I’d like to float another post drawing on various portions of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, as I find his writings to be not only clear, logical, and orthodox, but also because his insights continue to be relevant to today’s Federal Vision controversy, 75 years after his ST was originally published. His writings serve not only as an antidote, but more importantly as an inoculation against these FV errors. You can call Berkhof boring, and you can call me slavish and uncreative for following him so closely, but hopefully the reader will prefer it to the innovations swirling about the Federal Vision world. Berkhof may not always be right, but he must be contended with. I rarely see evidence that FV writers are aware of the points he raises concerning the controverted topics, much less do they present arguments that overturn his positions. I can only conjecture that this stems from FV’s disdain for the Old Princeton tradition, with which Berkhof walked hand-in-hand (while being more indebted to Bavinck and teaching at Calvin Seminary).
The Reformed have always sought to hold up baptism, as a means of grace, to be more than merely symbolic (as Baptists and Zwinglians hold), while avoiding, on the other hand, the superstitious and Gospel-denying errors of Romanists (holding to an ex opere operato view of the sacrament) and the various inconsistent and compromise positions (held by Lutherans and some Anglicans). We want to say that the sacraments, including baptism, do something, and are not dependent on the subjective response of human sinners to outward symbols or memorials. Rather, God’s Spirit effectively works through the sacraments, as means of grace by which the sinner is ministered to. As good Calvinists, we ought to see the sinner as passive in receiving God’s ministrations through His Church, the preached Word and Sacraments. As we consider the above positions, we see that there are “extremes” on both sides – a ditch on both sides of the road, as it were. But the Scriptural data forces us to steer a path in the middle of the road, between those ditches.
OK, then. How does God’s Spirit work efficaciously through the sacraments? What does, specifically, baptism do? The Reformed have debated this endlessly, and have had a diversity of opinion in answering this question. One thing, however, is agreed on (our confessional symbols bearing witness to it): the sacraments, and therefore baptism, are efficacious in that they are signs and seals of the spiritual blessings in Christ the elect have. Given the paucity of scriptural data that directly deals with the efficacy of baptism, I am surprised that there has been no serious focus in the recent Federal Vision debates (that I have seen) on the exegesis of Romans 4, the passage that we get our “sign and seal” language from:
Is this blessing [righteousness by faith, to the exclusion of works] then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well…
This passage is near and dear to my own heart, not only because it teaches so clearly the doctrine of justification by faith alone, contra the Gospel-assailing errors of Rome, but because this section in particular was the most pivotal text that convinced me of the truth of paedobaptism. Notice: Paul holds up Abraham as an archetypical member of the covenant of grace (indeed, the “father of all who believe without being circumcised”). His example proves that we, as Christians, are also justified by faith alone. Notice the flow of Paul’s argument as you read from the beginning of the chapter. Those who “do not work, but believe in Him who justifies the ungodly” are counted as righteous. How do we know that? Because Abraham was likewise justified, as he had not been circumcised until after he was justified.
Since Abraham’s circumcision was received after his justification, his circumcision could not have been a cause, instrumental or otherwise, of his justification. Yet this passage says that his circumcision was a “sign and seal” of the righteousness that he already had by faith. This situation is paralleled in the Christian church most directly in the baptism of adult converts, where it is both assumed and demanded that the catachumen already be in possession of “the thing signified”, regeneration unto faith and justification (a point frequently ignored by Protestant sacerdotalists). And, yet, at the same time we see (in examining the book of Genesis) that this sign and seal of righteousness was also applied to Abraham’s infant son, Isaac, as well as his son Ishmael.
Since baptism is the sign and seal of the righteousness which we have by faith, taking the place of circumcision, as New Testament saints under the New Covenant administration of that same Abrahamic covenant of grace (which is established by a careful consideration of Colossians 2:11-12), we should conclude that, likewise, baptism cannot be an instrumental means, alongside of faith, by which we lay hold of Christ’s righteousness unto justification. Paul excludes works, including circumcision, from having such a role (even as an ordained and commanded sign and seal of God), and by implication the same is true for the sign and seal of baptism. Such an idea would be directly contrary to the Reformational doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide), which insists that faith is the “alone instrument of justification” (WCF 6.2). In this part of the Westminster Confession, we see that faith’s instrumental causation is, specifically, in “receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness.” Likewise, Berkhof calls faith, in this capacity, the “appropriating organ,” in that “it is the organ by which we lay hold on and appropriate the merits of Christ, and accept these as the meritorious ground of our justification” (ST, p. 522).
This distinction is important, because Reformed theology does not want to deny the efficacy of the preached Word or the Spirit in a sinner’s justification, which can also be said to be “instrumental” causes, but in an entirely different sense. By faith alone the sinner lays hold of Christ’s righteousness unto justification, but the Spirit works through the Word into the heart and mind of the sinner, whereby that faith is engendered, cultivated, and strengthened. The Spirit and Word are thus indirect or second-order instruments of justification. They are not co-instruments along with faith.
This consideration should suggest to us a way of understanding the efficacy of baptism. It, like, circumcision, is not something we can do to be justified. I do not understand how it is any improvement to have a doctrine of justification by faith and baptism rather than the doctrine of justification by faith and circumcision that Paul condemns as a false gospel in the book of Galatians. Frankly, one has to be rather dense not to take the hint.
But then what does baptism actually do or effect, as a sign and seal, in the lives of believers? If what we said is not true of signs and seals above is true, why should anyone care about having signs and seals? The answer is that the Spirit works through baptism, as a sign and seal, and thereby engenders, cultivates, and strengthens the faith of Believers various ways, much as He works through the preached Word. On this point, Berkhof’s comments are apt:
But baptism is more than a sign and seal; it is as such [emphasis mine-DG] also a means of grace. According to Reformed theology it is not, as the Roman Catholics claim, the means of initiating the work of grace in the heart, but it is a means for the strengthening of it or, as it is often expressed, for the increase of grace. This gives rise to a rather difficult question in connection with infant baptism. It can readily be seen how baptism can strengthen the work of faith in the adult recipient, but it is not so apparent how it can operate as a means of grace in the case of children who are entirely unconscious of the significance of baptism and cannot yet exercise faith. The difficulty, with which we are confronted here, naturally does not exist for the small number of Reformed scholars who deny that baptism merely strengthens an antecedent condition of grace, and claim that it “is a means for the impartation of grace in a specific form, and for the specific end of our regeneration and ingrafting in Christ” (ST, p. 641).
The Heidelberg Catechism, similarly, makes this connection between the efficacy of the Word and baptism (or, rather, sacraments generally):
Question 67. Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation?
Answer: Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.
I can think of at least 5 more topics that stem from the above discussion, each worthy of their own post. But I’ll stop here for now so that the reader can consider the Federal Vision’s “baptismal regeneration lite” doctrine, especially in light of Berkhof’s comments and, more importantly, Romans 4.
Posted by David Gadbois