direct our faith to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?

Yes, truly, for the Holy Spirit teaches in the Gospel and assures us by the holy sacraments, that our whole salvation stands in the one sacrifice of Christ made for us on the cross.1

[1] Rom. 6:3; *Gal. 3:27; *Heb. 9:12; *Acts 2:41–42.

 

  1. How many sacraments has Christ instituted in the New Testament?

Two: Holy Baptism and the Holy Supper.

 

Means of Grace

Having established the necessity and sufficiency of faith for salvation, the Catechism now turns to the question of how that faith is worked in us.  The expression “means of grace” refers to the instruments which God has established to do His work of grace in His people.

God is not bound by the means of grace. He established them; they cannot restrict Him.  He can work faith any way He chooses, and He uses a great many means.  A sunset, a moral crisis, the death of a loved one or many other events can be an important spur to faith.  The means of grace God established, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, do bind us.  Looking at sunsets is optional in the Christian life.  Attending to the preached Word is not.

An active, lively faith in a person is normally connected to the preaching of the Word.  People will hear the verbal message of the gospel and believe the propositions contained therein.  “Always preach the gospel; if necessary, use words” is a statement attributed (though probably wrongly) to St. Francis of Assisi, and has always been popular with a certain kind of socially active reform-minded Christian, but it is unfortunate nonsense.  The gospel is news.  It is a verbal message from God to mankind, and without words it cannot be communicated.  It is through the foolishness of preaching that God elected to save the world, and we cannot decide we know better than He does.

In addition to the preaching of the message of the gospel, God also instituted sacraments, which are symbols of the message of salvation in visible and tangible form.  God commanded us to observe these sacraments.  Jesus told His disciples to “do this”, speaking of the Lord’s Supper, until He returned as a remembrance.  And when He ascended into heaven He told them to go forward and baptize as a process of making disciples.

As Question 67 makes clear, the sacraments can never function in isolation from the Word.  This is one of the main errors of the medieval church with which the Reformation was concerned.  The medieval theology focused on the sacraments and viewed them as a channel of grace from God to man, merely by the performance of the act.  With the Reformation’s strong focus on the necessity of faith, the sacraments needed to be rethought.  Most of the sacraments practiced by the Roman church were discarded as being without Scriptural foundation, and the two that remained, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, were understood as signs and seals of the gospel.  A “sign” is a visible thing which points to some spiritual truth, and a “seal” is a promise, a guarantee.  The Catechism will focus on these two aspects of sacraments throughout this section explaining the two sacraments, showing how the sacrament not only displays the nature of the promises of the gospel, illustrating them by the ceremony performed, but also provides the believer with a solemn promise from God, that if the participant in the sacrament truly believes the promise held out in the sacrament, then that participant can have absolute confidence that the thing promised is truly his.

 

So the sacraments are more than just symbolic portrayals of the gospel, though they are that.  They are also powerful means of aiding and strengthening our faith, by re-confirming the promise of the gospel to the believer.  They cannot function in isolation from the preached Word, however.  Faith is required in order to benefit from the sacraments, and faith comes as a response to the preaching of the Word.  One must believe in the promise contained in the sacraments for the sacraments to be of any aid or purpose, and one cannot believe something one does not understand.

 

If we trust God, then we will lay hold of the instruments He has given us for our salvation, just as Noah’s faith in God’s promise of salvation led him to build the boat that was the instrument of it.  Noah’s building the boat to save him from the flood did not indicate any lack of trust in God to save him; not building it would have proved that he did not believe God’s warning or God’s promise, whatever he claimed, since the same God who promised to save him also commanded him to build the boat.  Likewise, those who have received the promise of God’s salvation in Christ are going to use the means He has provided to achieve that salvation.

Not of Merit but of Grace: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 24

LORD’S DAY 24

  1. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?

Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment seat of God must be perfect throughout and entirely conformable to the divine law,1 but even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.2

[1] Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26. [2] Isa. 64:6; *Jas. 2:10; *Phil. 3:12.

 

  1. Do our good works merit nothing, even though it is God’s will to reward them in this life and in that which is to come?

The reward comes not of merit, but of grace.1

[1] Lk. 17:10; *Rom. 11:6.

 

  1. But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?

No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.1

[1] Matt. 7:18; *Rom. 6:1–2; *Jn. 15:5.

Lord’s Day 24

Not of Merit But of Grace

The doctrine taught in this question is something we should keep continually before our eyes.  It is so easy to slip into human pride and think we deserve God’s favor.  If we are trained in the Christian faith at all, it might be unlikely that we would so badly fall as to think that we completely merited God’s grace, but it’s quite common, virtually universal among even true believers, to think we deserve it at least a little bit.  Some theologies even teach explicitly that Jesus does most of it and then we need to add our part to finish our salvation, or that Jesus makes it possible for us to save ourselves by our labors.

When we consider that all good things are God’s grace and favor to us, in this life and in that which is to come, the problem becomes even more explicit.  I might confess that I only deserve eternal life because of God’s grace, and yet believe that I deserve a good life now.  I might think I earned my nice house and nice car and comfortable middle-class life because of my hard work or good choices.

But when I remember what is taught in the Scriptures and repeated here in the catechism, that God is so perfect that He cannot tolerate any sin at all, any challenge to His sovereignty and justice, then we will not presume to believe I can ever stand before Him with my own good deeds and think the very best things I have ever done can merit the least thing from Him.  The very best works I do are mixed with sin.  I do good at least partly to be seen of others, to think well of myself, or to gain some other earthly advantage.  I do good according to my own opinions of what good is instead of God’s law.

Further, whatever goodness I have within me is only God’s grace, and therefore, as Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, whatever good works I do only increase my debt to God and create no debt in Him toward me.  How can God owe me anything for the good works which His own grace works in me, especially since those good works are what was due to God in return for our existence?

But it is God’s desire to crown His good gifts with more gifts, and thus our sanctification does produce rewards, like the teacher that gives the child a gold star once the child has successfully repeated his lessons.  That child hasn’t earned anything in any real sense, and God likewise owes us nothing, but because He is a good and gracious God and desires to encourage righteousness in His children, He blesses obedience in us, both now and in eternity.  But we must never fall into the trap of thinking that God owes us something or that He withholds His blessings until we learn to obey.

Contrary to the assumptions so many make, it is not fear and anxiety over our salvation which will work true sanctification.  Rather, it is heartfelt love and thankfulness for our salvation which produces righteousness in the believer’s life.  Paradoxically, then, it is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, apart from works, which has done the most to advance the cause of morality in the world.  Legalism in all its forms simply produces guilt, and guilt drives us away from God.  Free forgiveness by the grace of God produces love and thankfulness, drives us toward God, and produces real righteousness in our hearts as a result.  Paul calls us to obedience in Ephesians 4 and Romans 12 only after establishing the absolute certainty of our salvation in God’s grace through faith in Ephesians 1-3 and Romans 1-12.

Jesus also makes this point with the story of the sinful woman who washed His feet with her tears and anointed Him with oil.  He says her great love for Him was produced from the knowledge of the great forgiveness she had received.  The Pharisees thought they earned their place in the kingdom and thus did not love Jesus, having no thankfulness.  The firm assurance of God’s grace and forgiveness will always produce this same love, and the obedience that flows only from it.

 

Righteous By Faith: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 23

LORD’S DAY 23

  1. What does it help you now, that you believe all this?

That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal life.1

[1] Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Jn. 3:36; *Tit. 3:7; *Rom. 5:1; *Rom. 8:16.

 

  1. How are you righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ:1 that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them,2 and am still prone always to all evil;3 yet God, without any merit of mine,4 of mere grace,5 grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction,6 righteousness, and holiness of Christ,7 as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me;8 if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.9

[1] Rom. 3:21–25; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:9. [2] Rom. 3:9–10. [3] Rom. 7:23. [4] Tit. 3:5. [5] Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8. [6] 1 Jn. 2:2. [7] 1 Jn. 2:1; Rom. 4:4–5; 2 Cor. 5:19. [8] 2 Cor. 5:21. [9] Jn. 3:18; *Rom. 3:28; *Rom. 10:10.

 

  1. Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only?

Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God;1 and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.2

[1] 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:2. [2] 1 Jn. 5:10. *Isa. 53:5; *Gal. 3:22; *Rom. 4:16.

Righteous by Faith

We have just concluded looking at the Apostles’ Creed, a summary of the basic articles of the faith, which ends with the word “amen”, a declaration that we believe what we said, not just reciting it by rote. The natural question to ask is, “So what?” This Lord’s day section tells us how it benefits us to believe these things, expanding on what was said back on Lord’s Day 7, where we were told that we are ingrafted into Christ and receive all His benefits only by true faith. The Apostles’ Creed summarizes for us the content of that faith, and the questions we look at this week tell us the result of believing in those doctrines.

Very simply, the result is justification. I am righteous before God and an inheritor of eternal life. Question 60 defines it further, explaining what it means that we are “righteous before God.” The term for this is justification, and the justification we receive as a result of faith in the gospel is emphatic. We are regarded as being just as righteous as Jesus Himself was. His righteousness is “imputed” to me, meaning that it is charged to my account, reckoned as if it belongs to me.

This “imputation” is not just that I am regarded by God as innocent, as if I had never committed any sin. It is that, but more. God sees me as having done all the good works which Christ fulfilled, perfectly obeying the requirements of God in every respect. In a sense this is just different ways of saying the same thing, since any failure to do what God commands is a sin, just as much as my commission of an act which God had prohibited. But it makes the point emphatically that Christ’s death on my behalf doesn’t just wipe the slate clean so I can start fresh on earning my way to salvation. Christ’s life and death on my behalf means that it is completely done. My salvation is guaranteed when I believe the gospel. The one who truly believes the gospel of Jesus Christ is as certainly beloved of God as Christ Himself is and can have absolute confidence that he will inherit the joys of eternal life.

Sadly, the church has so often muddled this point. They have frequently added requirements to the simple obligation to believe the gospel. They have added ceremonies and sacraments. They have added obligations to do good works or penance of some prescribed type. They have required that a person have some specific kind of “conversion experience” or level of emotional intensity about Christ.

To be sure, many of these things are good things and will inevitably be produced by true faith. Faith without works is dead- that is, a faith which does not produce change in the believer is not real faith, and we cannot be saved by a sham faith. The person who does not turn from his sin, refuses to be a part of Christ’s body and despises the signs that God has given the church to strengthen and nourish our faith has no business considering himself as in Christ. But we must not make any of those things the grounds of our justification, or even the grounds of our assurance of justification. The promise of the gospel is that if we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be saved, and we must not add anything to that or take anything from it at the risk of God’s wrath. The Apostle Paul in the book of Galatians sharply condemned any who would add conditions to the gracious forgiveness that people have in Christ by faith alone.

We must even avoid the mistake of thinking that God accepts our faith as a substitute for obedience. For even this is to suspend our salvation on something in us, leaving us to wonder whether we believe enough or not. But as question 61 tells us, it is the perfect righteousness of Christ which is substituted for our own lack of righteousness, not our faith. Faith is what the Spirit of God works in me to lay hold of that righteousness. Grasping this point, I can recognize that my justification is something objective, the perfect and complete obedience of Christ and His perfect sacrifice on my behalf. There is no need to wonder whether or not I have met the bar, whether I have done enough. We can rest completely in that perfect salvation. In fact, that’s just what faith is.